D.W. Griffith – Way Down East

Way Down East (Griffith 1920) will be summed up with three words, tragedy, ice, and jokes. A far cry from his earlier epic film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), this movie is toned down in terms of over the top everything. It is like he turned his hyperbole meter back to ten, instead of eleven. Truly and honestly, I found most of the movie boring, however, there are definitely some aspects of this film that intrigue me. Griffith’s use of close-ups on Anna (Lillian Gish), interesting editing for the time period, and use of sound effects, kept me interested enough to sit through the 2+ hours of the film.

From beginning to end Lillian Gish has many close-ups emphasizing a wide range of emotions. Actually, I think every emotion that she felt got a close-up, but I like that. Way Down East is a silent, black and white movie so facial expressions are important. Gish does an great job showing exactly how she feels in key scenes just with her face. When she is happy, elated, torn apart, dejected, suicidal, etc… I could tell just from the close-ups. Of course the film had other cues as to which emotion she would be feeling, but they were forgettable where her face was not. Without question, watching Lillian Gish in this film made me sit through the whole thing.

Now, on to the odd part of the film. It has only been a week since I watched an earlier Griffith film, however, I do not recall any sound effects at all. In this Griffith production there were some sound effects. Now, prior (and during) posting this I tried to do some research to see if that was a part of the original production or some added-on snippet in a remastering. As of now, I have no answer, therefore I will continue to write as if it belongs there. To me, the few sound effects that were in the film were oddly placed and too minimal. If Griffith intended for sound effects to be a part of the film, they should have been more prevalent. Obviously, any sound heard during a silent film, today, is a researched score that was played at the actual theater, and then placed on top of the film, giving today’s audience a feel of what it would be like in sight and sound in 1920. With that said, I do not think it too far fetched that they would include sound effects, silly maybe, but not improbable. But, I restate my opinion on this, if sound effects were intended then Griffith should have used more, or only used them during the final scene. There is knocking randomly, a plate breaking, and then the rushing river. These were the main parts that I noticed the sound. Scratch it all and keep the end sound only, that’s what I say.

(Spoiler)

Now that I have brought up the ending, let’s talk about that. Great scene, a classic. Lillian as Anna has fainted on an ice patch that is rushing down the river towards the falls as David (Richard Barthelmess) pounces to her rescue. The quick editing between Lillian being swept away and David literally jumping from ice patch to ice patch is suspenseful, clever, and actually fun to watch. Griffith’s editing here is fantastic, rushing the scene as the river runs. Glorious.

Finally, the last two aspects of the film that I want to bring up are the overuse of comedy for a melodrama, and to simply state it, the classic comedy structure of the film. As they say, It’s a comedy if it ends in a wedding, and this had three. The use of humor in this film was everywhere. There were more jokes than actual storyline here. The film switches from stricken Lillian over her predicament, to the goofy townsfolk of Bartlett. Even though a classic comedy is not a comedy as we know it today, Griffith sort of blended the two ideas, in the classical and contemporary sense, to give us this film. Therefore as I finish this post, I will change my stance (as usual), watch it, get some laughs, enjoy Lillian Gish and the ending scene. Oh, and tell me, did you find it weird that the movie ended with Lillian kissing her mother-in-law and not her new husband?

 

 

Next Week: Josef von Sternberg – Der Blaue Engel “The Blue Angel”

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Joan Baez – Joan Baez

Lately I have been on a female vocalist kick, from Heart to Florence + the Machines, and even Tina Turner. So, I am pleased that a female artist has cropped up on my list this early. Joan Baez, a classic female artist, is sadly only known to me by name. However, today I listened to her first full length album, self titled. Joan Baez (1960) is a fantastic thing to hear. Her excellent guitar strumming is noticeable yet takes a backseat to her fantastic and melodic voice. The songs are great, but it is Joan’s voice that makes this whole album worth listening to, more than once. For me, the stand out tracks are “House of the Rising Sun” (never heard another version but the Animals), “All My Trials,” and “Donna Donna.” With that said, I kept having to rethink what I would consider the stand out tracks. With every new song that played I kept thinking to myself, “This is better. Now this is better. Nope, it’s this one.” So, please understand that my stance on which songs are better is as fickle as southern summer weather (I just thought to myself as I write this and listen again, “John Riley” maybe the best, sigh, such fluctuation).

Now what drew me to this album once I started listening to it is its folk style. If you look up Joan Baez it will clearly say “folk,” and it does not disappoint in that aspect. The same reason why I was drawn to listening to the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou (Coen Brothers 2000) has hooked me again for Baez. It slow, yet it does not drag. It is lulling yet not dull. Songs like “House of the Rising Sun” allow Baez to sing with a little more gusto, while “Henry Martin” is mostly even and reminds me of a traditional style song. A type of song I would hear in a film about old America or Great Britain. Even though I did say that her guitar playing is mostly overshadowed by her wonderful singing, it is still noticeable. This album is stripped down to just her and a guitar, so you cannot help but notice it. In “Henry Martin” and the ultimate song, “El Preso Numero Nueve,” her impressive playing is obvious but not emphasized, yet in each song, I could not help but want to lean in and try to pick out her guitar playing more. For a debut album, this is quite impressive. It further rekindled my love for female vocalists and introduced me to a new one; one I should have listened to along time ago.

 

 

Track List

 

Next Week: Creedence Clearwater Revival – Cosmo’s Factory

D. W. Griffith – The Birth of a Nation

Or as I will call it, “Racism shot fantastically.” Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) is equally disgusting as it is a well shot film, for its time. I will not go on and on about what makes this film horrific, that has been done and is easily understood. Instead, I will just make a quick statement. Regardless of whether the director meant to or not, this film is highly disgusting in its racism and glorification of slavery, the KKK, and the Confederacy. Now with that said, let’s talk about why this film is worth watching. Seeing as how this film came out in 1915, there were many technological advances that were not around. Cameras were still a new concept and there are many techniques of filming that are used today that were explored in this film. For that reason, I agree with Joshua Klein’s statement about this film in his mini article featured in the 1001 movies You Must See Before You Die, “one of the most revered and most reviled films ever made.” The shots that Griffith filmed were something to be admired. For example, there is a scene in which a soldier is chasing a woman through the woods. In this scene, Griffith utilized deep space to show the woman running away as the soldier is in the foreground chasing her. In another scene, Griffith uses a long shot to show the long row of Clansman riding towards the town. Even as the men are riding, Griffith uses another technique that is used in every film, tracking. The camera tracks backwards as the men are riding towards it. All of these techniques are common place today, but in the cinematic world of 1915, they must have been truly original and ingenious. Another technique that is used in The Birth of a Nation, that is often used today, is crosscutting. Shots are edited together to show multiple lines of action at the same time. Shots of the Stonemans hiding are cut with shots of the soldiers coming to find them. This may not seem too inventive considering how often it is used, but with no prior point of reference, this was a marvelous tactic of film making. Griffith furthers his exploration of camera techniques by adding panning, filters, masks, super impositions, dissolves, and fading (not just cutting). Although some of these techniques were used in prior films, most were new to audiences. Just imagine, you go to the theater to see a historical epic, which is a new concept for film at this time as well, and see these amazing scenes with fantastic and large scale battles with action on all fronts. It really is a living story. Despite the fact that this film is infested with overtly racist scenes and themes, this movie should still be watched, if only for its cinematic merit and contribution to the art form. With that said, it is a 3+ hour silent film, with a nice orchestral score to accompany it. And, despite the character’s placement in the film, I did enjoy “The Little Colonel’s” performance in the film.

