Archive for Birth of a Nation

Thoroughly Unmodern Tillie

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2021 by dcairns

TILLIE’s PUNCTURED ROMANCE (1914) isn’t highly rated — but we should give Sennett some credit for jumping into the feature film racket with both flapshod feet, even when he could have had little idea of what a feature comedy would be like (nobody had made one).

There’s also something poetically apt about Sennett co-directing with Charles Bennett (not the writer of THE 39 STEPS, no — but the guy who sings “Oh, Mr. Kane” in CITIZEN KANE, yes). I want more rhyming co-directors. Christopher Nolan & Xavier Dolan? Michael Mann & Ahn Hung Tran? Susanne Bier & Lars Von Trier? Suggest more!

I’m devoting three posts to this as it’s a six-reeler I guess and certainly thrice the length of any previous Chaplin.

And it starts very nicely, with imported star Marie Dressler emerging from stage curtains to smile shyly at the (imagined) audience, then dissolving into her movie character — and then another dissolve transports that character into her natural habitat. This seems to me better than anything in De Mille’s THE SQUAW MAN, sometimes considered the first feature film, but in reality only the first extant one.

Enter Mack Swain in a big rustic beard, to give Tillie/Marie the traditional Keystone kick up the arse. Welcome to the studio. Sennett tried to cover his costs by shoehorning every comedian in his stable into this movie, which is how Chaplin comes to make his inauspicious feature debut.

And is that Teddy the Keystone Dog ambling through lower frame? Apparently not, though he does seem to have been around pictures at the time. I tell you what, let’s start an unfounded rumour that it’s him.

Enter Chaplin, as “the stranger,” a kind of man with no name I guess, in a straw hat. Always interesting to see him as a villain, and he does it very well. This is his last baddie until Hynkel and Verdoux, I guess. He enters, back to camera, and we stay on that back a loooong time. Keystone has finally discovered preparation and suspense — well, they had to, a feature film made at the pace of a typical Sennett one-reeler would have required a huge budget.

Okay, it’s definitely not Teddy. we could christen him Freddy the Keystone Other Dog

Tillie is playing “catch-the-brick” with Not-Teddy, and accidentally hits the stranger in the nose with her lobbed bit of masonry. Very good pratfall from CC, and it all makes for a very Keystone meet cute. Less than three minutes in and two of their signature moves have been displayed. How long until a pastry is flung?

Charlie aggressively woos Tillie. Wonderful to see Dressler moving about so nimbly in head-to-toe wide shot. And the physical contrast is lovely, with Chaplin like a mosquito thinking of alighting on a tempting jelly.

Charlie and Swain have a drink and everything goes out of focus (nitrate decomposition).

People seem to communicate not by intertitles, but by kicking one another up the arse. I wonder how much nuance they can put into it / get out of it? Dressler’s facial expressions seem to suggest quite a bit. Without the use of her fantastic voice, though, she’s reduced to mainly being a gurner. And the fact that everyone tends to pitch their performances at the camera instead of at one another is a bit tiring. Chaplin was right to limit that to himself as actor, and to use it for audience rapport, not to telegraph things we might have missed. Expositional camera-directed pantomime is the worst.

Charlie’s “look” is yet another fascinating variation. He has a tiny moustache, but a DIFFERENT tiny moustache. Not a toothbrush. There doesn’t seem to be a name for this style or breed. It’s a bit like Max Linder’s chevron-style , but it’s in two pieces. Which is weird. Did it influence Cantinflas and his repulsive face-fungus? But the Spaniard’s two segments have grown further estranged, leaving his philtrum and most of his upper lip area bare, a gaping no-man’s land, while the hairs cluster together like herd animals at the corners of the mouth as if drawing sustenance from stray saliva.

The baggy pants and cane are still there. Chaplin has worked out that his brand definition is beneficial to him, but he needs to delineate between the Little Fellow and this little creep.

Speaking as we were of whiskering, I like that Mack Swain has a portrait of Lincoln on his wall, evidently the inspiration for his unsightly “Irish” beard.

Charlie sets about wooing the hefty hayseed for her father’s loot. This is good material for him, though hardly the kind of thing he’d get up to in his regular characterisation, partially-formed as it yet was. Dressler gets to have fun acting girlish, and would presumably have appealed to John Waters: “I like fat people who don’t know they’re fat.” She’s very graceful, but can drop it in an instant and stagger with pachyderm ponderousness: one thinks of her breaking stride at the end of DINNER AT EIGHT.

This film is usually dismissed, but I have to say, they’ve correctly worked out that the way to make a Keystone feature is to linger on character interplay in simple scenes, not to pack the screen with the usual busy-busy fussing or frenetic action. Cheaper, as well as less exhausting!

The lovers woo by slinging roses at one another. Tillie can hurl a blossom hard enough to knock Charlie on his ass. Of course, it’s not long before bricks are being tossed: this being the countryside, there are plenty lying about (it’s Keystone country).

Charlie proposes an elopement, and it’s a crystal-clear bit of mime, aided by Marie’s shocked, awestruck, delighted responses. His proposal that they rob her father requires a bit more explicit for-our-benefit gesticulation, but plays OK.

Dressler dresses up to elope, donning an extraordinary hat which seems to have a miniature egret or something posing atop it. I can imagine such a garment appealing to Bjork but few others. Anyway, get used to it, she doesn’t get another costume change for ages.

Enter Mabel Normand, forearms immersed in an almighty muff (elbow-deep in animal as they were, women of the era could have taken to veterinary practice as to the manner born), as THE GIRL HE LEFT BEHIND HIM. We’re in Part Two now, and the plot, a thin gruel thus far, duly thickens. Mabel advances into a gaping, PIG ALLEY close-up. Either Mack Sennett or Charles Bennett, has been looking at Griffith (with whom Sennett used to work). It’s rumoured that Sennett decided to throw everything into TILLIE’S after learning that DWG was at work on what became BIRTH OF A NATION, but Hobart Bosworth’s THE SEA WOLF and Cecil B. DeMille & Oscar Apfel’s THE SQUAW MAN were already out there, making money, so that influence is not needed.

The mini-skirmish with Mabel in the street is just padding, though, since the trio face off again in a restaurant, another of those bustling, hyperactive scenes Sennett had a weakness for. Interesting to see Mabel as a villainess.

Tillie gets drunk (falls down a fair bit), Charlie steals her ill-gotten dowry and absconds with Mabel. A woman walks by in the background grinning right into the lens, but if the stars can do it, why not random Los Angeles citizens?

Tillie is ousted and rousted, into the waiting arms of a kop, while Charlie and Mabel laugh wickedly from a presumably adjoining shot. (Keystone movies are very Kuleshovic, since near everything’s a master shot and when you have two wide shots joined together by glances or shoved characters passing from one frame to the other, you never ever get a wider view that links the two frames explicitly.)

Mercifully, Tillie is having too good a time being drunk for the first time to notice that she’s been robbed, abandoned and arrested. The local kop shop is just a palace of drunken hilarity to her. So they put her in solitary confinement with five men and two other women.

Charlie and Mabel go shopping — he is floored by the department store’s swing door. Hinges! There’s just no combatting them.

In the jail cell, Tillie is assailed by varied print formats — things keep blazing into high-contrast glare, with curved corners flashing momentarily onto the frame, a bit of Lynchian strangeness that prepares us for the possibility of Marie Dressler inexplicably mutating in her cell into Balthasar Getty. Which wouldn’t be that much weirder than what’s gone before.

Further developments introduce Phyllis Allen, Keystone’s own Marie Dressler type, as a prison matron (though Tillie isn’t in prison yet, just in the hoosegow’s lock-up) and co-director Charles Bennett himself as Tillie’s rich uncle. Also Edgar Kennedy as his butler. Having a rich uncle duly gets Tillie released, and a good thing too as she’s now entered the lachrymose phase of inebriation, weeping and kissing the desk sergeant’s bald head. “You th’ bess pal in th’world, thass wha’ you are…”

Mabel and Charlie emerge from the clothing store, all gussied up. Mabel is now the full Theda Bara. Charlie no longer had the baggy pants, his divorce from the Little Fellow is complete. (But we can’t see his feet!) This movie is like his entire progress at Keystone played in reverse. Mabel and Charlie have a ton of fun just standing in the street interacting. Makes me wish we could have seen them actually clothes shopping.

Admittedly, Tillie’s weird pyjama-dress-pantsuit thing is pretty impressive too. She’s still having tipsy fun, roughhousing with the Kops, making a great play of jumping off one of those huge kerbs they had in them days. I guess having a massive step like that would actually potentially deflect a cartwheel coming at you sideways, so they probably saved a lot of lives. If you were on the sidewalk you were kind of safe, unlike now. On the other hand, the pedestrians must’ve been walking about on broken ankles alla time.

That’s End of Part 2 —

TO BE CONTINUED

Under the Hood

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2018 by dcairns

If I was Kim Newman I’d begin this post on Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN by pointing out the existence of the 1966 Ted V. Mikels joint THE BLACK KLANSMAN, and the black sort-of klansmen in SHOCK CORRIDOR and THE KLANSMAN (O.J. Simpson, name-checked in Lee’s film). And then reference THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, Ivan Dixon’s genuinely revolutionary version of the conceit, in which a black man joins the CIA to learn guerrilla techniques he can use in the struggle. But I’m not Kim Newman. I don’t even own a cape.

I would cheerfully go along with the critical mainstream and call this Lee’s best film in years, but I stopped watching his stuff around the time of SUMMER OF SAM, which I thought was really hatefully ill-thought-out. Lee was attacked for exploiting real-life murders in a way that seemed, and was, unfair, since nobody, or nobody much, ever used similar grounds to attack Richard Fleischer (COMPULSION, THE BOSTON STRANGLER et al), Richard Brooks (IN COLD BLOOD) or the countless other filmmakers to labour in the true crime genre. But Lee’s movie has, for example, a throwaway reference to THE FLY — a talking fly as part of the killer’s hallucination. Lee’s director’s commentary at this point explains his choice: “hommage to THE FLY.” But what he doesn’t explain is why he thinks that belongs in this film. (Lee has always had a screwed-up willingness to go a mile out of his way in order to include a meaningless and inappropriate hommage, and it still hasn’t left him, even in this much better movie.)

So, in a sense, the criticism of this film was justified — it used real-life murders as an excuse to include a joke about a fifties horror movie. If I were the relative of a victim, I’d be offended. In fact, I’m just someone who’s seen THE FLY and I’m still offended.

But I did belatedly see INSIDE MAN and liked it a lot, so I’ve been thinking about giving him another chance.

The Independent has a fairly good, informative piece on where Lee’s film departs from the facts of his latest true crime story — probably best read after you see the movie which, as I’m trying to imply, is well worth seeing. The screenwriters seem to have invented A LOT, though the story’s unlikely set-up is indeed “fo’ real.” I wondered, after reading it, if the film’s romantic interest even existed in reality. The piece doesn’t tell me. She’s at the centre of an ethical dilemma involving the hero — is he sleeping with her while undercover? — which the movie never answers. (Turns out she didn’t exist — the real Ron Stallworth had already met his future wife before this story begins.)

The movie is shot on 35mm for an authentic blaxploitation look, although the design seems to consistently situate it bang in the middle of that decade. Nothing said 1979 to me, although maybe Colorado Springs moved a touch slower than elsewhere. Having just watched THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, whose attention to verisimilitude was a little marred by some unconvincing wigs and cookie-dusters reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s Sabotage video, I was relieved that the wig-work here was convincing and, to me, the movie didn’t cross over into seventies parody. Any time you watch an actual blaxploitation movie, there will be several costumes worn in apparent earnest that you could never use with a straight face in a modern movie set in that period.

What the movie does give us is some excellent performances — John David Washington is an instant star, funnier than his famous dad, Adam Driver is as good as we’ve come to expect, and there’s an extremely powerful cameo from Harry Belafonte which forms a major part of the best sequence I’ve ever seen from Lee. Now THAT’S an hommage, if you like. (Lee’s always been good at finding roles for iconic black actors, and I’m grateful to him for giving Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis plum late-life parts). And at the end there’s one of his patented dolly-the-actors-with-the-camera shots, and it’s the best iteration of that particular conceit I’ve seen from him. And I got a fleeting sense, from the way the movie folds in bits of Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION and implicates it in the resurgence of the Klan, that the technique has some special meaning for Lee (it must, for him to use it so insistently), having something to do with the intrusion of movies into life.

Blue Pencil, Brown Trousers

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2017 by dcairns

The final episode of A.T.L. Watkins’ essay on the role of the British film censor. Parts one and two.

But if the Board has no Code, there are certain broad principles on which it works. In judging a film there are three main questions to be considered:

Is it likely to impair the moral standards of the audience by extenuating vice or crime or by depreciating moral values? The Board does not consider that because a screen gangster successfully brings off a coup, the ordinary husband will be tempted to crack a safe on the way home, or because that wife in the film gets away with a clandestine affair, a respectable housewife is likely to break up her home in Brixton. But the boy or girl in the next seat to them? The young wage-earner with too little in his pay-packet, the weak, impressionable girl for whom all is unquestionably gold that glitters? Remember, the Censor is not dealing with single pictures. Single incidents or lines of dialogue are not likely to corrupt anyone. The Censor is dealing with the cumulative effect of a continuous output of pictures on people who see films regularly, many of them two or three times a week.

I accept that films can cause harm, though it’s very hard to predict how they’ll do it. And they have to find fertile ground in order to do it. Can BIRTH OF A NATION be blamed for the revival of the Ku Klux Klan? Obviously, then men who joined the Klan are responsible for their own actions and deserve our contempt — the film does not take any blame away from them. But the film was not just irresponsible, which I can usually excuse (Nabokov suggests that the artist has no social responsibilies), it’s consciously CALLING FOR white supremacy. So it seems reasonable to hold it to account.

Griffith has earned his place in cinema heaven but once a year he must be lowered into hell with the block and tackle. On his birthday.

Movies which inspire the mentally ill to terrible actions strike me as a different case, since no one can predict what some poor paranoid schizophrenic might be set off by. Incitement to violence and hate speech should be covered by existing laws.

I’ve occasionally felt so excited by a film I left the cinema fired up — SID AND NANCY, on first viewing, made me feel how enjoyable it would be to smash up a Rolls Royce. But the feeling was short-lived, and I couldn’t convincingly blame Alex Cox for my own foolishness if a Roller has fallen into my path during the period of exhilaration.

Secondly, is the story, incident or dialogue likely to give offence to any reasonably minded member of the public? Repeat ‘reasonably minded.’ The Board does not cater for cranks or their susceptibilities: if it did, no film would remain intact. But it tries to keep out of films the things which it believes a normal audience would not welcome as entertainment: harrowing death or torture scenes, gruesome hospital and accident sequences, unnecessary physical brutality, cruelty to animals or children; indecency, vulgarity, flippant references to religion or any sincerely held belief; ridicule of public figures or institutions.

Here we see the most blatant evidence of the political nature of censorship, especially as it was exercised in 1949. Why should public figures and institutions not be ridiculed? Indeed, given the fine tradition of insults bandied about in Parliament, it would seem that the authentic remarks of our highest politicians could not be represented in a film, if Watkins’ strictures were to be applied consistently. It’s hard to imagine what life and attitudes were like before the sixties satire boom made mockery respectable. As I recall from my reading, criticism of the army and its officers was particularly frowned upon, which would make the Boulting Brothers’ PRIVATE’S PROGRESS a bolder film that I realised.

Thirdly, what will be the effect of the story, incident or dialogue on children — that is to say, children of all ages under sixteen? This is one of the Board’s most important considerations. Because, whether we like it or not, the children are in the cinema and they have come to stay. The cinema in this country has developed as a family entertainment. In this respect it differs from the stage or radio. The theatre, except at Christmas time, is largely an adult entertainment; and while the radio caters for everyone, it is a selective entertainment and children do not as a rule tune in to the programmes which attract their elders. Added to which, the radio lacks the tremendous visual influence of the cinema, perhaps the most powerful of all influences upon the juvenile mind. The Board must take into account the fact that the films it passes may, and probably will, be seen by children of all ages. Adults may rather resent this. They may regard with disfavour the idea of the children’s presence limiting the scope of their entertainment. Well, the remedy is simple and has been suggested. Exclude the children from the ‘A’ films. Let these films be truly adult, and confine the children to the ‘U’ films.

As I’ve said, I accept the usefulness of certification. Partly because it’s a rite of passage to sneak into films you’re too young to see. (I saw the AA-rated EXCALIBUR and CONAN THE BARBARIAN when I was too young. I think the X had been replaced by the 18 before I had a chance to notch that one up, and bizarrely I can’t remember what my first 18 film was. I must have seen lots on VHS before having the big-screen adult experience. And Edinburgh’s only X cinema, The Classic, closed its doors before I was of an age to don a dirty mackintosh and shuffle inside.

