Modern Film Culture and Josef Von Sternberg

Jonathan Rosenbaum is a Chicago-based film critic who writes extensively about both movies, film culture and the industry. He often comes off as a bit of a pompous ass, but there's no denying his writing talent and extensive knowledge on the subject of cinema. The latest issue of Cineaste (an art house film quarterly, excellent) is focused on DVD's and how they've changed the face of cinephilia in recent years. Rosenbaum writes the preamble essay which advances the case that film culture is undergoing a metamorphosis into a kind of social media that finds its voice via the internet. It's an interesting thought.

In the past, film was almost exclusively a collective experience. Programmers programmed and audiences watched what was presented to them. The dialogue that arose about film tended to be written reviews by a relatively small group of critics. Early on in the video tape era, the quality of the prints (and the TV's we watched movies on) were sadly lacking. The cinema experience remained superior in every regard to the home viewing alternative. As the video era advanced, technical improvements have significantly narrowed the gap to the point that these days the theatrical experience can be recreated fairly closely on a modestly priced home theatre system. What has changed film culture probably more dramatically however, is the rise of the Internet as a forum for discussion about cinema. Even though the DVD experience is a solitary one, the dialogue that the internet facilitates makes it entirely collective, just in a different way. Film criticism has become far more egalitarian, less focused on the professional critic and entirely more communal in nature. This metamorphosis has both upsides and downsides. Weeding out the dross from the myriad of voices in the amateur film review world can be daunting, but the idea that film awareness is now often a function of shared movie experiences exchanged on blogs, twitter and other social networking platforms is a truly new phenomena and it's damned exciting as well.

We have, in essence, all become our own film programmers and it's opened up a whole world of amazing cinematic experiences that a few short decades ago simply didn't exist. I sometimes have to remind myself of this because it seems so natural to have nearly instant access to John Ford's or Hitchcock's or Preston Sturges entire cinematic catalog these days. We live in a film fan's paradise. Taking advantage of this treasure trove however, takes some motivation and focus. I've found myself on far too many occasions opting for some slight Hollywood fodder because I didn't have the energy to try something more engaging. TV on DVD tends to be my worst weakness. I can blow through hours watching Burn Notice, Damages, or The Mighty Boosh with nearly no effort. They're entertaining to be sure, but an exclusive diet of mindless television and new releases does not make a cinephile and in an effort to bite off something a little more substantial, I recently watched the three Josef Von Sternberg films that make up Criterion's new box set on the director's late silent period works.

Von Sternberg made nine silent films in all, only four of which survive; three of them "Underworld" (1927), "The Last Command" (1928) and "The Docks of New York" (1928) are contained in the Criterion set. Watching an 80 year old film takes a bit of patience I grant you, but it's worth every ounce of effort. I'd see a terrible print of Underworld years ago so I sort of knew what to expect going in. The film is both a forerunner of the gangster picture and a mood-soaked proto-film noir. The opening scene with its moonlit streets, foreboding urban maze and deep shadows drips with atmosphere and sets the mood for the rest of the film.

The second film in the set, The Last Command, is about a former general in czarist Russia now living in exile and reduced to, of all things, a Hollywood extra. He's cast in a movie about the Russian Revolution, essentially playing his former self, directed by a fellow émigré who happens to be his one-time political adversary and romantic rival.

The best film of the three by far is the extraordinary "The Docks of New York," a film that was apparently largely ignored in its day. George Bancroft (also the star of Underworld) plays a steamboat stoker on shore leave in New York who rescues a suicidal damsel (played by an impossibly gorgeous Betty Compson) from the East River. A long, eventful night follows that includes carousing and brawling in a wharf-side dive, a tentative seduction, an impulsive marriage, and a murder. Von Sternberg's depiction of the working-class world of the New York docks is riveting – poetic and harsh without being condescending or sentimental. It's fresh, inventive, adult and sexy, far from what you might expect your great-grandparents to be watching back in the late '20s. If you can muster up the resolve to skip the 3rd disk of Mad Men Season 3 one night, do yourself a favour and watch just this one instead. I guarantee you won't be able to shake the films imagery from coming back to you again and again. Docks of New York is a monumental piece of forgotten film making.

Which brings me full circle back to Rosenbaum's piece in Cineste. The Criterion release of Von Sternberg's silents isn't an art house retrospective, but rather a beautifully restored DVD box set that will hopefully find it's way into more hands than it might have if it played at exclusively at the Cinematheque for a couple of nights. Hopefully they will find greater exposure because people will experience them in different places, under unique conditions and then exchange their views about the films with all sorts of other people in forums, chatrooms, on facebook, twitter and blogs. I can appreciate those who lament the fading away of the once-thriving art house theatre scene, but we have to accept that as the medium changes, the social arrangements that facilitate our participation in it changes too. 'not sure that's a bad thing either.

As the business side of the DVD world changes, I'd be more than happy to ride out those changes as a source for films like these three. If it means less business because alternative avenues exist to watch Steve Carrell and Tina Fey in Date Night, I'm pretty sure I can live with that.


1 comment:

the coelacanth said...

bravo, man. sounds like criterion's put out yet another set i'll have to watch. just days ago (after waiting months for it to drop in price), i plunked down $85 for the criterion hiroshi teshigahara box set. seems like a lot, but it was slashed down from $120, and to me, those films are priceless, and are three that i'll watch repeatedly for the remainder of my days. thanks for this post - i like these affirmations that we are fighting the good fight and not butting our heads against a wall so much as gently guiding the customer with our suggestions, while guiding each other in the process.