Going to the cinema

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2020 by dcairns

There’s no streaming platform for BILL AND TED FACE THE MUSIC so if we wanted to see it, which we did, we were going to have to suit up and brave the Vue Ocean terminal, which we did. We figured sitting in the back row would make it less likely that other patrons would laugh droplets into us. So, yesterday afternoon, we did it.

I’d taught my first classes of the academic year that week. Edinburgh University is being sensible, which means everything essential’s delivered online. In principle non-essential things can be delivered in person, but current lockdown rules prevent gatherings from more than two households, and one-on-one tutorials don’t seem wise. If I caught the bug from the first tutee, I could infect the second, third, fourth, etc. There are twenty-one of them. A good day’s work.

Still, it seemed like a week of new beginnings. And the word “joyous” had been used to describe B&TFTM. And it is — it’s the kind of film that would most benefit from a big audience, but alas the big audience might not benefit, in the long term, so we saw it in a sparsely-spread, socially distanced group, who seemed to have as fun a time as us.

I recall Joss Ackland (De Nomolos) disparaging BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY, saying it glorified stupidity. I feel this was unfair. Bill and Ted’s disadvantage in their adventures is that they’re not terribly bright, though they have a bit of imagination. But what the films glorify is their niceness. And, though the years have thrown a lot of troubles their way, they are, if anything, even nicer. True, their future selves in this movie go through some changes and rather let the side down, but we know they’ll come through in the end. (There’s a multiverse thing thrown in to explain away certain inconsistencies… never mind, I’m sure it makes more sense than TENET.)

The only note of discomfort in earlier B&T entries was the gag that, when the boys embrace in an emotional moment, they then step back, alarmed by their own expression of intimacy, and say “Fag” at each other in a somewhat flat mechanical way. They don’t really mean it, but in their subculture it has to be said. I think it was always sort of a joke ABOUT homophobia, and it was an honest one about the language and culture of American male metalhead youth, but it stuck out as the only unpleasant note, and there’s no way they were going to do it in 2020. And that, too, is an honest reflection of how at least much of the culture has changed.

I do think it’s harder for dumb people to be nice, since they don’t know or understand the rules that should apply, so maybe Bill & Ted deserve all the more respect for managing it. And people who are smart and nasty like De Nomolos deserve all the more contempt.

And actually nobody’s all bad in this film. A robot killer from the future turns out to be one of the film’s most endearing new creations. The people who send him mean well, but are falling into the old “ends-justify-the-means” trap.

I wondered if the central premise — everything’s falling apart — spacetime itself disintegrating — is a metaphor for where the world is currently at. Of course there was no pandemic in progress when this film was conceived, but there was already a lot going on. The utopian ideal promulgated is that we could all come together if we concentrated on what we have in common rather than what divides us. Which I believe is true, the problems come when, having come together, we try to accomplish anything.

If I had a suggestion for how to improve the film, I would let Alex Winter direct it, because he’s a brilliant visual stylist and he’s already on the payroll anyway and Dean Parisot, who made the superb GALAXY QUEST and has great taste in performers and performance, isn’t. But he DOES have great taste in performers and performances. Among the people who are terrific in this, asides from all the returning series favourites, are Bill & Ted’s daughters, Thea & Billie (particularly Samara Weaving, one of those damned Australians who can do anything), Kristen Schaal, Anthony Carrigan, and Dave Grohl who is being particularly excellent this year.

BILL AND TED FACE THE MUSIC stars John Wick; John Polidori; Gertha Teeth; Nix; Julia Clarke; Heywood; Pencil Machine Operator; Professor Stromwell; Chlorinda; Satan; Lt Obersturmfuhrer Schmidt; DW Griffith; Cardinal Glick; and You pigs…say your prayers.

Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on September 25, 2020 by dcairns

Elio Petri’s A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY is quite… a thing. I feel like, as it’s a ghost story, I ought to deduct points for it not really being scary, but it’s incredible IMPRESSIVE. Especially Ennio Morricone’s wildly experimental, improvised score, which is cacophonous and pandemonic and absolutely nuts. Like the sound of an orchestra smashed together in a tombola, going round and round, madly playing as they fall over one another. It’s a collaboration with “the composers performers of gruppo di improvvisazione NUOVA CONSONANZA.” A unique event. Maybe there’s just not enough actual quiet for the supernatural angle to chill us.

Does it matter, though, when the film is one long setpiece from start to finish, with politics and a sense of humour and action painting and all manner of mod thrills? And it takes you somewhere quite unexpected.

I feel like Petri saw BLOW UP and thought he’d do something similar but with a lot of opposites — a rural setting instead of an urban one, a jerk of an action painter (Franco Nero) instead of a jerk of a photographer, a ghost story instead of a murder mystery. But still with Vanessa Redgrave.

