Archive for Milos Forman

The Sunday Intertitle: Over There

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2021 by dcairns

SHOULDER ARMS (1918) was provided free to military hospitals where it was projected on the ceilings, for burns patients who couldn’t be moved. I can imagine watching it being a painful experience if you were severely wounded, because it’s very funny, but I guess it would be worth it.

Of course, everybody had told Chaplin not to make this film, since joking about the war was considered unacceptable, and Chaplin had received a lot of flack for not being at the front (though not as much flack as he might have received AT the front). As a Brit (he never took US citizenship, considering himself “a citizen of the world”) Chaplin could in theory have enlisted earl and skipped a movie career altogether in favour of an early death and we’d never have heard of him. Obviously I think he made the right call.

By contrast, two of Chaplin’s sons served in WWII (along with his movie-adopted-son Jackie Coogan). So, despite the liberty bonds and the rallies Chaplin attended, we might guess that he wasn’t that enthusiastic about the Great War. And SHOULDER ARMS seems to bear that out. Still, it’s not an anti-war film — a pacifist movie simply wouldn’t have been accepted while the war was raging. But it’s an expression of sympathy for the enlisted man — something Chaplin’s instincts must have told him he could pull off, so he would not be accused of mockery. It worked: the movie was one of his biggest moneymakers, and nobody seems to have condemned it.

For some reason this one isn’t on YouTube in its entirety except in a fuzzy Russian version — by rights it should be public domain so I dunno why not. But there are lengthy clips.

Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin doc series triumphantly unearthed the opening sequences Chaplin shot but discarded, and here they are:

The plan was to show Charlie pre-war and post-war as well as in uniform. Midway through the plan changed, the decision was made to keep the movie short, and the postwar material was never filmed. But here’s Charlie with the kids, three mini-Charlies, waiting outside the pub in a ritual very familiar in Charlie’s native East End. I don’t know that his own dad was around long enough for him to have experienced this, but he’d have seen it.

Mrs. Charlie is an offscreen domestic tyrant hurling dishes, a cartoon-strip cliché. After the film’s first food joke (peeling onions behind his back to avoid the eye-stinging effect) Charlie accepts his draft notice as an escape route from the projectile crockery. But the enemy will be throwing more than plates.

The medical test scene leads to embarrassment, as a shirtless Charlie tries to hide from nurse Edna. David Robinson finds it strange that she should appear here undisguised, since she turns up later as a Frenchwoman at the front. He wonders if this stuff was being shot in a halfhearted or diffident way, with Chaplin not fully meaning to use it. I suspect rather that he planned to have Edna’s nurse turn up again in the war scenes, which would be easy enough to arrange (see also Clara Bow’s role in WINGS), and simply changed his mind.

The test features one of my favourite of Chaplin’s deleted gags, a variant on a routine played for Karno, and taken up in the AUSTIN POWERS movies with ruder gags: silhouetted through a frosted glass door, Charlie is seen accidentally swallowing Dr. Albert Austin’s twelve-inch long tongue depressor (seemingly a spoon), followed by the pliers he tries to retrieve it with. Maybe this was too grotesque and unrealistic for Chaplin’s taste, or maybe it was simply a casualty of restructuring.

So the film as we have it (in two cuts filmed with adjacent cameras and sometimes with alternate takes) opens (after Chaplin signs the main title in his own hand, a quixotic trick to counteract piracy) with Charlie in camp, undergoing training. His feet keep turning out and his legs get tangled. Generally athletic and startlingly nimble, his body disassembles into a storm of malfunctioning limbs when anyone tries to regiment it.

(If you were seeing the film on rerelease as part of The Chaplin Cavalcade, you’d have the director himself narrating a short intro composed of actuality war footage, showing that he had no qualms about relating his comic fantasia of total war to the real thing).

Chaplin benefits from the fact that American doughboys sported the silliest looking uniforms, complete with baggy pants and goofy hats and boots, so his distinctive outline retains some of its attributes, swapping rifle for cane.

The trenches. Charlie enters frame, back to us, displaying the number 13 on his kit, and Rollie Totheroh’s camera dollies after him down the narrow sunken aisle, irresistibly recalling Kubrick and PATHS OF GLORY (I confess the travelling shot during drill made me think of FULL METAL JACKET, too). Since we’re traversing roughly-laid planks, and we can see the ground, so there are no tracks down there, I’m wondering if the camera’s been hung from above, supported from each side, using two sets of tracks alongside the trench? It’s reported that Charlie hadn’t even heard of camera cranes until THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Syd plays a comrade of Charlie’s, though comradeship is in short supply here, as usual in Chaplin’s work. Syd’s character is alternately a schlemiel to be the victim of Charlie’s fecklessness, and a dashing and heroic figure. Not sure who the other bunkmate is, disguised by extravagant facial hair comprising Irish beard with unconnected Groucho moustache and eyebrows.

