Ode to Anna Magnani

Her onscreen charm has been compared to both Brando’s and Garbo’s but those are two perfections. Magnani is all imperfection, charismatic and human.

Anna Magnani in Bellissima

Third time was the charm for Luchino Visconti’s successive attempts to work with the great Anna Magnani. He wanted her for Ossessione, his 1943 adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but the actress was pregnant and not available to play the Italian version of James M. Cain’s trapped, treacherous Cora. He did an enormous amount of preproduction work on The Golden Coach—what became instead Jean Renoir’s 1952 love letter to Commedia dell’arte (and Magnani)—before he was yanked off the project by justifiably twitchy producers. (The second-time director had already bankrupt one producer on La terra trema, finally released in 1948.) To make it happen, Visconti sat down with his closest collaborator, screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, to adapt a Cesare Zavattini story expressly for Magnani. Bellissima (1952) is about a stage mother trying to get her young daughter into the movie business and, according to Cecchi d’Amico, “was tailor-made for her.” Magnani is all the reasons why.

Variously described as a “shameless emotionalist” and “authentic,” Magnani played guitar and sang to help pay her way through a year at Rome’s Academy of Dramatic Arts. She later made a name onstage—as “Nannarella” performing bawdy songs while baring her midriff—and although her movie-director husband Goffredo Alessandrini told her that “she wasn’t pretty, in the movie sense,” she went on to carve out her own cinematic immortality, succeeding relatively late in life in the business that favors ingénues. She brought her comic timing honed with her theater partner Totò. She brought her raw sensuality, her hyperbolic romanesco, her regality, and her realness into every role. “I live what I do, or I believe I’m living it, which is the same thing,” she once said.

Her onscreen charisma has been compared to both Brando’s and Garbo’s but those two are perfections. Magnani is all imperfection, charismatic and human. And such messy hair. There has never been anyone like her. Watch her stumble and fall as she chases after her husband-to-be as he’s hauled off in a German occupation army truck in Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945) or with Aldo Fabrizi a few scenes prior going from slapstick to terrified in a flicker. After seeing Open City Pasolini wrote that her performance “obliterates the song of poets” and spent the next 15 years trying to work with her. Her second film with director (and lover at the time) Rossellini, L’amore (1948), is introduced with the apt title card “An Homage to the Art of Anna Magnani.”

While Magnani was the key to Bellissima, Visconti also wanted to escape the constraints of neorealism, which after two films he complained had “stuck like a tattoo.” Shooting in a real Roman borgate and at the actual Cinecittà studio, he strips any possible glamour from slumming it or moviemaking, revealing the drab armature of the manufacture of dreams. Visconti still filmed in black-and-white and still used nonprofessional actors (the man who plays Magnani’s husband was found brawny and believable shoveling bones at one of Rome’s abattoirs). He also insisted that costume designer Piero Tosi buy off the rack rather than create a wardrobe. Eyeing one woman on the street Tosi asked if he could have her skirt for a film starring Anna Magnani and the woman immediately obliged. “In those days women were willing to undress in the street for La Magnani,” Tosi said years later.

She is nothing but convincing as Bellissima’s quixotic mother, peddling her young daughter to movie directors against all odds. Watch her monologuing about the nature of performance against Visconti’s carefully placed mirrors while shadows of passersby move across her face; and, later, desperately tender, regretful, pressing her petite daughter to her as if they were one precious flesh. She improvised some of the dialogue herself, as she often did, and became Maddalena Cecconi so completely, one film historian wrote, “that she even considered adopting [costar] Tina Apicella.”

Such a creature of the pretend in a cautionary tale about that pretend is an irony lost on no one, and it was a conceit she toyed with throughout her career. After an offscreen beating by her disapproving husband in Bellissima, slumped in a chair, her hair and dress in yet another rumple, Magnani, so close to victory, seems down for the count, pleading to be left in peace, a chorus of supportive female neighbors in full agitato. “Stop acting, Maddalena,” her husband shouts. “I’m not acting!” The second she sees he’s out the door, her tears abruptly cease: “We made it, honey,” she says, grabbing little Maria and giving her a big smacking kiss. “If we hadn’t done all that there’d be no audition.” In her only other collaboration with Visconti she plays a version of herself, the theater star. Perched in a Rome police station clutching her dachshund in the last episode of 1953’s Siamo donne, she holds forth on the injustices of taxi surcharges and ignorance of drivers, charming all the carabinieri within earshot. Winning her case and now late for the theater, her charm’s intact but now takes the form of invective-laced exasperation as she threatens to kill her dresser “if she doesn’t live her in peace right now” to prepare.

Much has made of her emotive abilities. She gave goosebumps to Mastroianni and struck fear into the heart of Marlon Brando who joked about keeping a “fair-sized rock” around for those times she would surely overwhelm him. “They’d have had to mop me up,” he told Truman Capote in 1957 about the possibility of appearing opposite her on the legit stage in Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo. (Maureen Stapleton, who eventually won the coveted role, said the audience must have thought during her performance, “She’s no Magnani.”) Magnani herself later complained about being typecast—“They wore me out with these eternal roles as a noisy, hysterical popolana”—as if she too had forgotten the subtlety she brought to her portrayals.

Heavily courted by Williams, then experiencing his Broadway-Hollywood crossover, she made four American films, proving Brando right, but for different reasons. She provided the sure center of the movie version of The Rose Tattoo (1955), winning an Oscar, I think, for not using a rock against the ridiculous Burt Lancaster and for a scene in which she unceremoniously tries to squeeze her middle-years flesh (actual fat) into a corset—a move no big-name actress would dare today. In Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind (1960), she outmatches Brando’s magnetism molecule for molecule while the other cast mates all seem bent on out-Magnani-ing each other (in particular Joanna Woodward). Watch Magnani on the phone seeing Snakeskin for the first time and, before the plot starts to unfold, convey the whole sordid story with a look. Watch her seamless response to the package of pills Brando tosses to her in one of his improvised bits of business with a prop. Then watch her quietly die, her death mask coming to rest between the banister spindles.

Back in Italy she continued to appear onstage, in cinema and television, providing evidence both for her popolana cred and her powerful allure. In the 1962 film she finally made with Pasolini, Mamma Roma, she brings her hand to her mouth in a strange, wrist-first gesture worthy of suffering silent divas. In Made in Italy (Nanni Loy, 1965), she pushes and pulls a chain of children through bumper-to-bumper traffic and, in Tre donne (Alfredo Giannetti, 1971), exits a disco bar a cool, elegant diva. In 1972, she made a brief but potent cameo near the end of Fellini’s Roma. The director, who years earlier had appeared as the silent saint opposite her chatty goatherd in “The Miracle” episode of L’amore, follows Magnani through a plaza to the door of her home, calling her the living symbol of his beloved city: a wolf, an aristocratic bag lady, a dark clown. She chuckles at his idea. “Federico, I am sleepy.” He asks if he can interview her. “No, I don’t trust you.” The door is already closed. Those are the last words spoken in the film and the last she ever said on camera. She died the next year, far too young, at 65.

— Shari Kizirian © 2016

Originally published in September 2016 on the editorial pages of Fandor.


An Enduring Horror

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari restored

Writing years later, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari scenarist Hans Janowitz recalled the moment during the film’s premiere at Berlin’s Marmorhaus on February 27, 1920, when Conrad Veidt, wan, still, upright in a coffin, opens his kohl-rimmed eyes for the first time and a woman in the audience let out a scream. Ghouls, devils, witches, gremlins, ghosts, vampires, zombies, Freddies, and other beings that go thump in our night: we queue up to see them, hand over hard-earned pay, and wait to be scared as close to death as possible. The moviegoer lured by the poster of a bloody ax, the silhouette of an insatiable beast, or wide-eyed prey sends out the fervent plea: Make us believe. Fool me. Frighten me. Take me down the long dark corridor until something scary jumps out of the shadows. Reel me in until I scream.

Publicity campaigns build dread and excitement—“It’s not in your head. It’s in your house.” “Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them? “The Monster Is Loose!” “Pray for Rosemary’s Baby” “Love Never Dies.” It is an ancient pitch that may go as far back as the gods painted on the walls of Ajanta—reverence induced by art. (What is fear but an extreme state of awe?) Cinema’s closest antecedent: the Fantasmagoria popularized by French scientist/showman called “Robertson,” whose ghoulish late-18th century magic lantern spectacle was relocated from the 60-person capacity Pavillon de l’Échiquier to the larger courtyard of the Convent of Capucines only recently emptied of its holy sisters by the French Revolution.

