Archive for Sherlock Jr

Prom Prom Prom

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2021 by dcairns

The first character we meet in Chaplin’s BY THE SEA is Billy Armstrong, a somewhat bland clown who really needs his walrus moustache to project any character. He seems the equivalent of the later Albert Austin type. Funnily enough, when regular antagonist Bud Jamison appears, his painted eyebrows and top hat make him seem, with his burly, surly aspect, even more of a proto-Eric Campbell than before.

(Incidentally, David Robinson remarks that this film is a mere nine set-ups. I count more like sixteen, though many are mere variations in shot size. Robinson doesn’t make mistakes so I’m assuming restoration has rendered the film longer than the print he saw, or else he’s not counting slight push-ins.)

But long before we see Bud, Charlie has slipped on cinema’s first banana skin, at least so far as anyone has been able to trace. It’s his own banana skin, which is good. But it’s doubtful if the banana skin will ever have anything like the shock of the new that enabled it to get laughs. Buster Keaton experimented with NOT slipping on one, in THE HIGH SIGN, but seemed to be dissatisfied with the un-gag. In SHERLOCK JR. he has the villain not slip, and then Buster slips on his own banana skin, as if discovering the Chaplin variation all over again.

Chaplin’s banana bit is a standalone moment, easily excisable, and in fact pretty much ALL of the film is standalone bits. He first gets into a quarrel with Armstrong, both men having tied strings to their hats as a defense against the sea breeze, and their tangling inevitably leads to a punch-up.

Chaplin does manage a more sophisticated bit — having dazed Armstrong with repeated slaps, he forages for fleas in the punchy man’s thick hair (Armstrong is the same size and shape as Charlie, which seems wrong — both Conklin and Turpin had radically different aspects from the star despite being fellow short-arses). It’s mildly impressive that Chaplin manages to make us “see” the leaping insects, but even more impressive that, filming himself in a close medium shot with his stunned opponent, he makes us imagine other, unseen promenaders, whose pseudo-presence compels him to keep up a pretense of civility with his victim.

Charlie isn’t necessarily a tramp in this, but he’s devoid of any social ties — Armstrong has his “wifie” and his rags betoken poverty. When Charlie has a wife or job in the shorts, it always feels like a contrivance for the sake of the film, one from which Charlie will be free by the time we see him again. Some of these films have aspects of the sitcom, but the “sit” is ever-changing, the one constant being Charlie’s freedom to abscond to a whole new scenario at the end of the two reels. This, of course, was standard for all the silent clowns. In Charlie’s case it happens to support his status as eternally at least somewhat of a tramp.

Having rendered Armstrong vegetative, Charlie now does what he always does, uses the other fellow as a convenient object. He sits on him. When Edna passes, the unconscious victim becomes a prop for Charlie’s flirtation. He poses like a hunter with one foot on his kill. His smiles seem to suggest that his having pummeled this man into submission ought to excite the object of his desires. At the same time, he can’t touch the man’s (usually upthrust) arse. All very strange. Finally he leaves the fellow leaning insensate against a lifebelt stand, a grotesque parody of the crucifixion.

Kurt Vonnegut’s definition of slapstick — “grotesque situational poetry” — always seemed odd to me because it leaves out the funny part. But it has rarely seemed more accurate.

Charlie does some more flirting, going so far as to sidle into Edna’s shot. His cane gets out of control, flying around saucily, whacking Edna’s backside and then hitting Charlie in the face. It’s the jester’s bladder and stick all right. I’m almost sure that’s what it is.

Armstrong recovers somewhat — his movements are staggering, his eyes crossed — and attacks Charlie with the lifesaver. Edna moves away, meeting the dyspeptic Bud, hitherto a mere convenient cutaway, now apparently an acquaintance.

A cop — oh hell, I’m just going to call him a kop, what’s he going to do, arrest me? — shows up, but is laid flat by a blow from Armstrong aimed at Charlie. Glass jaws, these kops. Charlie and Billy bond over this shared love of police brutality. Armstrong may not have any special personality but I admit he does play with with Charlie. No doubt Chaplin could get a decent performance out of most people, by showing them what to do, but sustained interactive clowning takes real skill.

