Tag Archives: comedy

Jerry Lewis

I really like Jerry Lewis movies. My friend Thomas always made fun of me for it. He’d say I was the “only American who loved those films”. The first Jerry Lewis film I ever saw was The Disorderly Orderly (1964), one of Lewis’ films that Frank Tashlin directed, on Turner Classic Movies when I was in sixth grade. Not long after that my friend Dan and I saw Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy (1982). From there we began digging up radio and commercial outtakes of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on the internet and nurturing a slightly unhealthy fixation on Jerry Lewis’ unreleased film The Day The Clown Cried (1972). So my exposure to Jerry Lewis was both sudden and immersive. It wasn’t hard to find Jerry Lewis’ influence on films that I already liked. Paul Flaherty’s underrated Clifford (1994) is unimaginable without Jerry Lewis having come first.

Cinderfella

For me Jerry Lewis’ genius comes from his understanding of genre aesthetics and his ability to manipulate and subvert those aesthetics as well as from his many character iterations in his films which pinpoint the neuroses of masculine patriarchal culture (his persona always seemed born out of opposition to that of Dean Martin, a fact made even more clear in The Nutty Professor). Lewis’ criticism of our society is precisely what endeared him to filmmakers as renowned as Jean-Luc Godard (who would pay homage to Lewis in Tout va Bien and Keep Your Right Up). Lewis’ ability to satirize while always remaining silly, fun, childlike and escapist has never been equaled in this country since his heyday in the early sixties.

My two personal favorite Jerry Lewis films are Cinderfella and The Bellboy, both released in 1960. Tashlin and Lewis’ Cinderfella is as much a pastiche of MGM musicals of the fifties as it is an examination of male adolescence gone wildly out of control. The sense of design and of color in the film is breathtaking. Neither Tashlin nor Lewis ever made a film that looked more like a cartoon. In addition to being in black and white The Bellboy is far more minimal in its overall visual structure and framing than Cinderfella. Unlike Cinderfella, The Bellboy’s primary aesthetic interest is in silent film clowning. For a first time director such as Lewis The Bellboy is remarkably mature in how it handles the balance between “silent” and “sound” comedy.

It is more likely, however, that people my age know Jerry Lewis better for his Telethons or through some other form of media. I know the first time I was exposed to Jerry Lewis I didn’t even know it. It was on a John Lennon bootleg I had. There are a few tracks from Lennon’s appearance on a Jerry Lewis Telethon with Yoko Ono in 1972. Jerry Lewis was one of those truly versatile performers, he may even have been the very last of his kind. So it shouldn’t really be that surprising that different generations of audiences know him for different works in different mediums.

The King Of Comedy

Ninety-one is not young, and it is safe to say that Jerry Lewis accomplished much more than most people ever do in their lives. Still, it is saddening to know he is gone. There is no one I can think of working in the cinema today that could be considered a continuance of Lewis’ work.

-Robert Curry

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under filmmakers

Twenty Personal Favorites

“Memories of movies are strand over strand with memories of my life.  During the quarter of a century (roughly from 1935 to 1960) in which going to the movies was a normal part of my week, it would no more have occurred to me to write a study of movies than to write my autobiography”-from the preface of Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed: Reflections On The Ontology Of Film

I believe it’s true of anyone who feels passionately about the cinema that, as Cavell puts it, “memories of movies are strand over strand with memories” of one’s life.  Every time people even talk about Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight I think of my first girlfriend and the man in the theater who overdosed and prompted the theater manager to empty the theater we were in.  Similarly, Ringo Lam’s City On Fire always makes me think of my walk to work at The Video Store when I was a Junior in High School (Sunday mornings my brother and I always watched a Hong Kong action film before I went to work).  I have found that the films that I have the strongest memory attachments or the most memories with tend to be my favorites; I suppose that is true of most people.

Yet conditions of viewership have changed drastically since Stanley Cavell first wrote those words in 1971.  The cinema is more a part of our homes than our nightlife, more of a private affair than a communal reverie.  Home Video formats of any type (even streaming) take the cinema from the cinemas and bring it home to us.  In addition the vast repertoire of titles available for the home far out number the annual re-releases.  

The audience owns the cinema now more than ever.  And as you read on it will become apparent that these are the recollections of a singular cinema.  It’s a series of highlights from the Robert Curry program of films that have played the Robert Curry theater at the Robert Curry film festival for only Robert Curry.  It may be disconcerting, but it is true.  The cinema has vastly diverged from the stage.  It is a private affair.  You are alone and the film you are watching is the only other sign of life in the room.  One might say that it is intimacy at its most convenient.

bathingbeauty12

Bathing Beauty (1944)

Dir. George Sidney, cast: Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Basil Rathbone

I have no clue when I first saw Bathing Beauty.  It had to have been after Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon but around the same time as Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate.  Though I probably enjoyed The Crimson Pirate more as a kid, Bathing Beauty has managed to endure more potently in my mind.  I directly credit this film and a slew of other Esther Williams’ films for instilling in me a love for swimming as well as photographing swimming (something I only got to do once in Boy+Girl, Girl+Boy).

Bathing Beauty is concerned, as so many old Hollywood comedy-musicals are, with the battle of the sexes.  Yet Red Skelton isn’t exactly the manifestation of macho idealism.  And Esther Williams comes across as tough, assertive, intellectual.  Psychologically it is a role reversal, with a focus on the physical of the sexes in Skelton’s comedy sketches.  This odd pastiche is probably why the film, intentionally or not, remains fresh even today for me.

But back when I was four years old and first becoming acquainted with Red and Esther what really got me was the music.  The songs still play my emotions today as effectively as they did then, to give you an idea of how much this film has endeared itself to me.  The Harry James numbers are especially enthralling, sometimes ironic, sometimes playful, but always shot with that trademark MGM dreaminess.

In 2012 when I was shooting a musical with Caroline Boyd (titled Michael’s Match; never released), I revisited Bathing Beauty for the first time in years.  It gave me two essential ideas which I used on my film.  The first I mentioned above, the psychological role reversal.  The second was to capture the numbers in as few shots as possible.  George Sidney does this better than any of the other MGM directors whose work I have seen (which is a lot, trust me).  His shot progression of Anne Miller’s first big number in Kiss Me Kate is a virtuoso exercise in cinematographic minimalism that is remarkably effective.

The-Strange-Woman-1946-1

The Strange Woman (1946)

Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, cast: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward

I didn’t really immerse myself in the work of Edgar G. Ulmer till late in 2012 after reading Todd McCarthy’s indispensable The Kings Of The Bs.  This was the fourth film by Ulmer I saw, and I immediately fell in love with it.  Admittedly Bluebeard is more visually arresting, but Heddy Lamarr’s performance in The Strange Woman is simply staggering.  She is the epitome of sex-soaked camp enticing men to their doom.  George Sanders, cast against type, brings a sophistication unique unto himself to a role better suited to Edward Arnold.

Typically of Ulmer, he’s utilized his budget constraints on The Strange Woman to formulate a pseudo-expressionistic American frontier, parts Fritz Lang and parts Merian C. Cooper.  Yet, from a director’s perspective, the most inventive quality to The Strange Woman’s direction is how intimate the film feels without ever becoming claustrophobic.  More than any other Ulmer film The Strange Woman is overflowing with close-ups.  One scene in particular, when Sanders finally calls out Lamarr for what she is, features a close-up on Lamarr that is sustained just a beat too long which is devastatingly effective.  This moment in The Strange Woman inspired how I cut together the sequence where Jessica Mockrish murders Robin Friend-Stift in An Atrocious Woman.

coo3-1

Bill & Coo (1948)

Dir. Dean Riesner, cast: George Burton’s Birds

“What the fuck is this!?!” was Thomas Lampion’s first response to when I showed him Bill & Coo back in 2010 as Julie Lovely was born.  It seems to be the reaction most people have to this film.  On an intellectual level, I agree, “what is this?  It won an honorary Oscar?”  Still, it’s closer to my heart than I should probably admit.  

I don’t know when I saw it first, but I had to have been very young.  In 2004 I remember going to Movies Unlimited in the Great North East when they were selling off all of their VHS.  That’s when I saw a copy of Bill & Coo.  Looking at it’s cover (I still own this copy) I remembered it somehow.  Needless to say I bought it, along with To Sleep With Anger, The Cars That Ate Paris and Blank Generation (I got some looks at the register).  Once I was home I watched it.  It was like a flood gate had burst.  I had seen this weird bird movie before.  I was transported to a safe and loving place of innocence.  That hasn’t changed no matter how many viewings later.  But I still have no clue as to why?  Maybe I am one of those damn birds reincarnated?

11330266

Vengeance Valley (1951)

Dir. Richard Thorpe, cast: Burt Lancaster, Robert Walker, Joanne Dru

“The Skipper” was how I knew Burt Lancaster as a kid.  His real name was unmanageable to a three year old.  He was just “The Skipper” because that’s what his crew of pirates with hearts of gold called him in The Crimson Pirate.  I watched so much Burt Lancaster when I was three or four (who’s kidding, I still watch about two Burt Lancaster films a month even now).  

