Archive for The General

The Best Lack All Conviction

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on September 13, 2018 by dcairns

When John Boorman’s THE GENERAL first came out, I declined to see it, mainly on account of it title, which I regarded as the property of Buster Keaton. One could argue that Boorman’s film, a biopic of a real man who was really nicknamed “the general,” has a stronger claim on the name than Keaton’s, but Keaton was first. And when a film regularly turns up in top tens, I think it’s disrespectful to reuse the title. There’s too much ignoring of film history going on as it is.It’s an engaging film, though. Brendan Gleeson gives one of his most winning performances — he appears to delight in making characters seductive who just shouldn’t be. Jon Voight startles with an Irish accent that sounded pretty convincing to me though I’m no expert. Though not as beautiful as POINT BLANK or DELIVERANCE — or CATCH US IF YOU CAN, the director’ last b&w film, the movie looks good, and the director seems fully engaged in what he’s doing, which I haven’t always felt was the case in e.g. THE TAILOR OF PANAMA. I recall hearing that the film was shot in colour and Boorman decided on b&w in post — the scenes where that really pays off are the claustrophobic, noir jail cell scenes.

And it’s another of Boorman’s Owl Creek Bridge occurrences — he talks, in Michel Ciment’s august career overview, about several of his films perhaps flashing through their protagonists’ minds at the moment of death. POINT BLANK is the key one, I think, for that. But THE GENERAL actually starts with the character’s for-real demise (though Boorman omits to show that Martin Cahill wa returning a VHS tape of DELTA FORCE 3 to the video store when he was shot — apparently he can celebrate the life of a gangster but not an aficionado of shit movies) and then goes into reverse, enveloping the biopic within the moment of doom.

Crime movies have always been in love with their criminals… the difficulties arise when they lose perspective altogether, or when they fail to make us feel enough of their own starstruck admiration for the godfathers and gunmen. Cahill is portrayed as both a charming rogue and a dangerous psychopath — he’s entirely transactional in his relations with the world, amoral to the core but able to feel fully justified in any action that benefits him. And glib with it, so he can come up with reasons if called upon to do so. This all makes him unpredictable and wildly entertaining, but fortunately we’re not called upon to wholly admire the bastard. Though we might suspect Boorman does, a little too much. The real Cahill burgled Boorman’s house and stole the gold disc he got for Duelling Banjos (a moment recreated onscreen) and Boorman was apparently more amused than angered.Inviting us to share the character’s world is fine. I don’t think Cahill’s use of a car bomb to attempt to murder a forensics specialist, and torture against a suspected traitor (crucifying him on a pool table) — the techniques of terrorism applied in a purely self-serving way — are meant to be admired. (Although Boorman is WEIRD – he may find Cahill “commendably uncivilized,” like Zed in ZARDOZ.) My only real objection is to the film’s music. Firstly, because I find it poor quality as music, cheap-sounding and cheesy (opinions may differ), but secondly, because it dramatizes everything the way Cahill would want it, and with the sensibility of a true DELTA FORCE fan. When he’s shot, the music is sad. When he does a heist, the music is exciting. There’s no irony, just a mediocre stab at emotional enhancement. We can watch Boorman’s filming of Boorman’s script and not see it as endorsing this vicious bandit. But whenever the music comments on the action, it totally tips the balance.

Other than that, though, yeah, it’s a compelling Boorman. You can’t look away. Not sure how it fits in with his other works. Makes me want to see his second film with Gleeson, THE TIGER’S TAIL.

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The Sunday Intertitle: The Gag Man

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2018 by dcairns

This is, I think, the only funny intertitle in THE GENERAL, the only one that even attempts to be funny. And even then, it’s just alliteration, not some kind of wisecrack.

It’s a shock to see Keystone films after watching mature Keaton or Chaplin, because at Keystone they tried to cram gags into every title. I think the idea was to take what had been filmed and punch it up with another layer of comedy. Whereas Buster and Charlie knew what they’d got was good enough. Harold Lloyd would do funny titles — “When the man with the mansion met the miss with a mission…” — really witty ones. And they seem to be more intimately connected to the story — that one, from FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, was going to supply the movie’s original title.

Keaton does gag titles in his shorts, but again, they’re plot-based, as with the boat’s name in THE BOAT. “Damfino.” “Well I don’t know either.”

Weirdly, the writing credit on THE GENERAL names directors Buster and Clyde Bruckman, but adds, “Adapted by Al Boasberg and Charles Smith.” Smith was an actor, who plays the heroine’s dad in the film. And Boasberg was a joke writer from vaudeville who had helped shape the personae of everyone from Jack Benny to Milton Berle and Burns & Allen. Keaton referred to him as an example of how that kind of verbal humour wasn’t needed on his films, and the credit seems likely to be a compensation to Boasberg for not having any of his work used. The straightforward, purely functional titles of the film could be entrusted to a minor actor with, I suspect, Keaton more or less dictating ~

 

Smith.

