Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Blot

I would like to claim that The Blot (1921) is a masterpiece, an important film in the history of cinema that has retained its interest and remains compelling today.  The movie's director, Lois Weber, was one of the most important film makers in the silent era, the peer of Griffith and Von Stroheim.  Weber made pictures designed for female audiences and she branded her work in terms of gender -- she exemplified a kind of art rooted in her sexual identity sixty years before this sort of thing recovered its cachet.  The Blot was made at a studio in Santa Monica operated by Weber and devoted to the production of films that she devised.  She wrote and directed her films, didn't rely on literary precedents, and made pictures on so-called women's issues -- subjects like prostitution and abortion.  But, although she was very much a feminist, Weber also had many conventionally sentimental and, even, piously didactic notions -- she preaches almost without respite in The Blot and this detracts from aspects of the film that have real power.  Furthermore, feminism is not incompatible with other more reactionary ideas -- Griffith was a world-class film maker, certainly the equal of Eisenstein, but he was also profoundly racist; Weber, who closely resembles Griffith in many ways, is obviously committed to a feminist vision but, also, structures her film's to endorse conventional wisdom, including some ideas that we would see as noxious today -- for instance, the film's reflexive anti-immigrant bias. The didactic tendency in Weber's films, very obvious in The Blot, and makes her pictures seem more tedious than they actually are -- watching her movie, you have the sense that the damn thing is actually more interesting than it seems.

The Blot concerns a subject rarely considered in films -- home economics.  A middle-aged long-suffering wife manages her shabby genteel household on the tiny salary of a professor at the local university.  The man is not paid a living wage and his wife, who bears the brunt of their poverty, has to constantly economize.  The professor is a mousy little fellow, mocked by his students, particularly a triumvirate of cocky undergraduates from wealthy families. (A title explains "Men are just boys grown tall".)  He has a beautiful daughter, Amalia, who works as a librarian.  One of the three campus hooligans, a man named Philip West is intrigued by the young woman and pays court to her.  West competes for her affections with a minister, a young man who is also humiliatingly poor -- his shoes are scuffed and worn.  (At one point, he polishes his shoes with goose grease, goes on a date with Amalia, and has to fend off her cats who take a predatory interest in his boots.) 

Amalia's family lives next door to prosperous Swedish immigrants.  The Swede patriarch makes shoes "to ruin the feet of society women" and earns as much as "100 dollars a week."  Amalia's mother looks down upon the Swedes as being uncultured, vulgar, and nouveau riche.  The Swedish housewife, for her part, taunts her impoverished neighbors by putting trays of rich food that the professor's family can not afford in her window.  At one point, she even moves the family's garbage can so that the cats owned by the Professor's family, which eat from her leftovers, won't have access to the food.  David, one of the prosperous Swede's children, secretly loves the comely Amelia and wants to help her.  Accordingly, Amelia is the center of romantic interest between three men -- the church-mouse poor pastor, the flamboyant Phil West, and the shy, kindly David. 

Amalia's mother hopes that her daughter will make a good marriage.  When Phil West courts her, she uses all of the family resources to host a lavish tea party.  This leaves the family without money for food.  In a painful scene, the professor's wife tries to buy a chicken on credit from a local grocery -- she is refused.  She retreats to her house and seeing a plump chicken displayed in her neighbor's window as a taunt, sneaks into her adversary's back yard, and snatches for the chicken.  Amalia sees this from an upstairs window and is mortified -- she literally shrieks and staggers backward as if fleeing from a ghost.  (In fact, Amalia's mother hasn't stolen the chicken -- she puts it back on the window sill.)  Phil West, who has seen the professor's wife abjectly begging for credit, in the grocery puts together a basket of food and sends it anonymously to the professor, a man that he has now come to respect.  Amalia doesn't know about this and thinks that the chicken her mother has roasted was stolen from the Swedes -- this crime is the titular "blot".  There are further complications.  In the end, Amalia accepts Phil West's overtures and, presumably, will marry him.  The final scenes of the movie are heartbreaking and extremely effective (and, also, unexpected).  The poor minister, who Amalia probably really loves, comes courting a last time.  He is rejected.  We see a luminous close-up of Amalia's face displaying a complex array of conflicting emotions -- it's a superb and unforgettable image.  Then, we see the rejected pastor walking away.  A final close-up registers the anguish in his face, his sense of deep, almost tearful sorrow.  In a longer shot, he walks down the street and, on this disquieting note, the film fades to black. 

The movie is relentless in its portrayal of genteel poverty.  Amalia is literally dying of starvation in some scenes.  She has a cold because her shoes have lost their soles.  We see her sitting on her bed, carefully stitching cardboard into her shoes, as she shivers with fever, her pale skin almost translucent, every bit as fragile and helpless as Lillian Gish.  Almost every aspect of the film is effective -- the photography is clear, although without flourishes.  The acting is very persuasive.  The picture is fluently edited, designed on the basis of people directing either loving, or yearning, or hostile glances at one another.  All aspects of the social milieu are presented with loving detail -- the rather patrician, Phil West, drives a boat-sized Packard.  The Swedes have a brand new Ford, a model T.  And the poor professor's family have to walk through gales of rain.  But the whole thing is highly schematic, not really predictable, but certainly tendentious -- the bleak ending came as a surprise to me.  I can't quite account for my sense that the film is strangely tedious.  Perhaps, others who see this fascinating picture will disagree with me.  (The Blot will air as part of a tribute to female movie makers on September 7, 2017 on Turner Classic Movies.) 


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