Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Naked City (1948)

Finally saw this film after reading much about it, and I have to admit I was rather disappointed in it. I heard that it was based on a photo spread by Weegee detailing New York crime scene photos, and that it was shot entirely on location in the streets and apartments of New York. For some reason, I have also heard this film frequently touted as one of the best film noirs, though I couldn't see anything in it that resembled any of the characteristics of noir.

My biggest disappointment was that it opened with that terrible narration (by the producer, no less) that the better filmmakers were already trying to avoid at that point. It's that smarmy, cutesy narration that ruins the atmosphere. I would have found a Sterling Hayden-type voice much more appropriate if narration were needed at all, which I'm not actually sure it was-it appeared at times that the narration was only used to further the story when the filmmakers had to shoot without sound because of the locations (mostly the exteriors).

Barry Fitzgerald (whom I love) was good but seemed entirely out of place. He would have seemed much more "at home" in a studio-bound Hollywood film, in which his slightly exaggerated performance would have felt much more natural. As it is, he comes across as giving far too much a "performance" when the gritty setting seems to call for a more naturalistic performance. The rest of the cast is okay, not particularly memorable, although some of the performances (especially the housekeeper of the murder victim, who bursts into tears every five minutes) seem entirely over-the-top, and again, at odds with the film's more naturalistic settings. There's also an annoying tendency to insert cute and comical relief bits that add nothing to the film and only seem unnatural and forced, further killing the effect that the film was supposedly striving for.

I've read that Stanley Kubrick worked as a still photographer on this film, and I can't help but think what he could have done with the material (I've enjoyed his "Killer's Kiss" and "The Killing" very much).I wouldn't be so critical except that the film went out of its way to be something different but was so ordinary in every aspect other than its use of locations that it hardly seemed worth it. I would be very interested to know why this film is frequently cited as an example of film noir (it's a crime drama, yes, but really more along the lines of a "Dragnet"-style police instructional). I see that Criterion is releasing the film soon, and in their notes call it a benchmark of film noir too. Dassin's "Night and the City" (a genuine noir) is far superior, in my opinion.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Harry Langdon: The Fourth Genius?

I think if the criteria included success in feature films, it's reasonable that Langdon was given the position he was. I think he did reach the same level of brilliance as Chaplin/Lloyd/Keaton but only for a very brief time. He did not sustain himself the way they did. In other words, he had the comic strength but not the endurance. But I really feel that it was his success in features, however brief, that afforded him this "fourth clown" spot in critical evaluations. Ray Griffith is another comedian who worked well in features, but I would argue not as successfully as Langdon, plus a lot of his work is missing so it's hard to have a complete picture. W.C. Fields also made some very good features, but it's hard to judge since so much is lost. What survives is very funny and clever, but for me at least, doesn't approach the sublime brilliance of the Chaplin/Keaton/Lloyd films that Langdon managed to reach. Based on this criteria alone, I don't think Langdon is being overrated but I would argue that there's something to be said for sustaining brilliance in the craft over an entire decade or more the way Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd were able to.That being said, if feature films did not enter into the equation, there are a number of other comedians who worked exclusively, or at least primarily, in shorts, who did sustain themselves much better. If you take short films into the equation, it's a whole different situation. Arbuckle, of course, was one of the very best-a comic talent on par with the best of them. While he did make some features, these seem to be more in the genteel tradition, although I did enjoy LEAP YEAR quite a lot. His numerous short films from 1913-onwards are simply amazing (thanks to the recent releases of his Comique films, I am convinced he could have made some feature films that would have even topped Keaton in the breathtaking "How did they do that?" department). Charley Chase is another brilliant comic master, and thanks to the increased availability of the Laurel and Hardy silents, we can see how completely they mastered and matured artistically in the silent medium. Max Linder is another clown, brilliantly creative both in front of and behind the camera, who consistently sustained himself and grew artistically over a long period of time.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Harry Langdon: The Tragic Clown

In discussing the hierarchy of the silent clowns, there is a tendency to keep referring back to a sort of holy trinity of clowns that critics have set in stone as the cream of the cinematic crop: Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.

Interestingly, one clown whose name has been disappearing from such God-like status in recent years is Harry Langdon, perhaps the most misunderstood of the major silent clowns. He slowed comedy down, making it more deliberate and subtle, just as Chaplin did in 1915 when he left Keystone studios to pursue his own brand of humor at Essanay. Langdon's work is considerably slower paced and more deliberate than that of even Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd. Langdon (1884-1944) at one time rivalled Chaplin both critically and commercially, yet two years later was virtually forgotten and being wasted in B-grade short subjects. Why is this?

