Monday, May 31, 2010

Talk about having an old friend for dinner...

Elizabeth and I lived in Portland, OR before moving to Seattle. Among our oldest and best friends there are David Delamare and Wendy Ice. David is a painter. Wendy is president of their joint venture, Bad Monkey Productions (, and thus is David's manager, publicist, agent, and creative consultant. (She's also occasionally David's co-author and is one of his former models. Find their book Animerotics: A Forbidden Cabaret and you'll see her on the cover. She'll probably always remind me of Louise Brooks, just one of her numerous sterling qualities.)

Together they have built both a love and a business partnership without either one getting seriously injured by kitchen implements or office supplies. They are among our dearest friends and our life is a finer feast because of them.

Now that "finer feast" is a step closer to being literally true. As of this week, David is a restaurant menu theme in the Hamptons — the Last Hope Lagoon Restaurant and Wine Bar in Montauk Beach, NY. David's commercial specialty is his mermaid paintings, and the restaurant is right on the ocean (plus "Delamare" means "from the sea"), so the Last Hope features over 60 of David's prints and most of the menu items are named for his paintings or the characters in his books.

If you find yourself in Montauk, stop by and report back here. Wendy tells us that "The Delamare" is their best-selling sandwich.

You can find more menu page shots among David's Facebook Photos (viewable depending on his privacy settings and Facebook's seemingly capricious whims).

Congrats — and good eats — to David and Wendy. I hope we'll clink glasses and sample each other's desserts there someday.

David, by the way, provided the cover for my short fiction collection Mars Dust & Magic Shows. And his original Cheshire Cat painting from his current Alice in Wonderland project is hanging here in my living room, grinning at me as I type.

Music: Philip Glass, "Heroes" Symphony
Near at hand: Kai's favorite stuffed toy, just returned from the front yard.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Close Encounters of the Cool Job Kind

Here's the Gulliver-like head of my pal Glenn Erickson (who by night dons a mask and rides the cinema countryside as DVD Savant), surveying a visual effects landscape for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, summer 1977. Now whenever I view this scene, I picture his looming noggin about to get creamed with a glowing pie. (Fortunately, Glenn likes pie.)

Makes me consider a slight rewrite of a page in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
"For thousands more years the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across — which happened to be the Earth — where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a special effects technician."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Blazing Saddles (1974) — Excuse me while I whip this out

"Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, but it expressed a courage that is little seen in this day and age." — Olson Johnson (David Huddleson)

Chalk up Blazing Saddles as only a lampoon of Hollywood westerns and you miss the point by a Texas mile.

I've been thinking about Mel Brooks' R-rated, lowbrow night at the horse opera from 1974 more than usual lately. What brought it to mind this week, for instance, is poor Rand Paul, who can't keep his foot out of his mouth long enough to express how shocked, shocked he is to realize that most folks consider the 1964 Civil Rights Act a good thing. Hey, a full century of post-Civil War self-regulation just did wonders for that Constitutional "common good" stuff.

Not a big surprise, really, in these days of such unhappy but necessary reminders, in which the Tea Party, Fox News "rodeo clowns," the Texas Board of Education, the state of Arizona, and other representative factions of post-2008 American reactionary "movement conservatism" peel back their Archie McPhee rubber masks to reveal the modern face of old-fashioned racism and proud know-nothingism. (Although, granted, as conservative Andrew Sullivan and others smarter than I point out, there's little that's honestly conservative about epistemic closure or the counterfactual paranoia and misdirected, artificially ginned-up spasms of the right's reactionary kitsch. We're going through a phase where "honestly conservative" is pretty much an oxymoron like "Christian militia" or the American Family Association.)

As a satirical flag waving in the racial and social winds of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Blazing Saddles' casual vulgarity, racial epithets, and pants-dropping silliness were spread like the very best butter over the more serious business of iconoclastically upturning expectations and tropes, especially some shibboleths found not just in old-fashioned cowboy movies. Its broad humor was the palliative that let Brooks mock prejudices and, with gloves off, prejudiced people.

Meanwhile, in '74 I was way too young to see the movie, if it played in my small Arkansas community at all, but I was old enough to hear the warnings of the other kids to not ride my bike through the two or three streets collectively known as "nigger town." (My break from organized religion began in the same community five years later, when the pastor of the Presbyterian church my parents carted me to joined with other local religious leaders to form the "Ministerial Alliance" for the purpose of successfully banning, sight unseen, Monty Python's Life of Brian from the local multiplex.)

It seems to me that we could use a new Blazing Saddles right about now. By that I mean a pop hit movie that laughs at institutional redneckery, one that loudly — yet without easy condescension or mean-spiritedness — honks the fat red Bozo nose of the Palin-Beck era.

As much as I love the movie, I find scant pleasure in seeing within it a newly revived currency. Under the heading of "The more things change...", Blazing Saddles from 1974 maps easily enough onto the American scene 2010:

There's Harvey Korman's cynical, silver-tongued politico who exploits the unchallenged racism of the common folks for personal gain. (Think Sarah Palin since 2008, and any number of contenders between the 2010 midterms and 2012, possibly just in time for both a cinematic and electoral When Worlds Collide.)

His chief flunky is Slim Pickens' oafish henchman who starts the Limbaughian "ditto!" trend a bit early.

Together they maneuver under the authority of Mel Brooks' ineffectual governor who's more interested in diddly preoccupations and getting his name in the history books than in legitimate affairs of state. (I'd say Palin again, but I hate repeating myself. Besides, it appears that Governor Le Petomane will actually choose to fulfill his term in office.)

And of course these three stooges work against the natural smarts and charisma of Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little), the well-spoken, urbane newcomer whose ride into town is greeted with cocked shotguns and an "Up yours, nigger" barked by an apple-cheeked granny. (Do I really need to spell this one out?)

    Carrying this wobbly drinking game further, let's go ahead and say that Blazing Saddles' famous campfire beans-and-farts scene works as a metaphor for Congress in session. Meanwhile, Mongo (Alex Karras) is — sure, why not? — the whole hulking Tea Party movement. ("Mongo merely pawn in game of life.")

    Yeah, easy partisan shots all. I know it. Still, if the cowboy boot fits....

    Blazing Saddles became a surprise box-office hit and the all-time highest-grossing western until 1990's Dances With Wolves. But comedy, like porn and Picassos, is a fundamentally subjective experience, so critical reaction to this anything-goes mishmash of rapid-fire gags, Mad magazine naughtiness, outrageous anachronisms, and disjointed styles was predictably mixed. Critics regarded it as either a rude jumble of sophomoric Borscht Belt shtick stretched to the point of ripping its seams over the film's mod hipster frame, or else a liberating splash of rules-breaking social satire that beat the tar out of Hollywood formulas while simultaneously overturning everyday conventions of racial bigotry, sex, and things you were or were not "supposed" to see or hear on a screen. It was either unashamedly sophomoric or cleverly subversive.

    The brilliance of Mel Brooks, back in his heyday at least, was that Blazing Saddles embodied both and all of these things. If his gleefully raunchy farce were about only its "bad taste" or the number of times the word "nigger" gets deployed, then it would be just another forgettable splat on the ever-growing mountain of in-your-face shock comedies.

    (Oh, and just to establish terms here: Let's not start with calling Blazing Saddles "politically incorrect," a lazy-ass label redefined and misused so often that it's been bled dry of any useful meaning.)

    Not that Brooks sought to make a "message film." After all, we still get the beans-and-farts scene, which is about nothing more than being the first beans-and-farts scene in cinema history. Still, it's fair to say that Blazing Saddles broke ground as well as wind.

    In these times when sanctimony and sound-bite puritanism are treated as virtues, we need a Blazing Saddles, a wry, bold, good-hearted taboo-buster that deflates bigots (and their fear that others would monger), while simultaneously suggesting we unclench our sphincters and get over ourselves.

    Although the film's plot is at best a secondary concern, it twists the nipples of every Wild West genre staple in the book. Cleavon Little's Bart is a railroad-worker used by villainous Hedley — "not Hedy" — Lamarr (Harvey Korman) and the governor (Brooks, who also appears as a Yiddish Indian Chief) in a dastardly land-snatch scheme. The bad guys are abetted by Slim Pickens and, at first, Madeline Kahn's Teutonic femme fatale from the Elmer Fudd School of Elocution, Lili Von Shtupp. Lamarr talks "The Gov" into appointing black Bart the new sheriff of bandit-besieged Rock Ridge. Their aim is to so offend the little frontier town's "white, God-fearing" folk (all named Johnson — Howard, Van, etc.) that the rightful owners will abandon the territory to the new railroad Lamarr plans to build through it.

    For a while the plan works, with Bart confronted with every manner of bigotry from words to gun barrels. Bart, though, has more smarts than everyone else in town put together. Teaming with a washed-up, boozed-up gunslinger, the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), he sets out to prove himself, save the town, and defeat those who would "stamp out runaway decency in the West."

    Everyone onscreen is in fine form. The cast steps into their roles with a sense of fun that keeps Blazing Saddles brisk and sharp. Little and Wilder in particular spark up terrific chemistry. Highlights are plenty, with some (such as the farting scene) having achieved legendary status. Madeline Kahn's note-perfect parody of Marlene Dietrich earned her a second consecutive Academy Award nomination.

    In its final fifteen minutes, the narrative (such as it is) comes totally unglued from even its own reality, becoming so anarchic and "meta" that Blazing Saddles could be the American cousin of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which debuted the following year.

    Besides the flatulence and coarse language, Blazing Saddles lights the fuses of other cherry bombs and tosses them into our laps with "faggot" jokes, Jewish jokes, and jokes built on certain black male stereotypes ("It's twue, it's twue!"). We get gags at the expense of religious piety, Kahn's uproarious cabaret number about her well-worn nether region ("the dirtiest song I ever wrote," reports Brooks), casual weed-toking by the good guys, and a hundred verbal or visual in-jokes that run the gamut from witty and gut-busting to just plain dumb.

