Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
seen @ Movieworld, Douglaston, NY
7.15.14

So you wanna be a leader, do you?

Understandable. When you're a leader, you're the star of the show. You're the one who gets to sit in the captain's chair. Everything that happens revolves around you. What you say goes and everyone has to listen to you because they all know you're the smartest, the bravest, the strongest. And they'll follow you into hell if you say so because they believe in you.

You better make sure you read the fine print, though, because being a leader also means making the kind of decisions no one wants to make. Maybe you have to work with someone untrustworthy. Maybe you have to put your people through a stressful situation. Maybe you even have to make a choice that'll mean someone's death.

That center seat doesn't feel quite so cozy anymore, does it?

Monday, July 14, 2014

He Who Gets Slapped

He Who Gets Slapped
seen @ Celebrate Brooklyn, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY
7.12.14

There's a Batman graphic novella called The Killing Joke, written by Watchmen scribe Alan Moore, which tells, in flashback, what may or may not be the origin of the Joker. (It was an influence on the screenplay for the movie The Dark Knight.) In the main story, the Joker tries to drive Batman and Commissioner Gordon as insane as he is, and the point he attempts to make in the process is that it only takes one bad day to send a so-called ordinary person over the edge... something which may have happened to him.

I thought of that while watching the silent movie He Who Gets Slapped Saturday night, because Lon Chaney's character experiences that very thing. Betrayed by his wife and friend, he succumbs to madness and, like the Joker, becomes what he believes the world sees him as - a clown. Unfortunately, he doesn't go on a mad killing spree; he joins the circus, becoming the butt of cheap slapstick gags by getting slapped around. The film's title is, in fact, the name of his new identity - "He" for short. (Seriously, that's what they call him!)



Slapped is a very dark, psychologically twisted tale, an unusual choice for the first movie released by MGM Studios ninety years ago, but a powerful one. I imagine that the old adage, "Comedy equals tragedy plus time," could have been inspired by this film, based on a play. Though some of its title-card narration comes across as a bit overwrought and pretentious, the film attempts to seriously examine the nature of comedy. Chaney's circus antics are inspired by the circumstances that led to his downfall, and while they're tragic in one context, in another one they're comic, and the audiences really get off on it, to the point where Chaney becomes a star.

When one thinks about some of the greatest comedians of the last century - Pryor, Bruce, Hicks, Lewis, Rivers - many of them worked from a place of some kind of personal pain. It's something we tend to take for granted because we're too busy laughing, but if you step back and give it some thought, it's a remarkable thing. One imagines that this unique kind of alchemy may be therapeutic on a certain level as well...



... although that doesn't seem to apply to Chaney's character. To return to The Killing Joke for a moment, an idea touched upon in that story - one which also pops up in Moore's Watchmen in the form of a character appropriately named the Comedian - is how sometimes, the only sane response to the indiscriminate horror, tragedy and madness of the world is to laugh. 

That's something that guys like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert understand. It's something every political cartoonist understands. In Slapped, though, Chaney's character doesn't use humor to cope with reality, he uses it to escape from reality. When reality finds him, though, in the guise of the former friend who betrayed him, it doesn't take long for plans of vengeance to spin in his head.



The look of Slapped is also compelling. Director/co-writer Victor Seastrom returns again and again to the image of Chaney, in full clown regalia, gleefully spinning a large ball on his finger. By itself, it means nothing; an image of light frivolity. Within the film's context, however, it takes on a more sinister flavor, especially through its repetition. It's as if Chaney, and by extension Seastrom, are saying, "Aren't you amused? This is what you want - to be entertained, to laugh at the funny-looking man and the funny things he does! So why aren't you laughing?" The irony, of course, lies in what's underneath the humor.

Seastrom also has a way with the segue. Compositions at the end of one scene repeat themselves in the beginning of the next. A spinning ball becomes a spinning globe. Hands clutching pearls become hands holding a daisy chain. This makes me think Moore must be a fan of this movie, because he, too, is known for similar transitions in his comics, no matter which artist he works with, and we see examples of this in The Killing Joke as well.



