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Monthly Archives: October 2017

Movie Crash Course: The Kid Brother

So far we’ve had the Silent Film Comedy Stars version of Coke Vs. Pepsi in here, with me coming down on the side of Team Buster.  The Kid Brother introduces our R.C. Cola – Harold Lloyd.

Lloyd is pretty much doing the same thing Chaplin and Keaton did – setting up a simple scenario and using it as an excuse for a lot of gags.  In Lloyd’s case, rather than being a stoic like Keaton or a cuddly little tramp like Chaplin, Lloyd is more of a Horatio Alger go-getter – optimistic, ambitious, eager to please, ready to try new ideas.  In some respects, his optimism is a bit like Chaplin’s Little Tramp.  But where Chaplin had a sort of sentimental feel to his work, Lloyd’s work has more slapstick and hair-raising stuntiness – kind of like Buster Keaton, upon reflection.

Lloyd’s gags also seemed to spring organically from the plot.  In this Old-West tale, he is the youngest of the sheriff’s three sons – and considerably wimpier than his beefy brothers.  As a result, his father leaves him out of the heavy farmwork and family duties, saving the “women’s work” like laundry and housekeeping to him instead.  Lloyd’s “labor-saving” ideas for the chores are some of the film’s gags – like this hack for washing dishes.

Pa also leaves our hero behind when there’s a big town meeting to discuss building a dam on the creek. Lloyd consoles himself by putting on his father’s sheriff’s badge and playing a little wishful-thinking pretend – and that’s exactly when a traveling medicine show comes by, hoping to get a permit to set up in town for the night. Lloyd tries to tell them he’s not the sheriff – but the dancing girl catches his eye,and he forges his father’s name on the permit.

Of course his Pa finds out, and sends him to stop the show (“since you want to play sheriff so badly…”)  It…doesn’t exactly go to plan, and the show’s tent burns down.  But the dancing girl, who’s taken a shine to him too, is still in his corner.  And when calamity strikes Lloyd’s family, she encourages him to save the day.

I tried really hard to avoid mental comparisons to Keaton or Chaplin while watching this.   So many of Lloyd’s stunts seemed Keaton-esque, though, that I couldn’t avoid it. However, much of Keaton’s gags involved him trying to get out of trouble.  Lloyd has some of these as well, but also has a number of gags about clever solutions to problems – the dishes above, for one, or “disguising” himself as a woman by slipping a couple of curtain rings on his wrist.  In a scene on a wrecked pirate ship, he covers his tracks by putting his shoes on a monkey and setting it loose to create footsteps leading the opposite direction.

(For the record – you read that right, this is a film set in the Old West that also has a wrecked pirate ship and a monkey in it.  I have so many questions about that, you guys.)

Ultimately, which of the three was “better” is kind of beside the point.  They’re all good.  So I suppose it all comes down to what flavor of comedy you are looking for – the classic-Coke subtle sharpness of Buster Keaton, the Pepsi-charmingness of Charlie Chaplin, or the RC-Cola brash cleverness of Harold Lloyd.

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Movie Crash Course: The Jazz Singer

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So this is a film whose reputation proceeded it.  Everyone knows this as “the first talkie”, many may have seen clips of Al Jolson singing “Mammy”.  You may even know of the plot because you’ve seen Neil Diamond’s remake (I did, and I was also really into the soundtrack album when I was about eleven).  So watching this was more of an academic exercise for me.

But just in case, a recap: The Jazz Singer is the tale of Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a cantor on the Lower East Side. As a boy, his father is grooming him to serve as the synagogues next cantor, but Jakie’s heart is more into jazz and ragtime.  When his father catches him singing in a local beer hall, he drags him home and – while Jakie’s mother protests – whips him with his belt, and a defiant Jakie runs away.

Ten years later, Jakie is in San Francisco, and gets his big break when he sings at an amateur cabaret. Up-and-coming showgirl Mary Dale is in attendance – conveniently along with the producers of her current show – and they offer him a job with the company.  Under the name “Jack Robin”, Jakie’s star rises until he is given a lead role on Broadway alongside Mary.  He joyously returns to New York, and stops in to surprise the folks.  Mama is overjoyed to see him – but Papa is less so, and stubbornly throws Jakie out again, insisting Jakie is betraying his faith by shirking his duties as cantor.

Jakie copes by throwing himself into rehearsals, excitedly preparing for opening night. But the night of the final dress rehearsal, Mama desperately visits the theater with news – Papa is gravely ill, and will not be able to sing in the Yom Kippur service the following day.  Would Jakie consider skipping the show and singing himself, to make his dying father happy? Mary and the producers argue that the following day is the opening night, and skipping it would be career suicide.  …What on earth will Jakie do?

