Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hot Water (1924)

If ‘Harold’ was a real guy, I’d want to know him. I’d want to know the man behind him, Harold Lloyd, too; but for different reasons. Harold Lloyd, comedy megastar of the silent era, was one of the few to survive it with career and lifestyle intact; he’d have a lot of good stories to tell. But ‘Harold,’ his character in Hot Water, is someone I’d want for a friend even if he amounted to nothing. He’s a simple, gentle, genuine man I could trust.

A flawed man, though. Here’s the best example: Near the end of Hot Water’s first sequence of gags, Harold is flung out of a moving streetcar, into the middle of a fairly busy road. He was ejected because he’d made himself an irritant onboard the car—overloaded with groceries and a live turkey he just won in a raffle. Now he’s sitting on the road, parcels strewn around him, half dazed. Cars bearing down on him. And the first thing he does is pin the turkey between his legs to keep it from wandering away while he fixes his necktie. Harold’s not a practical man, but he always wants to do the proper thing, and he’s earnest about it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Princess of Montpensier (2010)

A talkie, courtesy TIFF Bell Lightbox, in Toronto.

The ones you love are never far from your thoughts, even when they’re far away.

I think that sentiment’s universal. I think that, if you said it to someone centuries ago, they’d nod their head, a little sadly, just the same. But they might see irony in it that we don’t. We’re a society that travels fast and communicates even faster, and for whom boundaries like marriage are fluid and frankly, not that strong. In other societies, in other times, ‘goodbye’ might have been the last words a loved one heard from you for years. Or there might be no goodbye at all: just the long torture of close proximity between you and your beloved… betrothed to another by unbreakable bonds.

Proximity is one of many themes in Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier: a bulky, moody, but mostly very good historical drama; a film at its best when revealing the consequences of expressing human feelings in circumstances indifferent to them. The setting is 16th Century France; the circumstances: the renewed Wars of Religion between Catholics and Huguenots. The players: the French aristocracy and their attendants. In this unstable period, love was a luxury that had little, if anything to do with one’s decision to get married.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Invisible Eye (2010)

A talkie, courtesy of TIFF Bell Lightbox

We don’t meet Marita. Marita meets us. She marches a row of uniformed Argentine students through the halls of her school, toward you and me; stiff in her starched white blouse and black skirt, hair in a bun, face chalky and wiped of emotion. She inspects them. Failure is measured in inches: one student’s hair too short at the back; another’s fingers too far from his classmate’s shoulder in line. These are small things, but that’s the point. Enforcing conformity is Marita’s job.

Marita (Julieta Zylberberg) is a small thing herself; you notice it right away. The teenagers tower over her, even the girls; without her chunk-heels, she’d be under five feet. Her face is unlined. Director Diego Lerman could have credibly cast Zylberberg as one of the students; that’s how young she looks. But instead, she’s an authority figure, and that means everything to The Invisible Eye.

The film is set in 1982: heady times in Argentina. Six years of dictatorship is coming to an end, we’re told—‘crumbling,’ as Lerman puts it in his opening text. We read this, then we see the thickness and polish of the school’s marble exterior. The immensity and age of the place. It never seems full: teachers like Marita walk its corridors looking like rafts adrift in a great grey expanse. If revolution is afoot, this mausoleum will be last to feel it, and that is the educators’ goal.

“Subversion is like cancer,” head professor Biasutto tells Marita. He goes on to explain how cancer spreads. Biasutto (Osmar Núñez) is a patriot, at least currently; he was installed in the school after the coup and sees it as his job—all the teacher’s jobs—to kill the cancer where it’s fresh. He’s enormous before Marita, who fancies him as a man and fears him like a father. She doesn’t speak to her father. “Call me Carlos,” he says.

Biasutto exudes warmth, but he’s a horrible man. Marita, the disciplinarian at work, is like a teenager at home, a virgin living with her mother and grandmother; unable even to have a room of her own. These are people for whom professional exteriors disguise much. I suppose that’s part of being a professional, but it occurred to me that, for Marita, the rigidity was a replacement for strength, not an expression of it. Encouraged by Biasutto to spy on the students (‘The secret of good discipline is surveillance,’), she soon begins hiding in the boys’ lavatory, in one of the stalls, listening to them, and fantasizing.

Marita would be popular with men if she wasn’t so shy. Zylberberg captures the essence of this shyness: the self-loathing, the look of discomfort and irritation that pushes others away even as she longs for friendship. Invited to a party by her colleagues, Marita dresses up in high-80s style (the bulk of the perm on one side—you know), then spends hours in awkward conversation with people she ought to have lots in common with. “Are you having fun?” she asks another guest, blandly. No one asks that but the host.

Marita is nothing without the school system to confer authority upon her, and even that has its limits. Both of her objects of lust: Biasutto and the tallest of the schoolboys, regard her with benign contempt. Neither has the slightest respect for her skills, if indeed she has any. They smell her fear. Marita, in turn, uses her position not to dominate others, but to hollow out an even narrower fantasy space for herself. In one wretched moment she sneaks into the boys’ locker room during swim class. She begins rifling through a gym bag: pulls out a mix-tape and inspects it; pulls out a pair of underwear and smells it. She opens a bottle of perfume she recently bought and applies it, right there. It seemed to me that Marita was constructing a sexual encounter in her head: the music, the smells, the touch of intimate clothing, the sight of the half-naked boy in his swim trunks—all sensory components; everything but the real thing.

This is a terribly vulnerable woman, to whom worse things, we fear, are bound to happen. For the government, too, the worst is coming—The Invisible Eye builds dread as the end of the dictatorship approaches and Marita’s habits are exposed. She collapses in tears, like a child, before Biasutto. Then the pair of them, epitomes of moral rectitude within the school, hide together in the bathroom stall, looking ridiculous. And then, there is no more hiding. Biasutto is a liar and a fraud, but he has the power to get what he wants.

When a system’s this rotten, the only way out is ruin.

Where to find The Invisible Eye:
The Invisible Eye (La miranda invisible) opens at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox on May 26, 2011.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The New York Hat (1912)

Yesterday I told a Toronto International Film Festival staffer that this city is one of the best in North America for silent film. Not only do we have TIFF Bell Lightbox, our still-new festival theatre, showing silent films regularly with live accompaniment; we also have smaller theatres showing silents in regular rotating programs, plus the Toronto Silent Film Festival, the Toronto Urban Film Festival, and some truly tricked-out rental stores offering obscurities I’ve never heard of until I start to browse. Yes, we’re lucky here in Toronto. New York and Los Angeles may offer more, but they’re an awful lot bigger too.

I had this chat at the Lightbox, following a very interesting pair of lectures on the career of Mary Pickford. Profs. Charlie Keil and Rob King educated us (a nearly-full auditorium) on the development of both cinematic acting and the movie star-as-public-entity—concepts that could not be seriously discussed without mentioning Pickford. Sandwiched between the lectures were 35-mm prints of three Pickford Biograph shorts: Wilful Peggy; An Arcadian Maid (both 1910); and The New York Hat (1912). The first film was used to demonstrate Pickford’s mastery of the older, ‘histrionic’ style of film acting; the second, her equal mastery of the developing ‘verisimilar’ style, characterized by fewer outsized gestures and channeling of internal conflict through props. Kudos to Prof. Keil for reminding us that histrionic does not equal ‘bad’, even if we laugh at it now.

The New York Hat, a 16-minute film and Pickford’s last for Biograph, shows her embracing verisimilitude as fully as she ever would. She plays Mollie Goodhue, the only child of a just-widowed Calvinist-type (Charles Hill Mailes). Mrs. Goodhue, who expires in the film’s opening scene, leaves Preacher Bolton (Lionel Barrymore) a letter: in it she confides that her husband ‘worked her to death’ and begs the minister to spare Mollie that fate. What she really means is that he allowed his wife not the slightest frivolous pleasure, and her daughter, who loves beautiful clothing but doesn’t own a stitch of it, faces the same joyless, frugal life. Preacher Bolton agrees to take a bit of money the mother stashed away and buy Mollie something she’d like, from time to time. The father is not to know.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Convict 13 (1920)

I’d planned to write about Convict 13 a couple of times before this. It’s a long-time backup choice for me: something short and quick, a film I could watch in a busy week, late at night, in a state of fatigue, when I just, really, needed, new content for the blog. This week was that week.

Convict 13 was never my favourite Buster Keaton short; not even close. By the standards of his later shorts, especially The Playhouse and Cops, it’s crude; a succession, mostly, of vaudeville gags Keaton brought from stage to screen. Compared even to his earlier shorts, One Week and The High Sign, it is uninspired. But one thing about Convict 13 has always, always impressed me: its incredible violence.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Packaged Goods

I write about silent movies for many reasons. One is the opportunity it gives me to watch, and think about, incredible short films. Some of the world’s finest short comedies were made in the 1920s (you can guess the names behind them); in the 1910s, a crop of remarkable fixed-camera fantasies and dramas mixed old theatrical and new cinematic techniques in intriguing ways.

Go back even further and you’ll see films that are short because they had to be. Those that survive often seem silly, primitive, and very fast, and of course they’re very brief—but whatever their technical limitations, they were state of the art. A 10-minute film, in 1902, wasn’t a ‘short’; it was just a movie. Maybe it was screened with a dozen other movies in a tent somewhere, and maybe it wasn’t considered high art by the standards of stagecraft, but that’s was cinema at the time. And so figures like Georges Méliès, Alice Guy, Segundo de Chomón, Edwin S. Porter and J. Searle Dawley poured feature-worthy energies into films well under 30 minutes’ long. Bold work resulted. Or dreck, but that’s art.

That’s my Silent Volume lead-in to a post not about silent film. This week I was invited to a screening, at TIFF Bell Lightbox, of Packaged Goods, a selection of international short films, music videos and TV spots produced by commercial directors. Programmed by Rae Ann Fera, former editor of Boards Magazine, it begins with a selection of films conceived for the Cíclope International Advertising Craft Festival, and ends with several pieces from Skin Flicks, a music video production house founded by Richard Skinner and John Hassay. Total running time is 70 minutes, covering 24 pieces.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Strike (1925)

As anyone who follows my Twitter feed knows, I’m a politics junkie. And I’ve been getting a steady supply of the good s**t for about a month now, thanks to Canada’s federal election. It’s been a shocking one, and it ended yesterday. Among its many ups and downs, the lowest low was, as always, the mud—slung accurately, though not always effectively, in all directions.

The politics of grievance can backfire. Because the smear is too petty, perhaps; or the politician too loved; or, occasionally, because the smear is poorly delivered. This is the challenge of propaganda: an art that confounds even smart practitioners with the nuances of truth and tone it requires.

Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike is propaganda. So is The Battleship Potemkin, his masterpiece, filmed later the same year. Strike is good, but Potemkin is much, much better, and it took me a while to figure out why. They make the same points, in much the same ways. But Potemkin is the work of a man who had mastered the means to his end. With Strike, he tried harder and achieved less.