A brief word on co-stars John Gilbert and Norma Shearer: their romantic subplot didn't do a great deal for me, but I can see how they became stars. They're glamorous and good-looking and in Slapped, they have great chemistry together. Gilbert is the one who supposedly couldn't cut it in the sound era on account of his voice, but I looked at several YouTube clips from his talkies and I don't see the problem.

Jeanine Basinger's book Silent Stars devotes a chapter to Gilbert, and she theorizes that he wasn't able to be anything more than a romantic lead, and sound was only a minor difference that changed nothing about his screen persona, which needed to evolve with the medium in order to survive. (So maybe The Artist wasn't secretly about him at all.)



The fabulous Alloy Orchestra performed an original accompanying score for Slapped at Prospect Park's Celebrate Brooklyn festival, and again, they were superb. Their score didn't have the same level of bombast as their Metropolis score, but then, it's a different kind of movie. This one felt a little more melodic, and indeed, there were some moving passages throughout the film. The music for the circus scenes had a lot of punch, and they turned up the volume and the intensity for the big climactic scene near the end. I highly recommend seeing a movie with these guys doing the score if they come to your town. They're one of a kind.

The musical opening act was a guitarist named Stephane Wrembel who, among other things, appeared on the soundtrack to the Woody Allen films Midnight in Paris and Vicky Christina Barcelona. He and his band were quite good. Very jovial.


Looks a lot like the last photo we took together, doesn't it?
Once again, I was joined by the ever-delightful Aurora, as well as Joe from Nitrate Stock, although I didn't see as much of him. He had an aversion to sitting in the front section of the outdoor ampitheater, and sat towards the back instead, so I didn't see him until afterwards. As for Aurora, she and Kellee from O&F have been the talk of our little blogger circles in social media ever since they were spotted in a TCM interview with Maureen O'Hara taken at this year's TCM Film Festival. They were in the crowd behind O'Hara and Robert Osborne, but they were both clearly visible. I happened to be watching TCM the first night it aired, earlier this month (playing as part of a month-long spotlight on O'Hara), and like everyone else, I was pleasantly surprised. I think repeat showings have made Aurora slightly embarrassed because every repeat means someone new sees it and tweets her about it. But hey, how many of us ever get on TV without making fools of ourselves?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Duck Soup

Duck Soup
seen @ "Movies With a View" @ Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn, NY
7.10.14

I hadn't seen Duck Soup in awhile, and what jumped out at me as I watched it last night was how uncharacteristic it looked for a 30s movie. Director Leo McCarey, who would go on to helm a number of other all-timers, including The Awful Truth, Going My Way and An Affair to Remember, engages in some lively - for 1933 - camerawork and editing.

Duck Soup is, of course, the hilarious Marx Brothers film in which they take over a fictitious country and unrestrained, cartoon lunacy ensues - and It is very much like a live-action cartoon; some scenes are pure fantasy. It starts out as a musical, but after the first fifteen minutes or so there are long stretches without songs. 

I'm never certain whether this movie would be better with more songs or less. I'd hate to cut an inspired sequence like that in the "going-to-war" song (I don't know the exact title), which is a great example of the visuals matching the madcap energy of the sequence: frenetic cutting back and forth from medium shots of the Marxes dancing and singing to wider angles of the court and everyone in it, matching the rhythm of the song.


And then in the film's final third act, the war itself, it's like sanity just went south. McCarey lets everything go: clothes change from one frame to the next, bullets and cannons take peculiar trajectories, and the jokes come non-stop. Duck Soup is so funny, I can even forgive Groucho's line about darkies - partly because the joke, in context, doesn't quite make sense. 


McCarey, in a time when film was re-defining itself with the advent of sound, is able to keep up with the lunacy and shape the visuals to match. The Marxes cut their teeth on the stage, in vaudeville, but here, their audience can process their gags, which are visual as well as verbal, in a form that captures their comic timing perfectly, on a larger canvas than the vaudeville stage.



