Archive for F Scott Fitzgerald

The Sunday Intertitle: Cocking His Snook

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2020 by dcairns

Maybe if I look at all of Chaplin’s “park, pretty girl and policeman” shorts from his Keystone period, I’ll find the bit with the flower mentioned by Schulberg/Fitzgerald in The Disenchanted. Or maybe it doesn’t exist.

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RECREATION (1914) begins with a penniless Charlie trying to throw himself to his death. So we know it’s a comedy alright. To accomplish the fatal act, he has to get over a fence. He performs a gag later used by Keaton on TV, hoisting one leg up and resting it on the crossbar, then hoisting up the other leg, leaving him momentarily unsupported in mid-air before gravity reasserts itself and he crashes to earth. Keaton’s version was better, more uncanny, but Chaplin is indisputably there first.

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When Helen Carruthers walks by, Charlie forgets all about suicide and becomes a sex pest. As his career went on, his pursuit of the leading lady gradually became more courtly, less lecherous, until there’s no sense of sexuality about his character at all, just the abstraction of Romance.

Helen’s beau is a violently inclined sailor, and so soon he and Charlie are lobbing bricks at one another. There’s a lot of this in early Chaplin, and it’s never terribly funny. All the later traditions of the custard pie fight are upheld — a few direct hits are followed, for variety, by a miss which clobbers a copper instead. But the projectiles are rather painfully serious rather than silly, undignfied and comic like the cream pie, which had to be discovered (by Mabel Normand, it seems) a little later.

Charlie claimed he learned about screen direction from Henry “Pathé” Lehrmann — you exit screen left, then enter screen right. And it’s very important that if you throw a brick off the left side of frame, it should enter the next shot from the right so it feels like it’s a continuous movement in one direction. But there’s an oddity here: the brick that misses travels left from Chaplin’s hand, left past the sailor, and left into a third shot where it hits the cop.

The cop then appears behind Charlie from the RIGHT, as if the universe were a short circle composed of three shots. It’s hard to work out the physical geography that could cause the policeman to take a circuitous path that avoided the sailor and arrived behind Charlie. He does so purely for the suspense value and dramatic irony of Charlie winding up to throw a brick, all unawares that he’s under the watchful eye of the law. A familiar panto technique.

Caught with the brick in his hand, Charlie shows why he’s a more interesting clown than his contemporaries by dusting it off. A bit of mime intended to prove that he was never intending to hurl it, he just thought it could use a clean.

Ah-hah! There are TWO policemen. That explains it. They have different hats, but I missed this important fact because the surviving print has been horribly cropped. Everyone’s missing the top of their head, which may be why they’re behaving so rambunctiously. Note that Chaplin hasn’t hit on the idea of the gigantic antagonist yet, a lucky thing since an Eric Campbell figure would be cut off at the nipples by this misframing.

Abruptly, for the film’s last two minutes, another source has become available and the image quality improves a thousandfold and we get luminous you-are-there clarity, time-traveling a hundred-plus years, a wrenching shock that takes a while to recover from.

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As Charlie flirts with Helen, a row-boat ponderously and distractingly edges into frame. Is it going to be significant? No, it’s just an indication that there was no A.D. on crowd control. A quick cutaway later and it’s gone. Nobody considered a retake worth their while to solve the continuity issue.

Conclusion: the film lurches back into grainy, smudgy, misframed ugliness and everyone winds up in the water. Right, that’s that dealt with.

Charlie does not seize a flower as described in The Disenchanted. Let’s keep looking.

 

The (UK) Father’s Day Intertitle: Schulberg on Fitzgerald on Chaplin

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2020 by dcairns

I’m finally reading The Disenchanted, the 1950 novel by Budd Schulberg, a Penguin paperback I inherited from my old friend Lawrie Knight years ago. It’s falling to bits as I read it, adding a certain pathos to the already sad story.

