Buster Keaton’s magisterial “The General”.

Buster Keaton, a force of nature.

Orson Welles said of Buster Keaton, that he was “one of the most beautiful people who was ever photographed”. And he said that Keaton’s signature film The General, from 1926, wasn’t just Hollywood’s greatest comedy, but the best film that was ever produced there. “It really deserves that tired word, masterpiece.”

Keaton grew as part of a vaudeville act and he made his way inevitably to New York in 1917 where he teamed up with Fatty Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios – sticking by the latter, both morally and financially, after his spectacular and unmerited fall from grace.

Buster Keaton’s The General.

By 1920, he’d married one of the Talmadge daughters and had moved out to Hollywood where he set up and ran his own, independent film studio. There, he produced a succession of spectacularly successful shorts, including the justly renown The Playhouse, in which he plays all of the dozen and more characters who people the first ten minutes or so – although beautiful he might have been in a suit, but I’m afraid he very much failed to cut it when trying to sport a dress.

By the middle of the decade, his ambitions had expanded and he moved into fully fledged features which eventually produced The General. At the time, it was the most expensive film that had ever been made, but tragically it flopped, and he was forced to close down his studio losing his much cherished independence in the process. And at exactly the same time, Al Jonson could suddenly be heard in cinemas throughout America, as over night the arrival of the talkies rendered the silent era redundant.

6 Keatons look and listen on, as Keaton conducts in The Playhouse.

Predictably, his wife Natalie left him, taking all his money and both his sons – generously forcing them to change their surname – and, following in his father’s footsteps, he slipped into alcoholism and increasing anonymity. But, after briefly marrying and divorcing the nurse who was minding him at the institution he’d been confined to in the 30s, he met and married his third wife, Eleanor in 1940.

At 22, she was literally half his age and neither of their friends held out any hope for the union. Remarkably, it lasted for over a quarter of a century, and she can largely be credited with helping him to turn his life around.

Beckett’s Film, starring Buster Keaton.

There was a second act of sorts, in television and with cameos in the likes of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. As well of course as in Beckett’s only foray into the medium, Film of 1965. And he seems to have borne it all, once he got over his alcoholism, with remarkable equanimity. But there’s no getting away from it, his talents were criminally overlooked in the course of his own life. And it’s really only now that people have come to fully appreciate the scale of his genius.

In a way, it’s not hard to see why The General perplexed those initial viewers. It doesn’t have the same madcap mayhem of those earlier shorts, and is a far more measured, mature and sophisticated a piece. It still has any number of those jaw-dropping feats of physical daring that so thrilled audiences then. As a matter of fact, it’s probably we who fail to fully appreciate the physicality of his film making, so used are we now to just assuming that everything we see on a screen must obviously have been doctored and massaged.

Evidently, a man’s man.

Have a look at this 5 minute clip here, and then have a look at it again. There are no special effects or stunt doubles, and the only trick photography he ever uses is the sort of sleight of hand that is self-evidently a trick. Like the time he appears on stage in The Playhouse playing all 9 members of the chorus line, as well as each of the members of the orchestra below. Other than which, everything you see him do, physically, he really does actually do.

That he was the greatest physical actor of the 20th century is without question. What he shows in The General is that, beyond that, he had an astonishing gift for depth and subtlety and a God like sense of timing. Never has the great stone face been put to more impressive if impassive use, and the performance he conjures up in between literally death defying stunts of Archimedian precision is a sight to behold.

He was quite simply an irrepressible force of nature. So the next time you have 78 minutes to spare, watch The General which you can see here.

 

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BoJack Horseman, Netflix’s secret sleeper star

BoJack Horseman.

Season 4 of BoJack Horseman aired on Netflix this past autumn, and if you’ve yet to be pointed in its very particular direction you’re in for a treat. It’s the latest in the long line of animated, adult dramedies that stretches back to South Park (reviewed earlier here), King of the Hill, Beavis and Butthead and of course the Simpsons.

Ensconced in his hilltop, penthouse apartment in the mythical LA suburb of Hollywoo, BoJack is a washed-up hasbeen who used to the star of the squeaky-clean sitcom Horsin’ Around, who spends his days in a drug-fuelled, alcoholic haze of privileged self-pity.

Diane, Todd and BoJack.

The show’s stiletto humour stems from two sources. On the one hand, it’s a gloriously acerbic picking apart of the media landscape as the worlds of film, television and publishing are gleefully trashed. Brilliantly barbed one liners are fired back and forth with sarcastic brio, in the way that was supposed to have been done in the, whisper it, disappointingly overrated His Girl Friday.

And on the other, half of the characters are, by the bye, animals. So Bojack is in fact an actual horse. But his stoner houseguest Todd is a 20 something guy, and Diane, his soulmate and ghost writer is a 20 something girl. She though is married to BoJack’s best frenemy Mr. Peanutbutter, who’s a golden Labrador. And his agent Princess Caroline is a cat, who later hooks up with a wealthy mouse, heir to the Stilton Hotel fortune. What all this allows for is some fantastically laboured puns and slapstick, together with a plethora of ridiculously elaborate setups that eventually produce wonderfully silly pay-offs.

The main man, Raphael Bob-Waksberg.

All of which would be enjoyable enough. But what really elevates the series is the emotional depth and complexity that they manage to reap from the soapy storylines that they hang all this on. They do this, as Emily Nussbaum writes in her piece in the New Yorker here, by expanding the show’s horizons from season 2 on, by giving each of the protagonists their own storylines, instead of just focusing on BoJack, as they do in season 1. So you end up being as invested in Todd, Diane, Princess Caroline and even Mr Peanuttbutter, as you do in BoJack.

The result is both the funniest, and the most engaging show currently being aired anywhere on television. And it’s hard not to conclude that its showrunner and chief writer Raphael Bob Waksberg is some sort of a latter day Dorothy Parker. If you’ve yet to sample its delights, then by all means begin at the beginning, with season 1. But be warned, it gets significantly better from season 2 on.

You can see the trailer for season 4 of BoJack Horseman here. And here’s a 10 minute compilation of some of the funniest bits from season 2 here.

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Call Me By Your Name, a new (Merchant) Ivory film. Yeah.

Call Me By Your Name.

Once a year, critics descend on a film to anoint it and declare it a film fit for grown-ups. Looking around, it’s not hard to see why. Every week, cinema goers are presented with a cast of interchangeable superheros who stand immobile against a green screen, as A N Other arch villain is CGId behind them, and the walls and ceiling of the cinema are engulfed in a blast of flames and a wall of sound, as the studio responsible attempts valiantly to disguise the complete absence of a story by burying us all in the 21st century’s answer to sturm und drang.

Given that all serious drama aimed at grown-ups has long since migrated to television, it’s hardly surprising then that any stray film that somehow slips through the cracks in the system to momentarily appear on the silver screen is instantly pounced upon. This year’s critical darling is Call Me By Your Name. And it’s, well, perfectly nice.

The unusual I Am Love.

Nominally, it’s the third film in Luca Guardagnino’s trilogy of desire, after I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015). But in reality, it’s the latest offering from the Merchant Ivory conveyor belt. And therein lies the rub. Because what you think of it will depend very much on what that means to you.

Producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory were life and creative partners for half a century and produced some 44 features together. Films like A Room With A View (1985), Maurice (’87), Howard’s End (’92), Jefferson In Paris (’95) and Surviving Picasso (’96). Solid, dependable, professionally produced dramas revolving around a reliable roster of regular thespians blithely disporting their middle brow culture and earnestly extolling a liberal arts education – the majestic the Remains of the Day is merely the glorious exception that goes to prove the rule.

Boys will be boys.

