Sunday, November 27, 2011

7th Heaven (1927)

There’s a lot of climbing in 7th Heaven—up winding stairs to loft apartments; up rungs from the sewer to the street. The symbolism is literal: it’s about escaping depths for the light, for good. It’s about achieving a better life.

The vertical momentum of its leads: Diane and Chico, make 7th Heaven a gushy crowd-pleaser. One of the highest-grossing films of the silent era, it’s loaded with the kind of rhetoric you’d find in any self-help book today. “I’m a very remarkable fellow!” declares Chico, repeatedly—with the grin and swollen chest of a man who believes it, even while raking out blockages in the sewer. And to Diane (Janet Gaynor), whom he finds on the street, a depleted human heap of misery: “The trouble with you is you won’t fight. You’re afraid!”.” Easy for big Chico (Charles Farrell) to say—but his confidence is infectious. She loves him as soon as she’s able to, which is long before she loves herself.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Les Espions (1957)

Henri-Georges Clouzot saw potential in tucked-away places. His most celebrated films, The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955), are set in an isolated South American village and a rural French private school, respectively. His early work, Le Corbeau (1942), is in a French village noteworthy for its distance from urban bustle.

Les Espions takes this to an extreme. It places its characters, and us, in an asylum. The asylum is occupied by only four individuals when the film begins: its resident physician and owner, Dr. Malic (Gérard Séty); an elderly nurse; a bedridden man in treatment for alcoholism, and Lucie (Véra Clouzot), a childlike mute who hears everything.

Dr. Malic, we feel, has gone to seed. Single, childless, in need of funds, with little work to do and no one to talk to in the asylum save his grouchy assistant, he visits the local pub a bit too early in the day for professional propriety. One day he meets a man named Henderson; an American who drinks with him and offers him a ludicrous deal: five million francs to house a secret agent in his facility for just a few days, hiding him from foreign spies and agents and assassins. One million upfront, even—Henderson produces a wad of bills from his pocket. The men drink and talk, repairing to the bathroom to finalize the details.

Henderson is as candid with Malic as he’s able to be. There will be many visitors, he warns the doctor: agents affiliated with Henderson, who will drop in to assess the situation; and agents working for others, too, trying to get to the agent, codenamed “Alex.” Malic will not know who is who. Malic, flush with cash, accepts these terms.

Perhaps Malic is an idiot. This certainly occurred to me. Ignoring the weirdness of the deal—which no one sober enough to walk could be content with—there is Malic’s behavior upon returning to the asylum. He stumbles through the doorway, and in response to the nurse’s scolding, flashes his wad of bills. “I’m not allowed to say anything,” he tells her, after Henderson urged him to secrecy.

Maybe I’m not being charitable here. Maybe this is simply a man so relieved to have the money he needs, to do the work that matters to him, that he ignores all else? His concern for Lucie seems real enough. But I don’t think that’s it either. I think Malic hides away in his asylum, alone with his thoughts, his measure of authority and no women, save an old one and a crazy one, because it is there that he can be free to be himself. His trip to the bar, where he meets a strange, dark-haired man over drinks, promising adventure and maybe, exhilaration, seems like the kind of thing Malic really wants. “Nothing illegal…or degrading,” Henderson promises him. It’s so much easier to believe things when you want them to be true.

Soon Malic doesn’t know what to believe. His institution—supposedly difficult to enter or exit—becomes porous, with blatantly suspicious persons showing up unannounced and asking him questions. Among them are Kaminsky (Peter Ustinov); a menacing man who looks like a math teacher; and Cooper (Sam Jaffe); possibly an American spy, possibly a friend of Henderson’s, and far more sinister than the intellectual he played in my favorite sci-fi film, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Malic’s employees are suddenly replaced. The elderly nurse, whom we’d presumed would act as the voice of reason throughout the picture, is the first to go. When “Alex” finally arrives, well after others already have, he turns out to be a grim, secretive German who wears sunglasses even in the dark.

Curd Jürgens, as Alex, delivers a key speech in the middle of Les Espions; one so world-weary that we’re tempted to take it at face-value. He laments the life of a spy; one in which a man must be constantly on guard, and cannot enjoy the luxury of believing anyone loves him for who he is, rather than what he can offer. Alex implies a community of such lost people—indeed, so does Clouzot, as the spies in the asylum, and later, in the pub, seem to know each other and commiserate. And Alex points out, perhaps as a warning to the naïve Malic, that information is everything—that spies trade in it and trade up for ever greater knowledge, to get ahead and indeed, to justify their continued existence. And so, in the end, it doesn’t matter who they work for, or even if they themselves know who, just so long as they have some piece of information to pass along. It is the same moral no-man’s-land occupied by men like the Enron traders, so consumed with the mechanics of give and take that any consequences of the exchange become irrelevant.

People betray other people in Les Espions; they collude, they lie, they kill. No one’s motivations are clear—not even Malic’s, except on an emotional level. He is a moralist and a romantic. He has wound himself up in a grand narrative, which must conclude—be sewn up—so that all torments are justified. When it seems no righteous conclusion can be found, Malic longs to leave the deal, but the doctor can’t just do that, can he?

Nor, in a sense, can the director. After tethering us for two hours to a man we neither respect nor fully understand, in the end, Clouzot puts us in the same boat with him. We believe no one; we assess the claims of the various characters and conclude that none is more trustworthy than the others. Minor parts, like the alcoholic, or a taxi driver who comes and goes one night, could be the lynchpin of everything. Even Lucie could be a plant. We lack the information to be sure. We need more information. Les Espions could go on and on like this—could last for years, ending only when every player is dead.

The only other way to stop it, for any of the men and women in it, is to simply decide to trust. Not to question, not to attempt to out-maneuver—just to accept what one is told, and try to live life. What madness, that.

Where to find Les Espions:
Les Espions (The Spies) screens, Thursday, November 24, at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox—part of the retrospective The Wages of Fear: The Films of Henri-Georges Clouzot.

Click to read my posts on Clouzot films The Wages of Fear, Le Corbeau, and Diabolique.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Arrival of a Train (1896)

Film's here:

Eighteen months ago, I devoted blog-space to a very old silent film called Washerwomen on the River (1896).

It was my favorite of more than 80 shorts available on Kino International’s out-of-print DVD, The Lumière Brothers’ First Films. I loved it best because, in the span of only one minute, with no movement of the camera, it managed to tell a story. And in so doing, it put the lie to the notion, held by some, that the Lumière’s actualities (documentary films) lacked artistry.

Arrival of a Train, another Lumière short from the same year, makes the same overall point. And, it’s a stunning piece of art. A snapshot (almost literally) of a passenger train arriving at a station, and the mass exodus of its ticket holders, Arrival of a Train contains not one but several triumphs of composition.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Diabolique (1955)

The films of Henri-Georges Clouzot engage me quickly and totally. I don’t mean they pull me in—I mean they open the floor beneath my feet, and I drop.

Down, down; ever swifter, into darkness uncertain. This is my journey as a viewer, and often the characters’ too. It is the journey of the heroines (if heroines they be) of Diabolique: Nicole Horner and Christina Dellasalle, who live and work as teachers at the same boarding school in France. They are involved with the same man, and together, they execute a plot to kill him.

Michel (Paul Meurisse) is the school’s headmaster; Nicole (Simone Signoret) his mistress; Christina (Vera Clouzot) his devoutly Catholic wife. The three of them persist in a triangle created by Michel’s selfishness and inhumanity, dealt equally to both women—who, perhaps because of this, remain friends. Christina is moneyed. It seems unlikely that things will change until Christina dies of the heart condition that afflicts her—or Michel dies of something less natural.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Shinsedai in Toronto

Torontonians and beyond: The Shinsedai Cinema Festival arrives here in Summer 2012, and your support is needed.

The 4th annual Shinsedai Cinema Festival, showcasing new independent films from Japan, takes place between July 12th and July 15th, 2012, at The Revue Cinema. Ideally, the filmmakers themselves will be on-hand to present their films to the Canadian audience. For all their hard work, they deserve it. But that costs money.

Shinsedai's online fundraising drive is on now. The goal is $7,000: funds that will go directly to paying for roundtrip airfare for Shinsedai's Japanese guests. Here's the link.

If The Revue Cinema rings a bell, that's because it's home to Silent Sundays, the monthly series of live-accompanied silent film screenings I regularly attend, and blog about. Supporting Shinsedai means supporting The Revue, which means supporting silent film.

Japan's silent film legacy, I might add, is a rich one. The Japanese Silent Era persisted into the 1930s, providing an early outlet for legends-to-come like Ozu and Mizoguchi. Though very few works survive, those that do include some of the most sensitive and artistically bold silents ever made. Here are just three:

Tokyo Chorus (1931)
The Water Magician (1933)
Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927)

Uncle Tom’s smile, and what you make of it, is either your way in, or your way out, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

It’s a big, toothy smile, filling James B. Lowe’s face. It’s gleaming white against his very dark skin. (Lowe, thankfully, is not a man in blackface, but an African-American actor.)

The smile’s benevolent and gracious; just like Tom. It also looked, to me, to be strained, as though Tom, or at least Lowe, had to put effort into appearing so content. So we moderns would assume. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, set during and just before the U.S. Civil War, presents Southern slavery as a system almost as idyllic as it is vile. The film is even-handed on an issue we no longer demand evenness from, with the result leaving you unsure—how could someone argue against the cruelty of slavery without arguing against the owning of slaves?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Buster, Twitter, and the 21st Century

Here's a piece I wrote recently for Project Keaton, over at the (excellent) Kitty Packard Pictorial:

My Twitter avatar is Buster Keaton. It’s a screenshot of him, behind bars, from THE GOAT, one of his short films.

People love it. They’ve called it ‘perfect.’ It’s cool to them the way Buster’s bars exactly touch the edges of the frame, as though he’s imprisoned in Twitter’s own digital superstructure. One small, innocent man, peeking out of one window, in a building that has millions of them.

I didn’t think about this when I chose it. I just thought the picture looked funny. But reflecting back on it now, after a couple of years, maybe this little picture sums up why Buster matters so much to me. Not just as a fan of silent films, or as someone who writes about them regularly—but as a modern person, navigating life. Buster is me, or us, in a way the other clowns weren’t.

Almost all of us want to understand how the world works, if only so that we can fit into it better. We want to be happy, comfortable, respected, loved. We want fulfillment, freedom, sex—all the usuals. And the better we ‘get’ our world, particularly the circles in which we want to travel, the easier all this becomes to achieve. I’m not excepting the counter-culture types here either; at heart we all want to succeed on our own terms, and the most alternative person you know still, probably, wants to be part of his or her world. The only people who don’t are hermits—or possibly tramps—and you don’t know many of them.

However, most of us are not fulfilled or successful. And if we are, we’re encouraged not to rest on our laurels—to keep striving. This can be a tense thing, because the world remains big and complicated and we can’t always be sure what we’re striving for, or how reasonable our chances really are. On our bad days, we wonder if we’re good enough; on our worst days, we get metaphysical: wondering if the world is designed to thwart us.

It is a gigantic, amoral, mysterious, multi-geared machine of a world like this that all of Buster Keaton’s characters occupy, and yet, every version of him does his best to work within it. Think of the newlywed in ONE WEEK: a man who dreams of building a house; who owns the parts; who has the instructions for assembly and the mindset to follow them strictly. And he does. And he’s destroyed, because unknown to him, the man his wife turned down has changed the numbers on the crates. The house has all the right pieces, but none in the right order.

And yet he tries and tries to make it right. Just as he tries to please the people he cares about, from the sweet wife in that film to the cruel girlfriends in SPITE MARRIAGE and THE GENERAL. Can you imagine one of Fatty Arbuckle’s louts negotiating the terrain of social graces that Buster must in OUR HOSPITALITY? What about the Tramp? I think the Tramp would sooner get drunk.

The exceptions prove the rule. Buster’s sociopathic gunman in THE FROZEN NORTH is a dream; just like his alpha-male master sleuth in SHERLOCK, JR. In THE NAVIGATOR, Buster’s hero is born into wealth, but it does him no good. All Buster’s little fellows are part of the system, trying to work their way through it. They’re never trying to escape it. That would mean giving up.

Back to the Twitter thing. I was saying (actually, tweeting) to someone just today about how most people on Twitter are trying to promote themselves, one way or another. They have a sense of their own smallness, because they think so much about the world, in its vastness. They also think about how to get bigger, and see Twitter as a tool that can help. They’re convinced it can be done.

That’s a modern philosophy, and it’s a Buster philosophy all the way.

How would the other clowns approach Twitter? Lloyd would tweet regular updates about the weather and his kids’ favorite songs. Langdon wouldn’t get it—he’d try updating from his rotary phone. Arbuckle would spam you. And Chaplin, I think, wouldn’t have an account, though you’d still hear from him somehow. But Buster would be there.

It’s Buster, in spirit and in shared plight, who speaks to us best.

Now, none of this makes him better than the others. For what it’s worth, I give Buster the nod for best silent comedy feature (THE GENERAL), but not for best short (Arbuckle’s CONEY ISLAND and HE DID AND HE DIDN’T transcend even COPS and THE PLAYHOUSE). Nor was Buster the actor, innovator, businessman, or comedy polymath that Chaplin was. But Buster had genius, and his particular brand of it has aged the best.

You know… I don’t call Chaplin, Arbuckle or Lloyd by their first names. Funny thing, that.