Still, when I put this challenge before the regular contributors to this blog and we all started working on our lists I surprised myself.  The Crimson Pirate, as beloved as it is, did not stay in my head the way Lancaster’s quickie B-Western Vengeance Valley did.  Being famous in my family for my love of “The Skipper” while also being somewhat surprised by this revelation I started second guessing myself.  I can vividly remember the Saturday afternoon I first watched the chase scene where Lancaster pursues Robert Walker, but that isn’t the image that remains vital in my mind.

There’s a scene right after Joanne Dru gives birth to Robert Walker’s illegitimate child.  Lancaster arrives, before his brother Robert Walker, to see the newborn child.  Lancaster looks rugged, dressed for the cold, unshaven, his large frame towering over Joanne Dru.  There’s hardly any dialogue.  Lancaster removes his gloves and takes his nephew in his arms.  The stoic features of Lancaster’s face give way to a vulnerability that is utterly disarming.  Dru looks at him, a face full of hurt, ambiguous.  Then Walker appears in soft focus behind Lancaster and Dru, who are now so close that if not for the baby it would be a love scene.  Walker’s appearance throws off the composition, casting a threatening presence into the tender moment.  That is what has stuck with me.

large-screenshot1

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Dir. Douglas Sirk, cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead

I don’t believe this is Douglas Sirk’s best film.  Still, it’s my favorite.  It probably has something to do with my background in Catholicism (CCD every Tuesday night).  Films that address an affirmation of faith or a crisis of faith tend to affect me in unusual ways.  Magnificent Obsession is never explicit in what matter of faith Rock Hudson finds after killing Jane Wyman’s husband and blinding her, but from the music cues and Sirk’s camera placement which clearly recall DeMille’s Biblical epics it has to be some form of Christianity.  And with Douglas Sirk being Douglas Sirk he subtly scrutinizes and evaluates man’s relation to faith.  When I first saw this film I interpreted its message being something along the lines of “faith in a higher power is stronger than faith in a master”.  Though that sophomoric interpretation at that time is probably some sort of subconscious projection.  Honestly I always thought that Magnificent Obsession would make a good double feature with Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door?

Empress_Yang_01

Princess Yang Kwei Fei (1955)

Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, cast: Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Sô Yamamura

I was in ninth grade when I first saw this film.  It was late Spring, the second week in a row that my father, brother, and I all drove down to Movies Unlimited together.  The fruits of the previous trip yielded Bill & Coo and an assortment of other cult classics, but this trip was all about Japan.  This is when I first became familiar with New Yorker Video with whom I would have dealings with some nine years later working for my friend Amber at CIP.  New Yorker Video put out this series, Japanese Masters, that collected major works by Ozu, Oshima, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ichikawa all in beautifully letterboxed editions.  These were gorgeous VHS, I couldn’t believe I was getting so many amazing films so cheaply.  I remember sitting in the back of my dad’s van (a huge van that my brother and I often compared to the shuttles in Star Trek: The Next Generation) gazing over the titles I had purchased; Equinox Flower, Cruel Story Of Youth, Enjo, and of course Princess Yang Kwei Fei.

Strangely, I only watched Princess Yang Kwei Fei once early on a Sunday morning.  I never watched that VHS again.  But those images, those dreamlike pastel colored images remained etched into my mind’s eye for years.  There really was no reason to rewatch it when I was reliving it again at the most spontaneous of times daily.  So I gave it to my friend Josh.  

Yet, once I was working for Amber, I began to desire to see Princess Yang Kwei Fei again.  I thought it would be a great if somewhat unexpected representation of Mizoguchi for a program I was developing.  Nothing ever came of that.  Then three years later my collaborator Thomas got me really into Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor and the flames of desire were fanned again.  The spectre of what Princess Yang Kwei Fei had become obsessed me.  I had to see it again.

Finally, I ordered the Masters Of Cinema release a month or more back.  It was spectacular.  Mizoguchi weaves such a delicate fantasy out of such concise compositions and designs that the film transcends folklore and opera, achieving a symbiotic fusion of the two as flawless as a Mazarin stone.  Anyone invested in the lyricism of artifice, Kenneth Anger fans, fans of The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T., and appreciators of technicolor will find this film indispensable.

M4DDACR EC001

Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier (1955)

Dir. Norman Foster, cast: Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen, Hans Conried

I have few vivid memories of my grandfather.  One of them is of going to a small carnival in the woods out near his home in Mt. Carmel.  I rode a wooden roller coaster with my dad that day which scarred me for life.  But I also got my first and only coonskin cap.

I had just discovered Davy Crockett, I watched this film so many times back then.  I read everything that was at the Herbert Hoover Elementary School library on the man and even gave a presentation in second grade as Davy Crockett relating the life of Davy Crockett.  Davy Crockett meant so much to me.  I wanted to be like him.  I wanted to end conflicts with good ole common sense, grin down bears, and give my life for something I believed in (not America, more like an endangered species such as Bison or for Captain Kirk)!  Not much has changed.

It’s so rare to find a film for children that actually follows a child’s logic in terms of narrative structure.  And when Davy Crockett can’t do that during the original episode breaks, there is an informative and catchy song ripe with puns.  It is easy to resent or harbor hostility for the Disney Corporation with all of the shady things they do.  Still, now and then, something a little more artful, meaningful can occur.

The day Fess Parker died when I was entering my Junior year of college was extraordinarily tough.  He had never been the “cinematic best friend” that Burt Lancaster was, but I still felt somehow close to him.  So my dear friend Lauren and I shared a bottle of Fess Parker wine and watched Davy Crockett.  I memorialized Fess Parker and Davy Crockett further a few months later when I made a video on the shift of American morality post-WWII and took all of my images from Davy Crockett (the audio came from all over the place).  My teacher, Pete Rose, said my piece, titled Davy Crockett & The Fall Of The American Dream, was “obsessive”.  

redballoon

The Red Balloon (1956)

Dir. Albert Lamorisse, cast: Pascal Lamorisse

When you are a little boy like I was when I saw The Red Balloon for the first time it has an indescribable effect on you.  Sure a film like Davy Crockett can instill a child with some moral values just as The Crimson Pirate can ignite one’s sense of adventure, but The Red Balloon poses a question that only a child might ask.  “What makes make-believe make-believe?”

Lamorisse is not interested in an answer.  The Red Balloon simply asks its audience to accept, to feel without thinking.  It isn’t one of those obnoxious children’s films that pretends to do that with talking animals or a superficial visual perfection.  The streets in The Red Balloon are real streets.  The faces of the people on those streets are just like anywhere in the world.  The only fantastic element to the film is the balloon.  It is in this contrast that the film finds its success.

It’s difficult for me to discuss the aesthetic virtues of The Red Balloon.  It’s a film that is just too close to me.  When I turned twenty-five a few years ago and my mother gave me the Janus Films restoration of The Red Balloon on DVD I’m sure she didn’t think I was grateful.  I just don’t have the words to really talk about this film.  Of all of the films on this list, this one has been the most important to me.  

Marnie pic 1

Marnie (1964)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, cast: Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Martin Gabel

Personally I find that this film conveys Hitchcock the person more clearly than any of the master’s films.  His chauvinism has been well documented by his countless biographers just as critics have so often cited his voyeurism and his fetishization of blonde haired women.  All those things are found in ample abundance in Marnie.  Though in the instance of Marnie these components become  a frenzied whirlwind of a nightmare equal parts Freudian and, in terms of design, heavily indebted to the films of Fritz Lang, a one-time mentor to Hitchcock early in the latter’s career.

Marnie is as disturbing as it is irresistible, the current of sadism wraps the viewer up in a setting as familiar as it is subversive.  The Birds prepared audiences for the spectacle of Tippi Hedren in jeopardy and pain, Dr. No established Sean Connery as a womanizing masculine ideal of heterosexual impulses bordering on the violent, but Marnie delivers both in extremes.  Gradually, over the course of the film, both attributes of these celebrity signifiers are amplified, culminating in the most degrading exploitation of someone with PTSD that I have ever seen in film.

Oddly, it is the familiarity of these celebrity players and what they signify within a narrative context that enables the viewer to invest in the film.  For a filmmaker that is no easy accomplishment and testifies to Hitchcock’s powers as a director.  Add to that the sensual set design, the sharp tweed suits, the lure of the American upper class, and the sexuality of Tippi Hedren and the film becomes almost as enjoyable as North By Northwest.  

When I first became acquainted with Marnie I had been reading Norman Mailer’s essays collected in Existential Errands.  Mailer, for a large part of this anthology, sought to tangle with the relationship between the binary sexes in the context of feminism and the sexual revolution during the sixties.  The rape that opens Mailer’s An American Dream serves as a precursor to his perspective of “conservative” masculinity as outlined in Existential Errands.  Needless to say, this brand of “manliness” shared by the protagonist of An American Dream and the authorship of Alfred Hitchcock provide a reflection of masculine identity at a major shift in sexual politics within American society.

Picture 10

Flesh (1968)

dir. Paul Morrissey, cast: Joe Dallesandro, Geraldine Smith, Patti D’Arbanville

Kenny used to manage TLA video back before it shut its doors forever in 2010.  In 2006 he held onto copies of Flesh, Trash and Heat for me, for about two weeks, till I could purchase them.  The Image DVD release of Paul Morrissey’s films was such a big deal for me.  I had wanted to see these films ever since I had gotten Andy Warhol’s Bad a couple of years before.   I love all of Paul Morrissey’s oddball films, but Flesh in particular.  At one point I was so enamored of Joe Dallesandro in this film that I painted three portraits of him, one in color, two in black and white.

