Sunday 21 December 2014

Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)

Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Marie Dressler, Charles Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain and Charles Bennett
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
It's strangely appropriate that the last Chaplin picture at Keystone to be released to theatres turned out to be the only feature he shot there, Tillie's Punctured Romance. While it's far from his most memorable work for the studio and it was far from the last thing he shot there, it was a notable milestone in cinema and it works well as a broad dividing line between the two halves of his Keystone career, the first half in which he learned his trade acting for other directors and the second in which he finessed his skills while directing himself. Shooting began on Tuesday, 14th April, three days after Sennett had shot Chaplin in a one day film, A Busy Day. Before that, Chaplin had made fourteen films for six different directors, sitting in the director's chair himself for only one and a bit. By the time shooting wrapped on Tuesday, 9th June, he had made five more, all directed by Sennett. However, the remaining fifteen he would go on to make were all under his own direction; this was the final acting job he did for another director at Keystone.

The milestone isn't merely that this was Chaplin's debut feature, not to be followed until The Kid in 1921, or that it was the first feature shot at Keystone Studios; it's generally regarded as the first feature length comedy ever made (though some cite Battle of Gettysgoat instead). Features weren't new, but they had never been comedies before. The first dramatic feature, the Australian film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, predates this by eight years. France followed in 1909 with Les Misérables; and Italy and Russia produced their debut features in 1911. The US caught up in 1912 and it produced at least four features that year, the same year in which Sennett left Biograph to found Keystone, one of fifteen production companies in what would become known a year later as Hollywood. 1913 was the real year of expansion, as theatres replaced nickelodeons and the middle class accepted motion pictures as respectable entertainment. In only half a decade, the US went from producing four features a year to over six hundred.

It's no surprise that early efforts were rough around the edges and the first American feature to be widely acclaimed as a masterpiece wouldn't arrive until 1915, that being D W Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. It's no great challenge to find flaws in Tillie's Punctured Romance, even if it was adapted from an established stage play, Tillie's Nightmare, written by A Baldwin Sloane and Edgar Smith and first staged in 1910. The lead actress who Sennett hired, Marie Dressler, was clearly the best choice, given that she had originated the role on Broadway and toured with it for three years. This was her first movie, though she was already 45 years old and had been successful on Broadway since 1892, so to support Dressler, Sennett cast most of the recognisable faces in his company, led by Chaplin and Mabel Normand. Only a few, such as Roscoe Arbuckle, are notable for their absence. So, Sennett had a successful play, its successful leading lady and a successful supporting cast. What could go wrong?
Well, the most obvious problem is that nobody had done this before. Sennett knew that what might work on stage wouldn't necessarily work on screen, but he had no conception of what would keep his audience laughing for the then unimaginable length of 85 minutes. While he kept the script moving, the pacing is utterly broken, mostly because the concept of time is non-existent. We literally have no idea how much time has passed at any point, a need that seems obvious in hindsight given that there are two separate stories unfolding for half the movie and we're constantly waiting for them to collide. This problem is why the pace is off and there's neither suspense nor surprise. My better half, watching this for the first time with no foreknowledge of events, found it easy to explain what would happen later in the current act and to what that would subsequently lead in the next. It really is a predictable affair, painted in broad strokes and constantly telegraphed. Anything positive to say on those fronts is wrapped up in the word 'first'.

So let's take a look at what this first comedy feature had to offer. It's all about Tillie, as you might expect from the title, even though Chaplin's star rose long before Dressler's on the silver screen and so reissues tended to shift his name above the title and hers below it. She's a country girl who works the family farm and she's outside with her hoe when Chaplin arrives, throwing a brick for her dog to fetch and hitting him instead. We see him from behind first but his outline is instantly recognisable, even though he's not the Little Tramp this time out. He does have tears in his jacket and a familiar bamboo cane to twirl, but he's a lot more dapper than usual, with a pork pie hat, a tie and a sash. His jacket fits for a change and there's a suave moustache rather than his usual toothbrush. His hair makes a statement too, as if to highlight that this is the Little Tramp playing the Latin Lover. Naturally, Tillie is quickly smitten and she gets all girlish after she literally carries him inside to recover from the brick.

Thus far, we've learned that Dressler is more than able to work the slapstick routines Sennett wanted. We also realise that he's inordinately fond of having characters kick each other in the ass, a frequent move in Chaplin's early Keystone films but one which gradually vanished after he gained some creative control. It appears so often in this one that it's almost like the picture's heartbeat. Chaplin's character, an unnamed City Stranger, learns from a casual kitchen transaction that Tillie's father is rolling in dough. He knows its location too, because he hides it poorly. So he escalates the flirtation, eventually upbraiding Tillie's father for kicking her ass yet again and becoming firm and devilish with her, almost stalking her as he suggests an elopement, paid for with her father's money, of course. Tillie has enough sense to hold on to the cash, but little enough that she goes along with the stranger's plans. Yes, this good country soul is robbing her dad to elope with a stranger she met an hour earlier. Credulity is certainly stretched.
That's the end of the first of the six acts which are layered on top of each other to comprise this feature. I wonder if the title cards that announce each of them were a means for the audience to keep track of how long they had to wait until it was over. Act two begins with the couple in town, Tillie floundering around in traffic, and the third wheel about to make her appearance. This is Mabel, looking a lot more dreamy in an Oriental outfit with a huge ruff than Tillie does in her outrageously awful dress and still more horrendous hat, complete with duck standing up between its flowers. Mabel is Charlie's girl, or at least she was; she's a little taken aback to see her man back with someone else. This escalates in a bar, where Dressler hams up her first drink with abandon. Charlie ends up with the cash, so does a runner with Mabel and Tillie is a drunken pauper, ejected with prejudice for being unable to pay. A few minutes later she's in the Keystone Kop station, biting the booking officer's finger, while Charlie and Mabel purchase clothes in a posh store.

You can be sure that we're going to get a lot more to the 'punctured romance' of the title than that and it all happens through Charlie getting back with Tillie whenever it's fortuitous for him to do so then doing a vanishing act whenever it stops being fortuitous. The discovery that her uncle is a millionaire sparks only a first return to her, but Charlie bounces back and forth between Tillie's money and Mabel's looks so often that we do wonder why either of them would put up with him. Eventually, of course, they don't, and how the three of them end up is far from surprising. What's surprising is that it's Mabel who gets to grow with the story; Charlie is exactly the same person at the end that he is at the beginning and Tillie doesn't find any real change either, even though most of the things that happen in this movie happen to her. Mabel's character grows both through realising what Charlie is and through a clever parallel in a movie, A Thief's Fate, that Charlie takes her to see, inadvertently sitting next to a cop in the process.
So, while the feature itself is generally clumsy, predictable and unimaginative, there are moments where the combination of actors and situation generate some magic. Charlie's amorality, Mabel's growing guilt and the increasingly suspicious glances from the future Charley Chase as the cop sitting next to her are one of my favourites. The brief flirtation between Tillie and Charlie is another, with Dressler acting giddy and coquettish, no mean feat for someone of her size; she throws flowers at him, while he throws a brick at her. Tillie's drunk scenes all raise a laugh, even though Dressler overplays them throughout; she's fun in jail and she's even more fun dancing a jig over crossed swords at her uncle's mansion. Mabel is given drunk scenes too, which also work well, but they're later in the film during the rapid fire finalé, where the technical side of the film finally decides to earn some praise through some capable editing. It's hardly an impressive picture otherwise from any technical standpoints, though it could have been a lot worse.

Most of the problems are understandable for the first comedy feature ever made. Everyone involved with this picture, whether in front of or behind the camera, was used to making short films, one reelers or two reelers but never a six reeler, and it's very obvious that they treated it like six short films that they could lump together into one feature. They had no idea how to scale, so the aspects that annoy the most over a six reel length could have been easily shrugged off in a single reel. For instance, there's a stretch of road that appears more often than many of the name actors, as it's right outside every location. It's in front of the bar Tillie gets drunk in, Tillie's uncle's mansion, Heywood's clothes store, the theatre playing A Thief's Fate, you name it, always shot from the same position. It's not the location, it's the repetition. A different sort of repetition is annoying too, because this picture checks off all the usual Keystone locations: a park, a bar, a pier. Often this feels like Keystone's Greatest Hits, especially after Chaplin's 35 other 1914 films.

Critics haven't been kind to Tillie's Punctured Romance, which tends to be remembered for nothing more than being a milestone. They might grant a little leeway here and there for a century old picture, but not much. Of course, Marie Dressler would go on to much greater success on screen but not until she'd left it in 1918 and returned again in 1927. While she showed that she was capable of performing slapstick on a debut outing just as well as the veterans who supported her, it was sound comedy that led her to win an Oscar in 1930-31 and become the biggest star in Hollywood in both 1932 and 1933. She died in 1934 at her peak. In my opinion she's unfairly slighted for this picture. Certainly she overacts throughout, unlike the far more realistic style she'd use in the early thirties, but this style fit the material and she did it well, enough to return to the role for two sequels, Tillie's Tomato Surprise in 1915 and 1917's Tillie Wakes Up. A more grounded portrayal might have dated better but would have felt out of place at the time.
Mabel Normand has been remembered more positively than Dressler, but her sympathetic performance is grounded in a character written with sympathy. Tillie's too much of a fool, a bouncing village idiot, for us to really feel for her when she ends up in the mess we knew she would always end up in. Mabel may be a fool too, but she comes to realise it and, once she's at that point, she does something about it, thus garnering some real sympathy, especially at the end. We feel for her when we don't feel for Tillie and we cheer for her when we don't cheer for Tillie. Bizarrely, what Normand does here to gain our sympathy is precisely what she doesn't do to gain our sympathy in Mabel's Busy Day, shot right in the middle of the shooting schedule for this feature. Here she grows her character and gets us onto her side through well phrased subtleties; in the short film, she merely plays the 'woe is me' card throughout and we can't feel for her in the slightest. This is a much better opportunity to see her really act.

But, of course, we're not here because this is a Marie Dressler picture or a Mabel Normand picture. We're here because it's a Charlie Chaplin picture, his first feature, made as he was starting to be really noticed and released as his star was rising. He didn't think much of this film. 'It was pleasant working with Marie,' he remembered in his autobiography, 'but I did not think the picture had much merit.' He was right, but it didn't matter. While his character has little depth, certainly none of the complexity that the Little Tramp would find in later years, he does play him more as a crook than a villain. It would have been simple for him to reprise the stereotypical silent movie villain that he played in his first film at Keystone, Making a Living, but he'd moved far beyond such banalities already. By the time this was released, he'd moved on again, his work in a recent short like Getting Acquainted far more clever. Chaplin was still singled out for praise, the big success of the film, ending his Keystone career on a high note with the future wide open.
Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Tillie's Punctured Romance can be viewed for free on YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory, it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone. It omits only Her Friend the Bandit, which is considered a lost film, and half of A Thief Catcher, which was previously thought lost but now recovered; the full version debuted in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1.

Saturday 20 December 2014

The Gays (2014)

Director: T S Slaughter
Stars: Chris Tanner, Frank Holliday, Mike Russnak and Flip Jørgensen
Next year, I'm planning to review something completely out there every week under the banner of Weird Wednesdays and this film, sent to me for review by its producer, could easily qualify as an early hint at how out there it's going to get. This is a new comedy feature from writer/director T S Slaughter, who had similar roles on the slasher movie Skull & Bones in 2007, but these aren't your usual movies. That was a gay slasher movie and this is a gay comedy, because they're clearly supposed to be gay before anything else; that's what defines them. In fact, it would be a serious challenge for any movie to be more gay than this one. It's called The Gays, for a start, named for the family at its heart, a gay family named Gay. Dad is Rod Gay ('Gay, Rod' in the phone book). Transvestite mum's surname is hyphenated, so she's Bob Gay-Paris, which is pronounced just as you might expect. They have two gay sons, Alex Gay and Tommy Gay, who they've brought up as gay from moment one. Right from baby's first butt plug.

Whatever else this film is, you can't accuse it of false advertising. If anything, the picture's website, DVD cover and blurb don't go far enough. Sure, this is 'raunchy, twisted and hilarious', if you're of a like mind to the filmmakers, but I can think of a bunch of films that fit that description; none of them go anywhere near as far as this one. Clearly the primary cinematic influence is early John Waters, but it truly outdoes the master in offending anyone it damn well pleases. It makes an 'it went there' comedy like Pizza Shop: The Movie look Production Code safe. It's edgier than anything I can remember even from Troma, as if it kidnapped all the gay moments in Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, anally gang-raped them into compliance, waited for them to contract Stockholm Syndrome and then used them in a propaganda film. It's professionally offensive out of the gate and it remains that way throughout. Most people won't make it to the title card; anyone who does is likely to wear out their DVD at parties. Gay parties, of course.

After being introduced to little Alex Gay as a gurgling baby, mummy's own little butt pirate, and listening to the catchy theme tune, Come Meet the Gays, that accompanies the opening credits, we get right down to business because this short 68 minute feature doesn't have time to mess around. We meet the grown up Alex in a gay bar in West Hollywood called the Luca Lounge; it's 1997 and he's chatting with another gay man named Kevin. The format is almost sit-com in nature: Kevin asks Alex a question and he replies in the form of a long flashback to explain how things were in his gay household growing up, almost a gay take on something like How I Met Your Mother, just not remotely suitable for prime time viewing. As Kevin and Alex are both at the Luca Lounge from the outset and they never leave, we can easily imagine them there forever, continuing this question/flashback format long after the end credits roll. With enough skits and a day to shoot more framing scenes, this could run for half a dozen sequels.
The only catch to that is that without reference points to tie this material to our own lives in some highly watered down way, this episodic approach eventually makes the 68 minutes run long. Perhaps gay men living in Pasadena in the eighties, imagining a parallel universe in which the law might allow them to be married and raise children, would find those reference points. However, Slaughter's examples of what it might be like are so deliberately extrapolated to the most outrageous extremes he could imagine that it becomes a challenge rather than a commentary. We wonder much more about how far he's willing to go than about the real life ramifications of the recent trend towards such a legal situation, and he does find it hard to escalate. The first flashback has Bob explain to her kids that they grew inside her intestines to be born from her ass in ectopic anal pregnancies. Did it hurt? Well, an accompanying visual of a Crisco'd up garden gnome answers that question in rather graphic fashion. How to escalate from that?

While it's clear that the most graphic scene arrives a few skits later when we finally get to see the birth, of a doll whose umbilical cord is anal beads, I honestly wondered which scene was the most offensive. It takes a special sort of picture to wonder about that, but Slaughter gives us plenty of material to choose from. The very concept of a baby butt-plug, which we see but don't see used, thank goodness, is a hard one to beat. The discipline meted out to Alex for not taking advantage of his friend Billy who's sleeping over seems tame by comparison, until we realise that the adult actors are pretending to be preteens. If we didn't catch that, we can't miss it when Chris, an adult overtly playing thirteen, is forced into sucking off Rod Gay to thank him for dinner. This is where the film would have become pornographic if the body parts had been real. This is the only obvious stunt cock used in the film, which is otherwise not short on full frontal male nudity. Actors were clearly hired because of what they would do, not for acting ability.

Fortunately, while trying to offend viewers seems like Slaughter's primary goal, that's not the only thing in mind. The parts I appreciated the most were the humorous nods to popular culture, as the movie finds time to reference pictures as unlikely as A Clockwork Orange or The Exorcist and temporarily become a commercial. It parodies a number of TV theme tunes (being English, I've never seen The Brady Bunch or Romper Room, but my wife grew up on them and her reactions were priceless), even carols like O Little Towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. We're given a laugh track at one point and at another we're shown a GI Joe with Rim Job Butt as a pre-teen gay kid's Christmas present. These nods grounded the film better for me than any of the situations that characters find themselves in and especially the amorality with which they're all addressed. Really, that amorality is far more offensive than any of the gayness pervading the film. The funniest bits turn out to be simple things like a gloriously inappropriate icicle.
It was this amorality that made me wonder most though. Maybe it was just the easiest way to offend, but it isn't the most palatable. Of course, even thinking about whether offensive material should be palatable or not really defeats the purpose of such things and it highlights how the line that filmmakers can't cross has moved so far since the days of Pink Flamingos. Yet I felt throughout this film that there was a reason for it beyond grossout comedy and simply going further than anyone else and its constant amoral nature served to blur what that reason could be. Everything revolves so relentlessly around male gay sex that I wondered if it was a riff on the fear behind prejudice. There isn't a single woman in the film and lesbians are never even mentioned; there's also nothing about gay love, just emotionless sex, sex for sex's sake, one track mind stuff, right down to the constant double entendres (like 'I work my asshole to the boner'). Could this be a way for gay men to laugh about how straight men might imagine gay households?

