Thursday, June 30, 2011

Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925)

Ninety years later, it’s still easy to see why Douglas Fairbanks’ adventure films made the money they did. Fairbanks was the lighthearted trickster onscreen; a man who dispatched all manner of threats with total confidence; won the pretty girl with a combination of charm and skill, and did it in exotic places.

For the factory worker, the desk jockey or the housewife, this was escapism; and a safe investment, too. Fairbanks’ ‘big’ productions, like The Mark of Zorro (1920), Robin Hood (1922), and The Black Pirate (1926), were all of one type: reliable mixes of drama, action, romance and laughs that you could count upon to entertain you when handing over your cash.

This makes them predictable, but not necessarily good. I’ve often found Fairbanks’ work hokey and formulaic; his stock character, while charmingly upbeat, is so many steps ahead of his enemies that he rarely seems imperiled. No peril, no drama. Joie de vivre gives way to mere silliness, and I begin to feel overtaxed, since his films aren’t particularly short, either.

Don Q, Son of Zorro has these same flaws, but I liked it alright. Maybe because it maintains a balance some of the others don’t—allowing a talented supporting cast to carry more of the relevant screen time. Or maybe because it feels more… brisk? Sure. Don Q is brisk, and Fairbanks’ eponymous character moves through it briskly. How Don Q moves is, I think, the thing I want focus on most.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Unholy Three (1925)

I’ve seen Lon Chaney look plenty ugly on the silent screen: a Hunchback, a Phantom, a ghoulish take on Dickens’ Fagin—and by that standard, his cross-dressing turn in The Unholy Three doesn’t even rate. It occurred to me, as I watched him play the role of a ventriloquist playing the role of a jewel-thief disguised as a grandmother, that Chaney’s face seemed rather appealing. Not lovely or anything, just believably, warmly, grandmotherly. Maybe there’s a point in that: for all the accolades I’ve read of Chaney and his ‘thousand faces,’ I don’t remember it ever being called warm. There’s femininity in those lines and creases, I think. See if you can find it.

Tod Browning’s The Unholy Three, in which Chaney stars as sideshow performer Professor Echo, is not the actor’s most memorable part, nor is it the director’s most memorable movie (Browning directed both Dracula and Freaks a few years later, and Freaks, in particular, is a film you can’t review so much as recount). It is, however, light entertainment, and that’s precisely what it’s trying to be, so it is good. I believe that if you described the plot of this film to someone else, they’d sit down next to you and watch it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Iron Horse (1924)

I can imagine the toils of the men who built the Overland Route: sweat beading, muscles straining, hammers arching high and falling sharp with a metal-on-metal clang, driving spikes into the dirt. Again and again—so many times that they sang songs of it as they worked. And month after month—for so long that their wives and children and indeed their whole towns moved along with them across the miles. Home was where the work was.

John Ford’s The Iron Horse is about this story, and it will sweep you up in its greatness, given time—the greatness of the story, I mean. As for the greatness of the movie, that depends on your taste. For the first hour or so it feels like something you’ve seen a million times, and I think, for some viewers, it will never be more than that. It is formulaic, populated with vaudevillian archetypes, and frankly, could have used sound. But The Iron Horse also escapes its trappings. It makes you care about the people in it, by acknowledging that even archetypal characters in classic straits face real consequences, perhaps as a result of the roles they must play. There is real tragedy and real conflict here. And if that doesn’t win you over, there’s still the pleasure of witnessing genius in development: the work of a young John Ford, who already knew how to make simple gestures into huge moments.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

To Die Like Man (2009)

All great art is in dialogue with its audience. But film, by virtue of its reach, and sheer volume and range of material (high and low, big and small), is the medium most in dialogue with itself; its artists constantly challenging its purpose and definition.

So directors: take risks. Please take risks; I watch a lot of movies and I remember the risky ones best. Just remember that there’s a line—not even a fine one, really—between taking risks and simply indulging yourself at the audience’s expense. A line João Pedro Rodrigues crosses with To Die Like a Man: a film seemingly in dialogue with no one; made for an audience of empty chairs.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

It's the Old Army Game (1926)

Sorry for the paucity of content here lately. I’ve had a lot of freelance work on my plate; some of it challenging but most of it just really, really time-consuming. It’s kept me in front of Ol’ Trusty (my laptop) for enough hours that I don’t want to spend my leisure time there too.

I like to be busy though. When you work for yourself, you feel guilty if you’re anything less than grateful for work. It’s not free time you long for, but balance, because, in my field anyway, your work isn’t what drives you so much as the lifestyle it allows you to maintain. Things like this blog, and the anywhere-from-ten-minutes-to-three-hours of film watching that proceed every post, are possible because I can carve out a pocket of time for them. If I was nine-to-five, it would be harder. I know, because it was.

There are times, then—times lately—when one or two of the elements that compose my life rise up, tide-like, and swamp the rest. And so you wish for a pocket of time, where you could nestle yourself, to work on the things that matter most; or even, just, to get enough rest—just, to do what you want, when you want.

I write this in self-pity, perhaps, but also in sympathy. Elmer Prettywillie, the main character, hero, anti-hero and sometimes villain of It’s The Old Army Game, feels a similar pain to mine. He’s the town druggist, back when that meant you sold all kinds of things, and did a little surgery after-hours too, and he’s addled by a life full of people who will not let him alone. If he were a better man, it would be a tragedy.