43. Steamboat Bill, Jr.

the stuntMay 12, 1928
United Artists
Directed by Buster Keaton and Charles Reisner

The day before, he got the dreaded news. His production company was finished. He would no longer be able to make independent movies. Silent movies themselves were, as everyone could tell, a dying medium. At 32, his career was over. And since this career was the only thing he had done since he was an infant, this meant his life was over.

With nothing to lose, he decided to go for it. He had survived a near-death experience performing stunts many times before, but this would be the biggest and most dangerous stunt yet. It was built and ready to go. There would be no tests or safety measures. It was all or nothing. It wasn’t even a stunt that would require a death-defying feat of athleticism. He merely had to be in the right place at the right time, and not an inch out of place. When the moment came, and the film was rolling, the co-director and cameraman refused to watch. He stood on the green. The crew let it go, and it fell.

And he was still there. He looks behind him, runs off in alarm, and finishes the five-second shot with aplomb. But merely having survived is not enough. He must still confront Nature in her most powerful form – the hurricane. The world has crashed around him and now he must run into a wind that sweeps the ground away from him. Yet despite the unrelenting power of the storm, he keeps his head, rescues the girl, and proves to his father that he is a man.

It’s a miracle he survived, but it’s a miracle that any of us are here, living on the Earth and breathing this air. We have already survived. It’s time to run through the hurricane and rescue the girl.

 

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42. La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc

vlcsnap-2018-04-01-11h25m47s007April 21, 1928
Gaumont
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

I was sitting in my neighbor Dixie’s dorm room when she returned from the mailroom with a DVD. I had never seen anyone this excited about a video. She told me we would watch it together right away, but we never did, and I’ve carried the regret of not watching it with her for the last 17 years. I may have been too young and foolish to appreciate it, but it could also have been exactly what I needed. I was 19 and had led of life of slacking and consuming, downloading mp3s and browsing the library instead of creating anything for myself.

The ego demands that we consume, but consumption can never satisfy us, even as we enjoy each thing we swallow. Later that year I had my first real existential crisis, where the thought of my own death, so easily pushed to side until then, became an overwhelming obsession. What meaning could my life have, when it would sooner or later be extinguished?

Meaning cannot come from consumption. Meaning can only come from a life with a purpose, one so strong that you would sacrifice your life for it. This kind of purpose can never come from the ego, which sees purposes merely as a means to happiness. If the purpose cannot come from the ego, then it must come a deeper place, the very innermost part of you, underneath the ego’s protective layers. This is to say that it must come from God.

To surrender the ego in such a way is to forsake happiness but allow divine bliss. Bliss can arrive amid the most intense pain and suffering. As Paul says, one must work out their salvation with fear and trembling.

This movie is an hour and a half of fear and trembling, as expressed in the face of Renee Falconetti.  Joan has dedicated her life to her God-given purpose: save France. Once she has made this decision, she can live no life that denies God’s voice, and must face the wrath of those who are most threatened by religious life: the priests. Only Antonin Artaud’s monk can see Joan for what she is – living the life of God. A life he can only aspire to.

And from where I am, it’s a life I can only aspire to. Despite seeing the futility of the life of consumption, I have been unable to find that egoless purpose for myself and I continue to attempt to satisfy the shallow yet incessant desires and aversions of my ego. Most of us are like Artaud, we have not found the egoless purpose, and our job is to silence the overwhelming noise of the ego, as best we can, to hear what God is trying every day to tell us. We must be diligent in our practice, so that when we are graced with the presence of a truly holy person, we are able to see the halo above her head.

41. Spione

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March 22, 1928
UFA
Directed by Fritz Lang

Spione is effectively a Mabuse reboot for 1928. Germany has a level of social and economic stability that 1922 Germany did not. The world has gotten better in the intervening years. The currency is stable again. And so instead of a mysterious all-powerful magician who wants to rule the world simply to play with his victims out of cruelty, Spione’s mastermind is attempting to manipulate the international political situation and threat of Soviet Russia to acquire more money.

