Sunday, June 28, 2009

Richard III (1912)

Shakespeare... without the words...

A skeleton is not the man—can a synopsis be the play? I’ll admit to a little discontent, writing of Richard III on this summer day; I’ll voice it, then off I’ll head to more worthy topics. This movie pretends to a better throne than that of a bastard.

The Life and Death of King Richard III is the oldest surviving American feature film (that is, a film longer than four reels). It was produced by a stock company of actors, surrounding a notable tragedian, Frederick Warde, in the title role. Warde was a fading star of the stage, but despite this (or because of it) he was happy to commit his performance to film. And so we have him, in all his wordless, skulking, sneering glory. Warde’s hands perpetually grasp at the air and he reacts to every murder as though he could taste it. (See an example, starting at the 1:00 mark.)

Warde’s hunchback lurch and black costuming let him stand out in every scene. Give him credit for this; Richard III, the movie, is about spectacle, and its frames are filled with soldiers and nobles and horses bedecked in armaments and elaborate fashions. But the actor and the film have different goals, and they make Richard III an uneven thing to watch.

I think director James Keane did his best. The source material, of course, is a five-act play; fourth of a four-play series beginning with Henry VI, Part 1. Keane, with no soundtrack and a running time of barely one hour, could not do justice to Shakespeare’s vision. Instead, he went his own way. The Bard’s dialogue is abandoned; the few intertitles we do have simply prefigure scenes, rather than presenting dialogue. Their language is descriptive and plain: “The Duke of Gloster[sic] departs for London,” etc.

And what is left of Shakespeare’s greatest villain? What can we glean from a de facto mime? On stage, it is Richard’s interior monologues that give him multiple angles—they are absent here. The jibes he withstands over his deformity are mostly missing, too. Warde, perhaps by necessity, reduces this king to a scenery chewing bad guy, albeit a pleasurable one to watch.

Frederick Warde

Some verse, some verse, my kingdom for some verse. But my kingdom be this blog, and be it a noble blog if it but criticizeth so? Nay. So now let’s talk about what makes Richard III a movie worth watching. And there happens to be a lot.

As readers of Silent Volume now know, I’m fascinated by very early silent films—the fixed camera, mostly pre-Birth-of-a-Nation movies that brought every subject imaginable to the screen, but did so with one foot still firmly planted in the theatre. These films are rarely great art, and when they are, it’s mostly through the genius of set design. However, they fascinate and entertain me because they are self-consciously cinematic. They’re always saying: ‘See! See what this new medium can do!’ and there’s a joy in them. They’re gloriously fake, and they take risks almost no director takes today, outside of animation.

Richard III is an especially fine example. The commitment to a legendary text, and to historically accurate melodrama, restricted Keane’s arsenal of the fantastic. The film had to be grounded; less manic than the fantasy pieces being produced at the time, but more complex than the unsubtle morality plays also making the rounds in tents and movie houses. Most importantly, it had to blow the audience away with spectacles only the screen could deliver. The result is a film that, ironically, achieves its own sense of Richard-like interior conflict, and memorably so.

Richard III revels in depth. One of the Duke of Gloster’s (the future Richard III’s) first scenes puts him on horseback, riding fast from a spot in the distance, toward us, then past us. We’re treated to several elaborate processions, caravans and victory marches, perhaps one hundred actors’ deep, and in each case, the camera lingers over a minute as the crowd cheers and the noblemen snake past. When the Earl of Richmond sails to England to confront Richard, we see his ship in the bay. It’s a real ship, manned by men in armour.

All visual delights no stage production could match. And yet, the stonework of the Tower of London is nothing but cartoon fakery. And the dungeon’s flimsy doorways are clearly painted—not to look a certain colour, but simply to look like wood. Their unreality would work well enough on stage, but no theatre audience could get as close as Keane’s camera does. Richard III is a blatant hybrid of stage and screen techniques.

To me, three scenes illustrate this best. One occurs when Richard is crowned. He sits on his throne, raised, but in the background of the stage; he's at the far right side, but angled to our left. The positioning makes Richard look small and remote, but his courtiers, who bow before him in the foreground, become hulks. When they return to their feet, they seem like an enormous and powerful collective, wielded by this pigmy of a man—or perhaps, great figures ruled by their natural inferior.

