Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Eight Weeks of Film History: 1895-1939 - Buster Keaton and other things

More Fantasia is up: The Art of Fighting.

If I've got any regrets about Fantasia, its that it and going back to Maine for the Fourth of July have resulted in me missing a whole bunch of the Harvard Film Archive's great "Eight Weeks of FIlm History" summer program, and the Brattle's vertical schedule will do a number on the rest. Last night was the first part of the series I was able to get to. Fortunately, the early cinema is playing Mondays, so I should be able to see a good chunk of that. Silent films are just delightful, especially comedies.

(Really, somebody ought to get Jim Carrey to do a silent comedy. Rock stars play acoustic sets, so why shouldn't movie stars do something like this?)

I would have liked more Buster Keaton and less Soviet strangeness, but it was a fun show. I love how people bring kids to silent comedies whenever they play in the area, especially when it's not a relatively expensive Alloy Orchestra show.

"Glumov's Diary" ("Dnevnik Glumova")

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Eight Weeks of Film History)

Uh... OK. This is five minues of clowns, often turning into other things. It's bizare and surreal, and I imagine it makes a lot more sense when seen as originally intended, as part of a play Sergei Eisenstein was directing at the time. As a free-standing thing... Uh, whatever.

A Sixth Part of the World (Shestaia Chast Mira)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Eight Weeks of Film History)

An interesting film, created by the director of The Man with a Movie Camera to sell Soviet products. As with a lot of Soviet propoganda, the message is rather heavy-handed, especially toward the end; I notice that early in the movie, a cross is shown without any comment, but by the end, the intertitles extolling communist virtues are saying "here, people are still trusting in Jesus" (and Buddha and Allah) with an almost-astonished air of superiority. I wonder if there was a tacit understanding between the filmmakers and audience that the indoctrination wouldn't come until the end, and you could slip out early if you wanted.

As I said, it's interesting - Dziga Vertov does some very neat things with editing, cutting between locations to call attention to both their distance and closeness. There's a very poetic structure to it, and it must have been a very daunting undertaking in 1926 to get documentary footage from the entire sweep of the Soviet Union. I seldom tend to think of Russia now or the USSR before as ethnically and culturally diverse, but it must be, just from the sheer amount and variety of territory it includes. Still, even at just over an hour, the poetic feel without a narrative is trying at times. It's a nicely assembled series of images, but it sort of goes on and on.

Full review at HBS.

"The Baloonatic"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Eight Weeks of Film History)

So, what's 23 minutes, two reels? Two reels of funny, that is. Buster Keaton strings gag after gag together, first at a boardwalk of hazardous amusements, then in a balloon that accidentally launched while he was affixing a flag to the top, and finally in the woods where he has trouble fishing and encounters a pretty girl out camping.

I didn't think about it at the time, but good job on faking the aerial bits. At no point did I think that the balloon was earthbound or shot against rear-projection, although I did occasionally notice some odd cropping. As great as Keaton was as a performer and gagman, he's also a darned good director.

(So, today, Buster's #1, Harold Lloyd's #2, and Caplin's #3. But that could change the next time I see one of their movies)

Shrelock Jr.

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Eight Weeks of Film History)

I don't know if this is as consistently and constantly brilliant as The General or Steamboat Bill Jr., but it's got arguably the greatest dream sequence in movie history. Consider how clear it is that Buster inserting himself and the rest of the cast into the movie his character is projecting is a dream sequence, and then try and remember how many other times you've gotten invested with the events in such a sequence. The dream/film-within-a-film in Sherlock Jr. matters to the audience even though we know intellectually that it will have no consequences.

It's also filled with some of the most brilliant slapstick of the tight forty-five minute film, from broad cartoonish set-ups to pool shark manouveurs. We're quite pleased to dispose of the plot in the real world and watch it play out in the dream instead. And, of course, Buster's moving in and out of the screen is great shooting and editing.

Full review at HBS.

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