Archive for Go West

The bright side of life

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2021 by dcairns

SUNNYSIDE begins with an iris out on its fictional village, which, like Easy Street and numerous other Chaplin settings, is built around a T-junction, this one with a church at the axis.

The boss (Tom Wilson, acquired from Fairbanks, previously in THE IMMIGRANT and SHOULDER ARMS) wakes up, puts on a single boot, and goes to Charlie’s room where he boots him up the arse to (kick)start the day. This is a decent opening — anything which makes the arsekick more ritualistic than it already is should be commended. What makes Charlie’s arsekicks funnier than the run-of-the-mill kind is precisely the deference, mutual respect, or ritualism with which they can be received or given, because this clashes so absurdly with the rough and vulgar nature of the act itself.

Charlie is introduced as “Charlie” in the film’s second intertitle, which rubs me the wrong way. We’re told Chaplin always referred to his character as “the little fellow” but I see no evidence of this prior to the VO getting added to THE GOLD RUSH. But I prefer that name to Charlie, even though I use that name to describe the character in my blog posts. My bad. I feel like all names are wrong and should be used officially in intertitles. Chaplin does generally avoid this. So this could be a sign that he’s feeling off-kilter, at a loss.

Charlie pretends to get up, banging a boot on the floor to suggest diligent activity to the farmer, now back in his own bed. The boss catches him napping and remarks, via title cars, about “the whole forenoon gone.” Eagle-eyed observers will spot that the hands of his alarm clock indicate it being 3.55 am. Charlie is eventually roused with further arsekickery. When one kick misses, Charlie obediently returns to the receiving position so it can be redelivered.

Charlie goes out, ostensibly to work, then comes back in through the window and back to bed. This, presumably, is what happens every single day. I’m quite enjoying the idea.

Now we learn that the workplace is a hotel. I had assumed it was a farm, since why else did they tell us we were in a village? I’m not sure a village hotel has the right kind of standing for situation comedy or grotesque situational poetry. I’m not even convinced village hotel is a thing. But I’d say the confusion could perhaps have been cleared up by starting microcosmic and building outwards — Charlie is a sleepy worker — in a hotel — in a village. Or the reverse. By leaving out the middle step until now, Chaplin has sown confusion.

The hotel lobby is a picturesque shambles, complete with gamboling puppy and barber’s chair, which will never get used in the final cut. Here’s what we would have seen if Chaplin hadn’t had second thoughts ~

We see the empty chair because Chaplin has Rollie Totheroh sweep the room twice with his camera, right to left then left to right, like an automated security camera that hasn’t been invented yet, or like the end of THE CONVERSATION (whose repetitive pans mimic surveillance CCTV). At the end of pan #2, Charlie enters with a lawnmower and chops the weeds sprouting up through the lobby floor.

Then he puts a very placid chicken in a skillet (did they get the bird drunk, as they did with Mut the dog in A DOG’S LIFE?) to lay an egg. He prepares coffee. Since Charlie is atypically jacketless, in a sleeveless shirt, I notice that his arms, when hung at his side in casual, feckless mode, kind of angle outwards in a feminine manner. Women’s elbows are arranged differently, so they don’t bang against the wider hips when the arms swing. Charlie kind of has wider hips because of the flare-out of his baggy pants. His costume constantly shrinks the upper torso and arms while expanding the hips, legs and feet.

(Billy Ritchie, Scottish comedian and Chaplin impersonator, claimed that in fact Chaplin was impersonating HIM, as he had created the drunk character Chaplin later played in Fred Karno’s music hall group. Ritchie went into movies in baggy pants, teamed up with Henry “Pathé” Lehrmann, Chaplin’s hated first director, and got savaged to death by ostriches. Or else so severely injured he dropped out of performing, depending on who you believe. Anyway, I only mention him because he performed with a hugely padded trouser seat, the main distinction between him and Charlie except for his greater brutality, height, and the fact that he wasn’t very funny. )

Charlie expresses the milk for the coffee directly from an udder attached to a cow that wanders into the kitchen for the purpose. I wasn’t expecting to see gags Chaplin would later adapt for MODERN TIMES’ fantasy bucolic idyll. Obviously he felt the material either could be done better, or deserved a better film to be in.

At the level of micro-business, this film is still full of invention. The boss kicks Charlie up the arse when he’s pouring the coffee and the jolt transfers his spouting from one cup to the next, just at the right moment.

Dripping hot grease on the back of the boss’s neck is also good class vengeance, feckless-style. But Walter Kerr is convinced that Charlie as meek underdog is an unacceptable distortion of the character. He’s probably mostly-right, but in a film like WORK, the oppression of the working man can be used effectively as part of the comedy, and as long as he’s being funny about it here, and getting some revenge in by working poorly, this seems within the Chaplinesque bailiwick. I don’t know what a bailiwick is but I think we’re in one.

Charlie’s coffee having been loaded up with about forty sugar cubes is now a noxious black treacle unknown to toxicology a caffeinated molasses he can spread on his bread, which actually sounds like quite a good idea now I think about it.

