A Fashionable Cocktail Party

Posted in FILM with tags on October 18, 2021 by dcairns

The Sunday Intertitle: Pilgrim Versus the World

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2021 by dcairns

At four reels, THE PILGRIM isn’t quite a short and doesn’t seem quite a feature, but the IMDb classes it as one.

Excitingly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, not all the way through.

Chaplin is recycling the escaped convict routine from THE ADVENTURER and having another go at the mistaken identity gag from THE IDLE CLASS — again anticipating THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Here, immediately, is what put me off the film on my previous attempt at viewing: this bloody song. Vocals are tricky in a silent movie score, because if people can sing, why can’t anybody talk, audibly I mean? And yet it can be done. I just don’t happen to like this particular song. It’s a case of Chaplin imposing words on his work, as he did in the revised version of THE GOLD RUSH. Billy Wilder’s dismissal of talking-picture Chaplin — “a child of nine making up lyrics for a Beethoven symphony” isn’t true, I don’t think, of Chaplin’s talkies, but it’s arguably true of this kind of thing. We don’t need words.

We immediately get them, though, and the singer going on while we try to read the wanted sign is distracting. The text here is a basic physical description of Charlie, though the addition “Extremely nervous” is an interesting one, and we learn he has blue eyes.

Like BARRY LYNDON later/earlier, Charlie effects a change of clothing by stealing the duds of a bather — we see the clergyman examining the discarded prison stripes with dismay, a nice bit of economical storytelling.

Charlie the chaplain manages to maintain his usual look surprisingly well — tight jacket and baggy trousers, big shoes. The hat and dog collar are the only noticeable change. So far so good. What comedy will he manage from the impersonation? Early priests in Chaplin’s films — in THE TRAMP and POLICE, are portrayed in a notably acerbic way: one has a rotten egg pressed into his psalm book, the other is a shameless crook and hustler. But in EASY STREET the church scenes are rather delicate and Chaplin seems on his best behaviour. What’s he going to be like here?

But Chaplin jumpstarts a whole new plot before we can find out. Elopers! A pursuing dad!

The chap is Sydney Chaplin, the girl and her father unidentified, despite a very sizable cast list available online. And the plot turns out to be just an excuse for mistaken intentions and running about. The course of true love doesn’t get smoothed out and Syd gets a boot up the bum from Dad. We can assume the girl had a lucky escape.

The bloody song starts again as Charlie is trying to choose a random destination. That song kills everything it plays over, a real shame when Chaplin’s accompanying music is otherwise so good. Trying to stab at a city name from the list, he jabs Henry Bergman in the butt. Well, in the waiting rooms of small-town railway stations, between traveling businessmen and members of the church, such action is not unknown.

Buying his ticket, Charlie still tries to hitch a ride on the underside of the train, before a conductor (Syd again!) corrects him. Charlie has never been in a compartment before.

Another notice is posted, this time announcing the arrival of the new minister, Philip Pim — Charlie, in his new identity. It goes neatly with the wanted poster earlier. The name is an echo of “pilgrim”, obvs.

Among those present, Mack Swain and Edna Purviance, who already harbours romantic imaginings about this new minister, saucy trout that she is.

Chaplin’s train approaches on Sunday, and we see him eating crackers next to Henry Bergman, and we get a look at the newspaper article about his escape, learning that in this film, Charlie, unusually, has a name, Lefty Lombard, and also a pseudonym, “Slippery Elm.” Chaplin was indeed left-handed, though at the workhouse they beat him until he became ambidextrous. Lefty’s escape, like those of John Goodman and William Forsythe in RAISING ARIZONA, and Tim Robbins in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, has been sewer-based, and the paper writes of the prison guards’ “astonisment.” But the entire article does seem to have been written, it doesn’t suddenly devolve into Latin or rubbish about trade conferences. I would quite like that job, just as I would like to have been tasked with typing Jack Torrance’s novel in THE SHINING. My ideal job.

Charlie/Lombard/Pim is dismayed to find the tow sheriff and all the prominent citizens waiting to welcome him. Phyllis Allen gives herself a lovely bit of business, stepping back and colliding with the locomotive. She’s not even in focus, which makes it somehow even more delightfully throwaway.