Flesh, much like Trash, isn’t a film where narrative is particularly important.  The films Morrissey made before relocating to Europe in the mid-seventies are characterized by their emphasis on interactions in the form of brief encounters.  As Joe hustles his way from client to client in episodic form each interaction becomes a piece in a larger tableaux.  The overall achievement of the film is that, in this loose form, it still manages to say so much about how people not only relate to one another but also accomplishes a comic critique of American life in 1968.

When I had the chance to speak with Paul Morrissey at length about his career in 2012 I was surprised that he didn’t seem to realize the extent to which his films still matter to so many young people today.  The free spirit and subversive sexuality of Women In Revolt and Flesh in particular represent some of the few truly articulate commentaries on non-binary sexual relations and kink lifestyles.  Though, I suppose, it would be nice if these films were indeed more popular than they already are.

sonmonkey

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

Dir. Werner Herzog, cast: Helmut Döring, Gisela Hertwig, Gerhard Maerz

This is another of those films I purchased on a trip to Movies Unlimited.  It swept through my consciousness again and again all through the summer of 2003 after I first saw it.  I credit it with sparking some of the more cruel images that appear in my first films shot on VHS.  There are few films as cruel as Even Dwarfs Started Small.  The excess of its cruelty, its absurdity, its sheer volume often give way to comedy, which is perhaps why this is still one of the least popular of Werner Herzog’s films.

I have heard Even Dwarfs Started Small compared to Jodorowsky’s El Topo, though I find all they really have in common is their multitude of dwarfs.  Herzog’s film, as with much of New German Cinema, is a distinctly German in its execution of allegory.  The notion of having a dozen psychotic dwarfs stand-in for the whole of society in an anti-fascist tale is very much in line with a German’s sense of humor.  To go further, the degree of artifice it conveyed by performance and framing in Herzog’s film recalled Brecht.  

Now imagine the effect all of this must have had on me as a teenager.  It was completely inspiring.  I clearly remember showing some of Even Dwarfs Started Small to my friend Dan and can recall how it inspired him as well.  Then, some years later, I can remember my one girlfriend’s reaction to the film, “How can you like this?”.  She was mortified by the chickens fighting and the blind dwarfs flailing their sticks.  I was watching it for a paper I was writing for class while she was working on her own paper concerning Madame Bovary.  A couple of strange kids I suppose.

vlcsnap-485254

Husbands (1970)

Dir. John Cassavetes, cast: Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, John Cassavetes

For a long time this film was nearly impossible to see.  John Cassavetes is my favorite filmmaker and for a long while this title eluded me.  My friend Dan had a bootleg of which I was insanely envious, largely due to the fact that it came with the BBC documentary on the production of the film.  Then in my sophomore year of college I was able to persuade my friend Jennifer to rent a VHS of Husbands from TLA video.  I quickly made a DVD copy of that VHS.

Immediately it surpassed all of Cassavetes’ other films I had seen to that point (which was all of them except Love Streams, which Jennifer kindly rented for me the following week).  It’s not as emotional as A Woman Under The Influence or as poignant and timeless as Love Streams, yet Husbands spoke to me in a very specific and personal way.

Unlike Cassavetes’ other films Husbands is focused on friendship, the very nature of that relationship, as opposed to romantic, sexual, or career oriented relationships.  To put an even finer point on it, Husbands is about the friendship between men, linking it thematicly with Elaine May’s masterpiece Mikey & Nicky (in which John Cassavetes and Peter Falk also star).  The theme of friendship amongst men is so very often relegated to the War and Western genre films that seeing a straight contemporary narrative with such a focus executed in Cassavetes’ brutally honest realist style is a revelation.  So many filmmakers would have opted to make every character redemptive within the narrative, but not Cassavetes.  Like all of his works Husbands is about truth.

To attempt a comparison, the literary equivalent of a John Cassavetes’ film, Husbands in particular, I believe would be the works of Richard Hugo.  Hugo and Cassavetes both seek to reveal the truth of their own inner emotional lives tirelessly.  The truths they find often being so undesirable that their work, be it a poem in Hugo’s case or a film in Cassavetes’, is often interpreted as controversial at best and chauvinistic at worst.  Hence the debate that Kathleen Hanna articulated so well in her Le Tigre song What’s Yr Take On Cassavetes; “genius or chauvinist”?

6ae4e2f11

The American Dreamer (1971)

dir. Lawrence Schiller & L.M. Kit Carson, cast: Dennis Hopper, Lois Ursone,

My copy of this film was procured from a gentleman out in Colorado in 2008 by mailing him a check for thirty dollars with a slip of paper attached with the titles I desired written inside.  I requested The American Dreamer, My Hustler, and The Connection.  All three arrived roughly a month later in the mail; three DVDs of 16mm prints.  It was an unorthodox transaction, but at the time none of these films could be found in any other way and certainly not in their entirety.  My friend Dan had turned me on to this reclusive cinephile gentleman when he began tracking down and collecting obscure films as well.  

At the time I was just becoming aware of L.M. Kit Carson’s work, which is as eclectic as it is fascinating; I have nothing but admiration where Kit is concerned.  But in that moment it was Lawrence Schiller who fascinated me more.  I knew of Schiller from Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.  Schiller researched that book and packaged the project for Mailer, as he did with Mailer’s Marilyn (Schiller also directed the film of The Executioner’s Song as scripted by Norman Mailer).  What was really chilling was that the project that was eventually published as Marilyn got its start because Schiller was the last photographer to do a photo session with Monroe before she died (all of this celebrity fetishization and morbidity definitely informs The American Dreamer).

The American Dreamer is part documentary and part performance piece, but it is wholly hypnotic.  The film focuses on Hopper at his home in Taos New Mexico where he is completing post-production on his film The Last Movie in 1971.  And Dennis Hopper has never played Dennis Hopper better than this.  Anyone fascinated with 1970s culture is sure to revel in this crackpot film which has more to say about the “New Hollywood” than Hopper’s own masterpiece The Last Movie (a film which almost made this list).  Hearing Hopper espouse on subjects such as why he is really a lesbian, Orson Welles, and burning all of his possessions is the closest most people should get to the kind of serious drug abuse Hopper was indulging in at the time.

In 2011 when Thomas was staying with me, sometime between watching Bill & Coo and The Jolson Story, we watched The American Dreamer.  We quickly became obsessed with the Hello People song Pass Me By used in the film.  In fact, I believe we were singing it in a pool one night and, if memory serves, Lertch might also have been there.

agonya_slider

Agoniya (1975)

dir. Elem Klimov, cast: Aleksey Petrenko, Anatoliy Romashin, Velta Line

There is a surprising lack of literature in English on Elem Klimov.  His films are neither the fantasies of Tarkovsky nor the character portraits of his wife Larisa Shepitko’s films, but meet somewhere elusive in the middle.  Much of Bela Tarr’s latter works remind me of Klimov’s Come & See in their expert blocking and fluid long takes.  Come & See is a masterpiece, one of the greatest films I have ever seen, but not my favorite.  Agoniya, the first of Klimov’s films I ever saw, tells the story of Rasputin and his power over the last Tsar of Russia; this is my favorite.

A series of experiences as a child sparked a fascination with Russian history which was only encouraged further by my mother.  In fact Agoniya was a Christmas present from her and my father.  Unlike many other Russian films I have seen on the history of their national identity, Agoniya beautifully slips from “fantastique” expressionism to an almost Peter Watkins-esque factual account.  The overall experience is thusly as informative as it is overwhelming to the senses.

I would now like to clarify that it was not Don Bluth’s Anastasia that introduced me to Rasputin, nor was it Hammer Horror with their free Rasputin Beards!  In fact it was Richard Boleslavsky’s Rasputin & The Empress, released in 1932 and starring John, Ethel, and of course Lionel Barrymore at his best (post Tod Browning’s West Of Zanzibar) as Rasputin.  I rented this film from the library as a little kid, probably when I had run out of new Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes mysteries to watch.  Anyway, it was my love of Russian history and of Rasputin that probably prompted my parents to turn me onto Klimov’s beautiful film, and I’m glad they did.

Berlin-Alexanderplatz-c-Global-Screen

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, cast: Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Barbara Sukowa

Rainer Werner Fassbinder made dramatic films that convey more emotional desperation and philosophical nihilism than any other filmmaker and this is his Magnum Opus.  My relationship with this film is one of obsession.  Despite its running time of over twelve hours I must have seen it at least six or seven times.  Recently I showed three excerpts to my students who were stupefied by this film’s brilliance.  I think Jonathan Rosenbaum has summed up Fassbinder’s legacy best when he said that Fassbinder’s films had become “ever fresher” with the passing of time.  The reaction of my students clearly supports this thesis.

I could easily write about Berlin Alexanderplatz again here.  Yet, having already written about this film roughly three times for this blog, I think that I will just simply recommend that if you want to know more, please just search this site for either the film’s title or its director.  Thanks.

