August 30, 2010

#58: The Gold Rush

Charlie Chaplin's 1925 comedy The Gold Rush is the oldest film on the list so far, and yet something about Chaplin's brand of humor seems so contemporary in its sensibility, so universal in its simplicity, that it might as well have been made today. Only I'm not sure if we would appreciate the satire about the Alaska Gold Rush now the way they did back when it was only thirty years in the past. This is also the second of three Chaplin movies on the list (the first was Modern Times and the third, very near the top at #11, is City Lights).

Company: Sheena, confidante and collaborator; and then, two-thirds of the way in, more guests: Eric, living genius; Jess, blonde vixen; and Coco, Bowie-type crooner

Cuisine: Smirnoff Mango and club soda. Summer time!

The film opens with a narrative voice (Chaplin's own, added in 1942 to a re-release of the film, along with minor edits and a fantastic musical score) describing the perils of the Alaska Gold Rush at the end of the nineteenth century. The Tramp (Chaplin, credited here as Charles) is seen bouncing duck-footed along a dangerously icy pass on a mountain ledge.

The wintry gusts lead him to a rickety cabin and trap him there with a prospector and an escaped fugitive. Much slapstick ensues, and much like the Marx Brothers, Chaplin is an extremely physical performer who knows exactly how to hit the joke with an economy of gesture. Half the fun of this sequence where he and his companions are bowled over by wind is that it goes on far too long ... and yet somehow we are entranced.

How's that candle taste?

The blizzard takes its toll on the gold rushers -- and drastic measures are taken. But hunger can do things to people.

Ain't that the truth. Bits bits bits, jokes jokes jokes, boots boots boots, all beautifully executed, and finally we get to the film's heart.

Now that's a shot.

After finally giving up prospecting, the Tramp winds up in a dance hall where he falls for the lonely dance hall girl (Georgia Hale), a girl whom he mistakenly believes shares his love. She'd leave this place, if only she could find someone honest and worthwhile... so they'll end up together, as they must, but how?

Woops. Maybe after a snowball right in the kisser.

The Girl and her girls giggle their way through his life, and all the while we remain on the weirdo's side. Through some miracle he winds up with them as guests for New Year's Eve, and don't we love rooting for the weirdo? Especially when we realize that we might be those girls. If only I was seeing someone awesome enough to do a table ballet with dinner rolls.

But alas...

... t'was all a dream.

She didn't show! What a chump! He goes to the dance hall to find her, and through serendipitous means, they fall in love, all the while with lovely, poetic narration ("the light of her loveliness was leaving!") But you need an eleven-o'-clock number, and so the prospector shows up for one final thrilling sequence in which his cabin threatens to fall off a steep cliff.

So much of what Chaplin does is firmly in our everyday comedic vocabulary now, but back then these kinds of scenes were revolutionary. Right now I'm working on a very physical comedic role in a children's show and I'm sweating buckets, but it seems Chaplin could communicate a world of hurt, disappointment, joy, terror and heart with only his lined eyes.

End of story. This film is only 82 minutes. You have time and reason enough to rent it.

Next up: Sylvester Stallone dons the gloves in Rocky.

August 28, 2010

#59: Nashville

"You may say that I ain't free, but it don't worry me."

Robert Altman's sprawling country-music epic Nashville is the only film of his to reach the AFI's Top 100, but in an astounding filmography that includes The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park, his 1975 ode to America still shines above the others. I'd seen this once before and gave it three stars on my Netflix queue, and for who I am now and where I am in my life, I'm not sure that's the wrong rating ... but give it a couple years and that could change.

Company: just me again, after several unsuccessful attempts to get a group together for this one. Some more populist titles are on their way.

Cuisine: reduced fat crunchy Jif -- the only peanut butter worth eating.

We open on what appears to be a commercial for the album/film of Nashville, narrated with fervor, announcing the stars and giving snippets of the music to come. And then: a recording studio, where an aging country star is attempting to record a bicentennial anthem ("we must be doing somethin' right to last two hundred years") with little cooperation from the pianist. The isolation of the star singer and his Pipps in this shot suggests to me an exclusivity about the genre, that the elite have laid claim to it. On his stormy way out of the studio, he spits, "You get your hair cut. You don't belong in Nashville."

Why make a movie about country music if the stakes aren't high? And when were they higher in this country when we had totally fallen away from who we were, who we'd idealized, nearing our 200th birthday?

Meanwhile, an unseen presidential candidate named Hal Phillip Walker is creating a faction, spreading his message by creating a barracade on a major freeway and blasting his words for all those piled up to hear. In typical Altman fashion, the film doesn't follow one character but many, and doesn't follow one story, but many stories that all lead to the same end (in this case, a major concert for Walker at Nashville's Parthenon). This scene is fascinating in the way it jump cuts to each car, letting us in on intimate conversations here and there and yet still managing to show the chaos of the pile up. Here we also meet Opal (a hysterical Geraldine Chaplin), a "journalist" from the BBC attempting to gather information and interviews for a documentary about the city and the music. She's never seen with any film crew and never gives credentials, but stands as a very clear outsider, unwelcomed but finally weaseling her way in. I especially loved her monologues into her tape recorder in a junkyard and a school bus station.

Altman's style is to create a film that's less plot and more portrait. There are little sub-plots (pictured above, Lily Tomlin as Linnea, a gospel singer and mother of two deaf children fending off infidelity), and it can be frustrating as a viewer to attempt to piece those sub-plots together to create a whole, because honestly, there isn't one. You wouldn't call it a mood piece (although maybe you would), but somehow it manages to make a coherent whole from little story-lets. It does occasionally mean I lose interest, but that's not to say I don't think it's a worthy form.

There may not have been a movie this truly American on my list since Yankee Doodle Dandy, which might have a hard time being surpassed in its patriotism (although they're fighting for England, The African Queen comes in a distant second). But I found it interesting that so many movies on the list thus far (Nashville, Dandy, Network, Tootsie, etc.) have dealt so specifically with the intersection of entertainment and the media. Maybe it's ethnocentric of me to think that America has the firmest worldwide grip on the media, but our obsession with celebrity is certainly unquestionable. We love our stars, and more, we love to see what happens behind closed doors. I recently saw an amazing production of Othello, the ultimate secret story, and found that an audience is never more enthralled when they're hearing something they shouldn't be hearing.

It seems like Altman is making a very specific point about country musicians. Apparently, many in Nashville were offended by the movie when it premiered, believing it was mocking their talent and sincerity. Shots like the one above show musicians playing on deaf ears at a race track, which could be interpreted as silly and pathetic, but I think the underlying tone of the film is one of naive optimism. They play because they love it. At one point, one musician beseeches the young children in her audience to "study real hard, because any one of you boys could grow to be president."

One of the main draws of the film is the excellent performances by many of the actors. They all did their own singing (never dubbed, I think) and many of them wrote their own songs as a form of character study. Barbara Jean (Oscar nominee Ronee Blakely) is the emotional center of the film, a fragile flower and beloved singer (well, beloved once she finally shuts up and sings). Acting aside, I really believed each word these singers crooned. Keith Carradine's rendition of "I'm Easy," sung to four different women at once, won him an Oscar for Best Song, but for me, the most heartwrenching song comes from a Peter-Paul-and-Mary-type trio (Bill, Mary and Tom), sung in the midst of their breakup. (The song itself begins around 1:28 in this video.)

You can say what you want about Altman, but one thing's for sure: he's always surprising me.

The final scene at the Parthenon is a worthy ending for the film, one I had nearly forgotten, and one I won't spoil for you, dear reader. But what stays with me is the final song, "It Don't Worry Me," playing on and on over the credits, as though America won't give up no matter what happens. You may say that we ain't free, but it don't worry me.

Roger Ebert famously said that he somehow felt more alive and wiser after having seen Nashville. I can see and hear that to be true, but I think it might take me a couple more viewings to really articulate what he means by that. Until then: more blogging! Next up: the lovely little Little Fellow in 1925's The Gold Rush.

August 4, 2010

#60: Duck Soup

Duck Soup is the second of two films on this list by the great comedy team of The Marx Brothers (the other being A Night at the Opera, which premiered two years after this), and the last one that featured all four brothers including Zeppo. I have very fond memories of this film: my dad was a big Marx Brothers fan and I remember watching this and Horse Feathers on VHS long before I was old enough to understand the jokes or appreciate the physical comedy. I barely remembered any of this, but the cadence of the dialogue seemed familiar to me in a way that could only have resulted from having watched it long ago, the way you remember a particular lick of a song you haven't heard in years. It was fascinating.

Company: alone again. I told myself I would try to get company for this second Marx film, but I failed. Woops. Luckily it's only 68 minutes so it wouldn't be hard to entice even an antsy movie lover.

Cuisine: Diet Cherry Coke. Thanks, roomie, for introducing me to this wonder drink.

The clock on the wall has struck ten.

Freedonia is on the brink of war and bankruptcy, and the only person suitable for the presidency, according to the wealthy socialite widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, a dead ringer for my mom) is Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx). When he shows up looking like this ...

... we know ... well, we just know. Dumont is in top form here, rolling every 'r' with maximum haughtiness and delighting in the role she's played in six other Marx films: the comic foil to Groucho.

Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, your excellency.
Rufus T. Firefly: You're not so bad yourself.

