Friday 28 February 2014

Between Showers (1914)

Director: Henry Lehrman
Stars: Ford Sterling and Charlie Chaplin
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.
Between Showers, the fifth and last film in Charlie Chaplin's busy debut month, was a transitional film, highlighting both the evolution of his Little Tramp character and his growing importance at Keystone Studios. Like A Thief Catcher, it's a Ford Sterling movie, but Chaplin is elevated from a minor supporting role as a Keystone Kop, just helping out on a day when the studio was short of actors, to Sterling's co-star. In fact, if we didn't know that Sterling was preparing to leave Keystone to form his own studio, we might be forgiven for seeing this as the start of a new double act. At just over fourteen minutes, it's the longest short Chaplin had yet made, though it was still only a one reeler; it would remain the longest until his first two reeler, Mabel at the Wheel, six pictures away in mid April. It's also the last of his films to be directed by Henry Lehrman, who left for L-Ko Studios after this one. Lehrman had directed four out of his first five pictures, just as his replacement, George Nichols, would direct four out of his next five.

The framework of the story is as flimsy as Keystone got and highlights how quickly they made pictures. Hollywood had been experiencing torrential rain in early February 1914, so Mack Sennett, producer and studio head, had the unknown writer conjure up a comedy about it. He did so quickly enough that they could use a particularly large puddle at the side of a road as a prominent prop, but that's not surprising given how little there is in what passed for a script at Keystone. The story arc follows an umbrella, which Sterling's character steals at the beginning of the film, daringly from a Keystone Kop. He leaves it with a lady in distress, who he's eager to help across that prominent puddle, only to find that retrieving it from her again is a tough proposition, one complicated by the involvement of Chaplin's Little Tramp, who also wants to help the lady. As was usually the case in Keystone shorts, slapstick comedy is improvised until the umbrella is reunited with its rightful owner through a particularly dumb move by the thief.

And, of course, the umbrella is a MacGuffin, an object that drives the characters but has no importance to the audience. This was a couple of decades before Hitchcock popularised the term, but it had other names back in the silent era; Pearl White, the 'Queen of the Serials', called it a 'weenie'. We don't care about the umbrella at all, but we're very interested in the shenanigans that the characters get up to in order to have it, starting with Sterling's antics as the film begins. He wants it because more rain is due and his own umbrella is shredded and useless. Given that he's a thief, Mr Snookie by name in the print I saw, he's happy to steal one and there's one close by in the hands of a cop, who is clearly distracted by the attentions of a pretty girl. The cop is Keystone regular Chester Conklin, who has little to do here, and the lady is probably Sadie Lampe, who decorated the screen nicely in small supporting roles in a few of Chaplin's early shorts. Sterling dominates this scene though and it's interesting to see how.
Sterling was a pantomime artist, the sort of actor people see in their mind if they're asked to think of a silent screen comedian. He never stops moving, even when he can't go anywhere. His very expressive hands are always in motion, just like his mouth and the rest of his face. He telegraphs every move with flamboyant gestures and indulges in overt internal conversation to get that across, as if he's explaining himself to an imaginary companion. If this was animation, there would be a little devil on his shoulders, goading him into a heinous act, and a little angel making a little effort to stop him before it's too late. He doesn't walk; he creeps portentiously. Later in the film, as the action speeds up, he jumps in the air before running. Here, he turns round and runs on the spot for effect before making his escape. Oddly, we never see him in the same frame as the cop and his lady friend; just his hand in their shots and the end of the umbrella when he's on screen. It helps to highlight how this is all about him.

And so to the vast puddle, where he measures its depths with the umbrella and wonders if he can cross the road without getting soaked. Before he tries it, a young lady shows up, played by Emma Clifton, and wonders the same thing; our thief is instantly smitten. He goes in search of a plank to use as a bridge, only to discover that during his absence, the Little Tramp shows up and runs through exactly the same setup. Now they are rivals for this young lady's affections, but they both lose out to a helpful policeman who politely carries her over the road. He's played by Eddie Nolan, a lesser name at Keystone Studios who debuted with Chaplin in Making a Living; his first five films were all Chaplin shorts and he'd play a number of roles in their first feature, Tillie's Punctured Romance. Nolan's acting style is even more realistic than Chaplin's, but it's much more limited. He's subdued and comfortable in his actions, but doesn't have the expressions of the lead comics; he served best as a tall prop for them to work off.

Five minutes in, Sterling and Chaplin return to the puddle with their respective planks to interact for the first time. We've already contrasted them in our minds, as their styles are completely different, but we can't fail to do so afresh as they share a screen. At the time, the most obvious contrast may have been between Sterling's goatee and Chaplin's toothbrush moustache, but today it's between styles, the old one that Sterling did so well and the new one that Chaplin was pioneering. Like Sterling, Chaplin never stops moving, but his movements are all small ones, much more restrained. Instead of jumping up and down, he shuffles on the spot. Instead of flailing around, he gestures calmly and builds his portfolio of personal tics. He interacts with the other characters rather than imaginary ones for our benefit. As the pair share both screen and gags, it's impossible not to see the difference between them. Only in more active moments does Chaplin imitate a lighter version of Sterling.
Another major difference that becomes more and more apparent as the film goes on is in the tone of their characters. Both play mashers, an archaic term for men who make advances to women they don't know, but they do so in completely different ways. Mr Snookie is a long way from the lovable rogue that the Little Tramp was quickly becoming; he's an angry and violent would be rapist, literally hopping mad, attacking the young lady who won't return his stolen umbrella. He orders her around, grabs her by the hair and even bites her nose. By comparison, Chaplin uses subtlety to woo her, gently taking her elbow and tipping his hat, and offering protection that she doesn't need. Women are strong in this short. The cop's lady friend at the beginning emphatically sends him packing when she sees the broken umbrella Mr Snookie left him. This former lady in distress saves herself, belting her assailant, pushing him around and knocking him down, all while two other women applaud in the distance. Emma Clifton had fun.

Chaplin does well in the slapstick fight scenes, but his most memorable moment is a charming one that helps to build his pixielike anti-establishment character. Both mashers face off against the gallant cop who carried the object of their affections over the road and both inevitably lose out, but how they do so is very telling. Sterling looks threatening but backs off like a coward when the cop slowly draws out his truncheon and their scene is over and forgotten by the character. Chaplin, by comparison, dominates his scene even with his back to the camera. He's just as wary and he doesn't back down, but he never threatens so the cop doesn't need to react. He also maintains control after the cop leaves, as his arms record the story of what he'd like to have done. He cocks a snoot at the departing cop, then breaks the fourth wall and grins his cheeky grin to the audience, sharing the event with us before covering that grin with his hand as if embarrassed by his thoughts. It's charming and infectious.

Audiences didn't know it then but we'd see this movement repeated a lot in future Chaplin films, along with a number of others that he makes here. Some might have looked familiar even at this point, such as the way he twirls the umbrella and knocks himself in the head; he did this a couple of times with a cane in Mabel's Strange Predicament and he would return to it again and again in later films. The well known Chaplin run is debuted here, as he skids into turns and makes them balanced on one foot. He'd get better at it later on but it arrived fully formed here. They're quirky little character depths that are so much more memorable than the inevitable slapstick antics that populate the fights and pratfalls. Yes, the Little Tramp literally kicks Mr Snookie in the ass and both of them are knocked down more than once. Between Showers isn't a great film, but it's a decent one that serves well as a hint of the future. The Little Tramp was clearly coming into his own and it's not surprising that audiences responded.

Important Sources:
Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway & Mark Ricci - The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin (1988)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Between Showers can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of all 36 of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory (if we count the first half of A Thief Catcher, previously thought lost), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

A Thief Catcher (1914)

Director: Henry Lehrman
Stars: Ford Sterling, Mack Swain and Edgar Kennedy
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.
A Thief Catcher is possibly the oddest entry in Charlie Chaplin's filmography and writing this review will feel strange, given that I've only seen the first half. At least we know that it exists now and that it does indeed feature Chaplin, in an unusual role as a Keystone Kop. Until 2010, we didn't know that, because the title had been discounted by the standard biographers, starting with the pioneering research of H D Waley, the Technical Director of the British Film Institute, which was published in 1938. The suggestion is that he conflated this title, A Thief Catcher, with The Thief Catcher, the reported title for a reissue of Her Friend the Bandit, another film Chaplin made at Keystone Studios in 1914. This is understandable, given that Chaplin made so many films that year and they were widely reissued, often under different names. It's especially understandable here, as Her Friend the Bandit is the only one of Chaplin films to be confirmed as lost. If A Thief Catcher was also lost, there was no way to prove it wasn't the same one.