    Like a cheese assortment platter, not every item has aged well. Some yucks are now well past their sell-by date ("Yes, the Dr. Gillespie killings"). And with changing times come changing sensibilities and sensitivities. There are two big jokes derived from the act of rape that will always make me squirm.

    What keeps the potentially offensive from being genuinely offensive is something that may not be obvious at first viewing: Cleavon Little's Bart is never played as a victim. He is can-do Americana at its fullest expression, and ends up inspiring those who at first would victimize him.

    This intelligent, good-looking, elegant black man knows exactly how to play off the idiocy of the asinine white crackers that surround him.

    "These are people of the land," consoles the Waco Kid, summarizing Bart's antagonists with perfect deadpan, "The common clay of the new West. You know," — here's where nobody times a pause better than Wilder — "morons."

    Even so, there's enough affection on the screen for just about everyone. In the audio commentary on this DVD, Brooks says that the citizens of Rock Ridge aren't villains, just "good people who didn't know any better." Because Bart is smarter and hipper (and, let's say it, kinder), by the end he defeats the bad guys and wins over the locals, who embrace their prairie town's conversion to a melting-pot ideal, assembled before an American flag with no hint of irony or jingoism whatsoever.

    In 1972, Brooks was a Catskills comic-turned-writer-turned-director whose only two films, The Producers and The Twelve Chairs, had not generated promising commercial success. He was out of work in New York when a Warner Brothers executive approached him about directing a western-comedy titled Tex X (after Malcolm, get it?) by a first-time screenwriter in his twenties, Andrew Bergman. Warner Brothers had bought Bergman's screenplay and hired Alan Arkin to direct, with James Earl Jones as the black sheriff, but the project died in development hell. Brooks liked its potential and, atypically for a studio project, asked to work with its original writer to develop the script into a full-on western spoof.

    Young Bergman was thrilled to work with the veteran showman who had brought The Producers into the world. Together they added other writers to the table, recreating the kind of group experience Brooks remembered from his years working with Sid Caesar on TV's Your Show of Shows.

    Brooks wanted a "really good black writer," and hired young nightclub comic Richard Pryor, who was also Brooks' first choice to play the role of Bart. On the film's current DVD and Blu-ray discs, Brooks calls Pryor "the most God-blessed with talent guy I ever saw in my life, and I knew the camera would love him." However, even though Brooks "went on bended knee" begging every studio exec to cast Pryor in the lead, the studio would not risk casting an untried talent reputed to be unreliable and a drug user. Fortunately, Broadway actor Little auditioned for the part, and the pieces fell into place quickly after that.

    Brooks and his writing team drew inspiration from old westerns with the same cheeky self-confidence with which they suckled milk from Brooks' younger upstart 1970s colleagues. They loaded their pockets with fist-sized handfuls of John Ford oaters, 1939's Destry Rides Again, and The Magnificent Seven, smooshing them together with the anti-authoritarian zing of the best Marx Brothers comedies. Some of Blazing Saddles' sequences could have been conceived after an all-night viewing marathon in Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes vault.

    Brooks scrambled it together with the smart-ass irreverence of other New Hollywood films that flipped a middle-finger attitude. So it's fitting that the American Film Institute's list of 100 best American comedies places Blazing Saddles at #6 between the Marx Brothers' 1933 Duck Soup and Robert Altman's 1970 M*A*S*H.

    Comparisons with Brooks' second great 1974 comedy, Young Frankenstein, are inevitable, but they're a mug's game. The two films are superficially similar — colorful sendups of popular film genres — yet they display such differing purpose, style, and execution that it's remarkable that they came from the same director in the same year. The gentler Young Frankenstein is easily the more impressive piece of movie-making, as polished and focused as the Hubble Telescope lens. Plus, Young Frankenstein benefited from the fan-love for its subject that Gene Wilder brought to his own initiating concept and then to his screenplay.

    All the same, for my money, sprocket for sprocket, it's Blazing Saddles that's more belly-laugh funny, even after repeated viewings, from its opening theme (Frankie Laine singing a straight-faced spin on his own Mule Train theme) to its closing shot of our heroes riding off (in a chauffeured Cadillac) into the sunset.

    After this splendid pair, something went, as they say in the movies, horribly wrong. Silent Movie ('76) still sports some of the old touch, but it's dismaying to see the man behind The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein churning out such a flabby whoopy-cushion as Spaceballs (1987). History of the World, Part 1 ('81), a hodgepodge of loosely connected blackout sketches, has some funny bits, but it strains at the stool like fat Elvis in his final moments. Robin Hood: Men In Tights ('93) is as memorable as an after-dinner mint. The less said about Dracula: Dead and Loving It ('95), the better.

    A fundamental ingredient that Brooks' latterday genre parodies lack is a sense of purpose beyond their hit-or-miss humor. Blazing Saddles faced down contemporary racist attitudes, ending with its foot triumphantly planted on racism's chest. Young Frankenstein is more of a tribute to its subject than a lampoon, with respectful affection taking the place of social satire.

