I just saw AGORA and, to calm down after a truly vile lie of a film, I decided to browse at Barnes & Noble and picked up the latest copy of Cineaction and began reading the two reviews of I AM LOVE (both paired essays involving another film) and … well, my calmness hasn’t returned.
Some people don’t like I AM LOVE as much as I do, and that’s fine (though I must say it’s disconcerting to see a critic I like and am generally simpatico with has walked out on 3 of my top 5 year to date). But I have to wonder whether Susan Morrison was even paying attention or was trying to shoehorn the film into the same template as the film she has paired it with, CAIRO TIME (which I have not seen). Her basic complaint, encapsulated in the essay title “What Does a Woman Want?” is that both films are women’s picture fantasies of a middle-aged woman sexually awakened by an affair with a much younger man. As far as that goes (not very; mere genre ID’ing never does), this is a not-inaccurate description of I AM LOVE (and of CAIRO TIME, best I can tell from the trailer). But these nearly two paragraphs, which I reproduce with an ellipsis (article doesn’t seem to be online), made me want to rip the magazine into shreds on the middle of the store.
“Neither [Tilda Swinton’s character Emma in I AM LOVE nor Patricia Clarkson’s Juliette in CAIRO TIME] is native to the country where the action takes place: Emma is of Russian origin although that is not made obvious by any actions or character traits, her past somewhat convoluted as to how she came to marry into a wealthy Milanese family. Juliette is a Canadian visiting the Middle East. Both are in effect “foreigners” in their diegetic milieus: the one, Emma seeminglyfully assimilated into the Italian haute bourgeoisie; the other, Juliette, visibly obvious as an outsider. (VJM: so far so good)
While Emma’s Russianness is not as evident as Juliette’s Canadianness, in both films, the protagonist’s nationality is thematically crucial as it implies a cold, remote climate/society/personality that needs to be thawed out by the warmth of a younger man from a much warmer climate who is hence and stereotypically more attuned to passion and emotional expression than the northern female. In [I AM LOVE], there seems to be no other reason for Emma to be of Russian origin; she certainly doesn’t look Russian, but it was serve to explain her froideur in contrast to when she is faced with all these warm-blooded Italians. … It is one of the film’s more simplistic moments when Emma’s transformation from cold Russian to passionate Italian (lover) is indicates by renouncing [fashion designer] Jill Sander and the perfect haircut for old baggy pants and sloppy shirt, and ritually hacking off her hair to a short choppy look that wants to say “I’m liberated.” this transformation seems doubly motivated: a subplot in the film revolves around Emma’s daughter, whose own “coming out” as gay was signaled by her shearing of her beautiful long hair. However, all this does is create a reductivist paradigm for reading Emma’s metamorphosis as competition to her daughter’s revelation. Emma too ends up with a new look and a taboo relationship.
Faced with such a welter of self-contradictions, one wonders — Where. To. Begin.
(1) In what possible sense would a lesbian relationship be taboo for a movie set in the Milan of 2009 among the wealthy bourgeois? Not in the actual world of rich Milanese in 2009, rightly or wrongly. And nothing in the film suggests the daughter is any way punished or ostracized, though there is some shock on Emma’s part when she unexpectedly and accidentally finds out (how could there not be under those circumstances).
(2) Emma can either be “fully assimilated” and her Russianness not “made obvious by any actions or character traits.” Or her Russianness can be crucial in terms of setting up a polarity of stereotypical national character traits. Can’t be both.
(3) Does Morrison not realize that Emma had been around “all these warm-blooded Italians” for at least 25 or 30 years before she met her son’s friend. Even had sex with at least one of them (her swarthy husband) at least a a few times, though I am obviously inferring. She is not Clarkson dropping into Cairo for a brief vacation/fling (or more relevantly, the symbol of Anglo spinsterism, Katharine Hepburn, falling for Venice and Rossano Brazzi), where her criticism at least passes superficial plausibility. Emma is in no uniquely characterological sense “Russian.”
(4) Morrison doesn’t even get her own stereotypes right. Russia is obviously a cold place, but the national stereotype is not exactly “emotionally frigid.” Russia is just as much the country of spirited emotionalism — bear hugs, “das vadanya” and cheek kisses upon meeting, the boisterous all-night drinking and singing sessions, etc. Indeed, a specifically Russian recipe for a fish soup plays a central role in I AM LOVE as, among other things, a sexual symbol.
(5) If it is indeed the case that Emma’s Russia-melting affair and haircut mark a following-after of her daughter, then her daughter’s “I Am Liberated / I Am Love” haircut is occasioned and necessitated by … what?
I’ve never published in a high-brow film journal, but if this is the kind of sloppiness with argument and consistency that is typical and/or tolerated, one is almost glad.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (Lisa Cholodenko, USA, 2010) — 6
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT centers on a despicable act that perverts the right relationship between sex and children. Indeed it inverts the very nature of the marital bond and destroys a proper social understanding of family.
“A movie that you HAVE to see twice also has to be a movie that you WANT to see twice.” — Bilge Ebiri, not taking about INCEPTION, but he could’ve been
“Is [ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA] too long? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it takes real concentration to understand Leone’s story construction … [and] keep track of characters and relationships over fifty years. No, in the sense that the movie is compulsively and continuously watchable.” — Roger Ebert, not taking about INCEPTION, but he could’ve been
Yes, INCEPTION is not capable of being absorbed in a single viewing, though lordknows I tried. It hurt that I have a “unified field” theory of Nolan, or at least of his three great films, all of which center on characters who choose vocations that require lying and/or self-destruction — a pattern this movie definitely does not fit. But even apart from that, INCEPTION resists first-viewing comprehension, partly because of the already-well-known layered structure of dreams-within-dreams, but also partly because I think there’s … ahem … a prestige in very last shot, followed by the same sudden cut to black Nolan used upon the very last shots of THE PRESTIGE (“you want to be fooled”) and MEMENTO (“now, where was I”). In those earlier cases, the prestige was the line, but here it’s an image (there’s offscreen chatter that couldn’t be more meaningless). And if I’m right, it turns the entire movie inside out. Like with any interpretation of an incredibly complex movie, I’ll have to give the film another view both to see how it checks out and also whether the film gains in emotional richness (Nolan’s films have always had chilly surfaces concealing existentialist tragedy). Click here if you want to know what it is (I’ve put in a single-sentence post and backdated the post several years so it won’t appear anywhere on this page) and let me just drop some vague clues — the casting of Michael Caine and Marion Cotillard, their relationship, a song cue, the way the dreams are not dream-like, how resistance to inception is made manifest, the weakness in the action scenes, and that very last shot.
But, as Bilge said, you want to see INCEPTION twice as it is so mind-blowing and ambitious and demanding (and mostly getting) of your attention.¹ It’s like a workout for the brain, even if there’s no payoff, as in body exercises where the work doesn’t actually “achieve” anything beyond the effect on the body/brain. It’s clearly flawed in some ways — there enough exposition that I wanted Basil onscreen, and even though it would be justified by what I’m guessing, it’s still tedious; I’m still unclear why we got the plant of a golden bishop and no payoff (cf. Chekhov’s gun); and let’s just say I was groaning whenever I saw snow, a “level” that is neither choreographed well nor as sheer-made-of-awesome as either the rainy day or the hotel. And I also fear that if my take is wrong, what we will have left is sophomoric “what if the world isn’t real man”-drivel
That’s mere caviling, though. No movie with a zero-gravity fight, which provides a logical, rational, non-“suspend-your-disbelief-it’s-scifi” reason for why this is taking place in zero gravity, is not awesome. I left the film with a goofy grin on my face from having so much fun despite not knowing what had just happened — a reaction I can only compare to the first time I saw Fellini’s 8 1/2, a film I also had no idea how to put together, but had no doubt I enjoyed watching the jigsaw pieces fly around. INCEPTION grips you right away with a 15-minute sequence that’s as if Dali and Bunuel had made UN CHIEN ANDALOU as a $200 million action film, with all the bizarre, unmoored continuities. It eventually settles down into the form of a caper film, in which Leo is a dream burglar who gets into a person’s subconsciousness, now being hired by Ken Watanabe to plant an idea in Cillian Murphy for a reason that is so ridiculous and makes no real-world sense it can’t be taken seriously (hmmm).
If I’m right about “what it all means” … well, let’s just say I’ll update this post on subsequent viewings …
¹ And so does the public apparently: I went to see it at a 9pm Monday show (not exactly moviegoing primetime) and I had to sit in the front section of the stadium seating, below the walkway, since the upper section was nearly full. An intern at work saw it at a 10pm Monday show and he said his theater was even more packed than that. I would kill to know what percentage of the film’s business is repeat viewings.
First program — Early shorts
MEDIUM WANTED AS SON-IN-LAW (Pathe short with no credits, France, 1908, 6) — It’s amazing to see a film from this early in color — hand-tinted and well-preserved — but combined with acting and gag styles of 19th-century vaudeville undiluted. One-reeler but follows through on title’s funny premise.
MISS STICKIE-MOUFIE-KISS (Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, 1915, 9) — I don’t expect to see a better film here. Amazingly funny for a film whose central premise involves a woman who talks like Tweety-Bird (i.e. in title cards, without the sound). She gets progressively more infantile, to the increasingly desperate exasperation of her betrothed. One amazing thing in retrospect is that Mrs. Drew, whatever the title cards say, doesn’t *act* significantly different from other actresses in roles of this sort from that period, which implies all kinds of possible underground satire and “taking the piss out of the rom-com” (like Alain Resnais WILD GRASS). The Drews are the greatest comedy team nobody has heard of. Cinema-wise at least, they’re the inventors of the domestic sitcom (you can see antecedents of e.g., Rob and Laura Petrie — two funny but different characters in a single union, each perfectly capable of carrying the comic load) and with plenty of tartness (particularly here). The Drews are a consistent highlight here for me, though apparently only about 12-15 of their shorts survive.
CRUEL AND UNUSUAL (Harry Watson [Musty Suffer], 1915, 6) — The first reel (on a golf course) is crap that WC Fields rejected; but the second reel (central character gets treated at a quack’s violent gym) is inspired theater of cruelty. Anyone who think sick, violent humor is a product of today — needs to get out some. The very character name “Musty Suffer” tells you the answer is “yes.”
POOR POLICY (Henry Lehrman / Billie Ritchie, 1915, 3) — I laugh at a movie in inverse proportion to how often the characters look at camera rub their hands, make some gestures to us, and laugh at themselves and their genius plans. ergo … And I’ve never cottoned to Billy Ritchie’s screen character, a very poor Chaplin knockoff with none of the Tramp’s graceful movement and subtle gesture comedy.
THE FEUDISTS (Wilfred North / John Bunny, 1913, 4) — I take it on faith that John Bunny was biggest pre-Chaplin comic star. I can’t see why, as he just seems like a big fat rich guy without much character and little physical acumen (and not because guys of his build couldn’t have that — see Oliver Hardy and especially Ton of Fun). It has the plot premise of a feature (Romeo & Juliet as a comedy), but only one reel, so nothing really develops
GOOD NIGHT, NURSE (Horace Davey, 1916, 2) — A one-joke one-reeler badly done, with nothing beyond promising premise (guy meets hot nurse, fakes injury to get treated by her, plan doesn’t work). The flatly undifferentiated performers mug too much to the camera and not enough to each other.
SAMMY SCANDALOUS SCHEME (Gilbert Hamilton / Sammy Burns, 1915, 6) — I was enjoying this 2-reel short, about a guy whose girl loves Charlie Chaplin more than she does him, and he decides to take revenge by dressing up as Charlie. As an early take on celebrity-worship and parody not only of Chaplin but of all the imitators already around by 1915. The set up is very good, but it ended right when we see Burns gets into a Chaplin costume, but before he goes over to pretend to the girl. I later confirmed with Steve Massa that the last 5 minutes are lost — maybe it’ll be hiding in a Norwegian insane asylum or an Argentine film club.
HAM AT THE GARBAGE GENTLEMAN’S BALL (Chance Ward, Ham and Bud, 1915, 4) — There is one funny bit — in which a guy falls three stories, and gets up in the same shot. It’s in a sufficiently long shot that you know it’s not one of the stars and there’s obviously some kind of trick, but because there’s no cut, you find yourself giggling with wonder at “how?” The rest is pointless uncreative knockabout by a not terribly funny Mutt-and-Jeff team — two lumpenproletarians trying to one-up each other.
LIZZIE’S DIZZY CAREER (Victoria Forde and Eddie Lyons / Al Christie produced, 1915, 5) — Chick hick flick — good-enough opera singer for Tulsa decides to go to Milan and show La Scala (not exactly; but that’s the comparable idea). Amusing but not really memorable. Best bit involves some tobacco juice and is cliche, but — so. perfectly. timed.
LOVABLE LIARS (no credits, early 20s Cineart short, 8) It’s a one-joke one-reeler – man and a woman can’t tell a lie because they’re in a hotel room George Washington slept in. But within those limits, it’s as brilliantly developed and shaded off that one joke as any single reel of Chaplin or Lloyd. LOVABLE LIARS is one of those mystery uncredited films that MAKE this festival
Second program — Kids and Animals (usually not a highlight for me, but there was some good stuff)
LADIES PETS (CL Chester / Snooky the Humanzee, 1921, 3) — Apparently this was only shown under intense pressure from people whose taste leaves something to be desired. It’s not funny to see a chimp do something unless it’d be funny to see a man do it, or is so bizarre that THAT becomes the joke.
THE KNOCKOUT (Len Powers / Dippy-Doo-Dads, 1923, 7) — However, seeing an assortment of animals spoofing an existing genre (the fight film here) IS funny — a dog plays a drunk next to the arena always having “one more round” (and not of fighting), and ducks and chickens being escorted to “their” part of the arena were the biggest laughs.
BUSTER’S PICNIC (Gus Meins / Buster Brown, 1927, 6) — I don’t get the appeal of this kid character — too sweet and clean-scrubbed, the kind of wholesome family material that hasn’t improved in 80 years. But thankfully, this movie mostly follows Our Gang’s Pete the Pup, who has way more charisma and smarts than Arthur Trimble does.
THE SMILE WINS (Robert McGowan / Our Gang, 1928, 7) — it’s as if Dickens had done an Our Gang short, centering on Farina’s poor home life a sick mom, an evil landlord, an oilfield *next door* (really) and taunting kids. Shown with French intertitles (apparently it’s what available; but easy enough to figure out). The devices and the slapstick are there too — very entertaining. At one point when the Gang strike oil and the manager of the oilfield *next door * (really) comes over to complain that they’ve hit the pipeline, it was all I could do not to yell out “you’re drinking my milkshake!!!”
Random Tweet I made after watching one of the discs being shown on TV in the lobby: “How you can tell it’s a Weiss brothers film. If a kid throws a pillow at his dad — someone else; if a kid stuffs a wrench into the pillow and throws it — Weiss.
Third program — Hall Roach shorts (always a favorite program of mine)
PECULIAR PATIENTS PRANKS (Hal Roach / Harold Lloyd as Lonesome Luke, 1915, 5) You can see why Lloyd developed the “Glasses” character, as Luke just isn’t very funny — a typical joke in this hospital-set short, one of the few surviving Lonesome Luke shorts, involves battering an immobilized patient’s leg cast. But the last bits had me howling at their political-incorrectness — it’s basically a date-rape joke. Sheer taboo-busting, even if it wasn’t a taboo when it was made, can always make for big laughs.
PARDON ME (Ralph Cedar / Snub Pollard, 1921, 7) — It ends too abruptly, but it crackles with funny bits as Snub tries to win the hand of the governor’s daughter while trying to get into jail as part of a scam. Best bit involves a diegetic reference to the film’s title.
SHOOT STRAIGHT (Jay Howe / Paul Parrott, 1923, 5) — Charley Chase’s brother is a bad hunter. Not much else.
CUCKOO LOVE (Fred Guiol / Glenn Tryon, 1925, 5) — I expected to like this one more than I did, with one of Roach’s all-star casts in romantic mixups like French boudoir farce. But it didn’t build much, and Tryon is an indistinct pretty magazine-cover boy
FALLEN ARCHES (Gus Meins / Charley Chase, 1931, 7) — Chase is one of the few comedians just as good on either side of sound barrier. Wonder if a late sequence involving a deep puddle inspired Clouzot for THE WAGES OF FEAR?
TAXI BARONS (Del Lord / Taxi Boys, 1933, 4) — It’s not terribly funny, as the sound Taxi Boys films don’t have all the amazing and weird car stunts that the silent ones do (perhaps realistic sounds of cars crashing into one another and/or running their engines would have killed the comedy, like Harold Lloyd yells killed FEET FIRST, a virtual remake of his silent classic SAFETY LAST). This is more like a poor man’s Laurel and Hardy mixup-ID plot, in which the team happen to be employed as taxi drivers.. But I don’t get the hatin’ on Billy Blue — he not aggravating, just inert.
The fourth program was of Rob Stone rarities, the best of which was incomplete or unknown stuff, which I don’t feel comfortable grading. The Pokes & Jabs short STRICTLY BUSINESS was incoherent in its setup (because of missing footage, I suspect), but once it became clearly about a man’s attempt to get into an economist’s office to sell him a book, it became, like many films about obsessions, weirdly entertaining in a can-u-top-THIS mode. Rob also showed reels from two unknown Jimmie Adams comedies, the first of which felt like a 2nd reel, and the second felt like a 1st reel. The first Adams film was stolen by 2 cops from whom Adams is trying to hide, who are the kind of hyper-parodic mannered manic comic delight that critics think Jean-Luc Godard was making. They were “playing” “cop” as if in a kind of musical parody of cops (COP ROCK?), walking down the street in lockstep and then dancing around each other’s movements to turn a corner, with every gesture from each commenting on or matching a gesture from the other. Huge laughs all around. But unquestionably the program’s highlight, and one of the best in the fest, both for myself and nearly everyone else I spoke to, was the second reel of WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD, a Stan Laurel parody of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. swashbucklers. If the first reel (which is gone) were as good as the second we saw, this film would rate a 9 — people were howling at a plant and some of the deliberate anachronisms (a firing squad of crossbows lined up like a rifle team), you can see Laurel’s style influence on Benny Hill, Marty Feldman and other British descendants of the music-hall tradition. Laurel parodies may be silent era’s greatest hidden treasures.
Fifth program, evening feature
POP TUTTLE’S MOVIE QUEEN (Paul Gerson / Pop Tuttle, 1922, 6) – Amazing facts you learn by actually WATCHING the general run of silents, part 367272: As early as 1922, you could make comic film centered on moviegoing itself (and parody the star-making system with a bit of outright fraud), and hold the Temperance movement in contempt at Prohibition’s height. Pop Tuttle doesn’t have much of a reputation, but he seems like a funny “crabby old grandp” type like Andy Clyde only better (or Max Davidson, only not as good)
THE ROUNDUP (George Melford / Fatty Arbuckle, 1920, 7) — It’s not as weird a program choice as may seem, with Fatty as an ensemble lead attempting a more-or-less straight Western. There is comedy involving Fatty — most memorably trying to dress himself — but only about as much as there is in a John Ford western, usually involving Victor McLaglen. It’s a good “primitive”-period Western. Paul Gierucki and I spent a few head-scratching minutes figuring out what kind of Western it was (it clearly wasn’t Ford, Hawks, Peckinpah, Boetticher, Walsh or any of the acknowledged masters) before deciding on Roy Rogers minus the songs. There is, however, an extremely bitter ending, with a title card that seems in retrospect almost prophetic: “nobody loves a fat man.”
