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Movie Crash Course: Modern Times

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You’ll remember I wasn’t that big a fan of Chaplin’s City Lights – I found it a little too twee, with too much schtick and not enough story to hold it together. Modern Times seems to fix that.

One gag from this film looms large in the minds of many – Chaplin’s Little Tramp character is a factory worker, and gets sucked into the machine, winding his way through the oversized gears.  And yeah, that happens, but it all happens within the first ten minutes – it’s the culmination of a breakdown Chaplin’s Tramp has in an assembly line, after being pushed to repetitiously tighten pairs of screws at a faster and faster rate.  Pushed to the limit, he snaps, and starts trying to tighten everything he sees – doorknobs, faucets, buttons on a lady’s coat – finishing up with a dive into the machinery.  He is fished out and sent to an asylum to recover.

And that’s largely the end of the “Little Tramp as Factory Employee” part of the plot – and the beginning of the rest of the movie, which is “Little Tramp As Chaplin’s Advocate For The Unemployed” plot.  Which I was not expecting.

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When the Tramp is released from the hospital, he wanders the streets a bit, figuring out how he’s going to get work – and sheerly by accident gets caught up in a Communist Party demonstration and is subsequently arrested.  But when he subverts a prison break – also sheerly by accident – the wardens lavish him with preferential treatment, to the point that when he’s released, he immediately commits petty theft in an effort to get himself thrown back in prison again.  But in the paddy wagon he meets “The Gamine” (Paulette Goddard), a just-turned-eighteen orphan who’s hiding from Child Protective Services and has stolen some bread to feed herself.  They take a shine to each other, and so when the police wagon crashes, they escape together.  And they’re a team through the rest of the film – despite the Tramp getting swept up in and out of jail a couple more times, the Gamine continuing to dodge CPS, and both drifting in and out of jobs; their futures are uncertain at film’s end, but they’re hopeful, because they’re together.

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Chaplin had a different ending in mind for the film – where after many go-rounds of one or the other getting into trouble and sent to prison, the Tramp comes home after a stint in jail to find that the Gamine is gone – she’s decided to become a nun.  He visits her convent to say his good-byes, and then leaves, parted from her forever. But ultimately Chaplin decided that this was too sappy – and not quite in keeping with his vision of the pair as being “the only two live spirits in a world of automatons”, as the intertitles say at one point.

….Yes, I said intertitles.  Even though this was well into the era of the talkies, Chaplin still produced this as a silent film – or, rather, silent-ish.  He uses sound as the basis for a couple gags – a sequence with a couple of rumbling stomachs, a sequence where the Tramp is trying get a singing-waiter job and improvises a song in Italian gibberish – but having the Tramp speak just plain didn’t feel right to Chaplin.  I’m inclined to agree; Chaplin has a definite eye for physical comedy, and here the cuteness is reined in enough to let the gags come out.

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One bit that tickled me more than I was expecting came early on, with Chaplin as the guinea pig for an “automatic lunch-feeding machine” – a sort of adult high-chair with robot arms feeding him soup, corn on the cob, meatballs, and pie in turn – and one periodically wiping his mouth with a big sponge in lieu of a napkin.  Of course the machine goes haywire, with food being flung in his hair and his lap and the floor and everything in a three foot radius – but robo-sponge still neatly and perfectly dabbed his mouth every few seconds, which struck me funnier and funnier each time.  Another sequence I liked saw the Tramp in the prison mess hall, where a fellow prisoner has tried to smuggle in cocaine by hiding it in a salt shaker.  The Tramp uses that very shaker – and, as they say, hilarity ensues.  But not too much hilarity – it would have been easy to show The Tramp going completely manic and running amok, but his “cocaine high”  was a lot more restrained – and, I think, funnier as a result.

The ending – and one or two other scenes – reminded several moviegoers of Rene Clair’s A Nous La Liberte. Clair’s studio, a Franco-German firm called “Tobis,” sued Chaplin for plagiarism, demanding financial restitution and ordering that Chaplin withdraw the film from distribution permanently.  The case was fairly weak, and Clair himself was a huge Chaplin fan and begged them to drop the suit.  But Tobis persisted, even renewing the suit every few years over the course of the next decade until Chaplin finally settled to make them go away.  Fortunately, though, Chaplin retained the rights to continue screening the film.


Applied Knowledge From The Crash Course

Another review is coming, fret not.  In the meantime, I saw a more contemporary movie yesterday – and was revisited by a very early film from the list.

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Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is based on a true story (or, as the opening titles say, “based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit”); it’s about Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs.   But he didn’t just do that – he actually infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan (with the assistance of a fellow white police officer – Adam Driver plays him in the film –  who played “Ron Stallworth” when he had to make a personal appearance).  The whole thing was so successful that “Ron Stallworth” was having regular phone conversations with David Duke, and was actually nominated to lead the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK.

