Archive for The Artist

Young Hopeful

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2012 by dcairns

One cute thing about THE ARTIST is the bit with Berenice Bejo trying to break into pictures — we had just watched MAKE ME A STAR the night before, which deals with a similar subject and environment (a cheap production for Paramount, who could shoot most of it on their own lot). This is a version of Merton of the Movies, a George S Kaufman-Marc Connelly play filmed previously in 1924 and remade in 1947 with Red Skelton. It also shares much of its set-up with HEARTS OF THE WEST, the charming 1975 parody of 1930s filmmaking, which starred an impossibly young Jeff Bridges. And Bridges is the one actor in the lot who can make the naive doofus role appealing.

Stuart Erwin in MAKE ME A STAR takes a slightly different route from Bridges — a capable comedy relief supporting actor in Andy Devine type roles, here he’s the leading man and is going all out for pathos. This involves a peculiar, halting delivery of lines which makes Merton seem not just slow-witted but positively learning-impaired. Seeing such a defenseless character get put upon for the whole picture kind of robs it of any potential for comedy…

The early stretches, with Merton making a fool of himself around his hick hometown are painfully slow, with only the Paramount zoom lens (as used in LOVE ME TONIGHT) livening things up. “ZOOOOM!!!” we would cry, whenever it zeroed in on a salient detail. Though Merton’s correspondence course in screen acting, with its numbered photos of useful facial expressions, was a funny idea, much more could have been made of it. Instead, we got unfocused supporting performers (the script calls for several character to flip from supportive to hostile and back for no reason) and tiresome schtick.

When Merton gets to Hollywood there’s Ruth Donnelly and Joan Blondell to hold the eye, plus guest spots by the likes of Tallulah Bankhead and Gary Cooper, taking time out from DEVIL AND THE DEEP. And the pathos takes a turn into Von Trier torture-a-kitten territory which is weirdly diverting. Erwin’s delivery grows ever more faltering. Wangling his way onto the soundstage, he is promptly fired from an extra job for blowing his single line. In the most affecting — and universal — moment, he repeats the line perfectly after everyone is left, then hopelessly looks for approval from the empty sound stage.

Reluctant to leave the studio and find himself unable to get back in, Merton takes to hiding in the shadows, scraping scraps from abandoned box lunches, a studio derelict, a studio ghost. “Taking pity” on him, Blondell sells the resident Mack Sennett figure (Sam Hardy, drily amusing) on using Merton to spoof the great western star Buck Benson, whom Merton patterns himself on. “He’s like a blurred carbon copy of Buck Benson!” So the staff and players of “Loadstone” contrive a western parody with Ben Turpin, in which Merton is made more ridiculous by some technically unexplainable sound recording trick that makes his voice go falsetto while leaving everyone else unaffected. I wonder if this was based on the false rumour that Louis B Mayer sabotaged John Gilbert’s career in this fashion? At any rate, it’s a new addition to the play, which originated in silent movie days, and it doesn’t actually make anything funnier — it actually robs Erwin of the chance to be amusingly inept on his own.

Humiliated at the premier (stuffed with more Paramount guest stars: Oakie! Ruggles! Sylvia Sydney!) when he learns he’s been played for a chump, Erwin, face aflame, repairs to a coffee shop where he hears his idol complaining about being sent up. But Buck’s agent makes an impassioned and powerful speech about COMEDY and SINCERITY and THE PUBLIC’S LOVE. It’s quite a speech — even better than the one in THE ERRAND BOY.

Erwin goes to see Blondell, who’s ashamed at the trick she’s played, and the film collapses into an Event Horizon of conflicted response, as Erwin tries to explain that he’s not angry or upset, that he was in on the gag all the time, and that he knows he’s a great comedy star because he’s got LOVE and COMEDY and THE PUBLIC’S SINCERITY — it’s a garbled version of the speech in the previous scene, just like when Stan Laurel comes up with a good plan, but then can’t remember it when he comes to repeat it a second later. But the scene, ridiculous and strange, is still played for pathos, so it has a dizzying, nightmarish feeling — supplanted by the film’s only funny joke.

As Blondell takes Erwin in her arms, his head resting between what Jack Warner called “those bulbs”, he worries about the cab he has waiting outside.

“Do yuh have to pay taxicabs, just for waiting?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Oh. Well. It’s worth it.”

And he nestles back into paradise.

MAKE ME A STAR is kind of a bad film which turns out to be good almost by accident — it certainly doesn’t land on any of the accepted squares denoting quality or success, but it persistently winds up in strange, unfamiliar zones of discomfort, oddity, sadness or head-scratching peculiarity. I recommend it to the curious.

Yoyo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2012 by dcairns

A clip from YOYO (1965) by Pierre Etaix (co-written with Jean-Claude Carriere). Comparisons with THE ARTIST may prove instructive. He even has a wee dog!

Etaix worked with Jacques Tati as AD on MON ONCLE, and with Bresson as an accomplice in PICKPOCKET, thus forging a link between two artists who are more closely related than one might think. He split with Tati (to the latter’s visible distress) and became a director-star in his own right. But then all his films fell into a copyright-dispute legal black hole and were unavailable for decades. To add to that, one of his major roles as an actor for another filmmaker is in Jerry Lewis’s still-unseen THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED.

Etaix’ films only just emerged from their limbo and are available on DVD in France (buy them! not much French is required). Etaix has been jetting around the world to promote them, and seems to have a new lease of life. He’s been acting in more films, including Aki Kaurismaki’s LE HAVRE, and in 2010, at the age of 82, he directed a short.

Tati wanted to cast Etaix in THE ILLUSIONIST — the magician character was more of a seducer than in Chomet’s eventual animated version, and no way could Tati envisage himself in the role. Chomet, in making the magician a Tati-facsimile, had to de-sex the film. Whereas Etaix can do louche! Comparisons with Tati are inevitable, but misleading — Chaplin and Keaton inform the films, but the cinematic and narrative playfulness at times recalls Woody Allen. Really, he’s his own man.

I think you can also see Carriere’s influence, the kind of crazy jokes you get in ZAZIE DANS LE METRO and VIVA MARIA! — jokes which defy common sense, like the one with the footman’s arm holding the light (my favourite).

Criterion are soon to release a truly essential Eclipse collection of Etaix films, but for the French speakers, there’s already this: Intégrale Pierre Etaix – Coffret 5 DVD

The Sunday Intertitle: The Shock of the Old

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on January 29, 2012 by dcairns

So, we finally got around to THE ARTIST, crowding into Cameo 2 with a bunch of other elderly people — I do think it’s nice when a movie attracts an audience that doesn’t normally venture into the dark. Immediately a commercial for Red Bull got a big laugh, so we knew we were surrounded by people who hadn’t seen a film at the cinema for at least a year.

NOBODY knows how to behave at the cinema — the old have forgotten and the young never knew, and things were complicated for this crowd by virtue of the movie being chiefly wordless. Audiences like to talk, but because they don’t want to be the centre of embarrassing attention, they usually time it to coincide with the speech of the actors. That’s not possible here, where dialogue is limited to one scene, song lyrics to another, and apart from that only a few sound effects occur in a dream sequence. When the music quietened, people really didn’t know what to do…

Ah, the polite laughter of the middle-class! The laughter that says, “I understood that, and I approve of the sentiment.” I don’t mean to be harsh: I value politeness, understanding and approval. I don’t think of them as a form of humour, though. THE ARTIST has some cute jokes, and some clever moments, but felt awfully thin to me.

Michel Hazanavicius may talk about CITY LIGHTS (which is also not a silent film) as an influence, but as David Ehrenstein points out, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is a far greater influence than any 20s or 30s film, on the structure, the central performance and the whole perception of the subject. There’s also the ghost of A STAR IS BORN, and a conscious lifting from ANCHORMAN (arrogant successful man falls from grace — he has a dog so we’ll care), and that controversial VERTIGO borrowing (as incomprehensible to me now I’ve seen the film as it was when I heard about it).

I wasn’t moved (and I ought to be an absolute sucker for this story), I only laughed a little, and the much-vaunted “charm” was authentic but only got me so far. Leading man Jean Dujardin is handsome and appealing and funny, and it’s nice to see him and his director stretch themselves beyond the repeating set-up/joke structure of the jolly OSS:117 films, but long passages of up to twenty minutes seemed devoid of any real dramatic or cinematic ideas, a problem when your story is as simplistic and one-track as this. This is a shame since the ideas-rich bits are often very good. When the protag becomes his own writer, producer and director, a multi-exposure montage causes a circular camera part to overlap his face, forming a Von Stroheim monocle. Anyone who can come up with that ought to be able to dish up a few more dog gags. But he does do a good ambiguous BANG! (above) — the intertitular equivalent of THE APARTMENT’s false alarm Act III champagne cork.

The rest of the cast: Uggy is great (if outclassed by Skippy, the terrier who played Asta) and Berenice Bejo does well, despite not really looking like a 20s starlet. There’s not a lot of depth there, but I blame the script, not the actors or the constraints of pantomime. What’s weird is that James Cromwell and John Goodman, two very capable actors with strong physical characteristics, count for almost nothing — Goodman immediately peps up when he gets to speak, and shows signs of his skill in the scene where Bejo blackmails him, which again leads me to think that it’s the lack of business and lack of drama which hinder them. But maybe they’re just not silent actors. Imagining Doug Jones or Pierre Etaix in the Cromwell role immediately unlocks possibilities untapped here.

And thinking of Etaix leads one to YOYO, which did it all first and better —

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