Monday, December 31, 2012

I must be one of the few people nerdy enough to watch The Artist who isn't gushing about it.

It pains me to say it -- you have no idea how much -- beacause I should be the ultimate perfect audience for the film, but the The Artist was a disappointment. It is a film that came so close to celebrating silence but instead just sells us talkies (again).

First some background: I am a recent convert to silent movies. In the last year I have watched many dozens of them -- comedies, dramas, melodramas, adventure films, you name it, and I adore this style of filmmaking. Silent film is great in a way sound film isn't, and can't be. It is its own kind of great.  I have come to feel a fierce advocacy for silent film as a worthy art form that stands on its own and that is not necessarily and automatically "less than" sound film.

Silent film is to sound film as books are to movies. Silent film doesn't suffer from the lack of sound any more than books suffer from the lack of actors. Great silent film has the advantage of being gentler on the senses and relies on a more active user experience and brain power to do some of the work -- filling in gaps with that marvelous tool known as imagination. I have also come to a deeper appreciation of the beauty of well-shot black and white cinematography. There is nothing like the expert telling of a visual story through shades of dark and contrast.

So, when I heard that someone had made a silent film this year, and shot it in black and white no less!, not to mention set it in the 1920s, I was excited. After viewing The Artist I am now devastated to say that (despite its near universal acclaim and awards) it missed its mark and left me feeling sad and let down. The Artist is neither expert black and white cinematography nor is it great silent film.

I applaud Michel Hazanavicius's desire to make this film! I am so proud that someone did it. I just wish that someone had had a better understanding of how and why silent film is special and attention worthy.

I fear that the very mechanics of how to make a movie without dialog are now lost to modern people. We just don't have that skill anymore. From the start of The Artist I felt its silence as deafening noise. I kept accidentally straining my ears for words or absentmindedly turning up the volume. That is something I have never once before done while watching silent films of the silent era. And it is because characters in The Artist move around in modern ways, speaking to each other, laughing and making noise that THEY could hear but the viewer can't.  You see them moving their lips, speaking, but the camera doesn't know how to tell us what they are saying! It both pays too much and too little attention to their mouthed words, leaving the viewer in a fuzz.  It feels as though it is filmed according to modern principles and then made "silent" by removing the sound track. (This, by the way, is the same flaw that strikes the cinematography. It looks as if it were simply filmed as per usual, and then had the colors removed. There is no sparkling, gorgeous contrast; no luminousness. No true understanding of the nuances of black and white as its own art form.)

OK, this is probably a subtle point for modern audiences, but I'm going to try and make it anyway: silent film is not the same as sound film with the sound turned down. It is seamlessly and inherently silent.  In real silent-era films (and I've seen a lot) I have never once felt deprived of sound! I have simply never missed it. I missed it constantly in The Artist.

It's not that silent-era film actors never spoke to one another while film was rolling -- in fact you can often see them saying things, and its fun to do some lip reading -- but that is never a large part of what's going on. (If it is intended that we read an actors lips, the camera and the acting make it crystal clear that that is what we need to do).  Far too many times in The Artist characters are filmed having conversations with each other, conveying their meaning through words the viewer can't hear. In real silent films, characters do not enter rooms flapping their jaws; they "announce" their intentions by how they walk, what their shoulders are doing, what their facial expressions are. The camera tells us who has power and what motivates the characters by how long it lingers on faces or on backs; the camera implies conversation by how it takes in the others in the room.

Consider this: silent filmmakers weren't preoccupied with the absence of sound; they did not work around it as a limitation -- it was just the innate nature of what they were doing. Maybe a good analogy is the way modern filmmakers work in 2-dimensions. They don't think about how the surface of the screen is "flat" (unlike reality), they just go with it. Film is flat. No big deal. Filmmakers don't feel disadvantaged to have to work without that third dimension of reality; they just shoot films. In the silent era, the lack of words and sound effects would have been like that. No big deal. Film was visual. Period. Everything about how a story played out understood that innately. Where and how the camera panned, who or what it focused on, how the actors moved, and used eye contact, clothing, props, action shots. Its hard to describe with words, but if you watch a silent movie (maybe The It Girl for a similar light and romantic drama) you'll see what I mean.

Modern movie makers may have lost the ability to make a story sing and move forward without the use of language. I feel devastated that The Artist had a chance to prove we could still do this, and failed.

I just watched The Last Laugh a 1924 masterpiece from German director F.R. Murnau. It is reported that he used no title cards in that entire film. (I wouldn't know. I didn't notice.) He may be the exception as someone who could shoot a whole film with absolutely no need to supplement though verbal explanation what was going on, but I read somewhere that Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton had a friendly competition to see who could make a film with the fewest title cards. When you tell great visual stories (as they both clearly could) you not only don't need dialog, you don't even need written words.

Although I seem to be trashing The Artist, in fact, I liked it. I just didn't love it and felt disappointed by it. It has plenty of good points. Its period details are wonderful. Beautiful. I can't imagine where they found all these 1920s-era buildings and cars. The costumes, too, are almost always spot on. The leads are incredible and full of personality and charm. Also, there are many lovely "art shots" where photography is used well to showcase something beautiful or striking. And in a few places, it has some flashes of excellent visual storytelling. For instance, the pantomime Peppy does at the beginning with George's coat is fantastic.  And the best scene in the film is the one when George's dog runs down the street to get a policeman when there is a fire. But the scenes with that kind of spark (forgive me) are few and far between.

The film, like others before it (Singin' in the Rain, Sunset Blvd.) lines up to make the point that those adhering to silence after sound became available were misguided dinosaurs who couldn't see the writing on the wall. But I detest that point of view. People who wanted to cling to silent film were not just foolish old timers. They included people who could sense that something important and special was about to be gone for good. (Imagine how you would feel if they stopped making books).  These films (Sunset Blvd, Singin' in the Rain, and now, The Artist) oversimplify the silent to sound-era transition.  In fact, at the time of this transition (the late 20s), silent films were significantly better, artistically speaking, than the sound of the time.  Most sound films of this transition-era are garbage by today's standards, whereas some of its silent works still hold up incredibly well. It took many many years before sound films were as good and well-made as the ones Peppy (in The Artist) was seen to be making. While good silent film continued to be made and enjoyed for years after The Jazz Singer.  It was not a hard line immediate switch.

One of the best moments of The Artist's silent storytelling comes at the end of the film when Peppy and George are dancing together in the director's office. Its wonderful. But just as the film has finally managed to speak successfully to the viewer without dialog, they yell "cut" and the film switches to sound. It is the moment that cements the lack of opportunity as it become just another film lauding the triumph of sound over silence.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Richard Armitage is About to Hit the Big Time

Richard Armitage is about to hit the big time, and I feel the need to declare that "I knew him when." Celluloidily, of course.

Having never been part of the Armitage Army of ravenous fans that sprang up in response to his gorgeousness and talent, I have nonetheless been an admirer and fan of his for some time. And I find it odd that I'm now feeling a mixture of pride and sadness in knowing that his appearance in The Hobbit is bound to catapult him into stratospheres of stardom.

Because most of the actors that I follow are loved by a smallish audience, it confers a sense of intimacy, ownership, or pride in their careers. An almost motherly feeling that I am loathe to lose when everyone in the world starts noticing what "we" used to have to ourselves. (This is similar to how I felt after Colin Firth hit it big in The King's Speech. A feeling that something wonderful and precious has been released out into the bigger world. And a hope that the bigger world deserved it.)

While Richard Armitage is certainly one of the bigger names to appear on my blog, he is still a relative unknown in that great huge grinding world of massive pop culture celebrity. And I kind of like it that way.

