Monday, October 31, 2011

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

When I watch any silent film for the first time, it’s always with the expectation I might write about it. Last night, I had my second viewing of The Cat and the Canary, a horror-comedy I first watched, oh, about three years ago.

I didn’t write about it back then because it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. It still doesn’t. The Cat and the Canary’s sometimes funny and sometimes scary, but it’s mostly goofy and grotesque, and my taste cleaves to more intense entertainment. That doesn’t mean the movie’s bad—in fact, you should see it for yourself. It just means that I need a good reason to give it 800 words.

After my second viewing, I may have found one. But first the basics. The Cat and the Canary is the story of a will—one of those cinematic last-wills-and-testament crafted to torture those who hope to inherit from it; a post-mortem F-U from the deceased toward those who mistreated him in life. In this case, the middle finger is delivered by Cyrus West, a lonely old millionaire, dead twenty years when the film begins. Cyrus, it is claimed, was loved only for his money—he felt himself a canary, surrounded by cruel and hungry cats. And so he devised a will that could not be opened for two decades, and would gather together six would-be heirs, denying five in the face of the sixth.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Le Corbeau (The Raven) (1943)

Released in 1943 and set in a rural French community around that time, Le Corbeau is the story of a ‘poison pen.’ For those in need of a definition (I needed one): a poison pen is an individual, his or her identity secret, who writes threatening letters. The letters may directly threaten the person receiving them—implying knowledge of an embarrassing secret, for example—or indirectly, if a letter containing the same information is sent to someone else.

Gossip, libel, unfounded rumor, anonymity—all this sounds familiar. We’re in a period where cyber-bullying, and its sometimes lethal consequences, make the news every week.

The difference is that today, a teen can send such a letter to a hundred people in five minutes. In 1943, the handwritten letters appear one by one; an insidious trickle over months. First a few citizens get them; revealing their contents privately to confidantes, who sometimes reveal that they too have received one. Only later does the letter-writer, who signs each note “Le Corbeau” (The Raven) grow bold: hiding one note in a wreath in a public funeral, and letting another flutter down from the upper floor of a cathedral during Mass.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Look Before Shooting

I may have done a bad thing the other day. You tell me. Here’s the story.

The apartment building I live in is part of a crescent-moon cluster of once-beautiful towers, facing outward to houses and parks, and inward to a fountain. The fountain is currently waterless. From ground level it looks like the Parkette of the 1990s, adjacent to the Orbital Mass-Transit Spaceport of 1990s, as imagined in 1956. The Benches of the Future need paint, and Tomorrow’s Drainage is a little brown.

My questionable act did not involve this fountain. It involved, sort of, the parking lot flanking it. There’s a driveway that circles the fountain entirely, allowing access to all buildings in the crescent-moon. But only on one side is it wide enough to accommodate cars parked on an angle. This row of diagonal parking spots stretches downward (technically south-westward), past the fountain, past my building, past the organic garbage bin and its many flies, right out to the street.

Approaching from the street, in your car, squinting ahead, you might think it possible to drive the full length of this lot, right past the choked space immediately post-garbage bin—and onward, to the dimly spied Promised Land of fountain-side angular yellow lines. But you’d be wrong. And by the time you knew why, it would be too late. It’s a trap.

You’d call the thing diabolical, if ‘diabolical’ didn’t imply pre-planning—or at least bylaw-approved landscaping—in the name of evil. There is no deliberate malice behind this stretch of lot, which draws in cars like a pitcher plant at its open end, then grows narrower, and more cramped, before terminating in a length of chain, slung perpendicular to the driver’s intended direction. The whole thing’s just badly laid out. You can go no farther. Though, cruelly, you can see the fountain-side spots quite well.

You’ll also have a hard time turning around. A three-point turn, in this space, is about 15 points shy of adequate. Once you’re in, you’re in for a while.

Imagine the frustration, as you realize you weaved your way into a dead-end, made so only by chain and a metal post. You sit there, tapping the gas, adjusting your car backward by inches, while pedestrians stride past or over the chain, and past you.

Many of those pedestrians are coming from a particular exit—kind of an odd one. You see, the ground floor of my building is actually slightly underground. Leaving the building at parking lot-level means climbing up some steps to an exit. One of those exits puts you just on the other side of the chain.

The steps for this exit are outside. They are the way out of a shallow concrete depression—in practical terms, a ditch—from which the building residents emerge, like joeys from a pouch.

I don’t use this exit much. I don’t have to, since I live in the sky, and can hurtle downward in my elevator to the second floor, then take different stairs, in a different direction, to a different exit. But the Pouch is close to the mail room, and there are times when I’ll use it for that reason.

Yesterday, at about 1:30 in the afternoon, I got the mail. And having accomplished that feat, I decided to reward myself with a cup of delicious coffee from one of the franchised chains on the other side of the park.

I crossed the hallway and reached the door just as a pretty young lady with cocoa skin did the same. I held the door open for her. She gave me a big smile and went through.

I followed her. And the first thing she said to me, as the sun hit my face, was “wow.” Because she saw, just like I did, a black sports car with one front tire slung over the corner of our concrete ditch.

The car, now on a tilt, had been driven partway into the hole. It was undamaged, but absolutely, hopelessly stuck. No gunning the tires; no 18-point turns could’ve freed it; no car, so long as it was shaped like a car, could escape that spot without a tow truck.

On the other side of the chain—the bad side—drivers were shaking their heads. All that space to turn… you wouldn’t see ME ditch a car like that, with all that space to turn…

The lady strolled on, toward the garbage bins.

Clearly, she wasn’t an Amateur Photographer like me. Here was a unique scene, on a bright day: a diagonal shard of black, tinted windows and all, tipped against flat, horizontal white. And while I didn’t have my camera, I did have The BlackBerry. It was meant to be.

In the distance, I saw the lady turn around. Watching an artist at work, I thought to myself. The shot was hard to capture, since the subject was big and there was minimal space to back up. I did a lot of sidestepping and kneeling, trying to get it all in, watching the image float and bob on my little viewscreen. Then…

“Can I help you with something?”

…came a voice, from the car.

I hadn’t seen the driver. The tinted windows blacked him out completely, but once I heard him, it was obvious he was there. The exchange that followed was immediate, and thoughtless:

Me: Oh! Didn’t see you in there!

Driver: Yeah? I guess you find this amusing?

Me: [Pocketing BlackBerry and walking away] Well, since I’m trying to take a picture of it, I guess I do. But it’s nothing personal.

Driver: [unintelligible grumbling response, likely profane]

What a dick I was. But an honest, forthright dick, perhaps. As I wandered on toward the coffee shop, I thought about what I’d done wrong, and maybe, even, if I’d done anything wrong at all.

Consider this: Had I known the man was in the car, I wouldn’t have tried to take a picture. Why? Because I would have concluded that, while the scene was funny to me, it sure-as-hell wasn’t to him. Who wants to rub it in?

But when I say it was funny, I’m being serious. The photo, had I managed to snap it, would have been the kind your co-workers email to you in a themed-batch, along with a dozen other pics of non-lethal parking fails. No one we know was impacted, so we laugh at the absurdity of the scene. Everyone’s anonymous.

Trying for that picture, I stepped into an ethical seam. I thought I was a passive observer, unobserved myself and unable to do harm, and so all that mattered was what I could gain from the situation. The driver, though, was present, and because of that, I was offensive. I just didn’t know it.

Did I even feel bad about it? Maybe so, and that’s why, when he asked me if I found it all amusing, I admitted I did. This sounds like the worst part, but really, it was just an avoidance of hypocrisy. Of course I found it amusing. If I’d said “no, I’m sorry,” I would have been a liar. And still a dick.

I convinced myself of all this as I walked on. But it wasn’t easy. It took awhile. I had to walk father than I’d planned. Down, past the park, past the first coffee shop and on toward a second one. That’s when I saw the cocoa-skinned lady again. She was still walking ahead of me.

She was there, cross my heart.

And I could have caught up to her by quickening my steps just a bit. And I wanted to, suddenly—just to tap this stranger on the shoulder and tell her: “you know, I didn’t see him in the car.” But, she’d say, that was only because you stopped to take the picture, instead of walking past the car door, like I did. He wasn’t so hard to see then.

Five feet ahead of me, she made her turn, and was gone.

I never knew her, or the driver. I don’t even have the picture. But both of them have a picture of me.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Cameraman (1928)

The more I know about events in an artist’s life, the more tempted I am to find them expressed in his or her work. This can go too far.

For example, I know that Buster Keaton signed a disastrous deal with MGM in 1928, trading artistic freedom for monetary security. I also know that his career, marriage and even sobriety were compromised within a few years of that deal. I’m inclined, then, to fixate on certain moments in his MGM films that might depict the artist’s inner pain, as artwork tends to do.

But is this real? Or am I simply manufacturing meaning, based on knowledge I’m bringing in from the outside?

The true hallmark of a collapsing artist isn’t brilliant expressions of pain—it’s bad art. Keaton’s second MGM feature, Spite Marriage, is one of his worst silent films. The talkies that followed are beneath him. But his first MGM silent: The Cameraman, is one of his best.

Given that, what do I make (or what can I make) of this film’s central and recurring gag: the image of Buster swept up and overwhelmed by storms? Storms of rain, or paper, or humanity—barreling over him, burying him, threatening him, carrying him away? Is this how Buster felt?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Project Keaton: Guest Post

Silent Folk, listen up: The good and talented peeps at The Kitty Packard Pictorial are devoting October to Buster Keaton. Click this link to find out how you can contribute to PROJECT KEATON.

And click this link to read my guest post, where I give my thoughts on what Keaton means to us today, and why. Along with a few more thoughts on my favorite black-hole of usefulness: Twitter. There is a connection.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Wages of Fear (1953)

I’d never seen The Wages of Fear, but I knew what it was about: men driving trucks, carrying nitroglycerin.

I expected tense moments. Tires hitting bumps; hands clenching steering wheels; crosscuts to plastic containers of explosive fluid, jostling in the beds. It would be impossible, in the hands of a director as talented as Henri-Georges Clouzot, for this not to be a nail-biter.

The Wages of Fear delivers on that, often enough. And like all really good suspense stories, it goes further, giving us four drivers (two per truck) whose tales interweave prior to the trip. You may not exactly care if these men live or die, but they are all fascinating in their ways.

But before discussing all that, I have to bring up the sky. It’s what I remember most about The Wages of Fear; what I noticed immediately, when Clouzot introduces us to the busted up, dusty little South American town where the men live. The sky’s cloudless and vast. Bleak. Almost—blank.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

1911 (2011)

In my third year of undergrad, I got to choose an elective History course. Most of the selections were nation-related, and Western: Irish history, Russian history, British history, etc. I chose Chinese. Specifically: The History of Twentieth Century China.

The course was tough. Remembering the names of key figures, places and events was tough. Pronouncing them was tough. The professor—Chinese-born herself—had no special aptitude for teaching, so that was tough too. However, the course remains one of my favorite academic memories. Because now and then, our prof would tell us to close our textbooks and listen to her recollect.

Not once did she bore us. Everything she told us about the food, the customs, and the society she grew up in was new to us. And the tales she told of the Great Leap Forward, which she lived through; and the collective farm on which she worked every day, passing a picture of Mao on her morning and evening commute; they were captivating. This was real. This happened. This small, shy woman had touched and tasted and breathed a universe each one of us was struggling to construct, from dates and paragraphs, in our heads.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

Sexual politics is tough enough today—I can’t imagine what it was like in the 1920s.

You might think I could. By now I’ve seen just about every variation of the male-female dynamic committed to silent film. But in a way it’s meaningless, because those relationships were idealized. They were reflective of what people felt they ought to be, or worse, what they were forced to pretend to be. The truth boiled underneath.

Nevertheless, the Gishes and Pickfords, in their guises of committed, suffering wives and premarital virgins, expressed something important. They expressed a high watermark of values against which average people could measure themselves—probably unfavorably—just as a starlet’s beauty expressed an ideal to be constantly approached, but rarely matched. I wonder: if one could be complimented for looking a little like Mary Pickford, could one also have been respected for being nearly as pure?

Nobody’s perfect.

But you always wonder what people thought, because the official line, so much of the time, at least on film, was no to vice. Oh there was innuendo, and some damn sexy actresses toward the end of the silent period (time for your close-up, Greta and Louise), but the idea of a woman both heroic and easy was really not a Silent one. I can’t name too many films pre-1929 that seriously challenged traditional sex roles, at least all the way through the last reel.

I’m not sure Our Dancing Daughters does, either. But I’ve written you a three-paragraph preamble to it because, if nothing else, the sheer confusion of values in this film tells us something. Maybe the only constant in the Jazz Age was confusion—the mashing of traditional values with emancipatory glee; indifference, guilt, rage, nihilism and sexual abandon embraced in equal measure; maturity blurred with selling out. I loved this film, readers. I loved it to its chaotic core and I don’t know, or care, how much of it was that way on purpose.

Joan Crawford—more fresh-faced than you’d recognize, but already a star—plays the heroine. She’s Diana, a rich man’s daughter blessed with great beauty and magnetism. She’s the girl everyone wants to be around. I’ve seen enough of Crawford’s silent work to call this her gift. She was not enigmatic, like a Garbo, nor was she the flake that Clara Bow’s heroines tended to be; she seemed approachable in a way that belied how desirable she was.

But there’s more. For Diana, despite her wagon-train of male admirers, still tries too hard. “I'm known as Diana the Dangerous!” she announces, early on, to prospective beau Ben Blaine (Johnny Mack Brown), at a night club. That’s quite the nickname, and it would imply a lot… if someone else had given it to her. But what if a woman gives it to herself? And what if she says it while holding a tuxedoed hunk tight on each arm, like some luxurious fur coat made out of men? And what if she moved in to kiss Ben anyway?

Diana has a reputation alright, but has she earned it? Should we even care? The film isn’t sure. Her chief rival for Blaine’s affections is a Good Girl named Ann (Anita Page), but Ann’s not a way for the film to lecture us on Diana’s failures. Ann is a shallow snot. She has saved herself for marriage because she believes purity is the best way to land a rich husband.

Ann views decency and restraint as means to an end—she does not view them as worthwhile unto themselves. And so she does not recognize their capacity to make her a better person. Ergo, she’s not that good. But she’s no more a hypocrite than the dozens of society folk who judge her favorably—who demand no more of her than the surface goodness she earnestly maintains. When she blows up and calls Diana a slut (yes, really), she’s being true to their code of values. In an older film, Ann would have been the victim.

Ben is a handsome but bland figure; motivated by what he thinks he ought to do. He’s passionate, but he seems able to shift that passion from femme to femme—the way a flashlight can be switched on and off and directed at any target with equal intensity. Both Ann and Diana seek to manipulate him, but by different means.

In between—wedded, but always available for a chat—is Bea (Dorothy Sebastian). A truly decent soul, Bea once earned the bad reputation Diana only flirts with. Her transgression may have been no more than a pre-marital lay (we never learn), but it has left her marriage permanently fraught. “I love you—then I hate you—then I love you again—” her husband declares one day, before storming out of their house to brood.

Bea sums up Our Dancing Daughters’ remarkable inner turmoil. She illustrates the dangers Diana faces, but she’s an object of sympathy and affection at the same time—and the one we trust most. We believe she’ll never live down her mistake because she says so herself. We believe Diana is still a virgin because Bea says that too.

With Bea watching from the sidelines, Ann and Diana battle it out for a man less interesting than either of them. Their goal is marriage, because that bond, once forged, is unbreakable. But this too is strange, because annulments were possible even then (Crawford’s Our Modern Maidens, made only a year later, details one). And for Ann, there may be no such thing as a permanent defeat anyway.

Diana learns, though. “Because I was a woman—not a lying imitation—you decided I was unworthy,” she says, finally, in the third act. “But I thought there was nothing finer than truth—and I still think so!”

Perhaps she’s simply learned to be herself. Maybe that is all the film intends. But Diana is still Diana: She’s still fun and free, and ready for new adventures. And she’s a woman. The term belongs to her; it describes her, without qualification. She’s made it her own.

No one tells Diana what to be.

Where to find Our Dancing Daughters:
Our Dancing Daughters can be viewed as a made-to-order DVD, purchased online from the Warner Archive Collection.

If you enjoyed Dorothy Sebastian’s suffering sweetheart role here, be sure to check out Spite Marriage (1929), in which she plays the opposite. Her Trilby Drew is one of the meanest women around.