 

Next Week: D. W. Griffith – Way Down East (hopefully less clan)

Frank Sinatra – In the Wee Small Hours

I have never been much of a Sinatra fan, although I have always admired his voice. I’m sure most people have heard of him or heard him before so let’s not go into any of that. This album, In the Wee Small Hours (1955) is, and I think would be, enjoyable to hear. It’s smooth and has a touch of class, just like the mythos of Sinatra. Like I’ve mentioned before I am not involved in music in any way, therefore nothing I am about to say will sound technical. With that out of the way, there is a great overall mood to this album. The article written in the 1001 Albums… mentions that this was Sinatra’s come back. People thought he was done however, with this collection, Frank became big time again. The mood adds to that come back. It is a sensual Sinatra that I feel is missing from a lot of the popular songs of his that I have heard. With the opening track, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” there is a longing that is evident in elongated syllables he belts out with tact. Actually, there is a lot of longing in this album. In “Last Night When We Were Young,” it feels like Sinatra is reminiscing about his previous heyday, even though he sings about a woman. The song starts off nice and slow, like most of the songs on this album, but builds up at certain parts to emphasis what was there. The main feeling I get from hearing In the Wee Small Hours is that Sinatra is singing because he can, not for any other motive. It does not feel like he is trying to make a comeback, but enjoying the chance that was given to him. According to the book, this album did bring him back into the spotlight. He rejuvenated his career with these tunes. One of the more playful songs, to me, is “Can’t We Be Friends?”, which is ironic because it is about him being rejected. Rather than keeping with the somber mood of the majority of the songs on this album, this song has a nice, slightly more uptempo piano accompanying Sinatra’s usual spot-on tone. All in all, I would say I am pleasantly surprised with this album. I would definitely listen to it again, which I am doing now.

Track List

 

Next Week: Joan Baez – Joan Baez

Georges Melies – Le Voyage dans la Lune

The first thing that I need to say about this film is ‘wow.’ Only 14 minutes long, Le Voyage dans la Lune (Melies 1902) is highly enthralling. Keep in mind that this film was made in 1902 and the special effects are astonishing. During the time when film is just being discovered, Melies is already playing with camera tricks, dissolves, cuts, and it’s all a story. There were not a lot of fictional films in the beginning of cinema. If I’m not mistaken, early cinema was just real life on camera, like the Lumiere Brothers and their shot of a train coming into a station. The settings are awesome, even by today’s standards I’d say. The sets are obviously fabrications, part interactive and part painted backdrop, however, there are times when they seamlessly flow together. There is a scene in which the “wizards” are standing on a balcony in front of an industrial complex. There is smoke coming out of the stacks, and if you look close enough, they have rigged real flowing water. The fact that these effects were accomplished all through construction is mind-blowing. The storyline itself is fun. Scientists, or “wizards” by the look of them, decide to travel to the moon. They shoot a bullet straight into the eye of the man on the moon. Once there, they encounter moon-people, and finally drop off of the moon into the earth’s ocean. The version I watched is a recently restored edition that comes in a combo pack with Air’s soundtrack inspired by this film. Although the album itself is great, I disliked pieces of it played on top of the film. This film is a masterwork of visuals, and originally it was in black and white with hand painted frames to add color. Le Voyage dans la Lune is all about the look, and it does not disappoint. Find it, watch it.

Next week: D.W. Griffith – The Birth of a Nation (yikes…)

The Preliminaries

Hello all, this is the first post where I reveal why I started this blog, right. Sure. I got bored, simple, and I happen to like movies and music (shocker). So one day I thought, hey why not talk about them. There are plenty of forums among the cats in the tubes to do this, but I want my own. I am not a film or music student/major nor do I work in any field related to either, but who cares. So, feel free to read my unpolished thoughts on each category as I attempt to post about one movie and one album, once a week (maybe more). I am basing this on two books, mainly. Both part of the same series, I will be using the lists provided by 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (Link) and 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (Another Link). I am just going to go through the lists of each book and discuss each movie or album here. I will also try to end each post with the name of the next film and album I will be watching or listening to, respectively. Thanks for dropping by. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, one film and one album a week for 1001 weeks will take almost 20 years. “Never give up, never surrender.”

Next Week: Georges Melies – Le Voyage dans la Lune, Frank Sinatra – “In the Wee Small Hours”