Tag Archives: Slapstick

217. ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960)

“The fact that the film is a failure means nothing. Didn’t God create a failure, too?”–Jonas Mekas on Zazie dans le Metro

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Catherine Demongeot, , Vittorio Caprioli, Carla Marlier, Annie Fratellini, Yvonne Clech, Antoine Roblot, Jacques Dufilho, Hubert Deschamps

PLOT: When 10-year-old Zazie’s mother leaves her in the care of her exotic dancer uncle for the weekend , the only thing the sassy little girl wants to see is the Metro, but it’s closed due to a strike.  So she sneaks out of her uncle’s apartment and encounters a dirty old man, who is also a policeman, among her many adventures. Her weekend ends when the many friends and adversaries she’s accumulated—including a cobbler, an amorous widow, and a polar bear—find themselves involved in a drunken food fight while the worn-out tyke nods off into dreamland.

Still from Zazie dans le Metro (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Zazie dans le Metro is based on the hit 1959 comic novel of the same title by Raymond Queneau (a repentant former member of the Surrealist circle). The book relied heavily on wordplay and was widely thought to be unadaptable to film.
  • Although the film generated a small cult in France, Zazie was Louis Malle’s first flop after beginning his career with two hits (Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers).
  • Some parents were angry at Malle’s film, believing that the sexuality made it inappropriate for children. Zazie originally received an “X” rating (16 and over) from the British Board of Film Classification.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Surely, it must be Zazie’s impish, gap-toothed smile, which she breaks into whenever she imagines growing up to be a schoolteacher who torments her students by making them eat chalk.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eiffel Tower polar bear; wet dog in a parrot cage; high-heeled six shoe-ter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As Zazie’s transvestite uncle says, “Paris is a dream, Zazie is a reverie, and all this is a reverie within a dream!” If a mad scientist found a way to cross-breed and , Zazie dans le Metro is the movie the mutant hybrid would direct.


The Criterion Collection’s “3 Reasons” video for Zazie dans le Metro

COMMENTS: There’s nothing in Louis Malle’s oeuvre that’s remotely like Zazie dans le Metro. There’s nothing else in the rest of the Continue reading 217. ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960)

CAPSULE: WILD AND WEIRD (ALLOY ORCHESTRA SILENT FILM COMPILATION)

The Alloy Orchestra Plays Wild and Weird: Short Film Favorites with New Music

Must See

DIRECTED BY: D.W. Griffith, , , Segundo de Chomón,  F. Percy Smith, , Ernest Servaès, Ladislas Starevich, Winsor McKay, , Eddie Cline, Hans Richter

FEATURING: Jack Brawn, Paul Panzer, Ernest Servaès, Buster Keaton

PLOT: A compilation of twelve strange, fantastic, and experimental films from the dawn of cinema (spanning the years 1902 to 1926) with new scores for each composed by the Boston-based silent film ensemble “the Alloy Orchestra.”

Still from The Red Spectre (1907)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This presentation won’t make the List solely on formal grounds, because it’s a compilation. You could make a case for several of the individual shorts, however, on the basis of their historical significance, especially “A Trip to the Moon,” “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend,” “Play House,” or “Filmstudie.”

COMMENTS: Hidden off in a corner of the Movie and Music Network‘s catalog, far away from the exploitation films in a quiet place only the cool kids know about, is an obscure little collection of classic cinema. For the most part the Alloy Orchestra’s selections in this compilation aren’t especially rare, at least to silent cinephiles, but wild and weird they certainly are. From trippy nickelodeon snippets to epic hallucinations, these films hail from a thrilling era when cinema was fresh and every new movie was an adventure in invention.

The Orchestra’s musical accompaniment is excellent and appropriate to the material. It’s mostly classical-ish, with a little bit of tasteful electronic ornamentation, and very rarely does it get avant-garde or dissonant enough to threaten the casual listener’s delicate ears. At times it’s electronic-Baroque, often it’s vibraphone and percussion heavy, with a welcome cameos by musical saws and theremins in some dream sequences. Unfortunately, the digitization used here captured some analog rumbling and distortion when the volume got too high, but in general the music is a pleasant accompaniment to the main attraction.

A brief rundown of each slice of weirdness:

CHAPLIN’S EASY STREET (1917)

Easy Street (1917) is ‘s most urbane comedy. Some critics claim it to be his most perfectly composed film, with shrewdly chosen ingredients of minimal pathos, well developed characterizations, the Tramp’s quintessential antagonist and his most frequent leading lady, balanced slapstick, drug addiction, attempted rape, domestic violence, mockery of status quo, with social and political satire thrown in as the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake. Easy Street is evolved Chaplin: a series of astute contrasts in this, his ninth and final Mutual short.

