Jun 8, 2011

Like so many, even very great, silent films,

I love this photo.
The story for J'Accuse, dir Abel Gance (1919), is a melodramatic crock; a bros before hoes love triangle, including one bro wanting to kill the (adorable) progeny of the hoe being raped by three German soldiers.

Yeah, yeah, I know.  But you gotta believe me this time, this is a great motion picture, silent or otherwise.  (Apparently Gance did make a sound version of this film on the eve of World War II.  I have not seen it.)

How does J'Accuse transcend the melodrama? Well, how about the real World War I footage that is used in the third act, cut in to and along side the dramatic "the Front" scenes? Or, how about, also mostly in the third act, the quotes from actual letters from soldiers shown on the title cards? Or the chilling rape (the Germans are strictly cigar-smoking, pointy-headed shadows, consuming all light) "flashback" sequence? Or the dancing skeletons? Or the "Ode to the Sun" poem dramatization, incl double exposure and exquisite "Magic Hour" shots of a placid lake in France?

Or, how about this: (so French) the husband in the triangle is at "the Front" and has just received a letter from his wife that she has returned home at last (she does not mention the rape or the child, natch) and is eagerly awaiting his next leave.  He tells his fellow soldiers the good news and they start dancing.  Eventually, they decide to have a "feast", hey, it is the Front, but they are still able to rustle up a couple of bottles of Champers.  Meanwhile, the Germans, unaware of Francois' great fortune keep bombing anyway.  One of the soldiers has tied the two bottles of Champers together and is chilling them in the river.  Pretty brave, him, because that seems to be just about exactly where those German grenades are landing.  The soldier collects the Champers, starts to run back along the trench and is hit by a grenade.  There is a giant puff of smoke, the soldier falls, fade to black.  The next shot is of Francois and the other soldiers dancing and singing still, unaware of the "Garcon"-soldier's plight.  But, then, at the bottom of the frame what do we see? "Garcon" crawling towards the party, near death, but just before collapsing he presents the soldiers two untouched perfectly chilled bottles of Champagne.  "Garcon" is thrilled with his achievement and he checks the wound on his chest.  He dies, absolutely beaming, proud.  

You know, it is plain to me, after watching silent films by such masters as Eisenstein, Vigo, Lubitsch, Murnau, Bunuel, and now Gance that the Europeans were light years ahead of the Americans regarding great silent cinema.  It is not even close.  For this critic, Keaton, Griffith, and Chaplin are not even in the same league.  Or playing the same game.

The other great thing about good or great (there is a lot of dross out there) silent cinema is the voyeuristic quality about it.  How you feel as if you are peeking through a keyhole, spying on lovers, or a giant row.  When you are in the hands of a master, no matter how stupid the story is, it is one of the most truly erotic (that word is so overused) experiences a filmgoer can have.

One more thing:  Watching J'Accuse, lip reading were I, and I swear to Gawd that some of the actors in this French film were speaking English.  Perhaps, like Murnau's masterpiece, The Last Laugh, there were multiple "International" versions of this film and I was watching the North American version.  And you might want a Magnum of Champers with your popcorn or frites, watching the excellent J'Accuse.  It is a fifteen reeler, at least.

Kisses, ... 

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