Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Next Step for Digital Filmmaking

Independent filmmaking has gone through more radical changes in the past decade than it has in nearly the last century. The introduction of consumer digital video tools in the late 1990s, and the availability of non-linear editing systems like Final Cut Express made it possible for amateur, DIY, and independent filmmakers of all stripes to have access to the same tools, and to the same level of quality and technical expectations that were previously the purview of the professional.

In 1999, the New York Times published an article by Rick Layman titled "New Digital Cameras Poised to Jolt World of Filmmaking" (Rick Layman, The New York Times, 11/19/99). In the piece, Layman describes the technology being used by filmmaker Mike Figgis during the filming of his landmark film TIME CODE, which combined four separate, 90-minute takes into a single film. In addition to discussing how the coming changes in technology would affect established filmmakers, the article also discusses how - more importantly - the new digital tools could revolutionize the world of independent filmmaking, not just in the production stage, but also in terms of direct digital distribution to theaters. Where the article makes it most pressing point, however, is that the attraction of these tools for independent filmmakers is not just technological, but also artistic.

This article conveys the excitement over the sense of newness resulting from emerging digital technologies that, for a brief moment, looked as though they would usher in a wave of new opportunities for independent filmmakers to produce and distribute their work.

The excitement over the possibilities of digital filmmaking loomed large over the independent filmmaking world during much of the first half of the 2000s. Nearly 15 years later, however, the excitement has dissipated. Digital cinema has seemed to fail to live up to its potential. Discussions about its possibilities abounded but now seem rather quaint. The New York Times article refers to a hypothetical scenario proposed by Mike Figgis, in which he speculates that if he were a "young filmmaker in Ohio or someplace", he could make a film like TIME CODE with on location with his friends as crew, and that the whole thing could be shot for around $100,000.

Figgis' comments are intriguingly prescient in terms of one of the misinterpretations about the possibilities presented by digital filmmaking that were at least partly responsible for its current transformation into a more expensive and unwieldy proposition that has once again become the purview of professionals.

A real turning point in understanding this transformation occurred in 2005-2006, with the emergence of YouTube, which ushered in its own era of user-generated streaming video content. Because YouTube allowed registered users to upload video content to its servers free of charge, the site quickly became overrun with an overwhelming amount of media, with over 100 hours of video being uploaded per minute according to their website. YouTube initially seemed like the final step in democratizing film. If MiniDV and affordable cameras, NLE systems and DVD authoring software had made production more feasible, then YouTube made it possible for the filmmaker to upload his or her work to distribute to a potentially worldwide audience.

Instead, YouTube proved to be the wedge that split and divided digital filmmaking permanently. Because distribution of digital films had still been previously limited to festivals or other curated viewing experiences, that became the mark of seriousness. In other words, even though the digital filmmaker might be using equipment that could be purchased at the local Best Buy or Office Max, he or she still enjoyed a certain level of professional affirmation through the film festivals or other exhibition channels that vindicated these films by mimicking the traditional modes of commercial film distribution.

YouTube instantly blew away the traditional models and instead made it possible for quite literally anyone with a camera, a computer, and an Internet connection to get their work shown to a potentially larger audience than had ever been previously possible. Thus the split between the "professional" amateur and the "amateur" amateur. It was only in hindsight, particularly as YouTube moved toward increasingly commercial and sponsored content and away from being primarily a home for user-generated content, that the possibilities promised by the emergence of digital tools a decade earlier began to resemble a lost opportunity.

To return to an earlier point regarding Mike Figgis' comments about the hypothetical "young filmmaker in Ohio", it is useful to look at the exact wording of his quote in order to understand how one of the biggest misconceptions and, eventually, disappointments surrounding the potential of digital cinema came to be. At first, his statement appears to be suggesting that any kid in the Rust Belt could make a film like TIME CODE if only he had access to the tools. In the article, he says "If I were some young filmmaker in Ohio..." This is not splitting hairs. The difference being that Figgis, whether he was working in Hollywood or Ohio, has the ideas and vision in the services of which to employ digital tools. The big lie of digital filmmaking was that "anyone could be a filmmaker".

The absurdity of the statement is no different than suggesting that by giving someone a brush and a canvas, that they could paint the Mona Lisa, or that someone could write "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" just for being given a pen and paper. Both ideas are ludicrous. Why should it be that filmmaking, unlike other arts, is assumed to be not just attainable, but able to bemastered, even by those with no skill, training or - most importantly - ideas?

When filmmaking as an art form is impoverished and ghettoized by such attitudes, it is not surprising that eventually technology itself - and the vast amounts of money necessary to pay for it - became seen as the very mark of professionalism and seriousness. The tremendous upswing in the number of film schools and self-professed filmmakers demonstrates the degree to which people bought into this mindset. One result of that mindset has manifested itself in the slapped-together dreck passing as "camp" or "parody", or the inward-gazing "slice of life" pieces that demonstrate nothing so much as the filmmaker's lack of imagination in dealing with a world beyond their own limited experiences.

For a brief but glorious period there was an acceptance of the kind of expressive and personal work that could be produced using the tools available to the artist. Films shot on MiniDV, edited on home computers and burned onto DVD-R for viewing, could be taken seriously precisely because audiences and other filmmakers were interested in the possibilities of what could be produced when you removed the technological barriers that had long been the roadblock to filmmakers working outside large-scale commercial systems. The emphasis became focused on expression. Because of the low production costs, it also created a situation in which "making your money back" did not need to be the constant, overriding concern at the expense of everything else.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fargo (1996)

FARGO, by Joel and Ethan Coen, is probably a "love it or hate it" kind of film, depending on your tolerance for dark comedy, but I definitely fall into the former camp.

It plays well as a straightforward thriller but also contains a strong undercurrent of jet-black humor that's never quite outright mean-spirited or completely unpleasant (even though it involves kidnapping, gruesome murders, and dismemberment in a wood chipper). Shot largely on location in North Dakota and Minnesota, Roger Deakins' cinematography captures the bleakness of the weather and the long flat expanses, which atmospherically reflects the state of the characters in the story.

The real standout performance is Frances McDormand as practical and tough policewoman Marge Gunderson, but William H. Macy (as the meek everyman in way over his head with kidnapping and loan fraud schemes), Harve Presnell (as his no-nonsense Midwestern business tycoon father-in-law) and especially Steve Buscemi (as a perpetually nervous and volatile hitman) all contribute fine turns in playing well-defined characters that they can really sink their teeth into.

Dark comedy is one of the most frequently mis-used labels when it comes to describing movies, and one of the toughest forms to pull off. FARGO pulls it off, and does so admirably well. It's certainly one of my favorite films of the past 20 years, and my favorite work by the Coens.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Mikado (1939)

While the 1939 film of Gilbert & Sullivan's THE MIKADO is far from a faithful adaptation in terms of containing every song and scene from the show, it is certainly faithful to the spirit of the great 1885 operetta by one of the great teams in theater history.

THE MIKADO was my introduction to the work of Gilbert & Sullivan. I had first learned about this film years ago from my grandfather, who had seen it at the Little Theater in Baltimore when he was about the same age that I was at the time. He had never forgotten the stunning Technicolor photography and mentioned wanting to see the film again. I managed to find a copy on VHS at the time, and it has since become a favorite of mine as well.

Victor Schertzinger, a songwriter and filmmaker whose other directing credits include the first two Bob Hope-Bing Crosby "Road" pictures, does an admirable job in bringing the operetta to the screen. The film is photographed in Technicolor, imbuing the film with a gorgeous, pastel look. The casting of Kenny Baker, as Nanki-Poo, is a rather obvious concession to popular taste, but he acquits himself well in the role. The real stand-outs in the cast are the members of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, especially Martyn Green as Ko-Ko and Sydney Granville as Pooh-Bah.

Most of the classic Gilbert & Sullivan songs are present, although the film does omit a good deal of the score in order to maintain a manageable running time. Perhaps the most regrettable excision is Ko-Ko's comic song "As Someday It May Happen", which was shot but deleted from the film prior to its release (thankfully it is included as a supplemental feature on the recent Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection).

Schertzinger's film of THE MIKADO may not be great cinema, functioning instead as a kind of filmed theater.  But it is a valuable and vivid record of the incredible talent involved in the D'Oyly Carte company, capturing the performances of Martyn Green, Sydney Granville and others for posterity, and for that fact alone is a treasure. It also remains a fine and effective introduction to the work of Gilbert & Sullivan.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Book Review: Fritz Lang - The Nature of the Beast

Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast
by Patrick McGilligan
University of Minnesota Press

Fritz Lang produced one of the most-studied and celebrated bodies of work of any filmmaker, and yet he remains a largely enigmatic figure. After a highly successful career as one of the leading directors in Germany during the silent era, Lang eventually emigrated to the United States, where he directed numerous films in Hollywood and became one of the most internationally-recognized filmmakers in the business. Yet his personal life has remained largely shrouded in the mythology, often spread by Lang himself, that built up over his long career.

Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (originally published by St. Martin's Griffin Press in 1997, and now available from the University of Minnesota Press) undertakes documenting Fritz Lang's life and work beyond the publicity and personal mythology. It is an exhaustively-researched, meticulously-detailed work. McGilligan gives us a comprehensive biography, covering each period of Lang’s life and work in extensive detail, and masterfully interweaving his research with quotes from those who knew and worked with Lang, to give us a stronger sense of how the filmmaker's life shaped his work.

Beginning with the director's early years in Vienna and Paris, McGilligan does an excellent job in shedding light on Lang’s formative experiences, including accounts of his military career as well as his training in the arts. Lang’s entry into motion pictures in Berlin, initially as a scenarist before turning to directing, is well-covered, with welcome descriptions of his earliest works that are now lost, and details about the two producers who did more than anyone else to facilitate Lang’s early film career – Erich Pommer and Joe May.

McGilligan spends a good deal of time in The Nature of the Beast exploring the mythology surrounding the director, particularly in two key incidents that have remained clouded by conflicting accounts of the events. The first involves the death of Lang's first wife Lisa Rosenthal, the cause of which was never fully determined. While it was ruled a suicide, following her discovery of Lang’s affair with screenwriter Thea von Harbou (whom Lang later married), there persisted suggestions that Lang had played a role in her death. Interrogated by the police on the night of Rosenthal's death, Lang and von Harbou insisted it had been a suicide. It is here that McGilligan makes some of his more controversial connections of this incident with Lang's filmography, citing the recurring suicides and slayings in the films - from Brunhild's suicide in Die Nibelungen all the way through the burlesque dancer's murder in his final American film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt - to suggest that, even though these kinds of plot devices had been present in Lang's work almost since the beginning, they took on a much greater deal of significance after the death of Lisa Rosenthal.

The second incident occurs in 1933. Lang claimed that he had been summoned by Joseph Goebbels for a meeting, in which Goebbels offered him a position as head of the German film industry. According to Lang's account, he quickly fled the country, although there are conflicting accounts of the story and doubts expressed over certain details by numerous sources. What is certain is that during this time his marriage to Thea von Harbou dissolved. With her allegiance to the Nazis, and Lang's own Jewish ancestry, the marriage came to an end in 1933 as Lang prepared to leave Germany.

These events lead in to Lang's departure from Germany, to his brief stay in Paris, and to his eventual arrival in Hollywood. McGilligan gives us a revealing portrait of Lang's struggle to fit in with the structured and producer-centered model of the Hollywood studio system. He developed several ideas for projects before directing his first American film, Fury, for MGM in 1936, and quickly ran in to opposition for some of his more controversial ideas for the script. Lang also struggled to fit in with the colony of other Jewish actors and artists who had fled Germany following the rise of Nazism. Lang's relative comfort stemming from his prestigious reputation in the German cinema, as well as rumors about the death of his first wife and conflicting stories of his meeting with Goebbels, did nothing to endear him to his fellow expatriates.

McGilligan covers Lang's years in Hollywood through accounts of his professional struggles within the studio hierarchy, and providing solid accounts of the often complex production histories of Lang's films from this period. He paints a portrait of a singular artist who never quite adapted to the studio system, as evidenced by the recollections of Lang's collaborators during this time. One of the critical moments in Lang's later career came during the height of the Blacklist in the early 1950s, when he was forced to distance himself from his left-leaning political positions in a similar way that he'd had to distance himself from his associations with Nazism after leaving Germany, another struggle against changing political tides.

Such incidents are consistent with McGilligan's portrait of Lang as an outsider, someone eternally in the process of adapting to his environment and re-writing his own personal history in order to do so. McGilligan's accounts of pivotal moments in Lang's life reflect the approach he has taken with his book, exploring the facts beyond the personal and professional stories that have built up over the years (and have taken on seemingly mythic proportions) to get at a better understanding of the man behind the mythology. Whether or not the reader agrees with the conclusions that McGilligan draws, the book is a meticulous work of research that does an admirable job in presenting the biography of its highly complex and often contradictory subject.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chaplin at Essanay - Part III

A Jitney Elopement
With Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Leo White.
Another Essanay that feels like it could have been made at Keystone, except this one demonstrates the more methodical pacing that Chaplin was able to pursue at Essanay. The premise is one of Chaplin's favorite: it involves him impersonating a count in order to marry the girl he loves.

The "bogus count" routine has its roots in Chaplin's work in his Keystone short Caught in a Cabaret, and also figures in plot descriptions of the now-lost Her Friend the Bandit. It was a theme he would return to at Mutual, with The Count, and would even include variations on it in later films such as The Idle Class (where Charlie the tramp infiltrates a swanky costume party by trading on his resemblance to the wealthy host), City Lights (posing as a millionaire for the blind girl), The Great Dictator (the Jewish Barber masquerades as Adenoid Hynkel in the final sequence to deliver a message of hope to the nations of the world), and certainly Monsieur Verdoux, in which the title character is a virtual chameleon, marrying then murdering women for their money.

As usual with this premise in Chaplin's work, the fun comes from watching how he interacts with his hosts. Like a fish out of water, the fastidious yet crude tramp struggles with the finer social graces. At the dinner table, he sprinkles so much pepper on his food that he gives Edna and  her father sneezing fits. The dinner table sequence is also a fine example of Chaplin's evolving directing style: by keeping all three figures in the frame, he allows the sequence to play out in an extended take with minimal editing, allowing the material to build and being able to control the timing within the shot through the performances.

The charade falls apart when the real count (Leo White in full form) shows up. A chase ensues, with Charlie whisking Edna away in his "jitney". The chase is well-staged, utilizing strategic undercranking for maximum effect, and one of the rare examples from his post-Keystone work of Chaplin ending a film with such a sequence. The action is fairly standard breakneck stuff, but the way in which it is shot offers an interesting alternative to the Keystone method, employing fewer shots as the cars circle eachother before the car containing Edna's father and the real count plunges off a pier.

There is also one of the stunning visual moments in the chase -- the Murphy Windmill (on the corner of Lincoln Ave. and Great Highway, according to Film in America). Critics frequently carp about Chaplin's drab visuals in his films, but he had a great eye for finding poetic beauty in seemingly ordinary locations. The windmill is certainly striking on its own of course, and it was an inspired choice to use it as the backdrop to this otherwise routine ending to a slapstick comedy.

A Jitney Elopement may not be one of Chaplin's best Essanays, but it allowed him to explore one of his favorite themes and offers solid examples of his mature filmmaking style, which would come into full bloom in his next film.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Chaplin at Essanay - Part II

The Champion
With Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White, Lloyd Bacon.
The Champion opens with one of those little scenes that Chaplin did so well, and that made him such an audience favorite: sitting on a stoop with a little bulldog, he prepares a sausage for his meager lunch, but offers some to the dog, who sniffs at it but turns it down. A simple bit, and totally unrelated to anything else in the film, but it's a charming and cute bit of business that immediately establishes Charlie as an underdog.

Noticing a sign advertising for sparring partners against champion pugilist Spike Dugan, Charlie takes up the challenge. Slipping a horseshoe inside his glove, he knocks out the champion, and the trainer puts the new star fighter on the fast track to prepare for an upcoming prizefight against champion boxer Bob Uppercut.

Chaplin has a lot of fun playing with the props in the gymnasium setting, swinging around a pair of Indian clubs, playing with an outsize barbell, and jumping rope. He also finds time to flirt with the trainer's pretty daughter, and sabotages a briber, offering him cash to throw the fight, by soaking him in the showers. The big fight contains some well-choreographed comic sparring, but it can't help feeling like a warm-up for the intricate and brilliant boxing ballet in the much later City Lights.

The Champion is a good example of Chaplin's ability to get lots of comic mileage out of a single setting. The scenes in the training facilities show off his ability to find the comic potential in a variety of props. The playfulness of the film shows Chaplin establishing a special relationship with his audience. Perhaps the most charming moment in the film occurs in a shot which is repeated again at the very end. As Charlie and Edna playfully kiss, they stop, look directly into the camera with a smile, as Charlie obscures their kissing by holding up a giant beer bottle. It's one of those little moments that some of Chaplin's critics would probably find overly-cute, winking at the audience to gain sympathy. But it's also a perfect example of the special qualities of Chaplin as a performer that made audiences around the world immediately identify with him.

In the Park
With Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White.
A throwback to the "park" comedies so popular at Keystone, this one-reel effort is little more than a series of gags centered around the misunderstandings and altercations between different characters Charlie encounters while out for a day in the park. Often cited as a virtual remake of the earlier Keystone Twenty Minutes of Love, In the Park is overall an unremarkable effort and shows signs of the occasional lack of inspiration that must have resulted from the hectic production schedule of these early shorts. Some of the better moments include Charlie seated next to an amorous couple on a park bench and watching them like a lovesick puppy; his reactions to their exaggerated spooning providing some of the funniest moments in the film.

In the Park also shows how Edna Purviance, even in a relatively minor and uneventful part, brought such radiance to her roles. Her vivacious charm and playfulness perfectly matched Chaplin's character and it's easy to see how much her natural sense of humor became such an essential part of these comedies.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Chaplin at Essanay - Part I

A new series of essays on Charlie Chaplin's comedies made for the Essanay company during 1915-1916.

Beginning in 2010, I had begun re-visiting Chaplin's Keystone comedies and decided to write a series of short pieces on that formative period of his screen career. Following this, I decided to look at the comedies he made for Essanay in 1915-16, a tremendously important period in Chaplin's career. With the Essanay comedies, Chaplin found his filmmaking style and further developed the screen character which would become an international icon in 1915. Key works such as The Tramp looked forward to his later, mature classics in the masterful handling of comedy and pathos. During this time Chaplin also established his reliable stock company of players, including leading lady Edna Purviance, with whom he would continue to work in the coming years.

While there have already been countless volumes written on Chaplin's filmography (Charlie Chaplin by Theodore Huff and The Films of Charlie Chaplin by Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway and Mark Ricci being key sources), and books focusing on his work for Essanay (including Charlie Chaplin at Keystone and Essanay: Dawn of the Tramp by Ted Okuda, Chaplin at Essanay: A Film Artist in Transition, 1915-1916 by James L. Neibaur, and the article "Essanay - Chaplin Brand" by Jeffrey Vance, adapted from his book Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema), these essays are intended as continued examination and appreciation of this important part of Chaplin's filmmaking career.

A note on the sources: The copies of the films I viewed are the ones included on the DVD set pictured above: "Charlie Chaplin Short Comedy Classics: The Complete Restored Essanay & Mutual Collection" (Image Entertainment, 2003).

A note on the credits: Unless otherwise noted, all films were written and directed by Charlie Chaplin, produced by Jess Robbins, and photographed by Harry Ensign (the cinematographer of His New Job is unknown).

