39. The Crowd

The Crowd
March 3, 1928
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


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

September 23, 1927
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.


36. Sunrise


September 23, 1927
Directed by F. W. Murnau

Sunrise is a misleading name. This movie is about the moon. The glowing silver orb appears again and again. On both sides of the sky, so that we can’t tell which way is which. Glowing bulbs light up the paths of streets through the city. Car headlights appear out of nowhere, swerving in cacophonies of alarm.

The moon creates no light of its own but through its reflection we make out shadowy forms in the darkness. Moonlight is the allegory of the cinema. We leave our houses to sit in darkened rooms and watch an artificial light show us the truth about ourselves.

Murnau knew he was the foremost auteur of this new art. When William Fox saw Der Letzte Mann, he jumped at the chance to hire him and give him a Hollywood budget, which Murnau did not waste a penny of. He and his Fox colleague Frank Borzage worked closely together, sharing sets, ideas, and the brilliant new star Janet Gaynor.

Their twin achievements are the two ultimate poles of silent cinema. The feminine Seventh Heaven reaches into the deep level of sorrow and despair that an unloved woman can experience, this love is depicted with a soft and friendly warmth. The sun never fails to shine, and our couple are always reunited at 11:00 am. Fox decided to release that one first, so that audiences would fall in love with Gaynor (and it’s impossible not to), before seeing what Murnau would do to her.

Because Sunrise is both a story of darkness and a story of masculinity. Gaynor is a perfect wife from the first frame, and we don’t need any closeups of her to know that. The tension of this movie lies entirely in the soul of George O’Brien’s husband, the man who sets out to murder his wife.

He doesn’t look like he even wants to kill her. He feels he must. It’s a dark unconscious compulsion that he must he venture into the moonlight to confront. For the couple to express their true love, to know themselves as lovers, as husband and wife, they must confront the dark side. She must know that he could kill her whenever he wants, and he must know that his power to kill her is the same power that will protect her from all harm. When she forgives him, he undergoes a second redemption, taking the oath of marriage along with the couple that they both watch, as if spectators watching a performance on the screen.

The superior man loves everyone, but this love must find its root in the love of his chosen woman. They wander the night in the artificial light of the Luna carnival and delight in each other. But the struggle is not yet over. There is an even greater challenge that O’Brien must confront – the darkness of that vast unknowable feminine of nature.

Most men can comfort themselves in the feeling that killing your wife is something only movie villains do, but the truth is that every time a man turns his heart away from his woman, in every moment he closes himself off because he cannot handle the power of her anger or despair, in each of those moments he is killing her. In every moment he must choose, whether to persevere in conquer the feminine and allow it to open into light.

After confronting his murderous desire and deciding once and for all that he must protect, honor, and serve his chosen woman, his masculine strength is put to a final test. He must reckon with Nature herself, the pure primordial feminine force, who has the power to take any of us at any time. A man must dedicate his life to his woman, knowing full well that she will one day die. And there he is – alone in his house, facing the empty bed, with the result he once desired. The moonlight boxes him in as he slumps before the broken rectangles of moonlight on the covers.

The happy ending does arrive shortly, as the bulrushes the man had planned to use to escape his wife end up saving her, but the brutal truth of the empty bed remains for me the true “end” shot. This movie is a celebration of life through the confronting of death. We all must die. You and everyone else. Yet in each moment of our life we have the opportunity to conquer nature, open the world, and allow light to shine.


35. 7th Heaven

7 heaven

May 6, 1927
Directed by Frank Borzage

Bob Smith, my first film history professor, told me that if you’ve never been in love, watch 7th Heaven, and you will know what it feels like.

I was seventeen and hadn’t been in love yet. It was a month before my best friend confessed her love for me, and three months before we started dating. Seventeen years later, we have now been married for twelve, and she remains the only woman I’ve loved.

The last three years have been the most difficult of our marriage. She graduated from college, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, tried several jobs but quit all of them in despair. Every job she takes makes her life so miserable that she would rather be dead than work. She is depressed and scared all the time, and our financial situation has deteriorated so that we are in six figures of debt and facing bankruptcy. If I only knew how to make enough money to take care of both of us, I would do it without question.

For those who will climb it, there is a ladder leading from the depths to the heights – from the sewer to the stars – the ladder of Courage.

