Thursday, 22 May 2014

New wave… The Mender of Nets (1912)

How many art movements have started and been at their creative peak, with a reasonably small group of people working and collaborating in close proximity? From the aesthetes squeezed into Le Deux Maggots or The Fitzroy Tavern to the rockers in Sun Studios, the Cavern or CBGBs… there were “scenes” involving a few dozen who changed their artistic worlds over coffee, beer and the odd fight.

It’s inevitable that every big bang starts with a singularity and then expands outwards gathering mass from the closest objects before establishing a broader, “universe”? So it was that the second full decade of film saw a new wave of American artists working closely together to improvise and innovate the form towards the structure which would go on to form the basis for the mainstream for years to come.

Charles West, Mabel Normand and Mary Pickford
D.W. Griffith was at the centre of things working with ground-breaking cinematographer G.W. “Billy” Bitzer along with some of the actors who came to define the art of motion picture performance. In The Mender of Nets – made early in 1912 – he worked with two of the most naturalistic: Mabel Normand and Mary Pickford. Whilst Normand was a straight-faced, instinctive, comedian on a par with Roscoe Arbuckle (and later Charlie), Mary had only Lillian Gish who could possibly rival her subtle and uncanny understatement.

Recognising this, Mary gets a lot of “face time” in Nets… the film begins and ends with her sitting against a stunning cliff-face backdrop and you strain to catch every nuance of expression… always to be rewarded with a glimpse of real hope, love and pain… even in a story of relative predictability.

Mary plays the eponymous net-mender who sits against the seaside backdrop until she is joined by a couple of fishermen, one of whom, Charles West, proposes to her. Mary celebrates her engagement with her father – holding out the ring and admiring it as you do but her beau slips off and encounters his “weakness” his former girlfriend – Mabel Normand.

Mabel’s an earthier character than Mary – although it’s good to see the latter playing her age (she was 19 at the time of filming) – but she’s still easily hurt and her ex’s decision leaves her distraught. Off he goes but her brother, Charles Hill Mailes, see’s what’s going on and tries to knock the fellow’s block off. Easily repulsed by the younger, fitter man, he returns home and grabs his gun, much to Mabel’s shock.

Mabel's concerned
He stomps off in search of the man and is seen by Mary… and there’s a desperate daisy-chain of pusuit as Mary follows him to her fiancé’s and Mabel sets off to prevent catastrophe for both the men in her life.

There’s real tension over the closing part of the film as you wait for tragedy and braced in hope for some kind of happy ending.

It’s deceptively simple with exceptional shots from Bitzer and slick editing from Griffith who was churning out these one-reelers with regular ease. He knew what he had with his leads and gives Normand plenty of screen time to show despair, hope and disappointment.

But it’s Mary Pickford who takes the laurels: Bitzer just had to point his camera and shoot such was her mastery of understated, film acting. Up on the screen the audience would get the closest possible view of the  her medium-shot emoting and at one point, she moves up to and past the camera in much the same way as Elmer Booth in TheMusketeers of Pig Alley released later in 1912.

The Mender of Nets (1912) remains a poignant short story and retains a surprise even for jaded eyes. It was available on Milestone’s Sparrows DVD but now seems out of print and copyright. You can find a decent copy at the Internet Archive: Mary and Mabel – what’s not to like?

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