91Ru9OwSfZL._SL1500_

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

dir. Nagisa Oshima, cast: David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tom Conti

Guilt and regret are two emotions that I have personally always found overwhelming, primarily because they are responsible for so much of my character.  It is those two emotions that are at the heart of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.  Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence uses these two emotional experiences to explore the nature of war; the way war distorts and perverts the mind and the soul, how violent conditions can propel, strengthen and shatter human beings.  Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is by no means a violent film.  It often comes off as placid till an eruption occurs.

Nagisa Oshima is, in my mind, one of the most important filmmakers of the second half of the twentieth century, at least equal to Godard.  And given the stylization of so many of his films it is always surprising to me how fragile Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence feels.  Oshima’s delicately lit close-ups, his slow panoramas through the prison compound, the gentility of movement in his tracking shots all work in coordination to convey an existence that is hardly truly there, always on the brink of collapsing.  

As if to accentuate Oshima’s visual dialect in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, David Bowie was cast as Major Jack Celliers, the primary point of contention between the British POWs and their Japanese captors.  As with Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie utilizes his inherent alien qualities to create a distance between himself and his fellow characters in the film.  Though in this instance that “outsider” quality is not indicative of a literal other-worldliness, but rather of a character so bereaved with guilt that he simply cannot emote as other people do.

The greatest strength of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is that it never addresses these concepts head-on.  The film is ambiguous.  It conveys all of these emotions with the faintest clues as to their cause and effect.  So one can imagine what an intense experience this was for me in 7th grade.  I had never been moved by a film in such a way before.  I believe it is also responsible for solidifying my love of David Bowie.

maxresdefault

Rendez-vous (1985)

dir. André Téchiné, cast: Juliette Binoche, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Wadeck Stanczak

I bought this film on DVD six years ago when I was at the Princeton Record exchange with my friend Josh.  There were three reasons for my purchase.  The first is that Josh and I both love the Princeton Record Exchange.  But being that we only get out there every couple of months and they are an independent business one is likely to feel terribly guilty if one does not buy something.  The second reason is that I had always wanted to see an André Téchiné film.  I had read about him and read about him in numerous books at the UArts library but had not seen one of his films (I’ve seen ten of them now and they are all excellent).  The final motivating factor was that Rendez-vous stars Juliette Binoche.  Binoche’s performances are always revealing and captivating, I will at least see any of the films she is in once because it is absolutely worth it.

Rendez-vous is relatively early in both Juliette Binoche and Téchiné’s careers.  Binoche had yet to develop the kind of kinetic energy she would while working with Leos Carax (another favorite filmmaker of mine) while Téchiné is in transition between the more formal approaches exhibited in his films The Bronte Sisters and Hotel America and the visual stylization and cinematic improvisation of I Don’t Kiss.  I could go on and on about the aesthetics of Rendez-vous but I won’t since I have written about this film three times already for this very blog!  What I am willing to elaborate on is how Rendez-vous taught me a very valuable lesson.  

Unlike most reflexive narrative films (Jean-Luc Godard is a good example of such a filmmaker), Rendez-vous is less concerned with its commentaries on the cinema and more concerned with the lives and world of its characters.  This gives the film a density, a sophistication.  The revelations concerning the very notions of cinematic performance within the film are tucked beneath the surface of the drama.  This opens Rendez-vous up for multiple viewings very easily.  For the combinations of dramatically diegetic and the abstract reflexive components of the film are layered so densely that the dialogue they create feels different during any and every viewing.

I attempted this a little bit myself on Bitches, then I made this aesthetic the stylistic crux of A Debauched Little Rogue without too much success.  I eventually accomplished maybe 15% of what Téchiné had done aesthetically in Rendez-vous on The Blasphemy Of Owen Barnes, but I am still going to try again some day.  As a filmmaker there is nothing more delightful than a film that pushes and shoves your own aesthetic possibilities and understandings, even if it does become endlessly frustrating.

melo-1986-05-g

Mélo (1986)

dir. Alain Resnais, cast: Fanny Ardant, André Dussollier, Sabine Azéma, Pierre Arditi

In many ways Mélo feels like Resnais’ homage to Josef von Sternberg.  Josef von Sternberg’s films are noted for their theatricality, expressionist lighting, romantic melodrama and, above all, their sensuality.  Nicolas Roeg is the only filmmaker I can think of who rivals von Sternberg’s cinema for sensuality.  When one thinks of Resnais’ films, one does not usually associate them with any of these elements.  Mélo, however, is ripe with tragedy, romance, theatricality, and sensuality.  In many respects Mélo may be Resnais’ best film because, not only is it a master class in cinematic technique, it is brimming over with authentic human emotion.

Mélo exists in another world, a Paris exclusive to the cinema, found in the works of Minnelli, Carné, and Demy.  This is a world of Romanticism.   Mélo functions as a fairytale for adults, extending Life Is A Bed Of Roses that much further conceptually.  It warns of love pursued at all costs, of love given beyond selflessness, and it does so in a space of fantasy so closely tied with a sense of secure escapism in its audience’s mind that as Mélo descends its characters further and further to their fates the emotional impact is quadrupled.  

r6ow

The Unbelievable Truth (1989)

dir. Hal Hartley, cast: Adrienne Shelly, Robert John Burke, Chris Cooke

When Hal Hartley first emerged on the American Independent Film scene with The Unbelievable Truth it was like nothing else.  The fusion of the literate with the plastic, his long takes, the off-beat blocking, and his own signature style soundtracks stood out from the pack, announcing a new and wholly unique voice in American cinema.

When I discuss low-budget and independent filmmaking with my students I assign them an interview with Hartley that was originally published in Sight & Sound to read; they all end up loving him if not his films.  When we work with blocking I often screen a scene from The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, and Surviving Desire, one scene apiece.  Again, most of the students fall in love with his style.  Which is no surprise since his influence can be felt in both Noah Baumbach’s and Wes Anderson’s films.

I saw No Such Thing before I saw The Unbelievable Truth.  Dan lent me his copy of The Unbelievable Truth in the summer of 2011 so I came into Hartley’s early films rather late.  The impact of this film on my own work is rather considerable and certainly more obvious on the shorts I made back in the summer of 2011.  I would recommend that anyone interested in making a film on their own should invest some time in studying Hartley’s works.

006

Beyond The Clouds (1995)

dir. Michelangelo Antonioni & Wim Wenders, cast: Chiara Caselli, Irène Jacob, Vincent Perez

In my adolescence I had acne, I was at least 8” taller than any other kid my age and I had the face of someone four years older than I actually was.  I was an outcast, just like everyone else.  That’s how I felt when I saw Beyond The Clouds.  I had seen The American Friend so I knew who Wim Wenders was but I had not seen any of Antonioni’s films.

What struck me was how Beyond The Clouds so delicately recreated so many emotions, both familiar and unfamiliar.  So seamlessly do these narratives intwine and accent one another that one might miss the dialogue occurring between each separate vignette.  This was Antonioni’s last film and I think he finally said everything he ever wanted to say about how our contemporary existential quandary subverts human romantic impulses.  He takes an existentialist’s view on questions like “is there just one special person for all of us?”, “is love eternal?”, “would things be different if I had told her how I felt?”; that answer is always “no”.  And yet, despite these cold realizations each character still remains somewhat hopeful.  The hope that the Romantic could be the truth is what sustains, that is what Beyond The Clouds is about.

When I was fourteen or fifteen that meant something to me, it sustained me I suppose, in a way.  Today it represents a bittersweet truth.  Having been in some relationships, having experienced the euphorias and the suffering life has to give that are just incomprehensible when you are twelve, I have to admit my perspective on Antonioni’s last film has changed.  You realize that the only way one can remain hopeful in the face of the existential machinations of our society and our relationships is to learn to live with regret.  Regret is what unites all of the narratives, all of the characters in Beyond The Clouds.

Afterward

Pandora's Box

When I first thought of having the Zimbo Films’ staff write about their “twenty favorite films” I was thinking that it would help demonstrate our collective aesthetic interests and sensibilities in preparation for fundraising for Thomas Lampion’s Julie Lovely.  The experience of actually writing this piece and reading Thomas’ contribution for the first time a month ago was one of both catharsis and renewal.  Renewal in the sense of rekindling a thought process surrounding the cinema that is more subjective than say the academic realm in which I often find myself and ground my own works as a filmmaker.  Though I honestly doubt that the casual reader will take away the same emotional responses as the authors of these posts will, I do hope that they, the readers, do find a renewed interest in avenues of cinematic expression that they may have though they out grew.