The Tramp is desperate and, upon hearing hymnals coming from Hope Mission, he seeks temporary solace. Unfortunately for Charlie, the collection plate passes him by, but the revivalists do try to save his soul. Of course he would rather have a good meal, a place to sleep, and clothes on his back. , as the church organist, provides inspiration in the way of  pure, divine beauty. As usual with Chaplin, his film is actually dated socialist propaganda edifying the poor and destitute, who we now know have no real reason to live.

In order to win Edna, the Tramp takes on a dangerous job as a Keystone Kopper whose beat is the violent slum haven known as Easy Street. The lord of this slum is Goliath (, who was never more menacing or three-dimensional than he is here, in what turned out to be his final role before dying in an automobile accident). Goliath has an inherent problem with authority figures, even one so obviously ill-suited to the job as Charlie. When the Tramp comes a walkin’ down Easy Street, he has entered the Philistine’s domain, and here it is the giant who sees himself as the good guy with the kopper as an intruder in his skid row utopia.  A brief glimpse into Goliath’s domestic situation reveals a plethora of kids and a weakened wife, on the verge of starvation; it is not that simple, however. Goliath’s Wifey proves to be an aggressor, fully capable of domestic abuse upon her husband (who is more than willing to reciprocate). Wifey’s aggression even hones in on Charlie after he gives her food (because women can be aggressive, and because her inherent hatred of authority figures goes across the board).

The beatings Goliath receives daily from Wifey translates into his rage against Charlie (and every other Kop who dares to walk Easy Street). With the gas from a light post, the tramp dispatches Goliath, but jail cells do not hold one such as this long. Soon, Goliath is back on the street and seeking revenge. All this leads to the virginal Edna being nearly raped by a heroin addict. When Charlie collapses on a protruding needle, he gets a burst of strength, and instantaneously morphs into a Speedy Gonzales type who cleans up the town like a cyclone ordered by Wyatt Earp.

It all ends in a new utopian landscape complete with Goliath, Wifey, Charlie, Edna , and all the townsfolk attending church together.

What do you know? Easy Street is socialist propaganda.

159. SHANKS (1974)

“Released by Paramount Pictures and utilizing top-tier talent like composer Alex North, cinematographer Joseph Biroc, and production designer Boris Leven, Shanks is an exceedingly strange film, a horror-fantasy punctuated by stretches of dialogue-free narrative, morbid black comedy, and occasional sentimentality.”–John M. Miller, TCM.com

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Cindy Eilbacher, Tsilla Chelton, Phillipe Clay

PLOT: Malcolm Shanks is a talented mute puppeteer who lives with his shrewish step-sister and her alcoholic husband. A reclusive local scientist, who is working on a device that allows him to animate dead animal bodies with electrodes activated via remote control, hires Shanks as his assistant. Shanks’ puppeteering training makes him a natural at controlling the corpses; naturally, it is only a matter of time until he finds a human subject to experiment on.

Still from Shanks (1974)
BACKGROUND:

  • This was the final film directed by B-movie gimmick-meister William Castle (Homicidal, Strait-Jacket). At the beginning of his career in the 1950s, Castle was known for his outrageous promotions such as “Emergo” (glow-in-the-dark skeletons that flew above the audience at a scary moment in House on Haunted Hill) and “Percepto” (electrified theater seats used to shock patrons’ rears in The Tingler).
  • Although famous mime Marcel Marceau played may bit parts in films (including a role in Barbarella and a notorious cameo in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie), this is his most substantial role as an actor. Marceau plays both Malcolm Shanks and the inventor Old Walker, often acting alongside himself. Marceau came to Hollywood searching for roles but found producers unwilling to hire him for parts other than cameos or appearances as his alter-ego, Bip the clown. “I was a great admirer of the silent-film comedians, Chaplin and Keaton, and I thought producers would recognize that I could also perform the same broad pathos comedy. But nothing happened,” he told an AP reporter in 1973. When Shanks came along, it “was exactly what I had been looking for.”
  • Marceau originally hoped would direct and Castle would produce; he asked Castle to direct when told Polanski was unavailable. Castle reported that Marceau was a perfectionist, eccentric and difficult to work with, and didn’t seem to appreciate the practical aspects of shooting on a tight schedule and budget.
  • Although the movie was not generally well-received, it did earn an Academy Award nomination for Alex North’s eerie score. North reused and re-worked some of the compositions he wrote for 2001: A Space Odyssey that had been mothballed when decided to use an all classical score.
  • Shanks had not been available on VHS or DVD until Olive Films’ 2013 release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The herky-jerky birthday cake cutting scene, when Shanks’ typically impeccable control over his remote control zombies breaks down for one brief moment for comic effect.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This is a movie about a mute puppeteer who learns to control dead bodies by remote control, and eventually harnesses that power to fight a biker gang. Calling itself “a grim fairy tale,” it’s a black comedy that uses silent movie aesthetics to tell a tale of reanimation of the dead. It stars Marcel Marceau, the world’s most famous mime, and is directed by William Castle, the world’s most famous B-move huckster. The chances that the results of this collaboration would not be weird approach zero; it’s like nothing else out there.