Certainly there's a huge amount of effort given to translating every aspect of straight life into some sort of gay equivalent. Every example is taken to a ludicrous extreme, right down to the gay phone that only receives calls, but there are real questions underneath it all. How should a male gay couple with children explain where they came from, other than not through ectopic anal pregnancy? How should parents talk to their gay children about dates, other than not treating it like Texas Hold 'Em? How would a household comprised entirely of gay men have any understanding of what women are like? Is the idea here to take straight life, translate it directly into gay equivalents and show how ludicrous it all is through a mirror? It certainly seems like the direct comparisons are a good deal of the point, perhaps to resonate with a gay audience who grew up in the other world. Here, Alex is reprimanded with, 'Heterosexuality is not proper dinner conversation.' How many gay sons of straight parents grew up with the exact opposite?

With a growing acceptance of gay marriage and gay adoption throughout the US, I'm sure that the film industry, always a few years behind the curve, will start to make gay films that work for straight people as much as gay ones. TV shows like Game of Thrones are pushing that envelope already and indie films are, as always, ahead of Hollywood. David de Coteau is making horror movies to the same template that he's always used, except the characters making out in the shower are now young men instead of young women. This, however, is so far out there that any social message is almost entirely buried under a goal of offending as many people as possible. It's not that The Gays is gay, it's that, to offend on the grandest scale, it appears to encourage a heady cocktail of date rape, sexual abuse and corruption of minors, all the way to baby's first butt plug. Wondering how far it will go turns it into a freakshow and the questions it raises fade away into the background. Instead it's: 'They didn't? They didn't? Yep, they did.'

Rather last minute, but The Gays will enjoy its New York premiere at 10pm tonight at the Anthology Film Archives. Admission is $10 and that includes a copy of the DVD. Details can be found on the film's website.

Sunday 14 December 2014

Boogeyman (2012)

Director: Jeffery Lando
Stars: Eddie McClintock, Amy Bailey, Emma Samms, Danny Horn, Gabriel Steele and Ian Redford
Jeffery Lando is one of those folk who make feature length movies for the Sci-Fi Channel with actors best known for TV shows who have both the time and the need for a wage. We know he's capable because he hasn't just made one. Sci-Fi Channel movies don't have to be any good (and, in fact, often take perverse pride in being anything but) but they do have to be finished on time and on budget or the director isn't going to be asked back. Lando gets asked back rather a lot, so he must be doing something right. After House of Bones with Charisma Carpenter from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, then Super Tanker with Callum Blue from Dead Like Me and Smallville, he was tasked with making Boogeyman with Eddie McClintock from Warehouse 13 and... well, a large collection of pilots that never actually became shows. As such things go, this could have been a lot worse. Its theme is a little more interesting than usual and McClintock has a lot of fun, so we can forgive at least some of the rest.

We're big Warehouse 13 fans here but, to be honest, Pete Lattimer was far from my favourite character on the show, not because McClintock didn't do his job right but because I have a tendency to look past the dramatic leads on American TV shows and prefer the more interesting characters playing support. To me, Warehouse 13 was all about Claudia and Artie, not to mention H G Wells, rather than Pete and Myka, who were the traditional leads. Meeting McClintock at Phoenix Comicon's first Fan Fest and having a blast at his Q&A though, I'm sure that he's a star waiting to happen. Watching Boogeyman suggests to me that he could well be the next Dean Cain, making awful picture after awful picture but remaining consistently watchable in each of them and earning a living by racking up those credits. He's as bubbly and fun here as he was in Warehouse 13 (and 'Why does she get a sword?' could have been written for Pete Lattimer), but he's also able to bring some gravitas to proceedings, to talk seriously with his screen son as needed.

He's a cop here, Michael Samuels, and he's quickly called out to the west side to look into a mysterious death. We know just how mysterious, because we watched it all unfold before the title credits. Some big kids pick on a little kid conveniently right next to the local spooky house, Skinner's place, and one tosses his phone up through its rose window. Jacob, the little kid, mans up and goes in to get it, discovering that it's a hoarder's house, with flies buzzing around huge piles of decaying trash. He walks upstairs and finds that the doorway to the room he needs is boarded up and chained to boot; clearly all finished with being afraid, he unchains it and walks in, to find more chains and strings of intestines but no phone. He's about to meet the blackened skull faced monster who lives there when Skinner shows up and the big kid hauls Jacob out of there. Skinner suffers a heart attack, perhaps from the shock of finding this creature is loose, and his last words, looking up at the monster, involve his brother.
And here's the theme in a word, much of which I can't explain without venturing into spoiler territory. Let me just highlight that brothers and the connections between them crop up continually throughout, right from the introductory text that references Cain's murder of Abel in the book of Genesis. The big kid who throws Jacob's phone into Skinner's house, but who also pulls him out before Skinner catches him, is his brother Isaac, and they turn out to be the kids of Officer Samuels too. There are other pairs of brothers in the film and it's worth remembering that while watching the story unfold, or we'll believe ourselves stuck in a routine slasher movie with a routine slasher villain who does all the things that a Boogeyman should but without any apparent reason in the script to do any of them. Frankly, that remains a problem even in hindsight, because there is nothing to explain why this Boogeyman has to hide in a little girl's closet or under a little boy's bed except that it's standard operating procedure for Boogeymen.

So while the Boogeyman racks up corpses without a back story to explain why, we're supposed to watch Jacob and Isaac instead, their Biblical names almost as old as Cain and Abel's. They weren't brothers in the Bible, of course, Isaac being the father of Jacob and Esau, but perhaps Esau was too archaic a name even for a story that is never embarrassed to be convoluted. We also watch the leads, Michael Samuels and his new partner, Rebecca Asher (more Biblical names to ponder), but not just because they're cops investigating the inevitably escalating body count. Samuels fathered the kids we're watching and it isn't rocket science to figure out what Asher tries to hide almost from the first moment we meet her. Rebecca Asher was by far Amy Bailey's biggest screen role at that time, but she does a capable job, enough that Lando brought her back a year later to play the female lead in Supercollider, opposite Robin Dunne from Sanctuary. Everybody has to start somewhere.
I was rather surprised to discover that the acting is a consistent plus for this movie. No, there aren't any Oscar-worthy performances here but, unlike many of the Sci-Fi Channel originals I've seen, nobody cares so little that they shine as a weak spot and the TV star moonlighting from his show doesn't phone it in. I liked the characters, even when they were thrown weak material to work with. The weakest link may just be the biggest name, as perennial soap star Emma Samms looks great for 52 but proves unable to quite muster the dominance she wants to wield as the chief of police, Samuels and Asher's boss. As the kids, Danny Horn and Gabriel Steele aren't particularly experienced but they do what they're asked to do well enough. It's fair to say that the older kids are all annoying from the outset and it takes a while to be able to relate to Isaac, but that's because they're written that way rather than because the actors are slacking. I'd guess that McClintock's joie de vivre is usually contagious on set but they fought it well.

If the acting is the strongest point, the weakest has to be the writing. Oddly, it's not consistently bad, as the dialogue is generally well above par for Sci-Fi Channel fodder. The Wayne's World nod was done well, in two neat parts, and it sets the stage for a great deal of agreeable humour, even if some of it is only to lighten the tone. McClintock can always be relied upon to maintain natural comedy, whatever the script, and the dialogue here makes it easy for him to become the life of the film. The problems come with the structure, as it's never really comfortable with what it is. Its religious tale is higher concept than usual for the Sci-Fi Channel and its twists are well executed, but it has no conception how to live up to its ideas. So it phrases itself as a slasher flick instead, but it can't provide grounding without spoilers so it just runs on autopilot. A mysterious killer needs victims, so they're conjured up out of thin air, just like the inevitable hidden room, the scare scenes in kids' bedrooms and the chance discovery of a massacre survivor.