A February 1800 issue of Courrier of Spectacles—quoted in Laurent Mannoni’s The Great Art of Light and Shadow—describes the Fantasmagoria scene: “Storms, the harmonica, the funeral bell which calls the shades from their tombs, everything inspires a religious silence: the phantoms appear in the distance, they grow larger and come closer before your eyes and disappear with the speed of light. Robespierre comes out of his tomb, begins to stand, a thunderbolt falls and reduces the monster and his tomb to dust. Beloved shades appear to lighten the picture: Voltaire, Lavoisier, J.J. Rousseau appear in turn, and Diogenes, his lantern in his hand, searches for a man and and to find him goes up and down the rows, rudely causing fright to the ladies, which entertains everyone.”

Caligari’s promise to similarly frighten and entertain called out from posters on Berlin’s streets: “You Must Become Caligari,” a line taken from the film at the moment the doctor of the title is driven to take up evil deeds. Often thought of (incorrectly) as cinema’s primordial boo, Caligari promised much more than a passing scare. Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer wrote Caligari in Berlin, at that time a chaotic caldron of poverty, decadence, and bloody revolution, where the millions of dead and mangled casualties from World War I haunted every German family. Reportedly inspired by the sensationalist murder of a young woman in Hamburg and the popular detective serials of the time, their script also reflected their war-forged ideas about psychiatry and the mind. The result was an enduring horror beyond that of a creature suddenly appearing and eliciting a scream. There are scarier things, things you might not immediately know to fear. Things you initially have the inclination to trust.

Caligari was converted to the screen by what became a Who’s Who of German cinema. Producer Erich Pommer shepherded the productions of F. W. Murnau’s Phantom, Faust, and The Last Laugh and Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse and Metropolis, among others, before pioneering the German musical in the early sound era. Director Robert Wiene had come from the theater as well as written 14 scripts for one of Germany’s biggest film stars, Henny Porten, and went on to built an impressive body of work before his death in 1938. Set designers Walter Röhrig and Hermann Warm became collaborators of Weimar cinema’s greatest names: Röhrig working as art director with Murnau and Warm on, among other films, Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr. Scenarist Carl Mayer, about whose work cinematographer Karl Freund once noted, “A script by Carl Mayer is already a film,” wrote Wiene’s follow-up to Caligari titled, Genuine, and also collaborated on Murnau’s most famous films, later joining the director in the States.

These Blair Witch conjurers of their day drew from current distorted aesthetics, Cubism and Futurism, as well as small-town carnival kitsch and Freudian theories of the unconscious mind, to tell a multilayered tale of men driven to do bad things against their will. The film’s effect was immediate and far-reaching. “It set the tone for a decade of critical and commercial success,” writes scholar Ian Roberts. The film made it to New York in 1921, after Ernst Lubitsch’s wildly successfully Madame Dubarry broke through the war’s lingering embargo on Germany cinema. One reviewer, aware that the strange, arty film probably wouldn’t make it outside city limits, advised her readers: “Although you may never see [it], you ought to know about it because you will feel its influence in other pictures that are to come.”

Officially a sensation, it showed how a film’s mise-en-scène—everything from lighting to sets to costumes to the way actors walk—can be used to convey mindset, to project mood. It melded psyche and plot and cleared the way for the shadowy worlds of Murnau’s Nosferatu, the first in a hundred-year run of vampire features, and Arthur Robison’s Schatten, a morality shadow play whose plot device borrows heavily from Caligari. In 1924’s The Hands of Orlac, about a pianist with transplanted hands, director Wiene, working again with Conrad Veidt, uses a very distant camera to shoot his main character, helpless and alone slowly going mad, in the corners of large, overwhelming rooms.

While Expressionist cinema is confined to a small pool of German films in the mid-1920s, its influence spread far and wide. Outside Germany, Expressionism seeped into the Soviet Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS), which unleashed a more playful chaos on cinema with its own form of stylized acting and distorted sets (see the impossibly high clerks’ stools in The Overcoat and its carnivalesque segments) and the French impressionists and their subjective camera, used to spooky, psychological effect by Jean Epstein in his adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher.

It trickled out through Hollywood to the atmospheric films of Borzage and Sternberg, to film noir, monster movies, and the serial murder franchises down at the multiplex. Director James Whale reportedly screened a print of Caligari over and over before shooting Frankenstein. (Note the jagged horizon where evil deeds are carried out in silhouette and the female prey forever shrouded in white.) Its influence reaches down as recently as Guy Maddin’s 1992 off-kilter Alpine village in Careful and 2010’s Shutter Island, which pays overt homage to Caligari with the round dark-rimmed spectacles worn by Max von Sydow’s sinister lobotomist, jagged shadows in the lighthouse walls, and a psyche ravaged by war. Whether you look for it in the art film or in the wide release, you can still find Caligari.

Imitating Caligari seems impossible—its singular fusion of modernist art and psychological terror, never mind the story’s twist ending, render it a one-off, unique—but the temptation of repeat success is hard to pass up. Robert Wiene wrote in 1936 to friend Oskar Fischinger of an impending remake about to shoot in Paris, and producer Pommer and the screenwriters Janowitz and Mayer entered into a copyright dispute over who had the rights for a sound do-over. Twentieth Century Fox took great liberties with the storyline and art design for its 1962 remake, and, in 2005, David Lee Fisher made what can only be described as an attempt at a replica, with new actors, added dialogue, and sets recreated from the original. (Fisher’s is black and white, while the original appears in color: amber, blue, green, violet, and brown.)

With all the talk about how Caligari changed filmmaking, it’s easy to forget that it also changed movie audiences. Describing a screening in the Carpathian mountains during the war, director Robert Wiene wrote that villagers, who were seeing a movie for the first time, “rushed screaming with fear from the dark room: you believed to have seen ghosts.” Once you knew they weren’t actual ghosts, the jig was up. Now wise to Caligari’s devices, the ante is continually upped by an increasingly literate public. More subtlety is required than a jagged window dooming the next victim in the plot.

Director David Fincher recently complained at a special New York screening of his latest film Gone Girl about audiences giving too much significance to the appearance of the board game Mastermind. “I think it was the only game we could legally clear…,” Indiewire quoted him as saying: “Part of the curse of working in cinema is that nothing is treated as accidental or off-handed. When you cut to something, it gets this weird importance, so you have to be careful.”

But such literacy doesn’t make today’s audiences completely immune to Caligari. One scene is particularly terrifying, even as you can see it coming. A figure all in black makes its way through the tromp d’oeil town. Clinging to the walls he creeps along to the desired window. Inside, a woman sleeps deeply, virginal white bedsheets and bedclothes mingled as one. The figure’s face, now clear, is framed in the distant window. He enters, drawing ever closer to the bed. He raises his dagger. Then suddenly stops. Bending over her, curious. She starts awake. He has no choice now. He grabs her. She struggles wildly, her face contorted in fear and desperation. He jerks her around violently. He drags her from the bed. The woman is now his limp puppet. She is carried out the window onto the roof.

How can it still be so frightening after all this time? Blame your weak brain. “It is certain that the illusion is complete,” writes a layman about a 1799 Fantasmagoria show. “The total darkness of the place, the choice of images, the astonishing magic of their truly terrifying growth, the conjuring which accompanies them, everything combines to strike your imagination, and to seize exclusively all your observational sense. Reason has told you well that these are mere phantoms, catoptric tricks devised with artistry, carried out with skill, presented with intelligence, your weakened brain can only believe what it is made to see, and we believe ourselves to be transported into another world and into other centuries.”

— Shari Kizirian © 2014

Originally published in October 2014 on Fandor’s editorial pages.

D.W. Griffith at Biograph

The director’s body of work before the vile Birth of a Nation

The Musketeers of Pig Alley, 1912

Biograph became known as the studio with highest quality product and this was largely because of D.W. Griffith, a man who remained an anonymous force behind the best movies until he finally broke with the outfit in 1913. Paid by the foot, Griffith fits Malcolm Gladwell’s outlier theory: churning out volume, two one-reel films a week, he dominated the craft and perfected techniques: cross-cutting being among the most famous. More important, he recognized the movies’ potential as an art form when most everyone else looked down on the “flickers” as low-brow amusements for the uneducated masses. Here are five films that show Griffith’s strengths.