It was rediscovered in 2009 by Paul Gierucki, a film historian who is currently the head of restorations for CineMuseum, LLC, which focuses on silent comedy. They've restored and released much from this era, including highly regarded box sets like The Forgotten Films of Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, which I can personally vouch for, and Industrial Strength Keaton. They're currently finishing up The Mack Sennett Collection, which is slated for a June release by Flicker Alley; it will include the complete version of A Thief Catcher. Currently, we can only see the first six minutes on the Chaplin at Keystone box set, also from Flicker Alley, which contains the restored versions of these films and has thus been important to me in writing my reviews of them to celebrate Chaplin's debut year a century on. I won't complain, as six minutes, or just over half the film, is more than anyone knew existed for the longest time. It's very possible that, until Gierucki's rediscovery, nobody had seen it since the end of World War I.

He found it in 2009 at an antiques show in Michigan among a stack of old 16mm reels. This particular can was labelled Keystone but not Chaplin, so he left it for a few weeks before screening it. When he did, he knew what he had, even though the print is actually of His Regular Job, a reissue by the Tower Film Company of A Thief Catcher. This is for two reasons: the quality was decent and, as we can now see, there's just no mistaking this particular Keystone Kop for anyone else. This isn't Chaplin playing a Keystone Kop, it's Chaplin playing the Little Tramp playing a Keystone Kop. Presumably he was free for a day and put on that famous uniform to help out when Keystone was short of actors, a theory backed up by the fact that one of the other Kops is played by Bill Hauber, who had appeared earlier in the film in a short second role as one of the crooks. If Keystone were recycling their crooks into cops within the very same picture, they were surely short on hands that day.
Of course, Chaplin isn't the star of this film. He was still new to Keystone Studios and to the big screen generally. He'd made three pictures before this one, the first of which had been completed and shipped on 14th January, 1914. A Thief Catcher reached screens on 19th February, only ten days after his third and still less than two and a half weeks after his first. All told, he'd be on screen in five different movies in February 1914 alone. The world was quickly discovering who he was and what he could do, but they needed time to do so and there had been precious little of it thus far. In a twist of irony, the star who he supports here is Ford Sterling, whose decision to leave Keystone to start his own company is what led Mack Sennett, the studio boss, to hire Chaplin to begin with. Sterling was a huge star for Keystone who, like Mabel Normand, had followed Sennett to California when he left Biograph Studios, and became a key player; he was the original leader of the Keystone Kops, playing Chief Teeheezel.

As can be seen here, Sterling belongs firmly to the old school tradition of silent comedy, full of gestures and flamboyance to compensate for the lack of speech. Surprisingly, for anyone who has seen him in a silent movie, he successfully made the transition to sound films and continued to make them until 1937. For instance, he played the White King in the star studded 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland and he even returned to Keystone to reprise the Chief of Police in 1935's Keystone Hotel, four years before his death. He plays another man with a badge here, albeit a cowardly rural sheriff rather than a bumbling Keystone Kop. He apparently stumbled upon a trio of what the intertitles call 'yeggmen', an antiquated term for safecrackers, witnessing two of them disposing of the third over a cliff. This scene is easily the best shot of the first six minutes, because it looks completely fake until movement shows us that it's as real as any other location in the picture. It's a neat bit of illusion.

Being a cowardly soul, he hightails it out of there, pausing only to snap a quick picture of the murder, and the yeggmen pursue him. After a few capably shot but entirely predictable slapstick gags, he finds himself out in the sticks where, in a quintessentially slapstick slice of conveniently bad judgement, he hides out in the yeggmen's own hideout. If you've ever seen a silent comedy, you can imagine where this setup will take us and you won't be far wrong. The positive side of it comes through what they do. Sterling is so nervous at one point that his fingers lock together, as if they were in Chinese handcuffs, and there's a brutal scene where the two yeggmen toss a coin to see which of them will be the one to shoot their captive. This is literally hair raising for Sterling. The negative side is in how they do it, as all three of them pantomime far more than they act. This was silent movie tradition, because if characters got their point over with gestures, intertitles weren't needed and the action sped up considerably.
Sterling was capable enough at this to have become one of Keystone's biggest stars. The yeggmen he reacts to are played by other experienced Keystone hands, Mack Swain and Edgar Kennedy, and they knew exactly how to do this too. All three of them were good at it, which is why Sennett gave them the opportunity here. The catch is that, to our jaded eyes with a hundred years of hindsight, they're dated beyond belief. It isn't the lack of sound, as many recent silent movies have demonstrated, it's in their chewing of scenery with reckless abandon. Ironically, the movement away from that sort of overacting came with the arrival on screen of Charlie Chaplin and we see that paradigm shift in microcosm as an uncredited but highly recognisable Keystone Kop arrives towards the six minute mark. It's impossible not to compare his subtle and controlled movements with their flailing around, even in what is merely thirty seconds or so of screen time. Apparently he gets about three minutes in the complete film.

I'm looking forward to seeing what else he gets up to in this picture. Given that he doesn't arrive until the halfway mark, he's clearly not going to be able to steal the entire movie in the way that he did in Mabel's Strange Predicament, but the little he does in the first six minutes is easily enough to suggest that he may well ruthlessly dominate the second half. I'll find out soon enough, when Flicker Alley put out the complete short in The Mack Sennett Collection. I'm also looking forward to seeing how soon his fellow actors start to follow his lead with this new style of acting. He began 1914 as the new kid on the block, supporting others in their pictures, but he gradually took on more control. He began to write and direct his films, until they were closer to what he wanted them to be. He directed only one of his first twenty, and partially a second, but he directed all fifteen of his shorts after that, relinquishing control back to Sennett only for his last picture of the year, the feature film, Tillie's Punctured Romance.

At some point during 1914 he became a star and it certainly wasn't at the end, when he left Keystone for a much higher salary at the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. Watching these films afresh, in newly restored editions, it's easy to see why; even in these earliest titles he's so far ahead of his peers that it's almost surreal. What I wonder is when they realised that; it certainly wasn't during the filming of his first picture, Making a Living, because everybody involved thought it was a disaster. Watching afresh, it ought to have been during Mabel's Strange Predicament, because he completely dominated, but it's hard to see that without hindsight. Surely the true moment in which he took over will be in the film where his fellow actors start to slow down, to cease pantomiming everything so flamboyantly, to follow his lead. He made 32 more pictures in 1914 and I'll be reviewing them all on the anniversary of their original releases, so I'll be keenly searching for that moment. Watch this space.

Important Sources:
Associated Press - Long-lost Charlie Chaplin film, found in Michigan, to debut at Virginia festival (2010)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)
Brent Evan Walker - Charlie Chaplin in A Thief Catcher, and other rarities at Slapsticon (2010)

The first six minutes of A Thief Catcher can be watched for free at YouTube, though the quality is terrible. It's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone, or wait for The Mack Sennett Collection, hopefully due in June.

Monday 17 February 2014

ICE (2013)

Director: Adam Coppola
Star: Melissa Farley
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Like Alone, another local short film without an IMDb page that played the Holy Moly Horror Shorts set at the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival, ICE is intriguing but not for the usual reasons. In fact, ICE is more notable for what it doesn't do than what it does. It doesn't have a plot, for a start, just a very personal account of the discovery that a particular urban legend is real, but with none of what might have come before it and not a heck of a lot of what comes after. Given the simple one word title, it's no stretch to figure out which one. ICE only features a single set, a very confined one which we never leave, and only one actress, Melissa Farley, here credited without her usual middle names. She doesn't get any lines, just fraught utterances as she discovers what's happened to her. She does get to act though, because that's almost all this film gives us: her acting performance as she reacts to her discovery and attempts to escape it. Fortunately she does a fine job because, if she didn't, this would have been empty.
And enough with the vague hints, this is the urban legend where you wake up in a bathtub of ice with a surgical scar where your kidney used to be. You're shocked, right? Well, surprise is clearly not what this short is aiming for, but I'm not sure what it is aiming for. It's shot with some style, the camera panning around the abundant layered graffiti in this particular bathroom before it finds the girl in the cheap tub, one of those huge plastic things you can buy at Home Depot. The set's well created and decorated, but it's not what we're here to see. We're here to see this young lady wake up and react, which she does in a thoroughly believable manner for someone whose lips are blue from the cold. Something is going on at the end of the film, but I'm not sure if it's a twist, an emphatic period or the trigger for everything to become a metaphor. It made me wonder if the camera movement as the end credits roll is traditional or not. In fact, the entire film may just be an exercise in placement. It's well done but inconsequential.

Oh, and I presume the title is in capitals because it adds a second meaning of In Case of Emergency. Maybe ICE is a PSA.