The decent acting and the agreeable humour might just serve to balance out the poor structure and the many conveniences, but that's not all. The twists are strong, but the actual ending comes far too quickly and vaguely. Skinner's cool old house ought to be a plus, especially with the whole hoarding aspect, but it's not done right at all. Worst of all, the monster is just a guy in a mask, who really doesn't get much to do on screen. The mask itself, a sort of charred Lon Chaney as the Phantom piece, might have worked in strong expressionistic settings, but only looks cheap in the wasted opportunities the creature gets. And I think that's a fair summary of the movie: it aims high but has no clue how to reach its goals, so becomes something of a wasted opportunity. At the end of the day, it's no hardship to watch, but there's precious little to remember from it except another effervescent performance from Eddie McClintock, which with Warehouse 13 now off the air, might just become the first of many such for the Sci-Fi Channel.

Sunday 7 December 2014

His Prehistoric Past (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Gene Marsh and Fritz Schade
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
His Prehistoric Past sits uncomfortably at the end of Chaplin's year at Keystone Studios, his final short to reach theatre screens. It wasn't the last one that he shot, as it was in the mail to New York two full weeks before Getting Acquainted was begun, but that picture was released two days before this. Neither was it the final chance for audiences to see Chaplin's name in a Keystone title, as Tillie's Punctured Romance, the feature in which he'd shot supporting scenes midway through the year, was still going through post-production and wouldn't hit theatre screens until 21st December. However it's more of an ending to me, because it feels rather like an afterthought. At first glance, it's merely weak, albeit in an oddly interesting way, as a period piece set as far back as the stone age, with the Little Tramp in a loincloth but comically retaining his hat and cane. The catch is that it's less funny than anything else that had carried his name for months, and it runs on for two reels with less material on show than he'd often used to fill one.

It's difficult to look at it as anything other than a contractual obligation, that he knew he was leaving the studio and couldn't be bothered to put as much effort into this last picture as he was into the negotations with competing studios about where he would move to next and for how much money. While he claims in his autobiography that 'it was a wrench leaving Keystone', it wasn't a slow one. 'I finished cutting my film on Saturday night,' he explains, presumably talking about Getting Acquainted, 'and left with Mr Anderson the following Monday for San Francisco.' That's Bronco Billy of the Essanay Company, at which he would spend the next year and a half at the salary of $1,250 a week, on top of a $10,000 signing bonus. Mack Sennett had baulked at $1,000 a week, saying that it was more than he earned as the head of the studio, but midway through 1916, Chaplin moved again, this time to the Mutual Film Corporation, for $150,000 and a salary of $10,000 a week. His Prehistoric Past was surely quickly forgotten.

However, on analysis, there's a little more going on in it than initially meets the eye. For a start, it's not a new concept that Chaplin had conjured up out of thin air; the whole piece is a parody of a two year old D W Griffith picture called Man's Genesis, which appears to be a rather serious fable told by a grandfather to his little ones, but it carries an unwieldy subtitle, A Psychological Comedy Founded on Darwin's Theory of the Genesis of Man, just in case. In this film, Lilywhite, a young cavegirl with a straw outfit that makes her look like Rapunzel, is eagerly sought after by both Weakhands and Bruteforce. She wants the former but gets the latter instead, because the characters are appropriately named. However, while Bruteforce has brawn, Weakhands has a brain. Back in his cave, he apparently puts a doughnut on a stick and thus creates a club, with which he wins the day. It's effectively the Dawn of Man sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, phrased as a fable to explain that brain beats brawn, even if it happens to be with a club.
As a serious piece of art, Man's Genesis is rather comedic, which may explain the subtitle, but it certainly explains why Chaplin felt it ripe for parody. Instead of an old man sitting down to stop his grandchildren squabbling, we get the Little Tramp curling up on a park bench and promptly dreaming of the stone age, in the form of 'the kink of 'Wakiki Beach' surrounded by his favorites'. The 'kink' is Mack Swain, wearing a lot less than usual but retaining his full Ambrose moustache, and the reason for the typo in 'king' is that he has a sexy sextet of cavegirls seated around him. Other sources identify him as King Low-Brow, which might explain why he's watching Cleo the bearded medicine man attempt some sort of prehistoric ballet instead of putting those 'favorites' to good use. The blonde is Cecile Arnold, but her sisters in skins don't seem familiar, even if the BFI lists one as Vivian Edwards. His favourite 'favorite' is Gene Marsh, who is either his favourite water maiden or his favourite wife, but Weakchin soon hones in on her anyway.

No guesses as to who Weakchin is, but he gets a memorable enough entry for Chaplin to remember it in his autobiography. They do say the clothes make the man and he's a fetching sight in his bearskin, with the usual bowler and bamboo cane retained for laughs, however anachronistic they clearly are. He has a pipe too, which he fills with hairs that he plucks from the bearskin and lights with a rock he strikes on his leg instead of a match. Leapfrogging the majority of the plot of Man's Genesis, he also arrives complete with a spiked club in hand. Gene Marsh isn't as ethereal a girl as her namesake Mae Marsh was in Man's Genesis, but the outfit is too close to be accidental. She cosies up with Weakchin, but the battle is soon commenced when Cleo spies them together and shoots the newcomer in the back end with an arrow. For a while, it's painful, with Weakchin, Cleo and Low-Brow improvising gags around a huge boulder like they invented the first pantomime, but it does get better.

Many of the laughs come from attempts to apply modern day concepts to the stone age like they're in a town called Bedrock and they're a modern stone age family. This is Meet the Keystones, right? I did get a mild chuckle out of swapping cards or mixing cocktails, but the king's cave is quite obviously a bundle of tarps and never rings remotely true. Of course, Weakchin soon finds himself alone on the beach with the bevy of beauties because this is a Chaplin movie, and when another suitor attempts to steal them away, he has his club ready to steal them back. Showing a little restraint, he hones back in on Gene Marsh, who is clearly uncomfortable, not so much to be stolen away by Chaplin but because her outfit apparently has a habit of falling off. As they frolic in the ocean, she spends a conspicuous amount of time trying to keep it on and, at one point, apparently fails. There definitely seems to be a wardrobe malfunction going on as they try to clamber back out of the water, suggesting that body parts are on display that shouldn't be.
What leaps out here most is that His Prehistoric Past is a lot slower than it has any reason to be. It makes little sense to see something like His Musical Career notably crammed into a single reel, while this picture benefits from a second for no reason at all. There are moments of note, not only Weakchin's entrance but Gene Marsh's come hither looks on the road and Mack Swain literally getting kicked off a cliff, but they're few and far between. Instead we have to settle for Fritz Schade's ballet dancing, Al St John being used as a footstool and that cringeworthy chase round the boulder. Mostly we're stuck with a lack of imagination, a lack of energy and a lack of sophistication. Chaplin had been learning so much at Keystone, especially during the second half of 1914 when he had more creative control, and watching these pictures on their centennials has ably highlighted just how much, not just in acting, but use of character, emotion, pacing, composition, editing, choreography, you name it. Almost none of that is on show here.

And, of course, the obvious reason is that he really didn't care any more. He was about to take his talent and his newfound knowledge of the cinematic arts to Essanay Studios, not only for the increased salary but to serve as the next step in his growth. It's so easy to dismiss this as a half-assed last effort to finish up and get gone, but there's one massive reason why I can't buy it. That's because, when we get to the very end where Weakchin has occupied the kink's cave with his favourite girl, when King Low-Brow shows back up and drops a large rock on his head, when we leap back into the present day to see that become a Keystone Kop's truncheon waking up the Little Tramp from his slumber, we can't ignore the final scene. That's not just any Keystone Kop smiling at Charlie, that's Chaplin's half-brother Syd, four years his elder, who had finally joined him in the movie business. It was Syd who had introduced Charlie to Fred Karno in 1908 and now Charlie had returned the favour and introduced him to Mack Sennett.

Oddly, Syd's contract was earning him $200 a week, $25 more than his now very well established brother was getting, but Chaplin had a good idea what he was worth and his salary was about to leap forward. He held no grudges and even offered Syd a partnership in their own company, but the latter felt that it was a risky proposition, especially as he was earning more money than he'd ever earned in his life. So Syd held back at Keystone for another year, where he made a number of films including A Submarine Pirate which, after Tillie's Punctured Romance, was the highest earning picture that Keystone ever made. After leaving Keystone, Syd would become Charlie's manager, securing him record contract after record contract. They would work together for years. Given how close they were, I can't help but see this final scene as acutely deliberate: Charlie's last moment in a Keystone short but Syd's first in a Chaplin picture, a passing of the torch scene. It's a good moment, but it really deserved to be in a much better picture.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

His Prehistoric Past can be viewed for free on YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory, it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone. It omits only Her Friend the Bandit, which is considered a lost film, and half of A Thief Catcher, which was previously thought lost but now recovered; the full version debuted in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1.

