Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Good Day… Sunrise (1927), with Elizabeth-Jane Baldrey, National Centre for Early Music, York, Yorkshire Silent Festival

I have waited so long to see this film screened and with live accompaniment. Normally the film is shown with its score from the early talkie period - Sunrise being one of the first feature films with a synchronized musical and sound effects soundtrack - but as it is one of the toppermost films of the silent canon, I just had to see it done proper… and I couldn’t have chosen a lovelier venue or a better accompanist.

Elizabeth-Jane Baldrey gets more sonic variation from her harp than you’d expect; not only does she use the frame for percussion (fingers tapping to create the skin-crawling sound of scampering rats for Nosferatu…), she hits groups of strings with her palm to generate atonal power chords, picks off the harmonic sweet spots with alacrity – hard enough on a six-string – and genuinely creates a singular cinematic language from bliss to bedlam. She can even vary the tension on the strings using the foot pedal to create a kind of metallic sound: I have seen the future of accompaniment and it could be 47 string grunge!!

Margaret Livingston
She was on super form with Sunrise, and as with most of us, Janet Gaynor’s toupee aside, feels it is deservedly in high regard. She mixed improvisations with some lovely pre-scoring – honestly, if you don’t feel the fear when big George looms over tiny Janet in the boot, or, darn it, cry a tear, when the two finally re-connect, then you’re probably in the phantom zone. But Baldry doesn’t over-play the positive emotion in the film and the surprise, if you haven’t seen harp accompaniment before, is just how dark it can go.

Murnau’s film is a fable and as such has various elements of traditional Teutonic fairy stories, Grimm though they be. Yes, George O’Brien’s Man falls all too readily under the spell of the Woman form the City (Margaret Livingstone) but she has put a spell on him; a female version of Nosferatu whose silken stockings and knock-out undergarments, make him incapable of reason.

He agrees to kill his sweet wife because he is under the control of this jazz-age succubus, his assignations are even in the swamps, hardly the kind of place to charm a regular flapper: there is demonic power at play and Janet Gaynor’s Wife knows just by the dark shadow cast by her huge husband that all sense of himself has left.

George O'Brien towers over Janet Gaynor
After he pulls back, he repeatedly says “don’t be frightened of me” … a mantra with little persuasion given his actions and it’s only when the couple are thrown together by the alien world of the city that they begin to discover each other again. They go to a hair salon where George gets a shave and Janet hold on to her wig for dear life. When glamourous Jane Winton (a small but key role) arrives to offer the strapping lad a manicure – way to “un-sex” him now – he looks down in horror and declines and it’s another sign that he’s coming to his senses.

The two head to a nightclub after George rescues and escaped piglet (long story) and the band plays a peasant tune allowing the tow to show the townies what real dancing is: it’s a romantic display between two lovers and the jaded jazzers step back in respect. Oddly, one man keeps on replacing the shoulder straps of a slinky lady next to him, almost as if the couple’s dance has raised the bar of morality…

The couple walk through Murnau’s carefully choreographed streets as traffic passes them by and they even end up in an imagined field of blossoms. They are making their own reality.

The City sleeps as they walk
 When they get their photographs taken, it is not in a formal pose but in a clinch the photographer is delighted to capture. He seen enough posturing and recognises unconditional expression when he sees it.

All the other drama is there to enable this sunrise of a new devotion and naturally Murnau creates a universe of unreal perspectives – part set/part camera angles – architecture from a Europe left behind and a city of dreams and impossible structure – models in the foreground and at the back to create impossible depths and the impression of an endless city in constant flow. Amongst this emerge two humans in song, once more in perfect accord despite his mad moments of doubt.

It's interesting to compare with Murnau’s later City Girl which also features a young couple under pressure only they are very much in the real world of economics and more everyday wrong-doings. Sunrise has maybe more in common with the same director’s Faust?

George passes the Jane Winton test...
Technically it is a, frequently astonishing, film with those forced perspectives – gauze was used in the windows of some city scenes in order to reveal the extraordinary elaboration beyond. The two cinematographers, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, maximise the anxious angularities and there are countless dolly shots as they cut through scenes placing the viewer deep within the heart of the interior stories of lives defined by locations: from the secret meeting with the seductress in the swamps to city streets melting away to reveal those blossoms.

In truth there's so much to discuss about the film, even weighed down by the expectations of its enduring reputation, this is a film with very high levels of content from all parties. I even watched it again just to grab these few images... result hundreds of screen shots that are all mini-marvels in their own right.

The peasant dance is completely free of city formalities - just pure passion
The storm at the end is pathetic fallacy in excelsis completing the lover’s journey with the final test of fate and faith. Elizabeth-Jane’s harp flowed alongside the conflagration and in contrapuntal opposition to thunder-cracks and flash. In her hands the harp is so flexible, fragile and fierce; the perfect instrument for Murnau’s timeless fantasy.

While George and Janet perform so well we shouldn’t overlook the playing of Margaret Livingston who gets her clutches into the country boy but is surely driven by something more than malice; Murnau always had a soft spot for his vampires.

The National Centre for Early Music is situated adjacent to the 11th century St Margaret's Church,  which today was illuminated by the almost unnatural sunlight of a York spring day; sun streaming through the churchyard trees across hundreds of bluebells still in full bloom. A splendid place and one serving York Minster Ale… the scene was well set.

Sunrise is available on Blu-ray and DVD combo from Eureka, but I’d gladly swap all of that for this experience of FWM and E-JB in the EMC at YSFF18.

Full details of the excellent programme for this year is available on the Festival's website

No, er, not the hair... it's erm, a very special cut...

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