Some movies bend the rules or try to break them. This movie stretches them, squeezes them, then shapes them until it has formed its own set of narrative and visual rules. It is a film that could only be made in France, and even then, only by Michel Gondry. Of course it has cinematic antecedents of its own, almost all Gallic in origin as well; it feels at times that we are watching a three-way collaboration between the great talents of Jean Cocteau, Rene Clair and Jacques Tati. All the same, it belongs to that unique cinematic niche Gondry occupies, one that fellow countryman Jean-Paul Jeunet, frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman and fellow acclaimed music video director and Kaufman cohort Spike Jonze inhabit as well, a distinctively modern cinema of the surreal. But Gondry bests all of them in his ability to take advantage of the full range of imaginative opportunities offered by contemporary cinema. He reminds me of the great Czech animator and director Karel Zeman in his ability and readiness to make use of as many available special effects techniques as possible, and to use them as imaginatively and creatively as he can. And Zeman himself was profoundly influenced by the pioneering work of George Melies, so once again, we return to France.
Simply calling Mood Indigo a fantasy film is insufficient; whereas Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was seriocomic science fiction romance with fantasy trappings, Mood Indigo is a seriocomic romantic fantasy with science fiction trappings. Gondry’s film intersects genres and synthesizes them to the needs of its themes and storyline, creating a world of its own in the process. It exists in a universe with its own laws that seems to occupy the present day and obviously has a connection with the known historical past, but much of the imagery seems borrowed from the artwork of European science fiction magazines and comic books. Tiny robotic doorbells scurry across floors, the police ride giant tank-like vehicles that resemble Imperial Snow Walkers designed by Robida, and lovers ride over the clouds in a Jetsons-like sky car manipulated by a crane. A TV chef personally crawls out of the screen to offer cooking lessons and the finished meals seem to be alive, the legs of dancers elongate like those of Reed Richards and they all float in the air in a crowded ballroom, and a mouse (actually an actor in a costume that seems to have been left over from a children’s TV show) that lives in a tiny simulacrum of the protagonist’s own home behaves like a silent Greek chorus. These are but a few of the wonders that we witness in just the first half hour; the entire film is full of visual invention in every corner of each frame, and the effort put in by Gondry and his crew completely pays off. There is a tendency among modern viewers to grouse about the so-called lack of “realism” in special effects but what they really mean is that think that they should fulfill their expectations of what they consider to be realistic. Our expectations of realism are turned upside-down in Mood Indigo because we never know what to expect; it’s a universe where seemingly anything goes and there’s a new surprise in every scene.
There is a plot, and I suppose I should discuss it as well. It is less in danger of being overwhelmed by the special effects than being overwhelmed by the sheer charisma of the exceptional cast Gondry has assembled. Romain Duris is Colin, a member of the discreetly charming bourgeoisie, living off a hefty inheritance in a spacious apartment that seems to have been rented from above Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. His best friend is the intellectual Chick (Gad Elmaleh), a disciple of pop philosopher Jean-Sol Partre, although his closest confidante is Nicholas (the marvelous Omar Sy, fresh off his triumphant turn in Les Intouchables), his lawyer and live-in chef. Colin spends his idle hours tinkering, his latest invention being a cross between a piano and an automated bartender that mixes drinks according to the notes you play. Colin’s life seems to be perfect, but he finally realizes something is missing in it when Chick announces he is engaged to the lovely Alise (Aissa Maiga); he also needs love in his life as well. He finds it when Nicholas introduces him to the equally lovely Chloe (Audrey Tautou, as beguiling as she was in Amelie, but this time more mature and a touch more sophisticated). They are soon married, but on their honeymoon, the petal of a water lily wafts through an open window. Chloe inhales it, and soon, the flower starts to grow within her lung, imperiling her. Colin is forced to actually go to work for the first time in his life as her health care costs escalate, and he takes a variety of very odd jobs. And as Chloe’s health breaks down, so do the relationships between the various characters.
Many in the audience where I first saw the film (at the Windsor International Film Festival) were disappointed with the way the film changed direction from the bright, giddy opening act to a more serious, but no less visually audacious middle before reaching a somber conclusion. It did not proceed in the direction that they thought it should, and I assume they would have wished that if, it had at least not retained the cheery ambiance of the first half hour, to have at least tried to revive it towards the end. I’m reminded of the classic Black Orpheus (which despite being made on location in Brazil and having all its dialogue spoken in Portuguese, was made by a French director and production company), which opens with the dazzling and colorful images of the Carnival in Rio, and ends in tragedy for all amidst the squalor and desolation of the “real” city. But there is reason to Gondry’s rhythm. If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was about our memories of love, Mood Indigo is about our actual experience of it, and Gondry is not using cinematic tricks and special effects simply as an excuse to show off, but to visualize the actual feelings and emotional states of his characters as they proceed through the entire arc of their relationships. It makes sense that the movie opens in vibrant color, only to have it fade gradually as the running time elapses, much as love itself, no matter how intense or genuine, abates over time. Mood Indigo may take place in a surreal world of fantastic imagery, but it deals with genuine emotions and situations that are part of most people’s real-world lives to begin with. It is a movie about genuine love and commitment, both romantic and platonic, the prices we pay and the risks we take for it, and tragedy, pain and loss are all very much a part of the entire experience. Under these circumstances, I cannot blame my fellow audience members for not liking the outcome of the film; how often do our own romances and relationships manage to completely meet our expectations as well?
As I said earlier, this is a movie that could only be made in France, and beyond what it has to say about human emotions, it has also something profound to say about French society. Even amidst all the special effects and set decorations imposed on it, the real Paris is always visible and right beneath it, and the film aims to strip social illusions about real life in the city and nation even as it generates visual ones. The true turning point of the film is not when the water lily enters Chloe’s lungs but at the wedding ceremony, when the minister (a hilarious turn by Vincent Rottiers) pompously and solemnly declares at the end of the vows “let us hope they live a life free of work and ill health” (or words to that effect). It is at that point we learn that the real world and its concerns are a part of this universe as well, and the characters will have to deal with them. It is difficult for me, as an outsider, to say exactly what political and social messages the film might be trying to convey, although I’ll do my best at interpreting them. It is tempting for me to say that it is criticizing a French society that has become so dependent on a social safety net that its members are at a loss when they need to find work, but it is more likely that it is critical of a mixed-model health care system that fails to intervene for its most vulnerable citizens, and that there can be no freedom in wealth without security. The depiction of the relationship between the three male leads also has social relevance. Although Colin regards Chick as his best friend, he should really regard the loyal and dutiful Nicholas as being such, especially as the movie progresses and Chick starts to become so obsessed with his favorite philosopher that he forgets he even has friends to begin with. Nicholas, meanwhile, never wavers in his concerns for his friends even when he becomes helpless in aiding them, literally aging years in one day from all his efforts. While some of the movie’s social commentary is open to debate, it is indisputable that the film is critical of the lack of gratitude the upper and middle classes have towards working people and public servants. Considering their efforts on their behalf, the very least they deserve is their friendship.
I have not read the original novel by Boris Vian upon which the film is based, so I cannot say if any social commentary in it has been carried over, but Gondry has made the bold move of allowing the language of the novel to mold cinematic reality. It is an approach to cinema that very much recalls how French philosophes have approached the subject of language and social reality, and appropriately, both the French intelligentsia and the peculiar celebrity culture surrounding them also comes under critical examination. Although clearly the name “Jean-Sol Partre” is supposed to invoke Jean-Paul Sartre, as portrayed by Phillipe Torrenton, he more closely resembles a cyborg version of Michel Foucault, and his “philosophy” is little more than crackpot gibberish that nonetheless has a very hypnotic draw on his audiences, making him come off as a cross between Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Žižek. As Richard Weaver reminded us, ideas have consequences, even if they make no sense, and the consequences result in tragedy not just for the philosopher’s adherents but the philosopher himself.
Mood Indigo was my third-favorite film among those I saw at the Windsor International Film Festival (after Gabrielle and The Great Beauty), and hopefully, it will soon get the wide North American release it deserves. It will also hopefully be more representative of what Gondry has in store for us in the future than The Green Hornet, which will instead be remembered as a mere aberration in his career, his own personal 1941 or Land of the Pharaohs. With Mood Indigo, Gondry definitively establishes himself as one of our best and most imaginative directors, someone who combines style and substance to create a cinema that is distinctly his own.
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After seeing the Europa Report (I thought it was a fantastic film), I believe we are seeing the future on two fronts.
The SciFi Front:
This film was an indie project. It was well written and acted. The special affects was neat and showed how hard space travel can be. It show one thing and it showed that good SciFi can be good without warp speed, aliens and shooting people up.
Traditional SciFi can be boring. How much shoot em up types can you show? How many actors with plastic foreheads can people tolerate?
What the Europa shows that with a good story, a show or movie like The Europa Report can succeed.
The Space Exploration Front:
On the space exploration front, I believe that deep space exploration will not be done by Governments, but by private industry. With budgets bursting around the world, space exploration will not be a priority. Private industry will take up the slack. It will happen when they do it themselves or by forming partnerships with different companies or with various Governments.
Will it be good or bad who knows.
Being immortal (and bored) the gods of the Celts often held contests among themselves and made wagers. Being the Celtic pantheon they were always hungry, and so the gods decided that one food must be chosen to represent their greatness. A wager was struck, and the gods agreed that Man would decide. Celtic tribes from all over Europe were gathered together to vote for which food would be the fit for the gods.
Each god spoke in turn to the people…
Lugh, the great thundering voice from the sky, declared, “The Bull of Heaven provides the heroes portion and STEAK is the food of the gods. because the cow can turn simple grass and straw into a meal fit for a king.”
Danu, goddess of Earth and Sea, laughed from her place among the waves. She declared, “SALMON is the food of the gods, because it always returned to feed the people each year. sacrificing itself for the good of all mankind.”
Morrigan, the goddess of death, sent a raven and it spoke to the people. “No my friends, the lowly CHICKEN is the food of the gods, for it gives not only meat for the table, but eggs, and when you are ever in doubt about what something tastes like it always tastes like chicken.”
Math, being the god of trickery and magic, knew that his voice would not be heard above all the great thunder from the sky, or the crashing of waves, or even the caw of the raven. So Math said not a word. He waited until the tribes had argued about which god or goddess had said the wisest words, and then he announced that, since he had not chosen a food for consideration, he would instead cook a meal of each dish and allow the people to taste the choice of each god in turn, so they may know which is truly the food of the gods.
So Math cooked hundreds of steaks, prepared piles of salmon, and thousands of chickens were baked, fried, and BBQ-ed for the people assembled. Each dish was perfect and the people could hardly contain themselves for the smell was maddening.
Math then said….”People of the Celts I have cooked only enough food for you to take one bite of each of the three dishes. You then must decide which of these is to be the food of the gods.”
The people came and waited in line, taking only one bite from each type of food…steak, salmon, and chicken. The arguments rose and fell. An entire day went by but no one food was judged the best of them all.
Math heated up the grill once again, because the people wanted another taste, but this time Math secretly laid one strip of BACON on each piece of Steak, Salmon, and Chicken. Again the people lined up and took one bite each of the three foods.
A cry went up. Something was wrong. The food had been perfect the first time. It had been the greatest mouthful of food that anyone had ever eaten… but this! This time the food was even better: Perfection had turned to heavenly delight…
Math stood before the people in his apron triumphantly as the people shouted, “BACON is the food of the gods, for only the pig can turn shit into sugar, and a perfect meal into something divine.”
The pig has since been the most holy animal of the Celtic people.
If you’ve been around the Internet long enough, you quickly learn that every genre and era of the cinema has its fans, and if you’re curious enough to read up on them, you learn to appreciate just why they have gained their adherents. For those curious about fantastic cinema of the silent era, an indispensable new book, American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929, provides what is not just to date the most comprehensive collection of original reviews of American films of this particular genre and time period, but a fascinating journey into the film-making and -watching culture of a century ago. Four authors, John T. Soister, Henry Nicolella, Steve Joyce and Harry H. Long, along with researcher and archivist Bill Chase, undertook this massive project, and they were recently rewarded for their efforts with an Honorable Mention from the Rondo Awards, chosen by the on-line community of classic horror fans worldwide. We spoke with co-author Steve Joyce about the book and science fiction films of the silent era in general.