….As is no surprise, things are resolved at the end.  I rolled my eyes a bit over how conveniently they do, however; as well as how convenient was Jakie’s rise to fame.  The scenes with “rehearsals” and “performances” are all pretty unrealistic; I’ll grant I have a unique perspective as a former stage manager, but there were moments in the “final dress rehearsal” sequence that made me want to throw things (the rehearsal does not grind to a halt after the lead’s big number so everyone can crowd around and tell him how great he is!  It just doesn’t work that way!).

Apparently, though, this was a fairy-tale spin on the star Al Jolson’s own life. Like Jakie, Jolson was the son of a cantor who had emigrated from Lithuania to New York when Al was a boy. There is no record of Al’s father objecting to his career, however; he had already been on the vaudeville circuit for several years when aspiring writer Samson Raphaelson happened to catch one of his shows.  Raphaelson was captivated by Jolson’s style, immediately recognizing that he was singing “like a cantor”.  Subsequent chats with Jolson lead to Raphaelson first writing a short story inspired by Jolson’s story, and then the play which ultimately became The Jazz Singer.

And perhaps this is why the film’s depiction of Jewish characters was more sensitive than I was expecting. I was pleasantly surprised that Papa’s strict adherence to tradition was believable – he was strict, sure, but the film happily avoided depicting devotion as ignorance.  The Rabinowitz family is pretty up-to-date in terms of other habits. There’s a poignant scene midway through Jakie’s “rise to fame” when he takes time to attend a concert performance by another canter singing “Jewish Sacred Songs”, and spends several minutes sitting in an audience reverently listening to someone sing the Kaddish.  Even a “comic relief” running gag about presents people bring to Papa’s birthday party deals more with duplicate gifts than it does with “wow, they’re giving Papa weird things”.

….But on the other hand, two of Jolson’s big numbers have him in blackface.  It should be noted that this is a direct nod to Jolson’s own career – white performers in blackface were highly common in vaudeville at the time Jolson got his start, and Jolson was himself in blackface during the performance Raphaelson first saw.  Jolson was also an early fan of jazz and ragtime, and chose to use blackface as a way to sort of introduce them to white audiences.  However – even though Jolson apparently meant well, it’s still jarring to watch today.

(I was also surprised to note, during a post-film Youtube browse, that Neil Diamond included some blackface in his remake. It’s for a very different reason – but still feels  tacky.)

What this film is best known for, though, is the sound.  Other, earlier short films dabbled in using sound, as recording technology developed and improved. The Jazz Singer marked the first time it was used in a full-length film.  But it seems the producers hedged their bets a little, relying on intertitles for the dialogue throughout.  Instead, they used sound for all the songs – Jolson’s jazz performances, the Kaddish and the Kol Nidre in Papa’s synagogue.  There is some recorded dialogue = Jolson had a habit of chatting with the audience in between verses during his shows, and improvised some patter during the songs.

Everyone knows about the “you ain’t heard nothing yet, folks” line, but it was a rendition of “My Blue Heaven” sequence that had me riveted, delivered when a just-come-home Jakie is entertaining Mama.  Midway through the song, Jolson starts talking to Mama, played by actress Eugenie Besserer; the dialogue was wholly improvised, with Jolson promising her a series of lavish gifts.  Besserer says very little aside for flustered gasps and giggles (Jolson’s patter gets a little creepily flirtatious, given their characters’ relationship), and she doesn’t seem to have been miked well. But it felt real in a way that I haven’t yet seen in any of these films yet – simply because of the sound.

Movie Crash Course: October – Ten Days That Shook The World

Watching October was….interesting.

Sergei Eisenstein’s film was commissioned ten years after the conflict in 1917 which gave rise to the Soviet Union. I very briefly considered reading a simple history of events so I would have a better grasp of what I was watching, but ultimately went in blind; this was meant to be a propaganda film, I reasoned, and I thought a naïve outlook would let me see the propaganda for what it was.

Save a moment or so of confusion over names and people, this was largely the case.  Eisenstein has a really heavy hand with his message, using lots of pointed imagery and montages to drive home his points. I may not have ever heard of the pacifist “Menshevik” party, for example– an alternative party to the Bolsheviks in the initial Soviet Congress – but Eisenstein kept intercutting their words with shots of a team of effete harpers, so clearly I was meant to think their message was airy and fantastical.  I also may not have ever heard of Alexander Kerensky, an intermediary government leader in opposition to the Bolsheviks – but Eisenstein kept showing him posing next to statues of Napoleon, so I was definitely meant to think he was a power-hungry dude.

