Saturday, April 23, 2011

Lost in The Talkies...

... and old in The Can

Considered by many to be his best feature film, Buster Keaton's The Cameraman (1928) played New York's Capitol Theatre (Broadway and 51st) on September 21, 1928. Included on the bill was a personal appearance by Hal Roach's Hollywood rascals, Our Gang.

Free and Easy (1930)

On the third week of September 1928, Seattle newspapers were abuzz with "All singing, all talking, all dancing" and hokey, old-fashioned silent movies had already become rare as hen's teeth. Keaton's disappointing last silent film, Spite Marriage (1929) quickly came and went, followed by a huge reception for his next picture, The Hollywood Revue of 1929, in which Keaton played a insignificant, but obligatory part as an MGM contract player. The Hollywood Revue played at Seattle's new Fox Theatre (7th and Olive) for what seemed like months.

Keaton's next Seattle appearance was given second billing (most likely an earlier short) at the University District's Neptune Theatre, listed only as "Buster Keaton" on September 9, 1929.

Missing the boat…

Less than one week after Keaton's dreadful talkie Free and Easy (1930) (which also enjoyed a long run) opened at the Fox on Friday April 11, 1930, The Cameraman finally crept into the second-run 723 seat Winter Garden Theatre (1515 3rd Ave between Pike and Pine) for a short, inconspicuous visit, no doubt to wring what pennies MGM could from their investment, leaving Keaton's masterpiece virtually unknown in Seattle until revival fans discovered it decades later.

The Winter Garden ca.1937

STG Presents!

Seattle Theatre Group, Northwest Film Forum and Trader Joes present Silent Movie Mondays and Buster Keaton in The Cameraman with live musical accompaniment performed by organst Jim Riggs at the Paramount's original 4/20 Publix 1 Wurlitzer.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Buster Bliss

The Cameraman (1928)

Monday April 25, 7pm, The Paramount, Seattle

"I'm a photographer. Could I get a job here?" "Get a job here … with that cocktail shaker?"

The Cameraman marked Buster Keaton's move to MGM in 1928, and the loss of creative control that would lead to his eventual decline from stardom. In spite of this, it remains the ultimate refinement of Keaton's work in silent features, containing his best collection of comedy set pieces within a complex scenario. It was also the last time Keaton performed the reckless physical stunts he'd become famous for, which the studio saw as an unreasonable risk to their valuable star.

Buster wanders the city streets with camera and tripod making tintypes for ten cents. In the crush of a tickertape parade he spots lovely Sally (Marceline Day) and is instantly smitten.

Keaton possessed the charming ability to express romantic infatuation as though he was hypnotized. As he poses Sally for the photo, she stands head turned to the side while Buster gazes at her and loses himself in the moment. Later, as he waits in the office of the newsreel service where she works, he dreamily peers over his photos and bats his drowsy eyes at her while Sally looks back at him sweetly. His corny slight-of-hand coin trick to impress her seems to say "Oh that was nothing!" In Keaton's vernacular it becomes a beautifully expressed and touching sentiment. Throughout his career Keaton typically played modest characters, intent on winning the heart of a girl by the use of endearingly pathetic gestures and flourishes, while the actual 'gags' would be seen as accidents of circumstance, often with spectacular results. As Buster takes Sally on a date, they attempt to board a double-decker city bus, but are separated by the surging crowd separates the two, with Buster being forced to the upper level while Sally remains below. As it moves down the street and they find each other, Buster climbs down the outside of the bus and sits on a rear wheel fender to be near her. A big bump bounces Buster onto the street, he regains his wits, and chases after the bus, hopping once again onto the fender as they speed along. Keaton's character seems oblivious to any physical danger, blinded by his need to be with and please the girl. When in the end, he ultimately saves Sally from drowning, he never considers his own peril. His rival guiltily takes credit for the rescue, leaving Buster alone on the beach, heartbroken with only his camera and an organ grinder's monkey.

Among the brilliant comedy routines featured in this tour de force: A baseball game played in pantomime at Yankee Stadium with Buster playing every position, including the umpire! To pay for their date, Buster nearly demolishes his room cracking open a dime bank, then proceeds to scatter the fist full of coins when he removes them from his pocket. Sally's close-up reaction is priceless! After the bus ride, he takes her to a public swimming pool. Buster and another man attempt to disrobe in a three-by-three foot dressing room with hilarious results. "Will you keep out of my undershirt?" As she walks alongside the pool in her swimsuit, Sally is swarmed by overly attentive young men. When Buster finally emerges he has somehow been given absurdly over-sized swimwear. Forced to compete for her attention, he loses his suit when he jumps off the high dive; a routine repeated countless times by others after Keaton. Running gags throughout the film include constant collisions with the same beat cop who's convinced there is something wrong with Buster. "I'll try your reflexes to see of you're goofy." The monkey he appears to have accidentally killed springs back to life and clings to Buster throughout the rest of the picture. In one scene Buster cranks away on his camera, filming a Tong War in Chinatown, while the tiny monkey in a sailor suit cranks away on a machine gun! Keaton was also well known for his effective use of props in outrageous sight gags. The motorcycle in Sherlock Jr. (1924), the enormous ladder in Cops (1922) and the tiny gun in Go West (1925) are a few. In The Cameraman, Keaton's constant companion is the large and ungainly camera and tripod that virtually becomes another character with a mind of it's own. He stumbles over and into it, inadvertently knocks the cop unconscious with it, uses it to engage the girl and manages to break the same window with it repeatedly throughout the film.

Buster is a hopeless romantic, regardless of what it may cost him. His finances, social status and personal dignity are always on the table. And yet, he is shy and his desire is initially hidden from Sally, revealed only to the audience when she's not looking. Buster usually found a way to win the girl over by the final reel. Of course in Go West, the girl was a cow.

STG Presents!

Seattle Theatre Group, Northwest Film Forum and Trader Joes present Silent Movie Mondays and Buster Keaton in The Cameraman with live musical accompaniment performed by organist Jim Riggs at the Paramount's original 4/20 Publix 1 Wurlitzer.

Next: Lost in the Talkies...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

How many times have I told you, "Don't play in the street!"

The Crowd (1928)

Monday April 18, 7pm, The Paramount, Seattle

"The Crowd laughs with you always …. but it will cry with you for only a day."

King Vidor's masterpiece, The Crowd, is a landmark of Hollywood's silent era. The delirious joy and horrific sorrow of Johnny Sims (James Murray) and his beautiful Mary (Eleanor Boardman) remains intimate and touching even today. Theatergoers in 1928 were shocked by the visceral impact of this film. It is a simple story of boy meets girl, boy marries girl, love and tragedy amid the humdrum routine of daily life in the big city, told with poetic beauty and startling realism.

Director Vidor and cinematographer Henry Sharp treat the viewer to breathtaking moments: The magical lights of Coney Island at night, the roaring grandeur of Niagara Falls and the terrifying enormity of New York City, where people thrive or are swallowed up. Featuring Bert Roach and Estelle Clark in supporting roles, The Crowd is among the finest films produced by MGM's "Wonder Boy" Irving Thalberg during the silent era's golden age.

"So Real It Makes You Part of The Story."

Barely one month after opening, King Vidor's The Crowd, came to Publix-Loew's Seattle Theatre (re-named Paramount in 1932) at 9th and Pine on Thursday, March 29, 1928. The stage show featured Jules Buffano and the Seattle Stage Band offering an updated version of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado in "Paul Ash's New York Revue starring Bob LaSalle and the Kimawa Troupe." Also on the bill, The Darling Twins, eight Geisha Girls, the Seattle Grand Orchestra conducted by Arthur Clausen performing the overture "Rigoletto", with Ron and Don at the Grand Organ. Admission was 25c from 11:30 to 1, 35c from 1 to 6 and 50c after 6.

James Murray and King Vidor on the set

STG Presents!

Seattle Theatre group and Trader Joes present Silent Movie Mondays and King Vidor's The Crowd with live musical accompaniment performed by organist Jim Riggs at the Paramount's original 1928 4/20 Publix I Wurlitzer.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Caring Is (Not) Creepy

US, 2010,
93 mins.)

I get to sleep in
my own bed at
the end of the
day. And my
back doesn't
hurt as much.

-- Carrie Brownstein on the advantages of acting over touring

Rather than the musical or comedy one might expect, based on the pri-
mary participants, director Matt McCormick's Some Days Are Better
than Others
revolves around loss and the things people leave behind.

Before the IFC series Portlandia, with Carrie Brownstein, and the debut
from Broken Bells, with James Mercer, Brownstein and Mercer starred in
this, McCormick’s first feature, which premiered at last year’s SIFF. Since
that time, Brownstein formed Wild Flag with three other women, including
Sleater-Kinney's Janet Weiss, while Mercer continues to front the Shins.

It's fair to say these two have been keeping busy, but who knew they could act--not counting the shorts they made with McCormick, which I haven’t seen. They’re rough around the edges, but I enjoyed spending time with Brownstein's Katrina, who works at a dog shelter, and Mercer's Eli, who works temp jobs and helps out Otis (David Wodehouse), his step-grandfather, who's making a film out of soap-bubble reflections.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Click here for the trailer

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

While Eli hangs out with Otis, Katrina works on art projects and makes
audition tapes for a reality show. McCormick contrasts their stories with
that of Camille, a middle-aged woman (Renée Roman Nose) who sorts
through new arrivals at a thrift shop. She takes most items in stride until
the day she uncovers a brass urn bearing the name of a child, and spends
the rest of the film trying to find a home for it. Eli has a similar reaction
when he helps to clear out a dead woman's house, which means rifling
through her belongings--and answering to a self-centered creep.

As for their love lives, Katrina's been seeing the same guy for five years,
but their relationship comes to an end when she finds out he's met some-
one else (she logs into his email account). When Otis asks Eli why he isn't
seeing anyone, he explains, "I have a bad habit of falling in love with les-
bians," a reference to his attractive roommate, Chloe (Erin McGarry).

I didn't buy the reality TV subplot, but found the rest of this low-key en-
try engaging. It's not that the audition process seemed unrealistic, but
that Katrina never came across as the type to fall for it. At least she's
not chasing fame or money, but rather the desire to express herself
and prove to her ex-boyfriend that she's moved on. Or so she says.

Though I expected Katrina and Eli to cross paths sooner, they don't meet
until the end, at which point McCormick reveals the surprisingly mundane
connection between them. Until that point, there was no obvious through-
line, and Katrina never runs into Camille as Eli does (in an oblique way).

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Click the links for McCormick's videos for the Shins' "Australia" and
"The Past & Pending" (unfortunately, embedding wasn't an option).

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Throughout, the filmmaker displays a refined eye. There's a studied sym-
metry to most scenes, which will surely strike some as cute or quirky, but
I appreciated the attention to detail, especially in a low-budget production
(which becomes clear in an early driving scene, where the looping is off).

A minimalist organ score from Eluvium's Matthew Cooper adds to the
feeling of Miranda July-like wistfulness, and compensates for the lack of
selections from Sleater-Kinney or the Shins. On the contrary, there's a
sequence in which Eli, a karaoke enthusiast, limps through "Total Eclipse
of the Heart" as if it were his first time at a mic. It's believably painful.

Lately, I've been watching a lot of Portland-set films. If Some Days isn't
as light on its feet as Aaron Katz's Cold Weather, which played the North-
west Film Forum last month, the city seems brighter and more welcoming
here. Katz was going for a cold, clammy, noirish look, and he succeeded.

The Portland in McCormick's movie recalls the one that anchored 2007's
Paranoid Park
, so it only makes sense when Gabe Nevins, who played the
lead in that picture, shows up for a cameo here (as a grocery store clerk),
alongside Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker (as a customer at the store).

Pitchfork confirms the link between these projects: "Neil Kopp and Da-
vid Cress, the producers of Some Days Are Better than Others, al-
so produced Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park and Kelly Reichardt's Will
Oldham-starring Old Joy" (in which McCormick played "weed dealer").

All that said, it’s hard to predict
how fans of Brownstein and Mer-
cer will react to this film, since
it doesn't capitalize on their mu-
sic/musical personas, yet they
represent the biggest names as-
sociated with it. I hope they like
it better than Slant's Simon Ab-
, who dismissed it as "the
kind of American independent
quirk-fest that needs to be
quarantined and examined."

The debt to You and Me and
Everyone We Know
may be too
clear at times, intentionally or
otherwise--Brownstein has also
worked with July--but McCormick
flirts with indie rom-com tropes,
only to abandon them along the way, which seems fitting in a film about abandonment.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Some Days Are Better than Others plays the Northwest Film Forum
from 4/15-21 at 7 and 9pm. Matt McCormick will be in attendance on
opening night, along with Renée Roman Nose. The NWFF is located at 15-
15 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click
here. The title, incidentally, comes from a song by Seattle's Carissa's
Wierd. According to Urban Honking, source for the image at top, "Mc-
Cormick was heavily inspired by their music in the creation of this film."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Goodbye to All That

of a Pres-
ent Absen-
2009, 35mm,
105 mins.)

In his films, Arab-Israeli director Elia Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disap-
, Divine Intervention) blurs the lines between fact and fantasy.
It's part of what makes his work so enjoyable, despite the fact that all
three, part of a trilogy, focus on the conflict in the Middle East (and if
he hailed from Belfast, I don't see how he could avoid the Troubles).

Where other filmmakers see doom and gloom, he sees irony and ab-
surdity, which doesn't mean he wears rose-colored glasses. His movies
may be funny, but they're hardly conventional comedies, not when he
takes his cues from Franz Kafka and Buster Keaton. Characters rarely
smile, but that just makes their predicaments all the more comical.

His most straightforward film yet, The Time That Remains, returns to his roots with four chapters about his family. He begins with Nazareth's surrender to Israel in 1948 (his grandfather, the mayor, does the honors).

After the Israeli Army imposes a curfew, his father, Fuad (Saleh Bakri, the
unbelievably good looking Egyptian musician from The Band's Visit), a gun
maker, must stay inside in order to avoid getting shot. When he and a cousin step outside to help a fallen comrade, the army captures him, binds his hands, ties a blindfold around his head, and attempts to coerce information from him about the local weapons supply (they let the cousin go). When he refuses to talk, they beat him up, and leave him for dead.

Fuad lives to fight another day--and then some. The director next catches
up with him in 1970, after he has gained a wife, a son, and streaks of grey
in his wavy hair. At one point, Elia's mother (Samar Tanus; later Shafika
Bajjali) writes a letter to her sister-in-law, quoting a teacher who said her
boy is "always in the clouds." Meanwhile, their salty old neighbor is con-
stantly threatening to light himself on fire. "Shit on this life!" he exclaims during his latest attempt. Other things remain the same: Fuad still smokes, fishes at night, manufactures weapons, and risks his life for the injured.

Because he continues as a gun maker, the authorities hassle him from time to time. And because he continues to smoke, he develops a cardiac condition, which leads to open-heart surgery and further complications. By 1980, the authorities have transferred their attentions to Elia, a smoker and free thinker like his father, who flees the country to save his skin.

In the final
chapter, the
plays himself,
as he's done
twice before.
Suleiman isn't
the most ex-
pressive actor, but he doesn't direct anyone else to emote in the traditional manner either (he looks like a Gallic Robert Downey Jr. with small-scale Susan Sontag hair). There are no weddings, births, deaths, or funerals. Characters simply appear and disappear.

If this Israeli-Italian co-production starts in neo-realist mode, though,
it becomes lighter, looser, and more elliptical as it goes on (the fourth
chapter even features Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone music cues).

Like Sweden's Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor), Suleiman
embraces the static tableaux. Throughout, he arranges characters per-
fectly within the frame, though he moves the camera more often, and no one shows up in whiteface (an Andersson trait which renders everyone ghost-like). Even without the grease paint, though, sad-eyed Elia seems like a ghost in his own home: life in Nazareth has gone on without him.

I'd be lying if I said I was able to follow all of the political developments
in The Time That Remains, which Suleiman conveys through radio
and TV reports. That isn't his fault. The situation is complex, and he is-
n't just looking at Israel and Palestine, but also Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan.

What happens elsewhere in the Middle East affects Elia's family, both
directly and indirectly, making for a film filled with more sadness than
anger: at lives lost both to the passage of time and to the transfer of land.
And yet, the song that plays over the end credits, an Arab take on a 19-
70s disco hit, sums up these affairs in the most humorous way possible.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Suleiman's film isn't the only one this year to explore life as an
Arab-Israeli. Click here for A.O. Scott's review of Julian Schnab-
el's Miral, which opens at Seattle's Varsity Theater on 4/8.

The Time That Remain
, which opened on Fri., 4/1, continues at the Northwest Film Forum through 4/7 at 7 and 9pm (no 7pm show on 4/7). The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here. Images from indieWIRE.