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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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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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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“Heimat”, the original box set.

Heimat.

Heimat.

Heimat, a Chronicle of Germany, comprising of 3 seasons and a prequel and made up of 32 individual films that last for more than 53 hours, is one of the most ambitious and brilliant series ever broadcast. Season 1 has eleven episodes that cover the years 1919 to 1982 and was first broadcast in 1984.

The whole saga centres on the Simon family in the fictional village of Schabbach in the Hunsruck, in the heart of rural Germany. Specifically on Maria, and the two sons she has with Paul, and with Hermann, the son she later has with Otto. What Edgar Reitz, who writes and directs them all, does then is to concentrate on the things that matter most to all communities, big and small, rural and urban. Family life, love and loss, triumph and despair and on all those who leave the fold never to return, and on those who stay behind.

Maria.

Marita Breuer as Maria.

Each of the decades from the 20s to the 70s get about a couple of episodes each in season 1, so all of those defining events that Germany was subject to through the course of those years are seen through the prism of village life, where everybody knows everybody and practically everyone is related to one another in some shape or form.

So instead of being the fulcrum around which everything else pivots, the rise and fall of the Nazis is just one of the many backdrops against which village life proceeds. It’s not remotely surprising then when Lucie, Maria’s sister in law, cosies up to the Nazis in the 30s and early 40s, only to completely switch sides in the late 40s and 50s as she sidles up to the Americans, who effectively replace them in the wake of the second World War.

Season 2 of Heimat was made in 1992, and the 13 episodes cover the 60s.

Season 2 of Heimat was shown in 1992, and the 13 episodes cover the 60s.

There is nothing immoral about her denial. It’s entirely amoral. You do what you have to, to survive. The second world war, like the first before it, the great depression, the swinging 60s and the fall of the Berlin wall to come, all look very different when viewed from the purblind confines of village life, buried deep in the heart of nowhere.

What Reitz does so brilliantly is to make a succession of individual, stand-alone films that each focus on one or two  characters. So that the rhythm, pace and feel is not that of a succession of episodes, but of individual, 70-80 minute European art house films.

Season 3 of Heimat was screened in 2004 and covers post 1989 in 6 episodes.

Season 3 of Heimat was screened in 2004 and covers the post 1989 period in 6 episodes.

Every frame is carefully and precisely composed, and you’re deliberately given the time to take in its composition. Music is used but sparingly, and in its place tactile sounds resonate; film being loaded into a very early camera, the soles of worn, leather boots scrunching on a dirt track, the chopping of vegetables being readied for a soup. And all the while, Reitz slips in and out of the predominant black and white and into occasional bursts of colour, as his very personal aesthetic dictates.

History unfolds in the distant background as village life is brought to a standstill by the defining events that shape their lives; the laying down of the first tarmacadam road, the arrival of the very first telephone, the opening of that first industrial factory in the post war years, those gorgeous, curvaceous, open-top Mercedes’ that they manufactured so triumphantly in the 60s, and the erosion of their very specifically German, and rural German culture, that all that late 20th century progress destroyed so methodically as it made its way inexorably onwards.

The 2013 Heimat prequel covering the 1840s.

The 2013 Heimat prequel covering the 1840s.

Like Syberberg’s equally magisterial Hitler: A Film From Germany from 1977 (over 7 hours and in 4 parts) and the work of W. G. Sebald (specifically his almost unbearably moving novel Austerlitz), Heimat is a nuanced and measured exploration into how what happened in Germany could have happened there, and what it means therefore to be German. Like the people it deals with, it’s a serous work that demands to be seen.

Season 1 was screened over the summer on Sky Arts, so there’s every chance it’ll be repeated there. While the recent prequel Home from Home, which Reitz made in 2013 and which covers the 1840s, was  screened recently on BBC4, so keep an eye out for it there. All four hours of which are every bit as captivating as the very first episode of season 1, first broadcast over a quarter of century ago.

You can see the trailer to Home from Home here.

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Moonlight Triumphs

Moonlight.

Moonlight.

One of the great mysteries of the show biz world is how it is that the most gifted, talented and ambitious stars in Hollywood contrive to produce the most tedious television programme of the entire year. The Oscars are so drearily predictable and every gesture has plainly been choreographed within an inch of its life.

Ironically, quite how redundant the Oscars are as a tv show was further highlighted by this year’s extraordinary GUBU – that’s Grotesque Unbelievable Bizarre and Unprecedented for the uninitiated. Because the vast majority of people who subsequently watched that, there’s no other word for it, unbelievable cock-up will have seen it as a clip on Youtube, thereby avoiding having to sit through the hours and hours of tedium that it was preceded and followed by. On the off chance that you missed it, here it is.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which lost to ?

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which lost to Gladiator.

Unusually, they actually got is right this year. Moonlight really is the best film of the year. But under normal circumstances, few members of the Academy would have bothered taking their dvd copy out of its box – they gave the Best Picture award to Birdman over Boyhood (reviewed earlier here) in 2014, to The King’s Speech over Toy Story 3 and The Social Network in 2010, and to Gladiator over Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Traffic in 2000.

Based on the unpublished play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is divided into three acts as we follow the growing pains of a young black kid as a child, a teenager and as a young man. The damaged only child of a drug-addled mother who pays for her habit the only way she can, he is rendered all the more shy and awkward by virtue of being secretly gay. All of which screams hopelessly dull but drearily worthy.

12 Years A Slave, another surprise winner in 2012, and also supported by Brad Pitt.

12 Years A Slave, another surprise winner in 2013, and, like Moonlight, also supported by Brad Pitt.

Happily, indeed impressively, the film soars above and beyond its theatrical origins and rather than being subjected to the sort of preachy lecture that the material suggests, what we get instead is a vision that somehow manages to be both impressionistic and coolly detached at the same time. Director Barry Jenkins, whose second film this is, worked on the script with McCraney, and both do a remarkable job of freeing the material from its source and injecting genuine cinematic life into it. But they manage to do so without ever losing sight of quite how horrendously difficult growing up is for a gay black kid in the suburbs, when the only hope any of them ever have of escape is of tailoring to, and feeding off, people like his mother.

Boyhood, which lost to Birdman.

Boyhood, which lost to Birdman.

Magnificent yes, but not quite the masterpiece some would have you believe. In parts one and two, every time he tries to just get on with his life the outside world comes crashing down on him and it’s heart wrenching to witness. But by the time we get to the third and final part, the world leaves him momentarily in peace, and he is finally given space to breathe. So you leave the cinema on a much lighter note than you might have expected, but you are left feeling ever so slightly short changed.

The brilliant if dark Toy Story 3.

That’s how you make sequels.

But that is a minor quibble. This is a major film and Jenkins is a serious talent. Let’s just hope he manages to walk away from the obscene amounts of money that as we speak will be appearing on tables in front of him across the whole of Hollywood. Just say no.

You can see the trailer for Moonlight here.

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