Idle Idol Idyll

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2021 by dcairns

THE IDLE CLASS, released 100 years ago TODAY begins with very rambunctious, bumptious music. Though Chaplin composed/hummed wonderfully catchy and emotive tunes, their feel does vary a lot depending on who’s doing the orchestration. Here it’s Eric Rogers, known for his CARRY ON film scores, and that’s kind of what this feels like. It’s jaunty, brash, vulgar. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It forewarns us not to expect THE KID.

I’m curious about how I’ll feel about the last shorts CC made before getting fully into feature filmmaking. Will we see him drawing back from the soaring ambition of THE KID? A little, yes, I think. But will this be, in a sense, liberating? With the pressure off, will this allow him to be creative or bold in different ways? Maybe.

The titles (the first of which are missing from the YouTube version) feel subtly modern — this is Chaplin’s 1971 rerelease, which gives us his score, but deprives us I’m guessing of the authentic original title cards. We also seem to be moving rather slowly — as if the frame-rate has been artificially slowed down to eliminate the 16mm speed-up, but maybe they’ve gone a little too far? (I’m watching Criterion’s release; and there isn’t an alternative version on YouTube.)

A series of nicely caricatured upper-class twits disembark from a train at some kind of golf resort. Followed by Edna Purviance, elegantly accoutred:

Her stockings are impressive.

Also getting off the same locomotive is Charlie the Tramp, also presented in a feet-first kind of way. CHaplin gives a lot of thought to his entrances, obviously, and one thing he knows is that each part of his costume/anatomy is instantly recognisable, so he can give the audience a thrill with a minimal glimpse.

Charlie has brought his own gold kit, and an alarm clock — true to his nature, he’s a hobo with pretensions to the upper class. A natural aristocrat in reduced circumstances. Reduced to absurdity.

Meanwhile, another Charlie is abroad in the world. An actual posh person, an inebriate fop with Charlie’s face. A foppelganger, if you will. He could be the rich drunk of ONE A.M., come to think of it. A really smart move by C.C. — he wanted to get away from playing the Tramp all the time, but knew his audience didn’t like to see Chaplin films without the Tramp. So why not make a film where he plays the Tramp, but also someone else? And rather than inventing a disguise, as he had done in A NIGHT IN THE SHOW, or having The Tramp disguise himself, as in THE MASQUERADER, he could display his versatility by playing too markedly different characters who look exactly alike.

(Chuck Jones observed that when sound came into cartoons, you could get away from the old dichotomy of bad characters having to be ugly looking and good ones having to be cute — in Disney’s THE THREE LITTLE PIGS all look the same apart from some subtle differences of costuming, and they’re differentiated by their personalities and attitudes, delivered by dialogue [and song] — but here Chaplin shows that the trick could be done wordlessly.)

Edna is this Charlie’s wife (well, we knew she wasn’t any relation to the first one). She’s wired him to meet her at the station, including a note that she’s glad he’s not drinking. He shoots a furtive glance at his chums in the audience. Theory: having eliminated those awful expository mimes that were de rigeur at Keystone, and more or less eliminated the habitual breaking of the fourth wall, he’s started to allow his special relationship with the camera/us to reassert itself. It was part of the Chaplin character’s very foundations, as in KID AUTO RACES where he literally gets in a fight with a camera crew. He’s scaled it way back, but he always knows we’re looking. Oliver Hardy breaks the fourth wall to enlist our sympathy and the rupture is funny in itself. With Chaplin, there’s no sense of rupture. He always knows. Part of the Tramp’s performance of gentility is for our benefit.

Back at the station, Charlie #1 hitches a ride on the back of Edna’s car, selecting his vehicle with a connoisseur’s eye, mounting the rear bumper with insouciance, and then pratfalling off before the suspicious eyes of a kop.

Chaplin as Charlie #2 executes a flawless “pull back to reveal no trousers gag.” This gloriously stupid concept was a great favourite of Monty Python, but the term can be used to metaphorically describe any gag where a wide angle reveals something not apparent in the preceding close-up, resulting in our perceptions of the scene changing on a dime. Here, it’s not just funny because underpants, but because it changes our whole understanding. Charlie #2’s attempts to give up alcohol have not been as successful as Edna believes. Like Charlie #1 in the previous scene, he has fallen off the wagon.

