Archive for Meet the Feebles

I’ll Bet You Five You’re Not Alive If You Were In This Film

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2021 by dcairns

It’s all go. In a shattering development, Uncle Donald, played by Charles “Oh Mr. Kane” Bennett, is discovered prone in the snow, apparently alive — well, it did seem a bit harsh to kill him off in a slapstick comedy. Not that we had particularly come to care about him or anything.

Tillie and Charlie, newlywed, move into Uncle Donald’s palatial estate. Chaplin had found the best way to get comedy business past the hyperactive Keystone cutters was to slip it in during entrances and exits, since for the sake of mere comprehensibility the editors couldn’t really get away with not showing characters appear in or leave a scene. But all bets are off now — Sennett wants six reels, so the frenetic pace of previous Keystones isn’t really being pursued. It’s a relief: we get to watch actors act.

This scene is a relief too, since we get a different shot size from the usual full-figure or occasional wide medium. Of course, head-to-toe is the ideal framing for Chaplinesque comedy, but some variety is also nice. A blast of grainy, monochrome oxygen is admitted into the film.

Chaplin gets some play out of treating the footmen as objects: hanging his hat and cane on one, even leaning on him as if he were a meat pillar. The Henri Bergson idea of comedy arising from the lines of separation between organic and mechanical do seem particularly relevant to Chaplin’s comedy. Probably more than anybody else’s.

Disturbingly, Tillie now becomes a domestic tyrant, browbeating and actual-beating the unoffending footmen.

Mabel gets herself hired as a maid, demonstrating her cute curtsey, which in those days served as a résumé.

Enter Conklin! Charlie and Tillie are throwing a ball. Conklin is described on the internet as playing “Mr. Whoozis,” but he doesn’t seem to have a name in this print. He’s wearing an even bigger version of his Mr. Walrus walrus moustache.

Another guest, this one a simpering fop. Charlie begins instinctively limbering up to kick him. This is undoubtedly a bit homophobic although, on the other hand, Charlie’s character is a blackguard and hound of the first water. Can’t identify the actor: the IMDb makes clear that Keystone thriftily recycled all the contract players from the restaurant, dressed up as party guests. We have familiar worthies like Hank Mann and Harry McCoy (who seems to have played a record nine roles in this), Alice Davenport and Glen Cavender, and of course token extraterrestrial Grover Ligon (that name!). Cautioned by Tillie against booting guests up the rear, Charlie settles for smacking a flunky, to which nobody could possibly object.

As predicted, Mabel makes an adorable maid. She sticks a finger in a creamy dessert, sampling it. Will she get to flinging pastries later? Sennett recalled, perhaps untruthfully, Mabel pie-ing Ben Turpin upon a random impulse (no such scene appears to exist): “She weighed and hefted the pastry in her right palm, considered it benevolently, balanced herself upon the balls of her feet, went into a wind-up like a big-league pitcher, and threw. Motion-picture history, millions of dollars, and a million laughs hung on her aim as the custard wobbled in a true curve and splashed with a dull explosion in Ben Turpin’s face.”

(Ben Turpin was at Essanay and wouldn’t come to Keystone until years later. But Wikipedia now credits him with receiving the first onscreen pie to the face in 1909, so Sennett was in a way right to give him credit. They also remark that Fred Karno sketches utilised the gag, so Chaplin would have come to Keystone familiar with it.)

I will be kind of disappointed if this party doesn’t turn into a pie fight, even though I rarely find them that funny. I also want a big chase. Ditto.

Mabel confronts Charlie, a spectre at the banquet. Then she retires to the kitchen to ladle booze into herself.

An interesting gaglet occurs when Charlie sneaks off to see Mabel. Tillie, thinking he’s still beside her, reaches over to squeeze his knee while laughing at Mr. Whoozis’s witticisms, or whoozisisms. So instead she’s squeezing a woman’s knee. She finds out her error and is embarrassed, apologises. Her victim goes from looking annoyed to acting forgiving, but as soon as Tillie turns her back the woman is sort of twisting away from her, giving her the fish-eye, a look that says “You’re a weird one, you are.” So is this a lesbian joke? Dressler is an intriguing choice to be doing it, given the rumours and claims.

Charlie persuades Tillie to have a drink, to stop her bullying him, I think. But this is surely a recipe for disaster, or at least for another Highland fling, which is much the same thing. Indeed, soon Tillie has been bitten by a dancing bug, which necessitates for some reason changing from her current weird frilly pantsuit to another, different frilly pantsuit.

Meanwhile, Charlie and Chester start a fight, for no particular reason. This is kind of the problem with circus clowns (and Chester had been one): lack of narrative/character context for the funny business. They’re used to just prancing into the ring and acting up. Same thing with so much Keystone material. It’s just random mucking about, performed by skilled comedians but without any meaning and therefore of limited entertainment value. The triangle of Charlie, Marie and Mabel ought to be enough of a premise to develop some fun slapstick battling, but WHO IS WHOOZIS?

Charlie ejects Whoozis and makes nice with Mabel — demonstrating again his Richard III-type ability to seduce, enchant and befuddle.

Charles Bennett continues to recover from his mountain. A shaft of light pierces the smoky interior of his Alpine convalescence. The first deliberately place grace note of lighting in a Keystone picture, I’ll hazard. It’s placement, a luminous intrusion, is as odd and alien to the scheme of a Sennett picture as if a Dalek were to trundle onto the set.

Whoozis returns for more fighting. Charlie does sling some food at him. Additionally, the larger than usual rich guy sets allow for some unusual in-depth staging as Charlie drives Chester deeper and deeper into the background of shot. This doesn’t make things any funnier, but it’s an interesting variant.

END OF PART 5

PART 6

Tillie, newly attired, rampaged back into the party, making exotic Mata Hari arm movements. Theda Bara’s reaction is unrecorded. Lipreaders and other persons with eyesight may detect her yelling “CHARLIE!” from the top of the stairs.

AND NOW THEY TANGO. This is, admittedly, pretty good. Hippopotamus and stoat. And yet they’re so graceful in the water. In fact, they’re graceful here, it’s just that their grace includes tripping and falling.

Now here’s Harry McCoy, formerly a leading actor who Charlie supported, now got up as a pod person Ford Sterling,. Sterling had been the #1 Keystone star who had recently left to pursue a career elsewhere (he’d be back). I guess Sennett wanted to not only find roles for all his regular actors (but not Roscoe Arbuckle, for some reason), he wanted to create simulacra of those no longer under contract. Previously Chaplin had been tried in this role. McCoy, it must be said, is not markedly less appealing that the original, but it would be hard to surpass the lack of enthusiasm I feel about F.S.

While Charlie and Tillie are not so much cutting as lacerating a rug, Mabel gets into fights with random party guest and random footman. Finally, Tillie catches Mabel and Charlie canoodling. PIES ARE THROWN!

Then, surprisingly, Tillie draws a revolver (from nowhere — Mr. Chekhov was not consulted) and bullets are now substituted for pastries (incidentally I always felt a Peckinpahesque slomo pie fight would be worth attempting — Kubrick of course would have been the man to do it, in STRANGELOVE, but he apparently never thought of it).

As shooting sprees go, this is pretty amusing, with Charlie throwing himself into the other guests in his wild flight, creating well-dressed scrummages all over the dance floor. It’s funnier/less nauseating than the comparable scene in MEET THE FEEBLES. It’s comparable the way Tillie wants to shoot absolutely everyone, regardless of whether they’ve actually offended her.

Charlie hides in a huge, unconvincing urn that wasn’t there a minute ago. Mabel hides in a polar bear skin, a fetish object inside a furry. This chase is limited by the number of sets Sennett is prepared to pay for.

Smashing the urn, Tillie is about to, perhaps, tear Charlie’s head from his shoulders, when her not-dead uncle returns home. He throws everyone out. Charlie now has to choose between Mabel and his lawful wife, who is now not a desirable millionairess but a penniless hick in strange pajamas. He boots her in the gut and leaves.

For some reason, a footman calls the kops. I’m not quite clear on which crime is being reported. The kops come bumbling into the station house, falling over one another, a familiar bit of business I haven’t actually seen in many films.

Tillie now has her gun again, and it’s the kind that never needs reloading (funny how you can’t buy those anymore) and she chases Charlie and Mabel onto a pier. This is not the best place for them to have fled to, one senses. From Sennett’s viewpoint, though, it’s useful. Ducking his casts was a reliable way of ending a picture, though I don’t think it’s going to be satisfactory in this case.

The kops are in pursuit, naturally. The kop kar rear-ends Tillie and propels her, miraculously transfigured into a burly stuntman, into the sea. The salt water transforms her back into the likeness of Marie Dressler. Then the kop kar drives off the end of the pier, because all the kops are bumbling imbeciles. They turn into dummies as the kar goes over, but soon are themselves again, splashing about and hitting one another with rubber tyres. The transformative power of saline. Tillie is now attempting to spank an eel.

Mabel and Charlie having inexplicably failed to topple into the drink like civilised people, rush to a police call box (literally a small box with a phone in, an Officer Dibble not a TARDIS) and call the Water Police, which is where Al St. John gets into the picture, belatedly. It’s weird that Charlie and Mabel are now trying to get everyone rescued. Also, the water police are just as inept as the “regular” kops. It’s becoming a vision of hell. People are drowning and their lives are in the hands of physical incompetents.

The source play has been abandoned. Chaos reigns.

Tillie is finally dredged up, and returns Charlie’s ring to him. Mabel is supportive, rejects Charlie with a “We’re through!” gesture, and for a while it looks like Mabel and Tillie/Marie will walk off into the sunset, or up Sunset, together.

And in fact… Dressler embraces Normand, kisses her affectionately, and the curtain closes. Then she reemerges from behind it, bows to us, invites Mabel and Charlie (“CHARLIE!”) to join her. Chaplin does a very good impersonation of a man not acting, facing an audience instead of a camera crew. Then, as they prepare to bow, they are airlifted out of the film by Melesian jump-cut. Dressler looks to each side and does two double-takes (or one quadruple-take?) at finding them vanished.

Then she shrugs, confused.

“This film lark is a mystery to me…”

TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE stars Carlotta Vance; Adenoid Hynkel; Paddy, the Nickel Hopper; Robert Bunce; William Pitt; Sixth Member Ale and Quail Club; Charley – Son of the Desert from Texas; Josie Hunkapillar; Tarzan – Younger; Jane Porter; Detective Sweeney; Mrs Cohen; Al Cohen; Wizard of Oz; Fuzzy Jones; and Rear End of Horse.

Hard Prawn

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2009 by dcairns

district9

Most of what you’ve heard about DISTRICT 9 is true. If you haven’t heard much, you perhaps shouldn’t read further because there’s no way to avoid a certain number of spoilers here, and I enjoyed the film knowing practically nothing about its story. You might want to do the same.

Saw the movie with Fiona and regular Shadowplayer “m” (Mary), whose South African origins proved invaluable in decoding the film’s imagery and plot. The movie is produced by Peter Jackson (with FX by WETA, his digital effects house) and directed by Neill Blomkamp, from a screenplay by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, and shot in Blomkamp’s native South Africa.

The plot’s premise, which is all I knew going in, is that 20 years before the story starts, a huge alien mothership descends to Johannesburg and… just hovers there. The malnourished aliens found therein are housed in a refugee camp which quickly becomes a slum, and by the time of the story have become a fully-fledged underclass and a political football.

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Enter Wikus Van Der Merwe, a bureaucrat assigned the job of obtaining signatures from the alien population authorizing their transportation into what is basically a concentration camp. Followed, initially, by documentary cameras, he enters District 9, and a world of pain.

Mary pointed out three major ways in which the film is indebted to its country of origin (I like the idea of other countries producing US-style blockbusters, as long as they don’t lose their local identities).

(1) Any time South Africans tell a story about a stupid white Afrikaaner, he’s always called Van Der Merwe. “So, Mr Van Der Merwe walks into the pub…”

(2) Obviously the idea of an alien underclass is a partial allegory on the whole history of Apartheid, and obviously its one fraught with difficulties. Mary pointed out that the forced mass relocation which this film centres on was a very South African phenomenon in the bad old days.

(3) The aliens are derisively known as “prawns.” (“You can’t say they don’t look like prawns,” says one interviewee, defensively.) This is a reference to the Parktown Prawn, an insect pest that began infesting Jo’burg in the ’60s. Mary thought they were possibly an Antipodean import, but this appears not to be the case. Still, it’s appropriate to a New Zealand-South African coproduction.

The movie is a lot of fun, and quite emotional at times. This must be what they mean by “character arc”: Wikus starts off as a comedy asshole, like David Brent in The Office (n analogy strengthened by the film’s mockumentary style) , then gradually becomes a hateful asshole as we see him strutting his stuff in the ghetto, a government hatchet man who’s really in the pocket of big business (the use of private sector mercenaries is a nod to the present situ in Iraq), then becomes a pitiful victim as things turn against him, and finally, at the very end, he’s a kind of hero worthy of our respect. That kind of movement is rare in a commercial movie, even though all the execs read their Robert McKee and are devoted to the idea of character change.

The first half of the movie is ideas-driven and political, the second is basically a video game. But a really good one. It’s the first movie I’ve seen to feature a gravity gun — a kind of cannon that lets you pick up heavy objects telekinetically and then fire them like rockets: Wikus creams one soldier with a pig carcass.

Of course, the allegorical approach to race via sci-fi is tendentious. Even as a kid I felt uncomfortable with CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES presenting itself as a satiric slant on black power. Blomkamp gets himself into some very deep water by presenting the aliens as drones in an insect race, their leaders somehow M.I.A. When a clever “prawn” with the slave name of Christopher Johnson turns up, it’s not clear if the aliens are smarter than previously assumed, or if he’s part of the missing leader class. The idea of an insect social structure is fair game for sci-fi, but perhaps unwise if you’re intending any kind of comment on human society. Also, considering the film’s aspirations to “say something” about race, its treatment of Nigerians could do with being a bit more nuanced.

Where the movie gets interesting is when Wikus is “infected” by an alien device which causes him to start mutating into a prawn himself. While the outward manifestations — loss of teeth and fingernails — are a direct nod to Cronenberg’s THE FLY, and his pursuit by the authorities as he tries to conceal his heavily malformed arm harks back to THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (AKA THE CRAWLING TERROR), the plot idea has shades of THE WATERMELON MAN — and FREAKS. The idea of taking a bigot and turning him into the very thing he sees himself as superior to, and then subjecting him to the attendant persecutions, is also explored, in cruder terms, in John Landis’ ill-fated episode of the TWILIGHT ZONE movie.

Some of this is surprisingly moving. As his DNA crosses the human-alien “colour bar,” the authorities seek to “harvest” his organs to help unlock the secrets of alien technology, which so far has failed to function in human hands. Sharlto Copley’s performance, broadly comic at first, becomes chillingly desperate, and there’s also a heart-breaking performance from a CGI alien he’s forced to kill in a weapons test.

Of course Wikus escapes, now able to use alien weaponry, and becomes a one-prawn killing machine, suited up in an ALIENS-style exoskeleton, with self-targeting death rays (Blomkamp rather overuses the “blood-spatter on camera lens” effect) and grav gun. Joining forces with Christopher Johnson, he’s mutating not just into an alien but also into an outsider hero.

district9_02

Like I say, enjoyable, emotionally engaging, flawed, interesting. Blomkamp has some of the bad-taste gonzo gusto of early Peter Jackson, without the more crass elements (I recall with a shudder the AIDS jokes in MEET THE FEEBLES), and the epic ham-pomp of late Peter Jackson, without the hideous bloat of LORD OF THE KONG. Lots of giant plot questions unanswered, but they’re so foregrounded I have to welcome this invitation to enjoy a bit of “negative capability.” And there’s always the sequel to sort things out.