Thursday, July 18, 2013

Prix de Beauté (1930)

WHO: Louise Brooks. Is there another name, another face, that more succinctly stands for the silent film era to modern audiences than hers does? Known to but not particularly appreciated by the masses when she was making films, Brooks became the focus of a growing cult starting in the 1950s, an era when looking for treasures in film history began to become an activity more widespread than just at cineclubs and film societies. Robert Farmer has compellingly argued that Brooks in particular began speaking to mid-century audiences because she epitomized a kind of Modernism that it took World War II to create a hunger for, and French critic André Bazin to describe. This doesn't quite explain, however, why interest in Brooks would snowball after decade upon decade.

I think it's because Brooks represents a stance with regard to the Hollywood studio system, and particularly its classic era, that has taken deeper and deeper hold on the cinema-literate as we've obtained greater and greater distance from it. Brooks is not Greta Garbo, who thrived in the silent film industries of Europe and California, and then thrived again in Hollywood once the talking picture came about- so much so that her 1930s films are far better remembered than her 1920s work. She's also not Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, whose sound pictures (with perhaps a few exceptions in Chaplin's case) critically and commercially pale in comparison their silents, but still represent fairly substantial bodies of work and do not languish in complete obscurity. Brooks is not even Lon Chaney or F.W. Murnau, whose careers ended with the silent era because their lives did, freezing their filmographies at a moment of tragedy that happened to coincide with the technological revolution.

No, the mythology of Louise Brooks is that she was too smart to want real stardom and all that came with it. That she fled the vapid roles she was forced to take in Hollywood to make a few masterpieces (or near-masterpieces) in Germany and France, but refused to come back on the terms the studios and their oversexed bosses demanded, thus sparing herself the abominably compromised life of a top Hollywood actress of the 1930s, allowing the Crawfords, the Harlows, the Davises, to take that role instead.  This narrative could use some fine-tuning, as some of the silents Brooks made in Hollywood (Beggars of Life and A Girl in Every Port in particular, at least) display real artistry from their directors even if they don't center completely around Brooks as Pandora's Box, The Diary of a Lost Girl, and Prix de Beauté  do. And she did take some roles in US talkies in the 1930s. But since they are more frequently dismissed than seen, they disturb her reputation as a rejecter of The System very little.

As celebrated as classic Hollywood is on Turner Classic Movies, at remaining pockets of repertory cinema, and on countless blogs and websites, there lies within even the most ardent fan an ambivalence about the formulas, the censorship, the politics, and the fabrications that lie behind the studio filmmaking of the 1930s through 1950s (and beyond). Louise Brooks, by essentially avoiding association with this period, positioned herself as a figure to be adored in the manner of any other beautiful bygone movie star, but whose adoration doesn't bring forth the same contradictions of complicity in a damaging and inauthentic industrial system that other performers from her generation can evoke.

Brooks's image rests almost completely upon her photographs, her own late-in-life writings on her career and those others she profiled in articles for periodicals like Film Culture and Sight & Sound (some later republished in the book Lulu In Hollywood), and the three films she made not in Europe- particularly Pandora's Box, which has become, almost like The Passion of Joan of Arc for Falconetti, a passport to intense fandom that overshadows desires to become familiar with an actor's other work.

WHAT: Prix de Beauté is the last-made and by far the least-known of Brooks's European trilogy, for a number of reasons. Though it was originally to be directed by René Clair, its production was delayed long enough for Clair to become occupied with another project, and the task fell to Italian director Augusto Genina, whose reputation has never been comparable to that of Clair's or (Pandora's Box director) G. W. Pabst. The Brooks cult of the 1950s can arguably be traced to a German-born critic and archivist then living in Paris, Lotte H. Eisner, who had no reason to mention in her 1952 monograph on German expressionism The Haunted Screen a French production with an Italian director and an American star, even one whose roles for Pabst were discussed substantially.

Probably the largest obstacle to Prix de Beauté's full canonization even among Brooks fans is the problem of version control. Shot as a silent film but ultimately released more widely as an early talkie, with Brooks's dialogue and singing dubbed in by French and Italian women, the film in its most-seen version gives us neither the opportunity to hear its star's authentic voice, nor to imagine it for ourselves in our own minds. It's a compromise almost fatal to audiences not inherently interested in the processes of early sound-film production, and perhaps especially for Brooks obsessives. However, a silent version that was released to certain unwired-for-sound 1930 cinemas, has survived to be praised by Kevin Brownlow as superior, and digitally reconstructed from available film materials by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna. A perceptive viewer of the sound version may notice that what little dialogue there is is for the most part extraneous to the plot, and sense that Prix de Beauté is truly in essence a silent film no matter how it has been more frequently viewed over the years.

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Castro Theatre at 7:00 PM, as the opening film in the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

WHY: The SFSFF runs through Sunday at the Castro, and has as ambitious a program as ever, impressive considering it was only a little over a month ago that the organization hosted a weekend of Alfred Hitchcock silents at the venue. If you missed that, the Pacific Film Archive reprises all titles in August, and Davies Symphony Hall will screen his The Lodger this October. Tickets for the latter go on sale Monday along with other film-concert tickets (including a sure-to-go-fast John Williams gig).

The stalwart David Hudson has collected many of the best preview pieces anticipating this weekend's silent extravaganza, but I'd like to make particular mention of Michael Guillén's post documenting the verbal portion of a 2006 PFA event at which animation director and scholar John Canemaker dazzled a captive audience (including me) with his demonstration of the films of Winsor McCay and discussion of how they were created, how they were presented to the public in their day, and how they fit in with McCay's also-groundbreaking and brilliant work as a newspaper comic strip artist. There's nothing like learning about this with Canemaker's presence and his collected images there to visually teach us, so it's wonderful that the SFSFF is bringing him back this Saturday morning to present (and perhaps update with further research?) his multimedia show. Unless a surprise announcement is in the works, this event seems to be (though it is not being promoted as such) the equivalent of the SFSFF's annual "directors pick", which has in past years brought modern-day luminaries like Guy Maddin, Terry Zwgoff, Pete Docter, Alexander Payne, and Philip Kaufman to introduce and contextualize screenings of 1920s films. Canemaker, though not as widely-known as the above names, makes a fine addition to this tradition.

Louise Brooks fans should not want to miss other programs in this year's festival. If Prix de Beauté is a fine example of Brooks after Pabst (though he contributed to the scenario, he was not an on-set molder of the film), then Saturday night's screening of The Joyless Street is Pabst before Brooks. Instead there is Garbo, as well as Asta Nielsen Werner Krauss. I have not seen this film which did so much to build the reputations of Pabst and Garbo in particular. Surely Pandora's Box could not have been made without it having come first.

Of the figures Brooks profiled in her own articles, Pabst and Garbo were among the first, but she went on to write about Chaplin, Keaton, Marion Davies (in an article focused on her niece Pepi Lederer, a friend of Brooks who met a tragic end), and a number of other silent and early sound movie fixtures. Chaplin and Keaton appear at the SFSFF this year too, joining Felix the Cat and Charley Chase in the Kings of (Silent) Comedy program. Davies appears too, in the comic The Patsy tomorrow night, perhaps the most likely film to satisfy confirmed silent movie fans and win converts among uninitiates among any in the entire program. Although this is admittedly a dangerous claim in a program so packed with enticing programs. I plan to be there for just about all of them.

HOW: Prix de Beauté screens as a DCP presentation with live accompaniment by pianist Stephen Horne, who was recently interviewed about his process for the Louise Brooks Society.

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