Archive for Nino Rota

Man’s Beast Friend

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2021 by dcairns

On the subject of A DOG’S LIFE, Chaplin’s first film for First National, Walter Kerr (in The Silent Clowns) sagely notes ~

“The dirt floor of the vacant lot on which Charlie is discovered sleeping is now real dirt, hard, soiling, transparently uncomfortable. He will make nothing of this, or, rather, he will deflect attention from it with a gag without denying its presence. The board fence beside him is rickety, uneven at ground level, obviously no shelter from wind. The wind bothers him, a bit. He studies its cause. There is a small knothole in one board. He stuffs that with a piece of cloth and curls up to sleep again, reassured. The joke has had a double face: it is funny because closing off the least source of wind is preposterous in the circumstances; it also accentuates the circumstances. The comedy and a certain harshness of fact are being welded.

“When he goes to the tavern, The Green Lantern, the paint is peeling from the cement walls that frame its entrance, the sign promising Beer 5¢ is weathered almost to obliteration. The curbstone on which he sits is littered: there is garbage for him to probe in search of possible food. Compare the environment in which all of the spirited gagging takes place with that of the earlier Easy Street and the new texture becomes plain. Easy Street is a slum street, populated by bullies, drug addicts, impoverished women who must steal. But it is as clean as a drawing for a fairy tale. A Dog’s Life is not a picture of a place but a place. The “setting” as a thing closer to documentation is taking its place.”

Kerr’s observations are all the more astute because there’s no evidence he knew that the Chaplin unit had been joined by a new production designer, uncredited, in the person of Charles D. Hall. Hall would design every Chaplin film from here until MODERN TIMES, while running the design department at Universal for the last few of those years. He’s a giant of cinema, giving us not just the clockwork innards Chaplin will reel through, iconically, but Castle Dracula, Frankenstein’s laboratory, the Bauhaus Satanism of THE BLACK CAT.

Hall was a companion from the Fred Karno days, but by the time he starts working with Chaplin he already has absorbed cinema’s need for close-up detail, as described in Kerr’s examples. It’s not clear whether he absorbed this working on earlier films or simply had his own ideas, or followed Chaplin’s orders. But he certainly brings a new reality to the films. If you’re wondering if a designer would really be responsible for the quality of dirt on the set in 1917, you can read my short bio in this month’s Sight & Sound but also read Tom Charity on Richard Sylbert in the same issue: Sylbert dictated that, since CHINATOWN was about a drought, he didn’t want to see a single cloud. He designed the SKY.

We can compare directly Chaplin waking up in EASY STREET and in A DOG’S LIFE:

In addition to the detail, the new film begins with a slow tilt down from ramshackle buildings, a movement that adds depth and solidity.

The new film benefits especially from the realistic textures because its gags are mostly about SURVIVAL. The addition of a dog is sympathetic but also holds a mirror up to Charlie, as Jackie Coogan would. Scraps is introduced as “a thoroughbred mongrel,” a contradictory statement that also applies to Charlie, a natural aristocrat, an indigent lord of the manner.

Scraps is played by Mut. Chaplin had been experimentally buying dogs, then giving them away to good homes when he judged them insufficiently cinematic. A dachshund, a pomeranian and a poodle preceded the final mutt, Mut. Obviously a mongrel was the way to go, but Chaplin liked to find things out by trial and error.

Class warfare: in Chaplin, the underdog is permitted to mistreat the upper crust silk hat fellow, since this qualifies as revenge on the persecutor, but he can also rob the honest salesman: in EASY STREET, Charlie as constable helps a woman load up with purloined groceries from a stall, and there’s no thought to how the poor stall-keeper is to survive. In THE KID, breaking the windows of the honest poor is permissible (windows are expensive).

A kop! No longer with the silly tit helmet, but with a dignified cap and an unblinking stare. Played not by a clown but by a regular actor, Tom Wilson, previously of Griffith and Pickford productions. But he has to get down and slapsticky with the rest of them, as Charlie uses the gap beneath the fence to roll back and forth and play merry hell with the kopper’s ankles.

Charlie now visits the Employment Office. Despite his offscreen British origins, queuing is not a natural activity for him. An ad for a brewery job provokes a near-riot, and despite his greater speed, Charlie suffers the inevitable consequence of being the smallest jobseeker. The fat jobseeker is the inevitable Henry Bergman, in the first of his inevitable two roles.