To answer what went wrong with Langdon's career, we would need to go back to about 1924, when Langdon, already a vaudeville veteran of more than twenty years, accepted an offer to make motion picture short comedies for producer Mack Sennett. Sennett, or someone on his staff, had seen Langdon's act, and even had it filmed so that the writers could re-watch it and get a good feel for the type of comedy that they'd be writing for Langdon. The three men most closely associated with Langdon's film career are Harry Edwards, Arthur Ripley, and a young gag man named Frank Capra.

Whether or not Capra was with the writing team from the beginning has become a point of debate. Capra, in his later years, claimed not only to have been instrumental in Langdon's success as a filmmaker, but also claimed to have created Langdon's character. We now know, thanks to photographs of Langdon's stage show, that the character Langdon played, the "Baby", was already fairly well-established in his early vaudeville days. Capra also expressed a sort of backhanded concern for Langdon in later interviews, frequently referring to the comedian as pitiful, sad, and pathetic.

Capra's claims have become the stuff of intense, heated debate among film scholars. Capra of course went on to become one of America's finest and most personal filmmakers, directing such masterpieces as IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936), MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939), and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). From this lofty perch, it was easy to make these rather extravagant claims about his instrumental role in the career of Harry Langdon. But a look at how their relationship ended provides insight not only into the reasoning behind Capra's attitude toward Langdon, but also why Langdon's career came to a dead halt just a year after his peak of popularity.

In 1926, Langdon was signed by First National to appear in feature films. Leaving Mack Sennett's studio, he brought his gag men (Edwards, Ripley and Capra) with him. The first feature, TRAMP TRAMP TRAMP, was a resounding success, and seemed to establish Langdon in the highest ranks of screen comics. His popularity was almost unequaled at this point. The next feature, released in early 1927, was THE STRONG MAN, which did even better than TRAMP TRAMP TRAMP. THE STRONG MAN, which historian Kevin Brownlow considers the finest silent comedy ever made, is a fine showcase for Langdon's talents. It also happens to be the feature film directorial debut of Frank Capra. Capra remained at the helm for LONG PANTS, Langdon's next film. But while making THREE'S A CROWD, Capra was fired by Langdon. Capra later claimed that Langdon had "gone Hollywood" and began to think of himself as a virtuoso genius like Chaplin, whom the critics frequently compared him to. Langdon, it seems, fired his director and writing staff in a burst of creative egomania.

The truth behind this is open to debate. Capra's later comments about Langdon may very well have been nothing more than sour grapes over getting canned by the comedian. While it's true that Langdon perhaps overestimated his own virtuosity as filmmaker and actor, Capra's claims remain suspect. This is not to dismiss Capra's contributions. Any comic filmmaker of the 1920s would have agreed that it was a team effort that got these films made with the level of quality they maintained, and indeed, Langdon's career did downturn very quickly after Capra's departure.

This debate turns into a sort of chicken-or-the-egg rhetoric. What can be seen, though, is that as Langdon's career spiraled downward, Capra's took off.

After two more features in 1928, Langdon's star burned out. He appeared in some talkie shorts for Hal Roach before spiralling off into low budget fare unworthy of his talent. Capra, directing a series of action pictures and dramas, at the same time set himself up as America's premier director of social comedies championing the little guy. Capra's training as a gag man served him well, and he continued to show flourishes of his silent comedy background throughout his career.

Langdon, unfortunately, had few memorable jobs left. Career highpoints included a supporting role in the Al Jolson musical HALLELUJAH I'M A BUM (1933), and a co-starring role opposite Oliver Hardy in ZENOBIA (1939). Aside from a string of two-reelers for Columbia's short subject division, Langdon did some gag writing for Laurel and Hardy before dying, rather sad and broken, in 1944.

Langdon's legacy was championed by James Agee, who profiled Langdon in his excellent Life magazine essay, "Comedy's Greatest Era" (1949). Langdon enjoyed a fair amount of exposure in the Robert Youngson compilations of the 1960s, and was written about with great love and respect in Walter Kerr's book, "The Silent Clowns" which, for better or worse, has become a sort of bible for comedy aficionados.

