Category Archives: Winter 2012

La La Land

La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) is in Oscar heaven with fourteen nominations total. This is equally remarkable as it is unremarkable. The Best Picture winners for the past five years can easily be categorized as either serious sociological documents (Spotlight, 12 Years A Slave, Argo) or as technological gimmicks (Birdman, The Artist). La La Land, being a traditional musical of sorts, falls into the latter category. However it possesses traits that set it apart from these other Best Picture winners of recent years. La La Land is a film for the millennial generation in its approach to love, friendship, sexuality, and ambition. The nostalgia of the musical genre and its traditional structure are all subservient to the chemistry of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, to their ill fated love affair and their anxieties. Though Spotlight (2016), 12 Years A Slave (2014), Argo (2013), Birdman (2015) and The Artist (2012) may all be films sold to the same generation as La La Land, none of them ring with the honesty of truth that defines the mechanisms of La La Land’s love story or even its most superficial trappings.

In marketing La La Land to the public a great deal of attention has been drawn to the genre of the film and its heritage. Comparisons to Billy Wilder, Jacques Demy and the Arthur Freed unit at MGM have abounded. I don’t mean to say that the works of Freed, Wilder and Demy do not enter the discourse surrounding La La Land, simply that there are a small network of other films that have paved the way for La La Land. The two most obvious being Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart (1982) and Jacques Rivette’s Haut bas fragile (1995).

One From The Heart

One From The Heart is a fantasy or marital strife and redemption set in an imaginary Las Vegas.  La La Land and One From The Heart both stress the correlation between character and environment whilst drawing heavily from a strong (and often similar) lighting design. More striking than the visual similarities is Chazelle’s success in adopting Coppola’s direction of the numbers in One From The Heart. One can see in Coppola’s staging short moments of just “being” where the actors are given a moment to exist with one another in the time between dialogue and number. This approach is not entirely successful in One From The Heart simply because it does not exist as a traditional musical, it’s hampered by its own post-modern tendencies. La La Land makes use of this approach superbly by employing it as a break in narrative thrust for the audience to reinvest in the actors. This break also makes the shift from text (dialogue) to subtext (musical number) far more fluid and believable.

Haut bas fragile, like so many films by Rivette, obsesses over the fundamentals of improvisation in the mundane. Rivette’s musical numbers leap from what feel like spontaneous interactions with a heightened emotionality. Rivette’s realism combined with the improvisatory nature of the performances make the numbers remarkable in how grounded they are in the reality of Haut bas fragile. La La Land attempts this but cannot forgo its dependence on the Freed tradition long enough to sustain it as an aesthetic choice. In fact Chazelle seems to accomplish Rivette’s sense of spontaneity only twice, and even then if feels almost accidental as a directing choice since the strength of these moments is born out of the Stone/Gosling chemistry within the context of more traditional framing and editing (Rivette always privileged a wider shot). Both these moments ground the number within the traditionally diegetic and occur with Stone finding Gosling at the piano, first in a club and then at their apartment, and each builds on the film’s main musical motif.

The Girls From Rochefort

The tendency for nostalgia is inevitable within the musical genre simply because it is largely neglected and rarely attempted.  Most of this nostalgia can be found in the sequences that compose the “inner fantasies” of the Emma Stone character. MGM classics such as Lili (1953), Gigi (1958), An American In Paris (1951), On The Town (1949), and Singing In The Rain (1952) are all referenced. So are The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964), The Young Girls Of Rochefort (1967) and The Red Balloon (1956), diversifying the element of fantasy and signifying an intellectual refinement essential to auteurist theory in cinema.

The potency of these two fantastic reveries in La La Land are not born out of Chazelle’s filmic references, but rather in placing La La Land within a unique Hollywood tradition wherein Paris represents fulfilment. This idea of Paris as a dream world is at the heart of countless films from the aforementioned Lili  to Sabrina (1954) to Midnight In Paris (2011). This distinctly post-war fantasy is indicative of both nostalgia and the potential promise of the future simultaneously. La La Land, much like Woody Allen’s recent films, exploits the millennials’ preoccupation with Paris culture in the twenties, thirties and forties by using visual signifiers within these sequences as cues for a precise emotional response akin to the image of Mickey Mouse.

One of the best moments in La La Land actually subverts this nostalgic impulse. After a screening of Nicolas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) goes awry, Stone and Gosling retreat to the planetarium featured in Ray’s film. Gazelle then releases the sexual and romantic frustrations that were the subtext of the planetarium sequence in Rebel Without A Cause by bringing his protagonists together within the same physical space. Stone and Gosling literally transcend the frustrations of Ray’s film by lifting off into the air, then the stars, in a ballet of courtship.

The sequence in the planetarium presents a duality within La La Land. At one turn it prefers the Romantic to the realistic, though inevitably the film’s protagonists do not live happily ever after. This romantic nihilism and the gradual breakdown of communication within the characters’ relationship is part of a contemporary trend within dramatic romances. La La Land sees Ryan Gosling going about the same rise and fall with a partner as he did in Blue Valentine (2010) and The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) more or less. The inevitable division within the relationship also has its roots in the tradition of “jazz dramas” turned out by Hollywood in the fifties and sixties. Michael Curtiz’s Young Man With A Horn (1950) and John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues (1962) both focus on the male’s inability to love a woman and follow a career as a musician and represent but two of so many films with such a stance.

La La Land

the Paris fantasy

The trajectory of the female protagonist as played by Emma Stone is also born out of a strong Hollywood tradition.  Stone’s character is a contemporary Sabrina Fairchild. Like Audrey Hepburn or Julia Ormond, Stone finds herself in Paris and is able to return to the states and find the love of her life and a purpose. What changes is that the narrative of La La Land focuses on Stone prior to her metamorphosing trip to Paris.
The weakness of La La Land is that, perhaps, it embraces too readily too many of the aesthetic values familiar to us from the Arthur Freed productions. The characters are beautiful idealists and dreamers living in a beautiful world. Haut bas fragile did not gloss over the urbanness of Paris, and John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes (2005) is a musical that found an unprecedented amount of beauty in the everyday of an American blue collar existence. La La Land is, however, the most worthy contender for Best Picture that the academy has nominated in a long time.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Winter 2012

LILI

for my friend Thomas

Lili (lobby card)

Lili is one of those anomalous films that was ostensibly made for children or at least young adults, like The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr.T (1953), during the latter days of the Hollywood system that manages to be suitable neither for children nor adults exclusively.  The film deviates consistently from the whimsy of the Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland films to the darker themes of Powell & Pressburger’s spectacles of dance.  It is therefore likely to assume that on a younger audience member the effect of the film, as well as the overall experience in general, would resemble my personal relationship to it.  Seeing Lili as a boy was an uncomfortable experience.  The puppets, in their “human form” as costumes worn by dancers in the film’s closing dream sequence, frightened me, particularly the moments each dancer transformed into Mel Ferrer.  Apart from this moment, few other images of Lili remained in tact for me over the years until I revisited the film earlier this week.

Lili opens with the film’s title character, played by Leslie Caron, arriving in Paris to seek employment with a baker who had been a friend of her recently deceased father.  The Paris Lili arrives at in the film resembles remarkably the Paris of An American In Paris (1951).  Immediately the picturesque and the fantastic elements of Vincente Minnelli and Arthur Freed’s film are conjured up in one’s expectations.  And, as with any good fairytale, the possibilities for Lili’s adventures seem boundless.  However, Lili has very little to do with An American In Paris aside from Leslie Caron and a similar set design.  In fact, Lili immediately charts a much darker narrative course.  At age sixteen and an orphan, Lili, rather naively, allows herself to be taken in by a shopkeeper who has informed her that her father’s friend, the baker, has also died.  After luring Lili into the back of his shop with the promise of food, the shopkeeper attempts to rape Lili.  Keep in mind that the film has sold itself as a musical coming of age story framed around the relationship a young girl forms with the puppets at a carnival.  For the film to turn in the all too real direction of innocence and virtue exploited for sexual gratification is unfathomable.   Luckily for Lili the filmmakers cannot permit Lili’s virtue and innocence to escape her so early on in the film, so she is saved by a carnival magician named Marc (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who happens to have wandered into the shopkeeper’s business.  It is from here that the film launches its narrative.  Lili follows Marc and his friends to their carnival where she seeks employment so that she can remain close to Marc whom she has idolized since the moment of her rescue from the hands of the shopkeeper.

Before exploring the dynamics of the love triangle that will form the axis of Lili‘s narrative structure it seems prudent to better contextualize what sort of film Lili was in its moment of release.  An explanation of the film’s production and its values may help to pin-point the effect the film manages to resonate today, far beyond the times of the Hollywood studio era.

