Pol Pot’s Birthday (2004, Talmage Cooley)
In 1985, the scrappy dictator’s men throw him a super-weak budget surprise birthday party, with grey cake and music on an old tape player. Awkward conversation ensues… P-P gets peed on by a dog and “Walking On Sunshine” plays over the credits. Kim Rew got paid?
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Meet King Joe (1949, John Sutherland)
More generic propaganda with no direct sense of purpose. Joe is “the king of the workers of the world” because here in America, competition and investment in infrastructure make our jobs easier with more disposable income than anywhere else. Take that, dirt-poor chinaman! Statistics to be proud of: “Americans own practically all the refrigerators in existence. Bathtubs? We’ve got 92% of them.”
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Hymn to Merde (2009, Leos Carax)
I agree that Merde/Lavant is wonderful to watch, but Carax doesn’t seem to know what to do with him. Protracted death-sentence courtroom drama wasn’t it, nor is a lo-res music video of him singing a Kills song translated into his own head-slapping language.
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.tibbaR (2004, Leo Wentink)
Eerie music and nervous sound effects accompany time-remapped footage of lab rabbit breeding. I never know why anything is happening in short films anymore.
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Go! Go! Go! (1964, Marie Menken)
So damn jittery it gave me an eye-ache, exactly what I was getting away from the computer in order to avoid. All nervous time-lapse footage shot around the city. Some real nice high-angle shots of construction sites and traffic patterns, superimpositions on a wedding, lots of boats and bridges. Color/picture looked perfect on my tube TV.
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The Spook Speaks (1940, Jules White)
Not-at-all-good short full of corny sound effects and sub-stooges gags, but it’s better than the others I’ve watched on these DVDs since it has a roller-skating penguin. Buster’s costar Elsie Ames (she was in most of these shorts, then showed up 30 years later in Minnie & Moskowitz for some reason) is terrible, but then, Buster is terrible too. Thanks Sony for slapping warnings and disclaimers and legal shit before every short on the disc. They must’ve known it wouldn’t get tiresome because we’d only watch one before quitting.
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Who Am I? (1989, Faith Hubley)
Things morph into other things, illustrating the five (or six or seven) senses. Short!
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Blake Ball (1988, Emily Hubley)
Didn’t love the narration in this one. The woman who says “some are born to sweet delight/some are born to endless night” (without the preceding lines) has got nothing on Nobody. I guess all the lines are the words of William Blake, but they’re not making much of an impact, and I never figured out Blake’s connection to all the baseball stuff. There’s more five senses stuff anyway. A bit too laboriously new-agey, but some great moments (like below).
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O Dreamland (1953, Lindsay Anderson)
Boy did I ever botch the Free Cinema box set, buying it then deciding I didn’t want to watch it after all and letting it sit on the shelf for years. Finally checked this out and I kinda really like it. Could do without the evil laughing clown all over the soundtrack. Kind of like Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice which, given If….‘s resonance with Zero For Conduct, proves Anderson saw a Vigo retrospective at some point.

The Freshman (1925, Newmeyer & Taylor)
The sad truth about Harold Lloyd is that I loved him when I first saw him, but every time I rewatch a movie I like it less. So far I’ve seen Safety Last! and The Freshman twice, and each dropped from “great” down to around “pretty good”. I’m afraid to rewatch the ones I thought were pretty good to begin with.

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Young Harold (he was actually 32) watches imaginary film The College Hero over and over to prepare himself for college, filling his head with stupid ideas about college life. I would’ve loved it if they’d done more movie-vs.-reality comparisons, but it seems the only thing he took away from the film was the hero’s nickname (“Speedy”), catchphrase (“I’m just a regular guy”) and silly jig, which everyone at college mocks until Harold manages to win the big football game, then the jig becomes the coolest thing. It’s a wonder that nobody else at school had seen this movie and figured out Harold wasn’t even an original nut, just a nerdy guy ripping off a bad movie joke. But my biggest surprise was finding that the silly hat Harold wears wasn’t an invention of his silly movie – college kids (according to this silly movie anyway) actually wore those hats!

Below: Harold and “the college cad” in silly hats. The cad, Brooks Benedict, later appeared in Leo McCarey’s not-sequel The Sophomore.
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In the scene below, Harold’s tailor hides behind a curtain, ready to patch Harold’s unfinished suit should the need arise, but the two get their signals crossed because of a dude at a table ringing a bell. Supposedly the bell ringer is Charles Farrell, star of Street Angel, but he sure doesn’t look like he does in my screengrabs from that movie.

