Evolution of the Global Language of Cinema: Murnau, Borzage & Yang

Although, media flacks are paid to constantly announce the “new”, “breathtakingly innovative“ aspects of emerging technology, moving pictures per se and the way they work haven’t changed much since the days when a penny bought you a view of flipping cards through a hole in a small wooden box. Why should they? Technologies for image and sound recording and delivery have changed the look and feel but for the most part, they are in a sense, still like the travelogues and freak shows thy were to begin with.  Yes, including, The Wire and the soon to be announced, The Ilk. What is this about? What is the message that, according to McLuhan, is the medium?

Bond films are travelogues. Absent the interesting locations of these narratives and there isn’t much left, which I suppose is a little less so for Allen’s films or Bergman’s. Robert Flaherty, earlier films of Robert Siodmak, Merion Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack  (before King Kong), Akira Kurasawa’s Dersu Uzala and Allen’s, Midnight in Paris are essentially nice travelogues with thin plots. Travelogues sell.

If cinema has evolved, it’s not evident in films like Star Wars, Jaws and Science Fiction but in the more subtle evocation of personality and psychology in human relationships, an area in which verisimilitude extends deeply into the human experience. Ed Yang’s Yi Yi is such a movie; a subtle, beautifully made recreation of the modern era in Taiwan, and it follows the path of previous auteurs like F. W. Murnau and Kurasawa.

Life is revealed in Yi Yi; not just a narrative about a life but the world we think of as life with humor and pathos in an organic whole. Yi Yi will possibly become more important long after more commercially successful films are forgotten because it represents a culmination of the cinematic art, equivalent in cinema to Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote; in music, perhaps, Debussy.

As an editor, composer, writer and director, I’ve looked at a lot of footage and films and it impresses me to find something as well-written, performed, shot and cut as Yi Yi, equivalent to discovering a Brandenburg Concerto or Mahler’s Das Lied Von der Erde. As Ludwig Wittgentstein put it, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” and good films extend the limits of my film language.

Although, F. W. Murnau helped to invent the language of modern cinema it wasn’t from whole cloth. His approach had been developed at UFA in Germany and at Norsk Filmindustri in Scandinavia long before him. But in a film he called, Sunrise, made at the original Fox studio in LA, Murnau brought the art of cinema to the American film industry, defining audio/visual story-telling in cinema with integral music, without subtitles or dialogue and he did this at the moment in cinema history when synchronous sound was first used to replace inter-titles with spoken dialogue.  Murnau wasn’t interested in dialogue or titles. Just as Rembrandt would have scoffed at putting soundtracks behind his paintings, Murnau and others felt the dialogue interfered with the power of the images and they were correct about this. Sunrise used a full orchestra and visual verisimilitude effectively.

Ed Yang’s YiYi, is made in the same vernacular that Murnau described when he made a film called, The Last Laugh in 1924, a “silent” motion picture that reputedly motivated William Fox to bring Murnau and a few of his technical associates to LA in 1927. Fox gave Murnau carte blanche to make Sunrise and another film called,  4 Devils, at his new studio in Hollywood. As part of his deal with Murnau, Fox hired several young American directors and paid them to apprentice to Murnau. The journey of cinematic art from Murnau to the Taiwanese director, Ed Yang, is direct but not linear. The image is of the relationship between thirst and water: the artist thirsts for and finds truth, the form of which is constant.

This week, I also viewed a movie called, 7th Heaven, made at the Fox Studios by Frank Borzage in the Spring of 1927. Borzage was one of the directors Fox who hired to work under and observe F.W. Murnau. Howard Hawks, John Ford were also among them. Murnau brought his, cameramen, Karl Struss and Charles Rosher, an art director, Rochus Gliese, and a few others from Europe. The technology and artistic talent transfer from Europe to America was first seen in  7th Heaven. In a 1970 interview, actress Janet Gaynor was interviewed about Fox Studios at the time:

