Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year ... and that's a wrap

Bud sinks down happily on the couch, and Fran holds out the
deck to him.


Bud cuts a card, but doesn't look at it.

            I love you, Miss Kubelik.

                   (cutting a card)
            Seven --
                   (looking at Bud's card)
            -- queen.

She hands the deck to Bud.

            Did you hear what I said, Miss
            Kubelik? I absolutely adore you.

            Shut up and deal!

Bud begins to deal, never taking his eyes off her. Fran
removes her coat, starts picking up her cards and arranging
them. Bud, a look of pure joy on his face, deals -- and
deals -- and keeps dealing.

And that's about it. Story-wise.

                                            FADE OUT.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Scenes I love: WWBD

"In a way his pictures are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler's effortless, uninterested face." — James Agee, "Comedy's Greatest Era"

Everything I need to know about life I learned from Buster Keaton.

Okay, that's not completely true, but I like the sound of it. And it's a Starbucks-cup bromide that has rolled around my brain more than once recently.

As 2010 projects its final frames and we smash-cut to 2011, I'm getting all reflective and thoughtful, looking back at the past twelve months, taking stock of the significant narrative arcs of the year. 

What brings me to Keaton is a renewed appreciation of how we face adversity, those bumps and turns and unforeseen punji traps that make good plot points in movies but are hell to live through in real life.

You see, too many of my friends are going through too much of that hell lately. Relationships fracturing, critical health issues, the economy sinking them down like cement overshoes in a cheap gangster flick — life's slings and arrows, sound and fury, the whole unasked-for shitstorm, with no discernible fairness or reason or purpose in sight.

Indeed, 2010 saw my own full recovery from a medical cataclysm worthy of an episode of House, a long episode I've only alluded to slantwise in this blog. So, yeah, not only do I understand that Wile-E.-Coyote-falling-off-the-cliff feeling, I have fostered a new appreciation of the coping mechanisms we devise for ourselves to help soften the dusty whump! of impact.

Among my coping mechanisms, one I've recently recommended to others: favorite movies, comedies particularly. You know, " medicine," all that jazz.

Take The General, for instance. I've owned more video editions of this film than any other title, culminating this year with Kino's outstanding Blu-ray disc. In ten years, when it's available via a downloadable app to my Cerebrum Communicator, I'll no doubt get that one too.

Like Chaplin's The Gold Rush, Keaton's practically perfect 1927 Civil War masterpiece is a comedy of epic scale and ambition, and pinnacles lists of the top films of the silent era. Moreover — this point is often overlooked — it departs from Keaton's earlier shorts by delivering not a gag-a-minute string of slapstick setpieces, but instead an action-adventure-historical-war-espionage thriller deftly spiced with comic bits.

Set at the outbreak of the Civil War (or, as parts of the South still call it, the Unresolved Argument We'll Keep Bringing Up), one of the film's famous sequences involves a chase between two steam locomotives. One of them is the General, the engine beloved by its engineer, would-be Confederate soldier Johnnie Gray (Keaton). Union Army spies have commandeered the General to use it as a moving sabotage platform against Confederate forces.

Worse, they've kidnapped Johnnie's second great love, the girl Annabelle Lee. Earlier she rebuffed him after a misunderstanding branded him a coward unwilling to join the Confederate Army like all honorable Southern men. Now Johnnie is giving chase in another locomotive, the Texas, determined to defeat the saboteurs, take back his engine, and (possibly in this order) rescue the girl whose tintype he displays in the General's cab.

In hot pursuit, Johnnie clambers over the General's fuel tender onto the flatcar holding a cannon he acquired en route. He measures a handful of gunpowder in pinches, then tamps it down, loads the cannonball, lights the fuse, and returns to the engine's control cab. The cannon fires, yet the cannonball arcs (rather delicately) to his feet in the cab. Giving it that famous deadpan Keaton look, he rolls the cannonball off the speeding train shortly before it explodes.

