The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (1928)

The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra

The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (1928) Directed by Robert Florey

The abstract reality of this hallucinatory avant-garde film manifests in its internal delirium and external dissymmetry the worst of Hollywood bureaucracy and its draconian modus operandi, dismantles its utopian facade and penetrates its dark confines to reveal its arcane institutional dystopia. The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra is among the most brutal satires of the American film industry I have seen. And probably the most transcendent silent avant-garde film in American cinema.

Architecturally expressionistic and rhythmically rhapsodic, this extraordinary filmic dictum about the depths of the Hollywood film industry manages to convey in its nanoscopic minutes a symbolic maximalism that contains a polysemic density brimming with an uncomfortable veracity, almost as if it were enunciating an ancient proverb about the dangers of illusions, and the infatuation with the impossibility of dreams. Directed by the underrated Robert Florey and co-directed by Serbian editor Slavko Vorkapić, although whether the latter really had a decisive participation in the directional role is still debated, this ultra-low-budget production has the forcefulness to express more than any other exorbitantly expensive short film with simple yet compelling devices that vitalize its thematic sentiment with a palpable formal vigor.

The idealistic Mr. Jones, played with impeccable facial gestures by Jules Raucourt, is an artist who arrives in Hollywood with the optimism and hopes of working for the film industry and becoming a laudable star, however his ignorance regarding the hierarchies of the Hollywood system takes him to a demeaning level, a pseudo meritocracy that dehumanizes him and leads him to an existential abyss. The vision that this allegorical narrative has of Hollywood philosophy shares an empirical relationship with Robert Florey’s personal experiences when he worked as a film journalist and basically gathers here all his impressions of the industry in nightmarish, Kafkaesque tones. Validly the sensationalist rigor of a former journalist is pronounced in the severe exaggeration of his pessimistic vision, yet not everything is so hyperbolic, there is a premonitory spirituality, this short film chillingly predicts the self-criticism and conscious self-analysis or social commentary that would materialize in the American cinema of the 50’s with unrelenting cruelty.

What is most admirable about its powerful expression or bold indictment is that it does so with a modern hyper creativity that is tremendously thought-provoking, miniature urban designs and low key illuminated faces that are juxtaposed with real Hollywood footage conjuring the synthesis of its symbolism with incisive precision in its visual syntax, which is articulated in a sort of intellectual montage à la Americana. Each piece in this satirical commentary, cold in nature and intense in its acidity, superimposes abundant curiosities that expose the capitalist levity within the celluloid world, beginning with numerical allusions, symbolic associations between words and visual signs that conspire to give multi-interpretative complexities to their meanings. The poor victim, the protagonist who arrives with all the best intentions to work in the Hollywood industry is reduced to a number, which is written on his forehead, a numerical succession that can be interpreted as the position of his status as an acting slave, the lowest and most miserable. In contrast to him, there is a haggard and exploited girl with a number with a much better position than the tragic protagonist, although the manipulative atmosphere and the sordid gestures make it quite clear how she got so far, if you know what I mean…

The fast-paced and consistent storytelling handles its time allocation exceptionally well, especially I find it mesmerizing how in the brevity of its minutes a rich amount of subliminal qualities can be found. Florey’s robust ambition doesn’t just stay in the industry spaces, suspiciously one can notice a global critique regarding the medium, not just the people who work in it. That can be subtly visualized in some sequences where the audience robotically applauds like stupid ideologized people to any kind of performance without any differentiation; it is difficult to extract something completely objective from an experimental work with an elusive poetics, however I think that the perspectives that the satire suggests are quite graspable from always critical angles. If we compare the disappointed protagonist, the deceitful producers behind the scenes, some of the actors, and the audience, we will realize that nearly all of them act in an automaton-like manner, a rigidity that allegorizes desensitization as well as how easily manipulated the public is in the face of any kind of persuasive populism. From this context, it is manifestly a judgment on the audience, and its conformism.

Burlesque and tart yet formidably intoxicating, Robert Florey exhibits some traces of his auteurism that have yet to be recognized as such; it’s the kind of short film in which subversive audacity and practical creativity are a must, and Florey proves he has both rebellious dispositions. The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra is an honorable representation of avant-garde American cinema of the silent period, featuring talents of influential magnitude, such as its evocative chiaroscuro lighting courtesy of a filmmaking debutant, the legendary Gregg Toland. Every element in this film weaves together an acerbic dissection of the American film industry, from both its internal and external dimensions.


Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.