Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Lonesome (1928)

Now that nuptial bliss has faded into nuptial routine, it's time to watch movies again. And it starts with Paul Fejos' winning 1928 city-symphony romance, Lonesome. A marvel of the late silent period, it depicts New York City as both dehumanizing and filled with wonder, achieved with densely layered superimpositions. The opening parallel editing sequence, which cuts between the two leads, Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon ,preparing to go to work, starts as physical comedy (Kent daintily primps while Tryon, late, flings about with mad energy) and ends as mechanized mayhem, as Fejos layers the images of their day job exertions over an image of a clock, until both protags are deliriously exhausted - but also irrevocably linked visually. Then they both independently decide to head to Coney Island, after being depressed by their lovey-dovey friends. This is where the film truly takes off, with beautiful hand-colored shots of the amusement park, and frames teeming with ticker tape (look at that photo!), carnies, and tentative bits of seduction between the two leads.

The immediate comparison is with F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927), another film that deals with the dehumanizing as well as magical aspects of the industrialized city. I won't put Lonesome on as high a level as that supreme masterpiece, but it deserves to be seen. The main drawback to the film is the insertion of a few sound sequences. The film is a ravishing visual experience that grinds to a halt when the camera gets nailed down and the mics turn on. The rhythm is lost and it takes a while for it to rev up again. The emotional impact, at least for me, was staunched by a sniggering crowd at Film Forum intent upon proving their superiority to a film so unabashedly in love with love. Their loss, which unfortunately distracted me as well. Alas.

The director, Paul Fejos, is a fascinating character, a Hungarian emigre and M.D. who fell into the movie business for a while, and then fell in love with anthropology (he turned to ethnographic filmmaking) becoming the director of Anthropological Resarch at the Wenner-Gren institute.

Oh, and to be honest, the nuptial bliss is still blissful.

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Blogger Spinster Aunt said...

Hm. Consider this comment to be the blog-equivalent of bouncing a rolling pin off your head.
Or maybe a cast-iron pan.

Here's another thing: sometimes laughter can signal relief, or sympathy. It isn't always an expression of superiority.
That being said, I generally agree with you re: modern smugness.

12:43 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Anderson said...

For starters, let me welcome back the ever eloquent Mr. Sweeney. Termite Art works best when it is a duet between the next Roger Ebert and the next Manny Farber. Regular readers of Singer/Sweeney will know who is who.

Second, I really wanted to see "Lonesome," desperately. But with Film Forum's double feature policy and their accompanying refusal to sell tickets on-line for double bills, my future Barbara Kent and I were turned away - who knew the Library of Congress's Paper Prints were such a big draw!

Regardless, Mr. Sweeney's piece does take some of the sting away - see next paragraph - even if his comparison to "Sunrise' may make me want to see it more. If you haven't already done so, get down on your knees Robert and beg your boss to look at distributing the film.

However, I have had more than one screening marred by Film Forum's snickering unwashed. Spinster Aunt, though I don't doubt that "laughter can signal relief, or sympathy," the fact remains that it is only at screenings of a certain sort that this sort of thing happens: when the behaviors, mores and dialogue of the characters are incommensurate with modern-day standards of the above. Likewise, that we only see it in low genres, i.e. comedies, swashbucklers, westerns, et al. - even Film Forum's soup-eaters know better than to laugh at serious films of social significance - seems to indicate that our chortlers are laughing at rather than with the film. It's an unequivocal sign of immaturity. On the other hand, to be able to save one's laughter for those moments that actually demand expression, whether it is "The Immigrant" or "Wedding Crashers," or that all-time Termite Art fave "The Naked Gun" is a sign of respect for those works that are not intended to generate this effect. Bascially, Spinster Aunt, those people who are laughing at the wrong moments at Film Forum, as they seem to do so often, do so because they are inadequately orienting themselves (as a spectator) to the film they are watching; it is a sign of superiority, directed against another era. By comparison, those viewers like our Rob who actually attempt to place themselves in the point of reference of another time and place are showing their humility. Beauty, whether physical or emotional, should make us swoon, not chuckle dismissively.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Spinster Aunt said...

Oh Manderson, I totally agree. Darn the modern smugness and darn the stinky ironists. Long live Lonesome. I only defend laughter here because I don't think everyone who laughed at this screening was doing so from a position of ironic distance/superiority. It sounded/felt like more of an "Oh NO" kind of laugh (like, "I can't believe it! Aahhhh!!!") and I think it may even have been intended to be rather funny. There's a lot of gentle humor throughout the film and I don't think it undermines the beauty of the moment, in this case, at all.

Can't you laugh and swoon at the same time? Can't you just laugh out of joy? The ending of Lonesome elicited joy in this viewer anyway (but I can't remember if I laughed or not).

That being said, yeah, I hear you.

Moving along, I have it on good authority that Universal owns the rights to the film and won't let anybody else have it, no matter how worthy that company, or its employees, may be.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Dermot said...

Saw this film many years ago('90s) at the walter reade theatre and I must say that it has stayed w/me...found a copy of the film on VHS through Facets, but quality is only so-so...I'm waiting for the day it will be available on DVD!

9:32 AM  

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