Lili's first day in Paris with Marc

Lili’s first day in Paris with Marc

In 1953 MGM produced its film adaptation of Paul Gallico’s novel Love Of Seven Dolls.  MGM contracted Helen Deutsch to write the screenplay after her success with adapting Golden Earrings (1947).  To head the production, the studio assigned the picture to producer Edwin H. Knopf, a capable producer trusted to churn out quick commercial pictures on budget.  MGM’s film of Love Of Seven Dolls was intended to be one of their smaller pictures designed to fill out the studio’s program as well as to meet the demand for musical fantasies.  More prestigious productions with greater star-power of this genre would have inevitably fallen to the Arthur Freed unit.  To ensure the efficiency of the film’s production, Knopf and MGM selected director Charles Walters, a veteran of the musical genre whose best-known credit as a director is for Easter Parade (1948).

The film of Love Of Seven Dolls was re-titled Lili, after the film’s protagonist, and was incorporated into the lyrics of Deutsch’s The Song Of Love.  Lili also made use of Walton & O’Rourke’s renowned puppeteering act, allegedly the only time these puppeteer’s talents were ever committed to film.  To round out the human players in the film were Mel Ferrer as Paul Berthalet (appearing as King Arthur that same year in Richard Thorpe’s Knights Of The Round Table), Jean-Pierre Aumont as Marc, Zsa Zsa Gabor as Marc’s wife Rosalie, and Leslie Caron as Lili.  Lili was, in many respects, MGM testing the waters to determine if audiences would flock to see Caron in her own vehicle after the success of her previous film An American In Paris (1951).

As with most “test” films, MGM chose a narrative that had been proven time and again to please audiences; the love-triangle.  In the case of Lili that triangle is formed by Caron’s Lili, Aumont’s philandering magician Marc, and Ferrer’s lame dancer turned puppeteer Paul.  Going with convention it is no surprise that much of the conflicts in the film derive from the archetypes assigned each character comprising this love-triangle.  Lili, in all of her doe-eyed innocence loves Marc so intensely that it borders upon obsession and helps explain why she is so ignorant of his true character.  Paul represents the inverse of the Lili character.  After wounding his leg in WWII Paul had been forced to give up his promising dance career and pursue a living as a puppeteer, growing more bitter and distant with every passing day to the point where he can only express his affections for Lili through the puppets in his act.  This alignment primarily brings Paul into conflict with Marc, distancing Lili from Paul and drawing her closer to Marc; a case of the “right man” versus the “wrong man”.

The first truly memorable sequence that is born out of this ongoing conflict comes after Lili loses her job as a server in the carnival’s cafe.  Lili is so distraught that she cannot work or live around Marc anymore that she has resolved to kill herself by throwing herself off of a tall ladder.  It is in this moment that a shrill voice calls out to her, essentially talking her off the ledge, so to speak.  In this moment Lili begins to form her tight bond with Paul’s puppets, a mere extension of himself.  Lili, however, accepts each puppet as an individual, partly out of her own naive innocence but also partly due to her emotional desperation.  This scene climaxes with the song Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo, as well as with Lili procuring a job in Paul’s act, which ensures Lili’s proximity to Marc.  The unbelievable camp of this sequence is balanced primarily due to Leslie Caron’s genuine performance, the authenticity with which she gives her heart to Paul’s puppets.  In so many similar films sequences of this sort have failed in the absence of a performer capable of sustaining a rapport with non-human characters (an issue in many of Jim Henson’s feature films).  The attributes of Caron’s performance in this scene colored much of her characters in her subsequent films at MGM, culminating with Gigi in 1958.

Lili (dream sequence)

The next major sequence in the film highlights the attributes of Caron as a performer within the context of her role in An American In Paris where most of her scenes are played out in a kind of ballet with Gene Kelly.  In Lili this sequence is the first of two ballet dream sequences that highlight Caron’s abilities as a dancer.  Unlike other dancing beauties employed by MGM, specifically Anne Miller, Caron’s style is less sexualized and leans more toward the expressionism of the European schools of dance.  With Lili, this first ballet is highly sexualized more by its choreography, the presence of Zsa Zsa Gabor as a sex symbol, as well as with the narrative trajectory of the scene.  The contrast of the context of Lili with Caron’s portrayal of the character makes the scene more and more intense as the two styles square off.  In the scene, Marc is alone onstage while Lili, in a revealing waitress costume, mimes serving drinks to patrons at the carnival cafe.  Marc is entranced by Lili, abandoning his stage to pursue her only for Gabor to appear between them.  With the art of dance as a weapon the two women compete for Marc’s sexual attention (signified by the postures as well as by Aumont’s gaze).  When Lili wins, Marc rips a piece of her costume off (repeating a gag from his actual stage show seen earlier with Gabor).  At that moment the camera moves into Lili’s face whose expression is pure pleasure.  The scene, in this way, very abruptly interjects sex as a component to the otherwise innocent character of Lili.  In following scenes Lili’s gradual maturity will be commented upon, eventually prompting Paul to confront his own sexual desires for Lili.

The first ballet sequence is troubling in its glorification of female submissiveness but also for the very violent nature of human sexuality that it suggests as the ideal.  It seems out-of-place for a character such as Lili to delight in the sadistic sexual attitudes of Marc.  That Lili also preserves her role as a woman to being subservient to men contradicts the independence she hinted at when she first appeared in Paris at the start of the film.  However, both of these threads will come to bear as a sort if subtext running throughout the rest of the film, showing themselves again in abrupt and explicit spurts, making up the most memorable and unsettling scenes in the film.

The next major scene comes at a turning point.  By now Paul has realized his love for Lili and that Marc is standing in his way just as much as his own sense of unfulfillment as a dancer.  Marc, on the other hand, has gotten a booking as a headlining act at a famous hotel.  This scene takes place immediately after Marc informs Lili that his days of traveling with the carnival are over.  Sobbing, Lili happens upon Paul, who inquires as to why it should be that she is crying.  Once Lili explains, Paul hits Lili across the face, prompting Lili to quit the carnival and the puppet act.  Paul’s masochistic behavior suddenly becomes sadistic, then reverts back to a now more intensified kind of psychological self-torture.  What’s most disturbing is that Lili eventually returns to Paul and the puppets after considering why it is that he hit her, concluding that it must be because he loves her.  The relation of this scene to what follows clearly suggests a cycle of abuse in a relationship destined to end badly, evoking, in my mind, Goffin and King’s He Hit Me & It Felt Like A Kiss.

Lili’s decision to return to Paul comes after the second ballet dream sequence.  But before getting into this particular sequence it will be important to note that between hitting Lili and her dream, Paul finds himself again and is released from his masochistic behavior with a prestigious booking and some high praise for his puppet show.  Again the film reinforces the notion that men are shallow, emotional opportunists with a barbaric approach to sexuality.  With that conveyed, Lili embarks on another dream ballet.

the puppets come to life

the puppets come to life

This scene was mentioned earlier as being the only one I could remember, and seeing it now the masks that the dancers wear to look like the puppets remind me of the masks of animals the townspeople wear in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973).  I am also struck by the recurrence of transformation borrowed from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948).  Just as in The Red Shoes, the transformations in this sequence of Lili are from fantasy to reality, giving a visual representation to the transition from Lili’s girlhood to womanhood, a love for Marc to a love for Paul.  The setting of this dream is also of interest given that it is the only scene in the film with a deep perspective.  This illusion of depth and space created on an MGM soundstage lends a ominence to the scene, as if the potential aimlessness of Lili were to be her undoing.  Again, the film strikes at female independence.  Just when all of the puppet dancers have transformed into Paul then vanished, Lili awakes, turns, and goes running to her true love, the man behind the curtain.

In the context of post-war America these kinds of fantasy films, for they are neither strictly musical nor drama, clearly have their function.  The illusions of these films, the fantasies they summon all offer a simultaneous hope and an escape from our reality.  Lili gets neither herself, but her story, and in a sense her martyrdom, grants the audience these two precious commodities of the cinema.

-Robert Curry

 

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Filed under Autumn 2015, Winter 2012

Two Short Reviews

Given that it is the holiday season and that post-production is just now concluding on four productions simultaneously there just has not been very much time to dedicate to writing.  However, I have recently seen two films, one new and one slightly older, that I would like to discuss to some measure.  That said, I believe I should note that neither film is meant to really be discussed in conjunction with the other.  The grouping of these two films is circumstantial, though if one sheds some light onto the other through these brief critical appraisals so much the better.

Spotlight

spotlight

from left to right: Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, & Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight

Spotlight (2015), despite all of the hype, is not the first film to deal with the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the institution that protects them, nor is it the first film to dramatize the actual events surrounding the story as it broke at the Boston Globe.  In anticipation of Spotlight I watched Dan Curtis’ (best known as the man behind the show Dark Shadows) film Our Fathers (2005), a Showtime original movie.  Each film represents a different approach to the same story and coincidentally both are rather effective ensemble pieces.  The primary difference is actually quite simple, and that is that Our Fathers focuses on characters within the church and Spotlight restricts itself exclusively to the perspective of the journalists who first broke the story.  Considering how that sounds, one may be surprised that each film remains relatively objective in its treatment of characters (each film does, in one manner or another, condemn the Catholic Church).  McCarthy’s Spotlight redeems characters complacent to the cover-ups just as it also allows protagonist Michael Keaton to be subject to very human errors and mis-judgements.  Likewise, Curtis’ Our Fathers goes to great lengths to humanize Cardinal Law’s (Christopher Plummer) crisis of faith as the cover-ups become public.  This is even more astounding to a degree due to the fact that Our Fathers, unlike Spotlight, was aired only four years after the Boston Globe exposed the Catholic Church.

The traits that make Spotlight at worst an “interesting” viewing experience are clearly the product of Tom McCarthy’s talents.  Tom McCarthy who has written (with Josh Singer) and directed Spotlight seems to have been groomed to tackle this material.  His background as an actor on The Wire and Law & Order has certainly colored his approach to recreating the story, bringing recognizable narrative arcs and character types of the “true crime” genre into the film.  McCarthy’s recent work as a director on a series of character driven independent films is also certainly at work in Spotlight, particularly when one considers the strong performances of the film’s ensemble cast.

This leads us to what is the most impressive aspect of Spotlight; its lack of a proper villain.  Yes, the Catholic Church and its lawyers represent the obstacle to the journalists’ justice, yet is left, as it would be to the journalists’ perspective, a vast and faceless entity.  Faceless in that the multitude responsible for the cover-ups of child molestation by priests is too great to be summed up by one character (a component that is not shared by Our Fathers).  This gives Spotlight a kind of ambiguity that is effective in persuading viewers that are of the thinking that these cover-ups are the result of a few “bad apples”.  The audience must make the journey, with the journalists, to uncover the facts of the case and thus come to a moral conclusion.  In most films an alternative perspective to that of the protagonists would be manifest in a single character representative of this alternate perspective who would be given scenes that demonstrate the immorality of this conflicting position.  Singer and McCarthy’s script has none of this, opting instead to repackage the prestigious “message film” as an effective and engaging piece of persuasion.

Serena

o-SERENA-facebook

Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence as the Pembertons in Serena

Lumber barons have, believe it or not, been a staple in American cinema for a long time.  I am prompted to say this because I have heard a number of people react to the premise of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence starring in a lumber drama as if it were a quaint novelty.  Granted, it is a sub-genre that is not often employed in this day and age, with the exception of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), so is the genre of the oil baron drama.  Yet each sub-genre shares a singular conceptual thread; the disillusion of morality in the face of capitalist gain.  This is the very crux of Written On The Wind (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1956), Giant (dir. George Stevens, 1956), The Strange Woman (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1946) and Come & Get It (dirs. Howard Hawks & William Wyler, 1936).

But unlike the dramas of oil barons and their industry, the lumber baron drama has a visual allegiance to an entirely unrelated film genre, the western.  Like westerns, these films about logging in the wilderness are so rooted in the visual textures of nature that they adorn, intentionally or not, the romanticism of the western genre, the idealistic certainty of the Westward expansion.  With Serena (2014) director Susanne Bier wisely embraces this element of the genre, utilizing a number of cutaways and establishing shots of the North Carolina mountain ranges to give an expressionistic reflection of the protagonists’ psychological and emotional states at any given time.  The manner in which these nature shots linger owe a debt to films by Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, though Bier appears to have some difficulty wedding this aesthetic with the performances of her lead actors.

Cooper and Lawrence’s portrayals of the Pembertons are melodramatic to the point of camp, a fact that isn’t at all odd when one considers the supernatural (second sight) and all together gothic elements of the narrative.  This union of camp with the gothic can also be seen in Ulmer’s lumber baron drama The Strange Woman, supporting the relative success this combination of filmic elements is capable of.  However the style in which Bier captures her characters, an intensely realist approach to the visual language of these scenes, does much to undermine both the camp and the gothic elements entreanched in the films material.  Ulmer, representing the opposition to social realism and therefore Bier’s aesthetic, preferred The Strange Woman to be theatrical in its visual language, capturing the performances of Heddy Lamarr and George Sanders through a gloss of obvious artifice indebted to the theories of Bertolt Brecht.  Bier, on the other hand, is rooted in the contemporary trends of realism best exemplified in the films of Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold.

-Robert Curry

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Buster Keaton: An Oral History Part III

On October 4, 1895, Joseph Francis  “Buster” Keaton was born.  In the one hundred and twenty years since his birth, Buster Keaton has become an iconic clown and one of the most influential filmmakers of all time.  To commemorate this landmark anniversary, I have compiled a three part oral history of Keaton’s life and career, allowing us to read, in his own words, how he made the silent films that have become classics of comedy and world cinema.  [NOTE: This oral history has been compiled from a number of readily available interview sources and biographies.  I and all Keaton fans around the world are heavily indebted to the interviewers and historians who have conducted those interviews.  It is not the intention of this editor or Zimbo Films to take credit for this interview material or to profit from it.  For a full list of citations, please see below.]

The General (1927)

The General - Buster Keaton

BUSTER KEATON:  Clyde Bruckman run into this book called The Great Locomotive Chase, a situation that happened in the Civil War, and it was a pip.  Says, “Well, it’s awful heavy for us to attempt, because when we got that much plot and story to tell, it means we’re goin’ to have a lot of film with no laughs in it.  But we won’t worry too much about if it we can get the plot all told in the first reel, and our characters…all planted, and then go ahead and let it roll.”  Well, that was the finished picture, and – it held an audience.  They were interested in it – from start to finish – and there was enough laughter to satisfy.1   

That was…well, I was more proud of that picture, I suppose, than any other picture I ever made because I took an actual happening out of the Civil War, out of the history book. And I told it in detail, too.  I told the story of the Northerners coming into the South as civilians and stealing that engine with the intent of burning bridges behind them to cripple Confederate supply trains moving north to the Southern armies.  And then the chase was on.2  And I staged the chase exactly the way it happened.  Then I rounded out the story of stealing my engine back…the original chase ended when I found myself in Northern territory and had to desert.  From then on it was my invention, in order to get a complete plot.  It had nothing to do with the Civil War.3

…I went to the original location, from Atlanta, Georgia, up to Chattanooga, and the scenery didn’t look very good.  It looked terrible…so I went to Oregon.  And in Oregon…the whole state is honeycombed with narrow-gauge railroads for all the lumber mills, ’cause they handle all their trees and things like that with narrow-gauge railroads.  Well, so I found trains going through valleys, mountains, by little lakes or mountain streams – anything I wanted.  So we got rolling equipment – wheels and trucks and stuff like that.  We built our freight train and our passenger train, and remodeled three locomotives….the engines working in these lumber camps were all so doggone old, it was an easy job.  They were all wood burners, all of them.  And at that period they didn’t pay much attention to numbers on engines – they named them all.  That’s what accounts for the General – and the one I chased it with was the Texas.  It’s the Texas I threw through the burning bridge.  Well, we built that bridge.  We also dammed up water underneath it so that there would be more water, so that the stream would look better.4

MARION MACK, actress, The General: We were six months on it.  They used what I think today would be called just an outline…they told you what the scene was, but you were expected to make up your own bits of business, and if anybody had an idea they would try it and see how it played.  [We improvised] all the time.  You know the scene on the engine where I’m supposed to feed the fire, I’m supposed to be a little dumb about it.  So somebody said I should get hold of a log with a knothole in it, and throw it away.  I did that, but I didn’t think the audience would understand it, and then I saw a very small piece of wood, and I picked it up and threw it in.  Buster liked it, so right away he built it up; I mean he picked up an even smaller piece, just a splinter really, to see if I would be dumb enough to use that, too.  And of course I did, and so he jumped on me as if he was going to choke me, but at the last moment he really gave me a little peck on the cheek.  I think I got that kiss more for thinking of the gag than for anything else.  And none of this was in written form at all.5

BUSTER KEATON:  We found [the mounted cannon].  It’s an actual gun from the Civil War.  The first railroad gun.  And we duplicated that cannon.  It almost looks like a prop we invented.  That’s the only thing that kind of scared us.  When it comes to using it.  They said, “Everybody’s going to say, ‘Oh, they invented the prop just to get that gag.’”  But it’s an actual reproduction of a railroad gun built in the Civil War….We found it in more than one book.

