The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage (1921) movie poster

(1921) dir. Victor Sjöström
viewed: 04/27/07 @ The Castro Theatre, SF, CA

As part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Castro Theatre showed a new print of the silent classic, The Phantom Carriage, which, to be perfectly honest, I’d never even heard of.  But on top of showing it, Jonathan Richman scored and performed alongside a small orchestra a live support to the film.  All in all, it was certainly above and beyond most experiences in the cinema.

The film itself is amazing.  It’s quite a compelling experience, especially with this stunning and amazing color tinting on the enormous images.  This was a practice in the Silent Era that was pretty common, to help indicate, night, day, indoors, outdoors…and it used to seem kind of hokey to me.  But, once one gets beyond any preconceptions about films and accepts these practices and indicators as part of the regular language, it works.  And the film is visually beautiful.  It was fantastic to see it on this scale.

It’s a moralistic story about the pains and degeneracy associated with alcoholism, though it’s told in a flash-back-laden A Christmas Carol sort of fashion, based upon a belief that the last person who dies before midnight at the end of the year has to drive Death’s carriage the following year, picking up the souls from every sad and gruesome scene.  Victor Sjöström, beyond directing the film, also stars as the once happy family man now turned to vice and cruelty, brought down by booze.  While this narrative, especially with the saintly Edit, the Salvation Army nurse who loves him and tries with all she can to “save” him, could easily have been pedantic and overbearing, somehow, and perhaps this is the performances as well as the direction, this situation carries weight and emotional impact.  There is even a sense of contemporary-ness to this story.

The morality pulls a strong Christian theme, mixed with fantasy and mythology, to deliver and very powerful and moving story of redemption and hope, all against a very downbeat, sad narrative of length.

The more that I’ve read about Sjöström, the more I understand his context in Swedish cinema.  I didn’t realize that he was also the star of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, or that he had such status in the Silent Film era as a master.  I certainly can percieve that now, having seen The Phantom Carriage.  It’s a brilliant and beautiful, unique film.

And the live accompaniment of Jonathan Richman’s score was also unique and excellent.

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