Early DeMille and early Tarkovsky: Saturday at the movies

I saw two different movies at two very different theaters on Saturday.

The Cheat at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

I not only attended this screening. I was part of it. I introduced this 1915 Cecil B. DeMille melodrama at the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.

Among major American auteurs, DeMille stands alone as something of a punchline. Although his films were almost always commercially successful, they seldom got good reviews about most of them today have not aged well–unless you count their unintended camp value.

But DeMille deserves considerable credit as a pioneer. As much as any individual, he can be called the inventor of Hollywood. Not only was he one of the first filmmakers to build a studio in that particular Los Angeles neighborhood, but he was a genius at that very commercial mix of sex, sin, violence, and Christian morality–all washed down with lurid melodrama.

His early works were often brilliant, and none so much as The Cheat. James Card called it “a towering masterpiece of 1915.” The film stands out with its remarkable use of atmospheric lighting, creating a sense of the exotic, the foreign, and the dangerous. The film also makes brilliant use of Japanese screens, especially in its one truly violent scene.

The Cheat also made a star out of Sessue Hayakawa–it also made him into a matinee idol. At a time of extreme racism in America, women–including white women–swooned over this handsome Japanese immigrant.

It wasn’t just about looks. Hayakawa easily gave an best performance in this film. In 1915, actors were still figuring out the differences between film and stage acting. While his co-stars, Fanny Ward and Jack Dean, appear to be playing for the last row in the balcony, Hayakawa played for the camera.

Make no mistake, The Cheat is a racist film. Hayakawa plays the villain, a Japanese trader who has wormed his way into respectable society. Outward, he’s a polished and proper aristocrat. But he nurses a dangerous, uncontrollable lust for white women, and he lashes out cruelly when he doesn’t get his way with them.

But when you consider that The Cheat came out the same year as The Birth of a Nation, it doesn’t seem so bad.

Although The Cheat was made and released in 1915, all existing prints (to my knowledge) come from a 1918 re-release. By 1918, the USA and Japan were allies in World War I, so Paramount changed the intertitles, making Hayakawa’s character Burmese. (You could do that sort of thing very easily in a silent film.)

The feature was preceded by The Doll House Mystery, an entertaining two-reeler.

The 16mm prints screened for both films were serviceable but not exceptional. There were no tints and some shots looked washed out.

Judith Rosenberg, as usual, did an excellent job accompanying both films on piano.

Ivan’s Childhood at the Pacific Film Archive

Last night, the Pacific Film Archive opened the series The Poetry of Time: Andrei Tarkovsky with his first feature, Ivan’s Childhood. When I first read about this series, I felt it was an opportunity to finally dive into the great Russian director’s work.

And no, Ivan’s Childhood is not a prequel to Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.

The point of Ivan’s Childhood is that Ivan never really gets to have a childhood–or at least not an adolescence. When we first meet him, he’s happy, innocent, and loved by his mother. Then he wakes up from that dream to a far more horrible reality. It’s World War II, and the Germans have killed his family. Only 12 years old, he has joined up with a group of partisans fighting the occupiers.

The soldiers, most of whom love and care for Ivan, want to send him east to safety. But he refuses. His young heart burns only for revenge.

Is Ivan’s Childhood an anti-war film? Hard to say. It doesn’t shrink from the horrors of war, although it represents them entirely as the horrors of Nazi occupation. When the film was made in 1962, the memories of those horrors will still fresh for most Russians; films like this were catharsis, not escapism. And while Ivan’s single-mindedness comes off as strange and sad, it’s also completely understandable. The Nazis made his life impossible, and controlled anger is all he has left.

The film’s black-and-white visuals–mostly of swamp, denuded forests, and ruined buildings–create a sense of loss and sadness that matches the story. It’s a beautiful, haunting tale.

Those images were well supported by the excellent 35mm print screened Saturday night. It was from the PFA’s own collection.

Before the screening, Stanford’s Nariman Skakov introduced both this film and, to a greater extent, Tarkovsky’s general esthetic. He concentrated on the director’s love of very long takes, which was odd, since there are no such takes in Ivan’s Childhood. When he opened the floor up for questions after his talk, he didn’t get many. He should have done the Q&A after the film.

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