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Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912)

Director: Harold M Shaw
Stars: Martin Fuller and Mrs William Bechtel
The Land Beyond the Sunset isn't just utterly different from the last Thomas A Edison Inc picture I reviewed, 1903's Electrocuting an Elephant, it's utterly different from anything else being made at the time. In 1912, movies were still short affairs, usually running under fourteen minutes and thus fitting on a single reel of film. Over a decade of improvements in storytelling techniques had led filmmakers to push the boundaries of what could be done in so short a timeframe, but they made busy films, crammed with gags or melodramatic moments, depending on the tone. This one is a rare exception. It isn't crammed with anything, playing out in a slow, relaxed way. It doesn't have a consistent tone, apparently unaware of what it wants to be and happy to break all the rules to become something else entirely every couple of minutes. It can't even focus on why it was even made, ending in bizarre whimsy that apparently counters the whole point of the film.

It was made as an advert, of all things, a promotional film to point out how awesome the Fresh Air Fund was. This non-profit organisation is still in operation today, even though it was celebrating its 35th anniversary in 1912. Founded in 1877 by Rev Willard Parsons, a pastor in rural Sherman, PA, it aimed to provide disadvantaged children with holidays in the countryside, courtesy of a network of volunteer host families. It succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, outlasting the newspaper that assisted it, The New York Tribune, and thus far helping over 1.7m children. Within the framework of this story it helps young Joe, a newsboy in the slums of the big city, who lives in squalour with his abusive, alcoholic grandmother. Instead of buying a paper from him, a lady gives him a ticket to a Fresh Air Fund picnic in the countryside and he sneaks out to catch the train and discover the colour green for the first time. You'd think that tells you the whole story but you'd be wrong.
It's no surprise to find that a promotional piece for a charitable organisation dedicated to helping needy kids would start in an overblown Dickensian manner. It's no surprise to find the Fresh Air Fund coming to the rescue, literally gifting young Joe with a mindblowing trip of a lifetime. As he reaches the picnic area, he looks around as if he doesn't understand what he's seeing, treating the grass, trees and flowers with a suspicious wonder as if they're about to spring to life and eat him. He brightens up and, after the picnic itself, is bewitched by the storytelling. The volunteer ladies tell fairy tales, you see, and we get to see them reenacted in his imagination. As Joe hears about young Jack, we see him. He's rescued from a wicked witch by a flutter of fairies who guide him to a flower clad boat which they launch onto the sea, 'along the path of shining light, to the Land Beyond the Sunset, where he lived happily ever after.'

If the film ended here, it would have been less notable than it becomes. It would still have been unusual for morphing Dickensian social commentary into promotional home video into fairy tale fancy, complete with a little cinematic trickery. The naturalistic acting is refreshing, hardly what you might expect from an early silent film. Yet it's writer Dorothy Shore's finalé that sears it all onto the memory. With one subtle shot that still impresses over a hundred years later, she kicks into motion the wild ending that still has me puzzled as to what she really aimed to say. As the fairy tale ends, the happy reenactment in Joe's imagination is countered by a darker reenactment in his memory of his grandmother beating him, projected onto the side of the barn behind the still seated children. Clearly he doesn't want to go home, so he hides away until everyone has gone, then walks down to the shore to find a way to reenact his fairy tale for real.
The problem is that it unfolds about as well as it could, given the circumstances. Joe finds a boat and drifts off 'to the land beyond the sunset' but without anything to suggest that he might reach such a mythical land in reality. He has neither food nor water. He has no sunscreen, no means of navigation. He has no idea where he even begins his journey, let alone where the sea might take him from there. So the picture ends before we can discover whether his inevitably horrible death will be from starvation, dehydration, exposure or just plain drowning. Are we supposed to see this as a preferrable fate to returning home to his wicked witch of a grandma? Should we appreciate that at least he ends the story on his own terms, apparently the master of his destiny, however scarily soon that might arrive. And how are we supposed to view the Fresh Air Fund, whose good deeds it was all supposed to showcase?

And that's what I can't get past here. There is much to enjoy in this film, which is in a category of its own, unfolding unconventionally from grim reality to ambiguous finalé that could be a dream within a dream, unbridled romantic lunacy or a subconcious manifesto that death is better than poverty for young boys. The shifting tones play out like Joe elevates through planes of existence, ascending to higher and higher levels of imagination, like an acid trip that unfolds blissfully but is about to go horribly wrong. Simply changing the title cards could warp this unashamedly. And at the heart of it is the Fresh Air Fund, depicted initially as lifesavers, helping kids like Joe to escape their lot in life for a brief window to revel in the countryside, but then as well meaning bumblers, ineptly losing track of one of their charges who surely dies on their watch. How could this possibly have been the sort of promotion that they were looking for? Thanks, Edison!

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