Archive for April, 2022

Machine Made

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2022 by dcairns

In MODERN TIMES the people are mute but the machines talk. It wasn’t always thus: Chaplin seems to have initially planned the film as a full talkie.

GAMIN: ‘What’s your name?’

TRAMP: ‘Me? oh, mine’s a silly name. You wouldn’t like it. It begins with an “X”.’

GAMIN: ‘Begins with an “X”?’

TRAMP: ‘See if you can guess.’

GAMIN: ‘Not eczema?’

TRAMP: ‘Oh, worse than that — just call me Charlie.’

Remember Billy Wilder’s complaint that Chaplin was a genius, but when he let his characters talk he became like a child of four writing lyrics for Beethoven’s Ninth? Unfair, of course, but I think it’s true to say that dialogue like the above wouldn’t have improved MODERN TIMES. It might have felt more like the talkie inserts in LONESOME, inept longeurs. Of course, talking films had developed hugely since Pál Fejös’ 1928 masterpiece, but Chaplin hadn’t. You can see him recapitulating the history of sound films: music and sound only, now a part-talkie, then a full-fledged sound film with music and dialogue and effects (I guess he was able to skip out the phase where everyone stood around a hidden mic and talked, without benefit of music or post-produced FX).

The dialogue Chaplin considered, but rejected, is CHATTER — exactly the kind of talk the combination of pantomime and intertitles excluded, instead boiling the verbiage down to its purest narrative essentials, and putting the focus on behaviour. When we come to THE GREAT DICTATOR we will have to reckon with Chaplin’s decision to embrace talk, and his surprising success with it. But we’re not there yet.

The first voice we hear in MT is the boss, but we hear him over his METROPOLIS-style CCTV, or Skype or Zoom or whatever you want to call it. Something which is finally commonplace, and we do speak with our bosses quite a bit on it. Hang on in there, we’ll get the flying cars and jetpacks eventually.

So the boss is mechanized, effectively, and soon Charlie, discovered at the assembly line, will be mechanized too. The terrible thing about these machines, observes Anthony Hopkins in THE ELEPHANT MAN, is you can’t reason with them.

Chaplin had been inspired by the horror of Henry Ford’s assembly lines. Though he would quote Ford’s suggestion for a shorter working week, he was otherwise quite opposed to this kind of modernity. As David Robinson (also my source for the dialogue above) points out, MODERN TIMES would be attacked both for having a political subtext and for not having one. I suppose either attack can be justified, but the truth is that the film attacks capitalist modernity using the tools of pantomime and slapstick, therefore its arguments are, in a sense, unsophisticated: but beautiful, emotive, and surprising.

Also, we could propose that Chaplin’s criticism is tempered, or undermined, or corrupted, by his visual delight in whirling cogs and giant dynamos and the other accoutrements of industry, As Tati is a bit in love with the more domestic modernism of MON ONCLE and PLAYTIME. Still, the humour Chaplin concocts here is sufficiently black, sufficiently alarming, in fact, to make the film’s intent clear.

I’ve expended a lot of words and I still haven’t moved on a single moment from where I got to in my last post: Chaplin at the conveyor. Let’s make a start.

Charlie in his screen career has been drunk (often), drugged (in EASY STREET), concussed (CITY LIGHTS), and he has been not only in altered states himself but has participated in the hallucinations of others (transforming into a big chicken in THE GOLD RUSH). MODERN TIMES is the first time he goes mad, though. Maybe this final departure from consensus reality had to wait until after the death of Hannah Chaplin, which occurred in 1928.

Chaplin had a fear of madness, and his charming brother Sydney seems to have expected him to succumb to it, waiting, he once said, for that moment so he could sell the studio and relax on the proceeds. The portrayal of insanity in MT is not a realistic one: but it’s the kind of madness the Little Fellow WOULD get. It starts in the muscles. All that bolt-tightening becomes compulsive, a nervous tic. He fights against it: a twist of the body and that back-kick which he uses to cheer himself up, and the tic goes away. It’s like a skipping needle on a phonograph record, it just needs a nudge so that the mechanism can continue smoothly. Henry Bergson’s dictum that comedy arises from human beings behaving like machines is a good one, though of course it doesn’t remotely cover all humour.

