Archive for The Conversation

The bright side of life

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2021 by dcairns

SUNNYSIDE begins with an iris out on its fictional village, which, like Easy Street and numerous other Chaplin settings, is built around a T-junction, this one with a church at the axis.

The boss (Tom Wilson, acquired from Fairbanks, previously in THE IMMIGRANT and SHOULDER ARMS) wakes up, puts on a single boot, and goes to Charlie’s room where he boots him up the arse to (kick)start the day. This is a decent opening — anything which makes the arsekick more ritualistic than it already is should be commended. What makes Charlie’s arsekicks funnier than the run-of-the-mill kind is precisely the deference, mutual respect, or ritualism with which they can be received or given, because this clashes so absurdly with the rough and vulgar nature of the act itself.

Charlie is introduced as “Charlie” in the film’s second intertitle, which rubs me the wrong way. We’re told Chaplin always referred to his character as “the little fellow” but I see no evidence of this prior to the VO getting added to THE GOLD RUSH. But I prefer that name to Charlie, even though I use that name to describe the character in my blog posts. My bad. I feel like all names are wrong and should be used officially in intertitles. Chaplin does generally avoid this. So this could be a sign that he’s feeling off-kilter, at a loss.

Charlie pretends to get up, banging a boot on the floor to suggest diligent activity to the farmer, now back in his own bed. The boss catches him napping and remarks, via title cars, about “the whole forenoon gone.” Eagle-eyed observers will spot that the hands of his alarm clock indicate it being 3.55 am. Charlie is eventually roused with further arsekickery. When one kick misses, Charlie obediently returns to the receiving position so it can be redelivered.

Charlie goes out, ostensibly to work, then comes back in through the window and back to bed. This, presumably, is what happens every single day. I’m quite enjoying the idea.

Now we learn that the workplace is a hotel. I had assumed it was a farm, since why else did they tell us we were in a village? I’m not sure a village hotel has the right kind of standing for situation comedy or grotesque situational poetry. I’m not even convinced village hotel is a thing. But I’d say the confusion could perhaps have been cleared up by starting microcosmic and building outwards — Charlie is a sleepy worker — in a hotel — in a village. Or the reverse. By leaving out the middle step until now, Chaplin has sown confusion.

The hotel lobby is a picturesque shambles, complete with gamboling puppy and barber’s chair, which will never get used in the final cut. Here’s what we would have seen if Chaplin hadn’t had second thoughts ~

We see the empty chair because Chaplin has Rollie Totheroh sweep the room twice with his camera, right to left then left to right, like an automated security camera that hasn’t been invented yet, or like the end of THE CONVERSATION (whose repetitive pans mimic surveillance CCTV). At the end of pan #2, Charlie enters with a lawnmower and chops the weeds sprouting up through the lobby floor.

Then he puts a very placid chicken in a skillet (did they get the bird drunk, as they did with Mut the dog in A DOG’S LIFE?) to lay an egg. He prepares coffee. Since Charlie is atypically jacketless, in a sleeveless shirt, I notice that his arms, when hung at his side in casual, feckless mode, kind of angle outwards in a feminine manner. Women’s elbows are arranged differently, so they don’t bang against the wider hips when the arms swing. Charlie kind of has wider hips because of the flare-out of his baggy pants. His costume constantly shrinks the upper torso and arms while expanding the hips, legs and feet.

(Billy Ritchie, Scottish comedian and Chaplin impersonator, claimed that in fact Chaplin was impersonating HIM, as he had created the drunk character Chaplin later played in Fred Karno’s music hall group. Ritchie went into movies in baggy pants, teamed up with Henry “Pathé” Lehrmann, Chaplin’s hated first director, and got savaged to death by ostriches. Or else so severely injured he dropped out of performing, depending on who you believe. Anyway, I only mention him because he performed with a hugely padded trouser seat, the main distinction between him and Charlie except for his greater brutality, height, and the fact that he wasn’t very funny. )

Charlie expresses the milk for the coffee directly from an udder attached to a cow that wanders into the kitchen for the purpose. I wasn’t expecting to see gags Chaplin would later adapt for MODERN TIMES’ fantasy bucolic idyll. Obviously he felt the material either could be done better, or deserved a better film to be in.

At the level of micro-business, this film is still full of invention. The boss kicks Charlie up the arse when he’s pouring the coffee and the jolt transfers his spouting from one cup to the next, just at the right moment.

Dripping hot grease on the back of the boss’s neck is also good class vengeance, feckless-style. But Walter Kerr is convinced that Charlie as meek underdog is an unacceptable distortion of the character. He’s probably mostly-right, but in a film like WORK, the oppression of the working man can be used effectively as part of the comedy, and as long as he’s being funny about it here, and getting some revenge in by working poorly, this seems within the Chaplinesque bailiwick. I don’t know what a bailiwick is but I think we’re in one.