ICE can be watched for free on YouTube or Mindplate.

Alone (2013)

Director: Anthony R Pisano
Stars: Jonathan J Joyce, Tammy Drewett, Anthony Harrell, Scot Haskins and Spencer Haskins
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Regular readers at Apocalypse Later will know that I'm emphatically not a fan of handheld footage. It's not that the technique doesn't have a place and it's not that there aren't decent shakycam pictures out there; it's that they tend to give me motion sickness and I have to watch them in my peripheral vision, hardly the best way to experience a movie. It's also that many (though not all) microbudget filmmakers haul out the technique not because it's the appropriate one for their story, but because it's cheap and it excuses them from doing all the things filmmakers have to do to make their movies look good. This film from the Scottsdale Community College Film School fortunately avoids most of the usual problems. For one, it runs a mere three minutes and that includes the end credits. It's also really not a horror picture, where the concept has been overused; it's more of an experimental science fiction piece. It maintains internal consistency because we're never quite sure what's happening, so have to figure it out.

And I'm not sure I've quite got there yet, but there are a few facts to base our interpretations on. What we see is a man running around at night and, for the most part, we see things from his perspective. He tries to avoid all the normal people, who stand still in some sort of somnambulist state doing precisely nothing. He especially tries to avoid the strange folk in white masks who keep popping up wherever he least expects, folk who are certainly not oblivious to his presence in their midst. He finds a hiding place, but is eventually caught, only to escape again and again. We have no idea who this man is, where he is or why he's there. We have no idea who any of the other people are either, as there isn't a framework for us to build on. There's also no resolution, which is why I can theorise without any fear of providing spoilers; this is emphatically a film to watch half a dozen times with thoughtful company to see if you can understand what it's trying to tell us. Maybe it isn't telling us anything.
The initial feeling is that the man is fleeing someone or something. He avoids everyone he meets and hides out in a bathroom. However, the white masks are right there, so they know exactly where he is; yet they let him be, suggesting that they're not pursuing him, merely herding him. It's notable that his second attempt to flee, having been caught and subdued but apparently left alone, follows exactly the same path as the first, including some of the same movements. Maybe he's participating in some kind of experiment and they're merely tracking their subject. The play with masks suggests a riff on the last episode of The Prisoner, where this unnamed man discovers that he's one of the very people that he's so keen to run away from. That would be the obvious psychiatric interpretation. It could be a recurring nightmare that explores that fear of being what he fears the most. There's certainly a lot of possibility for something that's only three minutes long. That's a plus.

Another plus is the style that director Anthony R Pisano and his crew conjure up. The concept of using masks may be a story element, but it's a visual one too. The first man in a mask we see is entering a room from the dark outside, which makes him look like a disembodied head for a moment. Positioning actors in patterns is a little freaky too, especially with the masks potentially doing the choreography. It reaches into our minds and triggers a surprising amount of reactions for something so short and vague. I also enjoyed the sound design, which sets up what could easily be listened to as dark ambient music. It's a combination of weird whispering, high pitched drones and a well timed tolling bell. The heartbeat that bookends the piece feels appropriate, as is the minimal theme by Jason McNeil that accompanies the end credits. I'm not going to pretend that I've figured this out yet but it did make me think and it's still doing that. I can even forgive the handheld footage. That must say something.

Alone can be viewed for free on YouTube.

Sunday 16 February 2014

App of Time (2010)

Director: John D'Agostino
Stars: Will Hightower and Ruben Angelo
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.
As I'm revisiting old selections from the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival and I've just caught up with Children of the Dust, a new short starring Will Hightower, I thought I'd combine the two approaches and look back at an earlier short of Hightower's that played that festival in 2010, padding out the slot of the short 78 minute feature, Everything's Eventual. Unfortunately it's not remotely of the same quality, being a cheap and cheerful piece that will make science fiction purists cringe. It does raise a few laughs here and there, but those are the high points of a mostly inconsequential short film which surely works best as the introduction for a more substantial feature. It does enough to quieten down an audience and settle them in their seats before the main attraction, but it doesn't do much more. Hightower's co-star, Ruben Angelo, has moved light years on from this, which is his earliest acting credit on IMDb, to helm a company of his own, Rangelo Productions, which has eagerly awaited titles due this year like Grief.

Hightower takes the lead, playing a nerdy programmer called Matt. He doesn't seem to be a particularly good nerd, given that the obligatory fantasy novel on his desk is by Stephen King and the movie poster above it is of The Phantom Menace. C'mon, The Phantom Menace in 2010? He needs to revoke his nerd card with immediate effect. I can buy the Watchmen background on his monitor, but I can't buy the fact that he only has one of them. What sort of programmer only has one monitor? Anyway, he turns out to be far better than he thinks he is, because the new cellphone app he's written not only works perfectly on its first run, without a single test, but works perfectly at a completely different task to which it was designed. The one time I see a film where the code actually looks like real code (at least as far as I can tell), it turns out to back up outrageous sci-fi gibberish. Given the title of the movie and the fact that the app Matt is creating is called 'The Time Machine', you can see where it's going to go.

Sure, 'The Time Machine' is supposed to just tell you what happened on any date in the past, but what it really does is actually send you back in time. That's what Bobby finds out when he drops in to see his friend and gets to use the app for the first time. Off he goes and back he comes, scared silly. From that point, you can write most of the rest of the story yourself, predictability being only one of its flaws. App of Time could have been a lot worse, given that we see and hear everything we're supposed to and the effects work is pretty cool. I was surprised when Bobby disappears, but only because the effect looks so good when compared to everything else. Hightower and Angelo only do what they need to like this was a rehearsal and I got the impression they should have been ten years younger; the camera is jerky as if it missed a couple of upgrades; and the whole thing is restricted to two characters in basic sets. So App of Time could have been a heck of a lot better too. It's a cute timewaster, pun intended, but no more.

App of Time can be watched for free on YouTube.

Children of the Dust (2014)

Director: Chris Wilembrecht
Stars: Will Hightower, Carrie Fee, Anne Gentry, Mina Mirkhah and Kat Bingham

I watched Children of the Dust last month in an incomplete state and it still stayed with me. Watching it afresh with only the opening bumpers still missing, I can see why. While the story's progression is clear enough, the real story comes from the atmosphere that it builds. There are a lot of hallucinatory visuals here, spawned from dreams, narcotics and conditioning that help us to realise that there's always more than one way to see anything. The sound follows the visuals on those little trips, which arrive in waves to unsettle us before jarring back crisply into a reality that slides from the sacred to the profane. All this cinematic trickery makes Children of the Dust an infectious, contagious piece, which is emphasised still further by the superb third act, which is a real treat, combining stunning composition of frame with the perfect choice of score. The imagery that it accompanies is suitably powerful too, something of a visual poem or dark litany, appropriately given the religious focus of the piece.

When those missing bumpers are added in, we'll see that this long short is a creation of Octopus Army and Valor Media rather than Cool Wave Pictures, but many of the names involved, both on screen and off, are those we've seen many times before in the latter's films. Carrie Fee is a regular there, leading films like Sex and Violence and The Greatest Lie Ever Told, while Anne Gentry and Kat Bingham were both memorable in Dust Jacket. The directors of each of those films also lent their assistance here. Ken Miller, who wrote and directed Dust Jacket, co-produced here and served as assistant director. Charles Peterson, director and co-writer of Sex and Violence, co-edited this short and handled the crane work. Cody Everett, who wrote and directed The Greatest Lie Ever Told, provided voice work here. Even Chris Wilembrecht, the main name behind Children of the Dust as its writer and director, amongst a slew of other roles, co-produced Dust Jacket and edited The Greatest Lie Ever Told.

One of the new names to this group of creative jacks of all trades is the lead actor, Will Hightower, who I've only seen before in App of Time. He certainly landed an interesting role in young and naive Vincent, the lead character and main focus of this film but, depending on how we read it, he may actually be its most inconsequential character. I'm wondering if he's really the walking, talking MacGuffin because all the other characters care what happens to him, for one reason or another, but that's the main reason that he's here. He has no real presence of his own; the nearest he gets to one is to dream it, the future he wants being to hook up with his favourite waitress at the A Touch of European Café. She apparently isn't averse to the idea either, once we meet her and watch them interact, but obviously nothing has happened yet. Perhaps the main reason for this is that Vincent has an overbearing mother with strong religious beliefs that she uses as a weapon to batter him with.
Mum is Anne Gentry, who shows us her scary side here, even while remaining polite. She's not the sort of mother any of us would want and fear of her shows in Vincent's few actions and the notable absence of the rest. She does seem to want the best for him, her approach clearly mirrored in the talk radio chat we hear early on that speaks to training children to avoid the sinful world, which she describes as 'pure trash'. He gives in to her at every step but finds his escape at the café and his waitress, played by Kat Bingham, who bizarrely may actually do more here in a crucial supporting slot than she did as the lead in Dust Jacket. Unfortunately for Vincent, escaping to the café also means entering into the sinful world, for which he is woefully unprepared, as he discovers when his eyes stray up Carrie Fee's short skirt. Fee may be the most fearless actress working in the valley today, though I'm not sure whether that's better highlighted in Sex and Violence or The Greatest Lie Ever Told. She always keeps us on our toes.