Call Me By Your Name was adapted by Ivory, Merchant having passed away in 2004, and only latterly became a Guardagnino project. Elio is a 17 year old boy spending the summer with his parents in their house on the shores of northern Italy, where their evenings are spent listening to Bach being played at the piano as they airily discuss the merits of Heidegger and Nietzsche. His father, a professor of archaeology, has invited an American post grad of his to stay for the summer, and Elio quickly finds himself attracted to the handsome American’s rugged good looks.

The peerless The Remains of the Day.

The boy reveals his feelings, and… they’re reciprocated. Meanwhile, he loses his virginity to the girl next door, but when then he instantly cools on her, having lost his heart to the American, she responds with… complete understanding, and pledges her life-long friendship. And when his parents eventually cop… they’re completely supportive. In other words, there is absolutely nothing at stake.

Everyone is so insufferably educated, and so overbearingly well brought up, that instead of a drama, all you’re presented with is a picture-postcard, wet-dream vision of a would-be idealised upbringing. No parents are really ever that understanding, and would that that were what the crushing disappointment of a shattered first teenage love really felt and looked like.

It all looks marvellous, and it’s wonderful to escape into that sort of hokum for a couple of hours of a winter’s eve. But be warned, that’s all it is. If you’re hoping for Wagner or Bach, I’m afraid all you’ll find here is Tchaikovsky. Or, worse again, Puccini. Come to think of it, he’d have been a much more appropriate choice for the soundtrack.

You can see the trailer to Call Me By Your Name here.

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The Leftovers, another gem from HBO.

the Leftovers.

the Leftovers.

HBO’s the Leftovers is a deceptively high concept series. On October 14th 2011, 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappear. Which doesn’t sound terribly catastrophic until you do the maths. In a village of 100 people living in 25 houses, two of those house will have suddenly lost someone, literally into thin air, never to see them again, without ever finding out how or why.

Understandably, the suburban town we find ourselves in, in upstate New York, has been utterly devastated, as has every other corner of the country. The Departure, as it’s referred to, is effectively a What If addressed to the Evangelicals.

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Father and daughter.

Evangelical Christians believe that the Rapture is imminent, by which they mean they expect it to occur within the decade. When it does, the chosen few will be spirited up to Heaven, and the rest of us will be left behind. The Leftovers asks us to imagine, what would that actually look like, in practical terms.

Except it doesn’t. Because it’s even worse than that, as no one can identify anything that might connect those who were spirited away – if that was what happened to them – any more than they can explain why they, the leftovers, were not. So nobody can be sure exactly what happened on that fateful day, and all too many characters have their own particular theory.

The result is a post-apocalyptic landscape where heightened religious fervour merges with unmanageable guilt and suspicion, so that everyone and everything, however apparently mundane, is viewed with unimaginable anxiety. Dogs have become feral, deer conversely wander in and out of houses. Messiahs materialise, cults are formed and everyone’s addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol. Smoking increases, and there’s a general sense of lawlessness. But more than anything else, families fall apart.

Oh dear.

Oh dear.

The series revolves, just about, around the figure of Justin Theroux, the local cop whose marriage fell apart around the Departure, and whose father, who was the chief before him, is currently hospitalised in an institution. But as often as not, an episode will focus on a peripheral character. A pastor, a member of a cult, a woman who lost her husband and both her children, immediately after arguing with her youngest, all of whom are connected to Theroux in differing ways.

The Leftovers was aired on HBO and is effectively the follow up to Lost for Damon Lindelof. And whatever he might say publically, he clearly has leant many a lesson from that less than satisfying experience. The principle improvement is scope. This is a far more focused affair, homing in on a much smaller group of characters.

Lyv Tyler.

Lyv Tyler.

Ironically, what this allows for is a far more experimental approach to storytelling. The Leftovers is surprisingly fluid and nebulous, which only adds to its sense of eerie dread. None of us know what’s going to happen next any more than any of the characters do. There’s a particularly memorable dream sequence – almost impossible after David Lynch – where you only realise that what you’ve been watching is in fact a dream at exactly the same moment as the character does, as they wake up out of it in a panic. Which is staggering hard to pull off.

