Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Comedy: Cops (1922, Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton)

Cops (1922)
USA, 18 min
Directed by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Written by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Virginia Fox, Edward F. Cline

Lying in bed with a sore throat, I needed some cheering up. Buster Keaton didn't let me down. Cops (1922) is generally typical of the comedian's two-reelers of the early 1920s, though with a lesser emphasis on the ingenious gadgets exhibited in One Week (1920) and The High Sign (1921). The film opens with Keaton apparently looking through prison bars at his sweetheart, until a clarifying shot reveals that it is merely the girl's front gate {Harold Lloyd seized this visual gag for the opening of Safety Last! (1923), but he had a right to it – one scene in Keaton's film, whether unintentionally or not, resembles the manner in which a prop explosion decapitated Lloyd's hand in 1919}. After convincing himself to become a businessman, Keaton's Young Man goes on to show that he has the worst luck in the world. First, he is bamboozled into purchasing another family's furniture (by Steve Murphy, the pickpocket in Chaplin's The Circus (1928)), and then gets caught up in a police parade, where, ever a victim of circumstance, he is wrongly accused of performing an act of terrorism.

Keaton loved ending his film's with an overblown chase sequence, whether it be the stampeding cattle in Go West (1925) or the stampeding women in Seven Chances (1925). In Cops, our hero is pursued by hundreds of uniformed policemen, swinging batons and tripping over themselves. Here, Keaton really earns his title as the "Great Stone Face." The chaos and confusion of the pursuit is amusing enough, but even more so is Keaton's extraordinary lack of facial expression – he just runs, staring blankly ahead, like a man who expects his problems to dissipate as soon as he wakes up. Also incredible is the performer's physical dexterity, as he flips back and forth over a tall ladder balanced precariously on either side of a fence. Also watch out for Keaton regular Joe Roberts as the Police Chief, and recurring co-star Virginia Fox in a disappointingly brief role as our hero's love interest. Even an aching throat can't dampen the chuckles in this excellent comedy short. If laughter is, indeed, the best medicine, then I should be better by the morning.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Avant-Garde: L'Arrivee (1998, Peter Tscherkassky)

L'Arrivee (1998)
Austria, 2 min
Directed by: Peter Tscherkassky
Written by: Peter Tscherkassky
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Omar Sharif (archive footage)

For some reason, you've got to admire any filmmaker who dedicates his entire career to re-editing other peoples' films. Peter Tscherkassky has done just that, and L'arrivée (1998) is my first taste of his work. Manipulating "found footage" from Terence Young's Mayerling (1968), this two-minute short is an overt homage to the Lumière brothers, visually suggesting Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896). I've never really been taken by the notion of Deconstructionist cinema – that which explores the inherent artificiality of the film medium – but I found some interest in this particular piece. The picture seemingly opens without any film in the projector, showing only a white background with the far edge of the image creeping ever-so-sightly into frame. Owen Land's Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering,… etc (1966) was excruciating because nothing happened, but Tscherkassky gives us the semblance of a narrative, something to anticipate: we urge forward the creeping film image as we might urge Jimmy Stewart up the stairs in Vertigo (1958).

Tscherkassky is remarking upon cinema's use of visual narrative, a well-worn formula that takes us back to Auguste and Louis Lumière. Anticipation, Crisis, Resolution: the camera awaits the arrival of a train, identically to how we, the audience, await the arrival of the film image into frame. Once the picture has settled into its correct groove, the train collides with its mirror-image, and the film negative almost destroys itself in a gut-wrenching tangle of film reels. Out of this chaos emerges actress Catherine Deneuve, who alights from the train, apparently unharmed by this temporal disruption of her own existence, and falls into the arms of her lover, Omar Sharif. Against all logic, out of this violence has materialised a happy ending, a final kiss offering resolution where there had been no hope of any. Critic Stefan Grissemann describes L'arrivée as "a film in the process of approaching." That sounds about right; it's a film whose very existence provides its own narrative.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Soviet: Story of One Crime (1962, Fyodor Khitruk)

Story of One Crime (1962)
Soviet Union, 20 min
Directed by: Fyodor Khitruk
Written by: Mikhail Volpin (screenplay)
Starring: Zinoviy Gerd (voice)

Fyodor Khitruk is best-known for directing the Soviet Vinni-Pukh ("Winnie the Pooh") films, but his debut Story of One Crime (1962) presents a far less utopian world than that created by A.A. Milne. When Vasily Vasilievitch Mamim, a mild-mannered accountant, attacks two women with a frying pan one morning, he is surrounded by a mob of angry onlookers, and a policeman arriving on the scene decides to set the clock back twenty-four hours to see what could possibly have turned this previously-contented man into a dangerous lunatic. The culprit is revealed to be a single sleepless night, thrust upon poor Vasily by a succession of inconsiderate neighbours in his high-rise apartment building: one man plays his stereo at full-blast, another holds a boisterous party at some ridiculous time of night, two love-struck lovers communicate loudly through the pipes at 3 o'clock in the morning.

In a nutshell, Story of One Crime is about the selfishness of modern society. Despite treating everybody else he meets with complete consideration – offering his train seat to an older gentleman, for example – Vasily is continually inconvenienced by neighbours who are too thoughtlessly insensitive to care about his own needs. The animation style is simple but effective. Khitruk uses split-screens like the panels in a picture-book, in a manner similar to that employed by Norshteyn in The Fox and the Hare (1973). The characters are all drawn as basic caricatures, who bark like jazz instruments when they argue with each other. Khitruck continued this theme of society's selfishness, more successfully in my view, in his film Island (1973), in which the main character is stranded on a tiny island and consistently ignored by every passing vessel. A simple message, but an entertaining film.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Avant-garde: Footnote to Fact (1933, Lewis Jacobs)

Footnote to Fact (1933)
USA, 8 min
Directed by: Lewis Jacobs
Footnote to Fact (1933) was originally intended by director Lewis Jacobs to be the first film in a four-part documentation of the Great Depression, collectively titled "As I Walk." The remaining three installments were never completed, and this film was thought lost until the 1990s, when the original negative was rediscovered by the Anthology Film Archives. As an avant-garde blending of documentary and fiction, the film works. It is similar in style to the many "city symphonies" that were popular in the 1920s, utilising the Soviet montage editing of Dziga Vertov and Hans Richter. In contrast, however, Jacobs centres the film's emotional base around a single character, an old woman sitting alone in her apartment, rocking back and forth. The film uses the woman's rocking motion as a kind of visual motif, juxtaposing it with similar movements in the hustle-and-bustle of the city: a shopper loads fruit into a paper bag, a shoe-polisher goes about his trade, hanging clothing sways back and forth in the breeze.

The film's opening half illustrates the life and vitality of the city, which is contrasted with the lethargy of the rocking woman. Later, Jacobs slows down his editing pace slightly, photographs sparser crowds of people, and portrays the otherwise unseen effects of the Depression: an antique shop goes out of business; homeless men lay asleep on doorsteps, ignored by passers-by. Powerfully, and perhaps a little harshly, Jacobs compares these sleeping men to slaughtered swine carcasses. Footnote to Fact is a good effort at montage, but the old woman in the rocking chair really got on my nerves. For one, she was clearly a young woman dressed up to look old, and her ridiculous appearance – dreary eyes, mouth gaping wide – broke the film's spell every time she appeared on screen. Of course, Jacobs eventually offers us a reason (and a perfectly good one) for why this should be so, but by then the damage was already done. This film can be found in the "Unseen Cinema" box-set, under the volume entitled "Picturing a Metropolis."