At a certain point, of course, the bolt-tightening perseverance (mechanical continuation of a movement after it has lost all conscious purpose) can’t be stopped, and the subject (Charlie, or X) snaps — which comes as a kind of joyous release, really, the return of the repressed, in this case the impish, dervishlike demon of the Keystone era, comes out of the box — manic, anarchic, smutty, irrepressible…


May mourning

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on April 29, 2022 by dcairns

After a slight delay, our copy of THE INDIAN TOMB finally arrived from Masters of Cinema. The Watson-Cairns video essay on this one expanded to a whopping 45 mins, as our mission, which initially seemed not too exciting, became more and more fascinating and emotional the more we learned about director Joe May in our research, and the more interested we got in weaving his history together with those of collaborators Fritz Lang, Thea Von Harbou and Conrad Veidt.

One interesting discovery was the “Stuart Webbs” series of detective dramas which helped establish May (and Lang). We were unable to see even a single partial example of this series, but the posters are sure pretty.

Our essay is also available on the US release of the TOMB from Kino.

1) The Planet of Peril

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 28, 2022 by dcairns

High time I rewatched FLASH GORDON. All of it!

It was my Dad who introduced me to Flash. My Mum had already given me accounts of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, whose adventures she read in her big brother Kenny’s Eagle comic. (Kenny is now a widower thanks to Covid and suffers from vascular dementia: who knew the future would be such a tough place?)

My Dad saw the Flash serials on rerelease as a boy in the forties. I remember I was playing in the garden one summer when he came out and suggested there was something starting on TV I might like. I think this is the only time he ever did anything like that. And he proceeded to bring the experience alive by recounting how he and his chums would cheer the heroes and boo the villains, particularly during the role call at the start of each episode. So I intuited that the true purpose of those sequences was not to let us know that Larry “Buster” Crabbe was playing the role of Flash, but to give us a chance to prime our audience participation engines.

The original 1936 serial starts as it means to go on: with stiff acting interspersed with model shots and stock footage. Planet earth is a model, a cloudless globe dangling against a starscape with interplanetary clouds drifting about; as we get closer there are crowd scenes of various panicking nationals — it’s funny how the New Yorkers are swarming about as if in a stock market charge, the Romans thronging as if listening to a pontiff, the Indians are actually praying, the Africans dancing, the Arabs charging on camels, each to his own idiom — and when we set magnification to maximum we get cheap actors in cheap sets.

These actors are for sure a mixed batch but they’re GOOD ENOUGH for these purposes. Swimming star Larry “Buster” Crabbe joked that his acting reached the level of incompetence and stuck there, but like his fellow naiad Esther Williams he’s quite effective and charming in a casual, “just-chatting-with-my-chums” way. At 5.50 he gives maybe the greatest line reading of 1936 (a fine year) when Doctor Zarkov says “I’m sure the planet rushing up on us is inhabited, It is also intensely radioactive. If I can reach it in my rocketship, I may be able to control its power, and divert it from its course towards the earth.”

Larry “Buster” Crabbe practically shrugs: “Well, it’s worth trying.,” he says, mildly. Almost a Joe E. Brown vibe there.

Zarkoff is Dublin-born Frank Shannon, and the idea of a mad scientist called Zarkoff who speaks with an Irish brogue is intensely amusing. Like being constantly tickled from an unknown direction. One imagines a backstory: the Professor has realised he’s never going to get anywhere in the mad scientist business with a name like Padraig Mahoney. He must change it to something more slavic, or face penury.

Dale Arden is Jean Rogers and I’m keen to see if the vibrant good humour she displayed in a few comic feature films is going to be evident here. It seems like a good place for it.

Charles Middleton, not a naturalistic actor by any means, more of a pound store John Carradine, is in his demented element as Ming, Kentucky-born ruler of Mongo. The job seems to require mainly self-confidence and a lack of resemblance to anyone you might hope to encounter irl. Middleton achieves this consistently. The perfect contrast to the throwaway style of Larry “Buster” Crabbe. Middleton-Ming doesn’t throw his lines away, he throws them AT you, with deadly force.

If you’ve seen the 1980 masterpiece, it’s surprising how similar the set-up is. Zarkoff’s assistant has run off (but we never see this) and he needs a co-pilot for his rocketship. Flash Gordon in this version is a polo player, so he naturally has the required skillset (he can make something bigger than himself go in the direction he desires — it’s exactly like steering a spacecraft). Dale Arden is abducted along for the ride. Being a girl, she’s the first to pass out from asphyxiation as they leave the stratosphere. “Sorry,” says Prof Z, “In the excitement I forgot to turn on the oxygen.” He’s a man who somehow fills one with confidence.

