Thursday, May 24, 2012

Hot Springs and Snowstorms, IRL: On Victor Sjöström’s The Outlaw and His Wife

Well, here’s a movie as elegant and affecting as any ever made, and it was made all the way back in the year of our Lord 1918.  To put that in perspective, that’s thirty years after Louis Le Prince’s 1888 Roundhay Garden Scene which, at 2.11 seconds, is the world’s oldest extant film; twenty-three years after the Lumière brothers’ Arrival of a Train at a Station; sixteen years after George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon; and three years after D. W. Griffith's 1915 racist epic The Birth of a Nation.

What I’m getting at here is that when the Swedish director Victor Sjöström made his cinematic masterpiece The Outlaw and His Wife, the medium of film was still incredibly young.  But already at this stage, we can say that, though it may have been young, it was hardly primitive.  Furthermore, it was already proving why it was an indispensable medium in its own right, to be valued along media of much longer standing, like music, painting, and literature.
A brief digression is in order here.  I once watched an interview with the modern-day Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov (whose movies include Mother and Son and Russian Ark) and in this interview Sokurov asserted that cinema was not a necessary art form.  Music and literature, having been around for centuries, were necessary artistic media; they had a fundamental role to play in what it meant to be human; but cinema? Cinema was too novel.  Our nineteenth-century forbears had gotten along without it—gotten along in terms of artistic achievement and satisfaction, I suppose—so clearly it wasn’t essential.
Aleksandr Sokurov, receiving the Golden Lion for Faust (2011) at the Venice Film Festival.

Well, although I hold Sokurov in high esteem, I must disagree with him here in no uncertain terms.  Because cinema is essential; because it can do things that only cinema can do.  And it was doing these things in 1918, as WWI burned itself out, and Sjöström made The Outlaw and His Wife.

The film follows the adventures of an eighteenth-century Icelandic outlaw who falls in love with a widowed farmer, who forsakes her respectable life to live with him in the wilderness.  Now, picture lovers on the run in the Icelandic wilderness: you can describe it verbally, as I have just done, and you can even do so with literary flourishes.  You can act it out on stage (as indeed had already been done with this story, which Sjöström adapted from a pre-existing play), although in that case the actual wilderness will have to be left largely to the imagination; you could paint some lovely backgrounds, but the snows and the Icelandic hot-springs can hardly be brought into a theater.  And then of your course you could paint the scene, the lovers hand in hand, the wind-whipped snow blowing about, the geysers exploding; you could caption it, “The Outlaw and his Wife, Fleeing through the Wilderness;” but this would still unavoidably be a static composition.  None of Sokurov’s favored pre-cinematic media can convey the motion and the scale of such a scene.  But film can, and it does, and the results can be quite beautiful; they can convey a beauty without which we would be much poorer.  Look at this still, depicting the protagonist (played by Victor Sjöström himself) at a hot spring (and I am aware of the irony of using a still to demonstrate the glories of cinematic motion):

Here is the protagonist, standing before a stunning natural backdrop:

And here are the titular outlaw and his wife, exultant and triumphant:

These are beauties that only cinema can convey, and if they were not always essential (as I suppose that, circa-1900, they weren’t), then they have certainly become so.  Just as Rabelais’s contemporaries may not have thought his novels were essential, or Montaigne’s his essays, it can well be said that their successors certainly did.  We are not the men and women of the nineteenth century (although it is interesting to note that Sjöström and everyone else involved in the making of this movie were children of the nineteenth century; Sjöström was born in 1880 and would have come of age artistically without the experience of film), and what was inessential to them has become an integral part of the modern experience.

I suspect that a similar process will take place with video games.  I recall reading an interview with Salman Rushdie conducted by David Cronenberg (for some reason; it was a fine interview, I just don’t know why Cronenberg of all people should have conducted it) in the mid-1990’s in which Cronenberg asked Rushdie if he thought that video games could be art.  Rushdie responded that no, they could not be art, and furthermore, they never would be.  For Rushdie, an avid consumer of literature and film (his essay on The Wizard of Oz has become something of a classic), video games are aesthetically inessential, and at this early stage of their development, that isn’t too surprising.  But given time to grow—much as cinema has grown from the Lumières to Sjöström to Kurosawa to Kubrick and far beyond—there is no reason to think that video games won’t come into their own as works of art, and will become a medium just as essential to the aesthetic appetites of the future as literature and cinema are to us today.  I will admit that I myself am not a player of videogames (the last console I owned was an N64, God bless it), but who knows where I’ll be in thirty years, and who knows how immersive, and how beautiful, the videogames of my future will be?  I only hope that I’ll be able to hold them in the esteem they’ll deserve, and advance beyond the fundamentally reactionary attitudes of Rushdie and Sokurov (but Sokurov is a great filmic artist, whatever he says about the medium; maybe he’s just being modest). 

Hell, I suspect that the video games of the future will be fantastic.  The technologies behind newer artistic media have grown at a stunning pace.  We can take Sjöström’s own lifetime as an example.  As I’ve already mentioned, he was born in 1880, eight years before the first extant motion picture.  When he was well into adulthood, he became a master of silent cinema and a great film actor as well.  If the name Sjöström sounds familiar to you, then you may have recognized it as the name of the lead actor in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), made three years before Sjöström’s death in 1960… a year after the release of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.
I’ve thrown a lot of dates around in this post, but I’ve done so because I find them to be inspiring, both in terms of what they mean for the growth of artistic media and for life in general.  A lot can happen in a human lifespan.  If things at present look like shit, we can be thankful that the future remains unknown, and therefore we have reason to be hopeful.  I consider my worldview to be one of cautious pessimism: I suspect things will turn out badly, but I’m always pleased when they turn out well.

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