A Corner in Wheat, 1909
Biographer Richard Schickel wrote that A Corner in Wheat is Griffith at his artistic best, combining realism and lyricism with a narrative economy to make a point, to persuade. One contemporary reviewer wrote: “It is an argument, an editorial on a vital subject of deep interest to all.” The scenario is based on a Frank Norris story about the effects of wheat speculation on the small farmer. Griffith portrays the farmer’s life in moving tableaux reminiscent of the pastoral paintings of Jean-François Millet. If Griffith had kept adapting modern literary works in this vein, Schickel speculates he could have been on the forefront of pioneering a vibrant realism in cinema, instead, he calls the film “falsely promising.”

The Unchanging Sea, 1910
A “California picture” made the first winter the Biograph team went West to take advantage of the better weather, Griffith played with the narrative possibilities of Los Angeles’ vast surrounding landscapes. Far from nagging studio overlords who reined in spending and naysaid his experimentations, particularly in length, Schickel says that Griffith “allowed some of the creative tension to uncoil for the first time.” He set his actors against the wide open spaces not available to him in the tightly packed Northeast and slowed things down at a time when one contemporary reviewer summed up the era’s industrial-electric-movement madness: “speed was the thing.” The same reviewer also noted the film’s understated acting style. “Every thought and feeling is expressed with wonderful force but with scarcely a gesture and with perfect naturalness.”

The Musketeers of Pig Alley, 1912
Lillian Gish’s struggling musician husband gets a payday that becomes the target of a couple thugs. Here Griffith uses the density of New York’s Lower East Side as a bustling backdrop to the scheming of a gang of criminals, a major preoccupation in the nation’s newspapers. (Schickel compares the photography to the work of Jacob Riis.) A plot is hatched in a crowded alleyway as neighbors pass in and out going about their business. Snapper Kid enters the frame, smoke trail first, and seems to appear always out of nowhere. Here Griffith demonstrates his artistic use of the whole film frame, in addition to a sympathetic humanism and his skill with actors. It’s not the first gangster film but Elmer Booth as Snapper Kid does a move with his hat that’ll make you feel like you’ve seen James Cagney’s balletic wise guy decades early.

The New York Hat, 1912
Mary Pickford was still Gladys Smith the day she walked into Biograph’s New York studio looking to pick up some offseason work in the flickers. The fifteen-year-old, as she would for some much of her long career, specialized playing young girls on the theater circuit and Griffith was so impressed he quickly moved her from a daily wage to a weekly salary. Her biographers say she had an instinct for how to come across for the camera, perceiving early that subtlety and restraint worked better on film than on the stage, in the words of Eileen Whitfield, “using small well-chosen movements—biting her lip, perhaps, or fiddling with a shawl.” She fought constantly with Griffith, refusing to exaggerate in her gestures when he demonstrated how to do a scene. “I’m a young girl,” she once told him, “I don’t go into ecstasies.” Once he pushed her down, she once bite him, but she stayed with him on and off through 1912’s New York Hat, her final film for Biograph, having absorbed all she could with him. On the other hand, Schickel writes that Pickford’s time at Biograph was a lost opportunity for the director: “[H]e refused to learn anything from a young woman whose intelligence about the medium … was equal to his.”

The Girl and Her Trust, 1913
A remake of The Lonedale Operator, about a railway employee who risks everything to safeguard the payday lockbox, this film is not only a study in crosscutting (with a climatic chase between a train and a handcart) but also shows Griffith’s ingenious use of the frame to drive plot and develop a bit of character. Danger lurks in the first few minutes as one of the telegraph operator’s suitors leaves the office, crossing the entire back of the frame, moving left, while the stowaway robbers lie hidden in a ditch in the right foreground. Back in the office, Griffith frames the robbers in the grate-covered window just behind the operator’s head, while the majority of the shot is taken up with the door, shot at such an angle that it looms large as a way in for the thieves. It’s masterful. We also get a McGyver-ish heroine, played by Dorothy Bernard, who shoots a bullet through the keyhole with a hammer and pair of scissors in a scene that still has the power to put you on the edge of your seat.

— Shari Kizirian © 2015

Originally published in March 2015 as a sidebar to “Kicking and Screaming: The Birth of a Nation at 100.”

Kicking and Screaming: Birth of a Nation at 100

It’s a long ugly bigoted film history we drag behind us. We can’t change it. But we can look at differently.

Protesting the re-release of The Birth of a Nation

That D.W. Griffith, a self-educated theater actor and failed playwright from rural Kentucky whose father fought for the Confederates during the Civil War carried his racism along with his genius into a medium that transformed the 20th century is one of many unfortunate facts in film history. As The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson in blackface, is to the talkies, as Nanook of the North and Triumph of the Will is to documentaries, what Gone with the Wind is to Technicolor, what Elia Kazan’s apologia for naming names, On the Waterfront, is to screen acting, The Birth of a Nation is to the narrative feature film. An entire genre, the western, is virtually unwatchable for its harmful and inaccurate portrayals of Native Americans and the way the West was won. I can’t even make a complete list of nationalities or heritages maligned—some maligned still—as a matter of course in the movies (Jews, Arabs, Mexicans, pick an Asian country…), never mind queers and women. It’s a long ugly bigoted history we drag behind us, and not just in film. We can’t change it. But we can look at differently.

Recent scholarship and archival sleuthing is helping us do just that, uncovering new visual evidence of the black independent film industry in the silent era. An unfinished film starring vaudeville sensation Bert Williams about the courtship of a young woman, uncovered and assembled by MoMA’s curators, shows a thriving middle-class black America still largely invisible in mainstream culture. Kino recently announced plans for an African-American silent cinema box set [released as Pioneers of African American Cinema]. Cara Caddoo builds on the research of Thomas Cripps, Donald Bogle, Ronald Green, Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and many others in her new book, Envisioning Freedom, shedding new light on the movies of the Chitlin’ Circuit, black films about black lives playing for black audiences. And for American film history’s biggest sore spot, Dick Lehr’s 2014 book The Birth of a Nation recasts the landmark film in light of the protests organized by Monroe Trotter, a Harvard graduate and newspaper editor whose father fought in one of the Union’s “colored” regiments and rallied for equal pay for black soldiers. (Instead of compromising, the regiment served unpaid for an entire year.)

Trotter—along with the NAACP—helped expose the racist depictions and erroneous history in The Birth of a Nation to an otherwise oblivious nation. Not too many listened but the persistent and sustained effort had Griffith one day admitting that the film should be reserved for instructional purposes, for studying the art of film, and not be shown in public—a major step for the director who never publicly faced his racism, but little comfort to the kid who enrolls in film school.

Birth of a Nation was Griffith’s magnum opus and he knew it. It took everything he had learned and developed in his seven years of filmmaking about timing, cross-cutting, close-ups, building suspense, conveying emotion and mood in composition and lighting and movement and put it into an unprecedented twelve-reel feature. He wanted recognition, and he deserved it after toiling anonymously (and being paid on a per-foot basis) in a system that did not give public credit to its workers, preferring to “brand” the studios instead. He wanted ads in the trades identifying him with the title and an opening night at a legitimate theater of a kind that had already been bestowed on the imported Italian feature-length films, among them Quo Vadis? and Cabiria. He wanted a full orchestra to play a rousing score to include Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and the “Klansmen call” (which Griffith used to spontaneously cry out on set during the shoot). He wanted the world to see the potential of film as an art.

He built sets and rehearsed actors on the good faith (if not entirely solvent) support of Harry Aitken back in New York. While in preproduction and later editing the film, he still supervised or personally cranked out the two-reelers required of his contract—and to keep the studio afloat. When the money ran dry as it periodically did, he spent lunch and setup breaks cajoling members of his crew and local businesspeople into buying shares of the finished product, raising about half the just over $100,000 budget, the most expensive American film to date. One day he invited the Clune of Clune’s Auditorium to watch the filming of a big scene and hired a small brass band to play along, using the moment to demonstrate to the impresario how much better opening night could be with his theater’s orchestra. Clune wrote a $15,000 check and was promised the Los Angeles premiere, for which it was said the applause “came in deafening waves.” Composer Joseph Breil’s “The Perfect Song,” the love song from Birth, became a hit on its own.