It is a remarkable story; Lee did tweak the actual events a little, but waaaay less than you’d think.  The only part of the plot that was invented whole cloth, so far as I can tell, was a love-interest subplot; any other change was either an amplification (a couple of things the KKK do in the film are things they only talked about doing in reality) or just a dramaturgical cosmetic change (movie Stallworth makes his initial contact with the KKK via phone, real Stallworth wrote to a P.O. box).  And there are few changes from the reality.

I’d agree with those who see it as kind of a return to form for Lee; it’s similar in feel to his films from the 90s like Do The Right Thing or School Daze, with that provocative mix of comedic moments and serious, intense social commentary.  But you seriously can’t expect anything but that from a story like this; the things the Klansmen say in the film are as abhorrent as you’d think – Topher Grace makes an especially creepy David Duke – and the whole idea of Stallworth actually infiltrating the KKK sounds like a Chapelle Show sketch. One criticism I’ve heard from others is that Lee is a little heavy-handed tying events of the film to today; I can see why others would feel that way, but frankly, I suspect the times call for it.

One moment was uniquely uncomfortable, though.  In the film, “Ron Stallworth” is officially initiated into the Klan, and following the formal ceremony, the friends and family join the initiates to watch a screening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation.  Spike shows a few clips from the film in the sequence, complete with the raucous audience reaction, with Driver’s character trying to play along, and Washington’s character – clandestinely watching through a window to make sure Driver is okay – is of course disgusted.

It’s only been about a year since I saw Birth Of A Nation myself.  And – honestly, the idea of anyone today seeing that film and thinking it was anything other than exaggerated propaganda is mind-blowing.  We like to think that we’re more savvy today, that we wouldn’t fall for such obvious and blatantly manipulative filmmaking – but here is an audience that apparently not only was eating it up, they were loving every minute of it.

And the hell of it is – there are some who are no doubt going to say exactly the same thing about this film.  They’re dead wrong, but they’ll be saying it anyway; much to all of our shame.


Movie Crash Course: Peter Ibbetson

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What a strange story Peter Ibbetson is.

That’s not a mark against it, mind you. It just felt very different from the stories told by many of the other films I’ve been seeing, in the way that the little indie films of today are often different from the blockbusters.  Where A Night At The Opera and The Thin Man are kind of like today’s Pirates of the Caribbean or Fast And The Furious, Peter Ibbetson is more like….I don’t know, maybe Inception.

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We first meet Peter when he is a little boy going by the nickname “Gogo”, living with a single mother in a Paris suburb, and friendly with a little girl “Mimsey” who lives next door. The children are feisty but constant playmates. Things change drastically when Gogo’s mother dies; his uncle, a stern disciplinarian from London, is charged with raising him.  His uncle literally has to drag Gogo away from Mimsey when they take their leave and rechristens him Peter as they travel.

We then jump ahead 15 years to find Peter as a young architect, dissatisfied for reasons he can’t quite name. His boss sends him on a vacation to Paris to relax a little; while he’s there, Peter revisits the house where he grew up and realizes that all this time, he’s simply been missing Mimsey.   Ah well, can’t be helped – his vacation is over, and he doesn’t think finding Mimsey would even be possible anyway.  As soon as he’s back in London his boss sends him out on a job – the Duke and Duchess of an estate in Yorkshire want to make over their stables.  Or, rather, the spirited Duchess wants to make them over – her much older husband is letting her call the shots. The opinionated Duchess clashes with the cocky Peter about the stables’ design at first, but gradually they both get caught up in the project, turning their contention to collaboration.  And towards the end, things start getting….flirty.  Especially one afternoon when the pair discuss having had unusual dreams the previous night – and realize that they’ve shared the same lucid dream.

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The Duke isn’t blind, however, and calls the pair out one evening over dinner. Peter admits to his affections – which he hasn’t even confessed to the Duchess yet – and agrees to leave. But before he goes, he says – he wants to thank them, since his feelings for the Duchess have cured her of the lifelong torch he’s carried for his childhood playmate.  But this makes things worse – because the Duchess is Mimsey, all grown up.  And she’s been missing Peter all this time too.

The pair concoct a plan to run off together, but the suspicious Duke surprises them.  In the ensuing scuffle, the Duke is killed; Peter is charged with manslaughter and sentenced to life in prison, while the Duchess is largely shunned by the surrounding community.