…when it come to do the battle scenes, I hired the National Guard of Oregon.  Got five hundred men there.  And we managed to locate about 125 horses.  Then in getting the equipment up from Los Angeles, we had to have a lot of it made.  We had to have artillery pieces and army saddles and stuff like that and uniforms both gray and blue.  And  put [the men] in blue uniforms and bring ’em goin’ from right to left, and take ’em out, put ’em in gray uniforms, bring ’em from the right (laughs).  And fought the war.6

MARION MACK:  You know, I was told at the beginning that there would be a double to do all the stunts, and a girl was actually hired and was standing by, so I was satisfied.  But then, as Buster got to know me better I guess he decided I was a good sport, and would you believe it, they never used that girl once as far as I know.  Like in the scene where I’m in the sack and Buster is supposed to step all over me.  He told me to get in the sack, and then they would cut and let the other girl replace me for the rough stuff.  But next thing I knew, he was stepping all over me, and the cameras were grinding.  But I didn’t get mad at him that time, I must say he knew just how to do it so it wouldn’t hurt me.  I guess it was his vaudeville training.7

BUSTER KEATON:  Oh God, that girl in The General had more fun with that picture than any film she’d made in her life (smiles).  I guess it’s because so many leading ladies in those days looked as though they had just walked out of a beauty parlor.  They always kept them looking that way – even in covered wagons, they kept their leading ladies looking beautiful at all times.  We said thunder with that, we’ll dirty our up a bit and let them have some rough treatment.8

MARION MACK:  Most [scenes] Buster okayed after one or two takes.  The only ones that had to be timed to precision were the gags, and they sometimes took five or six tries.  But they also shot quite a few whole scenes which were never used in the finished picture, because Buster was a perfectionist, and he only used the best scenes.  That’s why the whole film is so tightly edited, he took out all the scenes which would have dragged it out.9

GEORGE MILLER, filmmaker:  When I saw [The General], I thought, “[Buster Keaton] is someone who’s incredibly careful with the camera and choreographs quite complex events inside the cuts.”  The thing about sound is it allows you to cheat; put in little bridges. But in silent films the editing has to be solid. And I asked [my editor] Margaret Sixel to cut [Mad Max] Fury Road  (2015) as a silent movie.10

ORSON WELLES, actor/filmmaker: I think The General is almost the greatest movie ever made.  The most poetic movie I’ve ever seen.  Some of the things Keaton thought up to do are incredible.11

DAVID ROBINSON, film historian:  The General is unique and perhaps perfect.  In form and method it is like no other comedy, not even another Keaton picture.  Here, uniquely, the dramatic action and the comic business are one and interdependent.  Every shot has the authenticity and the unassumingly correct composition of a Matthew Brady Civil War photograph.12

RUDI BLESH, Keaton biographer:  [The General‘s] rich diversity of incident – sad, bumptious, heroic – makes up a cinema masterpiece.  Buster Keaton would likely not relish being called a poet.  But poetry is where you find it, and it is in The General.13

College (1927)

BUSTER KEATON: I liked College.  I tried to be an athlete when I was an honor student in high school and of course I flunked everything then.  Until I got into a jam.  They made me coxswain of the boat in order to make an athlete out of me.  Oh – one of my best gags in it was I was at the Coliseum doing a warm-up with all the other athletes, see.  No people in the grandstand…14

[For the pole vault] I went and got Lee Barnes from USC – he was the Olympic champion.  When it comes to pole vaulting into a window – I mean, you’ve got to get somebody who knows what they’re doing.15

LUIS BUNUEL, surrealist filmmaker:  [College] was as beautiful as a bathroom, with a Hispano’s vitality.  We never stop smiling for an instant, not at [Buster Keaton], but at ourselves, with the smile of well-being and Olympian strength.16

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)

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BUSTER KEATON: The original story I had was about the Mississippi, but we actually used the Sacramento River in California, some six hundred miles north of Los Angeles.  We went up there and built that street front, three blocks of it, and built the piers and so on.  We found the river boats right there in Sacramento: one was brand new, and we were able to age the other one up to make it look as though it was ready to fall apart.  My original situation in that film was a flood.  Well, the publicity man on Steamboat Bill goes to [Joseph] Schenck and he says: “He can’t do a flood sequence because we have floods every year and too many people are lost.  It’s too painful to get laughs with.”  So Schenck told me, “you can’t do a flood.”  I said, “That’s funny, since it seems to me that Chaplin during World War I made a picture called Shoulder Arms, which was the biggest money-maker he’s made at that time.  You can’t get a bigger disaster than that, and yet he made his biggest laughing picture out of it.”  He said, “Oh, that’s different.”  I don’t know what it was different.  I asked if it was all right to make a cyclone, and he agreed that was better.  Now he didn’t know it, but there are four times more people killed in the United States by hurricanes and cyclones than by floods.  But it was all right as long as he didn’t find that out, and so I went ahead with my technical man and did the cyclone.17

There’s a pretty good beating in Steamboat Bill – working in front of those wind machines is tough.  We had six of those machines and they were those big Liberty motor babies.  One of them – in the course of a shot of running a truck full of paper boxes – about the size of shoe boxes – between me and the camera, that wind just emptied all the shoe boxes off onto me – just for one shot.  We took a truck past there once and that one machine blew it off the bank, and it rolled into the Sacramento River.  That’s how powerful those wind machines are.18

[For the falling house front] I had them build the framework of this building and make sure that the hinges were all firm and solid.  It was a building with a tall V-shaped roof, so that we could make this window up in the roof exceptionally high.  An average second story window would be about twelve feet, but we’re up about eighteen feet.  Then you lay this framework down on the ground, and build the window around me.  We built the window so that I had a clearance of two inches on each shoulder, and the top missed my head by two inches and the bottom my heels by two inches.  We mark that ground out and drive big nails where my two heels are going to be.  Then you put that house back up in position while they finish building it.  They put the front on, painted it, and made the jagged edge where it tore away from the main building; and then we went in and fixed the interiors so that you’re looking at a house that the front has blown off.  Then we put up our wind machines with the big Liberty motors.  Now we had to make sure that we were getting our foreground and background wind effect, but that no current ever hit the front of that building when it started to fall, because if the wind warps her she’s not going to fall where we want her, and I’m standing right out front.  But it’s a one-take scene and we got it that way.  You don’t do those things twice.19

MGM

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BUSTER KEATON:  The biggest mistake I made in my career was leaving my own studio and going to MGM.  Chaplin warned me, so did Lloyd – but Joe Schenck talked me into it.20  So many times I’ve thought it all over.  I thought of this:  Joe Schenck was still an independent.  I don’t know if it was human nature, greed, or power, but the big companies were out to kill the independents.  Motion pictures were becoming the finest trust you ever saw.  So I thought, Perhaps they’re after Schenck.  He was too big to knock down, but maybe his brother Nick at MGM said, “Look Joe, it’s hurting business.”  Could be.  In fact, within two more years Joe…quit independent production entirely.  Joe went on and became head of Twentieth Century-Fox.  But if that was his real reason, why didn’t he tell me?  We were friends.21

LOUISE BROOKS, actress:  I think Joe Schenck was the first old turtle Darwin saw when the Beagle anchored off the Galapagos – certainly not a cuddly “father figure” for Keaton.  Anyhow, Buster, like Peter Pan, didn’t want a father.  He had his magic world of film production and his house rigged like a Douglas Fairbanks set – or Peter Pan’s ship.22

JAMES KAREN, actor:  He would never say a rotten word about Schenck.  Once I blew up and said what was on my mind: “Look, he made a fortune off you and then he destroyed you!”  Buster got up and walked away from me.23

LAWRENCE WEINGARTEN, Keaton’s MGM Producer:  When he came to us he had been working for Joseph M. Schenck in the early days of The General and The Navigator, and then his popularity started to wane, and Mr. Schenck was trying to find some way to get rid…of some of the contract…So we took the contract.  He could have gone on his own, nobody asked him to sign the contract at Metro…24

The Cameraman (1928)

BUSTER KEATON: The Cameraman is one of my pet pictures.  It’s the simplest story that you can find, which was always a great thing for us if we could find it.  I was a tintype cameraman down at Battery Park, New York.  Ten cents a picture.

I saw the Hearst Weekly [newsreel] man and a script girl with him that I got one look at and fell hook, line, and sinker.  Well, immediately, I went down and sold my tintype thing to a second-hand dealer and bought a second-hand motion-picture camera.  And of course I got one of the oldest models there was – a Pathe.  And I went to the Hearst offices…and they got one look at me and my equipment and says, “no”. [Laughs]  The girl saw me make the attempt and she says, “There’s only one way you can do anything.  You gotta go out and photograph somethin’ of interest.  And if they see it and they can use the film you shoot, they’ll but it from you.” Well, I set out to be a newsreel cameraman.  And of course I had my problems.25  Marceline Day was the leading girl in it.  [In the film] I finally got a date with her, and it was raining in New York cats and dogs.  I managed to get her to her house, and she kissed me on the cheek, good-night.  Well, I just went right off on Cloud One.  I just started down the street, and it was raining.  I was drowned, and “Eddie” [Harry] Gribbon was a cop, and he had on his raincoat…he just walked along with me for half a block looking at me while I just stared into space, peaceful.  He finally sat me down, and he examined my eyes, tried my reflexes…26

…[Later] I got mixed up in that Tong War down there and because they saw me photographin’ they came at me.  I didn’t seem to have any choice but to just leave my camera and dive out the window into a fire escape and get away from ’em.  And then go ahead and round out the story.  We previewed it and we thought the last reel was a good reel…and the last reel just died the death of a dog.  It dawned on us what it was.  I deserted the camera.  So I had to go back and remake that – even with the trouble of tryin’ to get away from…the Tong War.  I still kept my camera.  Then it was all right.  (Laughs)  It was O.K.27