He tries again. This time cool-headed desperation prompts him to forgo handfuls and pinches to shove the entire powder keg down the barrel. He loads another cannonball, lights the fuse. His retreat to the cab is interrupted when the flatcar's hitch snags his foot. Shaking the foot free, Johnnie also shakes the cannon barrel down to aim not overhead toward the Union saboteurs ahead of him, but straight at himself and the engine.

He retreats to safety by climbing the exterior of the engine to the cowcatcher up front — train track blurring mere inches beneath him, Union soldiers not far ahead, and mammoth artillery primed and pointed at the tonnage of locomotive against his back.

At the critical instant, the track curves just so, the cannon fires, and the blasting cannonball arcs not into the Texas but into the rear boxcar of the stolen General. The explosion leads the frightened Yankee raiders to believe that an outnumbering Confederate militia is hot on their tail.

In response, they block the track first with the damaged boxcar (Johnnie cleverly switches the rails to avoid a collision) and then by dropping large wooden railroad ties onto the track. Johnnie slows the Texas and runs ahead to lift the first log off the track. When the Texas's cowcatcher catches him like a spatula, he straddles it with the heavy railroad tie still in his arms.

But a second tie blocks the track ahead! Well — here's the beauty part — when the Texas approaches it he lifts the first tie and, with Olympian style and precision, heaves it onto the end of the second tie, catapulting it smoothly up and out of his trajectory with neither log clobbering him in the head. The chase can continue.

In that scene lies a metaphor, I'm sure of it.

It's classic Keaton, displaying the qualities that make the crisply expressive "stone-faced" Keaton character forever memorable: his steady resolve in the face of obstacles, his willingness to accept surprises and sudden changes of plan with dry aplomb, pausing only to perhaps slightly arch his eyebrows or momentarily stare the conundrum full in the face. It's as if tattooed on Keaton's chest is a motto taken from Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads: "When first under fire an' you're wishful to duck ... Be thankful you're livin', and trust to your luck / And march to your front like a soldier."

On the great railroad track of life, if only we could address our obstacles with such stoic resourcefulness focused on what we need to do rather than on the mugging-for-the-camera, hammed-up Oh, shit! of it all.

Adding to this chicken soup for the movie-lover's soul, remember that we're watching Joseph Frank Keaton, actor and director, performing dangerous and outrageous stunts with no camera trickery or stunt double because that's what it took to do the job. We can wish for a New Year's blip in the zeitgeist that manifests as people all across society — from the most brutally slinged-and-arrowed among us to simply humble writers who love movies — finding their bliss and reducing their blood pressure with one four-letter mantra: WWBD. What Would Buster Do?

Or how about Steamboat Bill, Jr.? This Mark Twain-like tale from 1928 is Keaton's last great feature. In it, Buster is a ukulele-strumming Harvard milquetoast who returns to Mississippi to find his father, a tough and crusty sidewheeler steamboat captain.

In the film's famous climax, a cyclone blows the local port town to smithereens. In terms of sheer physical damage, it's an amazing scene. It supersizes stunts and gags Keaton successfully rehearsed in earlier shorts such as "Back Stage" (made during his fruitful years with Fatty Arbuckle) and "One Week". It's the sort of destruction that nowadays would be consigned to CGI. Buildings peel apart and tumble down to splinters at Junior's feet. Houses lift off their foundations. Junior rides a wheeled hospital bed and flies through the air clinging to a tree uprooted and set flying as if to Oz. A dozen impressive large-scale visual feats come, bam-bam-bam, in this scene alone. And through it all his expression, as ever, registers only controlled alarm and a certain thoughtful interest in the forces buffeting him hither and thither.

Again St. Buster teaches us that, in a world of windswept and sometimes violent unpredictability, we can either teeter face-first into the gale and risk sliding through the mud on our ass, or allow life's vicissitudes to carry us where we must go to (in Junior's case) save the day, embrace reconciliation with our loved ones, and get the girl. 

