Virginia Film Fest Day 3
SAFETY LAST (Harold Lloyd, 1923, USA, 9)
SHERLOCK JR. (Buster Keaton, 1924, USA, 9)
One of the great things about seeing a lot of silent films is that they teach you that much of what you’re told about film history and the world of the era isn’t so. The other night, Gerardi and I exchanged tweets linking to 20s pop-culture achievements — Louis Armstrong and SUNRISE — that show that pre-sexual-revolution people weren’t stick-in-the-mud prudes.
The very first scene of SAFETY LAST is a scene that both assumes (for the setup) and then violates (for the punchline) the “180-degree rule” of continuity editing. And did so a half-century before all the “modernist film” froufrou. And in SAFETY LAST, the supposedly visually-functional vaudevillian Lloyd used for gags such pure-film techniques as dissolves, blurry focus, font size on the title cards and superimpositions. Decades before the Daffy short “Duck Amuck” (a supposed deconstructionist landmark, though itself still well ahead of Derrida), SHERLOCK JR. not only had a character literally jumping into a movie screen, but had the exact same series of gags that perturbed Daffy at the beginning of that short — the scenery changing in spectacularly inapproriate ways just as the Buster/Daffy gets used to the last change of scenery. SHERLOCK JR., a decade before the Hays Code even existed, ends with a gag that is basically a sex joke with the marital act itself used as an unseen punchline (I won’t spoil it by describing it). Fellini once said that nothing that had been done in sound film — by him or anyone else — hadn’t been achieved too in the silent era. There is nothing lacking in a silent film, and the artists of the time (Keaton and Lloyd among the peaks, whom comics have been ripping off for 80 years) are fully the equals of their successors — in sophistication, in subject matter, in technique, and even in a (post-) modernism worth achieving.
This particular double-feature screening had a live score being played, and really the most I can say is that it was better than nothing — appropriate mood setting but not really tailored and cued to the details in these specific films, though there’s obviously limits to what you can do with a 3- or 4-piece ensemble.
I’ve also been challenged in the comboxes by James: “why SHERLOCK JR. not a 10.” The short answer is that it did decline a little in my esteem, though its grade remains a 9. Seeing it back-to-back with SAFETY LAST, it just wasn’t AS funny. It’s certainly more inventive, but it’s the one Keaton feature I’ve (now) seen more than once that I think does deserve the rap against Keaton that his gags were more clever and inventive (“mechanical,” one might say) than funny per se. When Buster clears the pool table without hitting the 13-ball, it’s virtuoso pool-playing and suspenseful, but I don’t laugh that much (until the very end). When he’s careening down the road in a sidecar and — the trucks pass under the broken bridge at the right instant and the bridge collapses at just the right angle and the roadblocks explode on cue — I’m thinking “how did they do it/think of it” more than anything else. I think SHERLOCK JR. also has the narrative-structure weakness that nothing is at stake in the second half — the girl has already talked to the pawnbroker before Keaton falls asleep and imagines himself into the film. I love SHERLOCK a lot, but I do prefer OUR HOSPITALITY (my fave), THE GENERAL and STEAMBOAT BILL.
RASHOMON (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1950, 10)
Hard to see why this is playing here and apparently elsewhere, other than as publicity for a 60th anniversary Blue-Ray. But I won’t complain — my first big-screen look at a film I saw two or three times in the late 80s/early 90s “exhausting the canon” phase. Even before seeing RASHOMON, I “knew” from cultural osmosis (e.g., the term “Rashomon Syndrome,” an episode of “Good Times”), that the film was about “the relativity of truth” and “perspective.” I didn’t really buy it then, but now I really don’t buy it.
If you’re attentive, it’s perfectly clear *what* happened in RASHOMON. Basically, the woodcutter’s account is accurate because we’re given no reason to doubt it and you can see the traces of the husband’s, wife’s and bandit’s accounts — which differ mostly by placing greater emphasis on certain details that make each teller look good and leave out certain others that make him look bad. For example, the thief did kill the husband in a free swordfight, though one hardly as honorably heroic (and thrilling for us, actionwise) as the thief made it sound. The wife says she fainted and escaped, which may be true, but leaves out her egging the thief on (as the husband sees it) or offering herself to the thief’s great manhood (as the thief sees it). It does, in fact, take two blows to kill the husband, though the husband’s ghost interprets that to mean something self-serving. The only reason I’ve ever heard not to believe the woodcutter is that he leaves out that he stole the wife’s pearl dagger, left at the crime scene. Which is true, but which hardly gives him a reason not to be truthful about the three principals and thus a reason for others to doubt him on those points. To ask for a witness free from all sin, original or imputed, personal or social, and from all interest, public or private — well (unless you’re a Christian, and even then, not on most matters), it will and should lead to despair.
