Monday, February 9, 2015

The Phantom of the Opera (Andrew Galuska concert)

There are many effective moments in Universal's 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera, but the film doesn't exactly hang together and seems a wee bit slack -- there is the sense, as in many big Hollywood blockbusters, that we are waiting around, biding time in expectation of the big set-pieces.  And when those episodes occur, they are either over-staged, too wildly ambitious and, therefore, out of control or the opposite -- underwhelming.  The movie was immensely long when test-premiered and had to be radically cut, thereby rendering its expensive full orchestral score useless.  The movie's rhythm in the prints ordinarily shown seems to stutter and stagger:  there is either too much happening at one time or not enough.  Of course, it's hard to assess a silent film that is ninety years old -- we can't recapture the film's ambience when it was first shown and, indeed, existing versions of the movie probably don't exactly capture what was presented in November 1925 when the picture was first-released at New York's Astor Theater. The first part of the picture is good stuff, atmospheric, with the phantom visualized as an eerie shadow cast on the walls of the Paris Opera House.  The film is heavily influenced by German expressionism and the images of the corps de Ballet backstage fluttering around and expressing their fear in choral gestures, bouquets of women in white garments choreographed to pantomime unease and panic, are very effective.  The backstage "cellars" are suitably spooky, filled with hell-mouth sets and colossal headless idols as well as a sinister stagehand holding John the Baptist's severed head -- the decapitated head sometimes opens its eyes in an alarming manner.  The Phantom's underground lairs have a Piranesi-like gloom, a labyrinth of descending stairs over which Erik, the masked villain, leads a black horse over which the heroine is draped.  The woman enters the Phantom's world by passing through a mirror, a scene shot obliquely so as to make it look as if the heroine is actually absorbed by the reflecting glass, an image that was surely an influence on Cocteau and the source of similar sequences in the French filmmaker's The Testament of Orpheus.  The sets are enormous, indeed, so large that the director doesn't know what to do with them -- a set of the grand stairway in the opera house is so huge that it looks like the enormous steps in Griffith's Babylonian sequence in Intolerance, a stage that dwarfs the crowds on it and makes them look puny and indistinct, somehow achieving the exactly opposite effect to what was intended.  In the DVD that I saw on the 8th of February at Our Savior's Lutheran Church, the famous Technicolor sequence seemed faded and only the Phantom's crimson cape had enough color to stand out from greyish murk.  That said, the sequence of the Phantom as Death lurking in a huge terra-cotta statue on the top of the Opera House, his cape billowing in the gale force wind, is an astonishing image -- he emotes melodramatically next to statuary breasts the size of hubcaps.   The film's climax is messily protracted and overdetermined:  it's as if the director wanted to have the film's end summarize the climaxes of all possible films -- an immense mob hunts down the Phantom, while the heroine's lover and his idiot accomplice swoon while they are tortured in the villain's underground chambers; not content to channel Poe's "The Masque of Red Death", the film now enacts variations on "The Pit and the Pendulum" as cells alternately turn into ovens or fill with water.  Driven from his lair, the Phantom embarks on a wild carriage ride, brilliantly filmed as the madman's living skull flickers from light to dark.  Then, Chaney playing Erik, the Phantom, flees along the fa├žade of Notre Dame, an allusion to his success in the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame before being hounded to death and hurled into the black Seine by the ravening mob.  Throughout the picture, the acting is stylized and excessively melodramatic; the players are obviously impersonating the characters on the Gran Guignol stage three or four decades before the picture was made and so the way in which the player's move and gesture is intentionally over-the-top -- this is unfortunate to some degree because The Phantom of the Opera is a well-known film and people who are not familiar with silent movies will, perhaps, take the exceedingly melodramatic style of acting as characteristic of these films in general -- in fact, the movie seems to have been made to embody an intentionally archaic kind of acting.  Furthermore, the film is shot without much sophistication -- it has very few close-ups and the camera angles are often designed to look like a representation of a filmed play.  Lon Chaney is mostly masked throughout the film and doesn't really have an opportunity to exhibit his trademark pathos.  Although packed with action, the film still drags a bit in its mid-section.

I saw the picture accompanied by an organ score improvised by the virtuoso, Andrew Galuska,  The film was presented at Our Saviors Lutheran Church as part of a music series, a sort of recital and Galuska's thunderous accompaniment was thrilling and effective.  Galuska periodically referenced the Andrew Lloyd Webber score, particularly the signature pentatonic descending and ascending chromatic scales that serve as the Phantom's leit motif and his work was astonishingly inventive and powerful.  I only wish that Galuska had worked with a better print of the film -- it seemed to me that he used a poor quality public domain version of the movie, not properly reconstructed, and particularly damaged in the moments before the famous unmasking scene.  Galuska's version is the weird 1930 reissue that was released with sound and the movie begins with an extended and almost invisible sequence in which a man carrying a lantern in the catacombs harangues the viewers -- this scene was shot with recorded sound, but it makes absolutely no sense at all on screen if the picture is projected silent and, in fact, is off-putting to the audience (if this is their first experience of a silent film, it's not an auspicious start).  Later, the man with the lantern mysteriously appears just before the climax, once again, bringing the film to a halt with a dark, illegible and protracted sequence that is completely confusing.         

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