Warren Beatty’s biscuits

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2016 by dcairns

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Warren Beatty’s biscuits are brought to you by MICKEY ONE, successfully bringing you Warren Beatty’s biscuits since 1965.

It’s a fascinating piece. The opening sequence, which unfold like a really great fashion spread of the sixties, only with moving parts, had me convinced this was going to be great before the director credit. And then I got progressively less convinced, but still impressed.

Mickey One titles from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Arthur Penn, fabulously squandering the goodwill generated by THE MIRACLE WORKER, goes all out to create an American art film, which is not a form native to America. I think the ultimate cargo cult art film may be Frankenheimer’s STORY OF A LOVE STORY, which dutifully assembles a bunch of talents with impeccable arthouse credentials and then sits back, well pleased with itself, while the already-sparse audience shuffle out. Penn likewise has a leading lady and a cinematographer with nouvelle vague references, and an actor from THE SEVEN SAMURAI (I was thinking I know that guy for the longest time, simply assuming he was Japanese-American, but NO, they imported him), but to his credit his film is also 100% American, with a particularly strong sense of time and place.

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The very young Warren Beatty plays a stand-up comedian on the run from the mob — in the third act he reverses his course and tries running TO the mob, which is the main bit of plot development. There’s intriguing support from Franchot Tone (looking like he’s been in another fight), Hurd Hatfield and Jeff Corey. Alexandra Stewart is the Cahiers-approved leading lady.

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On the minus side, Beatty’s material isn’t funny, and he isn’t funny doing it; the plot is paper-thin but not really meant to be otherwise; the film wants to be Felliniesque but only Fellini could pull that one off (is there any other great filmmaker whose influence on US film was so overwhelmingly negative? Fellini has an especial appeal for filmmakers who don’t want to do the work of telling a proper story — I think it’s significant that just as Picasso knew how to draw a credible realistic human figure, Fellini was a master storyteller who moved beyond storytelling); the attempts to do quirky, ludic filmmaking with undercranking and stuff are mainly a bit embarrassing.

On the plus side, fabulous imagery is thrown up all the time, working best when it arises naturally from the settings rather than being some kind of surreal conceit. And the movie has the most glorious dissolves: scenes melt into one another, frequently resulting in Beatty sharing the screen with himself (which I’m sure he loves). One time, driving a car, Beatty turns his head as if reacting to something, and a second landscape bleeds through in just the spot he’s looking at, followed by a second Beatty, peering uncertainly from the back of the first one’s head. The brilliant editor was Aram Avakian, later a fine director.

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Two Beattys #1: ethereal foreground Warren looks at background Warren seemingly walking through fire.

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Two Beattys #2: Warren 2 looks out the back of Warren 1’s head.

(In his autohagiography The Kid Stays in the Picture, Robert Evans says he fired Avakian from THE GODFATHER for manoeuvring against Coppola, trying to steal his job. It may be true, But Avakian had worked with Coppola before [YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW], was Coppola’s guy. Evans, on the other hand, was manoeuvring against Coppola (it’s kind of what some producers see their job as — stop the film from being too individual a creative expression) and I suspect him of simply trying to weaken Coppola’s band of followers. He couldn’t easily fire the cinematographer, but editors are easy to snip out of the picture, privately.)

More acting with himself: it’s kind of hilarious the number of scenes Beatty plays with other actors who won’t talk to him. Little Kamitari Fujiwara never speaks at all, and Tone and Hatfield and the rest spend long scenes just staring balefully and refusing to answer Warren’s impassioned questions. “Why does nobody want to talk to Warren?” I asked.

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The ending is a would-be Fellini trope that rather irked me, but there’s a bit where Beatty tries to perform his act in the spotlight’s glare with the strong sense that he’s about to be killed — he performs to the light, as if meeting his maker, and it does achieve the existentialism the film is clutching for. The trouble is, it happens TWICE, at roughly the two-thirds mark and at the end, which rather dilutes the effect. But I could see the potential — Micky’s Kafkaesque contract, which may or not exist, makes him a man under obscure sentence of death, like the whole human race. Pompous and self-serious, maybe, but evocative, especially in black and white.

Elephants, at your age

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2016 by dcairns

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Continuing our journey through the films of the Marx Bros, while ignoring, as much as possible, the Marx Bros.

AT THE CIRCUS is rather good — I have historically undervalued it. It seems to be somehow slightly less memorable than A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES, the first two MGM Marx vehicles, without being any weaker in entertainment terms. There are some very good quips, the slapstick (to which Buster Keaton contributed his gag-writing skills) is often hilarious, Groucho gets one splendid number (Lydia the Tattooed Lady) and a couple of terrific set-piece scenes.

As the movie opens, we have the usual agonizing Wait for Groucho, during which romantic pseudo-leads Kenny Baker and Florence Rice make googly eyes and sing a dull song. As is standard, she is slightly more appealing than him. Kenny Baker lacks his famous namesake’s charisma and novelty size, but he has a squeaky Mickey Mouse voice which some might enjoy, I guess.

