Monday, February 16, 2009

The Great Movies: Pandora's Box

Pandora's Box
G. W. Pabst, 1929

I think I've read that there were people around back in the day who thought that adding sound to movies would ruin them. It's kind of hard to imagine that perspective now. Stripped of the fundamental ability to depict people having conversations with each other, silent movies seem incredibly limited in the kind of stories that they can tell. It is no wonder that slapstick and swashbuckling were popular during the silent era; those are among the few realms of human endeavor that don't require words.

That's why you have to respect Pandora's Box for its ambition, if nothing else. Battleship Potemkin was a moving propaganda poster, The General was a long chase scene, and Metropolis was a visual extravaganza posing as social criticism, and you can still tell why they were successful. But Pandora's Box tries for something much more difficult, the silent drama. And it pulls it off surprisingly well.

What makes it work is terrific acting. The leads project a lot of subtlety of mood and intent, and there is a large cast of extras who always perform very naturally in the background. Characters are actually nuanced, something other than heroes, villains, or dupes. Pandora's Box is the only silent film I've seen thus far that you could say this about.

Plot: It was probably a little hackneyed even then: a girl from the wrong side of the tracks wants to break into show biz, but can't ever catch a break. During her decline and fall, she drags many a many down with her. People are forever bursting into rooms where couples who aren't supposed to be kissing are kissing.

Visuals: I was impressed by the composition of the scenes. The settings look authentic, and the depth of activity in the background establishes mood and veracity.

Dialog: n/a

Prognosis: If we didn't have the talkies, I'd think this movie was GREAT. Since we do, its entertainment value plunges to virtually nil. Mostly interesting to people with a particular enthusiasm for the silents, I'm afraid.


Eversaved said...

OMG, help.

I am commenting on this post just because it's the first.

Why is it that every time I slack off on blog reading your blog becomes more fantastic!? I have so much reading to catch up on now!

PS Everything I also write about my work is highly fictionalized.

PPS I might read at work in my "planning periods" tomorrow. Please don't use sitemeter to track me down and turn me in.

Michael5000 said...

Nothing brings out the enthusiastic praise like a review of an old silent movie noone has ever seen. I'll have to do more of those!

Rebel said...

LOL... I'm still waiting for you to see a movie that you genuinely enjoy. I have unrealistically high hopes that Singing in the Rain will be one of them.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I can't just stand blithely by and allow this on-going disparagement of the silents! (Or--well, I could, but I'm not a gonna.) There really are some of us out here who like the silents, ya know, and deeply admire what film can do without sound. Pandora's Box is especially good for teaching film technique, because so much visual information is at work telling the story.

Your review is so positive, and then you turn down Your Thumb! Wah.

Michael5000 said...

@sis: Hey now! I don't have a thumb!

...well, I have thumbs, but I deliberately don't point them in a direction, or assign stars, or anything like that. The Prognosis isn't a summary judgement, it's my guess at who might enjoy it and why. "Mostly interesting to people with a particular enthusiasm for the silents," I said. You, my dear, have a particular enthusiasm for the silents, and behold: you like it! It weren't disparaging -- it was accurate!

...and now I will utilize an emoticon [ : ) ] to make sure you recognize my lightness of tone.