His New Job
With Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Charlotte Mineau, Leo White.
Chaplin’s first effort under his new Essanay contract was a throwback to the roughhouse business of his Keystone days. Appropriately enough, the “new job” of the title refers to Charlie becoming an actor at the “Lockstone Studio” (an obvious nod to his former boss). Charlie shows up for an audition, causing no end of frustration for the receptionist as he tries to make his way into the boss’s office. A new co-star is introduced when Ben Turpin shows up for an audition. Though Turpin reportedly disliked working with Chaplin, the two of them work well together and display a comic chemistry that would be better exploited in their following film together, A Night Out. Turpin was a highly talented comic, best known today for his trade-mark crossed eyes and brush mustache. At first, his brand of humor might seem mismatched for Chaplin’s comic universe, but his brash vulgarity makes for a good contrast with Chaplin’s dignified Tramp. In one such moment, Turpin crosses his leg, placing his shoe on Charlie’s knee, which Charlie reacts to with exaggerated disgust. A moment later, after a confrontation, Charlie retaliates by snatching Turpin’s cigarette out of his mouth and lighting it with a match struck on Turpin’s neck.

We then move into the production stages, where an historical drama is being shot. Charlie is hired as a prop man, and wreaks no end of havoc. He is then called in to replace an actor in the historical drama at the last moment. As the crew is setting up, Charlie gets into scrapes with newly-hired prop man Ben Turpin, including kicking him through the scenery and running a handsaw across his backside! There is some funny business with the props, too, including a sword that gets bent out of shape when Charlie whacks himself in the head with it. He then knocks over a pillar which lands on top of him, and before long, chaos ensues when a fight breaks out on the set.

Filmed at the Essanay facilities in Chicago, Illinois, the film is entirely stage-bound, lacking any of the natural outdoor locations regularly seen in the Keystone comedies. As a result, the film feels claustrophobic. Given its film studio setting, this is appropriate, but the contrast between the more freewheeling Keystones and the more structured approach at Essanay is evident. Chaplin was unhappy working at the Chicago studio, and also with some of the production practices there, such as the presence of a scenario department (headed by future columnist Louella Parsons), and having to run the dailies in negative form to save on expenses. Perhaps due to these production conditions, His New Job feels overwritten, suffering from too much plot, and not allowing Charlie as much time to develop bits of character business that the slower pace of the Essanay comedies would afford him in future projects. It’s not surprising, then, that for his next film, Chaplin would re-locate to Essanay’s West Coast studio in Niles, California, located near the San Francisco Bay area.

In Chaplin’s body of work, His New Job is a minor effort, re-visiting material that had already been played more effectively in Keystones such as A Film Johnny and The Masquerader. Chaplin would revisit this “behind the scenes” comedy a year later with the Mutual comedy Behind the Screen, and during his time at First National would begin work on the uncompleted How to Make Movies, a satirical look at the production process at the Chaplin studio which would remain unfinished. His New Job does provide an interesting glimpse of Essanay’s Chicago facility, and includes a couple of interesting camera moves on a dolly, all the more striking because these kinds of shots were so rare even in American dramas of the time, let alone comedies. Chaplin would later avoid this sort of camera movement for its own sake, though in this case, it’s tempting to read their use as a parody of the technique in such historical spectacles as Cabiria and Intolerance. A side note: two future stars make early appearances in this film as extras – Agnes Ayres and Gloria Swanson.

A Night Out
With Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Edna Purviance, Leo White, Bud Jamison.
If His New Job suffered from too much plot, A Night Out rectifies that problem with a simple two-act setup. The first of Chaplin’s Essanay comedies made in Niles, he is again paired with Ben Turpin, this time to even greater effect. The two play a pair of drunks out for a night on the town. The first part of the film is set in a posh nightclub, where Charlie and Ben run afoul of a French count (played by Leo White, who quickly became one of Chaplin’s most reliable character players). Their drunken behavior erupts into a battle with the count, and the two are eventually tossed out by the headwaiter (played by Bud Jamison, another important player in Chaplin’s stock company at Essanay). The scene brings to mind the nightclub routine in the later City Lights, with Charlie’s bad behavior so out of place in the upscale surroundings. A bit of business that Ben Turpin performs, in which he constantly begins to remove his jacket, ready to fight at the slightest provocation, also recalls Chaplin’s later performance in City Lights’ nightclub sequence. 

The second part of the film takes place in a hotel, which the two inebriates have checked in to for the night. By coincidence, the nightclub headwaiter and his wife are staying at the same hotel. When the wife pursues her runaway dog into Charlie’s room, her husband shows up, and the inevitable complications ensue. After this farcical turn, the film ends with the still-inebriated Charlie and Ben fighting it out in their hotel room.

In his very first scene in the film, Chaplin immediately establishes himself as fastidious yet undeniably brash, picking his teeth with his bamboo cane, then twirling the cane and snapping it into place, before walking out of the shot with his now-iconic shuffle. Chaplin also appears in a slight variation on his usual costume here, with rather more dapper and better-fitting attire, and also a lighter-colored bowler. He still precipitates the chaos, but always manages to somehow stay outside of it. Despite the rough slapstick, Chaplin still finds plenty of moments to engage in little bits of character business, such as brushing his teeth with the stem of a palm leaf at a fountain.

A Night Out marks a number of firsts in Chaplin’s filmography. In addition to being his first film made for Essanay in Niles, it is also the first to feature his long-time leading lady, Edna Purviance. Purviance had a natural charm and beauty, and conveyed a real sense of fun and humor, that perfectly complemented Chaplin’s screen persona. She would work with Chaplin until 1923, at which time he directed her in a dramatic role in A Woman of Paris. After making one more film, Purviance retired, although she remained on the Chaplin studio payroll until her death in 1958.

A Night Out also marks the end of Chaplin’s pairing with Ben Turpin. Although he would later appear in a bit part in The Champion, and in the extended four-reel version of Burlesque on Carmen, Turpin’s screen partnership with Chaplin was short-lived. Their comic by-play recalls Chaplin’s earlier pairing off with Roscoe Arbuckle in films like The Rounders. Turpin had been with Essanay almost since its beginning in Chicago, and would enjoy a long career in films that lasted until his death in 1940. His final appearance was a cameo as the plumber (“It looked alright to me!”) in Laurel and Hardy’s Saps at Sea, and his distinctive look, with his shock of unruly hair, crossed eyes, and brush mustache, would become an iconic emblem of silent comedy. A fitting tribute to his legacy came in 1949 when his photo would make the cover of LIFE Magazine in illustration of James Agee’s seminal appreciation of silent film comedy, “Comedy’s Greatest Era”.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Interview with filmmaker Russell Sheaffer

I recently had a chance to interview experimental and documentary filmmaker/scholar Russell Sheaffer about his latest film, MASCULINITY/FEMININITY. I've known Russell since our time together in NYU's Cinema Studies graduate program. Since we both share backgrounds in film production and theory, with an interest in how the two disciplines can work together, I've long been interested in his work, which he now continues in his doctoral studies at Indiana University, exploring the subject of gender through combined media production and theoretical approaches.

Russell's work has screened at such prestigious venues as MoMA, UCLA, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Torino GLBT Film Festival, Boston LGBT Film Festival, and the Anthology Film Archives. A short film that he co-wrote and co-directed with James Franco, MASCULINITY & ME, was featured in Franco's solo exhibition, "The Dangerous Book Four Boys", in New York and Berlin.

In this interview, Russell discusses his latest project, MASCULINITY/FEMININITY, and his ideas on combining film theory and practice:

MATT BARRY: Can you tell us a little about how the project of MASCULINITY/FEMININITY got started?

RUSSELL SHEAFFER: MASCULINITY/FEMININITY started back when I was at NYU with you. I was in a class that Chris Straayer was teaching, which was on the body writ large. James Franco and I had been in some classes together and were in this seminar and were given the chance to collaborate in lieu of a paper – a traditional academic paper. We took some questions that James had been asked by Esquire that were really loaded heteronormative understandings of what masculinity is and what it means to become a “masculine” male. Like, “what’s the greatest example of manhood you've ever seen?” and these bull shit things.

We crafted our own responses to them, shot them, and then sort of amalgamated them together into this 22-minute piece. When we finished the film, it played in James’ solo show at the Clocktower in New York, and then in Berlin and all over the place. I decided I wanted to expand on the themes that we were ruminating over and try to craft a larger piece that was really interested in the opportunity for praxis that we had been given -- asking scholars, filmmakers, theorists, and artists of all different kinds to take these questions as a starting point and really perform anything that they wanted, because in my mind gender is all about a performance in one way or another.

So, in a very loose way, I wanted to give people these questions – totally loaded questions – as a prompt that would allow them to perform however they wanted.

MB: As far as the actual production, could you just talk a little bit about how you've used Kickstarter and crowd-sourcing and that process? For a project that doesn't have the conventional theatrical, “indie film” outlets that one typically has – for something that is basically an academic project and has an academic focus – could you explain how you go about the pre-production process on something like that?

RS: In terms of pre-production, that is something that is difficult in a lot of ways. How do you fund raise? How do you budget for something that will likely never make money? We’ll be really lucky if we make the budget back for the film. But I think that films like this are really important as exercises in combining ways of thinking and as ways to confront people with experiences that counter how they’re used to seeing images. So I've really focused on really strategic budgeting, really working like a lot of micro-budget people do where any expense you don’t need gets cut – sleeping on friends’ couches whenever you can, using frequent flyer miles to pay for crew travel, all of that kind of stuff is really important to budgeting. But then Kickstarter is a really great way, too… it is a really great way to bring together a community that wants to see something like this made that wouldn't be produced otherwise. 50 people, 100 people, 200 people can really make the difference in seeing something like this get made. We raised something like $7,500 and the big thing that I knew we couldn't do unless we raised that money was actually shoot on Super 8 – get the stock, develop it, transfer it – all of that is a somewhat expensive process. That money from the community made the aesthetic of the whole film possible.

MB: When you first proposed the idea of doing the videos at NYU as an alternative to the written paper, were there any particular challenges that you had in convincing them to let you do that?