Here she's Christine, Temptation with a capital T, perhaps the Devil herself, and Vincent is putty in her hands from moment one. Having lived with one dominant woman all his life, he knows exactly what to do with another: anything she wants. Everything unravels from there, spectacularly for twenty minutes. How it does so is open to interpretation. Christine may just be an opportunitistic girl, seducing Vincent just for kicks because she can see how defenceless he is. The first thing she does that isn't to him is to vomit out of his bedroom window; it just wouldn't be a Carrie Fee movie without at least one bodily fluid making an appearance. However, the film was built from a religious framework and that continues as Christine teases Vincent about his odds of going to Heaven or Hell, so perhaps she's something more, like a demon or a succubus; perhaps Vincent merely visualises her that way because he's conditioned to do so. These twin readings continue, enhanced by pharmaceuticals and laced with the sacrilegious.

The film's biggest achievement is the third act, but that may prove to be its biggest problem too, as it's a step above everything else. Had Children of the Dust ended at the end of part two, with Christine and her sister, played by an even more confident Mina Mirkhah, sharing Vincent's mother's bed, under one of the film's huge and outrageously gaudy religious paintings, it would have been a decent short with a controversial edge. However it continues on with a vengeance. 'Hey, it's time,' mutters Mirkhah and she isn't kidding. The third act is far more than a decent film, from its startling opening visual, a 45 second sustained long shot with human beings a tiny detail against the hills. The ominous clouds are matched by the ominous chords of the Raveonettes, for whose blissfully distorted song, Belly of the Beast, this could serve as a music video. Everything here is magnificent: the editing, the dream flashbacks, the imagery, the lighting, the gorgeous shot through the flames. It's masterful stuff.
That's a huge deal, but in good and bad ways. It leaves us breathless and wanting more, which is every film's dream, after all. I would dearly love to see a full feature that plays like this masterful third act. It's open enough to easily allow it and Mirkhah and Fee are more than capable. But, when the euphoria dies down, we remember how we got there and the first two acts, as strong as they are and as much as they could stand on their own, can't compete when followed by something with this power. Of course, they're required to allow the picture to build, to underline how this could all come about, but they're balanced strangely: the first act runs fifteen minutes, while the other two are only five each. Looking back during the end credits, it feels like twenty minutes of setup for a powerful finalé, which is unfair because that's not how it felt as it unfolded. There's much to appreciate in the first two acts but they're not anchored anywhere near as well as the third.

As the title might suggest, Children of the Dust is a cynical piece; it isn't afraid to let us sympathise with the good guy but it won't let us get behind him. It's almost Aryan in its philosophy that the strong must always dominate the weak, but it's never political, always religious. The film allies itself firmly with Fee's character, so that it's seducing us as she seduces Vincent. The religious framework forces us to consider it in those terms, especially with the symbolism that we're treated to during the finalé. But, if this is a warning to keep us from the pit, it's phrased in an interesting way. It tells us that in training Vincent so strictly to avoid temptation, his mother left him wide open to the world, not protected from it. Everyone in his life manipulated him, with good intentions or bad, with the one ironic exception of his dream girl, who chose not to. As women drive everything here, we could easily read Christine as Eve as much as the serpent on the poster and Kat Bingham's waitress as the Virgin Mary. Who would we fall for?

Saturday 15 February 2014

Midnight Son (2011)

Director: Scott Leberecht
Stars: Zak Kilberg, Maya Parish, Jo D Jonz, Arlen Escarpeta, Larry Cedar, Juanita Jennings and Tracey Walter
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
Scott Leberecht, who wrote, produced and directed Midnight Son, is far better known as a visual effects arts director at Industrial Light and Magic. Having films like Eraser, 101 Dalmations and Sleepy Hollow behind you can hardly be seen as a bad training ground for a start in making the films you really want to make. He wrote and directed a short film in 2003 called Underdog, around the time he also directed a couple of other shorts he didn't write, but this is his debut feature as a writer/director, one that perhaps took him eight years to get going. It's a solid film too that made a few ripples on the festival circuit back in 2011. Perhaps its biggest problem is that it doesn't feel like a 2011 movie, more like the sort of novel that more ambitious horror authors were trying to write back in the eighties when vampires were being reinvented. It's slow, careful and thoughtful. It has a strangely hopeful ending. It's a vampire movie that only mentions the V word once and only ever hints at the possibility of showing us fangs.

Our hero, if such a word is remotely appropriate here, is Jacob Gray, who works security for a faceless corporation. It's very apparent that something is wrong with him, not only because he collapses in the lobby but because he does so while listening to Gary the janitor's heartbeat from a few feet away, over the noise of the floor polisher, even over conversation. He's showing signs of malnourishment, although he eats a lot of junk food; the doctor thinks cirrhosis, jaundice and anaemia and recommends tests. He's very pale and he suffers from a serious skin condition, serious enough that he burns in sunlight, and I do mean burns, not just turns red. Only when he drinks the bloody juices from an undercooked steak does his stomach begin to feel happy. He may not have much of a clue what's happening to his body, but it's pretty obvious to us with ninety years of vampire movies behind us. He already works nights, third shift. 'It's like you're a vampire,' a girl tells him and it's something he's obviously thought about.

Why it manifests itself now is the real question and the only hint we get in that direction comes from the janitor, who is a believable fount of hidden knowledge because he's played by Tracey Walter, Miller from Repo Man. When Jacob tells him that he's 24, Gary replies that the human body stops growing at 25, so he must be in the last stages of something, not the early ones. Maybe he's 'like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly'. That's how this film is phrased: there are no undead armies, no Transylvanian counts, not a single dubious accent; it's about Jacob struggling to find himself when he's not like anyone else around him. After half an hour I realised I wasn't even thinking of this as a horror movie, more like a coming of age story, merely a little later in the protagonist's life than usual. It's a romance, a thriller, a drama. It's a drug movie, one whose drug happens to be blood rather than cocaine or heroin. It could even be seen as a nature film, a lost animal discovering his potential and transforming into what he could be.
It's only hokey briefly, as Jacob rents Fright Night (on VHS, no less, our only hint at a timeframe) to test the lore. None of it proves accurate. He can see himself in the mirror. He sticks a cross on his forehead but nothing happens. We never see fangs. We do see other things though, like how the film is sparsely populated as if to highlight how sparsely populated Jacob's life is. We wonder a lot about him, not only about what he is right now and what he's becoming but about what he used to be like. It doesn't seem to come up, apparent only in a few photos, knick-knacks and an abiding memory of the sun which he paints from photographs. He lives in a basement apartment with a heavy blanket over the door, which doesn't seem unusual to him. Gary the janitor and Mary, a girl he meets outside a club, are the only people he connects with and then not easily. He's likeable but he's just not a social creature. He seems to have drifted thoughtlessly into self medication as his condition worsened. He just got used to it.

Mary proves to be as much a catalyst for change as Jacob's condition. Zak Kilberg, an experienced but hardly prolific actor who seems to be transitioning into production, underplays Jacob throughout the film because he's a nonentity. He isn't anyone we would be watching a feature about if he wasn't becoming some sort of vampire butterfly. The differences between him and Mary are major from the moment we first see her, hawking candy and cigarettes. He's dressed simply in black and white; she's colourfully adorned with bangles, ribbons and glowing things. She's experienced; she works multiple jobs, she smokes and does drugs, she's had and ended relationships. He's done none of the above. Maya Parish, another experienced but not prolific actor, plays Mary as someone who has been there, done that often enough to be confident but still remain somehow empty. Meeting Jacob is an opportunity for her to change too. He's nice and he's different. He's a way out of a life she isn't particularly happy about.

It's through Maya that we find an analogy between vampirism and drug addiction. Realising how much animal blood agrees with him, he starts drinking it out of coffee cups, hiding his drug of choice; it only wanes when he inadvertently gets a taste of human blood for the first time. At Jacob's for a date, Maya snorts some coke in his bathroom and gets a nosebleed while making out. His reaction shakes her and prompts her to stop doing drugs, but it also prompts him to escalate, to the point where he scavenges from the biohazard trash at a hospital. An orderly called Marcus rumbles him, but gives him an expired blood pack with the promise of more, at $150 each. The drug analogy couldn't be more obvious at this point, but it's continued. Later when his shirt is splashed with blood he cuts a piece out to suck, like an acid dot. We even see production, the opportunistic Marcus draining a man in a wheelchair. Jacob tries to go legal after that, looking up blood sales online. It isn't quite that simple, as you can imagine.
Leberecht achieves much with Midnight Son but I'm not sure quite what he aimed it to be. I saw it at a horror film festival, perhaps appropriately given that it revolves around a man who can only be seen as a vampire, even if all the supernatural elements have been excised. It may well appeal to fans of more unusual vampire movies as Near Dark, Grace or Let the Right One In, but it's certainly not for the usual horror throngs. It probably plays best as a drama, with strong acting and a slow but sure progression as Jacob discovers who and what he really is. Yet the people who watch dramas don't tend to expect to be given a vampire as a lead character, however much it avoids the use of the word. Perhaps I'm seeing all this as a potential issue because it feels out of time. Nowadays, pictures like Let the Right One In have found an audience that appreciates artistic filmmaking, whatever the subject. Midnight Son plays like it was made in the late eighties but took 25 years to find a release. Back then, 'genre' was a dirty word.

From some angles Zak Kilberg has a Brendan Fraser thing going for him, albeit a rather anorexic Fraser, maybe crossed with Richard E Grant. From others there's some early Russell Crowe. Yet he's grounded, appearing like an everyday person rather than some A list movie star. He doesn't have the charisma for that but he does have the acting chops to draw us into his plight anyway, like a new face in a random TV show that you find yourself watching more than the leads. Yet an hour later, you'd walk past him on the street without even thinking. This may not have the star power of Zombie Strippers! but it's surely a number of notches up on the quality scale. Maya Parish also has plenty of talent and promise. She gets a substantial role here, not remotely close to the average character for a leading lady. Sure, she's the love interest, but she's also the driving force for the story in a number of different ways, often far more than the more passive Jacob. It falls more for Parish to push it forward than to Kilberg.

The supporting cast are capable too. Jo D Jonz and Aren Escarpeta fit the same category as Kilberg and Parish; they're both experienced but neither has made it big yet. Like them, this film can't hurt to be an entry on their resumes and they will surely make themselves noticed in the future. While Midnight Son belongs to the two leads, Jonz and Escarpeta bring depth to their characters as Marcus and his brother Russell. They also grow well, even without a substantial amount of screen time. The most recognisable name is Tracey Walter, but he gets very little to do; it's a reassurance that he does a lot with it. Juanita Jennings and Larry Cedar are both highly experienced, but their characters are restricted to subplots as Liz, the proprietor of an art gallery, who Mary persuades to exhibit Jacob's paintings, and Det Ginslegh, a cop investigating a string of murders which may or may not tie back to Jacob. All of them could easily have done more and done it well, but expanding their roles would have detracted from the core story.

And that all comes back to Jacob Gray, who remains an enigma past the end credits. We discover much about his condition as the film runs on, but not so much about him, not through any fault of Kilberg but because Leberecht obviously didn't want to tell. Everyone Jacob bites becomes like him and those who don't learn as he obviously did soon burn; this is consistent throughout, so helps us to find a grounding in what is to come, but it doesn't explain how Gray managed to make it this far. The difference is clearly that he was made vampire at a much younger age, maybe even at birth, but we're shown none of that. How did he survive as a vampire child? How did he make it to the point where he could self medicate by closing off the windows, putting up the blankets and taking a job working nights? Who are his parents and where are they? Why didn't they prepare him? Leberecht could easily make a prequel to explain to us where Jacob came from; maybe that was always the idea. I'm certainly not averse to it.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Mike Case in: The Big Kiss Off (2013)

Director: Justin Baird
Stars: Les Mahoney, Debra Mayer, Devai Pearce, Atoy Wilson and Dale Shane
I watched The Big Kiss Off and I enjoyed The Big Kiss Off, but I'm still not sure exactly what I saw. I think what it boils down to is an equivalent to The Big Something that merely plays a little closer to its source inspirations. The Big Something is a microbudget Arizona feature film that takes an idea conjured up by Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep, the first of his Philip Marlowe novels, and runs with it, namely that in reality, detective stories don't unfold quite as cleanly as they do in the movies. The traditional model sees a crime solved through insight, intelligence or intuition. Watch enough of them and you'll begin to realise whodunit a few minutes in. When Howard Hawks adapted The Big Sleep to the big screen in the late forties, he followed Chandler's approach instead, which was to concentrate on the feel of the piece, building a story not through plot but through character. He even asked Chandler who killed one of the supporting characters, only to be told that even the writer didn't have a clue. It simply wasn't important.

In other words, what The Big Sleep did was to have its detective stumble about poking a stick into every hornet's nest he could find until he got the sort of reaction he was looking for. Eventually, he stirred up enough reaction for the villain to come to light so the story could be wrapped up. It has a beginning and an end that appear to tie together, but what comes in between is completely up for grabs. Who knows who did what? Who knows if Marlowe found the right clues or acted on them in the right way? It doesn't matter. He got his man in the end. Well, a man, at least. Some have complained that The Big Sleep is a confusing, hard to follow mess, but they're missing the point; it's supposed to be! It's an attractive idea, one that has been played with in many other movies, usually with titles that reference the original. The Big Lebowski is the most obvious thematic return to this idea, but The Big Something does exactly the same thing on a much smaller budget and with a much quirkier feel. That's why it leaps to mind here.

I've now seen almost eighty films by Travis Mills and Running Wild Pictures and The Big Something, his debut feature, is probably still my favourite, even if it isn't the best. Talking with regular Running Wild actors at the 52 Films/52 Weeks event last weekend, I found that I'm not alone. It must have cost about as much as my granddaughter has in her piggy bank and it's certainly not without its flaws, but it takes that stumbling detective idea from The Big Sleep, hauls it into the modern day and endows it with some gloriously quirky characters and situations. It's a lot of fun, like The Big Lebowski without a budget. The Big Kiss Off does precisely the same thing. Shot in Hollywood, it clearly isn't a Hollywood movie; it's an indie feature that takes neat advantage of its lack of budget. Mike Case, for instance, is a classic PI with his name inevitably stencilled on his office window; but here, that office is his car. It's this sort of little touch that does a lot more than merely recycling character names from Double Indemnity.
The screenplay tasks its hero less with solving a case, which has to do with finding a missing husband, and more with just bouncing from one quirky character to another. This is the film's greatest success, but it couldn't work without a strong character to ground all the wackiness and, fortunately, that's the other obvious success. Les Mahoney would seem to be responsible for both of them, as he co-wrote the script with Sherman Hirsh and took the role of Mike Case for himself. He's not your usual leading man, even if he wears the usual hard boiled detective's suit. He often looks older than he is, because his face has the sort of worn in look we might expect from a jaded private dick who's been there, done that a few times too often. He feels somewhat like Doug McClure playing Tom Waits, if you can imagine that combination. He also often feels out of place, like a forties character lost in time, because this movie is emphatically modern, however it wears its film noir influences on its sleeve.

The contrast is highlighted early on. Case suffers through a wonderful early scene at the Freaky Tiki Bar where he follows the detective movie rulebook, only to be ripped off by a bartender in a Hawaiian shirt. Bogie wouldn't have stood for it; he'd have slapped him into dishing out the dirt. As this lost opportunity highlights, Case isn't quite the hardboiled dick that he thinks he is. That's underlined soon after, as he visits Lt Lorena Dietrichson at home for police insight. He relentlessly tries to pump her for information while she just wants him to pump her. So Case thinks he's like Bogart's Philip Marlowe, but he's more like an alien stuck in Marlowe's skin with only a bunch of films noir as reference. Fortunately Mahoney plays Case straight throughout. Had he played him for laughs, this would have gone horribly wrong, but Case doesn't see humour in setting the Magnum, PI theme tune as his ringtone, tweeting his new case or driving around with bloody fuzzy dice hanging from his rear view mirror. We do, of course.

