PANDORA'S BOX directed by G.W. Pabst *1929*
Inspired by Netflix streaming service, I've decided to make a move into film writing. I'm not going to review contemporary releases, nor am I going to bitch about Hollywood. I don't see the point in telling the world about crappy Hollywood movies. I do see a strong link between film/cinemas/movies and other subjects I write about on this blog: the production of cultural objects, the relationship of artists and audiences and the nature of creativity in the world of mass media. As a forum for discussing those subjects, film actually surpasses music in that the film industry both proceeded AND directly inspired the music industry. For example, the practice of calling a cultural product a "hit" was INVENTED by film and ADOPTED by music decades later. Thus, movies are relevant to the project of this blog, and Netflix streaming service is the break through I need to carry out my project.
I wanted to start by discussing how I watched Pandora's Box- I started at my office, watching it in two twenty minute increments while I waited for people to arrive for their free consultations. Netflix actually keeps track of where you start and stop the film. I noticed right away that the prospect of not having to sit in front of the television to watch a two hour plus silent film cheered me immensely. When I went home, I had dinner, then my wife had a business meeting, so I watched the remaining hour and forty five minutes in two more blocks, interspersing the watching with reading a book. This was so revolutionary for me that I wanted to write about it, even though it is 'boring' material.
If you are going to address film in a comprehensive manner, you need to understand the pre-talkies era. Perhaps the most important fact to understand about the era is how the commonly used "SILENT FILM" term is hugely inaccurate. Films where never "silent." The introduction of characters talking on screen was a technical innovation, but films were accompanied by sound from almost the very beginning. Popular films were typically presented with a live orchestra.
The technical achievements in this era were in no way primitive, but the preservation of the master films was primitive, and that impacts the ability of the audience to appreciate the merit of "silent" movies. I can personally attest to having seen multiple silent era films that were so poorly preserved as to make them literally unwatchable- and these were commercially available dvd's put out by major film studios. Also, when watching a silent movie you need to have some concern for the audio soundtrack which accompanies the film. Silent movies worked because you saw them in a live setting, with people playing instruments. The "quiet theater" aesthetic of the talkies era was not shared with the silent film aesthetic, which more resembles a circus or vaudevillian show.
Might I suggest watching silent era films released by Criterion Collection? Whatever the film, you know Criterion Collection is going to do a bang up job on the re-release. Pandora's Box (Criterion Collections Spine #358) was released in 1929, directed by G.W. Pabst. The first talkie was released in 1927. The thing to understand is that Pandora's Box represents the end of the silent era, and thus the techniques used and themes are as sophisticated as any in silent film. The film looks beautiful- no small task for a 1929 movie produced in Germany and Criterion has provided four separate sound tracks. I believe the track that Netflix uses is track one, an "orchestral score similar to what was heard at the big European music palaces of the day."
It was the first time I had ever been blown away by the sound accompanying a silent film and it made quite an impression. How can you be fair to these films without considering the impact of a live orchestra on the audience? It makes for a significantly different product.
The second fact to understand about Pandora's Box is that Pabst made it in the pre-code era. It has a frankness and openness about sexual relationships that is in many ways more insightful then the pablum one gets in contemporary rom-coms.
The third and final fact to know is that Pandora's Box made Louise Brooks a fucking star. The story of Pabst "discovering" Brooks playing a circus acrobat in a Howard Hawkes film is the ur-Hollywood Starlet story. I'm not going to lie: I found parts of Pandora's Box extremely tedious. I could NOT have watched it on DVD- ever- ever- I would have turned it off after twenty minutes. However, given the opportunity to cut it up into smaller segments over the course of a whole day, I found the viewing experience to be close to exhilarating. As I watched Pandora's Box, I had plenty of time to think about silent films, Louise Brooks and G.W. Pabst. All those topics are worth some quiet contemplation. Louise Brooks: one of the first Hollywood starlet/it girls; G.W. Pabst- a filmmaker sophisticated beyond his place and time; Silent movies- not that annoying if they have a kick ass sound track and you break them up a little.