I'm sorry, but that is just genius. ("Oh, you're excellent, see...")

Teasdale, whose position as "chairwoman of the reception committee" hardly seems important enough for how much power she really has in Freedonia, instates Firefly as president, but he admits, in song: "If you think the country's bad off now, just wait til I get through with it!"

Meanwhile, this is happening.

Chico and Harpo play Chicolini and Pinky, two spies hired by the enemy to spy on Firefly and collect information, but mostly they goof on this portly street merchant with poor hygiene. Whoever thought of putting your leg in someone's hand? I can't stop laughing at that. This is amazingly orchestrated physical comedy that you just don't see anymore. Over seventy-five years later and it's still funny; can the same be said for anything being made now?

As in A Night at the Opera, Duck Soup's plot serves as a simple outline from which the Brothers Marx hop from sketch to sketch. The victim in that film was the world of opera; similarly, the Marxes take on the politics of war, comparing nationalism to minstrelsy and mocking the ease with which huge decisions are made.

The famous mirror sketch.

What was most striking to me in this endlessly copied bit where two guys mirror movements was the moment where the one testing the mirror (Groucho) realizes that it's another person and not a mirror. Not only does this not alarm him in the slightest, but he continues with the game as though it's real. Stepping outside their brand of humor and creating a metanarrative, the Marxes acknowledge fully the the silliness and arbitrariness of what they're bringing to the screen and placing it in the same context as an international war.

"He may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot."

The Marx Brothers aren't the only idiots in the film. Or maybe they are and it's just that their idiocy has infected the population by the time war strikes (or is entered into because of an elaborate misunderstanding). The musical number pictured above is just ridiculous, but perfectly illustrates the unflailingly nationalistic mentality the comedians were attempting to lampoon. The more over the top they go, the more spot on they seem to be. That's where this film succeeds above all of their other films, and what makes it their most enduring masterpiece.

Right to the very last second of this joyfully short 68-minute dumbshow, they don't miss a beat and they never let a joke slide by. They practically invite you to forget revenge on the foreign leader with them and hurl fruit at the warbling Mrs. Teasdale.

Ha HA!

Next up: summertime nostalgia from the 70's (anything more romantic?) in Robert Altman's ode to country, Nashville.

Cine-Smackdown: #61-#70

The fourth cine-smackdown, dudes! This has taken a lot longer than I thought to get to, but now I'm forty movies in! Goalz.

61. Sullivan's Travels
62. American Graffiti
The African Queen
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
A Clockwork Orange

I had previously seen Cabaret, Network, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tootsie and A Clockwork Orange. An appropriately diverse list.

Of these ten, which would I move further up the list?
My first instinct says Network. The acting, direction and screenplay are all textbook examples of how it's done. I'd probably stick with that, although Tootsie is a close second, for the same reasons. It's just that we think of dramas as much more important and more historically significant, don't we? But on the list of best comedies put out by the AFI, Tootsie is #2. Just sayin'.

Of these ten, which would I get rid of?
Now my bias is coming through. In the last smackdown I said The Wild Bunch (and I stick by that) and now I'm picking the western again. Unforgiven just didn't ring my bell at all. It's not even that westerns aren't my cup of tea (although they aren't) but I didn't find it visually or cinematically exciting... did you?? Clint Eastwood. Try again.

Who in these movies do I want as my best friend?
I think maybe it's weird to say Teri Garr's character in Tootsie but maybe that's me searching for a hag. She's just so endearing, I can't help it! Jessica Lange and Bill Murray can come too. And if they wanted, the two captains of the African Queen could party with me. Something tells me they'd be hard drinkers. And The Toad from American Graffiti, especially if I'm underage and he can get me liquor.

Who in these movies do I want to have my back in a bar fight?
Indiana Jones seems like an obvious answer: he saved Marion Ravenwood out of almost every skirmish she got herself into, and he beats up every bad guy in the place without problem (except if there are snakes around).

Who in these movies is your worst frienemy?
Wow. Nearly anyone from Network, Woolf, Unforgiven and A Clockwork Orange... although something tells me I'd at least have the good sense to stay away from Faye Dunaway ... and the droogs. Cabaret's Emcee seems like a nice enough guy but I have no idea what's going on in his little mind.

Who do I take home to Mom?
If I have to narrow it down, it's probably Charlie Allnut (The African Queen). My mom would approve of Humphrey Bogart. Now I just have to get Katharine Hepburn to back off. Fat chance.

You're going on a date with these movies. Who do you agree to meet for coffee but never call again?
Unforgiven: I wanted to give you and your kind a chance, but you just disappoint me over and over. Am I destructive for thinking it could ever work?

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then say you'll call but never do?
Sullivan's Travels: you're a lot of fun, but you get kinda needlessly heavy.

