Friday, March 31, 2017
Too often, the films of Louis Lumiere and other early cinema pioneers are discussed as primitive artifacts, a kind of cinematic equivalent of cave paintings that marked the beginning of an art form. This documentary, directed by Eric Rohmer, takes a formal approach, discussing the photographic qualities of the Lumiere films through interviews with Jean Renoir and Henri Langlois. Both men offer eloquent commentary on the beauty and historical value of the Lumiere films, revealing why these pioneering works should be viewed as sophisticated, fully realized motion pictures on their own terms, rather than as merely a precursor of things to come.
Watching The King of Comedy (1983) last night, I remembered reading that Scorsese had been influenced by Edwin S. Porter's Life of an American Fireman (1903) in thinking about his approach to making the film. I watched it partly with that in mind, thinking about how he might have drawn on that film for inspiration. One of the things I find most interesting about Scorsese is how he ingests the whole of film history and brings those influences to bear in such unexpected but effective ways.
This is what Scorsese had to say about the influence of Porter's film on The King of Comedy:
"People had reacted in such a way to Raging Bull, saying it was a beautiful film - like Days of Heaven, you could take every frame and put it on the wall - that I decided my next picture was going to be 1903 style, more like Edwin S Porter's The Life of an American Fireman, with no close-ups. So in King of Comedy that's what I tried to do." (quoted in Scorsese on Scorsese).
Friday, March 24, 2017
Ford's direction keeps the pace energetic and lively throughout, embellished with a characteristic sense of humor. There are some exciting action sequences, such as the sea battle and sinking of a German sub, which are impressively staged and heightened by excellent model work, especially in the undersea shots.
This is the kind of material John Ford could do so well, and though he would return to the settings and themes again, this seems to mark a turning point in his career. The light, freewheeling tone places it among his earlier work, specifically among his other Navy films like Salute (1929), Men Without Women (1930), and Seas Beneath (1931), rather than the films he would make during and after the war.
Thursday, March 23, 2017
A powerful and at times excruciating drama -- written by Rod Serling from his own teleplay -- about the cutthroat office politics inside a big New York industrial firm, where the tension runs so thick one could cut it with a knife. Van Heflin plays a brilliant young executive from the company's Ohio office, who accepts a top position in New York, but soon finds himself being used as a pawn in a power play by the big boss (Everett Sloane) to force a principled, aging executive (Ed Begley) into resigning.
Directed by Fielder Cook with stark minimalism, and filmed on location in New York (in striking black and white by Boris Kaufman), Serling's screenplay boils with tension and anxiety, only occasionally becoming too self-conscious, and impaired by an ending that doesn't ring entirely true, but that does not negate the astonishing degree of honesty and poignancy that Serling establishes leading up to it.
Thursday, March 16, 2017
From the moment they appear, you find it impossible to take your eyes off of them. The boys' masterful comic interplay, which they make look so deceptively simple, astounds with its perfect rhythm and timing, every gesture, every glance and every pratfall performed with expert precision. Every facet of their screen characters is so thoroughly and richly defined to the point where they seem so real, so human that we feel like we are spending time with old friends when we see their films.
Numerous episodes stand out for their comic ingenuity. Spotting a Saint Bernard with a keg of brandy strapped around its neck, Laurel feigns exhaustion in order to obtain the rescue dog's emergency supply of liquor, on which he becomes hopelessly intoxicated. Indentured to work in the hotel kitchen an extra day for every dish they break, the boys find innumerable ways to add to their misfortune with one new dinnerware disaster after another until it seems that they will spend all of eternity in that kitchen. And there is the moment when Hardy serenades the object of his romantic affection with a rendition of the tender ballad "Let Me Call You Sweetheart", accompanied by Laurel on an oversize tuba, the incongruous booming tones of the instrument oddly complementing the pomp and splendor of Hardy's musical declarations of love.
There are also the delightfully surreal moments that exist free from the constraints of realistic narrative logic. At one moment, animated soap bubbles escape from a pipe organ that produce the notes of a song as they burst, and at another, a punctured gas pipe under the floor causes infernal flames to shoot forth wherever poor Oliver Hardy happens to be standing.
At one point, the boys find themselves trapped on a rickety wooden mountain bridge, perilously high across the Alps, with a piano and a gorilla -- a comic image for the ages. Ours is not to wonder how they got there, or what a gorilla is doing in the Swiss Alps. Laurel and Hardy approach any task with a kind of bullheaded determination and literal single-mindedness, which keep them in pursuit of achieving their goal even when logic or common sense would give anyone else pause for thought, and this is no exception. Suspended high above the gaping mountainous chasm, every twist and turn of the bridge -- swaying to and fro like some kind of insane fun-house attraction -- risks plunging them into the abyss.
Yet they view this predicament as they would any other and, despite the momentary terror of the situation, somehow all seems right in the world when Hardy, left by the oblivious Laurel to dangle from the collapsed bridge on the side of a mountain, gets knocked on the head by a falling rock, expressing mere annoyance at this latest inconvenience. Their universe has regained equilibrium, and they are on to their next misadventure, perhaps to attend Oxford, or join the Foreign Legion.