Milk of Human Kindness

For major-league posing, there are few movies to top Salomé, the 1922 feature produced and financed by silent-movie diva Alla Nazimova as a vehicle for herself. Inspired by Oscar Wilde's scandalous play and Aubrey Beardsley's decadent illustrations, this intimation of an alternative Hollywood fits into American film history somewhere between the "Fall of Babylon" episode from D.W. Griffith's 1916 Intolerance and the lysergic Sunset Boulevard dress-up Kenneth Anger concocted some four decades later in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.

More than a relic, Salomé is showing—in a beautifully tinted 35mm print—on a bill with Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy's 1924 Ballet Mecanique as part of "Unseen Cinema," the ambitious series devoted to pre-World War II American avant-garde cinema that, having been featured at the Whitney Museum all summer, will be reprised this fall at Anthology Film Archives. In a general sense, Salomé is a manifestation of the pop orientalism that set itself against more puritanical mores in the decades before and after World War I. The wanton teenager who danced for the head of St. John the Baptist had recently been painted as a modern woman by Robert Henri, played in the movies by Theda Bara, parodied as a Lower East Side Jewish girl in a song by Irving Berlin, and memorialized as a cigarette brand name before Nazimova took on the material.

Heart like a wheel: Jalil Nazari in Djomeh
photo: New Yorker
Heart like a wheel: Jalil Nazari in Djomeh


Written and directed by Hassan Yektapanah
New Yorker
Film Forum
Through September 18

Written and directed by Tony Gatlif
Screening Room
September 7 through 13

Edgy Movies: Roots and Branches
Whitney Museum
September 7

A lithe 40-plus, Nazimova plays the 14-year-old Princess of Judea as a saucy flapper. Men kill themselves for her, and she barely notices, having become fixated on a desert prophet in a fur loincloth. "The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death," the opening title explains. Most of the movie is a big buildup to Salomé's dance, basically an absurd little gavotte despite the presence of a clownishly excited Herod and a squad of capering dwarfs. What's remarkable about the movie is its brazenly languid pacing—the combination of single-shot scenes and rapturous close-ups. In its own day, this 68-minute feature would have seemed avant-garde in the spirit of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—it's set in a world of total artifice.

Outrageous would not be too strong a word: The bare-chested boys, blond Nubian slaves, metallic potted palms, art nouveau floral patterns, and birdcage dungeons of Natacha Rambova's design anticipate everything from Jean Cocteau and Josef von Sternberg to Flash Gordon, although Nazimova's hairdo is unique. (As Kenneth Anger explains in the "Unseen Cinema" catalog, Rambova used "masses of giant pearls—each about the size of moth balls—each individually wired on black tightly-wound springs that quiver tremulously with each petulant gesture of the Spoiled Princess. It is by far the objet in the picture.")

Salomé is brilliantly counterpointed, under the rubric "Edgy Movies: Roots and Branches," by Ballet Mecanique, which is having its world premiere as accompanied by the original George Antheil music. According to Antheil, the movie was created to accompany the music. Be that as it may, the percussive jangling of Antheil's pounding piano and occasional siren blast accentuate the movie's piston-gear motion and make this venerable avant-garde piece seem nearly new.

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