Archive for the Fashion Category

Bird Man of Sing Sing

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on September 27, 2022 by dcairns

I showed STEAMBOAT BILL JR to my class of 1st years today and that seemed to go well. I may have some deeper thoughts later, or maybe not. I guess I was most struck by how it’s at heart quite a moving story about a young man needing to connect with his dad… but the story is told entirely through gags.

Meanwhile, in ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE the young associate of Jimmy’s decodes his message with a simple stencil… which he hardly needed, to be honest. If that note had fallen into the hands of Det. Doyle, I don’t see him puzzling over it for long.

Meanwhile, there’s a bird man in Alcatraz Sing Sing. I guess this is one of the location shots the opening title card boasts of, but it could be anywhere. This is the lookout from Jimmy’s gang, pinched during the bank job. Will he sing like a birdie in sing sing?

Tourneur pere, like his son, is keen on atmospheric shadows.

It may be necessary to point out once more: they’ve only been making feature films for a year at this point. It feels like the move to a larger scale story has propelled filmmaking into a speedy advance, but then you look at DeMille and think, maybe not. It’s just that Tourneur is really good.

Jimmy, escaping by train with one of his cronies, stops the rat from harassing a female traveller. So we know he has a noble heart, if only he could remember where he left it (San Francisco, perhaps?). Tourneur has the best qualities of French, American, and somehow Swedish filmmaking going on here — as Jimmy delivers a punitive drubbing in the observation car (and is observed doing it) — Tourneur daringly shoots with natural daylight, allowing the train interior and tussling cracksmen to sink into silhouette. Finally, when the cad will not simply take his licks like a man, Jimmy hurls him onto the tracks. One hopes a safety platform was arrayed on the caboose to catch the plummeting thespian, but given Tourneur’s noted ruthlessness this may not have been the case.

(“All directors want to kill actors,” claimed Wallace Beery. At times, possibly.)

IMDb again doesn’t know who the cinematographer is, possibly the same genius who shot LORNA DOONE so splendidly.

The guy rolls on the tracks, face smeared in blood (or it could I suppose be chocolate syrup) and Jimmy legs it. But the accosted lady is not to disappear from the narrative, it seems:

The filmmaking may be ten years ahead of its time (five, anyway), but the fashions are bang-on 1915, alas. Peak frumpery. The poor actor (who would I’m sure have preferred “actress”) is Ruth Shepley, in her screen debut. One film later (supporting Marion Davies in the Hearst super-production WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER), she retired. Then she retired, possibly due to marriage.

I don’t REALLY know the O. Henry story, so I don’t know what her role is to be in the plot– I suspect, though, that Rose is a later interpolation to give the film what is called femme interest.

We shall soon see, for this saga is TO BE CONTINUED

Fever Dream

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2021 by dcairns

THE GOLD RUSH, part two.

The storm ends, and Big Jim and the lone prospector go their separate ways, Jim to get clonked on the head by Black Larsen, transforming him into a glazed amnesiac, and the lone prospector to become properly lone again.

(Red is then disappeared from the story by a conveniently yawning crevasse. His dog has previously disappeared, as Fiona noted with concern.)

The reconstructed silent version (as opposed to Chaplin’s post-war sonorized cut) includes a scene of Charlie pawning his shovel, so he’s given up being a prospector so we can’t call him that anymore. Chaplin’s performance in this one shot seems shaky, uncertain, and it looks to have been shot outdoors, so maybe the cold was affecting his performance or his perfectionist (it’s hard to strive for perfection when you’re freezing to death), leading to his decision to reshoot in the studio. He flashes the camera, is what he does, and it’s not an example of the Little Fellow’s ability to share a joke with his chums in the audience, it’s Chaplin breaking character to shoot a glance at Rollie Totheroh, asking if the move from the pawnshop balls to his face had worked…

We meet Georgia, the “saloon girl” (we know what THAT means), collecting some glossies from the photo shop, and we meet the awful Jack (Malcolm Waite), her steady guy. Jovial Jack is MUCH more hateful than Black Larsen, though he doesn’t actually murder anyone. That we know of. Funny that Chaplin’s films have fairly often opposed his character with more classic leading man types, and he loses the girl to one in THE TRAMP, but they haven’t been portrayed as horrible until now. (Jack will also disappear from the movie, unmourned, and with no explanation whatever.)

