Classic Cult: Silent

With The Artist already receiving huge critical acclaim despite the awards season having only just begun, it seems appropriate to look back at some of the most influential silent films that have recently received a surge of interest.

The early shorts that emerged during cinemas infancy are extraordinarily insightful, and, despite technical limitations, illustrate incredible ingenuity and artistic skill. Georges Méliès’ La Voyage dans la Lune which features the iconic image of a spaceship landing in the eye of the moon, was recently alluded to in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and remains a must see for anyone with an interest in cinematic history. Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film Un Chien Andalou is another short that has received cult status. Presenting a series of tenuous scenes that attempt to depict dream logic in narrative flow, its haunting representation of a woman’s eye being sliced in half has become famous.

Horror was a popular genre during the silent era and was dominated by German expressionist directors. Films such as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, which remains a chilling cult classic, while Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is stunning with its elaborate sets and dreamlike sequences. It has also been cited as the first film to introduce the ‘twist ending’.

Silent comedy is best known through the work of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. While The General is often cited as Keaton’s best film, it is exceeded by Sherlock Jr. in terms of impressive special effects and unconventionally humorous situations. Chaplin, known predominately for his endearing character ‘The Tramp’, created heart-rending comedy that is perhaps best realised in his film City Lights.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is the first true science-fiction masterpiece in film. Its exploration of the social crisis between workers and owners, through a dystopic vision that mirrors the capitalism of Marx and Engels, is both powerful and unforgettable. The precursor to all modern sci-fi, it returned to the public eye in 1984, when Giorgio Moroder released a restored version featuring a soundtrack from artists including Freddie Mercury, Jon Anderson and Adam Ant.

The best love story of the silent era has to be Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. A poignant depiction of a married couple that looks at the fragile nature of human relationships, it offers a bit of everything, making it an outstanding piece of cinema.

Perhaps one of the most enduring scenes in silent film can be found in the dramatisation of the mutiny that took place on board the Russian battleship Potemkin in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. The massacre of civilians on the Odessa steps is as iconic as it is horrendous and is paid homage to in many modern classics.

However, the finest silent film of all time has to be Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. A depiction of the trial, imprisonment, torture and execution of Joan of Arc, its extreme close-ups featuring actors without make-up and incredible performance from Renée Jeanne Falconetti make it one of the most harrowing films of all time.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Jan 24th 2012.

Classic Cult: Musicals

Musicals as a genre within film have been approached somewhat apprehensively in recent years and yet they formed an integral part of the formation of modern cinema. The transition that occurred in the 1930s from the silent films, popularised by luminaries including Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, to a new form of entertainment made possible through the arrival of sound marked the beginning of the musical feature.

However, beyond the success of the early musicals that were made between the 1930s and 1960s (and a handful released each year in the following decades) it has remained a relatively unappreciated genre. Away from smash hits such as Singing in the RainThe Sound of Music, and the animated films of Walt Disney, there have been a surprising number of cult musicals which cannot be overlooked when considering this distinct genre.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the ultimate cult musical. With much of its success generated from midnight screenings featuring hundreds of dedicated followers clad in transsexual attire, it has gone on to harbour some of the most bizarre instances of audience participation. Projectiles of toast, toilet paper, water and rice alongside answering back to the screen and mass reproductions of the “Time Warp” make this not just a cult film, but a cult experience.

Numerous famous musicians have featured in cult musicals that have developed a devoted fan base often years after their initial flop. The Wiz is an urban retelling of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz featuring an all African-American cast set in a fantasy version of New York City. With Diana Ross as Dorothy, reconfigured as a Harlem school teacher, and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, It illustrates a combination of soulful song and dance numbers written towards the end of the blaxploitation movement.

Few cult fans will be unaware of Labyrinth, a fantasy film directed by Jim Henson, starring David Bowie as the beleaguering Goblin King, Jareth. Its combination of puppetry, human performances and Bowie crotch shots – which have sparked pages of critical analysis – mean it remains one of the best cult musicals ever made. Rock opera Tommy, based upon the album of the same name is a musical by British band The Who. Starring Who lead singer Roger Daltrey as a deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard, and featuring terrific cameo performances from the likes of Oliver Reed, Jack Nicholson and Tina Turner. It is a surrealist production that features one of the most innovative soundtracks of the genre.

In recent years, cult musicals have received less acclaim, generally staying predominately under the radar. However, Lars Von Trier’s Palme d’Or winning Dancer in the Dark, starring Icelandic singer Björk has redefined the musical genre by introducing an extreme emotional aspect to what is generally frivolous escapism. It is clear from examples like this that it is anything but a dying genre. Still retaining merit in what is often a prejudiced art form, musicals are constantly reassessing the necessary requirements for entertainment.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Oct 4th 2011.