Charlie’s coffee having been loaded up with about forty sugar cubes is now a noxious black treacle unknown to toxicology a caffeinated molasses he can spread on his bread, which actually sounds like quite a good idea now I think about it.

Back to Sunnyside itself. Chaplin tries out a new Goliath, J. Parks Jones, who is very fat (dead at 59). He pairs him with the miniscule Loyal Underwood to make him look even bigger. Apparently Jones was in A DOG’S LIFE and SHOULDER ARMS but I somehow didn’t notice him? Like, a strolling planetoid crossed the screen, eclipsing the sun and causing the film to rattle on its sprockets, but I didn’t notice? Anyway, Jones does a great miseryguts trudge, but is no Eric Campbell.

Chaplin now has the boss kick a small boy’s dog to confirm to us that he’s mean. And he really kicks it! This mainly convinces me that Chaplin is mean.

Charlie’s duties at the hotel apparently include herding cows, which certainly adds to the incoherence of this scenario. It’s hard to see why Chaplin, a genius, couldn’t get enough material from his character being an odd-job man at a crappy hotel. Jerry Lewis got a whole feature out of bellhopping. Broadening the film’s scope to bring in all manner of rustic business makes it easier to introduce gags but dilutes and muddles everything, like eating spaghetti in in the bath.

Herding cows, Charlie slips, very slightly, on a banana peel. This is pretty desperate. The only innovations are (1) the banana skin is lying on a country lane, where it has no business being and (2) the slip happens out of frame and we only get the answer when Charlie stoops and picks up the slippery skin. It’s just weird that Chaplin would bother to shoot this and then, worse, leave it in the film.

To show that Charlie, forced to work on a Sunday, is still a holy fool, Chaplin has him(self) read the Bible while cowherding, which doesn’t appeal to me. Charlie should not be sanctimonious. His reading, however, causes him to lose the cows and collide with a fat lady, who I think may be May White, from A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN and others, a somewhat mysterious figure.

Some great scenery here — looks like the end shot of MODERN TIMES. 99% convinced we’re in roughly the same spot.

The cows stampeding through town is fairly impressive. Making GO WEST, Buster Keaton found a major problem with cattle — they couldn’t be made to stampede without endangering life and limb to an extent even he wasn’t happy to deal with. This left him to wrestle with a rather slow-paced climax. Using a smaller number of cows, Chaplin does get them to behave aggressively, and either he or a stuntman takes considerable risks riding a steer out of town.

Thrown into a ditch, the stunned Charlie falls into a delirium and thence to a bucolic dream sequence.

Now, Chaplin wouldn’t have heard W.C. Fields say of him, “The son-of-a-bitch is a ballet dancer!” but he had heard the same thing from Nijinsky, which would have carried weight. He now embarks on a dance sequence with slight comic embellishments. Walter Kerr was very clear about how misguided this is: “he is dancing in Elysian fields not because the dance has a purpose – either of mockery or of integration – but because his balletic qualities have been noticed by critics and he has taken their remarks a bit too seriously. […] The romp with the nymphs in the field […] is not only gratuitous but a shattering disappointment in quite another way. We discover that Chaplin isn’t really a dancer at all. So long as he was taking mock ballet stances to show his indifference to the narrative or using surprisingly choreographic patterns to elude enemies and contend with fellow job-seekers, the flexibility of his body and the flawless timing of his movements suggested the Pan he was so often called. But he was not truly Pan, or even the Pierrot he called himself at tis time – not someone who could divert us with rhythmic skills in a void. He was a comedian who needed to attach himself to something – to a situation he could mock, to a dilemma calling for escape – in order to bring his grace, his artful shifts of tempo, into play. Given a nondancing function to perform, he seemed a dancer. Cast into the open fields with a half dozen girls, he merely skips and prances without design. The effect is loose, aimless, less airborne than when he is trapped in rooms, pursued by narrative. Suddenly we see his footwork as shapeless, unpatterned; there is no external pressure to demand or contain it. He never made this particular mistake again.” Amen.

Chaplin filmed SUNNYSIDE from 4th November 1918 – 15th April 1919, with long gaps of up to six weeks where he simply floundered in creative paralysis and didn’t come into the studio. EYES WIDE SHUT took fifteen months, but it’s bloody long. SUNNYSIDE is only 33 minutes.

So you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I split this article in two to make it go further.

