Archive for Samuel L Jackson

The Sunday Intertitle: Mr Rowdy & Mr Pest

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2021 by dcairns

Chaplin on screen is nearly always some version of The Tramp (who isn’t always a tramp), apart from in the early Keystone days. But he had a few names over the years, as we’ve seen — Mr. Wow-Wow, Mr Sniffels, Weakchin… But A NIGHT IN THE SHOW is unique since he plays two characters, Mr. Pest and Mr. Rowdy.

This is an adaptation of the Karno Company stage play that got Chaplin his Keystone offer. Mack Sennett was impressed by his drunk act. David Robinson remarks that Karno was known to be quite litigious, but Chaplin appears to have used the play without any official agreement… He padded it out by inventing his second character. This may have influenced Buster Keaton’s backstage comedy THE PLAYHOUSE, which opens with a dream in which Keaton plays EVERYBODY.

The lobby scene — Scene One — is an addition. Charlie as a top-hatted drunk would recur in the celebrated near-one-man show ONE A.M.

Mr. Rowdy is a fascinating creation, initially — Chaplin changes his simple makeup, compresses his face into a different formation, and is UNRECOGNISABLE. Suggesting that if the tramp character hadn’t hit it big, he would have been quite successful being different from film to film. But probably not THAT successful — it just so happened that his genius for cinematic clowning combined with him inventing a very recognisable silhouette, and that recognition factor was crucial.

Camera angles! The side-views of Mr. Pest amid the seating seem radical — Keystone audiences were always filmed from front or back, favouring either the faces of the crowd or the action onstage. And here comes Leo White in toff mode, which is how I like to see him best.

Well-timed business with the tuba player (James T. Kelley). Charlie uses the player’s bald head to light a match — he’s already mistaken a statue for a person. His drunkenness enables the confusion of people and objects to be taken to extremes. Then he has trouble finding his mouth with his cigarette, just like Peter Weller in NAKED LUNCH, a detail attested to as accurate by actual addicts.

For some reason Pest’s terror at the scary woman with the lorgnette strikes me as cruel, but his picking up the palsied trombonist’s tremor cracks me up. Both are evil. I suppose the defence, if there is one, is that we’re not mocking the afflicted, we’re laughing at Pest’s social ineptitude, his inability to act unfazed. Maybe.

The conductor accidentally lashing Pest in the face with his baton is wince-making, but he does deserve it. Maybe it’s wrong to have Pest actually struck — the jokes so far have been about HIM being wrong. If he’s whipped across the mouth he’s kind of justified in slapping back.

I don’t understand how the conductor can roll onto a chair so he’s upside down and then make it topple over without at least risking spinal injury.

In the ensuing skirmish, Chaplin cuts to a slightly closer view, with perfect continuity from about twenty-five actors and extras, so I’m assuming this is a single take shot with two cameras, Harry Ensign handing over to Rollie Totheroh, who would shoot almost all Chaplin’s stuff after the Essanay phase.

Fight over piece of trombone. Fat lady knocked into ornamental fountain. Chaplin seems fond of ornamental fountains — a useful way to have people fall in the water while indoors.

Good detail work as the eternal problem of the elbow rest is gone into. OBVIOUSLY theatre seats shouldn’t have conjoined elbow rests. Everybody should have a place for their elbows, if they have elbows. That’s democracy.

Edna laughs from a distance. Will she still be laughing when Mr. Pest gets in the same frame as her? That’s the Pest Test.

No, she’s very much not laughing now.

Ah good, here’s Mr. Rowdy again and he’s brought a bottle. I’m a bit distracted by the bloke in drag with a baby to the right of him. The IMDb doesn’t know who this is, but I suspect it’s somebody in a dual role. The guy to the left seems like a horrible ham, he’s assumed a permanent rictus to disguise his face so I assume he can be found elsewhere, playing elsewho, in the Mr. Pest segment of the movie. Here I get a vague impression that he’s aiming for a Semitic look.

The two Charlies interact without the use of splitscreen — just straight cutting between balcony and stalls. Chaplin wouldn’t really get into special effects until, I think THE GOLD RUSH.

The show begins! The first act is, rather obviously, the fat lady who fell in the fountain, May White, now playing a belly dancer. She doesn’t seem to be related to Leo White. She trips over — which should be pest’s fault but doesn’t seem to be motivated at all — and becomes unconscious. Or possibly dead. Pest jumps on stage to help out. So it’s a weak set-up to the business of Pest trying to lift a big woman onto her feet, which he then doesn’t make as much of as he could.

Now a fat boy arrives, and at first I thought this was May White yet again, in drag, but it’s Dee Lampton. He’d star in his own series of short films in 1917 as Schemer Skinny, then was relegated to roles like “Fat Man on Bench,” “Fat Rival” and “Fat Butler.” He was dead at twenty.

The business with Mr. Rowdy seems mainly to have been conceived to give something for Chaplin to cut to. A shame, because it’s fascinating to see him play someone else, even someone as unpleasant as this. Rowdy amuses himself by kicking the woman with the baby in the face. Which is why, I guess, it’s essential the she be played by a man. The unreality of the situation must be plain.

Lampton’s knickerbockered prankster has brought cream pies to the theatre, which Pest keeps putting his hand in. Losing patience, he swipes the pie at Lampton and hits the parent or guardian. So, are we to take it that Fred Karno was doing pie-in-face action before the movies got ahold of the gag? Ben Turpin, as we have seen, appears to have thrown cinema’s first pastry.

Now a snake charmer appears — IMDb has this as May White also, but I think that’s wrong. This character isn’t a comedic fat lady, just zaftig in a way that was considered attractive rather than funny in 1915. Although there’s a crossover — she and the belly dancer are treated both as potentially erotic (a lady drags her husband away because he enjoys the belly dancer too much) and also as suitable butts for crude gags — as when Mr. Pest lights a match on the snake charmer’s bare sole. She must have really calloused feet.

She also has a whole urn full of serpents. Another reason she’s not May White (unless the fat lady isn’t May White and she is) — she’s prepared to handle snakes, and is therefore probably a specialty act. I’m starting to think that maybe the fat lady and the belly dancer are both Dee Lampton in drag, or one of them is, or something. Whatever way, the Inaccurate Movie Database is living up to its name.

Snakes in an orchestra pit! Where’s Sam Jackson when you need him? “I have had it with etc.” The python in the tuba is an oddly uncomfortable gag.

Now I’ve noticed Leo White in blackface up in the gallery behind Mr. Rowdy and I can’t unsee that. It does at least confirm that probably everybody up there — the idiot children of paradise — is a disguised cast member from elsehwre in the film.

It occurs to me that in dividing himself in twain, Chaplin has given his derby to Mr. Rowdy and his moustache to Mr. Pest. Rowdy gets a good bit of business lifting his bushy ‘tache up so he can drink. The little toothbrish job was chosen to make Chaplin look older while not concealing his facial expressions, and we can see the wisdom of this, as Mr. Rowdy basically only has one expression, since Chaplin is holding his face in a different formation to make the character distinct. How to describe that expression? It seems to me tipsy, stupid, and very open and very psychopathic at the same time.

Dot and Dash — Bud Jamison and a little person the IMDb OUGHT to be able to identify but has not. Surely we’ll see this guy in other films from the period. Anyway, they sing badly, it seems, and are pelted with fruit. Inevitably, Mr. Pest sees a use for Dee Lampton’s other pie. Rather than throw it, sportsmanlike, however, he creeps on stage to deliver it at close quarters into the musical face of the anonymous achondroplasiac. This is done. There is no twist, no joke, really, just a short guy pieing the face of an even shorter guy. And then kicking him up the arse. Mr. Pest/Chaplin seems to be sadistically amused by this, and the audience goes wild, and I’m left rather cold.

Dutifully, Dot and Dash come back for a curtain call and more abuse.

The audience is now wildly applauding Mr. Pest for his nastiness. It would seem that Chaplin had some reservations about the kind of comedy he was doing — he would later say so, anyway — and so it makes sense that he’d have an ambivalent attitude to the people who loved him.

Next stop: Hell. “Professor Nix, the fire eater” performs in a volcanic cavern set, wearing horns. Mr. Pest is rightly alarmed. Chaplin’s last encounter with the flames of Hades was in THOSE LOVE PANGS. Other than the heavenly dream sequence of THE KID, I’m not sure he was particularly inspired by the afterlife again. Prof. Nix is really good, though — he uses Melesian jump-cuts, not something we’d have seen in the Karno production.

Pearls before swine: Mr. Rowdy panics and turns on the firehose, much as in THE PROPERTY MAN. Chaplin gets to show his resentment of the audience. But he ends on Mr Rowdy squirting Mr Pest from above — a close-up of a sodden Chaplin being a standard full stop at Keystone, but somewhat lacking for the more structured Essanay shorts.

I feel the main value here is the glimpse we get of Karno komedy, but it’s a distorted glimpse, since Chaplin is adapting everything for the cinema and extending it to make a two-reeler. We still can’t know what it was really like to see Chaplin on the stage. But clues are good.

