The Seventh Art 2.0: The Sheik


The Sheik (1921) on youtube

If The Sheik brings to mind any one currently popular film, it’s Fifty Shades of Grey. The cultural phenomenon that has been Fifty Shades illustrates how complex sexual fantasy can be: the series is about a man who is possessive and controlling, who uses his patriarchal and financial power to press his partner into doing what he wants. (To be clear, I’m not talking about the stories’ BDSM elements.) And yet, the appearance of Fifty Shades in mainstream pop culture represented a feminist triumph inasmuch as it forced open space in the zeitgeist for the representation, expression, and discussion of (heterosexual) female desires on a scale usually reserved exclusive for (an equally narrow set of heterosexual) male desires. 

The phenomenon of Rudolph Valentino, the sex symbol of the early 1920s, parallels this story in many regards. Valentino’s meteoric rise to stardom was driven by the adoration of women. His prominence in film magazines and the money the studios were willing to spend on his films were responses to an overwhelming desire on the part of American women to gaze at Valentino. And yet, a movie like The Sheik frames the erotic fantasy that was the Valentino phenomenon within a story that denies any feminine sexual or social agency, that asks its viewer to accept the most base presumptions about femininity and masculinity—not to mention the “oriental” Other—that perverts kidnapping and psychological torture into the basis for a grand love story.

As the film opens, the resolutely independent Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) is in Baskra in colonial North Africa. Accustomed to the freedom afforded her by modern Western society, she refuses a marriage offer from another European. To demonstrate her defiance, she not only goes out alone to enjoy Baskra’s nightlife for the evening—she also sneaks into an Arab-only casino in disguise. There, she is surprised to find that the Arab royals are at the Casino to barter for wives, and, mistaking her for an Arabian woman, the dashing Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan has taken an interest in her. Discovering she is white, Hassan allows her to leave, but devises a plan to meet her again when he discovers that one of his compatriots has been contracted to take her on a safari the next day.

What follows is, quite simply, a kidnapping. While Lady Mayo is on her safari, the Sheik abducts her, bringing her into his lavish tent and implying in several scenes that he is on the verge of raping her. As Mayo, Ayres shows no sign of burgeoning attraction in these scenes, little hint that any part of the Sheik’s “seduction” is consensual. The camera might be understood to tell a different story—lingering close-ups on Valentino’s face are not lacking, even though, as an early-20s film, much of the action is still allowed to play out in long shot—but it is unquestionable that what is depicted is a form of sexual terrorism.

That this sexual terrorism—this wanton subjugation of a woman explicitly trying to claim her own agency in a world of men—is projected onto the foreign Other makes the film, in its dominant strokes, all the more disgusting. It is easy to recognize, from the perspective of 100 years, the way that The Sheik displaces Western society’s own misgivings about liberated femininity onto the allegedly barbaric colonial subject. Predictably, Lady Mayo eventually relents, realizing that she loves the Sheik—though it takes being kidnapped by an “even worse” Arab chieftain to realize her everlasting love. The shrew is thus tamed, without the film ever having to make shrew-taming the official position of its male European characters.

But in assembling this familiar story about the lascivious Easterner successfully seducing the suffragette, The Sheik clearly runs into a problem: it can’t simply endorse racial mixing, as if a white woman would wilfully submit to the advances of a nonwhite cretin. Thus it includes a last-minute twist: as Valentino’s Sheik lies prone, wounded while gallantly defending Lady Mayo, she notes an odd physical feature of his. Turning to the Sheik’s close European friend Raoul (Adolph Menjou), Mayo intones (via title card, of course), “But his hands are so large for an Arab.” 

This sublime example of racist ideology’s absurdity is answered with Raoul’s simple explanation that, in fact, Raoul is an orphaned European, half Spaniard and half British, who was raised by the previous Sheik as his own son. This straw of information breaks the camel’s back: Mayo can now love her attempted rapist without reservation, knowing that he has secretly been white (white enough, anyway) the whole time.

What can we take away from this movie, full as it is of the most obviously reprehensible tropes? How can we square the fact that this movie is explicitly about denying women sexual agency with the fact that women drove its popularity? A pessimistic take is that in The Sheik the fantasy of Valentino is appropriated, funneled toward culturally conservative ends, and that is certainly true. But it may help to remember that visual pleasure is not so easily hemmed in by narrative. We might recognize that partaking in the enjoyment of Valentino's face, of his figure in the stylized robes of Hollywood’s “Arab,” and daydreaming about being forcefully taken into his tent, is not the same as submitting in real life to the kind of treatment Mayo is subject to—just as we may castigate Fifty Shades for conforming to so many negative tropes about heterosexual romance, but not uniformly condemn the people who find pleasure in such stories.

The Seventh Art 2.0: Our Hospitality

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The copy of Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality on Youtube looks great, and this is because it’s a rip of a DVD released by Kino International. Kino is one of the best sources for silent films on disc, and perhaps it’s here I should emphasize that this series is not meant to dissuade anyone from owning physical media. Indeed, I think owning physical media is almost an imperative for people interested in film and TV; Youtube, Netflix, and the other services are convenient, but even when you “buy” a film on iTunes or Amazon, you’re not buying it: you’re licensing it from its owners. You can’t loan it to friends or rip it to your hard drive (which is, by the way, legal)—you don’t own it. One can’t buy everything, so streaming services like Youtube can expand our horizons. But if you’re into silent film, I’d encourage you to pick up some discs from Kino. They do good stuff.

Keaton’s Our Hospitality is one of the comedian’s best films as a director, but it’s also one that contains fewer overt physical gags than classics like Sherlock Jr. (1924) and The General (1927). It sets its sights elsewhere: the film is a parody of the kind of romantic melodrama popular in the teens and early 20s, particularly those associated with the director D.W. Griffith. Griffith’s films were often sentimental portraits of the antebellum South, and they set the mold for Hollywood’s idealized portrait of womanhood and chivalry, the moral struggles of simple people that climax in heroic deeds. His then-recent hit Way Down East (1920) had concerned a woman (Lillian Gish) who is seduced, impregnated, and betrayed, its climax sublimating this intense emotional drama into a thrilling rescue of mother and child on a partially frozen river.

Our Hospitality likewise concludes with its male hero rescuing the object of his affection from watery death, but that male hero is the slight Keaton—who is not racing across ice blocks to grab the heroine, but hanging awkwardly over the precipice of the waterfall by a rope caught on a branch. Keaton’s typical persona, with his small frame and impassive face, is, as usual, part of the joke. Far from the typical melodramatic hero, he is not someone who makes things happen, but to whom things happen. 

In the story, set in the 1830s, Keaton’s character has returned to his hometown, where his father was killed in a duel with a rival family years before. This history is given in an opening sequence devoid of humor, a straightforward melodramatic involving a nighttime storm, a panicked mother, and a shootout in the dark. Fearful for her baby’s life, the widow flees to New York City, which Our Hospitality jokingly depicts as a two-street, rural town. Then, grown and eager to claim his inheritance, Keaton departs for the South, taking a rickety, primitive train whose tracks can be adjusted by hand. The convention of melodramatic coincidence necessitates that on this train Keaton meet and fall for the daughter of the rival family, and be invited over for supper to a house full of men who want to kill him. 

Part of the humor is in the actors chosen to enact these melodramatic conventions. Far from the honorable hero or passionate lover, Keaton’s character is both self-interested and stoic. The head of the rival family, the father of his love interest, is less a southern aristocrat and more a typical vaudevillian “heavy”—a tall, portly man with an absurd mustache. 

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Calling the parody subtle would be a gross overstatement, but Our Hospitality does find the conventions of the Southern melodrama fertile ground for humorous scenarios. Realizing Keaton is a man he’s sworn by family duty to kill, one of the rival family’s sons stops in to ask to borrow a pistol at every store he passes while carrying on a conversation with his target, Keaton. Discovering another of the brothers hiding behind a shed struggling with his pistol, the hyper-oblivious Keaton un-jams it and shoots it for him. The rival family’s sense of southern hospitality forbids that they shoot a man who is a guest in their home; an amusing sequence has them trying to trick Keaton into stepping out of the house so they can shoot him.

