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Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The Giant Gila Monster (1959)

Director: Ray Kellogg
Stars: Don Sullivan, Fred Graham and Lisa Simone
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

One of two features produced back to back in 1959 by an independent production company in Texas called Hollywood Pictures Corporation, such a generic name that it was the second such company, this was the half that didn't even get the title right. At least The Killer Shrews starred a bunch of killer shrews, along with James Best from The Dukes of Hazzard, but this one just has a Mexican beaded lizard. Perhaps the filmmakers felt that The Giant Gila Monster made for a better title, even though most of the people watching couldn't pronounce it properly. It has two selling points today, beyond being a bad but fun film. Firstly, the font used on the promotional posters, though not on the title card, is the one memorably borrowed by Glenn Danzig for his bands The Misfits, Samhain and Danzig. Secondly, this is a monster movie with a real monster, because instead of putting a fake monster into real sets they put a real monster into fake sets.

The film starts as it means to go on, setting us up to believe something exotic only to show us the banal reality of it. 'In an enormity of the West,' the narrator tells us, 'there are still vast and virtually unexplored regions, bleak and desolate, where no human ever goes and no life is ever seen.' In other words, Lover's Lane. Yes, what is described here as 'lonely areas of impenetrable forest and dark shadows' is where hep cats go to park their cars and rub cheeks, because they're well behaved hep cats. Nice kids in 1959 were apparently chaste enough not to progress quite so far as kissing. They're so nice that the whole base metaphor hasn't even arisen yet because they haven't even got into the stadium. These two will never get there either because the giant gila monster nudges them off the ridge and they tumble to their doom far below. It's a powerful monster too because it can teleport right down to crush them with its giant gila monster foot.

That's it for suspense too because while the narrator can happily waffle on with lines like, 'How large the dreaded gila monster grows, no man can say,' we've just watched a pretty frickin' huge foot crush a car, in a shot that gets repeated a few times throughout the movie because it may just have eaten up the entire effects budget. Everything else is a real Mexican beaded lizard crawling over miniature cars, sticking its head through miniature barns and causing miniature train crashes. To be honest, it's more effective than some guy in a rubber suit or a bad attempt to cobble something together out of papier-mâché, but it means the immediacy of having the monster on the same screen as the human characters is missing. When the creature that gives its name to the movie obviously can't join the same scene as its projected victims, it would seem to be fair for them to not feel particularly threatened by it.

The human characters are typical American teenagers and they inhabit a typical teenage world, though they're all a little older than teenagers. They're into cars, girls and dancing, though the order of importance varies throughout the film. We first find them in someone's kitchen doing the jive or the jitterbug or some such, waiting for Chase Winstead and his French girlfriend to show up so they can hit the drive in. At least, it looks like a kitchen but it turns out to be a soda fountain where you just know they're going to greet each other with 'Hey gang!' and call the owner 'Old Man'. They call Old Man Harris 'Old Man' too when he drives up in his Model A but he's the stereotypical old codger who is always able to find a drink somewhere, even while driving his classic car. Perhaps this soda fountain is the real explanation behind the giant gila monster because the whole place is magic: everyone arrives out front but walks in the back.

Chase Winstead is a guy, even though the name suggests a lesbian at a posh boarding school, and he's really what this entire movie is about. Sure, there's a giant gila monster in it, although it's a regular size Mexican beaded lizard, but it's really The Chase Winstead Show. Think of him like the Fonz if the Fonz was played by a really tall Wil Wheaton. I'd say David Schwimmer given that he's the right height but at least Wheaton has charisma, although it's hard to imagine either of them as the lead in an action movie. Don Sullivan had a busy 1959, churning out no less than five of his seven movies in that year, but amazingly this might just be the best of them. Starting with Teenage Zombies for Jerry Warren, he worked through The Monster of Piedras Blancas and Curse of the Undead before finding himself here with the opportunity to haul out his ukelele and save the day. In fact he saves everything given that he's the only capable character there is.
Ostensibly, Chase is a mechanic. He's working through a correspondence course in engineering and is entirely incapable of holding a conversation that doesn't involve cars at some point. He can't even look at a car without aching to soup it up or customise it or turn it into a bomb, which apparently meant something rather different in 1959 than today. He even wants Sheriff Jeff to leave his brand new patrol car with him so he can soup that up and 'turn it into a slingshot that'll catch anybody.' The reason this is rather bizarre is that Chase is the leader of the local juvenile delinquents, although they're not particularly juvenile and not particularly delinquent compared to your average high school kid today. Mr Wheeler, who is wealthy enough to be the town prick and not care, knows he's behind everything from the assassination of JFK to the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, so naturally blames him for the disappearance of his son Pat.

Pat Wheeler was the cheek rubbing first victim of the giant gila monster, a fate that to be fair isn't too high up the list of possible reasons why your son doesn't come home one night. The sheriff asks him if he believes his son had eloped with Liz Humphries, given that they've been going steady for a year but Mr Wheeler doesn't see that as any more believable, even though the static electricity generated by a year's worth of cheek rubbing is surely enough sexual energy to power the town. 'If you ask me, it's that Chase Winstead,' he says, out of the blue. 'He's older than the others, sets them all wrong. Why, he's got more influence on Pat than I have.' The real reason that he's mentioned here is that every scene is an establishing scene for Chase, who can do no wrong. In fact you could apply any Chuck Norris joke you like to Chase Winstead, because the way he's painted in this fim suggests that they may be true.

Here Sheriff Jeff hauls out the sympathy card, pointing out that Chase has taken care of his mother and sister ever since his father died on one of Wheeler's drill rigs, and while we don't know it yet his sister is crippled too. He keeps all the kids in line. He knows better than his boss how to handle nitroglycerin. He can leap tall buildings in a single bound. He's Chase! Chase Winstead! Oh and the nitro is really in the story, as Mr Compton brings it back to the garage for Chase to get safely into the shed. Let's take a wild stab in the dark as to what's going to take out the monster at the end of the picture. You can have three guesses and the last two don't count. Chase even has the phone wired so he can hear the police and ambulance calls, because he runs the local tow truck and if he knows that there's a Pontiac run off the road twelve miles out of town at the same time as the law, he can beat them there. He's an enterprising soul for sure.

All these talking scenes are capable, both in writing and delivery, but there's no soul to anything. These aren't name actors, the delightfully named Shug Fisher being the best known of the bunch as Old Man Harris. He teamed up with Roy Rogers and sang with the western group Sons of the Pioneers before finding a regular slot on The Beverly Hillbillies and in this cast that makes him a celebrity. This is the sort of film down home enough to have a cast member by the name of Stormy Meadows and have her not turn out to be a porn star. There is one other name that at least some would recognise: Ken Knox who plays a disc jockey called Horatio Alger 'Steamroller' Smith. This can't have been much of a stretch for him, given that he was really a DJ rather than an actor, one who worked on Texan radio stations owned by Gordon McLendon, the uncredited executive producer of the film who managed to get various family members into the picture too.

Somehow I don't imagine Knox got to use lines on the air like, 'There was this big pink and black thing drove right in front of me. It had stripes this wide!' Here though he's not just a DJ, he's also a drunk driver in a tux who drives into the ditch after speeding past Chase's tow truck. Perhaps Chase is a jinx of all trades, given that everything that happens seems to involve him some way or another. I was waiting for him to be the link between the victims, given that the sheriff gives him parts off all the cars that begin to turn up mysteriously sheared off the road at right angles. First it's headlights, later it's tyres, none of which are needed for evidence, even when the cars are stolen. Chase discovers the suitcase left behind by the last hitchhiker to get crushed and I'm surprised the sheriff doesn't let him have that too. It all feels like hero worship as if Sheriff Jeff knows that Chase is going to turn into Superman but doesn't have the heart to tell him yet.
We can believe it, given that every scene seems to add another talent to this man's repertoire. Is there nothing he can't do? He's a singer as we discover along with Smith when he wakes up in the morning. Chase has hooked him up onto the back of the tow truck and taken him home, letting him sleep it off on a cot in the shop, or at least as much as he can with Chase singing up a storm while he hammers dents out of the bodywork in the next room. He's modest, charging this captive audience two bucks for the tow and upping it to three under pressure. Smith leaves him two twenties. After Wheeler persuades Sheriff Jeff to do a careful search of the vast desolate wilderness that comprises his jurisdiction, these lowlife delinquents chip in to help and you'll be stunned to find that it's Chase who finds the empty car, down by the reservoir by Williams Wash.

Soon it all escalates so fast that we find we can't really keep up. Chase's crippled little sister gets her leg braces and he whips out his ukelele to wax calypso for her. This guy is awesome. He runs a gang like Marlon Brando. He can fix anything just like The A-Team. He looks after his family like he's one of the Waltons. He can handle explosives like he's one of The Dirty Dozen. He has international mystique, landing a French girlfriend in a town that probably doesn't know there's anything east of the Mississippi. The sheriff thinks the sun shines out of his back end and there's a lot of sun in Texas. Now he can play calypso like Harry Belafonte too. You tell me that the Fonz wasn't based on Chase Winstead, such a virtuoso of cool that half the town is content to bask in his very shadow and the other half got fed up of being one upped at everything that they left for Vegas to try better odds at success at the tables.

In case you'd forgotten, this isn't supposed to be The Chase Winstead Show, it's supposed to be a monster movie about a giant gila monster and that creature does keep popping back up every once in a while to wander aimlessly about and eventually it takes out a model bridge right in front of a model train. Fortunately for the plot there's a witness this time. Unfortunately it's Old Man Harris, who has been out drinking, driving and singing, though I'm not sure what order he'd rank that trio of activities. He turns tail to go tell the sheriff, who runs a really quiet office given that the screams we hear from the model passengers suggest a disaster on a scale this town can't comprehend. Nah, that's not his territory so the troopers will take care of it. Sheriff Jeff doesn't seem to have a deputy; he doesn't get worked up about anything, let alone the mystery of these empty cars and strange tracks; but he rings up the library for a book on reptiles anyway.