The book has multiple cinematic-literary connections, both as a text and a crumbling physical object. Schulberg, the son of Paramount boss B.P. Schulberg, was a 25-year-old screenwriter working for Walter Wanger when he was assigned Scott Fitzgerald as writing partner. Their extremely unsuccessful attempts to collaborate form the subject of this book, which is stuffed with walk-ons by film biz personalities.

It also has a front cover illo by Len Deighton.

I’m enjoying it — though some have doubts, which I share, about whether Schulberg is entirely honest about the events he covers. Of course, he fictionalizes like crazy, as is his right: names are changed; Schulberg’s fictive avatar is described as “handsome,” which is hilarious when you see the author photo on the back where he looks like a bump on a tree; his mogul dad is eliminated to erase any hint of nepotism and make “Shep” seem like an independent success.

The more serious bit is about Budd/Shep’s failure to stop Fitzgerald/Halliday from drinking. Shep has apparently read everything by Halliday but doesn’t know he’s a struggling alcoholic — in this fictional reality there’s conveniently no equivalent of The Crack-Up.  The real Schulberg said he had no idea about Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and nobody warned him he was partly being paid to keep it under control. So practically the first thing he does is urge the author to have a drink. And he keeps doing so, all through the book. Schulberg has Halliday tell him this is necessary, now that he’s started back on the booze he can’t afford to dry out until the job is done. Retelling the story, as he did often, Schulberg would omit this vital exchange, so did it happen? Did he ply his hero with drink to get stories out of him? Because that’s the glowing subtext.

Schulberg seems like a bad choice for the role of nurse: he was a bit of a boozer himself, and he makes Shep one. Shep finds a drink useful to prepare him for all sorts of activities, like meeting his boss. Like a lot of mid-twentieth-century literature, it really gives you a sense of how socially omnipresent drink was.

Fitzgerald’s partner, Sheilah Graham, never forgave him for this book — and who can blame her? — but it’s actually very sympathetic — maybe it’s the real-life events she should have held the grudge over.

Anyway, here’s an extract — Halliday is a man who remains insightful and eloquent even when so sloshed he can barely speak coherently, and his thoughts on Chaplin, which I’d like to believe are really Fitzgerald’s, are wonderfully sharp.

“Know the secret of Charlie? Not a man at all. Sneaks up in attic, puts on father’s clothes, pants too big, shoes too big, wears all kinds of different clothes together, anything he happens to find lying around. Then he pretends he’s grown up. But it’s all a dream. Girl he falls in love with, ‘thereal, too beautiful, way little boys fall in love with grown-up women from a distance. Dances with ’em, makes love to ’em, gives ’em won’erful presents, all in a dream. ‘member City Lights. And that face on Charlie. From ridic’lous to sublime no cliché for Charlie. Real art, real tragedy, only tragedy I ever saw in movies. That face on Charlie. The pain. I c’n seen it right now. All his pictures, same idea, the dream’s a beautiful balloon, a kid’s balloon, and reality’s a sharp point on a fence. The balloon drifts over the forbidden garden, hits the point ‘n bursts — way all of us wake up right back where we were. Chaplin’s the only one saw the movie as the bes’ medium in the worl’ for dreams, the child being the father, the tramp being the millionaire, the homely little bum being the elegant Don Juan. […]

“‘member one picture little one-reeler, can’t even ‘member the name of it. Charlie’s a drink being dragged along, grabs a bush as he struggles, finds a daisy in his hand. Daisy changes mood entirely. Becomes a poet, a dreamer, an aesthete. So convincing it looks like impro – improvisation an’ when you think of Charlie as a child not even unrealistic, you know the way a little boy sees a toy boat an’ becomes a boat captain, picks up a gun an’ goes right into character as a soldier. See what I mean? Don’t think of Charlie as an adult acting like a child but as a child acting like a grown-up.