There’s no need for a modernist or psychoanalytic critique of a movie like this, which is simply and profoundly a love story. Love is the ultimate feminine goal, and this is a feminine film. A movie about love made for women, or for men who wish to understand the feminine.

Every man has trouble with his chosen woman, but where most women are able reduce their man to a quivering mess with their anger, it’s my wife’s sadness that collapses me. But each time I am overpowered, I am again challenged to be a more courageous man. To have the courage to face the world, make money, take care of my family, and have an open heart.

I recognize that same sadness in Janet Gaynor’s face.

Gaynor, who had mostly appeared in extra roles before this, delivers an extraordinary natural performance as Diane. Her face reveals the heart of the feminine, in the depths of despair, the heights of hope, and the fullness of love.

Chico saves Diane from her cruel older sister, but is unable to face her despair. As Chico rambles on about his dissatisfaction with life as a sewer rat, Diane lies in a heap of misery on the street. It is only when she attempts to kill herself with his knife that he sees her, grabs it from her, and tries to talk her out of being sad.

Yeah, that doesn’t work. But pity moves him to take her home to his seventh-floor apartment, complete with a huge window open to the Parisian night. Heaven.

Chico fearlessly crosses a plank stretched high above the streets to get some linens and a nightgown for Diane. Never look down. Always look up.

While he is out, we see Diane afraid once again, not of her sister or the police, but of the open bed she she sees in front of her. Hidden from the view of the window, Diane undresses in front of the camera, revealing her bare legs to the audience.

7th heaven

This is an obvious chance to talk about the male gaze – our budding starlet is undressing for the camera in a tight, furtive frame. But I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s an obvious truth that movies are made under the implicit assumption of a male viewer, a male audience, male characters, and that all representation of women is reduced to that of a passive object.

Her legs are lovely, but this movie was not made for male lust. Janet Gaynor is not a passive object that arrests the movement of the story. This is a movie about love and the feminine and Gaynor is the story. By contrast, the scenes with Chico and his male friends are always ridiculous, even those of the war.

The real narrative lies in the progression of close-ups of Gaynor, from despair to hope and now to a fear of being forced to give her body too soon to the first person she could trust. It’s this body she reveals to us, before hurrying into the bed and drawing the covers up to her chin.

When Chico returns, we watch him undress and Diane, from under her covers, watches along with us with fascination. Chico approaches the bed only to grab a pillow for himself and head into the other room. Diane (now clothed) sneaks over to see that he has made his own bed at a respectful distance, and she can barely contain her ebullience.

As the scene fades to black, we know their love is secure. In the second half of the movie, it only remains to face death, that all-consuming impersonal force that conspires to drive everyone apart. But Diane has already learned always to look up.

Things are darker than they’ve ever been, and I have no choice but to keep looking up. To find the courage not only to face the world in all its danger but to face the no less intimidating psyche of my woman, whose suffering I can only imagine, and make a place for us. A place that’s heaven. 

34. Napoléon

April 7, 1927
Directed by Abel Gance

No, that’s not a picture of Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s Louis Antoine de Saint-Just. Let me explain.

This movie, running five hours long, relying heavily on French patriotism, and playing loose with history, was not easy to watch. Even without considering the triple-screen climax, Napoleon is not a movie that translates well to video. But just after the intermission, there is a fascinating moment of enunciation worth discussing.

The term “enunciation” refers to the moment in a narrative when the author of the work steps in and makes his presence known. This can be either through a stylistic device, signifying mark, or in a film, by the literal presence of the director on the screen.

Sometimes the enunciating act will simply remind the viewer that the film is not simply the product of her own dreaming libido,  but is actually a product of someone else’s imagination. Another effect can be to privilege one particular point of view within the story by identifying it with the point of view of the author.

Now remember that by “author”, I do not necessarily mean the literal person of the usually male director, who is in this case Abel Gance. A director himself has limited control over a million-dollar film-making enterprise, but neverless the concept of “author” is constructed for the viewer. This “author” is understood in the moment of enunciation when the idea is put into the viewer’s mind that she is watching a tale told by a distinct voice, by a creator who acts like a character both in and outside his own movie.