Like a well-cut trailer for a terrible film, Birth advertised a false American history. The film was so overwhelming in scope and power that audiences became unable, unwilling to critique its dangerous content. It might have been the first time this happened: a film so large in scale and so beautifully crafted that it washed away all reason. Such white-washing might have been excusable in a film about a war two hundred years before Christ—in light of what happened in Italy in 1922, maybe not so much—but certainly not fifty years after the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment with the first generations removed from slavery still under the heel of an unsympathetic-at-best, murderous-at-worst majority. That the country was racist wasn’t news to blacks. MoMA curator Ron Magliozzi speculates that the reason the Bert Williams film was never released by its white producers is that Birth had soured race relations and the film’s portrayals didn’t fit the stereotypes to which white audiences had become accustomed. That Birth exposed the nation’s profound racism on a wide stage is stern consolation.

Griffith and his producers knew trouble was coming, as the NAACP had tried to get the film censored in L.A., and, for the film’s East Coast debut, the organization lobbied members of New York City’s board of censors to ban it or at least insist on cuts. To generate publicity for the NYC premiere, horses and their riders were hired to gallop around Broadway outfitted with Klan hoods and robes, apparently without incident. Thomas Dixon, the North Carolina native and unapologetically bigoted author of the original source material (a successful novel and successful play), helped forestall negative reaction to the film by writing to his old school chum Woodrow Wilson and arranged for the first ever White House screening.

Griffith biographer Richard Schickel says he couldn’t track down how the “history written with lightening” quote came to be but one can imagine Dixon’s good-old-boy hand in it and Griffith’s in disseminating it. You can also imagine nervous klatches of political advisors engineering a situation in which they could back the president out of the remark attributed to him. Wilson was a Democrat, the first to hold the office in sixteen years, and he paid lip-service to what he saw as a black voting block while instituting segregation policies across federal agencies. (Pandering was a smart move because he was going to need all constituencies on deck for cannon fodder when the U.S. entered the Great War.)

Private screenings also unspooled for Congress and SCOTUS, the press, and other movers and shakers. There is no question at all that Griffith, Aitken, etc., knew exactly what they had put on film and no cagey statements put on record by him or his lawyers can change that. Griffith’s own housekeeper told him she was hurt by how he had portrayed her people.

The big push against the film came in Boston, cradle of the American Abolitionist movement and Monroe Trotter’s hometown. Griffith knew the city was a testing ground and his team hired Pinkertons to find out what the opposition had planned. In the courts and in the press, Griffith stood firmly on free speech ground. Filmmakers no less than playwrights, novelists, or artists of any kind demanded the retraction of censorship laws and were in constant battle with reformers, personified by Anthony Comstock’s morality police, to lift current stifling restrictions.

According to Dick Lehr’s detailed account, the NAACP’s tickets for the Boston censorship board’s screening were cut from sixteen down to two, and then were only provided on the condition that the remaining two went to white representatives. That riots broke out over the film is untrue but two hundred protesters led by Trotter showed up one night at Boston’s Tremont Theatre with intentions to disrupt the screenings and crowds outside reportedly swelled to two thousand. The theater manager thought it best to admit whites only and told potential black patrons the shows were sold out. A few slipped in and one managed to hit the screen with a stink-bomb egg.

True to perennial form, police (ten visible in uniform another sixty in plainclothes inside the theater and another one hundred hidden outside) overreacted, stormed the crowd, one policeman punching Trotter in the face and arresting him, while others, including a purse-wielding lady, tried to protect the popular spokesman. Trotter had been to jail once before, serving a month for disturbing the peace after he and some colleagues publicly upbraided Booker T. Washington for his conciliatory response to Jim Crow. Trotter’s losing argument in his defense that time, interestingly enough, was free speech.

That censorship, a blunt and ineffective tool, was the only approach available to the community rightly affronted was acknowledged within the NAACP, whose leadership expressed a queasiness over a civil rights organization advocating for circumvention of the First Amendment. Censors who insisted on cuts did so on the basis of the perceived immorality of the assaults on female virtue, not because of the hateful portrayals of blacks. The majority of censors let the film go with some minor trims. Trotter and others raised questions about whether Griffith bothered to make them and Trotter soundly noted that if the film had portrayed the Irish in a similar manner the city’s mayor would find a way to stop the screenings.

One New York censor board member had called for the banning of the entire second half, which contains the near-rapes and a climactic rescue by the KKK. No one seemed to mind the insidious setup of the first reels that present the antebellum South in soft-focus idyllic tones, a myth that didn’t get its widespread public busting until Steve McQueen’s deft adaptation of the memoir by Solomon Northup. (Allow this quick shout-out for Sarah Paulson’s portrayal of a plantation missus with the power to finally drive away the mythical specters of Elsie Stoneman, Scarlett O’Hara, and Miss Melanie with their backlit halos and fiddle-dee-deeing.)

Lines kept forming, tickets sold, reviews raved, as the film was rolled out in cities across the country. A small-time distributor in Massachusetts made a personal fortune getting the film out to Boston and the New England territories through the newly formed syndicate, Metro Pictures (later one of the “M”s of MGM). Birth of a Nation was the greenback-laced bedrock on which the Hollywood studio system was built. Exhibitors and distributors cooked their books and pocketed more than their share of the grosses (estimates soar as high as $60 million in 1915 dollars). Griffith had his long-sought name recognition and his celluloid bully pulpit, movies had a language, and the industry a strong profit-motive to repeat itself. Protesters continued to gather and editorials penned, and money, money, money poured in, filling the Griffith war chest for fighting off detractors.

Hardly anyone knew how to address this new language’s flaws or limitations. Time was compressed and whole narratives could be cut up and reordered to suit the beliefs (or match the delusions) of the makers. Building suspense and creating cathartic release ossified into a narrative form that, clearly, could not handle the complexities of history and human experience. At the time, the NAACP tried to raise money for a film in response to Birth, commissioning screenwriter Elaine Sterne to begin research for Lincoln’s Dream. But funding was hard to come by and it was going to be impossible to match the scale and scope of Griffith’s achievement in any timely way. But the organization’s membership rolls grew from three thousand to ten thousand during the time it led the fight against the film, and when it realized the film could not be stopped, it published a forty-seven page educational pamphlet, Fighting a Vicious Film, to distribute at screenings around the country.

Monroe Trotter and the rest of the African-American population handled all the bullshit rather valiantly and kept calm even when the film continued to open. (It ran thirty-three weeks in Boston alone.) It was good practice as the years sent more and more trials to test their patience. Making his first film in 1920, the writer, director, and producer Oscar Micheaux had to pretend to have a white director on location as he couldn’t be seen bossing around cast and crew in public—imagine a white man clad in jodhpurs having to do the same thing—and a struggling but burgeoning black indie movement was eventually crushed by the expensive transition to sound. We lost generations of black voices—producers, writers, directors, cinematographers, actors, editors, set designers, etc., and got another half century or more of maids and shoeshines instead.

That bedrock on which Hollywood was first built is still standing strong, still very profit-minded, very timid, and very white. Comedian Chris Rock recently drew attention to it in an article for the Hollywood Reporter: “But forget whether Hollywood is black enough. A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in L.A, you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans.”

We ourselves face the same queasiness today as did the NAACP a hundred years ago in tests to our commitment to free speech, our tolerance of dramatic license, and our disgust at hate speech. Think of the response to Spike Lee’s refusal to see the trope-switching Django Unchained because it was directed by a white man. Think of the kerfuffle over Selma’s wee indulgence in truthiness (how does even this little bit feel, white folks?). Then think American Sniper as American hero, not to mention Kathryn Bigelow’s masterful but odious Zero Dark Thirty. How tired are we of seeing Arabs framed in crosshairs or huddled in corners in shades of night-vision green? How tired are they of actually being in them? Think of the collective impact of all that. Then think Charlie Hebdo, Theo van Gogh, and Finn Norgaard. America was an ignorant nation when Birth first opened, it remains ignorant now. It is hardly alone in world. We’ve clearly a long way to go. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another hundred years to get there.

It is possible to learn about the language Griffith helped pioneer (alongside an incredibly stable coterie of cast and crew) without having to watch Birth of a Nation. Though, if you want an education in the power of film and our susceptibility to it, I recommend it. I’ll admit it only this once: After a screening of Triumph of the Will, I caught myself humming one of the hate-filled documentary’s catchy marches on my way out of the theater. And that might be the most important thing of all about Birth: it’s bracing check on the collective humming of a dangerous tune.

— Shari Kizirian © 2015

Originally published in March 2015 on Fandor’s daily blog, alongside A Guide to D.W. Griffith at Biograph.