Suspense + improbability — the revelation of our man’s bottomless condition is deferred by the passage of a man carrying a set of curtains. This kind of wild improbability may have earthshaking implications for the whole question of probability in dramatic motion pictures. “I don’t dislike coincidence, but I despice convenience,” was a very nice epigram of Chaplin’s, which goes neatly with the Vince Gilligan Principle, that a staggeringly unlikely coincidence is fine, SO LONG AS IT MAKES THINGS WORSE. This unlikely event actually spares Charlie #2 his blushes, for the time being, so maybe it’s making things better. But probably it’ll make them worse later, by delaying the inevitable until it becomes the disastrous. And it’s just funny in itself. The Roger Rabbit Principle applies: anything is possible, but only if it’s funny.

“And the execution!” as Sidney Lumet said, rapturously, or a moment in MODERN TIMES. Chaplin choreographs an elaborate series of comings and goings in the hotel lobby, in which C2’s demi-nudity is artfully concealed from a series of potential witnesses by the providential synchronisation of everybody’s movements. It gets more and more unlikely, in other words. There’s a “do you believe me so far?” vibe to a lot of silent comedy.

Entering the phone booth is a great topper. And a great way for C2 to discover his faux pas, when he hunts for change in pants pockets that aren’t there. He’s safe from discovery in his present situation, but his present situation is unsustainable. So it’s actually perfect, the worst rime/place for him to realise.

The construction starts to pay off, as Edna’s car arrives at the hotel, Charlie #1 gets off first, then Edna passes into the lobby, missing her panic-stricken, trouserless spouse. C2 eventually escapes his dreamlike public nudity predicament by personating Comte Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa.

We seem to be back to a more familiar silent-movie framerate now: perhaps Chaplin slowed down the opening to ease a modern audience into things.

C2 gains his rooms, but Edna is there ahead of him so, after an altercation with a blow-lamp outside, he springs into bed and feigns invalidity, his top hat and tails rather ruining any hoped-for illusion. Edna gives him a look dripping with contempt and self-sacrifice, and breezes out with her retinue, and Chaplin discovers that the wide shot he’d used to establish the space and show himself retreating to the bedroom now serves to encapsulate his aloneness and defeat:

And the effect is a curious midpoint between pathos and slightly cruel mockery.

Now comes the film’s most celebrated gag — one I stole outright in THE NORTHLEACH HORROR, my little WWII science fiction horror espionage comedy. The original utterly depends on this being a silent film: Chaplin convinces us that, brokenhearted at Edna’s abstinence ultimatum, he’s sobbing helplessly; but no: he’s mixing a cocktail, perfectly indifferent to his disintegrating marriage. If this were a soundie, we might expect to hear him cry, and we’d definitely expect to hear the ice sloshing in the shaker, so the gag would be impossible. My version used a high-powered electric toothbrush and we had to cheat the soundtrack like crazy by fading down the music just as the character turned to face us. This gag was the only moment the stupendously talented Freddie Fox had any trouble achieving.

Chaplin’s version is fascinating — he fools us not only in real time, but retrospectively: to begin with, he’s absolutely miming heaving sobs, not cocktail-shaking. As he turns, his movement morphs into something else, and he tricks us into thinking the something else is what he was doing all along. Amazing.

He really cheats outrageously though: he starts the racking sob movements BEFORE he picks up the shaker (off camera). So what are these movements meant to represent, since it turns out he’s not crying at all? Pure stagecraft and legerdemain.

At the end, C2 toasts the audience, like Alex at the start of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (a thing Kubrick, a Chaplin fan, never even noticed until he saw the rushes).

C1, meanwhile, wanders the links, innocently acquiring other people’s balls and clubs. He doesn’t have to be actively larcenous, just open to developments.

Mack Swain! We missed you, buddy! Although I mainly like him as Big Jim in THE GOLD RUSH, his presence is welcome here.

Amazing bit with a sleeping tramp (Henry Bergman). Our waking Tramp, Charlie #1, knocks a golf ball into the snoring mouth of this prone individual. The ball rises and falls menacingly to the back of the guy’s capacious throat.

Charlie #1 tees up, and for a moment I’m afraid he’s going to smash the guy’s teeth out. But, mercifully, he stomps on the bulbous gut, propelling the ball out and into the air as if shot from a cannon, and he swipes it away with his club (how many takes?). This is worth our applause, but Chaplin isn’t done: it turns out this tramp contains a lot of balls. Every time you compress his belly he shoots forth another one, like some kind of fleshy dispenser.

Finally, the tramp runs out of ammunition and wakes, angry. To him, naturally enough, a strange pressing his stomach with one foot while he sleeps seems an intrusive imposition: he cannot know the health benefits he is likely to enjoy now that he’s no longer rattling full of gutties.