Apparently, season 2 and 3 are, if anything, even better. And, best of all, and he clearly did learn this from his Lost experience, there only a total of 3 series.

You can see the excellent trailer for the Leftovers here

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How bad is the new film “Mother”?

Darren Aronofsky's Mother.

Darren Aronofsky’s Mother.

So just how bad is the new Darren Aronofsky film, Mother? Well, and at the risk of bamboozling you with arcane technical jargon, it is what we in the industry refer to as pants. Which is extremely disappointing, because for a while Aronofsky seemed as if he might be the great white hope of independent cinema.

He made his impressive debut in 1998 with Pi, and followed it up two years later with the genuinely dazzling Requiem for a Dream. Here gloriously, form is content, and content form, as Beckett had defended Joyce with. The highly stylised exploration of the language and grammar of cinema was the perfect way to delve deep into the topic of addiction. The result was the film of the decade.

Jarred Leto and Jennifer Connolly in Reqiem for a Dream.

Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream.

Next up was The Fountain in ’06. And, suffice it to say, we all put that film down to the immense pressure he must have been under to produce a worthy follow-up to what had come before. So he was forgiven that.

Then came The Wrestler in ’08. So okay, before earning the right to go back to making the sorts of films that he really wants to make, he needed to accommodate the bean counters in Hollywood. And as nice as it was seeing Mickey Rourke back on the silver screen, it really is little more than your runofthemill, feelgood Hollywood film.

The dream master, David Lynch's Mulholland Dr.

The dream master, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.

But then came Black Swan, reviewed earlier here, a further a n other Hollywood picture. And then, worse again, Noah in ‘14 which couldn’t have been more Hollywood had it been directed by Cecil B DeMille and starred Charlton Heston. So just what kind of a film maker is Aronofsky?

Well let’s just hope that Mother isn’t the answer to that question. True, for periods of ten, even fifteen minutes, the film trundles along inoffensively enough. And you begin to wonder what all the fuss is about. But then there’ll be a plot point, a quote development unquote in the ahem, story, that’s so implausible and so completely unconnected with what had gone on before, that your only response is an almost overpowering urge to get up and leave.

I don’t remember ever seeing a film that left me so permanently on the edge of my seat, about to leave, only to remain where I was on the assumption that any moment now, it was surely going to improve. It was like re-living the 2016 election night all over again.

Jodorowsky's most recent pair of comeback films, Santa Sangre and the Dream of Reality.

Jodorowsky’s most recent pair of comeback films, Santa Sangre and the Dance of Reality.

For a while there, you wonder whether what’s being explored here might perhaps be some sort of dreamscape. But as Freud so memorably summed up, dreams are about “the transformation of manifest dream material into latent dream content”. The whole point of dreams and their reading in other words, is the connection between what you dream about, and the stuff of your everyday life. The different elements need to be connected, otherwise they are literally meaningless. And if what we’re being offered on the other hand is some sort of metaphor, allegory or parable, then we need to be able to identify with whoever it is that is experiencing the lesson to be learned.

There are no connections between the beginning, middle and end of Mother, or for that matter, between any of its major scenes, and you couldn’t possibly identify with any of the characters involved. There are the same two principal actors, poor old Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, on the same set, of the same house, and all the props are the same. But there is almost nothing to connect what happens in one scene with what happens in the next.

Fellini's 8 1/2.

Fellini’s 8 1/2.

Dreams have been central to cinema, which is hardly surprising for a medium designed to produce illusion. Fellini’s 8 ½, Bunuel’s the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Polanski’s Repulsion and, more recently Alejandro Jodorowsky’s the Dance of Reality, reviewed earlier here, and, of course, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., where, as David Thompson astutely pointed out, D R stands first and foremost for Dream, and only secondly for Drive.

If there are any of those films that you haven’t seen, do so now. If however you’re curious about what happens when you try to make a film without having a script or, therefore, a story, then if nothing else, Mother will put you right on that.

Here’s the trailer to Mulholland Drive. And for the record, you can see the trailer to Mother here.

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