In honor of our most recent Lead Actress Oscar winner, Jennifer Lawrence, I decided to finally watch ‘Sunrise’, the 1927 Oscar winner (Best Actress, Best Picture-Artistic Production, Best Cinematography). If you recall, this delicate flower recently stated that she thought silent films were “boring”. LOL, you have to love her crass and honesty, right?
I wasn’t really familiar with what ‘Sunrise’ was all about, but it had been sitting on my DVR for quite some time. I remember months ago when it aired on TCM and I was kind of ecstatic because I had heard all sorts of wonderful things about it. Heralded as one of the finest films of all time, even making Sight and Sounds top ten of all time this year (resting at #5), ‘Sunrise’ was one that I most certainly wanted to make the time to see.
Before the film began I listened to Robert Osborn and Drew Barrymore discuss the film’s importance and something struck me when Barrymore stated that the film was “functionally progressive”. I don’t know why, but those words hit me the minute she said them and then, throughout the film they kept coming back to haunt me. I don’t think I could have expressed my feelings for the film any better than those two words. The film was so ahead of its time and really comprised itself of so many intricate themes and techniques that I was continually blown away by each passing frame. I’ve been a fan of the silent films for a long time, but this most certainly stands out among a slew of dominating films as one of the finest, if not THE finest ever made.
From the film’s opening title cards (brilliantly composed in a chalky white script) we are made aware that this is a story of no one and everyone at the same time. The film sets itself up for a big fall in that regard because it is basically telling the audience that they WILL relate to this story. It could have so easily failed after such a bold statement and yet despite some of the film’s more abrasive tricks, it works completely and one does feel this uncanny connection to the material and the resolve.
Telling the story of a young working class family torn apart by the roving eyes of the husband, ‘Sunrise’ tackles the age old story of infidelity with a unique twist. The husband, a simple farmer, is swept up in an affair with a lush woman from the city who was visiting his quant town while on vacation. She’s lingered though, setting her sights on ruining his family. She entrances the farmer and actually convinces him to kill his wife and run away with her. It is there, on a boat, while he is hovering over his shaking and crying wife with his hands braced and ready to strangle her that he is struck with the realization that he loves her deeply and doesn’t want to throw his life away for some tramp. The film then takes a very sharp turn as it shifts from dark and disturbing murder plot to a night on the town as this husband and wife fall in love all over again. It is such a beautifully detailed section of film that really enriches the film’s themes. As the finale comes with crushing reality, we see the beautiful arc in these characters.
There are few films that can ‘complete’ themselves the way that ‘Sunrise’ does.
From a technical standpoint, as I mentioned, this film really was so far ahead of its time. With the use of double exposures and elongated tracking shots and beautifully rich cinematography, ‘Sunrise’ looks like no film the 20’s produced. It feels so modern and alive, even today. The acting is sublime as well. Janet Gaynor won an Oscar for this (as well as two other performances), but my eyes never left George O’Brien, who just mesmerized as the emotionally tortured and morally confused husband. Watching him come full circle was truly engaging and one of the more rewarding cinematic experiences of my life.
I can’t recommend this film enough. It is a true spectacle, a marvel of cinematic proportions that deserves to be regarded as a true masterpiece.