"What Keaton did physically is actually quite startling when you discover that he did all of his own stunts," said Kevin Spacey in a 1999 American Film Institute special. In the cyclone scene, the stunt everybody remembers is the house. When the two-story, two-ton facade of a house descends to squash Keaton below, it smacks the ground and shatters, with Keaton saved by standing in the precise space of its small open window. Spacey again: "The famous one is when the house falls. He had to stand on a mark. I'm told it was a nail ... if he moved an inch to one side he would have been crushed to death."

In other words, when the walls are falling down, WWBD tells us: try to stand where the window is.

Never mind that The General is based on a true story and shows off Keaton's fanatical devotion to historical authenticity. He filmed it in Oregon for the scenery and because only there could he find the narrow-gauge track required for the genuine period locomotives he acquired. The beautiful Mathew Brady-inspired photography includes luscious moving long shots of vast forested mountainscapes, steaming locomotives (the coolest comedy props ever used), and warring Northern and Southern armies played by hundreds of Oregon National Guardsmen.

Never mind that its most famous moment, in which a real, full-sized train plummets off a burning high-span trestle bridge, is the most expensive shot from the silent era — $42,000, and some years ago I read that that equates into the millions today. Walter Kerr, in his indispensable The Silent Clowns, called it "surely the most stunning visual event ever arranged for a film comedy." It goes without saying that there were no second takes.

Never mind the comedic, dramatic, technical, and filmcraft sophistication on view throughout Keaton's silent-era, independent work.

No, the fulcrum point of both The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. is Keaton's signature image — a man alone, making the most of whatever the hell's going on around him.

Watching Keaton today, we realize that he's the most modern of all silent screen masters. His ongoing travails at the whims of The Machine — meaning his beloved mechanical contrivances as well as Nature or "the Establishment" — make him our contemporary. By virtue of their subtlety and number, his confrontational pas de deux with modernity outgrace even Chaplin's marvelous Man-vs.-Machine allegories in Modern Times.

Also, today Chaplin often strikes us as oversentimental, maudlin even. That's not to downplay his genius or his comedy at all, though there's something about Keaton's restrained, underplayed determination as he faces each new obstacle that feels refreshingly timely. The Little Tramp was Chaplin's "Everyman," self-consciously created to embody all people from all times. The character's longevity is a testimony to that universality. But it's Keaton's innocent yet unflappable achiever we more identify with. As Keaton himself put it, "Charlie's tramp was a bum with a bum's philosophy. Lovable as he was, he would steal if he got the chance. My little fellow was a workingman, and honest." We feel for the Tramp, but we want to be like Keaton.

It's telling that the two most inventive actor-writer-directors Hollywood has ever produced, Keaton and Chaplin, in their heyday worked side by side but never together. One difference between these equal-yet-separate geniuses is that Chaplin was a stubbornly 19th-century Victorian making movies in, but unable to fully acclimate to, a whole new 20th century. Keaton, on the other hand, was a Machine Age modernist who grasped the world of Model T's and hand-cranked movie cameras as his toybox.

It's my suspicion that Chaplin, if delivered to New Year's Day 2011 via time machine, would be entirely at sea, and disgruntled to boot, within today's moviemaking world. Keaton, on the other hand, would leap into it with every downloadable app at his fingertips, meanwhile putting Steven Spielberg and James Cameron on hold until he chooses to take a video conference.

Keaton and Chaplin are both enjoying a boom of popular rediscovery in recent years. I can't help but suspect that — while both awe us and make us laugh — Chaplin speaks to our sense of nostalgia the way Dickens does, and Keaton connects with us as a fellow modernite. Who among us can't identify with his small, straight-backed figure standing atop his speeding engine, leaning forward as if his shoes are nailed to the roof, shading his eyes and gazing into the onrushing distance, wondering what the hell's coming next?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Lion in Winter (1968) — We three kings

You think your family is stressful over the holidays?

What if the annual Christmas reunion means that Pops lets Mum out of the dungeon where he's kept her — legally — for ten years? (Well, she did lead all those civil wars against him.) What about their three (surviving) sons — the eldest a soldier, the middle one plotting Machiavellian intrigue, the youngest a "walking pustule" — who arrive wondering when the old man is going to die and each willing to help him along? Which son will Dad force to marry his lovely mistress? And who's that crashing the party? Why, it's the eldest son's former lover, the King of France (whose pop once was married to Mum).

Pass the nog, but unsheath your dagger. In 1968's The Lion in Winter it's Christmas Eve and a family is gathering. Trouble is, it's A.D. 1183 and the family is the whole damn Plantagenet dynasty, the most influential dysfunctional gene pool since the Skywalkers. Heading the clan is virile but aging King Henry II of England (Peter O'Toole at his most robust and bearish) and his imprisoned wife, willful Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn, chewing the role with sharpened teeth).

Arriving for the holiday backstabbings are their three power-hungry princes: proud warrior Richard the Lionheart (Anthony Hopkins in his big-screen debut), the weaselly little drip John of later Magna Carta fame (Nigel Terry), and the sly middle brother Geoffrey (John Castle).

Snarks Henry, getting into the spirit of the occasion, "What shall we hang, the holly or each other?" 

Honestly, if you've been wondering where to find a good Noel Coward/Angevin Empire mashup, look no further.

Also along for the get-together is France's young King Philip (Timothy Dalton, all of 22 in his screen debut). His past "Brokeback" friendship with Richard further twists the tinsel.

And then there's Henry's long-time mistress — Philip's sister and the eventual wife of whichever son becomes Henry's successor — Alais (Jane Merrow).

Baby Jesus himself would have a hard time bringing peace to this yuletide household. Here's a family whose every deed and word is a chess move or a dagger stroke. Alliances political and sexual rise and fall amid skillful clashing and scheming for Henry's throne.

Meanwhile, what's at stake is merely the future of England and France, and therefore the Western world for the next several centuries.

But that's just life as usual for this catty, quotable bunch. As Henry puts it, "I've snapped and plotted all my life. There's no other way to be alive, king, and fifty all at once." A savage verbal cage-match fight features Eleanor tormenting Henry with the scenario of once having gotten all Medieval with his father; afterward, as they pant like two boxers (or lovers) between sweaty rounds, she quips dryly, "Well, what family doesn't have its ups and downs?"

At the center of this regal melee stand Henry and Eleanor, married 31 years. Their combination of ferocious mutual fondness and take-no-prisoners warfare — on battlefields and in bedrooms — make them one of cinema's great complicated relationships. Eleanor, like Henry a product of a long life among various royal houses (she was formerly married to the previous King Louis of France), clings to her past as one of history's most powerful women. "I even made poor Louis take me on Crusade," she reminisces. "I dressed my maids as Amazons and rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus. Louis had a seizure and I damn near died of windburn, but the troops were dazzled."

Pretty Alais, whom Eleanor raised nearly as her own daughter, is out of her league among such experienced gamesmanship; even so, she's no babe in the woods here. "Kings, queens, knights everywhere you look, and I'm the only pawn," she says. "I haven't got a thing to lose — that makes me dangerous."

Loosely (make that looooosely) based on historical events, The Lion in Winter was written by James Goldman, the brother of screenwriter and novelist William Goldman. He adapted his own Broadway play for the screen with few changes. Sometimes that fidelity to the stage original seems to weigh down the action, especially in the middle third. Swords clang, the dungeon door slams open and shut often enough for a bedroom farce, and the cast does tend to lean into the theatrical bombast as if Brooks Atkinson is in the back row.

Still, the lack of tacked-on, extraneous cinematized action set pieces is welcome. (The few new scenes, such as a tremendous beachside battle with horse-mounted men-at-arms, don't feel extraneous.) Shoot, viewing it conditioned by the past decade of screen "historicals," it comes as a surprise relief.

