Archive for Go West

The Sunday Intertitle: Smile

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 9, 2015 by dcairns


What with Film Club coming up, I thought this week’s intertitle ought to come from Buster Keaton, since he was such an influence on Richard Lester. In GO WEST, Buster is able to parody Cecil B. DeMille’s THE VIRGINIAN, with a paraphrase of its most famous line (above), and Griffith’s BROKEN BLOSSOMS with his own reaction. Buster is literally unable to smile to save his life, so with a six-shooter aimed at his heart he resorts to the Gish Manipulation ~


(My maternal grandmother told me that, seeing Lillian Gish force a smile like this in BROKEN BLOSSOMS struck her and her young friends as hysterically funny when they saw it, which puzzled me, as I assumed Griffith’s films were taken seriously in their day. Then I did my sums and realized she must have seen it on re-release, probably the sonorized version, in the late twenties or early thirties — and Griffith’s Victorian melodrama would have seemed high camp to the young people of the jazz age. Did Edinburgh have a jazz age?)

Lester’s debt to Keaton isn’t just a fondness for slapstick, or a tendency to use accelerated motion to evoke silent-film action (only in a few films, from 1964-1966). There’s a whole philosophy of composition. We could start with the famous dictum “comedy is long shot, tragedy is closeup,” and then add in the love of flatness, emphasizing the screen’s two-dimensional aspect rather than trying to transcend it. The simple, flat, graphic composition is easy for the eye to read, and clarity is the most crucial factor in visual comedy. It also stylises everything, removes it from reality (look at Wes Anderson’s similar love of the planimetric shot), making it easier to achieve comic distance.

Lester credits Keaton with being the first to really use the space around the comedian as part of the joke. With Chaplin, he’s said, you always sense the proscenium arch (though Chaplin was certainly careful to get the right distance between subject and lens). With Keaton, somehow the shot itself is funny. Lester has used the example of Keaton and the cow in GO WEST — extremely beautiful, and inherently funny just by the arrangement of objects in 2D space.

I wasn’t exactly sure which shot he meant. But he could have meant all of them. You can tell this is a comedy, can’t you, just from the shapes?




The Mothering Sunday Intertitle

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2015 by dcairns


A gentle reminder that the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival will be raging this week in Bo’ness. Among the treats in store is Buster Keaton’s THE NAVIGATOR (screening Saturday), accompanied by maestro Neil Brand upon the piano forte. I hope to be on hand to experience and write about as much of the festivities as possible.

I rate THE NAVIGATOR pretty near the top — not as dazzling as SHERLOCK JNR or as plain great as THE GENERAL, but I like how Kathryn McGuire gets to be almost an equal partner in the slapstick. Her character is exactly as helpless as Buster’s, not more helpless in THE GENERAL (“almost aggressively stupid” was Richard Lester’s affectionate description of Marion Mack’s character) or simply competent and attractive as in THE CAMERAMAN.

I’m not going to try to arrange Keaton’s films in definitive order on a Sunday morning, but I would roughly say that the first rank, for me, contains ~


The middle group, which are not to be sneezed at, would be ~


And the “lesser films” — ones which are still likely to be better than anything else you might see, would be ~


I realize that this is both subjective and impertinent, and that any attempt to say that SEVEN CHANCES or STEAMBOAT BILL JNR is less than great is likely to look philistine. All I mean to say is that they are LESS great than my top four. But I welcome disputes, if you want to make the case for a lower-down title or knock down one of my pantheon. I will say that I’ve only seen BATTLING BUTLER and SPITE MARRIAGE once, and that it’s been a while since I saw THE CAMERAMAN and THE THREE AGES.

We might also attempt a larger project, a ranking of the short films

The Sunday Intertitle: Tail in the Saddle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on April 22, 2012 by dcairns

Years before the bastards at MGM thought it would be a good idea to spoof 30s hits with a cast of depressed-looking canines, Hal Roach conceived of the Dippy-Do-Dads, a troupe of assorted animals, including a family of capuchin monkeys, whose adventures were not much more charming or wittily conceived than the Dogville inmates’, but who at least did all their own acting without the aid of wirework (puppeteering dogs in trousers with piano wire would get you arrested today — in the good old 30s it got you a Hollywood contract and all the Chum you could eat).

GO WEST is actually pretty close to the Buster Keaton feature of the same name, except where it comes to laughs. The comedy here comes from the sheer bizarreness of the monkey civilisation concocted on the “Lot of Fun” at Roach Studios, and from little incidental details. Where the Dogville films try to stage-manage every action with wires, peanut butter on the dogs’ gums, and much editing, Roach’s monkeys, dog and goats perform their scenes with apparent spontaneity. Lord knows what inhumane training methods may have been used, but at least the films’ respect the participants as animate creatures, rather than dangling them from the rafters like marionettes.

This results in some good, strange moments. When father monkey scolds junior for his drinking habits, he rattles the bed frame in a pantomimic representation of fury — but pauses to high-five his erring progeny in a manner completely out of keeping with the emotional tenor of the scene. Having gone west, Junior shows his good heart by dropping a coin in a beggar’s cup, but in departing the scene, steps right on the cup, something that seems bizarre when all his other behaviour is so convincingly human.

These surreal touches, enhanced by the preponderance of flies crawling everywhere, breathe real life into the scenario. (It’s the most flyblown movie I’ve ever seen, apart from A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. You’d think the Dogville series would be more a-buzz, but no.)

And then, as if a monkey wild west weren’t transgressive enough, our hero stops to buy some western duds, and meets the town tailor, A.B. Bloom…

Fiona, with her interest in animal intelligence (currently being channelled into a new screenplay), points to the following experiment to give you an insight into the sophistication of the capuchin monkey mind. The whole thing’s worth watching, but the bit with monkeys at 12.45 is astonishing in its implications and very funny in its delivery.

“They don’t exploit apes in films so much now, but they’re still using monkeys,” says Fiona.

“And dogs,” I add, helpfully.

“And dogs. So where do you draw the line?”

“Mickey Rourke,” I reply without hesitation.

GO WEST is available to buy with its namesake, here: Battling Butler / Go West (Ultimate 2-Disc Edition) [Blu-ray]