Thursday, November 20, 2014

AFI Top 100: #82 "Sunrise"

George O'Brien & Janet Gaynor in Sunrise (1927)

This week's movie is a testament to why I'm doing these AFI Top 100 screenings. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans from 1927 comes in at #82, and it also happens to be the first Silent film on the list. My main motivation for tackling this list was not just to see them all—that's a bonus, really. In fact, I'd already seen most of them, 94 to be exact when we first started. The most interesting thing is watching them again; it's amazing how perspectives changed.

I really didn't want to screen this movie. I even tried to sneak away and watch it by myself. Admittedly, I had a bias against it. Why? Because I greatly disliked it when I was forced to watch it in college. I'm realizing now that might have had to do with it being screened in an 8:30 am Film History class, and I was probably in pajamas. It's a recipe for falling asleep during the 2nd act. I found it boring and silly and had no intention of watching it again, ever. I'm glad that changed.

The movie was directed by F.W. Murnau, and tells the story of a farmer and Husband (George O'Brien) who begins stepping out on his Wife (Janet Gaynor) with a Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston). They are never given real names, just these titles. After only weeks of knowing the Husband, the other Woman convinces him to attempt to drown his Wife.

There isn't much more to the plot than this. For the first third of the movie, the Husband has the obligatory crazy eyes and is completely oafish, trudging along everywhere. The Wife is homely and plain (with the world's worst wig, I swear to god), and her meek and feeble presence is depressing—in stark contrast to the overtly sexual and haughty Woman From the City. The Husband is a big cheater-pants, and regardless of how the movie tries to convince us his cheating is justified, the audience hates him from minute one. Oh, and the Husband and Wife have a little kid together, who is constantly having to watch his mother cry and be sad because her Husband is never around. What a bastard.

The story has its problems, but what impressed me was the art direction. There are these amazing film overlays that show the Husband's fantasies of his mistress embracing him, kissing his cheek, etc. as he struggles to decide whether he should kill his wife. The production design for this movie is spectacular. Cross fades and overlays with painting effects and huge outdoor sets. Things are propped at weird angles, including tables and lamps to give the illusion of cockeyed space or cramped quarters. Even the dialogue/title cards are dynamic! They also incorporate sounds through clapping, car horns, waves, and train whistles to give the illusion that audio is coming directly from the film (in the Movietone version, that is.) My not falling asleep this time was hugely beneficial, because I actually got to notice all these details.

I hesitate spoiling anything, but for the sake of this review, I'm going to a little bit. The Husband comes thisclose to offing his wife, but decides against it. Not before she notices he was thinking about it, however, and for the rest of the film, he tries to make it up to her by sweeping her off to the city and taking her on the world's most expensive date. With money he doesn't have. This is where my issues arise.

It's impossible to watch the movie and not say, "Dude! It doesn't matter how many cakes you try to feed her, she's not gonna forget that you tried to kill—oh wait, no, that worked. She's over it."

Yup. All is forgiven. Really, Wife? Really? Have you no self-respect? Leave that rat-bastard, move to the city, get a makeover, and live a new life! There is this incredible moment where, as an audience member, you're struck with the feeling of "OMG, impending makeover montage!!" But guess what? You're wrong. It doesn't happen. I... I can't even. I'm so disappointed. Call me superficial, but it would have breathed new life into this story line and her character.

What does happen is a long and semi-tedious string of "romantic" escapades that are meant to show them rekindling their love, but it just takes too long. And again, anyone rational is stuck on that whole "He tried to kill her" thing. The film is beautiful, and very impressive for 1927, though, despite its story problems. It won the first and only Academy Award for 'Unique and Artistic Production,' which many confuse as the first "Best Picture" winner. It isn't, and I'll go to my death defending Wings as the 1st to take that award (it won "Outstanding Production," which is hardly a stretch), but I digress. If anything, it's comparable to today's Best Art Direction award.

It may not be my favorite movie, but Sunrise has many qualities no other film on this list does. It is creative and bold and takes advantage of every aspect of its medium, and I'm grateful to have revisited it.

Rating:  ★★½ / 5 stars

PS: The entire movie is actually available to watch on YouTube here! A quick way to access this classic, I recommend checking it out if you have the time.

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Fox Film Corporation]

Check back next week for #81, Spartacus  or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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