HAROLD GOODWIN, actor, The Cameraman:  We had no sooner started [filming] The Cameraman than trouble started.  [Director Edward] Sedgwick, whom I had made many pictures with, called me aside one day and confided, unbeknownst to B.K., that the front office had called him in.  They wanted to know why we weren’t following the script.  Ed explained that often a situation arises that has comedy potential and B.K. Liked to milk it for all it is worth.  The brass wanted to know how they could budget a show if we didn’t follow the script.  Some thinking!28

FRANK DUGAS, assistant cameraman:  [Keaton and the crew] sat talking like they were around a campfire.  “Will this be funny?””Let’s try this out.”  Buster knew film from A to Z.  He dug in like a flea on a dog, until he reached down to the skin, until he knew he had something terrific.29

BUSTER KEATON:  Irving Thalberg was in charge of production and he wanted – oh – I wasn’t in trouble enough trying to manipulate a camera as a cameraman, trying to photograph current events as a news weekly cameraman.  In The Cameraman, Thalberg wanted me involved with gangsters, and then get in trouble with this one and that one, and that was my fight – to eliminate those extra things.30

Talking Pictures

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BUSTER KEATON:  … in ’29 I made Spite Marriage.  That was the last of the silents.  In the start of the season of 1930 was our first sound picture.  Then I made six more for MGM in the next three years.  But in every picture it got tougher…too many cooks.  Everybody at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was in my gag department, including Irving Thalberg.  They were joke happy.  They didn’t look for action; they were looking for funny things to say.  You just keep fighting that, see.

Then, of course, when you give me…Jimmy Durante [as a costar] – they just brought him in there to play a part in a picture with me.  Well, Durante just can’t keep quiet.  He’s going to talk no matter what-in-the-thunder happens.  You can’t direct him any other way.31

LAWRENCE WEINGARTEN:  Keaton was doing a certain amount of business.  And we thought that Durante..in this particular role, would be fine, that’s all.  We weren’t thinking of bolstering him.  There were a number of pictures made, we tried out best.  If it wasn’t good enough, that’s another thing.  But we didn’t set out to destroy Buster…If anything we kept him alive longer…Some of [the MGM] pictures did much more than his original silent pictures, but he was the victim of change.  Sound comedy is a different thing entirely.  Sound comedy is about what people say, not what they do.  We tried to combine both.32

BUSTER KEATON:  But I know for a finish, they were picking stories and material without consulting me, and I couldn’t argue them out of it.  They’d say, “This is funny,” and I’d say, “I don’t think so.”  They’d say, “This’ll be good.”  I’d say, “It stinks.”  It didn’t make any difference; we did it anyhow.  I’d only argue so far, and then let it go.  And I knew better.  I got to the stage where I didn’t give a darn whether school kept or not, and then I started drinking too much.33

MARION MACK:  … his [first] marriage went on the rocks, and they wouldn’t let him make films the way he wanted to make them, and I felt really sorry for him.  That’s what I think drove him to drink.34

J.J. COHN, MGM General Manager:  I wasn’t aware of his drinking problems.  Occasionally [Louis B.] Mayer would give parties and I’d see Keaton there, but he was always fine.  He wasn’t difficult, a nice man who had a lot to say about his work.35

HAROLD GOODWIN:  He had cocktails.  He started drinking later when he was running into so much trouble with Larry Weingarten.36

LAWRENCE WEINGARTEN:  Buster, in those days, was an alcoholic and he was in a place called The Keeley Cure, down on Wilshire Boulevard, that dried out drunks.  That was the only problem I ever had with Buster Keaton.  I didn’t know it was a problem…37

BUSTER COLLIER, actor:  Buster Keaton needed excitement.  But deeper than that, he loved to make everybody happy, liked his gang around.  So it became two drinks in the evening, then four, and then the sky’s the limit.

He was well informed and intelligent.  But he was sensitive, almost abnormally so… Buster didn’t have that hard shell of ego.  As a rule, you came out of vaudeville tough as nails.

I saw it begin to happen.  I loved and admired the guy too much to stick around and watch it.  We drifted apart.  I tried to talk to him, but his gang had made a wall around him; he didn’t feel like facing anything unpleasant.  When he started to go, he really went.  What do you say about Buster Keaton?  He was just too nice a guy.38

BUSTER KEATON:  It only takes about two bad pictures in a row to put the skids under you.  [After leaving MGM] I tried making a picture in Mexico, found that was impossible.  I tried making one… in England.  I did one in France.  Oh, it was a bad picture.  It was impossible to make those types of pictures there.  I couldn’t do it in Mexico, although I had a funny story for Mexico.  But getting them done right…

I was called [back to MGM] to “play [script] doctor” to three [Red] Skelton pictures…Skelton remade three of my pictures that MGM gave him to do…in those three remakes, the second picture didn’t compare to the original for laughs or entertainment.  Now, all for one reason: the writers…and the producers insisted on improving the originals. So, all three pictures died of improvement.  39

Skelton’s first love was radio, and yet nobody could do a better scene on the screen that Skelton without opening his trap, but he’d do it anyhow – ad lib…[and] he’d go to his dressing room on the stage between scenes and he wasn’t worrying about what he was going to do in the next scene.  He’d go in there and write gags…for his radio script. Well, that used to get my goat because, my God, when we made pictures, we ate, slept, and dreamed them!40

LEWIS JACOBS, producer:  It seemed to me that [MGM was] buying off their own conscience [by re-hiring Keaton as a gag writer] – at a hundred bucks a week.  He was one of the skeletons in the MGM closet.  The older writers said that Buster Keaton saved Metro in the critical days.  Made millions for them.  Buster Keaton is a genius – and MGM can’t use him!  The older and sadder he got, the more touching and compelling became the clown.41

Television

JIMMY TALMADGE, Keaton’s son:  [My wife and I had] the first TV set on our block, a ten-inch GE that weighed a ton.  My dad came over the first weekend we had it.  All afternoon he sat mesmerized in front of this thing.  Maybe it wasn’t the first time he’d see TV, but it was the first time he’d sat down and actually watched it.  At dinner, I remember him saying, “This is the coming thing in entertainment.”  Now this was at the time when…many others were saying TV was a fad that would soon disappear.42

BUSTER KEATON:  I love television.  It gives you new life, but I only like television to work to an audience live.43  When I first tried a television show, when it was a young business, we were working to an audience.  Then later on they talked me into doing ’em just to a silent motion picture camera.  Well, it didn’t work, because no matter what you did, it looked like something that had been shot thirty years ago.  It just looked old-fashioned, but the same material done in front of a live audience [didn’t].  People sitting in their living room where there are only three or four people…don’t laugh out loud to start the others laughing.  It is not like being in a motion picture theater where you got a couple thousand people there to help you laugh.  And the canned laughs are absolutely no good at all.  They don’t ring true at all.44

I think in making a program picture today you’re just asking for trouble.  You can’t get your money back…you’ve got to get into one of those big things in order to get your money back.  I’m anxious to see the day when television and the motion picture industry marry and set out a system, because it can’t continue the way it is.  I see only one solution to it.  There should be paid television, and they could keep the costs so low that the poorest man in the world could have a television; they can keep the entertainment low priced.  And in that way you’d make pictures exactly the way you used to make them before television – I mean, you’d think nothing of spending a million and a half for a program picture.45

Fade Out

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RAYMOND ROHAUER, film archivist:  [Keaton] wasn’t particularly interested in saving [his films].  He didn’t care.  But it didn’t make any difference what he said.  I had to [save them].  It’s a compulsion.46

STAN BRAKHAGE, experimental filmmaker:  [Rohauer] was a strange man with very kinky habits, one of the weirdest people I’ve ever met.  You have to give the devil his due.  With his wild and sometimes vicious love of film, Rohauer did more to preserve meaningful work than any museum in the world.  It was his one good deed…47

ELEANOR KEATON, Buster Keaton’s third wife:  He got crazy on the subject of Buster.  Raymond was a fighter, but he was greedy and grabbed every still and poster he could find.  Some of it was trash.  But he didn’t want anyone else to have it.48

JOEL GROSS, screenwriter:  Raymond’s reputation didn’t bother me.  Because despite all the talk, he was the guy who had worked with Buster to save the films and win his rights back.  Others profited but didn’t do a thing for Buster.49

WALTER KERR, theatre critic:  Buster Keaton’s films were sorely neglected for twenty-five years.  In the recent excitement that has come of their rediscovery…he has been hailed, here and there, not only as Chaplin’s equal, but as Chaplin’s superior.  Let Chaplin be king, and Keaton court jester.  The king effectively rules, the jester tells the truth.50

ORSON WELLES:  Keaton was beyond all praise…a very great artist, and one of the most beautiful men I ever saw on the screen.  He was also a superb director.  In the last analysis, nobody came near him.  Now, finally, Keaton’s been “discovered”.  Too late to do him any good of course – he lived all those long years in eclipse, and then, just as the sun was coming out again, he died.  I wish I’d known him better than I did.  A tremendously nice person, you know, but also a man of secrets.  I can’t even imagine what they were.51

MARION MACK:  Buster was really a shy person.  Some people said he was aloof, but his aloofness was mostly just shyness, I think.  He wasn’t easy to know very closely.   At first I felt a little bit, I’d say, ignored or slighted, but then he got a bit more friendly as he lost some of his shyness, and he turned out to be a very nice and warm person.  And a very humble one, too, that’s the surprising part.

That was the real Buster: funny as hell on the screen and a true friend off the screen.  They just don’t make them like that anymore.  He was the best of them all.52

BUSTER KEATON:  …I’m not sentimental by nature.  Sure I miss the Keystone Cops and Mack Sennett and Stan [Laurel] and Oliver [Hardy] and the rest, but I don’t moon over the past.  I don’t have time.  I work more than Doris Day.

I drive by [the Motion Picture Relief Home] sometimes and talk to some of the old-timers, but it makes me so sad I don’t do it often.  They live in the past, I don’t.  One Easter Sunday I went to a party at Mary Pickford’s house.  Everybody from silent films was there.  I tried to have fun, but I discovered we had nothing to talk about.  Some of them had never heard a Beatles record.  They haven’t kept up with the times.  I had four friends who retired at the age of sixty-five and they were all dead within a year.  They simply had nothing to do, nothing to occupy their minds.  I have so many projects coming up I don’t have time to think about kicking the bucket.  People are always telling me I’m immortal.  I just might prove them right.  Hell, the way I feel, I just might live forever.53

Edited by Hank Curry

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Filed under Autumn 2015, Winter 2012

Listen To Me Marlon

Executed in 1966, Double Marlon is a celebration of a male icon.  Warhol has placed the double image of Marlon Brando, taken from his highly influential and controversial 1953 movie The Wild One, at the right-hand edge of a vast, deliberately unprimed canvas.” – William Paton, 2008

Andy Warhol's Double Marlon

Andy Warhol’s Double Marlon

Stevan Riley’s Listen To Me Marlon (2015) presents us with another doubled rendering of Marlon Brando.  Since Warhol originated his original silkscreen, Brando has lost none of his potency as a visual signifier.  Riley clearly understands this, as Warhol did, opting out of any contextualizing prologue in his film, favoring a direct descent into the “mind” of his subject, Marlon Brando.  The doubling in Listen To Me Marlon is not a visual one, but one of sound and image.  This coupling is one of the foundations of contemporary cinema, though it has been implemented in Riley’s film somewhat unconventionally.  That is to say that the images of Brando within the film, culled from motion pictures, news reels, and television broadcasts, rarely partner with the voiceover provided by the late Brando from his own audio journals.  Thus is the nature of the voiceover.  Where Ken Burns would rely upon Peter Coyote to dramatize the events recounted in a documentary, Riley has the luxury of the subject himself providing “his own” thoughts and recollections.

Andrew Solt’s Imagine: John Lennon (1988) implements the same technical and aesthetic techniques as Listen To Me Marlon.  Both films present unique portraits of their subjects in that these films are able to pass as authentic renderings of the subject within the confines of sound and image.  However, and this was more evident in Riley’s film than in Solt’s, the audio of the voiceover is actually a patchwork of dialogue edited together.  Obviously this is motivated by a need to make the subjects more succinct in their respective recollections and thoughts.  But another decisive proponent that often leads to such tinkering is the pressure upon the estates of both Lennon and Brando to preserve the brand they represent.  In Imagine: John Lennon May Pang is clearly edited into the relative footnotes of the film whilst Brando’s bisexuality and controversial relationship with fellow actor Montgomery Clift is overlooked entirely.  Both films reveal this white-washing in the filmmakers desperate need to make a film that appears all-inclusive of its subject.  May Pang is allowed a few fond recollections of her time with Lennon in 1974 while Riley uses a home-movie clip of Brando and Clift “goofing off” together in two brief instances early in Listen To Me Marlon.

The commerciality shared by Imagine and Listen To Me Marlon de-synchronizes the doubling of sound and image in a harmony that is authentic.  This is also expressed by Riley’s self-restriction when it comes to Brando’s career, bounding from the early sixties to Coppola’s The Godfather then to death.  Brando the brand that is seen on Turner Classic Movies’ websites and promotional materials, on t-shirts, handbags, buttons, and jackets, is almost always restricted to the Brando of the fifties.  This is another signal of Listen To Me Marlon‘s inauthenticity, as well as its power as a branding device.  Consider the effect this film will have as a form of advertisement for the products of the Brando brand?

What Listen To Me Marlon represents that is truly regrettable is that the film did not live up to its potential.  The vast scope of the material Brando had recorded onto cassette is astonishing.  If that had been coupled with exclusively the 16mm and Super 8 film of Brando’s own home movies then Listen To Me Marlon would have been unforgettable, if not unlike the films of Mark Rappaport.  If that had been the case, then the linear core structure of the film could have been replaced with a meditative, meandering one of self-reflection on the part of Brando, dictated by Brando himself by way of his tapes.

Director John Huston instructs Marlon Brando on the set of Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Director John Huston instructs Marlon Brando on the set of Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Listen To Me Marlon does redeem itself, and not just in its value as entertainment.  If one knew very little of Marlon Brando, one would have found Riley’s film informative and even engrossing.  Yet its true merits come from Brando’s insights into performance.  These insights, peppered throughout the film, are exactly the ideas young actors must be aware of, and these concepts are phrased in the manner that they should be.  The instructive possibilities of Riley’s film were something I had not anticipated.  The talents of the next generation would do well to have a look at Listen To Me Marlon.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Winter 2012

A Dog Unarmed

Burt Lancaster in Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz (1954)

Burt Lancaster in Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954)

When one thinks of the American West one may recall the vistas of John Ford, prints by Mort Künstler, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, the music of Ennio Morricone, or even perhaps Tom Mix, though that seems somewhat doubtful today.  The West, with its legendary gunfighters, its promise of Western expansion, and the advent of railways that would unite the country have all worked together to solidify its myth in the consciousness of nearly every American.  The West provides such a rich mythology that, within the cinema, it has become the single most American of film genres.  It’s potential and versatility has even prompted filmmakers from without the United States to make films of the West.  Just as American filmmakers embraced Arthurian legend and Roman history, so have the Europeans embraced the Western.

Being the most popular genre in this country one can find an almost inexhaustible resource of film criticism and analysis on the subject.  Critics have been debating the many forms the genre has taken over the years since its inception in the late 19th century.  Due to this over abundance I have seen fit to isolate and examine a few key films from the last century that represent an international understanding of the genre.  Placing these films for discussion by order of release will help map the evolution of the genre from B-Movie to blockbuster and beyond.  But in selecting these films I have opted to avoid titles and filmmakers alike who have become iconic within the genre.  Names such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, George Stevens, John Sturges, Richard Thorpe, Clint Eastwood, Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone will not be discussed at great length.  Likewise, filmmakers who have been widely written about in cinema circles, like Monte Hellman, Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray and Bud Boetticher will also not be discussed at great length.  As I stated before, the primary goal of this article is to examine films from around the world that have reinterpreted and expanded the genre beyond the parameters one commonly associated with Westerns today.

“Give a man a free hand and he’ll try to put it all over you.”-Raoul Walsh

Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail (1930)

John Wayne in The Big Trail

Raoul Walsh is one of the big names in studio-era Westerns, often appearing alongside names such as John Ford and Howard Hawks in film journals.  And like them, Walsh’s life was disproportionate to the rest of existence as if he were a character in one of his own films.  Still, despite his fame and reputation, Walsh’s silent films about poverty and his early “talkies” go unrecognized by most.  This is likely due to the fact that these early films by the director do not come equipped with a reputation earned during their original release.  These films, including The Big Trail, were rediscovered and re-evaluated some thirty years or more after the fact.

Raoul Walsh brings to The Big Trail (1930) something never seen on the same scope again in any of his films, an epic sense of mise-en-scène.  Walsh’s ability to control as well as to construct shots with gigantic set pieces and a horde of extras comes as a by-product of his years working under D.W. Griffith.  Add to that the new technology he was able to apply to the picture, 70mm film, and this particular talent is made even more apparent.

Lucien Andriot’s cinematography also recalls Griffith’s silent epics with its use of light; smokey and faded.  The dreamy effect of the photography instills Walsh’s images with a Romanticism fitting the films narrative which, from today’s perspective, seems a bit contrived and overly familiar.  But it is the Romantically pastoral images of The Big Trail that set it far apart from other early sound Westerns.  In 1930 Westerns were predominantly a genre of low-budget “quickies” meant to fill out a day’s worth of programing at the theaters.  The Big Trail was a prestige picture with a momentous budget and considerable resources.  The failure of the film to find its audience seriously jeopardized the careers of not just Raoul Walsh, but also the film’s star, newcomer John Wayne.

What’s problematic today about viewing The Big Trail is just how much we, as an audience, take sound for granted.  In terms of sound design and even the manner in which particular characters talk, The Big Trail established the codified sound cues that are essential to the contemporary Western.  Tyrone Power Sr.’s performance as Red Flack in the film invented what has become the archetypal villain in “wagon train dramas”, most obviously referenced in Anthony Mann’s Bend In The River (1952) with Arthur Kennedy’s portrayal of Emerson Cole or Gene Hackman’s Little Bill in Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven (1992).  That The Big Trail was so hardly seen and yet so influential speaks to the uniqueness of Walsh’s talents.

Rancho Notorious

Arthur Kennedy & Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious

Cinemascope is not for men, but for snakes and funerals.”-Fritz Lang

Rancho Notorious (1952) is not unique in its inversion of the traditional female role in Westerns.  Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) and Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) accomplish this with more style and aptitude.  What Rancho Notorious has that makes it something unique during the height of the Westerns’ popularity in the United States is Fritz Lang.

Coming from years of working at Ufa as one of Germany’s most successful directing talents, Lang brings not just his experience, but weds that experience with his own sense of disenfranchisement that he was experiencing in America.  Lang’s own struggle to connect with American culture is in no film more apparent that Rancho Notorious.  Early in the film there is a montage in which Arthur Kennedy travels about looking for the man who killed his lover.  This montage resembles, in pace and content, those of M (1931) and Metropolis (1927).  Similarly, when Arthur Kennedy recognizes his lover’s broach on Marlene Dietrich in the scene where they first meet the lighting as well as the camera’s proximity to Kennedy recreate a number of similar shots of similar emotional content in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse The Gambler (1922).  The most striking sequence in the film in terms of technique occurs in the scene where Kennedy gets into a brawl at a barbershop.  This scene, unlike any other in Lang’s career to that point, features a roaming camera whose focus is the action.  That simple choice of camera work gives the scene a realism to its violence that is, even today, uncomfortable simply because it is not at all what one expects.  The fight from Rancho Notorious would recreate itself the following year though in Lang’s The Big Heat (1953).

It’s in these distinctly expressionistic tactics cited above that the audience finds the sense of “other worldliness” in Rancho Notorious.  It is an unreality more violent, more sexual than one is accustomed to in Westerns of this time.  And it is through this phenomenon that discerning viewers may realize that the “other worldliness” of Rancho Notorious is, at least for Lang, representative of his view of the United States.

“…a movie about a one-woman all-fag cowboy town“-Andy Warhol

Lonesome Cowboys

Joe Dallesandro in Lonesome Cowboys

If the fifties represented a trend in subverting the Western genre by inverting the sexual politics of the day, enhancing the explicitness of the violence, and embracing the sexuality of the films’ characters, then the sixties simply pushed those elements out and beyond into the realm of camp.  And it is in this realm that Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys (1968) lives.

Like most of Warhol’s films at the time Lonesome Cowboys was co-directed by Paul Morrissey, who was bringing a degree of legitimacy to Warhol’s productions via his knowledge of classic Hollywood.  So it is little wonder that Lonesome Cowboys follows the conventions, with regards to its sexual politics, set forth in Rancho Notorious, Forty Guns and Johnny Guitar.  Except Warhol’s cowboys are all gay, thus relegating the “one-woman” in town into the role of mother and incestuous lover.  The significance of this film beyond that has little to do with re-writing the conventions of the genre.  Instead Lonesome Cowboys significance derives from the simple fact that it is a Western shot in Arizona.  Up until this time “underground” filmmakers the likes of Warhol and Morrissey were restricted to making genre films for almost no money within the limits of the city in which they lived, New York.

Ironically it was the foul language and the vulgarity of the sexuality depicted in Lonesome Cowboys that isolated mainstream audiences while the more legitimate production value drove off the “underground” audience.  Even Jonas Mekas had nothing good to say about the film in his column at the Village Voice.  Without any audience, Lonesome Cowboys wandered into obscurity.  However, the film has become a little more important in recent years when Gregg Araki cited it as an influence, thus canonizing it as part of the early Queer Film movement.  As Mark Rappaport points out in his Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997) the old Hollywood Westerns are brimming with homoerotic innuendos.  Lonesome Cowboys then represents the first major film to make the inherent homoerotic qualities of the genre its primary concern.

In art there is only artifice“-Luc Moullet

A Girl Is A Gun

Rachel Kesterber in A Girl Is A Gun

 Luc Moullet remains one of the most neglected filmmakers of all time, and certainly of the French New Wave.  Like Jacques Rivette, his films are near to impossible to obtain in the United States.  All of this in spite of a significant critical re-evaluation by the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum and others.  Still, Luc Moullet’s A Girl Is A Gun (1971) is the most unique and thought-provoking film on this list.

A Girl Is A Gun follows the misadventures of Jean-Pierre Léaud as Billy The Kid.  Unlike most depictions of the famous gunslinger, Billy The Kid is depicted as a bumbling loser who, despite himself, manages to exact his revenge and steal the girlfriend of a man he has killed.  The narrative content of A Girl Is A Gun is completely vacant of the Romanticism that unifies most American Westerns.  Even Lonesome Cowboys plays into the popular Romantic notions of the Old West by being so totally dependent on the recognizable signifiers and tropes of the genre.  Billy The Kid in Moullet’s film is, therefore, the antithesis of the genre itself.

That said, A Girl Is A Gun brings a bit of that Romanticism into play in terms of the films theme song and visual structure.  But these mechanisms, in Moullet’s hands, work only to compliment and enhance the anti-Romanticism of the narrative.  A Girl Is A Gun only superficially functions as a Western.  As the film perverts the Romantic models it employs via the contrast of narrative content and technique, Moullet is able to disassemble and examine the Western Genre.

This deconstruction of the genre is playful, the precise opposite of the intellectualized genre deconstructions that Jean-Luc Godard became famous for in the sixties.  This playfulness derives from A Girl Is A Gun‘s relatively low-budget, forcing Moulett to make a Western without either the vistas of Ford, the violence of Anthony Mann, nor the horses of every other Western.  Moulett, like Warhol and Morrissey, is forced to make the film with the available resources, even if that restricts the films Western “look” to props and costume.

It must be said that this “superficiality of genre” in A Girl Is Gun comes from a unique place in the history of the genre.  Where Sam Fuller may make a low-budget Western and accommodate that budget by distilling the narrative down to a hard-punching tale of revenge, Moullet decides instead to pay for devices such as a theme song with his budget.  This decision on Moullet’s part places A Girl Is A Gun into the same category of “Western Camp” as Lonesome Cowboys, Rancho Notorious, Johnny Guitar, John Sturges’ Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957), and Douglas Sirk’s Taza-Son Of Cochise (1954).  Critics like Jonas Mekas would interpret this alignment of stylistic concerns with Pop Art, which seems to be what A Girl Is A Gun is getting at.

Luc Moullet obviously does not have a strong Romantic connection with the Western genre.  For him it is a unique spectacle in that it is a legitimate genre.  A Girl Is A Gun is a testament to Moullet’s view of the cinema as entertainment first and foremost.

So certainly, if we can tell evil stories to make people sick, we can also tell good myths that make them well.”-R.W. Fassbinder

Whity

Gunther Kauffman & Hana Schygulla in Whity

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Whity (1971), released the same year as Luc Moullet’s A Girl Is A Gun, adopts the “Western Camp” aesthetic of Johnny Guitar and Rancho Notorious and blows it up to Brechtian proportions.  Whity, more so than any other Western, infuses with its Historic Romanticism the rich melodrama of the fifties “Weepy” or “Woman’s Film”.  For Fassbinder the Western provides a means of examining the political and sociological relations between sex, class and race.  Taking his cues from Douglas Sirk’s period at Universal Pictures, Fassbinder seizes the chance to exploit the most American of movie genres to ironically critic the state of the world at large.

Firstly, the theatricality of “camp” is heightened not just in Fassbinder’s direction of his actors, but in the blocking and framing.  Photographed by Michael Ballhaus in a series of predominantly long lasting wide shots, the cast is positioned so that they are almost always facing out, regardless of how many characters are in a scene or the nature of this interaction.  This strategy, often summed up as Brechtian, allows the subtext of a scene to emerge superficially through the actors’ over-sized performances.  When contextualizing this choice by Fassbinder in the Western genre, Whity becomes a critique of the Western Romanticism and its own subtextual racism and sexism.  Westerns have functioned as allegories for contemporary issues before, it is true, but not so within the vernacular of Fassbinder’s particular brand of “camp”.

 At the heart of Whity is the story of an interracial love affair akin to his own Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974).  Gunther Kauffman and Hana Schygulla play a house servant slave and a saloon mistress whose love is forbidden.  Their union, emotionally and sexually, is not only verboten, but reminiscent of Dietrich and Kennedy’s May/December romance in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious.  The very manner with which Schygulla performs her songs in the local saloon intentionally recalls Dietrich.  Kauffman’s dark skin that keeps him a rung below on the ladder in this Western town also recalls the “outsider” in films like Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) or George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again (1939).  The difference being a matter of race rather than cowardice or femininity.

The scenes of Kauffman at the rancher’s estate where he is a slave to his half-siblings are a step removed from the Western.  These scenes play out like an anti-white parody of Gone With The Wind (1939), complete with white actors wearing white face.  But it is the sadistic and exploitative quality of the sex and violence in these sequences that bolster the sense of artifice with not just their outlandishness, but in their striking similarity to Italian exploitation films of the same period.  Whity is very modern in this respect since its concerns have little to do with the world of the Old West as it was and everything to do with what a Western can say about society in the present.

The modernity of Whity can also be seen in another respect.  In scenes at the saloon when cowboys and gunslingers are hanging about, Fassbinder has positioned them so that their posture maximizes the homoeroticism of the genre.  In this he is more subtle than Morrissey and Warhol but also more realistic since most homosexuals are not as depraved or aggressive as the cowboys in Lonesome Cowboys.

The accumulation of all of these parts within the confines of a Western allow Whity to exist beyond the genre.  In terms of style one couldn’t call it a Western at all since there is no visual or narrative connection beyond some subtle allusions.  Pieces may be seen as distinctly Western, but the whole of the parts evolves into something so post-modern that it is uncategorizable.  As though he were aware of this, Fassbinder opens and closes Whity with a ballad about the title character sung by Gunther Kauffman.  This strategy forces the audience to take this non-Western and interpret it as such.

If only he had realized all his ideas, he could have become one of the greatest.”-Sergio Leone

The Great Silence

Klaus Kinski in The Great Silence

Sergio Corbucci has long-lived in the shadow of Sergio Leone.  One cannot read about Corbucci’s work without the inevitable comparison to Leone, despite the fact that the two men have highly contrasting styles and aesthetic concerns in their approach to the Western genre.  Corbucci’s films are noted for their loose style and hyper energy.  Sometimes a particular sequence seems muddy or out-of-place, but the overall feeling of Corbucci’s style is one of unbridled enthusiasm for the genre, very similar to Luc Moullet.  What the Italians did with the Western genre was to re-appropriate it after it had been filtered through Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961).  The Italian Western, Corbucci’s films included, champion an anti-hero, depict governments as corrupt, and exploit the violence and sexuality of the genre.

The Great Silence (1968) sees Corbucci taking the Italian Western a step further.  Though the Italian Westerns added a grittier element to the genre, they still followed the basic principles of good and evil that can be traced back to Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail and even further.  The Great Silence shatters this balance of negative and positive, concluding with a bleak, existential morality.

It’s interesting to note that The Great Silence pre-dates the shifts in the American Western aesthetic that would occur in the seventies.  Robert Altman’s meditative Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) would be the first to outright contradict the forms one associates with the Western film.  Prior to that, American filmmakers such as Sam Fuller, Monte Hellman and Anthony Mann preferred anti-heroes working within a corrupt moral system but still maintained the regular signifiers and conformed to the basic narrative expectations of the Western.

The Great Silence is like any other Corbucci film.  It’s violent, the characters are corrupt, the hero has a gadget gimmick and an odd name (in this case Silence) and the villains are sadistic.  Yet, in the last act when Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is expected to defeat his nemesis, despite his wounds, he fails.  Silence is murdered by the man he should have defeated, Locco (Klaus Kinski).  As a result of Silence’s death the starving townspeople living in exile, because of their differing ethnicity, are butchered by Locco and his gang.  This ending speaks to Corbucci’s bleak outlook on life.  For him the righteous are not always victorious.

That this ending comes in a film who, until its end, fits so nicely into the regular genre makes it all the more shocking and impactful.  The Great Silence, like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), addresses the Johnson County range war with a contemporary leftist commentary.  Corbucci treats The Great Silence as a sort of allegory for the failed student riots and demonstrations that occurred in Rome in 1967 and 1968.  In the following decade this is the role, the function, that the Western genre would play.  Marking the genesis of the revisionist Western.

I created ‘The Westerner’ because of anger – anger at never-miss sheriffs, always-right marshalls, whitewashed gunfighters … anger at TV’s quick-draw tin gods who stand behind a tin star or ten cents’ worth of righteous anger and justify their skill and slaughter with a self-conscious grin or a minute’s worth of bad philosophy.”-Sam Peckinpah

Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid

Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid

The Revisionist Western that came to prominence in the early seventies at around the same time the New Hollywood began, like the latter, dissipated after Heaven’s Gate.  Since then filmmakers have tried to strike a balance between the philosophical complexity and grittiness of the Revisionist Western with the Historical Romanticism of the Western of the fifties and before.  Clint Eastwood has consistently made Westerns in line with Revisionism while others, such as Alex Cox with Walker (1987), attempted to fuse the genre with a blaring sense of post-modernism.

The least interesting and least successful Westerns have tended to be those dressed up in the grit of Revisionist Westerns that function on every other level as Romantic Westerns.  Unfortunately films such as these tend to be more popular.  In most recent years the best example of this nostalgic phenomenon would have to be the Cohen Brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010).

It is unfortunate that the genre has been unable to perpetuate itself into a new form at the beginning of the 21st century.  This is even more unusual when one considers the renewed sense of nationalism America is still experiencing after 9/11.  Perhaps this is because America, as a nation, is attempting to move beyond its pre-WWII past?  That’s an essay for another time.

-Robert Curry

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Invincible Moron

“I’m a Marxist, of the Groucho variety” – Anonymous

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In most cases, Groucho is the pop culture ambassador of the Marx Brothers, and it’s not hard to see why.  His look is both iconic and easy to imitate, his jokes are endlessly quotable.  Sometimes, usually to the high-minded elite, Harpo emerges as the favorite, the angelic slapstick devil that most obviously recalls the clowns of antiquity.  But what about Chico?  Why is the oldest brother always left out in the cold?  Even Zeppo gets more mention, on account of his failure to get laughs.  The reason, I suspect, is that Chico represents a fantasy that nobody has.  Each of the Marx Brothers is, in their way, invincible.  Groucho has the endless wit and acid tongue we all wish we had.  Not only is every quip a surefire zinger, but there are never any consequences to his verbal takedowns.  Groucho can be as nasty as he wants, but Margaret Dumont won’t shout him down until the scene is through and the plot needs to move on, and even then, her protests are rarely effective; a Marx Brothers scene never ends until the Marx Brothers are ready for it to end.   Harpo meanwhile is pure id.  While the rules of society may suspend for Groucho, the rules of reality dissolve for Harpo.  He is free to follow any impulse with total commitment and the full force of his being, not matter how violent, childish, or lurid, and like his brother, there is rarely any punishment.  Chico, on the other hand, is an invulnerable idiot.  Author Joe Adamson once accurately described him as “an invincible moron”, and however it might sometimes appear, it’s no one’s fantasy to be stupid with impunity.  What’s more, his “schtick” is rather difficult to describe, and he’s usually relegated in discussion to being “the piano player”, which is far and away his least interesting trait.  To ignore Chico is a dire mistake; he’s probably the most important Marx Brother of them all.

There is a hierarchy of power within the Marx Brothers, and nowhere is that more evident than in the opening of Animal Crackers.  First, Groucho arrives, and in a lengthy and delightful sequence, he all but destroys society by reducing social nicities and expectations to ruin.  Then comes Chico.  In much shorter time, he reduces all logic to rubble, his malapropisms and puns rendering language meaningless.  Finally, Harpo enters, and he brings the walls of reality itself crashing down.  He drops his pants (in fact, he drops his whole outfit in one fell swoop), fires guns, disperses the guests, chases women, and somehow brings two statues to life merely so that he can play with them.  Physics are gone, there are no more rules.  The Marx Brothers have arrived.

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It’s worth noting that in this escalation of destruction, Chico is not at the bottom, but in the middle; he is more powerful than Groucho.  And in a way, he’s even more powerful than Harpo, because it is Chico who holds this tenuous band together, who is the go-between for Groucho and Harpo.  Groucho is a clown grounded in reality, a product of the society he flaunts.  Harpo is a cosmic clown, who comes and goes as he pleases and to whom rules of any kind are meaningless.  There are very few scenes with just Groucho and Harpo in all of the Marx Brothers movies.  They need Chico to bridge them, to make sense of their senselessness.  Chico grounds Harpo in reality, if only to make sure he sticks around until the credits roll, and he goes toe-to-toe with Groucho, his low status and proud idiocy forcing Groucho into the unwilling role of straight man.  Groucho and Harpo are concerned with themselves and bringing down the structures around them, but Chico is concerned with his brothers, and how he can manipulate them, however ineptly, into getting what he wants, which is usually something simple, like food, money, women, or the day off. Chico is the sanity clause that keeps it all together.  But don’t try telling him that.  He knows better.  With the Marx Brothers, there is no sanity clause.

-Hank Curry

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