Nonetheless, director Anthony Harvey opened up Goldman's play into a spare-no-expense costume pageant set in authentic spaces far from any proscenium, and remained faithful to an energetic drama propelled by its explosive performances and meaty dialogue. Snarky lines fly like arrows at Agincourt, one barbed rejoinder can topple kingdoms, and cleverness is any formidable foe's weapon of choice. The Broadway play was billed as "a comedy in two acts." Okay, sure. While there are sharp laughs in The Lion in Winter . . .
John: "My God, if I went up in flames there's not a living soul who'd pee on me to put the fire out!"
Richard: Let's strike a flint and see."

Henry: "The day those stout hearts band together is the day that pigs get wings."
Eleanor: "There'll be pork in the treetops come morning."
. . . at its heart this is a vicious medieval Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where the personal really is the political and vice versa.

Hopkins was primarily a stage actor at the time, and it's interesting to see the future Hannibal Lecter so young and broody. Because Hopkins was appearing at the National Theatre in London, he needed Sir Lawrence Olivier's permission to take time off to shoot the film. Olivier agreed, provided that Hopkins shoot his scenes during the day, then fly back from Ireland, Wales, and France for his evening stage performances in As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing.

Representing some of the critical dissent, Life magazine film critic Richard Schickel, who cared not a bit for the anachronistic modern-sounding dialogue placed into a 12th-century setting, staged a palace coup when the New York Film Critics Circle gave its Best Film Award to The Lion in Winter over John Cassavetes' Faces. Schickel and three others resigned in a huff, only to rejoin the following year.

Granted, Lion is mannered and talky and brassily "classy" by today's standards. But Goldman's pages, which wisely did not aspire to be faux-Shakespeare, took the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.

Thirty-five years after her first Oscar (for Morning Glory in 1933) and a Hollywood figure of Mt. Rushmore proportions, it's not altogether alarming to find Hepburn here in full-on K*a*t*h*a*r*i*n*e H*e*p*b*u*r*n mode, almost her own camp impersonator. All the same, I soak up her every screen moment here through my pores, and — even allowing for the often questionable vagaries of the Academy Awards process — it's clear why she walked away with the third of her four Oscars. (She also took the BAFTA.) Her Eleanor is every bit Henry's equal in brainpower, military cunning and verbal combat — a powerful figure in Women's Lib 1968 and still one fine juicy role now. Hepburn also drew the best out of O'Toole, who became her devoted friend for life when she scolded him on the set for his self-destructive ways.

The Lion in Winter was up for the Best Picture Oscar, but it lost to, of all things, Oliver! (Talk about your off years. That was a tragic and blandly conservative win in the year that also delivered 2001: A Space Odyssey, Once Upon a Time in the West, Rosemary's Baby, The Producers, and others better reflecting moviedom's seismic pop evolution.)

John Barry, who gave us all that iconic James Bond music, handily took the Oscar and the BAFTA for his moody, ecclesiastical score.

Further Oscar nominations included O'Toole's full-throated performance as Henry (O'Toole's second film portrayal of Henry II after Becket four years earlier), Anthony Harvey's directing, and Best Costume Design.

Other virtues on display here — the location shooting in England, Wales, and Ireland; the scenic design recreating medieval England's dank, cold, and desperate barbarism — capture the perfect setting for this otherwise thoroughly modern First Family.

Trivia: Years ago I played John in a stage production of Goldman's play. My utterance of the line "You turd!" received excellent notices.

Just wanted a place to add this one.

Music: Simone, Simone on Simone
Near at hand: Set of six Pogo figures

Parts of this post originally appeared at DVD Journal.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Filmography 2010

From genrocks. Films in order of appearance at

Also, Moments out of Time 2010, by Richard T. Jameson & Kathleen Murphy at MSN Movies, via Jim Emerson.

Roger Ebert's best feature films of 2010.

Slant magazine's Best of 2010: Film.

Also also, friend and fellow aficionado Glenn Erickson (aka DVD Savant) has posted his 10th annual list of the Most Impressive Discs of the year. I was planning to get Criterion's new Blu-ray of Night of the Hunter anyway, but seeing it at #1 on Glenn's list guarantees I'll be picking it up sooner rather than later.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Not M. Night Shyamalan's signs

I might have had a bit too much fun with this site.