Friday 5 December 2014

Getting Acquainted (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain and Phyllis Allen
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
There's a particular irony in the title of this picture, as Chaplin's 34th of 1914 alone features many of the same faces as many of the 33 that predate it. Working through them on their centennials, mimicking the experience of an admittedly dedicated audience member of the era, has made this set of films feel like a television sketch show, where we fully expect the core cast to play a different role each week (even each skit), regardless of gender, race or age. Thus audiences had been getting acquainted with the players of Getting Acquainted long before it was made and they'd surely got very used to their respective traits by this point. There's nothing surprising about these characters played by Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain and Phyllis Allen, as they had played similar ones in similar picture over the previous weeks. What's new here is really only the introduction of a Turk, apparently out of the blue, and the removal of the usual slapstick props and moves Keystone was known for, as Chaplin finessed his material.

The template for this one seems to be Gentlemen of Nerve, three pictures earlier in Chaplin's career and itself highly derivative of still earlier films. That one saw Chaplin and Swain at a racetrack, where Charlie picked up Mabel because her beau, played by Chester Conklin, was trying it on with Phyllis Allen instead. Mack Swain was in that picture too, but mostly just to get stuck in a wall, rather than to get embroiled in the tangled web of changing relationships. Here, he gets to join in, because Ambrose and Mabel are an item in this picture, while Charlie is with Allen's character, who is unnamed, as always. This time out the action unfolds in a park, but to emphasise the influence, Joe Bordeaux promptly drives up in a glorious automobile ('car' just doesn't cut it) which putters out in front of Ambrose and Mabel. Ambrose lends a hand in cranking it back into motion, thus leaving Mabel open to Charlie's unwanted attentions which, in turn, leave Ambrose able to try it on with Phyllis Allen and the dance of the flirts is in play.

In fact, the working title of the film was The Flirts and it makes a lot more sense than Getting Acquainted for the majority of the running time, at least until the combination of complex connections within such a small cast of characters means that the pairings change. We usually see what we saw in Gentlemen of Nerve, when Mabel showed up with Chester Conklin but left with Charlie, but here the connections aren't defined by relationship, rather by commonality. As Charlie and Ambrose begin to weave their respective ways in and out of scenes with increasing rapidity, Mabel ends up on the same bench around the same tree as Phyllis Allen and, as ladies who have new stories must, they naturally share them, so building a connection. Meanwhile, their respective husbands end up in the same place too but, rather than a neat bench, it's the shelter a bush offers them from the inevitable Keystone Kop that appeals. Both men are hauled off by their wives in the end, but the ladies have connected and so have the men.
What this leaves us with is something that feels rather more British than anything Chaplin had done yet. The structure reminds of the sophisticated English drawing room farces which would become the rage on stage, but translated into the setting of an early American film comedy. It's light years away from a Noël Coward comedy, as none of the characters are remotely sophisticated, but the format fits and the tone is a lot closer than usual because they don't indulge in any of the usual Keystone slapstick. While there is a Keystone Kop on hand, played this time out by Edgar Kennedy, and he is kept incessantly flustered, there are no pies or bricks hurled, no asses kicked and none of the wrong people slapped. Even more notably, this Keystone park comedy does not, I repeat not, end with at least one key member of the cast dumped unceremoniously into the lake. That's a little jarring, as we've been reinforced to expect it, over and over again, making this feel somewhat like a familiar joke whose punchline has suddenly been changed.

The point of course is that the comedy in Getting Acquainted isn't based on physicality, it's based on the characters and their interactions, here including 'a passing Turk', an exotic stage stereotype who comes complete with fez and dagger. The very first scene is a perfect example as, to the standard Keystone way of thinking, absolutely nothing happens but, to Chaplin, it sets the stage perfectly. Charlie and Phyllis are a couple, but clearly not a happy one, as Chaplin's face suggests. She trumpets and complains and blows her nose, while he merely reacts to her. What's more, he looks directly at us through the fourth wall as he does so, in an attempt to involve us in the conversation. In just over thirty seconds, his eyes switch back and forth between his wife and we, the viewers, over twenty times, as if to ask, 'You see what my world is like?' Without a single intertitle, the two of them provide us with their entire relationship. By comparison, Mabel and Ambrose look happier together, but he clearly doesn't listen to her in the slightest.

Of course, from these first two scenes, we fully expect that Phyllis is going to go to sleep and Ambrose is going to drift away, leaving Charlie and Mabel free to connect yet again, but Chaplin didn't want to keep things so obvious. Sure, Phyllis goes to sleep and Ambrose works on the automobile, but Cecile Arnold is the first distraction for Charlie. She's blatant enough that after Charlie shimmies away from his sleeping wife, she bends over right in front of him but, following her, he finds himself blocked by a fearsome Turk. Why we have a Turk in this movie, I have no idea, but he appears out of the bushes as a defender of the lady's virtue, with his arms crossed, his stare wicked and his dagger quickly forthcoming. Charlie is quick to take the back foot but the Turk promptly stabs him, almost in slow motion, in the nether regions and the chase is apparently on. From here on out, it's merely a question of how intricate that chase will get, as it gradually involves Charlie, Ambrose, the Turk, the Keystone Kop and a variety of ladies.

If this sounds like Chaplin was moving forward yet again, you'd be right. Keystone comedies didn't tend to have a structure beyond the general format of slapstick shenanigans leading to a chase, but this is a complex creature with intricacies put together more cleverly than anything Chaplin had done thus far. If anything, the minimalist setting aids this magnificently. Dough and Dynamite had a lot going on too, but it was staged in an environment that built a story, with bakers pitted against their boss, waiters against customers and all them caught up in a whole set of escalations to reach the literally explosive finalé. In this film, there are people and a park and that's it. None of the luxuries of the earlier picture exist here. There are names in the intertitles, but we aren't given professions. There are no sets and no props, just the park itself and anything the characters brought with them, like Charlie's cane and the Turk's dagger. Everything has to be conjured out of thin air and, as Chaplin ably demonstrates, that's all he needs.
Emotionally, we don't really feel for the beleaguered women, for various reasons. Phyllis is the battle axe she usually is, so it's always fun to watch her bubble burst. Mabel is sympathetic, of course, but we can't fail to appreciate the extravagant set up Charlie employs to get her lips close to his, involving removing a stray hair from her shoulder and balancing it on his nose until she's near enough to grab. She's also both able and willing to slap him when he goes too far, which he does more frequently than usual, even using his cane to pull up her skirts. If anything, we feel more for the Keystone Kop, who Kennedy unfortunately overplays with silent era gusto, literally leaping into action, because he just can't keep track of who he's to chase. With two ladies suffering from the unwanted attentions of men (hardly gentlemen), he has two to pursue and the fiery Turk makes three. It's a hard life being a Keystone Kop, that's for sure! The ladies do find confusion of their own too, as the dance progresses.

And this really is a dance, as much as anything else. While silent era movies were clearly not written for dialogue, they often did revolve around intertitles, the equivalents of the day, to varying degrees. That's true for many Chaplin films too, where an intertitle would set a scene of improvisation in motion, but it's not true here. This film was clearly written entirely around the choreography, which is pretty astounding given that, according to Jeffrey Vance, Getting Acquainted was shot in a single day. The BFI details four days, a long weekend from Friday to Monday, with the negative shipped to New York the next Sunday. It has to be said that the Keystone crew had spent so much time in Westlake Park during 1914 that it must have been viable to choreograph the whole picture from memory. It's understandable that we might see the park as Keystone property, but it wasn't, and the glimpses of what we might believe to be extras or the dogs of extras are probably just other patrons of the park straying into shot.