Sixth and seventh programs, features with Edward Everett Horton and Charley Chase
Seeing an Edward Everett Horton 1928 silent short (HORSE SHY, 6) followed by a 1930 talking feature (WIDE OPEN, 3) and it’s easy to see why talkies were thought to be the death of cinema in the late-20s/early 30s. Among other things, EEH is only convincingly hetero if he don’t speak. The graceful (or bumbling) physical comedy just either become impossible or too difficult to try in the early 1930s. Seeing a Charley Chase 1929 half-talkie (MODERN LOVE – 6, but really silent part 8 and talking part 4) and it’s easy again to see why people thought, etc. Rare in that the first few reels are silent and then the whole rest of the film is a talkie, with the film never reverting back to silent or weaving sound and silent throughout. As a result, it really feels pasted together, rather than using the mix for a purpose (like sound for Jolson’s songs). Charley eventually became a good talking comedian, but his character hadn’t developed an effective way with words yet, and was burdened here with the period’s typical clunky staging and fairly witless dialog. But the first two or three reels are cherce.
I arrived at Slapsticon on Thursday evening in the middle of the Abbott & Costello feature AFRICA SCREAMS, so I sat in the lobby until the Abbott & Costello rarities, came on. The highlights of that rarities program were: (1) a complete live-TV sketch involving a diamond necklace, with each man trying to palm it off on the other, where you could see the two break up on camera and the very bad and obvious sound effects add to the charm; (2) a very funny all-verbal short routine involving “two tens for a five”; (3) Costello’s home movies of a Europe trip that, via narration and framing material, he turns into a pomo Pete Smith short. Also there were two more versions of the “Who’s on First” routine, which frankly isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. It’s too smoothly performed, with the lickety-split lines: Lou should be getting more enraged.
COVERED SCHOONER (Harry Edwards / Monty Banks, 1923) — 7 — Best gags involve a suicide attempt (really) and attempts to close flower shop. Banks is appealing and goofy, a kind of less-uptight Charley Chase style Everyman. And the “gorilla” is unconvincing enough to be quite funny. Very enjoyable.
TOO MANY KISSES (Paul Sloane / Richard Dix, 1925) — 4 — You can imagine Harold Lloyd make this movie, and frankly I wished he had. Dix, who also starred in DeMille’s silent TEN COMMANDMENTS where he was at least well cast, is just not funny to me and has all of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s pretty boy looks and none of his physical gifts, best I can tell here. The plot involving a ne’er-do-well send to de-facto womanless town (Basques won’t marry foreigners) isn’t taken seriously enough to engag.
Right now, I’m sitting in the lobby of the Spectrum Theater in Arlington, having finally made it to this year’s Slapsticon, which is back in Rosslyn after a year off (the festival took a year off, that is … no way I would miss it).
The festival shows silent and early-sound comedies, mostly short subjects and is a permanent feature on my filmgoing calendar. Gratifying to have been here only about 10-15 minutes and already to her hearty “welcome back” handshakes and hugs from people I see here every year — Agnes McFadden, Linda Shah, Steve Massa, Rob Farr, Brent Walker, and Richard Roberts already with at least a dozen others expected. According to a couple of people, my absence from the opening Thursday afternoon program (because of inability to get off work for Thursday) was noticed and commented/speculated on — which is kind of awesome when you think about the fact I have no professional ties to most of these people and interact with them one week in 52. (I told Richard Roberts that I was not going to deprive him of his audience barometer.)
I’ll also be renewing acquaintanceships with the likes of Lupino Lane, Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, Harry Langdon, Larry Semon and a score of others not nearly well-known enough or DVD’d enough.
But beyond any doubt, the Highlight of this year’s program involves the one silent star that no literate human being doesn’t at least recognize. A THIEF CATCHER is a 1914 film with Charlie Chaplin near the very start of Chaplin’s career, at Mack Sennett’s studio, that was thought to have been lost. Just confirmed that it was indeed found by Paul Gierucki and that Saturday night’s show will be its first public showing in 90 years. Even if the movie’s no good, it will be awesome.
Between shows, I’ll be tweeting about the films I see that are worth mentioning, using a new account that I intend to use as a screening log, @vjmfilms, the feed for which can be seen at the right.