As the work of other silent comedians becomes available, especially that of Roscoe Arbuckle, Charley Chase, Max Linder, to say nothing of the silent Laurel and Hardy shorts, Langdon has seen his reputation wane somewhat. While critics initially praised his pantomime ability, the evidence shows there were a number of other comedians who equalled him in ability. Langdon, perhaps, will always be remembered as the "Baby" character, and his films offer delights for those willing to watch them in context.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Chaplin (1992)

I pulled out my old video of this and watched it again last night. Unfortunately, it seems like every time I watch it, I like it less and less.

What I can't understand is, what went wrong? The talent, both in front of and behind the camera, was top notch. For the subject of the film, they had one of the most interesting lives of the 20th century, based on two books, including the autobiography, as well as perhaps the definitive biography of the man.Yet for some reason, the film overall is rather dull, excrutiatingly so at times. A major part of this was the decision to portray Chaplin in such a consistently morose and brooding mood throughout the entire film. What about the Chaplin we see in the home movies, clowning around at Pickfair, pulling faces for the camera, doing impromptu bits of business? We see none of this side of Chaplin in the film. In fact, aside from the Karno sketch and the debut film at Keystone, we actually see Chaplin do very little comic business at all. In fact, the film only seems to bring up his films when there is some sort of social commentary connected with it.

Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Chaplin is nothing less than brilliant. His ability to mimic Chaplin's mannerisms without seeming like a mere impersonator are quite good. The rest of the cast is equally good, but the problems seem to lie more in how certain characters were written. J. Edgar Hoover, for instance, as played by Kevin Dunn, seems at times to have come right out of the Ford Sterling school for over-the-top villainy.There also seems to be an inordinate amount of time spent on Chaplin's love life. While this undoubtedly deserves considerable attention in telling his life story, I felt there were just a few too many long scenes that went nowhere.Given how much of Chaplin's amazing life story they decided to ignore completely, its surprising how the film moves just too quickly much of the time in order to establish any depth. Too many of the characters come across as one-dimensional, due to the script.The film starts off quite promisingly, with a good re-creation of the English music halls and the South London that Chaplin grew up in. However, even in these early scenes, there is an example of a technique used in this film that bothered me to no end: the decision to portray some very serious moments in Chaplin's life in the manner of a silent comedy.The first scene I notice this in is during young Charlie's attempted escape from the London workhouse. As two lines of officials come charging down two seperate hallways that converge, Charlie ducks behind a wall, causing the two groups to collide like the Keystone Cops. The workhouse scenes could have been very effective ways of conveying the immense difficulties that shaped Chaplin for the rest of his life; instead, we get this scene that is reminiscent of his later work in slapstick. This technique comes up again later in the film.

Chaplin's first love, Hetty Kelly, is portrayed well, but again, more depth should have been given to it, as this was a crucial moment in Chaplin's life that in many ways seemed to influence his relationships, some of which got him in to a great deal of trouble.The Karno scenes are good; Downey does an admirable job recreating the "Mumming Birds"-type sketch. From these scenes, the film shifts to America, with some breathtaking vistas of the American West.

We catch up with Chaplin in Butte, Montana. Now, here is a part of the film which has always bothered me. It makes it look as though this is the first time Chaplin has seen a motion picture. Surely, he would have encountered them sooner than 1913, especially since movies became a fairly regular part of music hall (and vaudeville) bills in the early years of the century. In fact, it's quite likely that Chaplin encountered the work of Max Linder some time earlier than 1913, certainly. At any rate, this scene is given an extra dose of absurdity by having none other than Stan Laurel just happen to come at that moment with a telegram inviting Charlie to Hollywood to make movies. This scene is straight out of the corniest 1940s biopics. This scene also contains my biggest pet peeve of screen biographies, when a character (in this case, Stan Laurel) is introduced who is well known to the audience but not to the other characters in the film (the recent version of THE ALAMO was filled with this).

The Keystone scenes are my favorite of the film. There is some reasonably good re-creations of what Keystone must have been like. The silent-comedy technique presents itself again in the scene where Chaplin puts together his costume for the first time. There is also a bit of special effects in which the old Chaplin character romanticizes a bit about the tramp character "calling" to him. This silly bit is really unnecessary, and contains some rather outdated special effects (the "glowing" derby, for instance) that serve no purpose other than to be cute.Now, the Keystone segment also presents the biggest outrage in the film: the presentation of Mabel Normand as a loud mouth bimbo who "actually thinks she can direct". This scene is plain insulting to this brilliant comedienne, and a real disservice to her memory. Let's not forget that she was a talented performer and director, and far from being out to get Chaplin, she actually was one of his biggest supporters at the studio. The whole presentation of the character is just so wrong it defies description. I'm sure she and Chaplin clashed creatively, but then again, two unique and brilliant talents working together often do. The line given to Mack Sennett, "She actually thinks she can direct", is an insult. There is also an annoying little error-the cameraman at Keystone is referred to as "Rollie" (as in Totheroh). Surely they could have at least bothered to bring Chaplin's most prolific and valuable collaborator in to the story in at least the right time period (more should have been made of Totheroh's collaboration throughout Chaplin's career in general, really).

From here, I lose all interest in the film. Some major points I have issue with are the virtual dismissal of the Lita Grey divorce trial, which visibly aged Chaplin and was perhaps one of the first major public episodes that changed peoples' opinion of him. In the presentation of the Mildred Harris affair, the "Salt Lake City" episode, which was perhaps one of the worst experiences of Chaplin's creative and personal life, is presented as a silly, sped-up silent comedy replete with slapping and comic policeman, straight out of "Fractured Flickers" or the old Pete Smith "Goofy Movies".Chaplin's increasingly morose attitude just becomes depressing. For a guy who remained brilliantly funny through many trying times and public scandals, he is portrayed as increasingly gloomy and bitter. There should have also been mention made of Chaplin's wonderful family, who obviously kept him very young in spirit into old age. The pictures of the old Chaplin, in his 80s, cavorting with his children and wife on the lawn of their mansion in Switzerland, are some of the most serene moments I have ever seen. The film totally glosses over this.

It would have been nice to portray the fact that Chaplin's life wasn't all scandal and public outcry all the time. Even his brother Syd, one of his most loyal and trustworthy supporters, is presented as someone mean spirited towards Charlie, exploding on him during planning THE GREAT DICTATOR. In fact, Syd was a huge supporter, and it seems that, at least regarding THE GREAT DICTATOR, Chaplin was surrounded by a loyal crew who knew they were making something controversial.There were a lot of other triumphs in Chaplin's life that the film manages to ignore as well. At least the film ends with his return to the Academy Awards.Overall, the film has a lot of faults mainly as a result of the script. It feels rushed, one dimensional, incomplete, and often aimless. Perhaps one day Chaplin's life will receive a screen biography treatment that does his remarkable life story better service.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Clean (2004)

As part of the Charles Theatre's Cinema Sundays program, I attended a screening of the new Olivier Assayas film CLEAN, starring Maggie Cheung and Nick Nolte. What follows is my review of the film.

I went in to see CLEAN not knowing anything about the film. In fact, I had only heard the title of the film a mere ten minutes before it began. If ever I have sat down to watch a film with absolutely no pre-conceived notions, this was it.

The film is a look into a woman, played by Cheung, who is struggling with a heroin addiction and attempting to launch a singing career. After her lover dies of an overdose, she sets about trying to straighten her life out and re-unite with her son, living with his grandparents in Vancouver.

The film weaves in and out between the different incidents in Cheung's life on the path to recovery. I did not find the depiction of addiction to be "harrowing", in the same way that films such as THE LOST WEEKEND depict it. Instead, it was simply matter-of-fact, filled with small touches to help the audience sympathize with the main character.

In the Q & A following the screening, it was commented on that many audiences have responded to the film feeling that Cheung's performance is the best thing about it. That may or may not be true; director Assayas keeps the pace moving with fluid cinematography and, on a number of occasions, Godardian jump-cuts. (Assayas, a former editor with Cahiers du Cinema, was obviously heavily influenced by Godard.) Aside from Nolte, in an interesting role as Cheung's father-in-law, the secondary cast is not given much to do, and their characters do not feel developed fully.

There is also a David Cronenberg-like objectivity with which Assayas paints his characters. He shows their faults as well as their strengths, and this works particularly well in the scenes later in the film, which could have bordered on schmaltzy but are kept quite effective by their matter-of-factness.

The film benefits from location work; San Francisco is glimpsed briefly in the film's final shot, and Canada is used effectively in the early sections, but the best locations, London and Paris, are used for the majority of the film.

