Something Old, Something New is a weekly feature that creates a double feature with a film released in the last few years and an older movie. These films contain aesthetic, narrative and/or thematic parallels that can erase decades of separation and show how ideas and styles echo across cinema history.
Paul Fejos’ 1928 film, Lonesome, is situated right at the shift from silent filmmaking to the talkies, a hybrid of forms whose disparate uses of new and old techniques makes for thrillingly free cinema. With much of the sound added in post-production to align with post-Jazz Singer demand for the technology, the camerawork still has the freedom of movement that would be lost for years with primitive, bulky soundproof casing. Comparable to the poetic realism perfected in the silent era by a host of French filmmakers and especially F.W. Murnau, Fejos’ direction feels like an elegant traipse through New York City, with color tinting, ambient sound and synchronized dialogue coming and going with spontaneous abandon as Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon join, part and re-join amid throngs of denizens.
The freewheeling city symphony reverberates to last year’s Girl Walk//All Day, a continuous dance through New York’s streets to the mashed-up tunes of Girl Talk. Anne Marsen, Dai Omiya and John Doyle spin, leap, run and thrash around town with infectious energy, managing to stick out like sore thumbs in the maximum-capacity swarm of the city’s populace. If Jacob Krupnick’s camera isn’t as exuberantly free as the performers (to say nothing of Fejos’ direction of Lonesome), the film’s production reflects anything-goes, crowd-sourced tone that links the two films. Funded through Kickstarter, Girl Walk visualizes its monetary source in every frame: Marsen’s movement through New York clearly discomforts many of the bystanders of this guerilla shoot, yet her energy gradually wears people down, and some even join in on her moves before she heads to the next area.
Both films operate on a simple level. The leads of Girl Walk have no names, while Kent and Tryon are given generic first names (Mary and Jim) that thousands of people in their city alone likely share. Threads of silent romance inform the interactions of Marsen, Omiya and Doyle when their movements intersect: Omiya charms Marsen with his smooth dancing, while Doyle’s more aggressive yet cowardly steps fit with his character’s title of “The Creep.” Lonesome, of course, is a silent romance, and it flits between an irrepressible giddiness when the lonely leads find each other and tour New York together and a sense of overwhelming fear when they are separated with nothing to find each other but their first names.
Fundamentally, though, both films use their small casts to celebrate the millions around them. Fejos, who would later become an ethnographic and anthropological filmmaker after acrimoniously quitting Hollywood, hints at his future career shift with shot after affectionate shot of New York’s teeming hordes, an insect swarm that works as a hive mind to get to their destinations but still has enough individual will for emotional interaction. The intricate color tinting of balloons or Coney Island illuminated in white and fuchsia as the camera rides the Ferris wheel with the couple even manages to turn New York itself into an expressive entity in its own right. Fejos starts with the society, then shows how a dense population not only allows for individuality but is made by it.
Girl Walk//All Day inverts that dynamic. Where the collective turns individual in Lonesome, Marsen’s singular, even alienating dance hooks more and more people. The awkward smiles plastered on the deeply uncomfortable faces of those caught in her vortex occasionally melt into genuine engagement, with people nodding their heads, clapping, sometimes even dancing with her. If Lonesome moved from a city inward to the two people it manages to put together, Krupnick’s film serves as an ode for the ability of one person among eight million to influence her surroundings. No city has received as many cinematic tributes as New York, and admittedly there are more than a few superior to both these films. Nevertheless, the unspoken lyricism of these works cut to the core of the city as a symbol and as a living, breathing, and always changing microcosm for life itself.