Can I say a word or two about Margaret Dumont? I wonder if she gets as much credit as she deserves for being as game as she was for the Marxes' antics. I took a brief moment last night to examine her career on IMDB - outside of the Marx movies, she didn't do much of note. She was no comic grande dame like Marie Dressler. I wouldn't even go so far as to say she had any kind of chemistry with Groucho. She had a role in the Marx movies and she filled it, letting herself be mocked while trying to maintain a smidgen of dignity - and they must have loved her, because they went back to her time and time again.

I hadn't been back to Brooklyn Bridge Park since last summer. They added some new play space on a couple of the piers on the south end. I didn't have time to check it out, but it looks great. I'll have to come back at some point. This was the first movie in the series at the park this summer, and as usual, the lawn was nearly full two hours in advance of showtime. I bought four small oranges to go with my chips so I wouldn't feel too guilty about munching on snack food. The bugs were particularly annoying. Gonna have to bring bug spray with me to outdoor movies from now on. At least I had Ivan and Page to chat with on Twitter.

Look for photos from Brooklyn Bridge Park on my WSW Facebook page.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Books: Three Fingers

The 2014 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

The film Who Framed Roger Rabbit imagined a world in which beloved cartoon characters from the past co-existed side by side with humans. Cartoons had appeared with humans for scenes in films before - Tom & Jerry in MGM musicals, for example - but Roger took it to the next level by building an entire movie around the premise, as well as crafting a more three-dimensional look and feel to the cartoons themselves.

When Rich Koslowski tackled a similar notion for his graphic novel Three Fingers, he went even further by giving cartoons a history, a culture, and deeper personalities - in effect, making them a species unto themselves. Like Roger, the "toons" are presented as Hollywood actors in a story set during the Golden Age of the industry. Unlike Roger, these toons are thinly - and I do mean thinly - disguised versions of the genuine articles (Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, etc.). Some of the altered names are way too on-the-nose for my taste, but fortunately, most of them are only used once.

Three Fingers is told in the style of a Ken Burns-like documentary, centered around the history of the Mickey Mouse counterpart, "Rickey Rat," and his producer/director throughout his career, "Dizzy Walters." In this alternate history, Rickey was the first toon to succeed in Hollywood as an actor, under Dizzy's guidance, and he was the biggest toon star of them all. He was also unique in that he happened to have three fingers (plus opposable thumb) on both his hands; a genetic defect. Through historical "photos" and "interviews" with toons and humans, we learn that Rickey's success, which was over and above that of other toons, was a mystery. How the toon actors interpreted that mystery, and what they did to compensate for it, lies at the heart of the story.

Koslowski's black & white art style leans toward the realistic. For the "photos," it looks like he took real Hollywood photos and altered them to fit the story, so we see Rickey Rat's name appearing on real posters and marquees, we see him with real human producers and actors, and it looks more or less authentic - as authentic as a cartoon character can look next to realistically rendered humans. Classic film fans will get a kick at the Easter eggs, including familiar movie posters with animal toon characters (Jeanette MacDonald as a camel?)

The toons look just different enough from their real life counterparts to avoid a lawsuit - barely. In the "interviews," they're significantly older looking, which helps. Some wear glasses, some are in wheelchairs, and some, like Rickey himself, are in identity-concealing shadow, to further sell the documentary-like feel of the graphic novel. They have the exaggerated style of cartoons, but the light and shadow, combined with the rougher linework, gives them dimension that's different from what we see in Roger Rabbit. They don't look like they've just bounced off of the film screen and into reality; they look like they've always been part of reality, which is a crucial difference in terms of the story's tone...


Rich Koslowski
...because Three Fingers is a fairly dark story, much more so than Roger. Many of the toons here are jealous, bitter, cynical, stuck-up and demented. (The Foghorn Leghorn counterpart in particular is REALLY disturbing, full of dark humor.) Rickey is full of remorse and self-recrimination, blaming himself for the events that happened as a direct result of his success. His is a sad story, and as the story unfolds, we see exactly how sad it is.

I like the pacing. As in a documentary, Three Fingers goes back and forth from narration to talking head sequences in the "interviews," and Koslowski does an excellent job of cutting from one talking head to another for contrasting reactions. Someone makes an accusation, then he cuts to someone else who denies the accusation. Someone makes a statement, then he cuts to someone else who undermines the previous statement in an ironic way. Koslowski gives us just enough of the story to leave room for doubt as to where the truth lies, which makes the book much more like a documentary film.

Three Fingers covers decades of film and world history, and there are cameo appearances from humans like Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Marilyn Monroe (who plays a key role), the Kennedys, the Reagans, Martin Luther King Jr., and more. As I said, toons here are a separate species, and their actions have consequences in the rest of the world beyond Hollywood, which makes them even more realistic in the context of the story. Anyone who loves animation will get a big kick out of this graphic novel.

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Previously:
Main Street
Silent Stars

Monday, July 7, 2014

PG should not equal inferior

Last week a debate broke out as to whether or not to abolish the PG-13 rating, a result of a PG-13 being given to the upcoming Expendables 3. I tend to think that all MPAA ratings are useless and inaccurate and should be done away with, but that's not what I want to address. Amidst the debate, I noticed something that was taken for granted on both sides. On the pro-abolish side:
...So here's what we do. We lobby to eliminate PG-13. What this does is force the MPAA to look at content differently.... Instead of shaming adults into seeing a PG-rated film, embolden them to see an R-rated movie, knowing there's more adult content available for them.
And on the anti-abolish side:
...Thanks to the PG-13 rating the PG rating has been softened to the point it's rarely used any longer, while at the same time studios aren't going to make big budget tentpole features for an R-rated, adults-only audience. Marvel and DC Comics' movies will be watered down to the PG-rating and adults will begin to shy away, a solution no one wants.
(Emphasis mine in both quotes.)

Why should there be any shame in seeing a PG movie? If we agree, as both sides of the debate do, that PG-13 means an extremely limited amount of profanity and nudity and a fair amount of violence (as I noticed, for example, in X-Men: Days of Future Past), does that mean that we, as an adult audience, reject movies without them, regardless of content? I'm not sure I like what that says about us (and I absolutely include myself in this statement).

PG-13 was created to stretch the boundaries of PG movies, while stopping short of explicit sex and violence, which would remain the purview of the R movie. As a result, PG-13 has become extremely profitable for Hollywood because it favors the youth market, particularly when it involves genre material, whether it's young adult action (Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent), general sci-fi/fantasy (Inception, Pacific Rim), or the superheroes (as if you need examples of those). Indeed, these days it's not unusual for some PG-13 movies to skate close to the edge of an R rating.


'Belle' is a recent example of
a PG movie with adult themes.
In the process, however, PG movies that express adult themes without relying on some combination of sex, violence and profanity have become all but extinct at the big studios. We agree that PG-13 is what Hollywood tends to aim for now, for many of their movies, because that's where the money is, but by implication, that also means that we, the audience, now demand a certain amount of violence and profanity, because that's more "realistic." (We still have a problem with sexuality, though, but that's another story.) 

Many of the greatest movies of Hollywood's Golden Age would get by with a PG rating today (assuming they could get made at all). True, the industry operated under a production code that placed extreme limits on sex and violence, but those great movies succeeded, and stood the test of time, in spite of those restrictions. Does anyone really think Casablanca would be greatly improved with Humphrey Bogart swearing, or with a sex scene between him and Ingrid Bergman? But no one thinks in those terms these days.