Fiona was taken by the grim detail of the mousetrap hung from Charlie’s coat button, though a rat trap the size of one of his huge boots would be more use in reality.

The trenches are detailed, gritty and convincing, which brings us to a mystery. In Andrew Kelly’s All Quiet on the Western Front: The Story of a Film, if I recall correctly, a Universal press release is quoted stating that several of the crew of Lewis Milestone’s landmark war movie were veterans of the Great War, including designer Charles D. Hall, who is also the man in charge of SHOULDER ARMS’ sets. Now, I’m in touch with Hall’s great-nephew, Matthew Hall, who reports that there’s no oral history about a military record for CDC. The family’s oral tradition has him entering the US via Canada after his career in Fred Karno’s company. He could have found time to serve in the British army, but then he’d have had to be invalided out, and you’d expect the family to know about it. It COULD just be Universal ballyhoo. All I’m saying is, from the look of the sets, and the details like trenches being named Broadway and Rotten Row, somebody connected to the production has seen the real thing.

Chaplin makes fun of the enemy, with a tiny martinet strutting up and down, berating his hulking, mismatched Keystone Kops Kombat Unit.

Meanwhile, the Chaplin brothers eat lunch, unperturbed by the falling shells. A surprising splitscreen shows Charlie nostalgic for the real Broadway, with Henry Bergman (first of three roles) as a jovial bartender. This stuff is great, but fragmented. Chaplin shot lots (including some troubles with hand grenades which he’d take up later in GREAT DICTATOR), and these sequences may have been a bit more fluid before he got to trimming them down. Edna wrote to Chaplin to say how moved she was by the scene where he receives no mail from home. Impossible to imagine this working as well if it followed footage of him being harangued by a dish-hurling termagant. Charlie reading another soldier’s letter over his shoulder, facial reactions synching up exactly, is a great way of turning pathos into a gag (Chaplin imitators rarely master his ability to take the curse off potential saccharine by startling the audience with unexpected humour).

Chemical warfare! Charlie receives a delayed package from home, a pungent limburger disimproved by its Atlantic crossing. Donning gas mask, he lobs it across no-man’s land where it splatters the tiny commandant (the loyal Loyal Underwood). Note that all the early humour levied against the enemy targets the leaders, not the enlisted men.

The flooded barracks is my favourite sequence, because it’s so grim. The frog on Syd’s bare foot! Note that, when Charlie mistakes Syd’s foot for his own — a gag Stan & Ollie would make use of more than once — it’s apparent that the lack of family resemblance extends to the extremities. Charlie’s outsize boots would actually FIT Syd.

Charlie sleeping underwater with a phonograph trumpet to breathe through is a great gag. And plumping his waterlogged pillow is as excruciating an example of “making the best of things” as we would see until the boot-eating scene in THE GOLD RUSH.

Preparations to go “over the top” — Charlie is newly concerned about his unlucky serial number, then breaks his hand mirror for good measure. Still, seven years bad luck might mean you’re not going to get shot dead… The signal to charge is given, and Charlie goes through a magnificent set of changes, attempting to go through the motions of heroism, then having ladder trouble, then having second thoughts, finally doing his duty with no great enthusiasm. Sending his colleagues up ahead of him is probably the worst thing Charlie does in this film, and the most in character — elsewhere in his filmography, Charlie would always land his fellows in difficulty than get in any himself. But in this context, that’s not a point which can be pressed too far.

The enemy trench is taken — a vanishingly rare occurrence in real life — and Charlie singlehandedly captures thirteen Germans. “I surrounded them,” he says via intertitle, with a descriptive mime of a fast-circling finger to make it clear how this was achieved. He gives the tiny leader a spanking, to the delight of the German soldiers. This kind of solidarity with the ordinary men of the other side must have been very rare in American WWI pictures of the day.

More food: Charlie and Syd eat lunch, ignoring the shelling. “Hush, here comes a whizzbang,” as the song goes. Charlie opens a bottle by holding it aloft so a sniper can shoot the neck off, a gag reprised 56 years later in THE FOUR MUSKETEERS. (And in the same director’s HOW I WON THE WAR, Michael Crawford’s serial number is 131313.) He also lights a cigarette using the same method. It’s a stirring scene of two men inured to their desperate situation. Jet black comedy as Charlie chalks up his own sniper kills — the kind of thing that does depend of dehumanizing the other side, to the point where a human life is just a stripe on a blackboard. Harry Lime would laugh more heartily than I can.