Well, not quite. You know who he rings? That's right, he rings up Chase Winstead, who wanders over to hear his ideas about pituitary glands and babies in the Ukraine and giant gila monsters and spark memories about pink and black stripes. Suddenly everything makes sense and maybe it could be worth talking to DJ Steamroller Smith again. If only the next scene was going to be at a sock hop that Steamroller is hosting and Chase is singing at. Oh, it is! How fortunate! Well, let's not bother. Let's ignore the terror and unholy death being rained down on the town for a while and stick to becoming the next big calypso star instead. After all the last couple of days have been so quiet and uneventful that Chase has found the time to cut a record for Steamroller to premiere in front of his friends and so spark his future as a big name recording artist. He even gets to sing at the sock hop too, but we start wondering about things that aren't there.

The song he sings has precisely one annoyingly catchy line that is repeated ad infinitum: 'The Lord said, 'Laugh, children, laugh'. The Lord said, 'Laugh, children, laugh'. The Lord said...' You get the picture. I initially wondered if he should really have sung, 'The Lord said, 'Holy crap, it's a giant gila monster',' because after utterly dismissing the possibility that it might crash the sock hop, it promptly crashes the sock hop, but then I changed my mind. Perhaps Chase knew, given that he has books on reptiles and stuff, that everyone's a critic and gila monsters really hate ukelele music. Maybe that's why he keeps repeating one line over and over again as a sort of mantra to charm the lizard into turning up and sticking his head through the side of the barn so everyone can panic in a rather restrained manner and Chase can go get his nitro. Somehow this film is so engagingly bad that I can't help trying to rationalise it, even though I fail utterly.

Perhaps he really does know that he's going to grow up to become Superman, thus explaining how sure he can be that he simply can't lose. He's Chase Frickin' Winstead, the man of this hour and every other. He's so confident that he heads back to the shop to pick up the nitro and, after failing to discourage Lisa about how dangerous it is and how there's enough of it to blow up half the town, promptly deposits it between her legs so he can drive like a maniac over a ploughed field and scare the living hell out of her. He's simply too cool to fail. That's a great message for a monster movie. To win out over overwhelming odds, just stay cool. The sheer power of Chase's awesomeness is enough to save the day. 'Only Hell could breed such an enormous beast,' runs the tagline for the movie. 'Only God could destroy it!' If so, then I guess that makes Chase God. Maybe this is a religious movie after all and the giant gila monster is Old Nick himself. The Giant Gila Monster as pathway to salvation. I like it.

The Terminator (1984)

Director: James Cameron
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Lance Henriksen and Paul Winfield
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

The Terminator opened a lot of eyes in 1984. It came out of nowhere, the second movie directed by a man whose first was Piranha II: Flying Killers, a film so bad that it has a relatively safe spot on the IMDb Bottom 100 Films rather than the Top 250. Yet it made a major star out of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who would go on to become one of the biggest box office draws of the decade, one of the most recognised men on the face of the planet and eventually, of course, Governor of California; it created an iconic villain who is among the most memorable in science fiction film history; and it also redefined what could be done without a major budget, something bizarre to consider given that the director we're taking about is James Cameron. This is the man who spent $200m to make Titanic and $237m to make Avatar, so its easy to see him as the worst example of Hollywood excess ever and the last person imaginable as a pioneer of low budget filmmaking.

Sam Raimi said that a director working with little money must innovate to make something float, for example, but a big budget director just wonders what an anti-gravity disc would cost. Orson Welles was more succinct, pointing out that 'the enemy of art is the absence of limitations.' They could have been talking specifically about Cameron, who had no limitations with Titanic. He built a full size replica of the boat, contracted companies who furnished the original to furnish his sets and flew in genuine Picassos from Paris to hang in them. It wasn't just the most expensive film ever made at that point, it cost more to produce than the original ship itself. When he made The Terminator he had only $6.4m but he put it all on the screen for us to see. Whether the first low budget action film to outdo its big budget competitors was The Terminator or Escape from New York in 1981, this was certainly emphasis that a big movie could be made without a big budget.

Of course, there's much more to The Terminator than just being a pioneer. We've all seen it and we all know the plot because it's entered popular culture to a rather pervasive degree. In 1997 a US defence system called Skynet becomes self aware and decides to wipe out the human race which it sees as a threat to its continued existence, starting with a nuclear holocaust that comes out of nowhere. A man named John Connor rallies the human race and organises the survivors into a resistance that fights back and in 2029 is about to win the day but, before it does, Skynet tries to cheat. It sends a terminator, a cyborg assassin, back in time to the Los Angeles of 1984 to find and kill Sarah Connor, John's mother, before he can be born, thus wiping out his entire existence and by extension the threat to theirs. Before he destroys the time machine, John takes the opportunity to send back a soldier, Kyle Reese, to find and protect her, and the fight is on.

From my current perspective 21 years on, it seems almost impossible to imagine anyone except Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the terminator. Yet there were a number of other choices before him, one of which still sounds intriguing to me: I can really see Jürgen Prochnow playing the part, albeit in a different way that fit Cameron's original vision of having a terminator that could blend into a crowd. Lance Henriksen, who the director had worked with on Piranha II: Flying Killers, was the original choice, even down to the character design sketches being based on him. Kevin Kline and Michael Douglas were considered for the part, Tom Selleck was rumoured and Mel Gibson turned it down. Of all people, O J Simpson was in the running too but was discarded as a choice because the producers ironically felt he was just too nice to be believable as a cold blooded killer. Maybe I should write a script about sending someone back in time to recast him.

Arnie was originally brought in to play Kyle Reese, the terminator's nemesis. Perhaps this was an attempt to bring an element of size and power to a soldier of the future, given that terminators don't need muscles. After Cameron met Arnie though, both decided that he should take the title role and so Henriksen was relegated to a supporting role. Incidentally, he did end up playing a very different cyborg in Aliens, Cameron's next film, which he wrote during the nine month delay to the start of production caused by his star's prior commitment to Conan the Destroyer. Bishop, Henriksen's character in Aliens, is a fascinating study of how human and machine can merge, all subtlety and social commentary, telling us about ourselves through our reactions and those of the characters to what he does. I wonder how much of that character development came out of what Cameron couldn't write into the cyborg in this film.
As you might expect from someone played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, there isn't an ounce of subtlety or social commentary in the terminator. It has only one purpose: to find and kill Sarah Connor. It is literally unconcerned about anything else at all, about pain or secrecy or innocent bystanders. It just aims at his target and doesn't quit. As Reese says to Sarah, 'It absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.' As such, the severe limitations that had plagued Arnie in his previous roles, such as his strong Austrian accent and lack of serious acting ability, turned into assets. He could get away with appearing very wooden and speaking only sixteen lines, because his amazing physique as a multiple winner of the Mr Universe title naturally lent itself to our subconscious definition of something unstoppable. He looks right when he's totally naked at the beginning and he looks right with his black leather jacket and Gargoyle shades.

After forgettable movies like Hercules in New York and Stay Hungry, Arnie was becoming well known in the early eighties as Robert E Howard's musclebound Hyperborean hero, Conan the barbarian. Yet it was his role here as the terminator that truly defined him and it's easy to see its influence in almost every other part he would play for at least the next decade. After one final sword and sorcery role in Red Sonja, he became again and again an unstoppable machine with cool one liners, including the 'I'll be back' catchphrase that was used for the first time here. It didn't matter if he was playing human or not, he was the unstoppable machine template that every action hero had to follow. He was so right for this that he fell naturally into the role, once even forgetting he was in terminator make up while going for lunch in downtown LA during a break in filming. We can imagine the reactions to such a primeval fear apparently come to life.

It really is the primeval nature of this film that makes it so appealing, rather than any meditation on the future of the human race or the paradoxes involved in time travel. It's just a slasher story in science fiction clothing, all about our fear of what's out there beyond the light of the campfire. It isn't surprising that such a story, which speaks to us on a very guttural level, sprang from very personal places. Cameron was stuck in Rome, broke and unable to get home, surrounded by people who couldn't help him because he didn't speak the language, a time that he described as 'the greatest alienation in my life.' So he conjured up an idea of a 'metallic death figure rising Phoenix-like out of fire' as a fantasy of being able to do anything, without fear of consequences. 'It's like the dark side of Superman,' he wrote. 'Everybody has that little demon that wants to be able to do whatever it wants, the bad kid that never gets punished.'

Of course, the terminator is a villain, in cinematic terms, and with such a powerful wish fulfilment villain, the heroes had to be extra heroic. The one thing that Cameron didn't bring to this script was a strong relationship between Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, which was introduced at the suggestion of the film's backers. Cameron is known for writing stories featuring strong women, but as this film begins Sarah Connor is absolutely not that. She's utter fluff, almost a MacGuffin, because she's the most important thing to everyone in the movie but she doesn't actually do anything of importance, except by accident. It's interesting to note that Cameron married Linda Hamilton, who plays Sarah Connor, but not until 1997, long after she had bulked up to become the tough as nails version for the sequel. After this film, he married its producer and co-writer, Gale Anne Hurd, who had to be tough to succeed as a female producer in Hollywood.