Most of the humour comes from the situation comedy and the wild characters that Case encounters as he blunders his way towards the end. Viewers who expect every movie to look like it cost $50m won't get too far here, but the live or die moment for those with more discerning tastes may be when Tamal Dupta shows up about the seventeen minute mark. He's a young conman masquerading as a bad guru and every scene he's in feels like it was improvised on the spot. Maybe that is the key. Everything else is when Dupta's on screen. He's easily the wildest character thus far and his arrival is the point where the film emphatically moves from being a detective movie with humour to a comedy with a detective. Anyone who doesn't appreciate this switch probably isn't going to enjoy where the picture goes from there, but if you find yourself laughing at his blatant attempts to fleece an undercover Mike Case, you should stick around and have a blast. And a beer. That would probably help too.
As Dupta, Sunil Sadarangani may play the most outrageous character in the picture, though Guillermo Jorge would battle him for that title as a Vegan bullfighter, but they're not alone. S W Thomas is surely my favourite as a crazily cryptic character with a stream of consciousness mouth. Like Jorge, he shows up out of nowhere, as does Maxim cover girl Erica Ocampo to slide into Case's hot tub and discuss the size of his gun. Given how little connection any of these have to the actual plot, maybe they're all just creations of his subconscious juggling things around. Then again, he does that sort of thing much more overtly with post-it notes on his car's bonnet. William Tell Mitchell brings a memorably broken voice to an art dealer with a line in therapy. Dale Shane proves a neatly apologetic enforcer and Atoy Wilson an eccentric informer. Hannah Pierce has a way of stealing scenes, even though she isn't even an actress; she's the waitress who served Hirsh and Mahoney when they first met for lunch to discuss the script.

There are experienced actors in the film. Debra Mayer, veteran of many a Full Moon movie, is a lot of fun as a nymphomaniac cop, even if she can't bring the proper nuance to film noir lines like, 'I've been well; now I'm better.' David Alan Graf seems to make his way into every other indie feature nowadays, but his role here has even less screen time than he had in Biology 101. Inevitably, they're more solid than some of the less experienced names. Devai Pearce has a decent shot at Victoria Billows, the wife who hires Case to kick off the film, given that she's earned precious few credits thus far. She has some good moments too but not enough of them. I'd still watch Scream, Zombie Scream though to see how she does with three roles in the same movie, one that was directed by one of the writers of this film, Sherman Hirsh. Throughout this surreal journey, it's Mahoney who is the only real constant. Everyone else is here for him to bounce off for a few minutes and move on.

As a film noir, this is clearly an affectionate tribute to the days of yore but it doesn't remotely follow in their footsteps. It's a detective movie without detection, not to mention a porn movie without the porn. It knows what it needs to include, but the obvious lack of budget, improvised feel to the dialogue and lack of emphatic sets means that a number of scenes feel like they might play out a little differently in the non-existent hardcore version. As a comedy, it's a lot more successful; once I managed to adjust to what I was actually seeing, I laughed my way through. The story is pretty terrible, possibly deliberately, but everything spins out of the offbeat characters and scenes, which are varied enough and frequent enough to keep us interested. I'd certainly watch it again (I laughed as much on a second time through as a first), but it would certainly play better in good microbudget loving company with a steady supply of alcohol to add to the ambience. Maybe that is the key. What do you say, Dupta?

Sunday 9 February 2014

Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914)

Director: Henry Lehrman
Stars: Mabel Normand, Charles Chaplin, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport and Harry McCoy
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.
I first saw Mabel's Strange Predicament in a washed out public domain French print in a cheap DVD box set under the title of Charlot à l'Hôtel, or Charlie in the Hotel. This change of title is important because, even though it was surely done to reflect the bigger star at the time of reissue, it underlines an obvious truth: this is undeniably a Charlie Chaplin picture. Nobody watching today would remotely believe that anyone else was the lead actor, because he's clearly the focus of attention. He's rarely off screen, for a start, and he owns the opening scene, which runs long for a 1914 picture, let alone one from Keystone Studios. Mack Sennett, founder of Keystone, originally intended to have Chaplin stage some routines in the hotel lobby, presumably to warm up the film and to give his new actor some screen time. However, Chaplin made it obvious, even during the shoot, that his new character deserved more attention, which he promptly got. Sennett bulked up his role to appear throughout the story.

It's important to remember that at this point in time, Chaplin had only hinted at what he could do. This film hit screens on Monday, 9th February, 1914 and he wasn't yet the world famous star he would soon become. He'd debuted on screen only a week earlier, in a role that didn't fit him, but five days later he showed up again, this time as the Little Tramp. Theatre audiences were beginning to notice this funny actor who did things a little differently from the norm, and this was an emphatic follow up to the oddity that was Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. In reality, he shot this film before that one, but it took longer to reach theatres because it was a far more sophisticated production. That's not to suggest that anything Keystone produced at this point was particularly sophisticated, but everything feels sophisticated when compared to a 45 minute shoot at a public event where the height of comedy is when the Little Tramp walks in front of the camera. It was groundbreaking and historic, but it was hardly high art.

At this point, as the title suggests, the star was Mabel Normand, who was perhaps the biggest name at Keystone Studios. Not incidentally, she was also four years into a tumultuous relationship with Sennett, who she had met at Biograph when both were working for D W Griffith, Normand in front of the camera and Sennett behind it. He brought her with him to California in 1912 to found Keystone and he quickly made her a star. By the time her character found herself in this strange predicament, she had become the establishment, with nearly 150 pictures behind her, many as her regular character, Mabel. She was also a pioneering female writer and director, who would have her own studio by the end of the decade. Her career derailed though, aided by two major scandals: the unsolved murder of film director William Desmond Taylor, possibly through a hit to stop him helping authorities bring down her cocaine dealers, and the shooting of millionnaire Courtland Dines by her chauffeur, Joe Kelly. She died from TB in 1930.
Watching Mabel's Strange Predicament in 2014, especially in the restored version that Flicker Alley put out on DVD in 2010, we can't help but wonder what she thought she was doing here. She appears just like a silent movie stereotype, flailing her arms around in panic and chewing up every piece of scenery she can find. She isn't alone, of course, as most of the rest of the cast do the same, including Keystone regulars Chester Conklin and Alice Davenport as a husband and wife who find themselves inadvertently caught up in the assorted mishaps which set up the strange predicament of the title. However, all this merely makes it even more obvious that Charlie Chaplin doesn't chew up any scenery. Instead, he's a surprisingly realistic drunkard, a 'drunken masher' who sups too much in the first scene, so spends the rest of the film notably under the influence. It's a believable, grounded performance that makes good use not only of his hat and cane but of many other props in the hotel.

Officially, of course, it's all about Mabel and the fine mess that she gets into. It's hardly a complex idea to build a film on; she just checks into a hotel, changes into her 1914 pyjamas and plays with her dog: bouncing a ball, falling over a lot and generally driving the couple across the hall nuts. The fun begins when she bounces the ball into the hallway; she goes to retrieve it and the dog shuts the door behind her, locking her out of her own room. That's probably as far as the script got, because that's how they worked at Keystone and the rest was gags built upon gags. The next scene, in which drunken Charlie stumbles upon her and decides to woo her results in her hiding under the bed. In the room across the hall. The one that houses the couple who are already complaining about her. It's hardly sophisticated, even by Keystone standards, but it moves along capably enough, with opportunities for Davenport to rage, Conklin to gesture and Harry McCoy to get crazily jealous as her lover.

None of them impress. It's great to see them properly in a well restored print but they do nothing here that hadn't been done many times already, such as in most of the dozen one reel comedies Keystone churned out every month, usually featuring the same actors. What makes this particular film special is Charlie Chaplin, not because he does anything we wouldn't see him do again later on in better pictures with better scripts and better performances, but because he hadn't done it before this. This is the film that first showed us just what Chaplin could do. He didn't do much in Making a Living, because he was stuck playing a clichéd villain in a movie that refused to slow down and director Henry Lehrman cut out most of his best bits. I enjoyed Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal a lot more when I saw the restored Flicker Alley version, but it's still far more important than it is enjoyable, as it's our first experience of the Little Tramp. It's a shame that film reached theatres first, because this would have been the better debut.
While Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal has more of one of his most appealing traits, namely his eagerness to stick his nose up at authority, this has more of the rest. He's drunk for most of the film, making him an outsider wherever he goes, even if the hotel staff treat him with deference because he's aware how to tip. In playing this drunkard he gets to exercise his craft and show off his moves, but he also gets to do it at length within the confines of a story based picture. The superlatives some contemporary critics used to describe him in his earlier two films would have been far more appropriately used here. He got better, make no mistake, but he effortlessly and emphatically outclassed every one of his co-stars. He dominates, pure and simple, every movement an opportunity for another little nuance, whether it's to bash himself on the head with his twirling cane, fall off a chair or just hang up his tight coat on a hook that isn't there. He's the centre of his own universe, one that only we can appreciate.

