Senex

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 7, 2016 by dcairns

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A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM marks a specific point in my cinematic awakening. It was on TV and my young self tuned in partway through. I couldn’t quite work out what I was looking at, because it had Peter Butterworth in it, who seemed to be only in Carry On films, and it had Phil Silvers in it, who was in one Carry On film, and it was a historical farce like CARRY ON CLEO. but it had production values! And energy!

I also realized, from all the swish pans at the climax, that it was a sixties film, and I realized suddenly that I could identify films quite precisely by period based on their stylistic tropes alone. I had become a film nerd.

FORUM is also Buster Keaton’s last feature, though THE SCRIBE, an industrial short, may have been shot later. Richard Lester, the director, insisted on building a day into the schedule for a picnic, so he could talk to Buster about his craft. If it yielded an idea or two for the movie, great. Apparently it did.

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On the one hand, Lester was lucky – unbelievably lucky – to be able to work with his one hero. On the other hand, it was just a little late. Buster was dying, though he didn’t know it. Any sequences involving physical exertion had to be carefully planned, divided into short shots, and sometimes used a double. Lester was very conscious of the horrible irony — he was working with an actor who was celebrated for accomplishing the greatest things physically of any star, and he was doubling his movements with a stuntman. And what was left? Dialogue.

(In a way, the last Buster Keaton film is SPITE MARRIAGE, since it’s the last silent and the last one he exerted any control over. His last directorial credit is a musical short, STREAMLINED SWING, which is quite nice, but not recognizably Keatonesque.)

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But there’s a lot to enjoy in Buster’s performance. The disparate cast which confused me as a kid, relies heavily on old stagers like Zero Mostel, Silvers, and Jack Gilford, and Buster fits right in. The cancer that was killing him makes him short of breath, which affects his speech, but Buster even makes that work for comedy. Imagine.

Buster plays Senex, a terribly near-sighted and befuddled old man perennially searching for his children, stolen in infancy by pirates (don’t worry, there’s a happy ending: it’s a comedy, tonight). His tunic and toga and hat are all dyed one strong hue, as is true of the rest of the cast (there’s an unusual blend of pure theatricality and an attempt by Lester at a kind of comic version of historical accuracy, which he would develop further in the seventies). Buster’s hat is an ancient Roman adaptation of his trademark flat porkpie, and his sandals have been extended to give them the quality of his vaudeville flap shoes.

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He does one pratfall, a thing of beauty. I don’t know if it’s undercranked but he plays it as if undercranked, and stops you feeling any of the discomfort that a frail old man walking into a tree and falling on his ass should evoke.

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I got to ask Lester if there was any Keaton material that didn’t make the final cut — during the running battle with the film’s producer, Melvin Frank, a bunch of footage apparently got locked in a safe to prevent Lester using it. Lester said he didn’t think there was anything significant missing of Buster, though. But there are a couple of moments — in the opening credits, there’s a tiny shot of Buster descending a tiny step with a huge amount of drama, and there are the tiny cutaways of Senex “abroad, in search of his children, stolen in infancy by pirates.” in these, Buster scans the horizon with one hand held up horizontally to shade his eyes, a familiar pose (eg THE GENERAL) given added comedy/pathos by his character being blind as a bat. In one shot he walks into the edge of his own hand and is confused by it. These latter shots might have been filmed on picnic day. The step seems like a fragment of something, but we’ll never know what.

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The film’s final gag reprised a classic Keaton trope — the Perpetual Motion Machine. Buster starts running again, but strays onto a rotating platform, there to continue his jogging in perpetuity, too blind to realize he isn’t moving. And as he puffs away, his body dissolves away and is replaced by paint, as Richard Williams’ typically elaborate end titles transform him into part of a vast fresco. The Great Stone Face.

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A break from the norm

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2016 by dcairns

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I felt kind of guilty that I hadn’t hurried to catch up with Francis Ford Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH and TETRO when they were new. I kind of bailed on him after Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, and saw no reason to bother with JACK or THE RAINMAKER. Uncle Francis was going to get paid whether I saw them or not, so they’d served their purpose. But I intended to give him another chance when he came back with more personal films, I just… never got around to it.