1. Thanks granting us this interview, Steve! In the preface to the book, you and your fellow authors discuss your own personal relationships with fantastic films of the silent era, and how you grew interested in them. While science fiction and horror films of every decade of the sound era enjoy fan followings of their own, they all consist largely of people who grew up with them either during the time they were first released to theaters, or distributed to television. How did your own fascination with the genre films of the silent era develop, and do you find that most other fans come upon their interest in a similar way?
Thank you, Andrew. I’m flattered and honored that you approached me to do this. It was a pleasure working with John, Henry, Harry and Bill who all brought their own unique perspectives and backgrounds to the table.
I watched my fair share of 50s sci fi growing up but not a whole lot more than the average kid. So, no, I’d have to say that my interests didn’t quite develop like many of my fellow Baby Boomers. While most of today’s long-time diehards seem to have had their awareness in vintage genre movies aroused by Forest J. Ackerman and the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, I was blithely passing Famous Monsters by on my merry way over to the comic book rack.
My fondness for comics gradually gave way to the adventures of Tom Swift, Jr., then “juvenile” s. f. novels and finally to the more “serious” stuff by Heinlein, Wells, Ellison, Dick, Silverberg, Bester, Brunner and others. As I think about it, I suppose exploring “what came before” always tickled my fancy. When I found out about Tom Swift, Senior and all of those Golden Age superheroes, well, both events were just about the coolest thing back then. Really only once vhs – and its associated instant availability – came into vogue did I finally shift genre gears media-wise. That was kicked off by a viewing of Metropolis back in the 80s.
By the way, I find one thing kind of amazing. Even though about 80% of all silents are lost – the viewer of today probably can see as much or more in practical terms than the actual theatergoers of last century’s first few decades ever managed. Showings came into town and left. That was it; there was almost always no second chance. Somehow, over the last 25 odd years, I’ve managed to amass at least some digital footage from close to 150 silent films that could be arguably classified science fiction and all viewable on a whim. You might say that we’re living in the second golden age of silent film.
2. When I interviewed our mutual friend David Sindelar, we discussed how the advent of both the Internet and DVD had changed both viewing habits and access to movies. Today, movies that were once just footnotes in the Don Willis, Walt Lee or Phil Hardy books can be easily accessed on YouTube, and companies such as Kino have put out DVDs of silent classics, as fully restored as they will ever be, at their normal speed and in close to pristine condition. How else have advances in technology improved the silent film viewing experience?
Indeed! Dave and I often swapped tapes way back when. We both still might have video boxes that by rights should’ve long ago qualified for frequent flyer miles! These days we’d more than likely exchange via Rapidshare. So, cyber-networking with like-minded aficionados is a great way to track down the more obscure titles. Plus, via software downloaded to their home p.c., more and more enterprising enthusiasts are willing and able to add title card translations and/or music to their movie computer files. Both are, needless to say, important aspects when it comes to silents.
To take the conversation slightly off point, the internet also provides some incredible tools to recreate a lost film’s “experience”… if not literally, in the mind’s eye. AbeBooks, Alibris and other online used book suppliers yield some nice (and often pleasantly inexpensive) source novels, plays and the like. Every day, new vintage newspapers and film trade journals go online and with them an abundance of plot summaries, reviews, cast listings, etc. Rare stills and lobby cards can be had with a few Ebay clicks (and only with sufficient bankroll, unfortunately). A visit to the Library of Congress website begins the fairly easy process of obtaining copyright records. The list goes on and on.
3. Although you and your co-authors focus specifically on American fantastic film of the silent era, much of the great and innovative work was done in Europe. How did American films differ from their European cousins and conversely, how did they influence each other?
Let’s start off with one caveat. Russian films essentially need to be put off to the side insofar as one major distinction; they generally came with heavy-handed Soviet messages placed into just about everything.
Beyond that, both American and European features were culturally significant in their own way. We can only talk in generalizations, but with that stipulated, American genre films struck the more mainstream pop culture chord in their methods be it in plot, dialogue or whatever. They even dabbled in the schlock of 3D and offered name-that-film contests. On the other hand, the Europeans leaned toward achieving, for lack of better phraseology, a higher art form or “culture” with a capital “C”, if you will. To defend the American approach a bit, it might be considered more genuinely representative of everyday life and the typical person walking down the street.
Pictures from the States tended to aim for the spectacular while the Europeans usually looked wherever they could for subtlety and finesse. Even Metropolis – visual spectacle that it was – gave us the delicate scenes where Maria roams the catacombs’ shadows and the well-framed and executed Moloch Machine sequence. In the book’s entry on Cecile B. DeMille’s The Road to Yesterday – a time travel fantasy akin to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – we briefly touched on one particularly key scene and compared it to a similar one in Germany’s Hands of Orlac. DeMille’s goal was to induce awe by replicating a believably looking train wreck. In contrast, Robert Weine leveraged the skill of his crew to present Orlac’s accident as an eerily lit montage via the locomotive’s front headlight.
Film was a more international animal back then by its very nature. It was a simple matter to translate a few title cards, splice them in anew and send prints all over the world. I get a big perverse kick out of one anecdote concerning The Battle Cry of Peace which we also cover. It’s a pre-WWI alternate history picture preaching preparedness against a Ruritanian (read German) invasion. Long story short, the Germans got hold of a print and changed it into their own propaganda piece!
Naturally, a migration of talent took place between both continents and, thus, there was cross-pollination; but, the mute nature of cinema years ago made it especially easy for actors to move back and forth. Two genre luminaries that come immediately to mind are Conrad Veidt and Paul Wegener; and, if I can take a moment here, I’d like to announce an upcoming book covering Wegener’s fantastika by my friends and colleagues, John Soister and Henry Nicolella. They’ve let me preview the manuscript and it’s awesome.
4. Science fiction film, as a genre, existed well before it was named or defined as such. In fact, the coining of the term by Hugo Gernsback coincides with the beginning of the sound era in film. How did the early precursors of science fiction literature influence the development of its cinematic counterpart and conversely, did the cinema have any affect on development of the written genre?
Believe it or not, by sheer coincidence, I recently stumbled across a passage by one William Wilson defining “Science-Fiction” back in 1851! There’s always something that “came before”! But yes, Gernsback popularized the term and this is an excellent question.
Basically, there’s always been a strong interaction between science fiction literature and film. Let’s start right from the get go with George Melies’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon. Clearly, Melies lifted the space gun from Verne and the Selenites from Wells. He even went farther than that. In select exhibitions of his short film, a narrative crafted by Melies would be read out loud. In that narrative, Melies gave his astronauts such names as “Alcofrisbas” (in tribute to Alcofrisbas Nasier a.k.a. Francois Rabelais, a 16th century fantasy writer), “Micromegas” (after a space-travelling character of Voltaire’s), “Omega” (likely in homage to any number of 19th century last man on earth novels), etc. The Father of Science Fiction Film definitely was well versed in the genesis of his genre…even if he didn’t exactly know it by name!
Of course, A Trip to the Moon was fraught with light-hearted trick effects and most of the sci fi shorts of the remainder of the decade played merely for amusement and comedy as well. Films like L’Homme Invisible (1909) and Melies’ own 200,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1907) scarcely followed the plots of their sources. Maybe the first s.f. films to seriously zero in on their written brethren were the trio of films by the Brit, Walter Booth: Aerial Torpedo (1908), Aerial Submarine (1910) and Aerial Anarchists (1911). All three channeled the ideas put forth in Fawcett’s Hartmann the Anarchist, Verne’s Master of the World and Wells’ War in the Air. Oh, an aerial torpedo is better known these days as a guided missile by the way.
Once the teens rolled around, quite a number of heavy hitting s.f. stories began getting (more or less) faithful treatment…several more than once. To name just some there’s First Men in the Moon, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916 style) and Mysterious Island, Frankenstein, Connecticut Yankee, The Lost World, Renard’s The Hands of Orlac and Gaston (“Phantom of the Opera”) Leroux’s Balaoo. Maybe the king of them all is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In my opinion, I don’t think anyone will ever completely determine how many silent adaptations of that particular title were made; but, including burlesques, the count is somewhere around 20 with a whopping 6 in 1920 alone. Even some really putrid potboilers made it to the moving picture screen. Fair warning: don’t ever try to read The Diamond From the Sky!
