July 20, 2010

Shunned Cinema: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Shunned Cinema is a semi-regular (meaning whenever I come around to it) series where I liveblog a film that for some reason or another has been critically derided and generally has an aura of shame about it. These are the kids on the playground with lice. There's a whispered sense of banishment--stay away from them. I wanted to know why. Why the bad reps? So I watch the movies, update on Twitter, and post the sweded versions transcripts here. Shunned Cinema.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Stephen Norrington, 2003) is the prototypical blockbuster bomb, the superhero movie that failed. It got shit on in part because it is legitimately pretty bad, and in part because the graphic novel on which it's based is so obviously a work of genius. There was a tidal wave of anger for squandering the world's coolest premise: characters from Victorian literature exist in a steampunk-ish alternate universe and form the world's first superhero team to defeat other characters from Victorian literature. Awesome, right? The tragedy of the film is that it could have been SO GOOD, but it's bungled so completely, so ineptly, it's dumbfounding. A small example to illustrate--

This is the kind of film where characters can makes half a dozen cracks about Her Majesty's Empire, British summers and "Rule, Britannia!," but when presented with a landscape that's obviously the bleak, grey London skies, we're treated to a title, "London, July 1899." Well, we bloody already know it's bloomin' London, don't we! All the characters are English, and not just English--stuffed shirt, fucking obviously British. Super Brits. Except for Sean Connery as adventurer Allan Quatermain, who is so obviously Schcottish in every damn role, his Englishness is asserted only by the other characters. But, really. We know the year, too because we got a title scroll for that in the beginning. We don't need to be told it's July either because thirty seconds ago, an Englishman told another Englishman to pack for an English summer. Egads, what a waste of time. 

This is the kind of situation where it's no one's fault and everyone's fault. Norrington and Connery didn't get along. It's a 20th Century Fox film, which is pretty much all you need to know right there. Additionally, they shot almost the entire picture in Prague wherein they experienced some of the worst flooding in European history. Dozens of sets were destroyed, including the entire interior of Captain Nemo's submarine, The Nautilus. Given such dire circumstances, it's a miracle the movie was ever finished at all. 

Ultimately, I don't feel anger at this movie so much as pity. Everything went wrong and that's a shame. There are glimpses of what could have been an entertaining film. The DVD features tons of deleted and extended scenes that flesh out the characters, and give insight into James Robinson's witty and snappy dialogue (none of which is present in the theatrical version). For one thing, the creature design for Mr. Hyde is terrific. The hulk-like monster is composed of foam pieces and prosthetic makeup effects which transform actor Jason Flemyng from the shy, nerdy Dr. Jekyll into a rabid beast. 

But any good intentions aren't enough to forgive a crap film. Unlike my previous viewing of Supergirl, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen certainly lived up to the bad hype. Too bad. Onto the blogging...

1AM: time to start liveblogging the crap film of the day: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Let's do this!

Fuck yeah, lens flares!

Buster & Three Ages

Today we tackle Buster Keaton's first feature film, Three Ages. Ostensibly a take-off on D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, an epic which chronicled the theme of human intolerance through four epochs, Three Ages does much the same with love across three time periods, the Stone Age, the Roman Age, and the Modern (1920s) Age. Presented via the ever-popular but rather lazy framing device of a storybook, the film begins with Father Time lecturing us on the unchanging motivations of love across the ages. The intro is purposefully comically ponderous, and the flowery tone is continued in the intertitles where Buster is introduced as "the faithful worshipper at beauty's shrine." Decked out in fur boots and a bramble of thatched hair, caveman Buster is as ill-equipped a conquering Neanderthal as he is Jazz Age lothario. In every era Buster is as under-qualified a lover, whether in size, skill, or wealth. 

Three Ages is non-linear, bouncing back and forth between time periods with an occasional title card to cue us to the scene. The through-line is simple enough: our hero Buster has to fight for the hand of his one true love (played by Margaret Leahy) against the rival (Wallace Beery); the girl's parents (Joe Roberts and Lillian Lawrence) also appear in each age.

The film is full of jokey anachronisms, such as when Buster shows his "I.D.", a pictograph of a man on a slice of stone, or in the Roman Age, when  he spots a sundial wristwatch. Although clever in concept, these jokes seem overly writerly. Keaton soars on fluid, visual gags stringed in a breathless sequence whereas some of these jokes are more akin to the puns he'd loathe later in his MGM days. Upon execution they grow weary, especially when the novelty of Buster having accidentally "invented" something, as a he does the game of baseball, is repeated over and over. 

