Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Formative Film 19: 'Star Wars'

Star Wars
Dir: George Lucas
Prod: Gary Kurtz, George Lucas, Rick McCallum
Scr: George Lucas
Phot: Gilbert Taylor
Ed: Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas

Cooper Theatre
960 S. Colorado Blvd.
May, 1977

It was a harmonic convergence of factors — a great film seen in a great venue at precisely the right time of life.

The first time I saw Star Wars, I hated it.

Now wait, let me explain. How could I have been such a bonehead? Well, first and foremost, as a lifelong snob I have always looked askance at the mainstream and popular. My taste serves as an inverse barometer — if I don’t like it, it will be a big success. I have a great long list of popular movies that make me screech, and another of guilty pleasures that I love but that baffle the rest of mankind.

Star Wars became a blockbuster entirely by word of mouth. Critical reaction at the time was largely positive, but not ecstatic enough to justify what was happening, which was that people were seeing once, then again. And again. It was movie as thrill ride, and we were thrilled.

And if you were within striking distance of Denver, you had to see it at the Cooper.

The Cooper Theatre was a magnificent modernist temple of cinema. It opened in 1961, and was designed to show immense Cinerama and 70-millimeter masterpieces such as How the West Was Won and Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus. It sat 800 comfortably in a spacious burnt-orange auditorium; such was the culture in those days that smoking lounges — segregated, but significantly not sealed off spaces in the back of the house and even a “crying child” room to which parents with unruly young ones could retreat and still see and hear the film via glass partition and remote speakers.

It was the perfect space in which to experience Star Wars, fast-paced and full of special-effects wonders. The broad curvature of the screen encompassed our fields of vision, so much so that viewers in the front were engulfed and overwhelmed by the experience.

We didn’t go opening weekend. The friends that went came back astonished to the point of catalepsis, and determined to get us in the theater as well. So we all piled in whoever’s car and grafted ourselves to the end of the long line of ticket buyers.

We made it at last and sat down front. The initial viewing experience was overwhelming. Remember, animation and special effects hadn’t really improved since 2001: A Space Odyssey; the look of most of 1970s sci-fi was very cheesy, unconvincing, and frankly dystopian. Outer space in Star Wars looked great — Industrial Light & Magic, using newly minted computer-assisted and digital techniques, helped to craft an extremely dynamic and detailed imaginary universe. The elements weren’t there to push the plot forward — the plot was there to push the elements forward. Star Wars was intoxicated with its own vision.

Once the show was over the complaining began. I recognized a paste-up job when I saw one, what Pauline Kael referred to as “an assemblage of spare parts.” It’s a compendium of B-movie film clich├ęs, right down to the Saturday-matinee wipe transitions from scene to scene. Here were moments of swordplay right out of a swashbuckler, and dogfights shot and edited to mimic the aerial combat of WWII films. There was the feisty heroine and comic sidekicks (hello, Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress), the rakish ne’er-do-well along the lines of Gable, Flynn, or Holden, the men-on-a-mission ending. It was old-fashioned, a return to popular, escapist film entertainment.

I went back a week later, this time on a date, and this time I let go and just let myself get swept up in it. (It helped that we sat in the back this time.) This time, I dug it — the fantasy and adventure elements working together, the earnest energy, the bold-faced silliness, the video-game editing, all crowned with an essential optimism and a surfer-dude philosophy (“May the Force be with you”). Even the plainly derivative sequences were fascinating, a game of referential hide and seek to be played by the viewer. It was a nerd’s paradise.

We loved it, we saw it again and again. We memorized it. In fact, we wrote and performed an hour-long radio parody of it when we supposed to be doing our homework. Forty-some years later, we’re still watching.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The NFR Project: Buster Keaton's 'One Week'

Dir: Eddie Cline, Buster Keaton
Scr: Eddie Kline, Buster Keaton
Phot: Elgin Lessley
Premiere: Aug. 29, 1920
25 min.

Buster Keaton is not only my favorite silent-era comic, but he’s one of my favorite filmmakers, period. What puts him head and shoulders above more popular contemporaries such as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd is his unique and comprehensive eye. They perform in front of the camera; Keaton performs with the camera. Chaplin and Lloyd make faces, trade in sentiments; Keaton maintains a stoic impassivity, and inadvertently implements a philosophy.

Keaton was a natural clown. He was born to vaudevillians in 1895 and joined the act when he was 3 years old. The roughhouse comedic acrobatics he learned from his father were the foundation of his unique slapstick style. At the age of 21, he struck out on his own and decided to give the fledgling movies a try.

He apprenticed under, served as sidekick to, and became lifelong friends with, prominent film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Through the production of 14 short movie comedies with him over the course of two years, Keaton mastered the basics. By January of 1920, he got an offer from producer Joseph M. Schenk. His own studio, $1,000 a week, 25 percent of the net profits, and creative control. The Keaton Studio was open for business.

His first solo effort, The High Sign, displeased him and was held by him from release for some time. After completing an outside feature-performance project for Metro, The Saphead, Keaton got back to work. The result is his first released, completely original production — One Week.

Keaton was known as “The Great Stone Face,” a persona he developed that stood in stark contrast to the mobile features of Chaplin or the determined grin of Lloyd. Keaton’s frozen-featured equanimity makes him his films’ straight man. With never a raised eyebrow and only rarely a blink, his character absorbs the blows of random fate with a peaceful patience that begins to resemble optimism. Still waters run deep.

Certainly he personally could cope with, and overcome, the vagaries of chaos. He was a gifted mechanic and designer, who knew how to construct big gags and pull them off. Even in this first “real” film of his, it’s evident how developed his visual-spatial sense is. He knows what the camera can see and what it can’t see, and he decides to play with that, which means he ends up playing with the ideas underpinning cinema itself. His aim is purely practical. He wants to make up laugh. But his craftsmanship reveals a profoundly thoughtful sense of humor.

His outlook is cynical; everything that can go wrong will, hilariously, and the humor doesn’t always overcome the downbeat in his films. The world is not hostile to Keaton; it just doesn’t factor him in, and he must get along as best he can on his own. Life rewards and punishes in abundance and at random; social acceptance is arbitrary and fleeting. No wonder Keaton’s wry gloom attracted the attention of “serious” writers of the period from Federico Garcia Lorca to Samuel Beckett.

One Week moves in circles. Wheels within wheels. Buster’s cinematic universe has three ever-larger, intermeshing gears: the individual, the social, and the universal. The natural world stands over all. It is unfathomably complex, but it does operate in accordance with its own (mostly) immutable laws. Buster’s own plans and desires usually succeed, but only when he submits to and works with the larger, natural world. In between, fouling everything up, is the complicating human world — imperfect, blind to subtlety, averse to truth, wrong-headed.

In his later feature films, Buster arrives as a misfit and exits as a hero. He doesn’t change — he’s simply fallen into phase with what’s going on around him, and, like some white-faced Zen monk, manipulates the universe so that it sets him neatly down, unharmed, at the finish line. One Week doesn’t take this tack. It’s a catalog film, a situation dreamed up to provide a (here literal) framework for a series of gags, growing in scope and complexity to a culminating payoff.

The inspiration for One Week came from a 1919 Ford Motor Company documentary short, Home Made: A Story of Ready-Made House Building. The possibilities for what David Robinson called “an accelerating merry-go-round of catastrophes” suggested themselves easily. The title is a play on the structure of the film and refers to Three Weeks, a 1907 libidinous romance novel by Elinor Glyn that was the 50 Shades of Gray of its time.

The film opens with Buster and his new bride (Sybil Seeley) leaving the church. Guests pelt hem with rice and old shoes; Buster stops, stoops, considers a pair, and tucks it practically under his arm.