Charlie makes the mistake of volunteering. He stands, chest out, proud to serve, until the near-suicidal nature of the mission is pointed out, when he executes an extraordinary physical transformation — his ribs turn concave, his shoulders drop, and he’s suggesting Syd might be a better choice after all.

The scenes of Charlie disguised as a dead tree were filmed amid an LA heatwave and appear to have been no fun at all. Chaplin didn’t like shooting on location at the best of times. He immediately faces chopping-down for firewood, a hazard nobody seems to have anticipated. (Immediate detection owing to being the only tree in France with a moustache would seem a likelier threat.) One of his arm-branches terminates in a knotty lump, which proves handy for knocking the would-be wood-gatherers cold.

Syd is captured by Henry Bergman in his second role (I’ve given up counting Albert Austin’s appearances and disappearances in this one). Charlie saves him from the firing squad but has to flee, losing his Tabanga costume. The bit of pipe he crawls through was a happy discovery on location, swiftly written into the story.

Edna enters the picture, and Charles D. Hall constructs a wonderful bombed-out dollhouse, exposed to the elements like a cutaway drawing. Charlie flees inside, taking care to lock the door and pull the blinds even though the surrounding wall has gone. This kind of large-scale expenditure horrified the budget-conscious Syd, until at last his wife Minnie forbade him to be involved in production at all, since it just upset him. (Syd also starred in his own WWI vehicle, A BETTER ‘OLE. It’s good!)

Edna, the ruin’s inhabitant, finds Charlie passed out and nurses him. Charlie coyly feigns unconsciousness a bit longer to enjoy her ministrations. When he awakens, she’s nervous until he pantomimes (the lack of a shared language justifies added gestural art) that he’s with the Americans. Not sure if this would necessarily be reassuring to a noncombatant — though the Germans were blamed for a lot of atrocities, gleefully reenacted by Von Stroheim back in Hollywood, in reality no one side ever has the monopoly on war crimes.

The Germans — the same troop of Chaplin troupers — show up, but the house collapses and Charlie escapes. With the remains of her home destroyed, Edna is now arrested for good measure, but the Moebius-strip geography of a Chaplin plot soon has him hiding in enemy HQ so he can rescue her, singeing her attacker (yes, these Krauts are all rapey) with a red-hot poker. The Edward II assault seems justifiable given these characters’ sleaziness.

The arrival of the Kaiser sets things up for a bit of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS style revisionism, though since the war was still on I suppose it’s more like prophecy. This part of the film is more exciting than it is funny. It reminded Fiona of ‘Allo, ‘Allo! a sitcom she likes and I don’t. Syd plays Kaiser Bill in a theatrical makeup that renders him unrecognizable. Henry Gibson is also back in another disguise. Now Charlie has to rescue Edna and Syd while capturing the enemy leaders and also making sure Syd’s two characters don’t bump into one another.

The best part of this is Charlie, impersonating a German chauffeur, brutalizing Syd every time someone’s watching. Syd is relieved to learn it’s all a ruse, but then the strangling begins anew, again and again. Mistreating Syd is definitely the Way Forward.

Edna in drag is TOO CUTE. The whole thing ends triumphally but it’s all a dream, which helps in a number of ways. It alibis the story against claims of implausibility, and it adds a bittersweet note — the reality of war is still ahead of Charlie, and it cannot be averted (unless peace breaks out before he’s shipped over). CHaplin COULD have had himself wake up in the sodden trench, thereby making the story’s grimmer parts real and only its heroic climax a fantasy, but he chose, I guess, a safer route. It worked, since nobody was offended, it seems.

Chaplin, untrained in storytelling save as a performer in theatre and movies, retained a weakness for it-was-all-a-dream endings, but they’re often used in interesting ways. They don’t solve the story problems — as here, they deepen them. He even contemplated finishing THE GREAT DICTATOR this way, with his Jewish barber character awakening in the concentration camp. Which would have been undeniably strong. But sometimes we don’t want strong.

I’d like this film even better if it took more of the right kind of risks, but it’s the art of the possible we’re talking about here. As it was, Chaplin lost confidence and was on the point of scrapping the movie when chum Doug Fairbanks’ hysterical reaction convinced him not to. Thank God for Doug.

