Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2016 - Laughter in Hell, Edward L. Cahn, 1933

A completely uninhibited film, even before the murdering and lynching. Before the gospel songs sung by black prisoners singled out for execution, before the harrowing execution scene itself - as if trying to compensate, in one single scene, for all the casual racism evident elsewhere in American cinema at the time. Before the strange, unconditional acts of (political) mercy and (ethical) solidarity which follow - an ending probably not in accordance with Jim Tully’s novel, but in its own way contributing to the radical idiosyncracy pervading the film.


From the beginning the mise en scene runs wild, as if energized by the introduction of the big, wooden radio receiver to a small town in the very first scene. Everybody runs towards it, the whole town, the whole screen’s on the move. I’m not even sure the thing’s really a radio. It’s just there and it’s exciting. Whatever it might be exactly, this machine is not about information, or even entertainment, but about noise.

In the age of noise, everything’s introduced in breakneck speed: In one scene, a woman enters a store and starts flirting. In the next, she’s married. In the next she’s breaking lose from her lovers arms in order to follow the train her husband’s leaving in. A few minutes later she’s dead. Her whole life, love, desire reduced to a short series of rash, energetic movements.


Especially one image stuck to my mind: The screen's divided in three horizontal planes, each one defined by lateral, forceful movement. At the top of the frame a train rushes through, in the middle a chain gang hustles along, on the bottom a river flows - while prison guards parade on trunks swimming in the water, keeping the chain gang in check. A tripartite image of the force, and cruelty, of modernity. At the same time an engine that just cannot be stopped. There’s no return to earlier, simpler times, even the farmers, who provide the hero temporary relief, know this. One just has to confront the wasteland of modernity head on, without a fixed moral or ideological compass. Like Cahn’s film does.

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