What good is a canon? It's a question that hovers in endless debate near cinephile culture. The idea of distilling cinema down to its "best" or "most essential" films is like a game or a thought experiment, and whether it be the AFI or Sight & Sound or a group of young Turks looking to rattle conventional wisdom, canon-making demonstrates nothing so much as a desire to assemble an expansive, fragmented, and still-evolving sense of film history into some sort of definitive order. Canons, each with its own biases, are useful chiefly as a starting point or a basecamp. The best answer is to always be looking, always curious. And cinema has barely more than a century to keep up with. I wonder how bibliophiles cope.
One of the virtues of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which begins on May 28th, is how it mixes classics and arcana on a level plane. So while this year's festival is a chance to see Greta Garbo in her prime, and while I doubt that anything else this weekend at the Castro Theatre (or anywhere) could be more transcendent than F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924) with a live orchestra, the lineup is, as always, a treasure trove of rarities. And it speaks to the robust film culture here in the Bay Area that even rarities play to a crowded and responsive house. These are films that have been shuttled to the archives, only recently restored, or remain incomplete, sometimes asking us to be both viewers and archaeologists. But there is a very comfortable sense that the furnishings of cinephile culture can (temporarily) disappear: all a film really requires is a screen, a dark room, and an inquisitive audience.
What follows are breakdowns of two such subjects for further study from this year's slate. My process for plucking them from the lineup was conscious if not particularly scientific: I'd never heard of either film or director before, both came out in the same year on opposite sides of the world, and both address mystical/supernatural subjects, which is something I always felt that silent film, with its rudimentary yet elemental effects, handled rather well. What I hadn't realized is that the two narratives share a kinship: both are stories of waylaid travelers, of planned voyages that, through cinematic conceits, are thrown off the rails.
The Cave of the Spider Women
Dan Duyu's The Cave of the Spider Women (1927, a.k.a. The Cave of the Silken Web) arrives at the festival as a notable rediscovery, in part because relatively little Chinese silent cinema has survived, and in part because, in its time and place, the film was such a success. Inspired by the classic Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West, Duyu's film was a record-breaking box office hit in Shanghai, even spawning a sequel (Cave of the Spider Women II!), but was considered lost for decades until a print surfaced in Norway in 2013.
As it stands today, the film does not exist in a complete, authoritative version, and its incompleteness is practically a text unto itself. Much of it is still missing, including the beginning; the print starts in medias res, and at around fifteen minutes in, a title card abruptly announces the arrival of Act Four. The intertitles are in both Chinese and Norwegian, and the Norwegian translator occasionally goes off-script to add tongue-in-cheek asides. (To throw in another layer of distance, the version I saw took its English translation from the Norwegian, not the original Chinese). I suspect that even if it were complete, the film would still retain a certain feeling of smallness. It's more of a short story than a novel, its appeal more scholarly than dramatic. But what remains are glimpses of fascination, a series of impressions viewed through a series of filters, with a modern take on an old text at its core.
The plot couldn't be simpler or more linear. During a holy quest, a monk is kidnapped by a group of spider spirits who take the form of beautiful women and bring him back to their cave. While the monk is beset with temptation, his comrades, including a Monkey spirit and a Pig spirit, mount a rescue. The silent era was cinema's most natural fit for myth and folklore; the downplay of words and absence of voices made it easy for actors to slip into storybook archetypes, turning a person into Man or Child or Hero or Angel (or Monk or Spider-Woman).
Yet the surprise of Cave of the Spider Women is that its treatment of folkloric material is hardly stately or atmospheric at all, not the way Murnau's Faust (1926) took darkness and light so seriously, or the way Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924) settled into a formal pageant. On the contrary, the film's style is downright rambunctious, closer to Georges Méliès and the way that cinema, quite apart from bringing cultural urtexts reverently to life, is a chance to play dress-up and have fun with how simple cuts can be magic tricks. In one scene, a spirit leaps out of a man's cup at a wedding, causing the man to comment that he must be drunk. In another, the Pig spirit's head is stolen, setting off an improbable slapstick routine between the villains and the Pig's headless-but-still-cogent body. (He gets it back, but puts it on backwards.)
Throughout all this the monk remains passive, like a statue of Buddha dragged through a series of setpieces, while the leading spider-spirit, played by Yin Mingzhu, takes focus. Her performance provides some of the film's most memorable images, but despite her role she is not photographed like a vamp or a femme fatale. Little about her appearance, or that of any of the spider women, is made to seem threatening or ominous, instead displaying a very friendly, vivacious sexuality. Quick research tells me that Yin was something of a flapper-era icon in 20s Shanghai, nicknamed Miss F.F. ("Foreign Fashion") and known for embracing Western style and culture. In fact, she had recently married the director, and the camera falls so naturally in love with her that by the end of the film, you halfway want the monk to just give in, marry her, and fade off together into the silken web. It is, of course, not to be. The monk is rescued, and in a wonderfully pyrotechnic sequence of silent fantasy, the cave is engulfed in "cleansing fire" while large spider puppets wriggle in pain. "Because she submitted to her desire, she was made to suffer," the intertitle dolefully announces. But it is impossible to take this capstone of morality at face value, or without a dose of irony. The ruckus and costume changes were too cheerful. The spider-women were having too much fun.
