19: Manasse (Movie)

Earlier this year I worried that I didn’t know how to talk about silent films. That I did not feel that I had the critical toolkit to enable me to safely say if one was good or bad. And, unacknowledged at the time, was also a fear that it was difficult to see such a spectrum anyway, what with so much destroyed and only the good ones being saved.

Well never fear, I finally saw a truly bad silent film, and now I have a much better idea of what a bad silent film is. And why other ones are better. Manasse – a Romanian silent – which was shown as part of the East End Film Festival with live accompaniment by Minima was really rather terrible. There was a problem with the screening anyway, the film was only tangentially projected on the screen, at a slight angle and in such a way some of the subtitles for the inter-titles were cut off. And the print was pretty poor, even when projected from DVD, and bizarrely tinted in places. Nevertheless none of this would have been enough to spoil a decent film. This was the British première of Manasse and Minima always put together a rollickingly atmospheric score. And the setting, Spitalfields Market, and a packed out audience for whom it might be their first silent. Last years screening of Hitchcock’s The Lodger went down a storm here, and we were intrigued.

My companion, Pam of Silent London, seemed mostly annoyed by the abject lack of camera movement. It was a misrepresentation of the state of the art at the time. Myself, I found the static, talky sequences and their endless inter-titles (and people bobbing to read the subtitles) grating, and in support of a pretty ropey plot. Manasse, the Jewish patriach, is disappointed about what he sees as decadence in the younger generation, as considerations about marrying outside the religion are bounced around. There is a devilish (literally from a make-up perspective) marriage broker who is at least lively, if seemingly anti-Semitic and the whole thing builds to a non-climax of untroubling proportions. Minima tried to inject some tension, but none was to be found and unfortunately hundreds of people may have been left thinking that silent films were like stills from a talkie play’s program.

This then helps extensively when I saw more recently:

20: The House On Trubnaya

A Russian silent comedy directed by Boris Barnet. A clever, generous comedy of the Soviet Union with a full bag of clever tricks to employ, it certainly puts paid to any idea that silent films were static drab affairs. Even if they were about the lumpen proletariat, down-trodden, beaten and covered in dirt. A non-linear narrative, ingenious use of freeze frame and reverse and a terrific set star in this seemingly small picture. But it is the dirt that is the most startling thing about Trubnaya, swept at the camera, buckets of water sloshed at us and the sense that the lot of a cleaner / housekeeper is the first thing that should be unionised. A robust of Union politics sits at the centre of the film (many Russian films from thsi period seem to have an extended coda praising the state JUST IN CASE!!!) But House On Trubnya was genuinely funny and good to look at in the way a pristine print of Manasse would never be. But at least now I know what bad looks like.

Film 2Oh!! is an attempt to write about every film I have seen this year which is really quite tricky. This year I have seen 109 films, written about 20.