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Movie Crash Course: Sherlock Jr.

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Hooray it’s another Buster Keaton film!  I clapped a little to myself as I put this in my DVD.

It’s not perfect, unfortunately.  The plot for Sherlock Jr. is actually a little thin; Keaton is a lowly movie theater owner who secretly fantasizes about being a star detective, and who is competing with the local playa for the hand of a lovely young thing in town.

One night, when both he and his rival are at the young lady’s house and her father’s pocketwatch goes missing, Keaton heroically offers to investigate. But his rival – who’s secretly stolen the watch and pawned it – plants the pawn shop ticket on him, and he is thrown out in disgrace.   He investigates the case a bit more, runs into trouble, and gives up, returning to the theater. But his sweetheart ultimately solves the case by just asking the pawnshop owner who sold him the watch. He quickly fingers the proper culprit, and she joyfully rushes to the theater to tell Keaton his name’s been cleared; he happily gives her the engagement ring he was going to give her earlier. The end.

In truth, the movie was created as a home for a series of visual gag sequences Keaton had thought up, most of which come during an extended “dream sequence” after his character dozes off in the projection booth.  The film he’s screening echoes the theft plot from his own life, and he dreams himself and his ladylove into the characters onscreen, expertly solving the case while adroitly escaping from the film-in-a-film’s bad guys.

But all that comes after the opening of the dream sequence – a plotless, but astounding, five-minute extended gag which was the very first thing Keaton thought of filming.  In the sequence, his character walks up to the screen in the theater, and then “into” the film onscreen – and is then stuck reacting to the environment changing around him as the shots themselves change.  One minute he finds himself at a pool, and happily goes to dive in – but the scene changes to a snowy meadow when he’s mid-air, and he lands headfirst in a snowbank.  He extracts himself, and goes to sit on a tree stump – which then vanishes as the scene changes to a formal garden, and he lands on his tuchas on the ground.  He stands up, brushes off, and starts to stalk off angrily – right into a column as the scene changes yet again.

My words don’t do it justice – it’s best if you just have a look.

The more I think of this sequence, and the tools Keaton had available to him, the more impressed I am. Keaton didn’t have CGI available to him – he had to measure the landscape precisely at each different location, plotting out exactly where he had to be standing in each new location to preserve the continuity. Apparently during filming, he enlisted a couple of surveyors to help him keep all the in-space correct; and the editing of that sequence more than doubled his usual production turnaround time.

Another stunt he does later in the film-in-a-film sequence raised even more eyebrows – Keaton’s detective character is trying to escape a couple goons, and gets trapped in an alleyway.  His assistant comes to help him, inexplicably dressed in a long robe and carrying a briefcase.  He positions himself against the wall, and opens the briefcase in front of his chest – and Keaton dives into it, vanishing.

For decades people would ask Keaton about that stunt, but all he would say is that he adapted it from an old vaudeville trick.  He did admit that it took a long time to set the shot up right; but happily reported that between that and the shifting-set sequence, “every cameraman in the business went to see that picture more than once trying to figure out how the hell we did some of that.”

When it came to stunts, though, Keaton would do them himself – and in this film he came very close to danger. There’s an early sequence just after he’s been tossed out of his girl’s house, when he tries tailing his rival.  But his rival is able to shake him by trapping him in one of a train’s box cars. Keaton’s character escapes by climbing out the skylight of the car, and then runs along the roofs of the moving train cars before finally jumping to grab hold of a passing water spout in the railyard, riding it down as it lowers to the ground before unceremoniously dousing him with water.

During one take, the water came out more forcefully than he expected and Keaton was slammed down against the tracks, his neck striking one of the rails.  Filming ceased that day, but Keaton returned to work the next day, and kept filming as scheduled even though he was suffering from monstrous headaches for the next few weeks.  Nine years later, a doctor pointed out during a routine physical that he had some unusual bone growth on that spot in his neck – and Keaton realized that he had actually broken his neck during the stunt and never realized it.