I'm reminded of an American film that came out the same year: Cecil B. DeMille's New Testament epic The King of Kings (1927). DeMille's film is far more reverent (to this Western viewer) in its approach to morality and theology, yet in an early scene showing a pagan orgy, DeMille couldn't help but have the camera drink it in. Moral intent is almost beside the point—cinema was always so irresistibly drawn to sin. So for all the ways that the Eastern mythology, culture, and visual design of The Cave of the Spider Women could be tagged with that ethnocentric word "exotic," what stuck out most was just how much of it fits into trends criss-crossing the globe. The spider-women are like Louis Feuillade's Vampires, turning villainy into a desire far more interesting than the hero's. The fascination with liberated, alluring women could just as easily star Louise Brooks. The figure of the Hare spirit—a little girl whose adorable, mischievous smile receives many appreciative cutaways—is as much a device of broad comic sentimentality as anything you can find in Chaplin. That this film comes to us via Norway, where it was reportedly the first Chinese film to be released, is itself a heartwarming footnote. It's a reminder that, while different nationalities have approached cinema in different ways, settling on different styles, economic structures, and narrative concerns, cinema was also the reigning art form in an era when national barriers came to be much more porous than ever before.
The Ghost Train
If Cave of the Spider Women saves most of its visual dynamism for the end, The Ghost Train (1927) flaunts it from the opening moments. The first image is a skull, which starts small and grows to fill up the screen. Then it begins to fade, and the eyes of the skull turn into the twin tunnels of a train line. A train (a miniature) shoots out, trailed by smoke, which then dissipates and forms animated letters spelling out the film's title. It's a fluid array of techniques on display, all within the first 30 seconds. The delight of this horror-comedy—and it is a delight, with no barrier to entry—is how it sustains this energy, exploring the elasticity of the frame.
I wonder if Alfred Hitchcock saw it. He was running in the same circles, and The Ghost Train was actually made by the same production company as his early films. Wasn't he the master, not only of suspense, not only of suspense comedies, but of building a movie around a train? From a storytelling standpoint, train travel was a godsend: strangers with different backgrounds and motives are placed together in the same space, and they can engage in action or dialogue while every passing second keeps them literally in motion. And so we meet our travelers, each introduced elegantly (and visually) as a comic type: an uptight temperance crusader; a recently-married couple who won't stop cuddling; a not-so-recently-married couple who won't stop arguing; and a British playboy who keeps to himself on trains, one imagines, so that he can put his feet up. But their travel is cut short, and they end up stuck for a night at a remote station where, rumor has it, a ghost train haunts the tracks.
The film was a co-production between Germany and the UK, and it is that special kind of co-production whose split origin feels not just economic, but cultural. Director Géza von Bolváry (a Hungarian who worked in Germany) laces the film with flights into expressionistic geometry, ghoulish atmosphere, and as much stylization as the story will bear. From Britain, the film gets its source material (a much-adapted play by Arnold Ridley) and a delicious streak of cheeky, mordant wit. For all its debt to German Expressionism, The Ghost Train fits into a very British tradition of stage and print, where ambassadors of the middle class and the bourgeoisie are stranded in a murder plot at an isolated location, leaving you with a bit of laughter, a bit of tension, and the uncomfortable suspicion that by the end, a detective figure will reveal themselves and tidy everything up.
Admittedly, this tradition is as much a liability as an asset; as in Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary (1927), the final, grounded urge towards tidiness works at cross purposes to all the ways cinema can evoke the extraordinary. It makes sense, then, that the evocation is so much more memorable and cohesive. A flashback is signaled by dollying the camera far backwards, leaving the characters suddenly in an island of light surrounded by darkness. In scenes of mounting tension, the collective mindset of the group is visualized with all their faces refracted to different parts of the screen. At one point, a frivolous toy gadget comes to life in a short stop-motion sequence, proving that there's sometimes no better reason for using a novel technique than that you can.
Towards the end, there is a moment that should make any surrealist proud. A strange woman runs in from the night, apparently insane and screaming bloody murder about phantoms. As her fear builds, she reaches a kind of ecstatic fit. The background goes black as the movie shifts into her dream state, and through her we see an apparition on the other side of a door. Back in grounded reality, she points at the door, and another character opens it, only to find that the apparition is actually there. It is a subtly mindbending reveal, a play of perspectives where imagined events bleed over into real ones. This kind of visual transmutation was one of silent cinema's greatest tools, and I'm not sure the eighty years since have done it better, or with more shrewd awareness of how to link emotional reality to the regular kind. For all I care, the sun can come up and the detectives can explain away as much as they like. But the illusion is fundamental to what separated cinema from the other arts: before your eyes, one thing becomes another.