On the other hand, I am just so damn happy for the guy. He certainly deserves a shot at the big time.

So, good luck to you Richard.

Those of us who knew you as Guy of Gisborne, as Lucas North, or as Mr. Thornton, and who watched and waited patiently for each and every role you took on, are behind you all the way.  Probably staring at your butt.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Case for Silence

Visiting Hollywood with a few ten thousand others was not just far too colorful an experience, it was far too loud. But then I've observed that calm and peace do not seem to be things that many others seek.

After walking the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and though we dipped into just one attraction, my head was buzzing and my eyes were popping. By the time we drove away, I craved a real piece of history, not to mention a real piece of peace -- just some simple remembrances of the sleepy dusty town where people from an entirely different world used to peddle their craft.

A surprising note to our family's LA film history tour was the futile search for historical and cultural resources devoted to Hollywood's distant past. We realize that this is not a hot attraction for most people in the Entertainment Capital of the World, but with the billion or so people living on this stretch of coast, I admit I was hoping for a fairly large exhibit somewhere of early filmmaking memorabilia and resources.

If such a treasure trove is there, I never found it. I do understand that Los Angeles Natural History Museum has a small exhibit dedicated to early film pioneers but we didn't get there; we did try The Hollywood Museum, an oddity that bills itself as the place for early movie fans. Although they claim 10,000 artifacts, I'm pretty sure most of those are photographs. Worse still, desperate to compete for the least common denominator that flocks down Hollywood Blvd, they've taken a kitschy, cram-packed approach to old Hollywood that brought to mind the seedier aspects of the business - the focus on lifestyle, the desire to be more attractive at any cost, and the desperate search for fame.

However there is one place, just up the road from the big time, that contained a piece of what I sought and that we were lucky enough to find. Feeling a bit raggedy and exhausted as we left Hollywood Blvd, it's lucky enough that we didn't get into an accident on the way home--profoundly luckier still that we stumbled right past a wonderful little barn called the Hollywood Heritage Museum. The only fault with the place is that it wasn't bigger. They are on just the right track of preserving and discussing the history of the industry that came to California and took it over 100 years ago. Chatting with the well informed and pleasant staff, using indoor voices and dressed in reasonable clothes no less, I realized that there really are others like me -- probably dozens -- and that we should stage the comeback of silent pictures.

As the docent and I chatted, I thought about how the biggest stumbling block to people enjoying silence is a simple unfamiliarity with this style. But telling a story without audible words is not necessarily and absolutely a worse choice than telling it with. I mentioned The General as an example, he mentioned The Canadian, we both found that after watching these films and recollecting them later we couldn't quite remember their silence. They were simply so good that we didn't notice they didn't have dialog. We almost could have sworn there was sound because it was going on inside our imaginations. Hmmm... eerily reminiscent of the power of books, isn't it?

Silent film is no less a perfect form of storytelling, compared to sound movies, than reading books is compared to watching moving pictures.

The amazing thing is, I'm sure we're not the only ones who feel this way. Silence may never attract the masses again, but the internet is buzzing with people who love the art form -- connecting people who still harbor a blazing interest in the types of pictures so soundly drummed out of Hollywood when pictures started talking.

Although I'm willing to concede that in the late 1920s the technology of "sound on film" was a big advance, and an inevitable one at that with possibilities far beyond what film with only visuals could do, it is sad that it so obliterated what silent film could do well. Silent film isn't about the lack of sound. It is about fully filling the space in a film with story elements that are suited to a visual medium. It is not a less-than approach. It is a complete approach of its own. The acting is different. The camera movements are different. The way characters and scenes move is something that supplies direction to the story. After watching well-made silent films, I simply never have been known to say to myself: "that was great. I sure wish it could have had sound."

In an interview done in 1958 and accessible through Columbia University's Oral History Project, Buster Keaton talked about making visual comedies at the beginnings of the sound era:
I'm always going to find places in my story where dialogue is not called for.... You get those stretches in your picture of six, seven, eight, nine minutes where there isn't a word of dialogue. In those, we did our old routines. Then, when it was natural to talk, you talked. You didn't avoid it. But you lay out your material that way, it don't call for dialogue.... The minute sound came in, it was everybody talking their head off and going for dialogue laughs. All your writers did the same thing. Once that started, it took years to ever get anybody even to even touch that type of material again.... I tried every so often.
His words are profoundly true and sadly still not often hailed. This irrepressibly reminds me of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard saying: "There was a time in this business when they had the eyes of the whole world. But that wasn't good enough for them. Oh no. They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk talk talk!"

Filmmakers could be making the best of the media work for them now with slow moving, more visual stories that talk when its natural to talk, but they rarely do. Keaton continues in this interview to discuss how some of his movies were remade using sound by people who mistakingly thought that good material can be made better by throwing noise into it.  Here, he speaks of Red Skelton's version of The General:
They started that off with a battle scene, cavalry plowing over the hill towards the camera, guns going, flags waving, heavy music -- very heavy music. Everything. The minute that picture started, it come on with a fanfare and a blast, from the time the lion roared on the screen - this is an MGM picture - the blast was on. Now, we would go out of our way to see how quiet we could start a motion picture. In other words, I wanted an audience to sit back in their seats at the start and get comfortable. Not bring em up on the edge of their seats with the title and the opening scenes of the picture, but put them back in their seats. . . . while we planted the plot and the characters. Then we let that come. To this day, I can't talk a modern producer into seeing it from that angle.
And if Buster were still around I wonder if he'd still be futilely trying? Maybe the pendulum would have started swinging sooner, but it seems to me that it is slowly swinging now. Do you ever feel that you are on the verge, the cutting edge of a movement about to happen? A resurgence of silence seems almost possible. I've been reading a lot about Buster Keaton on the internet lately and I notice people say things like: "do you remember a couple of years ago when no one was talking about Keaton?" Now, go on to tumblr and type "Buster Keaton" in the search box and see how many pages come up.

Young people are starting to fight about who was better, Chaplin or Keaton. Silent film festivals are popping up all over the country. New dvds and blurays are getting issued all the time. And people are starting to talk about, er, not talking. For instance, Martin Scorsese's celebrated 2011 film Hugo presents a unique kind of story with an homage to silent film. A wonderful short, silent film, La Luna, got mass exposure playing before Disney's Brave in theaters last summer. And maybe even more exciting, for the time since 1929, and for only the second time ever, a silent picture (The Artist) won an Academy Award this year.

These films celebrate early cinema or practice a different, more subtle type of storytelling. I can only hope that more people will start paying attention to the beauty and peace of telling a story that isn't designed to bombard our senses and smash our intellects into submission. Films that are slower, more intelligent, that make you work just a bit harder and that make you feel proud to have viewed might not appeal to everyone. That's OK. I don't need them to take over the world. Just one tiny little corner of it again would be nice.

"Wonderful isn't it. And no dialog. We didn't need dialog. We had faces."
-Norma Desmond

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Susannah Harker as Jane

I love the 1995 Pride and Prejudice adaptation.  This is not an earth-shattering revelation. Many others do too. And I, like many others, watch it, oh, say, once or even twice a year.  -- whenever I am getting in the mood for fall. . . or looking for a way to unwind after being really busy . . . or snuggled in by a fire at Christmas. . . there are many excellent excuses to re-watch.

So re-watch I did. Again. For the umpteenth time and, as I often do, I reflected upon Susannah Harker as Jane. When I first saw this series, many many years ago, I remember that I was just ever so slightly disappointed with Jane, thinking, as others have done before me, that she is just not quite breathtaking enough for the role.  But each time I watch I see more and more of her beauty. You just have to look with the right eyes.