Charlie filches a quart of whisky from Swain’s back pocket, which I guess establishes that Mack is a bit of a hypocrite. But Charlie loses the booze when they both slip on the sidewalk. They find themselves sitting in a puddle of hooch — mutual embarrassment, as each suspects the other of attributing the contraband to himself.

Charlie giving a service, and not knowing how, seems like the kind of business tailor-made for the talkies. What can Chaplin do with it,wordlessly?

The choir are a notable gang of grotesques, carved from walnut. There is awkward sitting-down-standing-up confusion. More good business with Phyllis and her itchy son. And there is quite a bit of comic value in Charlie having no idea what happens in a church or what is expected of a minister. Plus he has his eyes on the collection boxes.

The sermon — David and Goliath! A tour de force of mime, my favourite part being Charlie’s graphic insistence that David’s slingshot passes clean through Goliath’s massive skull. All done with gestures. Little Raymond Lee, the bully kid from THE KID, is wild about all this, and the equally explicit decapitation scene.

Charlie finishing the sermon as if he were, alternately, a victorious prizefighter, and a prima ballerina receiving an opening night ovation, is good too.

A fellow crook! But, despite his character having three names, the Inaccurate Movie Database doesn’t seem to know any of them. But Charlie does, and the presence of an old acquaintance strikes him as very inconvenient. This is Charles Reisner, the thug from THE KID, whose son, Dean or Dinky Riesner, who married Vampira, is also in the film. And no, I don’t know why they spell their surname differently.

Charlie, meanwhile, has been billeted with Edna and her widowed mother. Observing Edna’s shape through her shapeless dress, Charlie treats us to a downright sinister glance, comparable to his eerie look from the dock in MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Pure serial killer.

Visitors arrive. One is Dinky Dean, another is Syd again, in character actor guise:

Dinky recalled later in life that it took quite a bit of coaching to get him to hit people, especially Charlie, but his dad was the assistant director as well as acting, and between Chaplin and Reisner they persuaded him to cut loose and sock the great star repeatedly in the kisser. This business isn’t too amusing — I was waiting for Charlie to do something more in character with him being a convict than a minister — of course, this is probably the suspense Chaplin had in mind. I’m just frustrated he doesn’t do more to pay it off.

Finally, he does, kicking — gently — the recalcitrant tot onto his keister, or maybe he spells it kiester. It’s moderately gratifying, but Dinky rather spoils it with a grin directed past the camera, presumably at dad. I suppose Chaplin may have welcomed this as proof he hadn’t really harmed a small child.

Cute stuff in the kitchen with Edna. This is all very mild — it seems like Chaplin has decided he doesn’t want to give offence, the anti-clerical tendencies seen in his earlier films are in abeyance here. But let’s see…

Here’s an interesting thing: since, as I’ve observed, Chaplin had taken to using both his cameras to gather coverage, typically a wider and closer view of the same action, he was compelled, to create a second negative for foreign territories, to use alternate takes. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the US and foreign (in this case, Russian) versions of THE PILGRIM. The camera angles are mostly the same, but the action is always subtly different.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Big Mouth

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2021 by dcairns

I was curious about Errol Morris’ AMERICAN DHARMA, about Trump advisor and Breitbart exec Steve Bannon, but not apparently curious enough to see it when it was new. I finally checked it out.

Essentially, it conforms to the conclusions I’ve already drawn about Morris’s filmmaking. When he was making documentaries about ordinary people, he had an impressive ability to get them to open up. When he switched to people like Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, he was suddenly dealing with people who had decades of practice obfuscating and outright lying and who were not about to change the habits of a lifetime. If David Frost couldn’t open up Richard Nixon, a barefaced crook, in three hours of television, Morris wasn’t going to get any damaging revelations out of these creeps in the space of a feature film. So all his films do is humanise the monsters. This, in some circumstances, might seem worthwhile in itself — monsters are human too. Understanding them can be useful, salutary. But McNamara’s technocrat logic and Rumsfeld’s nauseating folksiness are really just masks.

AMERICAN DHARMA does a number of things with Stephen K. Bannon (as he likes to call himself): it makes him look good, by filming him in a reconstructed set from Henry King’s TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, and in hero poses on an airfield, and by flattering lighting and angles — we all know Bannon as a grubby unshaven carcinomic schlub wrapped in excess shirts, a kind of fleshly embodiment of Trumpian excess and corruption. Here he looks, at times, positively noble.