With three films reaching theatres in eight days, Chaplin was well on the way. This movie in particular showcased his talents, highlighted how he could steal every scene from his far more experienced and established fellow cast members and clearly emphasised that the future was his to grasp. Yet he was still new at Keystone Studios and he was still adapting his stage expertise to screen. Mabel's Strange Predicament demonstrates that he had an instinctive feel for the camera, but he would hone his skills over many further pictures until he had mastered not only the role of actor but most of the other roles needed to make a film work. David Robinson, author of a number of books on Chaplin, wrote that 'no other filmmaker ever so completely dominated every aspect of the work, did every job,' adding that 'If he could have done so, Chaplin would have played every role and (as his son Sydney humorously but perceptively observed) sewn every costume.' From here, we can start watching him grow.

And I'm really looking forward to doing that over 2014. I've seen most of Chaplin's Keystone pictures before, but only in the generally poor prints that have circulated for years. I'm finding the Flicker Alley restorations eye-opening because I'm seeing things in each of these films that I've never seen before, even if I watch my older copy immediately before its new restoration. Each one of Chaplin's first three pictures has played better to me than last time and I've laughed more and more often. However, I'm still only at the beginning; I know his films got better as the year progressed and as he gradually took over as actor, writer and director. I wonder if this is why Mabel Normand is so frequently cited as his mentor. Clearly it isn't because of her acting, because he effortlessly eclipses her in their first pairing. There are twelve more to come in 1914, culminating in the first feature length screen comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance. It's going to be an interesting year.

Important Sources:
David Robinson - Chaplin: His Life and Art (1985)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Mabel's Strange Predicament can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of all 36 of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory (if we count the first half of A Thief Catcher, previously thought lost), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

Friday 7 February 2014

Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal (1914)

Director: Henry Lehrman
Stars: Charles Chaplin, Henry Lehrman and Frank D Williams
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.
Almost a decade ago, when I watched most of the films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone in 1914, this seemed the weakest of them all. On the face of it, there's nothing here: just a tramp loitering in front of a camera to annoy the people behind it as they shoot the auto races of the title. There's no story, little more than an initial idea that doesn't progress any further as the film runs on. We might be forgiven, as many of the unwitting extras were, for assuming that the tramp is the only character, though of course the film director and cameraman he annoys are characters too. There's neither a leading lady nor any other supporting roles, at least not scripted ones played by actors. What's more, there aren't even the things that we might safely expect to see in a Keystone picture: no Keystone Kops, no pies in the face, not even a single chase. The most recognisable moment is that old slapstick standard, the kick in the ass; Chaplin finds himself on the receiving end of one and naturally hits the dirt.

Without context, the movie feels more valuable for the auto races going on in the background that had obviously started before this guerrilla shoot began and continued after it ended. We see children racing in what seems to be some sort of soapbox derby event with little apparent structure. It was really the Junior Vanderbilt Cup, a children's version of the first major auto racing event in the US which had been founded in 1904 in New York. It stayed there until 1911, when it started moving around the country. In 1914 it found its way to the west coast for the first time, to be held in Santa Monica, CA, the only city to ever sponsor an equivalent race for children, which took place a mere couple of miles down the coast on the boardwalk at Venice Beach. Given that this six minute film may have only taken forty five to shoot, it's surprising that director Henry Lehrman managed to stage three different setups: one on a straight, another on a bend and the third just below a ramp used to launch the engineless vehicles.

However, a little context provides a rather different understanding. A century on, nobody has heard of the Junior Vanderbilt Cup, which appears to have been held just this once, and, if any have heard of it without the Junior prefix, it's probably because it was rebooted in CART racing in the late nineties for a decade or so. However Charlie Chaplin is lauded as the inventor of modern film comedy and one of the funniest actors to ever be seen in movies. Of course, if you went back in time to Sunday, 11th January, 1914, and told that to someone in the masses crowding the boardwalk at Venice Beach, they wouldn't believe you. Clearly the throngs are here to watch the races and they initially appear to be as annoyed by the Little Tramp's antics as those whose camera he keeps obscuring. In fact, if we look at this movie from the perspective of a reality, a sort of early documentary that merely captured a slice of life as the camera ran, he's just as annoying to us. Yet this was, in so many ways, the beginning.
Technically, Chaplin made his screen debut five days earlier with Making a Living, but in that picture he played a more traditional villain in a more traditional story; here he plays the Little Tramp, the character that would make him world famous. He played other characters in other films, but in almost every one he made until The Great Dictator, he's either the Little Tramp or a close approximation. Hilariously, the most famous character in the world of silent film was an afterthought. Mack Sennett, the man who ran Keystone Studios, wanted Chaplin to put on some sort of comic turn in a Mabel Normand picture called Mabel's Strange Predicament; perhaps he could walk into a hotel lobby and create some laughs. His list of instructions to Chaplin were absurdly minimal: 'Put on a comedy makeup. Anything will do.' Chaplin apparently thought up his costume on the way to wardrobe. 'I wanted everything to be a contradiction,' he wrote in his autobiography, 'the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large.'

Because Sennett had apparently been surprised at his youth when Chaplin arrived at the studio, he felt he should add another little detail, which would soon become one of his most memorable attributes and which may well appear his most defining feature today. 'I added a small moustache,' he wrote, 'which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born.' Certainly this most famous character of screen comedy was an inspired creation, but it wasn't entirely original. It was influenced by many generations of comedians who played tramps or clowns on the music hall stage. When he first stood in front of the camera, in Mabel's Strange Predicament, he's a variation on characters Chaplin had portrayed himself on stage for Fred Karno's London Comedians. Yet this film creation was somehow something more.

Clowns come and go. Tramps come and go. The genius of what Chaplin created on the fly is the sort of genius that isn't often seen, the contradictions he aimed at being definitive ones that others would aim to learn from or reinvent, yet nobody has quite matched this character in a century. From the waist up, he struggles not to burst. His coat is clearly more than a few sizes too small for him but he buttons it up anyway. His hat perches precariously on top of his head as if he's hoping it'll stretch to fit; of course he loses it often in his films. Even his famous toothbrush moustache appears too small for his face, merely another contradiction to film audiences in 1914, even if it's always going to be a reminder of Adolf Hitler to us. It's worth noting that Hitler was only 24 when this picture was released and it would be five more years before he would join what would become the Nazi party. Hitler appropriated Chaplin's moustache, not the other way around, which, of course, made The Great Dictator even more delightful.
Mabel's Strange Predicament was a regular one reel comedy, like Making a Living. One reel in 1914 was a thousand feet of film, which could fit between ten and twelve minutes of footage. Unlike those movies, Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal was a split reel film, a shorter picture that shared a reel with another film, in this instance an educational short called Olives and Their Oil. Partly because of its shorter length and mostly because it was such a quick shoot even by the standards of Keystone Studios, it was completed and shipped before Mabel's Strange Predicament, which means that the public saw it first and it would go down in history as the first appearance of the Little Tramp. The two films served as a one two punch for audiences over a single weekend, as Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal arrived on Friday, 2nd February, while the more substantial Mabel's Strange Predicament quickly followed up a mere two days later on Monday the 9th, still only a week after Making a Living. Charlie Chaplin had emphatically arrived.

Contemporary reviews were positive. The Bioscope reviewer talked of 'sensational happenings' but The Cinema was effusive with its praise. 'Kid Auto Races struck us as about the funniest film we have ever seen,' it said, adding that 'Chaplin is a born screen comedian; he does things we have not seen done on the screen before.' I don't know when this was written, but it must be more recent than the other as the actor is called out by name, impossible to do when Keystone didn't credit them; in the Bioscope review, he was simply referred to as 'the funny man'. It's difficult to understand this praise today, though it is a little easier if we watch the newly restored version released by Flicker Alley. Restored at the British Film Institute's National Archive in London from two nitrate prints, it shows us far more than we could see in the print that has circulated for years. Most importantly, we can see facial expressions, which we soon realise are massively important, both on the Little Tramp himself and on the people watching him.