The problem is not Harker at all; it is her hair.

Now, this Pride and Prejudice was an authentic period piece, so I understand that they were constrained to Regency-era styles. Of course that would present some strictures as to what would be appropriate for Jane; but, it's just no excuse for her hair not to suit her face better.  Other women in the production have hairstyles that really fit both the actress and what her character needed to convey. Especially Lizzy. Jennifer Ehle looks just as Lizzy ought to, and in some scenes, her hair adds immeasureably to her charms - for example, the Netherfield Ball 'do.

But poor Susanna Harker gets horns coming out of her temples. When she's casual, she gets to look long and stringy (with horns) and when she's dressed up, she gets to look too pulled back and severe (with horns.) The problem wouldn't amount to much except that Jane is supposed to be undeniably the most beautiful woman around and she comes off looking a bit unpleasant.  This is unfair, because on viewing photos of the actress not as Jane, I can see that she is very very lovely.

Here is how good Harker can look when she isn't becoming Jane:

She is very beautiful!

She has an excellent Greek nose, translucent skin and a lovely turn of the neck! While I admit that sometimes the production managed to showcase these characteristics well, for the most part, it failed to. The inability capitalize on and showcase the beauty of the character who was supposed to delight our eyes is one of the very few weak points in the production.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Accessable Man & Life Changing Event that is Buster Keaton

Its no big secret that Buster Keaton is my newest obsession. I don't wish to hide it. The only thing I'm sheepish about is using my blog about British television to express it.

However, the other night I saw a wonderful BBC documentary from 2006, "Silent Clowns," hosted by Paul Merton. Nice. A link I can hang my hat on.

This program does not just beautifully highlight Keaton's career and comedy, but speaks to the joy of silent film as an art form. Watching it, I began to see that silent film is significantly more cross-cultural an experience than movies made since the advent of sound. Silent movies, especially silent comedies, speak a universal visual language.

Because his work has the capacity for such broad popular appeal, Keaton belongs to all of us. Notably, at a time when his career was hitting the skids in America, Keaton kept working in Europe and Mexico. Late in his career he enjoyed a resurgence of fame and was treated like a returning hero during stage performances in France. And the discovery and restoration of his films is also a global story -- one that stretches from L.A. to Czechoslovakia.

While reading everything I can about the man who fascinates me as much for his life story as for his brilliance, I find that certain themes begin to emerge. Commentators (such as Paul Merton, Richard Lewis, Edward McPherson, author of "Tempest in a Flat Hat") all want to talk about the circumstances under which they first encountered Buster. Like remembering where we were when the Twin Towers were hit, personal stories abound with respect to Keaton. Exposure to him seems to be a life changing moment for many people.

This wonderful clip is Richard Lewis' tribute to Keaton

Part of the reason Keaton makes such a big impact is not just that he is so talented, but that he is so unexpected. Modern people, in our self-importance, can hardly believe that films of this era could have been so well made and that anyone back then could have been so acrobatic, so surreal and so smart a comedian.

Beyond the theme of simply wanting to share our first encounters with the man lies a common desire to find links between him and ourselves. You often hear commentators speaking of the ways in which Buster influenced us or in which we are "like" him.  People want somehow to recognize a bit of themselves in what we so value in him.

That desire to find ourselves in Keaton touches on a theme I've expressed in my blog before: that of reality fantasy. Keaton is an everyman. We experience him as one of us. We feel like him and we want to be like him, and best of all, we somehow believe that we could. He is fundamentally accessible.

These feelings are remarkable given that he was not a regular guy at all. Keaton was extraordinarily beautiful. Although he was not generally filmed with an eye toward glamor, he had the most phenomenal look - full lips, enormous expressive eyes, high cheekbones, and thick dark hair -- yet somehow he isn't seen as a sex symbol. When people talk about his face they call it the "great stone face" and speak of its impassivity. He often portrayed down on his luck guys on the edge of wimpiness, yet he was supremely in control. He had a beautiful physique with which he could do astonishing feats of skill that most of us couldn't even dream of... or  imagine.

But he could.  He could dream it -imagine it -do it and film it, with nuance.

And despite his awesomeness, despite his extraordinary talent and skill -- he still, somehow, never feels out of reach to us. His genius is in allowing us all to share the emboldening effect of his movies.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Here's one you may not have heard of: Spy

Somewhere across the Atlantic a talented group of people is preparing to air the second season of a show that is obscure, strange and hard to find anything out about. Its likely to always remain strange but please, I hope, is on the road to the big time.

The show is "Spy," a deliciously smart and funny concoction, the brainchild of a really clever guy called Simeon Goulden who describes his idea for the show as follows: "well I think its about a nasty child and his single father. And I think the father maybe joins MI-5 by mistake."

The primer:
Tim Eliot is the main character, played by Darren Boyd. He is damn funny, dry and bumbling, yet with underlying intelligence and normalcy that makes you root for him in the crazy mixed-up life he's found himself in. Marcus his extremely irritating son. Marcus is supposed to be irritating, so I shouldn't find fault with him for that reason.

The high-tech spy stuff is a source of humor, such as when Tim enters headquarters and the recognition security doors never know who he is (mistaking him for women or inanimate objects) but letting him in anyway.

The spy boss, deliciously played by Robert Lyndsay (an ever-so-slight parody of Harry Pearce from Spooks?) is a hard-drinking, slightly out of touch man, in love with his power, a bit insane and generally inappropriate. He also is completely taken with Tim, though TIm disagrees with everything he says.

The rest of the cast is fabulously comedic and the writing top-notch, so that lines like these are not just funny but delivered with perfect timing:

Tim, trying to impress his coworker by acting very cool and walking in a cool way.
"Have you soiled yourself?"
"No. That's how men walk."
"Incontinent men, maybe."

Exchange between TIm and his co-worker Caitlyn upon whom he has a slight crush, when he finds himself at her place in a sketching class:
"Its a funny thing. When you were talking earlier about there being some nudity, I - I thought you meant . . ."
"Naked!? Get out a here What bit of what I said made you think that!"
"...uh, the words."

I can't wait for more like this. Though I'm sure I'll have to. I don't know when (nor if) the episodes will show up on Hulu. But I can tell you that last year's 6 episodes are all there for free and should be watched by lovers of great comedy. For those lucky enough to live somewhere that British shows are accessible in real time, you could watch the return of Spy tomorrow night (Friday the 13th. You don't think they did that on purpose do you?)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Anita, Andie and June Cleaver

Watching a melodrama parody from 1940 entitled "The Villain Still Pursued Her," I was struck with the beauty of the lead actress, Anita Louise. She was gorgeous in just the way that a modern audience was sure to appreciate. She had a look that struck me as reminiscent of someone I 'knew' well.

It was her mouth.

She had a lovely high cheeckboned sort of overbite that I could picture on someone . . . I knew I'd seen that unique mouth before. But where...

It took awhile, but then I knew it: Andie MacDowell! OK, I'm not saying they are lookalikes, but they do have the same "type" of mouth. I know it because I've always admired it on Andie. Its focused on the upper lip and upper teeth and seems to lead directly in to high, pronounced cheeckbones. Its the kind of look that makes her seem like she is always on the verge of saying the letter "F".

But then, the most interesting thing happened.

We've been watching "Leave it to Beaver" at our house lately. The show was playing this afternoon and I was noticing Barbara Billingsly, who played June Cleaver. Actually there are several things I've been noticing about June Cleaver that I missed the first time around. First, that she is very very thin; second that she is very very tall, and also that she is actually quite funny. But today I noticed something new: she has that mouth!