Lotte Reiniger’s Sure Hands

Conjuring the Arabian Nights in The Adventures of Prince Achmed

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On the morning of Sunday May 2, 1926, a frantic Carl Koch scoured the streets of Berlin looking for a replacement projector lens. Back at the Volksbuehne theater, he had left behind house conductor Wolfgang Zeller and his orchestra, a cluster of literati invited by budding playwright Bertolt Brecht, and a standing-room-only crowd of spectators trying to pass off coat-check stubs as seat tickets. The filmmaking team, which included special effects wizards Walther Ruttmann and Berthold Bartosch, technical assistants Alexander Kardan and Walther Türck, and 27-year-old director Lotte Reiniger, nervously awaited Koch’s return. As it was Sunday, all the photography shops were closed. So Koch, cameraman, producer, and Reiniger’s husband, ended up at Ufa studios, where, serendipitously, someone with a key passed by. Projector lens now in hand, Koch took a cab back to the theater, where the first screening of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, three years in the making, could finally begin.

Surprisingly, the idea to make a feature-length animated film had not come from the filmmakers themselves. Because of spiraling inflation in the Weimar Republic, money was best spent as quickly as possible. Banker Louis Hagen, who had invested in a stash of film stock, was looking to shelter more of his rapidly devaluing cash. During a visit to the Institute for Culture Research, which sponsored Reiniger’s first animated films, Hagen saw a young woman cutting out silhouettes, and he asked her if a feature-length silhouette film was possible.

Since the end of the first World War, German cinema had regained its reputation for quality by producing prestigious films by directors like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Ernst Lubitsch. Yet, another strand of cinema, with roots in the art world, was emerging simultaneously. Before the war, avant-garde artists had rejected the constrictions of art institutions. Postwar Germany nurtured this new crop of artists who embraced abstract art, folk art, and the value of working outside the academy. Cinema, with its lack of antecedents, was attractive to these many forward-thinking artists and they began to explore the canvas of the film strip as an extension of painting. Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter animated their abstract scroll paintings in the early 1920s. Architectural student and painter Walther Ruttmann produced his Lichtspiel Opus films, in which shapes and colors morphed in time to live, original musical scores.

Lotte Reiniger embodied the credo of the new age: a self-taught artist skilled in the ancient folk art of shadow plays who was excited by the prospect of cinema. Born June 2, 1899, she mastered silhouettes as a child, entertaining the family with Shakespeare shadow plays in the living room. “I could cut out silhouettes almost as soon as I could manage to hold a pair of scissors,” she wrote in 1936. “I could paint, too, and read and recite; but these things did not surprise anyone very much. But everybody was astonished about the scissor cuts.”

She convinced her parents to send her to Max Reinhardt’s drama school, where, if she wasn’t performing, she could be found crafting silhouettes of the actors’ performances, which cast shadows backstage. Paul Wegener (the actor-director maybe best known for his versions of Der Golem), noticed her unusual talent and invited the 19-year-old to make titles for his film, The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918). She learned about animation by assisting with the stop-motion filming of the wooden rats that were used in place of the original cast of unruly live guinea pigs. On the set of Die Galeerensträfling (The Gallery Slave, 1919), in which Reiniger played a small part, Wegener introduced her to some artists who were starting a trick film studio, “Help me get rid of this mad silhouette girl,” he joked to Carl Koch and Berthold Bartosch, who went on to help her make six short silhouette films at the Institute for Culture Research.

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When Hagen first approached her about a feature-length animated film, she was eager but cautious, recognizing that animation had thus far been limited to ten-minute comedies. She chose to adapt stories from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, fantastical tales of the Orient that had re-captivated Europe since the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. “Those were the days,” Reiniger recalled years later, “with each new film we could make new discoveries … The whole field was virgin soil and we had all the joys of explorers in an unknown country.” Hagen installed the team above his garage in Potsdam and they spent the next three years photographing 250,000 individual images on a multi-plane camera designed specifically for the film.

One frame at a time, Reiniger adjusted the moving parts of her silhouette puppets. The multi-plane camera, operated by Carl Koch, sat atop two layers of glass tables, with a strong backlight at the bottom to give the images depth. One frame at a time, Reiniger manipulated the moving parts of her elaborate silhouette puppets, cut from black cardboard and joined by wire hinges. She studied human and animal movements to make her characters as expressive as possible. The background artists experimented with effects of their own. Bartosch created ocean waves and starlit skies with sand, soap, and transparent cutouts, and Ruttmann used wax to conjure the flying horse and for other magical transformations. As the camera was stationary, larger silhouettes and scaled backgrounds also had to be built for medium shots or close-ups. A total of 96,000 frames were culled from the filming then edited together.

By the time Prince Achmed premiered that day in May, German cinema luminaries like Lubistch and Murnau had already answered Hollywood’s siren call. The avant-garde, seduced by the French Dadaists and Surrealists, were flocking to Paris. Reiniger stayed in Berlin, working with Koch as her producer on short silhouette films. After the rise of the National Socialists in 1933, Reiniger and Koch tried unsuccessfully to get permanent visas elsewhere in Europe. Reiniger took jobs in London, where she worked for the famed GPO (General Post Office) film unit. In Paris, she created a fantasy sequence for G.W. Pabst’s Don Quichotte (1933), and made a shadow play for Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938). Eventually the couple was evacuated back to Berlin, where they managed to survive the war. The original negative of Prince Achmed, however, did not—it was destroyed in the Battle of Berlin in 1945. When Reiniger and Koch were finally granted asylum by England in 1949, they left behind all her other films as well.

For her entire career, Reiniger never strayed from silhouettes. Mozart’s The Magic Flute, fables by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, all became animated silhouettes under Reiniger’s quick scissors. She wrote books on shadow plays, illustrated an edition of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, directed shadow-play sequences for the ballet, and taught animation. In 1980, she made her last film, in Germany, where she had returned the year before. She died one year later, at the age of 82. The Adventures of Prince Achmed comes to us today through a negative saved in England, as does a piece of Reiniger herself. In single frames, one 45 minutes into the film and the other 53 minutes in, you can catch a glimpse of the shadow of Reiniger’s sure hands.

— Shari Kizirian © 2008

Originally published by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in July 2008. Reprinted in November 2015 by Fandor.

Their Eyes Were Watching You

If a century of movies has taught us anything about watching and being watched, it’s that we should be more careful.

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François Ozon’s Dans la maison

Cameras watch. Microphones listen. Invented as gadgets to amuse an audience—and profit its inventors—the movies have had an uneasy relationship with their ability to capture and replay the lives of others. More than a century ago, people across the world passed in front of the Lumières’ camera. Some stared, trying to divine its purpose. Others tried to avoid the contraption either knowing and not wanting any part of it or not knowing yet still preferring to slip out of view. Others were indifferent or unaware, never even looking. No matter how they felt about it, it was too late. They were already caught on film. In what remains we can still see their faces and make determinations about the expression in their eyes, their dress, how they move, long after they’ve gone.

Fast forward to now and cameras peer at us from the corners of elevators, parking garages, cafés, city streets, data piling up by the terabyte with the vague promise of keeping us safe. With the tiny lenses embedded in our computer screens and the handheld device nearly perfected, we have become complicit in our own spying, willingly recording our movements, cataloging our thoughts, posting them where they can be freely accessed, or clandestinely hacked. On the upside, we can more easily bear witness, but viewer (and viewed) have always needed to beware. The proscription on prying eyes is ancient; Perseus, Orpheus, and the wives of Lot and Bluebeard all got in permanent trouble just for looking. If a century of movies has taught us anything about watching and being watched, it’s that we should be more careful. From the keyhole shot in Lois Weber’s 1913 short Suspense to James Stewart’s telephoto lens in Rear Window, from the deadly tripod of Peeping Tom’s 16mm movie camera to Jake Gyllenhaal’s unblinking newshound Nightcrawler, watching is downright creepy and quite often deadly.

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Watching a Lover: La captive
Like Vertigo’s Scottie wheeling around San Francisco in pursuit of his elusive Madeleine, Chantal Akerman’s camera is initially in collusion with Simon, closely tracking the inscrutable object of his strange affections down the narrow streets of Paris and the labyrinthine hallways of his creaky-floored home. Using Ariane’s friends to secretly control her movements, interrogating her repeatedly about her whereabouts, spying her while she sleeps, Simon is like a CIA agent of love who has tasked himself with catching her in a lie. Based on Marcel Proust’s La prisonnière, the fifth volume of In Search of Lost Time, La captive is a study in unhealthy obsession and its paltry rewards. (“I see you,” Ariane tells Simon, with her eyes closed.) By the end, the prisoner of the title is as much the tracker as the tracked.

Watching the Family: Á double tour
Another kind of obsessive love entraps the characters in Claude Chabrol’s first color film and first essay into the thriller genre, Á double tour. A little bit Hitchcock, a little bit Sirk, a little bit Belmondo, Chabrol’s study of the dangers of looking employs very few reaction shots, keeping the actors in the same frame while they circle each other, plotting self-destruction. The film begins with the oldest transgression of looking, a nearly naked fresh-faced maid hanging out the manor window in her underwear. The gardener watches from the hedges, the son watches through a keyhole, the milkman tells her to get dressed. Meanwhile the mid-life crisis husband keeps his mistress on full view in the adjacent house as the wife’s bitterness is angrily reflected in the vanity mirror and the French-door windowpanes. The only real love in the house is captured in quick silhouette, a warm yellow glow backlighting a dark stairwell just long enough for an urgent, surprising declaration. Amid it all, a murder still must be committed and then solved. Once the narrative falls skillfully together, whose crime and why were in plain sight from the very beginning.


Watching a Stranger: Gigante
You can’t really blame him for watching. It’s his job. Jara is a young oversized security guard at a massive supermarket in Montevideo, Uruguay, and, beginning at 11 pm, he enters the monochromatic midnight of surveillance monitors, keeping an eye on the bakers, the butchers, and cleaning ladies of the graveyard shift. Sometimes they pilfer and he overlooks it; sometimes he intervenes. When one of the new staff catches his eye for different reasons, he begins to observe her outside work as well. Jara learns little about Julia on his stakeouts, but the narrowly framed world he’s become accustomed to suddenly opens up into the wide spaces of the day-lit city. Gigante’s stalker is largely benign and his creepiness is leavened with humor—when he realizes, for example, that he’s hiding beneath a grocery store’s security camera. Eventually his spying becomes rather sweet but, as it turns out, altogether unnecessary. He could have avoided it all by simply revealing a bit of himself in the first place.

Watching the Neighbors: The Tenants
Looking doesn’t always lead to understanding, never mind any corrective. (Just think Antonioni’s Blowup and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, or, tragically, “I Can’t Breathe.”) Those living in South America’s former dictatorships know this too well and there’s an extra uneasiness about the act of watching. (Stuffed into Chevy Novas in the middle of the night and thrown out of airplanes in the middle of the desert make a people touchy about being monitored by others.) But now there’s a new social order, with São Paulo’s tightly packed working-class bordering an even more tightly packed slum in Sérgio Bianchi’s The Tenants, and other people’s lives are inevitably visible. When loud un-neighborly types move into the house next door to Valter and his small nuclear family, dark suspicions circulate up and down the street. Everybody’s watching, through the kitchen’s louvered windows, out the big bus, on the television. (One woman pulls up a beach chair on the sidewalk to get a better view.) Valter’s the only one who doesn’t want to see. When he finally looks it’s out of a salacious curiosity, and he learns that secrets are not just what’s piled up out back in the dark, but what’s right in front of you in broad daylight.

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Watching the Watchers: The Prowler
Movie characters like the suddenly soft-hearted Stasi agent in The Lives of Others or Philip Seymour-Hoffman’s well-intentioned spy in A Most Wanted Man may be watching for our own good but they’re not the one’s in control. Clearly, the state cannot be trusted with even a peephole onto our lives, something Joseph Losey knew in 1951 when he made this film noir. A cop, tired of being one, sets his sights on a better life, with someone else’s wife, and uses his (limited but effective) power to serve himself. The plot is set into motion over the credits: a shapely young woman alone at night draws the shade against a pair of prying eyes. The cops arrive, and she’s got another problem entirely, with the startling appearance of a uniformed Van Heflin—as insistently unblinking as Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom—through a living room window. Later on, creeping around outside the house of the object of his desire, Heflin cuts a windowscreen and makes a racket to draw the husband outside. Two gunshots later and we can guess the outcome. When the lovers escape to a ghost town in the desert, their new neighbor-less view looks out through an enormous gaping hole in the wall—what’s rotten now resides inside and must be exposed. Cowritten by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo and made just before the HUAC-hunted Losey left for Europe, The Prowler foreshadows the danger lurking today behind every computer screen.

Those Eyes Watching You: Dans la maison
All those eyeballs scanning the café over their laptop screens aren’t wondering so much about you as they are wondering what they can put down about you. The Grand Budapest Hotel’s (first) storyteller played by Tom Wilkinson, describes a writer as someone who doesn’t make things up so much as take them from the surroundings, and then, as his grandson shoots off a toy luger, issues a pronouncement that you later realize is a warning: “To him who has often told the tales of others, many tales will be told.” From The Front Page to Deconstructing Harry writers have gotten into all kinds of trouble for putting “what they know” on paper. A good story has to ring true and what better truth than something that actually happened? François Ozon—keeping pace with Woody Allen’s a film-a-year rate—adapted a Spanish-language play by Juan Mayorga for his adroit, unjustly overlooked Dans la maison about a young writer and his jaded mentor who’s grown tired of reading the work of his talentless students. The apprentice, the precocious teenage Claude, spins a riveting, soap-operatic yarn based on his visits to the house of a classmate, each set of pages ending on a tantalizing cliffhanger. The teacher begins to share these stories with his wife and they both become squeamishly riveted. Ultimately a jab at cultural elitism, Dans la maison also pokes at the ethics of looking (and sharing) someone else’s private world, while proving both are fodder for comedy and some pretty typical sorrow. Ozon’s warning, however, is not so much directed at the teller of tales, but at the writer’s accomplice—it’s the reader who needs to beware.

— Shari Kizirian © 2015

Originally published May 12, 2015, on the editorial pages of Fandor’s website and reprinted on HuffPost.

They Trip Horses, Don’t They?

Creature discomfort in the movies

Eadweard Muybridge

It started with a horse. In order to conduct his photographic experiment to prove once and for all that a racehorse’s four hooves lifted off the ground at the same time, photographer Eadweard Muybridge needed not only a way to trigger the camera shutters at the right time, but he also needed lots of light to expose the wet plates properly. Edward Ball, in his new book, The Inventor and the Tycoon, says Occident was the unlucky mammal chosen the day Muybridge gathered up all the bed sheets he could find and lined the grounds to increase the natural brightness. No horses died (valuable racehorses all) in the making of Muybridge’s images, but the billowing—and no doubt stumble-inducing—sheets terrified Occident. Ball also says that all the horses balked at Muybridge’s first shutter-trigger mechanism, silk thread stretched across the race track—they didn’t like being close-lined.

Horses, of course, have been in our motion pictures ever since. Risking life and limb, and often their dignity, they performed jaw-dropping stunts in myriad westerns, appeared merely as props, background, or color, as sidekicks to heroic lead characters, and even sometimes as the main characters. A centuries-old conveyance, worker, sport, companion, and spectacle, the horse was still integral to daily life at time cinema was invented, not yet completely usurped by the mechanical. The Lumières filmed many horses on their worldwide voyages with their hand-cranked cameras, including horse-drawn buggies in the background at New York’s Union Square (New York: Broadway at Union Square) and some shirtless dragoons riding bareback across a river in eastern France (Dragoons Crossing the Saône, 1896).

Produced by Thomas Edison—who had rebuffed Muybridge’s attempts to collaborate—1894’s Bucking Broncho showed real-life cowboy Lee Martin of the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show riding Sunfish in a corral built especially outside the glass studio, the Black Maria being too small for such a production. According to early western scholar Scott Simmon, the man standing on the fence repeatedly firing his gun into the tightly framed corral is another authentic cowboy, Frank Hammit, originally chosen to perform for Edison’s camera with his own horse El Dorado but “deemed it not advisable … as the place was not large enough, the animal being an extraordinarily dangerous one.”

Horses and cowboys left idle by the vanishing West soon found work in the western, with its increasingly thrilling thrills. A Jewish man from Arkansas lied to Edwin S. Porter about his horsemanship to get cast in The Great Train Robbery and the cowboy star (Broncho Billy Anderson) and the stunt rider were born. Stunt doubles also became common for horses, with the photogenic and valued specimens preserved for interacting with humans and unfortunate rental horses used for dangerous stunts. Attitudes about the animal, its use and care, were holdovers from the Imperial Era, when according to John Berger, “The capturing of the animals was a symbolic representation of the conquest of all distant and exotic lands.”