To me, though, where Our Hospitality really distinguishes itself from other silent comedies of the era is in its storytelling and its use of the camera. While the humorless prologue is perhaps a bit long, the story is tightly controlled and expertly paced, with the humor arising organically from the story. And the camerawork distinguishes itself from other comedies in the film’s use of composition in the frame. In general, the frame of the film image is more important to the humor of Keaton than that of Chaplin or Lloyd: to them, the frame is simply where the action happens, but for Keaton it is a player in the action, and its meticulous arrangement can express character, theme, and humor. In films like Playhouse (1920) and Sherlock, Jr. (1924), in-camera effects self-consciously push the boundaries of the cinematic frame. 

In Our Hospitality, Keaton uses balanced, often symmetrical frame compositions that have sometimes a certain humor in themselves. Perhaps the trademark shot of his films is the frontal shot of Stone Face himself, situated directly in the middle of shot and directing his impassive gaze almost directly at the camera. Inside the rival family’s plantation, Keaton uses staging in depth and frames within the frame to express themes and gags; the film’s two most effective gags—one involving a waterfall, the other a horse in a dress—consciously use the perspective of the camera as part of the joke.

These days, there’s little point in continuing the old Chaplin/Keaton debate, but to indulge the Keaton side of the argument for just a second: at least in the 1920s, Keaton does seem to be the one who is most interested in playing with the cinematic image itself. The effects of camera perspective, composition, and even editing come alive in the films of Keaton in a way they do not in Chaplin. And this Keaton is able to do while often maintaining a more rigid narrative structure than most Chaplin features, which tend to be very episodic. 

That being said, Keaton’s films, particularly this one, can feel somewhat mechanical: his approach to narrative and character is more detached, much more ironic than Chaplin’s. While Chaplin, initially an anarchic vaudevillian, came to believe in the humanity of his character, Keaton’s Stone Face persona has always been a symbol of ironic distance from the machinations in which he is caught. Chaplin’s passionate tramp recognizes that mechanized labor is exploitative and struggles free; Keaton’s young man feels the waterfall coming and puts up an umbrella.

The Seventh Art 2.0: Berlin, Symphony of a Great City


Youtube is a veritable treasure trove for those interested in silent film. With many of the surviving films of the 1890s-1920s in the public domain, and given the relatively low viewership numbers, copyright claims are rare. This series, named after early film critic Riccioto Canudo’s defense of cinema as “The Seventh Art” features a new silent film of artistic and/or historical importance that can be found on Youtube with each entry.

Today’s film: Berlin: Symphony of the Metropolis (Berlin: Sinfonie der Großstadt, 1927)

When a city becomes more than just a backdrop for the action in a film, when its idiosyncrasies play a role in the development of the story, we love to observe that that city is almost like a character in the film. But what is the character of a city? In the 1920s, an experimental and highly influential genre of cinema called the “city symphony” attempted to answer this question. More (or in some ways, less) than simple documentaries, city symphonies are essentially feature-length montages that attempt to create a cinematic portrait of a given city, capturing its movements and mirroring its rhythms in the pattern of the film image. 

Manhatta (1921) is usually recognized as the first city symphony or proto-city symphony, but the term itself comes from the genre’s paragon, Berlin: Symphony of the Metropolis (also translated as Symphony of a Great City, 1927), directed by Walther Ruttmann. The film is comprised of documentary footage, but Ruttmann was renowned as an animator by the mid-1920s, having applied his streamlined, modernist aesthetic to avant-garde productions (Lichtspiel: Opus 1, 1925), advertisements (Der Sieger, 1922), government propaganda (Der Aufstieg, 1926), and even big-budget productions (he animated Kriemheld’s premonitory vision of Siegfried’s death in the first part of Fritz Lang’s excellent Die Nibelungen, 1924). His work on Berlin marked a turn to the creative assembly of documentary footage that would last, unfortunately, into his time producing propaganda for the Nazi regime in the 1930s and ‘40s. 

(All of Ruttmann’s pre-Nazi films are available on a single, region-2 DVD release that I highly recommend if you have the dough and a way to play European discs. Otherwise, though, the links above will lead you to his filmography.)