Lastly I would like to pay my respects to the films and filmmakers that did not make my final list.  The journey to the list you have just read was a long one; sometimes it was excruciating.  Different iterations of this list were born out of two motivating factors, mood and ego.  Regardless as to why the following films did not make the list in the end I believe that their inclusion here will serve as an appendix that will illuminate and accent the twenty films listed above.  Without further delay those films are Fish Tank (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2009), Histoire de Marie et Julien (dir. Jacques Rivette, 2003), Pola X (dir. Leos Carax, 1999), Naked (dir. Mike Leigh, 1993), The Last Bolshevik (dir. Chris Marker, 1992), Wild At Heart (dir. David Lynch, 1990), Bad Timing (dir. Nicolas Roeg, 1980), In A Year With 13 Moons (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978), Mikey & Nicky (dir. Elaine May, 1976), Der Tod der Maria Malibran (dir. Werner Schroeter, 1972), Goodbye, Columbus (dir. Larry Peerce, 1969), The Swimmer (dir. Frank Perry, 1968), Faces (dir. John Cassavetes, 1968), Reflections In A Golden Eye (dir. John Huston, 1967), Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor (dir. Kon Ichikawa, 1963), The Leopard (dir. Luchino Visconti, 1963), Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal (dir. Fritz Lang, 1959), The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (dir. Roy Rowland, 1953), Earth (dir. Alexander Dovzhenko, 1930), Pandora’s Box (dir. G.W. Pabst, 1929), and lastly The Dying Swan (dir. Evgeni Bauer, 1917).

by Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under lists

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)

steamboatbilljr

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

BusterKeaton40s

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

Buster-Keaton_1766337i

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

tumblr_ms9sk5mdlJ1r7ws74o1_500

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

Leave a comment

Filed under filmmakers

BUSTER KEATON: AN ORAL HISTORY PART II

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.]

Buster Keaton's Hat

Three Ages (1923)

BUSTER KEATON:  [Producer Joseph] Schenck said [moving to features] was the only way to get big rentals.  The exhibitor, anyway, was often featuring our two-reelers over his main film.  So why not make him pay for it?  It would more than double the rentals – would mean twenty-five hundred dollars and more a week from each theatre.  As for me personally feature stories meant something else again…I had begun to want longer stories.  A challenge, yes, but also room to develop the thing.  To really say it.1

…what I did [with Three Ages] was just tell a single story of two fellows calling on a girl…And in fighting over the girl and different situations we could get into, and finally winning her.  But I told the same story in three ages.  I told it in the Stone Age, Roman Age, and Modern.2 I was thinking of Intolerance (1916) when I made it.  I told the three separate stories same as Griffith did; and of course in that film I did take liberties, because it was more of a travesty than a burlesque.  That’s why I used a wristwatch that was a sundial, and why I used my helmet the way I did.  Fords at that time had a safety device to stop people from stealing the cars…which looked just like my Roman helmet.  So I unlocked my Roman helmet off me and locked it on the wheel of my chariot.  At that time the audience all compared it with the safety gadget for a Ford.3

CLYDE BRUCKMAN, co-director, The General:  Bus wanted one of the cavemen to heave a big rock at him; he would take a batter’s stance, swing his war club, bat the rock back, and it would bean the other guy.  Now, you do this easy by the cutting technique.  One shot of the guy throwing.  Next shot, someone out of camera range lobs it up to Buster and he bats it.  Final shot, close-up of the rock beaning the guy.  Put it all together.  Easy as duck soup…the studios do it every day.  It rolls across the screen with a whoosh – but you never saw the thing really happen; it’s a patchwork of half-truths.

Now, Buster accepted the fact that this rock must be papier-mache.  But he wouldn’t accept action trickery.  It had to be continuous action, from the moment the caveman picked it up and heaved it straight through to the moment it homed back and coldcocked him.  “We get it in one shot,” he said, “or we throw out the gag.”

We set up the cameras for a long profile shot – this rock was going to sail for thirty feet – and we worked for hours.  Seventy-six takes, all for one little gag.

“Okay,” said Buster, “now they’ll know it was for real.”4

BUSTER KEATON: [For the film] I went to jump across an alleyway on top of a tall building.  We built the sets over the Third Street tunnel – or the Broadway tunnel – looking right down over Los Angeles.  Now, by getting your cameras up on a high parallel and shooting past our set in the foreground with the street below, it looked like we were up in the air about twelve, fourteen stories high.  And we actually had a net stretched from one wall to the other underneath the camera line so in case you missed any trick that you were doing…you had a net to fall into, although it was about a thirty-five foot drop.  So, my scene was with the cops chasing me, that I came to this thing and I took advantage of the lid of a skylight and laid it over the edge of the roof to use as a springboard.  I backed up, hit it, and tried to make it to the other side which was probably about eighteen feet, something like that.  Well, I misjudged the spring of that board and I didn’t make it.  I hit flat up against that other set and fell to the net, but I hit hard enough that it jammed my knees a little bit, and hips and elbows, ’cause I hit flush, flat – and I had to go home and stay in bed for about three days.

And of course, at the same time, me and the scenario department were a little sick because we can’t make that leap.  That throws the whole chase sequence…right out the window.  So the boys the next day went into the projecting room and saw the scene anyhow, ’cause they had it printed to look at it.  Well, they got a thrill out of it, so they came back and told me about it.  Says, “Well, if it looks that good let’s see if we can pick it up this way.  The best thing to do is put an awning on a window, just a little small awning, just enough to break my fall.”   ‘Cause on the screen, you could see that I fell about, oh I guess about sixteen feet, something like that. So, now you go in and drop into something just to slow me up, to break my fall, and I can swing from that onto a rainspout and when I get ahold of it, it breaks and lets me sway, sways me out away from the building hanging onto it.  And for a finish, it collapses enough that it hinges and throws me down through a window a couple of floors below.

Well, when we got back and checked up on that this chase was about – the chase was this: I was getting away from policemen, and used the old Hollywood Station on Hollywood, which was right next door to the fire department.  Well, when this pipe broke and threw me through the window, we went in there and built the sleeping quarters of the fire department with a sliding pole in the background.  So I came through their window on my back, slid across the floor, and I lit up against the sliding pole and dropped to the bottom on the slide.  I bounced from that to set on the rear of one of the trucks and as I hit the rear the truck pulled out, so I had to grab on for dear life, but I’m on my way to a fire – but the fire was in the police department.  So we went back and shot the scene where I accidentally, not knowing it, had set fire to the police department before the cops started to chase me.  Well, it ended up…it was the biggest laughing sequence in the picture.5

Our Hospitality (1923)

DAVID ROBINSON, film historian/Chaplin biographer:  The leap from The Three Ages to the masterpiece Our Hospitality is one of the most startling revolutions in Keaton’s career.  Our Hospitality shows Keaton in full possession of his mature gifts: as a filmmaker he is as assured as a [Henry] King or a [King] Vidor; and certainly the superior of Chaplin, who at the time that Keaton was making Our Hospitality was preparing The Gold Rush (1925) – a beautiful film, but technically archaic and visually feeble when seen alongside the Keaton film.6

BUSTER KEATON:  On Our Hospitality we had this one idea of an old-fashioned Southern feud…our best period for that was to go back something like eighty years.  “All right,” we say.  “We go back that far.  And now when I go South, am I traveling in a covered wagon, or what?  Let’s look up the records and see when the first railroad train was invented.”  Well, we find out: we’ve got the Stephenson Rocket for England and the DeWitt Clinton for the United States.  And we chose the Rocket engine because it’s funnier looking.  So we build that entire train and that set our period for us: 1825 was the actual year of the invention of the railroad.7…and they weren’t so fussy about laying railroad track [then] – it if was a little unlevel, they just ignored it.  They laid it over fallen trees, over rocks (laughs).  So I got quite a few laughs ridin’ that railroad.

[In the film] when I got down South to claim my father’s estate, I ran into the family who had run us out of the state in the first place.  And the old man of the outfit wouldn’t let his sons or anybody shoot me while I was a guest in the house ’cause the girl had invited me for dinner.  Well, I’d overheard it and found out.  As long as I stayed in the house, I was safe.  But I had a good story to tell and it rounded out swell and it was a big seller for me.8

For that scene in the rapids…we picked the best rapids from a pictorial point of view, a two-hundred-yard stretch where the water moves fast and white.  I’m supposed to grab onto a sixteen-foot log and float out into the bad water.

“Can you hold on to the log?” [Technical Director Fred] Gabouri asked me.  I said, “Yes.”  So he put a holdback wire around the log, ran the wire out about sixty feet, and then anchored it tightly around a baseball bat.  There were three men holding that bat.

The idea was to shoot this close up to establish the action while they keep me from getting swept away.  Then we’d go into a more distant profile for long stretches of milder water, where they can control the log and me.

Fine, we’re shooting, then the wire goes pop, real soft, and – bang! – the log and I are in the rapids, and off to hell we go.  I hear the guys yell and start into the rocks and underbrush along the river.  But I’m thinking about myself – think fast or forget it.  I sure as shooting have to shed that log or it will beat me to death against the boulders.  So I kick loose and spring ahead. The main thing is to keep from whirling.  I’m fighting for breath and trying to remember how long the rapids are and how much of them are left.

It starts to quiet down, and I think, I’ve made it! Then suddenly I’m in foam a foot deep.  You don’t breathe very well in foam, and you sure as hell can’t swim on top of it.  It was a bend in the river that saved me.  I grabbed some overhanging branches, pulled myself out, feet still in the water and just lay on my face fighting for air.