A few gags are exceptions, like when Keaton can utilize an object for multiple uses, as he does with his Roman helmet. He unlocks the chinstrap and then clamps the helmet around the wheel of his chariot, "inventing" the car boot. 

Buster's masculinity is challenged and undermined at every turn, in every age. Clearly not cut out for the brawny Stone Age, he's thwarted by a giantess (played by 6 foot 3 inch Blanche Payson, New York City's first policewoman). In the Roman Age, he's thoroughly walloped in Greco-Roman wrestling (though at the time, I assume they just called it wrestling) by a girl he's trying to court to make Leahy jealous. No dice. She flips and pins him handly. 

In the Depression-era '20s, Buster unwittingly drinks a carafe full of illicit booze dumped there by the couple at a neighboring table. As he is there to spy on Leahy and Beery, the alcohol becomes a welcome distraction from his heartache. But Buster's had enough of pain and slides into the neighbors table, while the man (the one with the booze) is away. Even as a drunk, Buster Keaton is subtle. Look at his face in this scene and there's none of the over-exaggerated winks and ticks you get when say, Chaplin plays drunk. Not that Keaton's version is superior, but it's simply well-done. Buster's done what everyone does while inebriated: become a heightened version of one's self. Sober, he is the Great Stone Face. With a drink in him, his Stone Face is the same, only a bit more wobbly, his heavy-lidded eyes are droopier than ever. Chaplin would become querrelous, would weave his way to the girl's heart via a mischevious grin and to the rival, a well-aimed bop on the nose. Keaton just sits there, pining. He is a born loser, in this age and any other. In fact, Buster is the unwitting loser. Beery has sent a note over to the neighboring table, pretending to be Buster, courting the young lady. The young gentleman will have none of this and wakes the snoozing Buster, socks him in the puss, and returns to his table. Exit Buster.

Each timeframe has its own dual for affections: a battle with clubs, a chariot race, and a football game. In the first test, Buster cheats and is banished. He wins the chariot race with ingenuity, replacing the wheels with skis and the horses with huskies. (It had recently, and improbably, snowed.) On the football field Buster is tossed about like a ragdoll and pummeled by Beery before some acrobatic feats allow him to flip and tumble his way to a touchdown. Buster, a baseball fanatic and uber-talented acrobat, excels in these sequences, the most thrilling in the film.

In the Roman Age, Beery devises a trap for Buster, who ends up like Daniel (in the lion's den). In the Modern Age, Beery plants some illegal alcohol on Buster and gets him arrested. The Stone Age, however, is where the chase begins. Buster steals Leahy away from her impending marriage and the cavemen follow. In the film's best bit, the townspeople begin lobbing rocks at the couple by bending back saplings--an early catepault. Not to be outdone, Buster launches himself onto the unsuspecting Beery, a human projectile. Also in this sequence, Buster invents baseball by batting away a rock thrown at his head. According to legend, Buster's writers urged him to shoot the sequence in bits, a close-up of Beery throwing the rock, a close-up of it traveling, a close-up of Buster hitting it and a close-up of the rock hitting Beery. Buster didn't like that, explaining the audience wouldn't laugh if it didn't look real, and for it to look real, it had to be done real. According to gagman Clyde Bruckman the simple five second gag took sixty-seven takes. 

Buster's troubles continue in Rome, where he has to make friends with a lion in the form of a ludicrously fake man-in-lion costume. Buster remember that old fable about a thorn and a lion's paw and decides to give ol' Aslan a pedicure. Farcical but funny stuff. Now escaped, Buster rushes to thwart Beery's lecherous advantages. In a sequence prefiguring the athletic climax of College, Keaton sprints, jumps, rides a horse and pole-vaults to Leahy's rescue. 

Back in the twenties, thrown in the clink, Buster discovers a police file for Beery. Turns out the groom-to-be is a forger and a bigamist. Armed with the proof to prevent the wedding, Buster accidentally bumbles his way out of the police station by hiding in a telephone booth just as the police are getting a new booth installed. Now accidentally, although happily, on the run from the cops, the cross-century chase continues and we come to the most interesting and most dangerous story of production on Three Ages. To escape the cops, Buster's climbed to the top of a building. He peers over the ledge and we're treated to a vertiginous point of view shot of the pedestrians below. It's do or die time. Buster pulls out a plank of wood and steadies it over the lip of the building. He readies himself and jumps. He hits the lip of the building, grasping the ledge for a fraction of a second before bouncing down the building's face and out of frame. Cut to a medium shot of the two buildings standing side by side. From out of frame above, Buster plummets, crashing through two awnings before getting entangled in a third and grasping onto a drainpipe which bends backwards and sends Buster careening into an open window, sliding across a floor and through a hole. Buster slides down a fireman's pole, crashing to the ground and scrambling up, bewildered, to sit on the bumper of a fire engine which is just leaving the station. 

Whew! Okay, let's back up. Yes, Buster jumped for real and really fell thirty-five feet to a net below. Keaton's hard and fast command to his cameraman, "Keep filming till I yell cut or are killed," almost came true this time. Buster was in bed recovering for three days. When the team regrouped, Buster and crew looked at the footage--it was too good to scrap. Instead, they built the gag around the injurious mistake. Thus, a jump that was supposed to span two buildings and presumably, continue across rooftops, was transformed into the spectacular gag sequence it is now. Like a pinball machine with Buster as ball, Keaton is batted from awning to pipe to window and slides the long fire pole. The sequence is a tour-de-force cherry on top a so-so movie sundae. The capper of the gag, however, is priceless. Buster, still dazed from the fall, sits on the bumper as the fire engine races to put out a blaze--at the police station. Buster grabs a hose and stumbles towards the building before realizing where he is and, dropping the hose, again runs for his miserable life.

The chase continues. Buster dashes to the church to break up the nupituals, dragging the bride down the aisle and out into a waiting vehicle. Out of a sense of gratitude, Leahy gives him a peck of a kiss. Keaton tosses his hat in the air, grabs her on the wrist, climbs back into the car and shouts, "Back to the church!"

In the film's coda, the theme of love triumphant through the ages is reiterated. As the old rhyme goes, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes...Cut to three little vignettes: In the Stone Age, Buster and Leahy emerge from their cave trailing eleven little bear-skinned kids. In the Roman Age, the couple trots out five togaed youngsters. In this modern age of "speed, need, and greed," Buster and Leahy walk down the sidewalk in front of their house, a tiny Pekingese in tow. 

Three Ages is a good film, but not a great one, mostly because Keaton and co. were playing it safe. After the fact, Buster admitted the tripartite structure was to hedge their bets during distribution: if the film didn't work as a sixty minute feature, each segment could be re-edited into a twenty minute comedy short. The film was thankfully a success, as I don't know how viable that option was given the absolutely identical plot structure of each age. While not a classic, Three Ages does offer up some interesting bits. One at the beginning has Buster being introduced in the Stone Age riding on the back of a dinosaur. Wallace Beery was introduced on the back of an elephant and Keaton wanted to top this. But, how? Recalling a technique he'd seen in a film as a child, Buster hired animator Max Fleischer (later to become famous for inventing rotoscope) to create a stop-motion dinosaur for use in long shots, with a model figurine of Buster riding on top. In addition to this technical wizardry, the Roman sets and costumes are extremely high-quality. There were a lot of pillars and togas lying around in the silent era, but Keaton's Rome is most noticeable for its expansive sets, which were achieved through complex glass effects, where only a portion of the set is constructed and the rest of the effect is achieved through reflections and matte painting. Technically, it's an accomplished film. It would take Keaton's next feature, Our Hospitality, to showcase his genius for storytelling.

A trip back to 1924 and rivalries in the rural South, next time!

July 11, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1923--The Love Nest & Conclusion

Onto greener pastures. Keaton's final silent two-reeler has the distinction of being the only one he's credited with writing and directing alone. Previously, he had been credited with a co-director (Eddie Cline, usually) and the writing credits were generally ignored. His collaborators have admitted almost all the work was Buster's but Keaton wasn't interested in self-promoting title cards, satirizing the practice in The Playhouse. The reasoning for this credit change is unknown (at least, to me--anyone with enlightening info, please share!). I suspect it was an attempt by Joe Schenck and Lou Anger to buff up the Keaton rep in anticipation of the release of his first full-length feature, Three Ages, which Buster was shooting concurrently with his last two short films. Perhaps The Powers That Be sensed the public's playful contempt for the egomaniac auteur (a la Ince) shifting to admiration; the success of Chaplin's The Kid in 1921 and The Pilgrim a month before The Love Nest surely helped the writer-director-comedian distinction gain prominence. Whatever the reason, The Love Nest remains the only silent short in which Buster Keaton receives written and directed by credits. 

