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Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

sunrise.jpgOn the weekend, I also found out that I would not be getting a free trip to Europe — I had submitted a paper to Eurographics, and had I been accepted, UBC would have paid for me to go there next year to present it. And if I had managed to get in, I was planning to take the opportunity to go to Berlin and visit friends of mine — and former Kommune-mates — there: Tamy, Andy and Olga (who, collectively make up almost half of the TU-Berlin graphics lab, apparently).

On the plus side, this gives me an opportunity to awkwardly segue into this film, which I saw the previous day. There is a long sequence in the middle of this silent film, set in a city that for some reason I had thought was Berlin. But it turns out, it was actually a massive sound set in California! The film is not even German, just the director. Oops. Though in my defence, there are some great touches of German Expressionism in the film, not to mention a Teutonic sense of impending doom. Maybe if if someone had ever paid for me to go to Berlin, I wouldn’t have made that mistake.

Oh, well. I actually enjoyed much of the film, geographic impairment notwithstanding. The best silent films have an eerie quality: they are more beautiful and sophisticated than the decades of talkies that followed them, but they don’t feel modern, either. They feel exotic and oddly literary. This is probably because silent film didn’t, to my mind, evolve into talkies. With very few exceptions, the artistic slate was wiped clean, and cinema started over — the sentimental comedy of Chaplin and the editing of Eisenstein survived, but I don’t (again, in my totally non-expert opinion) really see too much else. So what we see in the last great silent films, like Sunrise and The General and Pandora’s Box (my fave — damn, Louise Brooks is lickable) are the high points of what turned out to be an evolutionary dead end. Artistic trilobites.

It’s odd to think of dead art forms. Dead styles are commonplace, as are dead genre. But dead art forms? You don’t see a lot of medieval mystery plays being put on these days, but theatre survives. Silent film may be dead (the incredible work of Guy Maddin excepted), but because it made it to the ages of recording, duplication and now, digitization, the corpse is still shuffling around with us. And will, in fact, always be with us, even when the people on that screen have been dead hundreds of years. Strange.

And so, in conclusion, I give Sunrise eight sexy silent-film flappers out of ten. It has a fantastic, horrifying first act, a dated chore of a second act and a pretty great third act.