If the obvious standout here is the choreography, following rapidly behind is the editing. Just as the way this comedy of errors proceeds like a dance, so does its editing, which is as fast paced as anything that I've seen from 1914, especially during the second, frenetic, act. The introductory scenes are just as long as usual, as are the final scenes to wrap things up, but in between them the cuts come thick and fast, to keep all the characters in play and to telegraph where they're going next. As these cameras don't move, it might seem like a foreshadowing of what Russ Meyer would later become famous for, but there's little to suggest specific motion here, merely that there's a lot of it happening. Certainly, it's far ahead of the editing at the beginning of Chaplin's 1914, where it was notable only in how unnotable it was. Chaplin's mastery of the medium clearly wasn't just restricted to being in front of the camera. This highlights yet another aspect that he was starting to understand and nail down for future work.

Important Sources:
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Getting Acquainted can be viewed for free on YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory, it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone. It omits only Her Friend the Bandit, which is considered a lost film, and half of A Thief Catcher, which was previously thought lost but now recovered; the full version debuted in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1.

Sunday 23 November 2014

The Captain's Story (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Robert Peters, Collin Gaveck and Ron Bowen
While Mark Twain is a titan in American literature, most won't have read the obscure story that Travis Mills adapted into this film. The Captain's Story was first published in 1892 with roots in a travelogue which he published in The Atlantic Monthly fifteen years earlier called Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion. A key reason to adapt this rather than better known material like The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County must surely rest in how contemporary it feels. A hundred and forty years doesn't mean much to satirists of religion, after all, given that the writings they spear generally predate them by thousands. This one is a relatively straightforward narrative, given by an old sea captain, 'Hurricane' Jones by name, to a clergyman in plain clothes, the Revd Peters, on board his ship during a sea voyage. Without knowing that he's addressing a man of the cloth, he explains how the miracles of the Bible should be interpreted, with results that he apparently doesn't realise contradict his obvious unyielding faith.

While the captain's story is the heart of The Captain's Story, Mills adds bookends to introduce it. He has a very eager young man waylay his pastor to seek help because he feels that he's losing his Sunday School class, unable to explain what he's finding in the Old Testament. Collin Gaveck is well cast as Kenny, a well meaning, bright eyed youngster, clearly out of his depth but willing to ask for help, something of an open book waiting to be written on; and Robert Peters is just as appropriate as Pastor Larry, just as clean cut, if we can ignore his cigarettes, but an older, more cynical sort who would like nothing more than to be back home on his leather sofa watching the Knicks on his big screen TV. As is so often the case with priests, he delivers his answer in the form of a story, the captain's, as delivered to him as a seminary student losing faith while doing community service at a rest home. We receive the story in monologue from Ron Bowen.
And, if Gaveck and Peters are well cast, Bowen is a gimme for this role, suitably grizzled and with a well travelled accent. He has to sell the picture because, for the most part, all we see is him, his face and his pipe in front of a plain white background. It's a fun story, full of outright theological mistakes and aiming to impound a highly unorthodox view of miracles, but it does explain what a young man must do to keep his flock. In fact, quite deliberately, it even mangles the Biblical passage it aims to explain, the one from 1 Kings that pits Elijah against the 450 prophets of Baal on the slopes of Mount Carmel in a battle to see whose god will light the fire under an altar holding a bullock as sacrifice. The captain doesn't just forget the sacrifice or the fact that the Baalist prophets were slaughtered afterwards, he even transposes Isaac for Elijah. What's important is that he puts his faith not in God but the ability of man to convince people of His power. It's a circular argument that fails horribly but in a delightful and reminiscent way.

Given how minimal the setup is, there's very little on which to comment. The text is Twain's, albeit in an expurgated form, and Bowen delivers it with relish. The framing story is a decent addition that highlights an irony. Mills had his eyes set on a particular church outside which to shoot Kenny and Pastor Larry, but he gained permission to shoot for only two hours. With merely two actors and no other crew, Mills would have found it an easy task if it hadn't been for noisy road construction nearby. The three of them kept at it, recording take after take to provide clean audio throughout, and they finished within the two hours. It has to be a particularly cruel irony that it played with horrendous sound early on the Sunday morning at the 52 Films in 52 Weeks festival, thus prompting my desire to see this afresh to hear it properly, as it's hardly strong visually. A different event at the same venue after the Saturday screenings had ended had messed with the speakers and it took even James Alire a little while to get back to pristine quality.

The choice to shoot the majority of the film against a static white background is an odd one for a visual format; this would play almost as well on radio without any changes to the words. However, it does add to the timeless nature of the piece. Twain's story was sourced from a trip to Bermuda with a clergyman friend, Joe Twichell, and it's open as to which particular flavour of Christianity he had fun with, possibly the Presbyterians who are tangentially referenced in the text. However it rings true with any number of targets today, from TV evangelists through Southern Baptists speaking in tongues to snake handlers in the Pentecostal Church of God. The story has probably been ripe for reapplication every decade since it was written and removing visual context from this adaptation will aid its passage down the years in the same way. The only thing that leapt out as odd to me was the pronunciation of Baal, which is correct in English but highlighted to me that I've been using the Hebrew pronounciation instead. Baal humbug!

A Respectable Woman (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Colleen Hartnett, Michael Coleman, Travis Mills and Stacie Stocker
This film is Running Wild's second attempt at a Kate Chopin story as part of the 52 Films in 52 Weeks and it may be the best picture in the project thus far, in large part because it has time to breathe. With twenty minutes of running time for the fourteen hundred words Chopin wrote, it's explored with a lot more depth than The Kiss, which translated a thousand words into a mere four minutes on screen. It also allowed for the first great performance to manifest itself at last, following a number of notable ones like Bill Wetherill in An Encounter, Eric Almassy in The Liar and Holly Dell in You Touched Me, not to forget Shelly Boucher's supporting role in The Devil and Tom Walker. Here the entire picture is written on Colleen Hartnett's face and, thankfully, she proves more than able to carry it. It's an especially strong showing, given that for the second Chopin adaptation running, Michael Coleman is gifted with a peach of a wild card character; he's capable enough to have stolen the whole thing if Hartnett hadn't been on top of her game.

She's the title character, of course, though hardly the respectable woman that Chopin wrote about back in 1894 for Vogue. Mrs Baroda was a lady of society, who wouldn't dream of appearing with tousled hair or with so little make up, let alone dressing casually even when working from home. In fact, I'd suggest that she would see work as being beneath her station. In Chopin's original story, she's spending a restful spring at the plantation after a busy winter of entertaining guests when her husband, Gaston, surprises her with another one, a college friend named Gouvernail. He's no society gentleman, merely a journalist, so he doesn't move in Mrs Baroda's circles and they've never met. She immediately makes assumptions as to how common he must be and thus decides that she won't like him before he even arrives. Instead, she finds that she does like him but can't explain why, even to herself. Over time, she struggles with who he is and what he means to her carefully constructed world.
With the exception of the 120 years and 1,200 miles between the Louisiana story and the Arizona short film, this adaptation is relatively close. While the respectable woman of the title isn't truly respectable in the society sense meant by Chopin, she thinks she is. Clearly houseproud, she has no wish for her home to become a frat house, and to avoid such a horrendous fate, her mouth moves faster than her mind and her mind faster than her perception of reality. Certainly she looks down on Walt before he ever shows up to stay and she may well look down on her husband Tom too. Certainly Hartnett doesn't have the shared charisma with Travis Mills that she does with Michael Hanelin, who would normally play the husband in a film like this. Given that Hanelin was the Running Wild casting director for this project, I'm sure it was a conscious decision to cast Mills instead of himself and probably for that very reason. It adds an edge to the relationship which underpins how this respectable woman interacts with her husband's guest.

In both the story and the film, the implication is that the respectable woman isn't, that she's just putting on airs and graces to play a role and it merely takes the right guest to make her aware of it. Perhaps that realisation is slightly different, that in the film she merely finds it while in the story she also decides that she doesn't have to be restricted by her role, but that's open to interpretation. Certainly she's a lot more comfortable with herself in the story than the film, with cinematic choices here emphasising how distant she and Tom are: either a careful distance between them while they talk or back and forth editing, not to mention the deliberately weak moments of affection. Chopin's ladies are generally in control, even when their worlds are shaken up, but Mills chooses to have his respectable woman shaken at the outset and in various degrees of turmoil throughout, until the decision she makes at the end of the piece which we get but Tom completely fails to understand.

And in talking about the title character, who owns this film, I've mostly avoided talking about Walt, who serves the same purpose as Gouvernail but in a completely different way. In the story, Gouvernail is run down from overwork and wants nothing more than to rest at his friend's plantation to recoup his energy; his interactions with Mrs Baroda are driven by her not him. Here, Walt is a complete fish out of water but one who nonetheless finds a way to be comfortable, perhaps another reason that the lady of the house finds herself drawn to him even as she's horrified by him. He drives their interactions here, beginning as she finds him bathing in their pool. He doesn't drink the way he used to and he wants to eat outside; he doesn't want to be indoors and his first time inside is shot at a suitably odd angle to show how poorly he fits there. The final straw has him shoot darts from a blowgun at the cushions on the couch, an obviously Freudian act that is an immediate affront to a respectable woman but, later, something that resonates.
Michael Coleman is excellent here, the sort of different, exotic, interesting character that Seth Gandrud is so good at playing. Perhaps he'd have been cast if only he hadn't played a similar role as recently as You Touched Me three weeks earlier, but Coleman nails the part, even when he's leading scenes while facing away from the camera so that all we see is the little pony tail on the back of his head. He's as powerful a presence in the film as he becomes in the mind of his friend's wife, enough that when he leaves, the hall seems empty without his bags in it. The camerawork at that point is excellent, coming right after a scene of tender motion and switching to urgency as the lady of the house finds Walt gone and rushes down the hall to look at the empty rocking chair in the back yard and realises that he's gone from her world. If this film belongs yet again to the writer and the lead actor, the way the camera is used is worthy of note too. Travis Mills was the writer and the director of photography, but thankfully not the leading lady.

While A Respectable Woman was arguably the strongest 52 Films in 52 Weeks picture at this point, it has its technical problems. The editing occasionally felt a little sharp between scenes that warranted a softer transition between them. Most obviously the lighting is often wild, not so much on the actors themselves but on the backgrounds behind them. It's not consistent, sometimes too dim but often too bright, enough so that I wondered if there might be a cinematic reason for it but I came up dry. Certainly the odd angles used are deliberate, as are the lackluster moments between Tom and his wife. The webisode shot for this picture raises sound as a deliberate trigger for suspense à la Robert Bresson, but sound felt less obvious than lighting, sitting back and mostly doing its job rather than disturbing us with its prominence. If the lighting lessened it, the more relaxed running time and strong performances from Hartnett and Coleman enhanced it and it could easily land a film festival slot on its own merits.

Saturday 22 November 2014

Be with Me (2013)

Director: Michael Terrill
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
This film was an official selection at Filmstock 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of all 2014 films.
Be with Me is really getting itself seen. Just here in Arizona this year, it's already played the Phoenix Film Festival and the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival and it's about to screen again at the Arizona event for Filmstock, as part of their Fresh Off the Docs selection. On a wider level, it's played a lot more than those and won awards during its festival run such as the Best Drama Documentary (Short) at DocuFest 2013 in Atlanta. That's quite an achievement for something that runs 44 minutes or roughly half a feature. That's too short to fill a slot on its own but far too much to fit alongside other films in a balanced set of shorts. It was one of three Arizona Documentary Shorts at the Phoenix Film Festival and it'll be one of three docs in its Filmstock set. It has notably high production values so it looks slick, courtesy of local talent like Tommy Schaeffer on sound and Keegan Ead in the editing room and on second unit. Admittedly he isn't local any more, but he was at the time; this merely underlines that our loss is Vermont's gain.

There's a lot to like here, in a film that would surely bring tears even if the filmmakers hadn't clearly tried to accentuate that; even in the introductory passage, there are textbook catches to the throat to trigger a reaction. Michael Terrill, who wrote and directed, has no prior credits at IMDb but does a very capable job here nonetheless. He has a story that aches to be told, he introduces it well and lets it flow well from that grounding into detail through example. There's very little input from the filmmakers, just an odd question here and there, so the production is notably unobtrusive, however much the interview subjects are posed just so for the camera. It builds on a curve, so that as we move into the story we gradually accelerate to its end, meaning that it's hard not to get caught up in the sweep of the accomplishment at its heart. The goal of the picture is to provide hope to others who might find themselves in a similar situation and its technical aspects aid that to no small degree. It's unmistakeably a powerful piece.

The narrative begins at the point the Cairns family discover that their second child, James Cairns Jr, or JR for short, is different. His sister Shelby was bright, inquisitive and precocious, but he's the opposite: quiet, introverted and 'all over the place', in the words of his mother, Lori. He didn't talk much but he cried a lot. Communication was very difficult and he avoided eye contact. Nowadays, it's clear what that means, but at the time it needed JR's cousin, only three months older, to come over for an event for the family to see the obvious discrepancies. So they sought a medical opinion and the diagnosis they got from the Phoenix Children's Hospital was that he was both mildly to moderately autistic and mildly to moderately mentally retarded. Lori and Jim Cairns were open to that as they could see that something was wrong; but they did not buy into the conclusion, that he would spend his entire childhood in his bedroom and be confined to an institution by the age of seventeen. So they did something about it and we have a story.
The catch is that, even though this is a true story told through interviews with people who were there as it happened, there's nothing to back it up as being anything more than one woman's personal belief. The majority of the film is told by Lori Cairns herself, effectively expounding her own perspective on her son's life, which is promptly enforced by a few family members and family friends, notably excluding JR's dad, Jim Cairns, who is only there at the very beginning. The only professional insight is restricted to a brief segment in the middle, when a therapist and a speech pathologist add comments. The former was hired by the Cairns to help their son and I believe that the latter was too. What's more, Lori Cairns co-produced the film and other family members were also actively involved in its production, so it's impossible to see any objectivity or impartiality at all. This is a message rather than an exploration, if not an outright piece of propaganda from a woman whose reasons for making it are not entirely clear.

Now, that doesn't mean that the message isn't valid; it's just that what we see is clearly one side of the story with any other potential side conveniently excluded. While it may or may not be telling that her ex-husband is mostly absent from proceedings, I was especially concerned to hear so little from JR himself. He is in the film and he dominates the last few scenes, playing golf and driving a car, but he never really talks to us through the camera about his experiences. Based on what we see, there's no doubt that the use of ABA (applied behaviour analysis), as pioneered by Ole Ivar Løvaas, a UCLA clinical psychologist, had some effect on their autistic son and it may well have been responsible for his ability to function as an adult. As this ends, he's about to graduate from high school and go to college to study journalism; he has strong potential for the future, far beyond what the Phoenix Children's Hospital suggested could be possible, but there's no data to back up why. It might be entirely the ABA, but it might not.

Certainly the notable absence of independent professional opinion, whether in agreement or in dissent, is what lessens a potentially important documentary into a slickly produced home video. Having personally turned a number of 'disorders' to my advantage and played a large part in the development of someone in a similar situation to JR, I'd love to see the documentary that this isn't, one that includes data to back it up. The direction Lori Cairns chose for her son stemmed from a book by an anonymous author writing as Catherine Maurice, Let Me Hear Your Voice: A Family's Triumph Over Autism. Many of the concerns I found in what Lori did are echoed in an anonymous review of that book at Amazon by a high functioning autistic adult. He or she was worried by the way autism is treated in the book as 'a fate worse than death' and how the writer 'speaks of dragging her children kicking and screaming out of autism, forcing them to be normal'. This manifests itself continually here too, with 'weird' consistently used as a synonym of 'wrong'.
In fact, the very title comes from a comment by Ann Monahan, JR's aunt. 'I know you like where you're at,' she thought to JR as a child. 'I know it's fun there for you but I want you in my world. I want you to be with me.' That's entirely understandable but it sounds very selfish when you write it down. Lori even admits it at points. He's 'weird right now' but he hopefully won't be forever. She refuses to let him do anything that she perceives as 'inappropriate for his age', so he can't line up cars together or watch The Little Mermaid. I often felt acutely uncomfortable during scenes where, to quote Monahan, Lori 'cared enough to be what others would consider cruel.' It raised connections to me with boot camps to turn kids back to Jesus or the 'cures' that turn gay kids straight. It wasn't the shock it should have been to discover that Løvaas, who is generally seen in a very positive light for his successful work with autistic children, also worked with kids who were gender-variant earlier in his career, perhaps leading the first to commit suicide as an adult.