That other Henry, Henry Jaglom, was horrified to learn that Chaplin used gag writers. This seems to be true, but unlike with Keaton it seems we’re not allowed to know who they were. Vincent Bryan & Maverick Tyrrel (cool name) are listed by the IMDb as co-screenwriters of the Mutual films, but on what factual basis I don’t know. Bryan was also a songwriter, responsible for”In My Merry Oldsmobile” (?) No co-writers are given for subsequent Chaplins until we get Orson Welles supplying the story for MONSIEUR VERDOUX. But Glen David Gold’s well-researched novel Sunnyside gives Chaplin a gaggle of gagmen. Albert Austin and Henry Bergman are said to have contributed ideas, and so I suspect the stock company could be said to serve as co-authors, like the actors in Mike Leigh films, but the man in charge serves as filter of all suggestions.

After being roundly defeated in the Job Centre — even the tiniest jobseekers somehow arrive at the service window before him — the problem is there are TWO –Charlie rescues Scraps from bigger dogs: the parallel with his own scrappy existence is clear. He at once becomes surrogate bitch to the pup, helping access the dregs of a milk bottle using Scraps’ own tail as a kind of milk-sop. Probably THE KID has a better origin story, with Charlie simply forced into partnership with a baby, much against his wishes. But this is fine, and sweet.

Attention to set detail is complimented by attention to extras once we relocate to the Green Lantern bar, a low dive full of low characters. Chaplin invents bits of business for the local colour. But he’s cutting ahead if the plot here — nothing happens in the bar/dance hall this time round. He just needed a cutaway.

Sydney! Chaplin’s half-brother last shared a screen with him in HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, Chaplin’s last Keystone film and Sydney’s first. Since then, Syd had made a number of shorts using his “Gussle” character, sometimes called a Chaplin impersonation but not really. Syd was less handsome than Charlie and his characters usually up the grotesquerie factor.There are at a couple of features where he bares his face and looks natural, but he retreats behind makeup and cookieduster again for THE BETTER ‘OLE, the better to resemble the Bruce Bairnsfather cartoon the film takes its title from.

I can only hate Syd as a human being, but he’s another comic who, not surprisingly, has fantastic timing with his brother. Like Conklin and Turpin. This is their probably their best bit together, but I’ll be watching out for his subsequent appearances.

The basis of this routine is Charlie and scraps stealing from Syd’s lunch counter. Scraps cleans up a string of sausages in time-honoured fashion. Charlie eats all the pies. It is incredible to see him cram those things into his skinny face. He’s like Paul Newman with the hardboiled eggs. I think they must have made nearly-empty pies, but then again, his face looks pretty full. Syd tries to catch him at it. This becomes very funny indeed, since by the diminishing number of pies and Charlie’s proximity to the dish, his guilt is transparent. But Syd is determined to catch him in flagrante. Circumstantial evidence is insufficient for this stickler. The variety of ways Charlie gets the better of him is dazzling, and a lot of it is played out in unbroken master shots so you can see the interplay in real time. There are cutaways to the dog and closeups, maybe so Chaplin can run off and be sick. But the bulk of the action is in wides of twenty seconds and a minute ten.

The arrival of that kop, whose sinister gaze Charlie meets just as he’s lifting another pie to his gob, breaks up the skit — Charlie flees and the kop gets hit with the colossal sausage intended for him.

Stuffed with meat, Charlie and Scraps enter the Green Lantern and the first thing that can be called plot occurs (I may be being over-strict, but I think the meeting with Edna is the first thing in the film that leads to something else).

Rejected from the joint for having a dog with him, Charlie stuffs Scraps down his baggy pants, which at last have a use. The dog is somewhat large for this role, which may have looked more realistic on paper. Special effects will be used to basically shrink him: once he’s inside, Charlie looks normal-ish, no longer bulging fantastically, but with a wagging tail protruding from his trousers. The seat was torn earlier, when Charlie rescued Scraps from the bigger dogs, so this is unusually logical.

Various barflies and one drummer are freaked out by Charlie’s tail. Mut seems very contented in those pants, whenever we cut to a medium-shot and we see his face.

