Quiet and at a Distance

“Tragedy is a close-up, comedy a long shot.”—Buster Keaton

“Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but comedy is a long shot.”—Charlie Chaplin

Playtime---"excuse me."

Playtime—“excuse me.”

The great silent comedians knew it best. The quotes up top reveal much in their simplicity. Serious is personal, funny is removed. When seeing a face contorted by physical or emotional pain, we have a tendency to empathize, but when seen in full juxtaposition against a much bigger world we sometimes get the feeling our own “big” problems are quite silly. Comedy can be a grotesque distortion of the real world or it can be a subtle exaggeration or unexpected emphasis. By taking those necessary steps back and poking fun at misfortune, we get a chuckle, but we can also realize something more telling about our society or identity than we might have anticipated because we are now the omniscient observer. Film teaches us…even when we are laughing.

1

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—so close but so far

One of the fascinating things about comic film auteur, Jacques Tati, is that it seemed he couldn’t get his camera far enough away from the action. Each successive film he made he moved further and further back until there were no characters, only bumbling specks. There is no plot, only impersonal environment and obstacle. If you saw Sylvain Chomet’s (The Triplets of Belleville) recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010) then you got a pretty good look at the man (the main character is modeled after Tati very closely and it was based on a script he had written before he died) and you got a sense of his tacit comic style, but to view the actual gentleman’s work is something a bit different.

Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Keaton’s stone-faced stuntman, and Lloyd’s bespectacled everyman, Tati too had a consistent onscreen persona in the form the bungling Monsieur Hulot. Instantly recognizable by his raincoat, hat, umbrella, pipe, and avian stiff-legged gait, Mr. Hulot is a fine comic character that has made his way into cinematic memory. Mr. Hulot found his debut in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953).

Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—ready for the beach

Hulot’s Holiday is light and affable and full of many memorable and creative sight gags. Essentially plotless, the movie follows the quiet misadventures of Mr. Hulot at the beach and all of the other peaceful—and far less clumsy—French folks on their seaside vacation. In Hulot’s first outing, we see Tati really toying with film itself to tell the jokes. Tati has been lauded for his impeccable mise-en-scène and we see a budding genius here in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. It’s not what can be seen in each frame, but also what information can be strategically hidden or subliminally inferred.

What Tati does with pictures reminds me of what comedian Bob Newhart did with words. Newhart had several stand-up bits where he would talk on the phone or to an invisible person whose presence was assumed. We never see or hear the other person, but we know exactly what they are doing and saying and thinking based solely on Newhart’s subtle pauses, inflections, and word choices in mock-response. Tati will either give the audience—or only a few characters—a bit of information, such as the surprising presence of a horse for example, and then alternate back and forth between who is privy to said information; the audience or the characters. It was all a clever grown-up game of hide-and-seek.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—a graceful exit

Tati liked to create beautifully set up spaces riddled with obstacles the characters would have to maneuver around. Scenes in Mon Oncle (1958) where we see Mr. Hulot navigating his way up or down from his rustic, old apartment dwelling are strangely, quietly amusing. The camera is always parked directly across the street as if the lens were from a voyeuristic Jimmy Stewart’s perspective. This distance reveals the labyrinthine absurdity and shows the audience the whole picture while Hulot himself is limited from room to room. Like watching the ending of an episode of Legends of the Hidden Temple, we in our chairs see exactly what obstacles lay in the next room before the participant. This allows for either suspense or suspended comedy.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—visiting the sister

The biggest production Tati ever did came in the form of Playtime (1967) and it had several layers to it. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday was an exercise in taking away the relaxation of a trip to the beach from would-be relaxers. Mon Oncle started to have more noticeable elements of satire. Mr. Hulot lives in a dilapidated, yet character-full, old apartment while his sister is obsessed with ever-backfiring modernity. Things are all about keeping up appearances for important guests with inefficient technologies and frivolities that “make our lives easier.” Tati satirizes this with his poetic Hulot character as the simple man who is poor in possessions, but rich in honesty and personality. Playtime takes this concept a step further. In Mon Oncle, modern architecture was merely imposing on old France. In Playtime, modern architecture has entirely engulfed old France. It is one of the grayest, most sterile, and concrete looking films you will probably ever see. The whole spectacle feels far away, hollow, and empty…and it is exactly what Tati was trying to do.