A car ride sets the plot in motion and serves as a little circular gag. Buster’s rival suitor unaccountably serves as their post-nuptial chauffeur — Keaton refers to him as “the villain” in remembrance, and probably needed to shoehorn him in as his film needed an antagonist. He hands them an envelope telling them they are being given a house and a lot on which to build it. The three characters then execute a jump from car to taxicab to motorcycle and back again, during which Buster gets his rival in Dutch with the cops.

They arrive on site. Someone is dumping crates off a truck. “Here’s your house!” he says. It’s a do-it-yourself house kit! The directions read, “To give your house a snappy appearance put it up according to the numbers on the boxes.” The rival obtains revenge by changing the crate numbers, and the fun begins.

The gags pile up. Buster saws off the beam he’s perched on, taking a tumble. Whole sections of the house are misplaced, or swing dangerously to and fro. When we step back to see the house in its entirety, it is indeed a surrealistic nightmare of misshapen windows, a canted roofline, and mismatching walls. A big, strong mover crushes Buster under the weight of a delivered piano (he later glances back at Buster, who hops in fright).

The trick house, though all “wrong,” is malleable (a porch railing becomes in an instant a ladder). Buster can heave the piano into the house through an easily removed piece of wall, but his attempt to raise it with a block and tackle simply “pulls” the floor above stretchily down, provoking a boomerang effect that catapults his hapless rival in the room above through the roof.

As the dates are torn off the calendar, we move through more mishaps. Buster falls through the roof into the bathroom. (Earlier, his bride drops the soap, and leans out of the tub to retrieve it — the cameraman politely puts his hand over the lens.) He opens a door and steps out into thin air, executing a two-story fall. Keaton was an enthusiastic if untrained stuntman — the fall

Finally, the day of the housewarming comes — Friday the 13th. A storm comes, and it turns out that house is so unstable that strong winds spin it like a top. As the guests are flung around the inside of the house, Buster tries over and over to get back over the threshold. Timing his jump, he leaps into the pirouetting building — and is flung out just as neatly.

The scale of jokes grows bigger and bigger. When the dawn comes, it also turns out that they built their home on the wrong lot and need to move it across the railroad tracks. Of course, the towing job breaks down just as they move into harm’s way. A whistle blows — smoke appears — a train approaches in the background! The two clutch each other and brace for impact — and the camera pans slyly right, showing us the train missing its mark, on an adjacent track. They sigh with relief when BAM! A train barreling the other way smashes the house to flinders.

Now we’ve come full circle, and the house is just a pile of lumber again. Buster hangs a For Sale sign on the debris, and the couple walks away, hand in hand. Keaton would make 16 more shorts and nine feature films. In One Week, he is already on top of his game.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘Within Our Gates.’


Eagan, Daniel. “One Week,” National Film Registry.

My Wonderful World of Slapstick
Buster Keaton and Charles Samuels
Da Capo Press

Rudi Blesh
New York: The Macmillan Company

Buster Keaton
David Robinson
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press

The Silent Clowns
Walter Kerr
New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase
Marion Meade
New York: HarperCollins Publishers

Keaton’s Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter
Gabriella Oldham
Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press

The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton
Robert Knopf
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat
Edward McPherson
New York: Newmarket Press

Monday, November 18, 2019

The NFR Project: 'The Mark of Zorro'

At last! The first great American adventure film hits the screen.

The Mark of Zorro
Dir: Fred Niblo
Scr: Johnston McCulley, Douglas Fairbanks (uncred.), Eugene Miller (uncred.)
Phot: William C. McGann, Harris Thorpe
Premiere: Nov. 27, 1920
90 min.                    

I am so pleased to make it here after six dozens of chapters on early American film. The decade of the 1920s was the first and the last great one in silent movies, and The Mark of Zorro starts it off with a bang.

We met Fairbanks earlier, in 1917’s Wild and Wooly. As Alistair Cooke observed, “His screen character was in many ways a fantasy in which a suddenly jolted world could escape its bewilderment.” He was a “personality” actor, one who played variations of his vivid self. Fairbanks radiated energy and optimism on screen, and he quickly became the hero of a series of romantic comedies that emphasized his remarkable athletic gifts. By the end of the first World War, Fairbanks was the most popular leading man in Hollywood.

