Friday, March 16, 2012

The Love of Zero - 1927

Country: United States
Director: Robert Florey
Writers: Robert Florey (story), Slavko Vorkapich
Stars: Anielka Elter, Captain Marco Elter and Arthur Hurni
Sound Mix: Silent
Color: Black and White
Plot Keywords: Experimental Film
Genres: Short
While playing his trombone one Sunday, the enthusiastic Zero sees Beatrix and falls in love. He returns the next week to express his feelings, and it's mutual. Over the next few months, they spoon, kiss, and find happiness. Then, she receives a letter from Kabul, demanding that she return to the palace of the grand vizier. The lovers part, heartbroken. Zero tries expressing himself to a woman on the street. He meets derision. Then, news of Beatrix. Does this romance end in smiles or tears? 
Following the success of Robert Florey's THE LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413--A Hollywood EXTRA, he and designer William Cameron Menzies coauthored the scenario of a new avant-garde work, THE LOVE OF ZERO (often mistakenly called THE LOVES OF ZERO), Florey directed, with Nate Stein assisting, and Menzies designing sets. Made on a single day in March 1928 on a budget of $200, it had a twelve-minute length. Two Russians were given the leads, Joseph Marievsky, a pantomime dancer, and Tamara Shavrova; Anielka and Marco Elter and Arthur Hurni completed the cast. (Note to IMDb credit department: Slavko Vorkapich had nothing whatever to do with THE LOVE OF ZERO.) Noticing the nearly universal accessibility of the story and style of A Hollywood EXTRA to audiences, Florey and Menzies decided to film in a in a more abstract manner, using a far less tangible plot. Taking advantage of the cast's background in ballet, patterns of rhythmic movement exaggerate nearly every step, emphasizing Zero's contortions and jerky gestures as a way to express his internal emotions. These movements of players are not only synchronized within the frame, but with other players or movements appearing in split screens.
Like the satirical, numbered Hollywood extra, Zero is an aspiring artist, but his ornate appearance makes him even more of a caricature. As a member of the elite of art, Zero is high above the world, safely viewing it from his balcony. To his surprise and delight, the demure Beatrix admires his music from the courtyard below. While heart shaped silhouettes mask the screen, Zero offers Beatrix his heart--a literal valentine cutout--and she responds in kind as the two hearts become one.
After months of happiness, she is summoned back to the palace, and ordered never to see Zero again. Split screens then unite the two grief-stricken faces and project their mutual sadness. Just as the two hearts had literally become one, this conjunction of their two faces indicates the couple now think and feel as one. They slowly walk past the giant wheel of the machine street to the railroad, their two small figures occupying the bottom half of the screen. The mechanical realm proceeds busily above them without interruption in a cold, uncaring world.
Despairing, Zero returns to his home via "Di Stasse Blotz," where his figure dwarfs the residences. He pauses to read his future in a mammoth book of destiny filled with grotesque and discouraging words. Outside, an organ-grinder begins to play the inexorable tune of fate to which Zero must dance. The organ-grinder is also Zero's musical opposite, representing art at its lowest, most commercial point.
The grandeur of the palace is shown through a simple trick shot of candlestick-type objects placed over three sides of the frame, with sound implied through brief shots of a drum beating. However, the heartbroken Beatrix cannot bear to dance with the other concubines.
When the despairing Zero sees another woman loitering invitingly in the street below his balcony, he calculatingly hopes she is another Beatrix, but this time she merely laughs, her derision amplified by rapid cutting back and forth to closeups of each, then multiple exposures of her sneering face, eyes, and mouth. (The similar effect during Zero's first meeting with Beatrix gave her an angelic look by multiplying the images of her face.) No longer do the grief-stricken halves of Zero's face match or coincide in size. Then, as candles are extinguished and drums punctuate the final palace scene, Beatrix appears on a catafalque. Her death is announced by the only major intertitle, in order to emphasize the shock of the news.
Zero is despondent. The insistent organ-grinder returns with ever more labored effort, now switching 90 degrees from a normal, upright appearance to a nearly horizontal angle. The camera moves to a closer, darker shot, as the noise becomes deafening to Zero. Having once experienced love, he cannot live without it, and he begins to foresee death. His mingling with the outside world is not only a failure, but fatal. Indeed, Zero is a wraith-like being, rather than fully human, entering a room by passing through a door, not needing to open it. Zero's life becomes a perpetual nightmare, surrounded by monstrous ghouls, whose giant, deformed faces leer, laugh, mutter, and point as they surround and overwhelm him. Zero sees them filing past him, as if he were already in a coffin; finally a huge hand closes around him, ending his wretched existence. In the end, as Zero's name implies, his music, life, and love count for a sum of nothing.
In addition to expressionistic lighting and decor, THE LOVE OF ZERO is actually more impressionistic, as a title description correctly announces. For instance, the railroad station is simply expressed by puffs of smoke emerging from an overhead train model, accompanied by the initials RR and a conductor's repeated arm gestures. Nearly every shot or scene takes advantage of an oblique angle, a split screen, or distortion created through superimpositions. Often the inmost thoughts of the characters are revealed through multiple, prismatic, and revolving exposures of their face. Many times, different size portions of the faces of Zero and Beatrix are grafted together in a single shot. Despite using variations on these effects again and again, the intricacy of their arrangement and combination avoids the impression of repetition.
While A Hollywood EXTRA has a straightforward narrative, with the expressionism serving the plot, THE LOVE OF ZERO is less concerned about the clarity of the effects and the story. By comparison with EXTRA, critics found ZERO confusing, but nonetheless reacted with interest and encouragement. Yet at the same time, in many ways the narrative of THE LOVE OF ZERO, especially during its first half, utilizes the format of the love story, a favorite genre of Florey.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post Miwi and your tireless unearthing of silent beauties!

    I've just sent you a 7x7 Links Award!

    Best wishes