Tuesday, December 11, 2012

#623: Lonesome

(Paul Fejos, 1928)

Lonesome is a film stuck between two worlds in more ways than one. Most obviously, the movie balances on the most significant pivot in film history, the move from silent cinema to talkies. By including three scenes in which the characters talk (rather stiltedly, I might add), Fejos nodded to the fad of the time without having to reconstruct the entire film. I had forgotten about this aspect of the film while watching it, so when the sound clicked on, the music stopped, and the characters began to speak, it was truly jarring - really, this must have been what it was like in the 1920s to hear sound synced up with images - although the limitless possibility of the time has turned into actual impressive accomplishments over the ensuing 80 years.

The use of color in the Coney Island sequence is similarly forward-looking, but less jarring than it is impressive and perfectly incorporated into the film. Color had been around for decades already by the time of Lonesome - some studios would hand paint each frame in the first years of the 20th century - so this was less novelty than a conscious artistic decision to deliver the maximum impact of the impressive sight of this beach retreat which at the time would have been just as exotic to most Americans as Paris or London.

But what's more interesting about Lonesome is the balance between avant flourishes and a wholly conventional plot. Fejos manages to incorporate enough artistic style into the film that this seems miles away from the typical romance of the time, despite the fact that the film's story is little more than a simple boy-meets-girl set-up with a twist that is less satisfying than it is acceptable. His use of superimposition, panning, cross cutting, and the above-mentioned color and sound makes the film seemed packed with forward-thinking ideas that are much more impressive than anything in comparable modern cinema. This makes Lonesome either a uniquely impressive balancing act that stands out from the crowd or an exciting representation of the kind of experimentation still acceptable in mainstream film's nascent period. I can't say I've watched quite enough silent film to be able to distinguish, but either way Lonesome is a thoroughly enjoyable exploration of the potential of narrative cinema to speak through form just as clearly as content.

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