Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Jaw-dropping stupidity": Alas, no Oscars
for Oscar the Elephant in 'Soul of the Beast'

Madge Bellamy and Oscar the Elephant star in a tender scene from 'Soul of the Beast' (1923), a totally ridiculous but completely fascinating silent film melodrama.

This weekend at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre, we wrap up our summer-long series of silent films starring animals. And we do it with a jumbo-sized double bill.

On Sunday, Sept. 7 at 4:30 p.m., we bring you a pair of films featuring the biggest movie stars of all...elephants!

Yes, elephants. Cue the puns about it being a "really oversized show."

And just as elephants are large, so is the gap in quality between our two features: 'Soul of the Beast' (1923) and 'Chang' (1927).

In 'Soul of the Beast' (1923), Madge Bellamy and Oscar the Elephant co-star in a rural circus melodrama that's hands-down the nuttiest silent film I've ever seen, never mind attempted to accompany.

In contrast, 'Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness' (1927) is such impressive filmmaking that it was nominated for an Academy Award in the "Unique and Artistic Production" category.

Ironic: one film stars an 'Oscar,' while the other actually got nominated for one. But I don't think you'll have any trouble telling the two apart.

'Soul of the Beast' follows the story of a circus runaway (Bellamy) who flees her mean stepfather/ringmaster, taking along her beloved trained elephant companion.

Together, they wander the Canadian wilderness, embarking on unlikely misadventures that are so mind-boggling I can't begin to describe them here.

Instead, let me quote a rare online review of this obscure picture from the Web site:

"Sometimes intentionally comic, this film is laughable even when it attempts to be serious. ... Ultimately, we must say that 'Soul of the Beast' is not-so-much ado about nothing, but it nonetheless remains inexplicably watchable due in toto to its jaw-dropping stupidity."

Wow! Not exactly a rave.

Even so, I urge you to see 'Soul of the Beast,' as it compels the kind of fascination generated by all bad art, and with car accidents, too: it's strangely mesmerizing and hilarious and tragic, all at the same time. It will haunt you for days, as it has me.

It's as if legendary "bad film" director Edward D. Wood, Jr. had been working in the 1920s. You will never see anything like it.

The same can be said of 'Chang,' but in a good way. Shot on location in the remote jungles of Siam (now Thailand), it's an unusual blend of documentary and narrative movie.

Over a period of many months, co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack patiently gathered remarkable footage of wild animals in the jungle, including many scenes never before caught on film. (In an age when we're used to seeing close-up of wildlife, it's hard to imagine how exciting this must have been to early film-goers.)

And they then interwove this footage with a fictional story of a native family (played by local non-actors) meant to show man's never-ending struggle for survival in the wilderness. Yes, the story itself was fiction, but everything else about the family's life was rendered exactly as it would have been found a century ago in rural Thailand.

As such, it's a remarkable record of a way of life that had been unchanged for centuries, but which today is pretty much lost. And I have to say, this hybrid combination is still surprisingly compelling.

I first encountered 'Chang' several years ago at the Kansas Silent Film Festival, when it was screened with solo piano accompaniment by Rodney Sauer of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

I had never heard of it. But I remember being swept up by the movie's story, which builds to quite an intense climax. I'm sure part of this was due to Rodney's excellent accompaniment.

But another element, I think, was the simple honesty of the film-making. No trick photography or special effects are used. Instead, everything in the film was real, meaning that it actually happened in front of a camera.

Notwithstanding the fictional storyline, everything in 'Chang' is displayed to us just as it would have appeared had we found ourselves in the jungles of southeast Asia in 1927.

And I think that's as big as any elephant we'll encounter at Sunday's double feature. Why? Because it creates a bond between moviemaker and viewer that's rooted in the fidelity of the camera.

Knowing what we are seeing actually took place (instead of being rendered on a hard drive, for example) lends a level and honesty and interest to a film that I think definitely makes a difference, at least in my experience seeing and accompanying movies in theaters filled with people.

So why did Hollywood just suffer its worst box office summer in a generation? Why is attendance down? Maybe the elephant in the room, so to speak, is that many of today's films are too disconnected from the basics of cinema by digital rendering and other sophisticated tools that get in the way of the fundamental promise of film: the belief that what we're seeing in front of us with our own eyes is actually happening and worth believing.

At its heart, cinema is reality reshaped. And, after accompanying hundreds of silent films and witnessing the audience reaction to them, I think it's very important not to forget that "reality" part.

So if nothing else, an older and seemingly primitive film such as 'Chang' can remind us of the simple power of cinema basics: using a camera to record scenes, and then arranging them for maximum coherence and impact.

'Chang' is worth seeing on that account alone—even if you have to first suffer through 'Soul of the Beast' to do so.

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