The Bannon emerging from the film is contradictory, which the real Bannon probably is too, but I felt I understood him less at the film’s end than at the beginning. Without feeling I’d been wrong in any of my derogatory opinions about him before. The onscreen Bannon’s most appealing characteristic was his admiration of Morris as a filmmaker and tearful-kitten-emoji eagerness to have Morris’ respect and affection. He genuinely didn’t want Morris to see him as a racist, white supremacist, mean bad guy. So the things he said were calculated to portray him otherwise. Morris was able to use film clips to show Bannon being less cautious elsewhere. When he instructed his audience that when they were called racists, they should “wear it as a badge of pride,” it definitely opened up a schism-chasm between affable Steve the interviewee and his public persona elsewhere. But it seemed, despite a 96 minute runtime, that there just wasn’t any opportunity to get into the nitty-gritty of how exactly it is possible to wear being called racist as a badge of honour, if you’re not a racist. Maybe getting a political figure to approach the truth about himself is going to take much more than an average/minimum feature length. Maybe it can’t be done. Maybe, if that’s true, it shouldn’t be attempted.

Of the varied slithery shitheels and war criminals Morris has allowed to wriggle free over the years (remember how he concluded that the Abu Ghraib torturers were only following orders?), Bannon ought to be the easiest to pin down. He’s not as clever as he thinks he is — I’m not at all certain he’s using the word “dharma” accurately, and certainly the line “we hit them with an enormous fuselage” (rather than “fusillade” — and this guy was in the military?) is laughable. And here is an apparent Breitbart headline, which will reward you for more attention than the copy editor gave it:

DONALD TRUMPS WINS WHITE HOUSE?

As we know from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and other places, Bannon is a man who likes to talk, and while that other jovial fat fellow of sinister motivation, Caspar Guttman, says that talking can only be done judiciously when practiced regularly, it is not certain that talking constantly can ever be judicious, especially if you have crimes to conceal. Bannon not infrequently says the quiet part out loud, because he just can’t bear the thought of there being a quiet part. So it’s actually surprising that Morris, emerging from behind his Interrotron™ to appear as a sort of CKANE Thompson interlocutor, can’t pin down his subject more meaningfully. I guess Morris could argue that, since I didn’t like Bannon better at the film’s end, he hadn’t glorified, glamourised, flattered and platformed a dangerous nutjob — but I have never felt Bannon’s craftiness, sadism and bigotry LESS keenly than I did watching him preen here.

Morris does catch Bannon in one flat-out lie, his assertion that Trump wrote his own inauguration address, which is followed by a slow blink so transparently bogus in its movie-sincerity that Morris’ cry of “Oh come on!” is hardly necessary. And his juxtapositions of archive news footage and doc interview occasionally get at the cruelty underlying the Trump administration’s every action, but living through those years made all that much more visible if you had eyes to see.

I once read that the left cares about human welfare and doing no harm, and the right cares about values, which felt true-ish. So that driving abortion underground, causing more harm, would seem perfectly reasonable to a rightwinger, since all that matters is not endorsing abortion. The death penalty needn’t work as a deterrent, it needn’t save money, it needn’t be humane, it just has to serve as the ultimate statement of a society’s values: there are certain things we feel are so bad that we get to kill you for them.

Suddenly, or not so suddenly, with the Trump administration it seemed like the cruelty was the point. The religious right could overlook Trump violating every commandment ever chiselled, so long as he hurt the right people. Morris mentions this cruelty, but he never follows up on it. When he asks “How is this helping anything?” he’s missing the point. It was never supposed to help anybody or anything, it was just a statement of identity: This particular kind of cruelty is the kind we like. As always with Trump-era wingnuttery, it’s all projection, so when the right accuses the left of identity politics, they’re confessing. Their politics is ALL about identity — their own.

Bannon is, at least, a better movie critic than Trump, who no doubt only chose CITIZEN KANE because it’s “the greatest.” I am undecided if Morris cut that piece together to conflate both Mrs. Kane’s because he assumes Trump doesn’t remember there’s two of them, or just because he wasn’t taking care. Bannon’s reading of CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT is possibly smarter than Morris’. But less humane.