Jacques Tati returns as Mr. Hulot, a wandering old soul trying to find his way in this faceless new world. All of Tati’s/Hulot’s beloved old France has been relegated to a single street corner (in the form of an anachronistic-looking woman selling flowers under a tarpaulin). The real France is only ever hinted at in reflections or off in the distance behind “more important modern things.” Tati’s trademark plotlessness afforded him great opportunities to make very high-concept films about ideas and abstractions like modern city living in Playtime. One of my personal favorite sequences comes toward the beginning where Mr. Hulot is trying meet with someone and waits and waits and then, fed up with waiting, embarks on his own through a very homogeneous edifice interior full of identical hallways, rooms, cubicles, elevators, and people. Tati also plays with reflections and glass barriers to wonderfully inventive comic effect throughout Playtime.

Playtime

Playtime—the maze of cubicles

The running gag throughout Playtime is that modern (and many times American) culture has eaten the old world. Several of the characters are American tourists looking for old Paris, but happily accepting the modern soulless replacements. They get off the plane and wander through an immensely sterile and impersonal airport, board a modern looking bus, get stuck in a traffic orgy of nearly indistinguishable cars, and wander the cold concrete corridors of all that is left of Paris. One marvelous moment comes when a tourist is about to enter another very modern building and catches a fleeting glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the reflection of the glass door as she opens it. For a brief moment the tourist is struck by the magic and then continues on her way to shopping and sales.

Tati’s biases are clear and obvious, but his clever delivery of all these statements is masterful. Hulot visits friends in their big-windowed apartment (nothing like his place from Mon Oncle) and the camera stays outside watching the silent, ironic, and humorous events transpire from across the street. The scene is about ten minutes long and all we see for this ten minutes is a grid of square windows with people watching televisions inside (the juxtaposition ventures to ask, “who’s really on display here?”) and all we hear is the passing cars outside. Everything is conjured to be as unnatural as possible. Another classic gag comes when an apartment denizen leaves to walk his dog and as soon as he steps outside the little dog hops up off the concrete and onto the only green in the film: a pitiful strip of astro-turf lining the building.

Playtime--travel agency.

Playtime–travel agency.

It’s more than a re-imagining of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). The humor is soft and subtle and easy to miss if you’re not paying close attention to what Tati is doing. One joke I missed the first time I saw this was a gag involving a heated argument and then the “slamming” of a new and improved silent door. Those people expecting to find Mr. Hulot as a central figure in this huge film will be disappointed. Mr. Hulot has become not only distant from the camera, but distant from most of the action. Hulot has become just another character in a sea of faces, but his is still the most familiar and I’d say the most amusing. In parodying city life and the heart-breaking trend of embracing all that is sleek, streamlined, and new while bulldozing the artful past, Tati creates a film unlike any other. Cold buildings tower over gaudily dressed cartoon characters of the human race and kowtow to all things modern. The tragedy is, just like in Brazil, the modern stuff doesn’t always work and Tati would argue it is also far less pretty.

Playtime meanders about and then finally culminates in a swanky restaurant’s ill-fated opening night before sending all the tourists on their carnival ride through Paris traffic back to the airport. Fitting this film should end with traffic as Tati’s next film and final outing as Mr. Hulot would be Traffic (1971). Traffic gets crapped on as being lesser Tati, but it is still great and very clever. Playtime is a tough act to follow. In viewing Tati’s canon one gets the feeling he was feeling more and more archaic and out of place in a world that was constantly changing. He was a dinosaur, a silent comedian trapped in a land of sound, a wandering poet drowning in a sea of science. Mr. Hulot is really a tragic figure and many of the ideas in Tati’s films are rather sad and unfortunate when you think about how true so many of them are or have become…but then, he set the camera far enough back. From this safe distance we could clearly see the anarchy and lunacy of our society and appreciate the grim comedy of it all. Up close, many of the most important comedies would be far more serious affairs.

Traffic

Traffic

Many an homage has been made to the great Tati’s contributions to film and comedy, from Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) to Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention), but there aren’t many comedy directors today that are as bold and articulate as Jacques Tati was at the height of his powers. When comedy is at its best it is as intellectually effectual and perceptive as drama, but it has the added bonus of being clever and letting us laugh at ourselves too.

Top 10 Reasons to See the Films of Jacques Tati:

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

1. He was one of the last great silent comedians, keeping it alive and respectable well into the 1970s.

2. You think comedies don’t have as much artistic merit or visual brilliance as other genres? Correct your misconception.

3. He is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time…and he only made six features.

4. Playtime was the most expensive French film ever made up until that time so make his investment worth it.

5. You liked The Illusionist? Good. Now you can make it even more funny and important.

6. Impress your friends with knowledge of famous French filmmakers that aren’t Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard.

7. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I genuinely find him funny.

8. I can think of three truly memorable comic walks: Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and Jacques Tati…then there’s the whole Monty Python’s Flying Circus “Ministry of Silly Walks,” but that’s another story.

