Wednesday, December 07, 2011

When the Sunrise Hits

Murnau's Sunrise (1927) is one of the greatest silent films (e.g., Welles, Wilder, Minnelli, and Gondry have all stolen shots from the sequences I collect in this video). Slowdive's 'When the Sun Hits' is one of the greatest 'shoegaze' tracks. In this vid. I combine them, and, in effect, streamline Sunrise away from its controversial (abortive) murder plot (and the somewhat problematic acting choices encouraged). This is meant as a kind of proof of concept that Sunrise could have worked in a less abstract/philosophical mode. That is, in principle, Murnau could have kept almost all of his film's ultra-spectacular visuals, while using a more modern/looser Stewart/Stanwyck acting style (traces of which are there in the performances in any case), thereby becoming a kind of hypercharged, expessionistic Lubitsch.

Of course, Murnau and Sunrise in particular are great just the way they are: flamboyant, mad, and almost impossible to take completely straight. Let me explain.

The violence in Sunrise's (abortive) murder plot destabilizes the narrative, pitching it into Night of the Hunter/Vertigo/Blue Velvet territory. The Man originally responds to The City Gal's drowning suggestion by attempting to throttle her, and later he reacts to The Obtrusive Man who hits on/harasses The Wife by just-barely-faux knifing him in the face (David Lynch recycles the latter scene as Dorothy Vallens's just-barely knifing Jeffrey in the face). These sorts of scenes (up to and including the Man's second near-strangling of the City Gal at the end of the film) mark The Man as seriously unstable/sociopathic, which in turn makes the wife's forgiveness etc. of him unbelievable and dangerous. If we interpret the whole film as 'what actually happened' then one must fear for the Wife and the Baby's safety long term. The principal way around this problem is to embark on a grand overall re-reading of the film: everything from the Man going to bed thinking about killing his Wife (which is visually signposted by the superimposed waters of the lake) until the final 'Finis' sunrise is the Man's dream-state. That's some elephant to swallow, and I don't think that Murnau compels us to accept such an interpretation. Rather I think that Murnau opens this as one possible interpretation of Sunrise, just as Hitchcock protects the readings that Vertigo's several discontinuities open (most famously the 'Incident at Owl Creek Bridge' interpretation of everything after Vertigo's apparently-impossible-to-be-saved-from opening scene). Our projected, streamlined, more-Lubitschy Sunrise would trade away this sort of haunting, crazy richness for greater naturalism and linear intelligibility.

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