Friday, December 19, 2008

28. The Gold Rush - 1925

Synopsis: Charlie Chaplin's Tramp is a prospector. He gets stuck in a cabin with another prospector named Big Jim (who has found gold) and they almost starve. They eventually leave the cabin for town after killing a bear.

Chaplin falls in love with Georgia while in town. Georgia never shows for their New Year's Eve party where Chaplin imagines dancing with some rolls. Big Jim shows up demanding that Chaplin take him to the cabin because Big Jim only remembers that his claim is near a cabin. They become millionaires.

At some point, Black Larsen finds Big Jim's claim but falls off a mountain.

Review: There are two versions of this film. The 1925 version is silent. The 1942 version has, among some other changes, a narrative track. Netflix, much to my disappointment, sent the 1942 version.

I unfortunately didn't know that there were two versions of this movie before sending the DVD back to Netflix. The opening credits stated being a "revival." I assumed the original was lost and that it had been reconstructed as closely as possible to the original for rerelease or something similar.

I kept thinking how unusual it was that a movie from 1925 had narration. I kept thinking how bad the narration was. I kept thinking I should turn off my speakers but it had to be here for a reason. Had I know before watching The Gold Rush that the narration was foolishly added 17 years later, I would have turned off the sound instead of suffering needlessly.

I guess I understand Chaplin's reasoning for updating his movie for the revival. I completely disagree with it though. The biggest problem I have with the narration is that it clearly doesn't need to exist. It didn't offer any insight into the characters or action. Chaplin was, for the most part, telling me exactly what I could see on screen or, even worse, reciting exactly what the characters were saying. It was a distraction that covered up a quality movie.
If you'd like an idea on how this doesn't work, take a look at the closest things we have to a silent film these days: Cast Away and WALL-E. Imagine a narrator saying, "Now Tom Hanks tooth hurts. He's going to remove it with an ice skate," or "WALL-E sees a fire extinguisher. He wants to determine its function."
It's a nuisance that really should be forgotten. As such, no more talk of it for now.
The Gold Rush is apparently Chaplin's favorite film of his own. I wouldn't put it quite that high but it is a solid movie. The gags work and that's really all I need from a silent comedy.

If you want to gauge how well this works, watch some Warner Brothers cartoons. Must of The Gold Rush looks like it came straight from a Warner Brothers cartoon. Strike that. Reverse it. The Gold Rush predates them and it was shocking to learn that. A lot of classic Looney Toons ideas come straight from here. How many times have you seen two starving characters each envisioning the other as a giant chicken before coming after them with murderous hunger? How many times was it done better than this:
That is priceless material right here. Had I seen that as a kid I never would have stopped laughing. It isn't all hallucinating about chickens. Every time a Warner Brother's cartoon has characters in a shack leaning precariously on a cliff, it comes back to this movie. A wimpy character thinking he knocked out a big guy when something fell on his head comes back to this movie.

Therein lies a big problem here. Chaplin was so influential--as was Buster Keaton--that I've seen the best moments here done numerous times. It's lost a lot of its value.

An interesting thing that Chaplin does here that hasn't been seen before is combining comedy and a love story. Buster Keaton films feature him going after the girl regularly but Chaplin actually goes after our emotions instead of playing it all for a laugh. You actually feel for Chaplin when Georgia doesn't show up on New Year's Eve. That might be Chaplin's best innovation for film.

Also, dancing rolls.

Score 6/10 (8/10 without the narration)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

27. Bronenosets Potyomkin (The Battleship Potemkin) - 1925

Synopsis: The sailors of the Potemkin refuse to eat soup made with maggot filled meat. The admiral of the ship commands the officers shoot the sailors that refused to eat. Vakulinchuk, one of the sailors watching the massacre, starts a revolt. The officers are thrown overboard and Vakulinchuk dies in the riot. The Potemkin sails into the docks of Odessa where the citizens help restock the ship. After the sailors board the ships, the army kills the civilians on the Odessa steps. A small fleet is sent to sink the Potemkin but they join the revolution.

Review: How difficult was it for Soviet film makers not interested in propaganda at this time? Since I know Eisenstein--the only Russian director I know before Tarkovsky and Norstein--was forced somewhat into making propaganda, I can only assume the answer is nearly impossible. That's a roundabout way of saying that Battleship Potemkin is propaganda.

I don't have a problem with propaganda exactly. I realize there is a time and place for it despite people getting up in arms about it (typically only when disagreeing with the intent).

Our modern day society gets up in arms about propaganda--typically only when they disagree with the message--but it does have a time and place. Battleship Potemkin, about empowering the people of Russia, was certainly right for its time based on my rudimentary at best knowledge of Soviet history.

So, I don't have much to say about this movie honestly. Most of it I can only say in relation to Strike. The two are so similar that it's hard for me to separate them from one another. The specifics are different but the story is essentially the same. The style is the same. The mostly everything is the same.
If some Eisenstein fanatic ever reads this, that person will probably think my sweeping generalization makes me a moron. I am not big on Eisenstein because it's a lot of technical mastery without much to enjoy (I seem to remember thinking Ivan The Terrible I and II being pretty good when I saw them though).
In Strike, Eisenstein seemed as interested in making a film that explained how to use montage theory as he was in making a watchable film. In Battleship Potemkin, it appears that Eisenstein considered having the montage theory work for the film was kind of important instead of having it showcase his technical mastery. So, maybe the montage theory is subtler here or maybe it's better used and appears to be slightly less IN YOUR FACE (just slightly though). It's a big step forward for Eisenstein and montage theory. It shows it as a technique usable in film as opposed to some real world Ludovico technique. For that alone, Battleship Potemkin is the superior film.
Because this is a review of Battleship Potemkin, ODESSA STEPS!!!!!!!!!! There. I mentioned it and can be done with it.
Just kidding.
The Odessa Steps is a quality sequence. It is another example of how to film a scene like this and it's well done. It didn't move me though. Maybe it's because I'd heard about it so much. Maybe it's because I saw it coming. Maybe it's because I never really cared about anyone in the movie all that much. Maybe it's because the section following the Odessa Steps is more suspenseful and enjoyable. It does present us with the first ever Look Out For That Baby Carriage! scene which can not be underestimated.
Presented here because I can, because I've been occasionally mentioning the impact of older films on modern films and because I couldn't find the clip from Ghostbusters II with that baby carriage filled with soda cans, a relevant clip from a childhood favorite: Get A Life (start around 4:50 for pertinant segment).

One more note, since I essentially bashed the most famous segment of the movie, that I'd like to include. My favorite example of montage theory in Battleship Potemkin is simple and effective. It is a series of three lion statues that gain meaning only through their placement next to each other.
It's just perfect. It's small. It takes about ten seconds of the film and it had a larger impact on me than the baby carriage rolling down the steps.
A final note that warrants comment. Part X in my continuing series on hilarious facial hair in old movies:

Final Score: 8/10