9. If you saw Elia Suleiman’s Palestinian film Divine Intervention (2002) and were lost or didn’t get it, acquainting yourself with Tati will really explain a lot of the mechanics of his film and, I think, make it funnier and more rewarding.

10. If you like your comedy to be significant or have a subtle, jabbing commentary to it, check out Mon Oncle, Playtime, or Traffic. Or if you’d rather comedy just be amusing without heavy societal messages watch Mr. Hulot’s Holdiay.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 28, 2011.

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Rock, Scissors, Paper Moon

4A rickety jalopy ride down a dusty Kansas road to a former lover’s funeral was all it took to rope conman, Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), into meeting one of the most special ladies his puny life might ever know. Shot in glorious black and white and boasting a sharp wit set rakishly against bleak Depression-era Midwestern textures and scenery, director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?) weaves up a comical homespun adventure in Paper Moon (1973). Paper Moon is a very welcome departure off the beaten path.

Moses Pray travels the American Midwest and cons recent widows into believing that their dearly departed husbands have purchased Bibles for them. Genuinely touched that their deceased loved ones would have been so piously generous in their final days, they gladly pay the difference (minus the original fictitious down-payment Pray alleges their husbands have already spent). It’s an easy gig with easy money, made easier by Pray’s seeming lack of a conscience, but it gets a lot more complicated after a visit to the funeral of a woman he once loved (she was what some might call a woman of ill repute). Orphaned Addie Loggins (played by 8-year-old Tatum O’Neal) is the spittin’ image of ol’ Moses (no coincidence, they were father and daughter in real life) and the old biddies at the funeral shame the con-artist into taking little Addie with him to her aunt’s house. Reluctantly, he obliges.

5Moses feverishly denies the most probable possibility that he is the girl’s father, but the stone-faced, quick-witted tomboy, Addie, soon finds her way into the conman’s life (he earns money from Addie’s misfortune and she knows it and she demands he pay her back in full). The two form an uneasy alliance and turn out to make a pretty good con team. Addie’s added innocence to Moses’ scam pays off well for the shifty scam (despite Addie’s stubborn moral compass that she employs on certain occasions) and they set their sights higher and con their way across the state. In the eyes of the viewer, these two unlikely and extremely stubborn characters were made for each other.

And can I just say how good this film looks. It is beautiful. And although they are not exactly comparable, some similarities definitely exist and I say I love this movie a lot more than Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

3The movie follows Moses and Addie through squabbles and squalls—as when buxom stripper, Miss Trixie Delight (played by the always enjoyable Madeline Kahn) makes her move to use and abuse an all-too-willing Moses and it’s up to Addie to break it up. Between Moses’ fast-talking and trouble-making, it’s all little Addie can do to keep the plan going and still have time for a smoke. Even if Moses may never admit he is her father, they become a very formidable family unit. At the end of the day they have nowhere else to turn but to each other.

I applaud any movie that makes us fall in love with lowly shysters and crafty vagabonds and Paper Moon is no exception. Moses Pray is plain diabolical (if a bit slipshod), and Addie Loggins proves her precocious mettle against many an odd. Tatum O’Neal is the real star of this picture and her deadpan performance as Addie notably garnered her the Academy Award for best supporting actor (against co-star Kahn and other child actor, Linda Blair for The Exorcist). The cast also includes John Hillerman (in a dual role) and Randy Quaid. Director Bogdanovich makes it all really work. This film earns its sweetness. And it’s got sass too. Paper Moon is fun and sweet and humorous and insanely likable. The script, performances, and the sumptuous cinematography all combine wonderfully well to transport us back to the Dust Bowl era in Middle America, when religion was in and wallets wore thin.

8I encourage you to seek out this smarmy but sweet little treasure. Paper Moon is a charmer that can warm the most cynical of hearts…because that’s what it does to the cynical characters that inhabit the film. It’s an immensely pleasing and satisfying film that will paint a smile across your face that tickles each ear. Keep your sunny side up!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 20, 2009

Koo!

So what do you think of when I say “great science-fiction comedy”? How about Georgi Daneliya’s Russian cult epic Kin-dza-dza! (1986)? Kin-dza-dza! remains fairly obscure in the west…and this bothers me. Like so many weird and wonderful foreign films, it is currently hard to come by. This just won’t do.

"Where are we?"

“Where are we?”

Here’s the setup for this oh-so-sweet movie. A humorless construction foreman (known only as Uncle Vova)—on his way to the supermarket for his wife—is accosted by a younger comrade (known only as The Fiddler). The Fiddler tells the stranger that a shoeless man, presumably drunk and insane, is lost. They offer to call a policeman for him, but the shoeless man just insists he is from another planet and continues to fiddle with his space gadget. Incredulous, the two strangers reach for the device and are suddenly transported from downtown Moscow to a barren desert wasteland. It is the planet of Pluke in the Kin-dza-dza galaxy. And so our tale begins.

At first Uncle Vova (Stanislav Lyubshin) remains staunchly skeptical that they are indeed on another planet. This denial is clearly for his own sanity. The Fiddler (Levan Gabriadze) suggests interplanetary possibilities, but Vova dismisses them all in favor of some Earth desert estimations.

Faster, Planark!

Faster, Platzak!

They wander about in the parched abyss, when suddenly, out of nowhere, a large, rusty, rickety flying metal bucket riddled with dings and dents hovers right up to them and makes a sloppy landing in front of the earthlings. The hatch opens and a short, stocky gentleman in simple, uncouth togs steps out, accompanied by a similarly dressed but taller gentleman in a man-sized canary cage. They are Wef, played by Evgeni Leonov and Bee, played by Yuriy Yakovlev. Together they engage in synchronized squatting whilst reciting the fictitious word koo in unison over and over. Utterly bewildered, yet unyieldingly accepting of this peculiar performance, Vova and the Fiddler attempt communication. They attempt Russian, Georgian, English, and French and all they ever hear back from the two unkempt aeronauts are the unmistakable words, koo and kyoo.* Eventually the stranded Soviets figure out that they can bribe their new friends to take them in their craft in exchange for matches.

*Koo and kyoo comprise the bulk of the Plukanian language.

A gorgeous land.

A gorgeous land.

After many minutes with the human-like “aliens” everybody starts to speak Russian. Apparently the Plukanians are telepathic and it took them some time to learn the thoughts and subsequent language of the earthlings. Once the language barrier is removed we get a lesson in interplanetary culture…also Uncle Vova and the Fiddler must wear tiny bells on their noses out of respect. Pluke has a very strict caste system.

The desert planet of Pluke is a real tough place. Everyone (like eight people) is mean and only thinks of themselves. Their resources are all but wiped out and the land is sparsely populated (like eight people) and is drying up. Promises are worth little or nothing as you will more likely be swindled and cheated than helped. There are two types of people on the planet: the Chatlanians and the Patsaks, the latter of which, although indistinguishable from the former, is considered to be of a lower caste and must perform degrading rituals—such as being in a man-sized canary cage while in the presence of Chatlanians—to avoid punishment for impudence. The class differentiation seems almost entirely arbitrary. The higher class Chatlanians get to sleep on beds without nails and they cannot be beaten in the middle of the night. The lower class Patsaks are not so lucky. Matches are apparently very valuable. Water is rare. Police are corrupt. There are about thirteen words in the Plukanian language that can be translated. All other words are koo. A popular expletive is kyoo.

Travel gets cozy.

Travel gets cozy.

A particularly humorous bit comes at about the halfway mark where a title screen comes up and summarizes all of the words on Pluke we have learned so far. It doesn’t take long.

I won’t go into all the elements of the plot. Kin-dza-dza! is essentially a space travel comedy about two dudes trying to get back to Moscow and learning about human nature and friendship. That’s really all you need to know. The rest is just a string of absurdity, oddity, and japery. Be it the fear of being turned into a cactus by a higher being, or singing earth songs for money, or the ludicrousness of the many bizarre rituals lower castes must perform, or the way in which the earthlings are deceived and must use their heads to get wise and make it on Pluke, it’s all for a laugh. And it’s a good laugh too. Amidst the budding friendships and backstabbing there is always room for bizarre absurdist humor.

Great hats.

Great hats.

One thing that is particularly striking about the film are the jabs at capitalism and some of its pro-communist themes. One of the reasons why Pluke is so backwards and dehydrated is because of class struggles and wanton spending and exhaustion of natural resources. It is a dog eat dog world and nobody trusts each other and many have been reduced to begging. Only when the stiff Uncle Vova can accept his traveling companion, the Fiddler, and the Plukanians as his comrades and equals can they return to earth. We even learn Uncle Vova and the Fiddler’s real names: Vladimir and Gedevan. There must be social equality and mutual understanding in order for progress to take shape. Although Wef and Bee may never fully understand self-sacrifice or friendship and may never fully trust the earthlings, they wind up helping them get back to earth anyway.

It’s a kooky movie all around. Kin-dza-dza! is a consistently odd and humorous space saga with interesting characters and a truly absurd sense of humor. It is an amusing journey with philosophical and social undertones which as of yet remains unavailable in the United States. Someone needs to release this on DVD or Bluray. It’s got it all: spaceships, singing, funny hats, you name it. It’s great.

Kyoo!

Kyoo!

Top 10 Reasons to See Kin-dza-dza!