Chaplin wasn’t the only one finding comedy in war. Some of the best war poems have a satiric bite. I like Siegfried Sassoon’s The General ~

“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

As with SHOULDER ARMS, nothing about this is really funny, except the rhythm and rhyme of it. Unlike the Chaplin, a bitter aftertaste is definitely the goal. With Chaplin’s film, it’s like more a minor note of disquiet amid the hilarity. Milos Forman talked about seeing THE GREAT DICTATOR in Czechoslovakia after WWII, and feeling the massive relief at finally being able to laugh at this bastard. Audiences in 1918 must have experienced something of the same liberating effect.

Vampire Nightclub

Posted in FILM, Interactive, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2018 by dcairns

If Max Schreck is looking a bit unusual above, that’s because I photographed him off the screen at The Hidden Door Festival’s BLADE event. I shall attempt to explain.

Hidden Door put on surprising and unusual events in empty buildings around Edinburgh. A bit like squatters, only they invite an audience. Flashback a week —

I’d given up going to the Filmhouse Quiz (second Sunday of the month) because I found the new quizmaster a bit inept. I felt bad for him, but after all I don’t go out at the weekend looking to feel bad for someone. If I want to cringe, I can stay home and think about my adolescence.

But there’s a NEW new quizmaster and I’d heard she was great and I went along and she was — and my team won, which doesn’t always happen. My kind of film trivia doesn’t always turn up in a film trivia quiz.

AND there was a special question with a special prize — there was a line of dialogue which turned out to be from BLADE, and BLADE is a very special film for team member Kim — she met her future husband Eg through their shared love of BLADE. So of course she recognized the line, won the prize, and it was free tickets to the Hidden Door event…

On the night, Kim got in touch as there were still a couple of tickets going spare. The Leith Theatre, site of the event, is only five minutes from out house, but Fiona had just set off for a nap, so I popped along myself, curious about the venue and the “immersive cinema experience” promised.

Not quite curious enough to stay. The show started at 7.30 but the movie itself… when? NOSFERATU was on when I arrived.

The disco lighting created lots of odd effects unimagined by Murnau. The pumping music did not exactly sync with the movie — it wasn’t intended as accompaniment, really — but I’ve heard worse attempts at scoring. And they’d really put a lot of effort and imagination into creating a vampire nightclub, including people playing vampires who prowled up and down or danced on podiums by the screen. It was all fine. I hate night clubs, but I was happy to have a beer, walk about, watch NOSFERATU for a bit…

NOSFRATU ended… I prepared for BLADE… and NOSFERATU began again. Of course they weren’t going to sync the start of one film to the end of the other. NOSFERATU was just screen-filler. They would start BLADE whenever.

The thing is, I don’t actually like BLADE, so having enjoyed the venue and seen a bit of NOSFERATU under unique circumstances, I left. The thought of being in a night club, even a vampire one, for an indeterminate period, was intolerable to me. I enjoyed what I’d had — would strongly recommend Hidden Door (it’s still running) to those who enjoy nights out — but it wasn’t really for me. And the reward for staying in the club would have been BLADE…

I warmed to Stephen Norrington at the time his debut, DEATH MACHINE, came out, because he did an interview saying “We are the generation that hates LONDON KILLS ME.” He was foursquare against gritty British social realism, which was the only flavour on sale at the time apart from heritage Merchant-Ivory stuff. I was with him. We might also have been the generation that hates DEATH MACHINE, I’m not sure — I never saw it.

BLADE had an impressive opening sequence, but one that invalidate the rest of the film — once you’d seen Wesley Snipes effortlessly kill a hundred vampires, there didn’t seem much point sticking around. Then Norrington made the autobiographical tortured genius film THE LAST MINUTE, which I haven’t seen, then THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, oh dear. I recently learned that Sean Connery had been set to do a film with Milos Forman until his experience with Norrington made him retire instead. Another reason to dislike this loud mess.

Norrington hasn’t made a film since, which is pretty remarkable. Normally, you do a film of that size, and SOMEBODY will hire you again. There’s a story there, but a lot of disagreement about what it is…

From one party I heard that everybody on LOXG hated Norrington. He famously didn’t attend the premiere. Another friend bumped into Norrington and heard his side of it. He’d been treated abominably. My friend was totally convinced by his account. But it doesn’t take too much finagling to find a theory that would square both versions: possibly Norrington was being mistreated by the producers, and this made him hard to work with, and Connery loathes disorganisation, and Norrington wound up universally unpopular but it wasn’t originally his fault. I don’t know. But I do find it hard to forgive him for using up Sean Connery right before he would have made the Milos Forman film. We are the generation that hates THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN.

