The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s the idea behind Lois Weber’s 1915 film, Hypocrites, a morality play that finds parallels between the medieval period and 1910s America. It’s also the thought that races through your brain as Weber takes aim at the clergy, politicians, and the ruling class over 100 years ago.
Written and directed by Weber, Hypocrites opens in a medieval monastery with an ascetic monk, Gabriel (Courtenay Foote), working on his greatest creation: A sculpture of Truth. While he works, he denies himself the pleasure of food and company—much to the other monks’ confusion, who treat the monastery like a raucous fraternity. When Gabriel finishes his statue, he unveils it for the city. It’s of a naked woman, and the citizens are aghast. A riot ensues, and naked Truth evaporates before their very eyes.
Cut to a Protestant congregation circa 1910, and Gabriel is now a pastor. Following a less than successful Sunday sermon, Gabriel dreams of climbing a steep hill and finds Truth at the summit. She guides Gabriel through a series of set pieces pointing out the hypocrisy in the world. Margaret Edwards plays Truth, and she appears nude throughout the dream sequence, with Weber photographing her in double exposure, giving Truth a ghostly appearance.
As you might expect, Edwards’ nudity presented various issues with distribution, but Weber remained steadfast that her depiction of nakedness was artful and not immoral. Still, it caused considerable hiccups in multiple cities, as movies weren’t protected by the First Amendment and subject to local censors. Coincidentally, these censors played into Weber’s hands: The image of a naked woman so scandalized audiences and exhibitors they probably didn’t notice that Hypocrites was pointing the finger at them.
Yes, Hypocrites’ story is direct and didactic, the kind of moral hand-wringing that never seems to sit well with the American moviegoing public. And though Weber doesn’t let her characters be anything more than abstractions, her artistic ambitions are what make the film sing. Consider the second section, the one in a modern-day Protestant church, with Gabriel preaching to his congregation. Some are listening; some are not. But Weber does not show us the space; she cuts back and forth only between Gabriel and the parishioners before giving us the master shot showing where everyone is in relation to everyone else. It’s an early example of constructive editing, the kind that would make filmmakers like Robert Bresson and Agnès Varda famous. Hollywood tends to embrace analytic editing: A master shot establishes the location and all the players, then tighter shots “analyze” the scene’s essentials. The opposite is true with constructive editing. Since we don’t know where we are, everything—a person, a crucifix, a window, a dog—carries equal importance. Constructive editing turns us into detectives, while analytic editing is content to let us be observers.
It’s always thrilling to discover the beginnings of cinematic grammar. It’s like watching someone solve a problem in real-time. Weber was one of cinema’s early stylists, and Hypocrites offers plenty of discoveries to unearth. And in honor of Women’s History Month, Kino Now is offering Hypocrites free at KinoNow.com with the promo code WOMEN.