Fritz and William S. Hart

The horse became a character in Pathé’s 1907 short Le cheval emballe, or The Runaway Horse, in which a trick shot shows the horse running backwards. William S. Hart, an experienced horseman who spent part of his childhood in the Dakotas, found a small red-and-white pinto at Inceville, Fritz, and together they formed a successful duo that was duplicated many times over in the future of movies: a cowboy and his trusted steed. In her book, Hollywood Hoofbeats, Petrine Mitchum says that Fritz’s unique markings meant it could not be doubled, but it was well trained to fall on cue at a time when many horses were tripped to achieve the desire effect. (The malevolent Running W rig has cuffs that are strapped to a horses hooves, which are then connected to a stake buried deep in the ground.) Hart, who loved Fritz (marking the horse’s grave with the words “A Loyal Comrade” and eulogizing it in the prologue of his own last film, 1938’s Tumbleweeds) never risked its hide for stunts. But, the moving picture hero was not above withholding Fritz from films for two years in order to get a raise.

Absent from 15 of Hart’s movies, Fritz finally returns in 1920’s Sand, whose plot is built around the joyful reuniting of horse and rider who then must chase down a thief, dropping straight off the edge of a cliff in the process. According to Mitchum’s book, this stunt was performed in Fritz’s final film, Singer Jim McKee. She goes on to say that a concerned Will Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, questioned Hart about it. When Hart explained that the horse was actually a dummy replica, Hays approved the film. After the film’s release, concerned fans still wrote letters asking after Fritz. Looking again at the drop in Sand, it unfolds exactly as Mitchum describes for the McKee stunt and it’s obvious the “horse” is a prop.

A rescue from a detention center in Colorado, Rex was a powerful black stallion with undeniable onscreen charisma. He had been branded a killer because a young runaway died inexplicably after stealing the horse for his getaway. Discovered by producer Hal Roach’s animal wranglers and billed as “the Wonder Horse,” Rex was the star of its own movies, beginning with King of the Wild Horses (1924) for which it makes a spectacular leap across a ravine [at about minute 23] and later off a cliff into white water [at minute 48]. Doubles stood-in for Rex, not on stunts but for close shots with human actors, as the unpredictable animal often reacted badly to them. The horse makes quite a vision leaping off that cliff, and without any apparent provocation. Mitchum also says that Rex was a bit of a diva, refusing to work when tired and, even once, taking off during a shoot, getting as far as 17 miles away. If that was Rex, and not a stunt double, leaping into the river, the break was well deserved.

Plagued by budget overages as well as quarreling directors and writers, Ben-Hur goes down in history as the most deadly film (American, anyway) for horses. Second unit director B. Reeves Eason, a veteran of westerns and the use of the Running W, shot the chariot race, which claimed the lives of as many as 150 horses (reports vary widely). He reportedly offered a $5,000 cash prize so stunt riders would give their all to the race. The big budget and the big canvas required a stunning racing scene, and despite danger to performing animals, it became the standard by which all others were judged. It took about 15 more years and many more dead horses for some oversight to be established.


Americans weren’t the only ones risking the lives of their equine actors. Sergei Eisenstein, tasked with communicating to a overwhelmingly agrarian popular, often used animals in his films. In Strike, he compared police agents to less agreeable qualities of certain beasts (monkey, fox, etc.), and the final dramatic sequence of his first feature intercuts the brutal repression of the strike with the graphic butchering of a bull. The General Line, about the benefits of Soviet collectivization, was later edited to suit Stalin’s tastes and renamed The Old and the New. His last silent picture, it not only features animals working the farm (some seem quite distressed: the chubby pigs end up dead) but also in service of Eisenstein’s characteristic “intellectual” montage. A sped-up loop of bleating, drooling sheep is intercut with villagers repeating the sign of the cross as they pray for rain.

The most memorable sequence in October, a feature made to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, consists of a beautiful white horse skittering through St. Petersburg’s rebellion-racked streets. A sacrifice in service of Eisenstein’s esoteric symbolism, it is apparently killed offscreen and then reappears as deadweight hanging off the Palace Bridge. Eisenstein described the task of having to kill the steed as only one of many pressing things he needed to do that day. “We only had twenty minutes a day. And in those twenty minutes we had to kill a white horse, as it galloped madly pulling a cab; let drop a golden-haired girl, let the two halves of the bridge open up, let the golden hair stretch across the bottomless abyss, let the dead horse and the cab swing from the raised edge of the bridge, let the cab fall … On screen is takes a lot less than twenty minutes. But to film it takes hours!” With 20 million starving peasants, it was probably hard to get worked up about a few dead animals.

The risks continue, and not just for horses, who also were subjected to the Tilt Chute, shock collars, and pellet guns. Thomas Edison electrocuted an elephant on camera to prove his electrical current was superior to a competitor’s. Percy Smith glued a fly’s wings for 1908’s The Acrobatic Fly. Puppet animation pioneer Ladislas Starewicz used beetles (and other dead animals) to such realistic effect in for The Cameraman’s Revenge, one London newspaper wanted to know how he trained the insects them so well. Lions were beset by wire meshed floors charged with electricity and alligators had their jaws bound with wire. Just being on a movie set can be hazardous. The well-treated Strongheart (silent German Shepherd star who predates Rin Tin Tin) got accidentally burned on a set light and later died from the wound that grew cancerous.


The very power of these images, however, are what fired the movement to create safer ways to film animals. A 1914 propaganda short showing how London dealt with decrepit horse traffic caused public outrage for showing the disposal method: driving a knife through the horse’s heart and letting it bleed out. The London Times wrote, “… these pictures cannot be shown in public, however vividly they prove the need for some improvements of existing conditions.” The still image of the single horse falling off a cliff to its death in the 1939 film Jesse James was used to galvanize support for the American Humane Society’s supervision of animal actors.

A badly performed stunt can certainly take away enjoyment of a film but knowing the animal you are watching is dying for the film is worse. (Warner Bros. didn’t re-release its wildly popular 1936 film The Charge of the Light Brigade, for which the Running W was once again used, killing an estimated 25 horses.) But if you want to be as sure as you can that a horse on screen wasn’t tripped (Yes, they still trip horses), you can tell by the way they fall: on their sides, usually to the left and always with their heads away from the ground. When they are tripped, they make a spectacular somersault, which mostly likely breaks their legs. It might be cinematic but it shouldn’t be entertainment.

— © Shari Kizirian

Originally published in June 2013 on the editorial pages of Fandor’s website.


Demarcation, Dalliance, Destiny

Trains and their metaphors in the movies

Alois Nebel01
Alois Nebel

A seamstress’s daughter hops off a streetcar in Moscow, crossing the railroad tracks toward home. Three gunmen wearing dusters kill time on a railway platform in Flagstone. Under the lounge car of a commuter train, a stranger accidentally knocks shoes with another stranger. Meanwhile, a bleached blonde schemer lies in wait for the 9 o’clock from San Francisco, her husband dead in the back seat. Elsewhere, the Doppler effect on the soundtrack raises chill bumps as an engine roars into a tunnel—ahead a captive might be tied to the tracks, or maybe, a desperate outcast waits for sweet release.

Tracks and switches moving apace under the camera, cramped coach corridors pressing new lovers into a first embrace, steam whistles blowing plaintively in the distance or ear-piercingly close. With only the slightest visual or aural clue, we know if there’s trouble ahead and of what kind. The track stretches before us or behind us. We’re moving on, we’re trapped. Or—time simply passes, something banal or breathtaking on view in the aspect-ratio window. Sometimes a symbol of modernity, nostalgia, or doom, sometimes a crucible for love, fear, or no-good, trains have proliferated in the motion pictures as settings, plot devices, and metaphors since that first locomotive pulled into La Ciotat station.

