Archive for The General


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2014 by dcairns


“No, wait, we made that,” says Tony Randall at the start of WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? as he realizes that the film he’s introducing cannot possibly be called THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT. And he’s right, of course. Because why would you make a film that was already made?

I know there are possible reasons or excuses. Maybe it was OK for Vincent Ward to make THE NAVIGATOR after Buster Keaton had already made THE NAVIGATOR, since even though that film is one of Keaton’s best, it’s not his best-known. But it was surely goofy of John Boorman to make THE GENERAL, under that title, since Keaton’s GENERAL regularly makes top ten lists. And indeed, you never hear about that Boorman film nowadays. Perhaps the only reason Ward’s film isn’t completely forgotten is that everything he’s done since has sucked so very, very hard.

Night Moves

And so to Kelly Reichardt’s NIGHT MOVES, which is excellent — saw it in Rotterdam — but did it need to be called that? Arthur Penn’s NIGHT MOVES isn’t going away. In Reichardt’s film, the title is the name of a boat. Now, the boat didn’t have to be called that. In fact, Dakota Fanning actually lists a whole bunch of alternative boat names, although admittedly one of them, Gone With The Wind, might also have caused problems.

Still, quibbling aside, this is an excellent film. Fanning plays an aspirant eco-terrorist intent on blowing up an unpopular dam with the help of Peter Sarsgaard (a blithe bullshitter in the tradition of Bruce Greenwood in MEEK’S CUTOFF) and Jesse Eisenberg (wrapped too tight for Oregon). Fanning is touching, Eisenberg confirms his reputation as American cinema’s leading depressive, folding up into himself as the story unravels, like a man with ouroboros of the soul.

Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond do the most amazing endings — usually bleak or at least potentially bleak, mysterious, uncertain, troubling. This one, laid in a sporting goods store, is the most inexplicably distressing retail experience since Anne Bancroft’s Harrods breakdown in THE PUMPKIN EATER.

Meek’s Cutoff [DVD] [2010]
Wendy And Lucy [DVD] [2008]
Old Joy [2006] [DVD]

The Sunday Intertitle: When Buster Met Boris

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 23, 2011 by dcairns

Screened Keaton’s THE GENERAL for students, along with clips of Chaplin, Lloyd, Langdon, Charley Bowers and of course good old Raymond Griffith. And this time, projecting my Kino DVD on the big screen, I noticed something new –

That’s Boris frickin’ Karloff there, as a northern general! Front left.

I’m not the first to spot this: the IMDb has him down as “unconfirmed”, but after watching him carefully, I was pretty much convinced. Not only does the northern general have Boris Karloff’s face, but at one point he makes a Boris Karloff face. You know, one of those faces Boris makes when he’s acting. He has several.

That makes THE GENERAL the 11th film Boris made in 1926, including also THE BELLS, where he’s a sinister mesmerist. I find it apt that the great monster makes his one noted appearance in a silent comedy burning the hero’s elbow with a cigar.

Louise Brooks noted that one shot of Buster hiding under the table in this scene was so beautiful it took her breath away. She lost the ability to laugh for a good ten minutes, so awe-struck was she. “Why didn’t he cut the shot?” she wondered. But in fact, as Richard Lester pointed out, what makes THE GENERAL “a masterpiece of economy” is that you can’t remove a single shot without the sequence collapsing, nor a sequence without the story collapsing. What this means, of course, is that if a single shot had failed, Keaton would have no film. But then, he was working in an age when, if a shot didn’t come out right, you could just go back and do it again: everybody was under contract, so all it would cost you is raw stock and petrol.

Unless you want to do something like THIS –

Story Points

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2011 by dcairns

Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey, currently running on UK TV (channel: More 4) and just screened at Toronto International Film Festival, is an amazing achievement — a fifteen hour, ten part series covering the entirety of cinema history, worldwide. I have a few problems with it, but that shouldn’t take away from the scale and breadth and vision on display. One correspondent wrote something like “It’s an amazing opportunity, I hope he doesn’t blow it,” but while that’s all true, it should also be said that this is an opportunity Mark created – it didn’t exist until he dreamed it into being.

We might equally call the series (inspired by Mark’s book The Story of Film) not an odyssey but “An Odd Essay, since it’s also a very personal and quirky look at the cinema. Some people seem find Mark hard to take (see Shane Danielsen’s interview here if you need an example), and if that includes you, you’ll probably have problems with the show. Knowing Mark a little, and his editor, Timo Langer, an ex-student of mine, I’m probably a little prejudiced in their favour, but at any rate I never minded his voice-over, which here has a dreamy, meditative quality, soft like the whispering narrator of Godard’s TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER.

Mark’s decision to trace the connectedness of film-making, not through the money or the technology, but through the transmission of film language and ideas, across time and continents, is one I wholeheartedly embrace. It’s a little like the David Bordwell-Kristin Thompson model, only Mark is less focussed on technical precision, which is sometimes a problem. But it means the show has a bracing dynamic, sweeping forward through history following the major movements, but able to at any moment leap back or forward to trace a single idea exploited by one filmmaker and then borrowed by another, perhaps fifty years later. So the journey is never predictable.

Imprecision of a different kind haunts the show, possibly as a result of its intensive post production phase: I can’t understand why Mark allowed himself to call THE KID Chaplin’s first picture (first feature, possibly yes), or refer to the studio Chaplin co-founded as “American Artists,” both of which seem like elementary blunders. Of course, it’s the stuff you think you know that always trips you up, because you don’t think to check it…


This kind of stuff is bothersome because I really watch the series to find out stuff I don’t know, rather than to nitpick over the things I do: I enjoyed hearing about Evgeni Bauer and seeing clips, for instance. In a way, this kind of show suffers less than a book from occasional factual mistakes, since the films are allowed to speak for themselves, in the language of images. Nonetheless I worried that I might be picking up misconceptions about Bauer since I’m not aware of his work enough to notice if Mark made any mistakes.

The section on the silent clowns in episode two was probably my least favourite overall, both for the factual mistakes and the overall slant. I love Harold Lloyd but I think you could stand to exclude him in a series of this scope (Mark’s book doesn’t mention Bava or Argento — is Lloyd a more major figure than the entire giallo genre?). I don’t understand why Keaton came first, given the show’s approximately chronological structure (unless it’s because Mark really thinks Chaplin’s oeuvre began with THE KID in 1921?). And I don’t think Mark has a very strong conception of either filmmaker, at least as portrayed here — the statement that Chaplin was “much more interested in body movement” than Keaton is certainly debatable, but I think it’s conclusively disproved by the image (of the two men together in LIMELIGHT) he puts on the screen to illustrate it. And a shot of Keaton wiping a smudge of dirt from his engine in THE GENERAL is used to suggest that his character is “obsessed with details” — which is sort of understandable as a (mis-)reading of that image in isolation, but isn’t borne out by a single thing that happens elsewhere in the film. What that tender gesture very clearly means to me is that Buster’s Johnny Gray is IN LOVE WITH HIS TRAIN.

Some sections are divided between the terrific and the less-than-terrific: Mark’s commentary takes us through the Odessa Steps massacre from POTEMKIN, and is incisive and informative (with a guest appearance by DePalma’s widescreen colour stereophonic sound homage/swipe in THE UNTOUCHABLES), but a brief bit “explaining” Eisenstein’s theory of the Montage of Attractions left me confused. I suspect it’d have left Eisenstein confused too. I think Mark’s focus on the big picture sometimes results in a  loss of precision on detail work.

Elsewhere, though, we do have the amazing scope (after only two episodes it already overwhelmed me to consider the sheer scale of the undertaking thus far: now, after four episodes, it just seems an inconceivable project) and all the advantages of using film to talk about film. And unlike just about every film documentary made for British TV in the last ten years, Mark respects his material enough to show the clips in the right aspect ratio. The bloody philistines at BBC4 should take note.

The biggest virtue of taking a broad view like this is that different national cinemas finally get the respect they deserve. I’ve never seen a British film documentary talk about Ozu, and while the importance of I WAS BORN, BUT… in Y.O.’s oeuvre is well understood by most serious cinephiles, you’d struggle to find this acknowledged in many textbooks or documentaries. LIMITE, by Mario Peixoto, may be an anomaly as a great Brazilian film of the 30s, rather than the harbinger of a major movement, but the clips shown were thrilling, and I rushed to procure a copy. The film histories I was brought up on were racist by omission, and this is the first “complete” history ever broadcast. There certainly aren’t many cinephiles with the breadth of knowledge to even think about attempting this, and even fewer with the energy to make it happen.

Coming up in future episodes: interviews with Gus Van Sant, Ed Neumeier (on ROBOCOP and STARSHIP TROOPERS), Buck Henry, plus profiles of Kira Muratova, Paradjanov, Assja Djebar, Sokurov, Tati, Bergman, Imamura, Roy Andersson… much more… and “a surprise at the end.” (Yes, I’ve been speaking to Mark.)


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