“I had six months with Mr. Murnau and I must say it was a most gratifying experience. Trying! He was unbelievably trying! But he was wonderful, too, and he was a great director. I worked for him and I learned so much, it was like training… Of course, that was all pantomime, and the slowness, and the thought behind it… Really, it was the image in the mind. I’ve not only never forgotten it, I’m sure that I’ve used it always, these things that he taught me. Frank Borzage was very sensitive… Murnau was all mind, really… He directed in that way. Frank Borzagy directed from the heart, and so his pictures were—well some people would say they were sentimental. For that time, 7th Heaven was not sentimental. It was considered dramatic.”[2]

Now consider that Murnau hand-picked production team members from the best in Europe and that these editors, composers and film specialists all served as mentors and teachers of young Americans, whom Fox had paid to come to Fox Studios in Hollywood to work under Murnau and that it was the young men and women who apprenticed on Murnau’s set that went on to brilliant careers and to guide the direction of the U.S. film industry. In later years, as the Nazi movement drove them away, the film artists that arrived in America met fellow spirits here.

Now consider that before Murnau began shooting his last film for Fox, 4 Devils, he wrote an essay on the use of intertitles, illustrating the step he had taken, away from the cinematic styles that we now commonly think of as the “silent film era”. Murnau’s direction as it turns out, is the style of modern cinema. Murnau  (and also notably, Charlie Chaplin),  eschewed the use of synchronized voice as something more appropriate to a staged play, which relies on dialogue and he told a story without intertitles or dialogue and associated with this, he forwarded the relevance of film music:

“The Ideal Picture Needs No Titles. By It’s Very Nature, The Art of the Screen Should Tell a Complete Story Pictorially.”[3]

Prior to 4 Devils, Murnau’s film, The Last Laugh, used only one intertitle and Borzage’s 7th Heaven made scarce use of them. Compare any modern cinema with Murnau’s silent films or even Borzage’s silent features and you will find, if you include diegetic print, there’s more print on the screen in many modern features in mainstream genres than in Murnau’s “silent” features. There are also as many shots of actors who are not speaking in modern cinema as you will find in Murnau’s films. The most frequently lauded film performances are not appreciated for vocal talent. Borzages’ 7th Heaven shows the evolution of cinema from the “silent era” to “talkies”. Editing and camera work is unselfconscious, invisible, i.e., keeps you in the story. The soundtrack, with or without synch dialogue, utilizes the range of sound and music explored since moving pictures were first exhibited. Scenic design and composition employ classical renditions of perspective, realism and naturalism.

Exception to the convention of modern cinema derivative of UFA and Murnau prove the rule. They are films like David Mamet’s Glengary Glen Ross, adaptations of plays from legitimate theater, whether dramatic, comedy or musical that differ from their staged versions in a way that follows the principle, “show it, don’t tell it” and music is the primary support for including spectacle and action in a film beyond the possibility of legitimate theater without adding spoken or printed words. Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, Vittorio de Sica’s masterpiece, In the Garden of the Finzi Continis and Sydney Lumet’s verbatim adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s landmark stageplay, Long Day’s Journey Into Night are other examples.

Bearing in mind that the objective of art is verisimilitude, you will begin to see an interesting shift has taken place in the evolution of cinema recently and you will see the future of cinema.

Pacing is slower in Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven by modern standards, yet we are fascinated observing the travelogue. Exposition seems long in places, however, you must appreciate how Borzage’s 1927 audience imagined things looked in France in 1914, less than 10 years after 10 million people had died during the “war to end war”. Today, the quaint stage play from which 7th Heaven was adapted reveals the beliefs, hopes and dreams of people in the audiences at the brink of a global economic crash and yet another world war. Mr. Borzages frames the story in the moral and political background of U.S. culture at the time; revealing myths to which they were blind. Borzage’s editing is not only concerned with moving the story, but also, with satisfying curiosity and creating a background of relatedness that underlies identification with characters, a hallmark of modern cinema.

William Fox should probably also be credited with establishing the auteur philosophy of filmmaking in the U.S. by importing Mr. Murnau, a philosophy carried forward by his disciples, Borzage, Hawk, Ford and numerous technical apprentices and indirectly by the growing industry that was swayed by his influence to create it’s own Academy of Motion Picture art. Murnau’s vision of cinema was revolutionary but the visualization and music in Murnau’s films and those films that were made at Fox under his guidance are superior to  “talking pictures” of the period. Similar to the dumbing down effect we’ve seen with television, the talkies were a regression in the art as producers attempted to capitalize on the popularity of plays and musicals by presenting filmed stage productions, abandoning the motion picture’s primary value of verisimilitude, including the travelogue, since painted scenes are less expensive than travel.