Neighborhoods New York Project: Catching Up

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So about three years ago I announced, with much fanfare, an idea for this blog that sort of fizzled.  I think I should revive it a bit.

I actually was checking out some various places in the city during that time; I just wasn’t writing about them.  So here, real fast-like, are some impressions from some of the places I have visited.

  • Cadman Plaza

This is actually a park; it’s the traditional border between tony Brooklyn Heights and more proletariat Downtown Brooklyn.  However, this also puts it right bang in the middle of a major business district in Brooklyn, so very few people use it as a park; it’s mostly populated by people in business attire walking purposefully on their way to meetings or sitting on benches grabbling lunch and talking urgently on cell phones, with the occasional nanny with a couple kids.  I got to walk through each day myself during the two weeks that my new job was a walking distance from my house, and passed a big statue of Henry Ward Beecher each way.

  •  Downtown Brooklyn

The aforementioned Downtown Brooklyn has been a major shopping drag since I moved in; the courthouses for Brooklyn are all here, but so are three solid blocks of clothing stores, shoe stores, jewelry stores, and such all stretching down Fulton Street.  Brooklyn’s own Macy’s sits down the block from an H&M and an Old Navy and a Nordstroms, and etc., etc., etc.  Right on the edge is a new sort of mall-type building that I have to admit I’ve been to a lot (it has a Target, a Flying Tiger outpost, New York’s only Alamo Drafthouse theater, and a food court in the basement with the only Trader Joe’s I’ve seen in the city where there is no line).

But there are other little surprises tucked in – get past the shops and you see some smaller historic buildings tucked in, like the city’s main meeting house for the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the main transit museum.

  • Fulton Ferry

Otherwise known as “the buildings most people walk past to get to Brooklyn Bridge Park”.  Most tourists either line up 50-deep to get to Grimaldi’s pizza, or give up and head to the new Shake Shack that just opened up a couple blocks away.  However, I favor the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, a little ice cream shop in an old fireboat house perched right under the Brooklyn Bridge.  The ice cream is nice and simple, and the scooper staff all fresh-faced high-school kids; I always get a major flashback to the little ice cream shops you can find up and down Cape Cod in the summers.

An old boyfriend once owned the building right next to Grimaldi’s, but had to sell it during a divorce settlement. Whenever we went wandering in the city, if we passed by it, it would send him into a bit of a funk for the rest of the day.  I sort of don’t blame him.

  • Boerum Hill

Another big shopping area, with boutiques and fancy shops along Smith and Court Streets, with some tinier cafes tucked into the rowhouses further from Smith.

  • Bay Ridge

I ventured down here most recently.  The city has dramatically expanded its ferry service in the East River; instead of a single line serving three stops in Manhattan, two spots in Williamsburg and one in Astoria, there are now two more lines hopping along the Brooklyn Waterfront and the East Village, with another line heading all the way to Rockaway Beach.  Another line for Queens is coming, and there’s even supposed to be a ferry up to spots in the Bronx.

Right now the Rockaway line and the line for South Brooklyn are the only two new ones open, to encourage the development of the industrial park in Sunset Park; it also tries to give commuters from Bay Ridge, Red Hook and Sunset Park a bit of a hand getting to Manhattan.  I rode it the opposite way, though, from the Brooklyn Bridge down to Bay Ridge.

It’s pretty clear where the upscale part of Bay Ridge is; it’s the houses on the bluffs overlooking the river.   The ferry lets you off on a pier just at the head of a shoreline jogging path, with steep cliffs overlooking the water looming over you.  It’s a steep climb from the pier to the next block, and then another one to the block beyond that – so steep, in fact, that at some places the cross streets simply stop at the base of the cliff, resuming one block later at a higher altitude.  Pedestrians can walk it, though – there are stairs.

I fell in love with house after house in the little side streets I walked through; mostly the smaller, cottage-y looking places with tiny lawns and front porches, and probably just a single bedroom in the second floor.  Most of them sported flags and kitschy lawn ornaments, the occasional political sign, faded wreaths or Christian slogans.  But then I really fell hard for “The Gingerbread House”, an Arts-and-Crafts style house with six bedrooms built a hundred years ago and now an architectural landmark.