1. It’s funny!

2. The spaceships, although clunky, are just as awesome as anything in Star Wars.

3. It’s interesting to see a film from such a pro-communist perspective…the opposite of say, Krzysztof Kieślowski or Zbyněk Brynych which represent a more markedly anti-communist sentiment.

4. Did I not already mention the humorousness of the headgear (aka funny hats)?

5. Grown men wear bells on their noses.

6. It’s one of the more original outer-space movies you’re likely to find.

7. It’s obscure and kitschy and therefore tickles your anti-mainstream sensibilities.

8. Although visually sparse and minimalistic at times, the juxtapositions and mise-en-scène are wonderfully surreal (at times it feels to be a cross between Jodorowsky’s El Topo and The Bed-Sitting Room).

9. If you enjoyed reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy then you will definitely like this movie.

10. Koo!

Bonus Reason:

11. Kyoo!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Dec. 8, 2010

Me, Myself, and CGI

moon trip

A Trip to the Moon (1902)—man in makeup, painted glass.

Special effects have been a part of film since the very beginning. The very idea of organizing a series of slightly different images and playing them in quick succession to establish the illusion of movement in the eye of the viewer is in itself something of a special effect. Eadweard Muybridge*, you sly dog, you.

Film is merely still pictures dancing through time and it still fools us. French magician and film pioneer, Georges Melies, took the medium a step further. Let’s play further tricks on the audience’s mind, he thought. His early films featured expanding body parts, human disintegration, dancing specters, explosions, and much imagination. Melies’ most famous work, A Trip to the Moon (1902), inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, features one of the most iconic screen images: that of a rocketship wedged in the eye of the man in the moon. This image, although considered crudely realized to some by today’s standards, is still a magical special effect and gets the fantastical point across loud and clear.

metropolis

Metropolis (1927)—huge miniatures and impressive sets to match.

J. Stuart Blackton is credited as being one of the first people to use stop-motion animation special effects, using the technique as early as 1898.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)---composites or rear-screen projections with blown-up lizards.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)—composites or rear-screen projections with blown-up lizards.

To conjure the extinct relics of eons past, stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien used tiny figures to create the gargantuan prehistoric terrors of The Lost World (1925) and the infamous beasts and creatures from King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949).  Ray Harryhausen would become one of the most famous and prolific of all stop-motion effects maestros of the 20th century, with credits including 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Mysterious Island (1961),  Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The First Men in the Moon (1964), One Million Years B.C. (1966), and the Sinbad adventure movies. Other effects teams would use puppets, or men in suits, or (the oddest of all) real lizards with bonnets and spikes glued to their bodies to create dinosaurs and monsters from other worlds. Irwin Allen must have been on something.

War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds (1953)—miniatures and animated lasers.

Before the advent of computerized special effects technology, earth was invaded by flying saucers; Godzilla stomped Tokyo; the thief of Bagdad rode a flying carpet, was aided by a monstrous djini, and fought a giant spider; Darth Vader dominated the galaxy only to be defeated by Luke Skywalker and the rebel alliance; blade runners pursued replicants; archaeologist, Indiana Jones, battled

Baron Prasil (1961)

Baron Prasil (1961)—hyper-stylized mixture of live-action, puppets, composite shots, in-camera tricks, stop-motion, and matte paintings.

Nazis and supernatural relics; Robbie the Robot made beer; Kubrick showed us the year 2001; Moses parted the Red Sea (twice!); E.T. got stranded on earth; Marty McFly went back to the future; Linda Blair did neck twists; Ben-Hur entered a magnificent chariot race (also twice!); the Ghostbusters got steady slime sleuthing work; Frankenstein’s monster was brought to life; Fritz Lang built a Metropolis; a murderous alien held a small group hostage in the north pole (twice!); Roger Rabbit shook Eddie Valiant’s hand; we journeyed 20,000 leagues under the sea (at least twice); the Blues Brothers crashed hundreds of cop cars; and Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan did their own stunts. Everything had to be carefully thought out and done and you knew a lot of thought went into it. There was no magic bullet to answer all the problems of how to achieve the impossible on screen. Before CGI if you saw it on screen you knew it was real somewhere. Perhaps smaller, perhaps less shiny in real life, but something occupied real space. Probably still in some freaky prophouse.

Alien (1979)

Alien (1979)—guy in suit.

One of my grievances with the overuse of computer-generated special effects is just that: overuse.  It seems to create this shortcut to the magic and for me the magic has rarely been more convincing this new way. Shortcuts are not in themselves bad, but they can be used too much. So many films to come out in the past few decades seemed to be leaning a little too much on this readily available tool. Stephen Sommers’ movies like The Mummy Returns (2001) and Van Helsing (2004) and Michael

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)—miniatures and composite shots and maybe backlighting.