I’m kind of excited about A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN, which is next. Hoping I can see the original two-reel cut AND Leo White’s four-reel travesty.

A Hatful of Hateful

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2016 by dcairns

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To Edinburgh Filmhouse, to see THE HATEFUL EIGHT in 70mm, complete with overture and intermission.

Last 70mm opportunity was THE MASTER, which it was hoped would be projected at Filmhouse — they were promised a print from London. The London cinema put their best projectionist on the job. But for the press show, they handed it to someone with less experience, since it was only critics, only the people whose verdict might help bring the public in… and he wrecked the print. So no Edinburgh 70mm of that one.

I’m not really a film snob, though watching TRUMBO recently it was obvious to me that for certain kinds of period feel it’s always going to be superior. And the look of Tarantino’s film (apart from, surprisingly, one flickering shot at the start — not sure if this was a projection problem or a filming issue) benefits from the rich, fine grain of Super 65mm Cinerama. But as to the projection, were it not for one tiny scratch and the “cigarette burns” signalling reel changes, I wouldn’t have known it was film and not a DCP. Still, those little imperfections have a nostalgic value.

I have simultaneously been impressed and amused by the last couple of Tarantino films, while also finding them wildly offensive. A lot of negative reviews on this one made me suspect I might really hate it — more violence, more dubious use of racial epithets, more over-extended talk scenes. In fact, I didn’t find it quite as obnoxious as INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS or DJANGO UNCHAINED. It wasn’t about the Holocaust or slavery, is the simple reason why. It does purport to deal with race in America, however, and like its predecessors it comes up against the limitations of genre cinema in addressing complex, serious real-world issues. It doesn’t manage to highlight these problems in the way that IB arguably does, which might be that film’s redeeming trait (if we leave aside the funny bits and tense bits and clever bits), but its failure to bend the rules of the Tarantino universe to incorporate a coherent state of the nation address did not, for me, result in a film more unpleasant than DJANGO UNCHAINED.

Those who were incensed or bored by the film’s excesses do have my sympathy, but I got to that point two films ago, so I’m less upset about this one.

In the spirit of kindly critique — since I went with very shaky expectations, I don’t feel outrage is appropriate — I want to offer some thoughts on how the film might have succeeded better at some of its apparent goals.
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(ONE)

It feels like Tarantino has been trapped by his cool title. He’s compelled to populate his wide frame with horribly obnoxious characters. Yet while every single one of the protagonists of RESERVOIR DOGS was a career criminal, several of them were at least somewhat likable some of the time, and there were certain gradations of nastiness. Fiona, who first saw the movie on VHS, was snarling “Shoot him!” within five minutes of Mr. Blond’s appearance.

If this seems like I’m calling for the film to use more conventional, hence more boring characterisation, maybe I am, but would RESERVOIR DOGS be improved if Harvey Keitel were shown laughing at a woman being beaten, or if Steve Buscemi were a virulent racist? Wouldn’t the tension of HATEFUL 8 be increased if Kurt Russell were less brutish, Samuel Jackson less psychopathic? Wouldn’t everything get better if the characters weren’t all so SIMILAR? It’s my view that if you’re going to spend most of three hours shut in a room with a small crowd of characters, the more varied they are then the more entertaining the experience will be. Making them all variations on the cold-blooded killer model seems wasteful.

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(TWO)

Yes, the N word. And the repeated woman-punching. The explanations Tarantino has offered for his infatuation with that particular term do not satisfy. But he may believe some of them. I felt it was a bit ridiculous to protest the word’s inclusion in DJANGO UNCHAINED, given the social context — it was more worthwhile to protest the film’s falsification of that context (the fantasy of “Mandingo fighting,” for instance). But there’s one use of the word right at the end of DU, where the word is used as punchline to a Lone Ranger reference, which is pertinent here, because Tarantino is now using the word as punchline to jokes in which Samuel L. Jackson is the butt. (And I worry about how history will regard Jackson for his participation in these two films.)

As with the “humour” around Jennifer Jason Leigh’s frequent pummelings, it’s probable that Tarantino intends us to find this comedy uncomfortable. But it isn’t the comedy of discomfort you might find in, I don’t know, WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? The jokes are played straight, and it’s up to the audience to find them difficult IF the audience is sensitive enough. Straightforward racists and misogynists can just laugh.