Overall, I would rate this film **1/2 out of ****; it felt like an average film, with an excellent lead performance, that left me somewhat detached from its center and secondary characters.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Abel Gance's NAPOLEON

Few films in the history of the medium have trumpeted the technical innovations of the art form in quite the same way Abel Gance's NAPOLEON did.

NAPOLEON could quite possibly qualify as the single most innovative motion picture ever made, in that it put on display a number of techniques that had not really been seen before, or at least, not used within the context of a narrative feature film. Yet, the film is not merely a technical demonstration a la THIS IS CINERAMA, nor is it a film that is only remembered today for having introduced some new process, such as THE JAZZ SINGER or BECKY SHARP.

Rather, NAPOLEON is one of the great human epics of all time. It is a controversial film, to be sure. Many resent Gance's deification of the Little Emperor who conquered much of Europe in an attempt to create a centralized French culture. Regardless of one's political views, I maintain that the film must be viewed objectively, and in doing so, will increase one's appreciation of the masterpiece that it is.

Few epics before or since have had such a strong central figure. Napoleon is portrayed by Albert Dieudonne, who seems to be channeling an intensity in his performance that sweeps the audience away in his passion and fervor. Dieudonne is not terribly well known for any other film performances, so in a sense, he really immortalized himself as Napoleon in this film. Certainly, it is one of the most impressive, career-defining performances an actor has ever delivered.

In his introduction to the cast and crew before filming commenced, Gance called for complete devotion and commitment to the project, even suggesting that they keep in mind the very drive that their ancestors had in bringing about the Revolution and applying it to the making of the film.

The film itself begins with Napleon's boyhood at the Brienne school, where he displays military strategy at an early age in a large scale snowball fight. Napoleon is shown as an intense youth, devoted to his studies, and to his homeland, the island of Corsica. The film continues with his political victory in Corsica over Pozzo Di Borgo, and his military victory in the Battle of Toulon. Rising tensions lead to the triumphant Italian Campaign of 1796, where the film ends. In the currently available US version, running three hours and fifty-four minutes, the story moves briskly and with an epic scale that never backs down.

Among the technical innovations referred to earlier are a rapid-cutting editing style, unlike anything seen before or since, in which images last only for a frame at a time; a split screen that breaks off into a number of different cubes; a camera mounted on horseback to photograph an exciting point of view shot for the chase across the marshes; a camera mounted on a pendulum, swinging dizzyingly over the hectic and chaotic National Convention; and finally, the famous "Triptych" technique used during the Italian Campaign sequence, a widescreen process predating Cinerama by about 25 years, and with multiple images on each of the three screens.

NAPOLEON was a very difficult film to see for a long time. Gance himself re-cut the film a number of times, including a 1934 version that is said to have been the first film to use a stereophonic soundtrack (actually, it was more an approximation of stereo-there was a mono track that was controlled through different speakers to create a dynamic effect), as well as a 1971 version that would be his final film. The original 1927 version ran close to 7 hours-about 6 of which have so far been restored by British historian Kevin Brownlow.

Brownlow's restoration project began in the 1960s, and by 1979, he had put together a comprehensible version running close to four hours. At the premiere, Brownlow telephoned Gance in his hotel room to let him listen to the thunderous applause of the audience. American distribution rights were handled by Francis Ford Coppola, who insisted on letting his father write the score (replacing the Brownlow-commissioned Carl Davis score, that is still used for European showings). Perhaps more crudely, Coppola insisted the film be cut to just under four hours to prevent having to pay overtime to musicians hired to play the score at live performances. The "Coppola" version is still the only one available in the US, despite Brownlow's current restoration running more than two hours longer.

Much has been said about the re-vitalization effect the NAPOLEON re-release had on silent film. It is hard to say whether it was NAPOLEON or the advent of video cassettes around the same time that really led to the massive re-interest in silent films, but regardless, NAPOLEON's place in cinematic history became a certainty with its restoration and new presentation.

Gance lived just long enough to see massive re-appreciation for his most famous and personal achievement. At the time of his death, he was working on a film on the life of Christopher Columbus, that was never completed.

Gance made many other films (LA ROUE and LUCREZA BORGA among them), of course. But with the possible exception of Jean Vigo, it is rather difficult to think of another filmmaker whose career rests so solidly, and whose reputation is ranked as highly, as Abel Gance, deservedly so, on the basis of a single film.