Archive for Erik Larson

Old Queen Who?

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2022 by dcairns

“I mourn the safe and motherly middle-class queen, who held the nation warm under the folds of her big, hideous Scotch-plaid shawl and whose duration had been so extraordinarily convenient and beneficent. I felt her death much more than I should have expected; she was a sustaining symbol — the wild waters are upon us now.”

Henry James on the death of Queen Victoria, quoted in Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck, which I am currently enjoying. And I’m sure it seems like that to a lot of people now. I like the “big, hideous shawl” line too.

I read Larson’s The Devil in the White City when it first came out — I think I may have actually bought it in an airport en route to New York for the first time? Seems apt — Larson writes airport histories, you might say. But I mean that as a compliment, somehow. Anyway I read that and enjoyed it and then forgot to keep an eye on the author, with the happy result that I now have about seven of his books to read. I’ve hoovered up The Splendid and the Vile (the Blitz) and managed to draw upon it when writing abut THE GREAT DICTATOR; I’ve also enjoyed Dead Wake (the Lusitania) and Isaac’s Storm (the Galveston hurricane disaster of 1900). There’s usually a small film connection to keep me happy: one of the witnesses to the destruction of Galveston was a small boy named King Vidor.

I recall being bewildered that Leonardo DiCaprio was buying the rights to Devil in the White City — the book doesn’t contain a lot of what you’d call dramatic scenes, though it’s a very dramatic, exciting read. I feel like LDC got bamboozled into buying an unfilmable book, though now, finally, the thing seems to be moving towards production as a miniseries. That work tells in parallel the stories of the murderer HH Holmes and the creation of the Chicago World Fair of 1894. My current read, Thunderstruck, has a similar structure, following Marconi’s development of wireless, and Dr. Crippen’s less salutary life, destined to collide with the Italian inventor’s creation.

In other news — we’re going to the pictures! This has become a somewhat irregular event. The occasion is JAWS in 3D IMAX. I’m excited by the IMAX, a little nervous about the 3D. I haven’t seen any fake 3D movies, I’ve refused to. Although GRAVITY is sort of a fake 3D movie and I love that. What I mean is I haven’t seen any movies not originally designed to be seen in 3D. But I love 3D. I’ve just paused Wim Wenders’ PINA, on flat DVD. I’m a little cross that Edinburgh Filmhouse never deigned to screen that one, to my knowledge, in three dimensions. They invested in the chargeable electric glasses system, then decided their audience didn’t like 3D and stopped using it. Tsk. I thought *I* was their audience! I’m crazy about the third dimension, I practically live there.

PINA is very enjoyable so far — I love the dancing. The filming is fine. Editing less so. But I wish I could see the missing dimension.

No Intertitle Today

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2022 by dcairns

Amazing 1906 Vitagraph silent by company boss J. Stuart Blackton, who also apparently stars. No intertitles or titles of any kind because it’s 1906, I guess. I’m not actually sure what exact year intertitles became commonplace.

AND THE VILLAIN STILL PURSUED HER takes its title from a melodramatic meme — already the tied-to-the-railroad-track type situations were ripe for parody. This one not only reduces — or inflates — its continual crises to absurdity, it folds it all into a self-reflexive meta-narrative thingy. Ludicrous fun, and it gets crazier the more it goes on. Do, do, do watch it.

Blackton, who collaborated with Winsor McCay, seems to have had a predilection for silliness — I must see more of his surviving works.

Odd sense of synergy this morning. I was lying in bed reading Dead Wake by Erik Larson (gripping stuff) — the window was open and the usual cacophony — soften by it being a Sunday morning in summer — was filtering into the room. Between our tenement building and the ill-famed Banana Flats which curve around the back of our block in a slack concrete embrace, there is a kind of echo chamber in which any noise from the Flats is bounced reverberantly around the neighbourhood. I was hearing the Beatles’ And I Love Her combined with an intense male voice which I eventually recognized, despite not being able to make out a single word, as that of William Shatner. The Shat, to give him due credit, devised dramaturgy’s most distinctive phrasing. I couldn’t identify the episode. As the Lusitania was struck silently by a torpedo in the pages of my popular history, the Enterprise klaxon sounded an arooga of sympathetic distress.

Winsor McKay, of course, crafted an amazing visualisation of the Lusitania’s last minutes afloat, since no actual newsreel camera were present.

This is vaguely interesting. A 1954 TerryToon, I guess one would call it. The same melodramatic cliches are spoofed. It looks much like a 1930s toon to me, except the figures have developed skeletons and joints rather than rubber bands (in 30s toons, even the skeletons don’t have skeletons, but simply BEND where required). In fact it’s a 50s TV entertainment. Apart from the disconcerting way the figures have of simply freezing, so the thing turns into a stationary drawing every few seconds, it’s much more elaborate than later TV crap. They haven’t worked out yet how bad they can do things and still get kids to stare slackjawed at the idiot box.

The villain believes he’s in a melodrama, the hero thinks it’s an operetta, the heroine, an extra-virgin Olive Oyl, is to passive to express a preference to one genre or the other. At one point she simply floats through the air in a sitting position, propelled by the Snidely/Dastardly type’s superior willpower.

I’ll spare you the Arthur Askey song of the same name but it’s here if you want it. I thankew!

