Thursday, February 5, 2009

Shadows' Tears

The above, from Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven.

Expressionism has had a deep-rooted (and noted) influence on Hollywood. This should come as no surprise--- throughout the history of humanity, we have traded our knowledge and our progress has been collective, so it's natural that this would manifest itself in our art. As Hollywood taught the rest of the world how to tell stories in pictures, so did the rest of the world teach us how to properly consolidate technique. So naturally the richest films have been the visually inventive films that use film techniques from around the world to tell their story, merging seemingly wild different sensibilities into a tangible, collective whole.

Expressionism's influence on certain genres in obvious--- where would Universal Horror Films or Film Noir be without the undeniable influence of the expressionist movement? Much like German Expressionism films, Universal horror pictures and Film Noir use distorted sets and shadows to express character's subjective frame of mind--- dreams, nightmares, and the macabre all rolled into a bizarre, beautiful whole.

But, lately, a less discussed period of Hollywood film making has been thrust to the center of the film culture. The Murnau, Borzage, & Fox set was, for me, an introduction to a style of film-making that I had been previously unaware of: the expressionistic melodrama. As with all things related to film history, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The decision on the part of William Fox to bring Murnau under his wing is indicative of the kind of artistic direction he wanted to take his studio in. He recognized artistry when he saw it--- and he knew that expressionism was a unique way of telling stories visually. His films from the late 20s with F.W. Murnau, Frank Borzage, and John Ford can be seen as his attempt at merging populism and artistry, elevating the cinema to a collective process of catharsis.

This all leads to my somewhat unexpected double feature, courtesy of Netflix. As the service is sometimes inclined to, it mixed up the order in my queue, sending me Borzage's Seventh Heaven and Ford's Four Sons. I'd planned on doing a Borzage double feature, but Netflix had foiled my plans once again.

But it turns out these films had more in common than I had imagined. They are both meoldramas that use World War I as their backdrop (indeed, both films seem to depict World War I as something that happened to the characters) , and they both have influences rooted in expressionsim (made all the more fitting by the fact that Ford's film is set in Germany before, during, and after World War I). Again, these films use this technique to underline an entirely different set of emotions and ideas--- there is a sentimentality that permeates these films that one normally doesn't find in films from the Expressionism era. One particularly chilling sequence in Ford's Four Sons uses this nightmarish technique to express the horrors of war in a way that is deeply psychologically affecting.

Ford establishes this nightmarish landscape in stunning wide shot and then brings us disconcertingly close to it with a claustrophobic series of close ups. In a sequence that brings to mind Dreyer, Ford uses the faces of the soldiers to express the psychological degradation a trained killer goes through, what some would call the spoils of war. They have a moment that is both profoundly sensitive and revelatory, where they humanize the so-called enemy and realize that it's an actual, breathing human being in the opposite trench.

This is a simple, eloquent anti-war sentiment that most of today's so-called counter cultural films can't express with all their partisan pandering. Films like Jarhead or Charlie Wilson's War by-pass emotion emotion and intellectually placate (and are visually bland worst of all). The essence of art is to express profound emotions simply, and Ford's film found the proper visual chords to paint a portrait of what war does to a people. Not just the loss of blood and treasure, but the profound bitterness and loss it creates, especially on the front which the war is waged. If more people had been listening to this and other cries for empathy, perhaps a second, arguably more catastrophic World War could have been prevented.

Similarly Borzage's highly regarded Seventh Heaven take a microcosmic view of the effects of war, though Borzage's film is more unabashedly sentimental than Ford's film. I for one have never understood why sentimentality is frowned upon in films--- as it is with any dramatic construct, it can be good or bad depending on the practitioner. Like Steven Spielberg, for whom Borzage was most certainly an influence, Borzage uses sentimentality to express deeper, more profound yearnings. It's not a cloying, manipulative device but rather a transcendent one in his divine hands.

Borzage paints a portrait of pre-war France that is reminiscent of a fairy tale. He contrasts it with the harsh realities of a country ravaged by the destruction of war. At the end of the film, the main character is robbed of his ability to see (but not feel), as countries are blinded by nationalism, xenophobia, and petty politics. Seventh Heaven and Four Sons may represent differences in physical perspective with respect to World War I (Four Sons is set in Germany and Seventh Heaven in France), but they represent a similar emotional perspective; and they use a similar visual technique to express a humanism that transcends country, race, and ideology. These films vividly illustrate the horror of what human beings do to one another and suggest that the power of family, love, and empathy are greater forces that war can cripple but never destroy.

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