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(THREE)

The films Tarantino admires include many taboo-busting, challenging movies from the seventies. He also likes lots of exploitation movies which gleefully present shocking and distasteful scenes. He wants to replicate the WTF factor of these movies, but either he knows he can’t get away with some of their excesses, or doesn’t wish to go there. His attempts to combine serious, shocking cinema with frivolous, shocking cinema seem foredoomed to me, because the two justifications he uses, “What? I’m making a serious point, here,” and “What? It’s only a bit of fun!” do not in fact reinforce each other, they cancel each other out. To use a western analogy, it’s a bit like the man accused of stealing another man’s horse, who says “I don’t steal horses, and anyway, you have a lousy horse.”

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(FOUR)

This is the second film (RESERVOIR DOGS being the first) Tarantino has made which essentially remakes John Carpenter’s paranoia/cabin-fever chiller THE THING. Here he even has the wintry locale and the same leading man and some of the same music. One character even accuses another of acting paranoid, a term I sort of doubt was common parlance at the time the story is set. The question of how historically accurate the film is meant to be, or feel, is frankly unanswerable, with “Completely” and “Not at all” both seeming possibly valid interpretations of the filmmakers intent.

The sense that QT is running out of ideas is exacerbated by the familiar play with time, which here mainly amounts to a long-ish flashback designed to explain and recontextualize the set-up we encounter at Minnie’s Haberdashery. In fact, the flashback supplies almost no important information we couldn’t guess (the mystery I was most concerned with — how the door got busted — is unaddressed, unless I missed something). The main point of showing this sequence seems to be to reveal that the people killed before the story begins were all lovely and innocent. Minnie, who we have been told hates Mexicans, seems a wholly delightful person, in a mixed-race marriage herself, and she betrays no prejudice when dealing with a Mexican character in the flashback. The suspicion grows that the stuff about her barring Mexicans was essentially only included because Tarantino couldn’t resist a racist joke.

Tarantino has invoked Agatha Christie, an odd reference since the only clear whodunnit does not arise until after the intermission, and the question is answered within what felt to me like twenty minutes. What I’m saying is, the film is not structurally as interesting as other QT movies have been (though I recall DJANGO UNCHAINED essentially plodding through its narrative in chronological fashion — have I forgotten something?)

I felt when I saw TRUE ROMANCE, a non-linear QT script straightened out and played in sequence by director Tony Scott, that QT’s stuff didn’t stand up to the clear overview provided by a chronological ordering. Had the film used the script’s “answers first, questions later” approach, I might have been less bothered by Christopher Walken vanishing from the story after killing the hero’s father, and I might have been less bothered by the hero generally causing death and destruction to other people wherever he goes, out of sheer idiocy. I like to think I would still have been quite bothered, but maybe a bit less. Getting dropped into the middle of a situation deprives you of an overview to be judgemental with — “you can’t see an environment when you’re in it” — and you just have to watch the characters attempt to deal with the situation. You can relate as soon as you understand the basic urgent situation. So the missing heist scene in RESERVOIR DOGS really helps — the problem of Tim Roth’s critical injury is allowed to outweigh his participation in an armed robbery, and his betrayal of his gang.

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(FIVE)

Roth (doing a mix of Terry-Thomas and what seems like David Puttnam) and Michael Madsen are back here. In each QT film, rather appealingly, he uses his clout to restore to prominence a star who has fallen by the wayside. Here, with a kind of full-circle inevitability, he rescues Madsen, whom he had initially boosted with his first feature. The eight are a patchwork of actors QT has mostly used before, with Jennifer Jason Leigh as standout new-to-the-fold star. I’m glad to have her back, but not sure I want her back like this. Though she does some nice physical stuff, scratching her head after removing her hat (because hats make your head hot and itchy), extruding a tongue to catch snowflakes. Odd, this emphasis on the tactile in a character virtually indifferent to extreme pain. Daisy Domergue’s ability to shrug off atrocious bodily harm is probably the best claim the movie has to be “like a cartoon,” as composer Ennio Morricone has said. But KING-SIZE CANARY is shorter. I could watch it twenty-three times during THE HATEFUL 8.

Walton Goggins is doing Burton Gilliam’s performance from BLAZING SADDLES. He doesn’t try to make Jackson sing “De Camptown Ladies” but he might as well.

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(SIX)

Here I get into spoilers, maybe — I won’t tell you what happens but you might guess some of it from my discussion of what doesn’t happen.

Is this a state-of-the-nation address, as Tarantino has claimed? I think if the ending had more of the horror of THE BIG SILENCE, we could buy that. I mean, it’s unpleasant, nihilistic and blackly ironic, but nothing about it is likely to disturb QT’s core audience. Had the sheriff made a deal with the bandits, killed Samuel L. Jackson, and ridden off happily into the sunrise, we would have been upset, despite the Jackson character’s frequent unpleasantness. We would have felt something wrong. But Tarantino doesn’t really want to distress the viewer in that way, so his films are only ever going to flatter his constituency — their knowing laughter is always going to be the correct response.