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The girl who likes Harold, cutie Jobyna Ralston, was in The Kid Brother and Wings, didn’t make it in the sound era.

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The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916, Christy Cabanne & John Emerson)
Written by DW Griffith and Tod Browning, the same year they did Intolerance, and co-produced by Keystone. Douglas Fairbanks was apparently famous enough to play himself in a framing scene – I think he plays himself, and the rest of the film (starring himself) is his rejected pitch to a producer for a film to star himself. That’d already be plenty to wrap one’s head around for a 1916 short, but that’s before we even get to the main story, which involves incompetent and extremely drug-addicted hero Coke Ennyday trying to stop criminals from smuggling contraband via one-man inflatable toy rafts, and stop the criminal mastermind from forcing the lovely Fish Blower to marry him. Coke gets the drugs and the girl, and I didn’t know I could have my mind blown by Douglas Fairbanks. Bessie Love, the Fish Blower, appeared in three major films in the early 1980’s, sixty-five years after this one. I wonder if anyone on those sets asked her about her cult druggie silent short.

The Play House (1921, Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline)
I’d seen almost all of Keaton’s solo silent shorts, but I’d missed this major one, in which he plays all the characters in a trippy dream sequence that lasts the first half of the film. Reliable heavy Joe Roberts finally wakes Buster from his funhouse-mirrored delusion and he goes to work as a stagehand, where he’s spooked by a pair of identical twins with mirrors. A sheer delight of visual invention only grudgingly held together by a plot.

That’s two of Virginia Fox, daughter of William Fox:
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Buster Keaton’s minstrels:
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Cops (1922, Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline)
The Freshman was a movie about a boy whose ideas about life have been warped by the movies, Leaping Fish had Douglas Fairbanks the actor playing Douglas Fairbanks the aspiring screenwriter, and The Playhouse featured Buster Keaton playing a hundred of himself in a stage performance viewed by even more of himself. Cops has no self-conscious reflection that I can think of. It’s just a damn fine heist/love/chase flick with great invention in props and situations. However it does fit in with the outrageousness of last two films in its ending: snubbed by his intended love, Buster effectively commits suicide by running back into the police station where he has just locked up hundreds of angry cops.

Two of my comic/horror heroes, John Landis and Joe Dante, make a Twilight Zone movie alone with Steven “Raiders/E.T.” Spielberg and George “Mad Max” Miller. The result could’ve been a masterpiece, but you know how anthology films always turn out… nobody does their best work, and half the episodes are always weak.

John Landis’s untitled episode has a very unlikeable Vic Morrow getting his supernatural comeuppance, becoming a Jew in nazi germany, a black man at a klan rally, a victim of the vietnam war, then back to germany, after making racist, hateful comments to his buddies (both of whom have been in John Carpenter films). It’s a grimy, unpleasant episode, a bad way to start the series, and of course it’s incomplete due to the untimely decapitation-by-helicopter of the lead actor during shooting. Landis was tried and acquitted for Morrow’s death, as well as an assistant director who Alan Smithee’d himself in the credits. Landis’s intro to the movie almost makes up for the Morrow segment – Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks in a car singing TV theme songs for seven long minutes while the audience wonders if they’re in the wrong theater. If they’d have gone from that part right into the Spielberg, we would’ve had an improved 75-minute movie, and Landis’s longer piece would’ve achieved legendary status. Better that everyone wonders about a possible lost masterpiece than get to see the disappointing reality.

Vic Morrow: last known photo
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Spielberg offers nothing but a big name to sell tickets and some Scatman Crothers. Explores the young-again themes he’d later revisit with Hook – Scatman gets some old folks to play kick the can at midnight and they turn young again – most opt to go back the way they were, but the British guy stays young and runs off into the night. Bill Quinn (of Dead & Buried, which I should be watching right now but I’ve stupidly turned on Organ which I don’t think I’ll finish) looks sadly after him wishing he’d gone out to play and turned young instead of being an old grump. Overly saccharine flick, maybe meant as an antidote to the unrelenting hatred of the previous piece, but maybe we’d have been better off with neither. Hmmm, but then we’ve got a great 50-minute movie, too short for theaters.