I don't want to talk down the achievement of the Cairns family and I'm happy that JR's future is open, but this is a huge issue that's worthy of a deep documentary rooted in what we've learned over the last few decades and this isn't it. I want to hear directly from the autistic children who grew up going through ABA treatments and other similar techniques. I want to hear from the professionals who do this for a living and qualified critics of their accomplishments. I want to see the scientific data rather than just the memories. I want to hear from the people who were dismissed as negative in this narrative: the support groups who apparently don't want to hear about the progress of others and the professionals who saw what Lori was doing as inappropriate. I want to hear from the families who didn't attempt to change their autistic kids at all, or who did so in a less direct manner, to see the differing results. The Cairns are part of that but they aren't all of it. This is slick, professional stuff, worthy of a view, but it's not that documentary.

Monday 17 November 2014

For the Love of Dogs (2014)

Director: Tim Odonnell
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
Zoom! had the benefit of having a subject dear to my heart, independent record labels, but For the Love of Dogs is just as engaging, if not more so, because of a fascinating boy who rated his own documentary at the age of eleven. He's Cory and he has Asperger's. He was diagnosed at four and, even with the help of a therapist and a psychiatrist, not to mention very supportive parents, he's still learning how to cope in a world where people generally don't have what he has. If, like Burt and Ray in Zoom!, he's a charismatic enough subject to ensure that we're quickly on board, the people behind the camera contributed much to the success of his story, not just by keeping out of the way so Cory can win us over as much as he does a whole slew of strangers in the film but also with some interesting choices of camera location or ways that people can get a point across. Most notably, in telling us all about Cory, writer/director Tim Odonnell also tells us about the condition that he has on a much wider scale.

Given that Asperger's is a name that crops up more and more nowadays, it's worth this visit to refresh us on what it actually is and Cory appears to be a good example. He's fine verbally, in fact better than many of his peers, but he's bad at reading body language and other non-verbal cues. This impacts his ability to connect to other people and the outside world, which prompts both anger and anxiety. He suffers notably from sensory overload, not least with a photographic memory. He told his mother that 'my mind is like a DVR' that's really hard to stop. He also hears things louder and scratchier than the rest of us and with no delineation between what's in the foreground and background, making it hard to focus on one thing. He puts his hands over his ears a lot to control that. He benefits from repetition and has his own obsessive compulsive routines to organise the chaos. Most notably, he's hyperfocused on a specific interest which, as with many like him, is animals. He uses it to control his anxiety and screen it out.
So Cory has problems. It was interesting to hear his father talk about his own OCD, which he sees as one reason he's successful at what he does but also one reason why he's hard to live with. Cory's grandfather may have been even more like him, but of course came from a time when such things weren't diagnosed or even discussed, just noticed by those around. I found these scenes fascinating and would have liked to hear more detail, but I understand the need to return to Cory and especially to progress to the point when he visits the National Dog Show in Philadelphia, at which we spend the majority of the film. Clearly Cory can deal with owners of dogs much better than other people because they share a common interest and that can be easily engaged by obvious conversation openers. He impresses many at the dog show in the ways that touch hearts, seeing dogs and, through his photographic memory, recognising their sires, even when the latter are dead. That's an odd way to keep loved companions alive and it's very touching.

The most obvious flaw of the film is that it captures Cory partway through a story that is clearly not over. While we're given background to highlight how he got to eleven, we immediately want to know how he's going to be as a teenager and a young adult. This lessens the film in a sense, not in what it is but in what it could be. I hope that Odonnell will be able to continue shooting Cory's progression through life, perhaps adding new footage occasionally like how Michael Apted has done with his Up series, which revisits a set of seven year old children for updates every seven years. Perhaps inevitably, while Cory is the focal point of the film, he's the least interviewed, so we continually get his feelings either second hand or through a translation to the visual. While that often works (we really don't need to hear 'best day ever' because it's obvious in his face and his interactions), we still want to hear him talk to us. However, these aren't major complaints and this is still 26 minutes very well spent.

Zoom! - Tucson's Late '50s Rock 'n' Roll Record Label (2013)

Director: Dan Kruse
Stars: Burt Schneider and Ray Lindstrom
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
Even with a conscious effort to maximise viewing opportunities at Phoenix Film Festival, I end up missing a lot of worthy films and short documentaries somehow always end up on that list, prioritised lower than almost everything else. Just in case anyone else finds themselves doing the same thing, I'll highlight that the three not so short documentaries (the shortest ran for 26 minutes) that comprised the Arizona Short Documentaries set this year were consistently excellent and really don't deserve to end up at the bottom of anyone's list, including mine. Let's see if I can follow my own advice next year! Fortunately I caught up with these three films later, as each of them has a subject deep enough to draw us in and is shot with an abiding passion that keeps us there. This one was made by Dan Kruse as a thesis film at the University of Arizona School of Music, as part of his masters degree in musicology and ethnomusicology, and it's easy to see why the story engaged him enough to want to document it.

For all that it's a history lesson, it's a very engaging personal look at one. Back in January, 1959, a school dance at Catalina High School in Tucson inspired the creation of something which Kruse joyously shines a light back onto over half a century later. On the stage was Jack Wallace and the Hi-Tones and on the floor was a bevy of screaming girls. Also there to feel the energy were a pair of fast talking seventeen year old boys, both seniors at the school who, in their own words, didn't 'play anything except the radio'. So, for no reason other than it seemed like a great idea in the heat of the moment, they started their own record label, Zoom! Records. They're Burt Schneider and Ray Lindstrom and they're also the primary reason why this short is as successful as it is. Now with their sixties becoming their seventies, they still appear to be as bright eyed and bushy tailed as they must have been back in 1959 when all this went down. It's hardly surprising that they talked the singer at that dance into recording their first single, I Think of You.

As a fan of indie music, I found their story fascinating, even if that's as much for how they were part of a wider trend as for what they did themselves. If I understood correctly, Zoom! didn't last too long, but the records they made survive today, sound pretty cool and have a number of interesting stories to tell. Burt and Ray left the music business almost as soon as they entered it, but they remember the experience in detail and Dan Kruse hauls in an agreeable amount of appropriate experts to back up their stories. What comes out of the interviews is a magic time of opportunity where prices were low and ambition high, but naivete was stronger than anything. Never mind just the kids, they were no more naive than the folk they worked with; they all learned as they went on. Wallace himself didn't know what a B-side was even as he was recording a single. King Rock and the Knights were getting reviewed in Billboard, even though their manager, Bill Wershing, hadn't heard of it. Hearing themselves on KTKT in Tucson was jaw dropping.
I lapped up all these colourful stories. Why did Burt and Ray choose Sidney J Wakefield's recording studio in Phoenix? Well, because it existed, because Duane Eddy recorded there and because it only cost $15 an hour, but also, above all, because it was open for Saturday sessions as they were in school for the rest of the week. They recorded everything live and in mono; multiple tracks weren't even thought of and even stereo wouldn't arrive for a while. Recording engineer Jack Miller fed the results into a speaker in a 2,100 gallon water tank, functioning as an echo chamber, and back through a microphone outside of it. KTKT DJ Frank Kalil played their records in the afternoon and everyone tuned in to listen. I even loved the asides, like how Tucson kids drove up to Phoenix for ice skating, swan boats in Encanto Park and the escalator at Porter's. All this went down only half a century ago right here in Phoenix and a couple of hours down the interstate in Tucson, but in the music industry it's an eon away and it needs historians to recount.

While the subject matter, wisely advertised in the film's title, is enough for me all on its own, others will benefit from choices Kruse made while creating it. It wouldn't have been the same without Burt and Ray, so their inclusion is key, not only to talk about what they did but also to revisit their past in the present. There aren't many other interview subjects but there are enough and, with only one exception, they're a perfect selection. Most were actually part of the Zoom! story at the time, including everyone mentioned thus far. Others include Al Perry, a singer/songwriter and record collector; John Dixon, an Arizona music historian; and Brian Moon, Kruse's musicology professor at the U of A who's really interesting even if his voice really isn't. Kruse also plays many of the Zoom! hits, so we can hear what they're all talking about. There's even a telling scene where Burt and Ray visit Miller at Canyon Records in Phoenix to see just how much the industry has changed since they contributed to it. That's a perfect cap to a great documentary.