Rightwing Film Geek

What matters most

chaplin.jpgG-Money unwittingly comments on film fandom and levels of knowledge in his three latest posts. His piece on THE CIRCUS (by far the meatiest of the three) could only have been written by a Chaplin fanboy, a man for whom coming to grips with each Chaplin film means putting it in the context of his whole career and the movies at the time:

Unlike the rest of the clowns, the Tramp does not seem to be playing for laughs–he isn’t in on the joke with the audience and lacks the sort of immediate emotional connection a clown might have. This is what set the movie comics apart from their vaudeville counterparts.

Could this be the fear that was gnawing at Chaplin and his contemporaries [in 1928], that we were moving away from the visual lyricism of silent comedy, and returning toward the wink-wink nod-nod relationship with the audience that characterized humor in the theater? Certainly, the most successful early sound-era comics, especially the Marx Brothers, thrived on a new style that was far more self-aware, that played to the audience in a more overtly comic way. Perhaps, looking forward to a largely uncertain future, Chaplin was writing the story of his own end as an artist.

Yes, he was. Obviously, Chaplin was so huge himself that he was able to continue through the 30s with two basically-silent movies — his masterpiece CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES. But talkies were his death.

But on the other hand, Michael notes that while he liked Harold Lloyd’s SAFETY LAST only some, apart from *the* famous sequence, his 8-year-old brother was completely taken by it. I’ve heard a lot of silent-film fans myself say that Lloyd really appeals to their children. “We forget, sometimes, how magical the cinema can be, unencumbered by critical airs,” Michael writes. “Critical airs” though, are exactly what THE CIRCUS piece was all about. And FWIW bud, Roger Ebert had a similar reaction to SAFETY LAST when he saw it, his first Lloyd … in 2005 (and he got taken to task over it).

tracyhepburn.jpgAnd in his short piece on ADAM’S RIB, Michael noted that his mother (I am closer to her age than to his) told him as if for granted that Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy had a real-life years-long affair, which accounts in part for how easy and free their chemistry is. This was something I happened to know before I ever saw the two act together — in WOMAN OF THE YEAR. But he didn’t, and my reaction was “wow bud.”

I cannot imagine watching the Tracy-Hepburn comedies without knowing that the two were lovers offscreen. It was for me (and critics of Kael’s generation) always part of the fun of the pairing, that these films were light-comedy larks, but also substitutes for the relationship they could not have because Tracy was already married. Try PAT AND MIKE, by the same writers-director team, armed with this knowledge (your named problem with ADAM’S RIB will not occur).

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June 9, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

The Third Man

closeup.jpgAfter finishing his application process for his Ambulance-Chasing Apprenticeship, G-Money (can I still call him that?) returns with a strong piece on Harold Lloyd’s silent-comedy masterpiece THE FRESHMAN, and I know he’s seen a lot of other Lloyd films recently.

Both [Charlie] Chaplin and [Buster] Keaton made movies with comic sensibilities that more accurately reflect the tastes of modern audiences. Keaton’s emotional passivity (nicknamed “The Great Stone Face” by his fans) and over-the-top physicality predicted the modern action film; Chaplin’s deeply introspective approach, postmodern sensibilities, and ability to not merely balance comedy and tragedy but to show how the two concepts spill into one another, inspired a generation of highbrow comic filmmakers from Woody Allen to Noah Baumbach. By contrast, Lloyd was resolutely a product of his age–his films are full to bursting with the sort of roaring 20’s optimism that some find hopelessly naive. Yet Lloyd was a more perceptive judge of the character of life than many give him credit for, and he is unparalleled as an architect of comic narrative.

Visually, of the Big Three, the “screen world” that Lloyd created has by far the closest resemblance to the “real” world. In fact, Lloyd can hardly have said to have “created” a world at all — he shot on available locations, his character was the least stylized of the Big Three, and he made the least use for such vaudeville conventions as the grease-painted heavy. 1928’s SPEEDY was one of the first post-WW1 films, after the US film industry had centered on Los Angeles, to be shot on location in New York and Lloyd uses it to conspicuous advantage (Coney Island, cameo by Babe Ruth, subways, the final chase).

Compared to the Tramp and the Stoneface, Lloyd’s “Glasses Character” was both more instantly likable and more clearly a realistic social ego-ideal. Steve Greydanus compares him here to Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks (and calls THE KID BROTHER an all-time favorite). His character also can be seen in several different guises, depending on social class. Lloyd is sometimes the poor-boy dreamer (GIRL SHY, SPEEDY), sometimes the eager-beaver middle-class klutz (THE FRESHMAN, GRANDMA’S BOY) and sometimes the callow self-absorbed aristocrat (WHY WORRY?, FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE). He even made some films where the tension between these “sides” of the Glasses character is central (AMONG THOSE PRESENT).

Precisely by having similar sets of traits — go-go optimism, pluck, awkwardness — and playing them out in different social contexts, Lloyd gave the Glasses character a richness and shading that some critics wrongly said it lacked. Or to put it another way, his Glasses character was, if not exactly classless, so easily adaptable among classes (“social mobility,” one might call it) as to make Lloyd the quintessentially *American* comedian of the 20s. Chaplin and Keaton were both, though in different ways, more universally-inclined. While there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s also nothing wrong with embracing a national muthos unselfconsciously and thus, in the work of the best artists, embodying that muthos, which is what Lloyd’s Glasses character eventually did.

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To speak specifically of THE FRESHMAN, it has as much to say about the anxiety of the social climber and the pain of maturation as an outsider as any film of its era. It embraces the American muthos of middle-class achievement, but not uncritically or mindlessly. The image immediately above from THE FRESHMAN shows that Lloyd knew what he was doing, at some level. As Michael describes, Harold tries to be BMOC and popular socially through throwing parties, the closest analog to social mobility besides the thing itself. He’s “let in,” but only in order to string him along for the sake of a cruel joke by the real BMOCs. It all comes apart (literally) in the scene that Michael initially used to illustrate his post:

These fears [of social rejection] finally reach a breaking point at the massive dance Lloyd throws for the entire school, which descends into total chaos as his last-second tuxedo falls into pieces while he’s wearing it … and ends in the crushing realization that his massive efforts to become the school’s social king have gone to naught.

Besides being enormously funny as Harold tries six ways to Sunday to save face by having a tailor at the dance behind a curtain, the key to why this sequence works is something so archetypal it could hardly have been conscious. I don’t want to sound like Zizek here, but having one’s clothes come apart while wearing them is as close as a 1920s movie could come to one of the commonest dreams, and THE metaphor for humiliating social exposure — suddenly finding oneself naked in a public place. Considering that the tux was a last-minute order and stitched together — the metaphor hardly needs elaboration.

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There’s one other way in which Lloyd was THE 20s American comedian, and it’s a point I’m indebted to Richard Schickel for making (I did notice it some myself, though not as clearly as he did and I’ll swipe his examples). The early 20th century was the time where America made the transition from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one. By the time of Lloyd’s 1920s, the two societies existed uneasily together, side-by-side. Lloyd himself, like many men born in the Gay 90s (1893) was raised in one world but by adulthood was living in another.

It’s not simply that Lloyd’s films record this fact, but they are utterly unselfconscious about it, while often making this contrast the very subject of his humor. One reason that the iconic image of Harold hanging from a clock in SAFETY LAST has become so famous is not just its technical difficulty and danger, but because so much archetypal meaning is packed away in it — the skyscraper as an image of material progress combined with dangling from a height / fear of falling. And it’s integrated into movie. The scene occurs because Harold has pretended to be better off than he is to impress his girl, but she now wants to marry and, through plot complications, his efforts to prove himself worthy forces him into this stunt — social climbing morphs into literal climbing. With the ever-present fear of falling, again made scarily literal on the skyscraper.

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To the 20s world of Lloyd, the automobile is also a status symbol, an icon of literal mobility, of upward mobility, of personal worth, and untold possibility. Including the possibility of being bitten in the ass. In HOT WATER (shown above), which untypically begins with a marriage, Harold tries to impress his new in-laws by showing off his new car. In a hilarious sequence of gags, the car completely falls apart like his FRESHMAN tuxedo, progressively and more-harshly humiliating him before the toughest audience a man faces in his life (his parents-in-law).

There’s a contrast also worth noting — one scene involves mishaps with a fire engine. Which is powered by a single horse. This exists unremarked-upon alongside a private automobile — like rabbit ears alongside cable TV; and dial-up alongside WiFi. But the clash between the two befuddles and humiliates Harold — the key to his great satirical theme.

One of Lloyd’s greatest films, SPEEDY, is about his efforts to save a horse-drawn tram line in New York City (yes … you read that right) from takeover by Big Transport at the center of the world. In the climactic chase scene of an earlier film, GIRL SHY, Lloyd uses a half-dozen means of transportation, some already obsolete or obsolescent, others of the latest vintage, and without ever commenting on this beyond using their advantages and disadvantages for gags (which is all we can be certain Lloyd himself was conscious of; like the greatest American artists, he never tried for Art).

This common thread runs through more than half of Lloyd’s features — a world the then-new fad called the automobile, and all it symbolized, shared with horse-drawn fire engines and even horse-drawn New York mass transit, and what they stood for. Lloyd may use it explicitly as story or just unselfconsciously use its facticity in the world for gag material, but it became his great theme — dislocation of technology. Schickel puts it “He was not writing on film an early version of ‘Future Shock.’ But it is there to see if one has the eyes to see it.”

Nor is this theme, though the 20s experienced it in the specific ways I described, a theme obsolete. Think of all the jokes (and how they are already obsolete) about people of my parents’ generation not being able to program their VCRs and the flashing “00:00.” And how they now apply to my generation and Generation Wired, for whom MySpace, cell-phone cameras and IMs are the only world they know. A 40-year-old fogey like me cannot blog “a link with no comment” but rather will go on and on, because he thinks of blog posting in essay terms, and for literary value and commentary. Technological society makes a person obsolete by a certain age because the world you know, and shape yourself in accord with, will never last long.

All these very qualities, of timeliness without explicit topicality, certainly “date” Lloyd’s films more precisely than Chaplin’s and Keaton’s, which certainly gives them greater “time capsule” value. But it doesn’t make them “dated” in the bad sense, and while time-capsule value isn’t everything, it’s not nothing either, and it becomes especially and increasingly valuable as the 1920s leave the world of living memory.

May 30, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

G-Money and the classics

I happened to know somehow that Michael Gerardi would soon be watching THE RULES OF THE GAME and I thought back to when I was in my “exhausting the canon” phase, as a young whippersnapper, as he is now. And wondering whether he realized what a corker of a film he was in for, and how many more films he (or any other college student) still has to see for the first time that I now can never see for the first time. It makes you feel old (I turn 40 next week; forgive me). He’s put up several reviews of old classics in recent days, and he’s my reactions to some of them.

INTOLERANCE — Here, I largely agree with Michael. There’s no doubt Griffith’s folly is a masterpiece (with BIRTH OF A NATION, it even establishes the template of “great blockbuster commercial hit” followed by “great film maudit commercial bust”). But as Michael notes, by contemporary standards, INTOLERANCE is hardly “entertaining” at all. And I say that as someone who has seen it in a theater, albeit via projected video. I really think it takes willed self-discipline to get much from INTOLERANCE, which isn’t to say the effort shouldn’t be made for Griffith, the Aeschylus of film-makers. Peter Reiher really captured all the issues involved with silent films in this essay here. As big a silent-film fan as I am, INTOLERANCE is a wee bit primitive to really stand up well on its own feet, in Peter’s words, it requires allowances to be made for it simply because the state of the art is still so young, so close to the 1890s invention of movies. Stat geekery: of my 20 favorite pre-1920 films, only the one at #1 did I rate higher than 8; of my 10 favorites of 1928, at the end of the silent period, every one is a 10 or 9. I think the end of the silent period, 1925-28, lapping over into the silent holdouts of 1929-31 — films like CITY LIGHTS, EARTH, L’AGE D’OR, MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, L’ARGENT, TABU — was one of the great eras of film. The 1910s, not so much.

rules.jpgTHE RULES OF THE GAME — Here, I’m going to register a disagreement with Michael. Not that it isn’t MUCH more productive to see RULES than THE DA VINCI [sic] CRAP. Duh. But Michael says that RULES has “violent shifts of tone.” I think the tone of RULES is like the smile on the MONA LISA, one of those endless enigmas that most please in their inability to be pinned down, but which are a large part of what makes the work a masterpiece. I don’t think the tone really shifts that much, because I think Michael overstates how belly-laugh funny it is and/or understates the tragic aura overlying it at every moment. It’s not really a comedy as much as a tragedy told though the conventions of comedy. Oh, there’s no doubt that RULES follows all the rules of the comedy of manners and the boudoir farce — parallelled class distinctions, foppish aristocrats, scheming servants, sex-partner roundelays — while ending in a fatal shooting that’s a triple-mistaken-identity but not even arguably played for laughs, even in the immediate setup. The Mozart overture at the start and the quote from Beaumarchais promises a silly romantic comedy, a la Figaro. Which the film certainly does deliver — in a sense. But a big part about what I find so brilliant in RULES is that it played so consistently ambivalently to me, via that impossible-to-pin-down tone, all through scenes that on the surface sound so comic or serious. The film is mordant without being tasteless; serious without being stuffy; wry without being cynical; rueful without being gloomy. And in the end, accepting it all as inevitable and tragic, without tears. IMHO at least, the film famously keeps that crazily-balanced tone for all 110 minutes.

Take what Michael properly identifies as among the most brilliant scenes ever created — Schumacher chasing Marceau through the chateau while everything else becomes unglued around it. Yes, on a certain level, it’s hilarious, like an enraged Schumacher Fudd chasing a wily Poacher Bugs, while La Grande Dame Christine gets the vapors. But the laughter sticks in the craw for a couple of reasons. For one thing, this scene follows, albeit not immediately, the brilliant rabbit hunt sequence, and the gunshots on the sound mix reverberate back to that unfaked carnage (today’s Humane Society film-guardians would have a fainting spell worthy of a French Grande Dame at that scene). It also has quickly followed the strange Danse Macabre that is one of the most coldly-elegant and chilling scenes I’ve ever seen. And while everything’s spinning out of control, a couple of aristocrats think the Schumacher-Marceau chase is part of the evening’s entertainment. You want to laugh and yell at them at the same time — “what is it, you think this is all about the rules of the game or something.” At every moment, Renoir undercuts his comedy with tragedy — well, maybe “undercuts” isn’t really the word. It’s more like Renoir … well, he said it best himself: “During the shooting of the film I was torn between my desire to make a comedy of it and the wish to tell a tragic story. The result of this ambivalence was the film as it is.”

June 30, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Movie that shall not be named

My reactionary papistbud Michael Gerardi saw THE DAVINCI CODE.

I have spent time more productively — watching “Man Show” reruns on the G4 channel. One of the sketches they had was “Movies Men Don’t Want to See.” And after describing such fare as ROSEANNE GETS NAKED, either Jimmy or Adam (whoever didn’t describe the movie) would say something disgusting or humiliating like “I’d rather wear Sally Jessy Raphael’s thong underwear as a ski-mask. While she was in them — than see that movie.” So in that spirit, these are:

Things Victor Would Rather Do Than Watch THE DAVINCI CODE

I would rather receive a pair of boxing gloves from Mike Tyson, with a card that says “let’s whisper sweet nothings again, Evander” — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather go to Mecca during the Hajj and smear myself in bacon while wearing a burkha patterned after the Danish flag — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather moderate a debate between Fred Phelps and Rosie O’Donnell in the Tehran University student union while eating shards of broken glass so small they only leave paper cuts on my tongue — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather be the unborn child of Chelsea Clinton after Hillary finds out about her daughter’s affair with Sean Hannity. Which included a threesome with Rush Limbaugh — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather take a class on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion under Juan Cole’s new post at Yale, with Sayed Hashemi as his TA and Sami al-Arian as guest lecturer. No pass-fail allowed — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather have the Confederate flag tattooed onto my face for a Nation of Islam convention. While wearing an LAPD uniform with the badge marked “Fuhrman” — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather give Larry Flynt a piggy-back ride to the top of a Mayan temple, on the honeymoon cruise after our “wedding” sanctified by the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather lead a caravan of Toyotas sporting Wal-Mart stickers while wearing a frilly waitress outfit at an AFL-CIO convention that the Hell’s Angels are crashing — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather be Jane Fonda’s PR outreach guy to the VFW and American Legion. And be paid from the grosses from MONSTER-IN-LAW — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather have my Cancun timeshare be next to J-Lo’s during the week she has PMS and sees the grosses from MONSTER-IN-LAW. And GIGLI — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather go to the Centre Pompidou during the Jean-Luc Godard retro and use a toothbrush and my tongue to clean the outhouses (that’s where the film prints should be) — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather glue my testicles to my penis with Krazy Glue. During a worldwide shortage of nail-polish-remover — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather be stationed at the one-mile mark of the New York City Marathon and have to massage and apply ointment to the inside thighs of a just-collapsed Michael Moore — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather get a ride home over the Potomac on St. Patrick’s Day night from Ted Kennedy. Without there even being a chick in the back seat — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather watch a stripoff between Bea Arthur and Roseanne. With the loser nursing the winner — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather be the first 12-year-old Bahraini boy to spend the night at Michael Jackson’s new pad, on the day after FedEx delivers his monthly supplies of Jesus Juice and Cialis — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather have Lars Von Trier tell me I’d be ideal for the lead of his new movie. Once I had a sex change — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather watch the “uncensored” video of what really happened “behind the scenes” during Cindy Sheehan’s visit to Hugo Chavez — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather be a drummer for Spinal Tap — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather be married to OJ Simpson — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather be OJ Simpson — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather wear an external scapular, an alb and chasuble, and have rosary beads hanging from my waist pocket a meeting of the Jack Chick Admiration Society — than see THE DAVINCI CODE. (Well actually, that’s pretty much the same thing as my seeing to THE DAVINCI CODE.)

I would rather have to pick Cynthia McKinney out of a lineup the day after she had a new hairdo — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather get a 100 score from match.com as the perfect partner for Liza Minnelli — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather tell the Mississippi KKK Kleagle that his 11-year-old runaway daughter has been recovered, thanks to a tip from someone who saw her in an R. Kelly video — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather be a fly stuck in the mashed potatoes, on the spoon of Oprah Winfrey after she learns Steadman had an affair with Paris Hilton — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

I would rather drink a quart of Rohypnol an hour before my date with the Duke lacrosse team — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.

May 31, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Letter to a Young Cinephile

I said Monday that I would reprint a letter I sent Michael Gerardi, in response to his request from me last year in a note he called “film appreciation for a novice.” He said, in part:

I’m interested in learning more about film theory and appreciation so I can watch films with a more critical eye, but I really don’t have time to take a film appreciation class at Notre Dame because of my engineering curriculum … Can you recommend any books on film criticism that would be good guides for a novice, or another way to learn more about movies if that’s unadvisable?

Much of what I told him is, I think, of general applicability and perhaps thus of general interest if there are people here in the “budding cinephile” stage. For here, I edited out or made more generic some specific Between-Domer talk and added (in italics) a few sentences of things I wish I said the first time through. I decided against reprinting the letter, which is kinda long and, for many readers of this site, repeats stuff posted elsewhere and that’s kinda Level-I-ish. Instead, I’ll just link to my document site (recovered through cache in Sept. 07), though anyone who wishes to comment can only do so at this post.

December 28, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

What hath Victor wrought

I’ve added a new link out to the right under “Religion *and* Film,” to the blog “Just an Amateur” by Michael Gerardi. The title is a reference to a moment in Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT, which he has a still from above his blogroll.

Michael was a longtime reader of this site and, in a post reacting to my depressive fit from a couple of weeks ago, he calls me his “blogfather” and said I was the inspiration for starting his site. It doesn’t quite go to the levels of fanboyism that this site has for Theo, but I am of course flattered. In a bit of private correspondence when I found out about his site last week, wrote me back: “don’t go threatening to close down your site like that again!” Well, Marlon Brando is still alive. Tomorrow, I’ll post a slightly edited version of the letter I wrote to Michael when he asked for advice as a budding cinephile.

Anyhoo … more publicly-valuable reasons to read his site. Just on the current page, Michael has some interesting thoughts on VERTIGO and on NOBODY KNOWS, which I apparently persuaded him to see. (And he realized what a great film it is, and his review is quite excellent.) More impressively, his unabashedly personal account of watching MONSIEUR VERDOUX is flat-out one of the best things I’ve ever read on Chaplin. And VERDOUX is a film I flat-out don’t care for and Michael is more of a Chaplin fanboy than this Buster-and-Harold-lover (again, a sure sign of a valuable critic … Michael is worth reading whether you agree with him or not). Here’s the best excerpt:

A genius is harder to love when he’s not doing what we love him for, but perhaps we never really understand the things we love him for until he tries to express it in a different way. VERDOUX certainly ranks among Chaplin’s greatest accomplishments, not merely because it is a good film in itself, but because it makes the experience of his other films so much more rich.

Welcome aboard bud.

December 26, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment