Archive for Buster Keaton

Litter Louts

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on December 14, 2015 by dcairns

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Richard Lester has said “Someone should teach a class on film openings,” pointing out that this is where the director is often most free to lay out the themes of the film without the pressure of narrative.

The making of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM was a running battle between Lester and his producer, Melvin Frank, an old-school Hollywood type. Frank couldn’t comprehend the idea of Lester shooting a musical without a camera crane, refused to let him hire a screenwriter to rewrite the script (Lester eventually did it himself with Nic Roeg, his cinematographer), wrote a long memo explaining exactly why the film must and should contain a water ballet on the theme of “flags of all nations” (Lester framed this and hung it in his bathroom), and eventually locked some of the footage in a vault to prevent it being incorporated in the edit.

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Reading all this in Neil Sinyard’s critical study of Lester, I surmised that the title sequence of the film, climaxing in a collision between two Roman litters, with the producer’s name superimposed over one and the director’s over another, was a sly comment on the fraught nature of their “collaboration.” The first time I met Lester I congratulated him on this.

“No. That wasn’t intentional.”

Chalk up another victory for the power of the unconscious mind.

Titles are by Richard Williams. Editing is by John Victor-Smith. Perhaps it was their idea. The sequence is rather remarkable for the way it shuffles Zero Mostel introducing the story direct to camera (with song), Zero Mostel conducting a crooked game of dice (the start of the story itself), cutaway portraits of the dramatis personae as they are introduced, documentary shots snatched of extras who Lester had actually living in the set, flashforwards of highlights to come (so that the movie contains its own preview of coming attractions), and deleted footage that doesn’t appear in the movie at all (perhaps rescued from Frank’s safe?). Lester told me there wasn’t any more footage of Buster Keaton than appears in the movie, but there are a couple of tiny, suggestive moments here…

The Sunday Intertitle: Frozen Expression

Posted in FILM with tags , , on November 22, 2015 by dcairns

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Forecasts hinted at snow so I watched Keaton’s THE FROZEN NORTH to get in the mood.

An odd one — Buster acts wildly out of character throughout, robbing a saloon, shooting a man and a woman dead, and then threatening another woman with rape. This is at least a bit funnier than it sounds — a dissolve shows Buster as his prospective victim sees him, in white Prussian uniform and monocle, as Buster Von Stroheim. So we’re in the realm of movie fantasy, not the realm of sex crime, which would be a crap realm to be in. But it’s all quite odd, since getting audience sympathy was normally something Keaton was careful about.

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The ending reveals the whole story to have been a dream sequence, experienced by Buster after falling asleep at a movie show, which retroactively makes sense of everything and means you could then watch the film again without the same sense of nagging confusion/dissatisfaction.

A minor effort, then, but an interesting experiment, with Buster knowingly spoofing a lot of stock tough-guy poses. He doesn’t even wear his sawn-off porkpie hat until the end. In the shorts, Buster is usually consistent, though his role in life varies from vagabond to family man. In features, he could play a resourceful engineer or a feckless millionaire, with zero adjustment of performance style. This one has him not only acting out of character, but acting in a different style.

The Sunday Intertitle: Monkey on Man on Wire

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 20, 2015 by dcairns

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Fiona definitely prefers Keaton to Chaplin, which is fine, except I don’t see the need to compare them at all. Do we need to decide that Fred Astaire is better than Gene Kelly? In certain respects, no doubt he is, but the comparison is of little help, obscuring rather than revealing the individual merits of each, or making Kelly’s merits seem somehow trivial.

Anyway, I was hoping to get Fiona to watch THE CIRCUS this week so I could write about it here, but we didn’t get to it. But we saw the opening when Paul Merton did his silent movie show in Edinburgh with Neil Brand on piano, and I subsequently showed her the bit with the lion and the bit with the monkeys, which are highlights in a feature usually considered less than totally successful. Read Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns for a cogent analysis of the story’s conceptual flaws.

The point is, Fiona laughed harder at the bit with the monkeys than she’s ever laughed at Keaton, I suspect. She likes monkeys. And also, everything about the scene is really brilliant. The cute monkeys become a deadly threat, since Chaplin is on a high wire. The trivial, degrading things they do to him — pulling his trousers down, biting his nose, climbing all over him and sticking a tail in his mouth — are all potentially fatal in this scenario.

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(Exactly the same dynamic is at play when Chaplin finds himself trapped in a cage with a sleeping lion. A small dog outside starts yapping at him — apparently outraged that he should be in the cage where he doesn’t belong — and all his/our anxiety becomes focussed on the wee dog, which might waken the slumbering lion. Something small and cute becomes deadly — that’s always funny, like the Beast of Aargh in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, a cute bunny that can bite your head off, or like Mr. Stay-Puft in GHOSTBUSTERS if you want to lower the tone.)

Anyhow, the monkey-tightrope scene got Fiona genuinely hysterical, which I always enjoy seeing. Losing control of her faculties, she started narrating the action like a Benshi on nitrous oxide — “It’s biting his nose! Its tail is in his mouth!” She couldn’t breathe for laughing, and so couldn’t speak for not being able to breath, and for laughing at the same time, but couldn’t stop herself doing it. It was as if she could stop the scene being so life-threateningly funny if she could just describe it accurately. The critical impulse at work!

All this and the best banana-peel joke ever.

I guess hardcore Chaplin-haters MIGHT be able to sit through this scene without laughing, which I think would be proof of rigor mortis, or they might argue that it’s only funny because monkeys are funny. But it’s not just cute funny animal time — the USE of monkeys in a scenario with an underlying threat of death is extremely clever, the work of a master of comedy. And Chaplin’s convincing terror in the scene enhances it greatly — he knows when it’s funniest to play it serious.

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“Comedy is a man in trouble.” Yeah. With a monkey in his mouth.

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