I desperately wished I could get in, wished that there was some kind of house tour.  No such luck, so I just lingered at the fence and peered through hedges, wishing I could peep inside windows.  ….I have since discovered that the house has been for sale since 2009, and the asking price is making this now one of my aspirations for if I ever win the lottery.

A couple more blocks east was 3rd Avenue, the more commercial drag; storefronts and smaller apartment buildings instead of the stately houses.  I stopped in at another landmark that pre-dates the Gingerbread House – Anopoli Family Restaurant, an old family diner that boasted a small ice cream parlor. I went in, planning to get something to go; I ordered a small dish of peach ice cream, and the man at the counter was training a teenager, clearly there on a summer job, and showed him how to dish my ice cream up and how much it cost.  But when I held up my debit card to pay for it, their faces fell.  “Only cash, sweetheart,” they said.

“Oh.  Uh…is there an ATM?”

“You could go to the pizza place next door.”

“Okay.  Uh…I’ll leave this here, then,” I said, pushing the ice cream back towards them, “and I’ll just go get it.”

“What? No.” The man scoffed.  “Stay here, eat your ice cream, then you can go get the money.”  I hesitated, thinking about the ferry I wanted to catch. “G’wan,” he chided me.  “Sit down. Relax.”

“….Okay, I probably should,” I said, meekly taking the only open seat at the counter, next to a woman with bleached-blond hair eating a plate of fried shrimp.  Almost the second I sat down another older man I hadn’t even seen put a glass of ice water in front of me as well.  I was a little worried he was going to try to chat with me – I wasn’t really in the mood for conversation – but instead, he left me alone, and I instead just listened to the patter as he teased the woman with the fried shrimp, or occasionally lectured the teenager about how to serve up pre-packed ice cream or sundaes.  He raced through all his lectures, and I wasn’t sure the kid would be able to remember it all; but when I finally got my money and paid for my ice cream, it was the kid who rang me up, and he was spot-on.

 

Movie Crash Course: Strike

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Is this my first Soviet film?  I think this is my first Soviet film.

Strike was released in 1925, and was the first film by director Sergei Eisenstein.  His better-known Battleship Potemkin was released that same year and quickly overshadowed this one in terms of notoriety; I was aware of Potemkin even as a child, well before starting this project.

In terms of plot, it’s a bit thin on the ground – a strike at a small Russian factory in 1903, which ultimately fails.  Eisenstein had planned it to be part of a series ending with the ultimate victory of the Proletariat; however, this was the only one of his planned seven-film series that got made.  Still, the thin plot is made up for with some striking visuals, starting in the very first scene as the factory’s workers are whispering amongst themselves about their dissatisfaction.

The owner of the factory, meanwhile – who is depicted as a fat buffoon – suspects that discord is afoot.

He enlists a series of spies to circulate amongst his workers and figure out what’s going on.  Eisenstein takes a break to introduce us to four of these spies, each of whom is named after a given animal, like “Monkey” or “Owl”.

However, after that build-up, the factory workers seem to be pretty good about avoiding them, and they are pretty quickly forgotten.

The strike is triggered when one of the workers steals another’s tool; the victim reports the theft to the manager, and is bizarrely accused of committing the crime himself and ordered to pay for it.  Instead he hangs himself, leaving his comrades a note decrying the manager. His comrades are angry enough to stop work then and there, and storm off the factory floor, spreading to the various departments of the firm and rallying the others before finally storming to the foreman’s office and loading him onto a cart and dumping him in the river.  They then head home, leaving the machines of the factory silent.

Things seem optomistic in the early days of the strike, with Eisenstein treating us to lots of idyllic vignettes as the workers enjoy their break. Fathers play with their kids. Families picnic by lakes. Everyone generally seems to be having a blast.

These shots are intercut with vignettes of pigeons roosting on the abandoned machines and the factory owner getting increasingly pissed off as undeliverable orders keep piling up.

