Sunday, October 2, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Two: The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921) -- B+

Speaking on ghosts and the cinema in the 1983 film Ghost Dance, Jacques Derrida states: "That's what I think the cinema is all about, when it's not boring; it's the art of allowing ghosts to come back." With The Criterion Collection's recent release of Victor Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage, Derrida's claim has rarely been so apropos; not so much a resurfacing relic as an uncanny (re)presentation of cinematic hallucination (in both form and content), Sjöström's film reenters the cultural consciousness amidst times of amorality, artistic crisis, and deflated aesthetic sensibilities, the eponymous vestige a chilling signifier within and without its own context, exuberant filmic technique (a tangible love for the medium and its subjects) now a phantom unto itself amidst larger goals of corporatism, franchises, and other detrimental cultural illnesses, foremost among them political correctness. The Phantom Carriage is by no means a great film (its views of righteousness are far too reductive), but the level of formal interest (tinting, superimposition, exaggerated close-ups) imbue the Dickensian hokum (albeit via a marvelously fractured chronology) with a larger sense of significance, specifically in the film's final third, as David Holm's (Victor Sjöström) alcoholism becomes less about proselytizing than personal redemption, individualistic perseverance diffusing compassion amidst economic hardship. If The Phantom Carriage can't find resonance in comparable times of various crises, then it curiously reaffirms Nietzsche's maxim to "let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species." An ephemeral culture probably lacks space for Sjöström's prescience.

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