“Like The Gold Rush. […] If movies didn’t die so fast it’d be considered a permanent classic like Hamlet or Cyrano. Funny as hell on the surface and full of inner meanings an’ the idea, the Gold Rush, just when the whole country was rushing for gold. Money crazy. […]

“I’m no analyst, but I could analyse Chaplin from his comedies — that’s how true they are. […] Notice how there’s always a big brute of a man pushing Charlie around — prospector in Gold Rush, millionaire in City Lights, employer in Modern Times, always the same father image, switching suddenly from love to hatred of Charlie like the millionaire picks him up when he’s drunk takes him home lovingly tucks him in, then sobers up in the morning an’ throws him out. Conflict with the father, whether Charlie sees it or not. All Charlie’s pictures full of it. Psychiatrist c’d do a helluva book on Charlie’s movies. […] What’m I talking about?”

“The Chaplin movies.”

“…don’t switch from comedy to tragedy. No phony, mechanical change o’ pace. The funniest parts, the parts where you laugh the loudest, are tragic. That’s where the genius comes in…”

Good stuff, eh, even if Freudian interps always start to feel sterile and reductive after a while. Incidentally, if the one-reeler cited is genuine, I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who can identify it.

Room 237 1/2

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2017 by dcairns

What’s THE SHINING about? Is it a puzzle with no answer, a labyrinth without a centre, a sentence stuck on repeat?

When I first saw the film, underage at the school film society (but film societies aren’t subject to the BBFC), we all “got a good scare” (as Kubrick said he wanted) — there were persons of a nervous disposition, teenage girls for instance, and it rubbed off on all of us. But then we were all furious at the ending, which didn’t make any bloody sense.

I like that now. At 17, one’s negative capability isn’t fully developed so things are supposed to make sense. I think the irrationality of the film, which is more extreme than 2001’s non-verbal sense of the numinous and unaccountable, probably does derive from King’s novel. King’s stuff never makes total sense, does it? I think because he’s maybe a little lazy or easily satisfied when it comes to plotting. But Kubrick certainly was after a disturbing quality that would result precisely from things not making sense. How did Jack Torrence end up in that 1921 photo? Had he always been the caretaker? How does that work, when the person telling him that used to be the caretaker?

The film actually spends half an hour at the start explaining everything — how to look after a hotel in winter, how the isolation can get to you, how a previous caretaker went nuts — and how things can leave a trace of themselves, and how a person with a psychic gift can detect that trace. But it can’t hurt you.

Over the course of act II and III, most everything Stuart Ullman, the Overlook Hotel manager, tells us turns out to be true, barring some confusion about the caretaker’s name. Delbert or Charles Grady? Delbert isn’t a typical English name, you know, and Grady turns out to be English. (Torrence also calls him Jeevesy, and Grady really does phrase things like Wodehouse’s immortal manservant.) Even though Kubrick shot a deleted ending in which Ullman turns out to be in league with the Overlook.

But what the reliable and sympathetic Mr. Halloran (Scatman Crothers) tells us turns out NOT to be true. He’s outlined what is called The Stone Tape Theory, based on Nigel Kneale’s superb TV play: ghosts are like psychic echoes of emotionally charged events. They have no will of their own, they only repeat the actions from their lives, and they can’t hurt you. This theory, concocted for fictional purposes, seems to describe really well most ghost encounters described by real people.

Unfortunately it turns out to be a really bad description of what goes on at the Overlook.

Stephen King has really committed the sin of double voodoo in his story. You’re only supposed to have one aberrant concept per story, but he has both ghosts and telepathy. But he makes this OK by tying them together: only people with “the shining” can see these traces of past events. This makes the story seem to be set in our world with only one additional element for us to swallow, so the story goes down easily. And by the time it turns out there are at least TWO aberrant concepts at play, it’s too late. We’re deep in the maze.

Halloran’s Stone Tape starts decaying when Jack starts talking to Lloyd the bartender, but we take Lloyd to be kind of an imaginary character at first. Maybe not even a ghost. He’s an odd kind of ghost, anyway, serving drinks. We may note that some of his banter has a Mephistophelean cadence to it.

