Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Reflections: Etiquette and the Non-fan

Let’s call you a noble kind of movie lover—someone who wants to expand minds, not just entertain yourself. Your BFF? She loves movies too, just as much as you! Just, nothing too old.

Hearing that feels like a spider bite; it hurts and it festers; you want it gone, along with the thing that caused it. Well then, why not watch something new on Movie Night? By which you mean, something old.

She seems a little pissed when you suggest that. Four of the five Best Picture noms are out on video now—three of which she hasn’t seen, and two of which are apparently amazing. Why not rent one of them? The old films aren’t going anywhere anyway. And the old actors? They really aren’t going anywhere.

If only it wasn’t your turn to pick. Oh, you’re going to make her pay for her close-mindedness—not only will the film be old, it’ll be silent! BFF is going to learn the hard way.

Maybe so. While you can’t manufacture love, you can encourage appreciation, no matter how resistant your friends are to a type of art. They deserve the chance to enjoy a silent movie at least once. Here’s how you can make that happen:

Tip #1: Don’t be a snob. Many people resist silent films not because they dislike them, but because they’ve never seen one. This strikes fans as judgemental, and how do they respond? By being judgemental right back.

Look at it this way: If you’d never seen a silent movie before, what would you be most apprehensive about? Probably the lack of sound. They’re called ‘silent,’ after all—isn’t that tedious to watch? Those familiar with sound films (that is, everybody) may still view silent film as alien because it communicates information without speech. They may have similar reservations about opera or ballet. While you needn’t admire this attitude, you can still deal with it gently; there’s no downside to consideration.

Tip #2: Keep it short and funny. Silent films demand more concentration than most sound films do; this is why some people find them boring. Show your initiate something funny (silent comedy ages better) and for god’s sake, keep it under 90 minutes. You may even choose a couple of short comedies, which will clock in, combined, at under an hour.

Tip #3: Avoid the cringes. Silent films are a product of their time. Some are sexist, racist or patronizing by today’s standards. However, most are not offensive at all, so start with one of those. Your first goal should be to dissolve your friend’s preconceptions, not add to them.

Tip #4: Keep to an audience of two. A silent movie can seem goofy to first-time viewers. Developing an appreciation for it will require them to overcome many barriers, including the inherent silliness of the acting and plots. Unfortunately, we’re all tempted to mock things we find strange or challenging. This is easier when you have two or more non-fans watching the same film.

Again, is this so different from laughing at the pranciness of male ballet dancers, or the absurdity of singing one’s way through a problem? The peculiarities of silent film can be absorbed and eventually, ignored. It just takes time.

Tip #5: Keep distractions to a minimum. Don’t check your Blackberry, answer the phone, or hold a conversation while the movie’s on. This is basic etiquette when watching any movie, of course. And remember: if you aren’t looking at a silent movie, it might as well not be on.

Tip #6: Know your movie and be a guide to it. First, pick a film you’ve seen before, taking account of tips (2) and (3). Then consider what might appear off-putting or confusing to a first-time silent film viewer. Address these things before the movie starts. Summarize the plot, but don’t give it away. Explain, briefly, how this film has similarities to movies you know your friend likes. The goal is not to lecture, but rather, to enforce the truth: This is just another kind of movie, not a different medium altogether.

Tip #7: Be awake. Silent films are a bad choice when everybody’s over-tired. Sleepy days are a job for Stallone, Damon and company; so relax, open a beer, and let them do their job.


These tactics are probably your best chance to turn a loud sceptic into a silent convert. Use them with my blessing. And if they don’t work, you’ve still got bottomless charm to fall back on, or at least bottomless bottles. Ever seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari drunk? The actors all walk in straight lines.*

*It’s funny, trust me.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Circus (1928)

Watching The Circus is a lot like attending a circus performance: Entertainment can be had in many forms, and their variety is the show’s greatest strength. After City Lights (1931), it is The Circus that best balances Chaplin’s artistic aims for the modern viewer. The film is very funny and very sad, with a complex plot by silent standards.
For unity, The Circus relies upon a potent symbol, the circle, which appears both literally and metaphorically throughout its 70-minute running time. As a ring, the circle is both a place of performance and a symbol of matrimony. It also stands for ‘cyclical,’ which, in the case of The Circus, means repetition of circumstances, and ultimately, the entrenchment of social roles. The film's main characters: the Tramp (Chaplin) and Merna, a circus acrobat and the Ringmaster’s stepdaughter (Merna Kennedy), are both given the chance to escape their circumstances and achieve happiness. Only one will manage it.

The Circus’ opening shot frames a paper-covered hoop, with a star design in the middle. Merna bursts through it and we can now see the circus tent through its tears. Merna is on horseback, practicing her routine. Upon completing it, she’s berated by the Ringmaster (Al Ernest Garcia) for performing poorly. He throws her through another paper hoop, sitting on the ground beside them. She lies there, defeated, for the remainder of the scene.

This image, one of the cruellest I’ve seen in a silent movie, accomplishes several things. First, it ensures our sympathy will never rest with the Ringmaster, even though he runs a circus that loses money and appears to be a widower. Second, it establishes Merna as a sympathetic character, but one who is unable to stand up for herself or otherwise improve her position without help. Finally, it enforces the circle as an image of hopelessness—by throwing Merna through it head-first, the Ringmaster illustrates their cycle of violence.

Now the Tramp is introduced. He first appears in a crowd outside a funhouse, near the circus tent. The facade of the funhouse resembles a giant cuckoo-clock, with several large automata built into it, Thorough a series of complicated events, the Tramp is mistaken for a pickpocket, flees the police by hiding in the funhouse’s hall of mirrors, and finally, poses as an automaton to evade capture. All three gags are part of one chase sequence, each forces the Tramp to pose as something he is not, and each involves repetitive behaviour.

The chase goes on; Chaplin’s character is driven into the big top itself, where he crashes the main-event performance and generates far more laughs than anyone performing on purpose. The Ringmaster eventually hires him, but only as a property man (labourer) and part-time performer. The Tramp is unaware of how big a star he is, so he’s easily low-balled.

As expected, the Tramp falls for Merna, who's as pretty as she is vulnerable. What Merna feels in return is less clear. She’s responsive to the Tramp's charms, though not in an obviously romantic way. We can believe her feelings are developing in that direction, at least for a while. However, what we do know is that Merna loves the Tramp as her benefactor.

His first good deed in the film is to share his breakfast with Merna; in addition to beating her, the Ringmaster also denied her food. She’s starving, so the Tramp splits his only egg.

Merna returns the favour a little later, by telling the Tramp that indeed, he’s the star of the show. The Ringmaster overhears this, breaks up their conversation and attacks Merna again. And now the Tramp protects her once more, telling the Ringmaster that if he lays a hand on her, he’ll quit the show. Oh, and he wants to be paid what he’s worth.

In both of these episodes, the Tramp helps someone who ought to be helping him. He has no job, but gives her food; he is poor and powerless, but employs brinkmanship both to save her body and advance his position. The Tramp, it seems, is on the rise.

Soon, our hero is making big money as a performer. His act mostly recreates, night after night, the chaos he originally caused when he was chased into the big top months before. We’re cheering him on, of course. We watch him, with confident (though not arrogant) airs about him, preparing for a show. On the other side of the tent flap, Merna and some of her girlfriends are seated with a fortune teller. The fortune teller predicts that Merna will marry a “dark, handsome man who is near you now”; overhearing this, the well-placed Tramp decides it must be him. He immediately buys a ring from one of the clowns—for five dollars—and prepares to propose.

Chaplin doesn’t let us bask in this for long. The next scene introduces Rex (Harry Crocker), the handsome new tightrope walker, and Merna is instantly lost to him. She tells a friend that she’s in love, and the Tramp overhears this too. His joy is obliterated. To Chaplin’s credit, though, Rex isn’t played as a jerk. The Tramp doesn’t like him, but how could he? Rex captures Merna’s heart just by showing up, truly putting the Tramp in his place—fame and wealth be damned.

The Tramp also takes Rex’s place, at least once. When Rex disappears before a performance, the panicking Ringmaster orders the Tramp to do his tightrope act. The ensuing scene is classic Chaplin, mixing high and low comedy in equal measure.

The Tramp is almost killed, of course; after a succession of near falls, he completes the act and speeds out of the big top on a runaway bicycle. The Ringmaster, angered by this, again vents his frustrations on Merna. The Tramp then re-emerges and beats the Ringmaster with his fists. He saves Merna, but is fired.


One more time, the Tramp has been forced to adopt another’s role. When Rex is absent, he replicates his performance; when Rex’s girlfriend is threatened, the Tramp, a much smaller man, defends her in a manner Rex could have done more easily. We see his reward in the next scene, when he is sitting alone by a campfire, probably a few miles from the circus. Merna appears; she tells him she’s run away, and asks the Tramp to take her with him.

This should be victory. Merna, the woman he loves, wants to be with him, even when he has nothing. The man she supposedly loves has been left behind. Yet the Tramp’s next move is not a joyful one. He asks Merna to wait at the campsite, then returns to the circus and finds Rex. He gives Rex the engagement ring, telling him, “I can do nothing for her.” Rex and Merna are married the next day, with the Tramp throwing rice over their heads.

The Tramp concludes that he’ll always be a tramp. This isn’t an upbeat way to end The Circus, but Chaplin does give us a little more. In the closing scene, the three performers return to the circus and Merna demands that the Ringmaster restore the Tramp’s job, which he does. Merna invites the Tramp to ride with her and Rex to the next town. He declines, saying he’ll be satisfied with the ‘end wagon.’ As the wagon train pulls away, he stands still, and finally alone, in an earthen circle—the impression left behind by the big top. The Tramp is back where he began. He sits down, depressed, then notices a scrap of paper on the ground: It bears the same design as the paper hoop in the opening scene. The Tramp rolls the paper into a ball, stands, and kicks it behind him. He may have nothing, but it’s all his.


The Circus has such interesting images that I didn’t have room to describe its slapstick comedy scenes, which are multiple and brilliant. If you’re in the mood for a funny film, don’t let this review dissuade you from The Circus.

Where to find The Circus:
French distributor MK2 owns the rights to most of Charlie Chaplin’s later works, distributed in North America by Warner Brothers. My copy of The Circus is among them. This version includes a second disk with substantial archival materials, deleted scenes and a documentary about The Circus’ rather troubled production. Look for it here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Reflections: What Do I Feel For?

I’ve subscribed to for about two years now. Once or twice a week, a red and white envelope arrives in my mailbox. I open it, make sure the DVD inside isn’t scratched or cracked, slip it in its sleeve and stack it on top of the rest, next to the TV.

I subscribe for two reasons only: First, Zip’s library of classic films far exceeds that of any video store I’ve been to—and my wallet is thick with rental cards. Second, it lets you keep a movie for as long as you want. This is important, because I rent a lot of silent movies and most of the time, I don’t feel like watching them.

That’s my big admission. And maybe a contradiction, given the text that appears at right. Read the grey font: Does it not say I enjoy silent films? In fact, that’s why my blog is worthwhile, according to me. So why wouldn’t I want to watch one whenever I could?

Time’s not the issue, because I haven’t got any to begin with. Nor is it a matter of mood. Like many people, I watch a lot of movies when I’m tired—mentally tuckered out—and at times like these, I’m not sliding an Ozu or Bergman film into the PlayStation 2. Predator, more likely.

I won’t watch a bad film; I never do that intentionally. It’s just that sometimes my viewing habits boil down to the need to be entertained, rather than challenged. It’s no different than needing to laugh, rather than cry. Predator may not be as complex as Citizen Kane, but it’s a much better action movie, with a lot more gunfights in the jungle.

But what’s that got to do with silent movies? Silent movies aren’t a genre; they’re a variation of the medium, which can itself be split into genres. To say you don’t ‘feel like’ watching a silent movie is not like choosing a comedy ’cause you feel for something light. It is to admit—if only implicitly—that watching silent movies can be taxing, especially if they’re long, and extra-especially when you’re watching them at home, where distractions are plentiful.

It’s rare for me to complete a silent movie without my mind wandering at least once, though the journeys are brief. At least I can be proud of that. And while I wish it were otherwise, I also accept it and save my viewings for times when I will be most appreciative. The results are rewarding, obviously. If they weren’t, how could I write this blog?

There’s a lot more to write about this topic, so I will. However, I’m learning that 1,000 words, twice a week, is a tough pace to keep up. This 500-word length is easier to manage and lets me hold the reviews at 1,000. As a bonus, it postpones the day when I run out of things to say. May we never reach it, at least together.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

City Girl (1930)

Director F.W. Murnau made three movies for Fox Film Corporation near the end of his life; of them, Sunrise (1927) is best-known today, while 4 Devils (1928) is presumed lost. The last, City Girl, is rarely seen. This is a shame. City Girl may be imperfect, but it’s also a remarkable example of Murnau’s wit and artistry. Watch this film and see him turn an uninspired love story into a battle between two terrible, powerful characters.

City Girl concerns an innocent farmboy, Lem Tustine (Charles Farrell), who meets a waitress named Kate (Mary Duncan) during a trip to Chicago to sell his family’s wheat. They fall in love, marry, and return to Minnesota as a couple. Waiting for them is Lem’s menacing father (David Torrence), who brutally rejects the marriage, and Lem’s mother (Edith Yorke), who passively accepts it. Conflicts build and boil over until a hailstorm threatens the rest of the crop.

Two young, attractive people from different worlds meet, face adversity and survive it, thanks to the power of love. City Girl sounds like a romance. Yet it’s not romantic at all, because these lovers are not equals. Kate is strong, smart, driven; her dreaminess weakens her, but she tempers it with cold assessment. She makes use of her beauty, but is not satisfied to rely on it. She works hard. Lem? He’s just dumb and pretty. He approaches Chicago like the bewildered rube he is, overwrapped in his wool suit and fixating on a slip of paper listing the prices his father demands. This is no rural caricature, either. Lem remains a vacant beefcake when he gets back to the farm, dressed in overalls that never get dirty, moping a lot and rarely working.

Kate’s also a bit too gorgeous for the life she leads, but her personality makes up for it. She’s all motion and attitude, navigating a job that seems almost mechanized. The diner is hot and crowded; patrons shove their way to the counter to eat and as one gets up, another immediately takes his place. Outside, everywhere, the city overflows with people. Kate’s only free space is her miserable bachelor apartment.

Lem looks awfully handsome next to the scummy customers Kate serves every day. It’s easy, on a shallow level, to understand her attraction to him. It’s still easy (and still shallow) to understand why his lack of sophistication draws her deeper. She wants out of her life. She stares longingly at paintings and posters depicting rural paradise. Lem sums up every one of her fantasies, almost to the point of parody. Given what an unsubtle object he is, we can’t blame her for saying yes to his proposal.

Of course, trouble awaits them. Murnau prefigures the tension with a series of linked images in the first act. Mr. Tustine slices a loaf of bread, which fades into a multi-slice, automatic toaster at Kate’s diner. Mrs. Tustine’s steaming washbasin transforms into several steaming coffee urns. Early farm scenes feature three people at most, then cut to city scenes bulging with dozens, and even hundreds of extras. The dichotomies seem obvious, right down to Lem’s hick and Kate’s streetwise city-slicker. However, the city disappears for good once Kate arrives in Minnesota and meets Lem's father.
Mr. Tustine is the real thing, and everything Lem is not: Ruthless, dominating, serious; clawed, bitten and weathered from years of work. In one of his first scenes, he berated his young daughter for playing with a stem of wheat. “I raise wheat to sell, not to play with,” the intertitle reads. “Every grain counts!” Then he snatched the plant and placed it in the family bible. Here’s a clip, starting at 5:15.
Mr. Tustine is the true match (and foil) for Kate. They collide instantly, even violently, leaving Lem paralyzed. He can only fail these two—first by selling the wheat at a loss, then by refusing to stand up for his wife. As Kate and Mr. Tustine continue to battle, we begin to see how Chicago—so machine-like in the way it drives its citizens from A to B—is not so different from rural Minnesota. The machine is still everywhere. Trains drive Lem to and from the city. An enormous combine processes the wheat, dictating the movements of a dozen men. The Tustine’s barometer appears many times, warning the farmers of impending storms; once we see it between Kate and Lem as they argue.

City Girl’s true message is that conflicts are between people, not places or lifestyles. Transplanted into her new world, Kate remains a waitress, serving food to the farmhands who leer at her, like the guys at the diner did. Mr. Tustine’s disapproval is so severe that she must live in a tiny room, alone, just as she did in the city. We laugh at her dream of having a “real two-fisted guy” to take care of her, since she’s not passive enough to make that kind of marriage work. If her marriage reflects the elder Tustine’s, she must be the husband.

Murnau states this clearly in a brilliant scene, late in the film. Kate, now estranged from almost everyone, including Lem, has just driven an amorous farmhand out of her room. She hunkers down in fear and desperation. Light shines through her window and the frame reflects a cross in shadow next to her—the same cross we see on Mr. Tustine’s family bible. Lem arrives and pounds on her door; she does not open it. He crumples, and the light of the oil lamp projects his mother’s rocking chair in shadow next to him.

City Girl doesn’t end convincingly. We suspect that the hatchet is not buried that deep between Kate and her father-in-law, especially if their relationship is based on mutual love for Lem. Lem’s appeal could never be more than biological for these two powerhouses—for Kate, it would come down to sex; for Mr. Tustine, the familial bond. But maybe they’re smart enough to make it work. City Girl closes with Kate and Mr. Tustine riding off together in his wagon. Lem is left behind to close the gate.

(Trivia: City Girl was a title favoured by Fox; Murnau preferred Our Daily Bread. Even in post-production, the conflict between Kate and Mr. Tustine went on.)

Where to find City Girl:
City Girl was recently released as part of 20th Century Fox’s box set, Murnau, Bozage and Fox. The City Girl disk includes a thorough reconstruction of the lost 4 Devils, based on publicity stills, blueprints, sketches, and the original script. Here’s the link.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reflections: Scare Tactics

A few years ago I bought tickets for a festival screening of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) in Toronto. This was my first chance to see a silent film outside my home and I was pumped for it. Things looked even better once I got to the theatre and saw every seat occupied. How nice that felt, given how old the film is and how many other options those film-goers had, especially that week.