Richard’s famous nightmare, during which he’s haunted by ghosts of those he’s killed, is another chance for the filmmaker to show his stuff. Richard lies in bed on the left, while the ghosts appear on the right via double-exposure. It is this camera-trick that gives ghostliness to Richard’s victims. Yet the scene is embedded in theatrical norms; it is not the composition of the scene, but the transparency of Richard’s phantoms, that sets it apart.

The best example is also earliest in the movie. Upon arrival in London, the Duke of Gloster confronts the aged King Henry VI, and runs him through with a sword. With Henry still bleeding to death on the floor, Gloster steps out on his balcony and beckons to a cheering crowd below.

This scene is a compromise to begin with—it actually happens in King Henry VI, Part 3, not Richard III. And while Henry’s murder takes place in an unremarkable theatre setting, when Richard sets foot on the balcony, things change tremendously. Henry’s balcony sits at the right foreground of the frame, and the cheering crowd stands below it to the left, against a clearly painted set. This would look flat on stage, and would be difficult to pull off, since it requires a very wide set to encompass both interior and exterior. But Keane does what only a cameraman can do. He films Warde from slightly above—at a line of sight balcony viewers could have had, but never at such close range. The effect is to crush perspective, placing Richard both above and within the throng. I was reminded of medieval paintings, with their outsized figures and abstracted, tiny buildings. Not an inappropriate image, given the subject.

Richard III has many other moments of transgression between stage and screen—they make the film intriguing, despite its inherent flaws. But the one I want to leave you with is different. You see, Warde is somehow ‘present’ during most of his dastardly deeds—if someone’s to be murdered at his command, he’ll be lurking behind a pillar while the deed is done. We spy him, always, like an audience in a theatre would. Except once, when Keane gives way fully to his new medium.

Late in the film, we see Richard’s wife, Lady Anne, dying in her bed. The scene is not a close-up, but it is tight for a medium shot. Over her stands a doctor, and behind him stands Richard, blackened by shadow. We see him slowly point his finger at Anne, and the doctor pours her a glass of poison. There are no grand gestures, no manic expressions to be seen—only lighting, subtlety, and the intimacy of the lens. And Richard is never scarier.

Where to find Richard III:
The Life and Death of King Richard III is distributed by Kino International. The disc includes a short, but informative documentary on the re-discovery and restoration of the film. Richard III also boasts a new, symphonic score, composed by Ennio Morricone. The music is both martial and ominous, with a heavy dose of violins and horns. It’s very loud; sometimes beyond what a scene really needs, but pretty cool overall. Look for the disc here:

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Mid-week is proving pressing for yours truly, so just a short update this time. Just links, in fact, but good ones.

Here's a YouTube clip of a gentleman playing a Wurlitzer organ (three keyboards). The Wurlitzer's musical range and capacity for sound effects (listen to it imitate a train whistle, among other things) made it perfect for accompanying silent films in their heyday.

I've always been ambivalent about the Wurlitzer sound, I admit. To me, it embodies the antique, and removes the dynamism from silent films that might otherwise be able to capture modern audiences' attention. But of course, that's not the organ's fault, it's ours. Enjoy the clip (and if you liked The Bourne Ultimatum, you'll appreciate the camera-work).

Second link is to a recent post by Luke McKernan, of the always-excellent Bioscope blog. My next featured film will be an adaptation of the Bard, so I encourage you to read this piece ahead of time. McKernan, as usual, provides a great summation of the history behind, and scholarship surrounding, his subject: in this case, silent Shakespeare.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

"It" (1927)

I love Clara Bow. Love her looks, love her charm; love her little bit of everything a man might want. I love her confidence, I love her jokes. I love her fiery centre, burning down the ingénue roles around her, exposing them as paper. In every film of hers I’ve seen, Clara Bow’s in three dimensions; a laughing, crying, fully fleshed, dynamic being, pulling your eyes from the silent archetypes surrounding her.

Love her, love her, love her.

“It” is Bow’s most famous film today, though she made many. She was an enormous star in the late-1920s; a flapper writ large. She was scandalized, sometimes fairly, often not; she was propelled to stardom by a studio that also exploited her. She came from nothing, rose to the top, broke down, came back, and broke down again. She died alone, in front of her television set.

What do these facts have to do with “It”? Shouldn’t Bow’s performance be evaluated on its own terms? Not this time. “It”, in both theme and execution, is not a film for the ages—it’s a deliberate expression of its moment, and a meditation (however light) on that moment’s biggest icon.

‘It,’ by the way, is something you have. Or wish you had. British socialite Elinor Glyn coined the term in her 1923 novel, The Man and the Moment. Possessing ‘it’ meant projecting “self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not, [though] something in you... gives the impression that you are not all cold.”

Those lines appear in the film, in which Glyn has a cameo, as herself, hobnobbing with the wealthy in a nightclub. She’s answering a question posed by Cyrus Waltham, Jr. (Antonio Moreno), heir to the Waltham’s department store empire; a young man of commerce and frank impulse. He’s got a lot on his mind, and tends to miss the obvious. Luckily, his idly rich running buddy, Monty (William Austin), misses nothing.

It’s at this nightclub that Monty finally draws Cyrus’ attention to Betty Lou Spence (Bow), one of hundreds of Waltham’s employees. Why is this shop-girl here, in this snooty club? Well, because Monty brought her. Only the day before, he’d read an article about ‘It’ in Cosmopolitan; with time on his hands, he wandered the sales floor in search of a girl that possessed ‘It,’ and there was only one. Monty would sleep with Betty Lou if he could, but she’d never agree, and he’s too flighty to really care.

No, it’s Cyrus that occupies Betty Lou’s thoughts. While he’s a fantasy object for the rest of the shop-girls, for Betty Lou, he’s a goal. She intends to have him, and sets about planning ways they can meet. This implies that meeting him is all it will take—Betty Lou is indeed self-confident.

Monty’s flirting is Betty Lou’s way in. She arrives at the nightclub in a dress she and her waifish friend, Molly (Priscilla Bonner), designed the hour before with a pair of shears. The snobbish maître d’ wants her placed at a discreet table, but when she sees Cyrus dining dead centre, she makes sure she’s just as visible.

“It” is not a subtle film, and these scenes stray little from Bow’s own life story. She grew up in a Brooklyn tenement, a victim of horrible physical and emotional abuse from an alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother. She became an actress at age 16, after winning Motion Picture Magazine’s ‘Fame and Fortune’ contest. Her image, though delivered on a cheap, Coney Island tin-type, was enough to convince the magazine’s judges she was special. They awarded her the grand prize of a bit part in a small film, Beyond the Rainbow (1922).
Clara Bow loved the movies and loved acting, but she’d never had a chance to practice the craft, except in front of her mirror. Her mother famously compared actresses to whores, and infamously threatened to kill Clara once she found out about the contest. This meant the 16-year-old, singled out immediately for her innate talent, artistic maturity and range, never had a career on stage. And without substantial stage training, she brought none of the trappings of stage acting to the silver screen. The results were stunning.

Watch her in a close-up. Her eyes dart up and down as she speaks, her shoulders shift, her fingers flutter. She’s active, the way a character with nervous energy ought to be, but so many silent actresses were not. Even Lillian Gish, Bow’s equal (at least) in talent, was more fond of the Grand Pose than Clara was. Gish’s style always considered the balcony seats; Bow’s considered only the lens.

Cyrus is suitably smitten. Betty Lou smoulders in his direction for the duration of the meal, even though he’s sharing his table with a woman of means, the lovely Adela (Jacqueline Gadsden). Alone with him in the foyer, she wagers he won’t even recognize her the next time they meet. Cyrus indeed loses that bet, but pays up with a date.

“It” rolls on in rudimentary fashion. Betty Lou has taken in Molly and her baby when Molly falls ill and cannot work; the baby’s crying disturbs the neighbours, who call the welfare authorities, portrayed here as judgemental busy-bodies. They try to take the baby from Molly, but tragedy is averted when Betty Lou claims the baby as her own. Her ferocious defence makes the papers, she is scandalized and libelled (much as Clara Bow tended to be), and Cyrus gets the wrong idea. Betty Lou feels betrayed by her dream man; she vows to win his heart, then smash it.

Like too many rom-coms, this one’s plot turns on a series of miscommunications, most of which could’ve been avoided if everyone just said a few more words before leaving a room. But Bow’s dynamism saves the film. Her reality is undeniable; her energy fills every scene, and in this movie, that is best. “It” is strongest when in motion, and Clara Bow, always, keeps moving.
The script, smartly, stays out of her way. Bow is herself: the true and original ‘It-Girl,’ and Betty Lou, as scripted, is sharp and self-aware. We never believe that her quest for Cyrus is a quest for status; she laughs at the idea of a shop-girl on a yacht, never tries to blend with the rich folks she meets and (we suspect) would never want to. Her heart can be broken, but she will always be a clear-eyed person; complex, complete and so very, lovably, alive.

Where to find “It”
Kino International’s DVD release of “It” pairs the film with a fascinating documentary, Discovering the ‘It’ Girl, narrated by Courtney Love. Look for it here:
Silent Volume has also featured Beyond the Rocks (1922), another adaptation of Elinor Glyn’s work. Look for it here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reflections: Compelled to the Craptastic

Writing about The Wizard of Oz (see previous post) got me thinking. And given that writing, leading to thinking, leading to thoughtful writing is, these days, a bit rare, let me share.

Why write about a movie that stinks? For money? Yes! But nobody’s paying me to post this blog. No, this is charity work really; or maybe catharsis, or distraction, but it’s not a job. If I sit through a merit-less mess like The Wizard of Oz, then spend hours immortalizing it in prose, I’ve got no one to blame but me. The real question, then, is why watch a bad movie at all? I’m posing this to you, the reader:

“What prompts you to watch a movie you know is bad?”

Because we all do it. We all drop $12.50, occasionally, to watch something everybody else swears is the dog’s breakfast. All the critics we trust hated it; some we don’t trust hated it too—only the studio shill-bot says it isn’t shit, but still we go.

I’m the type to feel guilty if I can’t justify my behaviour, so in cases like this, I have two justifications:

1. “How can I judge a film based on someone else’s opinion of it? Until I see for myself, I cannot assume it’s anything less than brilliant.”

This is an intellectually bankrupt position, disguised as fairness (a problem we have in many, many other fields of modern life). Neutrality has nothing to do with art. If we were able to approach a piece of art from a totally neutral position, we would deaden it. And as for the sanctity of Personal Opinion, well, I don’t think my own assessment should be the concluding word on any film I see, even to me. Discussing a film I’ve seen with others who’ve seen it is one of my favourite activities. Why? Because they catch things I’ve missed. And because I like to argue for my interpretation. If I can’t do this with a real person, I can at least do it in my head—debating my POV against solid, contrary critical appraisals.

2. “I’m interested in the subject of, and/or techniques used, in creating this possible masterpiece, and/or the director directing, and/or actor(s) acting in it.”

Here’s a few recent films that earned a viewing from me solely on this basis:

• Marie Antoinette
• Domino
• Tropic Thunder
• Babel
• Up
• War, Inc.
• A Fool There Was
• 3:10 to Yuma
•The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

This list could be much longer. And no, I don’t think all of these films are bad. I just didn’t like them much; perhaps because I expected to like them a lot.

To paraphrase Ebert, “It not what a movie’s about, it’s how the movie’s about it.” That concept always seemed right to me. I do believe all genres can produce genius, though some are less likely to do so. That’s the director’s fault, or if we’re feeling more cynical, the studio’s. But is there more? Am I ignoring some subconscious compulsion here? I ask again:

“What prompts you to watch a movie you know is bad?”

Your opinion is valued.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Wizard of Oz (1925)

Larry Semon’s The Wizard of Oz achieves by association what other films achieve by quality. It’s been restored, re-scored and redistributed ahead of better films with less notoriety. It’s a wreck, but the car’s very famous, if you know what I mean.

I wish I could ask Semon, a slapstick comedian, former vaudevillian, magician and cartoonist, what merit he saw in his script. It scrapes and claws the bottom of the gag barrel, turning what could’ve been a run-of-the-mill bad film into something offensively awful.

Contemporary audiences didn’t much like The Wizard of Oz, but the film is downright appalling to modern viewers, who can compare it to their gold-standard: the 1939 Judy Garland classic. Readers of Silent Volume can also compare it, negatively, to its 1910 predecessor, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The 1910 short departed radically from its source material, but we can forgive that, partly because it was a short, and partly because it, like the 1939 film, is well made. Furthermore, the 1910 Wizard’s core themes of fun, fear and fantasy remain sympathetic to L. Frank Baum’s book. Semon, however, degrades the Oz story to an astonishing degree, and because it’s this story, something we all shared as children, his film seems profane.

Briefly, then, to the story. Prime Minister Kruel (Josef Swickard) maintains a tenuous grip on power in the Land of Oz, thanks in part to his advisors, the Wizard (Charles Murray) and Ambassador Wikked (Otto Lederer). Opposing him is the populist Prince Kynd (Bryant Washburn). Where, asks Kynd, is Dorothea, Princess of Oz? She’s been lost since infancy—eighteen years ago now—and it’s time the Prime Minister produced her.

Sound familiar? No? Already we’ve seen Oz reduced to a banana republic ruled by achingly bad comedians. But that’s OK, because we now leave this mess of camera-muggers for the Kansan farm.
But wait… eighteen years... Dorothy’s eighteen? This girl looks even older than that. The actress is Dorothy Dwan (and Semon’s wife; insert joke). Unless Kansas is a vacation destination for Vegas showgirls, she just doesn’t belong. Yeah, she’s secretly the Princess of Oz, but that don’t explain the rouge.

Larry Semon

Dorothy’s such a hottie, you can’t blame the two farmhands for trying their luck. Semon plays the nicer of the two; he’s scripted to be lovable, though he isn’t. His opposition is a larger, less klutzy, less lovable man played by Oliver Hardy. Hardy, of course, would later pair with Stan Laurel to form a legendary comedic team. I doubt this film would have topped his resumé, even in 1925.

The scene in Kansas leave you begging for a cyclone—or a hurricane or an earthquake—anything to bring it to an end. Try to avoid your watch as Semon delivers some of the most cliché’d (and plot-deadening) slapstick comedy you’ve ever seen. Bee stings? Eggs in the pants-pocket? Mud puddles? Where’s my cream pie, Larry?

Ugh. Even Hardy can’t save this crap. But a shout-out must go to Semon’s Uncle Henry, played by the incredibly fat actor, Frank Alexander. He’s as round as the ‘O’ in Oz, and he’s the only one who made me laugh every time he tried. He even sits on a cactus! A cactus in Kansas! That Larry Semon: nothing gets in the way of his gags, that’s for sure.

Which brings me to ‘Snowball,’ the third farmhand. He’s played by Spencer Bell, a black actor who also went by ‘G. Howe Black,’ probably in films even worse than this one. Snowball likes to take his breaks in the watermelon patch, and why not? Watermelons are even harder to grow in Kansas than cacti. Just don’t sneak up on him, ’cause he scares easily.

(Racist images are part of many old film comedies; as a fan, you have to shake your head and move on. But Semon really had no excuse. Just try to find anything this brutish in the work of Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd or even Arbuckle.)

Kruel’s agents (OZ KGB?) mercifully kill the farm scene with their arrival, via biplane. After threatening the Gales at gunpoint (yes, you can pack heat in Oz), the entire crew is taken to the Emerald City, where further hilarity ensues.

Why yes, we are delivered the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman and Cowardly Lion, though only briefly. Semon’s straw-man costume is a trick, making it appear as though the Wizard can cast spells on inanimate objects. Hardy prat-falls into a pile of scrap metal and emerges in accidental get-up. Snowball stops quaking his knees long enough to disguise himself as a lion, though that backfires when he meets a real lion. And away we go.

You wonder how so much money could be spent so poorly. The Wizard of Oz actually looks great. It’s cleanly shot, with an abundance of costumes and elaborate sets. Semon’s cast is strong, particularly Hardy and Alexander. But his gags destroy the narrative flow, and by abandoning all but the basest elements of Baum’s book, he denies himself a good story to fall back upon. Nor does The Wizard of Oz go far enough the other way. A dishy, adult Dorothy could have been Step One toward a funny, adult-oriented variation, but Semon’s humour is too juvenile to execute it. The movie even fails as basic slapstick. The gags are old and telegraphed; the characters are witless. The big stunts (such as Hardy and Semon falling from a grain elevator) don’t work either, because Semon’s trick camerawork has them hit the ground like rubber balls. One should think twice about abusing the laws of physics, especially in a fantasy film. If these two can’t be killed by a fifty-foot drop, what else can make us fear for them?


The Wizard of Oz is the worst film I’ve ever profiled on this site, and will likely remain so. I can recommend it only as a curiosity, but really, isn’t that what it’s always been? And isn’t that why I watched it, even though I knew its reputation well? If nothing else, it reminds us what good years 1910 and 1939 were for the Oz story. But do those movies really need Larry Semon’s help? They've already got the brains, the heart, and the nerve.

Where to find The Wizard of Oz:
MGM’s three-disc release of The Wizard of Oz (1939) includes a complete version of the 1925 film, along with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910); The Magic Cloak of Oz (1914); His Majesty, The Scarecrow of Oz (1914); and a 1933 animated short, The Wizard of Oz. Look for it all here:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Reflections: Ray's Band

Last week I blogged my anticipation for Cinematheque Ontario’s ‘Films By Man Ray,’ a one-night-only screening of the photographer’s surrealist silent films. I couldn’t wait to buy my free ticket. Here’s what went down.

Cinematheque Ontario screens out of Jackman Hall, which is stuck to the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto. Their theatre is small, seating maybe 100-150 people, which is fine, because the films they screen are not commercial draws, but artistic successes (occasionally, they’re both). The films are almost always older; sometimes very, very old.

Friday night’s menu featured five films, to be screened consecutively, separated by brief fades-to-black:

Le Retour À La Raison (1923)—3 minutes

Emak-Bakia (1926)—18 minutes

Anémic Cinéma (1926)—7 minutes

L’étoile De Mer (1928)—21 minutes

Les Mystères Du Château De Dé (1929)—27 minutes

I don’t speak French. I’m not proud of the fact, but I’ll admit, it hasn’t really hampered me in life. It’s certainly never been a problem when watching silent films. So I wasn’t concerned when a Cinematheque rep stood on-stage before the movies began, and informed us they weren’t translated. To paraphrase him: “These films, with their focus on the visual, do not require translations to be appreciated.”

I took him at his word. I was more interested in the unmanned piano sitting to my far left. See, one of the reasons the Cinematheque guy had a stage to stand on is that many of the silent films they show are accompanied by a live pianist. He performs on the stage.

No pianist tonight. I realized I was about to embark on an hour of silent—really silent—films, all of them in French. At least they were mostly visual... first they were. The first two films were series of juxtaposed images—objects with common shapes; for example, eyeballs followed by car headlights. The director also did some interesting tricks with objects spinning or shaking quickly (creating new images from the blurs they produced). These films had very little wording and no narrative, so really, it was up to you.

Anémic Cinéma broke the pattern. In this one, Man Ray presented a series of floating, concentric circles, which he used to suggest certain objects, most notably a woman’s breast. Between each composition was an intertitle, offering its words on a turning disk.

The words were quite funny, apparently. About half the audience (we’ll call them the Literary Half) were busting their guts. Not me.

I never realized how annoying it is to not get a joke when everyone around you is laughing. It drove me crazy. The disks rotated slowly, so the laughter would build as the Literary Half reached each punchline. For me, there was no reason to linger—my eyes just skipped ahead to the few words I could make out. Like any student with nine years of mandatory Canadian French, I can pronounce words I don’t understand, so it was clear to me that Man Ray was punning like crazy. I just couldn’t laugh at what I saw. Very frustrating.

The fourth film featured a love affair from the perspective of a starfish. Less French here, and really, love is universal, so I got by. But L’étoile De Mer also gave me time to think about the unique experience of watching films in dead silence. In a theatre that small, with not even a note of music to drown you out, you are easily heard. The woman next to me breathed like the wind howled. The fat guy in front of me crinkled his shopping bag every time he adjusted in his seat. Two of the Literary Half still tittered away behind me—in French.

Whenever a film faded black, ten people would cough. Then a bunch more would laugh at how funny that was. Everyone was conscious of themselves, and no matter how engrossing Man Ray’s movies were, I don’t think anyone was transported from that theatre.

Get ready for the spookiest part. During two of the films, I heard a low drone, like a long note on a cello. I don’t think these sounds were part of a soundtrack; I think they were from machinery or goings-on somewhere in Jackman Hall. But the instant they were heard, I engaged differently with the film I was watching. The drone was an ominous sort of sound, you see; the type you’d play against a seemingly innocent moment that will prove to have terrible consequences. Watching a silent film with bizarre imagery, unreadable dialogue and only threads of a narrative makes you positively starved for help of this kind. Instantly, the scene I was watching seemed ominous. And hell, maybe it was meant to be.

So, what did I learn? Not as much as I’d hoped to about Man Ray’s films, but certainly a bit about human behaviour. To Cinematheque Ontario, let me say, thank you for screening such interesting and obscure silent material. And also: get a bloody narrator, if you can’t get a translated print. You’ve done it before (remember the Murnau retrospective a few years’ back?) Yes, it’s distracting, but I’d rather spend an hour trying to stay engrossed in a film than simply watching it from the distance of my seat.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Modern Times (1936)

(This article's also been posted as part of Row Three's The Dirty Thirties Movie Marathon. Row Three is a good place to go if you're feeling non-Hollywood, or just a tad Hollywood. Look for them here.)

Charlie Chaplin was the Tramp in almost all his films, so all his films, in some way, dealt with want. His first Depression-era movie, City Lights (1931), was a melodrama; a love story that depended on the poverty of its two leads to set up the gags. It could have been set in 1900 as easily as 1931. But his second, Modern Times (1936) does not present a poor man so much as a poor society, and the gags rely not on the Tramp’s poverty, but on the root cause of everyone else’s.

Chaplin blamed mechanization. He wasn’t a Luddite; he just felt that efficiency, if made an end unto itself, would place the machine above the worker. So it is in Modern Times. The Tramp is now A Factory Worker—the ‘nut tightener’ on a far-too-rapid assembly line, wielding a pair of wrenches on an ever-continuing row of metal plates. The plates pass him, then two other workers, then disappear into a tunnel. When his break begins, he walks away, still jerking with the same motions as before, trying to tighten anything nut-like around him, including the buttons on a woman’s blouse.

Audiences must have felt uneasy seeing the Tramp—then the most famous character in the world—so close to collapse. He would have reminded them of simpler and happier times. In fact, the whole film would have. It’s a (mostly) silent movie produced well into the sound era, and it’s loaded with references to silent comedy and action pictures. But modernity perverts it all.

The Tramp, who once found the most inventive ways to steal a snack, is now strapped into a chair before a revolving set of dinner plates and metal arms that stuff processed food down his throat. He dangles from a huge hook, like Douglas Fairbanks brandishing his sword, only now it’s an oilcan. He runs from a cop, but stops to punch his timecard. He ends up in a mental hospital.

He gets out. Only steps from the hospital, the Tramp sees a red flag fall off the back of a pickup truck. He picks up the flag and inadvertently triggers a Communist march, then a police crackdown, followed by his incarceration.

Back on the street, the Tramp collides with a young woman (Paulette Goddard), escaping a bakery with her stolen dinner. Goddard is ‘The Gamin’ (gamine, or street urchin); in this case, the eldest sister of a family of girls, without a mother when the movie begins and without a father after a food riot leaves him shot. The Gamin is swift, smart and wickedly sexy, but she’s too desperate to avoid getting caught.

Like the Tramp, the Gamin has nothing and therefore desires anything she can get. In one of Modern Times’ less famous, but most important scenes, the two imagine life as a married couple with a little home in the countryside. The Tramp returns from his day of work. He’s hungry for a snack, so he picks an apple from a tree that’s poking its branches through the living room window. The Gamin, looking pretty, asks him for a pitcher of milk; he turns to the kitchen door and there’s the cow. This fantasy, despite its naturalistic elements, is only a wholesome variation on the feeding machine that pie-faced the Tramp before. Chaplin’s point is that money alone cannot heal these two, because it would not change their attitudes along with their bank balance.

There’s nothing dreamy about the house they eventually find: a ditch-side shack on the outskirts of the city. There’s no mountains in the distance, only smokestacks; when the Tramp sits down to dinner, his chair collapses—we think, until we realize it’s the floor that’s given way. The Gamin serves him stolen food. Luckily, the factory’s hiring.

The Tramp gets a job maintaining the very machines that once fed him through their gears. His superior, an old mechanic, becomes trapped in one of the largest machines, with only his head sticking out. The Tramp moves to save him, then breaks for lunch. Frighteningly, the mechanic doesn’t ask him to stop eating—he just asks him to bring the mechanic’s own lunch over and feed it to him. Break over, they go on strike and the plant closes.

Modern Times’ final act is one of its best known, though not for reasons necessary to the plot. Here’s the backstory: a café owner discovers the Gamin dancing in the street and offers her a job as a performer in his establishment. She accepts and becomes very popular. She gets the Tramp a job there, too, as a singing waiter.

Chaplin was famously conflicted about having the Tramp speak for the first time; he feared it would destroy the character’s appeal. He even went so far as to script Modern Times as a talking picture, complete with dialogue for the Tramp, but later abandoned it. In this one scene, however, the Tramp’s voice is heard. He sings a ‘nonsense song’—an variation of Je cherche après Titine. His act is a hit, but the Gamin’s criminal past soon puts them on the run again. And so it goes.

There’s no solutions in Modern Times—just observations. The first is that efficiency demands organization, then repetition, then rigidity. The second is that people are machines if they act like them. The Tramp is jostled, squeezed and misdirected through the café crowd just as he was through the factory’s equipment. The riots he causes seem automatic—they occur as easily as if he’d leaned back on a switch he didn’t see. He’s hired, fired, imprisoned, freed and hired again, good as new and never the wiser.

Still, this isn’t a cynical film. Chaplin may not guarantee happiness for the Tramp and Gamin, but they are individuals, and willingly so, and that gives us hope. They must change, so they do. If everyone around them did the same, the end-of-the-line might not be such a bad thing.

Where to find Modern Times:
French distributor MK2 owns the rights to most of Charlie Chaplin’s later works, distributed in North America by Warner Brothers. My copy of Modern Times is among them. This version includes a second disk with substantial archival materials, deleted scenes and a pair of documentaries about Modern Times’ production and Chaplin’s own evolving views on economics and human nature. And lots else. Look for it here:

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Reflections: Man Ray

This week’s ending with a big day for my silent-movie-fan-self. I’ll be attending the only screening of ‘Films by Man Ray,’ a retrospective of the surrealist photographer’s forays into silent film. I’ve seen Man Ray’s artwork (some during my recent trip to Chicago), but always still photos. Now, here’s my chance to see his films. If you’re in Toronto, check it out here.

I expect these movies to be ‘weird,’ in the generic sense of the term (if the term ‘weird’ can be generic). The photographer’s still work is provocative and occasionally puzzling, and can be a mix of media and messages. You look at it, and then you narrow your eyes and pull your head back toward your shoulders to take it in; then you lean forward for a closer look and breathe on it. That’s how I assess his stuff, anyway. And mostly, I still don’t get it.

Maybe you take from it what you put in? Surrealist art succeeds in part because it puts you off-kilter while witnessing it—removed from normalcy and its assumptions, you can only orient yourself by what you remember. Which, in a surrealist environment, must boil down to what you already believe.

Surrealists, Wikipedia reminds me, employ ‘the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur.’ Presented with a mixture (or succession) of logically unrelated images or objects, I suppose you can rely only on your thought processes to find a theme and thus, navigate.

In the face of the Weird, we fall into sharp relief—we define ourselves in terms of what we have believed and what we’re prepared to believe, going forward. This does appear to be part of what the Surrealists had in mind, as per André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist Manifesto:

Dictionary: Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

Encyclopedia: Surrealism. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.

Mind you, no matter how intentionally surreal a film made in the 1920s might have been, it was, in one respect, status quo. That is, it was silent, like every other film of the time. For us, the children of the sound era, these films are even farther removed, and require even more of ourselves to decipher.

When I head to this show on Friday, I’ll be considering the films not only as surrealist works themselves, but as art made more dissonant by the technology used to create them. For as long as sound films outnumber silents, no silent film will allow you to forget its age. And if that makes me conscious of being alive today, as opposed to just being alive at all, then these films will have caused me to contemplate my own place (or maybe time) in the universe. Can’t wait.

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2
Marcel Duchamp, 1912