Friday, October 31, 2008

25. Seven Chances - 1925

There is a really tall woman just above Buster's head to the right.Director: Buster Keaton

Synopsis: To inherit seven million dollars, Buster Keaton must be married by 7:00pm on his 27th birthday which just so happens to be--gulp--TODAY!

Review: I must confess that I have actually seen The Bachelor starring Chris O'Donnell. I don't have a reason. It wasn't at the behest of a girlfriend. It wasn't the Ludovico technique. I sat down for no apparent reason and watched The Bachelor...probably on TBS.

"...because it was there" — Sir Edmund Hillary

Anyway, I was completely unaware until about a day before watching Seven Chances that The Bachelor was a remake of this movie (Seven Chances is itself an adaptation of a play). I don't remember how closely The Bachelor followed Seven Chances as the only memorable portion was Chris O'Donnell being chased by a mob of women in bridal gowns.

It is unfortunate that the only really memorable thing about Seven Chances is also the chase. The first half of this movie as Buster Keaton struggles to find a bride is acceptable but it's nothing particularly special after seeing some other Keaton work. It never took off as much as it probably could have. It seemed maybe too easy I suppose.

One bit that worked well was a reveal, after Buster makes his approach, that a woman has a child. After confirming the child is hers, Buster inquires whether or not she plans to take care of it. It was the biggest laugh for me until the chase scene.

The chase scene is the main reason to watch this. Buster Keaton gets to a church where his friend has assured him that a bride will be waiting and hundreds of women are ready to marry into seven million dollars. Not being keen on this idea, Buster runs through a series of increasingly dangerous and ridiculous gimmicks as Buster Keaton is known to do.

My personal favorite is this turtle holding onto his necktie:
Like much of the chase, there's very little reason or context for this. I like to imagine the writing process for movies like this because I wonder how something like this comes about. "Buster should jump in a river for three seconds just so he can come out with a turtle hanging from him."

So, old movies are pretty racist. (nice transition)

Buster becomes pretty desparate for a wife at a certain point in the film and asks almost every woman he comes across including drag queen Julian Eltinge. Buster doesn't bother asking a Jewish woman or a black woman as soon as he discovers their ethnicity. I guess that was probably funny in 1925. The only prominent black character is in black face as well.

Also of note is Christina Ricci's cameo:
Watch out Speed!  The mammoth car is right behind you!I liked this movie overall but it never felt like it was as funny as a Buster Keaton film should be (Keaton didn't even want the only surviving copy restored. I enjoyed Neighbors included on the DVD more than Seven Chances.


Friday, October 24, 2008

24. Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) - 1924

Director: F. W. Murnau

Synopsis: A hotel porter is demoted to washroom attendant because he is old. His job, and uniform, brought him respect in his poor neighborhood. He hides his demotion from his family and friends by stealing his uniform. Upon being discovered, he loses all prestige and becomes miserable. Then the ending. The horrible horrible ending.

Review: It has been my dream to be involved in writing or directing a romantic comedy. A recently divorced woman bumps into a man just this side of nebbish to still appear desirable. They do not hit it off. The divorcée's friend recommends the "perfect guy" who turns out to be the man she met previously. Through a series of crazy coincidences, the two keep running into each other and slowly bond over some ridiculous shared trait (loves dogs, ham radio, whatever). Everything goes beat for beat like every romantic comedy in history until the final five minutes. The man, after their first night together, leaves the house. Shortly thereafter, the director to a local asylum for the criminally insane knocks on her door to inform her that her new lover is an escaped murderer. The boyfriend comes in, sees this and murders the both of them in a scene just gorenographic enough for Murder-Set-Pieces or the eventual movie of Blood Meridian. Credits roll.

What does this have to do with Der Letzte Mann?

Der Letzte Mann's ending is as surprisingly antithetic as my torture porn/romantic comedy and completely ruins everything the previous 95% of the movie. I knew going into this that the ending was supposedly tacked on by the studio and undermines what Murnau was doing. I imagined something pretty ridiculous and Der Letzte Mann went beyond my imagination. Never will there be an ending so bad, so tacked on, as this and I have seen A. I. If you remember The Simpsons episode with the alternative ending to Casablanca where Ilse parachutes from the plane killing Hitler and marries Rick with Sam playing piano outside the church, this is the kind of tacked on happy ending Der Letzte Mann has (see The Simpsons take on Casablanca here starting at 12:47). It overshadows the preceding 80 minutes and ruins the entire experience. I am genuinely angry at having sat through that ending.

I know movies are ultimately a product. Studios want to protect their investment and make money. It's a film industry. That doesn't mean films can't be altered for the good by a studio. I suspect the 155 minute version of Tati's Play Time drags even more than the current version. Maybe the excised footage from The Wizard Of Oz slowed down the film. I don't know but I know which version of Brazil or Army Of Darkness I prefer. I know that no one is asking to see the theatrical release of Touch Of Evil or the 141 minute version of Seven Samurai. Der Letzte Mann is the best example of why studios shouldn't meddle in movies. Of all the footage lost forever, why couldn't the last few minutes of this join it?

The ending is so horrifically bad, this screen precedes it:
Enough about the ending because it really shouldn't be here at all.

When Norma Desmond said in Sunset Blvd. that silent movies didn't need words because they had faces, this is the kind of movie she was talking about. This movie has only one intertitle before the introduction to the, ugh, end. The entire movie really is told by the faces of the characters. The doorman is in virtually every scene and without words he makes every scene watchable (partly because of his great facial hair).

