Archive for September, 2021

Page Seventeen II: The Smell of Fear

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2021 by dcairns

Callendar’s shop window had been smashed by and angry girl who had thrown a bicycle through it. It was now boarded up and the timber slates bore the commemorative legend in white chalk:

“You agreed to take the beasts.”

The water was boiling and I sterilized the instruments. Infection can follow even the most rigid asepsis and his dusty kitchen for an operating theatre hardly gave the man on the table a sporting chance. For a minute I considered not operating at all and letting fate decide.

I went forward mechanically, swung the spade over my shoulder and smashed the blade of it with all my strength against the protruding chin. I felt and almost heard the fabric of his skull crumple up crisply like an empty eggshell. I do not know how often I struck him after that but I did not stop until I was tired.

It seemed to the Procurator that the cypresses and palms in the garden gave off the smell of roses, that the accursed smell of roses was mingled with the odors of the convoy’s leather gear and sweat.

He rolled his head back and sniffed, but there was no smell of roses in the room. He was getting dizzy and weak, but at least there was no smell of roses.

“Smells like an earthquake,” said Margaret, and dressed. Emily remembered the awful story about the governess and the hair-brush: certainly Margaret did not use one for its ordinary purpose, though she had long hair: so it must be true.

Seven short passages from seven page seventeens selected from various books lying about my person.

Live Now, Pay Later by Jack Trevor Story; The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells; Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak; The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien; The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov; Last Call by Tim Powers; A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Ineluctibility of Genre

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2021 by dcairns

A break from Chaplin: two silent Italian shorts from the nineteenteens. In both of them, romantic intrigues lead the characters into the dark of a cinema. And in both of them, the films shown comment on the action.

In TRAGEDIA AL CINEMATOGRAFO of 1913, directed by Enrico Guazzoni, a jealous husband follows his wife through the yellow streets — annoyed by a roving band of commedia dell’arte players, like something out of CLOCKWORK ORANGE but with irksome capering replacing the old ultraviolence — finally tracking her to a cinema, where she meets a family friend.

And the film being screened for them is a drama about a jealous husband, who overacts just as badly as the real one.

Meanwhile, a year earlier, in AL CINEMATOGRAFO, GUARDATE… E NON TOCCATE (AT THE CINEMA, LOOK… AND DON’T TOUCH), smarmy comic Enrico Vaser pursues a comely dame to the picture show, and the film showing is a broad farce, much like the one they’re in. Which just goes to show you.

In TRAGEDIA, Guazzoni plays his film within a film as a box inset in the total darkness of a cinema. He even uses a cut to represent the lights going off and the film starting:

Whereas in GUARDATE, director Giovanni Pastrone, soon to be famed for CABIRIA, is more ambitious, superimposing the FWAF into another frame. This causes the occasional silk hat to become translucent as it passes in front of the affected area, but we could just pretend that’s the projector’s beam hitting the hat with a scenic image, couldn’t we? Do try to get into the spirit of the thing.

Surprisingly, TRAGEDIA turns out to be a commedia, and funnier than the more over c. of errors displayed in GUARDATE, which chucks in a pre-Fellini dwarf and lots of mistaken frottage in the dark, growing still more risqué when the girl and her beau swap seats and creepy Enrico, having already rubbed shoes with the maid by mistake, now begins fondling a fellow of the same, or homo, sex.

In TRAGEDIA, the jealous husband is initially frustrated by an early cinema rule: NO ONE TO BE ADMITTED AFTER THE SHOW STARTS. Hmm, must be a Hitchcock or Preminger movie. He presents himself to the manager, who is busy examining small strips of film, which must be what cinema managers do. On the wall is a poster for Guazzoni’s biggest hit.

The husband expresses his fervent wish to assassinate his wife, so the manager makes an announcement, warning the audience that a murderous husband is without, awaiting his faithless partner with a revolver.

And we get a gag about the universality of cheating made famous, in a variant, by Laurel & Hardy and Leo McCarey in WE FAW DOWN (1928). Most of the audience is composed of adulterers, and they sneak out by the side uscita, leaving the auditorium populated by a scattered drib of the lonely and virtuous:

Cinema = sex, preferably illicit.

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 golf 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, of 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 stranger 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 in 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 shown 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: