Thursday, July 9, 2015

James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Melville Webber | The Fall of the House of Usher

the sentience of vegetable things
by Douglas Messerli

James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Melville Webber (writers and directors, based on a tale by Edgar Allan Poe) The Fall of the House of Usher / 1928

For those who might think the American experimental films first appeared in the 1940s and 50s, with the works Maya Deren, Marie Menken, Willard Maas, Joseph Vogel, Stan Brakage, and Gregory J. Markopoulos, I might recommend viewing the 1928 film The Fall of the House of Usher by James Sibley Watson—by profession a medical doctor who also co-owned, with Scofield Thayer, the adventurous literary and art magazine The Dial—and his archeologist and painter friend Melville Webber.
       Using the Poe story more as spur to their cinematic innovations than as an actual narrative plot, the two—with Webber performing as the traveler and Watson’s wife, Hildegarde playing Usher’s twin sister Madeline—used amazingly innovative techniques such as running a previously filmed negative over an original negative receiving new images, while employing numerous cardboard figures, split screens, and prisms to create techniques that awe the viewer. Indeed, several of the film’s images, such as the multiple images of Madeline as she comes to life within her vaulted tomb and the appearance of inverted letters spelling words such as “beat,” “ripped,” “cracked,” “scream,” and “shatter,” along with ringing bells and falling anvils create an imaginative expressionistic world that will amaze many viewers.
     True, much of the work relies far too much on the sharply beveled angles of the scenery and the coal-darkened eyes and other zombie-like make-up artistry of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but there are still many wonderful innovative touches that transform this work into a far more abstract and avant-garde production. When the visitor is apparently reading to Roderick, the books blank pages move in the opposite direction, suggesting that words and meaning are wiped away in their very telling in the House of Usher. Vast libraries become impossible staircases; covered metal serving platters fly into the air  resembling coffins; the metal struts of stairways and beds are turned into spiralling prison bars.
     If there were ever proof of Roderick’s contention that inanimate objects themselves have a living presence, it is in Watson’s and Webber’s film, wherein even the walls seem to curve inward and outward and spin out of control. And despite the thoroughly amateur theatrical performances, the film as a whole truly does emanate a sense of real horror.
     Later, the two would move into more literal manifestations of thrills, using nudity in their Lot in Sodom and spoofing melodrama in Tomatoes Another Day; but in The Fall of the House of Usher they created, almost despite themselves, a notable cinematic experiment that has now been included in The National Film Registry.
     Finally, as a doctor of gastrointestinal diseases, Watson was one of the first who filmed the stomach as well as working on radiology.

Los Angeles, July 9, 2015

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