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Hitler

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2022 by dcairns

Something Chaplin never explains — Adenoid Hynkel does his speeches in Tomainian — a made-up Germanic tongue consisting of gibberish and little recognizable nonsenses like “wienerschnitzel mitt de lagerbeeren” — but reverts to English for casual conversations. Very occasionally he will revert to Tomainian in times of high emotion.

Also, he has a radio commentator, Herman Schtick, voiced by his OTHER brother-in-law, Wheeler Dryden, translating his speech. To whom? The English-speaking world, I guess. Which would explain the squeamish “His excellency has just referred to the Jewish people.”

Chaplin, in welcoming Dryden into his cinematic family, shows fine judgement. I’ve seen the guy on screen, in a short shown at Bologna, and he’s an intolerable ham. The kind of silent movie acting you thought was a myth. By keeping him off-camera, Chaplin gets the best out of him. He’s excellent as a prissy translator, although he’s probably copying Chaplin’s line readings.

Chaplin complained, sort of, that this film needed a lot of prep because of all the models and special effects. We’ve seen the toy plane with its miniature Chaplin and Reginald Gardiner, now we have the flat cityscape background and the infinite crowd, which is pretty impressive, even if only the front rows show any lifelike motion. Further back we have what may be cut-outs, photographic standees, perfectly matching the real people. And then smaller, brighter audience members who are probably a painting. The whole thing combined on a rear-projection screen for Chaplin to perform in front of.

There are three levels of joke going on. Possibly more. Dryden’s dry commentary is in comic contrast to Chaplin’s furious histrionics. Chaplin’s Hitlerian antics are an accurate parody of how AH appears to the non-German-speaker. And then there are the dumb jokes, like pouring a glass of water down the front of his jodhpurs.

The accurate aspect is strikingly so — Hitler was a raving maniac. It’s quite hard to see what his appeal was, but this is not merely linguistic or historic — it depends on whether fascistic stuff has any attratction to you. I read recently — where? — an account of Hitler’s rl schtick, portraying himself simultaneously as the strong hero who would raise Germany to supreme status, and as the poor victim of the world’s injustice. Some kind of “empathy boomerang” (B. Kite’s phrase) in operation — Hitler standing in for the audience, appropriating their grievances and reflecting them back and at the same time offering to revenge them. Quite reminiscent of a recent president’s stage persona, in fact.

The dumb jokes may be dumb but they serve a serious purpose — rupturing the Hitlerian effect to point up how ridiculous he is. If, as Mel Brooks claims, ridicule is more powerful than invective, would a film like this, made in Germany, have sunk the Nazis in 1932? I doubt it — there is no shortage of satire today and its targets flourish. The left dominates the world of satire and the right dominates the world. Woody Allen may be correct to argue in MANHATTAN that, in the case of Nazis, biting satire may be less effective than bricks and baseball bats.

The Tashlinesque cartoon gag of the microphone bending back from Hynkel’s fury may be a stretch — like the rotating artillery shell it doesn’t belong to the same kind of comic logic as the rest of the film. Though it anticipates the role animation would play in America’s propaganda war against Hitler.

Two supporting characters are introduced: Herring and Garbitsch. The names are Strangelovian/Carry On film silliness. The performances are opposites. The great Billy Gilbert, bringing a new flavour of the vaudevillian to Chaplin’s cinema, plays Herring as a fat buffoon. Which was an aspect of the real Herman Goering. We can thank Goering’s incompetence for allowing us to win the Battle of Britain. But he wasn’t a TOTAL idiot. The ample frontage decorated with medals on every available space is accurate — Hitler knew Goering loved his trinkets. But he would never have humiliated him as Hynkel does to Herring.

Garbitsch, played by Henry Daniell, is deadly serious. As a Goebbels parody, the performance is downright restrained. Chaplin totally gets the cult-like aspect of the Nazi Party. Typically in a cult the leader is somewhat crazy, believing his own bullshit, but his immediate underlings are just gangsters. They’re able to manipulate the leader so that profitable choices are made. Garbitsch, though, is like Goebbels in that he’s 100% a true believer. He may sometimes be surprised by his Fooey’s behaviour but he never allows himself to question his sanity.

OK, I’m wrong about the crowd — when they zieg heil, or the Tomainian equivalent, a large number of them raise their arms, including all the ones I thought were cut-outs. The ones in the far distance just sort of shimmer. Apparently — I recall reading this but don’t recall where — distant crowds were produced by laying popcorn or some such granular substance on a vibrating platform to make a shimmering effect.

Chaplin, we’re told by one of his assistants, genuinely admired Hitler’s performance style. And obviously it was a gift of a part to him.

The pratfall isn’t exactly the end of the scene, but it’s the end of the YouTube clip and the end of Hynkel’s public performance. A suitably deflating gag. Why have Chaplin play Hitler if you don’t have him fall down.

Famously, Hitler, a movie buff (Henry Hathaway’s LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER was his favourite) got hold of a print of THE GREAT DICTATOR and ran it. Twice. His reaction, however, was not recorded. “I’d give anything to know what he thought of it,” said Chaplin.

Less famously, Churchill, also a movie enthusiast (“Hess or no Hess, I’m going to see the Marx Brothers,”), ran the film also. From Erik Larson’s history The Splendid and the Vile: Late the next night, exhausted, Churchill mistimed his landing on a chair and fell between it and an ottoman, wedging himself with his rear on the floor and his feet in the air. Colville [a secretary and secret diarist] witnessed the moment. “Having no false dignity,” Colville wrote, “he treated it as a complete joke and repeated several times, ‘A real Charlie Chaplin!'”