    After that, Brooks' parodies are only parodies, nothing more, offering little that you can take away afterward. They seem too easy, too throwaway when compared to his pinnacle achievements from 1974, which respected their audiences too much to be just facile crowd-pleasers.

    Blazing Saddles laughs at racists, not with them, recalling Brooks' objective in The Producers to "dance on Hitler's grave." While its broadside cannons are mounted to the hull of the most conservative of movie genres, there's nothing overtly partisan or mean-spirited here. It's brash and brazen, yes, but it's not abrasive. Blazing Saddles is playfully disarming at every turn, downright joyful even. You can search through the movie with a magnifying glass, a speculum, and a Geiger counter and still not find an angry, whiny, or uptight moment. Anyone actually offended by Blazing Saddles is someone in dire need of a hearty offending.

    Nonetheless, during production Brooks worried that Blazing Saddles might be too offensive for its own good. He asked a studio executive about the farting scene, a risky moment that had never been done in a movie. The exec told him, "Mel, if you're going to go up to the bell, ring it." After the premiere, the head of Warner Brothers told Brooks to take out the word "nigger," the farting scene, the moment when Alex Karras appears to punch a horse, and the sex between Lili Von Shtupp and Bart. But Brooks ignored him and the film became a hit nationwide. "Can you imagine," Brooks asks us in the commentary track, "What if I'd not had final cut?"

    Now, thirty-six years on, I have trouble imagining any A-list studio, including Warner Brothers, having the gumption and guts to let Brooks, or anyone else, ring some of those bells today. But heaven knows they should.  

    On the other hand, in 1974 we didn't have South Park, Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert, and it's hard to argue that we aren't a better, smarter, certainly a more amused culture now because of them. So maybe it's worked out okay.

    Blazing Saddles hosed down moviegoers with such audacity that it became a permission slip for other comics and filmmakers who came afterward, from the brothers Zucker and Farrelly to Saturday Night Live, South Park and others. For nearly four decades its popularity has remained sturdy, manifesting an enviable staying power and a fan following that may have earned Blazing Saddles the prize for Most Quotable Movie Ever. As Brooks puts it, "It's still paying for my beans."

    Music: Ringo Starr, "Never Without You"
    Near at hand: Connie Willis' Blackout

    Tuesday, May 18, 2010

    From A to Zuul

    Comedy troupe Improv Everywhere at the New York Public Library, which is facing a big budget cut:

    The Circus (1928) — Chaplin between the mirrors

    Wedged between two unequivocal classics, The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931), 1928's The Circus is Charlie Chaplin's undervalued "forgotten" feature-length Tramp film. In its day it was well received by critics and the public — in 1932 Variety listed it as the 7th highest grossing film to date, second only to The Gold Rush among Chaplin's films — yet Chaplin didn't mention it, not one word, in his autobiography, and he kept the film largely out of circulation for forty years.

    The good news is that this comedy-romance, in which the Tramp wanders into a traveling circus and unwittingly becomes its star attraction, has received an upswing of attention in recent years. Chaplin fans who rediscover it tend to handle The Circus like a crated-up relic from a golden time, a Lost Ark newly opened to reveal treasures that previously had been glimpsed only in the occasional still photo or plot synopsis.

    It turns out that The Circus is worth seeking out and deserves attention as representative of Chaplin's maturing work in feature films.

    So why did The Circus get lost down the memory hole? One reason is that while it includes some of Chaplin's most memorable comic sequences, it serves up its simple story without the same levels of social realism and melancholic sentimentality that help distinguish its "Little Tramp" predecessors, The Kid and The Gold Rush, or its sublime successor, City Lights. A December 1927 issue of Picture Show quoted Chaplin describing The Circus as "making no attempt at great drama but ... intended purely and simply as a laugh-provoker." The Circus exists solely to be funny, so when compared to the films that bookend it, it's a lighter, slighter movie.

    More likely, however, Chaplin entombed The Circus in his vaults for four decades because the two years of its production were utter hell for him. The production itself was plagued by one disaster after another. A laboratory error rendered the first month's footage unusable. A fire destroyed the vast circus-tent set, with water-damage further ruining the costumes and props.

    Moreover, these were years when his private life didn't just unravel — it exploded and splattered the walls with a salacious, and very public, divorce suit brought by his 18-year-old second wife, Lita Grey. The grandstanding prosecutors aimed to destroy his career, à la Fatty Arbuckle, by smearing him as a threat to wholesome American values. Meanwhile, his mentally ill mother died, and the I.R.S. harassed him and seized his assets on charges of more than a million dollars in back taxes.

    The result was an already-troubled shooting schedule interrupted for eight months while Chaplin spent time in New York and Europe to protect the incomplete footage and have a nervous breakdown. During these two years his hair, which had been lightly silvering, transformed to all-over white. It had to be dyed black once shooting resumed. (Watch The Circus closely and you can spot the "before" Chaplin and the "after" Chaplin intercut among the editing.)