Maybe not quite as pronounced as Andie, but its there.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

No dialog necessary here. Best Keaton's films are a treasure for modern audiences.

You must forgive my gushing about Buster Keaton. I do understand that this is not (technically) related to British television. But as I've said, the beauty of having your own blog is getting to write about whatever you want. ... And what I want right now is Buster Keaton. If you don't like that, I suggest you get your own blog  ; - )

My discovering Keaton is like discovering Cary Grant. I did the latter in my teens. How on earth did I get this far in life without knowing the incredible talents of the former!? His work is profoundly good and I feel compelled to spread the word. Any fan of quality film and tv, which you obviously are, should make a point of seeing his work. (Go on; go do that now. Try Youtube. I'll wait. On second thought, you'd best read the post first.)

To those who might not realize this, Keaton was not just a slapstick comedian of the silent age. He was a talented director who conceived and filmed original ideas in movies that are tight, well acted, beautifully photographed, subtle, and touching. Oh, yeah, they were funny too. They present such well-made stories, that even modern audiences raised on a barrage of color, sound, and special-effects will be won over. My younger son asked me a couple of days after watching The General, "mom, did that movie have sound; I can't remember?" A telling complement. The General is so exciting and so very watchable you don't even notice that it lacks dialog. Keaton's films are like that. Treasures for all time.

The four feature films that follow are my personal favorites and those I consider his best work.  They are quite distinct in their characters, plots, pacing and style. Yet they all bear the unmistakable stamp of Keaton. That "stamp," as I see it, is to make reality feel good. His films are rooted in real truths about the simplicity of plugging away through life, meeting challenges that arise, fighting, moving along. And accepting it all with eyes wide open and lots of humor. His world is not perfect by a long shot, but its never depressing -- because, he (through his wonderful characters) lives life so well. He is beautiful in the fullest sense of the world. And he makes me want to live my own life with more precision and grace - he makes me want to jump on things, bend backward, go do something! Buster inspires me and somehow makes me feel as if I could.

The General. 

Few will argue with this selection. It's the equivalent of saying that Imagine is John Lennon's best song. The General places on countless lists of 'the best movies of all time' and was one of the first films to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Sadly, it did not garner such praise when released in 1926. Buster may have simply been ahead of his time, his adoring public appreciating him more in flat-out comedic roles, simpler of plot and less developed in theme. This movie is so much more than that.

Heralded as the next best depiction of the Civil War ever recorded second only to Matthew Brady's photographs, The General watches like a documentary, a comedy and an action adventure film rolled together. Layered over exciting scenes of Buster chasing down enemy soldiers who have stolen his engine (the 'General'), are a sweet story of love (for his girl and for the train) and a simple story of a man who rises to the occasion that duty calls for him.

Because the film was made so very long ago -- blurring our own sense of proper timeframe -- it is easy for the modern viewer to feel as if watching something authentic to its setting. That's remarkable. Especially given that it was not even done in the South, but in Oregon, which, by the way, provides stunning scenery even in black and white.

Against this gorgeous backdrop, Keaton spends most of the movie running... around, in, under and atop two civil war era steam trains. The trains are so enlivened by his clear love and attention that they become movie characters themselves. But the best character is of course Keaton's -- Johnny Grey, who spends the movie alternating between doing things that show incredible strength and skill, with things that feel pitiful. He walks a balance figuratively and literally that is astonishing. In one striking example, the renegades have thrown a long heavy wooden railroad tie onto the track to derail their pursuer. Keaton runs ahead of his train in an attempt to dislodge the tie. He manages to do so at the last moment, tugging it free and falling into the cow sweep.  With barely a moment to rest, he then sees another tie lodged halfway across the track just ahead. With precision that astounds, he heaves the first down onto the other hitting it like a see saw whereupon the whole thing springs to life and off the tracks -- not without nearly smacking him dead in the face first. The modern viewer has to know that shots such as this cannot have been 'faked' the way we are used to. Real logs. Real movie star. Real train. Moving. Real precision. Yet our hero conveys as much awkwardness as skill in having done it! takes it in stride and climbs back into the engine to stoke the fire before the next disaster. You can't help but love this man.

The stunts come fast and furious (including one so stunning it still shocks: the sight of the steam train "Texas" collapsing a burning bridge and plunging into the river below). Underlying the whole is a movie with so much heart that it makes yours ache. In one such scene, our hero has rescued his girl from the bandits and they are hiding out in the woods in the rain. Buster is kneeling on the wet ground next to her when she lays her head upon his chest and tells him he's brave. He puffs with pride and he cradles her to his breast with the look of utmost pleasure. You can feel his heart swell. Light fades and when morning dawns, it dawns on him sitting just there, having held that position all night - clearly unwilling to lose the moment. Only the subtlest attention is drawn to this, by him stretching out those bent legs in the morning.

Buster Keaton's uncanny way of underplaying a moment is his greatest charm. Like his choice to follow that tender declaration with a scene where he stuffs his love into a gunny sack to smuggle her out of enemy camp, and then steps on the sack several times before freeing her. Marion Mack, the actress who plays his love gives a great comic performance. She is game for this treatment and more and really gets to shine in the last half of the movie as she helps foil the bad guys, behave heroically and take her own pratfalls such as getting hilariously doused at a water spout.

The film hits it on all fours - everything a movie should be is wrapped up in one very beautiful package. It should be on any movie lovers 'must see' list.

Sherlock Jr.

The General may be the critical consensus for best, but my favorite Keaton movie is Sherlock Jr. (1924). Profoundly interesting and well made, Sherlock Jr. is simply unique. When you have a lot of experience watching movies (!) and are plumbing the depths of 90 year-old work, you just don't really expect that many surprises. But Sherlock Jr. surprises. It actually astounds.

Our hero is known simply as 'the Boy.' He's unskilled but confident. He works as a projectionist but dreams of being a detective. Keaton gives a great nuanced performance -- imbuing the Boy with dreams and longing, shyness, the desire to step up and be a man, and an overarching fear of failure. He's so timid with his girl that he can't look at her when he gives her a ring. But, he fearlessly tracks his suspect all around town when framed by his rival for the theft of a watch. In this production Keaton wears many hats very well (figuratively in this case.) In addition to the great acting he brings, Keaton the comedian is there, hilariously walking in lockstep with the suspect and performing clever vaudeville stunts. Keaton the director brings pacing, location, style and visual appeal. There are wonderful sweet details to the movie like having "the girl", played by Kathryn McGuire, actually solve the crime herself in a matter of minutes while Buster is out bumbling around. (I'm not going to climb too far out on a limb and claim him as an early feminist, but I do notice that in many of his films, the leading ladies are doing resourceful, intelligent and active things rather than sitting around waiting to be rescued. This makes me love him more.)

All these details come together to cause the film to feel complete and engaging, but the real punch is packed by its technological wonders. When the Boy gets back to his projector and starts the afternoon's show, he dozes off. Several amazing things start to happen. A hazy second-self wakes up, fractions off from the Boy, and walks away. He steps through the audience and orchestra and into the playing movie, with in-camera effects that are so well done that they look beautiful, convincing and evocative even in 2012.