It could be argued that the first time audiences saw Chaplin as the Little Tramp was not when Kid Auto Races in Venice, Cal hit theatre screens but as the film was being shot. This timely restoration allows us to realise that initially they had precisely no idea who he was or what he was doing. Some keep an eye on 'the funny man' but more watch the races which, of course, they'd come to see. As they realise that those races were not the only thing unfolding on the boardwalk, more start to watch Chaplin until, to a surprising proportion of the crowd, he becomes their focus and the cars are just an afterthought. Their faces clearly change too. Initially, they're bemused, as they attempt to figure out what's going on. The camera shooting the camera shooting Chaplin explains that they're on the set of a movie, playing out guerrilla style against a real event. The shoot was not a long one but by the end of it, the crowds are laughing; the Little Tramp has won them over with antics that are funnier now we can read his face.
Make no mistake, this is still weak stuff but it is, at least, a lot better when we can see faces. Instead of trying to figure out what sort of cars the kids are driving or why the cops vaguely attempt to keep the crowd from spreading onto the track but ignore the dogs that wander around as if they own the place, as we do in the regular print that's been issued on cheap videos and DVDs for decades, we see what we are supposed to: Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp. As in Making a Living, he's dominant, but director Henry Lehrman edited out his best footage from that film 'because, as he put it, he thought I knew too much.' Here, he couldn't edit Chaplin because Chaplin was all there was. Certainly, now that we're able to see, we don't pay attention to Lehrman, directing himself as the director who the tramp annoys, and we don't care about Frank D Williams, his cameraman. We're watching Chaplin finding his lovable rogue character. It really is still early days but the seeds are clearly there and they didn't take long to sprout.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway & Mark Ricci - The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin (1988)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of all 36 of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory (if we count the first half of A Thief Catcher, previously thought lost), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Making a Living (1914)

Director: Henry Lehrman
Stars: Charles Chaplin, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport, Minta Durfee, Virginia Kitley and Henry Lehrman
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.
Monday, 2nd February, 1914 turned out to be one of the most important dates in the history of cinema, though nobody knew it at the time and very few even glimpsed the possibility. However, the release by Keystone Studios of Making a Living, a one reel comedy, marked the debut on screen of Charlie Chaplin, whose regular character, the Little Tramp, would quickly become the most recognisable image in the entire world, the equivalent perhaps of Mickey Mouse's ears today. The tramp wouldn't show up until Chaplin's second picture, Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal, although that arrived a mere five days later. To suggest that he was a busy man at Keystone understates the case; he made no less than 36 pictures in 1914, as many as he made for other companies over the following seven years. This wasn't anything he was used to; as a vaudevillian for the Fred Karno troupe, he spent months rehearsing new routines, but Keystone didn't even work with scripts. They took ideas, improvised them into chases and were done.

The man behind Keystone Studios was Mack Sennett, known in his day as the 'king of comedy' because he was synonymous with the genre, at least as far as Americans were concerned. Before him, the art of comedy was a European, often a French, creature: the Lumiére Brothers had invented it as far back as 1895 and the first international comedy star was Pathé's Max Linder, whose screen debut was in 1905; amazingly, he had made 170 films before Chaplin had made one. Even in the US, Keystone weren't the originals; when Sennett left Biograph, where he learned his craft under the greatest American director of the day, D W Griffith, to become the production chief at Keystone in 1912, there was an established comedy star already. That was John Bunny, a rotund but engaging actor who worked for Vitagraph, but his star had waned even before his death in 1915. Under Sennett, however, Keystone were prolific and reliable. They became comedy, pure and simple, but at a time when comedy meant slapstick.

If you've ever heard of any early American film comedians, chances are they worked at Keystone. Major stars at the time included Mabel Normand, Louise Fazenda and Harry Langdon, all regulars at Keystone. Some were known by their nicknames, such as Roscoe Arbuckle, Mack Swain and Chester Conklin, who were respectively Fatty, Ambrose and Walrus. Some Keystone players went on to greatness elsewhere, such as Gloria Swanson, Harold Lloyd and future Academy Award winner Marie Dressler, the star of the first feature length comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance, which was made by Keystone at the tail end of 1914. Less remembered names today, like Slim Summerville, Al St John and Edgar Kennedy, are still as recognised as ever as members of the Keystone Kops, perhaps the one name that conjures up slapstick best. Needless to say they worked at Keystone Studios. However, it was Ford Sterling, their lead star in 1913, who inadvertently paved the way for Chaplin, by planning to leave to form his own company.
Needing a new face, Sennett and Normand remembered an actor who had impressed them on stage as an 'Inebriated Swell'. He was part of Fred Karno's London Comedians, so they sent a telegram asking for a man called 'Chaffin... or something like that' to contact Kessell and Baumann at the Longacre Building in New York. This reached Chaplin, who realised that the Longacre Building housed lawyers, so believed his great-aunt had died and left him an inheritance. He was disappointed to find that he was only being asked to join a motion picture company, though he signed a year's contract for two reasons: his salary would immediately double to $150 a week, to increase again after three months, and he recognised the power of film to reach a large audience. He intended to use this year at Keystone to build publicity. 'A year at that racket and I could return to vaudeville an international star,' he wrote in his autobiography. By the end of 1914, he was even more of an international star than he could have dreamed.

This concept wasn't in anyone else's mind during the filming of Making a Living and it didn't arrive once it had been completed. Most of those involved thought it would be a flop. Henry Lehrman in particular, who served both as the film's director and Chaplin's on screen foil, was furious with his co-star and cut most of his best material out of the finished product. Neither Sennett nor anyone else at Keystone were impressed. Even Chaplin himself had choice words to say about it later. 'It broke my heart,' he said, 'for the cutter had butchered it beyond recognition'. In reality, it isn't that bad, merely showing us yet again what any other Keystone movie showed us. Only one contemporary review is known, but the unknown writer for the Moving Picture World proved rather prophetic. He singled out Chaplin for praise, though as no actor was given credit in a Keystone film at this point, he had no idea of his name. He called him a 'comedian of the first water, who acts like one of Nature's own naturals.'

He's recognisable to us, of course, with the benefit of a hundred years of hindsight, but only just. With the Little Tramp still in the future, he drew on an old vaudevillian costume for his role as a 'sharper', a sort of middle ground between beggar and conman. He wears a top hat, monocle and tight frock coat and he carries a cane; all of which was designed to make him look like an English gentleman who had fallen on hard times. Unfortunately he also has a thick and drooping moustache, of the sort we see as silent movie cliché. Surely American audiences of the time wouldn't have seen the English gentleman but the serial villain with his inevitable dastardly schemes. Given that Chaplin plays the opportunistic villain here, that wouldn't have felt out of place, but he's still the most watchable character. While the Moving Picture World journalist saw something that most wouldn't have seen, Chaplin steals the film from Lehrman without appearing to try and even though his best material was cut.
His best scene is the first one, which runs surprisingly long for a Keystone short. Jeffrey Vance, author of Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, highlights that Chaplin's first scene in Mabel's Strange Predicament, the next film he would shoot at Keystone though the third to be released, was allowed to run uncut for a full 75 feet or about a minute. However, he doesn't mention that the same thing happened here as Chaplin is introduced not only to this particular story but to the world at large. The sharper, apparently named Edgar English in the idea, stops a random stranger in the street in an attempt to persuade him out of some money. For a full minute, we watch him ply his trade while Lehrman, playing the stranger, seems flummoxed by the whole affair. Clearly we're watching the sharper play his mark, but also an actor play his director. There's no doubt as to who will win in each instance. He breaks the ice, engages in chatter, raises an unsavoury topic. He even refuses the offered gift before quickly grabbing it. It's good stuff.

Unfortunately it goes downhill from there. After taking money from Lehrman's character, he finds that he bumps into him again and again. Chatting up a young lady, clearly under the suggestion that he's a rich and important man, he finds that Lehrman is wooing her too. Deciding to seek work, he tries for a job as a journalist, only to find that Lehrman already works there. And, for no better reason than it's the way Keystone films always work, this is all riffed on until it becomes a chase. As impressive as Chaplin was in the first, notably static, scene, he's unable to match that as things get progressively frenetic. It must be said that he still dominates every scene that he's in, not least because he's the only character with three dimensions; everyone else in the film might as well have been a cardboard cutout. When he isn't on screen, we start to wonder why we're watching. Even the Keystone Kops, who show up towards the end, don't seem to have as much to do as usual and scenes arrive and depart with abandon.

Making a Living was completed and shipped on 14th January, but didn't see screens until 2nd February. That's a gap of less than three weeks, but by the time the first audiences saw this picture, Chaplin had completed and shipped another three. Like I mentioned, Keystone weren't interesting in hanging about. When Chaplin joined their roster, they were churning out a dozen one reel comedies every month, plus a couple of two reelers. His second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal, followed his first by a mere five days, with his third, Mabel's Strange Predicament, so hot on its heels that it reached theatres only two days later. Technically the latter was started first, so it features the first appearance of the Little Tramp, while the former is where audiences saw him first. Because of how that was shot, guerrilla style at a public event, it could be said that the people in the background are the first footage of a Chaplin audience. However they saw it a century ago, to us these films mark the birth of modern film comedy.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway & Mark Ricci - The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin (1988)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Making a Living can be watched for free on YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of all 36 of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory (if we count the first half of A Thief Catcher, previously thought lost), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.