Nice? Yeah. The audience laughed all the way through it. What an irritating time I had, sitting there for more than an hour while several hundred audience members mocked a film I love. This was not my first crack at Nosferatu; I’d seen it two or three times before. I even owned it on tape. I thought it was a great horror film, and here were these rubes making fun of it.

It felt right to be a snob that night. But you have to give up snobbery to truly appreciate art, and in so doing, you’ll face some harsh truths. Among them is this one: if audiences laugh at a film, it isn’t scary.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the film is bad. A film can succeed on some level while failing to achieve its aim. However, ‘funny’ seems so far from ‘scary’ that you have to wonder what’s gone wrong with Murnau’s vampire flick over these last 87 years, or what’s gone wrong with its viewers. Since that evening of laughter, I’ve tried to understand why most of the audience saw something different than I did.

Silent horror’s most lasting contributions seem to be those produced, or inspired by, the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s. The Expressionist’s chief purpose was to produce a mood, usually a creepy and unsettling mood, and they’d enlist a film’s full resources to do it. Expressionist films are notable for bizarre characters, intense contrasts of light and dark, ghoulish plots and stylized settings, often deliberately artificial looking.

Travelling a winding road in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

These movies also have their share of fiends and monsters, but there’s no Jason’s, Freddy’s, or killers appearing in the bathroom mirror. That’s a good thing. ‘Gotcha’ moments work best in films with a relatively normal protagonist, existing in a relatively normal world, aside from the immortal killer, bodysnatcher, etc. One of the things that makes Halloween (1978) and its ilk so effective is the assertion that average environments can house, or even hide, horrible things. If we cannot trust the mundane, then we’re really in trouble.

The Expressionist horrors have no mundane. Their physical environments are unfamiliar and off-putting. Their protagonists can be as weird as their monsters—for example, I’ve always considered the vampire in Nosferatu less scary than the hero’s wife, who seems disengaged and sexually ambiguous even before she’s possessed by the Count. If she’s the core of our hero’s home life, what must he really be like? Not much like us, that’s for sure.

If we try to relate to these characters, they'll lose us. I can’t think of any silent horror character that actually inspired me to fear for his or her safety—mostly I’ve observed them at a distance, playing their own, weird parts. But the absence of visceral terror creates a hole that can be filled by the imagination. Indeed, the more we think about these movies, the creepier they get. Distorted images of people and objects are, after all, reflections of the feelings we’ve impressed upon them. What does this say about us? How does this challenge our beliefs? Given the time to digest what we've observed, we have to admit that if these movies looked more realistic, they’d be less disturbing. Our detachment from the world is more comforting than we realize.

Nosferatu's Nina Hutter (Greta Schroder) could be pretty scary herself.

Silent horrors and comedies aren’t that different in this respect. In slapstick comedies, we’re entertained by the inventiveness comedians apply to their physical environments—anything can be a gag, so really, nothing is normal. In silent horrors, nothing seems normal to begin with, including the people the movie presents as normal, so we feel ill-at-ease. If we chose to follow this film, we can count on no safe harbours.

If you want to see a modern film that captures this spirit, watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Yeah, I said it. This movie minimizes suspense (the fuel of the ‘gotcha’) and provides us with a cast of teenagers nearly as out-to-lunch as the killer family. Decay, death and depravity rule every scene, from the opening shot until the last. Nothing, ever, feels right.

Someone once told me Texas Chainsaw Massacre was too goofy to be frightening. She’d seen it with a bunch of friends in her residence common room. Texas Chainsaw Massacre scared the shit out of me when I first saw it—at home, by myself, in the dark. We saw the same movie, but I think she saw it the wrong way.

Well, I certainly didn’t see Nosferatu the wrong way. I saw it in public, in a theatre, accompanied by (I’m told) the original score. Maybe my first experience of seeing the movie gave me an advantage that night. When I first saw Nosferatu—at home, by myself, in the dark, with organ notes pulsing through every scene—there was no suggestion of humour.

In defense of those who laughed, I now understand how mannered acting and a celebratory festival atmosphere could kill the mood. But most of all, I blame that score. It was too punchy and comic. If this was the music Murnau wanted, I’m not sure what reaction he was going for. What I do know is that silent horror films build universes of profound and disturbing images, into which viewers must immerse themselves. Each universe is a fragile thing. Distractions destroy them, turning scary into funny; then the movies become jokes.

Music can make an old film feel fresh again. Here’s how it’s done.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Artists may benefit from time and wealth, but they shouldn't require them. In fact, lack of resources can be a blessing, because it can make you try harder.