He’s already sent in some toughs to threaten the strikers by the time he receives their written list of demands, bringing them to the factory’s shareholders to discuss a plan of attack.

They ultimately refuse to give in, and as the strike approaches a stalemate, the workers’ idylls are broken up with tension and squabbling.  A man ransacks his house for things to sell so the family can buy food. Children cry over their hunger.  And the shareholders continue to increase the tension, up to the very end, when they send in a mounted police force to break the strike.  Shots of the mounted soldiers chasing the fleeing strikers and firing at them are intercut with some actual footage – which is frankly gory – of a cow being slaughtered.  After both bloodbaths, the film pretty much ends there.

The film wears its propaganda on its sleeve, seriously. The factory owners and managers are all depicted as selfish and cruel – one of them drops a lemon wedge on his foot as the team are reading over the workers’ demands, and he grabs the paper on which they’re written to wipe up the spill.  Eisenstein includes a pointed juxtaposition of clips a moment later, when one shareholder is showing off a new juicer to produce fresh-squeezed lime for their gin and tonics; “you just put the fruit here,” he says, showing off the contraption, “and you squeeze it to get juice!” And the subsequent clips of him letting his colleagues try it, urging them to “Squeeeeeeeeze!” are intercut with clips of the workers being threatened by some police toughs.

Subtle this ain’t.  And I really should warn anyone who may be wanting to watch along at home that the footage of the cow’s slaughter towards the end is really graphic. But – it absolutely gets Eisenstein’s point across.

Attention To Detail

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So, um.  I tried sewing today.  And there were some failures (I totally botched the drawstring bags) and some successes (I made two throw pillow covers that look pretty decent).  And a realization that it’s probably good that I’m having now.

I don’t find sewing to be fun.

Sure, playing with colors and figuring out what fabric you want for something is neat, but the actual process of sewing is too fussy and precise and neat and fiddly and specific and meticulous for someone that’s a big ol’ messy haphazard improvisational slob.

I do like knitting, becuase at least with knitting you can fix things after the fact – there’s a process at the end, called “blocking”, where you soak the knitted whatever in water and lay it out flat in the specific shape you need it to be and let it dry that way, with pins holding it in the exact shape you need it.  It’s kind of magic – the process can be messy and imprecise, but then the blocking process magically evens out all the wonky stitches you did and your knitted piece is the way it’s supposed to look; the uneven stitches even up, the holes in lace yawn open, and your thing is nice and even and flat.  But with sewing, you have to cut things to the exact specific precise shape you need them and you need to sew in exactly specifically precisely the place you need your stitches to be and if you do something like sneeze you run the risk of your seam going uneven

Feh.

Well, it’s better I know that now.  There is one quirky and silly and fun thing I did like – there’s a quilt-top-making process people use with pre-cut strips of fabric called “Jelly rolls”, where you take a crapton of strips of fabric and sew them together end-to-end, and then take the big long strip and cut it in half and sew those strips together side-by-side, and then repeat that until you have a pre-sewn nice stripey bit of fabric.  I had some fabric I ordered off ebay from someone’s scraps – a strip about three inches wide and 60 long – and I tried that with it and ended up with a nice-looking front for a pillow cover.  I ordered some more strips off ebay recently that are coming, and I have some other random patches, so I may just use them to piece a quick throw blanket together and then give all the rest of my patches and fabric to Niki when I return the sewing machine, along with the two or three sewing books I’ve somehow found in my travels.  But I’ll have a couple cushion covers and a throw and the right to say that I sewed them, and that’ll be good enough and I’ll go back to looser-limbed crafts instead.

 

Summer Camp DIY

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So, in the past, I’ve had an occasional summer habit of getting semi-obsessed with some new Craft.  I’d be wandering in a store and see a kids’ craft kit that introduced you to something, or I’d be looking for a way to use up or upcycle some kind of Life Detritus, and come across some kind of Thing To Do With It – and then I’d be buying up all kinds of supplies and churning mass quantities of the stuff with an eye to giving things away as Christmas gifts.  However, after a few months my enthusiasm would peter out a bit, I’d look at my creations and set aside half for being a little too ugly or weird to give away, and I’d give away some of the good ones but still have a ton left over, and not really know what to do with the rest of the supplies and end up puttting those out on the curb.

