Daily Archives: April 15, 2018

The Stuff of Dreams [on SUNRISE]

From The Guardian, January 31, 2004. — J.R.

Some film industry bigwigs dream of owning a Rembrandt. In the 1920s, William Fox, head of Hollywood’s Fox studio, wanted a Murnau. A prestigious German director in his late 30s, F.W. Murnau already had 17 German features to his credit (only nine of which survive today). But this was an unprecedented case of a well-stocked studio giving carte blanche to a foreign director simply for the sake of prestige. Murnau took advantage of this opportunity by creating a universal fable that, as an opening intertitle put it, could take place anywhere and at any time: his 1927 masterpiece, Sunrise.

The standard line about the film is that it lost piles of money for Fox. Maybe it did. But film history often consists of writers dutifully copying the mistakes of their predecessors, and I’m afraid I have to plead guilty to having perpetuated this particular story myself. According to film curator David Pierce, “Sunrise was Fox’s third-highest-grossing film for 1928, surpassed only by Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven and John Ford’s Four Sons” — both films that were visibly influenced by Murnau. (The first, for starters, employed Gaynor, the second, some of Sunrise‘s sets.) Of course, it’s theoretically possible that the grosses didn’t make back the film’s cost, but I’d rather think that Fox’s investment paid off in one way or another.… Read more »

In Stalin’s Shadow (on Dovzhenko)

From The Guardian (July 4, 2003). — J.R.

One of the most neglected major film-makers of the 20th century, Alexander Dovzhenko has never come close to receiving his due. This is in part a problem related to our categories and labels. His fervent, pantheistic, folkloric films develop more like lyric poems, moving from one stanza to the next, than like narratives, proceeding by way of paragraphs or chapters. The world they describe is one of Gogolesque horses that sing or reprimand their owners, noble cows, glistening meadows, wily Cossacks, dancing peasants, declamatory speeches by wild-eyed individuals, sunflowers in sunny close-ups alongside noble women with similarly open faces, vast reaches of empty sky over fields of waving wheat.

Dovzhenko’s vision is of a natural order that paradoxically seems both brutal and harmonious, primitive landscapes bursting with animal and vegetal life. One calls this poetry because it comprises a paean to sheer existence, singing about rather than relating or recounting what it sees. But cinema as it’s generally packaged is understood more in terms of prose narrative, as a string of events. In Dovzhenko’s world, the events often turn out to be the shots themselves.

Furthermore, most accounts we have of Dovzhenko’s work are found in discussions of Russian cinema, but the man wasn’t Russian.… Read more »