It’s a more realistic image of a supervillain that reflects that in 1928, instead of abject terror and chaos, there was a political situation where people knew what to be afraid of. While Stalin’s “communism in one country” already acknowledged that the World Revolution was not going to happen, there were still many in Europe and America who hoped or feared that it could. Germany had beaten Russia ten years ago, and now that the Reds had won their civil war and were rapidly modernizing, they might be harboring some thoughts of revenge.

Lang’s filmmaking has grown more sophisticated, but this movie is missing something crucial that Mabuse had. Maybe it’s that after seeing Murnau’s astonishing growth in the last six years, from Nosferatu to Letzte Mann to Faust to Sunrise, a Mabuse reboot that does little more than clean up the details and slightly update the story isn’t enough. It could also be that Mabuse’s power was mysterious and supernatural, as if the world was so confusing and inexplicable that it must be controlled by a superhuman magician. Haghi is a mundane villain – he’s merely rich and has a capable staff.

You didn’t need to be a magician to see that the Silent Age was coming to an end. Metropolis had almost bankrupted UFA and so Lang was not able to develop on that movie’s wonders. If it had been a success, he may have been able to make another masterpiece of that scale. But there’s little in this movie that hadn’t been done already by Lang or someone else. Spione is a tactical retreat into safe territory.

40. Oktyabr

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March 14, 1928
Sovkino
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein & Grigori Aleksandrov

As a socialist who loves silent movies, I really want to like this movie more. After all, this is the one where we win. What happened in October 1917 was the unthinkable – a rupture in history that the ruling class never got over. Even after 1990, it’s still embarrassing for them to acknowledge.

Yet I find this one the most difficult to sit through of the first three Eisenstein features. Strike is a story of workers banding together. Potemkin is a story of men recognizing each other as brothers. October is the story of the founding myth of the young nation, but this historical event is too complex to be portrayed in a way that could satisfy all of the demands made on this movie at this time.

It was commissioned to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the great feat, but it’s too didactic to be entertaining and too avant garde to stir the hearts of the proletarians and peasants. His style is too abstract to feel a melodramatic rush of victory at the end, while the climactic scene of Potemkin, where the sailors recognize each other as brothers, is a wonder.

The most striking moment is the scene of the July Days. The protest is suppressed and the people defeated, and a dead horse is caught on the drawbridge as it raises, cutting off the center of Petrograd and temporarily extinguishing the hopes for revolution. It’s easier for Eisenstein to move me with tragedy than with triumph.

And there was little for international communists in 1928 to feel triumph about. People were losing hope of a permanent revolution that would spread eastward to the major economies of Europe. Leon Trotsky was removed from the government and the party in 1927 and in January 1928 was exiled to the Kazakh Republic. Agriculture production had recovered from the civil war, but growth had now stalled. The New Economic Policy, which had been passed as a truce with the rural peasants, was ended. Congress now implemented extraordinary measures to seize grain from the countryside.

Joseph Stalin introduced his five-year plan to rapidly collectivize and industrialize. Stalinism was now in full effect. Eisenstein would soon find himself in self-exile, to wander the world in search of a new direction for his art.

39. The Crowd

The Crowd
March 3, 1928
MGM
Directed by King Vidor

Everyone wants to be special. In our modern age, we spend most of our time surrounded by media, and everyone we see is special. We are so saturated with media, so used to watching and listening to special people, that we believe that to really exist, we must be one of these special people. From childhood, many of us cannot envision a mode of living not based in being special. But the most extraordinary achievement is to learn how to be ordinary. To reach the point where the desire to be special can be dropped completely.

The endemic need to be special was already firmly in place by the time of The Crowd. As a child, our hero has no plan for his life other than that he wants to be special (“I’m going to be somebody big!”). He goes to New York to join the crowd, but this crowd exists only something for him to distinguish himself from, and be noticed by. In 1928 there were still fortunes to be won. This obsession continually trips him up, to the point where it’s embarrassing to watch him next to his patient and doting wife Mary.

