#56. Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

Tabu is a beautiful movie, I didn’t really like it, but despite being bored here and there I’m totally obsessed with its structure, weirdly, cuz the structure is perfect. It’s hard to describe in a succinct way what’s perfect about it but, trust me, its main narrative, a love story, sets things up on the sides that ultimately pay off beautifully. It’s a simple, lean, self-contained story with a solid ending — which I guess feels strange in this current Hollywood moment, where so few movies feel like whole stories. Everything is a setup for a sequel, a franchise, an “expanded universe” — the last of which is probably (hopefully) gonna die alongside the integrity of Universal’s monster properties.

The director of Tabu, F.W. Murnau, died in a car accident a couple weeks before Tabu premiered, which is a bummer, but also interesting and strangely warming to read about, for my purposes here, because it means that Murnau’s career is the first one on the List to be followed from beginning to end. First there was Nosferatu (1922), which I hated, and then The Last Laugh (1924), which I liked quiet a bit, and then Sunrise (1927), also brilliant and inventive and lovely and fun — and now, finally, his last picture, Tabu, a movie totally unlike those others, storywise, except for the fact that it showcases Murnau’s brilliance.

murnau himselfI only feel comfortable saying Murnau was a genius because there’s a consensus about it. Generally I’m pretty anxious about that word. What’s the best way to use it? How do we distinguish an actual flesh-and-blood genius from a work of genius? Does the former necessarily produce the latter? Like is it possible for a work of genius to be produced by accident, by morons? Or is it just a fluke in that case, an accidental masterpiece? I’ve heard this said about Star Wars: A New Hope, that George Lucas was actually a pretty bad director, and the movie was saved in editing.

I recently finished reading a biography of Alfred Hitchcock called The Dark Side of Genius, by Donald Spoto, and while the Hitchcock class I took in college — wherein we focused on his strongest work and sharpest insights — definitely inculcated the idea that Hitchcock was a great artist, a genius, the biography made me doubt some of that. Maybe it’s not a fair metric, but I was thinking that, since only about a dozen of Hitchcock’s fifty films seem t o still garner attention, maybe those masterworks are more the result of his work ethic than talent? Can the “genius” moniker be given to an artist who gives us a masterpiece only once out of every ten or twelve tries? Or is it here a monkeys-on-a-typewriter metric here too, where a very talented artist who produces fifty major works in a lifetime is destined to have some great ones? Fran Lebowitz is right, I think, in defending F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Martin Scorsese’s documentary Public Speaking, against the accusation that he only wrote one great book. She points out that most writers who put out a hundred books never manage to write a really great one. She suggests that having just one masterpiece to your credit is enough to hang your hat on.

blackmail pic 2
Hitchcock on the set of Blackmail (1929), just beside the sound-proof booth in which the camera’s whirring had to be suppressed with the first few talkies.

Anyway. Tabu is about a couple of young lovers whose romance is deemed “tabu” because the young woman is some kind of royalty among their people. The two end up running off to another island, they begin to live happily, but then their people come looking for them. A simple story, maybe already worn out by the time it was told, but this is a perfect example of how execution trumps story. And here the execution’s flawless.

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