In this film, director Abel Gance takes the form of Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, who is the youngest, most radical revolutionary in France. He originally fancied himself an author, but after his first book failed to have any literary impact, he decided to be the author of a nation instead. Now at the beginning of the second half of the movie, Maximilien Robespierre has taken control of the Committee of Public Safety and with that, the entire Republic. He accomplished this by executing the rival Hebertists, and Saint-Just has played the role of executioner.

We zip through the Terror and arrive at the final day before the Thermidorian Reaction: July 27, 1794. Instead of focusing on Robespierre’s last stand, which would be expected in a movie about the Revolution, we instead hear Saint-Just’s final impassioned speech, where he defends the Terror as the next necessary step in the Revolution and denounces anyone who would stand in the way of revolutionary progress.

By delivering Saint-Just’s speech, Gance makes himself the great villain who has thrown the Revolution into a chaos. Napoleon will need to swoop in and restore order without losing what has been gained by removing the monarch and creating a Republic. He enters his narrative to personally set up his main character with a conflict to solve.

But Gance’s speech is also directed to the viewer, for Gance is himself an artistic Saint-Just. For him cinema is the revolution of art which promises to change the way people saw, felt, and lived. As in 1794, the Revolution had only gotten started but was already facing  ruin. In early 1927 the Age of Sound was making its inexorable march toward the border. Gance gave his epic Napoleon everything he had, as he watched his ability to fulfill the promise of artistic genius sliced by the guillotine of commerce. In his Thermidor speech, he makes his defense of the Revolution directly to his audience, knowing it is his final chance. Because though Gance would continue to make movies for forty more years, and even complete one more segment of the Napoleon story, 1959’s Austerlitz, none of these movies would make good on the avant-garde promise of La Roue or Napoléon. The vision would remain unfulfilled, because the Revolution was over.


33. Metropolis

MetropolisJanuary 10, 1927
Directed by Fritz Lang

By 1926 there was only film industry that could pose a remote challenge to Hollywood, and that was Germany’s UFA. But even they could no longer keep up. They decided to throw in all of their chips on one big production. The next Fritz Lang/Thea von Harbou film was to be an American-size spectacle with the sophistication of European culture. For most of a year, an enormous crew labored under excruciating conditions and spent over 1,000,000 of the stable new Marks.

The result was a complete failure. The movie was too long, the characters’ motives were incoherent, and for an audience that had so recently been stirred by Bronenosets Potyomkin, the politics were laughable. UFA would not be given a second chance. They went into receivership and had to accept humiliating terms of defeat that meant they would never challenge American hegemony again.

By the time Siegfried Kracauer wrote his bold history of Weimar cinema, From Caligari to Hitler, Metropolis was assigned to the second tier of German movies. Metropolis made its great comeback in a drastically cut version circulated in the Video Age of the 1970s and 1980s.

The 2010 restoration presents a more coherent story, but this hardly matters, because Metropolis is so overwhelming in its diversity of images that the events of the story come at us like a dream. Each scene is so startling that we barely remember the previous one: the city with its tramlines crossing the spaces between skyscrapers; the gardens crowded by beautiful women in diaphanous gowns; the terrible power plant itself (das Kraftwerk) with its transformation into the all-devouring mouth of Moloch (the image that filled Allen Ginsberg with prophetic horror); the office (those suits!); and most of all, the laboratory.

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Rotwang in his laboratory. Dr. Faustus had a study filled with books, a feudal laboratory, and stage adaptations of Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jeckyll explored the physical possibilities of a wealthy disturbed genius given a room of his own. But Rotwang is the first example of the modern archetype of the mad scientist, living in a feudal-style hut between the high-rises, that leads into a a vast multi-room chamber filled with scientific equipment.

This is the first science fiction film in the story since #1, and we will not see another one for the rest of the Silent Age. In 1927 science fiction was a marginal genre. Many dreams of the future have been published, but only in the past year has Amazing Stories began  publishing monthly issues of technological fantasies.  This may be hard to imagine now, thirty years after George Lucas and Steven Spielberg revealed science fiction as the essential genre of cinema, and perhaps the essential genre of modern storytelling. To ask a young person today to describe science fiction is to ask a fish to describe water.

Metropolis, with its visions of that medium revealing its essence. For the first time, a director with enough genius and tyranny has combined forces with a crew with enough talent and willingness to work and been given a budget colossal enough to make the project possible. But here it is. For the first time in the modern world, where man must learn to share the world with machines, the story has been told. The fish learn about water.