Moods of the Sea (1941) by Slavko Vorkapich and John Hoffman
Retro Review by Dylan Moore
Moods of the Sea emerges from a cave in the cliffs with the sea finding its way in to sweep us out into the world; it reveals the serene stillness and foaming whirls of waves and some of the creatures that ride them, all set to Felix Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave (The Hebrides). The title credits refer to the film as a “pictorial fantasy” with the visuals cut to and weave in the music revealing more a mood and atmosphere of the setting than tell an involved narrative, connecting it in principle to the tone poem it is immersed in. Moods of the Sea, a B&W 10 minute short, is the first collaboration between Slavko Vorkapich and Jordan Hoffman--both “montage and visual effects” artists that created the body of their art between the 1920s and 1940s; their second collaboration being Forest Murmurs (1947), another short film set to an interlude from Siegfried by Richard Wagner, that immerses itself in the rhythms and sights of a forest: grazing deer; bears and their cubs; roaring rivers; giant trees scaring poor chipmunks.
Slavko Vorkapich, as a montage editor and special effects artist from the 1920s through 1940s, made delirious sequences like “the Furies”, “Skyline Dance,” and “Money Machine.” Delirious because in his montages Vorkapich uses all manner of techniques to cram the frames with motion and energy, superimposing and crossing-dissolving many compositions together, which make them really exciting and dense, almost to the point of overwhelming the frame. A more modern extension of this would be the intro jitterbug sequence from Mulholland Drive. In “the Furies” sequence from Crime Without Passion (1934), for example, the furies fly out of blood from a woman just shot and rush across New York City soaring through the skyline to seek vengeance on men who abuse and hurt women. Vorkapich creates their flight and crashing through windows and buildings by superimposing shots of the furies with their clothes blowing back over the tracking shots of skyscrapers and images of glass being smashed. Rough looking effects now, but effective and still tells an impacting, condensed story that would probably not be made or given much consideration in 2016…
(A piece of Vorkapich’s work that might be more recognizable is a montage sequence in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where small town leader played by Jimmy Stewart gets appointed to a Senate seat and as soon as he gets there is awe struck by the nation’s capital and ends up on a bus which leads into a montage of all the sights he sees and U.S. monuments and symbols all emanating and falling into one another. It actually really surprised me while watching the film for the first time recently.)
Moods of the Sea, though, is less overwhelming with symbols than that, and instead is a beautiful black and white vision of the tides. Cut to Fingal’s Cave, the music and the motions of the sea ebb and flow with one another, showing waves strike against the cliffs to the eruption of strings and when the sea and clouds fall seemingly still sustained notes from clarinets and oboes hum. I feel it is easy to forget or take for granted the effectiveness of a piece of music to inform the editing rhythms of a film...The technique has been pervasive since the beginning of cinema and with overused music cues in trailers, it can feel like background noise, but the swells and crashing of waves in Moods amplified by the music and woven together from fragments of footage gives an active vision of the the sea, which made that technique exciting for me. To help understand the motion of the sea, seals and seagulls are shown hanging out by the beach, in the water, and drifting with the tides in the serene moments, but as the sea suddenly roars and rocks the seals dive below, swimming away to avoid the crashing waves as the gulls take to the air. The quality that struck me the most is the black and white visuals: the sea in deep black with shimmering surfaces and bubbling white foam skating across dark sands. At a certain point the B&W intensities make the sea almost become not water, it becomes a different being, starker, lonelier.
Finally, a beautiful thing about how Vorkapich and Hoffman depict the sea is through the framing. You are taken in by slow mesmerizing movements, but then the sea changes and forces outside the frame sweep us in various directions. The way they observe the sea and bring it together gives a feeling of being in the water taking in all that is happening on this people-less beach...Close comparisons that kept coming to mind were Disney’s Fantasia and Silly Symphonies and how they create an impression, a portal to a space through images and music tightly connected through rhythm and tone, but those films are built on animation to create a colorful sketch usually full of characters and gags while Moods limits itself to a few visual elements to create its poetry. But to be sure though, what I appreciate about Fantasia and Moods is their ability to find new life for orchestral music.
I stumbled onto Vorkapich when I picked up from the public library Light Rhythms, a collection of odd, beautiful shorts from 1900s-1940s and a part of the Unseen Cinema collection, and I had no idea what to expect and was happily surprised by Moods of the Sea. There is another short on there called Surf and Seaweed by Ralph Steiner that features even more fantastic black and white textures from the sea (if Moods is not enough). Outside of that collection which includes more of Vorkapich’s montage sequences from features, you can find a lot of his stuff on YouTube; I would particularly recommend The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra. It is a surreal short following a man who comes to Hollywood, silhouetted, pointy, and nightmarish here, to be a “motion picture player”and has to grapple with the confusion and frustration of donning masks, dreams of stardom (marked literally with a star symbol on people’s foreheads) and finding yourself exhausted and barely getting by. The ending is sad and kind of funny, so if you are looking for something rather weird and different than Moods of the Sea by the same artist...there you go. Overall, I would recommend Vorkapich’s work, particularly Moods of the Sea, as worth checking out if you want to dive into how early filmmaker’s distinguished films from paintings and theater and how they built dreams and poetic spaces from B&W 2D images and music.