But now I’ve seen TWIXT and am right puzzled. Written by FFC himself, and proudly bearing the American Zoetrope logo, it seems like a personal project. And indeed it incorporates a tragic incident from Coppola’s life, the death of his son in a boating accident (here rendered as the death of a daughter because, as Poe says here, that makes it more poetical). But what it is, is a hoaky, creaky, incoherent gothic fantasy that plays like cut scenes from a video game and feels like it was written by an eight-year-old. Now, that may sound like a knock. In fact, even as it suffers from all these problems, it has some of the dopey charm of cut scenes and children’s writing: naivety can be attractive.

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The thing starts with considerable assurance: a spooky Tom Waits voice-over will kick anything off nicely. And the images of the small town are very atmospheric without, for the most part, pushing it: visually, the film is often splendid, with digitally manipulated night scenes that evoke Bava and Freda. As the movie goes on, the stuff set in “reality” becomes more and more laughably unconvincing, but the fantastical stuff has a bit of Lynchian weirdness and, although nothing in the movie makes proper sense, there are bits that seem to link up in an irrational, dreamlike way.

It feels harsh to criticise Coppola for using a personal tragedy in his story — after all, it’s his personal tragedy. He should be free to use it if he wants to. But it felt unresolved, unconnected, and curiously unfelt — maybe because we first see a photo of the dead child right after Kilmer’s done a Brando impersonation in a (quite funny) improv writer’s block bit.

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The acting is all over the shop. Val Kilmer works hard to anchor it. It’s lovely to see his ex-wife, Joanne Whalley, here playing his current wife — but she doesn’t convince in her bitchier moments. She’s just too nice. Then there’s Bruce Dern as Sheriff Bob LaGrange, who Coppola clearly believes can do no wrong. I saw Dern in Telluride talk to Leonard Maltin about his work in NEBRASKA, and giving a pared-down performance without any of his trademark “Dernsies.” Well, I think all the Dernsies ended up in this film. It’s a performance made entirely of Dernsies. Waste not, want not. I love Bruce Dern, he is an international treasure. But when he gives his name as “BOB LaGrrrraaaange!!!” he probably could have benefited from some direction. Who gets that excited about their own name? I think you can see similar stuff going on with Anthony Hopkins in DRAC, he keeps getting more ridiculous, waiting for the moment when his director will say, “Okay, maybe that was a little too much…” but the moment never comes.

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Oh, we also get Alden Ehrenreich, a Coppola discovery. He plays a ridiculous, Baudelaire-quoting vampire goth biker called Flamingo, and is as good as anyone could be under such circs. Ben Chaplin plays Edgar Allen Poe with an English accent, an odd/lazy choice. But he looks the part. Handsome yet still strongly Poe-like. And I always feel a burst of enthusiasm from somewhere or other when this guy shows up, a bit like with Rufus Sewell, you know? A Rufus Sewell kind of a feeling.

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I’m told, and it may not be true, that when Coppola screened DEMENTIA 13, his first attempt at the Gothic, for his producer, Roger Corman, a man not given to loud displays of emotion, Corman snapped a pencil. Which would be like a bomb going off, from Corman. So he got Jack Hill to rescue it. My own pencil-snapping moment came right at the end of this one, when it became clear that nothing was going to wrap up satisfactorily, that Coppola didn’t have a clue how to end the story, that he’d been making it up as he went along and filmed a first draft. And let’s be clear — it’s OK to end a movie with text on the screen saying what happened to the characters IF THEY’RE REAL. Or if you’re being funny. Coppola is clearly being funny some of the time here, but he doesn’t seem to have made a clear decision about when.

 

By coincidence…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on December 5, 2016 by dcairns

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…my copy of FEDORA arrived just as this “blogathon” was getting underway. I have contributed a text essay to this edition, sharing covers with the redoubtable Neil Sinyard, who I first encountered via his excellent Richard Lester book, and who I was finally introduced to (over the internet) by Lester himself.

The film itself may not be one of Billy Wilder’s more successful, but finally seeing it in widescreen allows us to appreciate its visual beauty, and it does have a last line to rank with SUNSET BLVD, SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE APARTMENT (Wilder scores very highly on the “famous last words” front). Wilder fans need this.

Of course it’s a late film but not a last one. But for all its faults, it’s the note I would have preferred Wilder to go out on, rather than carrying on to do one last movie that’s kind of his worst. But for a different view from a different Wilder, check out this post from two years back, a rare defense of the one-would-have-thought indefensible BUDDY, BUDDY.

Support Shadowplay! Follow the following link and do all your Christmas shopping! Fedora (1975) (Masters of Cinema) Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition