Monday, April 18, 2016

FORMATIVE FILM 14: 'The Man Who Would Be King'

The Man Who Would Be King
Dir: John Huston
Prod: John Foreman, William Hill (uncred.)
Scr: John Huston and Gladys Hill
Phot: Oswald Morris
Release date: Dec. 17, 1975

Oriental Theater
4335 W. 44th Ave., Denver
I hope you will understand how forcefully this film struck me when I tell you I stopped making out to watch it.

We teenagers cared primarily about getting away from the adults and getting our hands on each other. The primary locations for these precious moments came either in a car or at the movie theater, the still-widely-extant drive-in being the best possible combo.

We didn’t care what was playing. Usually, we would get one of our friends who’d been to tell us the story so we could repeat it to suspicious parents later; back in the day, there was no internet to help out with spoilers. Older theaters were best – they had balconies and seats in nooks and crannies, where furtive lovers could commingle unobserved.

The closest old-time movie palace to us was the Oriental. Built in 1927, it combined it ornate decoration of a period picture palace with the coziness of a neighborhood venue. (Frequently endangered, it was finally purchased and restored, and is now a top-notch live stage.) Arabic domes, Moorish murals, and crenelated screens turned the auditorium into an exotic refuge.

She was my very first girlfriend, a wonderful baritone saxophonist with an instrument nearly her height. (I still get a little swoony when I hear Harry Carney solo on “Sophisticated Lady.”) I don’t know what she saw in me but I’m sure my incessant pawings didn’t add to my charm. For a time, all was bliss, though. At this time, the Oriental was a musty old house, unkempt with a catch-as-catch-can approach to industry screening standards. Few people went there.

However horny we may have been, we did always give a film a chance, entwined together as closely as possible while still facing forward.

“The Man Who Would Be King” is Huston’s last classic-period film -- the epitome of the old-school, no-girls-allowed adventure film. Huston adapts it faithfully from the original Rudyard Kipling story. Christopher Plummer, as Kipling, draws us effortlessly into the story within. In British India in 1888, Kipling, editor of the newspaper The Northern Star, runs across two rogues, former brothers-in-arms now partners in crime Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachey Carnahan (Michael Caine).Cheerful, insolent, and causally racist, they pass quickly through Kipling’s life, then return one night for assistance and witness.

The two have decided to sign a pact to together conquer the far-off, ancient kingdom of Kafiristan. With the logic of the empire that bred them, they figure that with rifles, ammunition, and conquerors’ wiles, they can take over and plunder the region. Says Dravot:

“We shall go to those parts and say to any king we find, ‘Do you want to vanquish your foes?’ and we will show him how. Then we will subvert that king and seize his throne and establish a dynasty.”

Huston’s putting these bleakly realistic words into the smiling mouth of a gleeful Sean Connery teaches us more about the allure of colonialism than a hundred books could impart. By shrinking the colonial impulse down to petty terms, Huston illuminates its pathetic absurdities.

Connery and Caine are so damned charming in this bromance it hurts. Huston had dreamed up the project three decades before as a vehicle for Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, and these two actors, friends in real life, are the next best thing. They are very alive together onscreen – on their toes, really listening, having fun, playing in the true sense of the word.

Huston was accused of not looking though the viewfinder on some of his later films; that’s not evident here. His longtime collaborator, Oscar-winner Oswald Morris was the cinematographer, and the widescreen compositions, sweeping and impeccably laid out, are some of the best examples of location and second-unit shooting out there.

The cutting is unobtrusive, quietly propelling us along. In fact, the film is paced perfectly. Every sequence is as long as it needs to be, no longer; nothing extraneous is present. It’s an older and much more persuasive storytelling rhythm, too; it’s edited to a statelier metronome than we see in today’s jitterfests. The true dictum of cinema is, "Don't tell, SHOW"; and Huston packs every scene with nuance, telling us more with his visuals than he does with his dialogue.

Daniel and Peachey trek over impassable mountains and find Kafiristan, and quickly conquer it. Daniel and Peachey find Billy Fish, a former Gurkha who acts as go-between between them and the Kafiristani. Billy is a hybrid – a comic, pidgin-English-speaking subservient in the original story, but here he’s played by the great Saeed Jaffrey as an intelligent man, in on the scam, amused by the English mind but faithful to English values. The duo find the perfect patsy in Ootah, buffoonish village chieftain, played by the incomparable Moroccan comic gem Doghmi Larbi.

The unfamiliar is ogled at, derided, and romanticized. Our white male leads deride the peasants they conquer as a silly and superstitious lot, and for a time the camera takes their side. The drilling of ignorant, green troops is right out of a Ford cavalry film.But there’s something else at work here. We start in the world of Boy’s-Own adventures, where white male Christian values dominate and always triumph over those of any indigenous peoples they encounter. The further the pair drives into the heart of the country, though, the more the shadow of Otherness stretches over them.

Danny is perceived as immortal due to a misguided arrow. He is crowned, and given the treasures of Alexander the Great, whose returning son he is thought to be. He begins to think of himself as eligible and fit to rule. And the tragedy of it is, he is. He adjudicates wisely. He brings unity and purpose and innovation to an isolated people. But -- there are mightier, more ancient gods at work in the land. The natives sacrifice infants. They behead their enemies’ heads and use them for polo balls. Against tribal law, Danny chooses to take a native girl as his wife, and reveals his mortality. He and Billy Fish and Peachey are doomed.

Huston makes a film adaptation that’s vivid, eloquent, and pushes past the source material and makes something greater than the original – a fable about East and West containing sad truths. The price of overweening ambition is high, and the price must be paid – if only to implement a suffering narrator that will bring the story back full circle.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The NFR Project #24: "Little Nemo" (1911)

Little Nemo, AKA Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics
Dir: Winsor McCay/J. Stuart Blackton

American cartoonist and illustrator Winsor McCay has come up before in this narrative of historic film, and he will again. His wildly imaginative dreamscapes enchanted a whole generation and made him one of the first stars of the newspaper comic pages with strips such as “Little Sammy Sneeze,” “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend,” and “Little Nemo in Slumberland.”

His “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” cartoon was adapted forfilm in 1906. Its success inspired him to think about producing such work himself. McCay touted himself as the first animator, but Emile Cohl and J.Stuart Blackton, the latter of whom filmed the live-action portions of this movie, preceded him. 

McCay’s innovations were aesthetic and technical. His solid, fluid blocks of composition were ready-made for transfer onto film. Working in comic-strip sequence prepared him mentally for learning how to push action across a page in the service of a story. For centuries, informal “flip books” made pictures move when you thumbed them rapidly; McCay figured out the same effect worked on film – one frame per page. The move toward cel animation, patented in 1914 by Earl Hurd, had begun.

The film opens with McCay and three of his artist friends at cards in their club. The others are John Bunny, the popular early silent comedian; George McManus, the cartoonist who created “Bringing Up Father”; and matinee idol Maurice Costello, great-grandfather of Drew Barrymore. Like Phileas Fogg in Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, he wagers that in one month he can create a moving picture out of 4,000 consecutive drawings, using characters from his “Little Nemo” strip.

McCay, as a former quick-sketch artist, has enough of the performer in him to make this short film work. A little vaudeville sequence takes place next. Bundles of drawing paper and barrels of ink are trundled into McCay’s office, where he sits scratching out his work. The process is illuminated when we see McCay checking the flow and continuity of his drawings on a desk-top Mutoscope, a primitive hand-cranked flip-card moviola invented by Herman Casler in 1895. There’s a little comic byplay as an office boy knocks over McCay’s piles of papers.

The payoff is two and half minutes of vibrant experimentation (most prints of this section bloom into color, hand-added after the initial release). Under the banner “WATCH ME MOVE,” McCay’s character Jip comes to life, joined by Imp and Nemo himself. (Jip is a stogie-smoking Irish caricature; Imp is a grass-skirted jungle Negro – McCay was not immune to the popular prejudices of the time.)

McCay mounted his drawings on cardboard. He shows us his hand slotting the first panel into a wooden stabilizing frame; it’s easy to make out the registration marks at the corners of each panel that ensure that the motion coheres.

Jip and Imp cavort in empty space. The figures have roundness, and move convincingly, but drawn without background, they cavort like weightless beings. It foreshadows for a moment he vagaries of being cut free from background and context in the 1953 Warner Brother s cartoon "Duck Amuck."

Nemo materializes, then seems to control his sidekicks as they swell, thin, and contort beside him. Nemo then draws his princess, bringing her to life. A giant rose manifests; Nemo plucks it and gives it to her. They climb onto a throne in the mouth of a friendly dragon and fly away. Jip and Imp attempt to follow in a jalopy, but it explodes and they end up falling on the head of yet another character, Dr. Pill.

The prolific McCay’s top-notch drafting and storytelling skills, along with his penchant for the fantastic, would affect animators and illustrators from Disney to Sendak. “Little Nemo” is a dry run, a glimpse into the possible.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘The Cry of the Children.’

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The NFR Project #23: 'White Fawn's Devotion'

The moment of truth in "White Fawn's Devotion."
White Fawn’s Devotion: A Play Acted by a Tribe of Red Indians in America
Dir: James Young Deer
Here again we have a film included in the National Film Registry not for its inherent virtues, but for what it represents – the earliest surviving film made by a Native American.

Except it wasn’t it. Oh, but wait, then it was again. The vagaries of historical revelation means that even the National Film Registry listing on this film is out of date and inaccurate, three years after a major discovery concerning its director, James Young Deer.

James Young Deer was a self-proclaimed member of Nebraska’s Winnebago tribe. With his wife Lillian St. Cyr, aka Princess Red Deer, he entertained crowds with his own version of a Wild West show (this was in the heyday of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West touring extravaganzas). When France’s Pathe Brothers opened an American studio in Jersey City, Young Deer was tapped to produce a string of profitable Westerns.

“White Fawn’s Devotion” is cribbed, as many films of the day were, from the successful 1905 stage melodrama, “The Squaw Man,” which features what used to be called “miscegenation” – the intimate relations of two people from different races, once widely considered a crime.

In “White Fawn’s Devotion,” the white male protagonist, living happily in the wilderness with his wife and child, is told he has received a huge legacy and must go Back East to get it. His wife, fearing he would never return, stabs herself. The man discovers his prone wife, bends over her, picks up the knife – and the kid comes in and rats Dad out as her murderer to the tribal chief.

After some obligatory chasing, the man is captured and brought to a chopping block at the chief’s feet (you can see the bound actor squirming around surreptitiously, helping his captors get him up on the stump). Somehow, it’s incumbent on the child to slit his father’s throat – as little-known a detail of aboriginal jurisprudence if there ever was one. Suddenly, White Fawn, alive after all, leaps into the center of the frame, preventing her beloved’s death a la Pocahontas.

The filmmaking and acting is crude, below the standards of the day. Indians are portrayed with a smidge of sympathy, but they are feathered plot devices at best. Young Deer could be accused of cheaply exploiting his heritage – except that he was really James Young Johnson, a black man from Washington D.C. (Does this then make him the first African American film director?)

America is the kingdom of personal reinvention, and Johnson undoubtedly found himself more in demand as a Native American than as an African American, given the state of America’s treatment of black people at the time. Similar techniques for overcoming prejudicial barriers took place in professional baseball, where the black players who could get away with it masqueraded as Cubans or Hispanics.

This would be irony enough, if it wasn’t for Angela Aleiss’s remarkable and fascinating feat of historical sleuthing, published in Bright Lights Film Journal in April 2013 (read it here). In tracking down the truth about Johnson, Aleiss dug deeper and found that, in fact, Johnson was descended from members of Delaware’s Nanticoke tribe. Thus, Johnson/Young Deer was, quite unbeknownst to him, what he pretended to be – an Indian.

Young Deer’s career went off the tracks when he was accused of sexual improprieties and left the country. He eventually returned, but the vogue in Indians had passed and he spent the rest of his life in obscurity, and was not remembered as an especially nice person.

For better or worse, he’s responsible for this landmark – a thoroughly phony Native American scenario featuring real Native Americans, directed by a phony Native American who didn’t know he really was one. There have been more convoluted show-biz tales, but not many.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘Little Nemo.’