George Méliès hardly lacked resources, at least in 1902. The Frenchman owned and directed the Robert-Houdin theatre in Paris for more than 30 years; he was the son of a shoe manufacturer; a landowner; a gifted magician, actor and caricaturist, with a hefty inheritance that left him free to perfect his skills. He was lucky, too. Méliès shared building space with Antoine Lumière, father to the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, who introduced France to projected cinema in 1895. The Lumières saw the movie camera as a tool for science. Méliès, the showman, saw something else. By 1897, he was running the first dedicated movie studio in the world, producing popular films to be screened in fairground tents. These films, like the studio itself, were state-of-the-art. Méliès had it all.

Yet nowadays, Méliès’ films seem striking for what they lack. They have no sound, no close-ups and no camera movement. Few last more than fifteen minutes. Since they were meant to be narrated live, they don’t even have intertitles. Méliès relied on almost none of the technology, techniques or conventions that would be old hat even fifteen years later. But he achieved an almost perfect little film. You’ll like it.

A Trip to the Moon (La voyage dans la lune) follows the adventures of six scientists, all members of France’s renowned Institute of Incoherent Astronomy. The scientists commission the building of a gigantic cannon, which will blast them toward the moon in a hollow shell. The launch is successful; upon arrival, the scientists battle the moon’s goblinoid inhabitants, are captured, and then escape the clutches of the King of the Moon. They retreat to their shell, which tips off a cliff and falls back to Earth, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. The heroes are towed to shore by steamship and honoured with a parade. 
That’s it. You’ll eat sandwiches that require more investment of time than A Trip to the Moon will. However, you’ll see few full-length films that better reward a second look, or a third, or a fourth. Were it no good at all, A Trip to the Moon would still be a valuable lesson in filmmaking.
For Méliès, a theatre man, the camera simply replaced the audience. He positioned it far to one end of his studio, while the rest of the space was devoted to the floor-level stage and its various props. Performances took place opposite the camera, facing the daylight. (At the time, electric light was too weak for filmmaking, meaning Méliès could not work at night. His studio functioned like a greenhouse).

Méliès dressed his actors and dancers in outrageous costumes and choreographed them precisely to make the most of his slim running times. He also painted his own tableaus (backgrounds), which were used much as they would be in a stage production. The studio was outfitted with enough pulleys, wires, and trapdoors to film almost any kind of scene without budging the camera.

Méliès could’ve moved his camera; other directors were already doing it. However, look at what he produces by leaving it still: Every one of A Trip to the Moon’s brief scenes is teeming with activity. Robed, pointy-hatted astronomers jostle with tarty rocket-girls, cannon-building workmen and acrobatic denizens of the moon. The actors shove each other in and out of frame, as though competing to show you the best thing in the world. None wait for the lens to find them. Everyone rushes, everyone is silly, and they’re all having fun.

Like all great films, A Trip to the Moon knows what it’s trying to do and supports it ably. Méliès’ tableaus squash a double-load of detail into every scene, losing nothing. They are cartoonish, distorting perspective for the sake of whimsy, rather than to trick the eye. When the narrator describes the spacecraft as built ‘above the rooftops of the city,’ we see this literally—actors stand on a row of painted rooftops too small to be believably in the foreground. Nobody cares. 

The characters in A Trip to the Moon have no personalities, but they’re one with this craziness surrounding them. Standing on a tower, straining to watch the giant cannon being cast in the ‘distance,’ one scientist produces a telescope, clearly two-dimensional, designed in the same cartoon style as the set he is standing on. It works fine, of course; just as the rooftops hold when he stands on them. Check it out in this clip, at about 3:40.

As the actors become the sets, so the sets join the cast. On the moon, Méliès shows the scientists slumbering beneath a sky filled with stars, planets and (oddly enough) a crescent moon, all occupied by actors in Grecian garb. Even better is the moon launch that brought them there. In this famous scene, we see the moon grow as the shell approaches it; suddenly it has a human face, then—wham!—the shell pierces its eye.

A Trip to the Moon was a critical success for George Méliès, and thanks to his creativity and technical excellence, it still entertains. Its duration doesn’t hurt, either—even a great movie cannot hold attention for long without deviating from medium shots.

How appropriate that this film’s themes are discovery and endeavour. With one foot still planted in the theatrical world, Méliès was himself challenging a new frontier. A Trip to the Moon is one of cinema’s first great artworks, filmed before cinema had any masters. To see it today is to wonder how Méliès produced so much from so little. It is also to remember the potential of limited resources, once great talent is brought to bear upon them.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Reflections: Have You Heard This One?

A silent comic walks into a bar.

And knocks himself out.


Last week, I wrote about the struggles we sometimes face when trying to enjoy silent dramas. I blamed most of it on the drift of social values between the early 20th century and today, which forces old movies to make unreasonable demands on our sympathy. This week, I want to look at silent comedy, which has aged better, because it gives us more while demanding less.