Edna is a singer in this joint. She sings a sad song — cutaways of various plug uglies weeping into their beer. Henry Bergman, in his inevitable second inevitably drag appearance, cries clown tears, but instead of spurting like water pistols his eyes just dribble in cataracts down his big face upon the place beneath, where Charlie happens to be sitting.

You have to see this one with Chaplin’s score — I guess this is the earliest Chaplin film with his own music accompanying it. He couldn’t write music but he would whistle or hum it for a composer to transcribe. I gather sometimes what he whistled wasn”t entirely original, but his films are full of cute tunes, and Nino Rota’s collaboration with Fellini is impossible to imagine without C.C. Here, Edna’s lament is preceded and followed by a very vigorous and zaftig dancer, and the contrast in style and dignity is very funny.

Syd’s then-wife Minnie is credited as “Dance hall dramatic lady” on the IMDb. Does that make her the dancer? It’s a bit strange.

Fiona likes Edna’s incompetent flirting. It’s one of the few Edna roles where she gets to transform pathos — her bully of a boss demands she flirt with customers — with comedy — she’s so innocent she has no idea how to do it. She looks like she’s having a fit. Charlie, the customer she tries it on, is baffled until she provides an explanatory title card. Such visual cues would be useful in real life.

At attempt to dance with a dog in tow looks forward to the improvised dog leash belt in THE GOLD RUSH. It looks pretty uncomfortable. Charlie is just sitting down to a (leftover) half drink with Edna when the bartended unreasonably demands he buy something for her. He gives her the drink. The bartender starts to eject him so he grabs it back and downs it on his way out.

Charlie and Scraps get the bum’s rush. Meanwhile, a rich drunk is rolled for his bulging wallet. This tipsy walk-on clearly would be given to an experienced comic, but the IMDb offers no clue as to who it is and I don’t recognise him. There’s a nice “mercy shot” after he’s dragged offscreen by thugs and relieved of his loot — he staggers back into view, dazed but unperturbed, and staggers off back the way he came.

Kops chase robbers, and the purloined wad is buried where Scraps can easily find it, providing the ensuing complications of Reel #3 and Day #2 (or is it #3?) of this film.

TO BE CONTINUED

Moonstruck

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 29, 2020 by dcairns

Annually, as the Late Films Blogathon approaches, I contemplate watching Fellini’s final feature, VOICE OF THE MOON, along with Kurosawa’s MADADAYO, and annually I fail to do so. I think I’ve been anxious lest I dislike the valedictory films of two favourite auteurs. I have actually started watching both movies and then ducked out, not quite feeling up to the challenge.

So when David Wingrove got in touch to say he was seeing the FF film as part of the Fellini 100 season at Edinburgh Filmhouse (and elsewhere — check listings for details), I seized the chance to commit myself, if you’ll pardon the expression. At the prices Filmhouse is compelled to charge, I wasn’t likely to walk out on it, so, come hell or high water, both of which admittedly seem likelier by the hour, I was going to see this film. Get it watched. When I watch a film, it stays watched. I hope.

It unfolds like a dream. I was convinced at first that it was just going to be a series of interwoven dream narratives, that Fellini would one-up Kurosawa by not TELLING us that it’s dreams…

Roberto Benigni, pleasingly muted by his standards, plays Ivo Salvini, both a Fellini surrogate (droopy scarf, flashbacks to childhood) and a care-in-the-community village lunatic, wandering around a small town for a night, a day and a night. Paolo Villaggio plays an equally deranged former politician, and seems another stand-in for the director with his broad face and coat slung over his shoulders.

Everybody our wandering lunatic meets seems to be a fellow madman. That must be what it’s like: nobody makes sense, everybody is pursuing incomprehensible obsessions. Not coincidentally, that’s also what it’s like when you are a child. “Damned are those who understand,” says the moon.

There’s a workman who dreams of dragging the moon down to Earth with a special crane and an unlucky-in-love character (another former inmate?) who wants to dance on it. Ivo just talks to it, which leads to him climbing into wells, to the danger of his life. He’s a relatively mild case, by the standards of this town.

In the tiny Filmhouse 3 there was a woman behind me laughing very heartily at jokes that might otherwise have passed me by. Her full-throated appreciation really lifted the movie. Maybe she’s mad too? Maybe we all are. Sample laugh-getter:

A local man has started his own village TV station.