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then not show up?
A Clockwork Orange, obviously: I mean, c'mon.

Who do you meet for a first date, ends up staying the night and makes you breakfast in the morning?
Brian (Cabaret) might make me a delicious German breakfast ... sausage, biscuits and gravy please! And a side of sexual ambiguity!

Who do you meet for a first date, ends up staying the night and then leaves in the morning without saying goodbye ... and steals your favorite sweater?
Alex (A Clockwork Orange) would do all this AND probably rape and/or disfigure me. Yikes. Don't let him in when he says there's been a terrible accident!

What other questions would you have asked about these movies? I'd love more ideas! Leave your thoughts, reactions, passionate defenses and harsh critiques in the comments!

#61: Sullivan's Travels

"To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated."

Sullivan's Travels was another one I had pretty much no idea about. How can it have made it onto this list and it's never even crossed my path of consciousness? I think I'm a pretty knowledgeable movie buff but this one had eluded me thus far. I can see why, but that's not to say it's not a lovely little movie.

Company: alone again

Cuisine: a bowl of Multi-Grain Cheerios (health) and a big glass of water -- I think I threw out my throat this week at summer stock so I gotta get that back in tip top shape!

"You see the symbolism? It has social significance!"

John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea ... Joel McWho?) is a young-ish movie director trying to push art over commerce in Hollywood, while all Hollywood wants him to do is make comedies. What ensues is an expository conversation (one long three-minute take!) between Sullivan and the two execs, with crackling dialogue that reminded me of Altman's Hollywood ode The Player. Essentially, Sullivan becomes convinced the reason his movies aren't working is because he's never really suffered, growing up rich. (I suppose a contemporary audience would call it "liberal guilt.") Solution: go out on the road and live life as a tramp.

Of course, this journey of exploratory journalism would maybe work -- he's got to suffer somehow, after all -- but...

... it certainly won't work with a less-than-conspicuous media bus following his every move. In a ridiculous chase sequence, Sullivan flees the media in what appears to be a homemade race car driven by a thirteen-year-old boy. Lots of things in that bus fall on its riders, and the one woman on board shows a lot of leg. Still, I was laughing out loud.

Sullivan convinces the media to bide him for the time being, but he keeps getting pulled back to Hollywood somehow, as though it didn't want him to leave his comfortable life.

He resists until he meets a beautiful, mysterious, smoky and down-on-her-luck actress whose name is never revealed, probably because it's not important: she could be any girl. She's played with a contralto sizzle by Veronica Lake (again: who? I guess the two stars did not get along). Once he reveals himself (and several sequences show him and her falling into his pool, along with various members of his staff) and wants to help her, she jumps on the bandwagon and...

... together they brave the open road. It's never really clear what their end goal is, except to make a movie about poverty. One exec (and even his butler!) thinks the idea is not only farcical but won't sell. Maybe they're right, but that's not stopping Sullivan and his girl. A charming montage shows them on the road together, with a constant overtone of "these city folks just can't get the hang of the country!" This is where the movie starts to lose a little focus.

At some point, something makes the two of them give up on the expedition and head back to a life in his mansion. But what was it? And will the experiences he's had (however limited) warrant a screenplay? It appears that we might not know, since he's clubbed by a hobo and dragged into a freight car bound for who knows where. When he climbs out after regaining consciousness in another city, threats from a stockyard worker make him go berserk and beat the guy in the face with a rock. WHAT!?

He's sent to a labor camp for six years. (This is not where I saw the movie going.) He needs a way out. All of Hollywood mourns his death after a misunderstanding proves his untimely passing. And in an anticlimactic climax, he discovers an easy way out of the camp (never mind that nothing excuses his assault of that guy... but whatever). And by the end of the film, he's convinced of one thing.

"There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. did you know that's all some people have? it isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."

While imprisoned, he was witness to a crowd of his jailmates laughing uproariously at old Pluto cartoons. It's the only joy he experiences while he's there, and it's that joyous moment that challenges him to reconsider his bias against comedy: don't we all just want to laugh? Isn't that all any of us really want? To feel good?

Well, we've laughed at Sullivan's Travels (except for that heavy last half-hour). It's 90 minutes and rather inconsequential except as a love letter to broad campy farce. I think other films are funnier but Sullivan's Travels does a nice job of poking fun at itself, at Hollywood's constant art vs. commerce battle. Probably a good lesson for these times: can't we all just enjoy a comedy? In my next ten on this list, only two are comedies (Duck Soup and The Gold Rush) -- looks like I'm in for more heavy. :)

Next up: the cine-smackdown (feels like ages since the last one! Thanks, slow blogging!) and then back to the Marx Brothers with their masterpiece, Duck Soup.