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….That, however, is not the end of the story.  The third act begins with Peter in prison, drifting off to sleep on his cot – and having a dream that the Duchess has come to visit him, urging him to remember that they shared a dream once. Maybe that’s what they can do every night, she says.  Dream Peter scoffs – how does he know that it’s really the Dream Duchess coming to visit him, and he isn’t just making it up?  She’ll send him a sign, she says, before he wakes up.

And thus, the last act is about the pair trying to connect in a shared dream reality every night for the rest of their lives, all while Peter is in his cell and the Duchess is in her mansion.

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…See what I mean? A film from the 1930s that devotes a full 20 minutes to parallel-reality dream-world exploration.  It felt more high-concept than I expected for the 1930s, and I was genuinely surprised.  Mind you, I’d rather have seen more exploration of the dream world itself and less romantic shmoopery, but will definitely grant that’s a personal preference.  I was also pleased that they didn’t try to get too cute with special effects to signal “we are moving to the dream world”, and instead handle that fairly simply, with a couple of cinematographic tricks and careful editing.

It even seems to have been well received at the time. Critics fell all over themselves praising it – the film was based on a beloved novel by Franco-British writer George du Maurier, and critics especially praised how the film dealt with the “dream world” concept.  Stars Gary Cooper and Ann Harding also received high praise – in fact, critics didn’t even seem to notice that Cooper made absolutely no attempt to adopt a British accent (or a French one, for that matter) for the Anglo-French Peter.  But I have to admit I didn’t realize until just now that “oh right, he could have done a British accent”.  The story simply distracted me from that detail.

I admit I’d probably not watch it again.  But it made me realize I had some misconceptions about how “conventional” the film world of the 1930s may have been, and proved them wrong.

Blogathon 3!

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Yay it’s another blogathon!  This one celebrates British film.

I’ve contributed Blackmail, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound films.  (Protip – one of the screenshots I use features Hitchcock’s cameo in that film.)

Movie Crash Course: Top Hat

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And thus on the evening of July 30th, 2018, I finally learned why Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were such a big deal.

Look: I’ve said before that one of the reasons I’m doing this project is for self-education. I grew up in a small town with only a single multiplex, and the only indie theater complex nearby favored cult-classic stuff from the 1970s and cartoons for the kids.  Any late-night movies we got on TV were usually 60’s horror cheese.  There are vast swaths of film history I simply haven’t been exposed to properly.  Add in my aversion to most musical films, and that’s how I’ve managed to be ignorant all this time.

Not that I hadn’t heard of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  Their fame and reputation were well established when I was a kid, and I’ve seen passing brief clips of one or another of their numbers, usually only a few seconds’ worth of segments in one documentary or another.  I knew that Astaire and Rogers were supposed to be good, and saw tastes of things here and there, but the penny still hadn’t dropped.

Watching one of their films properly makes the case.  Mind you, I found the plot utterly ridiculous – a romantic misunderstanding straight out of a Three’s Company episode drives the action, with Astaire and Rogers as a pair of singletons whom a married couple are trying to fix up.  Astaire is Jerry Travers, a showman who’s come to London to star in his friend Horace’s stage show – and Rogers is Dale Tremont, a model who’s come to meet her friend Madge’s new husband (Horace) and the gent Madge is trying to set her up with.  Travers runs into Tremont before they are formally introduced, and they both get flirty – until a chance misunderstanding leads Tremont to think Travers is actually Horace.  So for a surprisingly long time, she’s totally confused about why her friend’s husband is pursuing her – and why her friend is actually encouraging the situation.

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This is a plot device that always makes me roll my eyes, where the “problem” is something that could be solved in about two minutes if people just talked to each other like grownups.  Roger Ebert famously referred to these kinds of plots as “Idiot plots” – “Any plot containing problems that would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.”  But like with the Marx Brothers, the plot really isn’t the point – it’s the dancing.  Even Roger Ebert’s review of Top Hat excuses the froth – “This is an Idiot Plot, yes, and could be cleared up at any moment by one line of sensible dialogue, but there are times when nothing but an Idiot Plot will do, and we are happy to play along.”

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Speaking of idiots – when it comes to dance, I am one.  But – Astaire’s talent was completely and nakedly obvious even to a rube like me.  Right from the first – Astaire’s first number was a tap solo in Horace’s hotel room, and managed to be intricate and athletic yet somehow….poised and elegant at the same time.  He was energetic as all hell – dancing rings around the room – but suave, elegant and graceful no matter how fast the feet were flying.

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And then Ginger Rogers joined the party.  Their first duet was on a gazebo the pair were trapped under during a rainstorm; up to this point, Tremont’s been kind of cold towards the obviously smitten Travers, but over the course of the dance – and through the dance – you can see her assert herself, Travers’ ardor becomes more of a conversation, and the pair finally connect.  And it happens with a dance.