They Go Boom #2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2018 by dcairns

The second film in our accidental Vilmos Zsigmond/Nancy Allen double feature, theone actually shot by Vilmos, was, of course, Brian De Palma’s BLOW OUT, which is one of his NON-Hitchcockian thrillers. It meshes BLOW UP and THE CONVERSATION, Chappaquiddick and the JFK assassination, a few good ideas and some great execution with a lot of stupid ideas and a little stupid execution… as a political thriller it’s missed the bus to Pakulaville, but it does sport a charming and unaffected performance from John Travolta. I like some of his affected perfs too (American Crime Story!) but it’s interesting to see him looking and sounding human. He does have one terrible bit though…

We open with a film-within-a-film —  a slasher movie which we’re meant to find cheesy, yet De Palma can’t resist serving up long, bravura steadicam shots which kind of confuse the issue — parody cheese or real cheese? Also, this is the only bit where Pino Donaggio’s score works at all — it’s a kind of imitation Morricone/Goblin sound, again making the exploitation nonsense seem more distinguished than we’re meant to find it. From here on, EVERY TIME Donaggio crashes the soundtrack, it’s ruinous. I love love love his DON’T LOOK NOW music, but everything he did for BDP is noxious, especially the PSYCHO strings in CARRIE. Come to think of it, CASUALTIES OF WAR is a defensible film until the final scene where Morricone destroys it with syrup. De Palma has great taste in composers but lousy taste in music, it seems.The bit where Travolta is recording wind sounds at night is just gorgeous — ridiculous splitscreen/diopter shots, macros closeups of recording kit, rich sound design and a stunning location. The fatal “accident” outcome of this scene — a car’s tyre explodes and it crashes into the river, drowning a political hopeful and nearly killing his girl-of-the-moment — is the least interesting thing about it, but that’s OK.

From here on in, the film is in big trouble. BDP has written a nitwit role for his wife and, credit where it’s due, Nancy Allen totally commits to playing it to the hilt. She has concussion/shock when we first meet her, but when she recovers she just gets worse. Travolta’s solicitude for her character is endearing, but inexplicable, and this is going to kill the film’s ending.De Palma hasn’t got half enough story to make a feature film, so he pads it out two ways — he inserts an irrelevant flashback of Travolta working as a sound man for the cops, and he shows his baddie, John Lithgow (yay!), killing a couple of women, once as a case of mistaken identity when stalking Allen, once to suggest the action of a serial killer so that when he eventually does kill Allen, the investigators will be confused. Obviously, killing three women is riskier than killing one or two, as Lithgow eventually learns, but we can’t ask for De Palma thrillers to make sense.

The surveillance flashback is a way for De Palma to exorcise the memory of PRINCE OF THE CITY, which he was all set to direct before for some reason getting kicked off it and replaced by Sidney Lumet. But then Lumet got kicked off SCARFACE and DePalma took over that one, so they’re even. (See also: William Goldman was pissed about Bryan Forbes redrafting his work on THE STEPFORD WIVES, but got to doctor Forbes’ script for CHAPLIN in revenge.) The only effect of this backstory is it makes the police reluctant to help, a device BDP had already used for Jennifer Salt’s journalist in SISTERS. At this point, he’s not so much recycling Hitchcock as himself.

The movie further stretches credulity by having Travolta rephotograph frame enlargements of a Zapruder-type film printed in a news magazine, which shows the “accident,” and rephotograph the pics on an animation rostrum, creating a new film which magically syncs with his sound recording (using the crashing car’s impact with the water as sync plop). None of this is technically very plausible, but it’s accomplished largely without words, and is fun to watch.In Mark Cousins’ Scene by Scene interview with Kirk Douglas, the crumbling legend is shown a scene from BDP’s THE FURY, and briefly covers his eyes. Asked about it afterwards, he says “I don’t like my face” — not, I think, an expression of modesty or self-loathing, just an honest response to his director making him look silly in slomo. Similarly, Travolta’s excellent work is marred horribly by 100fps shots of him HUFFING — puffing out his cheeks and expelling air from his lips, making them ripple like thick wet carpets being shaken. A hideous and preposterous sight at what is meant to be the movie’s emotional climax.

But, you know, there are great bits, as there usually are with De Palma.

Congruence Upon Congruence

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2009 by dcairns

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Influence or coincidence?

Painter John Forsythe creates an image of an undiscovered corpse, but only realises that’s what it is AFTERWARDS.

Wouldn’t it be nice if THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY’s artistic detection were an influence upon Antonioni’s BLOW UP, where photographer David Hemmings snaps an image in a park and later, enlarging it, discovers what appears to be a dead body? Because, if it were, then we have THE CONVERSATION, Francis Ford Coppola’s audio-based murder yarn, which is definitely influenced at least a touch by Antonioni, and then we have Brian DePalma’s BLOW OUT, which is influenced both by the Coppola and the Antonioni, and perpetrated in a style owing much to Hitchcock, thus bringing things almost full circle.

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Plus there’s the pleasing added link of both Antonioni and Hitchcock painting the foliage in their scenery to make it suit their colour scheme.

Blow Up [DVD] [1966]