Bay’s Transformers movies (2007, 2009, 2011) are exhausting to watch. Too much wispy, plastic, pristine CGI crammed into the seams. Maybe Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) worked a little bit better because we weren’t always focused on them and there were enough scale models and interesting characters to pull us in. But then think on the suspenseless cartooniness of The Hobbit (2013, 2014 so far) movies. The CG is better, but now it’s used even more than in The Lord of the Rings movies. I don’t know about you, but too much special effects sucks me out of the action.

Legend (1985)---makeup and prosthetics.

Legend (1985)—makeup and prosthetics.

In addition to just being poorly written, acted, directed, etc. the Star Wars prequels (1999, 2002, 2005) are overloaded with CGI special effects. My brain can’t take it all at once. I remember watching Episode I in the theaters and just being baffled at why Lucas didn’t just make a cartoon. It seems there’s just less imagination when all of the questions can be answered by computers. It’s convenient one-stop shopping and that means any bozo can get at the goodies. Which is not to say that the artists behind the new trends are less gifted. The best in the business, like always, are spectacular treasures to be celebrated.

Older techniques were used sparingly and had to be incorporated more innovatively because they were expensive, difficult, and sometimes might not always be convincing. Had they been cheaper and overused and overstuffed then perhaps we would see them in the same light as we do bombastic CGI overuse.

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Fitzcarraldo (1982)—no special effect. Actually dragged a ferry over a mountain in the jungle.

Perhaps my biggest grievance from the latest special effects trend is that CGI has eclipsed so many other means to create the illusions I love. I miss matte paintings, backlighting, stop-motion, and puppets. I’m not the biggest fan of Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984), but imagine if all the creatures were CG. I couldn’t imagine it being nearly as creepy or gritty. Imagine Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) the same way. If Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1985) were made today you can bet they wouldn’t build a real boat and drag over a mountain (probably less people would have died too). And you can forget Akira Kurosawa’s torching of an entire castle set for Ran (1985) or Andrei Tarkovsky burning down a house twice for The Sacrifice (1986).

Safety Last (192

Safety Last (1923)—no special effect. Trick angle and safety mattress out of frame.

Why did Lucas feel the need to make a Star Wars: Special Edition (which, you may notice, highlights some extremely poorly aged CGI special effects juxtaposed with the old puppets and prosthetics that still look pretty great today)? And why did Spielberg screw around with E.T. by injecting the already wonderfully expressive face with cartoonish CG “enhancements?” I’m with Quentin Tarantino on this one: CGI car crashes are boring and ugly. Where’s the grit? I like grit in my movies. I love the asymmetry and dirt and dimension. Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988) blows Time Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) out of the water (though that probably wasn’t too hard). CGI may be cheaper and easier, but it’s less fun to look at for me personally. Maybe it is simply a love affair for glorious expensive excess on my part, but if it is excess they wish to throw at me I’d like it to at least be real and have true substance. That’s what I’m paying for.

Maybe it’s me but I just could not find the appeal of Avatar (2009).

Empire Strikes Back (1980)---miniatures and stop-motion.

Empire Strikes Back (1980)—miniatures and stop-motion.

It all really boils down to personal preference, I guess. CGI very often looks cartoony to me. I feel more detached by the illusion because I just know that deep down nothing happened. When a digital spaceship blows up there’s nothing for me to cling to. When a three-dimensional model of a spaceship blows up it’s thrilling to me because something that had actual matter has been destroyed (and my brain knows the difference). I like the character and texture of the older special effects. It’s purely an aesthetic choice, but film is about aesthetics.

Jason and the Argonauts (19)---stop-motion miniatures composite.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)—stop-motion miniatures composite.

In the end all special effects do the same thing. They try to fool us into believing the impossible but today’s cynical audience isn’t fooled by any process. We will always know when it’s fake. A CGI Godzilla or King Kong doesn’t fool me more than a rubber suit or stop-motion miniature…yet I admire the pioneering craft more in the old-fashioned processes. Some have told me that “old” special effects are dated and cheesy. This can be the case sometimes, but bad puppets and prosthetics can be charming. Bad CGI doesn’t hold that same charm for me. The creatures manufactured through special effects (CG or otherwise) are never going to trick us into believing they’re real off the screen. But something from the Jim Henson’s workshop has a rather unique mystique in that it might still be around but dormant in some old warehouse and the creatures from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) are simply confined to some digital space on several computers. Return of the Jedi’s (1983) Rancor and the giant scorpion from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) seem more real and interesting to me than most of the digital monsters thrown at audiences today.

Hausu (1977)---composites, animations, etc.

Hausu (1977)—composites, animations, etc.