Meanwhile, SOMEBODY unlocks Room 237 and Danny is apparently attacked by “a crazy woman” inside. It’s significant that we don’t see this attack, even though we soon after see the woman — the question of ghosts being able to interact with humans and with corporeal objects is kind of left open.

The headfuck is when Grady lets Jack out of the walk-in storage locker. A ghost has turned a key. At the Portobello High School film society, my friend in the next seat went “WHAT??” at this point. Grady spilling advocaat over Torrence is one thing, nothing is really affected, but this makes him a physical presence in our world, with a will of his own. I guess he could still be a projection of Torrence’s ego, but he’s a telekinetically able-bodied one, if that’s the case. Triple or quadruple voodoo.

Despite appearances, maybe it really IS a great party — read on…

Finally, in the third act, Wendy starts seeing all kinds of Overlook inhabitants. Wendy has been, arguably, the least psychically perceptive character, but even she gets it now. (How rare is the shining ability? Four out of five major living characters in this movie seem to have it.) King speculates that all mothers can shine a little, but Kubrick is having none of this pseudo-progressive sentimentality. The Overlook comes to life in the winter, and when it’s in full flush, even a dope like Wendy can’t miss what’s up.

The entertaining doc ROOM 237 offers a series of fun crackpot theories about what the film really means. In a way, the Indian one is the one most supported by the film. The hotel was built on an Indian burial ground, and we somehow know that’s to blame for everything. POLTERGEIST, released two years later, somehow makes us accept that all the crazy stuff is happening because the house is built on a former graveyard. And we just go with it. But anyway, “built on an Indian burial ground” has become this joke in the culture signifying something that is clearly cursed and no good, and it’s a pretty good joke if you think about it because, if you think about it, wasn’t the whole United States built on an Indian burial ground?

Yet the evil lurking in the Overlook doesn’t have anything to do with Native American mythology. And it seems to espouse a very white male privileged attitude. Chauvinistic, racist. And when you die in the Overlook, you don’t go to the Happy Hunting Ground. You go to a New Year’s July 4th party in 1921. But it seems like this is maybe a kind of pocket universe, existing eternally within the Overlook. And people get recruited into it when they die there. That makes me feel awful for Mr. Halloran. Because the idea seems to be that this is a nostalgic vision of a time when the white male was king. Although Grady ended up as a waiter and Torrence, despite his tuxedo and grin in the film’s final image, is apparently still going to be caretaker, only without his wife to do all the work.

Like all afterlifes (afterlives? technically better but sounds wrong) it’s very hard to visualise, even if that’s a photo of it at the end of the film.

Here’s what I think is going on. As in King’s Pet Sematery, the Indian burial ground thing is a signifier for a powerful spiritual site full of energy that white people don’t know how to channel. This energy starts to affect Danny, Jack and finally Wendy when they move in and are left alone with it. Jack proves to be the most vulnerable, and the energy creates images and character’s drawn from Jack’s mind — if he hadn’t known about Charles Grady the caretaker he would never have hallucinated Delbert Grady the waiter.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he tells us that the environment Dave Bowman finds himself in — visualised in the movie as Louis Quinze interiors with an illuminated floor — has been created by the unseen aliens from Dave’s memories. When he gets some chicken from the refrigerator, it proves tasteless, the ersatz ghost of chicken, because the aliens have just gone by a memory of chicken’s appearance.

I think Kubrick has returned to this promising idea. The Indian burial ground energy — probably nothing to do with Indians, originally, something in the very mountain itself which was detected by the Indians and treated with due deference — works on Jack, with mayhem as its object. It uses imagery drawn from his mind to twist him to violence, and when he dies, it transplants him into that world of fantasy, forever, ‘n’ ever, ever.

And in that fantasy it is New Year’s Eve July 4th, 1921, always, because Jack’s dream is to write the great American novel (which he will call All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy). Or at any rate, to be the great American novelist. The one who writes and drinks and parties and is celebrated.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, right?

The Beautiful and the Damned