“It’s called CIP. C is for Constanza, my wife, I is for Irena my eldest daughter, P is for Patrizia my dear sister.”

“And what about you, ma’am, are you proud of your husband?”

“NO! The idiot could have bought a zoo with that money!”

Maybe you had to be there, or dream that you were. But the maestro had not lost his knack of producing really good jokes out of surprising settings.

Some credit the source novel, by Ermanno Cavazzoni, who also collaborated on the script with FF and regular scribe Tullio Pinelli, with pushing Fellini out of his comfort zone so the movie isn’t a rehash of old imagery, as arguably GINGER AND FRED and INTERVISTA are (and Fellini was accused of simply warming over the same old stuff as far back as JULIETTE OF THE SPIRITS, an accusation I don’t agree with). On the other hand, to me a lot of the pleasure was that it WAS archetypal Fellini. The more it felt like Fellini, the better I liked it. Can’t understand anyone NOT liking it.

Fellini’s difficulty is that, after NIGHTS OF CABIRIA I guess I’d date it to, Fellini moved away from “regular” structured stories with “conventional” emotional catharses — having gotten really, really good at them. LA DOLCE VITA takes the title of CABIRIA literally — it’s a series of nights, it could be called NIGHTS OF MARCELLO. EIGHT AND A HALF has a story and a form but they’re not quite revealed while you’re watching. And then it gets more and more abstract. Without a structure you can set your watch by (a big reason three-act things are so common is simply that they’re so common, so you can tell after feeling you’ve been in your seat half an hour [not counting ads and trailers] that the first act just happened), without a clearly stated narrative goal, Fellini has to keep us engaged IN THE MOMENT, without using pressing questions about What will happen next? Will our hero succeed? Whodunnit? So if his invention flags for an instant, if what we’re watching right now isn’t wondrous strange, we can disengage and it’s going to take a big fish washed up or a Papal fashion show to get us back in.

VOICE OF THE MOON didn’t quite hold me throughout, even with a vague hero’s quest narrative shuffled into the mix, but I stayed focussed because the good bits were so good I didn’t want to miss any, even with my insomnia meds making me drowsy…

With Tonino Della Colli shooting and Dante Ferretti designing, VOTM has sequences that recapture the feel of classic Fellini, though sadly without Nino Rota. As last films go, better than POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES. I’m glad I returned to the well with the Maestro.

“You do not understand?” says the Moon. “Even better! Woe to him who understands!”

Queen Christina Rides Again

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2012 by dcairns

Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth!), left.

Anthony Harvey is best known for his James Goldman adaptations, THE LION IN WINTER and THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS. Both are strong texts with excellent casts, but never felt very filmic to me. Harvey, a former editor, achieved some neat cutting effects but the feeling of “filmed play”, or even “televized play”, hung over the proceedings. I still like them, though.

DUTCHMAN, his first movie, is eminently theatrical but incredibly, electrifyingly powerful in what has to be called a “cinematic” way at the same time, despite being confined entirely to a single subway train carriage. More on that here.

THE ABDICATION, lavishly staged in Italy and shot by Geoffrey Unsworth (2001, CABARET, TESS) takes a play by Ruth Wolff that’s virtually a two-hander, and explodes it with grandiose settings, expressive, almost flashy editing, flashbacks, and a lush Nino Rota score. It could have been overpowering, but I think it achieves a kind of balance.

It’s the story of Queen Christina (“the great Svenska dyke,” as Peter O’Toole put it) after her abdication, as she attempts to convince a cardinal (Peter Finch) that her conversion to Catholicism is sincere. This turns into a sort of psychotherapy session during which she falls in love with her interrogator, tipping her hand with the gift of an inappropriate porn goblet ~

Liv actually seems to be having fun with the material, and the literate script delivers both snappy, rhythmic exchanges of the kind that can feel too artificial onscreen if you’re not careful, and more languid speeches that let things breathe. When Liv has a breakdown in flashback, pressing herself against a wall in terror, we’re close to Bergman terrain, but the style, all widescreen, fog filters, golden lens flare and surging montage, is the very opposite.

Here, Unsworth’s vaseline smears convert the sun’s rays to a weird gold slash, rather unlike anything found in nature — a striking effect, for sure. The movie is almost TOO beautiful, and anybody who has a resistance to David Lean type grandeur would probably find it hard to take. We rather loved it.