Eisenstein liked to use statues in his symbolism a lot here. In addition to the Kerensky/Napoleon montage, there’s also a sequence when he is assembling his ministers inside the Winter Palace and is compared to a clockwork peacock.  There’s another sequence where a group of women is being trained how to shoot rifles, under the watchful eye of a statue depicting a mother with a child taking its first steps.  The whole film starts with a bunch of peasants working together to pull down a statue of Tsar Nicholas IV.

The Nicholas statue makes a return during a sequence critical of the provisional government that initially took control of Russia, before the Bolsheviks.  All that actually happens is that the government rallies people to defend Petrograd “in the name of God and Country”.  But those title cards are intercut and mixed in with shots of St. Basil’s Cathedral and ornate statues of Jesus, giving way to shots of Buddha statues, Aztec idols, and suchlike, giving way to overly-ornate medals on various establishment generals’ shoulders and chests – culminating in a sequence of the Tsar Nicholas statue re-assembling itself.  “God and country”, Eisenstein is saying, is shorthand for “the status quo”.

In fact, let’s show you both those montages below – they both come one right after the other.

It’s striking imagery, to be sure. And it’s definitely clear what we are supposed to think of Alexander Kerensky (and also, what we are supposed to think of the General Korlinov they mention in that same sequence – whatever he did).

However – as effective as this film is at propaganda, it is pretty ineffective at storytelling. I grant that it was meant for an audience that already knew the events of October 1917, and knew who Korlinov and Kerensky and the Cossacks were, and what the ship named the Aurora did and why we should care.  But even the Soviets didn’t like it; critics panned its overly-stylized, gimmicky techniques, and the rest of the public just plain didn’t get it – they got the propaganda alright, just like I did, but they were looking for other things, like a plot.

And ultimately that’s where the propaganda falls flat.  I knew that I was supposed to think Kerensky was a sort of empty figurehead, but I wasn’t really given any indication as to why I should care what he did. Lenin was put forth as a super-cool guy, but his super-cool status seemed disconnected from anything else. There were a couple instances of thrilling heroic action sequences, but those were momentary, and moreover they spoke for themselves.  An early sequence of the provisional government squelching a rebellion is also haunting; the government shoots rioters and then raises a drawbridge to cut of their escape. Eisenstein takes pains to show us a couple of bodies stuck on the drawbridge, including one of a horse who was killed in the crossfire; the rising bridge leaves the horse pathetically dangling in midair for several minutes before it finally falls.

Those sequences speak for themselves, however. They didn’t need any still shots of statues of knights or whatever to underscore them.

So what to make of October?  Ultimate this was a very specific example of a specific filmmaker’s unique vision, and an example of how editing techniques can get an emotional tone across.  But in terms of being a complete film, it’s lacking.

Movie Crash Course – The Projectionist’s Most Wanted

Just finished watching the next film on the list, and I’m mulling it over a bit before my review. In the meantime, I’m going to start an appeal.

I’ve been getting my hands on everything thus far through a combination of Youtube, Netflix, and a classing movie streaming service called Fandor.com.  Thus far it’s been working out – most things are on Netflix’s DVD service, with a lot of the public-domain stuff uploaded onto Youtube.  A couple of things were Youtube-rentable.  Finally, Fandor has a couple of the artier things (I discovered them while trying to track down Prince Achmed), as well as some intriguing other things I’ll be looking into later.

But there are still some movies on my list that have fallen through the cracks.  Either they don’t seem to be on DVD, or the waitlist for the DVD is too long.  Or there is no Youtube upload.  Or it was too “mainstream” for Fandor.  Or…who knows.

So I’m starting a list of my Most Wanted Films – everything that I should have seen by now, if I were going in 100% chronological order, but haven’t found yet.  If anyone knows where I can find or stream a copy, do let me know!

  1. The Great White Silence (1924). This was a sort of found-footage documentary based on some film shot of English explorer Robert Scott setting off on his ultimately-doomed exploration of Antarctica. There was ostensibly a new restoration released in 2010, but I haven’t found it.  Found!  Read the review.
  2. The Thief of Bagdad (1924). An early Douglas Fairbanks silent film.  The waitlist for the DVD is so long Netflix doesn’t know when I’d get it.  Found! Read the review.
  3. The Eagle (1925).  This is another long-wait from Netflix; starrting Rudolph Valentino. Found! Read the review.
  4. Napoleon (1927).  This is a serious long-shot – the original film was over five hours long, but other cuts of varying lengths may also exist. The only version I can find is over on the video site Daily Motion where someone has uploaded it in six separate pieces, and….er, I’d like to find a slightly more authoritative copy. (Or at the very least, something not on Dailymotion because I hate that thing.) Found (without resorting to Daily Motion)! Read the review.
  5. The Crowd (1928). Yet another long wait from Netflix; one of the last silent films.