Chaplin is doing quite well at making golf, which is not entertaining, seem entertaining. PG Wodehouse could do that too, but he could find fun in just about anything. Chaplin is having to distort reality quite far to pull it off, to the point of cartoon gags, whereas the drunken rich guy’s antics have one foot in recognisable reality.

A reverie: Charlie #1 sees Edna on horseback. Immediately he fantasises the old riding accident routine: her horse bolts, he rescues her, and in a dizzying succession of unlikely events, they marry, have a kid, etc. And then we’re back in reality with Edna riding sedately into the distance. It’s like a more benign version of the bandit seeing the wife RASHOMON.

Charlie goes on causing chaos and starting fights without meaning to. I like how, in this shot, having pelted Mack Swain with balls and trodden on his straw boater, causing Mack to blame an innocent twit and throttle him, Chaplin seems to be visible as a tiny, oblivious silhouette in the extreme distance, top left:

I don’t hugely like the other gags in this sequence though. Time to end it, and Chaplin agrees, irising in on a spluttering twit in deep water. Iris out on a costume ball.

Charlie #2 has dressed up as a knight in armour, but gets his visor jammed. This is giving me PINK PANTHER VIBES and though the party climax in that film seems to derive from TO CATCH A THIEF, along with a good bit of the plot set-up, this movie may also have been in the mix.

But outside it’s daylight, and Charlie #1 gets into another anatomical mix-up gag with another thieving hand. This is a straight repeat of a gag he pulled with Jack Coogan Sr. in his previous hit.

One reason THE IDLE CLASS is scaled-down, less ambitious than THE KID, is that the tightwads at First National had insisted on paying Chaplin the same money he got for a short film, per their contract. Chaplin had spent vastly more time and therefore money on THE KID than he did on shorts, and those were HIS expenses. So this hugely successful film may actually have lost him cash.

So — Charlie #1 is unjustly accused of trying to steal a wallet, of being the possessor of an illicit third arm. Unlike on the golf course, where he was to blame for everything that happened, however unknowingly, here he’s the victim of circumstance. I guess the world of this film is one where everybody is always jumping to the wrong conclusions.

Charlie legs it, and we have yet another park and policeman chase. He finds himself in the driveway, where limos are pulling up for the masked ball, and gets boxed in between cars. To escape this trap, he slips THRU a limo, and emerging on the other side is mistaken for a rich guy in tramp fancy dress. Ten years later, stuck for a plot gimmick on CITY LIGHTS which would enable Virginia Cherrill as the blind girl to mistake him for a millionaire, Chaplin remembered this bit and finally escaped from WEEKS of creative blockage. So thank God for THE IDLE CLASS.

Also: another brief appearance from Henry Bergman. Odd, when you think of it, that a man of such distinctive appearance (basically a human Blue Meanie) should be Chaplin’s chief man-of-a-thousand-faces. All of them fat.

Good gag where Bergman’s kop, who seems to be following C1 with suspicion, turns out to be merely another disguised party guest. The fact that he suddenly puts on a domino mask doesn’t really make sense, but they needed something quick that would make this clear.

C2 is still trapped in his helmet, unable to even take a drink (a straw would solve this problem). So another unlikely but logical situation has arisen. C2 is forcibly anonymous behind his jammed visor, so Edna won’t recognise him. And C1 looks exactly like C2 and his normal clothing has been mistaken for a costume, so she WILL recognise him.

Edna invites Charlie #1 over. This of course makes no sense to him, and he fixes us with a singularly haunting look. This is clearly a dream but he doesn’t want it to end. And anything he does or says could make that happen.

It’s a touching idea — Edna’s fake husband is more sensitive than her real one. And Charlie #1’s fantasy has suddenly come true, for reasons he can’t divine. And again, C1 is the innocent focus of a misunderstanding.

Oh-ho, and I hadn’t even thought of this until now: C2 being stuck in his armour, we can show both Charlies at once without the aid of special effects. C2 does a big double-take at the sight of his wife with another, yet somehow the same, man. In fact, he doesn’t seem to register that his wife’s new beau is a dead ringer for the old one.

And yes, the doppelganger idea would come back in a big way in THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Fight! The rightful Charlie is ejected for starting a brawl, and the wrongful Charlie remains.

Mack Swain, the highland rogue! I like this costume. And Mack is Mabel’s dad. Where is this heading? Nowhere good, I’d guess.

Charlie #1 blows it: “We’re not married.” When you’re in a dream, don’t fight it. Go with the flow.

Mack knocks Charlie #1 down repeatedly with repeated shove to the face, for insulting his daughter. The last time, C1 just lies down by himself. Great low angle of a looming Mack, unusually expressionistic for Chaplin, but justified by the spacial relations.