Some of these crafts have worked a little better than others; The Summer Of Soap kind of came and went, and The Summer Of Glass Painting is probably best left unremembered, but The Summer Of Liqueur and The Summer of Jam went over really well.  Both are still things I dip my toe into now and again, along with The Summer Of Knitting.

As I mentioned earlier, though, we are shaping up for this being The Summer Of Sewing, thanks to Niki’s loan of a sewing machine.  And I’m trying to make this a finite pursuit by sticking solely to using up some fabric salvaged from old worn out clothes, supplemented by a yard or two from a cheap fabric store and some scraps from ebay; I splurged on some precut strips of things from quilt shops after watching an idiot-proof technique for laying them out and using them, and I also saw someone had a big pile of scraps from old 1930s feed sacks, and have always been charmed by feed sack fabric and got those as well.  But most of the fabric is coming from a collection of jeans and khaki pants; my pants all have the frustrating tendency to wear holes right in the crotch gusset, so there’s a point by which I can’t wear them any more even though the rest of the fabric is perfectly fine.

Let’s just pause a moment so I can give you a big and salient fact, though – I kind of can’t sew.  I tried some simple sewing in Girl Scouts, but had to use felt since it wouldn’t fray; and as a freshman in drama school I was assigned to an internship in the department’s costume shop, but I jammed two sewing machines on my first day and the manager just gave me a blanket pass to skip the internship after that.

But I’ve seen some really simple cushion cover patterns, and watched a million tutorials on Youtube, and I think I can put them together.  Cushion covers are small and don’t involved curves, mostly, and if you make them envelope style then you don’t even need to worry about zippers or buttons or stuff.  And Niki sat with me for a while and showed me how the sewing machine worked, and it seemed easy enough, especially sewing in a straight line.  Which is all I intend to do, is sew in straight lines.

And thus I’m going to mostly be making some cushion covers for the bedroom, and turning some old pajamas into drawstring bags that I’ll use when I travel; one of them had a print of high-heeled pumps on them that was just begging to be turned into shoe bags.  (Please note: I have never worn high-heeled shoes in my life. But this was still one of the most comfortable garments I’ve ever worn – if you are trying on pajamas and your very first instinct upon donning them is to lie right down on the floor of the dressing room and take a nap, you get those pajamas.  They could have had a print of flaming roadkill and I’d still have bought them.)

The Mount Everest, though, is going to be a patchwork quilt made of those old jeans.  Mind you, I’ll be sticking to straight lines, simple patches, no batting, just turning jean patches into a quilt top and stitching it onto the backing and calling it good.  I am a bit uneasy, thinking of the old college mishaps, but that “what the hell, I’ll try this” instinct that drove me to try glass painting and soapmaking and such is the louder voice.  If nothing else, I will learn that No, Really, I Should Not Sew.

Prendre Plaisir

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Somewhere in my travels this weekend, I ended up at a bookstore and was browsing the sale section – and when I saw a huge, beautiful book with the title French DessertsI immediately walked to the cash register with it.  Hey – that’s two of my favorite things right there in one title.

And it really is beautifully done – the focus is on the simpler dishes that people make for themselves at home rather than the fantastical things you’d find in a patisserie.  There are cakes and tarts and such, but instead of elaborate things like a religieuse or a caneleanything where I’d have to wrestle with piping bags, they have simple fruit tarts or plain cakes or puddings.   It’s exactly the way I like to cook – just pick good ingredients and get out of their way.

And I have some extra time after work and a lot of rhubarb and strawberries, and that means I can make something for my book club tomorrow – and that something will be the strawberry-rhubarb crisp bar cookies from the Smitten Kitchen, something I discovered a year ago.  They’re almost perfect – just sweet enough to feel that you’re having a real treat, but low enough in added sugar that you can get away with telling yourself that they make an acceptable breakfast food.  (I ate my way through one batch last week all on my own.)

