Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Homo Saves The Day

Despite all the technological advances which now let us watch movies on DVD players, cell phones, computer monitors and any number of portable electronic devices, sometimes you still need to share a film experience in a theater filled with an enthusiastic audience in order to achieve maximum satisfaction. By a curious coincidence of chronology, I recently saw two movies whose debuts were separated by more than 80 years. Both dealt with issues of loneliness, alienation, and yearning for the seemingly impossible. Both featured rapid action chase sequences. Yet there was no question which film grabbed its audience and came out the winner.

Pixar's new full-length animation feature WALL-E is a triumph of graphic arts technology. But, for all its technical tricks, I found it surprisingly disappointing. Some of that could have been because the minute humans were brought into the action (I'm not referring to the clips from Gene Kelly's version of Hello, Dolly!), the movie headed downhill. If anything, the clips of "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes A Moment" -- which made real human life seem like a quaint relic of the past -- only served to demonstrate what a long way animated figures have to go to really come to life.

Once the humans entered the plot, what started out as a marvelous and touching exploration of artificial intelligence in search of soul merely turned into another space-age chase going back and forth around the galaxy. As much as the audience reveled in Pixar's special effects (which are indeed quite wonderful), a genuine connection with the audience seemed to be lacking. Perhaps it's better to say that the connection was, like all of the action in WALL-E, simulated.

Not real.

Don't get me wrong. Some of my best friends are full-length animated features. But there is a point where computer-generated special effects cannot hold a candle to the real thing. That became blazingly apparent when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened Paul Leni's The Man Who Laughs before the crowd of nearly 1,400 silent film enthusiasts that packed the Castro Theater on Saturday night. The 1928 film's impact on the audience was shockingly different.

Back in 1950, when former silent screen star Gloria Swanson took on the role of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, her character told the young Joe Gillis that, in the days of silent film "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" That line, which went on to become a legendary cinema quote, was never proven more true than by Conrad Veidt's magnificent performance as Gwynplaine (a circus freak beloved by audiences who, as a child was subjected to a monstrous type of plastic surgery at the hands of a gypsy physician). As a result of Dr. Hardquanonne's surgical abuse, the adult Gwynplaine's face is frozen into the ghastly laugh-like smile which subsequently became the inspiration for the Joker character in Batman comics and movies as well as for the "Smiling Jack" logo of George C. Tilyou's Steeplechase Park in Coney Island.

The adult Gwynplaine lives with Dea (a blind beauty that he rescued in a snowstorm when he himself was abandoned as a child), Ursus (the man who took pity on them both and now uses them in his traveling sideshow), and Homo, their trusty German shepard. Based on a story by Victor Hugo, The Man Who Laughs offers plenty of opportunity for the kind of period costume spectacle that the silent era loved. Thanks to Hugo's vivid imagination, it has a juicy plot with plenty of strong character roles.

Without doubt, Gwynplaine's desire to be loved by someone who doesn't care about his personal tragedy tugs at the audience's heartstrings the same way that WALL-E's desire to strike a connection with Eve attempts to elicit sympathy. But the fact that Gwynplaine is, in essence, a decent soul trapped in a horrid body makes his story all the more pathetic. His trusty dog loves him. The blind but beautiful Dea loves him. However, he is cursed with low self esteem. Until political machinations in the royal court thrust him into a crisis (following the revelation that Gwynplaine is actually the sole living heir to the estate of Lord ClanCharlie), his life is fairly simple.

When all hell breaks loose, the story accelerates to a climactic chase scene in which Homo saves the day by clamping his fangs around the neck of the villain (Barkilphedro) and drowning him as Gwynplaine, Dea and Ursus make their escape. By that point -- goaded on by Clark Wilson's superb accompaniment on the Castro's mighty Wurlitzer organ -- the audience was on the edge of their seats. Nothing like that happened during the screening of WALL-E I attended. And I doubt it ever will.

Because, as the bitterly aging Norma Desmond insisted, back in her day they had faces.

No comments: