Sunday, November 14, 2010

You say "prostitute" like it's a bad thing

Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929) has always been treated as the lesser younger sibling of the first collaboration between director G.W. Pabst and incandescent actress Louise Brooks, Pandora's Box. And certainly, it has nothing like the light, glancing touch or the existentialist amorality of the earlier film. Diary is a melodramatic fable, of how broken families breed corruption. Nonetheless, it still has the amazing Brooks and its share of iconic images and moments. For example, if you're in a rush (and why are you reading my blog when you're in a rush?), start the video above at around 1:35. There in a luminous close-up, Brooks enjoys her first trepidatious sip of champagne (translation: illicit sex) and finds she enjoys it. There is as good an example of silent film acting as you could see. (I wish I 'd known Brooks's work during my film course last year -- I used Lon Chaney as my exemplar of silent film acting, but he is too often unreliably stagy, whereas Brooks is Pure Film.)

This close-up contains almost the entire essence of the film -- that without a real sense of identity, as provided by a circle of loving people -- putting yourself for sale in the world, as represented by literal prostitution in this case, is as good a way as any for defining yourself and obtaining power over your circumstances as any. (Especially true when your family is ready to sell you and not even let you share in the profits!)

Late silent film reached an astonishing height of efficiency, compression and expressivity. Even today, screenwriters wrestle with backstory -- how to get the information out with an elegant and organic way, rather than the manner of the housekeeper in The Real Inspector Hound: "Hello, the drawing room of Lady Muldoon's country residence one morning in early spring...I hope nothing is amiss because we are completely cut off from the world..." etc.

Look at the first few minutes of the film, which get so much information across so quickly with the minimum of titles and the maximum of facial reaction, setting out not only the facts but the social context of those facts:

The film is both more explicit about sex and more conventionally moral than Pandora's Box (could this be because it's based on an actual memoir of a "fallen woman"?), and even contains the kind of message for the audience, satirized by the play and film Chicago: "My audience loves me. And I love them. And they love me for lovin' them and I love them for lovin' me. And we love each other. And that's cause none of us got enough love in our childhoods."

Never mind. There's not much to analyze in this film, and if I continue it will be only to describe and praise the subtextual clarity and precision of its storytelling, time better spent seeking out the movie and watching it from beginning to end.

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