    In the face of such traumas, it's a miracle that the film is as warm and affecting as it is. And it's a testament to the public's love for Chaplin that the sordid airing of such dirty laundry failed to distance them from him. In David Robinson's best of all Chaplin biographies, Chaplin: His Life and Art, the chapter on The Circus spends several pages on the divorce suit alone, and Robinson states that no other public figure would have received such cleansing forgiveness.

    To say that The Circus is a lesser Tramp comedy between The Kid and Modern Times is to say only that it's a nice salad between the heartier courses of a banquet. Its pleasures come easily:

    Within moments of his arrival on the grounds of a down-on-its-luck circus, the broke and hungry Tramp is mistaken for a pickpocket. His chase from the police — and from the pickpocket's victim and the pickpocket himself — includes an ingenious gag with the Tramp and the pickpocket pretending to be clockwork automata to fool the cops. (See the "Mirror Maze" clip closer to the bottom of this post.) Once the Tramp and a cop run into the Big Top ring during a show, their antic chase delights the spectators, who believe it's not just all part of the act, it's the best part.

    The show's actual clowns, a lackluster bunch, don't stand a chance against such accidental hilarity, so the ringmaster (Al Ernest Garcia, the Big Boss in Modern Times) hires the Tramp on the spot. Trouble is, the Tramp can't simply follow orders to "Go ahead and be funny," so he gets thrown into the ring to amuse audiences while he remains unaware of being laughed at.

    The ringmaster is also the movie's black-hat stock villain, the abusive stepfather of the circus's bareback-rider (Merna Kennedy), the girl the Tramp falls for.

    Just as predictably, there's a rival for the girl's eye, the handsome tightrope walker Rex, King of the Air (Harry Crocker, a socialite-turned-actor who Chaplin met through William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies).

    After episodes involving a magician's tricks, that lion's cage, a mule, and stacks of dishes, the Tramp climbs up to the high-wire in a ruse to win the girl's affections. This climactic set-piece provides the nightmare image that first started Chaplin on the path to The Circus:

    The Tramp wobbles in the middle of the tightrope when his support harness breaks away, leaving him stranded high above the crowd with only his wits — then he's besieged by a pack of aggressive monkeys who cling to him and pull down his trousers, revealing that he's forgotten his tights.

    It would not be original to suggest that this scene provides a tidy metaphor for Chaplin's personal and professional vicissitudes at the time.

    As an actor Chaplin is in fine form. The Tramp is as lovable and expressive as ever. His bittersweet semi-romance with Merna Kennedy hits the right notes, and we're in good, albeit overly familiar, hands when he can only watch as she falls for the dashing (and underdeveloped) Rex. By learning to wire-walk forty feet above the floor, then shooting hundreds of takes to get the big scene, Chaplin amped up his unsurpassed delicate pantomime to a climax comparable to Harold Lloyd's daredevil thrill-comedies from the same period.

    His longtime cameraman, Roland Totheroh, beautifully captured some of the Tramp's finer poignant moments, such as the wistful closing iris on the lonesome figure strolling into the distance after the circus wagons have left him behind.

    Still, for all its adroit and funny parts, there's a dissonance in The Circus that pokes at us. It's not just that the perfunctory romance feels largely disconnected from the Tramp's travails as a circus performer. (In every other Tramp feature, the main plot and the vagabond's amour with a pretty girl entwine more tightly than they do here.) Nor is it the overwrought, repetitive musical score that Chaplin composed for a 1970 reissue. (Like the voice-over narration he added to The Gold Rush in 1942, the score over-punctuates every moment, distracting from rather than supporting the visuals.)

    Instead, The Circus possesses a disquieting undercurrent unique to the Tramp features. From a filmmaker who was rarely, if ever, subtle enough as a writer to be concerned about subtext, The Circus projects a sad, or maybe just weary, introspection circulating so between-the-lines from scene to scene that we can wonder if Chaplin himself wasn't aware of it.

    In his essential survey of the early Hollywood comedians, The Silent Clowns, critic Walter Kerr puts his finger on the subtextual something under The Circus's skin, calling the film...
    "...a workaday product of a comic genius at odds with himself.... With his stature elevated to near-Olympian heights by The Gold Rush, he had grown self-conscious as a comedian. In order to cope with the problem, he decided to dramatize it. He would make a comedy about the consciousness of being funny."
    As a meditation on the sources of a comedian's inspiration, the film pretzel-twists itself when the Tramp is supposed to be funny (to us) by not being funny (to the circus performers), then again funny (to the circus audience) by not being funny (to himself). There's something proto-postmodern in watching the Tramp being viewed by characters around him as an unaware "funny man" the way we in Chaplin's audience have been viewing the Tramp all along.

    This sense of mirrors-reflecting-mirrors gets its literal expression in a terrific scene when the Tramp escapes the cops by dashing into a funhouse Mirror Maze. Its walls kaleidoscopically reflect so many images of the Tramp that he's confused about where to turn without conking into a hard surface. Holding a mirror up to one's self is a worthy purpose for any artist (and by this point in his career Chaplin definitely thought of himself as an Artist); a mirror image also distances us in the audience one more layer further from its subject, affording us a more detached or encompassing perspective. It would be interesting to know what Chaplin thought, as he watched The Circus from our perspective, while viewing himself viewing himself.

    Whether by conscious choice or some subconscious working-through, the artifice of Chaplin's comedy is what this movie is about. Especially during the Big Top scenes, we're not watching the Tramp as much as we're watching Chaplin commenting on the Tramp, or on himself. Chaplin the Artist points at his creation and, like Magritte with his painting of a pipe that's subtitled "This is not a pipe," he prods us to view what's in the frame not only as a funny movie, but also as a self-inscribed editorial by its creator.

    So it may be no coincidence that in terms of both style and content The Circus records a skip backward for Chaplin. That's not to say it's necessarily a regression or a stumble; rather, he seemed to retreat to the comfortable security blankets of the one- and two-reeler shorts that predated The Kid. In some ways Chaplin's The Circus is like Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, his reflexive self-observation in which Woody's line, "We like your earlier, funny movies," flashes subliminally among the frames.

    Chaplin never did shake off the nostalgia that froze him in a state of arrested personal development. And as a filmmaker his attachment to What Used To Be kept him willfully, stubbornly, egotistically standing at the train station that he helped build; meanwhile the filmcraft bullet-train pulled away without him. He still had masterpieces within him — City Lights, Modern Times, and to a mixed degree The Great Dictator, but as early as The Circus we see hints of the backward-looking self-consciousness that would hobble Limelight and other later films.

    As Kerr puts it, there's just enough brilliance along the outer edges of The Circus to compensate for the troubled preoccupation at its center. When the contemporary critics welcomed it, some acknowledged that it did not continue the uptick in Chaplin's artistry seen in The Gold Rush, and several noted its harking back to the "earlier, funny" Tramp shorts.

    In May 1929 the first Academy Awards ceremony was held in L.A.'s Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, catty-corner from Grauman's Chinese Theatre. There the film garnered a nomination for Best Actor (Chaplin), and the Academy honored Chaplin with a Special Award for "versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus."

    A few years ago I happened to be staying at the Roosevelt and found a life-size bronze statue of the Tramp sitting inside the hotel's entry foyer along Hollywood Blvd. I understand it has since been removed during a remodel. Pity I didn't get a chance to bid on it and set it up in my movie room, where it would be welcome indeed.

    By the way, if you're interested in checking out The Circus on DVD, go for the MK2/Warner Home Video Chaplin Collection edition from 2004. The restored imagery looks quite good and the soundtrack — Chaplin's 1970 reissue orchestral score, complete with his syrupy song, "Swing Little Girl," which he sang with cloying earnestness over the opening titles — comes in two remastered options — the original mono and a 5.1 surround remix.

    Better yet are the extra features that fill out the film and its production saga:

    Chaplin Today - The Circus (26 minutes) — Before expanding on the personal and professional difficulties Chaplin endured while making The Circus, François Ede's documentary opens with a biographical look at Chaplin's professional beginnings in the English music halls and Fred Karno's touring vaudeville troupe. Ede shows us the "inebriate" act that made young Chaplin an audience favorite, and finds connections between those old stage routines, Chaplin's early shorts, and The Circus. The voice-over narration includes clips from a vintage Chaplin interview. Shooting The Circus involved routines as well as an entire restaurant scene that Chaplin eventually did not use, and that footage receives special attention. So does the surviving tightrope-walking scene, which illuminates the fastidious director's perfectionist nature. This featurette also brings in Yugoslav/Bosnian director Emir Kusturica, who — while holding a cigar the size of a canoe — zooms his filmmaker's eye onto the techniques Chaplin employed when crafting The Circus.

    Deleted Sequence (10 minutes) — Here's a treat for Chaplinologists. While production on the main stage was suspended because of fire-and-water damage and reconstruction, Chaplin devised a restaurant scene with himself, Merna Kennedy, Harry Crocker, and 'Doc' Stone, who played twin prize fighters (thanks to double-exposure). Chaplin shot the sequence with the intention of inserting it into the final cut. The rest of The Circus was strong enough to work without it, so the restaurant scene never made the edit. Here it is, a self-contained one-reel short all by itself. The scene opens with a clever bit as the Tramp practices his tightrope routine on an upturned rake before escorting Merna along a still rural-looking Sunset Blvd., where they meet Rex. When the Tramp tries to upstage Rex's gallantry, he instead turns a matron's arm-load of wrapped fish into a sidewalk calamity. After they arrive at the restaurant, the Tramp connives with a bullying fighter to impress Merna, with similar results. The footage is well preserved. No audio.

    October 7-13, 1926 (26 minutes) — In this series of outtakes shot during a week of The Circus's production, Chaplin improvises and revises the restaurant scene as the camera rolls. The varying takes give us a clear look at the director-actor's working methods. (Film historian and preservationist David Shepard deserves thanks for assembling the various takes for the previous Laserdisc edition of The Circus.)

    Hollywood Premiere (6 minutes) — The Circus's L.A. opening occurred at Grauman's Chinese Theatre (a short walk from Chaplin Studios) on January 26, 1928. This silent newsreel footage records real circus performers hired for the hoopla, plus celebrities such as W.C. Fields, Cecil B. DeMille, John Barrymore, and Jackie "The Kid" Coogan stepping up to the radio broadcast microphone at the theater's entrance.

    Music: John Adams/Kronos Quartet, Gnarly Buttons & John's Book of Alleged Dances
    Near at hand: Notebook with line: "Street sign - corner of Taken and Not Taken"

    Saturday, May 15, 2010

    Mashup: Clip from Buster Keaton's "The Navigator" set to Kari Tribble's "Surreal Road"

    Most of the time this sort of mashup doesn't work for me. But this one does. It's from Buster's 1924 feature, The Navigator.

    Thursday, May 13, 2010

    The Fall (2008) — Paint me a story, Singh me a dream

    Some movies just ask to be watched more than once. This is, after all, a visual medium that moves, often way too quickly, at 24 frames per second. Sometimes you finish a movie and immediately want to sit still for it again, to observe its story from new angles, or grasp subtleties that buzzed by the first time, or simply to savor the splendor of its robust visuals.

    That's how I felt about The Fall, which I have on Blu-ray and wave in front of my friends in moments of "you just have to see this" annoyance impulse. For me, this insanely ambitious, critically polarizing film is a jewel box, one I enjoy opening to discover something new every time.

    And yes, it makes me want to go crazy with the screen shots. So I like pretty pictures.

    Directed and co-written by Tarsem Singh (aka just Tarsem), The Fall is ostensibly a subdued character melodrama between Roy, a Hollywood stuntman (Lee Pace) during the heyday of silent movies, and Alexandria, a curious and precocious little migrant farm girl (Romanian charmer Catinca Untaru). Roy is lovesick and, not coincidentally, depressed and suicidal. You see, he's paralyzed after a foolhardy film stunt gone wrong. The stunt was meant to impress the woman he loves, but now she's off with the leading man while he's in the hospital, his back broken.

    That's where he meets Alexandria, who assertively befriends him. To coax her into stealing for him a lethal overdose of morphine, Roy spins "an epic tale of love and revenge" starring brave and colorful bandits, adventurers, and eccentrics. Each man — a mystic who erupts out of a flaming tree trunk, a cigar-smoking demolitions expert, a fanciful Charles Darwin, and so on — has his own sorrowful grudge against the boo-hiss villain, Governor Odious. They band together to take bloody vengeance on their common enemy, and rescue a princess to boot.

    For much of the film we see Roy's fairy-tale saga through the girl's eyes and naiveté. As the exotic fantasy world unfolds, shaped and embellished by the wide-eyed child, the thin membrane between the reality and the fantasy becomes more and more porous. Roy's story mirrors his own real-life suffering at the loss of his legs and especially the woman he loved.

    And Oz-like, the events and individuals Alexandria experiences in the hospital — the orderly, the patients, the pretty nurse, the delivery man, the movie star who stole Roy's beloved — populate her version of the mythic quest. To her, brokenhearted Roy naturally inhabits the fellowship's leader, the heroic but tragically sad Black Bandit. Some of Alexandria's embellishments are delightful: When Roy tells her of an "Indian" with his "squaw" and "wigwam," Alexandria — who knows little English and has never seen a cowboy movie in her life — imagines a turbaned Sikh with a scimitar and a palatial gold "wigwam."

    It turns out that Alexandria has a real-world backstory of her own, one involving the event that broke her arm and destroyed her family. That gets unveiled in the telling as well.

    Meanwhile, Tarsem's startling visual style bursts and splashes with primary colors and dazzling alien dreamscapes — all real, all filmed without CGI in Tahiti, South Africa, Jodhpur, Udaipur, and a dozen more countries over several years. Via Colin Watkinson's cinematography, we get breathtaking compositions of deserts and palaces and vast blue cities. Even his transitions can bend toward the Daliesque — a blue butterfly into an island in the middle of the sea, a spilled cup of coffee into a pool of blood, a villain's features into the elements of an environmental setting. There's the labyrinthine well that defies architectural geometry like a cathedral-sized Escher painting. Birds fly from the mystic's mouth when he's beaten. Charles Darwin (aided by his "brilliant colleague," an intelligent monkey named Wallace) devises an escape via a swimming elephant.

    As in his visually sumptuous previous film, the psychedelic serial-killer pop snoozer The Cell, Tarsem displays a bold and imaginative eye. However, unlike The Cell, which seemed produced via a Hollywood conference call and works best on DVD when the language is switched to Thai, this time you get a sense that this is his film, his vision passionately expressed, his story to tell.

    Will Lasky at Slant's The House Next Door puts his finger on a number of good points re Tarsem's "transgressive" hyper-realized stylizations and how the film
    "...blurs the categories of pop and art. It is an innovation with something important to say about what film-making can be when unshackled from the standardized gradients that drive and determine mainstream success."
    That The Fall is "presented by" its two best-known producers, David Fincher (Fight Club) and Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), tells you plenty about where Tarsem's singular vision lies on the cinematic storytelling spectrum.

    And The Fall is all about storytelling — its power, its ability to effect and heal us as well as entertain and distract us. It's Tarsem's obvious love of both myth-making and movie-making that lifts The Fall a good deal higher than just the sum of its gorgeous glossy-coffee-table-book "art-house film" imagery.

    The Fall celebrates "the magic of the movies" on two levels. One level is that of the narrative itself. It's an interesting choice that Roy and other characters in the "real world" scenes are early-years (c. 1915) Hollywood professionals. The artful opening scene of a vintage steam train on a high bridge, then a man and a horse being inexplicably rescued from the water below, is shot in moody duotone slow-mo, and scored to a the second movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. We don't yet know what we're being shown, and only later do we understand that the mesmerizing imagery depicts the event that sent Roy to the hospital. His career ruined along with his legs, Roy can't imagine a life other than his thrilling movie stunts, or the woman he had hoped to win.

    Alexandria then becomes his willing collaborator on the fantasy tale. She keenly represents us in the movie-watching audience — any movie-watching audience — when the two-way contract between ourselves and the storyteller rises to its most expressive level. The Fall's montage finale celebrates the dash and thrills of the movies with an affection that had me both punching the air and suitably lump-in-throat. (Seeing Buster Keaton capping the film this way just gets me where I live.)

    While The Fall encourages comparisons with del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, a more apt analog would be Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Tideland. A less obvious but equally worthwhile comparison is to Víctor Erice's hypnotic The Spirit of the Beehive, which also touches on the hold movies have on our imaginations and was an influence on del Toro. As in Pan's Labyrinth, Munchausen, Tideland, and The Spirit of the Beehive, it's a little girl in The Fall who catalyzes the "magic" and embodies our willing role as both spectator to and participant in the filmmaker's fantasies.

    The second level is all "meta." It occurs on our side of the screen as we watch Tarsem's accomplishments unfold. It's true that The Fall keeps its fantasy characters under-developed and at arm's length from us to a degree that has put off some of Tarsem's detractors. But that's part of our contract with Tarsem, and while our emotional engagement with the Black Bandit's quest is only about 35mm wide, I willingly surrendered to Tarsem's joy in his painterly vistas and vivid locations, and to the interplay between the bright fantasy and the hospital's gray, grim reality.

    Moreover, I was just grateful to find a movie that not only expected me to pay attention, it assumed that I could.

    As Roy, Lee Pace, the Golden Globe-nominated star of ABC's Pushing Daisies, provides a fine but hardly breakout performance. He is outstripped on that score by little Catinca Untaru, who gives one of the most naturalistic performances by a child actor I've ever seen. (There's another positive point of comparison to six-year-old Ana Torrent in The Spirit of the Beehive.)

    In this disc's commentary track with Tarsem, the director explains how he developed the script largely around Catinca's improvisational choices. This included not allowing her to know that Pace was not in fact paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, so she reacted to him with the tentativeness and growing acceptance that came naturally to her. (That production account is also explored in this lengthy interview with Tarsem at The Onion AV Club.) By giving her room to respond unscripted to scenarios he would initiate, his result was an authenticity that would have been unachievable if she'd been merely reading lines. It also infused the narrative with its necessary feeling of on-the-fly spontaneity. The little girl gives vitality to Roy's story because back on the set that's a big part of what was actually going on.

    The Fall (official site) is available on both DVD and Blu-ray. The Blu-ray edition provides sparkling high-definition clarity that delivers the tactile richness and striking color of the film's visuals. Even the deep-focus vistas spanning miles present extraordinary detail and dimensionality.

    The Blu-ray's audio comes as a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that is as pristine as the visuals. In a home theater, it surrounds us with aggressive yet well-defined action and environmental sounds.

    While a comprehensive "making of" documentary would suit the film and its unusual production history very well, we don't get it here. Still, the extras on board do a fine job of taking us through the lengthy and troubled production process from the director's vision to the nitty-gritty details of shooting under strained conditions and globetrotting to exotic locations.

    They start with the enjoyable and illuminating commentary track with Tarsem Singh, an enthusiastic and well-spoken scene-by-scene chronicler of the arduous production's unique difficulties and successes. Also here is a second commentary with actor Lee Pace, writer/producer Nico Soultanakis, and writer Dan Gilroy; they likewise offer an entertaining and informative listen with no significant repetition against Tarsem's track.

    Two behind-the-scenes pieces — "Wanderlust" (28 minutes) and "Nostalgia" (30 minutes) — are non-narrated raw footage providing a refreshingly unpolished "you are there" insight into the process.

    Music: B.B. King, Live at San Quentin
    Near at hand: Elizabeth on the couch with me, also writing.