Back to Sunnyside itself. Chaplin tries out a new Goliath, J. Parks Jones, who is very fat (dead at 59). He pairs him with the miniscule Loyal Underwood to make him look even bigger. Apparently Jones was in A DOG’S LIFE and SHOULDER ARMS but I somehow didn’t notice him? Like, a strolling planetoid crossed the screen, eclipsing the sun and causing the film to rattle on its sprockets, but I didn’t notice? Anyway, Jones does a great miseryguts trudge, but is no Eric Campbell.

Chaplin now has the boss kick a small boy’s dog to confirm to us that he’s mean. And he really kicks it! This mainly convinces me that Chaplin is mean.

Charlie’s duties at the hotel apparently include herding cows, which certainly adds to the incoherence of this scenario. It’s hard to see why Chaplin, a genius, couldn’t get enough material from his character being an odd-job man at a crappy hotel. Jerry Lewis got a whole feature out of bellhopping. Broadening the film’s scope to bring in all manner of rustic business makes it easier to introduce gags but dilutes and muddles everything, like eating spaghetti in in the bath.

Herding cows, Charlie slips, very slightly, on a banana peel. This is pretty desperate. The only innovations are (1) the banana skin is lying on a country lane, where it has no business being and (2) the slip happens out of frame and we only get the answer when Charlie stoops and picks up the slippery skin. It’s just weird that Chaplin would bother to shoot this and then, worse, leave it in the film.

To show that Charlie, forced to work on a Sunday, is still a holy fool, Chaplin has him(self) read the Bible while cowherding, which doesn’t appeal to me. Charlie should not be sanctimonious. His reading, however, causes him to lose the cows and collide with a fat lady, who I think may be May White, from A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN and others, a somewhat mysterious figure.

Some great scenery here — looks like the end shot of MODERN TIMES. 99% convinced we’re in roughly the same spot.

The cows stampeding through town is fairly impressive. Making GO WEST, Buster Keaton found a major problem with cattle — they couldn’t be made to stampede without endangering life and limb to an extent even he wasn’t happy to deal with. This left him to wrestle with a rather slow-paced climax. Using a smaller number of cows, Chaplin does get them to behave aggressively, and either he or a stuntman takes considerable risks riding a steer out of town.

Thrown into a ditch, the stunned Charlie falls into a delirium and thence to a bucolic dream sequence.

Now, Chaplin wouldn’t have heard W.C. Fields say of him, “The son-of-a-bitch is a ballet dancer!” but he had heard the same thing from Nijinsky, which would have carried weight. He now embarks on a dance sequence with slight comic embellishments. Walter Kerr was very clear about how misguided this is: “he is dancing in Elysian fields not because the dance has a purpose – either of mockery or of integration – but because his balletic qualities have been noticed by critics and he has taken their remarks a bit too seriously. […] The romp with the nymphs in the field […] is not only gratuitous but a shattering disappointment in quite another way. We discover that Chaplin isn’t really a dancer at all. So long as he was taking mock ballet stances to show his indifference to the narrative or using surprisingly choreographic patterns to elude enemies and contend with fellow job-seekers, the flexibility of his body and the flawless timing of his movements suggested the Pan he was so often called. But he was not truly Pan, or even the Pierrot he called himself at tis time – not someone who could divert us with rhythmic skills in a void. He was a comedian who needed to attach himself to something – to a situation he could mock, to a dilemma calling for escape – in order to bring his grace, his artful shifts of tempo, into play. Given a nondancing function to perform, he seemed a dancer. Cast into the open fields with a half dozen girls, he merely skips and prances without design. The effect is loose, aimless, less airborne than when he is trapped in rooms, pursued by narrative. Suddenly we see his footwork as shapeless, unpatterned; there is no external pressure to demand or contain it. He never made this particular mistake again.” Amen.

Chaplin filmed SUNNYSIDE from 4th November 1918 – 15th April 1919, with long gaps of up to six weeks where he simply floundered in creative paralysis and didn’t come into the studio. EYES WIDE SHUT took fifteen months, but it’s bloody long. SUNNYSIDE is only 33 minutes.

So you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I split this article in two to make it go further.

The Sunday Intertitle: Laugh and Smile

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on June 7, 2020 by dcairns

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Masters of Cinema have announced some upcoming releases I’m mixed up in.

Firstly, for Paul Leni’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, Fiona and I wrote and voiced a substantial video essay, The Face Deceives, edited by Stephen C. Horne. It being lockdown, we had to communicate with Stephen remotely, but he’s something of a genius and the results are… dazzling. We also got Steven McNicoll, who did voice work on my OLD DARK HOUSE piece, Meet The Femms, and Fran Dymond, to voice extracts from Victor Hugo’s source novel and interviews with the filmmakers, and the result possibly extends the video essay form a wee bit…

Secondly, the third volume in MoC’s Buster Keaton series is coming, so Stephen and I get to vid-essay OUR HOSPITALITY, GO WEST and COLLEGE in a piece called A Window on Keaton. And I invited the magnificent Miranda Gower-Qian along for an interview about Keaton’s work with his family, and the role of The Girl in his pictures.