I also have some lemon-verbena herb-spiked sugar syrup in the fridge, from when I was trying to cut back my lemon verbena plant; it gives lemonade an extra kick.  And I’ve just finished a glass.

So, I am now about to enter my kitchen, where I will make the strawberry bars, and then make a shrimp and noodle salad to chill in the fridge while I stir up some strawberry-laced blancmange and a French take on a chocolate panna cotta.

Yes, this is as life should be.

Movie Crash Course: The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann)

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This is a strangely, simply affecting fairy tale of a piece, about an elderly hotel doorman who loses his job.

No, that’s literally the entire plot.  Save for an epilogue which is so tacked-on that even the filmmaker confesses he threw it in at the last minute.

We never learn the name of our hero, a big Santa of a man; we never even hear him “speak”, there are no subtitles or intertitles in this simple film.  But his pride in his work is obvious – as he scurries hither and thither attending to his guests, he finds time to tend to his appearance, smoothing down his moustache and polishing off his uniform.

And he does look quite dapper. His uniform gives him an air of respectability in the little alley where he lives – when he heads home after work, the neighbors all greet him, children stop to watch him pass, ladies beating out their carpets stop so as not to sully his uniform. He is the unofficial mayor of his street.

He lives in a small apartment with a young woman – the film isn’t clear whether she is a daughter or a niece – who is preparing to marry a young man from elsewhere in their building. He takes such pride in his work, though, that he skips her actual wedding, promising that he will be at the reception afterward.

But that day, when he arrives at work, another man is minding the door. He is summoned to the hotel manager’s office and informed that because of his old age, he is being demoted – from now on he will serve as the washroom attendant.  It’s clear he sees it as an enormous blow.

His day as washroom attendant is demeaning drudgery.  But one of the real bummers is that he has to give up his magnificent doorman’s uniform – and he is so disturbed at this detail that he breaks back into the hotel after hours and steals it back, donning it to wear to his niece’s wedding reception.

He dresses back up in it as he leaves for work the next day, secretly changing in a nearby train station and leaving it in one of the station lockers before resuming his real drudgery.

But a neighbor has the idea to bring him some lunch that day, and discovers the truth of his new position.  By the time he heads for home – having retrieved the uniform and changed back into it – the news has spread through his alley, and his neighbors are all laughing at him.  His niece is crushed, his niece’s new husband worried that he’s demented. In despair, he flees back to the hotel, where the night watchman catches him in the act of returning the doorman’s uniform.  The night watchman takes pity and lets him go – but instead of returning home, our hero heads for the mens’ room, resigned to his fate. He eats a simple bowl of soup and then despondently tries to fall asleep right there, because what’s the point. The night watchman discovers him asleep there, and tenderly covers him with his coat.  The end.

But not so fast!

Here the filmmaker admits to taking an improbable turn into fairy tale, in one of the only intertitles in the entire piece.

Immediately following this notice, we are first treated to a series of hotel guests marvelling over an astonishing news piece about an eccentric millionaire who has just died. His will stated that his entire fortune would be left to the person in whose arms he happened to die – and by a stroke of luck, that person was the hero of our story.  And then the last several minutes of the film are a bunch of sheer wish fulfillment, as our hero, jolly once again, treats himself to an enormous meal and basks in the attention of the hotel waiters and footmen; as for the night watchman, he’s our hero’s guest.

Our hero even excuses himself to the restroom, and makes sure he gives the rabbitty little man working the washroom now an enormous tip.  He and the night watchman finally exit to a cab – a team of fawning hotel attendants following them – and ride into the sunset.

It wasn’t until writing this piece that I made the surprising discovery that this film had the same director as NosferatuThe tone of each film is enormously different.  Although, in retrospect, both films did rely more on actors’ facial expressions and gestures than on language; the actors in The Last Laugh are fantastically expressive, and I was easily able to follow the action.

I’m not sure how I feel about that epilogue, though.  It is right on the edge of feeling a little too fantastical; but, on the other hand, it’s really cheering to see our lead looking so happy again.