It’s not that I’m against technological progress (entirely), but I do think it might be appropriate to question it and reminisce on the magical times shared between traditional effects. When Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) came out, people were dazzled by the stained-glass window knight that sprung to life because of CGI. Jurassic Park (1993) works splendidly as it is, combining digital effects with life-size animatronics, but that was back when CGI was new and exciting and used sparingly to fill in the gaps that would be too difficult to produce another way. James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991) and Chuck Russell’s The Mask (1994) worked great too but today CGI can come off as a bit of a cheap crutch and its novelty is gone. . . for me at least. Imagine if Burton’s Wonderland was made with every digital character done via stop-motion (this was what a lot of us thought it was going to be a few years back). It’s a personal preference, but the aesthetic of CGI sometimes runs the risk of being flat and boring. I don’t like my movies to look like video games. I like it more real and present. Remember, for every filmmaker who utilizes the latest technologies afforded to him with cunning and craft there are countless hacks who butcher the blessings and produce lackluster products with meaningless, artless piffle.

Jurassic Park (1993)---large-scale puppets and animatronics, and CGI.

Jurassic Park (1993)—large-scale puppets and animatronics, and CGI.

Consider this: the original Clash of the Titans (1981) feels personal like classic Ray Harryhausen whereas the 2010 remake looks and feels like every recent bad overblown Hollywood special effects extravaganza.

I don’t hate CGI. I think there are plenty of times when it is effective and cool, but as it becomes cheaper and more accessible I see more and more of it and the spectacle it once was is no more. It’s ho-hum and standard now. A lot of new films have become visually boring because of their over-reliance on CGI. And special effects should never be boring.

The Two Towers (2002)---CGI

The Two Towers (2002)—CGI

We will never have the time back when movie magic was largely a mystery. Studios used to be cagey and not like to reveal how the illusions were done. Now every movie comes with at least a few documentaries on how it was all done. Jaws (1975) may be a clunky robot shark, but we get that it’s a big, scary shark and that’s all the film needs it to do. A CG shark could be just as distracting (consider 1999′s Deep Blue Sea). Would Spartacus’ army be more believable as a CGI onslaught or as flesh and blood actors as they are in the 1960 film?

Is it bad to know how the trick is done? No. Not if your a magician. But the audience likes to be fooled. They like to keep guessing and looking for the seams. At least I do.

Lost in Space (1998)---CGI

Lost in Space (1998)—CGI

What do other people think? I’m curious. Am I just too old-fashioned and finicky for my own good? What movies get you? What are some of your favorite movie special effects?

[update] Here’s an interesting effects reel for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Mixes a few different techniques quite effectively, I think.  http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/watch-impressive-vfx-reel-for-wes-andersons-the-grand-budapest-hotel-20140428

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” July 5, 2010.

A Man for All Faces

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

My biggest regret in tackling this article is that I have not seen more of Mr. Lon Chaney, Sr.’s (1883-1930) work. Of the handful of films I’ve seen of his, none have disappointed and all have been wonderfully twisted. Lon Chaney—father of the Wolf Man, Lon Chaney, Jr.—was one of the biggest icons of the silent era. Praised alongside silent legends such as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Mary Pickford, Theda Bara, and Rudolph Valentino, Chaney was every bit as talented and engaging. Chaney’s trademark, however, is what separated him from his contemporaries. They loved Chaplin for his comic humanity; Fairbanks for his swashbuckling acrobatics; Pickford for her beauty and the dramatic chances she took; Bara for her exotic, seductive persona; Valentino for his rich, foreign good looks; they loved Chaney for playing grotesques and psychotics. His real claim to fame was that not only did he portray gross villains and sympathetic monsters, but also he designed all of his own makeup and prosthetics to astounding effect.

lon slapped

He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

Lon Chaney, Sr. made his living by playing some of the most demented characters in movie history. He was known for the incredible emotional power he could evoke even beneath layers of makeup and for his amazing facial and bodily expressiveness. Both his parents were deaf-mutes, so he had to learn at a young age how to express himself without words.

From mad doctors, to amputees and deformed deviants, to bent Chinese patriarchs, to tragic clowns, to insane killers and criminals, Chaney played them all.

Mr. Wu (1927)

Mr. Wu (1927)

The first film of his I ever saw was the classic 1925 horror flick, The Phantom of the Opera (directed by Rupert Julian). This is easily his most famous and well-known role. Naturally, he plays the diabolical and disfigured eponymous phantom. He wears a most unnerving rubber face-mask with a crude veil over his mouth to hide his hideousness. The best scene of the film occurs when his lovely muse, Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), is taken to his secret lair beneath the streets of Paris and her curiosity spurs her to approach her musical master while he plays the organ and she removes his mask to reveal his true ugliness. Chaney’s reaction is one of the most memorable few seconds you are likely to see on film. This movie also boasts a colored Masque of the Red Death segment. Although the lavish film presents the Phantom as a deranged killer out for revenge, Chaney brings a darker, more tormented side to his performance. He is the character we see the rest of the film through. We recognize his sorrow and—on those wonderful occasions—cavort as he executes his judgment on the little people of the opera house. We catch ourselves sympathizing with this murderous monster and even rooting for him.

Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Besides the Phantom, Chaney played a very noble Quasimodo in Wallace Worsley’s  The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), again implementing his own inventive makeup effects. In 1922 he was a pretty solid Fagin in a silent version of Oliver Twist (co-starring The Kid star Jackie Coogan). He played a deranged and possessive Chinese patriarch in Mr. Wu (1927) (he actually plays a double-role and Anna May Wong has a small part). Chaney received much acclaim for his performance as a tough Marine Sergeant in 1926’s Tell It to the Marines. He played a brilliant scientist whose heartless betrayal at the hands of his mentor and his fiancée, drive him to become a tormented circus clown whose sole act consists of being slapped in the face in Victor Sjostrom’s bizarre carnival tragedy He Who Gets Slapped (1924). Chaney played another conflicted, tragic circus clown in Herbert Brenon’s Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928). He joined the circus again for Tod Browning’s (Dracula, Freaks) The Unknown.

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown is a particularly strange movie. As only a sample of the weirdness of some of these plots, I shall explain. Set in Spain, Chaney plays a wicked fugitive with double-thumbs, who stuffs his arms in a corset-like device so he can join the circus as Alonzo the Armless, the amazing knife-thrower (he uses his feet…or rather Chaney used the feet of real-life armless wonder, Paul Desmuke). He falls in love with a beautiful circus girl, Nanon Zanzi (Joan Crawford) and—in order to ensure that she will love him instead of the circus strongman—he psychologically bewitches her into developing a phobia human arms. Alonzo kills and creates general mayhem while he dreams of how he will make this poor girl his own…until his sidekick reminds him that if they were to marry, Nanon would find out he really has arms and be repulsed. Distraught, Alonzo devises a plan. He cashes in on a favor owed him by a shady doctor and has the doctor amputate his arms. While Alonzo recovers in the hospital, the strongman gets cozy with Nanon and cures her of her fear of arms. When Alonzo meets Nanon again she is engaged to the strongman and Alonzo becomes quite mad. He sabotages a circus stunt to have the strongman ripped apart by horses on treadmills. It goes awry and Alonzo gets fatally trampled.

London After Midnight (1927)

London After Midnight (1927)

Chaney worked with Tod Browning on several projects, including the most famous lost movie in film history, London After Midnight (1927). The original The Unholy Three (1925) was another great film Chaney collaborated with Browning on. He played a circus ventriloquist who turns to crime along with a strong man and a dwarf (played by Freaks star, Harry Earles). Chaney dresses as an old granny who runs a parrot shop and the dwarf poses as a baby. Together the trio act as jewelry thieves. The film is wonderfully peculiar and a must-see. Chaney’s final film was the 1930 remake of The Unholy Three.  It was Chaney’s first and only “talkie” and he performed five different voices in the film. Apparently “the man of a thousand faces” (as he was so dubbed for his talent with makeup) was also ready to become “the man of a thousand voices” when he died of lung cancer in 1930 at age 47.

The Unholy Three (1925)

The Unholy Three (1925)

I think Chaney was at his best when paired with Tod Browning because it seemed Browning was about as messed up and screwy as he was. A few other Chaney-Browning films I really enjoyed were The Penalty (1920), The Road to Mandalay (1926), and West of Zanzibar (1928). Both are awesome and West of Zanzibar might be among my favorite movies. Yeah. It’s that pulpy, strange and great. Imagine if he hadn’t died and Browning had cast him as Dracula instead of Bela Lugosi. I don’t know if it would have been better, but our understanding of vampire motifs would be quite different today.

After making well over 150 films in his lifetime and establishing himself as a true master of his craft, Lon Chaney, Sr. stands as a real treasure that film has been able to make immortal. Chaney’s films are quiet oddities, psychotic marvels, and horrific tragedies and deserve to be celebrated. His performances have been highly regarded for decades and are still just as enchanting today. If you like movies and have never seen anything with Lon Chaney, Sr., I strongly recommend you remedy this, and if you’re like me and you’ve seen several of his films already then I needn’t hesitate to tell you to see more. My hat’s off to you, Mr. Chaney. Thanks for giving us so much.

The Penalty (1920)

The Penalty (1920)

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 29, 2009