Murray Matheson in his final role, with the Scatman three years after The Shining
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Dante had made The Howling and Piranha, but not yet the creatures-and-cartoons Explorers or Gremlins, so this was a sign of things to come. SFX master Rob Bottin, fresh off John Carpenter’s The Thing, created the ‘toon extravaganza at the end. Dante’s segment has the most sinister ending here – the woman and the kid drive off into the world to unleash unknown havoc. Unlike Spielberg, Dante has actual malice and danger behind the cute TV-and-toon-influenced worlds he creates. Anthony’s sister played by Nancy Cartwright (in her film debut), who would be a saturday morning cartoon regular three years later, followed by a 20+ year stint as Bart Simpson, plays the sister who gets beamed into the television. Kathleen Quinlan (later oscar-nom for Apollo 13) was the teacher, and Jeremy Licht (who spent six years on a Jason Bateman TV show) played Anthony. Dante faves Dick Miller and Kevin McCarthy show up as a scuzzy diner operator and Anthony’s terrified “uncle”.

I wonder what happens to Kevin McCarthy after the kid leaves the house
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George Miller tries to go over the top of the Joe Dante piece, and maybe even succeeds, with Nightmare at 20,000 Feet starring John Lithgow. Lightning and wind, loopy camera angles, a plane monster, and an outrageous performance by Lithgow (as good as Raising Cain) keep this one humming. I forgot Lithgow ends up being taken away by an ambulance driven by Dan Aykroyd, ha.

Lithgow, acting sane while the stewardess is watching
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I must’ve watched this a whole lot of times on HBO in the 80’s – I remembered almost all of it. DVD quality isn’t great, or maybe the film quality wasn’t all that to begin with. Half the movie looks dingy, slightly under-lit. The sound was nice though, and I cranked it. Good thing the disc has chapter stops – I think next time I’ll go from the intro straight to Good Life and 20,000 Feet – two stories which were also well done on The Simpsons, coincidentally.

Seemed like a good time to watch the season 3 episode of the original Twilight Zone starring Buster Keaton, “Once Upon a Time” from 1961, the final credited work directed by Norman McLeod (who worked with Marx Bros., Lloyd and Keaton), written by Richard Matheson (Nightmare at 20,000 Feet). Keaton, a scientist’s janitor in 1890, tired of noise and inflation, uses a time-helmet to transport to the year 1960, where he meets another scientist (Stanley Adams of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and High School Big Shot) who desperately wants to live in the past, a simpler time. The helmet is stolen, broken and repaired, while Keaton steals some new pants and discovers traffic, television and vacuum cleaners. They both travel to 1890, where the scientist is miserable for lack of transistors and TV dinners. Pretty nice episode, obviously not creepy in any way, but then neither was that Spielberg thing.

His first good role in nine years:
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An amusing 80-min comedy, no masterpiece to be sure, but very likeable and occasionally funny. Harold Lloyd is the weak kid in a family of two burly brothers and sheriff dad. Medicine Show comes to town while dad is out and Harold was pretending to be sheriff, so he signs their permit, then can’t tell ’em to get out of town because he has fallen for the cute girl in the act. But note: she’s doing the show against her will along with two slimy characters who run off with the town’s treasury – and the sheriff is blamed! Can Harold Lloyd redeem himself by finding the abandoned ship where the criminals are hiding out and return to town triumphantly with the loot and the surviving thief before his dad is lynched? Yes.

Some real nice staging, more elaborately planned shots than the Keaton (see below; the Keaton was also seven years later, which might make a difference, but I think Keaton camera setups were pretty plain, just make sure the action is in the viewfinder), incl. a cool bit where he climbs a tree, higher and higher and the camera follows on a high crane. Movie also had a trained monkey, slingshots, a burning trailer, and laundry drying on a kite string, so you really can’t complain.

Could you bring yourself to hit this man? Could you?!?
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Two of Harold’s family members had small parts in Citizen Kane, a medicine show guy was in Sunrise later the same year, and actor Ralph Yearsley who played Harold’s rival died aged 32 a year later. Lloyd was working at a pace of one movie per year, and this came after For Heaven’s Sake and before one of my favorites, Speedy, which would be his last silent film. Speedy also had Ted Wilde as credited director (though IMDB says Lloyd pretty much directed his own films), and Ted died the following year at age 36. IMDB also claims some uncredited direction on this movie by Lewis Milestone, who would soon make All Quiet on the Western Front. The General, Metropolis and October all came out in ’27, pushing the cinematic art ever forward, but so did The Jazz Singer, spelling doom for Keaton and Lloyd (but not for Lang or Eisenstein).

Also watched Neighbors, a 1920 Buster Keaton short which outshone the feature. Buster likes the girl next door, but her family won’t have him. Hilarity ensues. All you really needed for a great Keaton film was a basic premise and thirty brilliant gags – fully-developed plot/characters not required. Terrifically funny movie.