What makes these scenes remarkable is not that Buster Keaton was able to achieve them, technically speaking, but that he was able to weave them, artfully, into a story where they actually matter. Sherlock Jr. is the antithesis of the early sound movies that used sound just to show that they could. These effects are central to the themes of reality, fantasy, dream and hero. When the Boy enters the picture and attempts to interact, he is expelled from the action. Another astonishing editing sequence shows Buster as the Boy in (quasi-)stationary position as the scenery in the movie continues to shift around him -- the background becoming a garden, a rocky outcrop, a jungle, a desert and a snow bank, etc. The effort involved in piecing together this nearly seamless sequence was massive. And it's beautiful work. But what makes it mind-blowing is that it is used to further the story. The viewer learns that the Boy doesn't belong in the movie, which moves mercilessly around him; he's not part of it. Not until he finds a role he can dream himself into, can Buster enter the movie. So when the bad guys on screen concoct their nefarious plot, Buster's sleeping Boy enters the action as the "crime crushing criminologist Sherlock Jr."  . . . As smooth, suave, Sherlock Jr., classy, well dressed, and smart, Buster gets to play an extremely attractive leading man. Its a delight to see.

At this point in the movie the technological thrills give way to ones that come from Buster's physical brilliance, starting with Sherlock shooting a deadly game of pool with stunning accuracy and managing to miss the ball that's been rigged with explosives. Or, my favorite, Buster riding on the handlebars of a motorcycle after the driver has been kicked off. Cars, puddles and men with shovels can't unseat him as he speeds along through the streets of LA and deftly past the still undeveloped hills of Southern California. While on the handlebars, he crosses a gaping bridge by riding across the tops of two trucks moving in opposite directions -- meeting up with them at the very moment that they align creating an insanely dangerous and transient bridge. Its impossible to overstate how well-orchestrated that stunt had to have been! [See my note in the comments below on this stunt]. I've noted before that these scenes play like James Bond (40 years ahead of schedule), so I was thrilled to hear, on the dvd version of the film I recently watched, that Bondesque music was playing in the background. Apparently I'm not the only one making that association.

The movie, at just 44 minutes, is a fast and furious ride. A great comic ending follows the joy ride when our hero reintegrates himself, reencounters his real-life lovely, and re-proposes -- taking his cues from the lead actor in the movie that is still chugging along on screen. Its a wonderful way to wrap the experience.

Steamboat Bill Jr.

This movie is the height, the absolute apex of charm. Pitting rough, river-rat dad and his dandy of a son whom he has not seen for years, Keaton has chosen a theme that has been subsequently and continually worked for laughs by many over the decades. Buster's endeavor in 1928 may not have been the first to attempt it, I don't know, but it certainly has to be one of the best.

Gruff dad, played beautifully by Ernest Torrence, does not do the best job masking his disappointment in how his son has turned out, but he tries to make the relationship work. That is, if by 'make it work' you mean 'force Bill Jr. into being a more suitable son.' Buster was put on this earth to play the role of Bill Canfield Jr.. He is perfection as the foppishly cute, childishly stubborn, but basically moldable son. He follows dutifully as dad pulls him along by the hand. He gamely lets dad call the shots on mustache- and ukulele- removal, as well as clothing and hair readjustment, but when he runs into his college girl friend (who unfortunately happens to be his dad's arch-rival's daughter), he draws the line. Buster's not giving up King's daughter (played deliciously by Marion Byron) and who can blame him; She is the cutest, spunkiest, gamest costar for Buster that I've ever seen. Her talents suit his extremely well and their scenes together are a joy.

The father/son pairing is extremely well done and forms the heart of the movie. The scene that has stolen my heart and that I cannot seem to watch enough times on Youtube, is one where dad takes Buster to get a new hat.  Buster immediately finds one he likes and tries it on for dad's approval. I love the way he thrusts his foot out and stands like a model displaying it. Dad casts it away instantly. Watch how Buster sneaks the hat back on for a try two more times (with no luck). Also watch how he secrets away his own hat into a back pocket when no one's looking. Buster's expressions while dad and the store clerk plunk a wide array of hats upon his head are priceless, but best of all is when the clerk tries a hat of Buster's Keaton's signature "porkpie" look and produces a priceless look of horror. Delightful and utterly self-aware. I love Buster Keaton.

Complications due to dad's underlying feud, disappointment with his son, and eventual jailing keep the plot humming along until the final 10 minute sequence which includes the most jaw-dropping barrage of nonstop stunts I've ever seen. No expense could have been spared during scenes of the town's destruction in a fierce tornado-like storm. The insanity culminates in the stunning scene where Keaton allows a house front to fall on top of him, just gliding over him by the slimmest of margins before crashing hard into the ground. From all accounts, this was entirely real -- with a several ton house front and a upper story window designed to give just inches of clearance around our main man. Buster could easily have been killed had anything gone awry.

Yet. . .  you feel safe watching Buster Keaton because his clear skill and precision allow you to know that he knew exactly what he was doing. Though he does death-defying stunts all the time, they don't feel scary or reckless because of his comedic touch and because of the trust the viewer develops for Buster. His physical skill just simply can't be praised enough. The man was a genius. The movie is a smile-fest throughout. Funny, sweet, physical and charming. Another perfect endeavor.

Go West

A love story about a man and a cow. That alone makes it one of the coolest movies ever.
Go West is not routinely included as one of his best, but it is. Here he matches the slower pace and tone of the movie to the work of a ranch and the heat of the desert.  The scenery and buildings are beautiful and we get to soak it all up at an appropriate pace. I don't want to overstate the point that maybe you have to love the desert to love this picture, but I think it helps. You gotta be able to see the beauty of the wood in the fence boards, the dusty wind, and the windows framing the shots of the hot grey mountains. Leave it to Buster to find both beauty and humor in this landscape.

Buster's character, "Friendless," is brave in unexpected ways. First, he installs himself on the ranch as a hand with no skills to recommend him and no real contributions to make. But he shows up for supper (though it isn't until his third attempt that he gets any food) and goes through the motions. He confronts a man who is cheating at poker and doesn't back down. He is plucky and willing and has the silliest little hand gun that belongs properly in a woman's purse. Getting tired of fishing it out of the depths of his holster when he needs it, he gets smart and attaches it to a watch chain.

I always have thought that you can tell a lot about a person by the way animals and children respond to them. Here we get to see Buster's soul through the eyes of an adoring cow. "Brown Eyes" is beautiful and her clear desire to be near Buster is evident. You have to trust the cow, given that she cannot have cared about the movie biz. ;)  (Another movie demonstrating Buster's winning ways with animals is The Camerman where the most amazing relationship develops between him and a little monkey. You can't fake that.)

Anyhow, there's a scene in Go West where Keaton is hiding behind a building watching the rancher approach his cow. As Buster crouches there, a slight wind picks up and kicks his hat off. He reaches out a hand and grabs it as it starts to blow away. He pops it back on his head almost without seeming to notice it has been blown. That in a nutshell is what's beautiful about Buster Keaton. The scene is small and serves almost no purpose. But these are the kinds of details you get with a Keaton movie. There are literally dozens of small perfect details packed into every  film. This one is special to me not just because its a small detail that shows his care and attention to the way his films came together, but because it symbolizes him in a nutshell. Its shows physical brilliance (lightning quick reflexes) and total unflappability. Life is going on in front of you and around you. Odd things happen. You just keep going. Don't worry about why. Though Buster is uber-present in the world, no one - least of all himself - sees his strength, balance, reflexes, and agility. His enormous eyes are always looking at the world with detached wonderment and interest. And together those eyes and his physical engagement make his trajectory through life fascinating, humorous and ultimately successful (in the broadest, non-sentimental way of living a well-lived life as being the only reason to wake up). But its only the audience who really sees.

His real genius seems to have escaped his contemporary audience. They loved his humor and made him a star, but his very best and most profound work was panned upon release. Buster was making his movies toward a deeper standard -- his own. I am incredibly grateful that he got to do it as long as he could and that I managed to stumble upon it.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

You wonder how Buster Keaton did all the things that he did? He was a friggin' stud, that's how.


