Sunday, April 14, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Hypocrites’

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Hypocrites is a spiritual fantasy with a satirical bite. An allegorical fantasy, this 1915 silent film is rich in social observations while deeply human in its conclusions. At times haunting and at others groundbreaking and inventive in its visual storytelling, it stands the test of time as an arresting and moving cinematic work.

Lois Weber was one of the great pioneers of the silent era. Her innovation and deft talent are on display in Hypocrites, which was released the same year as D.W. Griffith’s revolting and ahistorical Birth of a Nation. Film history is often viewed as if written in cement, unchanging and unchallenged.

But this is not so. Over the years Griffith’s contributions to the art have been revealed to be either overblown or downright mistaken. Fittingly as Griffth’s stature has begun to shrink, Weber’s has grown. Thanks to film historians our image of the film’s history is evolving and coming into sharper focus. 

Hypocrites is a wonderful example of Weber’s craftsmanship and lyrical visual style. She both wrote and directed the film, making her one of the early auteurs. The movie concerns itself with a pastor of a middle-class bourgeois Roman-Catholic congregation played by Courtenay Foote. His sermon about hypocrisy falls on deaf ears as Weber cuts to the congregation and we see shots of their disinterest in the scriptures.

It should be noted that many silent films do not follow the same sort of structure as modern films. They tend to be much freer of any kind of narrative constraints and rely on a sort of associative structure. This allows for a more visually rich experience as the focus is the image itself not so much continuity and plot development.

While yes, Hypocrites is about a pastor who is distraught by his congregation’s seeming ambivalence toward his sermon, falls asleep, and dreams that he is the Aesthetic Gabriel, that is hardly the point. Because he is dreaming, Weber and her cameramen Dal Clawson and George W. Hill revel in diaphanous imagery and sly subversive social observations. For instance, Truth is played by a naked Margaret Edwards, the first full frontal nudity in cinema. 

But Weber, along with Clawson and Hill, uses a clever trick to make Edwards appear translucent. She flitters about the frame like a sprite, fading in and out, as she guides Gabriel on a tour of hypocrisy. The symbolism of Edwards’s nudity is obvious, naked truth in all its simplistic purity.

Weber and her cinematographers filmed Edwards by herself and then used double-exposed the film to allow her character that seemingly ghostly translucence. But it also gives Truth a feeling as if she was appearing from another plane, for she was in a sense. That only Foote’s Gabriel can see her makes her all the more mysterious and haunting.

But just as technically astounding as Edwards’s appearance is how Weber and her camera operators hold a tracking for almost a minute long. But it’s not the length that’s impressive so much as the amount of movement involved. One of the myths of silent film was the stodginess of the camera, which is patently untrue. Weber combines cutting and movement to create a sense of scope. The camera glides down the line of the assembled mob but it also pauses angles upwards to see the family crest before moving on.

Many crowd members we recognize from the bored congregation of the film. Of course, once the statute is unveiled it is a naked woman, which causes the good God-fearing crowd to turn on Gabriel and murder him for his obscenity. Gabriel’s ghost is then led by Truth on a journey as she shows him the hypocrisy that exists in the world.

It is easy to mistake Hypocrites for Christian propaganda. Or, easy if you’re not paying attention. Weber is attempting to show the universality of hypocrisy in society and humanity. In one instance, Truth takes Gabriel to high society, where he meets a woman and asks if the truth is not welcome. “Truth is welcome if clothed in our ideas.”

All aspects of society from families to community organizations are shown to be filled with hypocrisy. Far from condemning it, she suggests recognizing it and trying our best to curb it. Weber even opens Hypocrites with a passage from a Robert Browning poem, “The Pope,” “What does the world, told a truth, but lie more.” 

In a moment of art imitating life, the film was hotly protested upon release. The full-frontal nudity of Margaret Edwards, who appears in so much of the film, so engaged audiences that there were mobs of protests throughout New York City. The film was banned from Ohio and the mayor of Boston, James Curley, demanded the film be censored by having clothes drawn onto the film negative itself to cover up the obscenity of Edwards’s naked form.

The film is now in the Library of Congress.

Hypocrites is astonishingly gorgeous at times. Weber has a tremendous gift for visual storytelling and allegory without ever dipping her foot too far into blatant symbolism. One scene, in particular, involves Foote’s Pastor, in his dream, leading two women of his congregation played by Myrtle Steadman and Adele Farrington, off the beaten path. The narrow righteous path fittingly leads up the side of the hill. The Pastor manages to make it up without any real difficulty but the other two women seem to struggle.

Along the way we see the congregation pass below all of them, wondering what the other three are up to. Some of them try and climb up the path but soon find it too difficult and continue as they were. The allegory is effective, as you can’t help but wonder how long the climb is and what the destination might be. The answer is a cliff that looks out over a breathtaking view of a river valley.

Weber’s Hypocrites is a lovely silent film filled with arresting visual passages and wonderful human moments. Moments such as when a group of men in the congregation decide to ask the pastor to resign. A woman who not so subtly joins the group. The men look at her and she quickly walks away, her eavesdropping ploy having been foiled. 

Moments like these are peppered throughout the film. At the same time, there are clever dramatic flourishes such as when Gabriel is carving the statue of Truth. We see him in the orchard chipping away at the block of marble as he turns to gaze upon Truth. We cannot see her but Gabriel can.

Foote’s performance is tremendous, with his sunken eyes and sharp cheekbones. He has a haunted, morose look to him that aids in conveying his deep internal moral struggle. His shoulders hunched as if he carries the weight of the salvation of his congregation on his shoulders.

The ending shows Weber’s dark cynical humor and should be the nail in the coffin of the notion that Hypocrites is pro-Christian anything. It is a sly jab at, the very least, Roman Catholicism’s puritanical views. Anyone who would confuse the film’s aim as moral posturing would do well to remember the line early on in the film, by Weber herself, “Truth is ever elusive.”

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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