Charlie and Billy go for ice cream, Billy offering to pay, but apparently all that brain damage has made him forgetful, as the offer is rescinded the moment the ice cream seller asks money. An ice cream fight ensues, culminating in Billy biting Charlie’s arse — this may be one of the most arse-centric of all the Chaplin shorts, and they’re a pretty butt-obsessed lot.

Meanwhile, a slung bit of vanilla has splurched Bud, who now steps out of his own little sub-film and enters the plot. While he’s strangling Billy, Charlie renews his flirtation with Edna, who is Bud’s paramour evidently, from the way she’s been stroking his knee. He really is a diabolical little sex pest in this one. (In later films, he’s romantic but not overly sexual, except for his fit of nut-tightening madness in MODERN TIMES, which sees Charlie the Imp back in full swing).

A kop drags Billy off. Bud shoves the ice cream man to the ground, for no good reason other than malign temper and to show off that Snub Pollard, for it is he — though unrecognisable sans horseshoe moustache — can take a fall like a pro.

Driven off by a fuming Bud, Charlie has brief encounters with the rest of the cast, then espies Billy’s “wifie” (Margie Reiger) — I think her lips are calling “Billy!” — and of course has to make the moves on her.

His moves:

Billy escapes the clutches of kop Paddy McGuire and flees back to the beach.

Everybody winds up ganging up on Charlie on a bench, improbably positioned in the path of the tide. Charlie is using his bowler to play peekaboo so doesn’t notice the encroaching enemies. The natural solution, after a slow-burn realisation, is to upturn the bench and everyone on it.

Which is the end of the film. Well, it’s not any less satisfying than most Keystone climaxes, and BY THE SEA is maybe a little more together than most Keystones. It knows how to be simple. That may be all it knows, but that’s not nothing.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Old Russian proverb.

Helium Hunchback

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2020 by dcairns

STRIKES AGAIN is the PANTHER film I could never see as a kid — RETURN and REVENGE and SHOT IN THE DARK played on TV regularly, but not this one. No idea why.

When I did finally see it, I was underwhelmed. Again, not sure why. I do think the whole Octoberfest bit is lacking in good laughs and gags, and the mad mastercriminal plot is maybe not the right fit for the series? But on the other hand, they had done the heist film, the whodunnit, and the Hitchcockian wrong man story — so they needed a different branch of the crime genre, and the Fu Manchu angle was pretty low-hanging fruit…

Herbert Lom ascends to full Mabuseian supervillain status, and gets to play the organ maniacally, spoofing both his PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND characters. Along the way, the narrative allows us to take in a bit of country house mystery (“I expect you’re wondering…”) as Lom abducts a scientist and his daughter, a fairly straight riff on Christopher Lee’s Fu Manchu activities for Harry Allan Towers. The plunge into outright fantasy might be a sign that the series has jumped the shark, as might be the fact that the title now refers to… nothing at all. The Pink Panther diamond is nowhere to be seen. (They could have had Lom using it to focus his death ray, I suppose. And the ray could have omitted a Phildickian PINK LIGHT…)Going by Blake Edwards’ diagnosis, that Sellers was tractable when he needed a hit, and impossible when he was coming off one, this shoot must have been hell, I suppose. If the libraries were open (lockdown) I could borrow Roger Lewis’s Sellers bio and find out.

Some excellent work from Burt Kwouk. Sellers tries on his Quasimodo cossie and Cato declaims, theatrically, “What have you done to Inspector Clouseau?” It’s obvious he knows this is his boss in a rubbish disguise, but he loves him so much he humours him. They have a sweet relationship, really.

Like Cato, my cat Momo has been trained to attack me at random intervals, to keep me on my toes. But he’s too lazy to make a go of it.

Richard Williams and associates provide the title sequence, so it’s much, MUCH more beautiful than it really needs to be. As with RETURN OF, the joke is to make the Panther Clouseau’s playful tormentor, and to reference famous movies. But the silvery backgrounds! The special lighting effects! The art deco type! And it features the Panther as Mrs. Edwards. And, speaking of love and marriage, Clouseau’s investigations lead him to a gay bar in this one, where Julie Andrews dubs a drag queen. Edwards seems to be furiously signaling something to us here, but if you ask him about it he’d just look innocent. Just about the only real stab at continuity in this series — Lom’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus was confined to the booby hatch at the end of the previous film, and he’s just about to be released in this one. Then Clouseau shows up to wish him well, and everything goes wrong. We thus get to see a new dynamic between Dreyfus and Clouseau. Clouseau is genuinely solicitous of his deranged ex-boss, but still too cloddishly foolish to realise he ought to stay away. A lot of what goes wrong is random accidents, things that Clouseau can’t really be held responsible for (but Dreyfus doesn’t see it that way). The strange logic of the clouseauverse is that Clouseau’s accident-proneness is transmitted to Dreyfus, in a more painful manner, but only when Clouseau is around or when Dreyfus is obsessing over him.