I will continue to update this list as I run into things that are tough to find, or as I find things on this list.  If anyone has any leads, please let me know!

Movie Crash Course: The General

Oh, Buster, you’ve let me down.

The General itself is a true-to-form Keaton picture, and yes, I did laugh in places, as I always do at Buster Keaton’s work now. In fact, a short while ago I’d have been totally fine with this.  The usual stuff is there – trying to impress a girl, the obstacle thrown into his path, daring stunts and hijinks ensue.  And he is is usual skilled self.

In this case, the premise is that Keaton is a young engineer on the train line between Tennessee and Georgia in 1861, equally devoted to both his favorite locomotive (this is actually the “General” of the title) and his girl, Annabelle, who lives in one of the towns on his usual route.

However, one afternoon as he is visiting her, her brother comes home with the news of the attack at Fort Sumter, and both father and son resolve to enlist and go to war. Keaton’s girl turns to him with starry eyes and says that he should enlist as well, and he dashes off to be first at the enlistment office – but when they learn he is an engineer, they turn him down, believing him more useful in his civilian position.  As he dejectedly walks away he passes Annabelle’s father and brother, standing in line to enlist, and they try to wave him into line with them; he just shakes his head and walks off. They interpret this as cowardice on his part, and when Annabelle hears their opinion, she breaks up with Keaton.

That’s just the setup. The meat of things happens a year later, with Annabelle boarding his train to visit her father in a military hospital. But unbeknownst to them both, a team of enemy spies has secretly boarded the train, and when Keaton stops the train for a lunch break en route, they sieze the locomotive and one of its freight cars – with Annabelle unexpectedly inside, hunting for something in her luggage – and take off, headed for their camp.  Keaton spots them and gives chase.

Cue the hijinks.  Which in this case involve pursuit by handcar, mishaps with a cannon, and rides on the cowcatcher.  There’s even a second stretch of hijinks after Keaton has managed to overhear an enemy plot, rescue Annabelle and reclaim his engine, and is racing back home ahead of the enemy, trying to save Annabelle and warn the home troops in time.  And it ends happily, with Keaton rewarded for his bravery and Annabelle happily back by his side.

Keaton based this on an actual incident from the Civil War, in which a team of Union spies actually did sneak onto a train and hijack it during a meal break, destroying the tracks in their wake and thus severing an important communication and freight line for the Confederates.  But when dramatizing this story, Keaton made an executive decision.

He made the Confederates the good guys in this movie.

Not for political reasons, most likely. In fact, Keaton was most likely just responding to the collective opinion of the day – that the Confederates had been little more than underdogs, ultimately doomed and harmless, who’d just made a mistake.  Making the underdogs the heroes of his comedy would be funnier, he reasoned, so instead of playing one of the Union spies and telling the story from that angle, he cast himself as an underdog Confederate wannabe who wins at the end.  But this was still only a mercenary outlook at worst, rather than a sympathy for the south; but there isn’t a filmmaker alive who hasn’t at least considered giving the public what they want so they can sell more tickets.

Still, watching this film in this year, after this year’s news events, made me pretty uneasy, especially when Keaton tags along with the Confederate Army towards the end, riding bravely into battle behind the Stars-and-Bars.  He even serves as flagbearer during the ensuing clash at one point – it’s a moment played for laughs, still, with Keaton marching along a bluff carrying the flag and inadvertently stepping on the commander’s toe or something.  But – it was Buster Keaton carrying the Stars and Bars. And I didn’t like seeing it.

The shifting impact of history ultimately wasn’t anything Keaton couldn’t control, and I get that.  It isn’t anything he could have forseen either.  The only thing a filmmaker can do – or any artist can do, for that matter – is work with the knowledge that they have available to them at any given moment.  And at the particular moment Keaton was filming, the Confederates were being seen as noble but doomed.  The very statues that we are protesting today were just being put up at about the time Keaton was filming.  The NAACP was just getting off the ground, Plessy V. Ferguson was the rule of the day, and it was still four years before the Scottsboro Boys ran into their own trouble on a train.  Yes, Keaton could have made a principled stand, but he would have been a very rare individual indeed if he had; he may have very well felt that by choosing to not make his heroes plantation owners, he was taking a sympathetic stance.