In 1927, film acting, lensing, camera movement, intertitles, sound and cutting had already moved toward styles that are common today. In January 1927, Fritz Lang’s expressionist Metropolis opened. Jazz Singer, the first feature film with some synchronized dialogue opened later the same year. Miniatures and masks were combined with live action and process shots and the films were shot using artificial perspective, rather than locations.

Camera movement was used only with moving subjects until Murnau invented a mechanism for moving the camera in 4 Devils, using an elevator in the way we now use a crane. Since there are few pans and tilts, cutting followed a demanding regimen with master, cutaway close-ups and two-shots, wide enough for deep focus backgrounds. Composition combined naturalism reminiscent of theatrical conventions of realism and surrealism.

7th Heaven was based on a currently popular stage play that had featured well-known stage actors in principle roles. It is remarkable today that a block-buster film in those days was released in five months’ time with scoring and recording of a complex, orchestral track. Short schedules like this were the primary value of the studio system but this was before the current U.S. studio business strategy, which is to invest enormous resources of money, time and energy into productions in anticipation of more enormous rewards.

In contrast to the mainstream American cinema industry, Woody Allen has developed a production model that mirrors the practices of Hollywood in the early days by making one film every year with a modest budget. Instead of owning studio resources or long term contracts with facilities, however, Mr. Allen employs independent production organizations established around the world that are used to modest budgets. He enlists their whole-hearted participation in his project with stories set in the places where they are shot and often, at least in part, financed. Some examples are Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris and To Roma With Love. (Aronson interview 11/1/11) The unanticipated mainstream success of Midnight in Paris, standing in contrast to the much more modest interest in Mr. Allen’s previous recent features, points again to the principle of verisimilitude in cinema: the success of the travelogue.

Neither 7th Heaven nor Murnau’s films were “silent movies” in the sense of films made prior to Murnau’s Sunrise. Fox premiered these films with a live symphony orchestra and they were released with an optical soundtrack placed on the film in the same manner as were voiced synch-sound films using a technology Fox had dubbed, Movietone, however, the track was the orchestra. [4] In anticipation of sound on film releases, Fox had purchased and converted 1100 theaters around the U.S. to project sound on-film and/or sound with-film, if the films had been made using Edison’s Vitaphone system. Until most theaters in the country were equipped to project sound films, features were cut and released in two versions and during this period (after Jazz Singer) and many scripts and films in the pipeline didn’t anticipate sound-on film. Movietone News features contained more synch voice than the mere two minutes of synch dialogue in Warner Bros.’ Jazz Singer. The continuing success of principle actors Murnau employed in Sunrise, Ms. Gaynor, Mr. Ferrell and Ms. Mosquini, and many supporting and character actors in later talking films was not due to the quality of their voices as some have suggested but to their talent for cinema acting nurtured by Mr. Murnau.

Unlike the 2-week runs of mainstream films common today, in the ’20s, good films would run for two or three years. With the rush to exploit synch voice in films, it’s easy to understand why some of the best cinema of 1927 through ’29 quickly dropped out of sight even though the market hadn’t evaporated. Radio dramatic production met a similar fate when advertisers left for TV in the 1950s. But, again, if you keep your eye on Woody Allen, you’ll see that inherent value actually endures despite the fickle vagaries of an industry incentivized to “cash in” on the latest trend. Midnight in Paris is at the time of this writing, still playing 90 theaters in the U.S., 6 months after opening in 944 theaters. (Midnight Info.)