Chased onto the slippery dance floor, C1 hides under a handy hoop skirt. He could have easily sought shelter ‘neath Mack’s kilt, but then low-angle views would have had to be abandoned.

Bedroom farce: Edna has swooned. C1 is handed her limp form, and show to C2’s rooms, where C2 is re-outraged to find his wife in the arms of another/the same man.

Fight! C1 spears a cushion on the point of C2’s visor, blinding him, and uses the cushion to deliver punches without hurting his hand. Very practical — surprising there’s no record of this being tried in the middle ages.

Mack arrives, initially siding with C!, but then C2 invites him to peek through his front grille and identify him. In a really good development, C1 is enlisted to help unhelmet the soused spouse. Again, Charlie #1 is wholly unaware of what’s going on or who is concealed in the plate armour.

Weird cartoon gag where Swain coughs and his sporran, for some reason pinned to the bottom of his ribcage, jolts up and down like a catflap.

A bellboy turns up with a hammer — the same exact hammer, I think, Jackie Coogan uses in THE KID. C1 makes various incompetent attempts to tap C2 loose. Result: unconsciousness. Then C1 remembers he has a can opener. Might have been good to establish that earlier in the film, but it’s not what you’d call really important.

I was waiting for a special effect or, more likely, just a closeup of Chaplin in the armour when his visor is peeled off, but Chaplin just goes for a stand-in, and it works.

The situation is uncannily close to the fantasy in BRAZIL where Sam defeats a huge samurai which turns out to have his own face under its mask (Sam-you-are-I). Gilliam unaccountably used a rubber mask cast from Jonathan Pryce’s face rather than getting Pryce to do it, with the result that audiences couldn’t tell that this rubbery visage was supposed to represent the hero.

C! is shown the door now that his unintentional imposture is exposed. He gives Edna a look as he leaves: “This could have been a beautiful thing.”

Edna realises that Charlie #1 is an innocent party in all this and Mack volunteers to go apologise. And in the film’s final misunderstanding, C1 sees Mack coming after him and runs for it — wait, what, he doesn’t? Oh, OK, he tricks Mack into bending to tie a loose shoe buckle, and kicks him up the arse and runs. OK, that’s good too. Not massively clever, but there are times when what’s needed is just a good old-fashioned boot up the bum. Always leave them rubbing their backsides.

FINIS

Deleted scene, three takes:

Reaction Shots

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on September 24, 2021 by dcairns

Help! I am addicted to YouTube reaction videos. While there’s a sub-genre dealing with films, which can be fun to skip through — watching someone react afresh to favourite bits in a movie you know well has a distinct pleasure, a bit like being in a new relationship, it’s the song ones I’m hooked on. Probably the reason they;re so addictive is that they’re so rarely satisfying.

The overall premise of the genre is “I love music but I’ve absolutely never heard any, watch me make discoveries.” I occasionally check out songs I don’t know, but the real impulse is to find a song I like and see someone’s face light up in amazement. But then you want them to make a meaningful observation about what they’ve heard, and that rarely happens. Part of the problem is that a very first listening to a song isn’t necessarily the time you’ll have the deepest things to say about it. Still, sometimes just seeing people’s faces is a joy in itself. I like these guys, Jay and Amber:

One thing that happens quite often is a song with definite gay resonance gets heteronormalized because it’s being watched without context. Or the listeners aren’t catching the lyrics — there’s at least one very embarrassing misreading/unreading of the Kinks’ Lola out there.

The above video is joyous, not for the critical insights but for the sheer pleasure displayed.

Some reactors do go deeper, and it helps if they’re musically inclined. JP is a drummer, and he does cool stuff like reading the lyrics and checking Wiki in real time, to give a better grounding in context. Like most reactors, he’s eclectic, but prog, glam and punk feature prominently on his channel.

Some of the more successful channels are quite aesthetically pleasing, in a simple way.

I told my mum about this phenomenon and she immediately said, “And do some of them maybe pretend they’re reacting more strongly than they really are?” DEFINITELY. There’s a whole genre of Black music fans reacting in astonishment to the Righteous Brothers or the Bee-Gees — having thought, from the artists’ voices voices, that they must be Black, or women. This gets a little dodgy at times — pandering to a white audience, with lots of Mantan Moreland acting. And it can also feel like some strange sequel to the “Blacks without soul” skit in AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON.

