Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Trapped by Sound: Pabst's Threepenny Opera

Sound is to Pabst what a tack is to a bicycle tire: it still runs, but the ride is bumpy and it takes too long to get there. G.W. Pabst's The Threepenny Opera was filmed in 1931 when sound recording techniques still had much to be desired, and much of the film's failing has to do with just that. Lacking the freedom that camera's were allowed in the silent era (when microphones were not an issue), Pabst reverts to tableaux shots and long takes: the scenes are static, and the actors hardly move. This isn't the usual Pabst who constructs his stories in lurid, penetrating close-ups. What he is able to carry over from his silent films are his love of decor and stylized sets. The acting, however, is uninspired, and it's as though the actors are reading the lines to themselves before they go to sleep. Just as their movements are static, there is nothing kinetic about their voices. As many early sound pictures proved, movies may have learned to talk, but they had still to learn how to move once again.


Pacze Moj said...

As many early sound pictures proved, movies may have learned to talk, but they had still to learn how to move once again.

Good point. Sound chained up the camera again! And those Westerns where all the cowboys gather 'round a cactus to chat...

Do you think that with sound -- which came after a period of great formal innovation -- came a shift toward content and away from form?

DEF said...

I think the notion that sound "chained" the camera as an over-arching idea, however cannonized in film history, is erroneous. Recently, during their Karloff retrospective, the Film Forum in NYC, showed the rarely seen Graft, which is rife with complex camera movements. For every example of static compositions, there's a film that screams for reappraisal.

An interesting, though controversial, essay on early sound which compares Pabst's The Blue Angel and Lang's M was published in Cine-Tract's in 1978. You can find the essay here - http://www.modjourn.brown.edu/Cinetracts/CT05.pdf

Cinema Journal said...

Def: Thanks for the essay--I'm excited to read it.

Pacze Moj: I actually think the move away from form also coincided with a move away from content--getting a decent "sound" recording became key. So, technique still reigned, but in a compentent rather than artistic sense. Arthur Knight in his "The Liveliest Art" suggests that movies in the late 20s became ruled by technicians who had the know-how to run the sound equipment. Certainly there were exceptions--Hitchcock's "Blackmail" from 1929 is a prime example of using sound in a creative manner. Rene Clair, too. Rouben Mamoulian. Great stuff.