Buster Keaton is always a good way to begin a month. Cops has some very funny moments and some amazing stunts. His escape from the cops by grabbing onto a moving vehicle was more than impressive – he’s a veritable live-action cartoon character. And that stunt with the ladder! Albeit spoiled slightly by the effects-led conclusion. I was half expecting him to catapult himself off for real, though I suppose that would’ve been fatal. It seems some things are too dangerous even for Buster. But the sheer silliness of it, mixed with the danger and athleticism, make for a kind of timeless film. And it’s a good thing it is timeless because they can’t make them like this anymore.
71 fragments of a Chronology of Chance – A slow burner, subtle. Seemingly unconnected vignettes collide together violently at the finale, a technique that’s become much more familiar to us in the two decades since this was made. It’s not Haneke’s best but it’s a film that snuck up on me. The sudden, unsignposted violence brings to mind Haneke’s more famous films like Hidden and Funny Games. Even in this early film, his technique is beautiful and often sublime. A prolonged shot of a bleeding wound is perfectly judged.
The films I’ve chosen to write about are ones newly added to my favourites list, so nearly all are films I’m watching for the first time. Barry Lyndon is an exception. I’d seen it once before, many years ago when I was relatively new to taking film seriously. I remember being a little bored then, not getting much from it. I’m glad I gave it another chance. Kubrick’s detached style infuses the whole film with a sly tongue-in-cheek tone, and perhaps this is what I missed the first time around: I was taking the film at face value. The overly sincere voice-over, the high melodrama and perfectly posed compositions. Maybe I thought it felt artificial, not realising that that was the point. My mind keeps coming back to Kubrick’s way of poking fun and distancing us. His characteristic zooms comically undermine the actions of pompous gentlemen (of which Leonard Rossiter is the best, of course), yet retain the compositional effect in a way that dolly moves wouldn’t. We’re zooming in and out on detail of a two-dimentional picture. That I’m currently reading A History of Painting is lucky as it allowed me to pick up on a lot of references in the compositions that I may otherwise have missed. Although to call Barry Lyndon’s compositions ‘painterly’ would be an understatement. The cinematography doesn’t just parody classical paintings, it creates images to rival them. The look of the film is a strange combination of the modest and the lavish, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the authentic and the artificial. By modern standards it sometimes looks a bit dull. We are used to our the images being glossy, punchy, and with all the flaws smoothed out, so Barry Lyndon can come as a shock. But it just takes a little readjustment to see that they have created some of the most wonderful images ever put on film. For the lighting and mies-en-scene the mantra is integrity. Contrasting this against the careful compositions and static pose is what gives the film the energy to survive its slow pace. I admit my attention did lapse a few times towards to midpoint, but never for long. The 3 hours duration isn’t short but nor does it outstay its welcome.
I’ve watched a lot of turn-of-the-century silent shorts out of historical interest, but let’s be honest, most of them are pretty dull. Georges Méliès The Man with the Rubber Head is a fun one:
Len Lye’s Free Radicals is a simple but effective experimental music video of sorts:
A couple of months ago it was Bob Dylan and Miracle in Milan. Tonight it’s Joanna Newsom and Two For the Road. I feel romantic, reinvigorated, joyful, melancholic. I feel like I want to go outside. I won’t, because it’s bedtime, but you know what I mean. I wasn’t sure about Two For The Road to begin with. To be frank, it’s a bit silly and there’s some dubious dubbing going on, often a big stumbling block for my enjoyment of a film. But it ended up sweeping me off my feet. As I said about Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it’s romantic in all the best ways. In realistic ways as well as movie ways. Those rare pleasures of classical romantic film, like Casablanca or It’s A Wonderful Life, coupled with the invention and energy of the 60s. Like a Mike Nichols film, it still feels fresh. That’s not to say it hasn’t dated too but it’s in a way that all adds to the charm. What makes it work so well is that I completely bought Hepburn and Finney’s relationship. I was constantly picturing myself in it. In the silliness, in the austere romance, in the callous disregard. The Master of Cinema transfer is, as usual, amazing. I loved it.
When I’m not wallowing in the past I do still go and see new releases sometimes, and Mistress America was one of them. I had loved Baumbach and Gerwig’s previous collaboration Frances Ha, and Mistress America lived up to my high expectations. Gerwig is fantastic as always but the much lesser known lead Lola Kirke is equally great in very different ways.
I’m a bit late to Yellow Submarine, I suppose most people saw this in their childhood, not at 25. But it’s joyful, crazy, inventive. Sort of like Terry Gilliam meets Alice in Wonderland – the playful spirit, the wordplay, the silly jokes. Its not anywhere near as good as Alice (whatever could be?) but it does similarly capture the spirit of youth, as if the film had been conjured into existence by a child. This is what makes it great and it’s also what makes it occasionally tedious. But no matter, the sheer psychedelic invention keeps it afloat.
I wish I had written down my impressions of The Servant at the time because it was one of the best films I watched all year. So what strikes me when I think of it several months later? The kitchen-top seduction, the dripping tap, the stark black and white cinematography, with its wide angles and mirror shots that imprint an image of insanity, the roving restaurant digression, the camera spying on people’s conversations, the class warfare, the deceptions, the decent into madness. The brilliance of Dirk Bogarde.
Buster Keaton is always a good way to end a month. I was extremely impressed by the three-man walking tower at the end of Neighbors. Keaton very rarely fails to make me hoot with laughter and High Sign is no exception. As with most of his films, Buster’s invention, creativity, intricate choreography and sheer recklessness is literally amazing. Scarecrow and Goat were even better; these are films from nine decades ago that are all still funny as hell. I wish we still had physical comedy like this. I suppose the closest we’ve have in recent times is Jackie Chan, but it’s not the same. His films haven’t got nearly the same conceptual rigour for a start. The 20s was surely the peak of film comedy. At least we are still making great, interesting verbal and situational comedy, even if it’s almost exclusively on TV now – Curb, Louie, Peep Show. But Buster will outlast them all in the cultural memory and I’ve a feeling he’ll go on being funny forever.