Go West
A year after John Ford’s epic The Iron Horse about the glories and sacrifices of building the transcontinental railroad topped America’s box-office receipts, Buster Keaton produced this gem about going west as an epic act of humiliation. A committed gearhead, Keaton disassembled and reassembled an entire motion picture camera the night before his first day on the job with Fatty Arbuckle’s production company. His love of cameras (and what they could do) might be matched only by his love of trains, which he often used in his stunts. In The Electric House, dinner’s soup course arrives from the kitchen onboard a model train. Sherlock Jr. features an extended bit with Keaton trying to walk off a moving train and ends with him getting doused under the water tower spout. The General, named for the locomotive that Keaton’s character commandeers during the Civil War, is the de facto costar of the film for which Keaton blew up a train trestle and sent a locomotive careening into the river below. In Go West, Keaton’s train stunts are less showy but no less inventive, or hilarious. Broke and alone (his character’s name is Friendless), he stows away in a freight car full of wooden barrels. When one threatens to roll him out the open cargo door, he seeks safety on a heap of them. He’s jostled about, the heap collapses, and he gets trapped inside one of the barrels, then he’s rolled off the moving train anyway. The train was a staple in westerns and had been at least since the payroll box and cowboy bandits of Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery. More revisionist westerns like Keaton’s were to come, from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon in the West through Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, the railroad playing its questionable part.

Arrivée d’un train en gare, Paris

La roue
A hard-drinking company man, Sisif rescues a young girl from a train wreck that opens the movie and keeps her for his own. She grows up loving the railyard where they live, proudly donning the conductor cap while playing “All Aboard!” His older son, on the other hand, has nothing but disdain for it, fantasizing about an idealized past when a horse was as fast as you could go and time was kept strictly by the sun. A prolific peddler of cinematic metaphors, Abel Gance achieved an astonishing realism by shooting La roue at the massive classification yards in Nice. “Every member of the company is in constant danger from the incessant passage of trains,” someone on the scene said of the shoot. “A watchman keeps constant lookout and rings a heavy bell every time a ‘Hundred Tonner’ bears down.” This danger and tension of the location shoot is palpable on screen as Sisif goes half mad with incestuous thoughts and tries to use his locomotive to commit suicide. An astonishing catalog of film technique, superimpositions (the engineer’s face over the locomotive as it heads straight for us down the track) and virtuoso camera angles (mounted on the wheels of the train), the film stood out for its rapid cutting style that served Gance’s overriding metaphor (roue is French for ‘wheel’). Whether the wheels of the train incessantly roll or a traditional circle dance celebrates the coming of winter, La roue’s characters spin at destiny’s whim. One intertitle quoting Kipling’s Kim drives the point home: “Pity it is that these and such as these could not be freed from the wheel of things.” Adding historical poignancy to the story’s fatalism, Gance’s wife Ida was ill throughout production and despite the director’s willingness to rewrite the film on the spot to accommodate her health (mid-narrative, Sisif is transferred to a funicular in the purer air of the Alps), she died as soon as the film was completed.

Il ferroviere
Alcohol and train conducting often mix to tragic ends in the movies. Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine is based on the same Émile Zola murder mystery involving a homicidal engineer, a jealous station master, and his wife that was the source material for Fritz Lang’s later Human Desire. But Gance seems to have told the whole story of railroad men in one eloquent scene in La roue when the camera tracks round the company store taking in the worn-out faces of the rail workers, just before a drunken brawl breaks out. By the time the neorealists arrived to depict the postwar working class, such fates seem to have changed little. In Pietro Germi’s portrait of one engineer’s family, the modern world is personified by defiant children and changing roles for women; the railroad is what’s old-fashioned. It’s Christmas Eve and the family waits at home for the paterfamilias. However, Marcocci, who had once helped the Partisans overturn a train during World War II, prefers the warm glow of the neighborhood bar. Even the pleas of his adoring young son—strongly reminiscent of the steadfast Bruno from Bicycle Thieves— can’t drown out the tavern’s beckoning accordion song. It’s one of many waylays the young Sandro won’t be able to prevent. The other Marcocci children flout the old ways, as the father struggles to hold onto them. When his alcoholism costs him his job, he crosses a picket line to pay the bills, losing the respect of his comrades. The film’s opening scene presages the changes to come. Shot with a camera on the front of the locomotive, we are hurtling into the station. Suddenly, a switch is thrown, shifting the ground under our feet, now headed in a new direction with no letup in speed.

Alois Nebel02
Alois Nebel

Alois Nebel
After World War II, trains took on a menacing new sheen. With deportations to death camps and gulags, the mechanical became truly monstrous. A lengthy, largely wordless sequence from David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago telegraphs the uncertainty and anxiety of those forced train trips to Siberia. Jirí Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains ends with a young station agent in wartime Czechoslovakia leaping heroically onto the top of a freight car, carrying a small, lethal box. The 2011 animated film Alois Nebel centers on another Czechoslovakian railway agent. He spends years bound to the station, witnessing the nefarious uses of the railroad by both the Nazis and Russians. To soothe his mind, he recites the station stops and times. Now that the Soviet Union has collapsed and the Russians are withdrawing—doing more damage before they do—Nebel can no longer suppress the ghosts of his own past that seem to return with each arrival of a train. In one spectacular scene, Nebel is sitting at his dinner table when a memory is triggered of his mother leaving. Things begin to rattle as the house windows transform into coach windows, and the camera rushes backward until we’re clattering full bore down the railroad tracks. The rich black-and-white palette of the drawings lend a gritty atmosphere while the rotoscoping of the characters produce an overall unease. Nebel’s quietly uttered schedules become a substitute litany for the dead or missing, and his unreliable reality a paradigm for life under a police state.

Wendy and Lucy
The sounds of a moving train cue audiences to mood changes or plot points. In Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder evokes era and mood when the Florida Ltd. pulls out of Chicago to the jazzy rhythms of the Society Syncopaters. Preston Sturges cuts to loud hilarious whistle bursts as Henry Fonda reacts to his bride’s inventory of past lovers on their wedding night in Lady Eve. The lonesome whistling blowing is much more common device and may have passed the point of salvageable cliché. When Jason Schwartzman wishes aloud for the sound of a passing train after a particularly poignant moment among the brothers in The Darjeeling Limited, he gets a resounding chorus of “No’s” instead. The best filmmakers still have found fresh uses for the noises of the railroad. Dr. Zhivago’s second half begins with a dark screen (70 mm’s worth) with only the train on the soundtrack, returning us to the anxiety inside the crowded freight cars. J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry, an exploration of class differences in China, begins in the same way but to different effect: the darkness an opportunity for viewers to unload expectations. In Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt’s screen adaptation of the short story “Train Chorus” is about a down-on-her-luck woman trying to realize the dream of the open road and its promise of a better life. Already low on money, her car breaks down in Oregon and her dog Lucy goes missing. It feels like the end of the line. Like the railroad and its ambiguous promise of elsewheres for the skid row castoffs in Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery or for Apu and his luckless sister in Pather Panchali, Reichardt’s train is barely there, yet still exerts a power. The film opens on the cars collecting in the Portland station. Later, looking for her dog, Wendy lingers a bit on the tracks, watching them as they disappear into the forest around the bend. Diffused whistles of arriving trains or the muffled roll of another departure lightly pepper the soundscape. It’s not alarming, nor promising, just a quiet possibility.

Bitzer train
Cameraman Billy Bitzer

The D Train
While the actualities of early cinema made a spectacle of excursions and their destinations, one enterprising exhibitor married the idea of train travel with moviegoing in 1905, opening Hale’s Tours, ersatz railway carriages outfitted with movie screens to share the view. The silent-era Soviets conceived of trains as mobile film labs and theaters to spread the revolution to the vast hinterlands and, for filmmakers like Dziga Vertov, the train was a steaming gleaming pistons-roaring iron-incarnate of progress. Experimental filmmakers have continued to play with metaphors of the railroad, mining its close relationship to cinema. Jean Mitry’s Pacific 231 is cut to Arthur Honneger’s eponymous orchestral work inspired by the song of the steam engine. Polish filmmaker Marcel Lozinski’s 89mm from Europe is an 11-minute observational masterpiece about converting western European trains to the wider gauge in the Soviet bloc on trips east. Guy Maddin’s Odilon Redon submerges a steam engine into an underwater world awash with surrealist allusions. Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil equates riding the train to moviegoing, both a kind of public dreamstate (or maybe delusion). Jay Rosenblatt’s The D Train is a found-footage Hale’s Tour of one man’s life, spanning the short distance from the playgrounds of carefree childhood to the park bench of old age. Set to the waltzing violins of Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite #2, the kinetic collage circumscribes a lifetime into a series of movements—a crawling baby, a twirling carnival ride, rubbing early morning eyes, crossing an intersection, reaching out to pat someone’s hand—little gestures and great strides that accumulate into a flash-before-your-eyes remembrance you wish had no end.

—  Shari Kizirian © 2015

Originally published in April 2015 on the editorial pages of Fandor’s website.
[An abridged version later appeared on Huffington Post: Trains in Cinema]