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Then there’s the usual gruff businessman villain, a Scooby Doo stock figure without charisma, but James Burke does have some really good moments when he’s being attacked by a gorilla in the climax.

About that gorilla — Fiona pointed out that MGM are drawing upon their earlier hit(s), THE UNHOLY THREE. They don’t have a female impersonator hawking mute parrots, but they have a “midget” and a strongman and a mighty jungle beast.

Jerry Maren/Marenghi plays Little Professor Atom (watch his best scene here), looking like a ten-year-old boy if it were not for his dapper pencil mustache. The same year he would join the Lollipop Guild as a munchkin in THE WIZARD OF OZ. The scene in his room, with miniature furniture (Antic Hay!) and endless cigars emerging from Chico’s vest is one of the film’s highlights. One of those great scenes where Chico’s stupidity assumes almost diabolical proportions.

Jerry is still alive! Well, he was only 19 in 1939.

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Goliath the strongman is Nat Pendleton, one of Shadowplay‘s favourite heavies, typecast as surly ruffian types. Here he’s initially unrecognizable in a Harpoesque wig and twirly moustache — he at least looks more like a strongman than that sagging hambone in FREAKS. (Sad to see none of the FREAKS ensemble turning up here — Koo Koo would have fitted right into a Marx Bros pic. But there is an appearance by a seal who looks a little like Prince Randian.) Pendleton’s brand of grating menace makes him an ideal Marxian antagonist: Chico and Harpo get another standout scene as they attempt to search his room while he’s sleeping in it. This heavy is a heavy sleeper. This one fizzles out at the very end, but not before building to ridiculous excess.

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Gibraltar the ape is another Shadowplay fave, make-up artist and part-time gorilla impersonator Charles Gemora, last seen gluing eyelids to Marlon Brando a few days back. Gibraltar makes the climax of the film the triumph it is (along with Fritz Feld’s irascible conductor, complete with pointy beard for Groucho to mock). He seems not so much dangerous as high-spirited, having a rare old time terrifying people on the flying trapeze, behaving not so much like a jungle beast as like a short Philipino makeup artist who’s just put on a gorilla costume and is having the time of his life.

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Rounding out the team of baddies is vamp Peerless Pauline, played by husky-voiced Eve Arden, who has a nice human fly act with Groucho, walking on the ceiling. In the MGM films, Groucho’s horndoggery is dialled down, so he can only flirt with vamps and with Margaret Dumont. Somehow he’s always had a Spider Sense that allows him to detect who the leading lady, so he can restrain his wolfishness when she’s around. (LOVE HAPPY, dismal as it is, at least allows him to resume his moth-eaten lechery with Marilyn Monroe as letch-magnet.)

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In shameless and senseless emulation of A DAY AT THE RACES, this movie also features a big production number where a lot of black people appear from nowhere to put on a show. But I quite like the Swingali number — director Edward Buzzell throws in some Dutch tilts for added vigour. The lyric “Is he man or maestro?” harkens back to DUCK SOUP. And he’s more resourceful at filming harp solos, which makes the Harpo interlude about 8% less dull than usual.

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Then there’s Dumont, an essential part of the team — more important than the discarded Zeppo, it seems. Giant crane shot at her party — Rosalind Russell supposedly said you can’t do comedy on big sets but Mags makes a chump out of her here. Amidst all the cruelty, it seems a shame that, after her Mrs. Dewksbury has shed her pretensions and settled down to enjoy the big top entertainment (there’s more damn SINGING in this circus than I recall being usual under the big top), she still has to be fired out of a cannon and swung on the trapeze in her bloomers. Overkill! She’s already loosened up. How loose do you want her?

Great image of the orchestra drifting out to sea makes the film’s ending even better — maybe the best Marxian fadeout?

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What happens after that fadeout? First violin leads a mutiny against the conductor while the brass section resorts to cannibalism?

The Sunday Intertitle: She’s not there

Posted in FILM with tags , , on August 21, 2016 by dcairns

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Our hero looks at the telephone (a gleaming, seductive thing of metallic curves).

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I like the mental leap: telephone = woman. Because he can use the phone to call her, obviously. Because women like telephones. Because women are like telephones?

This odd train of thought may be emerging because I’m half-asleep, or because Jean Epstein and his writer/sister Marie has just given us an eccentric scene where the hero shows his servants how he got a traffic ticket, by reconstructing the incident with upturned chairs and cutaways to jolting jalopies and a stern policeman. Unconventional film syntax is already upon us.

Then I realize that the hero was looking at the telephone because it was RINGING. And he thinks ELLE! because he’s been hoping/expecting a call from that special person. It’s a silent movie, so we don’t hear the ring, and I’m half-asleep so my brain doesn’t make the required leap when he suddenly looks at the telephone.

Although, when we eventually meet her… she does look a bit like a telephone.

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Oh, the film? SIX ET DEMI ONZE (1927).

 

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