Lois Weber | Hypocrites | Where Are My Children? | The Blot

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Lois Weber

Lois Weber was an early Hollywood director. She was a major pioneer of women making films.

Subjects in the films of Lois Weber:

Imagery: Story Structure: Techniques:

Hypocrites

Allegory and Non-Reality

Hypocrites (1915) is of a different genre from most narrative movies. It is a religious allegory. The characters are often moving through landscapes that represent spiritual states and journeys. The film recalls such prose allegories as Dante's The Divine Comedy and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678). It is especially close to the latter work. This is a book that would have been extremely familiar to both Weber and other American Protestants of her day. One suspects that it is Weber's model, to a degree.

Most fiction films of all periods have purported to show us a real world through which the characters are moving. This world can be as genuinely real as a street corner or as imaginary as another planet. But is always presented as a real geography and experience, subject to the laws of physics. Weber's film is not doing this. Her characters wander from one allegorical location to another with no unified geography or story line. Events do not have physical consequences; the action is based on spiritual expression. The whole effect is extremely unusual. It recalls such non-realistic plays of Strindberg as A Dream Play (1901) or The Ghost Sonata (1907). There is a lack of any belief that what we are seeing is real on some physical, literal level.

This is not all the effect of the allegorical genre. Even when Weber is doing a drawing room comedy such as How Men Propose (1912), we seem disconnected from reality. We never learn in that short how the film's unusual situation arose, and the characters behave in unusual ways that do not quite correspond to real life. Everyone seems to be in an abstracted state, one in which their interior emotions are the dominating factor.

There are other models for the allegorical aspects of Hypocrites, that are explored right in the film. The minister sees a photograph in a newspaper of a large allegorical painting of "Truth", which has shocked Paris, according to the newspaper headline. Such allegorical paintings have always been very common. The one in the film rather resembles Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830), although the technique of the painting in the film is far more realistic and academic than Delacroix's. Both paintings feature a noble abstraction, Truth or Liberty, personified as a nude woman, having an effect on a diverse mass of ordinary French people.

Much of Hypocrites is presented as a dream or vision. The minister is sitting in a chair in the church. We see his spirit leaving his body; then his allegorical adventures begin. This scene is very hard to interpret. Has he fallen asleep and is dreaming? Is he daydreaming or imagining events? Is he having a religious vision? One wonders how audiences in 1915 interpreted this scene. Perhaps Weber is giving subtle clues to the scene's interpretation on which I'm not picking up.

Hypocrites and Intolerance

D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) makes a good cross-reference to Weber's film:

Pictorialism

Weber's work has a pictorial quality. Many of the scenes are carefully composed, to make visually beautiful patterns. Today we associate such Pictorialism with Sternberg and with John Ford, who would start directing in 1917 for the same company that employed Weber, Universal. I know too little about early film to know how common such a Pictorial approach was in those early days.

Pans

Weber likes to pan. During the church scene, she will pan from one member of the congregation to another. These pans are gentle, and do not have a wide sweep.

The Tableaux - and Complex Camera Movement

Weber constructs a set of elaborate tableaux during the medieval parts of the film. These show large groups of people assembled for the festival, all in medieval dress. Weber moves her camera along these groups, using long, horizontal tracking shots, combined with vertical moves. The geometry of these movements are complex, even by today's standards. These shots are parallel to the plane of the image. The shots are quite long and striking. They seem partly designed to both include everyone in the shot, and to get close enough to the characters to see every detail of their costumes and appearances.

Weber had previously included two similar tableaux showing people in modern dress. One is the opening sequence in the film, showing the congregation in the church. Each member is individually characterized. They each have their own style of dress, suggesting a different financial station in life. They also have very differing personalities. Through glances, small gestures, and photographs of them saying a few words to a spouse, each develops a distinctive personality. Weber must have put quite a lot of thought into this sequence. We get a sort of reprise of this sequence on the mountain road, where various members of the congregation react allegorically in different ways to the urging to climb the steep mountain path.

Costumes aside, Weber's reconstruction of the past is nowhere as elaborate as Griffith's in Intolerance. Many of the shots take place outside, with a minimum of props, and mainly natural scenery backing up the actors. This scenery is timeless, and does not convey any historical era. This actually aids the allegorical tone of the film. One is seeing a non-realistic representation of moral truths here, not a full realistic reconstruction of the past.

Trick Shots

Weber includes several trick shots in the film. These are time lapse exposures. The camera records a scene from a fixed point of view. It is stopped. Different actors are put in front of it, then the shot is resumed. This sort of shot seems to be a common part of film vocabulary of the era; D. W. Griffith does similar things in Intolerance.

There is other trick photography in the film as well, notably the half transparent photography of Truth, who usually looks like a film ghost. One imagines such double exposures were common.


Where Are My Children?

Social Problems

Where Are My Children? (1916) is social commentary film. It is loaded with opinions on controversial subjects dealing with reproduction: pro birth control, pro eugenics, anti-abortion. It is one of the most ferocious social commentary films ever made.

Much of Where Are My Children? actually centers on abortion. It is an emotionally upsetting film to watch. So are later films on the subject: the pro-abortion Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004), the ambiguous 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007). These must be three of the most depressing films ever made.


The Blot

Social Problems

The Blot (1921) is a realistic drama. It looks at the financial problems of college professors and ministers, two ill-paid groups often living in poverty in the 1920's. Their families attempt to exist, but they are barely getting by - and often even lack food.

The Blot criticizes "income inequality": the gap between the rich, and the many poor people who lack food. Films like this helped change American values, and usher in long periods of a more egalitarian America with widespread middle class incomes. But since the 1980's, monstrous rich people and their right wing, Libertarian allies have waged war on the middle class. The result: in 2010, over one in eight Americans only survives on food stamps. It is a right wing war on the poor. Conditions in the United States once more resemble The Blot.

Protestant America

As in Hypocrites, Weber is once more looking at Protestant America in general, and a minister in particular.

Victor L. Whitechurch was an author of "clerical romances": popular, gently comic novels about British Anglican clergymen. His novel The Robbery at Rudwick House (1929) contains a similar protest as Weber's film: both show and criticize well-to-do people hiring clergymen at salaries below a living wage. The clergyman in The Robbery at Rudwick House and the professor in The Blot both come to similar partial solutions of their financial troubles: they tutor well-to-do young college men in the evenings. So Weber was not alone in noticing such difficulties.

Louis Calhern is the leading man. He is a startlingly handsome hunk, in the good guy tradition of Wallace Reid. Calhern and Reid both embodied the WASP ideals of their time. Calhern is refined, basically decent but fun loving in a wholesome way.

The Opening

The opening of The Blot recalls that of Hypocrites: There are differences: The Blot is comic; we get to know individual audience members as characters, unlike the social types in Hypocrites.

Rain

The Blot has a marvelously tactile sequence early on, showing the characters coming home from work in the rain. Settings in The Blot are vividly done, full of specific detail. After the rain, we see the wet, slightly muddy ground. The rain is not a deluge or big storm, but is a steady shower. Like other aspects of The Blot, it is well shown but not over-dramatized.

Imagery: Art, Books, Food

Weber's interest in art continues: both the hero and the minister like to make portrait sketches.

The Blot is also full of Weber's book imagery. The heroine works in a public library, and we see a trap she's laid for the hero in on of the books he's borrowed. We also see the minister's love of old books. The book deals with historical costume, recalling the tableaux of medieval costumes in Hypocrites.

In addition to looking at hunger in the USA, The Blot gives a full look at the food and eating habits of the rich, middle class and poor. It also has the most vivid look at a 1920's grocery store I've seen. Either this is a very detailed set, or it was shot on location.

Trick Shots

The Blot is a realist film, and less concerned with trick photography than Hypocrites. Still, it contains a nice dissolve between a sketch of the heroine, and the heroine herself. This recalls the dissolves between characters in modern and medieval clothes in Hypocrites.

Also unusual: the titles introducing some of the characters contain live-action views of those characters. This logical approach doesn't seem that common in silent films, for some reason.

Neither of the above kinds of shots are designed to introduce fantastic events into the plot. They are instead devices intended to help narrate the film, or explore its content.