I’ve seen 73 films this year and have written about 7 of them. Can I catch up?
7: Pavement Butterfly (Großstadtschmetterling) (British Silent Film Festival)
I’m pretty oblivious and forthright when it comes to expounding opinions. In the end the most important thing to me is how I respond there and then to what is on the screen. This is a preamble to say that the one group of films I feel distinctly unprepared to talk about are silents. Which is possibly why I have been pushing my comfort zone and seen seven silent films already this year (and have a target of fifteen). Which has doubled the number I have seen in my life, and some of those had me along for the Pet Shop Boys rather than the Odessa Steps. (I am very much looking forward to the new print of Battleship Potemkin coming soon though).
I want to understand silent films, but I don’t want to treat them academically. They are not frozen in aspic, they are still great to see live, but they are a cinematic evolutionary dead end. Is it possible to respond to them honestly, when the whole silent film culture is one with a bigger foot in the historical curio camp rather than the artistic one. Well I’ll try to wrassle with that as I hit a few of these silent films up. The first being Pavement Butterfly where some of the problematic issues of viewing the things occurred.
Pavement Butterfly was the first of three films I saw at the British Silent Film Festival, last week at the Barbican, along with Ewan of this parish and Pam – of the award winning and terrific (and very useful if you want to see Silent Films in London) Silent London blog. Pam is a huge Silent Film fan, had a festival pass and had been in there since 9am. Pavement Butterfly was at 6pm. I chose to see it because it starred Anna May Wong, who I had seen in the re-release of Piccadilly a few years ago. A striking screen presence there, I was interested to see here if a 1928 film could dodge excessive stereotyping and exoticism (which Piccadilly doesn’t do) , but also to see if Anna’s acting was a strong as it seemed in Piccadilly. Pavement Butterfly turned out to be a really pleasant surprise.
Clearly (from the title) Anna is placed in a stereotypical Chinese role, here as a circus sideshow performer Princess Butterfly in Paris. But it is clear from the off that these are just the clothes she is wearing, and when quickly forced to flee for a crime she did not commit, she soon dresses in a more Parisienne way. The Wong’ shift from fear to confidence when in hiding with the artist Kusmin is really impressive. Clearly in a silent film the body language and gestures are on show more but there is great subtlety here. The film itself does not always deserve what it gets out of Wong, the plot is overly melodramatic and poor old Princess Butterfly (or Anna as can be clearly lip read in many scenes) does have the weigh of the world thrust on her. But a beautiful looking confection (some great fashion) and a satisfying if overwrought plot is wound up well.
All of which is sort of talking about acting and storytelling. But not having seen many silents, how can I say Wong’s acting really holds up? It works for me, but then I am used to more modern (or at least talking) screen acting. Pam thought that me and Ewan weren’t enjoying the film because we occasionally sniggered at overdone reaction shots or the weight of the melodrama. And anyway, a snigger is a sign of a sort of enjoyment (I wished I’d sniggered more during Ninja Cheerleaders). I know enough to put the film in some sort of historical content, I know Anna May Wong came to Europe because anti-miscegenation laws in the the States meant she couldn’t kiss a white lead. And whilst the sexual and racial politics of Pavement Butterfly still seem hideously out of date, there is a real sense within the film of breaking barriers, of Wong being able to play a more multifacted leading role. (Also note that Pavement Butterfly was filmed at Elstree Studios, my home town, which was a nice surprise).
And then there is the music. Truth be told one of the hardest things I have with Silent Films is the live music. Not that it isn’t great, or performed well, or nice to have. It just throws in another consideration which is outside the film. As great as it was, we were all a bit thrown by the musician swapping from piano to violin at one point. And then hugely distracted by his ability to play violin and piano AT THE SAME TIME. At the end of the film it is right to clap the pianist, yet I didn’t come to see him, I came to see the film. Which I end up clapping too.
I still have to negotiate some proper critical faculties about silent films, though I feel a lot better about it now. It doesn’t help that I haven’t really seen a dud one (like the National Gallery is not full of all the shit 17th Century paintings). I liked Pavement Butterfly, because I like Anna May Wong. But do I like Anna May Wong because of what she represents to me about silent film, about the 1920’s and has any of that got to do with how I react to the film?