All of that took maybe a minute and a half, two minutes.  It took [the crew] nearly ten minutes to fight through the underbrush.  I don’t suppose they knew what they would find.9

Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

BUSTER KEATON:  I liked Sherlock.  It was a good picture for me.  It was the trickiest of all the pictures I ever made because there were so many camera tricks and illusions.  We spent an awful lot of time getting those scenes.10 That was the reason for making the whole picture.  Just that one situation: that a motion picture projectionist in a theatre goes to sleep and visualizes himself getting mixed up with the characters on the screen.  All right, then my job was to transform those characters on the screen into my (the projectionist’s) characters at home, and then I’ve got my plot.  Now to make it work was another thing: and after that picture was made every cameraman in Hollywood spent more than one night watching it and trying to figure out just how we got some of those scenes.11  I think the reason we started off on that story is because I had one of the best cameramen in the business, Elgin Lessley.  We laid out a few of these tricks; some of these tricks I knew from the stage.  I seldom did camera tricks.  I tried to do the real illusion.  I have done an awful lot of camera tricks too, as far as that goes.  But I laid out some of those gags.  And the technical man that builds the sets, I showed him how I have to get them built for the things I had to do.  When I got that batch of stuff together, he said “You can’t do it and tell a legitimate story, because there are illusions, and some of them are clowns gags, some Houdini…It’s got to come in a dream.”  And all I had to round out was that I was in trouble at the start of the picture with my girl’s father.  He thought I stole his watch.  Well, on the screen I became the world’s greatest detective, to solve this mystery.  Of course, while I’m asleep the girl finds out that I didn’t steal it, and she’s the one who woke me up at the finish.  But on the screen I was a son-of-a-gun, the world’s great detective.  No matter how they tried to surround me and kill me or get me, I got out of it.12

Oh, there were some great shots in that baby!…I got up on the screen and they threw me off back into the audience.  I finally get back up there again and the scenes changed on me.13  [For that] we built what looked like a motion picture screen and actually built a stage into that frame but lit it in such a way that it looked like a motion picture being projected on a screen.  But it was real actors and the lighting effect gave us the illusion, so I could go out of semi-darkness into that well-lit screen right from the front room of the theater right into the picture.  Then when it came to the scene changing on me when I got up there, that was a case of timing and on every one of those things we would measure the distance to the fraction of an inch from the camera to where I was standing, also with a surveying outfit to get the exact height and angle so that there wouldn’t be a fraction of an inch missing on me, and then we changed the setting to what we wanted it to be and I got back into that same spot and it overlapped the action to get the effect of the scene changing.14

…I didn’t use stunt men for me, but I doubled them.  There’s a scene in Sherlock Jr. when I call a motorcycle cop, and I say, “Follow that car.”  And I jump on his handlebars, we hit a bump in the street, and I lose the cop.  Well, the cop that fell off was me.  Because what I did was take Ernie Orsatti, an assistant props man with me, who was my size.  Put my clothes on him.  I put the cop’s clothes on, drove the motorcycle, hit the bump and fell of the motorcycle.15  [For that] I’d just go out and learn to handle a motorcycle on the handlebars16… hell of a job.  Number one.  The control of the gas is here [on the handlebars] for speed, but I’ve got no brakes.  You’ve got to have a strong arm to get your feet back down there, ’cause it was footbrakes, see.  Well, I got some beautiful spills before I could get back.  Some beauties.  I parked right up on top of an automobile once.  I hit it head on, and I ended up with my fanny up against the windshield, my feet straight in the air.  [Laughter]  Parked car!17

They found a fracture – years later – I didn’t even know it.  I was doing a scene in Sherlock.  I was running along the top of a freight train, and I grabbed the rope of a water tower to get on the other train, and of course all my full weight pulls on the rope and of course I pull the spout down and it drenches me with water.  Well, when you’re on top of a freight car you’re up there twelve feet high and that water spout is a ten inch pipe.  I didn’t know how strong that water pressure was.  Well, it just tore my grip loose as if I had no grip at all and dropped me the minute it hit me.  And I lit on my back, with  my head right across the rail – the rail right on my neck.  It was a pretty hard fall, and that water pushed me down.18  I said, “I want a drink.”  So, that numbed me enough that I woke up the following morning, my head was clear, and I never stopped working.  But fourteen years later, I’m in the Soldier’s Home down here in Sawtelle.  The doctor calls me in and says, “When did you break your neck?”  I said I never broke my neck.  He said, “Look at this X-ray.  This callus has grown over the crack, it’s next to the top vertebra.”  I didn’t know it.  I said, “How long ago was this?”  “That looks like it could be somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago.” I started thinking back.  “I know when it happened.  It’s that goddamn fall on the track.  It cracked this vertebra.”  I never stopped working, never knew it.  Well, that’s luck.  No nerve pinched or anything in the healing – and I never knew it.19

CLYDE BRUCKMAN: We had a pool-table shot where he had to pocket a number of balls in one stroke of the cue.  The camera at high level had to show it all happen.  Set up the balls, Whang away and miss.  We worked an hour.

“You know, Buster,” we said, “this thing can’t be done.”

This made him mad.  “It can be done.  Give me fifteen minutes with those stupid goddamn balls.”  He coated each ball with white chalk, then shot it separately into the proper pocket.  Each ball left the line of its path on the green felt.  Then Buster placed each ball exactly where the line indicated, called, “Camera!” and took one shot and pocketed them all.20

The Navigator

The Navigator (1924)

WOODY ALLEN, comedian/filmmaker:  City Lights (1931) and The Gold Rush (1925) and The Navigator and The General (1927) are the four great comedies, aren’t they?21

BUSTER KEATON:  We were workin’ on a story, the scenario department, and we didn’t have a good idea yet …And I had just lent my technical man to Metro, to Frank Lloyd.  He wanted to do The Sea Hawk and that called for about five fourteenth-century sailing vessels.  So he was up and down the Pacific Coast lookin’ for those hulls that they could build up into those pirate ships…But he had just gotten back in town, and he says, “While I was in ‘Frisco, I ran into an ocean liner – five hundred feet long – a passenger ship.  And they’re just about to sell it for junk.”  Says, “You can have it for$25,000 and do anything you want with it.”

Well, we went to work right then and there and says, “Now, what could we do with an ocean liner?”  Says, “Well, we can make a dead ship out of it.  No lights aboard.  No water running.  Just afloat.”  How could we get it afloat?  Well, we set out to figure out how to do that and to write a story around it.  Only to get a boy and a girl alone, and adrift in the Pacific Ocean.  And we plant the characters so that the audience knows that she never saw a kitchen in her life, doesn’t know how to boil a cup of tea.  I am the son of a very wealthy man in San Francisco, so I’ve been waited on all my life with valets, chauffeurs, and private tutors and everything else.  So I don’t know what I’m doin’.  And set those two characters adrift in the Pacific Ocean on a dead ship.  Well, that’s The Navigator.  And it worked out beautifully.

…The opening gag in that picture with me is one of the most stolen gags that was ever done on the screen.  I think I knew at one time of twenty-seven times it had been done by other companies.  With us, the gag was more to establish the fact that I was so helpless, that I went to call on the girl, and I came down and got in my car with a chauffeur and a footman.  The footman wrapped a blanket around my knees … and drove [me] across the street.  That’s all.  I got out to call on the girl.,  I asked the girl if she’d marry me and she said, “No,” and I come back down.  The guy opened the door in the car for me, and I said, “No, I think the walk will do me good.”  So I walked across the street with the car followin’ me, makin’ a U-turn.22

…when we first laid out the story of The Navigator ahead, a few dramatic scenes at the start of it were legitimate and not done in a comedy way…you get a good dramatic director to take care of those sequences in the picture. The only one mistake we made there, and that was Donald Crisp – he was strictly from the D.W. Griffith school, a topnotch dramatic man…But when he joined us, he turned into a gag man.  He wasn’t interested in the dramatic scenes, he was only interested in the comedy scenes with me.  Well, that we didn’t want.23  He was actually annoying as a gag man, see.  Actually, after I let him go, I went back and shot a couple of the dramatic scenes again.24

I’ll show you how seriously they used to take our stories.  In The Navigator…we run aground stern first off a cannibal island, and through the binoculars I can see that they are wild type of cannibals, they are headhunters.  Well, it was just a matter of time that they are going to come out there and get onto this ship.  And we spring a leak in the stuffing box, which means we can see this water pouring in around the driving shaft.  It can’t be plugged from the inside; it’s got to be done from outside.  Well, automatically there’s deep-sea diving equipment right there in the set with us.  So, the girl helps me put it on, and she’s up there to pump air to me.

Well, we laid out this gag in advance and had it built by the Llewellyn Iron Works in Los Angeles.  We got about twelve hundred solid rubber fish about a foot long and hung ’em on cat gut, violin strings that are transparent under water.  And then hung ’em from this rigging so that a school of fish…we could make a school of fish go past, circle around back of the camera and continue, and with one spot to break it when we wanted to.  So my gag was, while I’m down there trying to fix that stuffing box, that a big fish came up and tried to go through the school and couldn’t make it. And I see a starfish clinging to a rock, so I got the starfish off of the rock and let it grab my breastplate.  I stepped into the middle of the school of fish and brought it to a stop, and then turned and brought the big fish through, and then turned – I directed traffic – and then went back to my job.