So. I really feel the need to preface this post with a disclaimer. I am not interested in Buster Keaton for his body.  I mean, that would be weird, right? -- to think about a man who's been dead for 45 years in that way.

Truly, the guy is a more appropriate crush for my grandmothers than for me.

Besides, even if he were a bit more contemporary to my age, really, I'm not that shallow.  His true charm is his talent.

Still, that said, you do just have to admire a man like Buster Keaton for so many reasons. . .

These very impressive photos come from a scene in The Camerman (1928), a movie which I have not seen.  Although, I think its a pretty safe bet that I will soon.

In the movie, Buster has gone to a public pool and is about to change into his swimsuit in the tiny dressing room when a burly guy comes in to change and refuses to leave.

Hilarity ensues, as they say. But more importantly, Buster shows the world for all time what he -- (and what we had probably already guessed that he must) -- looks like in his skivvies.

Still, its nice to have proof. Very nice.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The first great 'talkie,' It Happened One Night is a gem.

Its funny how when you begin to write reviews, you get plagued by cliche. Overused sayings just pop into your head of their own accord and you find yourself saying things like "this was a gem of a movie" or it was like "a breath of fresh air" before you know what you're doing. So, in that vein, last night's entry in the film fest, "It Happened One Night," was a little burst of fresh gemmy air - if you'll forgive the expression.

I always knew it was a good idea to work forward in time through classic movies, but now, excuse my vanity, I really see the genius behind the plan. Watching "It Happened One Night" after several weeks of experience with earlier films just blew us away . . . the way it should have. I can fully appreciate why this movie swept the Academy Awards and has gone down in history as the classic romantic comedy of all time, the first screwball comedy, a Frank Capra masterpiece and yet -- simultaneously had been the film NO ONE expected to succeed.

Most involved in the project seemed to think it was a crummy waste of time (Claudette Colbert, at the end of filming, famously told a friend: "I just finished the worst picture of my life;" Clark Gable was given the assignment as punishment). To explain the paradox, you have to set yourself in 1934 when movies just weren't like this. People couldn't easily see the value of doing something like watching two people travel along the countryside taking little quips at each other and falling in love. It must have been hard to picture, until it all came together.

Of course I realize that I'm not in a position to declare outright that 'nothing like this had ever been done before,' but I'll do it anyway. Feeling like an expert with over 20 titles prior to 1934's IHON under my belt, I can attest to this being a major leap forward in cinematic style. At this time in history the talkies were really just beginning to seize control of themselves. Prior to this, they were still heady with flagrantly flaunting the fact that they had sound, and hadn't quite figured out how to make the most of it. Many still moved and seemed like silent pictures - often bad ones - done out loud. It took a bit more evolution before movie makers could just work with sound, instead of struggle to make it work.

I'm certain to mess up the details here, so take this with a grain of salt, but early cinematic sound movies (starting with The Jazz Singer and others that came out in the next couple of years) used a phonograph process to separately capture the audio and a standard film camera to capture the video. The two were then linked together so they would play back in sync (a huge breakthrough for commercial viability). There were still many problems including the very loud motion picture cameras that had to be closed off in a soundproof box so that the sound recording wouldn't be fouled, to the fact that many theaters weren't "wired for sound," to the problems of skipping and syncing during playback, to wiring actors or locating them near large microphones that restricted their freedom of movement. And the problems led to reduced film picture quality. All adding up to these movies just not being up to snuff - artistically. It wasn't until the sound-on-film technology (in which the sound and pictures were simultaneously recorded, together -- and yes I realize that's redundant) that the art form could take off. Advances in all aspects of sound recording seemed to reinvent the medium and free up filmakers to think about making movies again and not just think about working with the new technology.

Back to IHON - here is a film that is perfectly positioned to swoop in with total understanding of the beauties of dialog, but not forgetting motion either. It is extremely effective at telling a story fully. Its silly, smart, well-acted, and seamlessly audible. It takes advantage of the full range of cinematic storytelling and probably had a huge effect on everything that came after. It "feels" noticeably more modern in its pace and themes than other movies we've watched. It had to have struck a perfect chord with audiences and critics.

Gable, in an atypical role, and Colbert have wonderful chemistry. Their chemistry and dialog carry the film. The cinematography is wonderful too -- lovingly portraying mostly exterior location shots (in great measure as a means of saving money on sets). The only time the movie slows down is near the end when a misunderstanding separates our leads and we lose their combined charm. Although the film is regarded as the genesis of the "screwball" style of comedy, other films that came later are more screwbally and probably better examples; this one may be better heralded as the birth of romantic comedy. One reviewer on IMDB made a point of noting that this is romantic comedy well before the genre became synonymous with "chick flick". Definitely not a chick flick, IHON relies on the talents of Gable --who is unquestionably a guy's guy -- to keep the film rougher and and just a bit gritty, very appealing to men. I can attest that all of the men at my house loved this film.

Now that we've entered the golden age of Hollywood cinema, I can't wait to see what the next one brings. Keep watching this space :)

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Ten Best Things about Buster Keaton

The Top Ten Best Things About Buster Keaton

10.  His eyes. It may be a cheap call, but, really it's a no-brainer. They're not just astonishingly huge, taking up about half his face, but they are kind, sweet, and intelligent - expressive of his art and brilliance. Maybe these should go higher on the list. . . .

9.   His face. I don't care for the moniker 'the great stone face.' Its misleading and reduces what may be the most watchable, beautiful and subtle face in all of movies to a simple lump of rock. His face is a great empty canvas - but tremendously emotive and very watchable.

8.   His leading ladies. Classy guys can often be identified by the type of women they chose to promote and identify with. I enjoy the performances of the lead actresses in his films almost as much as I enjoy him.

7.   The number and length of the movies he made. So many! and so many shorts! And so many that he directed! Makes it so easy to watch a lot of Keaton!

6.   His intelligence and his clear assumptions about the audience's intelligence. Keaton's humor is not just funny - it's smart. He seems to expect a bit more from his audience. He knows they are seeing the subtle and ironic twists he layers in everywhere. And, even if they dont . . .

5.   At the most basic level he is simply just very very funny.

4.   He is strong and gentle. In equal measure.

3.   His stunning physical grace. Its hard to put words to this one. You either know exactly what I'm talking about or my writing about it isn't going to make you understand.

2.   His ability to walk through the world making objects move with a grace that matches his own.

1.   His tight artistic vision. This is perhaps the most surprising aspect to Buster Keaton. A reviewer of his compilation dvd on Amazon put it well: "In your shelves, Keaton shouldn't share his place with the Marx Brothers, but with Orson Wells." He made superb movies that tell real, poignant stories, that are visually evokative, delightfully entertaining and also full of wonder. The level of excellence is astounding.

And, to tie it all up in a nice bow, despite all of these things and by all accounts, Buster Keaton was in fact also a really nice guy.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Notes from Buster Keaton's Newest Fan

I have been a die-hard Buster Keaton fan for almost a week.

My love of him first started at approximately 7:05 pm on June 1st. My knowledge of him began about 5 minutes earlier -- when I cued up "Sherlock Jr." on Netflix.  Prior to that time, I knew the name and had a notion of him being a film star of the silent era. Beyond that I knew nothing. Thank heavens that while doing research for our family's classic film project, I thought to include something he'd done to our list.
One brief exposure and I was hooked. Keaton grew on me quickly, and now I can't remember film without him. What strikes me most about the man, beyond his achingly interesting looks, is his extraordinary screen presence. Commentators use words like elegance and grace when describing his physicality. It isn't enough. He is almost supernormal in his ability to project a total ease and gentleness upon the things around him. He moves through space with a sweetness and light that I've simply never seen before.

