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A Tacoma time capsule

Eyes of the Totum offers a glimpse into our city's past

Outside the Winthrop Hotel, as featured in Eyes of the Totem. Photo credit: Tacoma Historical Society

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It's remarkable to think about how new the art form of motion pictures is. To this day, some people don't even consider films to be an art because of how new they are. A little over a century ago, the Lumiere brothers began filming things as simple as someone doing a magic trick, or a shot of people leaving a factory. They couldn't even begin to think of photographing something that didn't have its own inherent interest. Later, D.W. Griffith would formalize film vocabulary with the immensely important (and profoundly racist and frequently boring) Birth of a Nation, which introduced the filmic standard of cutting between action, in addition to a number of other things that we would come to recognize as de rigueur when it comes to movies.

In 1927, the same year as the first full-length talkie (The Jazz Singer) would be released and change the landscape of film forever, a silent movie would premiere that was shot in Tacoma.

Eyes of the Totem was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, and it embodies some features of the film noir genre, even though that wouldn't quite come to be a style until post-World War II. Shot in Tacoma in the ‘20s, it features fascinating shots of downtown, including the Winthrop Hotel and the Annie Wright School. For years, the film had been lost to time, but was discovered in 2014 in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign raising $31,000, Eyes of the Totem was able to be brought back to Tacoma and restored, even given a new score, before its re-premiere at the Rialto, where it was first shown in 1927.

In advance of a couple showings of Eyes of the Totem at The Grand Cinema, I spoke with The Grand's Director of Marketing and Communications, Darcy Nelson.

"Eyes of The Totem stands as an early representation of the origins of film art," said Nelson. "The movies we see today have evolved with decades of advances in digital effects and technology, but the early mode of silent film still utilized the subtleties of camera angle and narrative perspective to convey story. Speaking of the pronounced acting expression in the movie, Bill Baarsma of the Tacoma Historical Society said that the actors ‘kind of act like they're performing for the opera' since they are trying to communicate through a silent medium. Communicating story visually without dialogue is an art in and of itself.

All of this is to say that it's sometimes necessary, when viewing a film from the silent era, to put yourself in the shoes of those who would have been in the audience at the time. Silent films are not known for their subtlety and, as Nelson suggests, the actors had to be as broad with their performances as possible in order to get over the hurdle that having no spoken dialogue provided.

Though, as Nelson says, "Eyes of the Totem offers a glimpse of what the roaring 20's looked like in our city," which should be of interest to anyone who wants to see just how far the City of Destiny has come. This Tacoma time capsule will have two showings this Wednesday, so be sure to catch it.

EYES OF THE TOTUM, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 1:15 p.m. and 6:45 p.m., $8-$10, The Grand Cinema, 606 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma, 253.593.4474

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