January 9, 2011

Stella Maris (1918)

Almost as soon as there were movies there were movie stars.  Curiosity, humor, and spectacle made movies a viable business, but stars made them the powerhouse industry they are today.  And the biggest star of them all - certainly of the day, and arguably of all time - was Mary Pickford, the original America's Sweetheart (born Toronto, 1892).

I'd never seen a Pickford film before, so I was eager to size her up as an actress, not merely a celebrity, and Stella Maris provided a good opportunity to do so thanks to Pickford's double roles: as the titular Stella, a paraplegic sheltered all her life from the injustice of the outside world, and as Unity Blake, a homely orphan who's known nothing else.

There was some discussion after the film about why she played both parts, and I think Mandie's review does a good job of summarizing the possible thematic reasons.  There is a certain symmetry between them, as if to suggest that if each girl had been born in the other's shoes, the same story would still have unfolded.  However, I also suspect that there was some politics involved in the choice.  Stella provides the gravitational pull at the center of the story, but Unity is the real protagonist, and the really juicy part to play.  With plain, dirty, squinched-up face, hunched shuffle of a walk, tempestuous attitude, and encounters with a strange new world, Unity is exactly the kind of challenging role any real actor wants to sink her teeth into... and exactly the kind of unglamorous, off-putting role most stars - or at least their agents - try to avoid.  Pickford gets it both ways here: As Stella, she provides the blonde-curled sweetheart her fans have come to see, and so gains the freedom to take the Unity part as far as she wants.  She is more than up to the task.  I wouldn't call it a revelatory performance, even accounting for the evolution of acting over the following years, but it's certainly clear her career was built on more than raw charisma alone.  More than the other actors, she seems aware of what she's doing with her eyes and her gaze, which is especially important as both characters spend a great deal of time taking in unfamiliar sights and situations, struggling to understand them.

On the other hand, her dog seems to be nearly as good at this.  I've seen movie animals hit a mark on command and tilt their head in that adorable, inquisitive way - but this dog makes subtle, constantly fluid expressions with his eyes that can't possibly be trained, can they?  I mean, it must be luck or patience or just audience presumption, but I swear that pooch must have been at the script meetings, and I mean holding his own, not just sitting in the corner.  I learn from IMDb that "Teddy the dog" had a lucrative career starring in numerous short films and was already pretty famous when he appeared here.  Not surprising: even in a top-tier full length feature he manages to steal the show at every opportunity.  The filmmakers obviously knew this:  Like Birth of a Nation, Stella Maris makes extensive use of narrowed irises to isolate characters (in basically the same way a spotlight would be used on stage), and especially in combination with double exposures to create "thought bubbles."  Probably the highlight of the film was when Teddy got his own thought bubble, and it just made perfect sense.

And now I seem to be talking about technique, which is good, because this film had a lot more than I expected.  In the three years since Birth of a Nation, there has been massive evolution in cinematography.  Cross-cutting.  Reverse-angle cutting.  Point-of-view shots.  Close-ups.  Earlier movies had these things, but briefly.  Tentatively.  Here they come as often and naturally as breathing.  And it isn't just technical - the photography is expressive.  The framing and the lighting mean things - there's real mise-en-scène (it's French, look it up).  And remember everything I said in the last review about recurring camera setups that always associate the same shot with the same location?  Gone. *Poof.*  The modern notion of a camera driven by dramatic necessity is already fully developed.  Everything is so much more fluid.  More organic.

The two best shots both involve Unity Blake.  In the first, she gazes down at an oval framed photo of the lovely, radiant Stella, and then looks up at the reflection of her own haggard visage, which the camera sees from over her shoulder within an oval framed mirror.  This is just fantastic use of symbolism, even before you add the extra seasoning: the two faces literally are the same person.  In the second shot, Unity approaches her dark deed that will climax the film.  She steps into a room, towards the camera, and in doing so steps out of the light and into the dark.  And then, again, a little extra spice: approaching close to the camera, she stops just as a thin ray of light falls across her eyes, causing them to shine like daggers in the dark.  I thought Orson Welles invented this stuff!  And what's so important about these kinds of shots is that they would never work on stage.  Even the thought bubbles could be (and were) done with spotlights, but now we are seeing sophisticated new thinking about how cameras are different from anything that came before.  Indeed, I am re-evaluating what I may get out of this project: clearly by the time we hit the 20s we'll have already reached all the important advancements, outside of special effects anyway.

I guess we'll see...

EDIT: After further reflection, I forgot to mention two other great shots.  One is a close-up that replaces the usual circular "iris" matte with a cross-shaped cut-out of the image for symbolic effect.  And the other is the very last shot of the film: they actually close on the classic withdrawing crane shot!  You know, the one in every romance where the camera pulls back into the air as the credits roll. Actually, in this case they didn't actually have a crane - it looks as though the camera man was just riding away in the back of a pick-up truck.  But it's impressive, nonetheless.  And apparently a cliche older than most of the directors who have used it.

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