Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - December 1999
Possessed (1931)
Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie
Wild Strawberries
The Cranes Are Flying

Friends and Strangers
The Talented Mr. Ripley
All About my Mother
The Straight Story

Kane Reaction

 


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SHERLOCK JR. (Buster Keaton, 1924).

If I had to choose one film with which to introduce a novice to Keaton's work, this would be it. Buster plays a movie projectionist who wants to be a detective. He falls asleep during a screening, and in his dream he jumps into the movie. Besides daring this brilliant little idea, perhaps the first example of a film exploiting its own medium of fantasy, Keaton fills the picture with marvelous gags and stunts, culminating in a driverless motorcycle ride that is a masterpiece of visual timing. At 45 minutes, the film has the freshness of a short combined with the greater depth of a feature, and it confirms Keaton as one of the gods of cinema. His deadpan style and the droll reversals in his plots (incredibly, he never repeated a major idea in his career) give him a surprising, modern flavor.

SANS SOLEIL (Chris Marker, 1982).

It is impossible to categorize this film - visual collage, poetic quasi-fictional journal, meditation on the human attitude towards death, culture, spirituality and politics - Marker goes beyond the confines of documentary. Here he invents a series of letters from a man living at various times in Japan, West Africa and Iceland to evoke a sense of mystery and paradox. The Japanese sequences, with images of crowds in the Tokyo streets and subways, are particularly dazzling. The use of digital special effects was rather ahead of its time. But while I admire the open-ended quality of the work, I think Sans Soleil suffers from too many words. The poetic language, the insights and observations, are just piled on top of each other until the mind becomes weary. I guess it's a matter of philosophy - I think there is such a thing as an excess of meaning, in which clarity loses its way among the sheer quantity of expressions. The film loses power because it doesn't choose to emphasize a few themes, but instead keeps jumping all over the place. Nevertheless, it's one of the bolder visual experiments of the 80s.

I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG
(Mervyn LeRoy, 1932).

In the early 30s, Warners (under production chief Daryl Zanuck) had a social conscience, never more in evidence than in this thrilling prison expose. Based on a book by an ex-convict, it stars Paul Muni as a war veteran wrongly convicted of theft who is trapped in the Georgia chain gang system. The hero's experiences there, and after a subsequent escape, are conveyed with great tension and suspense. The picture has gritty realism, fast urban-style dialogue, and a keen sense of injustice. LeRoy often uses suggestion rather than direct depiction of brutality. This makes the film all the more effective. Although the title might lead one to expect a dull, plodding kind of social picture, it is actually a gripping melodrama that stands up as well today as on its release. The state of Georgia actually sued Warner Brothers for libel, but the movie's success eventually led to reform, including the abolition of chains.

CAVALCADE (Frank Lloyd, 1932).

Three decades in the life of a well-to-do English family and its servants. Noel Coward's play was snapped up by Fox, and filmed using a fine British cast - including Dana Wynard and Clive Brook as the mother and father. It was a great success, winning the Best Picture Oscar that year. In its favor it should be noted that it is extremely faithful to its source - arguably the one film that is truest to the flavor of early Coward. Lloyd had an excellent way with crowd scenes - the picture certainly has a sense of historical sweep, from the Boer War through the decimation of World War I, which the film decries. On the other hand, there's no denying that the picture creaks - the stiff upper lip stuff is sometimes laughable, and the actor's theatrical style, all grand gesture and declamation, is dated. All of which faults combine to make Cavalcade a bit of a yawn. It is interesting to compare it to I Am a Fugitive, made the same year. Why does the latter still seem so fresh and Cavalcade not? One reason, I think, is that we are less patient these days with the fine speeches that used to be so popular on the stage. The technique of the Warners film is pure cinema - the directness of its expression seems more real and therefore more lasting.

TRISTANA (Luis Bunuel, 1970).

A shabby aristocrat (Fernando Rey) seduces his beautiful young ward Tristana (Catherine Deneuve), with bitter consequences for them both. Bunuel adapted a Galdos novel, transposing the time to the 20s and 30s, injecting a characteristic anti-bourgeois, anti- clerical flavor. As usual with him, the story's sexual preoccupations symbolize a political critique, in this instance of the ineffectual liberalism of the Spanish upper middle class, which failed to prevent the triumph of fascism. The power struggle between the characters played by Rey and Deneuve produces some striking scenes, particularly towards the end. But at the risk of heresy, I must say that this film seems to me to lack vigor. It has none of the comic gusto of the similarly plotted Viridiana, for instance. The editing, pacing, camera placement - all seem curiously slack, as if Bunuel wanted to simply illustrate the story's ideas without taking the trouble to find a style. I was bored through much of the middle section of Tristana, and I wondered if perhaps some physical crisis in the life of the 70-year-old director had caused him to lose interest in the material. A disappointment for me, but I seem to be in the minority - many critics consider this one of the master's best works.

Chris Dashiell