But a lot of this stuff is perfectly sincere. I like Jayy, who doesn’t get into chin-stroking analyses but whose very visceral reactions are always highly visible and who can put what she’s feeling into precise words :

The overall impression is that the younger generations (though there are some good older vloggers too) have abandoned musical compartmentalisation and have an open attitude to music quite different to the kids in my day, who used very specific musical genre choices to define themselves, and were often violently hostile to anything outside their chosen niche. This might encourage a more superficial investigation of songs and artists, but it’s still perfectly possible to go deeper, and it’s kind of the approach I favour with film viewing, which might be part of why I respond to it.

Don’t grab that scabby hand…

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2021 by dcairns

…it belongs to Mister Sniff-‘n’-Tell, it belongs to the Candyman. So sang David Bowie in his least cool phase, as frontman of Tin Machine, in an anti-drugs song called Crack City, which recycles the ahem, hook, from Wild Thing and is quite catchy, but still un-cool.

I mention it because it mentions the Candyman (as does Sweet Transvestite from ROCKY HORROR) and because in the new CANDYMAN reboot or rehook, protag Yahya Abdul-Mateen II has a scabby hand. I kept expecting him to sprout a hook, which might have been cool, but he doesn’t. If this guy is getting a hook, he’ll have to do it the traditional way.

The scabby hand gives us some of the most visceral and wince-making stuff in Nia DaCosta’s revision of Bernard Rose’s 1992 film of Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden — one moment is borrowed from Cronenberg’s THE FLY and got the strongest reaction from us of anything in there. Because CANDYMAN is quite a good film, but we were never actually scared. It’s made with great skill, the performances are good, it has ideas, and the use of colour and architecture (the title sequence!) is beautiful — a touch of Argento, who will also be all over A RAINY NIGHT IN SOHO, coming to your screens soon. Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s score is lovely, though close enough to Philip Glass’s original in essence that it feels like Glass should get a credit somewhere. (Rose’s unconventional choice of Glass was one of his smartest choices.)

I’m not sure why we didn’t feel fear. Candyman mainly kills white people and we fit that demographic. He mainly kills unsympathetic white people, or people we barely know, but that needn’t be an overwhelming problem… I thought at first the film was going to be too hurried, that it would fail to spend the anxious time anticipating its kills, something Argento used to be so good at. In fact, the movie has a pretty good command of pace, but it doesn’t protract things to that ridiculous level where even though you may feel (a) this is silly (b) I don’t believe it (c) I don’t care if this person dies (d) I’ve seen gory deaths before, you still curl up a bit and want to cover your eyes. Argento could do all that, and part of it was having the courage to linger on things beyond the point where sane judgement would tell you to quicken it up just a little.

I always found Candyman a bit of a messy guy. His origin story just piles everything on — dismemberment, the meat hook added by his persecutors (WHY?), bees, and burning. It gets les disturbing the more effed-up details are thrown in. And then his M.O. is just to show up, when summoned, and kill everybody. The attempts to give him some more complex motivation got the first film into a fankle, and it kind of does the same here. There are a lot of threads in this, which is better than having too few but not as good as having the right number. Why do we get a flashback to Teyonnah Parris’s father’s suicide? Does this connect to something in the first film I’ve forgotten? Because it connects to nothing at all in this one.

One more thing that still kinda bothers me, like Columbo. DaCosta and co-writers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld introduce a couple of likeable gay characters right off the bat, and I found myself wondering about what their fates would be. It seemed obvious that you couldn’t bring in sympathetic gay characters and then graphically butcher them — everyone would hate that, and rightly so. You couldn’t even kill just one of them. Unless you had other gay characters who would survive as an intact couple. We’re not at the point yet where gay characters can enjoy an equal right of becoming splatter fodder.

The solution to this that occurred to me is that you could ENDANGER these characters — that would get the audience really tense. Not only because we like them (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Kyle Kaminsky are the film’s most appealing characters) but because we would know that murdering them would be a critical error. The film could actually play with our fear of the story going wrong (as it does in the original for various reasons I can’t quite recall — I just remember feeling it went off the rails somewheres). It’s mostly so assured we don’t feel that, and when it does go wrong (a nice character turns out to be a bad crazy person, but also a kind of narrative cul-de-sac who robs the protag of the chance to go to Hell on his own choices) it does so without warning.

The trouble with Candyman is there’s no endangering while he’s around — he always gets his man, or woman, until the end of the movie, when it seems to break its own rules. Maybe that’s my fundamental problem: when you KNOW the monster is going to kill everyone he meets, suspense is lessoned. Hard to get fond too of corpses-in-waiting, even though that’s what we all are, if you think about it.