This anomaly in Cameron's leading female characters meant that Linda Hamilton had a tough task on her hands, one that she was able to live up to. It's one thing to play a strong character but it's another thing entirely to play a weak character who could believable become strong at a later point in time, like the sequel made seven years later. In this film she's a victim, just like any other victim in a slasher movie except that she can't be allowed to die. She's an inconsequential waitress with no real sense of self, yet she will apparently give birth to the man who will save the human race, and have the strength of personality to prepare him for his life's work. It's amazing to watch the first two Terminator movies back to back and see the difference in Linda Hamilton, not just her muscles but her attitude. She managed the task of being both the slasher victim in the first movie and the last woman you'd ever want to mess with in the second.

As Kyle Reese, Michael Biehn is a great soldier, crude but effective. Even though he's suddenly thrust into the middle of the big city halfway through the 1980s everything he does is done how he would do it in a combat zone, which of course from his point of view is precisely where he is. A very telling line from a deleted scene, has Sarah telling Reese that 'wherever you go, you bring the war with you.' He's the man who saves Sarah and, by extension, both John Connor and the future of the human race, but he's more out of place in LA than the terminator. His grocery list just contains what he needs to make plastique. He doesn't use headlights because hunter killers can track them. When Sarah asks him about the women in his time, his answer is merely 'good fighters'. Yet there's depth enough that he has come through time for her. Biehn, who originally auditioned for the part of the terminator, is a much better Reese than Arnie would have been.
There are other people in the film beyond the three main characters but the story focuses in so closely on them that nobody else has much of a chance. Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen are decent detectives, Earl Boen is memorable enough as a police psychiatrist to be asked back for the first two sequels and there's the always welcome Dick Miller as the gun salesman from whom Arnie gets his much quoted Uzi 9mm. Miller is another link to another name worthy of mention because while he wasn't directly involved, this film is possibly the most obvious product of his legacy as a filmmaker. He's Roger Corman, who regularly cast Dick Miller as star or supporting actor and who gave James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd their starts in the business. Cameron started out as art director and miniature builder for Corman's Battle Beyond the Stars and shot second unit on Galaxy of Terror. Hurd was Corman's executive assistant for quite a few years.

There are a number of names offscreen who deserve much praise here. Brad Fiedel's music is still excellent, fortunately an anomaly for the decade it was written in, as most electronic scores for eighties films sound painfully dated today. Fiedel's music is recognisably eighties but also has a timeless quality that made it work just as well seven years later in the sequel and on from there to the rest of the media franchise that this film spawned. Maybe it's the simplicity of it that makes it so effective, reminding of the simplicity of the themes John Carpenter writes for his own movies. I used it for some time as my background music when playing Doom. Then there are the effects which are highly impressive for the budget. Amazingly they weren't nominated for an Academy Award, though only three films were in 1985, and it's notable that every picture Cameron has directed since has been nominated for Best Effects, regardless of the quality.

The success here is mostly due to the presence of Stan Winston in the crew, though he was not yet the legend he later became. He had been a versatile makeup and effects artist for some time but his animatronic terminator skeleton was what made everyone sit up and pay attention. This walking metal endoskeleton, perhaps even more than Arnie's face, helped make the terminator one of the great iconic villains of the cinema. It's hard to imagine a better final battle than the one Winston conjures up here with half a terminator, seemingly just clutching hands and glowing eyes, dragging itself ever onward towards its goal. The facial prosthetics are more dubious, but they're good enough and some would still stand up today, such as when the terminator gets run over by a truck, cleverly mirroring an earlier scene where the exact opposite happens. Today it would be done closer up with CGI and stylish camera angles but it would be no more effective.

It's often said that the biggest problem with Hollywood today is that it has the technology down but it's forgotten that it needs quality stories to go with it. Cameron's latest film, Avatar, is the epitome of this, being possibly the most technologically advanced picture ever shot, gorgeous to look at in every way, but with a story that plays out like a fourteen year old fanboy's attempt to put Pocahontas into space. Back in 1984, Cameron and Hurd had a story to back up their action, a commentary on man's relationship with technology. I've always seen the opening sequence as a microcosm of the film as a whole. An old black guy is happily doing his job but the terminator pops through time and screws up the electrics of his garbage truck. He hasn't a clue what to do and so runs away. The film is an extrapolation: we have a love/hate relationship with our magical technology and, at least in The Terminator, the result is a literal war against the machines.

While Cameron is a science fiction action nut who mostly works in a traditionally male genre, one of his biggest achievements as a filmmaker is to cross that demographic line and make pictures that appeal to a female audience too. Much of that surely has to do with the powerful female characters he writes into most of his stories, especially here where Sarah Connor doesn't start strong but by the end of the film, finds herself well down that road. She's an empowering role model to women. Yet it's more than that. What's possibly most important about The Terminator is that when all is said and done, it has something for all of us. It's a great action piece, a great horror film, a great thriller, a great science fiction flick and even a great romance. Unlike a film that seems ostensibly similar like Robocop, though still a great movie, The Terminator speaks on a primal level to all of us: boys and girls, men and women. That's an enviable achievement.

Grand Illusion (1937)

Director: Jean Renoir
Stars: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

If you want to work in the visual medium of film, it surely can't hurt to be the son of a master painter and French writer/director Jean Renoir must have reaped the benefits of being the son of renowned impressionist master Pierre-August Renoir, beyond being the subject of many of his paintings and having the luxury of selling some of those he inherited to finance his films. He paid enough attention to write a biography of him, Renoir, My Father. However he also had the good fortune to be the brother of a noted actor of stage and film, Pierre Renoir; and the nephew of a cinematographer, Claude Renoir. Sometimes it seems as if the visual arts were a destiny he simply couldn't avoid but he excelled on his own merits and became a name worthy of mention alongside his father's with films not just made in France but in the US and India too. Talk about a daunting prospect, to be the next in a line that included names like these.

Grand Illusion was not his first great work, as by 1937 he was in his fourteenth year as a director with films like The Bitch and Boudu Saved from Drowning already behind him, but it may be his first masterpiece. Perhaps the greatest anti-war picture of all time, it was successful in his native France but banned in Nazi Germany, both achievements of note in 1937, and it began a spark of genius which lasted until the outbreak of the war and included The Human Beast and Rules of the Game, which is often listed as the greatest foreign language film or simply the greatest film ever made. Having seen all three, I like Rules of the Game least, though audiences of the time went much further to meet it with derision and turn it into his greatest commercial failure. It's certainly a subtle piece and I'm well aware that I may just not see the depths that its vehement supporters do. Of the three it's Grand Illusion that stands out most for me.

It's one of those wonderful films that works on many different levels: it would be enjoyable as a ride, pure and simple, but it's even more enjoyable to delve through its many depths which are never too deep as to be unapproachable. Renoir deserves most credit for this, as both director and co-writer, but nobody lets the side down, not least the three leading stars. Two are French: Jean Gabin, often referred to as the French Bogart, and Pierre Fresnay, who was apparently Alec Guinness's favourite actor, hardly a minor accolade if not an official one. The third is Austrian: Erich von Stroheim, far better known to western eyes through his work in Hollywood as both actor and director, especially in the silent era. In keeping with a multinational cast, it treats all nationalities with equal respect, even though it's set during World War I with characters and actors from the nation who was then and was about to again become France's mortal enemy.

Von Stroheim plays Capt von Rauffenstein, an aristocratic German flying ace, and if you've ever seen him act you already have a picture in your head of just how clipped and aristocratic. When we meet him, he's celebrating the downing of his twelfth French plane in a composed manner that could have been applied to the first duck of the season. He asks his staff, without any hint of irony, that if any survivors are officers they should be promptly invited to lunch. They do indeed turn out to be officers, Fresnay as staff officer Capt de Boeldieu and Gabin as Lt Maréchal, who is a pilot, the pair on a reconnaissance flight to clarify a grey smudge on a prior photograph. Renoir knows precisely what this role called for as he was a French Air Force pilot himself and in fact Gabin even wears Renoir's own uniform. I wonder if he ever had the privilege of being treated as well as Maréchal is treated by his new host who sees them as welcome guests.

Rauffenstein is utterly of the old school. He is serious about his respect, which extends not just to the courtesy of pulling out their chairs and sharing his food but to honest conversation that proves the sides have more than a war in common. Maréchal, whose arm was broken in the crash, shares a profession with the German soldier who cuts his food: they're both engineers. Rauffenstein knows Boeldieu's cousin Edmond, the Count de Boeldieu, who serves as a military attaché in Paris. When wreaths pass through the room, memorials to the French dead from the men who killed them, they all stand as Rauffenstein salutes them: 'May the earth lie lightly on our valiant enemy.' It's at once entirely civilised and utterly surreal, as it's hardly what we expect from a war movie nowadays. It doesn't last though, as both prisoners are promptly transported to the Hallbach prisoner of war camp, where we spend almost half the film.
This is a officers' camp so prisoners are treated well, if not with Rauffenstein's exacting courtesy. They receive mail and food packages, which means that some of these officers eat better in a prisoner of war camp than they did at home, as Lt Rosenthal's parents run a bank and send him quality food from Fouquet's, which he shares with his compatriots in a subtle rejoinder to the Jewish stereotypes the Nazis were propagating across Europe. They even receive clothes to turn into costumes, which leads to this turning briefly into a silent movie when Maisonneuve tries on a woman's outfit and everyone stops and stares. It's little moments like this when we glimpse the reality behind the forced cheer. Of course they try to escape, for varying reasons: some because they see it as their duty, some because they're bored, some because they feel they should be part of the fight. De Boeldieu sees escape as the integral next move in the game.

