VIEWINGS: AUGUST 2019

Impatience Charles Dekeukeleire

IMPATIENCE (Charles Dekeukeleire, 1928) [08/29/19, YouTube]
In her pioneering (and as far as I can tell still-definitive) essay on the Belgian director, Kristin Thompson describes this 35 minute experimental film a “remarkable work,” and I’m inclined to agree. I can’t hope to match her meticulous description of its intricate structure and form, which is grueling even by the standards of the non-narrative avant-garde. But I quickly found its rigid, repetitious editing style hypnotic–it brought to mind Cubism, of trying to “get” at something by presenting it from as many angles as possible. There is also, as Thompson notes, an undeniable, underlying eroticism to the film; I’d go even further and posit the pulsating, fetishistic charge is only barely constrained by the strict form. Enigmatic and intriguing.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE (James Whale, 1932) [08/25/19, Kanopy]
Second viewing, and while its odd fusion of horror and camp humor still doesn’t quite gel for me, it sure is a pleasurably frenzied 70 minutes. Whale is such a master at orchestrating slyly suggestive gestures and visual cues (fragmented mirrors, shadowplay, knife wielding, double meanings, fluttering hand gestures, removed shoes, gender ambiguity, etc), and the decrepit mansion of the title is a wonderfully queer space in all senses of the term: non-normative, liminal, unapologetically nonsensical. Seeming to operate by the spatial logic of M.C. Escher, literally anything seems possible from one moment to the next at the Femm Manor, and one by one each member of the family is revealed to be much less, err, straightforward than they initially seem. And seeing the film today, there is the undeniable thrill in seeing Gloria Stuart–so iconic to my generation as old Rose in Titanic–in the full bloom of youth.

Bernadette Lafont Maman et la putain (Eustache)

THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (Jean Eustache, 1973) [08/23/19, Pacific Film Archive]
Second viewing. I first saw this exactly fifteen years ago in London, during my undergrad semester abroad. Frankly, the details of the screening–a morning start time, and what felt like three of us in a cavernous screening room–has lingered longer than anything about the film itself, and I’ve been long wanting to revisit as I’ve suspected that having more life experience under my belt would make the film more resonant. It did.

Today I find the general premise slightly queasy (“charmingly” chauvinistic Parisian male romantic hijinks), but this is quickly neutralized and then overpowered by the immensity of the project. The women quickly, mercifully crowd out Léaud. Lebrun is impressive but has the flashier role; what has continued to stick with me is the deserted Lafont putting on a record and lying on the bed, we then proceed to listen to the entirety of Piaf’s whirligig “Les Amants de Paris.” It feels like we watch her live a whole lifetime in just those several minutes. I’ve lived those types of minutes too.

THE HOUSE WITH NO STEPS (William Ungerer, 1979) [08/20/19, Kanopy]
Watched on a complete whim and with no foreknowledge of what it was (a rare experience for me), and though distributed through Canyon Cinema it’s less experimental than an independently produced drama made in an observational mode. As we’re introduced to a number of townspeople in rural Vermont it’s interesting for a while in the way something like Winesburg, Ohio is interesting, and it does indeed capture the type of social claustrophobia particular to small town life in rural America. But in the end all the interesting characters and plot points never seem to quite coalesce into anything beyond their individual elements.

THE QUEEN (Frank Simon, 1968) [08/19/19, DCP, Castro Theatre]
Second viewing. For such a towering monument of queer cinema, it’s a rather slight film–thought admittedly that’s a major source of its poignance and charm. Beautifully restored and becoming widely available at long last, the time for its ascension finally seems upon us.

Celeste Yarnall in Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman)

THE VELVET VAMPIRE (Stephanie Rothman, 1971) [08/13/19, Amazon Prime]
An elegant art film masquerading as a salacious softcore skinflick; Daughters of Darkness (a great favorite of mine) is the most obvious comparison. Rothman cleverly frames the limitations of her actors as a kind of dreamy, Antonioni-esque ennui, everything seems trapped in a suspended state. The surname of Yarnall’s character, LeFanu, clearly connects the film to Sheridan LeFanu’s female-centric, diurnal vampire classic Carmilla, and similarly undermines genre expectations at every turn. Never given a chance to graduate from Roger Corman productions into mainstream productions–a tragedy–Rothman was later told by a studio that they had hired a neophyte director to make a vampire film “sort of like Velvet Vampire,” which turned out to be The Hunger by Tony Scott. The lineage is obvious.

MURIEL’S WEDDING (P.J. Hogan, 1994) [08/10/19, Home viewing screening]
A perfect example of a how a film doesn’t have to deal with anything obviously “queer” to be a queer film classic. The intense queer resonances are instead social, emotional, and the sense of being marked as different–and demanding happiness despite it. The breakneck character arcs, dialogue exchanges, and plot rhythms are the stuff of 1930’s screwball comedy, and as she gamely endures the endless little humiliations on her way to triumph, Toni Collette earns a place alongside the genre’s most iconic heroines.

SUNSET BLVD. (Billy Wilder, 1950) [08/10/19, Stanford Theatre)
Multiple viewings. Endlessly rewatchable, and indisputably one of Hollywood’s great achievements; I can never manage to muster up much affection for it, however, and have never regarded it as a favorite. For all its individual moments of humor–and the camp pleasure of Norma’s histrionics–it takes conscious effort to avoid getting swallowed up by its sadness, and it’s impossible not to walk away feeling more than a bit dirtied by the contact. With each subsequent viewing it sure is beginning to seem like von Stroheim is the actual center of the film, giving the tragedy moral weight.

MUR 19 (Mark Rappaport, 1966) [08/06/19, Kanopy]
The type of first film that seems to lay out all of a director’s specific cinematic preoccupations and concerns yet to come.

MOONSTRUCK (Norman Jewison, 1987) [08/03/19, Amazon Prime]
Made me realize how much I miss this type of unpretentious, cheerfully professional Hollywood filmmaking. For a while everything is good-natured ethnic cliché and slightly musty screwball comedy plot mechanisms, but quickly real people and emotions emerge out of the narrative contrivances. The sense of melancholy Cher gives brash Brooklynite Loretta Castorini is deeply touching, and she and Nicolas Cage–truly a most unexpected romantic pairing–are simply electric together.

Viewings: July 2019

Talia Shaire in Old Boyfriends (Joan Tewkesbury 1979)

OLD BOYFRIENDS (Joan Tewkesbury, 1979) [07/30/19, Kanopy]
The casual, improvisatory spirit of Tewkesbury’s directorial style (obviously influenced by her collaborations with Robert Altman) often feels directly at odds with the over-determined screenplay provided by Paul Schrader and his brother Leonard. I would have preferred much more of the former than the latter–one can sense Tewkesbury straining to cut her characters loose and abandon themselves to the ambiguities and unsettling absurdities of the contrived plot. Talia Shire is appropriately brittle but ultimately limited, unable to really convey the underlying emotional turmoil that would motivate a woman to seek out a string of disappointing paramours from her past; there is a certain disquieting quality to her blankness, however. Everyone else gives small but incredibly vivid performances: Keith Carradine is surprisingly affecting, and John Houseman’s slow revelation of his bitter contempt makes the hair on the neck stand on edge. It’s always an awful situation trying to grade a film on what it could have been rather than what it actually is, but it seems clear a superior film would have resulted if the director had been given more creative control over her project. When another opportunity never came she decamped to television and never looked back. Our loss.

SCOTTY & THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD (Matt Tyrnauer, 2017) [07/20/19, Kanopy]
Perfunctory and somewhat aesthetically/ethically sloppy treatment of an endlessly compelling subject. I couldn’t help but wish there was a bit less emphasis on the thrill of name dropping and the “big reveal” of sexual secrets and more focus upon the mundane, everyday operations of male/male sex work in the pre-Stonewall era. (Perhaps Bowers’s controversial memoir does a better job of this?)

EDWARD HOPPER (Ron Peck, 1981) [07/16/19, Online download]
An elegantly handled hour-long essay film (though that doesn’t mean Peck demurs from broaching some of the more tangly aspects of Hopper’s personality and legacy). The closeups of details within the paintings themselves are cannily selected and often revelatory, and I appreciated the attention placed upon Hopper’s lifelong fascination with representing light, truly a most cinematic concern. Also wonderful is the connection, made just near the end, between Hopper’s silent scenes and the narrative distillation of Hollywood promotional film stills. In the last third or so biography and commentary mostly drop away, letting the art speak for itself.

EASY RIDER (Dennis Hopper, 1969) [07/15 – 16/19, Criterion Channel]
While acknowledging its importance as a “generational statement” (Hoberman), completely agree with Dennis Grunes‘ assessment that “today, it is a hollow antique” (though wouldn’t go nearly as far as his hyperbolic declaration it is one of the ten or twelve worst films ever made). Part of the problem is undoubtedly me: I find buddy movies numbingly dull, and was deeply bored within the first 15 minutes. There’s also something about this particular approach to social disavowal that seems vaguely distasteful—and rings hollow—during our particular historical moment of 2019. While the direction and editing is famously indebted to the French New Wave, it lacks that movement’s sense of joy in trying to turn the medium inside out. Was waiting the whole time for Karen Black and the spark her presence brings to any film, and she does indeed initiate the its most effective sequence—not just stylistically, but because it finally feels like it has hit upon something wild, primal, and genuinely terrifying.

GIRLFRIENDS (Claudia Weill, 1978) [07/10/19, Criterion Channel]
Genuinely revelatory in its understated way. Melanie Mayron is pitch-perfect as a young aspiring photographer attempting to find herself and a creative niche amid the cruel indifference of breakneck contemporary urban life. Weill has a keen understanding of the casual rhythms of the everyday, and there’s a sense of generosity–toward the characters, and also toward the viewer–that feels extremely special. Perhaps the best film I’ve seen so far this year.

BRUMES D’AUTOMNE (AUTUMN MIST) (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1929) [07/08/19, YouTube]
The introductory title card announcing “un poème cinégraphique” is apt, as it does indeed function by a logic traditionally associated with poetry. The visual rhyming is extraordinary: raindrops/tears/falling leaves; mist/smoke/rippling water/vision blurred by tears, etc, and there are literal “turns” (via reflection on water, the camera literally spinning). Such linkages are far from novel, but possess incredible visual force nonetheless. And then there are Nadia Sibirskaïa’s wide, otherworldly eyes—truly one of the undersung glories of cinema.

Nadia Sibirskaïa in "Brumes d'Automne" (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1929)

30 Days of Fandor: Completed!

A few thoughts upon the completion of my 30 Days of Fandor Films project:

First things first: I did it! Not exactly in the month allotted (indeed, it  ended up taking just over two), but watching 21 films and writing a review about them in a single month? Considering that one of my original motivations was to counter a particularly pernicious creative slump, I think that’s pretty damn good. I had also figured I’d be reviewing a lot of short films—something Fandor conveniently specializes in—but as the month went on I actually found myself prioritizing more and more feature length films, and actually caught up with several particularly embarrassing oversights in my film viewing.

The sheer eclecticism of the films I watched also turned out to be a not unexpected but still deeply satisfying aspect of this project: short films and features, avant-garde and glossy classic Hollywood fare, obscure and canonical, documentaries and musicals and arthouse and silent films and everything in between; I also specifically tried to watch films from geographical locations I am more unfamiliar with than I like to admit (basically, most non-Western filmmaking traditions). I also wanted to prioritize films by female filmmakers, and while there’s always room from improvement, eight of 30 isn’t bad—and the films themselves were particularly good, considering that seven of them appear on the list I compiled below listening my favorite of everything I watched.

And frankly, I thought it would very quickly end up being difficult to watch more or less a film a day, a viewing schedule I haven’t kept up since my undergraduate years when I had a whole lot more time on my hands. And while I did struggle to finish the project after the initial month-long momentum had subsided, it really was a pleasure to rediscover how gratifying it is to have cinema in one’s everyday life.

So 30 films now off my Fandor queue… onward to those other 450+!

Twelve Favorites (in approximate order of preference):

01) LA CAPTIVE (Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium, 2000)
02) WORKING GIRLS (Lizzie Borden, USA, 1986)
03) LA JALOUSIE (JEALOUSY) (Philippe Garrel, France, 2013)
04) JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. (Agnès Varda, France, 1988)
05) THE ACADEMY OF MUSES (José Luis Guerín, Spain, 2015)
06) THE TIES THAT BIND (Su Friedrich, USA, 1985)
07) ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL (M. de Oliveira, Portugal, 2009)
08) VISION (Margarethe von Trotta, Germany, 2009)
09) NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Robert Flaherty, USA/France, 1922)
10) THE GENERAL (Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton, USA, 1926)
11) ARAYA (Margot Benacerraf, Venezuela, 1959)
12) HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT’S INFERNO (Bromberg & Medrea, France, 2009)

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 30: LA JALOUSIE (2013)

Jealousy la jalousie philippe garrel

 Day 30: LA JALOUSIE (JEALOUSY) (Philippe Garrel, France, 2013)

There’s a density to the images of a Philippe Garrel film that I’m increasingly convinced are exceptional to the medium; rarely fussy or even overtly composed, typically it’s just actors talking and interacting in a series of underfurnished interior rooms connected by transitory public spaces like streets and parks. And yet, somehow, each moment seems imbued with a kind of mythic aura I tend to associate more with Greek tragedy than the cinema. La jalousie replays a story of triangulated romantic complications of the type Garrel explores in many of his films, with the autobiographical overtones taking on additional layers of meaning with the casting of his son, Louis, as his stand-in (his daughter, Esther, has a major role as Louis’s character’s brother—so many layers of familial implication braided into this film!).

The magnificent Anna Mouglalis, who I think has definitely confirmed her place as my favorite contemporary French actress (sorry Isabelle and Juliette), is the world-weary actress Louis leaves his wife for in the film’s opening sequence, and just as one assumes they know what kind of “jealously” the title refers to yet another subtle variation surfaces, and by the end it’s clear a whole typography of jealous impulses—romantic, familial, professional, etc—have been delicately excavated and examined. And none of this conveys that immense beauty of the images themselves, the work of Willy Kurant (who lensed for Varda, Godard, Robbe-Grillet, Marker, Gainsbourg and others in the sixties and seventies). The oversaturated black and white suspends 2010’s Paris in a space beyond the trappings of any specific year (it feels like 1963 just as much as 2013). In the most condensed of running times—this one clocks in at a characteristically succinct 77 minutes—Garrel is able to articulate and convey more than most films twice as long.

[Watch La jalousie on Fandor here.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 29: THE SACRIFICE (1986)

Offret The Sacrifice Tarkovsky

Day 29: THE SACRIFICE (OFFRET) (Andrei Tarkovsky, Sweden/UK/France, 1986)

I remain… intrigued but ultimately unconvinced regarding The Sacrifice, the Russian master filmmaker’s final film; somehow his work almost always ends up being a bridge too far for me. Nonetheless, I found myself deeply engaged for about the first 2/3, in large part due to the exquisite visual sensibility—Sven Nykvist’s melancholy color palette, austere interior spaces, and expansive exterior shots constantly bringing to my mind favorite paintings by Whistler and Wyatt—and, as is often the case with Tarkovsky’s cinema, the nuanced, enigmatic approach to sound design. Also appreciated the voluptuous atmospheric ambiguity: long stretches seem to be playing out in some distant past, and then a radio or TV appears, a jolting re-recognition of (the film’s) contemporary present.

But then the lurking creepy psychosexual stuff inevitably takes over the narrative in the second half (this is Tarkovsky), and I was pretty much done: I already find Erland Josephson’s approach to acting rather tedious to begin with, so by the time the (admittedly awesome) technical feat that comprises the final sequence arrived my patience had long been spent. And so Tarkovsky continues to remain a major cinematic figure I find myself largely indifferent to; Nostalghia (also available on Fandor) remains his one film I genuinely like and most deeply respond to.

[Watch The Sacrifice on Fandor here.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 28: PUSSYCATS PARADISE (1960)

pussycats paradise

Day 28: PUSSYCATS PARADISE (aka The Nudist Story) (Ramsey Herrington, UK, 1960)

A hilarious relic of its era, but quite pleasantly surprised to find a extremely watchable little flick as well. A blurb floating around trumpets it as “the Citizen Kane of nudist films” but I have no context to judge the merit of such a pronouncement; it strikes me as basically a revision of a 1950’s B-grade musical, for despite all the boobs and butts on display—nether regions are discreetly edited out or hilariously obstructed from view—it’s just as relentlessly chipper and saccharine and contrived as any June Allyson or Jane Powell vehicle from that period, which I suppose is exactly the point, a demonstration that “naturism” is a wholesome, healthy mode of living for the whole family. Two musical performances, multiple dance numbers(!), and a synchronized swimming sequence(!!) pad out the slight plot. There’s not much to say about this one because, quite frankly, there’s not a whole lot to it outside of historical interest. But very sweet, and actually rather fun.

[Watch Pussycats Paradise on Fandor here.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 27: NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922)

banner-nanook-of-the-north-robert-flaherty

 

 Day 27: NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Robert Flaherty, USA/France, 1922)

A great humanist classic—I can think of few other films that so directly appeals to the viewer to enter into a thoughtful and respectful engagement with a foreign culture and generate what feels like a genuine connection to an unknown “Other”—even as the ethnographic form inherently creates representational and ethical dilemmas. To be fair, Flaherty, an explorer and prospector-turned-filmmaker, made his film before “documentary” was distinguished from any other type of filmmaking practice, and the fact that elements that are passed off as reality are in fact staged and/or scripted wouldn’t have given him or original audiences pause in the way it does for us today. Some of these fabrications are relatively benign, such as Nanook’s feigned amazement over banal Western objects or the depiction of him using traditional hunting weapons instead of his gun, while others are more disquieting, such as the fact that Nanook’s “wives” were apparently nothing of the sort, but Flaherty’s own common-law wives(!). But then there is the film itself, which all these years later still manages to slice through all surrounding discourse with a startling immediacy and vitality—as is often noted, Nanook (real name: Allakariallak) is in every sense of the term a true movie star, exhibiting a charisma and photographic magnetism that would make many a manicured Hollywood star green with envy; Andrew Sarris declares the scene when he pops his head out of a just-constructed igloo and smiles directly at the camera as nothing less than “one of the most beautiful moments in the history of the cinema.”

The film follows Nanook and his (purported) family as they navigate the desolate expanses of the arctic tundra of northernmost Quebec, always, it seems, just on the knife-edge of starvation and at the mercy of the sub-zero temperatures—as we watch them fish, hunt for walrus and polar bears, travel in sleds drawn by packs of Huskies, and construct canoes out of seal hides what becomes so clear is how every aspect of their existence requires the greatest effort, often repeated daily without any reprieve. But the clear hardships are balanced by depictions of humor, and Flaherty has a lovely, understated way of staging sequences that unexpectedly turn into sight gags. The film that kept coming to mind was Patricio Guzmán’s recent documentary The Pearl Button (also, happily, currently available on Fandor and which I highly recommend), which is partly devoted to capturing the memories of the several remaining indigenous people of South America’s Patagonia region, a culture which now only exists in a small number of photographs and recollections that are quickly fading; if Nanook of the North fails as a factual document of Allakariallak’s lived life, it at least tangibly captures an evocation of a people group and a heritage that had already been permanently altered and about to be displaced. Such documentation, even in this compromised state, thus contains an aura of preciousness. But overall a tremendous achievement, and a work of great visual accomplishment made despite some of the most punishing circumstances imaginable and working with the most primitive of film technology. I was expecting an Important Film, more historically interesting than compelling: how very wrong I was.

[Watch Nanook of the North on Fandor here.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 26: NOTHING SACRED (1937)

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Day 26: NOTHING SACRED (William A. Wellman, USA, 1937)

Anyone fretting that contemporary mass culture has devolved into a hopeless mess of selfies and pseudo-celebrities might change their opinion slightly after taking a look at this cynical screwball comedy, which pits the luminous Carole Lombard as a smalltown gal suddenly launched to national attention after a down-on-his-luck journalist (Frederic March) learns that she is tragically dying of radium poisoning and does a big write-up in a major New York City newspaper. Soon she has been handed a key to the city, is being serenaded by children’s choirs, and getting tipsy on champagne at the swankest Manhattan nightclubs as showgirls on horseback salute her touching bravery in the face of oncoming death. The problem is that she has since found at that she had been misdiagnosed and there is, in fact, not a thing wrong with her… but for millions she has become a beloved symbol of New Deal fortitude, and now that the media machine has been activated there’s almost nothing that can be done to halt the frenzy.

Clocking in at under 80 minutes Nothing Sacred is too brief to really delve into the most disquieting dimensions of unearned celebrity, capricious public expectations, and the media’s interminable circlejerk of corruption, but screenwriter Ben Hecht nonetheless manages to satirize just about everything that chances within the film’s purview, from“idyllic” rural living to the self-congratulating altruism of urban social elites. Helping neutralize the acidity of the story is the rich splendor of the film’s creamy Technicolor tones, and, most particularly, the presence of Lombard; at first she seems too innately intelligent an actress to embody the naive, rather dim Hazel Flagg, but as James Harvey has astutely noted, the “odd” miscasting actually “seems to focus the Lombard character and temperament in a kind of permanent, intoxicating radiance.” Her high spiritedness feels crucial in helping the film maintain its dexterity in tone, keeping things from ever getting too base or mean. A bit less amusing when seen today is some strange moments foregrounding race, as well as a climactic domestic fistfight, a literal “battle of the sexes” which comes off as quite a bit less charming and exuberant than I presume it would have in the 1930’s. The film originally took a loss at the box office—just pulling themselves out of the Great Depression, American audiences might not have been ready to feel personally implicated in social issues such as these—but it eventually established a reputation as a classic of the screwball genre; I can’t claim to have been completely won over myself, but of course one should take up every and all opportunities to witness Lombard in her glorious prime.

[Watching Nothing Sacred on Fandor here.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 25: DAKAN (1997)

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DAY 25: DAKAN (DESTINY) (Muhammad Camara, Guinea/France, 1997)

Heralded as the first West African film to deal explicitly with the topic of homosexuality, whatever its actual quality Muhammad Camara’s debut automatically has an assured spot in the queer canon and film history in general. And while most reviews I’ve come across do tend to shrug it off as “important, but unexceptional” I thought that the familiar-seeming doomed romance premise had a tendency to keep wandering off into interesting, unexpected directions. The film boldly signals its intentions in the first scene with two men passionately exchanging kisses in a car—how many contemporary “out and proud” American films would dare do the same without first carefully priming its audience?—indeed, Dakan is actually a very “out” film in general, dispensing with most of the usual sexual coming-of-age tropes and within minutes we’re watching the two young men directly confronting their respective parents regarding their feelings for each other and intentions of going off to start their life together. As expected this does not at all go over well, and so the inevitable series of complications begin, and the parents plot to separate the men, calling into question both their loyalty to each other and as well as their understanding of themselves and who they are. One of their mother consults a local witch doctor for a “cure” and is willing to undergo anything necessary, while the other’s father, an ambitious local merchant, simply packs his son off to a faraway university.

From there things get interesting, as the film seems less interested in embarking on a specific story than observing series of events unfold, and the narrative grows increasingly elliptical and diffuse in favor of evoking sensations both emotional and physical in nature. Longtime actor—and, interestingly, heterosexual family man— Camara aligns himself with the kind of “tactile” cinema most closely identified with Claire Denis, exhibiting a sophisticated attunement to mood and nocturnal environments, with emphasis often placed on the surfaces of things and skin in particular. And then suddenly Cécile Bois, a spunky, charismatic young white woman bounces into the film and everything seems to pivot toward another direction entirely; in truth, despite the film ostensibly being about the two men they never become a whole lot more than sympathetic ciphers, and it is the female characters which are much more vividly rendered. Despite its relatively intimate scale, ultimately Dakan becomes a much more expansive consideration of how the men’s relationship affects a much larger web of family, friendship, and community. As far as I’m concerned a complicated if quiet little film lurks beneath the conferred mantle of Great Historical Importance.

[Watching Dakan on Fandor here.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 24: THE GENERAL (1926)

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Day 24: THE GENERAL (Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton, USA, 1926)

One doesn’t have to search very far for declarations that Keaton’s feature-length film remains, nearly a century after the fact, cinema’s greatest comedic achievement; it is certainly astonishing (and was until now one of the most embarrassing gaps in my film viewing). I’ve seen enough of Keaton’s work to recognize what makes it rather singular in his oeuvre and thus somewhat divisive—instead of a quick-paced series of exciting individual gags and physical stunts, The General is more deliberately paced, tightly weaving Keaton’s physical comedy into the overall fabric of the narrative. Based on an actual Civil War event that became known as “The Great Locomotive Chase,” Keaton plays a train engineer who is prevented from enlisting in the army and subsequently rejected by his suitor (Marion Mack) as an unpatriotic coward; the dejected Keaton eventually, wonderfully, blunders his way into the middle of an unfolding enemy plot and seizes upon the opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of his beloved.

It all takes a bit too long to get going, but like the slow initial ascent of a rollercoaster, once momentum tips toward mayhem all unwinds breathlessly, thrillingly, careening toward a resolution that always seems just around the corner but is constantly delayed. The handling of scale is immaculate, with moments of startling visual grandeur (the use of actual trains, full scale army camp recreations, actual derailments and destruction) counterbalanced with beautiful moments of emotional intimacy (the cigarette-burn iris effect, Keaton’s slumped shoulders and turned back in wide shot of the deserted road) that are all linked together by a camera constantly on the go, trying to keep up with the forward motion of the titular train. The film unfortunately places the viewer in the rather uncomfortable position of rooting for Confederate success which is all the more annoying because the actual historical entailed the opposite situation, but in the end the War Between the States is treated more like a generic battle milieu than a specific period of time with much deeper issues at stake. It’s a sad fact of history that this, of all films, is the one that effectively ended Keaton’s career as an independent filmmaker, its inflated budget combined with a lackluster box office performance necessitating a contract with MGM that quickly proved disastrous. I now eagerly await the opportunity to see it in its full glory on a big screen.

[Watch The General on Fandor here.]