I’d say the flow in the other direction was not nearly as pronounced….or maybe it’s just plain harder to determine. Sure, there were occasional movie tie-in fictionalizations in Moving Picture Stories Magazine and other publications … and I don’t know how to classify some of Thea Von Harbou’s output … but, speaking in broad terms, there were more quality films made from quality literature than visa versa. That’s pretty much still the case today. What did typically happen is that both forms – again like today – concurrently (give or take) picked up on the scientific trends and speculation of the time. This led to examination of such themes as evolution, death rays (o.k., they were hoaxes but the hoaxes were real), the “monkey gland” and Steinach methods of rejuvenation (a lot of people got taken in there too), futuristic warfare, artificial diamond manufacturing (believe it or not, once a biggie), the problems and solutions concerning trans-oceanic travel, outer space journeys, visitors from other planets, television, radio and wireless based just about anything you could imagine, mechanical men before the term “robot” was even invented, and so on and so on.
5. Much has been written about how social concerns and anxieties of the 1950s and 1970s heavily weighed upon the science fiction films of those eras. Did the social and political climate of the 1910s and 1920s exert a similar effect upon the science fiction films of that era, or did the films mostly shy away from overt or even implicit social commentary in favor of escapism?
Well, there was more censorship back then implying some film-makers were trying to push the envelope. Often viewers in one state would see slightly less footage than in a neighboring one due to some local official’s ready scissors. It was easy enough to cut out offending frames without worrying about dialogue on a soundtrack and those offences many times depended merely upon the individual sensibilities of a select few. I’ve seen a copy of the New York censorship records of the silent version of the British import, High Treason and the handling of its pacifistic viewpoint was considered almost obscene, as I remember.
When you mention the 1950s, I think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers capturing the air of paranoia of the day. Similarly, there was a cycle of rejuvenation films in the 20s that very much captured the hoped-for youthful exuberance of those roaring days. Clara Bow, the It Girl herself, played a flapper in one of them. Likewise, after the Great War, the fantasy of reincarnation definitely tapped into the mass sadness caused by the loss of loved ones.
Speaking of the war, before the U.S. ever entered it, there was a rash of alternate history preparedness / cautionary tales; we already discussed Battle Cry of Peace but there were others too. On the flip side, Thomas Ince’s Civilization was a pacifist statement hoping to avoid further bloodshed. Things were polarized, to say the least.
Even going back to the one and two reelers, women’s suffrage was another topic sometimes addressed; these attempts usually involved one variation or the other of a female controlled world and were handled with satirical humor…. I don’t imagine many of the lady folk were too happy with that. The Last Man on Earth is a feature that we covered with that very theme and tone.
Darwinism pushed even more buttons back then than it does now. I recall researching a silly little 1919 exploitation of the subject called A Scream in the Night. One reviewer really got himself into quite the uproar over it.
6. Despite much notable and innovative work, there wouldn’t really be a science fiction boom until the 1950s, and although the genre and its idioms were a frequent subject for the film serials (more often than not, adapted from comics), there wasn’t much in the way of science fiction features being produced in America during the 1930s and 1940s. What accounts for this drop-off, right when the genre was starting to take off in the pulps?
Tough one, actually. I don’t think that the 40s yielded anything that should legitimately be placed on anyone’s top 100 list after you, maybe, get past Dr. Cyclops (1940). The whole decade seemed to have a lot less creativity and most of it can be discounted easily enough because of the impact and aftermath of WW II.
When it comes to the 30s, things get more dicey. Let’s look at economics first. The pulps were – by their very definition – just about the cheapest form of entertainment to produce; so, in theory, that would account for part of the difference. Yet paradoxically, during the Great Depression when money was tightest, people flocked to the theaters to forget their troubles. So – pretty much – there goes that idea.
The 30s also brought in the talkies and, with it, growing pains. I think it’s fair to speculate that had some impact. If you look at foreign product, the studios initially fought through the new-found language barrier by producing multilingual science fiction releases such as Der/Le (and Transatlantic) Tunnel, Gold/L’or, three different language versions of Brigette Helm in Atlantis and 3 others adapting Curt Siodmak’s FP-1. For some reason, American studios passed on that strategy. Perhaps the inability to find polyglot actors held them back. Or perhaps they felt – at least, in the beginning – that sound technology was lacking and hiding microphones in the proverbial “potted plants” didn’t quite jibe with the special effects required.
