Archive for The Circus

Giovedi 27

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2019 by dcairns

So, yesterday, as I mentioned yesterday, I got up late and saw INDISCREET — it was a close-run thing, though. One gets used to being able to squeeze into any screening, even nabbing the last seats in the house (we haven’t been forced to stand this year, and in the current heatwave it’s doubtful we could pull it off). But there was a big crowd gathered outside the Arlecchino and it seemed all to possible that the audience for MOULIN ROUGE, the previous screening, might all stay in their seats rather than brave the solar barrage. But it was OK.

The movie was slow going at first — what seemed like an hour of expository set-up of the “After all, you’re a famous actress!” variety, a rather stodgy play opened out, rendering it stodgier. But then the plot kicks in and the laughs start coming thick and fast, and anyway, we have Cary and Ingrid to look at. Cary’s entrance is a good bit of “female gaze” filmmaking, with the camera simply feasting its eyes on him while the music soars. And we get Maurice Binder titles, too, though without the customary nude silhouettes cavorting.

We once asked the great Bond film production designer about Binder. “Maurice Binder was a very nice man, who liked, very much, to photograph naked women in silhouette,” he said.

On to THE BRAVADOS, in an incredibly pristine Cinemascope print — it started and I thought it was a DCP, and then the projectionist had to adjust the framing. A vivid blue Technicolor day-for-night sky with a silhouetted Gregory Peckory riding against it and slashed red titles superimposed.

Fantastic Mexican locations and you can see where Leone nicked some of his ideas for FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (also playing in Bologna) — Lee Van Cleef even plays a major-ish role. Peck is good early on, his natural stoicism turned into a more interesting noirish intransigence. At the end, having taken a revenge which didn’t satisfy and left him morally compromised, he visits the spiritual laundromat — a nice big Mexican church, and emerges SMILING, an appalling choice by Peck which confirms his tendency — demonstrated also in PORK CHOP HILL — to screw up endings with banal, platitudinous decisions. A well-poisoner.

We stayed in our seats — the sweltering heat was such we’d have had trouble leaving them — and saw COLLEGE, beautifully accompanied by Neil Brand on the piano, the only thing in the room capable of being upright. Fiona thought she’d never seen it before, and relished all the footage of Buster in shorts.

Then we ate and dragged our sodden carcasses to the Piazza Maggiore to see THE CIRCUS, which I don’t believe I’d ever seen from beginning to end, and certainly not in such a magnificent restoration — watch for a Blu-ray soon — in such a setting, under the stars. Timothy Brock conducted Chaplin’s score, and afterwards we all discussed our favourite bits over ice-cream. It wasn’t elevated film criticism, it was just “The monkeys!” and “The piglets!” and “The lion — and the little dog!”

A better film than I’d expected, even as a Chaplin fan — I’d been too influenced by Walter Kerr, who objected to the premise of the accidental clown. I think perhaps the true significance of the tramp’s success in the ring is that he’s only funny when his clowning HAS NARRATIVE CONTEXT.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Kid Stuff

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2016 by dcairns

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Fiona had never seen THE KID — I have been slowly trying to raise her appreciation of Chaplin, a decades-long project that reached its apogee with A DOG’S LIFE, which she found delightful. She also got quite a bit of pleasure out of MODERN TIMES and THE GREAT DICTATOR. Oh, and the monkeys in THE CIRCUS had her on the floor begging for mercy, tears rolling down her face, sideways (because she was on the floor). She’ll always be a Keaton girl, which is fine, but I think you’re missing out on something if you don’t check out Chaplin.

THE KID seemed like a good bet because Chaplin is bolstered by a strong co-star. Fiona liked the dog in A DOG’S LIFE and Edna Purviance even gets to be funny in that one. And Fiona likes Paulette Goddard on principle. So I was staking everything on Jackie Coogan and on Chaplin’s chemistry with him. It worked!

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Things didn’t start too great, as the intertitle “A picture with a smile — and perhaps, a tear,” provoked the response “Oh fuck off,” which Chaplin had neglected to list in his catalogue of responses. If he had written “a smile — and perhaps a tear — or possibly an Oh Fuck Off” he would have been bang on the money.

But once Charlie gets landed with an unwanted baby, her attitude changed. Chaplin can be brutally UNsentimental, which only Walter Kerr in his majestic The Silent Clowns really acknowledges. Here, the comedy comes from the defenseless baby becoming a threat. Like Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp, or Tex Avery’s Droopy, you can’t get rid of it. When Chaplin opens a drain and briefly looks thoughtful, Fiona practically screamed in shock and then laughed in relief. “No, I can’t really do THAT,” Chaplin seems to think at us, as he closes the drain again, baby still in his arms.

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The baby then scene-changes into Jackie Coogan, and we’re pretty much home free. The little blighter is adorable and hilarious — Chaplin has schooled him in every move, you think, until you see his astonishing crying scene, which comes straight from the heart and can’t be faked or produced by imitation.

Chaplin (and his gag-writers) manages the action of scenes marvelously, developing situations into crises and finding unexpected ways to solve them. A lot of the comedy follows the baby problem pattern, turning a helpless and appealing infant into a deadly threat. The kid gets in a fight and a bulbous pugilist turns out to be the opponents brother. He’s going to pummel Charlie if his brother loses the fight. Charlie is now trying to sabotage his adopted son’s efforts. Or when Charlie, a door-to-door glazier, feels the watchful eye of a policeman on him — now the kid, suspected of throwing stones, becomes an incriminating item. Charlie must deny the association, gently kicking Jackie away with his foot. A father rejecting his son, writes Kerr, is monstrous. But here, because of the crafting of the situation, it’s hilarious. The kid is oblivious, uncomprehending, so we’re not tempted to emote at the wrong point. The man in trouble is the father.

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Chaplin still wasn’t so good at developing the whole arc of a story, and this remained his biggest difficulty. Starting out with more of a plan might have helped him, but then you look at the talkies… This leads him to the heavenly dream sequence, a heavy slice of whimsy — pointless, unfunny and positioned to paste over the fact that the plot is going to resolve itself happily without the protagonist doing anything. It’s exactly like the massive ballet in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, only that’s entertaining in its own right. Chaplin’s paradise is more boring than Dante’s, and seems longer. “What has this got to do with anything?” asked Fiona.

But sooner than you think, the ending comes, and the film seems sort of perfect again. The good bits are sublime. The one bad bit disappears from memory like… like a dream upon awaking.

Criterion’s Blu-ray makes the film look like it was shot yesterday. Uncanny. My images come from the earlier DVD.

The Sunday Intertitle: Monkey on Man on Wire

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 20, 2015 by dcairns

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Fiona definitely prefers Keaton to Chaplin, which is fine, except I don’t see the need to compare them at all. Do we need to decide that Fred Astaire is better than Gene Kelly? In certain respects, no doubt he is, but the comparison is of little help, obscuring rather than revealing the individual merits of each, or making Kelly’s merits seem somehow trivial.

Anyway, I was hoping to get Fiona to watch THE CIRCUS this week so I could write about it here, but we didn’t get to it. But we saw the opening when Paul Merton did his silent movie show in Edinburgh with Neil Brand on piano, and I subsequently showed her the bit with the lion and the bit with the monkeys, which are highlights in a feature usually considered less than totally successful. Read Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns for a cogent analysis of the story’s conceptual flaws.

The point is, Fiona laughed harder at the bit with the monkeys than she’s ever laughed at Keaton, I suspect. She likes monkeys. And also, everything about the scene is really brilliant. The cute monkeys become a deadly threat, since Chaplin is on a high wire. The trivial, degrading things they do to him — pulling his trousers down, biting his nose, climbing all over him and sticking a tail in his mouth — are all potentially fatal in this scenario.

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(Exactly the same dynamic is at play when Chaplin finds himself trapped in a cage with a sleeping lion. A small dog outside starts yapping at him — apparently outraged that he should be in the cage where he doesn’t belong — and all his/our anxiety becomes focussed on the wee dog, which might waken the slumbering lion. Something small and cute becomes deadly — that’s always funny, like the Beast of Aargh in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, a cute bunny that can bite your head off, or like Mr. Stay-Puft in GHOSTBUSTERS if you want to lower the tone.)

Anyhow, the monkey-tightrope scene got Fiona genuinely hysterical, which I always enjoy seeing. Losing control of her faculties, she started narrating the action like a Benshi on nitrous oxide — “It’s biting his nose! Its tail is in his mouth!” She couldn’t breathe for laughing, and so couldn’t speak for not being able to breath, and for laughing at the same time, but couldn’t stop herself doing it. It was as if she could stop the scene being so life-threateningly funny if she could just describe it accurately. The critical impulse at work!

All this and the best banana-peel joke ever.

I guess hardcore Chaplin-haters MIGHT be able to sit through this scene without laughing, which I think would be proof of rigor mortis, or they might argue that it’s only funny because monkeys are funny. But it’s not just cute funny animal time — the USE of monkeys in a scenario with an underlying threat of death is extremely clever, the work of a master of comedy. And Chaplin’s convincing terror in the scene enhances it greatly — he knows when it’s funniest to play it serious.

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“Comedy is a man in trouble.” Yeah. With a monkey in his mouth.