Can you believe it? When a brilliant Hollywood homage to the '20s breezed away with five Oscars it was cheered ecstatically by critics - made as if it came from the silent film archives. Normally, people flock to any award winner as the best testimonial for the movie's quality. But, no!
"The Artist" made a small ripple in the big cities, but flopped everywhere else. Why? Audiences bred on everything BIG and LOUD and ACTION-PACKED seem no longer interested in a standard sized black/white silent film; they've been tricked into what is NEW, with script, photography, acting, directing and musical originality cast aside.
It's like preferring a mural-sized splash of mediocre modern art over a modest pen and ink drawing by Leonardo da Vinci.
Granted, most films from the '20s were experimental; the industry was young and still learning - sometimes promising, most of the times not. Yet out of the thousands of failed attempts, miracles occurred. D.W. Griffith, in his 1915 war epic "Birth of a Nation," gave posterity a three-hour masterpiece. Erich von Stroheim still stuns with his 1925 Death Valley sequence in "Greed." And no one who witnesses Max Schreck as the first Dracula in F.W. Murnau's 1922 chilling "Nosferatu" will ever forget it.
The silent era in Germany, after suffering crushing defeat in WWI, became a period of great experimentation, with talented directors using newly created technical and artistic experiments. Fritz Lang is still famed for the first sci-fi extravaganza, "Metropolis," in 1926 and it topped in scope, but not in daring, the 1920 success of Robert Weine's "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," which was decades ahead of its times in the novelty of a film created entirely within the experimental age of Expressionism.
Expressionism? An artistic mode for creating emotions through shockingly unreal visuals: The arrangement of extremes in light and dark with stark shadows painted on crooked walls; a violent contrast of shapes in wild, abstract patterns; a deliberate distortion of perspectives from narrow, slanting streets to tortuous alleyways to doors and windows dancing a jig, to deformed street lamps and dungeons whose angles careen, and beyond, a point of a roof emerging from a forest of oddly shaped chimneys.
Then, through stylized costumes, makeup and acting, characters are integrated into such settings by broken gestures and crazily distorted gaits.
All this is found in the greatest Existential film of the '20s - "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" - a film that exercised a strong influence on later German films, but that also extended to works by more modern filmmakers, from Hitchcock to Scorsese and Coppola.
In true Expressionist style, the movie begins with a flashback as a young student confides a strange tale about a series of mysterious murders, committed when Dr. Caligari travels through the neighborhoods with a performing sleepwalker. It turns out, the sleepwalker is the murderer under the influence of the mad doctor. Strange things keep happening including a kidnapping of the student's girlfriend, until the student plans a ruse to unmask the evil Caligari.
An ingenious ending brings an unexpected disclosure that brings the story to a thoroughly unexpected close - also in keeping with the Existential theme, with emotions playing an important part - a deceptive narration in which the film's frame story is neatly wrapped up - and created entirely without modern CGI effects - a rarely shown but unforgettable experience.
As the May Club Indigo, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" will be shown in a totally restored version with original soundtrack Friday, May 11. The movie (preceded by a '20s Laurel and Hardy comedy) is at 7:15 p.m. following a German buffet from Calumet's Carmelita restaurant at 6 p.m. before it. Food and film is $18; the film alone is $5. A call to the Calumet Theatre at least a day in advance will provide seating for the buffet: 337-2610.
This exceptional movie is sponsored by Portage Health, Hancock.
Rotten Tomatoes averages: "The Pirates," B+; "5-Year Engagement," C+