I'm not a prude, but I do think it's unfortunate that market demands have prevented adult PG films from being economically viable. Sure, nudity and profanity may make a movie look more like real life, but in creative terms, it's easy, and after using it time and again, it loses its impact. Not every movie needs it that badly. So if we must have ratings in American films, I say that instead of eliminating the PG-13, let's strengthen the PG instead, by investing in adult films that don't rely on sex and violence. It would open up an under-served audience that's fed up with modern movies, and it would do away with the stigma associated with PG films, a stigma it didn't earn and doesn't deserve.

Agree?

Friday, July 4, 2014

Independence Day (1996)

Independence Day (1996)
first seen in South Hadley, MA
summer 1996

South Hadley, Massachusetts is an itty-bitty town with a population of 17,514, first settled in 1725. Now, I got that from the town's webpage and from Wikipedia. I wish I could tell you stuff about the town that you wouldn't find online, but I can't, because when I went to South Hadley, I wasn't terribly interested in the rest of the place at the time. All I saw of it was a strip mall that looked like it was in the middle of nowhere... but that mall was important because it had a multiplex.

This was during the summer I spent as a counselor at a sleepaway camp in an even tinier Massachusetts town called Cummington. Actually, I spent two summers there; this was the second. It was high in the Berkshire mountain territory along Route 9 - a pleasant place, though in the summer it can get awful cold at night if you're not careful. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Planet of the links

The ongoing struggle over control of the Loew's Jersey Theater has taken a turn for the worst: last week, Jersey City mayor Steve Fulop decided on a promoter to run the theater, and taxpayers are gonna foot most of the bill for renovations, surprise surprise. In a statement, Friends of the Loews continues to maintain that if only Jersey City had lived up to its end of the bargain it made with FoL to fund renovations (for a smaller amount than what the taxpayers are getting shafted with), none of this would be an issue. FoL plans to continue seeking a legal remedy to this case.

You know my feelings on this, and you know whose corner I'm in. This is not the end by a long shot. Here's a petition supporting FoL that you can sign to show your support.

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July is gonna be my big month for outdoor movies. I have nine tentatively planned, and weather permitting, I expect to see them all, though nothing's certain. Last month I went back to Bryant Park to see the Tyrone Power version of The Mark of Zorro, but about 15 minutes or so into the film, there was some kind of mechanical problem (according to the projectionist, whom I talked to) which caused the image to blink out, with the audio continuing. 

When he was able to recover the film, ten minutes of the movie fell by the wayside. Restarting would've been preferable for me, but it was already well after nine PM and most of the audience didn't seem to care either way, and though I tried, I couldn't get back into the flow of the movie. How could I, with ten minutes worth gone? I ended up leaving early. Something always spoils my time watching movies at Bryant Park, whether it's a rude audience or the weather. Now this. I think I'm just gonna give up on Bryant Park altogether.

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Last month I talked about the unexpected bit of character revealed by my mother while watching an old film, and speculated that she didn't seem to get much out of old movies in general. I may have been premature. About a week or so afterwards, she told me that she actually watched TCM one morning while staying home - unprompted by me! She watched The Big Sleep - perhaps not the ideal movie to watch for someone unacquainted with classic Hollywood because of its complicated plot, but at least it's got a pair of superstar actors. She liked it... especially the ending. (She has a real pet peeve about downbeat endings.) So I suppose there's hope for her after all.

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Your links for this month:

Brandie celebrates 80 years of Donald Duck.

Paddy went on a family outing to a Buster Keaton movie.

MGM Blogathon hosts Diana & Connie offer up a brief but comprehensive history of the studio during its glory years.

I wanted to write about Greta Garbo for that blogathon, but Le beat me to it. She chose to focus on Garbo's marriage to John Gilbert. (Don't forget to turn on Google Translate.)

I've had an interest in actress Marsha Hunt ever since I wrote her into my Hollywood Canteen story. Here's a new interview with her in which she reflects on her long career.

Here's a little known story about a gay Hollywood couple from back in the day.

Speaking of outdoor movies, seeing them should be a little more pleasant if you observe these tips.

Ever wonder who does the subtitles on foreign movies?