Bright Lights Film Journal

The Surreal World of Slavko Vorkapich

Like Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, Serbian-born Slavko Vorkapich (1894-1976) was not only a filmmaker, but a respected film theorist, and like those two Soviet giants, Vorkapich’s theories were mainly about editing – the right and wrong ways to cut two shots together, the “kinesthetic” (physical) effects that could be produced in the viewer through montage.

As a filmmaker, Vorkapich co-directed with Robert Florey the experimental short film The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (1928, above), and he was the leading creator of montage sequences for studios like RKO and MGM during Hollywood’s “Classic Era.” He was Chairman of the USC Department of Cinema from 1949 through 1951, a mentor to future Gumby-animator, Art Clokey. He continued to lecture on film until his death in the mid-’70s.

But beneath the respectable veneer of an Apollonian film theorist lurked the soul of a Dionysian surrealist.

Consider the evidence:

Crime Without Passion (Ben Hecht, 1934)

Vorkapich’s opening montage is by far the most striking part of Hecht’s adultery melodrama. Notwithstanding the various editing tricks employed (and there are some good ones), the most memorable aspect of Vorkapich’s montage is its crazed surrealist imagery, the screeching Harpy animas emerging from drops of blood to enflame the passions of The City.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Victor Fleming, 1941)

Who but Vorkapich could have conceived this montage that accompanies the chemically-induced transformation of kindly Dr. Jekyll into murderous Mr. Hyde? Spencer Tracy as Dr. Jekyll cracks a phallic whip over a chariot driven by two galloping horses, one dark, one light. The horses turn into his leading ladies, brunette Ingrid Bergman and blonde Lana Turner (previously seen as water lilies). MADNESS! MADNESS!!

The Mask (Julian Roffman, 1961)

Where, previously, Vorkapich’s montage sequences had been icing on someone else’s narrative cake, in The Mask (Canada’s first horror film), Vorkapich’s anaglyphic 3-D hallucination sequences ARE the cake, the reason why people pay to see this film in the first place. The film’s narrative sequences are strictly set-up. A psychologist played by Paul Stevens acquires an ancient Aztec mask. He hears a commanding voice, “Put the mask on now!” (which also cues the audience to put their 3-D glasses on), he obeys the command, and then the real fun (Vorkapich’s hallucination sequences) begins. Removing the mask, the psychologist finds a dead body in the room, someone he must have murdered during his fugue state. Like a drug addict, he vows never to repeat the experience, but of course his vow is soon broken …

The thing to notice here is that Vorkapich has abandoned editing tricks almost entirely in favor of pure archetypal dream imagery. The psychologist’s dream-double gropes his way – like Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – through a world of cobwebs and mist and trees with organs that breathe. Stalactites hang like giant insect legs. A blonde mask-wearing anima beckons, but hooded figures with clawed, flame-shooting hands intervene and carry the helpless girl to an altar of sacrifice.

The Mask, including 3-D glasses, can be obtained through the usual on-line sources. Wondering how to celebrate Halloween? PUT THE MASK ON NOW!!