Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Movie Review: Sunrise

Sunrise strikes an impressive claim to the best silent film of all time. Today's audience, which likely has never seen more than a handful of non-sound pictures, has a tendency to assume that all films of the silent era are impressively rendered and of high quality. Viewing a rather pedestrian silent next to this one will reveal, by contrast, exactly how groundbreaking and evocative a silent with high artistic quality is to most of its contemporaries. Cinematography alone shows Sunrise to be a masterpiece, showing what films were capable of revealing visually. Much cinema of the twenties could be a tremendously dull affair, utilizing the same basic camera angles, shot composition, facial closeups, and plot devices.

The relative ease of technology in this day and age has given rise to the age of the amateur, for better or for worse. In film's infancy, what required a massive amount of skill and a nearly Herculean undertaking on the part of the crew can be accomplished with a flick of a switch. The extremely primitive quality of movie-making in those days makes these revolutions in the craft ever more remarkable.

The best silents are, quite often, the ones which work within the confines of the medium, rather than trying to fight against its limitations. While some films of the period used strict narrative structure, particularly the historical fiction of D.W. Griffith, the most evocative films of the silent era are often its more expressionist works like Sunrise. Silent films could never hope to present a completely realistic view of life--that was a goal that could only be accomplished by the incorporation of sound. Instead of producing an exact facsimile of reality, the best films of the period gave birth to a profound dream-logic and corresponding visual beauty. Seeking to capture the ultimate fidelity of human interaction was a Holy Grail of sorts for the pioneers of the medium, a goal that many directors sought, but few succeeded in realizing. Filmmakers who instead set their sights towards creating poetry on celluloid like Murnau, often found themselves more successful in their efforts.

To be sure, the experience of watching a silent film certainly requires a kind of discipline totally foreign to today's audience. Without dialogue to advance a scene, plot and character development often comes across as maddeningly simplistic. Directors who attempted to pack too much into one movie found it frequently necessary to use an exhaustive number of intertitles. Even with a judicious use of them, films that overstripped the technical limitations of the medium still had a tendency to confuse and frustrate viewers with information overload. Films like Sunrise use only a skeletal framework of characters and action, placing most of the focus on what would today be called special effects. Then as opposed to now, these effects were never used gratuitously and never simply for the sake of creating a spectacle. They are integral to the film itself and even eighty years after the first release still radidate freshness and achievement.

By the end of the twenties, film technique and film grammar, a thirty-year process of slow, steady achievement, had finally been mastered. Ironically, just as the silent screen produced its masterworks, talkies appeared abruptly on the scene, changing every rule of the game. Sound technology in its infancy restricted camera movement and demanded clunky microphones and soundproof booths to effectively capture audio. Many of the breakthroughs that came to be in the year or so before talkies had to be scrapped for quite some time because they were utterly unworkable with sound. What is undeniably true is that the films of the pre-sound era reveal a world unto themselves, one utterly, beatifully alien to anything that came after.

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