What struck me more this time around is the “outer” story and how THAT issue, the crisis of faith and belief, is central to that story and thus actually what the film is about (and the longstanding auteurist rap against Kurosawa, that he’s a misanthrope, made more sense to me than it ever has). In a phrase — what to do about the fact all men shade the truth and outright lie to their benefit. The film’s answer — I won’t spoil it — is a bit corny in the specific. But in the general, the real point is its irrationality and its penitential character. The key line at the end is worthy of Bergman (and there’s a very similar exchange in the Dardennes’ THE SON): “I don’t understand my own soul.”
BEDFORD: THE TOWN THEY LEFT BEHIND (Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab, USA, 2008, 7)
This grade is, I will admit, 90 percent “subject matter.” BEDFORD is not visually ugly or incompetent film-making. It uses its material well and some visual tricks with cutouts and photo-motion keep the film from too much visual stasis. But at the end of the day, it is basically a talking-heads and mostly-still-photos documentary (Ken Burns without Shelby Foote narrating, more or less). So the film stands or falls on your reaction to the subject matter — and that is incredible. The story of a small Virginia town whose local National Guard unit was slaughtered in the very first D-Day wave onto Omaha Beach and whose men thus took the biggest hit in the country — well, you’d have to be a Nazi, a pacifist or a principled anti-American not to have a frog in the throat or be blinking back tears. And any movie with the line, by a soldier whose unit sailed over to Britain on the Queen Mary, “the food was terrible; we were on British rations” will have a special place in my heart. BEDFORD also doesn’t ignore the tensions we had with the Yanks during the buildup period before D-Day (“overpaid, oversexed and over here,” though hearing a Devon accent was a Proustian experience).
But what these sorts of “Greatest Generation” films repeatedly show is how pre-analytic culture operated and pre-analytic men understood themselves. And you still see some of the same — the Guard unit was called up for the first time since then for the Afghanistan war, and the town (the site of the D-Day Memorial) also adopts a fallen Marine as its own, though his ties were strictly via family not personal (the story of his death rebukes those who play up civilian casualties in the Global War on Terror and try to handcuff us in response). Overall though, the film does less with this than it might have, except on the score, where it does too damn much. But the objective home-front effects of GWOT and WW2 can’t even begin to be compared (a point the film makes). Still, as a portrait of red-state patriotism and honor that will never appear on PBS for that reason, this is first-rate.
SHAMELESS (Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic, 2009, 3)
Early on, a marriage breaks up and the film spends the rest of its time following the romantic travails of both people (mostly “his” — at least the travails; she does much better). The performances are good, it’s professionally made in every technical way, the direction is competent. And SHAMELESS had absolutely no effect on me whatsoever — not even a negative one. It was like a neutrino, passing right through my mind without making any imprint whatsoever. It isn’t terrible in any meaningful way. But there’s just no juice, no conflict, no tension — just a lot of stuff happens and then the movie’s over. The premise could make a good movie — there’s a tip of the hat to Lelouch’s A MAN AND A WOMAN, about a widow and a widower finding each other. Indeed it could be titled A MAN AND A WOMAN, AND A WOMAN AND A MAN. But there is not much comedy here, not much mordant humor, not much romance or sexiness (the leads are deliberately East European deglamorized).
One emblematic scene has the husband working as an anti-drunk designated driver, only he gets held up at the brothel, gets drunk with a worker-girl he had taught in high school, and then pulled over by the cops while driving his intended customer and has to blow into the breathalyzer. Sounds dramatic or potentially black-comic, right? None of it comes off in any way because everything is at the same flat level, neither absurd enough to work as comedy nor consequential or weighty enough to work as drama. Indeed, it occurred to me afterward that bad European movies are different from bad American ones in that while the latter tend toward the infantile and stupid and leave you wondering Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the former (and SHAMELESS fits this to a tee) tends more toward nonstop mediocrity, indistinct pudding and leave you shrugging Bravo Foxtrot Delta.