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Tony Grist

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Sunrise [Sep. 27th, 2004|10:12 am]
Tony Grist
If a movie makes the hair stand up on the back of my arms then it's got something going for it.

Normally I wouldn't expect to have the hair standing up on the back of the arms experience more than once in any given movie.

It's not exactly a test of quality. I got that feeling from the climax of Home Alone. It's more a test of emotional connection.

When we were watching Murnau's Sunrise yesterday the hair was standing up on the back of my arms almost continuously. This is unprecedented.

Sunrise is a very simple story. Simplistic even. The Full Title is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. It has some of the quality of folk-song. Real folk-song, I mean, not Peter, Paul and Mary. It deals with primary emotions; Lust, love, hatred, joy, grief, repentance, forgiveness. And all without speech. This is a silent movie.

The acting is wonderful- stylized, but not theatrical- a kind of quiet mime. Emotions are conveyed by facial expression and body language. There are no histrionics. The arm flapping excesses of early silent cinema have been pared away to leave this quintessence of screen acting. This absolute, unflinching emotional truth. Of the two principals, Janet Gaynor was for a year or two Hollywood's biggest box office draw (she retired with the coming of sound) and George O'Brien went on to be a war hero and play bit parts in sound movies (including several of John Ford's.) Here, briefly, these two footnotes to cinema history stand together on its highest peak.

Of course Sunrise is technically brilliant. The special effects are state of the art. The sets were among the biggest ever built. But these aren't what make it such a great film. The greatness is in its truth to nature- its truth to human nature.

Murnau died shortly afterwards. In a car crash. He had made some of the best films of the silent era- Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and this- which French critics once voted the cinema's greatest single masterwork.

I wonder what Murnau's sound films would have been like.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: craftyailz
2004-09-27 03:23 am (UTC)

Another view

Although there are only about half a dozen sets of text you don't miss it. The story is one of the most basic of human stories but so well portrayed, even for me, who isn't really into silent movies, it was gripping. I didn't realise until after it finished that it was in black and white - I was sure I could see the colours.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2004-09-27 03:34 am (UTC)

Re: Another view

In a way it's a pity that sound came when it did. By the late 20s the art of making silent movies had been perfected. It would have been nice if there'd been a few more years for people like Murnau to make masterpieces in before sound came along and everything had to be rethought.
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[User Picture]From: ibid
2004-09-27 04:49 am (UTC)

Re: Another view

I have often thought that myself.

Sound encouraged people to think of the cinema as a kind of realism which of course it isn't.

I would dearly love to make a silent movie.

I am not sure Murnau would have survived as a filmaker in sound, I read somewhere that he felt the ideal film would eradicate captions and let the pure image tell the story.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2004-09-27 05:45 am (UTC)

Re: Another view

Yes, he gets close to it in Sunrise. There are very few captions. And I think the story would be fully comprehensible if they were eliminated altogether.
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From: archyena
2004-09-27 06:36 am (UTC)
Silent films always strike me as getting down to what film is: a series of photographs in rapid succession.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2004-09-27 06:47 am (UTC)
Truth 24 times a second- as Godard said.
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