Archive for Buster Keaton

The Sunday Intertitle: The Gag Man

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2018 by dcairns

This is, I think, the only funny intertitle in THE GENERAL, the only one that even attempts to be funny. And even then, it’s just alliteration, not some kind of wisecrack.

It’s a shock to see Keystone films after watching mature Keaton or Chaplin, because at Keystone they tried to cram gags into every title. I think the idea was to take what had been filmed and punch it up with another layer of comedy. Whereas Buster and Charlie knew what they’d got was good enough. Harold Lloyd would do funny titles — “When the man with the mansion met the miss with a mission…” — really witty ones. And they seem to be more intimately connected to the story — that one, from FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, was going to supply the movie’s original title.

Keaton does gag titles in his shorts, but again, they’re plot-based, as with the boat’s name in THE BOAT. “Damfino.” “Well I don’t know either.”

Weirdly, the writing credit on THE GENERAL names directors Buster and Clyde Bruckman, but adds, “Adapted by Al Boasberg and Charles Smith.” Smith was an actor, who plays the heroine’s dad in the film. And Boasberg was a joke writer from vaudeville who had helped shape the personae of everyone from Jack Benny to Milton Berle and Burns & Allen. Keaton referred to him as an example of how that kind of verbal humour wasn’t needed on his films, and the credit seems likely to be a compensation to Boasberg for not having any of his work used. The straightforward, purely functional titles of the film could be entrusted to a minor actor with, I suspect, Keaton more or less dictating ~

 

Smith.

Boasberg’s trumped-up credit reminds me of H.M. “Beany” Walker, who got writing credit on all the Laurel & Hardy shorts, despite the fact that the story was already in place when he came on, and so he’d write a dialogue script full of one-liners which the boys basically ignored. Those titles at the start of many L&H talkies would end up being his major contribution.

But it’s nice Boasberg got a credit because his name goes unmentioned on a lot of films he DID contribute to — notably A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, where he seems to have originated the legendary stateroom scene, a scene dependent on his speciality — verbal quips which not only fit the situation, but the speaker’s unique comic personality.

Info from Ben Schwartz’s amazing bio essay, The Gag Man, available in The Film Comedy Reader.

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Gas Giant

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2018 by dcairns

JUPITER ASCENDING! I had a vague hankering to see this, partly since I collaborated with the Wachowskis on CLOUD ATLAS (i.e. since I directed ten seconds of the bottom left-hand corner of a splitscreen montage in that film), partly because it sounded like it might be bonkers.

Sadly, only Eddie Redmayne is proper mad in this film, essaying a husky-voiced characterisation punctuated by Sudden Random SHOUTING that betrays the influence of A. Hopkins in particularly fruity mode. So he’s bringing the entertainment, or embarrassment, depending on your viewpoint. Some said the role would cost him the Oscar he might have otherwise clasped for THE DANISH GIRL. My friend and co-writer Alex Livingstone disagreed, insisting that it was the role of Balem Abrasax in the Wachowski space opera that he should in fact have been nominated FOR.As for the other actors, Mila Kunis does OK with a role that’s basically just asking questions about cosmology (while wearing nice frocks). Look at Linda Fiorentino, an equally poised and forceful actor, floundering horribly in Kevin Smith’s DOGMA to see how difficult this kind of exposition-speak can be. But then look at Sean Bean, who is SO good that he actually seems like a human being while talking this crap and hampered with the name Stinger Apini. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum is part-wolf, but he also used to have wings, but he can still fly without them thanks to his science skates, so that’s OK. Or is it? Seems kind of… NEEDLESSLY COMPLEX.

So is everything in this bloated yet wafer-thin pulp. The small greys are from such-and-such a system, says Tatum, but they’ve been modified to serve as OH SHUT UP CHANNING TATUM. Everything is needlessly complicated to disguise how simplistic it is, including the characters’ looks. Fiona complained that all the extras had pointless bits stuck on their faces. I blame Lobot. That guy with the tin ears in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. He’s Lobot. I know these things because I’m a film critic.“So… I play a guy with a stripey chin…”

We get an explanation of how the aliens cover up their activity on Earth, after a big chase trashes half of Chicago, but since the film goes on to spend zero time with ordinary humans, they might as well have not bothered. The MATRIXesque phildickian “something’s going on but you don’t know what it is, do you, Jupiter Jones?” thing simply has no reason to exist in this movie.

The brave thing about J.A. is that it’s not a sequel or a superhero movie, but that scarcely matters when it delivers the same boilerplate characters and “thrills” as every CAPTAINIRONBATSUPERWONDERBLACKTHORHULKSPIDERPANTHERMANWOMAN film out there. We get distinct nods to Mike Hodges’ FLASH GORDON and David Lynch’s DUNE, but the subversive and strange qualities of those movies are absent. Might as well have gone for broke, in retrospect, since this movie tanked anyway.The Terry Gilliam cameo is hugely enjoyable for this reason — they hired a non-actor for jokey reasons and let him do the same mugging and nonsense he’d do in the background of Monty Python sketches. Also, he doesn’t give us his thoughts on the #MeToo movement. The movie really needed about 400% of this sort of thing. Get Richard O’Brien! Get Martin Short!

Alternatively, the action scenes would need to be brought off with the kind of enthusiasm and cohesion and imagination the Wachowskis manages just once, in the original MATRIX. Well, the sequels had some eye-catching bits, I guess. But SPEED RACER had no flow, and this one has a bit so damn busy that the screen just disintegrates into particles. Some little spaceships called “Warhammers” were attacking a bigger spaceship. “I have no idea what I’m looking at,” protested Fiona, “except it’s shit.” I put forward that the theory that what we were looking at was pixels. To save money, the siblings had dispensed with computers and just poured a bunch of pixels all over everything. Really, if the second-hand disc had been damaged and started artifacting, we wouldn’t have known it.

Examples ~ It’s NOT any clearer when it’s in motion. It’s either a space battle as envisioned by Michael Snow or its the last image to pass before George Lucas’s mind’s eye as he gets dragged through the waistline of a radioactive hourglass.

Finally, Mila Kunis does get to do some acting, make some choices for herself, and have a fight scene, where it suddenly turns out she has the ability to fall for about a mile and then grab hold of something, which is odd as she’s not supposed to be superpowered. But at least she’s DOING SOMETHING rather than inviting other characters to dump information on her, The Wachowskis, as we now from the later MATRICES, have a real weakness of explanation.

But it’s too little, too late, in a film which is otherwise too much, too soon (rather than using its protagonist’s experiences to introduce the weird space characters, the film can’t resist splurging and flinging them at us right away). Jupiter is an expository device like CITIZEN KANE’s Thompson, leaving Tatum to drive the plot — but he’s not the title character, and he’s viewed as an object of desire. It’s nice when the Wachowskis mix up gender roles, but not nice when they sabotage the drama. At the climax of the film, Tatum has to fight a crocodile man, but I was struggling to get worked up about it. “I don’t dislike this crocodile man,” I found myself saying. “I think he’s OK.”Still, in the film’s one really neat bit of sci-fi action, Tatum drops the reptilian fellow through a portal in a glass floor and snaps it shut on his neck. Nasty.

Also oddly reminiscent of maybe the most startling gag in Buster Keaton’s career ~The tragedy of the Wachowskis, or maybe tragicomedy since they’re probably quite happy, is that they are authentically left-field talents (BOUND is still their most satisfying movie) who got boosted into superproduction mode by THE MATRIX and fundamentally don’t belong there. And maybe they’re not quite clever enough to either escape or turn the situation to any artistic advantage.

Those Awful Cartoons

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 7, 2018 by dcairns

Actually, I like even the really bad, charmless, disturbing thirties cartoons, though not as much as I like the genuinely charming but still creepy Fleischer masterworks. This one is somewhere in between.

CANDY LAND is a Van Beuren job from 1933. Typically incoherent and riddled with wrong. Two cats in a boat are transported to the moon, which seems to be made of comestibles. But you enter it through its grinning maw. Inside the lunar domain, there are chocolate soldiers emerging from giant cakes, and the cat lovers (why cats?) gorge themselves on everything. Thankfully, they don’t eat the characters MADE of food, like the candy cane halberdiers. (Not a phrase one sees often, “candy cane halberdiers,” but one I now plan to work into everything I write. Too late to use it in my OLD DARK HOUSE video essay, but maybe I can find a way to slip it into my text piece on Joseph H. Lewis’s SO DARK THE NIGHT.)

One interesting thing is the transitions — our cat duo get transported from scene to scene by dissolves, their figures occupying roughly the same screen space in each setting, sort of like the way Buster Keaton is teleported by edit in SHERLOCK JR. The inside of the moon is a dream, a movie, and a deli. They COULD have made the optical match perfect by simply recycling the same cels so the figures maintain their exact position, but either they didn’t think of it or they worried that would be confusing.

Confusing? In THIS cartoon?

And then the catagonists are chased by a giant sentient (or anyhow ambulatory) bottle of castor oil and accompanying spoon. Maybe it’s the same spoon who ran away with a dish after the cow jumped over this deli-planetoid. At any rate, he’s all flooby, urigellering all over the shop as he joins the insane chase.

One more thing. I like the way the moon follows the cats in their rowboat. When I was a little kid, driving in the car at night (as a passenger, I hasten to add) I was amazed at the effortless way the moon seemed to keep pace with the family Ford Cortina. Now, try as I might, I can’t be astounded by that anymore, but this toon returns some of the strangeness to our celestial stalker.