Mar 17, 2007

Vorkapich-pure genius, never dated

Slavko Vorkapich was a genius of film, little known today although he personally contributed to incredible sequences in many Hollywood films of the 1930s. The first I ever saw was a hallucinogenic dream sequence he designed for the Claude Rains film "Crime Without Passion" which has to be seen to be believed; if my memory's correct, it probably helped inspire some of the more bizarre imagery in Fantasia's Bald Mountain sequence. Vorkapich was practically unique in his freelancing just montages for so many large scale films for different studios-which gives an indication that the studio bosses knew greatness when they saw it.

The clip here is of course of Vorkapich's visualization of the Great 1906 earthquake in MGM's "San Francisco", directed in all but this montage by W.S, Van Dyke("The Thin Man", among many others). The rest of the film is fairly straightforward romantic drama with Clark Gable at his staccato angriest, tempted as he is to decency by lovely Jeanette MacDonald. Spencer Tracy plays his usual tough Irish priest, friend to both the leads. But all the melodramatic twists of the plot pale next to this incredible, impressionistic, utterly jaw-dropping piece of cinema that represents a staggering disaster--made in 1936.

See how the tension in the conventional plot builds with Gable's public embarrassment of Jeanette, and how a few disturbing quick cuts to the audience members create a sense of unease and disturbance(probably Van Dyke's)...then as Jeanette walks through the crowd the familiar rumble of the earthquake starts, resulting in the actress stopping abruptly and turning back with a muffled, panicked "What's that?"--so clipped it almost sounds like an ad lib(it surely wasn't). Then here we go...

There's no music. The shots are seemingly erratic: the ceiling, the slivers of plaster, the glasses, the roar of the earthquake, the screaming starting...the sound building to the wheel falling--and then a second or two of pure silence.

It's still got every bit of its impact today. The only pity is that this is humble YouTube quality, and doesn't do it full justice. But what a lesson in editing for impact. I think we have a lot to learn from this.

There's one little historic inaccuracy: the actual earthquake struck at 5:15 am, not many hour earlier as the film's plot indicates, but that's a small caveat. Everything else shown is based on a reality that was--hard to imagine--only thirty years in the past at the time this was made.


Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Wow. That was simply incredible.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Unbelievable! Great clip Jenny!

Dominic said...

The wide shot of the fleeing horses at the end of a series of mostly medium and CU shots was the perfect coda to a breathless sequence! Amazing!

Frank said...

its stuff like this that reminds me of how shoddy most editing is today. i feel that today's MTV-style of editing there's a cut every 2 seconds which builds to exactly nothing. this builds to a very exciting momentum and then tapers off quite nicely. awesome clip!

Doug Graves said...

I had rented this movie last year just to see Slavko Vorkapich's earthquake sequence and I agree with you and the other posters, it was great! I also really love his Furies prologue from "Crime Without Passion". His montages for "The Great Earth" are phenomenal and cinematic! Very stark and powerful.

I also love his amazing kinetic and visual "battle of victoria" montage for the MGM movie "Firefly" - his original silent cut is staggering and brilliant. It can be found on the "light rhythms" disc in the unseen cinema box set, I really recommend it! I also love his opera singer montage from "Maytime". The lap dissolves, moving camera shots, fast kinetic editing, graphics in motion, and optical effects are intensely kinetic and excting. It inspired Orson Welles' opera montage sequence in "Citizen Kane" but I think Vorkapich's sequence is even more masterful and entertaining.

I also recommend his two purely cinematic non-story visual films "Moods of the Sea" and "Forest Murmurs" that he made with Hungarian-born fellow Hollywood montagist John Hoffman. They are autonomous abstract cinema at its best! I love his montage, camerawork, imagery, and optical effects. So visual and emotionally powerful!

He influenced so many filmmakers from Don Siegel, Saul Bass, and Art Cloakey to George Lucas, Gregory Markopoulos, William Friedkin, and Conrad Hall.

Also, his work on the horror film "I, Bury the Living" is so hyper stylized and macabre! He crafted the nightmare seqeunces in it and they're very cool and bizzare. I love renting films he worked on just to enjoy his montages and visual effects. I can't wait to see his cinematic work on "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "The Mask", "Viva Villa" and many others.

His use of kinesthetic effects, the sensory visual and visceral perception of different kinds of movements and motions in the human mind, in motion pictures is unrivalled and revolutionary. He taught and lectured as well on "kinesthesia" and cinematic technique for several decades until his death, as dean of USC film school from 1948-1952, at UCLA film school, at the University of Belgrade's Film department in the 1950s and his famous sold out lecture series at MOMA in New York in the 1960s.

He's an amazing legendary filmmaker and cinema teacher and I will always draw inspiration and learning from his great films and teachings!