This natural talent for poetry in motion is typified by Keaton's very first appearance onscreen in a movie called "The Butcher Boy." In his biography of Keaton, ("Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat"), Edward McPherson shares the story. Keaton was taken to a Fatty Arbuckle movie set by a mutual friend one day, just to check it all out. The movie was filming and Fatty apparently asked Buster (who had tons of vaudeville and stage comedy experience but no prior experience with movies) if he'd like to appear on screen as an extra. Buster declined. Fatty stopped production for a bit in order to show his friend's buddy around the set and the ins and outs of what was going on; by the end of the tour, Buster had changed his mind and Fatty wrote him in to the production. (Gotta love how the movie biz worked back then.)

The film is cute enough and generally enjoyable, but Keaton steals the show - 6 minutes in with the simple act of tossing a broom. Buster walks in to the butcher shop, inexplicably picks up and inspects a broom from a barrel then tosses it to the ground; he picks up another, inspects it, then tosses this one back into the barrel. Only, those words can hardly describe the act -- how he seems to just invite that broom to sail sweetly back into the barrel on its own. Buster then walks over to the one on the floor and prods it with his foot, at which point the broom joins him in hand, then in barrel - without effort. The motion of those silly brooms and the simple but mesmerizing effect is bizarre. How can something like this be so riveting? I've watched the clip a half dozen times and I'm not sure. But it is apparent to any viewer that it is not all just a fluke because the next moment the broom routine is followed by the tasting of molasses. Which is even better. Yes that's it. Molasses. On shoe, finger, in mouth. Pure entertainment. Whatever star power is, this kid has it in droves.

If you're interested in Buster Keaton, check out the new blog What Would Buster Keaton Do. It features information and writing on his life and films.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The best Sherlock of all may just be Sherlock Jr.

My blog should be temporarily renamed "Swimming in Silents". I have yet another silent film to rave about. (Though I suppose I should underscore why. It has to do with a family movie festival we've embarked on for the summer. We are working our way through classics -- best films, actors, directors, and genres -- enjoying as many great films as I can get my hands on starting 110 years ago with 1902's "A Trip to the Moon" and working our way forward in time.)

Last night's entry: Buster Keaton in "Sherlock Jr." from 1924. I do get tired trying to come up with new ways to say "this was shockingly great entertainment," because it's the sentiment I keep needing to express. "Sherlock Jr." is seriously, just really, really good. I can't wait to watch it again. The plot is sweet and clever and the artistic vision expressed is tight. A phenomenally well-made film for any era.

Although we didn't find it side-splittingly hilarious, like Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last!", this one was probably the better film for having an extremely well-developed idea which travelled with the film from start to finish, as well as enduring themes that are both charming and true. And it was funny. A delightfully complete film.

The story begins with our hapless hero, who works as a projectionist at the theater, daydreaming of being a great detective. He shows his mettle early on, when he finds a dollar in the pile of trash he's sweeping up. He gives the dollar to the lovely woman who comes looking for it (after asking her to "describe it"), then gives his own dollar to another person who has lost one, and finally digs energetically through the pile as a third man who comes looking finds a whole wallet in the trash.

At his girlfriend's house later, to which he has gone with chocolates and proposal, he is framed for the theft of her dad's watch and kicked out of the house. Returning to his job, he dozes off at the projection booth and dreams himself into the movie where he assumes the character of Sherlock Jr., the amazing detective brought in to solve a very similar crime of the stolen pearls. The scenes where his ghostlike sleepwalking self goes into the picture are phenomenal. Even by modern standards, they are evocative and clever; the camera tricks that allowed this and the subsequent scenes where the background keeps changing on him are fun to speculate about. These scenes are integral to showing us he doesn't really belong in that movie; he's an outsider living a fantasy. This movie within a movie allows us to explore themes of fantasy and the role of cinema magic that was taking such an important hold of people at this time and which clearly persist to this day.

With Keaton playing the regular downtrodden guy in one and the fabulously crafty detective in the other, he really gets an opportunity to show his charm and strengths as a performer. While Sherlock Jr. plows through the hills and streets in and around LA (on the handlebars of a driverless motorbike for a while), and while he plays pool skillfully avoiding the ball that has been rigged with explosives, the film moves a bit like James Bond; he has all the tricks and skills and saves the lady and finds the thieves. Though a lot funnier and more bumbling than Bond, Keaton here is truly as attractive and appealing a hero. The scenery is amazing. I wish I knew where this was filmed. (I smell an internet research project coming on).

The movie's spark comes from the very intelligent themes underlying it - I love the ending scenes where "the Boy" is taking his romantic cues from our leading man on screen and has a priceless look of confusion when the screen characters sit holding twins.

I couldn't possibly recommend this film more highly. Even to those, like me!, who do not consider themselves silent film fans, it is very watchable and entertaining. And moves as such a crisp perfect pace (at only 3/4 of an hour long) that it is hard to think of a reason not to.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Brilliant Harold Lloyd in "Safety Last!"

Roger Ebert says he is not 'brilliant' like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Calls him an everyman who was successful through perseverance, not stunning talent. But I think someone who can still connect with viewers 89 years later has something pretty powerful going for him.

"Safety Last!", Harold Lloyd's masterpiece form 1923, has been my family's runaway favorite silent film so far in our series. From the opening scenes we were hooked, and continued to laugh aloud throughout.

Lloyd has a surprisingly modern quality to him. (Maybe this is underscored by the exceptionally well-preserved film. I understand that Harold Lloyd, unlike many other silent era producers, was meticulous about keeping his original prints stowed away safely). His face looks like one you would see today. Fresh, open, humorous, direct, ... not to mention good teeth.  He has a very charming, nerdish, appeal and a fantastic ability to express emotion with his face. (Hmmm... an olden days Jim Carey?)

He had our family in stitches with silly gags like avoiding his landlady who wanted rent, by, along with his roommate, stuffing their arms in their coat sleeves, hopping onto coat hooks and pulling their legs up and under.

The film is famous for Lloyd's stunning feat hanging from a clock on the side of a building. Someone, I forget who -- maybe it was that same Roger Ebert review (too lazy to check) -- said that this is a still-shot that everyone has seen, though almost no one has seen the movie from whence it came. More people should. It is great entertainment and a wonderful choice for dipping your first toe into silent film if that hasn't been your thing.

Although the film's value goes far beyond this iconic shot, the whole climbing up the building scene is simply fascinating. On many levels.

First, most basically, this is exceptionally entertaining comedy. Lloyd's character - through a series of silly setup moments - needs to do a stunt climb up the side of this skyscraper. I think they mention that it is 16 stories high. On the way up, he encounters children who accidentally drop popcorn on him, birds that torment him in order to get said popcorn, painters stuffing a plank out the window as he goes by, a mouse that climbs up his pant leg and a weathervane that has it in for him, not to mention the famous clock scene. (And, yes, from what I read online, this scene did inspire the clock tower dangling in "Back to the Future" and the new movie "Hugo" contains an homage as well).

Beyond the thrills of the plot, these climbing scenes -- give a perspective of historic downtown Los Angeles that is powerful. I am not steeped in that city's history, nor do I know these buildings and locations, but to anyone who is, this would be an enormous treat. An account of the filming, posted by the LA Conservancy, gives exact street locations and is worth sharing here.