The story is classic Buster Keaton. Opening with typically understated dour wit, the title card reads: "The story of a man who lost his interest in women and everything else." Rebuffed by his fiance, Buster decides to sail around the world on his boat, the Cupid. He informs his fiance in a letter, the envelope for which is moistened by his own tears. Buster grows a mopey, post-romance beard (generous greasepaint) and stares listlessly at nothingness, pondering no doubt the mysteries of the universe, like how stars are created and why women are such bitches. The Keaton deadpan is utilized to its utmost here: sullen nihilism in a flat hat. 

Drifting languorously, Cupid encounters The Love Boat, a whaler helmed by Joe Roberts as a homicidal sea captain with a penchant for tossing his crew members into the deep for the slightest provocations. You've gotta love these seethingly ironic ship's names. Having just tossed away another sailor, Joe makes Buster his new steward. Buster, however, isn't much of a cabin boy. (He takes the call for all hands on deck literally and soaks the captain with dirty water.) When caught admiring Roberts' rifle, he turns around, walks straight down a gangplank and into the ocean. We see a puff of smoke emerge from the waterline. Buster walks back up, fish in hand! He's parlayed certain death into dinner for the crew. Not much of a sailor, but one hell of an improvisor. 

When Capt. Joe gets tossed overboard (Buster's fault), Buster takes the opportunity to anoint himself the new captain. Big mistake. Roberts promptly climbs back aboard and in his ensuing rage, the rest of the crew jumps ship. Buster is left alone on the vessel with the angriest mariner on the high seas. 

Night falls. Buster sneaks back onto the ship (having slept on the gangplank) and plans his revenge. He picks up an ax and hacks a gaping hole in the ship's hull. Buster waits for the sink to ship so that the water is level with the deck and the life boat, the Little Love Nest, floats to sea easily. Having effectively drowned Joe Roberts, Buster rows into the silent ocean night a free man.

The final sequence in the film is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, cementing Keaton's status as a premier director as well as star. Buster moors himself to a large buoy, which, unbeknownst to him, is a naval target board. In trying to kill a fish, Buster shoots a hole in his boat (something his little fellow seems to be doing constantly), and must now take up residence on top of the target board. Facing away from the camera, Buster doesn't know the navy is just off screen, testing their powerful new gunships. In spyglass point of view, we get the practice montage. Fire...one! Another spyglass POV. Fire...two! Buster is on target number three. The way Keaton divvies out information, delaying the audience's expectations, taking the time to cut back from the naval commander to the target to the ships and back to the target, speaks to his maturity as a legitimate filmmaker. A frequent Keaton motto was to make every scene so true, it hurt. Kill 'em with accuracy, and it makes the humor truer, funnier. Such is the case here.

The naval commander calls out, 'Fire...three!' Cut to Buster, fishing innocently. A thundering splash to his left. They missed! Seeing only the resultant ripples, Buster casts his line over yonder (must be a big fish). Climbing on top of the target, again we get the spyglass POV, this time with a Buster-shaped figure on top. Fire--explosion! The Buster-shaped body goes flying. 

Cut to Buster, singed and battered, flying through the clouds, ascending to Heaven. Well, he's dead but at least it's a happy ending. Ah, but no. Buster's trajectory reverses and he begins to descend back to...well, erm, Hell. Or so it seemed. The film fades in to Buster, re-bearded, frantically flapping his arms, back on the Cupid. It appears it's all been a dream! 

But even so, it's hardly good news. Buster's out of water and hard tack. Hopelessly lost. Adrift. Alone. Clutching a photo of his dearly beloved ex-fiance, he crawls out to the prow to die. Just then, from off screen left, a woman swims by. In wide shot, we see that Buster's still tied to the dock. He's never even left! Grief-stricken, delirious, and more than a little daft, Buster has imagined the entire adventure--except the part about being ditched by his fiance. That part is still painfully real. 

The way the film ends, in a quick succession of reversals, is something Buster Keaton loved to do, to make the audience think one thing would happen and then go in a completely diametrical direction. The entire nautical section of the film is composed with such authenticity with footage of the whale, the naval carrier, the harpoon sequence and some very convincing looking sailor extras, so as to hoodwink the viewer into believability. In the entire film, land is nowhere to be seen. Although cast and crew were most probably anchored in a harbor somewhere, the effect is of total oceanic isolation. Coupled with Buster's convincing despair, we're never in doubt of the events unfolding before us. Although I wouldn't put The Love Nest in the most esteemed level of Keaton shorts, it's certainly an admirable second-tier entry, displaying Buster's interest in maritime mischief and his ability as a filmmaker to capture action in a docu-realist style. 

In our next installment, we finally (finally!) reach the features. Buster the caveman, the Roman, and the Jazz Age hero--Three Ages, next time!