The Movement of People Working (Niblock)
Niblock is an entirely untrained composer, an American original. This film, which he directed and scored, was shot in Mexico Peru, Hungary, and Hong Kong and is accompanied by the fimmaker’s electronic soundtrack. The workers’ mostly pre-industrial labors are generally repetitive and rapidly acquire first a ritual and then an abstract quality. In fact, the viewer often has the unsettling feeling (enthusiastically seconded by the artist) that the images are secondary to the clusters of slow-evolving microtones. The rhythmic motions of weaving or plowing come to seem equivalent to the movements of the heavenly spheres.
Niblock’s avant-gardism here relies not only on his own sensibility to sound, but as well on the richly suggestive character of these scenes of people with stoic faces doing the essential work of survival with which so many of us have little or no acquaintance. As an avant-garde artist, lacking either a role in either economic production or even a general audience, his depiction of such processes is an elegant embodiment of a contradiction.
The Animal Kingdom (Griffith)
The well-written play by Philip Barry was made into an entertaining film in 1932 starring Leslie Howard, Ann Harding, and Myrna Loy. The director, Edward H. Griffith, made many romantic comedies (including several with Madeleine Carroll whom Hitchcock directed in The Thirty-Nine Steps), but never attempted to break from formulae and achieved only middling success. Here he needed only to stay out of the way of Barry’s theatrical moves and to allow his stars to do their work, not only Howard and Loy but also diverting turns by Ilka Chase as the catty friend of Harding’s character, and William Gargan as a prizefighter/butler.
The theme is a variation on that familiar from Barry’s more popular play-turned-film, The Philadelphia Story. The structural oppositions remain the same: wealth and poverty and social convention versus nonconformity. Here, in a filtering down into popular culture of the emancipated woman of the twenties, the hero, whose wealthy and status-conscious father wants him to work in the firm and marry a respectable woman of his class, prefers to spend his time publishing art books and socializing with bohemians.
I then saw Holiday with Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Edward Everett Horton, based on another Barry play in which many of the same counters are rearranged. (The same play had been filmed in 1930 as well with Horton and Hedda Hopper in the cast.) In this story Grant is a self-made man who wants to wander the world gypsy-like for a time, a plan his fiancée’s stuffy upper-crust father disapproves. The film is among those discussed by Stanley Cavell as a “comedy of remarriage” in his Pursuits of Happiness. To Cavell these are among the greatest films of their era.
One might hardly suspect it from these works, but Barry was a devoted Christian who wrote explicitly didactic religious works as well such as John and The Joyous Season. I find little trace of this Barry in these plays which found success as films as well. The admiration for Prof. Potter’s eccentricities in Holiday, for Tom Collier’s artiness in The Animal Kingdom, and for C. K. Dexter Haven’s drinking in The Philadelphia Story seems to accord ill with the moralist he showed himself to be in other works.
The Pet (McCay)
Winsor McCay is generally acknowledged one of the greatest newspaper cartoonists. His Little Nemo offers perhaps the grandest sense of spectacle of any strip and his Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend uncannily exploits and expands our anxieties until they become ludicrous.
Though his Gertie the Dinosaur was not, as McCay sometimes claimed, the first animated cartoon, he did do some marvelous work in the medium between 1911 and 1921. This ten minute film from 1920 reproduces the way in which the Rarebit Fiend would move by degrees from the utterly mundane to the altogether weird and profoundly unsettling. The human characters are so proper and bourgeois and their home as well is drawn in respectable conventional detail, but the pet that enters their lives is spooky from the start with its undefinable species and its blank eyes.