An unbroken crane shot in Shooting Stars‘ opening scene, tracking movie starlet Mae Feather (Annette Benson) as she wanders from her own ground-level film set into the first-floor set of her lover’s, easily matches both Goodfellas‘ restaurant scene and the opening sequence of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. It’s an achievement made all the more impressive by both the technological limitations of the time and the fact that it was British director Anthony Asquith’s debut film. Helping matters is Henry Harris and Stanley Rodwell’s gorgeous cinematography, which uses expressionistic light and shadow that ironically plays with the boundaries between artificial sets and ‘real’ space, a theme that informs the film’s central narrative. Indeed, Shooting Stars is at its most successful when it juxtaposes its stars’ unhappy private lives with the artifice of public celebrity.
The false boundaries that separate the actors’ sets providing the perfect visual metaphor: as the lines between reality and fiction cross, the set walls that have figuratively divided the actors literally crash down around them, with disastrous results. Indeed, the film’s themes of celebrity, the thin line between public and private life, and the cruel caprice of success tie into its broader concerns with artifice. Credit must also go to composer John Altman’s wonderful new score, which premiered in a live rendition last year at the BFI London Film Festival. It’s not unusual for modern releases of silent films to be presented with new scores, and Altman strikes the perfect balance with a jazz-inflected full orchestral score that is evocative of Shooting Stars‘ era without being beholden to it.
Films from the silent era sometimes tend towards the melodramatic, with a theatrical tradition of stage performance to which modern film audiences may feel unaccustomed. However, Shooting Stars uses the theatre of film to juxtapose naturalistic performances with the high-blown drama of a film studio. It isn’t quite perfect – despite its thrilling conclusion, the love-triangle plot feels perfunctory and the film’s middle section sags a little with not very much for its three main characters to do. However, these flaws are redeemed by a final act that is horribly tense, and a downbeat, melancholy ending that resists easy answers, encouraging us to sympathise with three people who variously embody human vanity, narcissism and selfishness. Shooting Stars is a sophisticated, gorgeous film, beautifully presented with a cinematic thesis that is as emotionally devastating as it is delightful to watch.
Christopher Machell | @MagnificenTramp