Salomé (US, 1922)

Fabulous costume and set design

It’s not often that you get a chance to see a silent film with live accompaniment; Salomé, with Circuit des Yeux, was screened in Leeds and London in the UK. In notes given out at the screening, Haley Fohr (who is Circuit des Yeux) asks that we:

‘re-contextualize [the film] in a new kind of satire… When I see Salomé’s need for John the Baptist I see a woman’s need to be heard, not desired.’

The score certainly did ‘re-contextualize’ as its modernity clashed, dialectically not in opposition, with the images to both heighten the drama and offer a 21st century frame to view the nearly one hundred year old text. However, I didn’t find Fohr’s reading of Salomé convincing and, disastrously, the protagonist was literally silenced because the intertitles were omitted; Fohr explains this is ‘perhaps… a bold choice’. The effect was to break the spell of the film every time the screen went blank where the intertitles would have been! It wasn’t difficult to follow the story but the immersive effect of cinema was entirely lost. Not a ‘bold choice’ but a stupid one.

My experience of the film was therefore fragmentary but it’s certainly an interesting production; apparently the major studios wouldn’t touch it and it wasn’t released until 1924 when it flopped. As one of the first American art films that wasn’t surprising. Salomé is played by Russian emigre Alla Nazimova who was the driving force behind the film, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play. It uses Aubrey Beardsley’s original drawings as the basis for the costumes which were ‘brought to life’ by Natacha Rambova (an American who was married to Valentino for a time). Charles Van Enger’s cinematography looks fabulous in a pretty good print; he worked with Lubitsch at Warners and his career lasted into the 1990s. The ‘dance of the seven veils’ was more of a convulsion and has nothing of the eroticism of Debra Paget in The Indian Tomb (1959). Disconcertingly Louis Dumar, playing someone with whom Herod’s wife flirts, looks like David Cameron, complete with supercilious grin; further evidence, if it were needed, that it was difficult to concentrate on the fragmentary film.

Fohr’s score might best be described as jazz with minimalist episodes. Her terrific vocals have an eastern vibe and, as noted above, add much to the film. If only there had been intertitiles.



Our Hospitality (US, 1923)

A Buster Keaton classic including the maddest train journey (the dog walks there quicker) in cinema and typical deadpan brilliance. (DVD, 2)

Fantômas – À l’ombre de la guillotine (France, 1913)

The Fantomas is regarded as a classic serial. Approaching 100 years old it is only impressive from an historical viewpoint as the pacing, for an action film, is far too slow by our standards. However, it’s easy to see how impressive this would’ve been in the early years of cinema; even now the shot in a theatre box, with the stage in background (deep focus nearly 30 years before Citzen Kane), is striking. So it is a classic and interesting to see how Feuillade constructed his narrative space. (DVD)

Ballet mechanique (France, 1924)

Another surrealist film but this one passes the ‘classic’ test of standing the ‘test of time’ (so classics = transcending (at least for a time) their social context?). The opening five minutes, in particularly, are great. Fabulous below the ballet dancer shot (really does disorientate) and I liked the animation too. Also has a great score by Antheuil. (DVD).

Entr’acte (France, 1924)

A surrealist-dadaist film viewed on an appalling print. Of historical interest only, I think, to see how the mix of technical devices (eg slomo) was used to defamiliarise reality. (DVD).

Sherlock Jr. (US, 1924)

Keaton’s THE silent comedy genius for me and here his mix of slapstick, daredevil stunts and deadpan humour are at their peak. Apparently he fractured his neck doing the train stunt but it wasn’t noticed until 10 years later and the ride on the handlebars of a motorcycle is unbelieveable! (DVD, 3rd v).