Archive for Jacques Tati

City Sounds

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2022 by dcairns

It’s my contention that CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES should not be considered silent films. Both have soundtracks. MODERN TIMES even has spoken dialogue, some of it (not much) synchronised to lip movements, but “part-talkie” doesn’t seem the correct term either. Chaplin has a crack at defining what he’s up to: “A COMEDY ROMANCE IN PANTOMIME” reads the first title after the main one (Chaplin gets his name on both). My point is that Chaplin, quite apart from his magnificent score (his first) uses sound in nearly every scene, apart from those where he uses the absence of it. We’re accustomed to talking about films without words as silent films, so that Tati’s movies get called “quasi-silent” when in fact they have an audiophonic richness much greater than typical movies of their time. Compare CITY LIGHTS to practically any other film of 1931 and you’d find it had more music, more sound effects, more creative use of those sound effects (if such a thing can be objectively measured), more everything except talk. So in rejecting the term “silent” I’m not just being pedantic (though I’m always happy to admit to that), I’m insisting on important qualities in the film being acknowledged.

(I see Carl Davis has managed to get his name into the credits, under “Restored for live performance.” I’m happy to see him credited at a live performance, but I don’t see what he’s doing on my DVD. I’d like to see the original titles as they appeared in 1931, thank you. From the credits we do have, more generous than usual, we learn that Chaplin actors Harry Crocker, Henry Berman and Albert Austin are ADs, Rollie Totheroh is joined on camera by Gordon Pollock, the great Charles D. Hall is on set design, and Arthur Johnson is responsible for musical arrangement.

After his Gershwin-inspired opening titles theme, Chaplin gives us the main title again, in lights this time (a curious repetition) and then the first audio joke: the parody of bad film recording, as Henry Bergman and others make their pompous speeches in front of the statue of peace and prosperity, currently a mere sheeted mass. Chaplin’s sound is always very carefully worked out — consider the agonizingly accurate indigestion noises in MODERN TIMES — and this buzzing, distorted saxophones perfectly capture and exaggerates the early weaknesses of sound on disc. And by modulating the tone upwards for the dowager’s speech, Chaplin gets a second laugh, sort of one of disbelief that he’s doing this.

(David Robinson notes that Bergman delivers a real speech, which he has lipread: Bergman effusively thanks Mrs. Filbernut, Mrs. Beedell-Bottom, Mrs. Putt, and the artist himself, Mr. Hugo Frothingham-Grimthorpe-Shafe-Shaferkee…)

Then the sheet rises to reveal Charlie, asleep in the lap of Peace, or possibly Prosperity. (Chaplin had considered starting the film with another dream sequence.) What follows is a classic routine in which Charlie tries to oblige the dignitaries by clearing off, but is hampered by the structure of the statuary, getting his pants speared by the upraised sword of Prosperity, or possibly Peace. Then the national anthem plays and he tries, helplessly, to remain erect for it. As with so much else in Chaplin, it’s a callback to childhood: the big important people are yelling at you to do something, and you’re trying, but your small and awkward body isn’t allowing it.

Charlie continually finds himself inadvertently giving offence, thumbing his nose on the upraised hand of Prosperity, or possibly Peace, then sitting on the face of Peace, or Prosperity, or Pete, or whoever the third figure is. An attitude made all the more vulgar by the fact that Charlie’s trouser seat has just been ventilated. (With surprising attention to continuity, the ventilated trousers will still be in play in the film’s last scene.)

So, in our first scene Chaplin has taken advantage of the soundtrack to reduce the concept of film dialogue to the ridiculous, and used the synchronized music in a way that wouldn’t have been reliably possible in a silent film, where you’re dependent on whoever’s accompanying the movie. He’d have had to include a shot of the sheet music if he’d wanted that exact cue.

AFTERNOON.

Charlie has a run in with some unpleasant kids, including future filmmaker Robert Parrish (FIRE DOWN BELOW), who will also return at the end. Great gags with Charlie’s glove, the fingers of which are detachable (soon, everyone will be wearing them). An obnoxious newsie pulls off one digit, and Charlie removes a second just to snap his fingers under the ruffian’s nose.

Then Charlie rounds the corner and studies some art. The set-up, playing with the assumption (which I take to be Chaplin’s sincere belief) that artistic nudes are just an excuse for lecherous ogling, we see Charlie studying an art deco odalisque, taking care to give equal consideration to a small equestrian study. An advantage of doing what I’ve been doing, watching all Chaplin’s film in order, is that I recognise this idea from WORK, made sixteen years and a lifetime before, but it’s now transformed. The nude is incidental to the joke here, which is about the suspense of Charlie nearly falling down an open street elevator.

This gag doesn’t utilise sound, only music. In fact, being unable to hear the elevator is essential for the joke to work. And by placing the camera in the shop window, Chaplin has a ready excuse for US not hearing anything.

Pay-off: Charlie demonstrates with the elevator operator when he realises he’s been on the brink of breaking his neck, but as the elevator rises, the operator’s eyes come level with his, then keep going. It is Tiny Ward, hulking strongman enemy last seen in SHOULDER ARMS.

It is, by this time in film history, quite unnecessary for Chaplin to introduce Charlie, but he does it anyway: in two scenes we have learned that he is a tramp, that he means well but displays a strange mixture of maladroitness and grace which gets him into trouble, that he is one of nature’s aristocrats despite his social stature, that he considers discretion the better part of valour. But these qualities are displayed not because we need to be shown them as characterisation, but because they’re funny. But characterisation is the essence of Chaplin’s comedy, so maybe you could reverse that proposition and it’d still be true.

There we go: a gentle start to this epic…

I see France

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2021 by dcairns

I thought I was going to miss THE FRENCH DISPATCH out of sluggishness but had a morning class at the Art College, filling in for someone else, so I dropped in on a matinee at the Cameo, where I hadn’t been since before Covid I guess.

This might not be a very interesting piece — the movie is a mixed bag, like everyone says. The short bits are OK, short enough not to be a problem, though when the movie attempts to do gags I found it unfunny in a way that hurt it — Owen Wilson crashing his moped was never amusing, always mistimed, and too CGI-fake to have slapstick appeal. When the movie is merely quirky it’s funny enough.

The three main chunks are: Benicio Del Toro as a criminally insane artist, in which Del Toro is droll, Lea Seydoux has the same daunting self-assurance I sensed when I met her at Telluride, and Adrien Brody is very, very good. Bonus Bob Balaban and Henry Winkler, Tilda Swinton (well-observed caricature, easier to take than her SNOWPIERCER grotesque); student riots with Timothee Chalomet and Frances McDormand, the long pointless episode everyone complains about; Jeffrey Wright as Wesworld’s answer to James Baldwin, profiling gourmand detective Mathieu Amalric and his chef, Steve Park — prime Wes Anderson, if you like Wes Anderson.

Anderson, asked about political content in his films, has said it might be nice to do politics the way DUNE does politics — imaginary politics. His films are hermetically sealed miniatures but increasingly detailed exercises in worldbuilding, so this makes a kind of sense — allowing the worlds to expand into the political sphere, but not letting in the oxygen of reality, which he perhaps would fade everything away like the fresh air corroding the unsealed frescos of Fellini’s ROMA. The problem with this is that DUNE has no real politics, it’s just a choice of dictators, benign or malign. Factions, not politics. The first stab at this in Anderson’s oeuvre, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, actually worked and was even moving, because the substitution of a Chaplinesque equivalent for Nazism was quite fitting — REAL fascism WOULD corrode a Wes joint, would be too toxic and acid, the paper-thin pretence of the ZZ initial instead of swastikas allows just enough distance from pain and tragedy for the comic-opera tone to take root.

But in THE FRENCH DISPATCH the denatured student riots are rendered silly, trivial and meaningless, and so is the episode. And, frankly, the behaviour of the French police has been fascistic enough during the historical period covered, that they might need a fictional alibi too. They work better in the third episode, where what holds it together is the amusing crime story, the really excellent perfs, the genuine emotion. Wright proves a transfiguring addition to the Wesverse — he doesn’t do a straight impersonation of Baldwin, which might be rather insulting, but works with a different timbre altogether, maybe a touch of Orson Welles? Just really pleasurable to watch. But Baldwin, as I understand his work, was concerned with the world, and making him a food critic in a dollhouse world is definitely robbing him of a lot. Maybe the experiment is to see how much that’s powerful is left when you do that. The “disputed passage” which Wright’s character cuts from his piece and Bill Murray’s editor reinstates, a beautiful scene played with Park (and it’s very encouraging to see that both actors are to return in Anderson’s next film), becomes, as Murray says, “the reason for writing it.” That kind of reason has sometimes seemed absent in W.A.’s precious productions. He’s wary of emotion (the French Dispatch’s office bears a No Crying sign), commitment, commentary — which makes the subject of journalism maybe an oddball, unpromising choice for him.

While the nested narratives of BUDAPEST worked well for his style, the discrete boxes of DISPATCH seem to overemphasise the airlessness and anxiety about meaning. And Anderson is perhaps not quite a brilliant enough writer to pastiche the varied literary styles he’s looking at: the narrators mostly sound the same. His nods to Tati and Tardi don’t quite get there either — Hulot’s house from MON ONCLE is reconstructed practically brick by brick, and just feels like plagiarism, and the animated section is fun but the artists can’t ink with Tardi’s wondrous fluidity — everything is clenched. (Just read that the actual inspiration was Tintin and Blake & Mortimer — the latter explains the stiffness.)

But the good bits are great. And, while Anderson repeats himself — he did better Tati pastiche in his little ad films — we get another cutaway diagram of a vessel, as in THE LIFE AQUATIC — he’s still adding to his toybox. I counted the following new elements: the varied aspect ratios of BUDAPEST are enhanced by b&w sections; tableaux vivants (which the classic Anderson shot is always verging towards anyway); theatrical lighting changes; the aforementioned animation insert, supposed to evoke a bandes dessinées version of the true events; more non-white faces than previous Andersons.

If I sound picky, it’s because Anderson’s work is very irresistible, except when it’s irresistible (as in, for me, for instance, MOONRISE KINGDOM, ISLE OF DOGS). This one didn’t wholly overcome my defences.

THE FRENCH DISPATCH stars Dr. Gonzo; Wladyslaw Szpilman; The Ancient One; Sabine Moreau; Marge Gunderson; Paul Atreides; Constance Bonacieux; Felix Leiter; Serge X.; Peter Venkman; Coy Harlingen; Orr; Principal Arthur Himbry; Partita Dupea; Zero; Dr. Astrov; Dr. King Schultz; Chéri; Cotton Weary; Max Schreck; Sheldon Mopes / Smoochy the Rhino; Lady Bird McPherson; Kitty Tyler / Dahlia; Gag Halfrunt (uncredited); Rock Bork; Jack Goodman; and the voice of Morticia Addams.

The Comedy of Terrorists

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2015 by dcairns

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JOY OF LIVING/CHE GIOIA VIVERE (1961) is an oddity in the René Clément canon — a comedy, a genre he rarely dabbled in, apart from his early short with Jacques Tati, SOIGNE TON GAUCHE and an early feature with Noel-Noel, LE PERE TRANQUILLE — an Italian film, though Clement was open to co-productions throughout his career, shooting THE WALLS OF MALAPAGA/BEYOND THE GATES in Italy in 1949 and THIS ANGRY AGE in Thailand (and Cinecitta) in 1957 — a period movie that’s NOT set during the French occupation, but just after WWI in Rome.

(Side-note: though Clément and Truffaut were vocal in their disgust for one another’s work, the rambunctious title sequence here feels like it may have influenced JULES ET JIM’s, though it’s not as chaotic — whereas Truffaut basically grabbed the trim-bin and emptied the off-cut footage into his movie — leading to what Scorsese called ” the most exhilerating thing I’d ever seen” — Clément can’t help but stick to some kind of narrative sequence. His approach is less bold but more skilled, which is the relationship between old and new waves in a nutshell.)

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Alain Delon, the director’s most frequent leading man, plays Ulysse, a glib and plausible young man who accepts a job from the fascists, searching for a printing press that’s been churning out anarchist leaflets. But when he finds the place, he falls in lust with the daughter of the lead anarchist, played by the extraordinary-looking German actress Barbara Lass, whose eyes are bigger than Barbara Steele’s, wider apart that Gene Tierney’s, and seem constantly on the verge of breaking loose from her head altogether to pursue independent destinies. She’s an actual flesh-and-blood Margaret Keane painting, and she somehow makes it work. Maybe because she projects a human sweetness, which tames the uncanny Na’avi qualities of her funhouse countenance. At any rate, when she and Delon are on the screen together, in Henri Decae’s exquisite framings (they needed a wide screen for those eyes), there’s almost too much beauty to take in.

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As in THE WALLS OF MALAPAGA, Clement is as obsessed with crumbling architecture as he is with plot or character, and the Piranisian tableaux of this film are to die for. And it’s pretty funny ~

Food fight! from David Cairns on Vimeo.

The period setting and frankly astonishing scale of the enterprise (Clement’s two Oscar wins obviously equipped him to command considerable resources — he blows up the Arch of Constantine!) connect this movie with romps like THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES and THE GREAT RACE, but it’s more controlled than those, even if it doesn’t have a linear chase plot to focus it. And, oddly, Clement proves better at organizing visual gags than his colleagues — a food-fight between anarchists and fascists is particularly impressive. And there’s just enough seriousness underlying the hi-jinks — Delon’s character is sufficiently deceitful that we worry he might go blackshirt at any moment if a pretty enough girl shows up on the other side — the dark days ahead for Italy hover low on the distant horizon — the film’s affection for the family of anarchists, partly justified by their being so irrelevant to the match of history, is somehow reconciled with a horror of bomb-throwing and acts of terror. The genuinely gripping climax has fascist stooges planting bombs around a huge public exposition (with balloon ascensions, roads paved with German helmets, and the first pre-fab house as part of the attractions) while Delon scoots around after them, gathering up the infernal devices in a perambulator. A man pushing a pram is slightly comic, a stunningly handsome man pushing a pram while in fear of being imminently smithereened is really very funny indeed.

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A piece of espionage worthy of Pynchon — illicit communication lines in prison, running through the plumbing system!

The film stops capering just long enough for a chilling exchange between Delon and his old school friend, now a committed fascist, who warns him, “You’ll be persecuted for the rest of your life.” Delon replies with the brilliant, and unanswerable “And you’ll be a persecutor for the rest of yours.”