Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Great Movies: "Broken Blossoms"

Broken Blossoms
D.W. Griffith, 1919.

Let's not mince words. I don't care for silent movies, and I bet you don't either. You don't have to be an especially verbal person to miss dialogue. Having the action constantly interrupted by caption cards, all of which are on the screen long enough to let the very slowest of readers trudge through them, is a pain in the butt. The filmmakers, knowing this, keep the use of the cards to a minimum, but this causes problems too. It means that the actors need to express their communication through over-the-top miming of their emotions, attitudes, and intentions. Humor, where present, is reduced to witless slapstick. It's all very tiresome, for those of us used to the talkies.

But a project is a project, and Broken Blossoms is on the "Great Movies" list. And it is interesting enough, I suppose, from the perspective of the history of film, or of cultural attitudes, or whatever.

It is a sanctimonious and melodramatic tale with a heart of gold. Griffith was apparently chagrined by reaction to his Birth of a Nation, a groundbreaking film which had expanded the possibilities of movie-making -- but which had oddly glorified that bizarre amalgamation of campy dress-up and fascist brutality, the Ku Klux Klan. In Broken Blossoms, the hero is a Chinese man who comes to London hoping to spread the message of Buddhism to the West, an unlikely scenario that Griffith seems to be treating with respect and as a serious social critique, not as a gag. It might have worked better as a gag. The film staunchly affirms the equality of all humankind, both by contrasting an Asian hero with Anglo villains and, more bluntly, through preachy captions. Griffith's liberalism apparently did not extend to hiring decisions, however, as all of the Chinese roles are played by white actors.

Plot: A Chinese immigrant in a London slum tries to save a young girl from her abusive father, a thuggish prize fighter.

Dialogue: None. Silent, remember?

Visuals: You can tell that the craft of getting motion pictures on film was well understood by this point in history. The lighting, camera angles, cuts, and so on are all fairly polished and work well together in advancing a narrative. Still, the broad movements and expressions that the actors employ to compensate for the absence of language can't help but seem like hammy overacting today. The bad guy can't just sneer; he has to ooze sneering-ness in a way that no half-blind four year old in the back row of a crowded theater could possibly misunderstand. It gets tiring.

The affection of the lead character to the girl is unambiguously portrayed as romantic adoration. We are clearly meant to see that he is in love with her, albeit in a "pure" sort of way. Yet, he maintains a careful and constant few inches of distance, as Griffith strains to finagle a love story without breaking the then very firm taboo against interracial relationships. What makes a modern viewer more uncomfortable is the distinct edge of pedophilia -- the girl is only supposed to be fifteen years old -- but there's no evidence that the filmmakers gave this issue any thought. Funny how things change.

Prognosis: Of historical interest only.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A real dud, true, but if memory serves, it did take the Oscar for voice coaching.