Archive for The High Sign

Prom Prom Prom

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2021 by dcairns

The first character we meet in Chaplin’s BY THE SEA is Billy Armstrong, a somewhat bland clown who really needs his walrus moustache to project any character. He seems the equivalent of the later Albert Austin type. Funnily enough, when regular antagonist Bud Jamison appears, his painted eyebrows and top hat make him seem, with his burly, surly aspect, even more of a proto-Eric Campbell than before.

(Incidentally, David Robinson remarks that this film is a mere nine set-ups. I count more like sixteen, though many are mere variations in shot size. Robinson doesn’t make mistakes so I’m assuming restoration has rendered the film longer than the print he saw, or else he’s not counting slight push-ins.)

But long before we see Bud, Charlie has slipped on cinema’s first banana skin, at least so far as anyone has been able to trace. It’s his own banana skin, which is good. But it’s doubtful if the banana skin will ever have anything like the shock of the new that enabled it to get laughs. Buster Keaton experimented with NOT slipping on one, in THE HIGH SIGN, but seemed to be dissatisfied with the un-gag. In SHERLOCK JR. he has the villain not slip, and then Buster slips on his own banana skin, as if discovering the Chaplin variation all over again.

Chaplin’s banana bit is a standalone moment, easily excisable, and in fact pretty much ALL of the film is standalone bits. He first gets into a quarrel with Armstrong, both men having tied strings to their hats as a defense against the sea breeze, and their tangling inevitably leads to a punch-up.

Chaplin does manage a more sophisticated bit — having dazed Armstrong with repeated slaps, he forages for fleas in the punchy man’s thick hair (Armstrong is the same size and shape as Charlie, which seems wrong — both Conklin and Turpin had radically different aspects from the star despite being fellow short-arses). It’s mildly impressive that Chaplin manages to make us “see” the leaping insects, but even more impressive that, filming himself in a close medium shot with his stunned opponent, he makes us imagine other, unseen promenaders, whose pseudo-presence compels him to keep up a pretense of civility with his victim.

Charlie isn’t necessarily a tramp in this, but he’s devoid of any social ties — Armstrong has his “wifie” and his rags betoken poverty. When Charlie has a wife or job in the shorts, it always feels like a contrivance for the sake of the film, one from which Charlie will be free by the time we see him again. Some of these films have aspects of the sitcom, but the “sit” is ever-changing, the one constant being Charlie’s freedom to abscond to a whole new scenario at the end of the two reels. This, of course, was standard for all the silent clowns. In Charlie’s case it happens to support his status as eternally at least somewhat of a tramp.

Having rendered Armstrong vegetative, Charlie now does what he always does, uses the other fellow as a convenient object. He sits on him. When Edna passes, the unconscious victim becomes a prop for Charlie’s flirtation. He poses like a hunter with one foot on his kill. His smiles seem to suggest that his having pummeled this man into submission ought to excite the object of his desires. At the same time, he can’t touch the man’s (usually upthrust) arse. All very strange. Finally he leaves the fellow leaning insensate against a lifebelt stand, a grotesque parody of the crucifixion.

Kurt Vonnegut’s definition of slapstick — “grotesque situational poetry” — always seemed odd to me because it leaves out the funny part. But it has rarely seemed more accurate.

Charlie does some more flirting, going so far as to sidle into Edna’s shot. His cane gets out of control, flying around saucily, whacking Edna’s backside and then hitting Charlie in the face. It’s the jester’s bladder and stick all right. I’m almost sure that’s what it is.

Armstrong recovers somewhat — his movements are staggering, his eyes crossed — and attacks Charlie with the lifesaver. Edna moves away, meeting the dyspeptic Bud, hitherto a mere convenient cutaway, now apparently an acquaintance.

A cop — oh hell, I’m just going to call him a kop, what’s he going to do, arrest me? — shows up, but is laid flat by a blow from Armstrong aimed at Charlie. Glass jaws, these kops. Charlie and Billy bond over this shared love of police brutality. Armstrong may not have any special personality but I admit he does play with with Charlie. No doubt Chaplin could get a decent performance out of most people, by showing them what to do, but sustained interactive clowning takes real skill.

Charlie and Billy go for ice cream, Billy offering to pay, but apparently all that brain damage has made him forgetful, as the offer is rescinded the moment the ice cream seller asks money. An ice cream fight ensues, culminating in Billy biting Charlie’s arse — this may be one of the most arse-centric of all the Chaplin shorts, and they’re a pretty butt-obsessed lot.

Meanwhile, a slung bit of vanilla has splurched Bud, who now steps out of his own little sub-film and enters the plot. While he’s strangling Billy, Charlie renews his flirtation with Edna, who is Bud’s paramour evidently, from the way she’s been stroking his knee. He really is a diabolical little sex pest in this one. (In later films, he’s romantic but not overly sexual, except for his fit of nut-tightening madness in MODERN TIMES, which sees Charlie the Imp back in full swing).

A kop drags Billy off. Bud shoves the ice cream man to the ground, for no good reason other than malign temper and to show off that Snub Pollard, for it is he — though unrecognisable sans horseshoe moustache — can take a fall like a pro.

Driven off by a fuming Bud, Charlie has brief encounters with the rest of the cast, then espies Billy’s “wifie” (Margie Reiger) — I think her lips are calling “Billy!” — and of course has to make the moves on her.

His moves:

Billy escapes the clutches of kop Paddy McGuire and flees back to the beach.

Everybody winds up ganging up on Charlie on a bench, improbably positioned in the path of the tide. Charlie is using his bowler to play peekaboo so doesn’t notice the encroaching enemies. The natural solution, after a slow-burn realisation, is to upturn the bench and everyone on it.

Which is the end of the film. Well, it’s not any less satisfying than most Keystone climaxes, and BY THE SEA is maybe a little more together than most Keystones. It knows how to be simple. That may be all it knows, but that’s not nothing.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Old Russian proverb.

Gas Giant

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2018 by dcairns

JUPITER ASCENDING! I had a vague hankering to see this, partly since I collaborated with the Wachowskis on CLOUD ATLAS (i.e. since I directed ten seconds of the bottom left-hand corner of a splitscreen montage in that film), partly because it sounded like it might be bonkers.

Sadly, only Eddie Redmayne is proper mad in this film, essaying a husky-voiced characterisation punctuated by Sudden Random SHOUTING that betrays the influence of A. Hopkins in particularly fruity mode. So he’s bringing the entertainment, or embarrassment, depending on your viewpoint. Some said the role would cost him the Oscar he might have otherwise clasped for THE DANISH GIRL. My friend and co-writer Alex Livingstone disagreed, insisting that it was the role of Balem Abrasax in the Wachowski space opera that he should in fact have been nominated FOR.As for the other actors, Mila Kunis does OK with a role that’s basically just asking questions about cosmology (while wearing nice frocks). Look at Linda Fiorentino, an equally poised and forceful actor, floundering horribly in Kevin Smith’s DOGMA to see how difficult this kind of exposition-speak can be. But then look at Sean Bean, who is SO good that he actually seems like a human being while talking this crap and hampered with the name Stinger Apini. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum is part-wolf, but he also used to have wings, but he can still fly without them thanks to his science skates, so that’s OK. Or is it? Seems kind of… NEEDLESSLY COMPLEX.

So is everything in this bloated yet wafer-thin pulp. The small greys are from such-and-such a system, says Tatum, but they’ve been modified to serve as OH SHUT UP CHANNING TATUM. Everything is needlessly complicated to disguise how simplistic it is, including the characters’ looks. Fiona complained that all the extras had pointless bits stuck on their faces. I blame Lobot. That guy with the tin ears in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. He’s Lobot. I know these things because I’m a film critic.“So… I play a guy with a stripey chin…”

We get an explanation of how the aliens cover up their activity on Earth, after a big chase trashes half of Chicago, but since the film goes on to spend zero time with ordinary humans, they might as well have not bothered. The MATRIXesque phildickian “something’s going on but you don’t know what it is, do you, Jupiter Jones?” thing simply has no reason to exist in this movie.

The brave thing about J.A. is that it’s not a sequel or a superhero movie, but that scarcely matters when it delivers the same boilerplate characters and “thrills” as every CAPTAINIRONBATSUPERWONDERBLACKTHORHULKSPIDERPANTHERMANWOMAN film out there. We get distinct nods to Mike Hodges’ FLASH GORDON and David Lynch’s DUNE, but the subversive and strange qualities of those movies are absent. Might as well have gone for broke, in retrospect, since this movie tanked anyway.The Terry Gilliam cameo is hugely enjoyable for this reason — they hired a non-actor for jokey reasons and let him do the same mugging and nonsense he’d do in the background of Monty Python sketches. Also, he doesn’t give us his thoughts on the #MeToo movement. The movie really needed about 400% of this sort of thing. Get Richard O’Brien! Get Martin Short!

Alternatively, the action scenes would need to be brought off with the kind of enthusiasm and cohesion and imagination the Wachowskis manages just once, in the original MATRIX. Well, the sequels had some eye-catching bits, I guess. But SPEED RACER had no flow, and this one has a bit so damn busy that the screen just disintegrates into particles. Some little spaceships called “Warhammers” were attacking a bigger spaceship. “I have no idea what I’m looking at,” protested Fiona, “except it’s shit.” I put forward that the theory that what we were looking at was pixels. To save money, the siblings had dispensed with computers and just poured a bunch of pixels all over everything. Really, if the second-hand disc had been damaged and started artifacting, we wouldn’t have known it.

Examples ~ It’s NOT any clearer when it’s in motion. It’s either a space battle as envisioned by Michael Snow or its the last image to pass before George Lucas’s mind’s eye as he gets dragged through the waistline of a radioactive hourglass.

Finally, Mila Kunis does get to do some acting, make some choices for herself, and have a fight scene, where it suddenly turns out she has the ability to fall for about a mile and then grab hold of something, which is odd as she’s not supposed to be superpowered. But at least she’s DOING SOMETHING rather than inviting other characters to dump information on her, The Wachowskis, as we now from the later MATRICES, have a real weakness of explanation.

But it’s too little, too late, in a film which is otherwise too much, too soon (rather than using its protagonist’s experiences to introduce the weird space characters, the film can’t resist splurging and flinging them at us right away). Jupiter is an expository device like CITIZEN KANE’s Thompson, leaving Tatum to drive the plot — but he’s not the title character, and he’s viewed as an object of desire. It’s nice when the Wachowskis mix up gender roles, but not nice when they sabotage the drama. At the climax of the film, Tatum has to fight a crocodile man, but I was struggling to get worked up about it. “I don’t dislike this crocodile man,” I found myself saying. “I think he’s OK.”Still, in the film’s one really neat bit of sci-fi action, Tatum drops the reptilian fellow through a portal in a glass floor and snaps it shut on his neck. Nasty.

Also oddly reminiscent of maybe the most startling gag in Buster Keaton’s career ~The tragedy of the Wachowskis, or maybe tragicomedy since they’re probably quite happy, is that they are authentically left-field talents (BOUND is still their most satisfying movie) who got boosted into superproduction mode by THE MATRIX and fundamentally don’t belong there. And maybe they’re not quite clever enough to either escape or turn the situation to any artistic advantage.

Red All Over

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2017 by dcairns

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I had never seen a Red Skelton movie. In the clips I saw he looked kind of awful, but on the other hand, Buster Keaton liked him. A friend said, “There was talent there, but the volume switch was faulty.”

So, we got on an Esther Williams kick — there’s talent there too — which led us to run ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, which has a nice little water ballet directed by Vincente Minnelli — interesting to see how he handles it, as opposed to Busby Berkeley or Charles Walters or George Sidney. It also has Red Skelton hamming it up in one sketch (like KING OF JAZZ, it intersperses songs and sketches). The sketch is pretty unfunny, and Fiona’s immediate reaction to the mugging was revulsion. But then he actually got a few laughs, overcoming our resistance to his overkill with more overkill. Overandoverkill. And he certainly had some chops as a visual comedian.

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A gag from THE HIGH SIGN! Was Buster working as gag man at MGM in 1943? It seems likely.

So then my same friend mentions DU BARRY WAS A LADY, and that seems like a suitable medium for further investigation. If Skelton gets too much for us, we have his fellow redhead Lucille Ball, and third-billed Gene Kelly, and Tommy Dorsey and his band, and a practically juvenile Zero Mostel doing a really good Charles Boyer impersonation — not just the voice — he kinda morphs his face so as to actually resemble Boyer, albeit a pudgy, ugly Boyer.

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Too bad Zero doesn’t get to sing a note, except as part of the chorus. But maybe best of all, the film has Virginia O’Brien, singing a song not in the Cole Porter show ~

Like KISS ME KATE, this play has had considerable damage done by rewriting, moving of songs, substitution of songs. It’s verging on a revue, like ZIEGFELD GIRLS, but with just enough connective tissue to be able to call itself an actual movie. And Skelton has it dialled down slightly — he’s playing an awful obnoxious dope, though, and Skelton’s particular comic instrument does not reduce the less appealing qualities.

But — in a Twitter conversation I was just defending the musical, but saying that even the worst MGM musical will still tend to have a few jaw-dropping moments. This one has QUITE a few.

Best gag: Red wins the sweepstake, and as he passes out in shock we get the traditional newspaper montage, only each headline carries only a fragment of the story —

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