Lay people and filmmakers today still tend to view the soundtrack and music as something done to finish a film, which is nonsensical when the industry has been heavily investing in marketing soundtracks for half a century. The principle musical theme in 7th Heaven was composed by Ernest Rapée and Lou Pollack wrote lyrics for it’s popular release, called, Diane after Gaynor’s character. Nondiegetic music includes an array of orchestral and band arrangements and even arias from a Gounod opera.[5] Borzage’s use of opera as nondiegetic music was not unusual at the time, silent film exhibitors prior to the ‘20s, commonly employed classical opera singers (or phonographic recordings) in the wings of theaters. William Fox built his empire from a chain of nickel theaters that employed a range of such music devices. Today, we place nondiegetic popular music in films in the same way Borzage did in 1927 and for similar reasons. Many think this practice is linked to more recent recorded music business but in Borzage’s 7th Heaven, sound effects are mixed with percussion and music just as we do and long before Walt Disney first mickey-moused his notoriously racist cartoon, Steamboat Willie. Borzage freely cut in virtual diegetic music heard from inferred off-screen action and in support of painted set backgrounds with on-screen diegetic and nondiegetic music. Wide lenses,common at the time, provided great depth of field, revealing background detail and movement that required related sound in the backgrounds to accomplish verisimilitude in moving pictures. When you see a hammer fall, if the sound is missing, your attention is called to that. Music in Borzage’s films segues, cuts and dissolves from one type of composition to another as freely as the visual images, sometimes mixing contrasting music with effects that are prescient of surrealist and contemporary composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen.

7th Heaven shows us a moment in the evolution of film and editing technique and motion picture sound as cinema left the period we call, the “silent era” and entered the time of the “talkies”. [6]. Rick Altman’s book, Silent Film Sound provides an outstanding and comprehensive presentation of the development of “moving pictures” prior to 1927, revealing the relationship between 19th century lantern slides and modern cinema and he shows how the business of photographic exposition began with story-telling employing hand-painted slides and then later, with projection of photographic images, including folk tales, illustrated travelogues and historical narratives, using more and more sophisticated sound effects and music. Altman documents the time when hand-cranked moving picture heads were mounted in front of the same light sources that were previously used for slides. However, 7th Heaven reveals how Fox, Murnau, Palmer and Burzage (and their audiences) bore cinema out of this past and what they didn’t know they were inventing, which was for awhile, interrupted by a lot of talking for the sake of talking.

Another Borzage film, Bad Girl, reveals the new direction cinema was taking in accommodating spoken dialogue and it shows a step away from the art form epitomized in Murnau’s Sunrise but as the ordinariness of words without poetry wears out it’s welcome we see now a return to Murnau’s principles that are brilliantly reflected in Ed Yang’s Yi Yi.

Today, we view dialogue as Murnau viewed intertitles—that it must be inherently relevant, self-sustaining or forget about it. With Murnau, we now aspire to tell stories visually, with sound effects for verisimilitude and music for poesy. During the 1930s, audiences were fascinated to hear the voices of characters and there was a tendency to mimic play staging. While we still enjoy clever dialogue we expect to hear in legitimate theater and while there is always room for verbal talent like that of S.J. Perlman, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and David Mamet, people who have a genius for language, cinema lends itself most powerfully to visual treatment and musical emphasis. Never the less, where is it written that a travelogue can’t include opera, adaptations of Shavian and Shakespearean plays and a purely visual form of story-telling? There can be no rule of thumb about how we engage music, dialogue, framing or any of the myriad aspects of the medium. “The play’s the thing.” Many paths are open to those who pursue the holy grail of cinema: applause.

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[1] Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung. Tractatus, 1921

[2] Murnau, Borzage and Fox, Bergstrom, Janet, MOMA Press, [date] (my italics), p62

[3] Ibid, p79

[4] I share half a star sign (Sagittarius) Marie Mosquini, who played a supporting role in 7th Heaven and 4 years later, retired and married Lee De Forest, who invented the audiion tube amplifier, the output from which is used in optical soundtracks, a process that Fox licensed from De Forest’s former partners and which he called, Movietone.

[5] Sung by soprano who later went on to record vocals for actor Jeanette MacDonald’s roles in a series of big musicals she made with Nelson Eddy).

[6] William Fox lost the empire he’d built and following the separation, the studio lost it’s artistic caché, elegance and energy. Now the brand is owned by Rupert Murdoch, which is in a way, a fitting commentary but that’s another story.

 

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