Sunday, May 01, 2005

In the Streets & Under the Streets

Why not start a new month, especially May, on a romantic note? Yesterday I enjoyed a rare look at Frank Borzage's Street Angel, one of the three silent films for which Janet Gaynor won the first Best Actress Oscar. The others, even better, were 7th Heaven, also directed by Borzage, and Sunrise, directed by F.W. Murnau, and the consensus "classic" of the bunch. Street Angel may not be in Sunrise's league of technique or innovation, but then, few films areā€”and besides, both the Borzage pictures, for all their bathetic devices, are absolute joys for their touching blend of performance, framing, and camera movement. 7th Heaven has an absolute stunner of a crane-and-dolly shot, especially for 1927, where Janet Gaynor sprints down a long spiral staircase and into the Parisian sidewalks, in flight from her nasty sister Nana (and you know what that name means). Street Angel has more interesting pans than tracks, but in both films, the camera movement catches your eye and speaks to the restless largeness of the emotion in the shots without overdoing it. Borzage was a real talent. Gaynor, who later scored some sound-era successes like the original A Star Is Born, is a totally winning and technically accomplished actress, though it'll take a while for you to even get past those enormous, limpid eyes of hers. And Charles Farrell, her co-star in both films, was maybe the cutest man I've ever seen in silent pictures. That both she and he were gay adds some har-har irony to their late-1920s reputation as the heterosexual screen couple of the moment, but their chemistry is so strong that you can understand their popularity. (If you'd like to rent Street Angel, your only hope is the fabulous website ClassicFlix.com, a sort of NetFlix for early-cinema buffs, though its collection extends all the way from silents to late '60s cinema. An embarrassment of otherwise-unavailable riches, with major classics thrown in for charm.)

If you're into a grittier take on street life than Borzage is peddling, or if you're just in the mood for a humdinger of a documentary, Marc Singer's Dark Days is now available on DVD from Palm Pictures. A triple prizewinner at Sundance 2000 and honored, too, by the Independent Spirit Awards and the LAFCA, Dark Days spends its 84 minutes among the lives of the homeless community in New York City who reject the streets and sidewalks and take up instead in the safer, roomier, and altogether stranger environment of some abandoned train tunnels stretching for miles north of Penn Station. Constructing their own lean-to houses, plugging into the urban electricity grid, ingeniously devising practical rituals and social networks for combatting the inky, rat-infested blackness around them, these are some tough, funny, clever, and seriously interesting subjects. English director Marc Singer was already living among them for months before he even decided to make this doc, with several of the tunnel's denizens serving as his crew. The images, almost without exception, are stunning, and the mini-narratives are exquisitely edited and pregnant with feeling. This is a true one-of-a-kind piece, amply absorbing a mid-film crisis and an unexpected resolution. Dark Days is just about the opposite of an early-summer entertainment, but before you get started soaking up the sun, check this thing out and let yourself feel lucky.

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