Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Blot (Lois Weber, 1921)

Lois Weber’s silent The Blot remains a thrilling landmark of cinema, shimmering with empathy and immersed observation. The blot in question is that on a society which chronically underpays its teachers, in this case a kindly aging professor who seems to have no agenda beyond the transmission of knowledge. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter strain to keep up appearances and health and to make ends meet, the wife reduced to raiding the neighbours’ garbage to feed her cat. Those neighbours, in contrast, are depicted in rolling in money from high-end shoemaking ($100 a week, we’re told!), although their affluence pales in comparison to the true moneyed set. The narrative is driven by the professor’s daughter, pursued by the neighbours’ son, by a rich heir, and by an equally impoverished young minister, although the pursuit ultimately becomes as much collaboration as competition. The film explores the fine line between materialistic desire (even the minister covets rare books beyond his means) and genuine need; like much silent cinema, it’s most riveting when placing us within structures of identification and emotion, for example as we repeatedly observe the wife’s anguish and shame, and it has a consistent generosity of spirit, nudging us to favourably revise our impressions of several secondary characters. In the end, of course, things get somewhat better for the family, but one object of desire can’t be divided into three, and Weber closes on a final look back at the house, by one of the unsuccessful suitors (and the way this plays out suggests that while different classes can at least relatively come together, some societal advantages will remain absolute). The film may not carry the cinematic innovation or intensity of the greatest silent masters, but it feels intimate and true and committed, still capable of moving viewers (this one anyway) to the verge of tears.

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