I ended up venturing to the New York Film Fest last night to catch the retrospective showing of Josef von Sternberg's Underworld (1927). I'm glad I did. First, the film itself was just incredible, and particularly beautiful in 35mm. Second, it was a nice reminder how generalization about genre or film history are often predicated on highly selective. As Richard Pena noted in his introduction, so many tropes (visual and thematic) later taken up by the gangster film appear in Underworld. Finally, the film made me realize how little I know about 1920s silent cinema. Like the early sound film applause, it's the sort of film that surprises in defying my expectations of what the period meant. Underworld uses fully realized classical language, but also shows a deft hand at, say, montage editing (the montage sequence has hardly been Hollywood's only use of Eisenstenian montage). I know Underworld may be more exceptional than typical, yet it's a good reminder that Sunrise or other more widely seen silent classics are not alone in what they do. I'm dying to see more 1920s Hollywood to understand the typical, the exceptional, and the contributions the industry made to the art form.


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