Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Felix Doubles for Darwin (1924)

Nowadays, all images are subject to manipulation. Editing, remixing, cropping, recolouring—we can make almost anything appear to be other than what it was. When an image such as a photograph is digitally scanned, then corrected for shadows, shrunk, ‘flipped’ and the people in it made blonde or brunette, then airbrushed; well, by the time that photo appears in the pages of a magazine, or online, it may tell a much different story than the image on which it was based.

Nothing need be what it was. Or to put it another way: everything really is what it seems to be, at least in the form you now see it. The bounds of any medium enclose an immediate reality, in which all images, regardless of their pedigrees, may be equally real, relative to one another, and even reinforce one another’s realness. Never mind where the images came from—the issue is where they are now.

In a Felix the Cat cartoon, the world is as flat as a magazine page. It is basic black and white, absent of all details but the most necessary; absent almost all shading and even shadow. Felix himself is the simplest of renderings—assembled from a few spheres and sausage-shapes, all black, except for his face. If Felix were to sit facing the viewer, and clasp his hands in front of him, his arms would disappear into the black of his chest.

Believe it or not, this makes Felix a delight. His cartoons—mostly silents made between 1919 and 1930, are indisputably crude and yet, because his creators embraced his limitations, shorts such as Felix Doubles for Darwin have a fascinating wit. This is possible because, for Felix, anything can be anything else. And that includes Felix himself.

Maybe it’s better to think of Felix as a bunch of shapes, rather than a cat or any other kind of being. It makes more sense that way. For example, unlike a real cat, Felix can detach and reattach his tail whenever he wants to. And the tail would be just as gone if Felix simply wrapped it around himself, because then we couldn’t see it at all. Just shapes against shapes.

Felix is soundless, but he does speak. Usually his words appear in word boxes above his head, like in a cartoon strip. In fact, his short films employ several cartoon ‘standards’; for example, when the cat stares at something, a broken line connects his eye to the object. When he’s shocked, an exclamation mark appears over his head; when he’s curious (which, being a cat, is most of the time), we see a question mark. The fascinating part is that these symbols have as much physical reality as Felix does—in many of his films, he will grab the question mark, etc., and fashion it into a tool, or even climb it as it hovers in mid-air.

In Felix Doubles for Darwin, the cat is nearly destroyed by several of these visual red herrings. On a quest in the wilds of South Africa, Felix mistakes the legs of a giant bird for a pair of trees; soon after, a log is revealed to be an elephant’s trunk. The latter reacts badly when Felix scurries up its nose.

Why is Felix in South Africa, anyway? Felix Doubles for Darwin begins with the most Chaplinesque of drives: starvation. After the weakened Felix is nearly eaten by a fish (which reeled him in from the edge of a lake by baiting him with another fish), he happens across an organ grinder, reading a newspaper. Its headline announces a contest:

“The Evolution Society offers a Large Reward for proof that Man comes from Monkey.”

Felix makes the old man a deal: he’ll go to Africa, investigate monkey society, and bring back proof. Then they’ll split the prize. Of course, if Felix doesn’t have enough money to eat, he doesn’t have enough for a trans-atlantic boat ride, either.

His solution is why this Felix cartoon is my favorite of the series, though it's far from the funniest.

The cat locates a telegraph station not far from where he and the organ grinder meet. He breaks in and finds the transmitter unmanned. Felix pulls a lever several times, and with each pull, the name of a different destination appears on a screen above him. When it says ‘South Africa,’ Felix taps the Morse key and is sucked into a bulbous microphone.

Next we see him travelling through the undersea telegraph cable, looking like a boa constrictor’s lunch. The cable, for the purposes of this gag, is a tube. Indeed, a black tube and a thick cable would look the same in this cartoon.

The gag concludes at a South African telegraph station, where a technician receives a ticker-tape message in Morse code. We see the dots and dashes, printed in black; then we see them morph into five letters: ‘F-E-L-I-X.’ The black letters then leave the paper and fuse to form a reconstituted Felix the Cat.

