Archive for Sight and Sound

Listing (badly)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2022 by dcairns

To be clear — the following is not my list of screenings for the coming semester. It’s my submission for the Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll.

  1. He Who Gets Slapped
    Year: 1924
    Director(s): Victor Sjostrom
    Comment: My favourite film. It’s not like anything else. Lon Chaney manipulates the audience’s emotions by making shapes with his body, within the shapes Sjostrom makes with his camera. A melodrama in which nothing is really credible but everything is incredibly compelling. The film that draws the line between the laugh of the clown and the snarl of the lion.
  2. The General
    Year: 1926
    Director(s): Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman
    Comment: Ten films is such a small number that maybe all the entries do need to be perfect. Formally speaking, this one is: every shot is an essential component. Keaton makes the camera’s observation part of the joke. Each shot says, in a perfect deadpan, “Here we are now. And now this is happening. And so…” Plus you have a cinematic icon as star, a magnificent comedian, an incredible daredevil, working on the biggest canvas he ever got.
  3. Citizen Kane
    Year: 1941
    Director(s): Orson Welles
    Comment: What, I’m going to leave this off, so I can look more like a wild individualist? A brilliant cinematic mind jumps into the medium, determined to see what he can make it do. Tackle everything in a fresh way, from story to performance to camera to design, special effects, sound, editing. It may not actually invent anything but it packs in a ton of radical creativity and unconventionality. The filmmaker conveys his joy at all the tricks he comes up with, which makes the film supremely likeable to me, which it doesn’t get enough credit for.
  4. A Matter of Life and Death
    Year: 1946
    Director(s): Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
    Comment: The Archers had to have a place on my list, and in truth it could be any of five or six films, but this one marries its experimentation to a story both real AND fantastical, enabling them to stretch themselves in every direction. I love their use of Technicolor and I have, I admit, a mysterious sentimental attraction to stories of WWII. And I have a deep sympathy for Powell’s rejection of realism: as he said, it doesn’t really exist in the cinema. It’s all an illusion. And we know it. Romantic, funny, epic, the film’s breadth of vision puts everything Britain’s made in the past 50 years to shame.
  5. Eight and a Half
    Year: 1963
    Director(s): Federico Fellini
    Comment: There’s the sheer invention; the joy of looking through such a pair of magical eyes; Fellini’s roving camera; his carnivalesque world; Nino Rota’s galumphing score. I don’t know how many more times I can bear to see this one: the last time I was continually on the verge of tears over its beauty. And I don’t get that with other beautiful films. The love of cinema seems to speak directly to me, but to add an acerbic quality, Fellini is quite harsh on himself, via his stand-in Mastroianni.
  6. The Knack… and How to Get It
    Year: 1965
    Director(s): Richard Lester
    Comment: The inventiveness and playfulness of the French New Wave is ported over to a grey London autumn and blended with native surrealism. Screenwriter Charles Wood explodes Ann Jellicoe’s play and, with director Lester, assembles a dazzling mosaic from the pieces. All the choices are surprising, and somehow coherent. And it’s all quite strange: John Barry’s jazz score and David Watkin’s beautiful photography combine with the oddball text to create a feeling that’s a bit mysterious, even while it’s mainly all just bursting with youthful exuberance.
  7. 2001: A Space Odyssey
    Year: 1968
    Director(s): Stanley Kubrick
    Comment: “If he could get rid of the human element, he could make the perfect film,” joked Malcolm McDowell. But here he almost does. By acting, arrogantly, as if nobody had ever made a really good science fiction film, Kubrick solves all the problems methodically but also pushes the genre into epic, mythic, spiritual terrain that even the best sf literature rarely touched upon. Stately, bold, astonishingly beautiful. The great rationalist suddenly blasts us off into a psychedelic experience which doesn’t yield fully to reason. It’s not even certain if the film is optimistic or despairing (yet colourful).
  8. Playtime
    Year: 1968
    Director(s): Jacques Tati
    Comment: Having become a national or international institution, Tati blew his career to pieces with a colossal folly, a two-hour-plus widescreen film about the purgatory of modern urban life, eventually transformed into a playground by the human imagination. With his character of Hulot reduced to one figure among dozens, spread across a vast screen, and with anything resembling a conventional gag or slapstick ruthlessly expunged. Only comedy that astonishes, laughs you can’t explain, comic abstractions, are allowed here. Jokes about things looking like other things, sounding funny, taking too long, not being audible, not being understood. The scale is dazzling, insane. The world received it with a puzzled frown. If you’re on the right wavelength, you’ll instead be almost embarrassed at receiving such a lavish gift.
  9. The Conformist
    Year: 1970
    Director(s): Bernardo Bertolucci
    Comment: Bertolucci had recently cowritten a spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West (another obvious contender for this list). Similarly, here we have a cruel and cynical tale delivered in a lush romantic style. Delerue’s music and Storaro’s photography create an astonishing sweep. The political intent gives the film a sense of passion, even though Bertolucci is quite harsh about his characters. In Trintignant, he has the perfect star for this style, giving a performance that’s elegant, sardonic, sometimes robotic, sometimes a little crazed. I think all my choices have something in common, a sense of filmmakers breaking through all the conventions, asking “Why can’t it be like this instead?”
  10. My Neighbour Totorro
    Year: 1988
    Director(s): Hayao Miyazaki
    Comment: Miyazaki’s films add to the traditional dynamism of the anime form a welcome and surprising poetry. He pays attention to things cartoons usually ignore. A major setpiece here is two little girls waiting for a bus, one of them almost falling asleep. The filmmaker is in tune with childhood because his ambitions are usually simple but profound. Here, he wanted to show city kids what life in the country is like. His version of that is quite idiosyncratic, with the little dust bunny creatures, the cat-bus, and the titular nature spirit, a huge cat-owl thing, utterly benign but a little alarming and obviously very powerful. Very little is explained, which seems like a good lesson for children to absorb: there are mysteries.

Your further remarks

This was difficult! I will wake up screaming as it occurs to me the thing I forgot to put in. Even now I’m dismayed at what I felt compelled to knowingly exclude. No Chaplin, Marx Bros, pre-codes, horror films, musicals, westerns… is this even a list at all?

The Sunday Intertitle: Dawn

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2022 by dcairns

The last scene of MODERN TIMES… the Tramp’s last scene as a silent character… is composed of just four shots, with intertitles.

A lovely view of the empty road — pan onto a hard shoulder and a full-figure two shot of Charlie and the Gamin sat at the roadside. He is making his feet more comfortable for the long walk ahead, and after presumably a long walk behind. She is tightening her bindle.

Match cut on this movement to a medium shot of the G. She becomes tearful. Rather than a cut, a moment after she buries her face in the crook of her arm to sob (Paulette Goddard, despite her showgirl origins and never having been in a silent film before, is more like a silent movie actor in this, as the term is usually understood, than anyone else), the camera pans to Charlie, whistling, and then noticing (it being a genuinely silent scene, her sobs do not travel). Pan back with him as he shifts closer to comfort her. So this one shot does the business of three.

Charlies gives a pep talk and they hit the road — a match cut on their getting up leads us into a heroic wide shot, trucking back as our stars advance down the road at us. The classic Chaplin head-to-toe composition but with a relatively rare camera move (though MODERN TIMES is more mobile than most).

Charlie reminds Paulette to “Smile” via pantomime. Which is the name of the song playing, but it hasn’t received a title or lyrics yet.

Chaplin jumps his camera 180 to show the couple retreat, backlit by the rising sun, up the shining asphalt lined with telegraph poles and scrubby palms towards hazy distant hills.

“There is every sign that he consciously recognised this was the last appearance of The Tramp, twenty-two years after his first appearance at Keystone in 1914. The optimistic end–for the first time Chaplin trots off towards the sunset [sic] not alone but in company with the girl, won at last–taken with the clown’s ultimate discovery of a voice, gave the film an air of finality.” ~ David Robinson, in the 1972 Sight and Sound review I got my hands on purely fortuitously last week.

I guess fortune plays a role here two — while Chaplin was thinking that time was running out for his brand of silent film, despite the box office success of this one. Nobody else was holding out against sound, we could argue that the story of MODERN TIMES simply demanded this ending, regardless of any desire to give the Little Fellow a suitable FINIS. Also, if CITY LIGHTS or THE CIRCUS had been Chaplin’s last appearance in character (we can say that the Jewish barber in THE GREAT DICTATOR, a talking character, is the same guy in costume but not wholly in character) they would gain in significance and also seem like magnificent, timeless curtain calls for the famous figure.

But MODERN TIMES, if you could somehow shuffle the filmography around, would lose out, at least in the pang of its ending. Other Chaplins where he apparently gets the girl, or a stable companion, are different: THE KID and CITY LIGHTS end with a slight question mark — how is this going to continue? Unanswerable in both cases — will the Tramp fit into Edna Purviance’s elegant household, is he going to marry the formerly blind flower girl? The movies stop at a point of beautiful affirmation but, as Walter Kerr noted, they HAVE to stop there, because what happens afterwards is a puzzle. The square one endings seen in THE TRAMP, THE CIRCUS, and many others, totally work in themselves, affirming the Tramp’s essential rootlessness. Only THE GOLD RUSH concocts a finale that seems to set out a forseeable life of ease. What all this demonstrates I guess is that Chaplin was so good at endings, any of these might have seemed a suitable note to end his tramping career on, GOLD RUSH alone lacking a really suggestive evocation of uncertainty.

MODERN TIMES’ last image suggests two contradictory ideas: our heroes walk off into the future, and the past. In 1936 and for some years after, it would surely have seemed possible to imagine them still out there, scrounging a living, Now, of course, that is a hard illusion to sustain. Both actors lived to a decent age, but are both gone, buried in Switzerland. The Tramp is immortal, but he belongs to the past. He’s out there in those hills, maybe, but they’re black-and-white hills, composed of light or celluloid not earth, alive with the sound of nothing.

The Sunday Nonsense: Chaplin Sings!

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2022 by dcairns

I’ve set myself what may be an impossible task (for me). I thought, Yes, the song in MODERN TIMES deserves a post of its own. But what to say about it?

Popping out to buy some milk, ONE answer occurred to me. Chaplin got quite a few bad reviews for MT, though the public flocked to it. One accusation the critics flung at him was that he was just repeating favourite old gags from his earlier days. I think we can dismiss that as nonsense. But there ARE callbacks to Keystone, Essanay and Mutual, and this may be one of them.

Charlie, having lost his crib sheet — his cuffs, where the lyrics to his song are written — improvises a song in gibberish Esperanto, with expressive gestures that make the saucy meaning abundantly clear. It’s that old staple of Keystone, the expository mime. Remember how I hate it when Mack Swain or Mabel Normand turn to the camera and make a series of rapid gestures attempting to explain their motivation to the audience?

Chaplin is a master of breaking the fourth wall, but typically in his mature work only he is allowed to do it, and not for explicatory purposes, but merely to establish and expose his rapport with the audience.

But here — in the guise of a performance — Charlie really does tell us a story with pantomime. And it’s aimed right at us. “With Chaplin you can always sense the proscenium,” complained Richard Lester, and it’s certainly a conscious choice here. The audience is all around him but Charlie directs his performance straight at the camera, for the most part. One assumes that there are more diners behind the fourth wall, who have the best seats.

Thanks to Donald Benson for pointing out that, while Chaplin takes his tune from Je cherche après Titine, a 1917 hit by Léo Daniderff, the story he tells seems inspired by The Girl was Young and Pretty, a composition by… Charles Chaplin. His father. Lyrics.

So this is a return to his roots in more than one way, while also being a brave step forward (almost a decade after the coming of sound).

It’s also a kind of ending. The Little Fellow has given utterance. “A sacred principle is breached,” as Simon Louvish puts it. It’s going to be even harder for him to stay mute after breaking his silence. He manages one more scene in this movie, then it’s all change.

Chaplin had been considering various solutions to the problem of the Tramp’s voice. He’d thought about mumbles and monosyllables, which would work OK for Tati. But making him capable of poor speech is again a distortion of the character. He’s a somewhat inarticulate figure in THE GOLD RUSH, but mostly he seems to talk quite well. We just don’t hear it. And any form of speech would tend to anchor him to 24fps, and to reality, in a way that Chaplin had always avoided. Chaplin has one big shoe in truth, the other in fantasy, and changing the balance upsets the… balance.

Yesterday I bought a secondhand issue of Sight and Sound from 1972 and by coincidence it has my man David Robinson’s review of MODERN TIMES, then being reissued in Britain for the first time in seventeen years (!). Robinson says of the song, “we see instantly and beautifully resurrected all the vitality and absurdity of the English music hall in which Chaplin was bred, and acquired the skills of comedy.” It’s a terrific piece and I’ll return to it.

The reception of the piece is richly ironic — Charlie makes a success of his nonsense song, but just as he conquers showbiz — having failed in all normal occupations — he’s forced into exile on account of his connection to an underage girl. It’s like a jumbled autobiography and prophecy. Obviously it wouldn’t do for the eternal wanderer to find a home in the theatre, or would it? Of the previous features, only THE GOLD RUSH produces a settled ending for its hero: rendered implausibly wealthy, Charlie can carry on behaving exactly as before, because millionaires are supposed to be eccentric. To allow him a singing career would be to open up a whole new narrative thread at the ninety-minute mark, so it has to be curtailed, and so it’s back to the open road — TBC