No Moustache

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 24, 2020 by dcairns

Before Valentino there was… Charlie Chaplin.

“We took Chaplin, [Ford] Sterling, [Roscoe] Arbuckle and [Chester] Conklin to a dance hall, turned them loose, and pointed a camera at them. They made funny, and that was it,” said Mack Sennett of the 1914 TANGO TANGLES.

But there’s more to be said of this rambunctious improv: Chaplin appears sans Tramp costume and felt moustache, giving us an opportunity to regard him au naturelle, as it were. He does have a bowler and cane, so he must have really liked those. But this experiment was not repeated — even in an outlier like ONE A.M. where he’s playing a city swell in a top hat, Chaplin would keep the fuzzy felt tab on his upper lip, because it was the one essential part of his brand.

It’s decided — I’m watching all the early Chaplins in sequence, which I’ve never done before, watching for those moments where the Tramp shows up, starts to become the familiar character. And watching for those moments where Chaplin steps out of that character, as he does here.

Naked-faced Charlie is, as Sennett observed with dismay when he first showed up for work, too young. Too pretty. He’s doing the drunk act that so impressed his boss and got him hired, and it’s always worth remembering that alcoholism killed Chaplin’s father, but whether the man was ever around enough in Chaplin’s youth for him to observe the drink in action, I’m unsure. But the East End of London would have provided plenty of other models for close study.

For some reason, comedy drunks are nearly always middle-aged. Though the parodying of alcoholism is now mostly verboten at any age, the masters of it, the Jack Nortons, Arthur Housmans and Foster Brookses, were always a bit shopworn in appearance. Strangely, a young drunk is more pathetic or unpleasant than comic, UNLESS introduced sober. When the character is simple “the drunk,” we need to feel that the tragic decline is safely over and the character is now happily confirmed in their dipsomania.

(Fiona, a modern person, always says “Oh dear,” when Housman turns up in a Laurel & Hardy, just as she does when Fred “Snowflake” Toones turns up in anything, with his demeaning racial schtick. I wince at FT but, being less sensitive, welcome the pastiche of inebriation like an old friend.)

Chaplin chose his small felt rectangle, a fig leaf for his youth, because it made him look more mature without concealing his facial expressions. Which are a lot more grotesque and flamboyant in the early shorts, you’ll notice. Chaplin hasn’t mastered the difference between stage and screen acting but, to be fair, hardly anyone else at Keystone or in Hollywood has either. The best actors are generally the supporting girls, hired to be pretty, without stage training, and given no funny business of their own, who just react more or less like real people to the top-billed comics’ obstreperous antics.

Ford Sterling (also bare-lipped) is someone I never warmed to, but I guess he deserves credit for being just about the first of the slapstickers. Arbuckle is unusually mean here, a fat man with a thin instrument (clarinet). Within seconds of appearing he’s picking up an inoffensive little guy to use as a club.

For reasons of convenience, I guess, the dancers are shot in a real dance hall, per Sennett’s recount, whereas the band have been shot in the studio against two painted flats representing a corner. All the interplay between Sterling, flirting furiously through his trumpet, and Chaplin and his partner, reacting from the ballroom, is created via Kuleshov’s Artificial Geography, which Kuleshov had yet to officially invent. No wonder the eyelines don’t match.

Chaplin grudgingly credited Henry “Pathe” Lehrman with teaching him basic screen direction, but he might have also picked up the importance of it by seeing Sennett fecklessly flout it here.

Another technique we see a lot of is TELEGRAPHY. Sterling pretends to be ill, doing a great deal of pantomime to signal to us that this is an IDEA he has just had in his MIND to fool THAT GUY… Chaplin occasionally does this, perhaps urged by his directors or influenced by his frantic co-stars, but he would soon eliminate it in favour of a subtler communication with his audience, intended for intimacy rather than exposition.

Conklin, Hank Mann, Edgar Kennedy and Al St John get essentially nothing to do, while Minta Durfee is a bone to be fought over by stupid dogs. In mid-battle, Sterling seems to suddenly kiss CC full on the lips, but I think he’s actually biting his nose. Our eyebrows may safely lower.

Paul Merton has neatly and accurately described early Chaplin’s M.O. as “kicking people up the arse” but has he done it yet in a film? I think not, though in BETWEEN SHOWERS he jabs Sterling hard in the anus with an umbrella. Here, Sterling shows CC how it’s done, just as CC is impressing us all with the pugilistic jut of his tiny buttocks. I imagine Charlie will have incorporated the act into his repertoire by the next time we see him.

The climactic cloakroom fight is my favourite bit. The brief iteration of the two-men-in-one-raincoat routine is terrific, with Sterling burling Chaplin around by the sleeve.

A totally unambitious one-reel donnybrook which has unexpected historic interest due to Chaplin’s nude philtrum.