Clip from Shanks

COMMENTS: Shanks is one of those rare movies that just wants to be what it is. Although the reanimation of the dead setup suggests a Continue reading 159. SHANKS (1974)

CHAPLIN’S CITY LIGHTS (1931) (CRITERION COLLECTION)

The most recent  feature to see a Criterion treatment is City Lights (1931).

Released three years after the advent of talkies, City Lights remains, for many, quintessential Chaplin. It was possibly inspired, in part, by ‘s The Strong Man (1926), starring

Chaplin labored on City Lights for three years, in part due to difficulties with leading actress Virginia Cherrill, in the role of the Blind Flower Girl (which is how she is billed. Like everyone else in the film she has no name, just a simple description). Chaplin spotted her at a prize fight. She was acutely near-sighted and had the look and personality he was seeking. She was not however, a professional actress. Cherril, being an adult of twenty, was far too old for Chaplin to be interested in romantically. Thus, their relationship off-screen was purely platonic, which, probably added to Chaplin’s dismay of not being able to manipulate her. Cherrill was far from starstruck. She was often tardy and frequently challenged Chaplin. At one point the director fired his leading lady, only to bring her back after realizing that starting anew would be disastrous. A clip (from the Criterion edition) reveals the director once put Cherrill through 342 takes. Yet, despite all this friction, Chaplin extracted a remarkable performance from her.

All of Chaplin’s films are primarily actor’s films, rather than being the work of an accomplished director. Montgomery Clift was among those who intensely studied Chaplin’s performance in City Lights. Indeed, Chaplin’s performance here is quite possibly his best.

However, to say City Lights approaches perfection, or is Chaplin’s best film, proves an exaggeration. It is as maudlin as The Kid (1921) and nearly as episodic as Modern Times (1936), but it’s beauty lies in simplicity; and, as far too many hack artists have proven, simplicity, done well, requires consummate craftsmanship and intelligence. Chaplin still serves as the blueprint for simplicity done right.  This “comedy romance in pantomime” opens with The Tramp discovered sleeping on a city statue, after it is unveiled. Making minimal use of sound, Chaplin’s politico spews garbled gibberish.  Naturally, chaos follows, and it ends, not so subtly, with the Tramp thumbing his posterior at American capitalism before embarking on his city promenade.

The Tramp is menaced by a couple of Newsies, and stops to admire a beautiful statue of a nude woman (a frequently used bit in Chaplin’s film), which everyone else ignores. Shades of things to come. The Tramp is immediately and noticeably more genteel here; far more so than he was when stealing food from babies in his last feature, The Circus (1928).

Still from City Lights (1931)Behind the scenes Chaplin was a case study in manic depression and an obsessive perfectionist. For weeks on end, he agonized to come up with a way the Blind Girl could mistake the Tramp for a millionaire. Then, as he was apt to do, he found his source of inspiration from one of his own earlier shorts. The Tramp, avoiding the Kops, zigzags his way through open doors of unoccupied  limos. The Blind Girl  hears a limousine door open and the Tramp emerging. Thus, he becomes her imagined millionaire. When the Tramp discovers the Girl is blind, he lays on the sentiment in a way only he could pull off. It is the Tramp alone, in an apathetic society, who sees the ethereal beauty and spirit in her Dickensesque poverty.

With Her possessing his thoughts, the Tramp comes upon a self-pitying alcoholic millionaire who is attempting to commit suicide by throwing himself into the river. Predictably, slapstick follows. Some of it is awkward, but serves the narrative and conceptual purpose of mocking the super rich.