I confess that as a little kid I was really freaked out by the mistreatment of Dreyfus — the thumb-chopping and nose-blowing went beyond what I was comfortable with in slapstick. But I loved the films so much I forced myself to toughen up (I was a crybaby). Clearly, Edwards is aiming for a live-action cartoon thing, where serious injuries just go away after. But I never liked bandages and plaster casts in comedy, either: they implied that the violence was real and had consequences, which made it unfunny. Everyone else would be laughing like it was TOM AND JERRY, and I’d be staring at the screen in horror like it was THE TENANT.The obligatory Cato fight, with Lom spying through a little periscope from downstairs, is really good — Edwards makes a rare foray into handheld cam, and for some reason this makes everything even funnier. Indefinably so. There’s probably less overt brutality in this movie than in SHOT or RETURN (Graham Stark’s fingers!), but an excruciating moment occurs when Lom, being a madman, climbs a tower of furniture and inserts a finger through the ceiling-floor hole he’s drilled, Clouseau steps on it, and Lom loses his balance so he’s hanging by the crushed digit. (Paul Schrader has theorised that writers obsess about damage to their hands because that’s what they write with, unless I suppose they’re Norman Mailer and they just dip their balls in an inkpot.)

Then, some masterful finger acting — Clouseau shifts off the finger, which remains pressed to the floor for a moment, then springs erect, stays there, in defiance of all gravity, like Wile E. Coyote just before he realises he’s over a canyon with nothing holding him up — you actually sense the fingertip opening its eyes wide in alarm — and then it slips from view. CRASH.

I wonder if Lom did his own finger acting? Carol Reed doubles Orson Welles’ fingers through the grate at the end of THE THIRD MAN, and I would think Blake Edwards might well have done the same here, since in a sense he IS Chief Inspector Dreyfus.As the Clouseauverse breaks out onto the world stage, there’s a joke about the American president, a Gerald Fordalike, being clumsy. Is this the right time to recount my friend Mark Bender’s close encounter with Ford on a ski course? “Hey, that’s Gerald Ford! On skis. Coming right at me. Say, he really IS coming right at me, isn’t he? He – OOF!”

The Bondian climax is biggish and I guess it allowed Edwards to focus on things other than his difficult star. Stunts, special effects, supporting cast. There are, by the way, a couple of very good hide-in-plain-sight stuntman substitutions in this film. 

Earlyish, Edwards performs a simple match cut as Clouseau turns to the parallel bars, allowing him to replace Sellers with a Fake Clouseau, keeping the voice droning nasally on, and allowing “CLouseau” to do something the physically unsound Sellers never could.Likewise, when the Inspector attempts to pole-vault into Dreyfus’ schloss, he backs into the bushes as Sellers, and charges out, in a single, unbroken shot, as an anonymous stunt double. The end of the pole remains constantly in view, so if you were in those bushes you’d have seen Sellers handing it to his clone.

Bold!I don’t know if Dreyfus’s climactic disintegration means they were really planning to end the series, or they thought they’d gone as far as they could with this particular character — obviously, having him return in the next film would require a breathtaking dismissal of basic plot continuity. Most likely they weren’t worrying about it, and just needed a strong finish to the Dreyfus-as-Mabuse/Blofeld/Fu Manchu scenario. And clearly just bringing him back without explanation in the follow-up film was the right way to go.It’s a shame the film crams Leonard Rossiter, Colin Blakeley and Dudley Sutton into the British sequence and then finds nothing to do with them. Rossiter is positioned as a substitute Chief Inspector Dreyfus, but it doesn’t go very far. It feels more like Edwards is padding the film with characters he can shoot on Sellers’ days off, giving everyone a rest from the inevitable madness. (Remember, Sellers was bored of this character a film and a half ago.) But it’s nice to see the familiar faces. Dud has just finished Fellini’s CASANOVA. As he told me, “He cut out all my lines, but I’m still in there.”Obligatory Graham Stark routine. A joyous excuse for a crap joke. I don’t know if the policy of surrounding Sellers with mates from the UK comedy scene actually made him behave better, but anything’s worth a try, and you shouldn’t need an excuse to hire Stark. (One chilling anecdote I recall from the Roger Lewis bio is Sellers phoning David Lodge up one evening after shooting, and asking if his behaviour had been really terrible that day. As a straight-talking friend, Lodge said Yes, it had. And from the receiver there sounded a cold, blood-curdling chuckle…)
Very, VERY sexy work from Lesley-Anne Down. Not much of a role, acting-wise, but sexy. Her story plays like a spoof of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, but was filmed first: she’s supposed to kill Clouseau, but his astonishing loveplay converts/enslaves her. Only it wasn’t Clouseau, because in the dark she’s mistakenly tumbled and uncredited Omar Sharif.

And a hilarious final sequence, the Clouseau striptease, which had Fiona genuinely can’t-breathe-hysterical, on the floor. “I’d FORGOTTEN!” she gasped. Clouseau, it turns out, can’t undress himself, which turns his sexy strip into a failed Houdini routine. Fantastic stuff like the necktie stuck round his cranium like his hippy hairband in ALICE B TOKLAS. Somehow my keen nudity-spotting eyes always missed the fact that L-AD’s bottom comes into view when the insanely huge Murphy bed folds up. That would have meant a lot to me when I was first seeing the film as a teenager. It still seems packed with significance. And the scene is the greatest example of Kwouk-blocking Edwards ever filmed.

At any rate, Cato’s martial arts intervention has saved L-AD from what would presumably have been a highly disappointing sexual experience. Still, though, I can’t help but see the end of the opening titles, when Edwards’ credit appears, as symbolic of the whole enterprise at this stage: the PANTHER movies were the most successful comedy series in screen history, and the writer-director and star pretty much hated each other, but both of them felt the need to carry on working together despite the strain of collaboration and the difficulty of continuing to reinvigorate the character. The image of the cartoon Clouseau, having ascended into cinema like SHERLOCK, JR, trapped, hands pressed against the other side of the silver screen, staring bleakly at us…THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN stars Fu Manchu; Captain Nemo; Georgina Worsley; Mr. Ming; Dr. Watson; Dr. Andrei Smyslov; Prof. Trousseau; Slartibartfast; Baron De Laubardemont: Dr. Ralph Halvorsen; Mrs. Emma Bulstrode; the Oompa Loompas; Catweazle; Dr. Auguste Balls; Hugh Abbott; Arab Swordsman; Charles Bovin; Sherif Ali (uncredited); and the voice of Mary Poppins.

The Sunday Intertitle: Not Notfilm

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2020 by dcairns

It feels mean to have a go at NOTFILM, Ross Lipman’s documentary about the making of Samuel Beckett’s FILM. Lipman has all the right materials and a potentially great subject and has spoken to some of the key people, but he is not the right person to be making the film.

When he says “Barney Rosset conducted his last interview,” he means, “I conducted Barney Rosset’s last interview.” Maybe this is modesty. But it’s also misuse of the word “conduct.” And a person who uses words sloppily cannot make a satisfactory film about the precise Beckett.

“One can file these works, almost in sequence, before and after FILM.” I have no idea what this means, or why Lipman says it so portentously. Actually, I can file Beckett’s work absolutely in sequence, before and after FILM.

“Beckett’s was the only that would be completed.” This is just a horrible sentence, the missing word “one” giving the feeling of climbing a flight of stairs and imagining there’s one more step, and having that lurching feeling when it isn’t there.

I liked it when he cut between Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN and Vertov’s MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA in such a way that it felt continuous, but I didn’t like it when he did absurd 1980s video effects, where the image puckers up and shrinks into a ball, etc. I felt that a person who uses images so sloppily couldn’t possibly make a film about the precise Keaton.

There are a lot of great stills and documents… Both the subject, and the fact that the key personalities are dead and have left limited documentation, seem to invite an experimental approach, but apart from the intrusive Kenny Everett Video Show effects, the piece unfolds like the most standard-issue documentary. The default film.

However, within that constraining frame, there is plenty of good stuff — the fact that Boris Kaufman, cinematographer of FILM, was Dziga Vertov’s youngest brother produces not only historical connections but trapdoors into philosophical pondering which Lipman plungers down, investigating the points of contact between Vertov’s all-seeing camera eye and Beckett’s.

This is a two-hour film about a twenty-minute film, but oddly that’s not a problem. If the material were handled more deftly, I can imagine it flying by, and it still manages to trundle fairly effectively.

But asides from the philosophical trapdoors, Lipman also drops down some sinkholes of cliché, devoting line after line to Keaton’s “expressionless stone face.” All wrong. Keaton’s face is not expressionless and it does not leave itself open to interpretation, as Lipman asserts. And FILM has some of the more overt facial acting of any Keaton film, so this is both a failure to observe and willingness to be led by received wisdom.

The most useful interviewee is James Karen, the man who was there — he seems to have been responsible for getting Keaton into the film, something he had cause to regret.

Another really useful person to have spoken to — and one who would have fitted right in with the doc’s pattern of catching people right before they checking out — Barney Rosset and James Karen and Haskell Wexler are no longer with us, alas — would have been Karen Black. I can’t blame Lipman for not tracking her down — her involvement in this tale is only a random fact adrift in my brain like an earwig in a cup of coffee. In some old issue of films & filming magazine, a profile, which also mentions her performing Bowie’s Time while dressed as a Nazi stormtrooper in her cabaret act — Black recalls witnessing the NYC location shoot of FILM, and being horrified by Alan Schneider’s yelling instructions to Keaton during a take. “How can you do your job with someone yelling at you?” she asks, reasonably enough.

But I think Schneider was (a) being a silent film director of the old school, something Keaton probably didn’t mind, and (2) cueing Buster for the moment where, as indicated in the script, his character, O, senses without seeing, the approach of E, the film’s other major character, played by the camera itself. What doesn’t work, though, is the end result: in the film, it looks as if Buster is waiting for the word “Action,” and then takes off on command. Buster, of course, could play anything he could understand, like Ginger Rogers. He didn’t understand, or particularly like, Beckett’s script, though his eventual guess as to its meaning is not a bad one: a man can hide from everyone except himself. Beckett wouldn’t have put it like that, but it comes close enough to the authorial intent to be playable.

Karen complains that the filmmakers didn’t let Buster in on their thinking, and in Schneider’s published reminiscences (quoted too sparingly here), he makes it clear he found Keaton uncommunicative, closed off (Keaton was fairly deaf by this time, which Schneider seemingly didn’t know). Beckett was partially blind, Keaton deaf, and Schneider was a complete novice to cinema. I think Beckett’s notes about “the angle of immunity” wouldn’t have meant anything to him — Keaton isn’t likely to be open to learning a new concept of film terminology, one personal to Beckett, at this late stage in his life. But a direction like “you don’t SEE the camera, but you sense it’s there suddenly, and you want to escape it,” would have worked and even with his back to the camera, Keaton could have TOTALLY have acted that.

I should say that the doc has some tremendous material: recordings of Beckett in conference, outtakes, and clips from a pin-sharp transfer of a film I’ve only ever seen in fuzzy form.

Oh, and THE LOVABLE CHEAT! This is a 1949 film in which Keaton appears, alongside Charles Ruggles, Peggy Ann Garner and Alan Mowbray. It’s based on a play by Balzac which Beckett denied having read (lying bastard), in which a bunch of characters await an unseen figure named Godot. In the Balzac play and the film, however, Godot finally arrives, and everybody’s really happy. Personally I think Lipman missed a trick here — opening with the jubilations about Godot’s arrival, which are funny only because of their absurd resonance, without any explanation of how this sequence came to exist, would have been really striking. Lipman, by taking us through events in a more rational order, has spoiled the surprise. It’s still really funny, though.

Oh, and I think he should have compared the scene in SHERLOCK JR where Buster struggles to get himself incorporated the film within the film (he uses plenty of clips from that one but not this bit) with Beckett’s Act Without Words I, which seems to be telling the same story. (If Beckett denied the influence, again, he’s a big fat liar.)