The real showstopper is Dancing Cheek to Cheek, which comes after Madge has all but thrown Tremont into Travers’ arms while all are on vacation in Venice.  Tremont is understandably conflicted – she still thinks Travers is Horace, but she’s falling for him – and Travers is already smitten, and ecstatic he’s dancing with her.  This is one of the numbers that gets trotted out in a lot of clip shows and has been featured in other movies, and with good reason – it is graceful and gorgeous and elegant and….eh, using words doesn’t seem to work.  It left me nodding and wistful and thinking “ah, now I get it.”

That scene also has a backstage-anecdote punch line.  Fred Astaire was a superlatively smart dresser and was opinionated about all his costumes – the top-hat-and-tails were usually his idea, as were the blazer-and-button-down-with-tie his characters wore in casual moments.  However, he also took into account how a costume would look while dancing.  Rogers decided to do the same this time, and for this particular number chose a dress festooned with hundreds of ostrich feathers; the choreography featured a lot of dips and swings, and the feathers would flow beautifully.  However – the dress hadn’t exactly been built to withstand dancing this vigorous, and during the first take the dress started shedding.  Astaire hit the roof, snapping that the pair looked “like a chicken getting attacked by a coyote” because of the feathers flying everywhere.  Astaire and Rogers had a blowup on set, with Rogers’ mother even coming into the fray – but Rogers won, with the condition that they draft a couple seamstresses to spend all night sewing all the feathers more securely to the dress before trying again the following day.  (Even so, you can see a couple feathers getting shook loose during the scene.)

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The famous duo made up soon after, and even used the incident as an in-joke; Astaire used the nickname “Feathers” for Rogers on and off forever after, and on the last day of filming he presented Rogers with a gold feather charm for her charm bracelet, singing a parody of their famous number he’d made up:

“Feathers, I hate feathers,
And I hate them so that I can hardly speak….”

Our Fears Are Always With Us

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…This is not about movies. Another nuclear war dream woke me up again last night.

Truth be told, I wake up in the middle of the night a lot these days.  Most nights, though, it’s only briefly; if I don’t fall right back to sleep after a couple minutes, I get up for a trip to the dunny followed by a glass of water.  I figure that most of the time I’m waking up because my middle-aged body is in need of one or the other, and I’m too sleepy to tell which one, so I cover both.  It works either way – usually I fall straight to sleep again.

This time, though, I needed stronger stuff. I didn’t have the same heart-pounding panic these dreams would give me in my 20s – I’m sure age has something to do with that, as well as the scale of a nuclear threat being way lower than it was back then.  But the dream was still unsettling – this time it was something about a nuclear blast that was too far up in the upper reaches of space to do much damage on Earth but had a big impact on the moon, which in turn was predicted to affect our tides and orbit.  It was still visible enough on Earth that I dreamed of throwing myself to the ground in protection when I saw the huge flash in the sky.

I lay in bed trying to will myself back to sleep. But kept thinking of the fallout from a nuclear blast on the moon; what would that do?  Our orbit would get out of whack, for one thing- but how far?  Would our orbit around the Sun get crazier and wider until one day we were just flung free of the Solar System?…

….Dwelling on that made me realize I needed to distract myself with Youtube kitten videos to find sleep again.  Fortunately I dropped back off again within an hour – and even had a bit of a second dream before waking up, something about baby ducklings and Patrick Stewart swimming in the East River.  (I don’t remember details, and I cannot begin to tell you how much I wish I did.)

But I had a surprising thought as I was falling back to sleep – gratitude.  Gratitude that I was still unnerved by nuclear threat, despite 20-plus years of living free of its shadow. In college I once predicted that people of my generation, people who were kids during the last days of the Cold War, were so profoundly marked by that terror that it would guide our politics ever after.  We may go on to prioritize other concerns or publicly, campaign for tax reform or farm subsidies or marriage equality or what have you, I argued, but in the back of our minds, whenever it came to nukes, we would be terrified kids wanting to do anything to stop people who would push that big red button.

If you’re talking about something that hasn’t been a danger for 20 years, though, then complacency because the other danger. Starting to forget. Starting to let yourself get talked into “Mutually Assured Destruction” or a new arms race as wise policy.  They talked our parents into this, our grandparents, and we ended up on a knife’s edge, the world nearly destroyed several times over.

I found myself whispering a prayer of thanks for my nightmares, and a prayer that I would never become that complacent. And only then was I able to get back to sleep.

Another Blogathon

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Ack!  Hello! Looks like people are already stopping by:

I am participating in the “Non-English” Blogathon hosted by Thoughts All Sorts.  This is a showcase of films not in English; I’ve tossed in my review of Rene Clair’s Le Million.