Boasberg’s trumped-up credit reminds me of H.M. “Beany” Walker, who got writing credit on all the Laurel & Hardy shorts, despite the fact that the story was already in place when he came on, and so he’d write a dialogue script full of one-liners which the boys basically ignored. Those titles at the start of many L&H talkies would end up being his major contribution.

But it’s nice Boasberg got a credit because his name goes unmentioned on a lot of films he DID contribute to — notably A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, where he seems to have originated the legendary stateroom scene, a scene dependent on his speciality — verbal quips which not only fit the situation, but the speaker’s unique comic personality.

Info from Ben Schwartz’s amazing bio essay, The Gag Man, available in The Film Comedy Reader.

Gone West

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2016 by dcairns

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Continuing to look at the non-Marxian aspects of the Marx Bros’ films.

The Marx Brothers’ GO WEST is the one where Buster Keaton’s contributions as gag writer really make a difference — the train climax, which manages to be reminiscent of THE GENERAL without recycling any specific gags, is one of the best bits of Hollywood slapstick the 40s produced (see also the hyper-kinetic chases climaxing a couple of W.C. Fields movies, which make up in manic speed what they might lack in finesse).

Buster may have played the brothers at high-stakes bridge, and collaborated successfully with them more than once, but he didn’t care for their casual attitude to movie-making. I guess this led to his otherwise inexplicable preference for Red Skelton, who evidently took his job seriously.

Edward Buzzell directs — he was fresh (or exhausted?) from AT THE CIRCUS, and had a background in pre-codes and would later provide the narrative bread for the Technicolor sandwich which is Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams’ JUPITER’S DARLING NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER. He manages one truly memorable shot, which you can’t quite believe you’re seeing ~

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A love scene occluded by horseflesh. It feels like an accident, left in the film whimsically, but I guess it’s a joke on censorship or privacy or something. If there were any real sexual chemistry imaginable behind the equine barrier, those readings would make sense. I like the gag, but I’m sort of glad there aren’t more like this. You don’t want the boring bits in Marx Bros films (the plot, the romantic interest, the musical numbers) to strive for zaniness. You would prefer they weren’t there. If they have to be there, you would like the girls to be charming, the songs to be tuneful, and nothing to go on too long. I don’t know what I would wish for the Allan Jones type leading men — a quick death, probably.

Here we have John Carroll and Diana Lewis, who is perky. We also have a couple of bland villains, who do that grating angry thing when annoyed by the Bros, which makes them suitable targets. In DUCK SOUP, the only reason Edgar Kennedy is a worthy target for destruction is the grating way he says “WHAT’S THE IDEA FIGHTIN’ IN FRONT OF MY STAND AND DRIVIN’ MY CUSTOMERS AWAY?” He is actually quite justified, but his tone is so obnoxious he must be systematically dismantled. The Marxes don’t put up with anger. Even Groucho’s “So, you refuse to shake my hand?” is transparently trumped up, a pose, a parody of real outrage.

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Piano interlude — a natural for a saloon sequence. This starts out as the most promising Chico solo ever, with Harpo reacting in extreme excitement to the music, until he feels compelled to throttle a bar girl just to show how happy the melody makes him. Rose McGowan would not approve, but this may be the biggest laugh in a Marxian musical interlude ever, discounting the great Groucho comedy songs. Unfortunately, Harpo then calms down and we have to endure twice as much piano. Chico’s numbers are sort of amusing, but when you’ve seen one you’ve kind of seen them all.

What else? Uncomfortable humour with Indians. This is a lengthy bit that doesn’t really contribute to the story, and also contains the inevitable harp interlude (using a loom as improvised harp). Buzzell gets desperate enough to track in a semi-circle around the offending instrument, the most elegant and imaginative move in the film. Makes me wonder how creative the average Hollywood hack would become if forced to shoot a whole movie full of tedium.

Fiona was impressed by the strong hints of miscegenation, with Harpo obviously drawn to the flirtatious Mini-Hahas. But squaws were always kind of fair game, weren’t they? It’s probably good that Harpo’s rapacious sexuality is tamped down here, since a white guy chasing screaming Indian girls would maybe feel unpleasant. Chasing peroxide cuties in a mansion-house in ANIMAL CRACKERS is something Harpo still somehow gets away with in the modern age, I think

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Oh, there’s also an old-timer, the heroine’s grandfather or something, who must be placated so the plot can work out happily (which we don’t care about). This guy disappears from the movie almost completely, despite being the lynchpin of the whole narrative. He’s glimpsed at the happy ending, but more or less subliminally. A shame, perhaps he could have become a kind of male, rustic Margaret Dumont. He’s meant to be a beloved curmudgeon, but he’s also standing in the path of love, so the Marxes new MGM role as anarchic cupids could have them assaulting his dignity.

Actually Margaret Dumont playing the role, in overalls and stubble, would make EVERYTHING better.