Georgia is Georgia Hale, discovered working as an extra by Sternberg, who cast her in THE SALVATION HUNTERS. She’s the first Sternbergian woman, and she puts on her eyebrows with a used matchstick in that film, the way Dietrich did for real later. Chaplin hired both her and Sternberg, but it’s fair to say the Sternberg thing didn’t work out: he walked off his first assignment after aiming the camera at the ceiling, and Chaplin burned his second one, the Edna Purviance vehicle A WOMAN OF THE SEA.

Hale’s career went nowhere after this, though she acted until 1931, and Chaplin considered using her again in CITY LIGHTS when he was having trouble getting a performance from Virginia Cherrill. Sternberg blamed alcohol for her decline. She appears lucid when interviewed in later years. And if the 1926 GREAT GATSBY had survived, we could see her in another major film.

Georgia is the one obvious anachronism, with her silvery patterned twenties dress, but I’ll overlook that because it’s a great dress.

Dance hall: Charlie’s arrival here, and this whole first sequence of him meeting Georgia, is the greatest evocation of loneliness in a crowd I’ve ever seen. The shots of him entering the joint are among the most beautiful of Chaplin’s career.

This whole sequence is skating on thin eyes, pathos-wise. Chaplin’s previous successful use of pathos in THE KID centres the heartbreaking emotion on Charlie’s relationship with the Kid. Here, we have to feel sorry for Charlie alone, while also being able to laugh at him. Well, feeling sympathy for a comic character is nothing unusual — it’s a trick to pull off, no doubt,, but one that we frequently see done successfully. Keaton thought the sympathy was an essential ingredient. But Charlie comes close to being pathetic here, a stooge rather than a lord of misrule. It’s a delicate operation. I think what helps is our position in the narrative — it’s OK for the laughs to be fewer and quieter in the middle of a film, and Chaplin has another raucous cabin scene lined up for his big finish.

Charlie gets to be naughty here once — stealing a drink — and funny when he has trouser trouble dancing with Georgia. An elaborate Freudian explanation could be concocted for the situation where he ties up his baggy pants — suddenly a problematic fit in proximity to The Girl — only to find himself tethered to a dog which then takes off after the resident dance hall cat…

Fiona got quite impatient with Georgia — she’s genuinely hard-hearted, which is a first for a Chaplin film and a rarity for silent comedy in general. But she will eventually melt. Chaplin has to pull off one of his cleverest narrative tricks to convince us she has a heart at all.

Interestingly, she’s softened slightly in the voiced-over version, since Chaplin is able to report her thoughts.

The eternal triangle drawn up, we follow Charlie to Henry Bergman’s cabin, where he feigns hypothermia (back to his trickster self) and is taken in as help. So that Jack MacGowran could play frozen rigid in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, Polanski had him encased in a chickenwire exoskeleton under his costume. Chaplin does it by musclepower alone. Well, that’s why they pay him the big money.

Then Georgia and her girlfriends happen by, setting up the idea of the Hogmanay dinner party. Here, Charlie’s tongue-tied intertitles feel a little awkward — all that “Yes mam,” stuff doesn’t feel like him. I think a better effect could be achieved with actual wordlessness. But Georgia’s discovery of the tattered photo Charlie’s saved and keeps under his pillow is a lovely moment. What stops us hating Georgia is probably the music.

Charlie’s street-sweeping routine sees him back in character — turning the performance of a social good into a racket, sweeping one doorfront in order to bury the one next-door, then charging five times more to clear that one. It’s as good as a scam as the window-breaking glazier act in THE KID.

Then comes the bleak “party,” and Chaplin’s best dream sequence. It doesn’t matter too much that the bread roll dance is stolen from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle —

— although it always comes as a shock when you find out.

In any event, Chaplin’s version is far more elaborate, far more illusionistically convincing, funnier and greater. He saw the potential in a brief amusing bit and turned it into a whole performance. Johnny Depp, who had to copy this routine in BENNY AND JOON, talked about how difficult it was. “It’s all in the shoulders,” he said. And, I would add, in the eyes. The solemnity and inwardness of Charlie’s performance is what cracks me up, along with the fact that he alone makes you SEE him as a giant Mardi Gras head with fork legs and bread roll feet, dancing.