In 1919, Fairbanks formed the United Artists film studio with Charlie Chaplin, director D.W. Griffith, and “America’s Sweetheart,” the successful actress and producer Mary Pickford. In 1920, he married Pickford. Their union made them the first significant example of the power couple, “Hollywood Royalty.” Everybody loved Doug.

It was Pickford who read the source material, Johnston McCulley’s five-part magazine story that gave birth to Zorro, “The Curse of Capistrano.” She pressed it on Fairbanks, insisting he read it as well. He was drawn to the idea of making historical romances, costume dramas with swashbuckling action. His ambition was to play Robin Hood, but he was concerned whether the public would accept him in this kind of vehicle. Zorro, the protagonist of his 30th film, represented a calculated attempt to test the waters.

The plot device of the redeemed son was plainly taken from Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, who in Henry IV is a wastrel who reforms and becomes king. Even more to the point as an influence is Baroness Orczy’s 1905 novel The Scarlet Pimpernel, about a hero with a secret identity who feigns foolishness to divert suspicion from himself. McCulley moved the setting from revolutionary France to Old California in the early 19th century. Now the hero is Don Diego de la Vega, the foppish son of a rich ranchero who, disguised as Zorro (“The Fox”), in black mask and cape, fights for the oppressed and downtrodden.

To date, movie costume dramas had largely been lumbering and pretentious. By mixing together the lavish, detailed settings and the “reckless gaiety” of Fairbanks, the result was a fast-moving, funny, and sweet adventure tale with loads of derring-do. Audiences loved it.

In the film, Fairbanks plays Don Diego as a spit-curled layabout, bored and easily fatigued, a disappointment to his father and society in general. He does not impress his intended, the spunky Lolita Pulido, daughter of a ranchero who opposes the corrupt local government. In Zorro mode, however, he dashes, leaps, swoops, makes love, and crosses blades like nobody’s business. His comic duel with the blustery Sergeant Gonzales is the first of several that punctuate the action. Zorro's signature, scarring his opponents with a "Z", was invented by Fairbanks for the film; Zorro's creator McCulley incorporated it into subsequent stories.

To make the switch between identities, Diego has a secret underground stable from which he springs on his jet-black horse Tornado. (It’s important to match.) He has one faithful servant who knows his secret. These traits would modified and passed down to heroes and superheroes in the future — most notably Batman, but also the Green Hornet, Iron Man, et al.

Zorro has a nemesis, of course, the evil Captain Ramon. Much of the film is classic melodrama, with hero and villain fighting it out, here literally over the leading lady’s body. The bravura sequence is saved for the conclusion, when Zorro leads the soldiers on a merry, stunt-filled chase that reads today like proto-parkour.

The action is swiftly paced, and there are no subplots or extraneous characters. Like Fairbanks himself, the movie exudes energy and confidence. The framing, cutting, and camera movement is strictly functional — it exists to astonish us. Often, the camera stands in for us as an amazed bystander, transcribing the Fairbanksian derring-do as the flashes past.

In the end, Diego reveals his true identity, the corrupt are overthrown, and the girl is won. The brash, upbeat swashbuckler was established, and in one form or another its popularity has continued. Fairbanks’ embodiment of the heroic spirit kept in the starry Hollywood firmament until he retired in 1934, at the age of 51. It was exhausting being Doug.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Buster Keaton’s ‘One Week.’


Douglas Fairbanks: The Making of a Screen Character
Alistair Cooke
New York: The Museum of Modern Art

The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks
Tracey Goessel
Chicago: Chicago Review Press

Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer
Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks
New York: Henry Holt and Company

Douglas Fairbanks and the American Century
John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welch
Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi

Douglas Fairbanks
Jeffrey Vance with Tony Maietta
Berkeley: University of California Press