It's in how these opinions connect people that Grand Illusion shows its real genius, because the connections aren't where you think. There are no good guys or bad guys here, merely soldiers, from a number of armies but especially French and German. Yet the sides aren't important, as if these soldiers didn't particularly recognise them: the Germans are the guards and the French are the prisoners, but that seems more like rules to a game than anything else. They're playing POW camp but it might as well be Monopoly for the amount of fraternisation that goes on. Only rarely does fighting even enter into the picture and then only incidentally like when Maréchal interrupts their stage review to start singing La Marseilleise because the German papers have announced that the French have retaken Douaumont. While this isn't up to the rendition in Casablanca, which it influenced, it's rousing nonetheless and it gets Maréchal put into a cell.

He's still there growing a beard when the Germans retake Douaumont, which promptly becomes a footnote in our story as well as the war. 'Isn't that awful?' one soldier says. 'Can't be much left of it,' says another. In Maréchal's cell, even as he insults his guard, shouting out that he wants to hear a French voice and see the light, the guard brings him a mouth organ and some cigarettes. These scenes let us know that these are all patriotic men, proud of their countries and willing to fight or serve to protect them. It's almost a primal urge, as Maréchal suggests to his compatriots as soldiers process past their window playing fife and drum. 'It's not the music that gets to you,' he points out, 'it's the marching feet.' Yet regardless of the posturing of the powerful, there's precious little difference between these officers, regardless of which army they're in. They have a shared sense of duty and shared experience to bind them together and adapt past the rest.

We soon discover that the differences that are harder to get past aren't those between people of different nationalities but between people of different classes, one discussion even classifying fatal diseases on a class basis. Rules of the Game is supposed to be Renoir's great meditation on class, but this fits that bill too, as it's the key to the whole film. Boeldieu is an aristocrat, while Maréchal is working class, an engineer by trade. Rosenthal is nouveau riche, born in Jerusalem to a Jewish family who acquired wealth and property in France. They bond as French officers, albeit distinguishable ones through opinion and attitude, and in another film that would be the end of it. Here, there are other connections, most obviously the one between Boeldieu and Rauffenstein which is renewed when the French officers are moved on to other camps, eventually reaching Wintersborn, a 12th century mountain fortress of stone and iron which he now commands.
It's here we begin to really understand the depth to which Renoir is going. Rauffenstein is always respectful of the men he must guard, but he reserves his strictest courtesy for Boeldieu, as he did on their initial meeting. These two characters, the one French and the other German, bond in a far deeper way than the French officers have, becoming something close to friends. It isn't just common experience, though they find that they've even pursued the same girl in Paris, it ties to being bred to privilege with the rituals and responsibilities that go along with it. They have an innate understanding of each other that neither has of the lower classes of their own nations, as they share with other in French, German and English, another marker that sets them apart from the other characters who only know their own languages, something that causes minor problems here and there throughout the story. Rauffenstein and Boeldieu also realise what's coming.

The grand illusion of the title is the idea that what was still known in 1937 as the Great War was the war to end all wars, an idea disproved two years later when it was renamed to accommodate another one. Most anti-war movies, including prior classics like All Quiet on the Western Front and Westfront 1918 are full of the horrors of war, the violence and terror and the dehumanising effect on the participants. In Grand Illusion, we don't see a moment of action, the war effort being restricted to incidentals like the same method to hide tunnel earth that was used in The Great Escape. The anti-war sentiment here isn't that war is inherently evil but that it fails to achieve anything positive, even when someone wins. There's no commentary on the reasons why the war began or on the Nazi plague sweeping Europe, beyond tantalisingly fleshing out a lead character as Jewish but without a single stereotype. War itself is the only specific target.

It offers no specific answers either, or perhaps it offers a variety of them depending on class. For the lower classes, the scenes after Maréchal and Rosenthal escape from the Wintersborn fortress explain that going back to the front to help win the war and so help to end it is pointless. Still deep in enemy territory, they find the house of Elsa, a German woman with a young daughter. Her husband was killed at Verdun and her brothers killed in other battles, some of the biggest German successes of the war, but the only result is that her table is now too big. For aristocrats, there really is no answer as they are rapidly becoming anachronisms, through what Rauffenstein describes as 'a charming legacy of the French Revolution.' They are career officers, raised to serve as combatants not bureaucrats, which Rauffenstein is revolted to have become because of his injuries. A fine career is what Boeldieu's cousin had: to lose an arm and marry a rich woman.

'I don't know who will win this war,' he tells his prisoner and friend, 'but whatever the outcome, it will mean the end of the Rauffensteins and the Boeldieus.' He's melancholy about the future and the geranium he keeps in his room is obviously representative of himself and his particular way of life. When Boeldieu sets up the escape of Maréchal and Rosenthal, using himself as diversion, he forces Rauffenstein to shoot him, but before he dies we realise that in dying both of them feel that he has won. 'For a commoner, dying in a war is tragedy,' he points out, 'but for you and me it's a good way out.' Rauffenstein can only admit that, by surviving with horrific injuries instead of going down in flames, he has missed his opportunity and faced with what he promptly calls a futile existence, he snips his geranium. Now there is nothing left of beauty in the fortress, as Von Stroheim superbly echoes by losing all light in his eyes after he shoots down his friend.
Erich von Stroheim is magnificent here, stiffly courteous and formally respectful, but always with utter sincerity. He has the arrogance and the responsibility of an aristocratic officer down pat, having long ago assumed such a back story for himself, though he was really the son of a Jewish hat maker who never served in the military. Yet while he was deservedly known as 'The Man You Love to Hate' for his many villainous war roles, here he has our sympathy from moment one and is the most tragic character in the film, even over those who die. His characterisation is superb, full of nuance, though cleverly written scenes ably assist him. His spine is fractured in two places, leaving him in a bizarre spinal brace, and he has silver plates in his skull and his kneecap, but he's dismissive. 'I owe these riches to the misfortunes of war,' he tells Boeldieu. Instead he knows that life is going badly because he's down to his last two pairs of white gloves.

While Erich von Stroheim was long established before Grand Illusion, his legendary directorial career already over, Jean Renoir's was just taking off and I wonder how much they discussed the film and its aims. Given that he was renowned as a perfectionist who demanded authenticity in his props, I wouldn't be surprised to find the brace he wore was real and he wore it throughout production or that he adjusted his character in many small ways. His legacy is hard to quantify because much of his impact came through the knowledge he passed down to great directors while working for them as an actor. Jean Gabin's legacy is huge and perhaps most notable in how his French films of the thirties influenced Hollywood in the forties. He isn't called the French Bogart for nothing, but it's because the iconic style Bogart thrived in once he left his supporting days at Warner Brothers behind was taken from Gabin rather than the other way around.

Gabin made his name in France with films for Julien Duvivier, beginning with Maria Chapdelaine in 1934 and progressing through four more including the wonderful Pépé le Moko before joining up with Renoir for this film, which made him an international star. His work during this period is amazing, including The Human Beast for Renoir and Port of Shadows and Daybreak for Marcel Carné. Never the prettiest of actors, he's perfect for the role of Maréchal, Renoir casting these actors not just for their talent but also for their faces. Gabin plays the everyman in this film, a French military officer but still very much one of the boys. His earthy portrayal grounds the story to those of us who aren't privy to the subtle rituals of the aristocracy. His scenes in the cell at Wintersborn are superbly played, far more realistic than the cooler equivalent shown by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and all the more powerful for that.

While Gabin and von Stroheim interact, the actor really tasked with playing off both of them is Pierre Fresnay, far less well known than either of his co-stars but perhaps regarded even higher by those in the know. While Gabin was the favourite actor of Sergio Leone, Fresnay was that of Sir Alec Guinness, which hardly surprises here, given that he plays Capt de Boeldieu precisely as you might expect Guinness to play him. He had been established longer than Gabin, especially through a trilogy of Marcel Pagnol plays brought to the screen by Alexander Korda, Marc Allégret and Pagnol himself: Marius, Fanny and César, in which he played Marius. He's tasked here with finding common ground with both the lower and upper classes and in fact with bridging the gap through his actions. It isn't a small task but he makes it seem easy, peppering his performance with observations like, 'Out there children play like soldiers. In here soldiers play like children.'

All three performances are multi-faceted and gloriously played, as are supporting roles by Dita Parlo as Elsa and many French actors who went by one name. Keeping them all in focus is Jean Renoir, who directed the film and also co-wrote it with Charles Spaak, and he shines brightest here for a number of reasons. There isn't a moment that is wasted, every detail adding more to the depth of it. Not a moment is overplayed, this being a truly subtle message movie, so subtle that while the themes are readily apparent, the variations on them are gently played enough that you'll find new insight with every viewing. Best of all, it works on multiple levels so you can sit back and simply enjoy or delve deeper, depending on your mood. It's films like this and The Seventh Seal that refresh our understanding of what a masterpiece really is and restore our perspectives. I should watch these two films every couple of years just to enforce that.

Hells Angels '69 (1969)

Director: Lee Madden
Stars: Tom Stern, Jeremy Slate, Conny Van Dyke and Steve Sandor
This promised plenty but strangely delivered in other ways. An American International Picture, quickly churned out to cash in on the success of Easy Rider, though it has more in common with Hells Angels on Wheels from a couple of years earlier, it features a whole slew of colourful characters: Sonny Barger, Terry the Tramp, Skip, Tiny, Magoo and the rest of the Oakland Hell's Angels. However it also stars the guys who wrote the story, Tom Stern and Jeremy Slate, whose names are as tough as they'd like to be. One looks like David Letterman trying to be James Woods, the other like a cross between Doug McClure and Dick Miller, and they play a believable pair of half-brothers who have certain rather dubious plans. They host a party and promptly leave it, announcing loudly that they're going to Acapulco, but switch out their Corvette for bikes and dress up in Salem Witches jackets, so they can arrange a run-in with the Angels.

