Archive for Sherlock Junior

Cinephage

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2008 by dcairns

Arch-blogger Girish (if you don’t know his site, stop reading this and get over there now!) was generous enough to send me a copy of the original, 210-minute French cut of HENRI LANGLOIS: PHANTOM OF THE CINEMATEQUE, which is a superb documentary with a fascinating subject. In archive film, Langlois himself commands attention, shambolically dressed, greasy-haired, bulbous-bodied, his arms two tapering tentacles undulating through the Parisian air, his hands two sub-octopi appended to their tips, each finger a fat sausage tendril, a tiny stub of cigarette wedged between two of these, the hand making darting, almost instantaneous trips to those voluptuous Langlois lips to deliver its precious cargo of life-giving nicotine.

But there was one moment that stopped me dead, and forced me to halt the film while I tried to retrieve bits of my sundered consciousness from around the room. It quite literally BLEW THE BLOODY DOORS OFF my mind.

A snap of Louis Feuillade’s great star, the Irma Vep of LES VAMPIRES, Musidora, fills the frame, and an interviewee remarks, quite casually, some words translated in subtitle as “Musidora ran the switchboard.”

The film’s persistent strategy is to hype the Cinemateque de Langlois as a magical, mystical and impossible venue, a place of anarchy where Lotte Eisner read the tarot cards and decaying nitrate stock summoned spectres of the past. The above one-liner did it for me.

When I had retrieved enough fragments of my mental faculties, I was able to reflect on the irony of a silent movie star working the telephones, and then to decide that “Rosemary, your glamorous switchboard operator” from the Hong Kong Phooey cartoons had damn well better MOVE OVER.

Returning to the splendid doc, which mounts a compelling case for Langlois’ anarchic administrative style, and forms a damning indictment of the bloodless bureaucrats who have fumbled his legacy, it has an ending so transplendently beautiful that I hesitate to give it away, but this blog is never what you’d call spoiler-free, so I’m going to anyway.

A story circulated just after Langlois’ death: a member of staff was sitting in on a screening of a Pastrone epic, when he spotted a minor character who looked just like his former boss. The following night, several staff members spotted another lookalike playing a major role in a Sjostrom drama. And so on — Langlois began turning up in every film, and his staff would congregate in the audience to receive their instructions from the screen.

The fable evokes our impossible dream of the Permeable Movie Screen. Something about that speaks to us, and accounts perhaps for Langlois’ injunction to sit in the front row and “eat” the movie. If you run Woody Allen’s PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO again you find that there aren’t as many good jokes in it as you’d expect from ’80s Allen, and his writing of the Danny Aiello-Mia Farrow relationship is startlingly flat (he doesn’t KNOW these people), but the central premise is so compelling that the film plods its way to the human heart anyway. No wonder the film begins with Fred Astaire singing “Heaven / I’m in heaven,” — to get up there and stand IN a film, as Buster Keaton does, with difficulty, in SHERLOCK JNR, is to enter a celluloid afterlife, occupied by little slivers of time, lovingly scraped from the souls of the dead.

OK, Connery!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2008 by dcairns

Sir Sean Connery, pictured at Edinburgh Filmhouse where he engaged in a brief but tasty discussion with TV’s Mark Cousins, ahead of a screening of Sidney Lumet’s searing THE HILL.

Fiona and I arrived good and early, as befitted the importance of the occasion, and immediately encountered my ex-student Jamie Stone in the bar (with current student Tali Yankelevich). Jamie, who had been presented a Connery Honorarium (or Connerarium, for short) at the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival, had turned up in hopes of grabbing a spare ticket, but there were non to be had. However, he had the edge on me in another respect, since he was newly returned from Mark Cousins’ and Tilda Swinton’s own film festival in Nairn, the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams. He had driven up with filmmaker Robert Glassford, who brought a gigantic tent capable of sleeping eight. After taking in a film, they drove about looking for a quiet spot to pitch their canvas. Nothing. Deciding to bite the bullet and pay for a spot in a campsite, they then discovered that Robert, a brilliant but erratic talent, had forgotten to bring the tent-poles.

Fortunately Mark Cousins himself came to their rescue and offered them space in a camper van, and the following night they actually spent in the cinema itself, a ballroom equipped with beanbags in lieu of conventional seating. This sounded considerably more comfortable and practical than my own occasional fantasies of living full-time in a cinema, which usually involve burrowing into the popcorn like a rat and spending the night there, or else climbing into the screen like Buster Keaton on SHERLOCK, JR (or Mia Farrow in THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO) and discretely bedding down in the background of a scene. That big crane shot of all the wounded soldiers in GONE WITH THE WIND — I could lie down there and nobody would see me. I wouldn’t be bothering anyone. WHY CAN’T I?

Of the Film Fest experience itself, Jamie reported: “It was wonderful,” with a sort of magical glow about his face.

Grabbing seats in the auditorium, we found ourselves next to John Reid, who had brought his camera along. He gracefully supplied the snaps for this post. Confusion set in as we joined him, as Fiona initially thought he was the boyfriend of a friend of ours’, then thought he was the boyfriend of a different friend, before we realised that he is in fact the identical twin of the second boyfriend. I was in a state of pre-Connery anticipation and unable to help much.

The show began with Mark C informing us that it was the day before Sir Sean’s birthday, so we welcomed him to the stage with what I believe they call a “rousing chorus” of Happy Birthday To You. Some slight confusion at the end as to whether to sing “Happy Birthday Dear Se-an,” or “Happy Birthday SIR Se-an,” or possibly “Happy Birthday Sean Connery,” which scans better but just sounds funny.

Sir S. was in fine fettle, particularly relaxed and amusing in front of an Edinburgh audience and talking to Mark, whom he knows quite well. He spoke of his long-term relationship with director Sidney Lumet “nothing sexual, though,” and the fact that he has stayed friends with probably more directors than actors. THE HILL was filed with ROBIN AND MARIAN and THE NAME OF THE ROSE as films which did not reach a wide audience upon release but which have enjoyed a long afterlife with intense admiration from devoted fans. “This film was made before half of you were probably — oh, there’s some old buggers here too.”

(The use of the B word, a Scots favourite which isn’t even considered particularly obscene here, reminded me of Connery’s work in CUBA, and his response to Brooke Adams’ angry “I see,” — “Well I’m buggered if I do!” That’s one of the best lovers’ quarrels ever filmed.)

While Mark sometimes prodded and guided The Great Man’s memory, Sir Sean clearly had vivid recall of the heat of the Spanish location, with the suffering that entailed for the cast, and the way Oswald Morris’s cinematography transformed it into a convincing North Africa, blowing out the sky into a white scream of nothingness. Of the stunning images, Connery also added, “It’s in black and white. Ask for half your money back now.”

Spoken like a True Scot.

Photos by John P. Reid.

Silent Laughter

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2008 by dcairns

And so to The Silent Clowns, at Edinburgh Filmhouse. Comedian Paul Merton has been sharing his love of the silent comedians for a couple of years now, and this show is a pretty good format to introduce newcomers to the comedy greats, although from my lecturing experience I would suggest you really need about three hours to give people a proper grounding in any of it. But for the modest-by-Fringe-Festival ticket price you get Merton’s introductions, three or four clips, a Laurel and Hardy short and a main feature (Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JR.), with Neil Brand at the piano providing sensational live accompaniment.

I’m not sure what Merton really adds to the experience. Well, he adds his TV fame, which presumably draws in at least some of the punters who otherwise might go to their graves without ever seeing a silent feature, and he adds some good jokes and a bit of historical context. There’s no real analysis or anything like that: without the films to look at, you’d have no idea from Merton’s intros just what made Chaplin or Harold Lloyd great. Stressing Lloyd’s everyman persona is a strange way to introduce a scene from WHY WORRY?, where he plays a neurotic millionaire. Merton’s love and enthusiasm, and undoubted knowledge of these films is commendable, as is the fact that he’s proselytizing for them, but I wish he’d take a leaf from Walter Kerr’s magisterial book The Silent Clowns and actually give more of a sense of what makes them great, rather than just asserting that they are. It might seem redundant, when the films are their to be seen, with ample proof of their own greatness, but it’s less redundant than anything else you can say.

I don’t mean to be negative because it was a great afternoon’s viewing: punters in Edinburgh should forego the usual stand-up and see some eighty-year-old material that’s funnier and also more beautiful than most of the current comedy on show. You can laugh yourself sick and also emerge ennobled.

Wisdom gleaned:

My theory has always been that nobody’s funnier than Laurel and Hardy, but even a very good silent L&H like WE FAW DOWN does not show them at their absolute peak. It was very popular with the audience though, and the last shot, with its scores of erring husbands tumbling from windows in their underwear, drew a round of applause from the crowd before the final fadeout even started.

THE CIRCUS has some of Chaplin’s best NIGHTMARE SCENARIOS: trapped in a cage with sleeping lions, while a wee dog yips furiously at him outside, or here, on a high wire and assaulted, horribly, by monkeys.

Chaplin, in the first clip shown, maybe got the best laughs. Extracts from near the start of THE CIRCUS show him near the top of his form, even if the film as a whole doesn’t stack up as among his best. I’ve never seen any Chaplin on the big screen, come to think of it, and he seemed to benefit most from this exposure. Having a greater distance for the eye to traverse from one element to the next in the frame really seemed to boost the comedy. I don’t think there were specific crucial details that would have been lost on the small screen, but everything seemed heightened by enlargement.

And idiots who suggest that Chaplin “doesn’t work” for a modern audience should have been there to see how this very modern audience reacted.

With Keaton, I’d noticed before that the ensemble playing suddenly became more visible and enjoyable on the larger screen, and this seemed true of Chaplin too.

Snub Pollard scored numerous laughs, partly because he provided the most cartoonish material of the show. It was good stuff, though.

“Opening his garage, Snub rolled out a little bullet-shaped car and hopping in, calmly held out a large magnet. As another car passed by, Pollard aimed the magnet and his little car took off in hot pursuit. Various forms of catastrophe occurred en route as Snub’s attention was distracted [...]“

~ from Clown Princes and Court Jesters, Some Great Comics of the Silent Screen, by Sam Gill and Kalton C. Lahue. Surely Kalton C. Lahue must be the inspiration for Horton Hears a Who.

The film was IT’S A GIFT (1923), made when Pollard was briefly a contender in two-reelers. His star faded, the Australian comic became a specialist in tiny bit-parts, and can be seen getting an umbrella in the most famous scene of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. What I liked most about his magnetmobile was the idea of him inflicting this level of mayhem of the city streets every time he left the house. Life was tough in the ’20s.

Louise Fazenda got one particularly strong laugh, as her fur stole resolved itself into a draped dog, but her clip was largely to showcase Neil Brand’s skill at the piano, as he talked us through his job as accompanist.

Harold Lloyd wasn’t as well-served by the scene chosen as he could have been, but got good laughs anyway. Part of the charm of the programme is that, with different combinations of films and clips each show, there may be a different “winner” on laughs each afternoon.

Buster Keaton is a special case. Long stretches of SHERLOCK JR. provoked silent admiration rather than loud laughter, and I usually find this to be the case. It is NOT a weakness: with Keaton, the ingenuity of the gags is often more striking than the hilarity, and so you’re too busy gasping in amazement at his brilliance, or in shock at his physical daring. You can’t get your breath in order to laugh. It’s ironic, since Keaton’s stated objective was always simply to get laughs, but he winds up doing far more.

Having said that, the climax of the film, a rip-roaring two-part chase, got HUGE laughs, as did this amazing sequence, which resulted in Keaton unknowingly breaking his neck falling from the water-tower. He got up and was fine (as you see in the clip).

If the show had an extra hour to it (which wouldn’t risk tiring anybody out: you have to have faith in this material!), I’d like to see more complete shorts, and maybe something illustrating the earliest stages of the gag film, which Merton mentioned but didn’t illustrate. Some Charley Bowers would be good, some Fatty Arbuckle would be useful, and some Max Linder should be essential. But as an introduction to silent Hollywood comedy delivered in less than two hours, Merton’s programme can’t seriously be faulted.

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