Larry “Buster” Crabbe is really good also because he looks more worried than most leading men. Even being tasked with looking through a periscope causes him to tug his collar away from his overdeveloped neck. He looks as worried as you or I might be. And he sheds a tear in one of the sequel installments when a Princess dies. Sam Jones, star of the big remake, was obsessed with playing a hero who might cry, and he does come close in one of the various dungeon scenes.

The rocketship wobbles delightfully on its path, and makes the sound of a thousand jet-powered jalopies banging in unison, while sparks shoot out of its rear end as if it were Chris Lynam. That’s an obscure reference, I know, but I’m not out to please everyone.

Despite appearances the rocketship is perfectly capable of reaching an alien world in mere minutes, even navigating “the death zone,” which is just as well, since the set has been built in such a way as to afford us only a view of the three principals’ backs. We pitch up in a kind of papier-mâché terrarium, a fitting introduction to Planet Mongo, a world created by a God on a tight budget.

Flash’s jodhpurs. I just realized, he’s still dressed for polo. Three horses drowned under him, etc. The remake casts him as a footballer, which is fine. More plebeian, more everyman, and more in keeping with Mike Hodges notion of Flash the idiot interventionist, moronic embodiment of US foreign policy. I always think there should have been a sequel where Mongo falls apart without Ming there to run things.

When our heroes are pursued by thunder lizards, the filmmakers have had to cope with the refractory behaviour of real live reptiles, who eat up miles of film in slomo as they rampage around their miniature set without meaning or control, so that sometimes they seem to be fleeing their prey, or just walking headlong into rockfaces. As predators, they seem mainly dangerous due to their (supposed) size — they might myopically tread on our heroes, but they aren’t likely to actually catch them. It may be that the horns that have been glued all over them are a distraction, sending the poor iguanas cross-eyed.

The more expensive and time-consuming special effect would be to actually composite lizards and actors together in a single frame, but we’re not going to do that. The only special effect here is the Kuleshov one.

Oh, but then we do! Dale is ordered to keep an eye out, so she wanders blithely almost into the nearest dragon’s gob. The monsters do battle! One can’t shake the suspicion that they are either making out, or being rammed into each other by props men in protective gloves. Then the pyrotechnics guy blows them up. “Are they dead?” asks Dale. “No doubt about it!” barks Zarkov, suddenly an expert paleontologist.

Cause of the explosion is a rival rocketship, a neat little buzzing bee of a thing. It is a thing of joy to watch the armour-plated pilots disembark through the tiny hatch, the chunky leader’s pugilistic arse-out stance and anti-chaffing walk challenging you to laugh at him, you bastards. His two henchbeings look like the Black Knight from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, but without the detachable limbs. Their equivalents in the remake DO have hands that come off.

“Why destroy earth? Why not conquer it?” Brought before Ming the Merciless, Doctor Mahoney Zarkov doesn’t seem to be as faithful an ambassador as we might wish for. He’s sent off to the laboratory to invent stuff. Then Princess Aura barges in, with a certain Tugboat Annie attitude Ornella Muti could learn from. She and Dale immediately size each other up as hated rivals. Nice that Dale, so far from home, has immediately found a hated rival.

Ming is sizing Dale up too, but in a different way. “Your eyes, your hair, your skin!” He’s taking inventory. Flash has had enough of this salty talk, and immediately sets about battering flunkies with an enormous vase. Then he starts fencing. A useful outlet for his pent-up passions, I suppose, but hardly appropriate behaviour on a diplomatic mission. He’s probably right, though: a six-foot unbreakable urn rammed down on the plumed helmet is the only language these people understand.

Flash is then thrown into the arena, where he must battle the Brute Men of Mongo, three bruisers with swim trunks, tusks, and male-pattern baldness, in a choppy skirmish where his shirt is soon as ragged as the continuity. Aura gazes on in erect-nippled fascination. Dale, pinioned by handmaidens, is less tumescent but still concerned.

“He fights well, the earthman,” observes Ming, naturally falling into alien imperial syntax. In truth, Flash’s signature move, picking up one Brute Man and hurling him at the others, is somewhat overused, but it’s a good trick if you can do it.

Aura is even more impressed, so much so that she intervenes before Flash can be dropped into the dreaded Pit. Unfortunately her intervention takes the form of raygunning down the man in charge of the levers. Falling, he pulls down the lever controlling the trapdoor. Flash (and Aura) fall into the pit.