Saturday, March 31, 2012

American Landscapes

It took me a while to come around to F. W. Murnau. I've never really liked Nosferatu, which certainly brands me as a heretic in both horror spaces and among film critic types. I didn't much like the second film I saw by the director, either. That was The Haunted Castle, made a few years prior to Nosferatu. I liked Faust quite a bit. It had that grandiosity that only silent mega productions seem to have had and it was chock full of special effects. The young horror punk I used to be really dug all of this, but it didn't illuminate Murnau for me, not in any substantial way. Sunrise, on the other hand, blew me away. I came to Sunrise as an adult. I'm glad that I came to it after I had grown enough as a film-watcher to really "get" it, but even so, watching Sunrise was a surreal experience for me. All the while I was watching it, I was trying to reconcile the fact that this deliriously romantic reinvention of cinema was the work of the same man who made Nosferatu. I think the barrier was the fact that Murnau was a horror director in my then-insufficient understanding of film. I hadn't seen the quantum leaps the director was taking in films like The Last Laugh, because they were outside my tidy little personal taxonomy. In other words: in this as in many other things, the younger me was an idiot.

I've been sitting on Murnau's City Girl (1930) for quite some time. Fox's DVD is part of the epic Murnau/Borzage box set, a set weighted heavily toward Frank Borzage. I'm not going to grouse about this. I love Borzage, and Borzage was working in the same poetic idiom as Murnau, and what are you going to do when you only have two films to choose from for Murnau? He only made three films for Fox and one of them, The Four Devils, is lost. Fox tries gamely to include what they can of The Four Devils. The extras on the DVD for City Girl do a good job of recreating The Four Devils with still frames and what not. They provide just enough to make me hope for a rediscovery someday. The Four Devils was a starring role for Janet Gaynor, but according to the materials on the City Girl disc, she became progressively angry with Murnau and Fox for letting co-star Mary Duncan upstage her. Duncan steps into the starring role in City Girl with Gaynor's usual co-star, Charles Farrell. This is Duncan's only surviving movie that features her as a lead actress, which is a shame. She's good.

In a lot of ways, City Girl is a revision of Sunrise. Less delirious in its images, perhaps, but it has the same mythopoetic view of American landscapes, the same kind of dichotomy between city and country, and the same kind of romanticism. The story here follows Lem, who has been sent to Chicago to sell his family's wheat crop. His father has instructed Lem to get $1.15 a bushel and not a penny less. The market dictates that Lem go home with $1.12, much to his father's disappointment. While in Chicago, however, Lem meets Kate, a waitress at a downtown diner who is weary of city life. The two of them fall in love and get married. Lem brings Kate back to his farm, where his father disapproves of Kate even more than he disapproves of the price Lem got for the wheat crop. When Mac, one of his hired hands, casts a covetous eye at Kate, Lem's father does not intervene. Rather, distrust is sown between Lem and Kate. Meanwhile, the work of the farm goes on. When news comes of an impending hailstorm the farm springs to life to work all night to get the crop in, but Mac uses this as leverage to sever Kate from Lem...

City Girl, like Sunrise, is kind of corny when you look only at its plot. Like many great silent movies, the melodrama is a bit over the top. One look at the leering Mac (Richard Alexander), and you KNOW he's the villain of the piece even if his pencil-thin mustache is too short to actually twirl. He has that kind of face. Lem, for his part, seems too naive, while Kate seems too world-weary and Lem's dad seems too much of an authoritarian monster. This is part of the mythmaking process. City Girl turns these characters into abstractions, into archetypes. And in any case, it's the images that count, whether it's the hubbub of a Chicago diner or the Board of Trade or the wheat field that Lem chases Kate through when they arrive home at the farm. Murnau's follows it all with his roving, "unchained" camera. There's a sense of agriculture as somehow heroic in City Girl. The bold figures placed against spectacular farmland landscapes (the outdoor shots were filmed in Oregon, standing in for Minnesota) look like they've been carved of iron, an effect amplified by the contrast between the tones of the figures and the brightness of the landscape. Some shots in City Girl remind me of the paintings of Jean-François Millet. Others remind me of the propaganda posters from the Soviet Union. The farmers in this movie are bigger than life, and this too serves the melodrama by making the conflicts in the movie seem like the elemental conflicts of demigods. Though it backs off of all this in the night time scenes. In the night scenes, we're in a different kind of landscape, and the film draws from the director's deep roots in expressionism in these scenes. If America's delusions about who we are as a people are shaped by Hollywood--and I submit that they are--how ironic is it that this kind of mythmaking was created by immigrants. It takes an outsider, I guess, to see not just the flaws, but also the virtues of a new land.

If Sunrise was a bold experiment in theory, then City Girl is an assured implementation of practical application. City Girl may not soar to the same kinds of heights, but it also doesn't risk flying to pieces, either. What both films taken together signify is that, contrary to my early impressions of Murnau, he's one of the cinema's greatest directors. City Girl was Murnau's farewell to Fox. He didn't like the meddling he was getting from the Fox executives and he didn't want to make the switch to talking films (though City Girl and The Four Devils both were released as silent/talkie hybrids). And soon afterward, after making one last film, he was dead. What a waste.


Mykal said...

How nice to see silents get their day here. I know what you mean about coming to Sunrise as an adult. Luckily, I had the same experience as you. I wasn't able to get my hands on a version of it until I was an adult, which was surely a sort of movie lover's divine guidance. The story is so pure and good, but for me the film is the sets and camera work. I still shake my head.

I have never been able to watch The last Laugh without profound disappointment. Emil Jannings for me blights everything he is in. Watching Jannings act is like watching a Brontosaurus stuck in a tar pit.

You say you don't like Nosferatu? What in the hell is wrong with you? Are you congenitally insane? Just kidding. While a fan, I think it is overpraised for a few stunning images. I always found it relied waaaay to much on Max Schreck's unreal, rodent creepiness.

Love that part where you call your young self an idiot. Ain't it the truth. I'm currently working on a post about the Andy Griffith Show wherein I discuss my ass-hole youthful self. Hope you tune in.

Laura said...

Interesting post. I haven't seen this one yet. The husband looming menacingly over Janet Gaynor in the boat at the beginning of Sunrise, as she cringes in terror realizing what he's trying to do, is as terrifying in its own right as anything in Nosferatu. The dead-eyed, thundering look on George O'Brien's face is enough to curl the toes.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Mykal.

The younger me was definitely an idiot. No question about it. I'll spare you a recitation of the stupid things I believed when I was younger, though, because they're much too embarrassing.

I love silents, by the way. I probably ought to tag all the reviews I've done of silent movies. There are a handful of them scattered throughout my archive. There will be more, too. My local art house is showing Show People and Chicago next month (as well as a bevy of pre-code talkies). So I'll definitely be writing about those. I probably need to write about some of the key silent horror movies--Nosferatu included--one of these days. I've got a bunch of them on DVD and a bunch more on old VHS tapes. I need to transfer those to disc anyway.

Hi, Laura! I know EXACTLY the scene you're talking about. It makes an impression.