Archive for The General

Listing (badly)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2022 by dcairns

To be clear — the following is not my list of screenings for the coming semester. It’s my submission for the Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll.

  1. He Who Gets Slapped
    Year: 1924
    Director(s): Victor Sjostrom
    Comment: My favourite film. It’s not like anything else. Lon Chaney manipulates the audience’s emotions by making shapes with his body, within the shapes Sjostrom makes with his camera. A melodrama in which nothing is really credible but everything is incredibly compelling. The film that draws the line between the laugh of the clown and the snarl of the lion.
  2. The General
    Year: 1926
    Director(s): Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman
    Comment: Ten films is such a small number that maybe all the entries do need to be perfect. Formally speaking, this one is: every shot is an essential component. Keaton makes the camera’s observation part of the joke. Each shot says, in a perfect deadpan, “Here we are now. And now this is happening. And so…” Plus you have a cinematic icon as star, a magnificent comedian, an incredible daredevil, working on the biggest canvas he ever got.
  3. Citizen Kane
    Year: 1941
    Director(s): Orson Welles
    Comment: What, I’m going to leave this off, so I can look more like a wild individualist? A brilliant cinematic mind jumps into the medium, determined to see what he can make it do. Tackle everything in a fresh way, from story to performance to camera to design, special effects, sound, editing. It may not actually invent anything but it packs in a ton of radical creativity and unconventionality. The filmmaker conveys his joy at all the tricks he comes up with, which makes the film supremely likeable to me, which it doesn’t get enough credit for.
  4. A Matter of Life and Death
    Year: 1946
    Director(s): Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
    Comment: The Archers had to have a place on my list, and in truth it could be any of five or six films, but this one marries its experimentation to a story both real AND fantastical, enabling them to stretch themselves in every direction. I love their use of Technicolor and I have, I admit, a mysterious sentimental attraction to stories of WWII. And I have a deep sympathy for Powell’s rejection of realism: as he said, it doesn’t really exist in the cinema. It’s all an illusion. And we know it. Romantic, funny, epic, the film’s breadth of vision puts everything Britain’s made in the past 50 years to shame.
  5. Eight and a Half
    Year: 1963
    Director(s): Federico Fellini
    Comment: There’s the sheer invention; the joy of looking through such a pair of magical eyes; Fellini’s roving camera; his carnivalesque world; Nino Rota’s galumphing score. I don’t know how many more times I can bear to see this one: the last time I was continually on the verge of tears over its beauty. And I don’t get that with other beautiful films. The love of cinema seems to speak directly to me, but to add an acerbic quality, Fellini is quite harsh on himself, via his stand-in Mastroianni.
  6. The Knack… and How to Get It
    Year: 1965
    Director(s): Richard Lester
    Comment: The inventiveness and playfulness of the French New Wave is ported over to a grey London autumn and blended with native surrealism. Screenwriter Charles Wood explodes Ann Jellicoe’s play and, with director Lester, assembles a dazzling mosaic from the pieces. All the choices are surprising, and somehow coherent. And it’s all quite strange: John Barry’s jazz score and David Watkin’s beautiful photography combine with the oddball text to create a feeling that’s a bit mysterious, even while it’s mainly all just bursting with youthful exuberance.
  7. 2001: A Space Odyssey
    Year: 1968
    Director(s): Stanley Kubrick
    Comment: “If he could get rid of the human element, he could make the perfect film,” joked Malcolm McDowell. But here he almost does. By acting, arrogantly, as if nobody had ever made a really good science fiction film, Kubrick solves all the problems methodically but also pushes the genre into epic, mythic, spiritual terrain that even the best sf literature rarely touched upon. Stately, bold, astonishingly beautiful. The great rationalist suddenly blasts us off into a psychedelic experience which doesn’t yield fully to reason. It’s not even certain if the film is optimistic or despairing (yet colourful).
  8. Playtime
    Year: 1968
    Director(s): Jacques Tati
    Comment: Having become a national or international institution, Tati blew his career to pieces with a colossal folly, a two-hour-plus widescreen film about the purgatory of modern urban life, eventually transformed into a playground by the human imagination. With his character of Hulot reduced to one figure among dozens, spread across a vast screen, and with anything resembling a conventional gag or slapstick ruthlessly expunged. Only comedy that astonishes, laughs you can’t explain, comic abstractions, are allowed here. Jokes about things looking like other things, sounding funny, taking too long, not being audible, not being understood. The scale is dazzling, insane. The world received it with a puzzled frown. If you’re on the right wavelength, you’ll instead be almost embarrassed at receiving such a lavish gift.
  9. The Conformist
    Year: 1970
    Director(s): Bernardo Bertolucci
    Comment: Bertolucci had recently cowritten a spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West (another obvious contender for this list). Similarly, here we have a cruel and cynical tale delivered in a lush romantic style. Delerue’s music and Storaro’s photography create an astonishing sweep. The political intent gives the film a sense of passion, even though Bertolucci is quite harsh about his characters. In Trintignant, he has the perfect star for this style, giving a performance that’s elegant, sardonic, sometimes robotic, sometimes a little crazed. I think all my choices have something in common, a sense of filmmakers breaking through all the conventions, asking “Why can’t it be like this instead?”
  10. My Neighbour Totorro
    Year: 1988
    Director(s): Hayao Miyazaki
    Comment: Miyazaki’s films add to the traditional dynamism of the anime form a welcome and surprising poetry. He pays attention to things cartoons usually ignore. A major setpiece here is two little girls waiting for a bus, one of them almost falling asleep. The filmmaker is in tune with childhood because his ambitions are usually simple but profound. Here, he wanted to show city kids what life in the country is like. His version of that is quite idiosyncratic, with the little dust bunny creatures, the cat-bus, and the titular nature spirit, a huge cat-owl thing, utterly benign but a little alarming and obviously very powerful. Very little is explained, which seems like a good lesson for children to absorb: there are mysteries.