Like I say, I got more enjoyment out of this nasty, brutish and long film than I expected. Kurt Russell and Jackson and Roth and Leigh kept me entertained, and there’s something to be said for lingering over group dynamics in a single space for a looong time.

Red Rivers

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2013 by dcairns

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When Django met Django.

DJANGO UNCHAINED is worth seeing, depending on your tastes — it’s problematic as hell and flawed purely in structural, character and stylistic ways quite apart from its historical, political and ethical problems. I wasn’t as offended by it as I expected to be, but was a lot more bored. But there are a lot of good points — in fairness, I’m going to alternate between plus and minus and we’ll see how they stack up in my take on it by the time I’m finished. Right now I’ve just seen it and I don’t know where I’ll wind up.

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+ The first half has a lot of good western virtues, with scenic vistas, old-timey dialogue and grizzled character thesps.

– The second half feels inert, drawn-out and misshapen, with two climaxes where logically one good one would be better.

+ Christoph Waltz is great fun to watch, and the various baddies are often hissably impressive.

– Jamie Foxx is a kind of supporting player in his own film, and Kerry Washington has the definition of a thankless role — she has literally no scenes where she’s not being tortured or terrorized, or else standing mutely by as a fantasy of the hero. What should be the love scene is cut short when she faints (after being pointlessly terrorized by Waltz, supposedly at Django’s behest).

+ There’s some amusing black comedy violence and satisfying revenge-fantasy mayhem.

– The shoot-out at Candieland struck me as gross. I wasn’t nauseated by the limb-lopping, blood-gouting sword-fights of KILL BILL, but for some reason (greater sadistic focus on suffering victims, maybe, plus more sploshy sound), this was icky.

+ Samuel L. Jackson is great (only in JACKIE BROWN, oddly enough, is he not great). In depicting a “house nigger” character as villain, Tarantino has boldly gone into territory rarely dealt with by movies. The character type is familiar in contemporary African-American discourse but rarely dramatized in Hollywood movies.

– I didn’t see his character as the ultimate villain deserving of the cruelest death at the end. As nasty as Stephen is, he’s a product of his setting and has manipulated his way into the best spot available to him. Though he manipulates his master and has a measure of real power, he’s still vulnerable and disposable, and hasn’t had the opportunities to educate himself that Calvin Candie had. By elevating Stephen above Candie in the film’s structure, QT runs the risk of blurring who was responsible for slavery.

+ The movie has more of a character arc than any other QT movie — both Django and Dr King Schultz change and improve as the film goes on.

– Django’s improvement is shown in his increased self-respect, and his learning to read, and eventually make his own plans. But mainly in his ability to kill without mercy — and this is shown without apparent irony and with no hint of nuance.

+ The proto-Klan scene is wickedly funny in a way that hasn’t been seen since BLAZING SADDLES.

Everything Anne Billson says.

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+ Tackling race at all, in terms outside those considered safe and respectable (ie Spielberg’s LINCOLN), takes nerve. Tarantino is plunging into a despised sub-genre that’s, if you’ll excuse the expression, beyond the pale, but which has yielded interesting work — Fleischer’s MANDINGO, Meyer’s BLACK SNAKE.

– Yoking together fantasy spaghetti western violence, which is removed from reality by several stages, with the historical iniquities of slavery, using “realism” as justification for portraying monstrous acts of cruelty, seems to me to be attempting the impossible. By its very historical revisionism, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS stood exposed as wish-fulfillment, since hopefully we all know Hitler didn’t die in a cinema at the hands of American advance troops. DJANGO doesn’t have that level of Bokononist undercutting.

– And the problem is exacerbated by having DiCaprio state that black people are inherently submissive, since they have had ample opportunities to kill their masters. The obvious counter-argument is that they didn’t kill their white overlords because they didn’t want to be tortured and lynched. Few death camp inmates mutinied in WWII, because the individual desire to stay alive is too strong. Of course, we’re not meant to take DiCaprio’s arguments at face value, given his loathsome character. But Django echoes the sentiment at the end of the film, saying that Candie was right to call him a one-in-ten-thousand exception.

– A heroic bloodshed spaghetti western revenger’s comedy cannot do justice to the story of slavery — it can’t even pretend to try and fail to do justice to it — if it ends on a triumphal note and suggests that the slaves could have won, or that a single slave could have won. As in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, movie violence meets real historical evil and wins. It’s a fanboy jack-off fantasy constructed on a mound of corpses.