Here’s a tiny but lovely preview ~

Incidentally, I have assembled all the discs I’ve worked on in a stack in the hall. I was hoping by now it would be as tall as I am (somewhere under six foot, I’m not sure) but it’s still straining towards shoulder-height. But then I got the idea of toting up the running times of all my video essays, in an approximate way, and it came to more than ten hours, longer than the first series of Lodge 49, a beautiful TV show you should check out. So that was heartening — maybe height of product is the wrong way to assess one’s accomplishments? I mean, where would F. Scott Fitzgerald be if he’d used that method? And where, in fact, is he?

Heaven at Either End

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2018 by dcairns

Fiona declares these to be cinema’s best sunglasses.

Thursday’s other screenings:

The one film in the John Stahl series we didn’t see was WHEN TOMORROW COMES, which has a cast of our favourite people… we’ll see it post-Bologna and report back.

The Marcello Pagliero season passed me by, except that I wasn’t about to miss LES AMANTS DE BRASMORTS since it was billed as a misty, melancholic drama about the lives of barge workers. It’s my view that you can’t make a bad film on a barge. You may not do it. This one was very fine, apart from a slightly confused happy ending. Barge movies, like films noir, are generally stronger when they turn out bleakly, though even when they don’t, they sort of do, because your lovers’ reconciliation is, after all, being staged on a fucking barge.

Friday started at the more civilized hour of 9.30 am with the stone-cold masterpiece that is LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, screened in a vintage (sixties) Technicolor print. In sert the words lustrous, lambent and amber into the following paragraph at random. Leon Shamroy’s cinematography didn’t look as intensely-coloured here as it has on home viewings, but the size, the audience response and the atmosphere added to the movie’s power.

That movie filled our whole morning, meaning, for example, that we couldn’t see Boorman’s LEO THE LAST, which also a very beautiful show, with the richest assortment of browns I’ve ever seen. I bet the big-screen experience would have been wonderful, even if the movie itself has problems. It shows why Marcello Mastroianni was never a big star in English-language films.

Then we bumped into Angela Allen, John Huston’s favourite continuity girl, and had lunch with her, where she was fabulously indiscreet. I’d first inveigled my way into her confidence last year, and was thrilled to meet her again. But I won’t dish the dirt. Angela was planning on seeing LIGHTS OUT OF EUROPE, newly restored by MOMA, a 1940 documentary by Herbert Klein, partially shot by a young photographer named Douglas Slocombe. Alas, Slocombe passed away at 104 before he could see this magnificent restoration of his first movie.

We’d been thinking of seeing Rene Clair’s LES DEUX TIMIDES, which has been very well received, but we switched to the Klein film to hang out with Angela, and couldn’t regret it. Extraordinary footage, gather by Slocombe in hazardous conditions — he’d gone to Danzig in 1939 to film conditions, and was there when the Nazis invaded, getting out by the skin of his teeth. Had he not done so, somebody else would have had to shoot IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, THE SERVANT, THE MUSIC LOVERS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

The movie screened with Joris Ivens’ LA SEINE A RECONTRE PARIS, scripted by Prevert. I now have to see everything Ivens ever made. I was impressed, let’s say.

Then we saw Bette Davis’ assistant giving an interview and plugging her new book, which we’re told Bette commanded her to write. Well, better write it then. What took you so long? One wouldn’t want Bette’s shade performing a vengeful haunting, would one? Well, maybe just a little.

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Fiona ran out of juice at this point and hit the hay, or what passes for hay at our modest pensione. I went on to Buster Keaton’s THE SCARECROW and GO WEST, with music from Neil Brand (piano) and Frank Bockius (percussion, slide whistle et al). While the day’s final show was highly emotional and had a magnificent score, it was this screening that brought a tear to my eye. There’s a lot of discussion about whether GO WEST is chaplinesque sentiment or a parody thereof. I think it’s something different from either — Keaton invites you to laugh sympathetically at his character’s misfortunes, and the whole first act is misfortunes. It’s closer to what Harold Lloyd does with THE FRESHMAN. He doesn’t stop the comedy in order to aim for tears, as Chaplin will (with lightning-fast transitions of tone). When Keaton, bilked of everything he owns, sits down next to a dog, and tentatively pats its head, and the dog turns tail and walks off, we’re meant to laugh, not cry.

The emotional whammy, which had never happened to me on previous screenings, came when Keaton finally makes a friend, Brown Eyes the cow. By playing this moment TRIUMPHANTLY, Brand and Bockius unleashed all the sorrow of the previous scenes which Keaton had suppressed. It took me by surprise, which is always a good way to disarm. I blinked away a manly tear, stinging with sun-block.

Then I was off to the Teatro Communale — pictured — Bologna’s epic opera house — for SEVENTH HEAVEN, likely to remain the highlight of this fest. A great silent movie in a new, Foxphorescent restoration and an orchestra playing Timothy Brock’s new score and a spectacular setting and the company of Meredith Brody and Gary Meyer are a hard combination to beat. I hope to say more about this experience, but right now words fail me, as they must always do when the subject is a Frank Borzage masterpiece.