Friday, February 10, 2006

the other first best picture

i first saw sunrise [1927] in my 'intro to film' class five years ago. it was one the weekly movies we had to watch, and i was pretty sure they had decided to show us a bad old movie to see how we would review it; after all, they had shown us groundhog day a week or two before, so it wasn't like this class had critically high standards.

how dumb i was in thinking so of both movies.

byu really is one of the best places in the world to see movies, and i state that without hyperbole or ignorance. first and foremost, the international cinema shows two to three movies a week [usually prints] that you will have difficulty finding in most video stores. there are few venues like this in the world that would have such a diverse and continual array of great works. second, the library's 'special collections' shows a classic movie every few weeks, always a print [16mm, but better than video]. these have included gone with the wind, king kong [which i sadly missed], rio bravo, casablanca, laurel and hardy shorts, and the perennial hit, it's a wonderful life [and that's mr. stewart's personal print running through the projector, mind you].

tonight was murnau's masterpiece, sunrise: a song of two humans, with a alluring bonus: a live organ accompaniment. those of you who were lucky enough to see buster keaton's the general at the capitol theater this fall know what that is like [same organist, by the way; that guy is a national treasure]. if you have not had such fortune, i will tell you that that experience rivals the re-release of the original star wars and the opening day of return of the king as the greatest cinematic event of my life.

why is sunrise so special? [apart from the drunken pig, obviously]

it was the first hollywood work of the great german expressionist director f. w. murnau. his previous work included nosferatu [1922] and the last laugh [1924], a film with an impressive closing shot, featuring the camera flying backward and out of the city. in fact, fluid camerawork is an integral part of sunrise, and the final silent years were doing some amazing work with a moving camera. those of you who have seen singin' in the rain will recall that when sound came in, it caused a slew of problems, including having to put the camera in a large sound-proof room. only in the last 15-20 years have we caught up with what the silents did in camera movement.

murnau was offered a contract by william fox [of 'fox' studios] to direct any film he wanted, with unlimited time and budget. nearly everything was filmed inside of a studio, including many of the boat scenes. perhaps as a result of his knowledge from the skewed world of german expressionism, the city sets were built with forced perspective adjustments, and midgets were used as extras to make the site look expansive [this was also done in the final airport scene in casablanca].

equally stylized is the acting. the whole concept of narrative cinematic storytelling was barely 20 years old at this time, and acting methods were still fresh from the live theatre, where actions and motions were largely over-exagerated. further, the german techniques of the time emphasized the surreal, where characters' mannerisms were drawn from emotions, not reality. the looming, brooding dark looks of the man and the fainting, perilous flailing of the wife are not cheesy acting, but actually really cool stuff.

and that is what makes sunrise perpetualy potent; it is full of really cool stuff, the stuff life is made of.

a title card at the start of the show reminds us that this is an everyman story, that it happens in every city; 'you might hear it Anywhere at Any Time'. the main characters are credited only as 'the man' and 'the wife', the eponymous two humans, referring not only to the universal nature of their story, but also of the responsilibilities contained in the covenants made by man and wife on the wedding day.
the movie resounds long after the passing of its contemporary culture because it tells the story of eternal truth. it has been said that the three pillars of eternity are the creation, fall, and atonement. that is true in the grand plan of God and also in the micro-scheme of so many events, especially marriage. the movie brings us into the marriage when the fall has already happened, where the man is meeting with the seductive 'woman from the city', who tempts him to kill his wife. while not every marriage falls to such depths, a fall to the greatest depth makes the theme universal in its application.
from such a fall, atonement is necessary by eternal law. it is what heals us. it deepens our joy, brings light into all that we see, and creates a bond of love greater than anything else on earth. that is what the majority of the movie tells. there are no explosions, no fist fights or car chases. it find beauty in the plain, excitement in the mundane, and love in the everyday chores of life. bombarded by stories of the extraordinary, the story is cool water to parched lips. our life is beautiful. their matrimonial redemption comes through an afternoon together; they go to the beauty salon for a haircut, get their picture taken and have a little mischief, then go see the sights of the city, play games at the carnival, rescue the aforementioned pig, go dancing, and return home in love by the same boat that nearly became their demise.

when tragedy does strike the couple, it is not the sort of crisis that comes between the man and wife. though the fear of death does come, it is not as horrible as what was proposed at the start of the journey, for now they are united, and we feel that they would not be divided even in death.

the story is remarkable in its structure, encompasing two days and two nights, ending with the second sunrise, with many parallel events, one dark and one light. it moves from the country to boat where there is a near brush with death, then to the chaotic city. once the healing happens, the city is orderly and inviting; there is a return to home by the same boat, where death again draws close, and finally a return to the rural home. the journey is completed.
so often when we are passed through the refiner's fire, there may be little if any apparent difference, but we know that we are in an infinitely stronger state.

the film won several awards at the first academy awards, including 'unique and artistic picture', considered to be a secondary 'best picture'. that award has never been given since.


Em said...

You are impressive. Fantastic insights. And yes, it is a beautiful movie and you've named all the best reasons why. I'm so glad you are my friend! Some similar marriage insight/miracle in the everyday/redemption can be found in Voyage to Italy (1953). I also like Two for the Road... but it lacks the redemptive quality in its redemption, and could have been much better....

-->jeff * said...

'two for the road' is one of the later, lesser known audrey hepburn movies, isn't it? one i need to see.

your writings from a month ago about the lack of marital redemption movies is rather interesting. is marriage considered boring in society? or is it seen as irredemptive? we see thousands of movies about single people coming together, and sometimes they get married, but after that society doesn't seem to know what to do with them.
i've sat here searching for any movie i can think of that does so to little avail; there are many movies of personal redemption, numerous dealing with parent-child relationships ['royal tenenbaums' being my immediate favorite], and some that deal with marriage healing in minor sub-plots ['the seventh seal' even does that], but no camera has ever really looked that in the eye since murnau. [i will look into 'voyage to italy'].

i may not make movies for the rest of my life, but that does not mean my four years at byu were mispent.

Em said...

Indeed, I think if people knew what a gift they were given just to be studying film at BYU in that splendiferous environment, they'd postphone their hopes of grandeur in order to more fully enjoy and soak it all in and be smarter for it.

And if you do find any media of any sort that has intelligent things to say about marriage... please let me know. I keep finding that my interest in narratives is fading due to my inability to relate... but most especially with literature... I've become almost entirely a non-fiction reader, scary.