Monday, 14 February 2011

Frank Borzage

In order to appreciate the films of Frank Borzage (pronounced Bore-zay-ghee), you might have to take a leap of faith. A faith in the director's ability to raise the most risible material to the level of the sublime. But also to succumb to the filmmaker's own faith in the power of love to transcend and transgress everything, including poverty, war, tyranny and even death. And such are Frank Borzage's gifts, and passions, that he more often than not rewards this leap of faith with films of extraordinary beauty and magic.

Andrew Sarris once said that just by looking at the titles for Robert Aldrich's films one might get an idea of what was on his mind. Some of Borzage's films also have great titles, such as 7th Heaven (1927), History Is Made at Night (1937) and Moonrise (1948) which hints at Borzage's romanticism, among other things. (It also suggests that he's considerably less cynical and nihilistic than Aldrich, who sports titles like Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Ten Seconds to Hell (1959).)

There's a strong Borzage cult among cinephiles around the world but I wonder how many ordinary film scholars and/or film enthusiasts there are that are familiar with his work. Even a fan such as myself have seen precious few of the many films he has directed. But it's not like he's an outcast or anything like that, in his days he was both popular and celebrated, and he was the first person to win an Academy Award for best direction, for 7th Heaven, and he won again for Bad Girl (1931). In 1961, the Director's Guild of America gave him an Lifetime Achievement Award. But now there's much silence.

He began as an actor, and it was said in 1915 that he had "better control of facial expression than any other screen artist before the public today". When he began directing, he transferred his own command of the face to the actors he directed, with his camera watching them intently, to see what they were feeling. Because that's what his cinema is all about, feelings, and he found ever new ways of expressing those feelings visually. He could be both bold and experimental, and when he's not lingering on a face (or on feet), he sometimes moves his camera in the most remarkable ways, tracking, panning and dollying, up and down, left and right, or round in circles. And it's the combination of the deadly serious passion with which he and his actors tackle the powerful emotions the characters feel, and the elaborate and expressionistic cinematography with which they are shot that makes his films, at their best, so strong and unforgettable. The share exuberance of the camera work makes even a somewhat silly comedy like His Butler's Sister (1943), with Franchot Tone and Deanna Durbin, just dazzling. But one flaw with His Butler's Sister is that there isn't much at stake in it, as far as the lovers are concerned. Borzage's best films are those when the cruel and hateful world is constantly threatening to destroy both the love and the lovers, whether it is poverty or war or sickness or fascism. Borzage is not turning away from the world, he knows that it isn't pretty, but all the more reason to have faith in love. It's a strange thing that the most romantic scene in History Is Made at Night is towards the end when the two lovers have come to terms with the fact that they are going to die and sit together in the dark, looking at each other and whispering about the life they never had together. The last ten minutes of that film are about as moving as a film will ever get.

One thing about Borzage's style is that the camera is seldom detached or neutral. It often takes on a symbolic presence. It can become one of the characters, or the ghost of someone who has died, or some kind of ethereal being. In 7th Heaven there's even a point-of-view shot from the perspective of God. But as Borzage's is a cinema of images transcending words and scripts, I find it more suitable to show a couple of clips, rather than write much more.

The first one is from 7th Heaven, made in 1927, when most filmmakers wanted to be F.W. Murnau (Murnau is without doubt one of the, say, five most important filmmakers of all time). In this scene, the man takes the woman to show her his apartment, which is on the top floor.

Arguably the last great film Borzage made was Moonrise, a delirious and almost surreal nightmare of a film. Here's its most celebrated scene, on the ferris wheel:

As a humanist and romanticism, Borzage was early on attacking fascism and nazism. It is often said that before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, only Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) had dared to deal with Germany and nazism. That is of course an ignorant statement, and besides the likes of Lubitsch and Hitchcock, Borzage was another filmmaker dealing with the situation in Europe at the time. They attacked it from various angles, each using his own brand of filmmaking, with Chaplin through slapstick, Lubitsch through his patented combination of suave wit and satire and with Hitchcock making a shocking thriller. Borzage of course focused on love and friendship, how fascism is the opposite of love. The most oblique example is the horrifying and utterly sad The Mortal Storm (1940). This clip show how the two lovers, played by James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, are caught in a forest of arms raised to salute the Führer (the film is set in Germany) including people who were their friends and loved ones. The sequence is also one of many examples of Borzage's use of low ceilings to create an oppressive atmosphere. Unfortunately I can't embed the clip here, but you can watch it by clicking here: (According to Kent Jones, rumours that Victor Saville, it's producer, directed most of it are not true.)

Film history is so extraordinary rich and surprising, and there's always more to watch and learn, and yet most people stay on the well-trodden pathways, seldom venturing far from the, often randomly, established centre of canonical films (which is perhaps a reason why so much of taught film history is just plain wrong) . But on a day such as this, Valentine's day, the cinema of Frank Borzage is perhaps the most appropriate to discover, or re-discover.

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