It's all a con, you see, because Chuck and Wes Patterson plan to rob Caesar's Palace. This isn't Ocean's Eleven and they sure don't look like the Rat Pack, but they have thought things out nonetheless. The first step is to get in with the Angels and the second step is to talk them into a run up to Vegas, both of which go off without a hitch, after a bit of knee scraping and fist fighting and such. They even acquire themselves a girl, Betsy, who they buy for a pack of smokes. She's the only one of the bunch who isn't a real biker, given that she ran away from her family's Colorado ranch at fifteen and just hasn't worked out anything better yet. They drive straight through Vegas, though we do get a brief look at the 1969 Vegas Strip, showing us just how long Caesar's Palace, Circus Circus and the Flamingo have been there. They head on through to see Tiny's aunt, who hasn't seen him in years and thinks he's in Stanford. She gets a wake up call!
The third step is to pull their job and they have it pretty cleverly worked out. They're not too greedy but they're plenty ballsy, setting up the Hell's Angels on one side and the mob on the other, given that that's who was running the town at the time. What's most amazing to me is the fact that AIP managed to set this all up, because that's really the Oakland Angels and that's really Caesar's Palace. It's not easy to film in a major casino on the Strip, even if you're someone on the level of an MGM so someone at AIP must have known someone important to get in that deep. They even set up a fun scene with the management at Caesar's Palace who don't like bikers so try to very politely tell them to piss off, hardly the greatest image for a major tourist attraction, especially given that they cave under the tiniest amount of pressure and let them in after all. If there's anything worse than making a bad call, it's not even being consistent about it.

While this is far from a good movie, it's an interesting piece, though surprisingly it's less about the what and more about the who and the where. The looks we get at the Strip forty years ago are fascinating and we end up out in the desert for a lackadaisical chase that merely highlights the scenery. Sonny and his Angels were notable folks in 1969, about to become even more infamous in December at the Rolling Stones free festival at the Altamont Speedway. They don't come across as particularly dangerous here though, however tall some of them are, however much facial hair they have between them and however drunk they get. They do some hellraising but not a heck of a lot, especially as the only old lady who even speaks is the one played by an actress, Conny Van Dyke. They're certainly heroes rather than villains though, albeit complete outsider heroes, perhaps taking advantage of an opportunity for good publicity on their terms.
In fact there really aren't any villains here, which makes it a rather strange picture. The Angels are seen in generally good terms, the heroes are anti-heroes who do their crimes for kicks, the heroine is a runaway who's trying to find redemption in love. It doesn't end up about the money, at least not in any way we expect. Even the cops are decent, though we only spend time with one of them, a detective played by G D Spradlin, who has trouble getting his lines out here but went on to The Godfather: Part II, Apocalypse Now and even Ed Wood, where he played the Baptist minister who finances Plan 9 from Outer Space. The closest thing to a bad guy is the sanctimonious asshole behind the desk at Caesar's Palace and he's hardly a bad guy, just a waste of space doing his job. Bizarrely, for any component part of this fim you'd be better off going elsewhere, but to see them all together this may be the only place to choose from.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The House Where Evil Dwells (1982)

Director: Kevin Connor
Stars: Edward Albert, Susan George and Doug McClure

There's always something interesting to be seen in even the worst Japanese horror movies, but then this one's only a sort of Japanese horror movie. It looks fine to start with, set in Kyoto in 1840 with a lovely young lady playing her koto for her guest, but then it was partly made by Toei who know what they're doing when it comes to this sort of stuff. The costumes are right, the sets are right, even the music is right. What's wrong is the fact that this lovely young lady is cheating on her husband, a bad idea given that he's a samurai, albeit not a great one given how long it takes him to hack his unwelcome guest apart. Presumably it was aimed at an American audience so these scenes of samurai carnage take place entirely in slow motion, only returning to normal speed when our offended husband has slain his wife and her bit on the side so he can commit harikiri without having to take forever about it.

And while I'd have been happy if we'd stayed in 1840, we leap forward instead to the modern day to meet our American stars. Doug McClure is the local guy, resident in Japan long enough to pick up some of the language but not long enough to understand the TV show playing in the airport when he goes to pick up his friends, the Fletchers. Ted and Laura are a young couple on their second honeymoon, played by Edward Albert and Susan George. That's Edward, not Eddie: Edward is Eddie's son. Their daughter is Amy, both as an actress and a character: Amy Barrett plays Amy Fletcher. They want tradition, so Alex finds them a traditional haunted Japanese house, you know that one with a double murder suicide a hundred and forty years earlier. The only change from usual convention is that good old Alex knows full well the place is haunted and even tells them that from moment one. Nobody has to find it out the hard way.

Everything else is utterly conventional. We get a few clumsy attempts to remind us that it's a ghost story before we settle down for a long and gratuitous sex scene and while I'm hardly going to complain that I got to see quite a bit of Susan George, it just goes on and on. It's become very apparent that the more I see The Room, the more it becomes a reference point to every other piece of bad cinema and this sets itself up to match it in number of ways. It isn't just the sex scene, it's the whole bizarre love triangle that promptly gets set up. At least this one has a fairly acceptable excuse, given that the three ghosts hang around a lot and the female ghost very deliberately walks into Laura's body to make her say highly inappropriate things at highly inappropriate moments. However that doesn't mean it doesn't end up at precisely the same place, even if Alex doesn't even once exclaim 'But he's my best friend!'

I got bored pretty quicky with the whole ghost story, given that there's no real attempt to build any rhyme or reason to it. If anything they seem to have made up their differences during a hundred and forty years in the afterlife and team up to mess with the idiot gaijin. I tolerated these scenes for far too long, kept interested only by the possibility that Ted might see sense and go visit the Zen monk who comes to visit him to give him a heads up that hey, this is a ghost story, dude. Bad things are going to happen and maybe you'll be in need of a Zen monk. Thank the stars, he does in the end and while actor Henry Mitowa's English is terrible, he does at least send us back to the past to see Mako Hattori in the flesh and a cool witch and stuff like that. She plays Otami, the wayward wife. Her samurai husband is Shigero and it turns out that its his apprentice Masanori who she was messing around with. No wonder he was extra pissed.

The problem is that every time we head back into the present day, everything gets boring. Ted is very quickly tiresome, Laura's a shrieking pain in the ass and Amy's just there. This was young Amy Bennett's third film, after Caged Heat and Humanoids from the Deep, both of which saw her play someone called Amy too, but she gave it a rest after this one and only came back to the business for a small part in Woody Allen's Alice in 1990. I hate being rude about child actors, but I wonder if she really wanted to be in this movie or whether there were outside influences driving her. I've seen a lot worse acting but I've seen a lot better too, though to be fair her character is only ever used as a prop so it's hardly surprising she couldn't do much with it. The crabs get more to do. Yes, the crabs. Apparently infidelity leads to crabs, some of which are huge and fake and moan in a Japanese accent. Very strange stuff indeed, very strange stuff without a point.

People who like this film seem to like it for two reasons. The guys watch it for Susan George, who admittedly strains rather fetchingly against her tight outfits, but she's far better elsewhere, both as an actress and as a piece of eye candy. This is definitely minor Susan George stuff and she looks like a frog for far too much of the film. The girls watch it for Edward Albert, who has quite the fan club it seems, but while he's capable here too, he's not particularly worth watching the film for either. For my part, the best reason to watch is for Mako Hattori, not just because she's a lovely young Asian lady who gets a number of topless scenes, but because the opening scenes are the best ones. The film would have benefitted from the three Japanese actors who played the ghosts swapping roles with the three American actors playing the leads. The final fight scene wouldn't have been ludicrous and maybe we could have had more koto playing.

Galaxina (1980)

Director: William Sachs
Stars: Stephen Macht, Avery Schreiber, James David Hinton and Dorothy R Stratten

In 3008, space travel is routine, as are bad movies ripping off the Star Wars opening text, but this one is a guilty pleasure of mine. For some reason I remember it with fondness and one particular joke still makes me crack up even though it was patently awful. We're here to watch the very pink and phallic police cruiser number 308, the Infinity, and its token robot, a machine with feelings. She's Galaxina, a name so powerful that galaxies have to explode behind it for emphasis with tumultuous classical music to boot. Once the credits finish, we switch from Star Wars to Star Trek and Captain Cornelius Butt takes the role of Kirk. They have a seven year mission, galaxy date 3008 point 1, yaddah yaddah and there are Klingons on the starboard bow (well it looks like like a bird of prey). They have to police the trans galactic corridor but the crew ('if you can call them that', says Butt) get to stop off for a 72 hour rest period first.

Galaxina just chills in her glowing chair, Sgt Thor does his exercises with a cigar in his mouth and Robert 'Buzz' McHenry leans back in his chair and tilts his cowboy hat over his face so we only see his Dodgers shirt. They listen to some weird green frog thing singing opera on the United Galactic Network until an unknown spaceship turns up and Buzz wants to turn on the sirens. Thor points out that sirens can't be heard in space but realistically that's the level of humour we have to work with. It somehow speaks to me though. I love how everything goes almost right. I love the lack of CGI. I love how down to earth everything is, pun not intended. I love how the crew of the Infinity engages Ordric from Mordric, the unknown alien. 'Please respond,' pleads Buzz, 'this is a space police cruiser!' Capt Butt has a little more sass. 'I'm not going to engage a battle of wits with you,' he tells Ordric. 'I never attack anyone who's unarmed.'

I love these lines. The whole script is full of them. 'Quivering Venusian blubbercups!' cries the Captain in one memorable exclamation. Many of the lines are aimed at Buzz, because he's such an easy target. 'What's on your mind, if you'll forgive the overstatement?' the Captain asks him. Sometimes they include Sgt Thor too: 'If a jackass had both of your brains he'd be a pretty dumb jackass!' Even the minor characters get memorable lines. 'We not good enough for you, space honky?' spits the token black guy with Vulcan ears and a pair of bat wings. He's the engineer with an elderly Chinese sidekick who spends his entire time inhaling opium and spouting aphorisms like Charlie Chan. They're like a low budget version of Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto from Alien, which is spoofed when Capt Butt eats an egg that turns into a monster that grows up a little while they spend 27 years in cryogenic sleep on the way to Altair 1.

Galaxina is played by the lovely Dorothy Stratten, Playboy's Playmate of the Year in 1980. She tried to escape her nutjob husband, Paul Snider, by moving in with director Peter Bogdanovich, but he suckered her back to his apartment where he raped and murdered her before turning the shotgun on himself. There have been a number of films about her life, including Star 80 and Death of a Centerfold, in which she was played by Mariel Hemingway and Jamie Lee Curtis respectively. She's very lovely here in a robot maid outfit but she's off limits, at least initially. 'Why did they make her like that?' asks Sgt Thor after getting electrocuted by slapping her backside. 'Why didn't they build her out of tin stove pipes?' Butt replies, utterly deadpan, 'You know that it's forbidden for space police to fraternise with machines. It's against the laws of nature. You might go blind.' Only Avery Schreiber can be this deadpan.
Galaxina fixes herself though. After all she has a 27 year journey to do so, given that she has to spend it awake, or as awake as a cute robot in a revealing outfit can be, while everyone else gets to ignore it in hypersleep. She teaches herself to talk, to put on lipstick and to regulate her temperature. She even reprograms her shocking mechanism so she can get it on with the good sergeant. Kinky human on robot action in the thirtyfirst century! Well, if she had certain parts. They're in the catalogue. Anyway they go to Altair 1 because Cmdr Garrity orders them on a side trip to find Frank Future. He's apparently discovered the blue star, so huge a deal that there's a fanfare to accompany the very mention of it. To compensate them for the 54 year journey there and back, they do at least get overtime. Talk about a quick way to get rich! Go to sleep, wake up a rich man, especially when you can sue for whiplash too. They all get whiplash.

'Altair 1 is entirely populated by the scum of the universe,' we're told, set up as a penal colony like Australia where Galaxina gets to go find the blue star. Unfortunately the bar is a Star Wars Cantina type with an 'Aliens Only' sign, tended by Mr Spot, who looks like who you think. It's a human restaurant, not because it serves humans but because it serves humans. Literally. You know, things like knuckle sandwiches, fruit of the womb or black bottom pie, washed down with an Earth Cola, of course, or a bloodshake. Frank Future is long gone. 'I remember him,' says Mr Spot. 'He was delicious.' At least they kept his room intact so the blue star is easy to find. She just has to tangle with Ordric from Mordric in a Wild West showdown at high noon. Yes, this has everything. We haven't even met the bikers down at the hop yet, who worship the great god Harley Davidson so we can have a chase. Hey, petrol survived in Battlefield Earth, right?

There's plenty of more deliberate commentary on bad scifi, with references everywhere for those who care about working them all out. That was Buck Rogers spinning by early on, right? The doors sound like Star Trek and the lasers sound like Battlestar Galactica. Stephen Macht plays Sgt Thor like Starbuck, the original one played by Dirk Benedict, of course. Buzz may be another tribute to Dark Star, as there are a few of those. Some of it is more obscure, just quirky rather than quirky reference. Capt Butt takes the time to make galaxy log entries that say, 'Nothing new.' The crew eat pills at an oak table with ornate chairs and candelabras, washed down with wine, a Venusian Thunder Ripple, 2001. The engineers just get chicken pills. They have a rock eater as a prisoner because he ate the queen's jewels. 'What did I do to deserve this?' it rages in a New York Jewish accent as Capt Butt tells him bad jokes and throws rocks at him.

There's also a second Star Wars Cantina, this time a brothel called Kitty's to which the crew venture for a 24 hour furlough. Other science fiction isn't quite as honest, but here they take full advantage, chanting their lyrics to Porno Patrol ('any old port in a storm, any old hole'). Yes, there's a three breasted woman and every type of alien you can imagine, from classic grey to scary monster to blue girl via Creature from the Black Lagoon. Writer/director William Sachs threw every Mae West joke he could into the mix too. 'I make it a habit to never forget a face but in your case I'll make an exception,' quotes Kitty. 'I've had a wonderful time but it wasn't tonight,' Butt tells her when they leave. He picks a gorgeous girl who turns out to not have a gorgeous face, like Nina Hyena. 'At least you're not two faced,' he tells her as he puts a bag over her head, 'or you wouldn't have chosen the one you have on.'

Make no mistake, this is a terrible movie, but it knows it and it revels in it. Made in 1980 and released shortly after Dorothy Stratten's tragic death, it's a spoof ahead of its time. Its closest comparison is probably the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker movies, but they were brand new, Airplane being released the same year. Looking with fresh eyes after a couple of decades away, the first half still made me crack up but the second half drags. The turning point may be the journey to Altair 1 as things get a lot less controlled and a lot more strained once Galaxina starts turning human and the planet turns to infrared. It's still way better than the rating at IMDb gives it credit for. This may not be a true classic but it deserves a lot more than a paltry 2.5 rating. I enjoyed this at least as much as Mel Brooks's Spaceballs and might even suggest that the jokes are better. Give me Ordric from Mordric, whose mask is his face, over Dark Helmet every time.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Santa Claus (1959)

Director: René Cardona
Stars: José Elías Moreno, Pulgarcito, José Luis Aguirre and Armando Arriola
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Given that summer is here and the temperatures in west Phoenix are dancing around a hundred, I felt it was time for Mexican Christmas, courtesy of K Gordon Murray. He didn't just bring bizarre Mexican horror movies like The Brainiac north of the border, he brought a lot of bizarre Mexican movies for kids too, this one perhaps the most famous and the most bizarre of the bunch. Also, given that I'm writing while Arizona waits for SB1070 to become law and the substantial Hispanic population talks about the potential for racial discrimination, I couldn't help but read into this film commentary on how Mexicans see themselves. The best reality is found in fantasy, after all, and this one goes whole hog, way out there, because the Mexican Santa Claus, while obviously well known enough to get a movie of his very own, really isn't that similar to the equivalents we know from our own countries. In fact this Santa Claus mythology is well, rather customised.

There are a few things that remain consistent. He does look like the fat Santa we know with his red suit and white beard. He has a jolly laugh, though it's a very tiring and rather sinister jolly laugh, one that goes beyond the comfort zone like the laugh you might expect a child molester to have. He spends Christmas dishing out presents to children too, which you might take as a given, but if you make it through this film you won't ever assume again. And that's about it, for everything else is a departure from canon. For a start, this Santa Claus doesn't live at the North Pole, he lives above it, 'away up in the heavens, far out in space, in a beautiful gold and crystal palace.' He doesn't have elves to help him, instead an international child labour force works his Toyland factory and we're forced to suffer through an interminable string of stereotypical songs with Santa accompanying the children on the organ, looking like Bert Lahr from The Wizard of Oz.

Toyland is a strange place, to put it mildly. Kringle doesn't force everyone to work in his factory, as the Aussies and Canadians apparently signed a treaty with him to avoid child labour in space. Everyone else seems to be stuffed into the Toyland dome though, which doesn't remotely meet international standards given that it snows inside. That's right: these kids are forced to work for Santa while it snows on them all day every day. Maybe the coolness of the snow is just to avoid this becoming a sweatshop. Santa also makes them work in traditional dress, and by that I mean that the African kids are in leopardskin loincloths with bones stuck to their heads. Let's all learn about stereotypes, boys and girls. This is educational so pay attention! There are no black people in the Caribbean, even Santa doesn't care about the colonials and hell, if the elves go on strike you can just hire a child labour force. It sounds like something the Texans conjured up.

Father Christmas also has a nemesis, because delivering gifts in this mythology is like a boss battle in a video game where you have to defeat your antagonist or the children go without for a year. This movie is aimed at little kids so the bad guy can't be too scary, naturally, but in Mexico, that apparently means a demon called Pitch who has the requisite red long johns, goatee and horns and works for Lucifer, the King of Hades. We meet him when Santa shows his child workers how to set off firecrackers indoors and suddenly we're in Hell watching a host of demons dance around a brimstone pit. Lucifer tasks Pitch with travelling to Earth to battle Santa and to turn kids to the dark side. If he screws up again King Lucifer will punish him harshly. 'Instead of eating red hot coals you'll eat chocolate ice cream,' he tells him. 'By the horns of everything Satanic!' Pitch replies because frozen meals are bad for his delicate digestion. No, I'm not kidding.

Perhaps because Santa can only visit Earth on Christmas Eve he has a magical observatory with the usual things: flashing lights, whirring dials and a pair of huge red lips. Yes, the main control console is shaped vaguely like a face with an inviting pair of lips and a phallic nose. Everything is anthropomorphic: the dreamscope is a rotating ear and the telescope is an eye that's rather reminiscent of a tripod from The War of the Worlds, a flamboyantly gay one with fake eyelashes. With this equipment Santa can do even more than a Pennsylvania school district. Not only can he zoom right into children's bedrooms and watch their every move, the dreamscope can even look into their dreams. Yes, jolly old Saint Nick is really Big Brother, with more computing power than the Echelon project and more knowledgeable about your darkest secrets than the NSA and Facebook combined. Wasn't anyone thinking of the children in Mexico back in 1959?

Santa also has a unique perspective on things, as we soon discover through his interaction with humanity, mostly in the form of five little Mexican children: rich boy Billy, poor girl Lupita and three unnamed bad boys who are more than susceptible to Pitch's influence. Santa reads Billy's dreams as suggesting that he just wants his parents to love him, but we can't help but wonder if imagining your parents in stand up coffins is more about instant inheritance. Do they love him? 'Maybe they do and maybe they don't,' says Santa. Lupita wants a doll and successfully resists the urges of Pitch to steal one but she can't resist scary life size dolls invading her dreams. They have coffins too which they escape to dance around her in the mist and persuade her to be evil. We can't tell if she's happy or not because actress Lupita Quezadas has one expression which is a sort of mildly panicked acceptance. If you played her at poker you'd believe she had four aces.

The only other Earthlings that Santa connects with are the ones who write him letters, which are blown by magic to Santa's space castle by the post office. One kid wants an atomic laboratory and a machine gun. 'So be it,' says Saint Nick because he's down with the terrorists. Maybe he found out about SB1070 through spying on Jan Brewer's dreams and decided to be proactive. It's liars that he doesn't like and he has an innate sense for detecting falsehoods so those letters go into the liar's box. There's a stork box too for those who want little brothers to beat up on, as Kringle has a partnership with the stork. He partners with a lot of unlikely people, some of whom live in his cosmic castle, like Vulcan, the redheaded master blacksmith who spends all his time making golden keys with annual expiry dates, that will get Santa through any door or gate on Earth. They're electric keys that would surely fall foul of the DMCA and have Santa sent to Gitmo.

There's also Merlin the Wizard, Santa's most devoted helper. I'm not sure if he has an atomic lab or a meth lab because he gets up to all sorts of wildly illegal shenanigans with exotic chemicals, especially dangerous given that he's suffering from an advanced stage of Alzheimer's disease. He has a pointed hat and cape covered with stars and moons, of course, and he skips along in his curly shoes humming the 1812 Overture. He has a pentagram on the wall and a goats head plaque on his fireplace, so he must be one of the good guys. Armando Arriola is the actor, better known as Arriolita, and he's by far the most fun thing about this movie, something akin to Q in the James Bond movies but blissfully off his rocker. He mixes magic stardust, a potent sleeping powder, in an urn made of copper, nickel, uranium, plutonium and platinum. No lead, of course, because that's dangerous. He has a flower to disappear too: just sniff it and you're invisible.
What Pitch would give to get hold of this sort of technology! It's like the Iraq war all over again. Father Christmas is the dumb but heroic Americans with space age tech that can make him invisible at a sniff or send people to sleep just by throwing stardust at them. Pitch represents the Iraqis, the evil empire, utterly inept but constantly trying to convert the children of the world to his nefarious master's twisted agenda. No wonder he has the three bad boys conjure up a plan to jump Santa when he lands, make him their slave and carjack his sleigh. Apparently even in Mexican movies from 1959 the kids are gangbangers! And yes, Santa has a sleigh, though it has some rather dangerous design flaws. To traverse the vast expanses of space he has a toy sleigh with no roof that's hauled by cackling clockwork reindeer who disintegrate in sunlight. I wonder why he didn't have Merlin design something more reliable than the Super Reindeer Special.

Pitch doesn't need a sleigh because he can just teleport. He also forms half an intriguing version of the angel/devil concept. He pops into being behind the kids' shoulders rather than on them, as the filmmakers didn't have an effects budget, to rub his hands, throw shapes and blow in their ears like a flagrantly gay child molester. Nobody sees him but children hear him subconsciously. They don't hear the narrator though because he only exists in the American release, dubbed in by K Gordon Murray himself under the pseudonym of Ken Smith. It doesn't stop him talking to them though in attempts to warn them of Pitch's latest nefarious schemes. It doesn't matter, of course, because Pitch is just as inept as Santa, who manages to almost hit the Moon on the way to the Earth because space apparently isn't particularly spacious. Maybe he has to avoid other space castles owned by folks like the Easter Bunny, the Stork and the Tooth Fairy.

The only character more inept than this version of Santa Claus isn't Pitch, it's the folks who wrote the story. I tend to overthink children's stories but I could see through glaring plot holes even when I was so young I thought wrestling was real. Some people who first saw this film as children recount ensuing nightmares, not of the hooded figures and crimson demons who live in Lucifer's domain or even of the concept that Satan has it in for Santa, which would be rather confusing for dyslexics, but of those cackling clockwork reindeer. Others wonder about the complex web of theology woven by the filmmakers. Santa works with Merlin and Vulcan to fight Lucifer, and they also partner with Jesus, hardly a combination you might expect in staunchly Catholic Mexico. Kringle asks Jesus to meet up on Earth to ensure peace and goodwill. Lupita asks for two dolls so she can give one to baby Jesus. He doesn't show up, but we get a biblical message as the coda.

The stereotypes are so politically incorrect, it's almost unbelievable that they aren't perpetrated by foreign racists but by the Mexicans themselves. It doesn't take much of a stretch to see Santa as an illegal alien, given that Mexico surely doesn't have a free travel agreement with the space fortress he maintains. He's a terrorist and arms dealer, given that he's happy to supply atomic laboratories and machine guns to little boys. He's a major drugs trafficker who maintains his own crops in space and brings the finished product down to Earth. He uses cocktails of remembrance to spike the drinks of Billy's parents so that they'll go home to be with their son. He only has to blow Merlin's sleeping powder in the general direction of any kids who may have stayed up late to catch a glimpse of him and they're out for the count, making this stuff a paedophile's dream, one that he's so careless with that he lets Pitch cut a hole in the bag and steal it all.

The creepy aspect is even highlighted directly in the film. After Santa loses his technological advantage over Pitch through sheer carelessness, Pitch traps him in a tree, sics the family dog on him and persuades the householder to call the authorities because there's a prowler outside coming to get his wife and children. By this point, we almost believe Pitch ourselves because this Santa Claus has got so creepy he's into creepy clown territory, the red suit being just another way to get close to the little objects of his affection so he can belly laugh at them and drug them into slumber. Don't forget that his castle is full of kids and he's spent much of the film thus far spying on children in their bedrooms. What leapt out at me most though was that he isn't even good at his job, given that this Christmas Eve he makes it to only three households, all in Mexico City, and he delivered coal to one of those. What happened to the rest of the world that year?

At least the ineptitude is consistent. Pitch isn't much better than Santa. His persuasions escalate kids from vandalism to kidnap and grand theft auto, and when they fail to achieve the goals he sets for them, he kicks their asses and leaves them to beat each other's brains out. His grand scheme to defeat Kringle is to move a single chimney on a single rooftop, which hardly ranks among the great grand schemes of cinematic villains, even if it's luckily the very chimney Saint Nick tries first. The local Mexicans are dumb too. The householder Pitch arouses with fear of an intruder is a chauvinistic coward. He has a pistol and he still wants the women to go first. The authorities must be stationed at Keystone given how long it takes them to get to their house. Even Lupita's father, mysteriously absent for most of the film, turns out to have been looking for work on the night of Christmas Eve, which only makes sense if he's a male prostitute.

There are good films, bad films and films so bad that they become good again in ways never intended by the filmmakers. This is bad, so bad that I'd have to rate Santa Claus Conquers the Martians higher, but it fits better in a fourth category, comprised of films that are so magnetic in their atrocity that you just can't turn your eyes away because you want to see if it's possible for them to get weirder. This is a film where you wonder what the filmmakers were smoking, as they were mostly experienced folk: director René Cardona racked up a hundred credits as an actor, forty as a screenwriter and a hundred and fifty as a director, as far back as 1925. Santa Claus is a strange companion to Night of the Bloody Apes and Wrestling Women vs the Aztec Mummy in his filmography, but it's more than a little diverse. It seems that he made anything his studio asked him to, whether he had a clue what it was about or not, even as a co-writer.

Most of the cast were well known enough to be credited by their stage names, José Elías Moreno an exception in the title role. Second billed is Pulgarcito, which translates roughly to Tom Thumb, a character Cesáreo Quezadas played a number of times, including his 1957 debut. Surely the success of that film must account for his high billing because he hardly gets anything to do as Pedro, Santa's little Mexican child slave. Pitch is Trotsky, or José Luis Aguirre, a choreographer as well as an actor, though that scares me given what he does as Pitch. Merlin is played by one of Mexico's most beloved actors, Armando Arriola, better known as Arriolita, and his portrayal of the well known wizard as a hopping Alzheimer's sufferer is a gift to cult audiences. Compared to him, Ángel Di Stefani as Vulcan is forgetful, even though he had played the Aztec Mummy three times. Lupita Quezadas and Antonio Diaz Conde hijo thankfully never acted again.

Modern Times (1936)

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Star: Charlie Chaplin
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Modern Times is a flawed but fascinating anomaly in American cinema. I've come to believe that Chaplin found that in 1936 he could still make whatever he wanted but while he had much to say, even he found difficulty in saying it. Times had certainly changed and he was in serious danger of becoming an anachronism. He released this film nine full years into the sound era and five after his last film, City Lights, which in stubbornly resisting the technological advances of the medium had effectively marked a fitting close to the silent era. Modern Times speaks to technological advances specifically, so could, like the opening scene of City Lights be read as a commentary on how Chaplin saw the industry he worked in. Are the massive and impersonal machines meant to signify massive and impersonal sound movies? We don't know but if they are, we can't help but wonder what Chaplin brought to this picture that he hadn't before.

This was one of the last Chaplins I caught up with, because I'd quickly realised that a solid start to learning about the history of comedy on film is to watch Chaplin evolve from his earliest days in the business. His initial shorts for Mack Sennett's Keystone studio in 1914 are mostly terrible but understandably so. Standards were very different back then and Chaplin was in the process of redefining just what screen comedy was, well before Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and other household names of silent comedy came along. He improved with each new studio he moved to, as his budgets grew and his control with them, until mid-period classics like The Immigrant and The Kid proved that at his peak no one else could even come close to his genius. He had simply become the rulebook that everyone else followed and most were content to follow. Yet after City Lights, nobody was following any more and in fact nobody was even on the same road.

While I worked through Chaplin's work roughly chronologically, I'd seen his later key films before City Lights and Modern Times. The Great Dictator showed that he understood sound implicitly and perhaps, as he also composed his scores, better than most. With Monsieur Verdoux he was still ahead of the curve, defining black comedy on film a few years before the English mastered it and perhaps a decade before the Americans paid attention. A King in New York proved that he still had it in 1957, the humour biting and topical. All three films share highly daring material, as Chaplin railed against Hitler a year before the US abandoned neutrality to join the war, found humour in murder and attacked the communist witch hunts that had prompted his emigration to Switzerland. Modern Times ruthlessly satirises capitalism, even while the Great Depression was still impacting millions, but perhaps it doesn't feel as daring because the target is less personal.

It stands alone in cinema, not as a daring innovator but as a relic because it's a silent movie yet not a silent movie. There is a little speech but what there is only comes from mechanical objects, telling in itself given the theme, but added only to help audiences who had got out of the habit of reading a movie. There is synchronised sound but mostly we have Chaplin's own score and a few intertitles. The silent aficionados call it a mute sound film and that makes sense to me, especially as Chaplin intended to make a sound film but backed out on the idea. In the opening text to the movie Chaplin calls his film, 'a story of industry, of individual enterprise - humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.' This sort of generalisation, building a movie around a theme rather than a plot, is something entirely out of the silent era as is the convention where the lead characters don't have names, here introduced only as 'a factory worker' and 'a gamin'.
Of course Chaplin himself is the factory worker who initially works on a mind numbing production line tightening nuts, a pair at a time, the lack of intelligence required highlighted by the opening comparison shot between a herd of sheep and a mass of workers emerging from the subway. He's employed by the Electro Steel Corp, who run a vast industrial complex full of the sort of massive machinery with indefinable purposes and abundant controls that we're used to seeing in fifties sci fi movies. We really have no clue what this factory makes, even as we watch Charlie and his colleagues churning out widgets in Section 5, whose name merely aids the mystery. The workers are forced into being as mechanical as the environment they inhabit, merely more cogs in the machine. Efficiency is God, as underlined by the president who can monitor production metrics from his desk and order his minions to alter the speed of the conveyor belts at will.

If Charlie, who represents the working class, is dehumanised by the system he works in, so is the president, who represents the ruling class. He is at once a throwback to the disconnect between classes made so apparent in Metropolis and a look forward at the connected future that would arrive decades later with computer technology and, of course, the internet. He has huge two way video screens that let him look at anyone or anywhere in the plant, the obvious privacy concerns deftly highlighted by the presence of one in the restroom, so he can order Charlie back to work when he turns a bathroom break into a smoke break. The president is a cog in the machine, just like Charlie, merely the one that regulates the efficiency of the system. The universal effect of dehumanisation within such an environment is hammered home by the introduction of a feeding machine that aims to do away with worker lunch breaks by feeding them on the job.

'Don't stop for lunch, be ahead of your competitor!' rings the sales pitch and naturally Charlie is chosen to be the guinea pig to demonstrate the machines to the president. The inevitable chaos is yet another Chaplin textbook on comedic control and timing, especially as you just know that this contraption is going to malfunction in horrible ways. It's very telling to find the president rule them out not because they're inherently inhumane, Charlie being treated worse than a slave while strapped inside the thing, but simply because they're not practical. Chaplin makes it very clear that there are only two possibilities for a worker in such an environment: to become a robot or to have a nervous breakdown. Charlie initially seems like the former, as his mechanical movements continue involuntarily even after he stops working, but becomes the latter after being literally sucked into the machine. He's spent so long with nuts he's become one.
And here we start realising why the film's title is so appropriate: the villain of the piece is nothing less than modern times generally. The dehumanising factory sends him to the hospital, after he tightens people's noses, chases women with buttons that look like nuts and sprays workers with oil while dancing a sabotage ballet. Life continues to throw him this way and that without any deliberate action on his part, even after his release. He's sent to jail, after he picks up a red flag that falls off the back of a truck and finds himself leading a communist demonstration. He stops a jailbreak even he was merely high on cocaine at the time, because a fellow prisoner hid his drugs in the salt. He's even released against his wishes. 'Can't I stay a little longer? I'm so happy here,' he tells the warden. A letter of recommendation gets him a job but he ends up launching a half built ship simply by doing what he was told. He just can't win.

The saddest and most striking thing in this film is Charlie's realisation that jail is the best place to be in these modern times, especially when he has the comfy cell with all the perks. It's as he tries to get back there that he meets his female counterpart, the gamin, a French word meaning waif or orphan and so should really be gamine. She's been blown around by the modern times too and lives on the waterfront with no mother, an unemployed and soon to be dead father and no food. She escapes as her sisters are sent to an orphanage and literally runs right into Charlie with a stolen breadstick in her hands. He can't even get arrested by confessing to her crime but can by ordering a huge meal and inviting a cop to witness his failure to pay. This is the first time he manages to make something happen for himself but circumstance still steps in, throwing him and the gamin out of the paddy wagon they're reunited in. This is still the turning point though.

Paulette Goddard plays the gamin and she's one of my biggest problems with the movie. Soon to become the third Mrs Charlie Chaplin, she was the only wife who was over 18 when they married and she's notably too old for the part, even though she was 26 to Chaplin's 47 at the time. She reminds of Mary Pickford, who couldn't escape playing juvenile waifs and runaways even in her mid thirties. She also overplays many of her scenes, as if she was trying to overcompensate for the lack of sound as many silent actors did, even though her only silent film was as an unnamed train passenger in a Laurel & Hardy short. She has none of the mastery of motion that her screen beau and future husband demonstrates throughout, and his natural ease serves only to highlight her artificiality. She was better in The Great Dictator and in other non-Chaplin films, and was talented enough to be a leading contender for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.

My other major problem is that while there is so much genius on show in individual scenes and so much depth and metaphor to play with, it doesn't flow to me as well as Chaplin's other films. While even City Lights was a collection of gags strung together to comprise a coherent storyline, from the statue scene to the suicide scene to the boxing scene, those gags feel comfortable together there but blatant here. After Charlie is hauled back to reality from a dream sequence that surely inspired the intro to The Dick Van Dyke Show, he affirms to the gamin that, 'We'll get a home, even if I have to work for it.' Instantly there's an intertitle, 'An accident happened in a department store,' and there's the job on a plate. Later, with Charlie back in jail, the gamin starts dancing in the street for no reason except to be instantly hired as a dancer in a restaurant. She makes a bundle of money in a single week but can still be brought up on vagrancy charges.
To be fair, I find less fault each time I watch Modern Times. These flaws stood out for me on my first time through, leaving the picture disjointed and broken as anything beyond a set of very cleverly constructed gag routines. Further viewings seem to paper over the cracks, until they're more of a mild annoyance in places, perhaps mostly because I've come to understand just what's going on behind these scenes and what they represent. The ending is a great example of this, as initially I felt it was simply terrible, the film getting progressively more depressing until Chaplin apparently felt he needed to tack on a happy ending to raise the tone. I can't imagine today why I interpreted the film this way because it's a great ending, as long as you see the story as the trials and tribulations of a couple trying and failing to live by the rules and the ending as what really matters, two people smiling regardless because they have each other.

So while I still see it as a lesser film as a single story than City Lights or The Kid, it grows over viewings as a powerful commentary on its subject matter, one that remains more and more telling as time passes. Chaplin didn't have a magic telescope into the 21st century and I doubt he ever aimed that far, though I'm sure Aldous Huxley's futuristic novel Brave New World was an inspiration, having been published only a few years earlier, but there are concerns raised here that seem even more pressing today. Some are simply universal, such as the moral implications of crime as necessity for survival, even in an advanced society, something that continues to pose moral questions in the current recession in the US. The memorable scene when Charlie tries to extricate his boss from steel mill machinery only to stop for lunch because of a Pavlovian response to the lunch bell is reminiscent of techniques used by politicians and the media today.

So Modern Times has far less of a coherent story to tell than other Chaplin films but it has more to think about and come back to. Having seen The Great Dictator, City Lights and Modern Times all again recently, this may be the least of them but the most likely for me to return to. I haven't quite worked out whether I'd be coming back for the depth of the commentary or for the many gags. Maybe it's for both, such as the scenes in the department store where Charlie spends one night as a night watchman. There's depth in the unveiling of the men who shoot at him. 'We ain't burglars, we're just hungry,' they tell him, telling given that he's already brought in the gamin for food and sleep in a real bed on the sixth floor. There's joy in the stuntwork, such as the great skating scene, full of apparently insane danger though the floor looks like a cunningly painted set. There's comedy in the combination of the two, especially as he gets accidentally drunk.

The other scene that's always worth coming back to is a historical one. This is the last film to feature the little tramp, the most recognisable character of the era on the global stage, because Chaplin felt that his success stemmed from a universal appeal, something that only existed with him as a silent character. Because silent movies had no voices they could travel anywhere, with the only overhead a need to translate intertitles. If Chaplin gave the little tramp a voice, all that would vanish, and so he resisted so far that this became a mostly silent movie in 1936. However he did find a way to get round it, at least as a one time thing. Late in the film, Charlie becomes a singing waiter but the song he ends up singing remains universal because it's sung in gibberish, fashioned from a number of languages, but really told through pantomime. This single song, even more than this single film, becomes the point at which Chaplin bridges eras.