Suddenly, he finds himself of step with the crowd. He only achieves his happy ending with the realization that he is already one with everyone else. The crowd means our fellow humans, who we commune with, to soothe bad times and celebrate good ones, and this connection of love and humanity than any degree of “specialness” one could measure. At the beginning, he points and laughs at the poor man on the street. At the end he is the poor man, but he’s still laughing.

The discovery of how to be ordinary was not one that came naturally to cinema, and it’s only now in 1928 that the task is taken up. In order for Hollywood to learn how to portray the ordinary, it had to go to New York. To the crowd. The only city bigger and newer than Berlin.

This mode of realism is most striking in the scenes in their humble New York apartment. Filmed in New York, in a real apartment, with a real bathroom, and a real toilet, and a real El train speeding by. For the first time in cinema’s history, we see the real problems of regular people. Just like us, they are trying to be special, and sometimes, a truly special person can learn the greatest secret of all: how to be ordinary.

 

38. The Circus

vlcsnap-2017-11-19-18h56m52s106

January 6, 1928
United Artists
Directed by Charles Chaplin

If The Circus isn’t remembered as well as his other movies, it’s largely because Chaplin himself ignored it during the post-war silent film revival. This has less to do with the quality of the movie than with the cloud of personal disaster that surrounded it. Chaplin had by this time conquered the world and was at the top of his game. The first Academy Awards in 1928 had to exempt him from nomination to prevent him from utterly dominating the show. But his success meant that the sordid details of his personal life were on full display. His marriage to Lita Grey, who he had wed in a panic after getting her pregnant at 16, was falling apart, and the divorce proceedings were full of scandalous details of him pressuring her into getting abortions and giving him blowjobs.

What else to do but throw himself as far as he could into the thing that got him all this attention – making people laugh. And so The Circus becomes a meditation on performing comedy. Comedy is not an art that one can work on in private, as one can with music, writing, or painting. Comedy is necessarily social – you can only find out what’s funny by doing something goofy, and then seeing if anyone responds. He gives everything of himself as he struggles to land upon the happy accident that will make everyone feel joy, even though these accidents inevitably cause him pain.

At the beginning, the tramp survives by not being seen. He evades the cops by running through a fun house mirror maze and hiding among a multitude of reflections. In the end, he is a tightrope walker, the entire crowd with their eyes fixed on him, their hands over their breathless mouths, as he executes a perfect performance. The slightest misstep means a public death, even as a team of monkeys crawls over his body and strip him of his clothes, exposing more and more of himself. That is the Faustian bargain of Hollywood. You can be the center of attention, but you have to give your audience everything, fully exposed, always risking a humiliating demise.

37. Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt

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September 23, 1927
Fox
Directed by Walter Ruttmann

A movie just like Sunrise, premiering the same night, on the other side of the world, but without the love story – the husband and wife, individuals and their rural landscape, so that the only character is the city itself. Berlin. A world unimaginable thirty years earlier, unlike any place that had ever existed, except for New York. The German super-state that Frederick the Great envisioned has finally arrived, destined to conquer the world.

A matrix of concrete, glass, and iron, full of images provoking desires, kept alive by networks of electricity, fed by railroad cars racing along tracks at unimaginable speed, full of supplies, chased by masses of people pushing each other from building to building.

Primacy is to the machines. We always see machines in operation first, and the people come later, racing to keep pace. Hurrying to their jobs, where they clean and feed the machines with their human energy, making the circle spin faster and faster, until the entire city is locked together in one massive circle spinning at blurring speed, presented as a spectacle for our amusement.

This day in the life of a city could only be a Friday. Night falls, the neon lights up, and that mass of energy redirects from the exercise of work to the consumption of pleasure – human bodies on the stage, turning themselves in unison – the pleasure machine spins its limbs of exposed flesh. The pleasure, too, is meant to service the spinning machine. In our work, our domestic chores, and our amusements, we are always components turning like gears.

The pleasure of the movie is in the beauty of chaos contained, like the spinning circle fixed behind the shop window. 1927 was the third year of relative stability, thanks to the money flowing in from American business, but everyone knew that no matter how well the machine was polished and stoked, at any moment it could all come flying apart.