Why all the haterade poured on Sunrise? The 1927 silent classic was the target of a slur uttered by Cameron Diaz at this year’s Oscars (in patter written by someone else), and now, it’s getting slagged by Tom O’Neil at the Los Angeles Times’ Gold Derby blog. Oscar expert O’Neil writes that he finally has seen Sunrise, which shared the first Best Picture Oscar with Wings in 1928, and he doesn’t think it’s all that. He slams its two-dimensional characters and thin plot and finds it not nearly as exciting as Wings, which had some thrilling aerial dogfight sequences.
Now, O’Neil is a fine awards-show historian and oddsmaker, but he reveals in this post that he’s no movie critic. Sunrise does indeed have archetypal characters (they don’t even have names) and minimal plotting because it’s a freakin’ parable. Sounds obvious, but it’s a point that apparently eluded O’Neil. Sunrise isn’t about plot and character, it’s about intense human passions (love, betrayal, homicidal frenzy, mercy, redemption, reconciliation). It’s also about the pleasures and terrors of modernity, the tension and uncertainty of an uncomplicated pastoral past giving way to an exciting but chaotic urban future. Mostly, it’s about director F.W. Murnau’s ability to convey complex emotional states through gorgeously realized silent black-and-white images. True, there are no airplane battles, but to dismiss Sunrise for that reason is like saying Monet’s a dull artist because waterlilies and haystacks bore you.
I have nothing against challenging the conventional wisdom, but sometimes, that wisdom is conventional for a good reason. Elsewhere in the post, O’Neil praises The Crowd, another acknowledged masterpiece of 1927 that got robbed at the Oscars. So I know he cares about history, context, and quality filmmaking. I don’t think he’s furthering any of those causes with a gratuitous, uninformed rant about a movie that should be on the must-see-before-you-die list of everyone who cares about film.