The Fall of the House of Usher

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) movie poster

(1928) dir. Jean Epstein
viewed: 07/12/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

This version of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher was not something that I was familiar with prior to this year’s Silent Film Festival.  And I have to say, that on reflection, as I read through the well-researched and interesting program that came from the festival, what it is about the festival that is so rewarding.  The festival is not just a celebration or simply showings of films, nor is it simply preservation or historical information, but it is a very intelligent conglomerate of an organization, constructing a wide, diverse program of films from the silent era and showing them with erudition and context, with the written program, the diverse selection of knowledgable people who introduce the films, and the interesting and informative slideshows that are made for preview to each showing.  This is a fantastic festival on so many levels, and I feel so lucky to be able to attend it every year.

There was a time when I was less interested in silent film, and that time wasn’t even so long ago.  I have watched silents since I was a child, being interested in Expressionist cinema (not knowing that it was anything more than the earliest “monster movies”) since I was quite young, so I have been more open to them than the average person.  But I think it’s been in the last five years or so that this has changed and my interest has developed and diversified.

I selected the films that I wanted to see from the program (limited by other scheduling obligations) based on a quick glance at what “looks” interesting.   I chose Underworld (1927) because it was a crime film.  I chose The Fall of the House of Usher because it was both a “horror” film and looked from the still images to be on the more avant-garde side.  My final selection was Lady of the Pavements (1929) because it was a D.W. Griffith film.  And I also took the kids to see the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts because I like animation and like to take the kids to things that are appropriate and different (I won’t be writing about the Oswald films here because I write mostly about feature films, not shorts).

Interestingly, due to a last minute change in schedule, they showed The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), a short film by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webster, which was even more abstract (and vaguely familiar to me, perhaps from an Avant-Garde Cinema class that I took as an undergrad).  It was an interesting contrast, in that the short was far less clear in its narrative, though it stuck more with the plot of the short story.  The film was perhaps Surrealist, but clearly strange and dream-like, with interesting uses of multiple image layers repeating images of coffins or buildings or people.

The Jean Epstein film was quite the avant-garde piece, if still more clearly narrative in its telling, mixing a few different Poe stories together to expand the storyline.  Made with great visual panache, the constructs of the mise en scene almost all could be captured in still images to make fascinating deconstructions or simply arresting images.  The narrative is of a doomed relationship, set in a Gothic mansion, home of Rodderick Usher and his slowly-dying wife.  Usher is painting her portrait and seeimingly sucking out her life in the process.  Of course, the disease is all mysterious, the causality open to intereretation, which ultimately leads to her “death”.  Her “death” leads to spectral visions, haunted thoughts, and madness for Usher, finally revealing itself to have been a premature burial.  The cataclysms bring the house down around their ears, though they escape across the moors.

Full of psychological angst, love and obsession as a near vampirical relationship, and an ill-defined “corruption” of the souls of the Ushers, the film is much like a dream itself, a fever dream in Gothic setting, and a rich and effective piece of cinema.  This was probably my favorite of the films that I saw from this festival.  A surprising film, an unusual film, a remarkably artful feature film by a very interesting filmmaker.

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