Silent comedy is more than people trying to be funny on film. Actors were doing silly things or performing vaudeville acts in front of a lens as far back as Thomas Edison’s time. These early performers had talent, but they didn’t take advantage of the camera’s potential; they just did their stage routines without a live audience.

True film comedy took time to develop and peaked in the 1920s, when features by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd pulled major box office. The films were good too—inventive and joyful, taking full advantage of their soundless medium. They perfected physical comedy (‘slapstick’) and they’re still funny today. So what’s comedy got that drama hasn’t?

We return to sympathy: The blood and bones of good drama and pure cyanide for most comedies. Comedy is cruel; even the gentlest joke causes us to laugh at someone else. What happens if we sympathize too much with a comic character? Who’s the joke on then? Silent comedies don’t have to build sympathy for characters at all. The irony, though, is that they often do it better than dramas can today.

Charlie Chaplin made his Tramp rich in comedy..... ...but it was tragedy that filled the costume and made it believeable.

Social values change quickly; social pressures do not. We can still relate to silent standards like meeting a fiancé’s parents, struggling to join clubs and teams, being bullied, or being broke; we’ll never escape the realities of physical pain and mortal danger. These are universals that slapstick constantly exploits.

Silent drama’s characters suffer these ills, too. However, we are expected to care for them, which is taxing if they aren’t so likeable anymore. Comic protagonists are often lazy, crooked, or stupid, and their goals less noble. They spend entire films trying to avoid punishment, detection or responsibility. When they seek love, it’s often from a foul person. These characters may be charming, but funny people usually are. So when they get their asses kicked, we’re okay with it.

Silent comedies have another advantage over dramas: They need less plot. Sure, silent films in general have thin plots, but the dramas have to fill their running times with supporting characters, twists and moments of pathos. The percentage of scenes that could lose a modern viewer goes up. Slapstick comedies, meanwhile, get a better deal; they can fill their scenes with ageless physical comedy. Yes, the best comedies integrate those scenes with a plot, but at the very least, they offer enough tumbles, brawls and lethal stunts to keep you entertained. (They needn’t be sublime, either. One of my favourite comedic scenes features Fatty Arbuckle hurling a piano through a wall to crush someone in the next room.)

Probably the best endorsement of silent comedy is to say that when it fails, it’s usually for the same reasons sound comedies do. Bad pacing, overacting and predictability kill silent comedians just as dead. For example, I’ll never understand the appeal of Al St. John, a popular supporting actor in silent comedies (and later, sound westerns). Al was a terrific acrobat, but he lacked a low gear. Every reaction was an overreaction—everything was electric and big, as though he was playing to the back row instead of the camera only feet in front of him. Al’s work tires me out because he never projected stillness. All the great silent comedians mastered that, and used the quiet to make their pratfalls and reaction-shots stand out.

Al St. John

Silent gags bomb worst when they make you wish for sound; The Navigator (1924) provides a memorable example. Buster Keaton and his female lead are running scared during a night aboard an abandoned ship, having been spooked by several gags already. Rough waters shake them up some more and jar a nearby phonograph, which begins playing ‘Asleep in the Deep.’ The lyrics begin:

Danger is near thee/
Many brave hearts are asleep in the Deep/

Buster and his girl are terrified by what they hear, but we can only read the lyrics, which are superimposed over the phonograph. Watching this, I always wonder what the singer’s voice sounded like. A deep, male voice, I guess? If the song was popular, the joke must have worked better in 1924. But Keaton isn’t betting on that. He portrays the last lyric, 'B-E-W-A-R-E,' on a slant, as though to illustrate how we would have heard it, if we could hear anything. Were The Navigator made a few years later, Keaton could have captured the lyrics on a record and played it for the theatre’s audience. The joke would have aged better.

Buster Keaton excelled as the calm centre of chaos.

Maybe it all comes down to freedom. Some silent dramas shackle their characters to old-fashioned values, while silent comedies, at their best, make everything possible. Slapstick challenges all physical limits, and when a silent comedian enters a room, every item in front of him—lamp, pitcher, picture frame; doorway, window, rug or chair—crackles with possibility. This is a world made of potential and it’s still fun.

Mind you, ‘fun’ need not mean ‘funny.’ Next week, I’ll consider how this potential can favour another silent genre: horror.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

College (1927)

It’s funny how College goes wrong.

Here’s one of Buster Keaton’s least praised silent features. College gets (and maybe earns) little elbow room next to The Navigator (1924) or The General (1926) or several of Keaton’s other films. To love it is to love a bunch of scenes that support only themselves. Reshuffle them and the plot would still hold—as would Keaton’s character, Ronald, who doesn’t so much develop as change direction.