With no dialogue or intertitles to tell the story, the movie relies even more than the average silent film on overacting. After losing his job, the porter is so overcome with shame and emotion that he moves about like a character from a Rankin/Bass Christmas special. It's unnerving to see the almost stilted movement.

More unnerving is the porter's phyical transformation. This still shows the porter at his absolute best in the film: This still is him at his worst:He has gone from smiling which a woman on each arm to a jobless thief who apparently has chosen the path with the least amount of grooming. Even his previously immaculate uniform has started to fall apart.

That is, essentially, the movie. It's watching a man lose everything for no real reason. It is not a uniform and job to him. It is his dignity--his means of respect from his peers--being taken from him. All because he is aging he loses everything.

So, it's not quite a feel good movie. It's a feel bad movie but the kind that is completely watchable and engrossing. If you want to feel bad, this is the movie to watch. If you want to feel even worse in a totally different way, watch the ending.

A final note because it must be mention. This has probably the most influential camera work in film history and the modern audience probably won't notice. F. W. Murnau called in "unchained camera technique." The modern terminology is "movement." There is no existing film released before Der Letzte Mann with a moving camera. It is believed that Der Januskopf may have had one scene with a moving camera, but it can not be confirmed as it is lost forever.
All camera movement--as this entire list from a few movies from now should contain save maybe some Ozu (heh)--can be tied back to this movie.

Score: 9/10 Please please please stop the movie before the tacked on ending.

Friday, October 3, 2008

23. Sherlock, Jr. - 1924

All the cars, minus that one in the foreground are moving.  Seriously.Director: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Buster Keaton

Synopsis:They don't write 'em like that anymoreBuster Keaton is wrongfully accused of stealing a watch. He falls asleep and it all comes together nicely in the end...nicely for Buster Keaton not the guy that actually stole the watch.

Review: Film has the ability to be the most oneiric medium if only because it can assault the senses easier than any other medium. Adding that film typically assaults two senses--three or more if Odorama or Percepto is involved--which is one up on most other media, it is more immersive by nature. Seeing a film feature a dream literally become a movie is interesting at least.

The best part of Sherlock, Jr. aside from the "How did Buster Keaton not die while doing that?" motorcycle section is the movie within a dream within a movie. I really couldn't decide what part struck me hardest: Keaton walking from the stage through the screen or Keaton's reacting to the ever changing background. Barring this being removed from Youtube, see it here. It's obvious that jump cuts were used extensively to place Buster in the rapidly changing background but it's staged so well that it's hard to spot.

Beyond blurring the distinction of film and dreams, reality is added into this. It's a blurring of Keaton's dream, the film Keaton is watching which is also called Sherlock, Jr., and how each of these things affects Keaton's reality within the film.

Keaton is dreaming about himself Sherlock, Jr. while the film's audience watches Sherlock, Jr. while we are watching Keaton as Sherlock, Jr. I am having flashbacks of trying to explain Wes Craven's New Nightmare to someone right now and my mind is being blown by the comparison. Anyway, Keaton is dreaming of the case being solved and he awakes to the case being solved. Even Last Action Hero didn't get this deep. My mind is again blown by this apt comparison.

Enough of all this high brow dissection of Sherlock, Jr. This movie is funny. Isn't that what Buster Keaton is all about? I know The General is general-ly considered Keaton's masterpiece but I have my doubts after seeing this; I haven't seen it recently enough for a quality comparison. I guess I will know in a couple weeks when I see The General again.

This benefits so much more from being shorter--44 minutes--than Our Hospitality. There is no room for boredom. Even if a joke doesn't work which is rare in this one, another one immediately follows it. This suffers a bit from the same "flaw" of Our Hospitality that audiences have seen physical comedy evolve for 80+ years. Portions of this don't work quite as well as they did in 1924. Buster does his physical work as well as anyone today does and does it better for the most part.

For example, the still above is from Buster Keaton riding on the handle bars of a motorcycle with no driver through moving traffic. It's amazing because there about a dozen scenes that are all ridiculously dangerous and this isn't the scene where he BROKE HIS NECK. I could go on about the amazing physical work Keaton employs here and elsewhere in the film but it must be seen to be believed.

I suppose the plot is kind of lacking on this but it doesn't really matter. Sherlock, Jr. was made to have Buster Keaton do his thing which he does. Even the subdued by comparison to his death defying work is great. He can show pain and dejectedness in his face gaining the right amount of sympathy and laughs.

Some side notes that don't really fit in anywhere else and I'm too lazy to flow into rest of this:

Something I had never seen in a film before or since is the actors--not characters--named in the intertitles. I had technically seen this before but must shamefully admit to wondering why the Canfield family in Our Hospitality had a daughter named Natalie Talmadge. Ummm...I am a stupid.

Of particular note is the horrific score on the Kino print. I think it was by Club Foot orchestra or something. I can not fathom someone thinking this is remotely appropriate. There are sections that border on jazz fusion. There is surf rock. There is an honest to God James Bond reference. I'm not sure which is worse, the Kino soundtrack or the Youtube clips that feature J. Geils Band and Air.

Large sections of this are on Youtube. I didn't see the part where Buster gives away dollar after dollar to movie patrons or him literally following a suspect closely. The other truly brilliant moments are there though. Find the whole thing as this is totally worth it.

Score: 9/10

22. Greed - 1924

Director: Eric Von Stroheim

Netflix doesn't have this. I found a copy online. I'll watch it at some point, but I hate staring at my crappy monitor for hours to watch a movie. I'll get around to this (soon?).

EDIT: Whoops. I had some serious computer issues and lost this file. The site from whence it came is no longer operational...again. I'll watch this some time