Now, I’ve seen some extremes of cartoon physics—the Mickey Mouse shorts of the late-1920s offer several—but this one takes the cake. Felix’s reality absorbs not only regular objects, people and animals, but also comic strip conventions not ‘meant’ to be seen by the characters expressing them; and even, in this case, a sentient cat that is both himself and the abstractions used to represent him. That is, a collection of letters that have the potential to embody, not just reference, what they name. Here's a cartoon worthy of Aristotle.


Felix Doubles for Darwin was released a little over a year before the beginning of the Scopes Monkey Trial—meaning it is both extreme farce and topical satire. Just wait and see what the monkeys think of the evolutionary link once the cartoon nears its end.

Where to find Felix Doubles for Darwin:
This short, along with nine others, is available on Delta Entertainment’s 2004 DVD release, Felix the Cat—the sound and picture quality of the shorts varies from passable to poor. If you want a look at Felix Doubles for Darwin on its own, you’re better off clicking here (though there is unfortunately no audio), or seeking it out on YouTube.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sparrows (1926)

In the swamp are tall trees that make crooked, black outlines in the night. Amid the trees is Mr. Grimes, who looks the same. Dressed in dark and shabby clothes, old Mr. Grimes limps past pools of bubbling quick-mud and over rolling logs that span a creek before his home: the only patch of solid ground around. Grimes maintains a small farm, joined by his wife and son, Ambrose. The farm is supported by the labour of about a dozen other children, all treated like slaves.

The boys and girls range in age from infancy to—thirteen? The eldest seems about that old. She is Molly, played by a then-34-year-old Mary Pickford. Grimes (Gustav von Seyffertitz) has no use for any of them, beyond the farm work they provide and the money their parents apparently mail him.

‘Sparrows’ refers to one of Molly’s many explanations for why God hasn’t freed the children from their misery. She tells them, “He’ll help us—if we keep on prayin’. He’s pretty busy—watchin’ every sparrow that falls.” She’s gleaned this from Matthew 10:29: “Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will.” Molly quotes the Bible a lot in this film, usually inaccurately, which is played for laughs. As one of the children replies, “How come them sparrows got such a pull with Him?”

Molly’s an unfailing Polly-Anna when it comes to the childrens’ futures—that is to say, she thinks they’ll all get out of Grimes’ farm alive. Day to day, though, she’s practical. She ensures the little boys and girls stay clean; defends them from the revolting Ambrose; negotiates with Grimes for more food for her charges and when that fails, she teaches the children how to steal his potatoes. Maybe her sunny side is itself a practical strategy—she’s older than the rest, and has seen more. She may have seen Grimes commit murder.

In defence of her fellow children, Molly is a two-fisted young’un; hardworking and gutsy and smart, though without education to back it up. This makes her practically identical to half a dozen other heroines I’ve seen Pickford play in other films. But those films are not Sparrows. Unlike some of them, Sparrows does not rely on Pickford’s performance (or worse, mere presence) to justify its continued appeal. It is well-shot and well-paced by director William Beaudine, who evokes an Expressionist feel that recalls some classic German films that preceded Sparrows—Von Seyffertitz, in fact, looks a lot like a Nosferatu with hair. Most importantly, the film delivers its melodrama in spoonfuls, not by the truckload. It’s never ‘a bit much,’ even though it pulls one of the most outrageous cinematic stunts I’ve seen.

Molly’s preoccupation throughout Act One is Amy, a babe-in-arms whom she alone seems willing to care for. Amy is too young to contribute to the work and too frail to persist amid the mess of Grimes’ farm. One night, while Molly is cradling her in their barn-loft quarters, Amy dies.

Well, Molly falls asleep first, it seems; she’s visible in the bottom foreground of the frame, which is now dominated by the blank wooden wall of the barn. For a second we wonder why, then we see: the wall becomes a tableau, picturing Christ the Shepherd among His lambs. Christ then steps out of the tableau and takes the baby’s corpse from Molly’s arms. Perhaps this is a dream, but Molly doesn’t wake until the director has fixed his camera on Pickford, in close-up. She looks down to the child we can no longer see; is stricken a moment, then smiles with gratefulness. She knows the baby could not have survived, but whatever span of time she did persist would have been marked by suffering.

Molly’s reaction to Amy’s death is important, because it reminds us of the fine line she treads between action and resignation. She’s been at the farm for years, most likely—long enough to be seen by the other children as a parental figure. But her time there has not made her passive. She’s servile to the Grimes’ because it’s the best way to ensure a steady supply of food; she doesn’t attempt escape because she considers it too dangerous. Maybe she could make it alone, but she won’t abandon the little ones to a man she may have seen hurl children into the swamp.

Circumstances change with the arrival of a new infant—a happy, chubby little girl who happens to be the daughter of a wealthy man. This child has been kidnapped for ransom, and is being hidden at Grimes’ farm until the money’s paid. For the old man, it’s just another chance for cash, but for his wife (played with chilling understatement throughout by Charlotte Mineau), this baby spells doom. Now, she tells her husband, they have stolen from a man who does care, and does have the means to regain what he’s lost, and there will be no ground too impassable to save them from his approach.

It is Mr. Grimes’ solution that finally spurs Molly to take the big risk; that is, an escape through the lethal swamp that’s been her excuse for staying all this time. Of course, she won’t go alone. This results in a third act composed almost purely of action—something worthy of Indiana Jones or better yet, Pitfall!

It still works, too. I saw Sparrows in a large theatre and heard many gasps when a rotted branch buckled on-screen, putting the line of toddlers within petting distance of several alligators. (In fact, the kids take several serious beatings in Sparrows—not dramatized abuse so much, but in the course of many knockabout comedy scenes they perform with Pickford and each other. Kudos to them.)


I haven’t seen all of Mary Pickford’s films, but I’ve seen a lot. The number’s sufficiently great to form patterns in my mind—collections of types and situations common to her work. They don’t all make for compelling viewing today, and that’s part of why my favourite of her films has always been My Best Girl (1927), a romantic comedy lacking most of a Pickford film’s trademark trappings, and thereby freeing the star to simply act, which she could, of course, do brilliantly.

But I can’t say My Best Girl is better than Sparrows—a far more challenging film in terms of theme and design. This seems fair, since it is Sparrows, not My Best Girl, that represents Mary Pickford at her best. That is, the perfect balance of stillness and action, slapstick and schmaltz; with no one facet overpowering the rest. Rent it soon.

Where to find Sparrows:
I enjoyed a live screening (with piano accompaniment) at Toronto’s restored Elgin Theatre, an excellent venue for silent film. Sparrows is also available on DVD through Image Entertainment. The disc includes two of Pickford’s early shorts, Wilful Peggy (1910) and The Mender of Nets (1912), both directed by D.W. Griffith.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


No update tonight--sorry. Have watched the movie, have thought about many wonderful things to write, but have had no time. Will try to post tomorrow night.

Orrrrr, possibly Tuesday.

Btw, The Informant! is great. Give Damon an Oscar.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Busher (1919)

There aren’t a thousand words to say about The Busher; but for Charles Ray’s lead performance, I can spare a few hundred. Ray plays Ben Harding, a small-town baseball prodigy in a very charming, but flawed, little film. When the plot falters, as it does quite seriously in the second act, it is the deeply sad and very human Ben who keeps us engaged and propels the movie to its memorable end. The performance is well worth watching.

‘Busher’ is slang, derived from another slang-term: ‘bush league.’ Young Ben Harding is a busher, all right, but a talented one—he throws a curveball so fast it could strike out a pro. However, Ben’s never tried to do that. He’s a simple guy from Brownville, USA. And he’s sweet on Mazie Palmer (Colleen Moore), the pretty girl who lives on a nearby farm.

What would happen if this rube made it big? Would he lose his head and forget where he came from? Would some big-city floozy bewitch him? Would he abandon the simpler (but probably prettier) girl back home?

The ascension, corruption and possible redemption of the innocent man is a dominant theme in American silent cinema, perhaps because it’s so adaptable. It can be a vehicle for light or dark comedy, romance, melodrama or even weighty morality plays, as mastered by a young D.W. Griffith and others. I’ll call The Busher a romance, though the means by which Ben secures a major league tryout seems more at home in a Harold Lloyd feature. It’s more serious than that because Ray makes it so.

Just how has Ben’s deadly arm escaped the notice of the pros? He competes locally; he would have been so much better than his teammates that word would’ve spread. Maybe he was approached by a scout, but never followed through? I suspect this because, as Ray shows us, Ben lacks faith in himself. Not in his athleticism, mind you, but in his ability to meet others’ expectations. The result is a complex, conflicted character.

As a social being, Ben is awkward, over-urgent and eager-to-please. But as a lover, which we also see, he is intense and focused. Ben and Mazie’s early scenes together have an eroticism belied by the pair’s head-to-toe country wardrobe. Watch Ben give Mazie a kiss on the cheek as a friend might do, but hold it long—and then follow it with a long kiss on the mouth. This is advanced foreplay, but until she brings him close, he remains a romantic klutz.

Perhaps Ben has the same faults with respect to baseball that he does with romance? He’s good at it, and acts with confidence once given the opportunity, but it’s the getting-there that causes him trouble. Watch him fire curveballs past a batter he thinks is just another bush-league journeyman. Ben knows he’s good, and knows his dream of playing pro ball is a realistic one. Yet only here, against a man Ben believes is a scrub, can he feel at ease. Ben believes in himself just enough to hate himself for never taking the leap. This self-hatred only increases his need for approval and praise, but when he finally receives it—that is, when he’s unexpectedly signed to the majors, how does he respond? With a half-smile and bashful thank-yous toward the roomful of cheering friends. No one like Ben could enjoy such a pure moment of accomplishment; until the first batter is struck out (or possibly the last), he’ll doubt his powers.

The Busher is quite light on intertitles. Ray’s performance, then, is generated almost entirely through posture, gesture and facial expressions (director Jerome Storm wisely gives the actor several close-ups). This was the best way to go, I think, because Ben is all about internalized conflict. By the time Ben heads to St. Louis, and to big city life, with its money and dames, we have long since accepted him as a credible person, rather than a type or caricature.

It’s a good thing, too, because The Busher fails to show us how things go wrong. Ben’s combination of big talent and low self-esteem would make him terribly vulnerable to flattery, and wouldn’t it be interesting to see how this happens? But for some reason, we don’t. Ray is denied the extra half-hour of screen time he needs to show us Ben’s descent into cityfied corruption. Instead, we skip ahead to Ben’s return to Brownville as the conquering hero who’s lost his roots. His fortunes ebb and flow from there, as does Mazie’s love, and the movie never quite regains its form.

So, we are left with two-thirds of a great film. The Busher, despite its structural failings, remains a casual piece of entertainment and, at 55 minutes, it makes a good ‘introductory’ silent for any first-timers joining you. But bubbling beneath the patchy script is Ben, with his anger and his fears. And through this remarkable performance, The Busher can make you a believer.

Where to find The Busher:
I saw The Busher at a live public screening, put together by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). For home viewing, The Busher is available as part of Kino International’s Reel Baseball DVD, which also includes Headin’ Home (1920), starring Babe Ruth, and several other early, baseball-themed films made between 1899 and 1926, including an animated short starring Felix the Cat.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

There’s a fine line between seeing the cinematic potential of a book and simply seeing it as a means to your cinematic end. Director Stuart Paton, and the producers and technical masters who helped him film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, so many years ago, seem to have missed that distinction; however well-intentioned their effort. Their victim (particularly hapless, given that he’d died 10 years before) was Jules Verne.

Verne’s 1870 novel, the harder-to-spell Vingt Mille Lieues Sous les Mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), had been a hit with three generations of readers already. It tells the story of the enigmatic Capt. Nemo (Latin for ‘nobody’); a conflicted anarchist who patrols the oceans in his submarine, the Nautilus. Nemo’s crew is convinced of his brilliance, and rightfully so: the craft they're floating in is pure science fiction.

By 1914, of course, Verne’s speculations were being bluntly realized. German U-boats were sending British vessels to the bottom of the sea, making the power of the submarine publicized fact. Movie-makers, therefore, had the weight of the moment, a dramatic vehicle (literally) and by this time, the means to film it. What did they produce from Verne’s book?

A lot—and again, very little. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it turns out, is first, and only, about spectacle; committing to screen only those portions of its source material that lent themselves to state-of-the-art special effects and photographic dazzle. No doubt impressive in their day, these scenes leave the movie with little for posterity. In other words, they’re no big deal to us.

Would Paton be surprised by this? I suspect not, since the film announces itself, proudly, as a product of various technical breakthroughs. It's implied, in any kind of hyperbole like that, that another breakthrough will one day come along. Example: The film’s opening intertitle declares the submarine scenes to be “directed under the personal supervision of the Williamson brothers, who alone have solved the secret of under-the-ocean photography.” Footage of the Williamsons, George and Ernest, comes next. One wonders what secret the Williamsons will solve next year.

There’s a feeling of medicine-show oratory to this, as though we’re about to see some new benchmark of cinema unveiled. However, the director’s use of prescriptive intertitles (that is, intertitles that describe a scene before it's shown) make the film feel old-fashioned right away. The characters, too, seem like transplants from an earlier period of movie-making. They're played broadly, without sensitivity, and when set in naturalistic environments, rather than consciously theatrical ones, their fakery is extreme.

Capt. Nemo (Allen Holubar) observes, commands, exhorts and broods with the subtlety of an opera diva. His presentation isn’t helped by a generous layer of blackface makeup (or ‘brownface,’ as he’s meant to be Indian?); nor his beard, which seems to be made of cotton balls. Nemo’s submarine takes on its first set of captives when it rams and sinks a vessel carrying a scientist, Prof. Arronax (Dan Hanlon), his daughter, and an ace harpoonist, Ned Land.

In Verne’s version, Arronax serves as narrator. In this film, however, he’s just one more member of a swollen cast, whose main role is to be someone Nemo can explain things to (and by extension, to us). He does little else.

20,000 Leagues does give us wonderful sights, including a well-shot and creative shark-hunt on the ocean floor. But Nemo's captives are most transfixed by the sub’s crystalline porthole, which allows them to observe the sea bottom from the comfort of their cushions. We’re expected to share their awe as the camera abandons the actors and pans along the seabed, past rocks and seaweed and fish for, it seems, several minutes. But we’re an audience used to colour photography of ocean depths far deeper and stranger than this.

Meanwhile, a balloon filled with Union soldiers crash-lands on a mysterious island, called Mysterious Island. These soldiers find it uninhabited, except for ‘A Child of Nature’ (Jane Gail). The Child lives in the trees and seems blissfully at-one with all the creatures around her, even the leopards. Or maybe not, since she wears a leopard-skin dress.

The Child moves likes she’s part of an interpretive dance troupe, but otherwise, she's not that weird, considering. We sit through the comedy and hope for a quick return to the sub.

Instead, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea drifts in a third direction, introducing Charles Denver (William Welch), a wealthy alcoholic with a big yacht. Denver has a checkered past, which the movie wastes no time revealing in flashback. His memories have made Denver a morose man, although in his case, guilt is probably a good thing.

A mysterious beauty and a crew of intrepid soldiers trapped on an island, with the movie’s entire remaining cast distributed between two boats. The threads of plot converge from there.

There are two reasons to recommend 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. First, the almost poetic parallel between the aims driving Capt. Nemo and those driving the director himself. Both believe themselves possessed of something new and spectacular, and greatly need an audience to show it to. However, we might ask the filmmaker, just as we would ask Nemo, if the wonders he shows us are worth the sacrifice of so much else--referring, in Paton's case, to story, pace and even aesthetic. Given time, everything new grows old, and the images that last are those rendered with an artistic hand, not just a proficient and—at the time—innovative one.

Which brings me to the second reason. Late in the film, we travel to India, to the past, to the circumstances during and after Denver’s crime. We are told of an uprising by the commoners, a brutal crackdown by the elites, and the betrayal of a good man. Using a fakir in ecstatic trance as a central image, Paton delivers a series of ingenious, powerful scenes, including an overhead shot of the elderly fakir dancing within a circle of drummers. The artistic, technical and emotional complexity of this six-minute bloc dwarfs the rest of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and it’s really the only part I want to see again. No small irony, that. The movie’s greatest scenes are on land.

Where to find 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea:
I saw the film at a special live showing; part of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It is available on DVD through Image Entertainment.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

This’ll be my second addition to ‘Talkie Miscellany’ (see right side of your screen).

G.W. Pabst was a German director of silent and sound films, including a classic featured on this blog: Pandora’s Box (1929). That film deals with the intoxication a beautiful woman can cause in men of great power but measly character. Its star, Louise Brooks, had a perfect face, but her character was deeply flawed beneath it. And the men she manipulated were more dangerous than they seemed, though not always on purpose. So, Pabst knew something about the deceptions of appearance. In this respect, his movie shares a lot with Inglourious Basterds.

Basterds director Quentin Tarantino encourages the comparison. He name-drops Pabst and his films several times over the course of two-and-a-half hours, and we can take what we wish from that. Like most of Tarantino’s films, Basterds relies in part on our knowledge of types and tropes, genres and fads to propel itself. If a familiarity with a dead German director is less likely than a familiarity with grindhouse cinema, so be it. Both can be a way in for Tarantino, and from there, he’ll use our own assumptions to challenge us.

Let’s start where the movie does: Chapter One. In a farmhouse, in ‘cow country,’ in occupied France, in 1941, notorious SS officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) interrogates a farmer he suspects of hiding Jews. These would be the farmer’s neighbours, and in fact, they are hiding there, beneath the floorboards. We immediately dread their fate.

There are many reasons why. On an aesthetic level, there’s the eerie music (and lack of music); the close-ups of Landa with his false charm; the close-ups of the quietly terrified farmer. On a tactical level, we assume Tarantino needs to establish his villain’s credentials early on, and he’ll use an atrocity to do it. All these factors are at work, but I think they’re just the fixings. Really, it comes down to the uniform.

Landa is dressed like a Nazi, so that’s what he is. And what is a Nazi for us, the movie-goers? It is a type, and rather a rigid one. By his garb alone, we recognize in Landa a bottomless capacity for cruelty. Depraved acts are imminent when he’s around; any kindness he or any other Nazi displays is suspect. A ‘kindly’ Nazi is conflicted at best, and duplicitous, at least.

Landa is an unknown quantity to us when he arrives at the Frenchman’s farm, yet we are certain things will end badly. If not right away, then eventually. This is a primal reaction we bring into the theatre with us, and it is given voice by Lt. Aldo ‘The Apache’ Raine (Brad Pitt), who states simply that “Nazi ain’t got no humanity.”

Aldo the Apache heads the Basterds, a Jewish-American commando squad that dispatches Nazis by brutal and memorable means. Their purpose is to sow fear in the German ranks, and they do it so well that they grow into semi-legendary boogeymen, whispered of among their foes. Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) orders the stories of them to be suppressed.

The German High Command has its own myths to generate. By 1944, Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) has dedicated the Nazi film industry toward the single goal of glorifying its Reich; his latest film, A Nation’s Pride, will star an actual Nazi war hero. A Nation’s Pride will debut at a small theatre in Paris. Every luminary in the High Command, including the Führer, will be there.

This is an opportunity for vengeance for ‘Emmanuelle Mimieux’ (Shoshanna Dreyfus [Mélanie Laurent]), the young theatre owner. ‘Mimieux’ was the surname she adopted after fleeing Landa’s farm visit in Chapter One. We assume she’s the only survivor.

Emmanuelle, like so many characters in Inglourious Basterds, is built of layered identities. She shares this quality with Aldo the Apache, who represents the Jew and the Native American directly, and the military, Western values and generic gusto indirectly. She also shares it with Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Krueger), who’s both German film queen and Allied spy. Then there’s Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), the young war hero who falls for Emmanuelle, but like any Nazi, seems too nice to be truly good.

Above all, there is Landa. Like Emmanuelle, whose life he destroyed, Landa seems entirely fixated on his goal, which in his case, is genocide. While Emmanuelle skilfully maintains her ruse as a means of trapping Nazis in her theatre and burning every last one of them to death, Landa uses non sequitur, intimidation, etiquette and fearful intelligence to hunt down his victims. Whatever role he may play as he traps them, he remains, at core, a dedicated monster. He is the embodiment of his uniform.

But that uniform, in a way, makes Landa less dangerous. It warns everyone what kind of man he is, long before he says or does a horrible thing. Uniforms can be removed, of course, and then, if the wearer is smart enough, he can weave a new story around himself. Inside he’s the same, but no one suspects the truth.

By the way, one of the many dignitaries Emmanuelle hopes to torch on opening night is Emil Jannings, German star of Faust (1926), The Blue Angel (1930) and many other films. Jannings adapted to Nazi rule better than a lot of his contemporaries, who were ostracized or murdered. Goebbels named him ‘Artist of the State’ in 1941. One of Jannings’ greatest roles was that of an aging hotel doorman in F.W. Murnau’s 1924 German silent, The Last Laugh. In this film, the old fellow is forced into retirement and loses his mighty doorman’s coat. With the coat goes his entire identity, and he is destroyed. What this pitiful soul tried to avoid is exactly what Landa hopes to achieve in life after the war.

Emmanuelle dreams not of quiet retirement, but an operatic end to Nazism—a theatrical conflagration over which her pre-taped cries of vengeance will ring. She and Landa both seem to be dogmatic characters. The first is relentlessly righteous, the second, relentlessly evil, right down to his nickname, the ‘Jew Hunter.’ However, no one is truly one-dimensional—that’s a kind of myth, too. And it’s one we might have believed about these two if either had entirely succeeded in their goal. However, neither quite does. And that’s interesting, particularly in Emmanuelle’s case, because it’s due to a sudden faltering of will. One would have thought her incapable of that.
It falls to Aldo and his Basterds to be the advocates of truth. That is, truth in its most literal, least subtle, inarguable form. When the Basterds decide to let a Nazi live, they make sure he can never take his uniform off and hide. They do this by carving a swastika into his forehead. Tarantino milks this technique for gory effect, and we love it. But none of the scenes are simple, throw-away violence—I’d argue they’re the real point of the movie. The scars act like an arrow piercing the clouds of myth-making, romanticizing and outright lying that most of the movie’s characters live in. It is flesh and blood and bone and it says, ‘I am what I’ve been, and what I’ve been is what I’ve done.’ Note that during the game of Hedbanz played by the characters in the film’s long bar scene, some of them place a card (bearing a fake name) over that same spot on their foreheads.

What of the ending? I won’t reveal it here, but it’s fair to say that events don’t unfold exactly as we learned them in school. It could be argued that Tarantino takes the most extreme liberties with history for the sake of an unpredictable twist, and that would be true, really, but it’s not the whole message.

Relatively few of us alive today have been scarred directly by the events of the Second World War. We know it as a collection of tragic stories. Foremost is the Holocaust, but we’ve also been told of Normandy, the Blitz, the bombing of Dresden, and the obliteration of two Japanese cities by only two bombs. The harsh reality is that these things happened, and any story, even fictional, that attempts to place itself in their midst must eventually own up to them. It’s depressing, really. The ending of Inglourious Basterds, though, is a war ended sooner. That means fewer dead in the death camps or on the battlefield. Less suffering, less destruction. If the world was better, or at least run by better people, it might have turned out that way. And to believe it did, even for a moment, would be enjoying the best myth of all.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Playhouse (1921)

I’ve had dreams in which I’ve achieved great things, and I’ve had nightmares in which I’ve died. However, the dreams that have affected me most aren’t memorable because of their extreme circumstances; in fact, they’re often set in mundane realities. They stay with me because their version of ‘me’ constantly shifts. Over the course of the dream, I will morph from one actor to the next—even responding (in the first person) to my own questions. As I move between these personae, my position and priorities likewise change; distaste for a thing becomes desire; indifference turns to urgency.
Not everyone has these dreams, or so my friends tell me. But I’m glad I do, because they represent the true limit of the possible. What’s more freeing than being able to explore not only all relationships, places and times, but to do so as someone other than oneself? What insights can this bring, especially when it’s time to wake up?

This is part of why I consider The Playhouse (1921) to be Buster Keaton’s finest short film. The Playhouse is an identity-bending dreamscape, surrounded by a real world so strange as to make the dream nearly plausible. And the dream sequence itself? It’s a laugh-riot, casting Keaton in more than twenty different roles at once, and allowing him to portray comedic styles utterly unlike the Great Stone Face that silent film fans are used to. For Keaton the artist and director, it was also a chance to push special effects, especially double exposure techniques, into new territory. The Playhouse is a dream, and is, I suspect, the result of one.

The story is minimal. Really, it boils down to a question: if you were a lowly stagehand in a vaudeville theatre, surrounded by animals, comedians, rowdy acrobats and beautiful girls in tiny tops, what would you dream about? Answer: recognition.

The film opens with Keaton (dressed in his typical garb) buying a ticket to tonight’s show. It looks to be a good one, with a hyperactive conductor swinging his baton over a row of musicians that includes a trombonist, a clarinet player and a man at the double bass. They sure do look familiar...

...all of them are played by Keaton. And just as he would later show in College (1927), it takes great skill to make these characters look incompetent. The trombone jams, and requires oil; the clarinet goes up a musician’s nose. (No sound comedy could manage this gag, of course; we’d be forced to account for the horrible noise these men would be making). The audience doesn’t seem to mind.

Maybe they’re biased. They, too, are played by Keaton, who balances the roles of elderly couple, poor mother and child, and wealthy husband and wife-about-town. These pairs chat between themselves in the theatre’s wings, then interact with one another after the mother and child begin dropping food below their own box. It’s a particular treat to watch Keaton in drag as the high-society-lady and pitching fits as the six-year-old brat.

On stage, nine Keatons sing together in a minstrel show, followed by two Keatons performing a soft-shoe routine. And shortly after this the real Keaton—that is, the lowly stagehand—is shaken awake in his bed and told to get to work. His bedroom is a set. The walls are pulled away, and then so is the bed. The Playhouse turns to reality.

‘Reality,’ of course, is just another assortment of vaudeville weirdos in rapid motion. And the multiplicity of Keaton’s dream spills over into his conscious life, too; in the shapely form of twin bathing beauties (both played by Virginia Fox). Keaton falls in love with both, but only one loves him back. A running joke in the film is Keaton’s inability to hit on the right one.

Each act is live, barely rehearsed, and prone to disaster. And so, over the course of about fifteen minutes, Keaton is called upon to perform as well as manage sets, sometimes failing in both roles, but always in a way that’s good for us. His most memorable moment comes after he frees an orang-utan prior to the animal act. With the ape escaped, it falls to the stagehand to take its place. The result ranks among the best work Keaton ever did—it’s a cross-species impersonation so uncanny that I actually learned more about how apes move.

Watching Keaton push the boundaries of his medium in The Playhouse (and always managing to remain funny), I’m again reminded of the thematic harmony the film possesses. Dream washes into reality with barely a skip in tone, style or story; tricks never-tried prove seamless in the master’s hands. The bounds of comedic film widen and re-shape, while Keaton, too, expands his presence on film beyond the type of stock character he and his contemporaries typically relied upon. Now, I’ve heard it said that the special effects in The Playhouse were considered impossible before Keaton’s team produced them. So much the better. It means we’re seeing an artist’s craziest dreams become reality, making the reality of comedic film, from then on, a whole lot crazier, too.

Where to find The Playhouse:
Kino International packages The Playhouse with Buster Keaton’s brilliant feature, The General (1927), and another of his finest shorts, Cops (1922).

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Yeah, yeah... I'm the latest convert to the ultimate spawn of the very attention-deficit disorder that probably killed silent film in the first place. But it's fun.

Check out http://twitter.com/SilentVolume for my latest thoughts on silent film and frankly, whatever else. I'll be considering this my personal, as well as blog-ersonal, place-of-tweets, and I do think about things besides silent film, once and a while. If forced. Like, other kinds of movie. Even ones in colour. Yeah, yeah.

Also, I'm hoping to devote a few moments over the next few days to rewriting/updating some of my earliest Film of the Week posts. Writing this blog has caused my review style to evolve somewhat (hopefully for the better). Life is a journey, as they say. Or tweet. Talk soon.