Soul of the Cypress - #1 - 1922 Release version - Dudley Murphy

Rental Format(s): Digital File

"Square Reel" - no explicit content - unique 35mm color tinted-toned print
Maker: Dudley Murphy
Original format: 35mm silent film 1.33:1
Featuring: Chase Harringdine
Music: Vintage Red Seal recording of Afternoon of a Faun by Claude Debussy
Courtesy: Library of Congress, Bruce Posner

Shot at Point Lobos, California in 1920, Dudley Murphy's first Visual Symphony was very well received when screened commercially in New York in 1921, establishing Murphy as one of the earliest avant-garde filmmakers in America. A pornographic coda [removed and not included in this version] was anonymously added sometime later, forming an intriguing commentary on its themes. -David James

It breaks away completely from the stuff that has been repeated so often, and makes a decided step forward both in the artistic sense, and in the pictorial qualities. -Film Daily 1921

The dryad (played by the director's wife, Chase Harringdine) is enchanted by the music of a young musician playing on the cliff-side, and she is released from her captivity within a cypress tree by his "Song of the Sea." With her clothing fluttering in the breeze, the dryad dances to the musician's side, who is equally entranced by her beauty and pursues the nymph when she takes flight. The dryad takes sanctuary inside a tree on the cliff-side, and whispers to the captivated musician that she can only be with him if he immortalizes himself through death. In Murphy's treatment of the ocean, there's a certain sexual allegory at play: the trees among which the dryad dances bear the phallic connotations implied by the work of early twentieth-century photographer Anne Brigman, who often framed naked women in a primordial environment among trees and boulders, there's a kind of naturalistic eroticism. Contrary to the film's intertitle, it's not love, but a more primal sexual attraction, that leads the young musician to throw himself from the cliff.

Boston-born Dudley Murphy (1897-1968) was an engineering student, World War I pilot, and movie set decorator before launching his directing career with a series of evocative short films including the first American avant-garde film to be screened in New York City, The Song of the Cypress (1920). These musically driven experiments culminated in the jazz-infused Ballet Mecanique, and influenced his later Hollywood and independent features, including The Emperor Jones (1933). -Susan Delson

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