Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Notes From Film School: Pandora's Box

Exciting news, people. In what will be a recurring feature here on Serious Film, I have made contact with a student deep inside film school who has agreed to act as spy for our reading pleasure.

This promises to be an interesting experiment. Either we will be heartened to see the next generation proudly carrying the torch of film history or we will weep in dismay as we get a close up look at a new class of filmmakers dismissive of any movie released prior to Fight Club.

Either way, should be fun.

I received the first note from my source a few days ago, as our intrepid student dives into one of the undeniable greats of the silent era...
We recently watched Pandora’s Box by G.W. Pabst in my Narrative Cinema class. Most of the comments given post screening were negative, labeling Lulu (played by the captivating Louise Brooks) as a calculating and selfish character ready to use anyone and everyone around her. Comments on the film’s ending categorize her as “a drug... her death brought the liberation” of the men closest to her. Some went on to state that the demise of our flawed [anti] heroin, at the hand of none other than Jack the Ripper himself, did not come soon enough.
Yikes. So it seems we're going to start this series on a troubling note. I suppose I should be grateful that the complaints are at least based on the content on the film and not about the lack of synchronized dialogue and sound effects.

I suppose it was too much to hope that the class would throw their hats in the air in unanimous celebration of a masterpiece, but I would hope that a modern film class would at least be familiar with the idea of an anti-hero.

Not that there's not some truth to the charges leveled against Lulu. She is manipulative and selfish, no question. But it's baffling to me how one could classify her as unsympathetic as many in the class did. Considering this is a generation that grew up celebrating films like Goodfellas, There Will Be Blood, and Pulp Fiction - not to mention television like The Sopranos and The Wire - I wouldn't think that finding the humanity in a seemingly unlikable protagonist would be that big a hurdle.

Perhaps it's because even in 2010 the sympathetic female antihero is still a rare species. We've had Bonnie from Bonnie and Clyde and Thelma and Louise spring to mind and then...I'm already struggling. It does seem an unavoidable double standard the way female characters rarely get the privilege to be the lead and do wrong with abandon the way the guys do.

Our student continues:
While I can’t disagree about the selfishness of the character of Lulu I can’t help but feel a great deal of sympathy for her. Yes, she used anyone available to her but what seemed to get glossed over by most was the fact that she was being used equally. Most of the men drawn to her saw her as a commodity; something that can be used for pleasure, monetary gain or simply as a possession.    
I'm with the writer. I find it difficult to judge her though she is certainly guilty on any number of charges. At times during Pandora's Box I feel downright protective of Lulu who lacks the self-awareness to behave more honorably and the judgement to be more sensible. Maybe it's because she always seem to be behaving as well as she knows how, and that involves having fun and being merry as often as possible, consequences be damned. I've never been able to feel anything but sorry for Lulu when, as a viewer, I could foresee those dire consequences coming around the corner at her while she remained blissfully vulnerable.
Concerning the actress, Louise Brooks: Her portrayal of this character was not only beautifully done, her screen presence is unparalleled. One of my classmates compared her to Anne Hathaway, which I found to be incredibly reaching. The closest modern day comparison I can think to make is to Audrey Tautou. Even this comparison falls completely short. There is a power to her gaze that can bring men to their knees, on and off the screen.
It's encouraging that the class here recognizes the link between modern film acting and the great icons of the silent era, albeit with a misguided Anne Hathaway comparison. I recently wrote about the amazing star charisma of Brooks here. Few in film history are in her league.

But our intrepid film student raises an interesting question. If tomorrow Hollywood reverted back to silent filmmaking, which of today's stars would have the screen presence to survive without the aide of dialogue?

Setting the bar at Louise Brooks is setting it perilously high. Audrey Tautou is a great call, but I would put her more in the Lillian Gish school of ethereal beauty. Out of modern actresses I'd say The Dreamers' Eva Green has something of the dangerous erotic charge Brooks brought to the screen. And I imagine Amy Adams would have little trouble picking up all the sweetness and innocence roles that used to go to Mary Pickford.

As for the men, it's nearly impossible to think of a modern equivalent to the likes of Keaton and Chaplin. When it comes to their physical gifts of course Jim Carrey leaps to mind, but I think Steve Carell could might make go of it, sharing some of their innate sad clown likability. I have no doubt Hugh Jackman could step into the Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler mold without missing a beat. In fact, I'm now going to start hoping such a project actually becomes a reality since it seems to me to be such a perfect fit.

When it comes to Valentino-esque heartthrobs I think Johnny Depp wouldn't be wanting for too much work in the second coming of the silent era as he's proved himself a gifted and graceful physical actor in films like Benny and Joon and Pirates. As far as Barrymore level dramatic powerhouses, Daniel Day Lewis already proved he could enthrall an audience without the aide of dialogue during the opening scenes of There Will Be Blood. Does anyone doubt he could do it for the length of feature?

Also of interest would be which behind the camera talent would thrive in the silent era. I've often thought James Cameron missed his calling as one of the greats of the silent era since he does spectacle and movement as well as anyone in the history of the business but he tends get tripped up by his clunky dialogue. Besides Cameron, what is Guillermo Del Toro but the modern equivalent of Lang and Murnau, spilling out his fevered imagination over the screen. Losing sync sound wouldn't slow him down for a minute.

That's all for this inaugural edition. Check back for further posts as our source passes us more insider information on the next generation of filmmakers and cinemaphiles.


  1. Wow Michael I'm pretty impressed with this. I really do love your writing!