In 1927, Fox Film Europa engaged Ruttmann to edit together footage of Berlin shot by legendary cinematographer Karl Freund (The Last Laugh [1924], Metropolis [1927]). The idea of a documentary portrait of Berlin, at the time Europe’s fastest-growing city and the center of artistic innovation, came about as a cheap way to fulfill production quotas: according to German regulations, a certain percentage of films exhibited in theaters had to be German productions. As Fox Film Europa’s primary business interest was moving Fox Film productions (the company had not yet merged with 20th-Century Films) into Europe, Berlin was intended as a so-called “quota film,” to free up room to move more American films into the German market. 

Its most recent model was previous city films like Die Stadt der Millionen (The City of Millions, 1925), a documentary produced by the German film monopoly Ufa just a couple of years before. While Die Stadt der Millionen showed a certain interest in cinematic effects—including animated and stop-motion sequences, staged flashbacks, and composite imagery—it had been a rather staid, factual documentary of Berlin and its environs. Given his background in experimental animation, Ruttmann had something else in mind: a study of the forms of the city, as expressed in the movements of workers, idlers, performers, architecture, machines, transportation, construction, commerce, and entertainment. Berlin: Sinfonie der Großstadt would create musical movements out of the city’s rhythms and formal correspondences, pieces that have imagistic accelerandos and ritardandos, crescendos and decrescendos.

The term “city symphony” may reference Ruttmann’s film, but the name of the film itself comes from cinema’s analogy to music, which was frequently observed by its early theorists: cinema does not just capture real-world movement—it tracks change in time. Just as melody does not inhere in either of two individual notes but in the difference between those notes, movement does not consist of a single image, but of the difference between one image and the next. Movies do for the eye what music does for the ear. This, anyway, was the notion of many early champions of film, including Ruttman and fellow makers of “absolute film,” a genre of animation that dealt in abstract forms and movement. 

Ruttmann opens Berlin by referencing his absolute films of previous years. It begins with a close-up shot of gently moving water, which fades into shifting horizontal lines of white and black that run the length of the screen. As the movement of these lines accelerate, geometric shapes emerge and disappear behind them: a circle, a thick rectangle, two thin rectangles that pivot on an axis, falling from the top to the bottom of the screen. In a graphic match, the film cuts to railroad barriers falling into place. A train speeds by the camera, and we’re treated to a montage of sights from the train as it chugs across the German countryside: rapidly disappearing railroad ties, crisscrossing telegraph and power lines, the railroad wheels themselves. The speed of the editing intensifies as we begin to recognize in the images the simultaneous combination of abstract shapes that Ruttmann’s animation has already shown us.

The analogy between highly abstract shapes and rhythms and the modern world undergirds Ruttmann’s approach to the material of Berlin. With this opening scene comes his thesis statement—that the cinema can reveal the underlying “true” forms of the city through montage (meaning, in a broad sense, editing) that reveals analogies in shape and rhythm. The train slows down and pulls into Anhalter Bahnhof (once Berlin’s greatest train station; today merely a bomb-scarred facade), and the film, likewise, enters Berlin. Throughout, it asks the viewer to find analogies through its juxtapositions: between industrial machines and modern architecture; between masses of workers trudging to their jobs and regiments of soldiers marching in the streets; between the incessant movement of communication networks (telephones, typewriters, telegraphs) and the chaos of animal life; between mannequins and modern humans.

The overriding analogy, however, is between kinds of movement, and particularly the movement of the film image and the various kinds of movement in the city. This movement is structured into five acts, structured around themes (e.g., work, shopping, entertainment) and times of day, that each contain their own patterned accelerations and decelerations, both within the image and between the images. Berlin follows the intense visuality of the silent image to a logical extreme, creating one of the finest examples of what film could be before the advent of sound. Although it has been critiqued over the years for its tendency to idealize and depoliticize social relations—explicitly reducing them to mere forms to be played with, which critics have seen as foreboding Ruttmann’s fascist turn—Berlin: Symphony of the Metropolis remains a masterwork of the silent cinema, one of the greatest formal accomplishments of an era.