But these facts only keep College (1927) from being a great Keaton film. It is still a set of brilliant routines, and if it’s mediocre by Keaton’s standards, at least he knew it. In fact, because he knew it, College manages a fascinating turn. What begins as a gag flick becomes, in the third act, Keaton’s greatest inside joke.

College opens on the day of Ronald’s high school graduation, at which he’s to give the valedictory address. The weather is wet; Ronald arrives late and takes the last chair in the graduation hall, in front of a radiator. This sets up the movie’s first big gag, as the radiator’s heat causes Ronald’s soaked suit to shrink. He is called to receive his diploma and makes a rambling speech about the evils of athletics while his waistcoat bursts its buttons. No one but his mother stays seated; not even his friend Mary (Anne Cornwall).

Outside, Mary charges straight at Ronald. “Your speech was ridiculous,” the intertitle snaps. “Anyone prefers an athlete to a weak-knee’d teachers’ pet.” Mary goes on: “When you change your mind about athletics, I’ll change my mind about you.” Then she drives away with Jeff, the school’s idiot jock.
Ronald is crushed. Like most Keaton heroes, he’s fallen for a woman who cannot love him unless he changes. Her demand becomes his call-to-action: Ronald resolves to earn Mary’s love by embracing sport. To do this, he must follow her (and Jeff) to Clayton College in the fall.

Cue next fall: Ronald arrives at Clayton carrying a thick suitcase. From it he unpacks football pads, cleats, a full baseball uniform, a catcher’s chest protector, ‘how to’ guides to various sports and a photograph of Mary. Clearly, Ronald’s studies have shifted over the summer. None of the gear looks used.

Now College takes a detour, as Ronald becomes a campus soda jerk. We first see the senior jerk, lobbing scoops of ice cream and sliding glasses down the bar with smooth ease. Ronald follows his pattern exactly, but always a half-second behind. Ronald’s scoops hit the floor, not the shaker; his drinks slide past one customer and into the lap of another. It’s all so precisely—perfectly—wrong.

Jobs alternate with athletic tryouts. In the next scene, Ronald is nearly killed trying to make the Clayton baseball team. Following that, he loses his restaurant job after spilling soup on his left cheek, revealing blackface makeup. (The black restaurateur is not amused). Then it’s on to track and field, where Ronald makes himself a whirling threat at hammer throw and snaps his vaulting pole upon ascent. Earnest though he may be, Ronald’s no athlete.

Ronald’s no athlete? We accept this because College demands it, but what are we seeing here? When Ronald finishes the hurdles by toppling over each one with the tip of his shoe, at the height of his leap, we’re just impressed. A real klutz would crash through them all.

The track scene transforms College. Until now, we’ve seen Ronald in suits and uniforms, always full-length and long-sleeved. Now he’s wearing only a tank top and shorts, and the illusion is shot: Keaton’s body is compact and fat-free; every muscle is toned and perfect in its place. The bookworm is an acrobat; ‘Ronald’ is a poor disguise. We give up on him, content to watch Buster perform.

The movie fights back. It loads the third act with more plot than the first two combined. First, Ronald joins the Clayton rowing team as a coxswain (a position that uses his brain and ignores his coordination). Then, on the day of the race, Jeff bursts into Mary’s dorm room and announces he’s been expelled. Knowing that Mary, too, can be expelled if caught with a man in her room, Jeff locks himself in. Apparently, this will encourage her to marry him.

Ronald’s boat is victorious. He returns to the locker room, alone. The phone rings. It’s Mary, who has somehow distracted Jeff and called the locker room in hope of reaching Ronald. Her success is too much of a longshot, but hey, we’re not going to root for the rapist. It also allows Keaton to deliver the film’s last major gag, and it’s a doozey.

Ronald becomes a superhero. He sprints to Mary’s dorm like an Olympian, hurdling shrubs, long-jumping pondwater and pole-vaulting (with a wooden post) through her second-storey window. He levels Jeff with a dish thrown like a discus and tackles him until he flees. It’s an electric scene, and it makes no sense.

Well, it makes sense if it’s Buster Keaton we’re watching, not Ronald. We knew Buster could do that stuff all the time.

Keaton cheats us here. It’s one thing to believe in the power of love, but we never saw Ronald improve at any of these sports before now, much less master them. We’ve been had, and the movie owes us one. Fortunately, it delivers; following this miracle-scene with one of Keaton's best endings.
College, for all its flaws, is a rare gem: a comedy that gets funnier when you laugh with it, not at it. Poor Roland is dead, but who can speak ill of him now?

Where to find College:
My copy of College is part of Kino International’s ‘The Art of Buster Keaton’ box set, which is widely available. Unfortunately, the set’s selling point is completeness, not extras. This DVD includes three of Keaton’s short films: Hard Luck, The Blacksmith (both 1921), and The Electric House (1922). Look for it here.