Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

One of the benefits of being a silent movie fan is that you never know when a film you’ve seen before will be reinvented. This is not to say that movies of this era were more malleable somehow—they were treated like crap, for the most part. Abused, cut up, re-edited (sometimes for sound), pirated, poorly stored and left to rot. This makes a whole print pretty hard to come by, but footage thought lost forever often pops up again.

This puts anyone’s claims of a ‘definitive’ edition under serious strain. For example, poor Kino International, which put out a gorgeously restored edition of Metropolis (1927) only a few years ago, could soon see that edition rendered obsolete, as a substantial amount of new footage was discovered last year in Buenos Aires, of all places, and from it a new longest-cut-ever may be created. If so, it will replace Kino’s print as the definitive Metropolis, until someone pries open a garbage can in an abandoned asylum in Bucharest and finds another reel.

Watching silent films, then, has an element of the treasure hunt in it. And occasionally, the results are to be treasured. So it was for me last night, as I got an opportunity to see—live—the 107-minute version of The Phantom of the Opera; a print about 30% longer than any I’d seen before. This print, rarely seen, and in spots poorly maintained, nevertheless contains a spectacular full colour version of the Masquerade, in which the Phantom (Lon Chaney) appears in skull mask and brilliant scarlet robes. The effect is extraordinary, and worth the price of admission on its own.

When I say ‘full colour,’ I don’t mean tinted (a process by which the film is bathed in a solution that colours everything on-screen) or even hand-painted, as some films had been, cel by cel, since the very beginning. These processes can yield beautiful results, yes, but in this case, we’re talking about something nearly as dazzling and precise as the Technicolor wonder-pics of the 1930s onward. The Phantom, in all his array, is here brought to life through the mysterious Handschiegel colouring process.

The rest of the film, sadly, ranges from passable to YouTube-quality black-and-white, but you take what you can get with these things. And anyway, there was more: I got to watch this print accompanied by Dr. Philip Carli’s impressive Wurlitzer organ playing.

Confession: I’ve never been fond of the Wurlitzer sound, though it’s a part of many, many home video releases of silent films. Heard live, it was a different matter. As Carli explained to me during the intermission (playing that thing’s a LOT of work), a Wurlitzer’s range is so great that recording mediums can rarely capture it. I’d add that the feeling of the organ—that is, the powerful vibration of its low notes—adds something no home theatre can recreate. It is most potent during the intense sequences of a horror film like The Phantom of the Opera.

Among other things, Carli’s performance reminded me that screening silent films, unlike sound pictures, was a collaborative effort. This element is lost in the age of DVD, though some high-end distributors, such as Criterion, have recaptured its spirit through their willingness to provide several scores to their DVD releases. Different music means different interpretations, and a great piece of art is always open to reinterpretation.

Ah, but what of the film? The Phantom of the Opera is pretty much what you’d expect—a fun, somewhat over-the-top horror/melodrama, made memorable by its always-memorable star, the ‘man of a thousand faces,’ Lon Chaney. His Phantom begins as a glanced shadow, described in whispers and gasps by the cast and crew of the Paris Opera (Palais Garnier). This gaggle of labourers and ballerinas, including Keaton favourite, Snitz Edwards, provide some early comedy. Things turn grim, though, when up-and-coming diva Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) and her would-be suitor, Raoul (Norman Kerry) run afoul of the Phantom’s designs. It will surprise no one who’s seen this film, or its 1943 remake with Claude Rains, or Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger-esque 1989 remake, or the Lloyd Webber musical, or it’s 2005 film remake, that the Phantom loves Christine, and is guiding her career with the ultimate purpose of possessing her.

Chaney’s version, the first to adapt Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, really gets that part right. After Christine is drugged and taken to the deepest bowels of the opera house, she awakens to find herself in an over-upholstered fantasy boudoir, complete with a hanging canopy of satin over her bed. On a nearby chair hangs a gown—suitably dramatic—which the Phantom expects her to wear. She’s pretty freaked out.

Philbin and Kerry are, as Carli said in his introduction, ‘rather limp.’ But I’ve never seen a version of ‘Phantom’ in which their characters weren’t. Christine and Raoul are thankless roles, because they represent shallow, beautiful people propped up by a patron in one case, and family money in the other. The Phantom is more brilliant, more enigmatic, and despite his cruelty, far more sympathetic. Chaney’s theatrical portrayal of the man—all hand gestures and dramatic pauses—takes nothing away from his pathos. First, it’s appropriate, because here is a man removed from society, but obsessed with opera, the most overwrought of performance arts. Second, it’s necessary, because Chaney has to spend much of the film with his face covered. The mask in this film is not a chic fashion accessory, like the musical’s version—it covers two-thirds of the Phantom’s face, and is sculpted to give him a benign, and almost banal expression. So much the better when stupid Christine pulls that mask off and reveals Chaney’s horrific face for the first time. That scene, one of silent’s cinema’s best remembered, still works. Especially when you’ve got organ pipes blasting behind you.

In the end though, it’s those colour scenes that stay with me. Imagine a silent film, acted in the arch style of mid-20s melodrama, but in full colour. There was such dissonance in that for me, as though I were peering through time to see these actors as they ‘actually’ looked on set. The moments seemed to pulse. The Phantom of the Opera doesn’t ‘need’ this colour to be a good film, but the addition of it, like the addition of the live organ, made it a whole new viewing experience. Once again, the old is new, and endless in its variations.


Mary Philbin also appeared in The Man Who Laughs (1928), featured elsewhere on this blog.

The Wurlitzer organ is a permanent fixture at Casa Loma, one of Toronto’s major tourist attractions. To learn more about Casa Loma, click here.

Dr. Philip Carli’s website.

And finally, thanks to Caren Feldman and the Toronto Film Society (TFS) for alerting me to this performance.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Lost World (1925)

Evolve or perish. It’s a maxim in the movies as it is in nature. Willis O’Brien took these words to heart, and we’re fortunate he did.

Like all great artists (and inventors), the animator was not easily satisfied—he was always pushing for something more complex, more adaptable, more compelling. By 1925, O’Brien had completed several short subjects using stop-motion technology, including The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy (1915) and The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918). Much later, he would bring dinosaurs and a great ape to life in his magnum opus, King Kong. That film’s stop-motion effects and live action were combined with more realism and drama than any the audience had seen before, and it was thanks, in part, to the techniques O’Brien developed for The Lost World—a film that, in its successes and its failures, pointed the way to a proper marriage between spectacle and story.

The Lost World is based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel of the same name, concerning an expedition by a group of men with differing goals. Their shared destination is a plateau of rock, hidden deep in the Amazon jungle, upon which live creatures forgotten by time. Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery) has been there before; however, without physical evidence to back up his claims, he has become an object of ridicule back home in London. Challenger has returned to the plateau to shut up his critics. He’s joined by Professor Summerlee (Arthur Hoyt), a sceptic; Lord John Roxton (Lewis Stone), a big-game hunter and adventurer; and Ed Malone (Lloyd Hughes), a timid newspaperman hoping to prove his courage to a shallow fiancĂ©. Several servants follow.

The film adds a pretty girl, too. This is Paula White (Bessie Love); daughter of the explorer Maple White, who, in the movie’s version of events, followed Challenger into the rainforest the first time and never came back. Mr. White comes in handy in a couple of ways: first, his disappearance provides Challenger with the means to return to the jungle, as Malone’s paper agrees to fund the trip as a ‘human interest’ story. Second, White’s notebook of sketches (which made it home, even though he did not) provides us with several drawings of the dinosaurs we’ll soon see, along with a diagram of the rocky plateau. This builds suspense, but more importantly, it helps us orient ourselves once the action starts. We know the animals are “tremendous in size and ferocity,” as Paula puts it, and the notebook’s doodles enforce the point, offering us scale drawings of cowboy-hatted humans and dinosaurs together. Many films have used this technique since, including Titanic.

Challenger’s claims are proven true even before the party scales the craggy rock, making Summerlee’s role as cynic a thankless one. Through the jungle canopy, the men spy a Pteranodon alighting on the plateau to eat its meal:

Does the effect work? We watch the Pteranodon fidget, and eat, then we watch the faces of the explorers. They’re suitably amazed. But somehow, we aren’t.

Like other animals in The Lost World (and in King Kong), the Pteranodon moves stiffly. There is little sense of its underlying musculature, since the rest of the body stays unnaturally still while one part is in motion. Anatomically, though, O’Brien’s rubber model conforms to what we’ve seen in our picture books. If it didn’t move at all, we’d be inclined to believe in it.

The bigger problem is that this scene lacks energy, as do the dozen or so special effects sequences in The Lost World that follow. O’Brien had figured out how to animate fairly life-like creatures—animals that looked accurate, moved at the correct speeds, and even presented the minutiae of life (watch the Brontosaurus breathing in later scenes), but neither he nor director Harry O. Hoyt knew how to make the monsters and humans interact.

The Lost World’s technical limitations inevitably place the humans at the bottom right of the screen, like scurrying ants before some epic battle between giants; they no more look like a part of the action than if they’d walked onstage in front of an IMAX screen. O’Brien’s effects, intriguing on their own, end up slowing the film, because we never feel the humans are in danger. They say they’re in danger, but in the movies, seeing is believing, and none of Hoyt’s tricks quite gets around that.

One of his tricks is to cut from the dinosaur battle scenes (which appear to be long shots, though they aren’t) to close-ups of an actor’s face, usually Bessie Love’s. Her expressions of fear are meant to convey immediacy, but with no connecting shot between her and the dinosaurs (which are photographed in one, static take), the result is flat.

Another trick is to introduce an ape man (Bull Montana) as a live-action antagonist. The ape man pays more direct attention to the humans than the dinosaurs ever do (that’s part of the problem), but he tends to do his damage from afar. This is necessary, because while the ape man may be more intelligent than the dinosaurs, the humans are armed. He, too, is more of an implicit threat than an actual one.

The result is a film that stands up better as a case-study in special-effects-development than it does as drama. Like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916), it puts spectacle first, and therefore suffers today, because the audience’s expectations, like the technology itself, have grown more sophisticated. The Lost World is the better film, though; its acting is solid, especially Beery’s comic portrayal of Challenger. And in the film’s last sequence, in fact, O’Brien gets everything right.

In The Lost World’s best, and most famous, scene, we witness a captured Brontosaurus rampage through the streets of London. At first, this scene falters like the others before it—we are told, rather than shown, how the huge animal’s cage broke loose over the dock and set it free. But things pick up as the Brontosaurus plows through the urban landscape. While O’Brien is still unable to fully integrate footage of the crowds with footage of the beast, he makes use of life-scale modelling to bring the two elements together. Actors in the crowd are bowled over by a giant tail, for example, allowing the dinosaur to be ‘present’ among the extras. Then we see a mother and infant trapped in the dinosaur’s path. Hoyt cuts from the stop-motion animal to the cowering humans and then—crucially—inserts a shot of a giant, clawed foot bearing down upon them. This kind of shot, used liberally in King Kong, but nowhere else in The Lost World, is precisely the visual bridge the earlier film needed all along. O’Brien was continuing to grow.

Where to find The Lost World:
The Lost World is available on DVD through Image Entertainment. The extras are a little thin (a documentary would have been great, given the subject). The disc includes animation outtakes and a variety of production stills. Of note is the score, which combines native drums (an inspired choice) with what sounds like a theremin.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

I gazed in amazement at the screen. Before me were all-black, jointed figures—silhouettes—animated against coloured backgrounds of varying complexities. Each had a stylized profile for a face, and while some were beautiful and possessed of grace, others were not. Others were grotesque, and some were monsters. All of them moved, and whether locked in combat or touching delicately their hands or lips, they were so human.

Lotte Reiniger, a German artist, needed nearly three years to complete The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the earliest surviving animated feature film. She was blessed: with talent, a wealthy patron who recognized it, and a gifted husband, Carl Koch, who was her life-long partner in filmmaking as in all else. This film, Reiniger’s first, is as indisputable a display of genius as anything I’ve ever seen. Without her vision, and mastery of the skills needed to fashion paper puppets and make them move on-screen, Prince Achmed would be nothing but a set of odd, angular stills, inspired by the tales of One Thousand and One Nights.

Reiniger delivers a film that awes you first, then makes you think. Like any animator (or cartoonist), she begins by establishing a set of defining characteristics for each of her characters. In this film, such distinguishing traits make all the difference, because the characters are solid black and unshaded—only the details of their outlining shapes allow us to tell them apart.

Called upon to consider these details, we are dazzled. Dinarsade’s veil is the most delicate lattice-work; the magic princess Pari Banu poses, walks, runs and flies with an eroticism entirely in keeping with whatever Achmed seems to see in her. Aladdin—the trickster—has a sloping nose that makes him look weaker than the warrior Achmed, whose own profile has the nobility of a Roman bust. Reinegger isolates each character’s essential traits, then expresses them physically; since no one has a ‘face’ in the three dimensional sense, these traits must do much of the work.

For the rest, we rely on the puppets’ movement. Again, Reiniger’s vision is incredible, as she was clearly not satisfied with the simple novelty of animating this way. Achmed and the other figures move with naturalistic ease, even being called upon to ‘perform’ when the situation requires it. The film’s most impressive scene finds Achmed a captive in a pleasure palace filled with shapely girls. Achmed likes them as much as they like him, so they proceed to act out a vaudeville-style piece of slapstick, as he jumps from one girl’s arms to the next, culminating in the classic bit where two girls try to kiss him at once, only he ducks, and they kiss each other. Consider the technical challenges of that.

Reiniger, like the thinkers behind Felix the Cat, turned a negative into a positive. Like the silent Felix cartoons, Prince Achmed depicts characters that are highly simplified, and undetailed inside their exterior lines. In the case of Felix, this produced a crude drawing, but one that was endlessly elastic—Felix could transform into any other black object with little taxation for the viewer. If he didn’t look much like a real cat, but we could accept him as one anyway, it was that much easier to accept him morphing into something else, however simplified that, too, had to be.

Achmed, Pari Banu and the rest are hardly crude. But they are also, in their ornate design, just as fluid as the Cat. Reiniger’s African Sorcerer, the chief antagonist of the film, can become anything he wishes, simply by stretching or folding components of himself until he vaguely resembles say, a kangaroo, more than he vaguely resembles a homely old sorceror. From there, Reiniger needs merely to ensure that he moves like a kangaroo, and the illusion will succeed. This technique culminates in a Wizards’ Duel between the villain and a benevolent witch, where each combatant morphs from one animal to the next in order to best one another. The idea was re-visited in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, 37 years later.

Presented with an aesthetic like this, done so beautifully, I couldn’t help but feel a bit spiritual. How could you not think of the commonality of all things, human, animal and inanimate—aspects of the same, shared material that ultimately unifies the world? And if these shapes can then be distinguished, then defined separately and appreciated, by what means is this done? By us, through our perceptions first, and then our reason. We are the arbiters of what we see, and when we’re made conscious of it, The Adventures of Prince Achmed becomes a strikingly modern tale.

For an explanation of Reiniger’s animation process—in her own words—click here.

Where to find The Adventures of Prince Achmed:
Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed is distributed by Milestone Films. The DVD also includes Lotte Reiniger: Homage to the Inventor of the Silhouette Film (1999); a thorough documentary about the long, turbulent and ultimately uplifting life of the film’s creator.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pay Day (1922)

One of the wonders of the movies is how a thousand takes, and the days, weeks or months of frustration behind them, can produce something so smooth on-screen. I’ve heard about Charlie Chaplin’s working methods. About the obsession. The perfectionism. The relentless drive for the perfect moment, and the tyranny he could wield over actors who stretched out the process even further. Deadlines, budgets—they were just further distractions.

But the results? Sublime; smooth. Flawless, clean motion; dangers averted by the slightest of movements—millimetres, for example, separating the base of the Tramp’s cane from the opening of a sewer grate. The cane lands on the bars of the sewer again and again, never with Chaplin seeming to guide it. And when it falls through, allowing us the sight gag we’ve been waiting for, it is only when the time was best for the master.

That moment is one of many in Pay Day, my favourite Chaplin short. It was also his last, before he began the epic phase of his career that brought about feature-length classics like City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) and further accolades. Those films carry with them a burden of melancholy that grew along with Chaplin’s fame. But Pay Day’s just funny. From the moment it begins to the final fadeout over the Tramp’s bruising, gorilla of a wife (Phyllis Allen), howling at her no-account bricklayer husband, and also, it seems, at us.

Pay Day is divided almost evenly into three acts—the first set at a construction site, where the Tramp works as part of a labour crew under a turnip-shaped foreman (Mack Swain). The second details the Tramp’s night on the town with the boys, or at least, its drunken aftermath. The final act, set at 5 a.m. chronicles his journey home, where damnation awaits him in a nightgown. Allen, surely one of the most intimidating women ever filmed, could collapse ten Tramps with one sweep of her rolling pin.

Phyllis Allen (right) with Mabel Normand.

Several gags in Act One involve a swift elevator, upon which workmen, and the foreman’s fetching daughter (Edna Purviance), can rise and lower themselves along the scaffold. Lunching workmen have a tendency to set their food on the elevator platform, which seems to move without warning and then deprive them of their eats. The Tramp, more than once, is the beneficiary.

Act Two finds the Tramp and his sloshed cronies singing tunes outside the local beerhall, late in the evening. Here we see the sewer-grate gag, along with several creative attempts to don a coat—much of this being the sort of sight-gag Chaplin would have mastered on stage in his early days. The gem, though, is the drunken Tramp’s attempts to push his way into an overloaded streetcar. He gets numerous shots at this, though it isn’t always the same car—other drunks bulge in clumps out the vehicle’s windows and hang off its rear steps. When he finally succeeds, the building mob forces him all the way through the car and out the other end, like the innards of a squashed sausage.

While the Tramp stumbles into Act Three, Pay Day remains a comedy-of-positioning. For the Tramp to survive his wife’s wrath, he must seem to be where he is not—in other words, he must not look guilty. She is never, for a moment, charmed or fooled by his tricks. And after scenes of his carousing, spending and (attempted) womanizing, we figure he’s earned his demon-spouse. If he was a better man, or even just a smarter one, he’d be somewhere else.

Like the streetcars in its second act, Pay Day feels filled to brimming. Every minute springs a joke or builds to one. However, if you pause to think about the film on a different level (it does reward repeat viewings) you will notice calmness. The ease with which Chaplin executes his difficult tricks is not just the result of talent plus take-after-take; it’s helped by our realization, as audience members living in the real world, that the farce in Pay Day is driven by people doing normal things. Yes, there are caricatures in front of us, but are they acting strangely? Is anybody over-the-top? No. The foreman kicks Chaplin around because Chaplin’s playing a lazy man. (The wife does the same thing for the same reason.) The foreman’s kicks don’t propel Chaplin much of a distance, because the point has already been made.

One sequence—otherwise, not one of Pay Day’s most memorable—sums this up. The Tramp leans backward on a barrel, set on the elevator floor. He doesn’t see that someone at ground-level placed a hot soldering iron on the barrel. The Tramp jumps, but doesn’t burst into flame or anything. On the level above him, the foreman asks what he’s up to—and the Tramp hands him the iron, of course holding the only cool end. The foreman grips the hot end, immediately releases it, and it falls to the ground. A fat worker, lying around on the ground during his lunch break, hears the commotion above, but can’t see when he looks up, because of the scaffolding—so he naturally rolls over, and onto the hot iron. One sequence, three jokes, and no matter how outlandish the result, anyone of us could have landed in that predicament. How far removed are we, then, from a farcical world?

Folks, that right there is Chaplin.

Where to find Pay Day:
French distributor MK2 owns the rights to most of Charlie Chaplin’s later works, distributed in North America by Warner Brothers. Pay Day, along with A Dog’s Life (1918), Shoulder Arms (1918), The Pilgrim (1923), and other films, can be viewed as part of The Chaplin Revue, a two-disc set. This link provides some information.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Shoulder Arms (1918)

The First World War (1914 to 1918) holds particular fascination for me. It’s this war, not its sequel, that brought about the collision, then the fissure, between an old notion of chivalrous struggle and a new reality of automated combat. Of course, the old notion was always bullshit, but some of the romance remained until it was gassed, blasted and crushed into the mud and blood of the Western Front.

By 1918, the pull of a trigger allowed a single man to tear hundreds apart, and do so casually, or even unwittingly. Hand to hand combat, when it occurred, was a degrading affair, following, as it often did, weeks of sitting in flooded, septic trenches. Sometimes, soldiers were so close to their future victims that they could converse. I find that sick.

I write these things upfront, because it is with such images in mind that I started watching Shoulder Arms, a 46-minute early feature by Charlie Chaplin, made the same year the war ended. It’s a comedy, and at times an ingenious one, but how appropriate a subject is trench war for a slapstick comedian?

Let’s start with the bigger issue. I don’t think it is ‘wrong’ to laugh at war, in the wider sense that I don’t think censorship is right, most of the time. And whether we’re proud of it or not, humour is a practical art form—we must admit that what makes us laugh is, by definition, funny to us. Shoulder Arms, in its early scenes especially, is pretty funny. The Tramp, as a somewhat dazed Doughboy in a French trench, faces various memorable misadventures.

However, if humour is the pragmatist’s art, how useful is war as a subject? The brutality of the First World War cannot be made light of, at least if it’s acknowledged. Chaplin evidently knew this, since in this film, he tries to ignore it. Yes, the Tramp is aware he can die (he shows cowardice, though not consistently), but no one ever dies on-screen in Shoulder Arms, even when he and his fellow soldiers go ‘over the top.’ In fact, the trenches, with the exception of one notable scene, look rather comfortable, and extremely clean.

This made it difficult for me to focus on what I was seeing, rather than what seemed to be missing. Maybe Chaplin expected that, too. There’s a scene mid-way through Shoulder Arms where the Tramp fires a series of rifle shots from his mount in the trench, aiming at something off-screen. For every squeeze of the trigger, he chalks a hash-mark on a wooden slat, then re-loads and fires again. It’s off-putting to see this character—a thief, but always gentle-hearted—committing murder several times in nonchalant style. But then the Tramp fires his last shot straight up; bringing down a bird, it looks like. We never see the bird, but that’s my take on it. I’d call that a rib on Chaplin, by Chaplin.

As in many of his later features, Chaplin’s character in Shoulder Arms has domestic sensibilities, but no real home. Much of the humour, then, comes from the Tramp’s talent for finding amenities where none ought to exist. Shoulder Arms’ most inspired gag builds off of this talent—beginning when the Tramp’s quarters are swamped. By ‘quarters,’ read ‘hole.’ The Tramp and four other soldiers share a burrow dug beneath the lip of the trench. Inside is a double-decker bed, a phonograph, an oil lamp and other household basics. Following a long shift in the rain, the Tramp returns to find this space flooded up to his chest. His roommates are asleep—three of them piled into the top bunk of the double-decker bed (the only bunk above water) and the fourth sleeping submerged, but for his face. The Tramp must then find a way to sleep on the bottom bunk (which is underwater too) or not sleep at all. Fluffing a pillow, in this case, proves a bit pointless.

Though the flood scene is one of the longest in the movie’s first act, it is self-contained. In fact, Shoulder Arms could be easily split into two films: the first a collection of satirical (and bloodless) episodes about life in the trenches, and the second, the Tramp’s ill-defined mission to spy on the Hun. It’s in the second half of Shoulder Arms that our hero, liberated from the front lines, begins to have a plotted adventure.

Action in the second half centres around a heavily shelled farmhouse in the German countryside. Again we see Chaplin satirize domestic life, as the Tramp seeks shelter in a building missing most of its walls, yet still finds a beautiful love interest (Edna Purviance) within. Purviance, a talented actress and frequent Chaplin collaborator, needs merely to keep up and look pretty here. She’s the object of lust for a gaggle of German soldiers that grows, in both girth and rank, as the action advances, until the Tramp is in the presence of the Kaiser himself, played with obesity by the star’s half-brother, Sydney Chaplin. Unlikely events ensue.

Shoulder Arms feels strange. As a collection of parts, its parts are successful. Chaplin’s wit is there, and the physical comedy, though not sublime, is always competent. But it is several films, not one, and little holds them together beyond a common theme.

I’m tempted to go ‘meta’ here, because 1918 was such an interesting time in Chaplin’s career. Like several other film stars of the time (including Mary Pickford and her then-husband, Douglas Fairbanks), Chaplin publicly supported the First World War—yet he was a noted pacifist later in life. By the end of the war, he was big enough to produce a near feature-length film, but not so big that he could attempt social commentary, and the enormous risks it entailed, as he’d one day do with Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Had he made a film about war later in his career, it surely would have been his most maudlin. But in 1918, Chaplin’s talent, popularity and social conscience merely co-existed—they could not yet form a stronger whole.

Where to find Shoulder Arms:
French distributor MK2 owns the rights to most of Charlie Chaplin’s later works, distributed in North America by Warner Brothers. Shoulder Arms, along with A Dog’s Life (1918), Pay Day (1922), The Pilgrim (1923), and other films, can be viewed as part of The Chaplin Revue, a two-disc set. This link provides some information.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Reflections: A Strong Spine is Good

Picked up A Short History of the Movies, by Gerald Mast, yesterday, in the one-dollar bin at a local used book store. The book is 575 pages and about 1.5 inches thick, and it’s as old as I am. That it gets past the early ’70s makes me feel young. That it costs a buck, after only 33 years, makes me feel mortal.

At the risk of being too eloquent, let me say I bought this book for the can. That is, for bathroom reading. It’s perfect for that space; divided into chapters with predictable titles like ‘Birth’ or ‘Sound’ or ‘France Between the Wars,’ each chapter subdivided into bolded sections such as ‘Projection,’ or ‘von Sternberg, Ford, Hitchcock, Welles.’ The book is chronological, more or less, but you can dive into any period you want and find standalone information, guiding yourself more by the thoughts you had upon entering the john than any prior point you’d reached in the pages.

And anyway, there’s no room on my bookshelves for this one. My shelves are full and overflowing already with books I haven’t read—many of them poorly suited to the bathroom.

A moment of truth, here: this entry is inspired by a response I made to Roger Ebert’s blog yesterday. He’s already drawn 200+ responses to the subject of his bookshelf (down from the 1,200 he drew on the subject of Tea-partyers, birthers, and other assorted nuts last week). Here’s what I said:

I haven’t read most of my books either, but their collective presence brings me joy. I love the colours of their spines, their various thicknesses, and their various title fonts, set next to one another on the black shelves.

If I look closer, I can marvel at their subject matter, and feel proud of myself for possessing them (and, at the very least, desiring to read them). I know there’s some I’ll never get to, especially in the Digital Age. However, if guests visit my home for the first time, and I step into the kitchen to fix us a drink, I’ll come back to find them inspecting that shelf, to know me a little better. And they will know me.

There’s only so much life, and if we’re fortunate enough to live a long one, we’ll still never read, watch or listen to every worthy thing. So perhaps an abundant bookshelf is our push-back against eternity? It’s our way of saying that, while we may be mortal, we at least can envision an immortal version of ourselves. Not by knowing what that immortal self would know, but by knowing what that self would pursue, because time was not against it. We can appreciate, if not actually become, our Ideal Human.

Aren’t I deep and heavy? Didn’t mention the can one time.

Commenting on Ebert’s blog, particularly when he’s combating the Right Wing, feels a bit like dropping a pebble from a helicopter into the Pacific Ocean. Short and pithy entries are better, I think. I could have gone on to write about how strictly my bookshelves are organized by subject, and how fun I find organizing a bookshelf to be. I could have patted myself on the back for having such clean and tidy shelves, in which every spine is visible. Some people—very smart people, better read than me, in many cases—have bookshelves spilling over with big and little tomes. They pile books atop the top shelf, and on the floor, from which they rise to obscure the bottom shelf altogether. More books are stacked lengthwise on top of rows of even more books. This too, is charming, but it isn’t the Ideal Me.

But back to A Short History of the Movies for a sec. A Short History of the Movies, I hope, will represent a little victory for me against the tyranny of a busy life. It will be waiting for me, just behind my shoulder, whenever pressing duties of the day must give way to one that won’t wait. To these moments I have an indisputable right as a continent man, so I might as well multitask and enrich myself. If this can’t help me watch all the great old films—silent and otherwise—that are worth watching, at least it can help me know what to look for, and be conscious of deserves a second viewing.

Now, back to work.

Btw, the book is still going strong. Here’s a link to the tenth edition of A Short History of the Movies. Dr. Mast, who unfortunately died quite young, is listed as co-author in more recent versions.

Mast’s obituary in the
New York Times.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Black Diamond Express, no. 1 (1896)

Labour, men: with shovels, then
with axes pick the new-built track.
The sweat each swing to your head brings
seems endless as the row of beams
you hammer at.

Look, men: to that darker shape
the distance bears: the growing square
that from the smoke toward you tears.
Superiors behind you wave,
and back they step.

Feel the shake of warning wheels?
Hear the metal clacks and squeals?
Retreat! and with your foremen, call,
and wave your handkerchiefs, you all;
to greet those coming.

But all you standing to the side
leaves track alone t’ween train and me!
And on me now the train has trained
unguidedly—and now I’m froze!

The lens can’t move.

‘Girth,’ its girth I think of first—
the Black Diamond Express’ll run
right through my frame! Then ‘speed’—
as train cars full’ve your friends quick pass
and leave me safe.

A ‘near-miss’? Yes.
And a ‘never-hit.’
’Cause the track you built had a turn in it.

Where to find Black Diamond Express, no. 1:
Black Diamond Express, no. 1 is among the many brief, 19th century films found Disc One of Kino International’s must-have, four-disc set, Edison: The Invention of the Movies. The film is preceded by a short commentary from several film scholars. Grainier versions can be downloaded from YouTube, though they may not be the same version, as the popular film was re-made over and over again.