Adding even more layers of interest, is the question any grown up watching is sure to ask them-self: "how did they do that!?" Apparently, there had been many decades of secrecy around the filming of these climbing scenes and that -- unlike in today's era where 'the making of' is actively plumbed for additional dramatic value and dvd special content -- it really was not well-known or discussed publicly. At least until many years later, and then there aere slightly conflicting accounts.  One thing that seems sure is that they were filming high in the air and that they were on location downtown in L.A. They apparently built a tower for the camera and a facade/set for the building being climbed. According to Lloyd himself, they built platforms below him and put mattresses on them! Lloyd never fell during this filming, though he states he almost did once. Although Lloyd did most of the climbing and tricks himself, a long-shot of the character seen at distance climbing a real building, was done by a guy they are calling "the Human Fly", Bill Strother, who plays Lloyd's funny roommate. Strother and his ability to scale buildings was apparently Lloyd's inspiration for making this film.

Maybe the most fascinating question and the final layer of interest is the "why" of it all. It is inconceivable to our modern minds for a major Hollywood picture to film anything that would put anyone - let alone our star! in such actual physical peril. The idea that the scenes unfolding in front of you are not, cannot have been computer enhanced in anyway, and although subject to 'tricks' of perspective and basic editing assistance, are an accurate depiction of people performing is heady. This lends an undeniable thrill to the experience. But what caused people to film actually dangerous things for our entertainment value? I guess, just simply, that they could. Still in in infancy as a medium, film makers were still working out what cinema was going to be, how it would be used to tell a story and what, if anything, was off-limits.

What I don't know about early Hollywood cinematic history could fill a blog, but I feel safe in saying that at this time in history there were at best minimal safety codes, controls on film content, and regulations on working conditions in place. What got made seems to be a function of what someone could dream up. The sky's the limit. Quite literally.

Maybe the reason that Harold Lloyd feels surprisingly fresh and relevant today is that he -- his style, his comedy -- was created for film. He was a product of the film industry, not a performer who imported his trade over to that medium from prior work on stage. He was inventing what worked on screen and his instincts were undeniably good.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Intolerance: An Example of Astonishing Film Quality from 1916

Embarking on an interesting film journey this summer, our family is watching a film festival of mostly American classics, beginning with early silent films and working our way forward in time though classic directors, actors and productions.

Tonight's entry: "Intolerance," a three hour epic from D.W. Griffith that --I now understand why-- is spoken of as his true masterwork. This viewing has been an eye-opening and fascinating experience.

"Intolerance" is simply stunning in its ability to tell a compelling story. It is still moving, nearly a century after its creation. I am blown away by the production values and spectacle of this 1916 film including its sets, sheer number of performers, and quality of acting, not to mention use of special effects and transitions that had to have been in their infancy at this time. The sets (indoor and out) are well-built and complete and the acting is nuanced and suited to the medium.  It is all shockingly good, even by today's standards.

The fully developed artistic expression is remarkable, given that just a dozen years prior to this film, "The Great Train Robbery" is often credited as being the first film to even tell a narrative story. How quickly film, as a form of expression took root and grew in depth from those first days. Here Griffith weaves together four vignetted stories from four periods of history including the 'present day'. He uses different monochrome tones (sepia, green, red and blue) to distinguish his four stories and weaves them all together through overarching themes of motherhood and, of course, intolerance.

Clearly the greatest hurdle to a modern viewer in tackling a film such as "Intolerance" has to be the oddity that is watching a movie without dialog. And I have never considered myself a fan of silent film. In fact, I'm not sure that prior to this week I've even watched an entire silent picture all the way through. When I was a girl, they played the genre sometimes on TV and I always ran screaming. But with the few showings I've got under my belt now, I've come to realize that I appreciate the calmer pace of the story teling and the more active way you have to watch to make meaning. I am also very impressed with the actors who must convey not just emotion without words, but also action and plot, with very little help -- although the music and snippets of written material are integral in storytelling too. Another thing to appreciate with pre-Code films is how very loose and bawdy the costumes and themes are, relative to anything you might have come to know and enjoy in motion picture classics after the Production Code started to be enforced in the early 1930s. These early pictures are gritty, seductive, and earthy to a degree that was not seen again on the silver screen until at least the late 1950s.

Another eye-opening piece of the experience has been the superb technical quality of the film itself. I mean that the actual ability of this early celluloid to capture images is remarkable. I guess I had pretty low expectations. Sure there are lines and flashes of light and random dots and marks that show up, but the basic resolution and clarity of the filmed scenes is nothing short of spectacular. Watching this on Netflix on my rather large modern TV, I am in awe of the clarity of detail in the background. Some of the closeups show actors in such loving detail and high resolution, that you can picture them sitting in the room with you. It is really quite beautiful.

Not the least of the thrills with a film like this, is the amazing transportation into a different time period. I am a huge fan of period drama for this reason. But period drama, by its nature, necessitates that the given period be faked by a much more modern filmmaker. However, when a film is made in 1916, things that are set in the "present" cannot help but be the most stunningly accurate portrayal possible of the period "1916". Its rather heady stuff, to time travel junkies like me. And it sets up some powerful reflections. For instance, in "Intolerance," when the modern vignette shows labor/management dissent and riot, it is especially poignant to imagine the actual status of the labor movement (including these actors) at the time this picture was filmed. How very different the working world of cinema had to have been then. What working conditions and safety standards did Lilian Gish & Co endure while making Intolerance? Watching a history that the filmmakers themselves were enmeshed in is a fascinating study.

Exploration into the depths of silent film is not for everyone. But if you want to try a new take on an old art form, I would highly recommend it. Give yourself a film or two to reset your ears and your expectations and pick a nice quiet comfortable place to sit and indulge. If you find you enjoy the world of silents, there are countless hours of quality movies just waiting to be watched! (And chances are many of them beat cold anything showing on American TV tonight).

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Clive Owen to the Rescue

The hard part of blogs is the writing in them. [Insert dry pause]. I love having a blog. I just don't love having to scrape together the time for a post the quality of which I will be proud. This is where Clive Owen comes in.

What? You didn't see that coming?

Its a no-brainer really. Post a picture of a hot British guy. Talk about the two things you've seen him in. Make people think: "ah... you know I really should be watching more British film and tv. There is a lot of, er, edification I may be missing out on."

Now I've done my job and everyone's happy.

Thanks Clive.

Clive Owen can be seen in "Elizabeth: the Golden Age" as a surprisingly appealing Sir Walter Raleigh (who'd have thought that Sir Walter Raleigh was worth thinking about in that way? and also in "Gosford Park", which happens to be the best British period drama of all time.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Kevin McCloud's Grand Tour

Having declared April to be the month of documentaries, its now incumbent on me to prove it. Prove it I will with one grand suggestion:

"Kevin McCloud's Grand Tour" is a 4 episode miniseries from 2009 that is one of the most delightful and appealing viewing experiences I have ever had. For starters McCloud is the bomb. Charming, sweet, intelligent and personable -- he is a treasure.

Being American, of course I had never heard of him before -- surely one of the things that sucks about being American. And, being in America, it also seems I also must resign myself to have little else that he has "done" available to me. I have to assume he is fairly famous elsewhere -- my brilliant deduction from the fact that his name precedes that of the film -- but in the states we're too busy paying attention to Kim Kardashian to notice talents such as Kevin McCloud.

In any case, the good news is this documentary at least is freely available on Netflix which is how I stumbled across it.

This documentary idea, whosever it was, was an excellent one -- retracing the route that the great British high class youth would have taken on their "grand tour" of Europe when they came of age. Not just the route, but the experience and its full flavor is depicted in sumptuous detail.

The photography is stunning and the program is valuable at its most basic as a travel guide. But it is so much more than that.  McCloud's forte seems to be architecture, and he applies his tremendous charm and skill to the topic. We learn about the roots of city planning as well as why they went, where they went, what they saw and what they (likely) did, what they brought back, and what it all meant. And if that doesn't somehow sound engaging then I am not doing my job right.