Your further remarks

This was difficult! I will wake up screaming as it occurs to me the thing I forgot to put in. Even now I’m dismayed at what I felt compelled to knowingly exclude. No Chaplin, Marx Bros, pre-codes, horror films, musicals, westerns… is this even a list at all?

The Sunday Intertitle: Big Top Charlie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2022 by dcairns

Back to THE CIRCUS at last. Or almost.

I gave a talk recently at college about another Josephine the monkey star vehicle, THE CAMERAMAN, where I said the one thing keeping the film of the list of top Keaton movies is the long sequence where Buster goes on a date with the girl. Not that the sequence isn’t good, but it’s unrelated to the central theme of Buster trying to become a successful newsreel photographer. Whereas in, say, THE GENERAL, everything that happens supports several interlaced themes — winning the girl, of course,and also getting into the army, and then, once the train is stolen, getting the train back and foiling the enemy attack. In THE CAMERAMAN the middle sequence does advance the romantic struggle but it ignores the method Buster has identified as the means to that end.

That may be why Chaplin opted not to include a neat, self-contained bit in THE CIRCUS where he tries to impress Merna Kennedy by decking a prizefighter. The prizefighter has been bribed to take a fall, so the whole thing is a set-up. Using fraudulent means to impress the girl is something Charlie is not above, since his tightrope act elsewhere in the film is planned as the same kind of gag. The only trouble with the prizefighter is that he’s not a big top attraction.

The sequence was shot by Chaplin during one of the production’s several shut-downs: a fire at his studio had destroyed the tent. So he invented something that didn’t need a tent, adding a circus intro to it once he’d acquired a sufficiency of canvas.

Charlie calls on Merna. He’s wearing a longer, more flared coat than usual, evidently his Sunday best. Begged or borrowed or bought since he started at the circus, presumably, since tramps don’t typically have a lot of wardrobe changes. He practices tightroping on a rake while waiting for her, with predictable consequences.

An overexposed walk in the Californian sunshine, an uncommon tracking or trucking shot. Annoyingly, Rex, Charlie’s romantic rival turns up, the real high-wire man. These handsome rivals are always rather dull figures in Chaplin, but they don’t need to be anything else. Rex is played by Harry Crocker, nephew of a big baking tycoon, sometime assistant to Chaplin, perhaps a result of his fondness for hobnobbing with the nobs of society — Virginia Cherrill in CITY LIGHTS is another. Crocker had a few roles prior to this, including two bit parts for King Vidor, which suggests he may have been an uncredited assistant for KV also. He also opened a movie props museum on Sunset Blvd. in 1928, about which little is known. I think I saw a reference to it in a twenties movie mag while researching THE MAN WHO LAUGHS.

The trip to the cafe involves an attempt by Charlie to show he can outdo Rex at good deeds. This goes horribly wrong when he tries to help a stroppy woman with a dropped package of fish. The clever touch here is making the woman really obnoxious, so that not only does the small act of kindness turn into a prolonged, Sisyphean and odorous ordeal, the beneficiary isn’t even deserving: she could be Mr. Muckle’s daughter. Charlie can ultimately walk off and leave her with her groceries still smeared on the sidewalk and we’re on his side.

The prizefighter sequence depends on great splitscreen work from Rollie Totheroh, turning actor Doc Stone into pugilist Twin Spud and his brother, who is presumably also called Twin Spud. So it’s another of Chaplin’s doppelganger conceits, like the ones in THE IDLE CLASS and THE GREAT DICTATOR, only this time it’s not Charlie who’s doubled. Spud’s bullying of Charlie is horrible. It seems out of character for him to agree to Charlie’s ruse, and optimistic of Charlie to expect him to keep up his end of it. But the gag goes wrong not because of treachery on Spud’s part, but because of his failure to mention that he has an identical twin.

When Charlie starts fighting with the wrong twin, not only does he fail to score a glorious victory to impress Merna, he gets ignominiously rescued by Rex.

The best part of this is Charlie “taking back” his money from the wrong twin, who’s lying prone having been decked by Rex.

We can’t be certain why this decent, but slightly upsetting sequence wasn’t included in the released version of THE CIRCUS. Nor do we know why Chaplin decided not to follow his original plan of introducing his character as a flea circus proprietor, which would have made us of the gag sequence devised way back at Essanay. I guess that sequence wouldn’t have set up the story, and it was better to have Charlie be a newcomer to circus life. Still, Chaplin had no objection to beginning CITY LIGHTS with a sequence which isn’t essential to the story. He DID take the flea circus proprietor’s name, Professor Bosco, and give it to the put-upon magician in THE CIRCUS.

Waste not, want not.

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.