He Who Gets Slapped
Victor Sjostrom (USA 1924) Lon
Chaney; Pauline Goddard; John Gilbert
Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 10 Jan 2015 Ticket: £6
Retrocrit: Rituals of eternity
Victor Sjostrom does not only directs He Who Gets Slapped, but also plays the role of psychic ring master presenting his film as an elaborate ritual. The core of Sjostrom’s vision is the ritual, the deliberate playing out of the forces he has assembled in a choreography of death. The film reminded me of: the ceremonial aspect of the bull fight; of the elaborate costumes of the auto da fe with the doomed penitents dressed in white and of large folk processions commemorating ancient sacrifice and fertility rites.
The elements put into play in the story of ‘He’ all have a primal quality: theft and humiliation, ritual self punishment, revenge and death. Sjostrom from first to last image sets the story in this symbolic framing opening and closing the movie with elided superimposed images of the spinning globe, the ball and the circus ring dissolving into each other. An eternal recurrent destiny holds us all. Death is the only escape; in the films final image the clowns hurl ‘He’ ‘s corpse off the ring parapet into the void.
Silent films with their immobile sets, fixed camera and gestural playing contain the seeds for scenarios drawing on ideas developed out of archaic ceremony. Seldom is this potential realised. Most film companies and directors played out the scripts for melodrama: complex plots held together with regular inter-title cards. Noticeably ‘He’ needs few inter-titles. The film ‘s flow guides the audience’s attention to the inner psychological unravelling of the scenario. With the elemental forces set in play the characters and scenes speak in the screen images. There are extraordinary visual sequences: ‘He’ before the academy with its mocking academicians; ‘He’ in the circus ring where surrounded by and regaled by the clowns in their penitent white make up and costumes, he is subjected to pain and humiliation for the amusement of the public and his own personal need to suffer. A perfect alignment of an objectify and a subjectivity. The power of these sections carries an empathic charge for the viewer who needs little extra information as to the motivation of ‘He’. Trapped in ritualistic abasement there is only one way out: revenge and death. Primary elements.
Sjostom’s visual design complements his ritual form. The lighting is stage-like. The characters often caught in high light, with the settings around them darkly etched in. The visual look is reminiscent of Rembrandt’s paintings, calling to mind that Rembrandt’s powerful use of light effect to highlight the depiction of his characters and settings. Sjostrom’s lighting also heightens the psychological intensity of ‘He’s’ experience isolating him and allowing the viewer space to see. One shot in particulate stands out: a shot of ‘He’ in clown costume and make-up. When we see ‘He’s’ clown make up lines drawn through his eyes and the disturbing three tufts of stiff hair sticking out symmetrically from his bald head there is the overwhelming feeling of understanding the lies ahead for this doomed abused figure. We see there is nowhere left for him to go. In Sjostrom’s devising of ‘He’ we can see at once why Bergman claimed to have been so much influenced by him and how the same sort of thinking, the unity of psychic truth and devised settings is implicit to Bergman’s cinema.
By using archetypal material, Sjostrom understands that the power of the setting and the form of the story releases his actors from the need to adopt the mannerist gestural playing that characterises many films of this era. At times the acting comes across as naturalistic, without artifice and Lon Chaney’s performance in particular has an unforced quality that doesn’t over play or indulge the nature of his sacrificial role but allows it to unfold with dignity as the simple consequence of the decisions he has made. Again there is something here of Bergman, certainly as seen in the character of the knight in the Seventh Seal. An underplaying of the fate that one has freely chosen. Adrin Neatrour email@example.com