The millionaire gives the Tramp money to buy more flowers from the Blind Girl and even loans his limo out, but it is only when he’s drunk that he’s so generous. Sober, the millionaire is true to his elitist, miserly ways, does not recognize his new friend, and kicks the Tramp out. In order to obtain money for an operation which cures blindness (remember, it is a fairy tale), our protagonist rummages through a series of jobs, including a gig as a prize fighter. Chaplin had used the employment plot device in his Keystone, Essanay, and Mutual shorts. In City Lights, it serves as a distraction. (He would be more innovative with it in Modern Times). Still, it is not a critical detour, and Chaplin regains his footing for the final act.

The millionaire, having returned from an extended European tour, is drunk again, and runs into the Tramp. After the tramp explains he needs a thousand dollars for the Blind Girl’s operation, his inebriated friend donates to the charity, only to have a fumbled burglary and sudden sobriety transform him into an Indian-giver. Desperate, the Tramp flees, money in hand. Pressing the wad of cash into Her hands, the Tramp secures her operation and prevents Her impending eviction.

With a warrant out for his arrest, the Tramp has an inevitable date with the penitentiary. Time served, he shuffles the streets, an object of ridicule and failure until he happens upon a flower shop, run by the now sighted Flower Girl. She, too, joins in ridiculing the transient. But empathy overcomes her and she gifts the Tramp a single flower, which requires touching him. Recognition means pathos and tragedy and per Chaplin’s creed, cue closeup (Chaplin used closeups for tragedy and reserved long shots for comedy. Naturally, he sometimes broke his own rules, but he generally kept to them). This is the divine mother of all cinematic endings. Despite Chaplin’s (increasing) tendency towards schmaltz, he still does it in a far less dated way than other films of the period. Indeed, his silent features have enough identifiable human drama and strengths to outweigh their shmaltzy weakness in far better than virtually any of the saccharine Hollywood productions of the forties and fifties. His own Limelight (1952) is far more passé, perhaps because Chaplin was really only suited to the art of silent cinema (despite claims that his transition to sound was successful).

As expected, the Criterion Collection is extensive. In its HD treatment, City Lights has never looked better, making it even more timeless. Audio commentary from a Chaplin biographer, a (rare) deleted scene, the documentaries Chaplin Today and Chaplin Studios, beautiful cover art, and Gary Gidden’s massive booklet are priceless.

THE CAMERAMAN (1928) AND FILM (1965)

Both  and Harold Lloyd warned Buster Keaton against signing with MGM studios. Keaton was enticed by a financially lucrative offer, but his peers cautioned that such a deal would not be worth losing artistic control. Keaton signed anyway and, in his own words, “wound up making the biggest mistake of my life.” MGM in the 1920s was the closest a Hollywood studio ever came to a fascist state and, as predicted, Keaton discovered he had sold his soul. He was finished as an artist.

The Cameraman (1928) was Keaton’s first film for MGM and studio interference quickly became the status quo. The Cameraman primarily succeeds because Irving Thalberg succumbed to Keaton’s pleas for “some” improvisation (much to director Edward Sedgwick’s chagrin). Although it was a box office hit, this would be Keaton’s last film in which he had any artistic input. For the most part, The Cameraman began the new formula of strictly following badly written scripts. Furthermore, Keaton was never allowed to direct another feature.

Although Keaton did not take writing credit, Cameraman follows his “keep the narrative simple” style and builds to a kinetic finale. Buster plays a street photographer in love with a pretty girl (Marceline Day) trying desperately to win her by landing a job at the newspaper she works at.

Still from The Cameraman (1928)Keaton improvised two scenes, one of which has him playing baseball (by himself) at Yankee Stadium. It’s a brilliantly executed vignette. In the second Keaton undresses and dresses in a claustrophobic changing room shared with an oversized man.

However, it is the grand scale Tong War in Chinatown that burns the celluloid. Naturally, the stereotypes abound, but the sequence is so loaded and breathless that there is hardly time to notice. Keaton and a monkey sidekick (!) manage a daring escape. Naturally, the pretty girl winds up on our hero’s arm, even if she’s not much more than a mannequin. Still, The Cameraman is a near masterpiece, and it is the last Keaton film worth watching with one strange exception…

Samuel Becket’s Film (1968) is a short, and that may be the sole reason for not seriously considering it a certified 366 Weird Movie status. By this time Keaton had been reduced to a second-rate Stooge by MGM. Various DVD collections of Keaton’s “Lost Years” seem to indicate a revisionist thought that hidden treasures lie within those sound shorts and Z-grade features. Although, on occasion, a slither of  the Keaton magic might shine through, for the most part they are a painfully embarrassing lot.