Then too, every genre suffers from ups and downs and horror films were then on the rise. Many of the film titles that roll off the tongue from that era were more a Science Fiction / Horror combo than anything: Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, The Invisible Man, King Kong. I’d have to dig down deep and come up with a couple of little-known gems, Men Must Fight and Deluge, as the best pure representatives of 30s American science fiction on film. And…let’s just forget about Just Imagine, shall we?
7. Actually, I kind of liked Just Imagine. Read into that what you will! 🙂 Finally, although our readers may be familiar with such films as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or George Melies Une Voyage Dans La Lune, what are some of the other silent science fiction films you think are especially worthy of rediscovery and you’d recommend to someone just starting to venture into this wonderful cinematic world?
Andrew, you just opened up Pandora’s Box! My compulsions force me to give a long-winded three-tiered response since I’m keeping my fingers crossed that once enticed, many will want to delve further. Here goes…
(1) Films available on easily obtainable quality DVDs:
– you couldn’t go wrong with any of Fritz Lang’s silent fantastic films but for pure Science Fiction there’s Woman in the Moon. Insist on getting the complete version.
– It’s also hard to go wrong with checking out more by Melies. Voyage a Travers l’Impossible, and Conquête du pôle are in the tradition of Le Voyage dans la lune. La Photographie Electique a Distance is a personal favorite. They might be a good start.
– Conrad Veidt in Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac)
– Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
– Rene Clair’s Paris Qui Dort
– Le joueur d’échecs a.k.a. The Chess Player is marginal s.f. but such a delightful film on many levels.
– Himmelskibet (1916) is an interesting early look at space travel as well as being quite the message movie. You can only get it from the Danish Film Institute in European DVD format. They do ship to the States and it does have English subs. It comes packaged with another Danish s.f. silent called Verdens undergang (a.k.a. The End of the World).
– Aelita, Queen of Mars: more foreign space travel…this time from Russia and with a propaganda flavor as well as a bevy of Martian robots.
– I’ve always found Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea just a little bit ponderous but others might disagree. The underwater cinematography is groundbreaking.
– Last but not least, one of the all-but-complete restorations of The Lost World is absolutely essential.
Go for either the David Shepard Image DVD or the George Eastman House version that comes as an added bonus to the Irwin Allen take on the story.
That should provide a solid sampling. Shorts are – except for Melies – excluded since they’re generally sprinkled on compilations and it would be expensive to pursue them that way. In any event, a lot of them pop-up online.
(2) Worthwhile films available in lesser quality via grey-market DVD vendors, thru the trade grapevine or online:
L’uomo Meccanica (a.k.a. The Mechanical Man) and Saturnino Farandola, although now extant in fragments only, are totally zany fun. Abel Gance’s complete La Fin du Monde is a visual masterpiece and deserving of the effort to locate it…but, unlike the vastly inferior Americanized truncation is not really silent. If you ask me, Algol and L’Inhumaine are very under-appreciated and also worth the effort. Mysterious Island has mysteriously never officially been released in video form but it’s out there too. We’ve already mentioned High Treason…
As for the shorts, two come to mind for historical significance: The X-Ray Fiend from 1897 might just be the true first cinematic science fiction and Aerial Torpedo as we already talked about (look for this second one under its various names). Edison’s Frankenstein has some nice touches. Or how about Gance again and La Folie du Docteur Tube? Anything from Segundo de Chomón’s s.f. oeuvre would round things out.
(3)Films that should be available!
There are still reels and reels of film sitting in archives that have yet to see the light of day. The complete Exploits of Elaine, a serial starring the famed Pearl White and featuring ominously destructive infra-red rays, a gizmo to revive the dead, a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like villain and full of pseudo-scientific gadgetry, is all a vintage sci fi geek could ask for…and yet it still eludes the masses! And …that’s despite the film’s status on the National Film Registry. “Elaine” is just one example. Perhaps readers of these words will one day join us in clamoring for it and other films like it to be released from captivity.
Anyway, now’s the time to stumble back down off of the soap box and thank you again for your interest. Stay well, Andrew…