RS: I think there are some reservations overall, like thinking about the academic institution as an institution that cranks out a product that it understands and that it can manage – the University can really conceptualize what a paper looks like, what a manuscript looks like, what a peer-reviewed journal essay or article looks like and what that contributes to the field in some way. I think it’s difficult for some departments, some individuals to conceptualize how a film operates similarly when there isn't the regimented, peer-reviewed system that we use for writing.

NYU and Chris Straayer in particular seemed really receptive to a blending in a way that I think a lot of people aren't. So it didn't seem like that much of a stretch for Chris to get into the mindset that it’s equally important to actually create that cultural product as a way to critique it, as a way to talk about it, to think through what it does and how it breathes. I think it’s a really amazing and unique opportunity to encounter people who think that way, and NYU seemed like one of those places where a lot of the faculty are able to think in that way.

IU [Indiana University] has been similar in that respect, of really being supportive of people who think about their disciplines in fresh ways. The Department of Communication and Culture was founded as a way to become interdisciplinary, to combine rhetoric and performance and ethnography and film and media studies all in to one giant department. It’s sort of foundational to them to be able to think outside of the box in the way that you do scholarship. Now, the powers-thatbe at Indiana University are planning a huge “media school” merger that I’m not particularly sure about. There is a huge push for “professionalization” and, while I understand that drive, I think it’s really important that they maintain a mindset that says, “yes, media making can be a critical, scholarly act.”

MB: Right. Talking about filmmaking in academia, it’s always interesting to me because it’s sort of logical to me to think in terms of both production and theory, because when you have the backgrounds in both, one side is always informing the other. With more traditional programs that are more focused, more separated into one or the other, I know it’s a lot harder to find people who are receptive to these ideas. I’m curious when you first became interested in merging the two disciplines and seeing how you could combine them to get ideas across on both sides?

RS: I don’t know if there was a specific moment. I think, like you, I come from a place where I did film studies as an undergrad, thinking about film criticism and cultural theory and then immediately after I graduated I started working on documentaries and other peoples’ films. Somehow, in my brain, it was just a logical connection, it was obvious that the two inform each other. If you can’t think about the ways that images are constructed, and how they work, and the cultural politics that surround them, you have some pretty lacking movies. If you can’t think about the way that films are produced, you have some pretty lacking criticism.

It’s important that those two things come in dialogue with each other. Obviously there are a lot of people who don’t feel that way, that really disagree. But it just seems like that’s the way my brain works. Then, getting to NYU, there were actually professors who were thinking that way, like it was obvious that you could make a film and it could be just as valid a scholarly pursuit as anything else. I think really cemented that idea in my brain that these two things can work together even when academic departments say that they can’t. It’s something that we need to push for and we need to be thinking about as artists but also as scholars.

MB: To get back to MASCULINITY/FEMININITY, you have some really interesting subjects featured in the film. Could you talk about some of the people you have in there and what it was like working with them?

RS: I have learned from academic experience and production experience that if you want something, you just have to ask for it. It’s not always just going to magically materialize, but people seem really receptive when you’re willing to let them know what you’re doing and ask for their help. I made a list where I asked myself, “if I were going to make a film where I ask a bunch of people to perform gender in one way or another, who would those people be?” I sent out emails and amazingly, maybe 90% of people were really receptive to the idea, or super into the concept of the amalgamation of theoretical work and production work, and thought that the questions I was asking were just as bull shit as I thought they were -- they were really excited to do it.

I’d been trying to get the project off the ground for a while and Monika Treut, who is a really phenomenal German filmmaker that made a movie called SEDUCTION: THE CRUEL WOMAN, which is one of my favorites, was at IU for a semester. I was telling her about the project and she was immediately like, this is great - we should make questions for women and do all these different things. We immediately started thinking, “what questions would you ask ‘women’ that were equally as ridiculous as those that we have for ‘men?’” So Monika signed on, and then I emailed Barbara Hammer…and once Barbara Hammer was on board, it was just like a snowball. Once Barbara Hammer was involved, everybody was excited, which is great. It was super, super gracious of Barbara to donate an hour of her time. She was like, yeah, this is great – come to New York and let’s do this. That led to so much: B. Ruby Rich, Carolee Schneemann, Susan Stryker, and so many other really amazing scholars and artists. Everybody who’s involved has been really excited, gracious, and willing to donate an hour of their time and do something wild and different.

MB: Could you talk briefly about your decision to shoot on Super 8? I thought that was interesting because it’s a format you don’t see used a lot, even with people shooting on film.

RS: Yeah, I’m really interested in Super 8 as a medium. A lot of what I do with production work is really medium-specific. When I’m shooting on 16mm, there’s a reason I’m shooting on 16mm. When I’m shooting on Super 8, there’s a reason I want to shoot on Super 8. With this film in particular, from the very first moment that James shared the questions from Esquire with me, it seemed like such a flimsy understanding of what gender was. It’s such a minuscule way of thinking about it.

To me, Super 8 is a way, theoretically, to embrace that in the medium, to embrace the idea that an understanding of gender like these questions do, is really flimsy, it falls apart, it doesn't work right. When you throw these reels, these Kodak reels, into the old 1960s cameras that we’re using, they literally jam more than half the time. So we’ll have no idea when we’re shooting, really…but I think it’s a really important theoretical exercise to embrace the idea that the film stock is going to fail, that gender as a solid construct is bound to fail, and that it’s the sort of flimsy construction that produces difficult-to-decipher images. Super 8, to me, seemed like a really obvious choice when thinking through the sort of content we were dealing with and the theoretical frames that we were embracing.

MB: It’s interesting, I remember at the Orphan Film Symposium there was some footage run from the Kinsey archives, and talking about the fragile nature of Super 8 brings to mind how a lot of these films that depict different aspects of gender and sexuality more broadly are in danger of being lost to time because of the fragile nature of these prints. Going through the Kinsey archives, I imagine you've come across some films that really shatter the traditional notions of gender and sexuality from different periods in which they were produced.

RS: Yeah, the work that I’m doing right now here at IU is really looking at… stag films – sexually explicit films – that were produced before 1930. The Kinsey has almost 60 films that they think were produced before 1930. It’s really fascinating to me to look at the way that people are encountering their bodies, obviously in a time that’s separated from us right now, but also in the ways that things are really very similar. Particularly, I’m really interested in the way that these films screened, trying to chart out how sexually explicit material circulates, especially in the early years of the 20th century. There’s mind-blowingly incredible material in the Kinsey that is just sitting there waiting to be accessed and thought about and preserved. It’s an incredible resource for that kind of stuff.

MB: I've always found it fascinating because of how much it goes against the mainstream media depictions of sexuality, beyond just the issue of gender, but in general it just shatters so many notions that the mainstream media would depict. And it reminds me in many ways of what you’re doing in looking at these questions that James Franco was asked by Esquire, and going against mainstream conceptions and really examining everything. I think there are some interesting parallels there.

RS: I think so, too. I think that people, when they encounter really early stag, in a certain way it’s like an immediate rupture for them. The idea that people were filming sex acts in 1920 is somehow difficult for a lot of people to grasp. And I think that breaking down the questions in a similar way is an attempt at rupturing that really normative train of thought that says: gender is like this, sex is like this, time is like this, you know, that everything is in a nice straight line.

MB: Can you describe what kind of life a film like MASCULINITY/FEMININITY can expect to have once it’s released out into the world?

RS: We’ll be working to get it out to festivals for sure and I’m working on alternate installation and text-based versions, too, but the film has always been interested in engaging with theory in a way that I think will be really productive in university settings. Once the project is done, we’ll start taking it around to universities, getting people in dialogue with it, getting people in dialogue with the theories that the performers are drawing on, sharing their own ideas in conversation with the performances in the film. I think the biggest goal for MASCULINITY/FEMININITY is to get people to engage with this way of thinking.

For more information on Russell's films, please check out his website, Artless Media, "like" the official MASCULINITY/FEMININITY page on Facebook, and watch the official trailer here.

Masculinity/Femininity - Official Trailer (HD) from Russell Sheaffer on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Early Scorsese: It's Not Just You, Murray! (Martin Scorsese, 1964)

Martin Scorsese's second student short, made during his time in the MFA Film program at NYU, represents a big step up stylistically from his first effort. It's Not Just You, Murray! is a throwback to the freewheeling, wisecracking Warner Bros. gangster movies of the '30s, but imbued with a sense of style that is clearly influenced by the French New Wave and the Italian cinema of the period. Watching Murray one gets the sense that Scorsese was already quickly discovering the kinds of themes and characters he would return to throughout his career. There are shades of both Mean Streets and Goodfellas in the film. More than that, it represents a major achievement for the then-22 year old film school student on the cusp of becoming one of the most important American filmmakers to emerge in the years since the 1960s.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Postmortem Bliss (2006)

I first saw Postmortem Bliss, a film by Floria Sigismondi, as part of the Hermes shorts program on Turner Classic Movies in the fall of 2006. The film explores addiction through prescription medication and how over-medication numbs the emotional experience.

Sigismondi is a visual artist and director of music videos, with Postmortem Bliss her first narrative short film.

I have a special memory of seeing this moving film at a time in my own life when I was beginning to make short films again myself after a hiatus. It's a great example of how a short can be just as rich and complex as any feature-length film.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Ten Steps (2004)

The Ten Steps is a supernatural horror from Ireland that starts with a simple premise (a young girl at home babysitting her brother while her parents are at dinner) and proceeds to go in a chilling direction that will make your hair stand on end.

I first saw this film as part of the Manhattan Short Film Festival, at the Senator Theater in Baltimore in 2005. I never forgot the film, and was glad to see it's available for viewing online.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Brewster's Millions (Allan Dwan, 1945)

George Barr McCutcheon’s old comic chestnut is given a fresh rendering in this 1945 version directed by Allan Dwan. Monty Brewster (Dennis O’Keefe) returns home from the service with plans to marry his sweetheart (Helen Walker), but his transition to civilian life is thrown into chaos when he finds out he stands to inherit 8 million dollars – provided he can spend a million dollars in two months and have absolutely nothing to show for it. Monty soon finds that a million is not as easy to blow through as he thought, and the money starts to have unexpected consequences.

