Art Vs Commerce: Rise of Oscar Season (90s)


Okay I said I wasn’t going back to the 20s just because the first ever Oscars decided to have two different Best Picture categories, but I also tell myself that when I replay Mass Effect I’m not going to do all the petty fetch quest nonsense this time and, well, guess what ends up happening. Sometimes I tell myself I’m definitely not gonna do a thing so that when I eventually admit I should do the thing it feels like a choice instead of–

No, YOU’RE stalling because YOU know you hate the 1996 Best Picture

Anyway Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is on YouTube so I watched it and you’re gonna hear about it, that’s the deal, that’s what you signed on for.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Spoilers ahoy for a 90+ year-old movie you didn’t know existed.

The Man and The Wife… I’m not being snarky, that’s how they’re credited, the film claims this story is so universal that giving the characters names in unnecessary. Anyway. A Man and A Wife living in a small town across the river (lake?) from The City have their marriage disrupted when The Woman From the City’s vacation runs long because she’s decided to have a fling with The Man. She convinces him to fake a boating accident, drown his wife, and sell his farm to live with her in The City. But after luring The Wife onto the boat, The Man has his come-to-Jesus moment and finds he can’t kill her. After it became really obvious that was the plan.

The Man follows The Wife as she tries to flee him into the city, they have a slightly long but also weirdly short reconciliation about the whole attempted murder thing, then notice they’re only halfway through the movie and have some time to kill. So they have a wonderful romantic day in The City, with a salon visit and a fair and dinner and dancing, and they’re in love like they haven’t been for years, it’s a second honeymoon, everything’s wonderful! Except I guess The Wife has forgiven The Man about the murder plot but he forgot to get right with God, because a storm hits and The Man might get his accidental drowning after all.

(He doesn’t, it looks like maybe she drowned but she’s fine, and he only almost murders his mistress before he hears that, happy ending)

Yep, good call, Opening Captions, this surely is a story that applies to everyone. Man has affair, plans to murder his wife, changes his mind, spends like half an afternoon apologizing, they have a fun date night, Poseidon says “Hang on there slapnuts, you came out here to drown your wife and that’s what’ll happen.” Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, we’ve all had that exact day.

So I took some shots at it there but let me say I also dug the visuals on this thing. With only a handful of dialogue cards to convey the most important information, Sunrise leans hard into expressionist visuals to convey inner thoughts, moods, exposition. The dialogue card where The Woman From The City suggests The Wife could drown melts down the center, like the words themselves are being sunk in the lake (river?). While The Man contemplates whether he should do this boat ride of wife-murder, ghosts of his mistress float around him, caressing him, pushing him to see it through. It’s all quite impressive and quite beautiful in places, like being inside of a living painting, so while Wings was the more impressive achievement from a scale and technical perspective, I understand the Unique and Artistic award going to Sunrise. (Again, kinda wish they’d kept that award as the criteria.)

My main note is that the date night in The City sequence, which is about half the movie, just plays like a series of silly romantic sketches rather than a story. It’s like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in that way, he said, in a manner he couldn’t if he’d actually watched this one first like he should have done. A simple story being padded out by some isolated shenanigans and comedy bits to make a proper runtime before the big climax hits. Which is fine, if you’re into it, but the whole “they fall back in love” bit said what it had to say early on, everything until their fateful boat ride home could have been a quick montage.

Anyway what it lacks in story it makes up for in using visuals to convey narrative, something some contemporary directors should try to be better at, so it was kind of worth it just for that.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s at #30, two spots under The Bridge on the River Kwai, two spots over One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The critics of RT were all in on this one, whenever or however they saw it.

What’s The Real Best Picture? Well, that’s a toughy, as– no wait if we’re this far back there was a different bit–

What Would Yancey Cravat Do? Beacon of Nobility Yancey Cravat would never abandon his wife for some hussy from the city. He’d abandon his wife in pursuit of adventure and new wrongs to right out on the frontier. That doesn’t sound much better but hey at least he didn’t try to murder her on his way out the door.

The Box Office Champ

It was The Jazz Singer obviously it was The Jazz Singer and you know why it was The Jazz Singer, Al Jolson was a big star and it was a pioneer in that splashy new sound technology. For all of its visual splendour, Sunrise couldn’t compete with the arrival of Sound, look let’s not spend a lot of time on this.

Other Events in Film

  • Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a visual marvel but I’ve heard it described as too long and very boring.
  • The King of Kings? Wow, biblical epics go back a minute, huh.
  • A young animator named Walt Disney debuts his new character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, in Trolley Troubles. His next character goes better.
  • The term “It Girl” is created when Clara Bow, America’s first sex symbol, stars in It.
  • Champagne is a silent comedy from… Alfred Hitchcock? What? A comedy? Really? Huh.

Next Page: Disasters personal and global, for real this time

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