Porn Again

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2018 by dcairns

Probably we’ll be revisiting a few Milos Forman films, in the wake of his passing, but the one I dropped in the player was THE PEOPLE VERSUS LARRY FLYNT, mainly because we hadn’t seen it since it came out. It’s still very amusing and affecting — Courtney Love provides the untrained quality Forman admired as Althea Flynt, and Woody Harrelson brings the more actorly professionalism, creating the perfect blendship. It comes across as a genuinely sweet relationship between two filthy people in love. And Harrelson’s brother Brett is really good, he should do more.

Since then, screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski have brought us The People Versus O.J. Simpson on TV plus several more biopics of Great American Weirdos. including Forman’s follow-up MAN IN THE MOON. I think this is one of their most successful attempts at character portraiture in their specialised sub-genre, the one in which character is in constant flux and motivation is often inexplicable, two challenges which would derail most writers.

Away from the human element — the movie does pretty well with its mercurial madman hero — it’s a defence of free speech, and the movie is effective enough here, but sort of slanted.

Firstly, feminist criticism of porn doesn’t exist in this film, so Flynt’s legal opponents are bluenoses and creeps like Jerry Falwell. This is fair enough in narrative terms, since those guys threatened the real-life Flynt more than attacks by Andrea Dworkin. But it leaves out a whole aspect of the subject, which could potentially enrich the movie. Ed Norton — playing a composite of all Flynt’s actual lawyers through the tears — yet appearing in the end-of-film summary as if he were a real person — talks about finding Hustler magazine distasteful, and Harrelson’s Flynt himself says, “The most I’m guilty of is BAD TASTE!” — a good line — but might there have been room for a more nuanced consideration? The weird effect is that the movie seems to take place in an alternative version of the 60s, 70s and 80s in which feminism never happened.

You can make up your own pearl necklace joke, if you absolutely have to.

Secondly, that analysis of what’s actually in Hustler is limited by censorship — the movie can’t actually show a real centrefold from the magazine, because vaginas are bad. So it can get a lot of good comedy value out of showing prudes at a fundraiser gaping in horror at unseen images, but it can’t let the other audience, us, view those images and make up our own minds. In other circumstances, this could make us imagine that the skinzine contains images of UNIMAGINABLE HORROR, I suppose, but instead it’s more like a suggestion of “nothing to see here.”

I’m not completely sold on my own suggestion that an analysis of the feminist objections to Hustler would improve the movie. Storywise, it’s not certain that feminism ever posed a threat to, or otherwise impinged on the life of Mr. Flynt whatsoever. The movie also omits three of his marriages and five children, including the one who claims he sexually abused her. And in today’s climate, it’s easier to say he may well have done. Apart from the fact that most such accusations tend to be truthful, Flynt was, in his youth, obviously highly sexed and sexual, morally flexible, mentally somewhat unbalanced (not that any of that automatically makes you a rapist). He makes a good suspect. How does that suspicion make the film play? More uncomfortably, which may be a good thing. The movie is a little too sure of itself.

We have to factor in Forman’s Goyaesque side, too, even though he hadn’t made GOYA’S GHOSTS yet. In fairness, Flynt’s staffers are a carnivalesque bunch of freakazoids, with Forman fave Vincent Schiavelli vying with sleepy-eyed Crispin Glover for physiognomy first prize, but it’s the prosecutors attacking Flynt who get the really repulsive reaction shots. All this is complicated a bit more by Flynt’s own cameo as a biassed judge, his flat delivery and bulbous features making for a caricature that works against both himself and his opponents. The satirical laser bounces between two funhouse mirrors and ends up just making the room seem hot.

The tendency to slant things towards Flynt is maybe most apparent in the scene where Love’s character drowns in the bath — while Flynt is on the phone trying to get her more medical help for her AIDS and drug addiction. It’s a pat, inelegant construction in an otherwise very smart screenplay, because it seems to be trying to force sympathy out of us that we should be quite willing to give freely. I don’t know, maybe that’s exactly how it happened in real life, but real life can sometimes need a rewrite.

But! I’d missed the news that the guy who shot Flynt, paralysing him, had actually been caught and executed. And Flynt campaigned to save his life because he’s opposed to the death penalty. That is some serious Christian forgiveness from a proud atheist. (Maybe atheists are more Christian than the Christians? I can’t imagine Falwell doing that.)