Dwan keeps the comic proceedings moving at a frenetic pace, which at times seems to move as fast as HIS GIRL FRIDAY. The real fun comes in watching Brewster’s various spending schemes constantly go awry in unexpected ways. Dennis O’Keefe holds the zaniness together with his solid leading performance, sustaining a high level of nervous comic energy and anxiety, and ably supported by the likes of Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, John Litel, Joe Sawyer and Mischa Auer. Allan Dwan demonstrates his versatility with this fast and funny farce that has been filmed probably a half dozen times over the years with everyone from Fatty Arbuckle to John Candy.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Early Scorsese: What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?

This is the earliest circulating film by Martin Scorsese. It was produced at NYU film school, and represents an interesting example of what Scorsese was able to accomplish with the tools available to him at that time. It stands in interesting contrast to Spielberg's AMBLIN' which, while not a student film, was a similar "calling card" short designed to showcase his talents. Whereas the Spielberg film feels largely slick and impersonal, at least today, Scorsese's film school effort has distinctive touches that set it apart from the mainstream cinema of the period.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Early Spielberg

AMBLIN' is generally regarded as Steven Spielberg's first professional directorial effort. The short film was produced by an independent producer, and Spielberg used the film as a "calling card" short. What's interesting about AMBLIN' in terms of Spielberg's body of work is that - for as much as it's held up as an example of his early genius for filmmaking - it is so atypical. The story involves a young man traveling through the American Southwest who hooks up with a young woman, also traveling the highways and biways of the deserts in search of freedom.

Visually, the film is gorgeous, shot by Allen Daviau, with whom Spielberg would collaborate again in the future. Daviau's cinematography captures the ambience of the Southwest desert with a palpable intensity. (On a side note, circulating copies of the film tend to be very poor transfers that fall far short of doing justice to Daviau's cinematography, but one can look past the flaws in the transfer to see what he was doing).

The problem is, for all the stunning visuals, the story is actually rather shallow, and feels artificial in some respects. AMBLIN' is a film that is ostensibly rooted in the counterculture of the late 1960s, and yet it does not feel like it was made by a director with any particular convictions about the political or cultural climate of the period. When the film hinges on this subject matter, its lack of anything particularly profound to say about it becomes a problem. The available clips from Spielberg's earliest childhood film productions, and his ambitious 1964 effort FIRELIGHT, seem to foreshadow his mature work much more directly than AMBLIN' does.

That said, AMBLIN' is an admirable effort, if an impersonal one. It demonstrated with certainty that Spielberg could direct a Hollywood-style production, and served to propel him in to new opportunities for studio directing work.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Show Girl in Hollywood (1930)

SHOW GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD is an interesting transitional talkie, perhaps most notable today for its glimpses behind the scenes of Warner Bros. studio in the early days of sound, but also as an example of the kinds of films about Hollywood that tell the tale about the high price to be paid for stardom.

The plot finds James Doyle (Jack Mulhall) backstage at the closing night of his first play, "Rainbow Girl", which has been a total flop. Jimmy's girlfriend, show girl Dixie Dugan (Alice White) joins him at a nightclub to drown their sorrows, but she catches the eye of visiting Hollywood director Frank Beulow (John Miljan), a sleazy womanizer who promises Dixie the moon if only she'll come out to Hollywood and let him make her a star. Against Jimmy's wishes, she takes Beulow up on his offer. Once she arrives in Tinseltown, however, she finds that Beulow is full of hot air and has pulled this stunt with lots of naive showgirls with dreams of making it big. The studio chief, Mr. Otis (Ford Sterling), goes so far as to fire Beulow for his reckless false promises.

Then Dixie meets Donny Harris, aka Mrs. Frank Beulow (played by Griffith star Blanche Sweet in a moving performance). Donny is washed up and over-the-hill at age 32 (!) and lives in a mansion with 20 rooms, most of which, she confesses, she's had sealed off as she can no longer even afford to have them dusted.

Dixie, meanwhile, struggles to find work, and is ready to call it quits, when Mr. Otis decides to make "Rainbow Girl" as the studio's next project, and calls Jimmy in New York to secure the motion picture rights to his story. Jimmy comes West to consult on the production and to push for Dixie to have the lead role, which she understudied for on Broadway. Everything comes together as planned. Dixie has the lead, and she gets Donny Harris a strong supporting part that will serve as her comeback role.

Then Frank Beulow re-enters the picture, and in an effort to sabotage his former employer's production, convinces Dixie, with more empty promises, to quit the production to make more prestigious pictures for him. Dixie's star tantrums and erratic behavior bring the production to a halt, causing her, Jimmy and Donny to all be fired. Dixie and Jimmy plan to return to New York, but Donny is in despair over her lack of opportunities. She attempts to take her own life, but is rescued by Dixie at the last minute, who now realizes the full implications that her selfish and delusional behavior have had on those around her.

This is the stuff of pure Tinseltown legend, and the film never takes itself too seriously except, interestingly, in the subplot dealing with Blanche Sweet's character. We never really fear that things won't work out for Dixie and Jimmy, or that Frank Beulow won't get his comeuppance. But there is a moment, near the end, where it appears that Donny may very well not live to see the film's joyous conclusion.

The "girl goes to Hollywood to be a star" trope had been around at least since the early '20s, and even earlier if you account for A GIRL'S FOLLY (1917), which was set in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Early films such as SOULS FOR SALE (1923) dealt with the overwhelming effect Hollywood has on those who make the trek to the West coast to break into movies, while others, such as THE EXTRA GIRL, ELLA CINDERS and SHOW PEOPLE, played mostly for laughs, still hinted at the enormous struggle and sacrifice behind every star. Similarly, during the 30s, such stories alternated between the darker, cynical type like WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? and A STAR IS BORN, and comedies such as BOMBSHELL, but at the heart of these stories was the emotional toll paid for the price of stardom.

SHOW GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD is the first such film from the talkie period, and unlike in some such films, the stakes are never quite as high for Dixie Dugan as they might otherwise have been. In A STAR IS BORN, we know that if Esther Blodgett gives up and returns home to her midwestern farm, she will never be the same. With Dixie Dugan, on the other hand, we can imagine her returning to life in New York and continuing to work as before on the Broadway stage.

Director Mervyn LeRoy also lavishes much attention on the process of film-making. Most interesting is the "I've Got My Eye on You" number, which shows the filming of a musical number exactly as it was done in 1930, complete with the orchestra playing off-camera, and tantalizing glimpses inside the camera and sound booths (inside the latter, we see the soundtrack being cut on a giant wax disc). Apparently, this sequence was originally shot in 2-color Technicolor, but only survives in black and white. There are also various glimpses at the sound stages and backlot of the Warner Bros. studio which should be of special interest to film buffs.

Alice White makes an appealing lead, but she seems to lack the dramatic range necessary for getting the most out of her character. She handles the cute, perky qualities just fine, but seems rather out of her league during some of the big dramatic moments. Her temper tantrum, in which she trashes her dressing room, rings false, and doesn't seem to be consistent with the character we've been watching up to that point. The awkwardness of her emotional qualities in some ways works to her advantage during the scene in which Donny Harris has tried to take her own life, and Dixie pours out her apologies for her selfish behavior. There's a real sense of vulnerability and weakness that comes through in this moment, contrasted with the older, wiser Sweet's sense of calm acceptance.

Silent film actor Jack Mulhall turns in a good performance as Dixie's playwright boyfriend, combining the right touches of sympathy and earnestness. And John Miljan seems to have fun with his part as the slimy director, delivering his performance in a slightly over-the-top manner and relishing the sleazy qualities of his character. Silent comedy veteran Ford Sterling provides some good comic relief in the sympathetic role of studio chief Otis, proving that he was quite adept at handling dialogue, and is even allowed a few cutaway reaction shots that contain a much more toned-down version of his frantic mugging from the Keystone days. Cameo appearances include Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler, Loretta Young, Noah Beery, and Noah Beery Jr. (plus an early appearance by Walter Pidgeon as the emcee at the film premiere).

The real stand-out , however, is Blanche Sweet, whose performance of the strong, proud and yet ultimately fragile former star is incredibly moving, especially considering that Sweet was herself already an industry veteran of more than 15 years by the time this film was made. She even sings a song, "There's a Tear for Every Smile in Hollywood", which is about the incredible odds and high price to pay for becoming a star, but also brings to mind all the former stars who had since burnt out among changing fads, fashions, and technology. It's hard not to watch Sweet sing this song without feeling the melancholy in her voice.

SHOW GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD is an interesting time capsule of Hollywood at that transitional moment when the medium had to re-invent itself and new stars like Dixie Dugan were born, paying the same price as Donny Harris had years earlier.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Room 237: A Review

I finally had a chance to catch up with the new doc, ROOM 237, at the IFC Center in New York City this afternoon. I was intrigued by its premise ever since reading about it -- a group of enthusiasts share their individual and often extremely quirky "takes" on the meaning behind Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film, THE SHINING. Given my deep respect and enjoyment of Kubrick's work, and THE SHINING in particular, it certainly caught my attention. And when I heard about the premise, I knew I had to see the film, although I was skeptical as to the level of analysis it would actually contain.

I should say upfront that I have an aversion to arcane literary analysis (with its need to find "meaning" in everything) applied to film analysis. That said, it's not really fair to apply this criticism to ROOM 237, because while the individual analyses do fall victim to the need to prescribe "meaning" to seemingly every element in the film, it's far from any kind of scholarly criticism and more of the "armchair critic" variety. (And I can't help worrying that the uninitiated will come away from the film with an overheated vision that this kind of discussion is what goes on in an academic film studies department!)

There's much to enjoy here for Kubrick enthusiasts, so I'll get out of the way first what didn't work for me. We never see the individuals' faces, only hearing their disembodied voices over a wide variety of clips. As a result, we never get to know any of these folks, and how their backgrounds, interests, etc. inform their ideas and points of view. The clips are another issue. While it obviously makes sense to include large amounts of footage from THE SHINING itself, there are too often cutaways to other films (some by Kubrick, some not) that struck me as largely irrelevant and there to fill up visual space while the commentators are expounding on their various theories. Director Rodney Ascher divides the film into nine "sections", each dealing with different aspects of the film, though it seemed he faced some real structural challenges that were never quite overcome.

The theories themselves range from the intriguing (one commentator makes a good case that the film is a metaphor for the massacre of American Indians, though given the fact that it's mentioned within the film itself that the hotel is built atop an Indian burial ground, this isn't as revelatory as he seems to think it is), others are less convincing (one commentator seems to offer little more than a play-by-play of the action that's happening on screen, with absolutely no indication as to why it's worth mentioning in the first place). And one commentator, in particular, sees the film (and seemingly the entire remaining body of Kubrick's work) as a giant "confession" to participating in the moon landing hoax! Toss in a bit about Barry Nelson's paper tray erection (trust me, you'll just have to see the film for further explanation), and it becomes difficult to take seriously.

It's theories like the latter that take the film into a territory that serious film buffs might find tiresome. While reading into the minutiae of visual details in the film might make for an interesting parlor game, theories about the moon landing hoax and other such nonsense suggest that THE SHINING has, for some individuals, become a kind of tabula rasa onto which they can project their own obsessions and ideas.

There is a kind of infectious earnestness that each of the commentators brings to the table, however, that makes it hard to dismiss the ideas outright. Sure, some of them might strike us as absurd, but they're presented in such a way that we're at least willing to entertain them. And there are some fun tidbits here and there, my favorite being the discovery that the magazine Jack Nicholson is reading in the lobby following his job interview is a copy of Playgirl!

ROOM 237 fails to address a much more interesting question (to me, at least): what is it about the movies, and about a film like THE SHINING in particular, which leads to so many theories being put forward to explain the "real" meaning behind it? And what compels someone to find such meaning in a film? We get just a tantalizing glimpse of this toward the end of the film, when one of the commentators reveals that he's been unemployed for quite a while, has a son of his own, and even half-jokingly notes some parallels between his own life and THE SHINING.

Given Stanley Kubrick's penchant for creating complex, challenging films and refusing to provide easy explanations or answers to his audience, I suspect he's smiling somewhere now, knowing that we're still discussing, analyzing and picking apart THE SHINING nearly 35 years since it first appeared.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Continued Look at the Chaplin-Keystone Comedies (Final Part)

HIS TRYSTING PLACES sees Chaplin in one of his rare domestic comedies. As the film opens, we find him happily married to Mabel Normand - well, perhaps not happily - but it's certainly presented as a believable marriage compared to the cartoonish pairings of Chaplin with Phyllis Allen that we've seen in previous films. The film opens with a lengthy sequence in which Charlie tries to read the paper, while Mabel tends to the baby. There's plenty of comic business, with Charlie absentmindedly placing his foot on the open flame of the stove. Chaplin stages this entire scene from the same shot, without closeups or cutaways, reminiscent of the way in which he shot another domestic scene more than 30 years later for the opening of MONSIEUR VERDOUX.

Some of the most delightful moments in HIS TRYSTING PLACES comes not from the overly comical parts, but rather the charming shots of Mabel playing with the baby. However, the highlight is an extended sequence in which Charlie goes to a cafe and eats next to Mack Swain, who noisily slurps his soup, while Charlie reacts. Watching the two master clowns doing something as simple as eating a meal becomes a richly-developed string of gags, culminating in a food-throwing match that ends with Charlie kicking Swain backward off his stool and knocking down the other patrons in a domino effect. (The scene also contains one of the rare moments of actual pie-throwing in a Chaplin comedy).

The second half of the film finds Charlie accused of infidelity, after his wife finds a note in his coat (belonging to Swain), arranging an illicit tryst. After a few moments of frantic domestic violence, including breaking an ironing board over his head, Charlie is thrown out of the house. He wanders into a park, where he finds himself on a park bench next to Swain's wife (played by Keystone's house battle-ax, Phyllis Allen). However, Mabel has also taken the baby to the park, and when she spies Charlie on the bench with Phyllis, launches into an attack. Meanwhile, when Phyllis finds the baby's bottle in Charlie's coat, which she's mistaken for Swain's, she too suspects her husband of infidelity. Soon, everything is explained, until Charlie absent-mindedly hands Phyllis the note belonging to her husband, which lands him in even more trouble. The film ends on a charming shot of Charlie, Mabel and baby.

HIS TRYSTING PLACES takes the usual Keystone farce comedy and gives it a human edge, rather than playing the material in the broadest, cartoonish way possible. There's a real tenderness to the scenes with Charlie and Mabel, which makes it all the funnier when she explodes on him after suspecting him of having an affair. Chaplin is given the chance to engage in some of broad mugging, which he uses to good effect here (particularly the moment after the ironing board is cracked over his head). There is also a clever bit of choreography in the park, as Mabel swings punches at Charlie, and he ducks down into a trashcan each time to narrowly avoid being hit.

The film also represents Chaplin's growth as a director. The shot choices are very economical, particularly in the early scenes in the house, and in the cafe with Mack Swain. In both of these cases, the shots indicate how Chaplin was already maximizing composition and camera placement to heighten attention on the performers and their bits of business within a scene. HIS TRYSTING PLACES was probably the last really strong comedy Chaplin would direct at Keystone. His final two efforts would exhibit signs of a hurried and rushed quality that suggest his mind was already looking forward to his coming work with Essanay.

A slight park comedy, this film represents another re-visiting of material that Chaplin had already dealt with earlier in his tenure at Keystone. In this case, however, there isn't enough to really warrant a return to the park setting, which he'd already used to better effect in films such as TWENTY MINUTES OF LOVE and CAUGHT IN THE RAIN. GETTING ACQUAINTED, on the other hand, re-hashes the farce elements of those earlier films, with Charlie dodging cops and jealous suitors. This film also has Charlie married to the hatchet-faced Phyllis Allen, a silly plot device that draws on the obvious contrast in size between the two and feels forced compared to the expert domestic humor of the proceeding short, HIS TRYSTING PLACE. There is a nice panning shot toward the end, as Mack Swain and Charlie are led off by a cop after bidding farewell to their wives. It's the kind of shot that could have easily been broken into two or three static shots, but shooting it this way keeps the viewer's attention on Chaplin.

Overall a not terribly inspired effort, though to be fair, coming as it did at the end of an incredibly prolific year, Chaplin was no doubt finding himself increasingly suffering from the limitations of the Keystone methods of production.

HIS PREHISTORIC PAST alternately feels like a weak, throwaway effort, but at the same time, a film designed to allow for a little experimentation. As Chaplin's final short film for the Keystone company, he was no doubt eager to wrap up his contractual obligations and move on to greener pastures. HIS PREHISTORIC PAST is neither a particularly inspired or funny comedy, but it gives Chaplin the chance to indulge in some cartoon-like humor, playing a caveman complete with his derby, cane, and slapshoes. The whole film is framed as a dream sequence (though many copies of the film omit the scene in the very beginning in which Charlie is seen falling asleep on a park bench). Chaplin has fun with the concept - stuffing his pipe with fur from his pelt, striking a flint stone against the back of his leg to light it, flirting with pretty cave girls in grass skirts, etc. When King Mack Swain finds Charlie flirting with his favorite wife, he challenges him to a hunting contest during which Swain is kicked over the edge of a cliff. Charlie proclaims himself king, and immediately begins to take advantage of the king's harem. However, Swain regains consciousness and conks Charlie on the noggin with a big rock, waking our hero up as he's roused from his sleep by a cop.

Though it's not without some fun moments here and there, HIS PREHISTORIC PAST is simply too protracted, with too many needlessly drawn out scenes that go nowhere, particularly those in which Charlie flirts with the women of the king's court, and those with the king's rather effeminate jester performing a silly dance routine.

As the first feature-length motion picture comedy, TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE represents landmark in the history of film and more specifically within the art of comedy. Produced and directed by Sennett, it is something of an anomaly in Chaplin's Keystone filmography, in that it was made over a period of about 14 weeks, and thus does not represent a clear chronological development as Chaplin's other films do. Also, Chaplin does not appear in his unusual makeup, but rather with a shorter mustache, and a straw hat, suggesting a more dapper character than usual. The plot is a parody of standard melodrama topes involving the virtuous country girl corrupted by the big city. As with most Keystones, it derives its humor from combining farce comedy with slapstick.

The film tells the story of a simple country girl (Marie Dressler) who's seduced by a big city con man (Chaplin) into taking her father's money and fleeing with him to the city. Once there, Charlie takes the money and ditches Tillie, hooking up with his partner in crime Mabel Normand. Lost and alone, Tillie tries her hand at different jobs, and even gets arrested, before it's revealed that her uncle has died in a mountain-climbing accident and left her a fortune. When he sees this in the papers, Charlie suddenly re-appears in her life, and the two move into the uncle's mansion. When the uncle turns up alive, he is horrified to see what has become of his mansion, and chases his niece, along with her high society guests, out into the streets, six-shooters a-blazing.

Adapted by Hampton Del Ruth from the play "Tillie's Nightmare" (by Edgar Smith and A. Baldwin Sloane), this six-reel comedy was quite an undertaking, and represented a risk on the part of Mack Sennett. It was unsure if audiences would sit through six reels of slapstick comedy. The film was a wild success, however, and even though Chaplin was nominally a supporting player in the film, it was probably TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE, more than any other comedy he made for Keystone, that really launched him into superstardom (a position that would be solidified the following year with his work for Essanay). Marie Dressler lends her larger-than-life screen presence to a role that calls for grotesque mugging, frantic gestures and slapstick falls, and extreme, wild reactions to everything going on around her. Dressler was an incredibly gifted performer who really found her niche with the arrival of talking pictures, appearing in memorable parts in such films as MIN AND BILL, DINNER AT EIGHT and TUGBOAT ANNIE. Although she was a star on the stage at the time that TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE was produced, it would take another 15 years or so before she would reach her peak in motion pictures.