And yet I still couldn’t get away that this cultural narrative later lead to Gone With The Wind and then to Brown V. Board of Education, and then to Selma, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and then Dylann Roof, and then to Richard Spencer and his thugs in Charlottesville.  Keaton couldn’t have forseen that in 1927.  But those are all things I have seen in 2017.  And just like a filmmaker can only bring the knowledge they have at a given moment, a spectator also carries their own baggage, from their own era and their own time.  And that can always affect how you see something.

Sorry, Buster.  It’s not you, it’s me.

Movie Crash Course: The Unknown

I actually finished this a few days ago, but have been dragging my feet on the review.

I mean, it wasn’t awful. It was short, and a fairly unique tweak on a love-triangle plot, set in Spain among a travelling circus.  Lon Chaney stars as “Alonzo the Armless”, one of the two men in love with Nanon (Joan Crawford, in an early role), the pretty daughter of the ringmaster who is also the assistant for his knife-throwing (with his feet) act.

The strongman Malabar has the hots for Nanon as well, and she is also attracted to him, but there’s just one little problem – she has a phobia of men’s hands.  (The film alludes to her disliking men “pawing at her”, which suggests some kind of previous assault; the film doesn’t get into that, though.)  “Hands! Men’s hands!” she rages at one point.  “How I hate them! The beasts! God would show wisdom if he took the hands from all of them!”  Nanon doesn’t seem to be attracted to Alonzo, but she gravitates to him most often, since he doesn’t have arms, and therefore he doesn’t have hands.

….Except he kind of does.

In fact, Alonzo is a career criminal hiding from the police. Daily, with the assistance of his colleague Cojo – the only person who knows his secret – Alonzo has been binding his arms up and has practiced his “Armless Wonder” stunt act to put police off.  Especially since he’s got a bit more to one of his arms than the average person – Alonzo has a double-headed thumb on his left hand.  And one night, when Alonzo is returning to his trailer, the ringmaster discovers his secret, and Alonzo attacks him – and Nanon sees the attack on her father.  She doesn’t see Alonzo’s face – but she does see the double thumb.  Alonzo – already besotted with Nanon as it is – now has all the more reason for his arms to cause him trouble. So he is driven to a difficult choice; but will it be enough to win the love of Nanon?….

Meh. I don’t know why this didn’t grab me, to be honest.  In fact, in retrospect I have to say that Lon Chaney kills it in this film.  There’s a moment when Nanon shares some happy news with him – at least, it’s happy for her.  For Alonzo it is a profound blow – and you can see it just by looking at him.

Joan Crawford later said that she learned a lot just by watching Lon Chaney in action; “It was then that I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera, and acting.”

The cinematography is also gorgeous.  Some of the shots actually feel a little ahead-of-their-time in the way they’re set up.  But…ultimately it didn’t really hang together for me.

I dunno.  Just not my cup of tea, I suppose.

Political Commentary From The Projectionists’ Booth

One of the happy discoveries I’ve made in the course of this Crash Course in movies was Les Vampires, a freewheeling French crime thriller serial.  It’s one of my favorites so far, largely because of how it throws a bumper crop of oddball plot twists and details into the pot and still manages to all hang together.

And by far, one of my favorite bits is an assassin whose weapon of choice is a cannon.  His technique – which is demonstrated at least once in the film, if not twice – is to scout out the nearest hotel to his target, and then book a suitably-located room.  He then arrives, in disguise, with an unusually large number of trunks and bags, and a couple manservants to help portage everything.  Inside all the luggage, of course, is the disassembled cannon, which he and his men put together once they’re in the room.  Then, at just the right moment, they load the cannon, one of his accomplices opens the window, he aims at his target – and fires.  Then, he and his men take apart the cannon, pack everything away again, and check out.  It is completely and utterly ridiculous, and that is why I loved it.

….I just watched a clip of Trevor Noah’s reaction to the events in Las Vegas.  And something he said jumped out at me – that apparently, after the shooting, there is a growing call for an increased stringency in hotel security.  Pundits point to the sheer number of guns Stephen Paddock had in his hotel room – and the question they are asking is, how did he carry them all in?  Didn’t anyone notice anything?

Well, you know something…you could ask the same question of the cannon assassin in Les Vampires.  He also carried an unusually large number of bags into a hotel room, with the intent to commit murder.  And, in the unlikely event someone actually did try to pull off such a stunt, it would be equally as deadly.

However – the other thing that would happen is that we wouldn’t be asking how he got the cannon into the hotel.  We would be instead focused on how he was able to obtain a cannon in the first place, and bending over backwards to stop other people from getting their own.

…A movie about ninja jewel thieves should not be making more sense than real life, y’all.