The main objections to certificates are that they’re often applied in a ludicrous way, and that kids still get to see those films anyway. But I guess parents find them somewhat helpful. Tom Hanks’ mom took him to see SCREAM OF FEAR instead of BAMBI or something, because the cinema had unexpectedly changed programme and she couldn’t tell the difference. Anything which protects Tom Hanks from Hammer knock-offs of LES DIABOLIQUES is probably a good thing. (I don’t know how old Tom hanks was when this happened. It would be good if he was, say, 28.)

Look, it’s A.T.L. himself! This whole documentary is well worthwhile, but A.T.L. shows up at around 3.30, delivering a “comic” verse modeled on Kipling’s If–.

Good to know that the A. stands for Arthur and not, say, Attila. Probably a nice chap if you knew him, but he seems rather punchable here.

This has been the solution adopted in some foreign countries, but, as has already been pointed out, the cinema in this country has grown into a family entertainment, and any proposal in the direction of excluding children would destroy the basis on which the industry has developed. For the effect would be that large numbers of parents could not go to the cinema at all. The ‘A’ category has been devised to meet this difficulty and to preserve the cinema as a family entertainment. Under the conditions commonly imposed by licensing authorities, the ‘A’ category allows children to be present if accompanied by their parents or a bona-fide guardian. The ‘A’ category leaves the decision to the parent. It says, in effect, ‘This film is not, in the opinion of the Board, a suitable one for all children under the age of sixteen, though it may be suitable for some, having regard for their mental development.Is it a film which is suitable for your child? You know your children better than we do. We are leaving it to you to decide.’ This is a compromise, a liberal solution which trusts the parent. The alternative would usurp his function of deciding what entertainment is suitable for his children. The compromise has worked over a number of years, and its continued success will depend on the degree to which the parent exercises the responsibility which has been conferred upon him.

This is very interesting. Arthur fails to explain exactly why certification would stop parents from being able to go to the cinema. Maybe because people in those days liked to just rock up at the local Grenada at some random time and see whatever was on, which wouldn’t work if the film turned out to be an X? Could he be right? Audience figures plummeted in the fifties, but I think we all agree that was due to TV, not the introduction of certificates that prevented kids from seeing racier material…

I have outlined above the general principles upon which the Censor works. His task is not an easy one. The balance between passing films which will be such as the general public wish to see, and can approve, and those which, in their subject or treatment, may have some objectionable features or incidents, is often delicate. It is difficult for him to please everyone, nor is it likely that every one of his decisions will be universally acceptable. There are times when he must stand between a disappointed public and what it thinks it should see, between aggrieved producers and what they think they should show, between jaded critics and what they believe they should be spared, between the educationist and the theorist and the commonsense of the average man. Moreover, while it is right that the Censor shall pay regard to the preservation of a high standard of entertainment in the cinema, he must be careful not to provide any needless impediment to the development of an important art. The successful accomplishment of his task depends upon the sympathetic co-operation of all who are interested in the welfare of the cinema: of the producers and the public, and of the Licensing Authorities in whom is vested the final responsibility for the standard of entertainment offered in their area. The degree to which the Censor’s word is in accord with responsible public opinion is the measure of his success.

That’s the end.

And yet there’s no reason why the censor (or “Censor” — Arthur always capitalizes the word, regardless of whether he’s talking about a specific body or examiner or the role in general) should be considered successful just because the public agree with him. And since most members if the public don’t know what they’ve been prevented from seeing, the censor would always attract more criticism for letting stuff through that upsets someone than he would for holding something back. This led the BBFC to believe that they were an inherently reasonable organisation.

I attended a public discussion of the BBFC’s work at Edinburgh Filmhouse in the 90s, and found it very unsatisfactory. A panel had been convened from various places, but they were all pro-censorship of one kind or another. A very odd kind of debate. Clips were shown from TERMINATOR II and CLIFFHANGER, among others, demonstrating some OTT violence (Sarah Palmer beating the chubby guy as she escapes from hospital) and showing how it had been cut to soften it. The BBFC man said that while previous generations may have made decisions that seem ridiculous to us now, he doubted that these cuts would seem absurd. My feeling was that they were already absurd, unless you believed that the “violence” was somehow real. I also felt that the sequences, while not necessarily highly artistic to begin with, were damaged by the cuts. CLIFFHANGER had Craig Fairbrass kicking somebody to death, or near enough, but somehow teleporting across a mountaintop while doing it in the trimmed version. The truncation didn’t really make it less unpleasant, just shorter and more confusing.