In addition to Chaplin and Dressler, TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE also presents Mabel Normand in a fine role, displaying the range of her comic skills as Charlie's long-suffering partner in crime and love interest. The film is a virtual "who's who" of most of the major Keystone clowns, including Mack Swain, Chester Conklin, Charley Chase, Slim Summerville, Charles Murray, Phyllis Allen, Edgar Kennedy, Minta Durfee, Hank Mann, and Al St. John in various supporting parts (Roscoe Arbuckle and Ford Sterling are conspicuously absent, though there is a character in the party sequence toward the end of the film made up to look like Sterling). Because Sennett still owed his exhibitors short subjects during the weeks that TILLIE was in production, the cast had to film their parts on alternate days so that they would be available to work on the studio's regularly-scheduled output as well.

The picture can be difficult for modern audiences to sit through, who aren't accustomed to the style of knockabout slapstick, especially when sustained over feature length. Later feature-length comedies, such as Mabel Normand's MICKEY, Chaplin's THE KID, or any of the features Arbuckle made for Paramount, combined elements of "genteel" humor to balance the moments of slapstick and vulgar humor. TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE may have represented a path not taken by future feature-length comedies, but it was certainly crucial in laying the groundwork and developing the art of screen comedy.

Unlike the rest of the Keystone product at that time, which was distributed by Mutual, TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE was distributed on a states' rights basis, and had it premiere a few days before Christmas 1914 in Los Angeles. It would turn out to be a starmaking role for Charlie Chaplin.

By this point, Chaplin was gearing up for bigger and better things at Essanay, where he would continue to develop his art with greater creative control and freedom to work at a pace more suited to his approach. His year at Keystone had seen Chaplin's meteoric rise to superstardom, and the formative works he made there had allowed him the opportunity to learn the craft of directing and performing for the screen.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Trouble with Harry (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)

Coming between the frothy cinematic confection of TO CATCH A THIEF and the lavish, suspenseful remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY easily gets lost in the shuffle. A droll, quirky and off-beat film from the Master of Suspense, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY is actually a pleasant little black comedy, with some charming performances set against gorgeous production values (especially the location shots of Vermont in the fall).

Despite the darkness of the premise (a dead body is found and several innocent people believe they are responsible), THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY displays Hitchcock's penchant for comedy which was really present in his films all along. The film is aided by strong performances all around, including veterans Edmund Gwenn and Mildred Natwick, and newcomer Shirley MacLaine.

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY ultimately feels like a throwback to Hitchcock's earlier, British films, which often reflected a more diverse approach from their director in the days before he became so strongly identified with the suspense film. The comedy recalls moments of films such as THE FARMER'S WIFE and RICH AND STRANGE, with their emphasis on quirky characters and charming domestic humor. The humor won't be to everyone's taste, but to those who like their comedy on the dark side, it works.

While the film can be considered something of a low-key, minor work coming between much larger and commercially mainstream efforts, one still clearly detects the assured hand of a master filmmaker working at his peak period of creativity.

Continued Look at the Chaplin-Keystones, Part 3

This is a good example of Chaplin dealing with subject matter that he'd worked with earlier in his tenure at Keystone, and giving a fresh spin on the material using what he'd learned in the intervening months. The premise is very simple: Chaplin and Chester Conklin play a couple of love-starved fellows on the search for pretty girls to flirt with.

It begins in a boarding house, where Charlie and Chester take turns flirting with a young woman. When Chester beats him to it, Charlie responds by sticking him in the rear with a fork. While this kind of material had been played to death in numerous earlier Keystones, Chaplin imbues it here with an inventiveness and subtlety not usually seen before. Before sticking Chester with the fork, he makes a number of subtle gestures with the utensil to emphasize its sharpness (all photographed in close shot). Similarly, when Chester retaliates in-kind, Charlie has the foresight to move himself away from the doorway to avoid the inevitable retribution.

It's little bits of business like this that make this otherwise standard stuff amusing here. The film then moves outdoor to a park, where Charlie runs afoul of a jealous boyfriend after he catches Charlie flirting with his girlfriend. Charlie is so love-sick that the sight of Chester flirting with a girl he's met is enough to drive him to jumping in the lake, but he's stopped at the last moment by a cop. Just when the viewer is expecting the situation to devolve into a fracas with everyone ending up in the lake, the scene shifts to another location. Charlie and the two girls he's met go into a little movie theater, where they are tracked by Chester and another jealous lover. In a memorable closing, Charlie is thrown through the movie screen.

Though it's a simple pleasure and not a laugh riot, THOSE LOVE PANGS represents a step forward for Chaplin in terms of performance and cinematic technique.

If THE NEW JANITOR had marked a new highpoint for Chaplin the performer and director, DOUGH AND DYNAMITE reinforces that he was making strides with each new film. Frequently cited as perhaps the funniest of the Chaplin-Keystone comedies, DOUGH AND DYNAMITE is a two-reeler, giving greater "breathing room" to develop the comedy.

Its setting is a bakery, where Charlie is a waiter. When we first see him, he is clearing plates away, and thoughtlessly dumps the scraps from one plate onto a diner's plate. He has some fun playing directly to the audience when flirting with a pretty girl and comparing her suggestive walk to a sign reading "Assorted French Tarts". There's plenty of slapstick in the kitchen involving fellow waiter Chester Conklin, whom Chaplin had worked so well with in his previous film. The two clearly have a lot of fun playing off of eachother, and it's little wonder that Chaplin would employ Conklin again later in his career, so memorably as the mechanic in MODERN TIMES and as a barbershop customer in THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Here, the two demonstrate extraordinary timing together, perhaps best seen in a gag where Charlie is washing dishes and, rather than waiting till Chester is ready to take them and dry them with a rag, lets them repeatedly fall to the floor, breaking. It's a simple gag, not terribly clever in itself, but the way in which Chaplin and Conklin performs it makes it far funnier than it normally would be. Of course, each mishap is followed by slapping, shoving and general roughhousing. Like the interplay with John Rand in THE PAWNSHOP, it seems that Charlie and Chester find fighting to be as good a way as any to keep themselves entertained at work.

As a result of a pay dispute, the bakers go on strike. Charlie is all too willing to helpfully put on an apron and take over for them, causing one of the bakers to threaten him with a knife. This is not the last time Charlie is shown to value his own job over the cause of the striking workers. There's a similar plot device in the Mutual comedy BEHIND THE SCREEN, when Charlie's fellow stagehands go on strike, and a prop men's strike figures in the plot of THE CIRCUS, leaving Charlie to fill in and make a disaster of the magician's act.

Charlie and Chester fill in for the striking bakers, leading to a great sight gags such as Charlie carrying an over-size sack of flour on his back like a beast of burden, which he drops down into the cellar, crushing Chester. Later, Charlie has to balance a large tray of desserts on his head with almost superhuman precision. He does a remarkable job keeping the tray steady, but when one of the rolls drops to the floor, he absent-mindedly bends over to pick it up, causing the rest of the pastries to follow. There's also some fun with the trap door leading to the cellar, especially when Charlie gets his head stuck in the doors, with Chester mightily trying to pull him out. Chaplin would get more comic mileage out of the trap door setup in the later BEHIND THE SCREEN.

There's trouble when the striking bakers decide to blow up the bakery with dynamite in revenge. They stick the dynamite into a loaf of bread, which is sent into the shop and placed in the oven. Meanwhile, Charlie and Chester flirt with the various waitresses and, eventually, with the manager's wife. An argument breaks out between Charlie and the manager but is put to an end when the dynamite inevitably goes off, allowing Charlie to make his escape.

What's remarkable is how the second half of the film is structured so that the audience has a pretty good idea of how it will end (the inevitable explosion), but takes its time getting there, allowing for some extended comic interplay between Chaplin and Conklin. The two-reel format gives the film a relatively relaxed pacing compared to the frenetic pace a one-reeler would have demanded. Even with the longer format to work in, Chaplin is still eschewing unnecessary farcical plot twists, and is instead focusing on the inherent comic ideas offered by the set-up.

Like THOSE LOVE PANGS, GENTLEMEN OF NERVE returns to a familiar setting and premise - misunderstandings at a racetrack - and breathes new life into the material. It also features a stellar cast, including Mabel Normand, Mack Swain and Chester Conklin.

At the auto races, Chester (here playing "Mr. Walrus") delivers a swift kick to burly Mack Swain when he catches him flirting with his girlfriend, Mabel. But no sooner do they take their seats than Chester begins flirting with hatchet-faced Phyllis Allen. We next meet Charlie (playing "Mr. Wow-wow", probably an homage to the Fred Karno show). He agrees to help Swain sneak into the races, but has quite a time getting his mammoth frame through the opening in the fence.

Eventually, Charlie and Mabel find themselves together in the stands, and wander off to look at the cars. It's particularly fun seeing Chaplin interact with the real racecar drivers, being scared off by a propeller-driven car, and doing his trademark skidding run on the racetrack. When Chester comes across Charlie and Mabel flirting in the stands, Charlie kicks Chester into the crowd of bystanders, where he is led off by the police, and the film ends on a charming two-shot of Charlie and Mabel playfully smiling and laughing at the chaos that has gone down. It's a rare moment for a Keystone comedy but points in the direction that both Chaplin and Mabel Normand would go with their work.

The film has clear similarities with other Keystone films taking advantage of "public" events as a backdrop for the comedy, such as KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE, MABEL'S BUSY DAY and A BUSY DAY, but is more polished in its blending of the comedy into the setting. Chaplin makes use of an excellent cast here, giving each performer plenty to do. Unlike in the previous "event" films, the performers never seem overwhelmed by the backdrop.