Well, the gag photographed beautifully.  We preview the picture, and it lays a beautiful egg, not a giggle from the audience.  We can’t figure it out. Well, says, we’ll try it at the next preview and see.  Next preview, the same thing.  It finally dawned on us what it was.  I went down there to stuff that stuffing box to keep the girl and me from falling into the hands of these cannibals, and I had no license in the world to stop to go help a fish go through the traffic.  Simple as that.  Now to prove it, we take it out of the picture and of course our picture travels the way it is supposed to and finished great.  And I took that sequence and put it in with what they call the trailers.  And this scene was in it, and it got an out-and-out belly laugh.25

[We had] terrible problems [with the underwater sequences]… I was one month up [at Lake Tahoe] shooting that sequence.  One of the worst problems in Tahoe was the water so clear you could really see, but so cold that I could only stay down about thirty minutes at a time.26

…we built this camera box for two cameras…with a big iron passage up to the top with a ladder on the inside. That box, of course, was built of planks and sealed good so that there’s no leakage.  But it’s wood and there has to be added weight added to it.  Well, I added about a thousand pounds of weight to it.  Now we find out the inside’s got to be kept at the same temperature as the water outside.  So we hang a thermometer out there so the cameraman can look through the glass and read it – and one on the inside.  And we got cakes of ice out there…to make sure to keep the temperature of the camera box the same as the water on the outside, so it won’t fog up the glass.  Either one side or the other will fog up on you, see.  The difference was that when the two bodies are in there, the body heat…that means add more ice immediately.  So, as you put the cameramen in, you also put more ice in.  [Laughter]  Dressed them warm enough to take it.  So, there’s the whole outfit and me with that deep-sea diving outfit going down there, and the cameraman says, “I’m too close.  I want to be back further.”  I moved that camera box under water – I moved it!  That’s how much you can lift when you’re down around fifteen or twenty feet deep. The box must have weight about fourteen hundred pounds or something like that.  Two cameramen and two cameras and about two to three hundred pounds of ice, another thousand pounds of weight on it, and I picked it up and moved it.27

[The Navigator is] an out-and-out novelty – such a screwy story, starting with using an ocean liner, for the love of Mike.  It lent itself to gags that you’d never think of.28

Seven Chances

Seven Chances (1925)

BUSTER KEATON:  A certain local screwball…sold [Joseph Schenck] a story – a Belasco show called Seven Chances – twenty-five thousand dollars.  The money wasn’t much, but the show!  I had seen it in New York – 1916 for heaven’s sakes – and it was a flop then.  Closed in a week, if I recall.  The type of unbelievable farce I don’t like.  We made it anyway and got a fair picture.29

[For the climax of the film] I am running away from a batch of women who are chasing me.  A friend has put it in the paper that I’ll marry anybody so long as I can be married by five o’clock – it has to do with inheriting an estate or whatever.  So all the women in the world show up to get married.  They chase me out of the church, and so on.  I went down to the dunes just off the Pacific Ocean out at Los Angeles, and I accidentally dislodged a boulder in coming down.  All I had set up for the scene was a camera panning with me as I came over the skyline and was chased down into the valley.  But I dislodged this rock, and it in turn dislodged two others, and they chased me down this hill.

That’s all there was: just three rocks.  But the audience at the preview sat up in their seats and expected more.  So we went right back and ordered fifteen hundred rocks built, from bowling alley size up to boulders eight feet in diameter.  Then we went out to the Ridge Route, which is in the High Sierras, to a burnt mountain steeper than a forty-five degree angle.  A couple of truckloads of men took those rocks up and planted them, and then I went up to the top and came down with the rocks.  That gag gave me the whole final chase, and it was an accident in the first place.30

[There’s a scene where] I had an automobile, like a Stutz-Bearcat roadster.  I was in front of an office building.  Now it’s a full-figure shot of that automobile and me.  I come down, got into the car – there’s a lot of people walking up and down the sidewalks, office building in the background – I release the emergency brake after starting it, sit back to drive – and I didn’t move.  The scene changed, and I was in front of a little cottage out in the country.  I reach forward, pull on the emergency brake, shut my motor off, and went on into the cottage.  I come back and after I visit her, get into the automobile, turn it on, sit back there – and I and the automobile never moved – and the scene changed back to the office building in New York, in the city.  Now that automobile’s got to be exactly the same distance, the same height and everything, to make that work, because the scene overlaps but I don’t…for that baby, we used surveying instruments, so that the front part of the car would be the same distance from [the camera], the whole shooting match.31

PIERRE ETAIX, filmmaker/clown: Buster Keaton, in anything he did – for example, the whole stunt sequence at the end of Seven Chances where he tumbles down a hillside, somersaulting and flipping, with the rocks at his heels, and the women pursuing him – what a magnificent scene!  What a performance!  He wasn’t acting there.  His movements are true acrobatics.  It’s marvelous.  That’s a legacy from the circus and variety shows.33

Go West (1925)

BUSTER KEATON: [We shot that] about sixty miles out of Kingman, Arizona.  We were really out in open country34…I ran into one disappointment on that film.  One of the most famous Western shows ever seen in the United States was called The Heart of Maryland, in which these two guys are playing cards, and one guy calls the other a name, and he takes out his six-shooter and lays it down on the table, pointing right at this fellow’s middle, and says, “When you call me that, smile…”  Well, because I’m known as frozen face, blank pan, we thought that if you did that to me an audience would say, “Oh my God, he can’t smile: he’s gone; he’s dead.”  But it didn’t strike an audience as funny at all: they just felt sorry for me.35

I had [another] bad disappointment in that thing.  I thought I had a funny sequence when I had my cattle…and I actually turned ’em loose in Los Angeles in the Santa Fe depot in the freight yards, and brought ’em up Seventh Street to Broadway (no – up to Spring Street).  And we put cowboys off on every side street to stop people in automobiles from comin’ into it.  And then put our own cars with people in there.  And I brought three hundred head of steers up that street.  I’d hate to ask permission to do that today.  But then I thought that by goin’ in a store, and I saw a costume place, and I saw a devil’s suit… well, bulls and steers don’t like red, they’ll chase it.  ‘Course I was tryin’ to lead ’em towards the slaughter house.  I put that suit on and I thought I’d get a funny chase sequence, and have the cows get a little too close to me, and get scared.  Then really put on the speed tryin’ go get away from ’em.  But I couldn’t do it with steers – steers wouldn’t chase me.  I actually ran and had cowboys pushin’ ’em as fast as they could go, and I fell down in front of ’em and let ’em get within about ten feet of me before I got to my feet.  But as I moved, they stopped, too.  They piled up on each other.  But they wouldn’t come near me.  Well, that kind of hurt when you think that’s going to be your big finish chase sequence.  We had to trick it from all angles…Some parts I like, but as a picture, in general, I didn’t care for it.36

Battling Butler (1926)

BUSTER KEATON: Battling Butler I liked.  It was a good picture.  I told the original story that was taken from the stage show except that I had to add my own finish.  I couldn’t have done the finish that was in the show…[where] he just finds out in the dressing room up at Madison Square Garden that he don’t have to fight the champion and he promises the girl he’ll never fight again.  And of course the girl don’t know but what he did fight.

But we knew better than to do that to a motion-picture audience.  We couldn’t promise ’em for seven reels that I was goin’ to fight in the ring and then not fight.  We knew that we had to fight.  So we staged a fight in the dressing room with the guy who just won the title in the ring – by having bad blood between the fighter and myself.  And it worked out swell.37

CLYDE BRUCKMAN: My God, it was a really dramatic fight, not a comedy fight.  Yet it stood up in a comic picture – one of the best closings of any Keaton film.  You’re all in there rooting for this little guy against the world’s champion.38

edited by Hank Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under filmmakers

What About Bob?

I have written about the influence of Frank Tashlin before, but in 1990 his influence couldn’t have been more heavily felt than in the films What About Bob? and Clifford (though both films were slated for release in 1991, Clifford would not show in theatres until 1994).  Tashlin’s work with Jerry Lewis seems to be the key jumping off point for these two films stylistically.  However, my primary concern will be What About Bob?.

TRI_FLM_081612_WhatAboutBob_LG

Frank Oz’s film What About Bob? barrows heavily from the classic comedies of not just Jerry Lewis, but of Red Skelton’s films Neptune’s Daughter (Buzzell, 1949) and Texas Carnival (Walters, 1951).  Like the Lewis and Skelton characters in these films Bill Murray’s character of Bob functions as the catalyst of all the narrative’s action, a man-child if you will, whose naïve ignorance and self-serving behavior antagonizes a character of authority (in this case the Richard Dreyfuss character Dr. Leo Martin).  The key narrative device of What About Bob? and its predecessors are that the man-child protagonist’s half-witted actions are somehow responsible for resolving the problems of the supporting characters.  For instance, it is Red Skelton’s problem of mistaken identity that brings Esther Williams and Howard Keel together in Texas Carnival as much as Bob’s “fun and sensitive” presence gives a new sense of structure to the otherwise dysfunctional and discontented family of Dr. Martin.

The Tashlin and Lewis influence on What About Bob? can be found in the art design of the film.  The picture perfect environment of the grounds in Tashlin’s The Disorderly Orderly (1964) are reflected in Frank Oz’s locations in What About Bob? in Dr. Martin’s perfect little house, the ivory white asylum, and the well manicured grounds of the entire town (beautifully photographed by Michael Ballhaus).  Just as the chaos instigated by Jerry Lewis in The Disorderly Orderly contrasts to comic effect with his “perfect” environment so does the wake of destruction left by Bob juxtapose with his surroundings.  This contrast is only effective when the actors play their parts to high camp; consider the caricature nature of both Murray and Dreyfuss’ performances.

Where, in other genres, such performances could ruin a film, in Frank Oz’s very specific world of What About Bob? such bold choices make perfect sense and even pass as believable.  A part of this believability can be accounted for by the fact that Bob so obviously suffers from a myriad of psychological conditions.  This simple implication of mental illness is more than adequate, for better or for worse, to explain Bob’s behavior (a tremendous performance by Murray heavily indebted to Jerry Lewis).  The other two reasons caricature is acceptable are directly linked to the character of Dr. Martin.  At first, Dr. Martin appears to be an unflattering satire of psychoanalysts.  But as Bob continues to push himself into Dr. Martin’s life, his behavior becomes more and more exaggerated, eventually matching Bob’s but in direct opposition in so far as content and motivation are concerned.  Secondly, Dr. Martin’s family is so eager to accept Bob, as are the locals of Dr. Martin’s vacation spot.  This willingness to accept Bob suggests to the audience that they too embrace the character, focusing their attentions on the positive effects his presence has over the negative.

To reinforce this acceptance of comical artifice Oz has arranged the film so that as Bob’s behavior becomes more acceptable, Dr. Martin’s behavior becomes more and more bizarre.  There are the big moments like Dr. Martin’s meltdown after his Good Morning America interview, his car troubles, and the attempted murder of Bob that standout as part of the opposition I mentioned above.  But more disturbing are the little reveals about the Dr. Martin character peppered throughout the second act of the film.  First, we learn that Dr. Martin bought an elderly couple’s dream house out from under them.  This point isn’t particularly psychotic on its own, but does suggest a streak of selfishness.  The primary reveal of note is that Dr. Martin and his family each have a hand puppet of their likeness, which Dr. Martin employs to casually reprimand or at other times psycho analyze his family.  This suggests Dr. Martin is a career obsessed control freak, a point Oz establishes to use as motivation for Dr. Martin’s meltdown on television later in the film.

What About Bob?, upon close examination, is a very disturbing film with an almost terrifying premise.  Bob, Dr. Martin’s patient, fakes his suicide, impersonates a cop and then, after obtaining Dr. Martin’s address, travels to where Dr. Martin is living.  Bob doesn’t leave it at that, he stalks Dr. Martin until enough chance encounters with Dr. Martin’s family enable him to remain close to Dr. Martin while at the same time enjoying the family connections he needs (a point made by Dr. Martin during his interview with Bob at the start of the film).  Of course this sociopathic behavior becomes the stuff of comedy in Frank Oz’s hands just as it does in Paul Flaherty’s hands in the case of Clifford.

what+about+bob

What About Bob? and Clifford, along with Barry Levinson’s Toys (1992), represent a trend in American family films that can be seen as a direct reaction to the films of John Hughes and similarly sentimental films that dominated the same niche during the eighties.  What About Bob? attempts to make the film more adult both in theme and in content.  The film focuses, thematically speaking, on the possibilities of fatherhood as a kind of psychological trap (a perspective also propagated by Clifford).  In this scenario the father is the victim of his own well-intentioned ignorance, forced to learn some painful lessons at the hands of our simpleton protagonist.  In terms of content, What About Bob? is full of humor pertaining to psychology and parenting that would be lost on children, and maybe even a few adults.  But it is a balance between all these elements rather than an imbalance that prevents the film from ever feeling like a genuine family film (like say John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ).  This accounts for the small number of films that were made following this archetype.  Yet as a film, in terms of narrative structure and the clarity of its message, What About Bob? is the most successful film of its kind, even if it doesn’t feel like a family film.  It marks the beginning of the most prolific period of Frank Oz’s career and the beginning of a series of boxoffice flops for Bill Murray.

-Robert Curry

1 Comment

Filed under american films

The Films Of Albert Brooks

When making a movie comedy it has been proven time and again to be relatively impossible for the film to be successfully self-aware.  In most cases, the filmmaker is forced to adopt tactics that take both the audience and the characters out of the fictional reality of the film narrative.  Consider the films of Woody Allen; he is a filmmaker who expresses, in his efforts toward self-awareness, the importance of his own intellectual credentials and his own filmic knowledge in thinly disguised references.  To achieve what can best be called intellectual filmmaking for the pretentious, Allen often stages himself as one of the characters in the film addressing the camera and in turn the audience.  There is a Romantic playfulness to the fact that Allen’s characters are aware of the fact that they inhabit the world of a film.  This of course is reinforced when those same characters in the same films enact variations of scenes by well-established film directors such as Bergman, Fellini, Bunuel, Lewis, and Dreyer.  Another approach to addressing the farcical nature of film within the confines of film comedy itself can be found at its best in Louis C. K.’s Pootie Tang (2001).  Pootie Tang has a lot to offer as satire, but its framing of an entire feature film within a feature film serves as the most blatant kind of self awareness.  At the beginning of the film, Pootie Tang (Lance Crouther) appears on a talk show where he introduces a “clip” from his latest movie.  This “clip” is essentially the film itself, accompanied with a bookend of Pootie Tang, still on the talk show, after the clip has finished.  The duration of the clip itself within the reality of the Pootie Tang world indicates an indictment on the filmmaker’s part of egotistical excess and the inflation of America’s infatuation with celebrity.  Another product of the clip’s duration is that it enables the audience to forget that they are watching a film within a film, and Louis C. K. is able to suspend the audience’s disbelief twice in the course of one film.  But both Louis C. K. and Woody Allen are addressing reflexivity in their comedies by implementing a decidedly modern mode of filmmaking that negates traditional narrative form and character.

Real Life

Perhaps it is a matter of taste when it comes to comedy, but I tend to think that less is more in the American films made post the Hollywood studio system.  The flamboyant and bombastic tone of Woody Allen films has little to offer beyond their initial superficial engagement for reasons self-evident.  To contrast Annie Hall (1977) or Pootie Tang in terms of successful reflexivity in comedy, it becomes only logical to turn to the early films of Albert Brooks.

Strangely, Brooks’ most biting and filmicly referential comedy is also his film that is the most like the aforementioned pictures, Real Life (1979).  In Real Life Brooks plays himself as a smarmy and pretentious film director who has undertaken a year long documentary on the life of a single suburban family with not only pomp and circumstance, but a myriad of scientific teams and technological innovations.  In one fail swoop Brooks manages to lampoon reality television, film directors, American suburbia, studio executives, and any other party having even the least bit to do with the film industry.  Brooks even makes reference to a number of other significant films, such as Gone With The Wind (1939), without having to take his characters out of their own reality with either visual recreations of other films or with monologues delivered to the audience.  In effect, though Real Life is about a man making a film, the characters in Real Life are never aware of the film we the audience are viewing, only that film which exists in their world.  Another courageous decision on the part of Albert Brooks is to play a character of him named Albert Brooks.  Brooks intends to accept reality as a hyper fiction rather than hyper fiction as reality the way Woody Allen does when he appears in his own films.

Albert Brooks’ second feature, Modern Romance (1982), again deals with a man, Robert Cole, (played by Albert Brooks) who works in the film industry, though this time he is a foley artist rather than a director.  Cole is obsessed with his on again off again girlfriend Mary (Monica Johnson), and it is this rollercoaster courtship that composes most of the narrative in Modern Romance.  But Brooks is equally interested in the work and the situations created by that work that a foley artist often finds themselves in.  James L. Brooks (who directed Albert Brooks in Broadcast News) has a cameo as the director for whom Robert Cole is working.  The film within Modern Romance is a low rent Star Wars knock off starring George Kennedy.  Cole consistently complains that this is the only kind of work he has been getting, essentially giving voice to Albert Brooks’ own condemnation of the popular blockbuster film.  Other comical asides that creep naturally into the narrative of the film include the regular ingestion of speed by the sound editors, a fact few outside of the industry are privy of.

As in Real Life, the reflexivity or self-awareness in Modern Romance is motivated by the circumstance of the film’s narrative rather than by the film’s director.  Brooks takes an even more subtle approach to his study of how Americans see movies and the people who make them in his third feature Lost In America (1985).  Unlike its two predecessors, Lost In America does not focus on a protagonist whose professional occupation involves the film industry.  This time out Brooks plays David, an advertising executive who, when passed up for promotion, quits his job, invests everything he owns in a motor home and drives across the country with his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) just like in Easy Rider (1969).  For the unhappy yuppie couple of Lost In America it is that Romantic notion that Easy Rider imbued to their generation that prompts their journey.  David makes numerous references to being “just like Easy Rider” throughout Lost In America, though less and less often as the couple loses everything they own and ends up living in a trailer park, only to “sell out” to survive.  Lost In America is the most bitter of Albert Brooks’ first three films, concerning itself exclusively with the impossibility of the dreams and expectations propagated by the cinema and their effects upon a susceptible audience.

Modern Romance

Examining these three films it’s almost deliberate that the protagonist of each film takes the audience one step further away from film production and one step closer to the audience itself.  The primary strength Brooks’ films derive by making their self-awareness circumstantial is that that reflexivity can be incorporated and in some cases inform the sociological aspects of the films’ satire.  What’s strange is that although Albert Brooks provides the perfect blueprint for such a popular form of comedy filmmaking his films are among some of the most overlooked and under appreciated.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under filmmakers