You’ll notice that “creative” camera angles and cutting don’t help here — they basically wreck it. Chaplin’s simplistic, stagey decoupage was CORRECT.

Then there’s the beautiful Old Lang Syne sequence at the dance hall, which makes Georgia yearn to see her absent friend, but she STILL hasn’t become, in the term of another festive comedy, “a mensch,” she presents the idea of a post-midnight visit to Charlie as a chance to prank him. She can’t admit to the sentiment this film celebrates. Anyway, Charlie and Georgia miss one another in the dark, and she sees into his private lonely world again when she finds the Marie Celeste dinner party.

Then Big Jim arrives, still amnesiac, recognises Charlie — who is understandably terrified by his manner — Mack Swain is the only one doing operatic silent movie acting in this film — and the movie prepares for the big finish…

TO BE CONTINUED

Fashion Beasts

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2021 by dcairns

Just back from HOUSE OF GUCCI. Unexpectedly packed, even on a weekday afternoon, which presumably implies it’s a hit. Couldn’t even get two seats together, but after the BBFC certificate appeared there was still one vacant seat next to Fiona so I got into it.

It’s not bad. My trouble was we’ve started watching Succession, finally, and the writing in that is so much better, the Ridley Scott movie pales a bit, even though it’s much better looking. But not THAT good-looking. Very plush, very desaturated and metallic, very dark. But not a lot of exciting filmmaking on display. It moves quite slowly. The actors all seem to be in separate worlds. They’re all giving very good performances within those worlds, but because they don’t connect, the film never gathers energy.

Lady Gaga is the most compelling; Jared Leto, disguised as Inspector Clouseau’s lounge lizard disguise from RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER, brings the entertainment. And, next to him, Pacino seems to be underplaying, so that’s sort of a bonus.

There are some very funny lines, but most of them seem to be predicated on the idea that Leto’s character doesn’t speak good Italian (which the film is translating for us, using movie magic — it’s one of those films where everyone SHOULD be speaking a different language, so they settle for pretending to have accents). It’s true, some people don’t speak their own language well, but would Paolo really have said, in his own native tongue, “If you coulda smell between my groins, you woulda unnerstan'”? It feels like, if you can write funny stuff like that (I laughed), you could, with a little more care, write lines that the character in question might say.

“Ridley Scott must really love Donna Summer,” whispered Fiona, “because he uses her A LOT.” It’s kind of hard to imagine Sir Rid on the dance floor, and I sort of wonder if he uses her a lot because it’s easy shorthand for the seventies. Most of the songs in this are very easy choices, though I respect them for using Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes rather than the same album’s Fashion. So we know it’s not a Robert Zemeckis movie, no way could he have resisted that.

Not a Tom Ford movie either, a movie with Tom Ford in it as a character — and they’re pretty careful how they handle him, which is fair enough. The film only mocks the dead or criminally convicted, which is pretty much everyone else. It’s most of the population of most of Scott’s films, in fact, which, taken as an oeuvre, are surprisingly bleak, negative and hopeless. Surprising since he’s such a commercial presence. But maybe the idea that what we want is optimistic stories of triumph has always been wrong.

Consider the animated ident of Scott Free Productions. A raincoated man flaps about in what sounds like a darkened lavatory, then turns into a bird and freezes, having run out of animation and becomes a lifeless logo at exactly the point of taking flight, the words “Scott Free” appearing beneath him as a kind of cruel jibe.

Consider BLADE RUNNER, where an assassin less human than the androids he’s hunting gets rained on for two hours, then flies off with the nonhuman girl at the end into footage originally shot for THE SHINING, implying they’re going to land their hovercar at a haunted hotel… until Ridley recut it to turn the hero into a literal android.

Consider THE COUNSELLOR, which might be Scott’s ultimate statement. I didn’t like that film at all but it did seem very Ridley. A summation of sorts. Characters don’t need to have credible motivations (consider the guy making kissy faces at the hideous snake alien in PROMETHEUS which is obviously about to eat his face) so long as their improbable decisions lead to their total destruction and that of everyone they love.

The Guccis, in other words, were made to order for the Ridley Scott Cinematic Universe.