In his remaining Keystone comedies, Chaplin would continue to re-visit similar ideas and situations, many of which were standard plots at Keystone. Rather than feeling repetitive, these later efforts provides us with an interesting glimpse as to how he handled the material at various stages of his cinematic development.

Often compared to Laurel and Hardy's THE MUSIC BOX because of its premise of delivering an unwieldy piano up a flight of stairs, HIS MUSICAL CAREER is also of interest for its class-consciousness theme that Chaplin would return to again and again in his work.

Charlie and boss Mack Swain are given orders to deliver a piano to a Mr. Rich at 666 Prospect Street, and re-possess a piano from a Mr. Poor at 999 Prospect Street. Predictably, confusion ensues. The fun comes in seeing Chaplin and Swain in a prototypical version of the "David and Goliath" dynamic between boss and worker that he would explore several times again. He would return to this in the Essanay comedy WORK, where boss Charles Insley forces Charlie to pull the work cart like a mule, even whipping him when he doesn't move fast enough. In THE FLOORWALKER, THE FIREMAN, BEHIND THE SCREEN and THE COUNT, all made at Mutual, Charlie would play opposite burly Eric Campbell as the brutal boss, with Charlie always causing Campbell some kind of pain and coming out on top despite his disadvantage in size.

When the pair inevitably deliver the piano to the wrong address, they have to move it up a flight of stairs. It's impossible to watch this sequence now and not be reminded of the celebrated THE MUSIC BOX. But whereas Laurel and Hardy's piano seems to take on a life of its own, tormenting the two protagonists on almost mythic levels, the piano in HIS MUSICAL CAREER is simply cumbersome and unwieldy, its comic potential lying more in the physical difficulties of such a situation. Eventually, they get it up the stairs, with Charlie bringing the piano into the house by carrying it on his back while the residents take their time in deciding where to put it.

Next, they arrive at the home of Mr. Rich, believing they are to re-possess his piano for failure of payment. Finding no one home, they let themselves in. The irate Mr. Rich arrives, and when he demands to know where they are taking his piano, he gives them a swift kick that sends Mack, Charlie and the piano rolling down an incline and into the lake.

There is some very clever physical comedy in this film, especially the great sight gag of Charlie single-handedly carrying the piano, and throwing his back out, leaving him unable to stand upright. There is another moment when the cart carrying the piano becomes top-heavy, causing the mule, pulling the cart, to be lifted into the air. And the final shot, of the piano careening out of control as it zips down the sidewalk, is a strong topper to the slapstick that has come before.

HIS MUSICAL CAREER demonstrates Chaplin's talent for exploring the inherent comic possibilities in a simple set-up. He had really proven the effectiveness of this method back in KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE, where he got such mileage out of the simple premise, compared to the heavy plotting of the previous film, MAKING A LIVING.

Chaplin would make three more shorts for Keystone, and would also see the release of TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE, before the year was out, solidifying his place as a comedy superstar.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Continued Look at Chaplin's Keystone Comedies, Part 2

One of the strongest Chaplin-Keystones, THE MASQUERADER is notable as one of the times Chaplin performed in drag (quite convincingly) on film. The story is slight: Charlie is an actor at Keystone, and after botching a scene, is fired. He returns, in drag, playfully flirting with director Charlie Murray, in an effort to demonstrate what a good actor he really is. However, when his cover his blown, the irate director and the rest of the cast and crew give chase through the studio, which ends with Charlie being knocked down into a well during a brick-throwing battle.

Despite its relatively slight plot, THE MASQUERADER features one of Chaplin's best performances up to this point, particularly in his female impersonation. The film's opening scene has a gentle charm to it, with Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle in their dressing room engaging in some comic byplay. It's impossible to watch this scene and not get a sense of the respect and admiration these two men must have had for each other.

THE MASQUERADER is also notable as one of the Keystone comedies that looks behind the scenes of the studio. Chaplin had explored this territory before in A FILM JOHNNY, and would return to it again in his first comedy for Essanay, HIS NEW JOB, and perhaps most memorably in the later Mutual comedy, BEHIND THE SCREEN.

Something I hadn't noticed before this viewing: during the scene on the film set, there is deep focus shot that shows another company working on an adjoining stage in the background. It's little moments like these that make these "behind the scenes" Keystone comedies such an interesting glimpse into the workings of the studio.

In HIS NEW PROFESSION, we see Chaplin using the closeup very effectively to capture the subtle facial gestures of his performance. The opening scene (which is often misattributed to RECREATION for some reason) is a good example of this, with more nuanced facial gestures that the kind of grotesque mugging he demonstrated in earlier films such as BETWEEN SHOWERS and A FILM JOHNNY.

The premise finds Charlie, enjoying a relaxing afternoon in the park, recruited to look after Charley Chase's uncle, laid up in a wheelchair and suffering from gout so that Chase can spend some time alone with his girlfriend. Predictably, the old man is subject to all kinds of abuse; then Chase finds Charlie flirting with his girlfriend after almost rolling the uncle off the end of a pier, and chaos ensues as all involved get into a fight.

The film features some uncharacteristically cruel and mean-spirited humor, or at least a more extreme version of the brash, vulgar behavior we see of Charlie in these early films. Aside from the aforementioned physical abuse of the invalid uncle, there's the moment when Charlie, desperate for some quick change to get a drink, steals a crippled beggar's sign and collection cup to help raise the money by placing them with the uncle, fast asleep in his wheelchair.

One of the few times in his career in which Chaplin was actively "teamed" with another comedian, this is also one of the best. Chaplin shares the screen with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, playing a couple of inebriated gents ("Mr. Full" and "Mr. Fuller") who get into no end of misadventures in their intoxicated state. After domestic disputes with their respective spouses, the men head out on the town.

Chaplin's drunk act is comparable to his fine work in ONE AM and CITY LIGHTS, displaying a wonderfully precise performance that trades careful and deliberate physical comedy for roughhouse knockabout. His partnering with Arbuckle results in some particularly inspired clowning, their perfectly mis-matched sizes creating a strong comic contrast. A scene in which the drunken Charlie wreaks havoc in a cafe especially looks forward to the similar scene in CITY LIGHTS. It's easy to see Chaplin here developing material that he would expand and refine later on.

Unlike many of the Keystones which end quite abruptly (to be fair, this could be the result of battered prints), THE ROUNDERS ends with a fitting denouement, as the two inebriates, having been found out by their wives, dive into a lake, and fall asleep in a canoe, which sinks under their weight as they obliviously doze off.

And with THE NEW JANITOR, Chaplin becomes The Little Fellow. There had been strong hints of things to come in the films leading up to THE NEW JANITOR, from the dual identity mixup of CAUGHT IN A CABARET, to the "domestic" farce of MABEL'S MARRIED LIFE, to the nuanced performance of HIS NEW PROFESSION and THE ROUNDERS.

THE NEW JANITOR reveals what really separated Chaplin from the other clowns at Keystone: an emphasis on performance. Whereas other comics emphasized physical humor defined, in some cases, by a recognizable "type" (Arbuckle's size, Conklin's Walrus mustache, etc.), Chaplin reveals in THE NEW JANITOR an absolute total control over his performance, and introduces a new element of pathos to the comedy.

His byplay with brash, obnoxious elevator boy Al St. John early on establishes Charlie as the underdog, with the janitor forced to climb several flights of stairs after being refused a spot on the elevator. Rather than immediately attacking St. John in retaliation, Charlie seems to accept his station, however reluctantly, showing real signs of fatigue as he reaches the top of the stairs, suggesting that perhaps this is not the first time this has happened.

Chaplin then introduces another familiar element: the crooked boss. By making authority figures immediately suspect, Chaplin is again drawing a contrast between his character and those around him. He may be a poor janitor, but he does not resort to the crooked shenanigans of the more well-off upper management. It seems the manager owes a large gambling debt, and the audience immediately suspects he will be using company funds to pay it off.

There is a wonderful bit of business as Charlie enters the boss's office, knocking on the door to attract the boss's attention after he has already entered, before proceeding to accidentally spill trash on the floor while emptying out the wastepaper basket. Some wistful comic romance is introduced in the form of a pretty office girl, whom Charlie admires from across the room before absent-mindedly brushing her bottom with his feather-duster.

The crooked Luke Connor (Glen Cavender, later so memorable as the Yankee Captain Anderson in Buster Keaton's THE GENERAL) shows up at the office to collect the gambling debt. The boss promises him the money by close of business that day. Meanwhile, the oblivious Charlie is fired after accidentally spilling some water on the company president. Rather than retaliating with a kick to the stomach or a brick to the face, the scene is punctuated with only mild humor, instead emphasizing Charlie's disappointment at being let go. Chaplin remarkably blends some very funny pratfalls with the pathos of the situation, demonstrating his ability to move deftly between the two extremes in the same scene.

The boss, meanwhile, is absconding with the money to pay off his debt, when he is caught in the act by the office girl, who hides in the office to phone the police. The boss catches her, however, and begins to physically manhandle the girl, finally holding her at gunpoint. Charlie hears the commotion, and makes his way back up the stairs to the office, where he bravely confronts the thieving boss.

Charlie fires a warning shot out the window to get the attention of the police. However, when the officer shows up, he immediately suspects Charlie is the culprit, kicking him out into the hallway. The girl tells them the truth, showing Charlie to be a hero. The boss is led away by the police, while Charlie is given a reward by the grateful company president.

This ending reveals a move away from the wild slapstick finales typical of Keystone. Chaplin again heightens the audience's concern for his character by having him momentarily falsely suspected of the embezzlement, which also emphasizes the class concerns that were such an important part of Chaplin's mature work - the assumption being that the well-dressed, middle class boss couldn't possibly be guilty of theft, while Charlie's little janitor is proven to be of stronger character and integrity.

THE NEW JANITOR was the best film Chaplin had made up to that time, and demonstrates clearly the directions he would go as a mature artist, and its sharp contrast with the other product of the Keystone studio demonstrated his need for further creative control and independence.