Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Chang (1927)


WHO: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack made this film six years before they made King Kong.

WHAT: Chang is a remarkable if somewhat unsettling documentary made by Cooper & Schoedsack in the beautiful Pua District of Nan Province on what is now the border between Northern Thailand and Laos. It follows the model of Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North in that it does not feature unstaged footage, but follows a fictional but (largely) fact-based narrative performed by non-actors. Like most documentaries of its day, it makes no attempt to conceal the fact that its actors knew they were making a movie and "performing" their daily rituals for a camera (even if they might have performed some of them anyway, without its presence.) That goes for the human performers, anyway. The many many animals in the film were of course unaware of the camera and were just reacting to what life and the filmmakers was throwing them. And they threw them a lot, some of it not so pleasant. There's no doubt that this film can be an uncomfortable viewing for those of us used to reassurances that "no animals were harmed in the making of" the motion pictures we watch. There's an excellent essay by Shari Kizirian on the film published on the website of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, at 7PM.

WHY: Yesterday I finally watched Ang Lee's Life Of Pi, currently nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, and found myself thinking of Chang (which was a runner-up for the Academy Award in the short-lived "Unique and Artistic Production" category at the first-ever ceremony in 1929) quite frequently. Both films feature a lot of animals and no American movie stars, and focus thematically on the relationships between humans and animals, particularly our attempts to tame or train them. Of course Life of Pi is no documentary, but neither is Chang by our modern standards. There are vast differences, though. Whereas the animals of Chang are real, and so is the harm that frequently befalls them, modern computer-generatied image techniques have made it possible for harm to the animals of Life of Pi without any real animals being touched (or, in some cases, even filmed).  The fact that South Asians make up part of the audience market for Life of Pi in a way that Southeast Asians did not for Chang also explains, along with eighty-six years of history, why the human portrayals in Lee's film are also far less likely to make us cringe than some of those in Cooper and Schoedsack's do. But both films fill the same audience desire to see man-vs.- nature drama enacted on screen, and have become hits in their respective eras despite a lack of Hollywood stars.

HOW: Chang screens from a 35mm print from Milestone Film & Video, preceded by a 35mm print of Luis Buñuel's 1932 Land Without Bread from the Harvard Film Archive.

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