Chaplin had offered Keaton a role in his Limelight (1952). Strangely, some still consider this Keaton’s comeback. Actually, in Limelight we see Chaplin’s saccharine meltdown in overdrive, and even though it has a few personal moments, the good parts are encased in much dreck, and Continue reading THE CAMERAMAN (1928) AND FILM (1965)

SEVEN CHANCES (1925)

‘s Seven Chances (1925) features the greatest chase scene in silent cinema. It is a typically no-holds barred, Keatonesque climax. The film also highlights Keaton’s major flaw: his inability to rise above the racism of his society. This is a flaw that cannot be ignored; it factors into our moral and aesthetic assessment of the artist. The transgressions are brief here, but blatant and repeated.

Surprisingly, the frequent debates pitting Chaplin against Keaton rarely consider this factor. Or perhaps it is not so surprising. On just about every list imaginable, D.W. Griffith ranks near the top of all-time great directors, despite the fact that his epic landmark, Birth of a Nation, is one of the most monstrously racist films produced in cinematic history. Griffith’s onetime assistant, , might earn a footnote in such sophomoric lists. Browning, of course, went onto his own directorial career, which included Freaks (1932). There is no serious argument that Browning, with static camera and discomfort with sound, could  compete with Griffith aesthetically. However, Browning was ahead of his time socially. In his art, Browning bravely empathized with outcasts. Yet, Browning’s standing usually excludes the advanced social ideologies in his art. His skill with a camera, or lack thereof, is considered primary. In artistic evaluation we still rank technical skill highest.

While Keaton is not guilty of promoting racist epithets, he absolutely endorsed period racial stereotypes, repeatedly. Perhaps most so in Seven Chances, which he directed alone. To be fair, no Chaplin film went so far as Browning’s liberating manifestos. However, Chaplin certainly came close to the Browning ideal in his tramp characterization and his features Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Amusingly, both films are still seen, by right-wing extremists, as something akin to communist propaganda.

Keaton ranks lower than Chaplin in my assessment primarily for this reason. Certainly, Keaton was more skilled in narrative, originality, innovative camerawork, and set design. However, Chaplin was light years ahead of Keaton in social sensitivities. On this issue, Keaton was a product of his time. Chaplin was that rarity of rarities; an authentic religious figure who rose above his time, which ultimately counts more than his saccharine heart and aesthetic deficiencies.

Still from Seven Chances (1925)Despite the brilliance to be admired and enjoyment to be had out of Seven Chances, there are moments to make you cringe: Keaton, searching for a bride, sits down on a bench near a pretty girl. He starts to flirt, but realizes she is reading a Hebrew newspaper and quickly springs up, running in the other direction (oddly, the film had a Jewish producer). Similarly, Keaton comes upon one of many brides to be, discovers her to be African-American and, again, does an exit stage left. The cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake is an excruciatingly embarrassing blackface vignette. We can, with effort, move past these and acknowledge the film’s artistry. Simultaneously, however, we cannot evaluate the work fully without factoring in the stinging racial stereotypes.

A simple plot evolves into an epic, surreal finale: cinema at its most animated. Keaton stands to inherit seven millions dollars if he is married by 7 pm on his twenty-seventh birthday. Unfortunately, he receives this news on the afternoon of his twenty-seventh birthday. Keaton’s girlfriend would be the natural choice for a mate, except that our hero is a tad awkward at expressing his love. The local gals cruelly mock Keaton’s marital efforts—that is, until they learn he is a potential heir. News of our shy protagonist’s inheritance leads to an epic deluge of wannabe brides pursuing him in a chase of mind-boggling comic inventiveness. With this climax, and the film’s timelessly shrewd satire of western avarice, it is no wonder Seven Chances was an audience favorite in revivals. Keaton literally seems to be a live action, stone-faced Speedy Gonzalez, fleeing foolish virgins and an avalanche of boulders (a justifiably famous scene that was improvised). Naturally, a wise maiden is waiting in the wings, even if she is devoid of personality or development.

The 2011 Kino edition beautifully restores a color tinted sequence.

Note: This was one of Keaton’s least favorites among his films. The script, based off a famous play by David Belasco, was purchased by Keaton’s producer and adapted by four writers. Actresses Jean Arthur and Constance Talmadge have brief, uncredited roles.

* Next week: The Cameraman (1928) and Film (1965)