Buster gets into the neighbor’s third-floor window with help from the Flying Escalantes:
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Blackface is funny; half-blackface is funnier:
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The Boat
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Keaton has built a boat in his garage, and takes his family out for a sail. Destroys the house getting the boat out, destroys the car getting the boat in the water, finally destroys the boat, leaving the four of them floating in a bathtub for a life raft, when his son pulls the drain plug. The boat itself is as complicated as The Electric House, with collapsing masts (for going under bridges) and makeshift repairs. Nice scene where the whole boat is rotating in a storm (actually rotating, not just a camera trick) while Keaton tries to stay right-side-up. Pretty sure I like this one more than Electric House… in fact, most of these are at least as good as that one. Don’t know why I obsessed on it for so long.

The Love Nest
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I recognized Big Joe Roberts from Cops, the giant clear-eyed fat man. Turns out he plays the antagonist in almost every one of Keaton’s silent shorts. He died of a stroke shortly after Our Hospitality in October 1923. Big Joe plays the cruel, murderous captain of a whaling boat Love Nest that picks up Keaton who is stranded at sea. At the end, Keaton can’t launch the lifeboat alone, so he sinks the whole ship to float the small craft. Entire Love Nest sequence turns out to have been a figment of his food-and-water-deprived imagination… thinking himself stranded at sea for weeks, his boat is still tied to the dock.

The Goat
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As in “scape”goat, turns out… there’s no goat here. Dead Shot Dan arranges to have the police photographer get a shot of bread-line refugee Keaton through a window, then makes his escape. Keaton sees the poster, thinks it’s for real and that he killed a guy he pushed down in another town, chased around by sheriff Big Joe Roberts, ending up accidentally in Big Joe’s own apartment. The escape from the apartment has one of my favorite series of gags, a chase through the building’s single elevator.

My Wife’s Relations
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Running from cops, Keaton accidentally (preacher speaks Polish I think) gets married to a woman who’s trying to have him arrested. Comes home to her family of large, rough, intimidating men. Tries to fit in at first, then plots to escape, riding the train to Reno at the end.

The Scarecrow
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Keaton is friends with Big Joe in this one. They live in a one-room house that inventively conceals a bath, bed, stove and kitchen table with ropes and hinges. Both men are competing for a woman (same girl played the wife in The Boat, her farmer father is played by Joe Keaton), leading to a chase scene where Keaton disguises himself as a scarecrow. Best part is Keaton in a dangerously high chase with a dog that can climb ladders (up and down!) which ends up going through the rigged house.

The Paleface
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Keaton wanders into an Indian reservation right after they swear to kill white men in response to their land being stolen by oil barons… finds time mid-chase to make an asbestos suit, so after he fails to burn at the stake, he’s made an honorary member of the tribe. Now he and chief Big Joe team up against the scheming white men. Virginia Fox, hot girl from The Goat, Cops and others, plays the chief’s daughter, Keaton’s prize for saving the reservation at the end. She never gets much to do except to look pretty in a few close-ups.

These are all totally worthwhile shorts… think I’d choose Scarecrow and Goat to show off to others, if I ever had people over for a shorts-fest like I keep threatening to do.

Big Joe Roberts:
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Buster is a nonathletic college kid, stressing academic achievement over sport. But when his girl falls for an athlete, Buster’s gotta prove his versatility on the field to win her back!

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Or something along those lines. At the end, the jock is threatening to ruin her just by staying in her dorm room and not leaving. If it’s known that she was alone with him for more than a few minutes, her virginity will be in question, and she’ll have to leave college in shame. Fortunately, Buster pole-vaults through the window and pelts him with college memorabilia. A weird little movie, pretty funny but didn’t kill.

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Also watched The Electric House (1922), a short from back when suicide was funny:
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Buster Keaton’s first film for MGM, and “first film BK made with a prepared script”. Silent. Unbelievably highly rated considering how lame it seemed to me.

Keaton costars with Marceline Day (60+ movies in a decade, stopped acting in ’33, lived till 2000). This is only a year after Sherlock Jr., The General and College, and just a few years before his career had completely devolved into junk like What, No Beer?. The beginning of the end for Buster!

So he “acts” in this one… he has facial reactions, falls in love, looks angry and sad and everything. No more blank faced humor. Scene in a pool changing room that was so long and obvious I started looking at the records on the wall instead of the movie. All sorts of trouble.

Keaton is a “tintype” photographer, charging for portraits on the street, when he meets M. Day. He follows her to the newsreel office where she works, trades in the tintype for an expensive (for him) ol’ beat-up movie camera. Tries to be johnny on the spot with the news, but can’t compete with the big fellas. So Day gives Buster a tip on the Chinatown riots, which Buster covers himself in the only great scene… putting himself in mortal danger with his accidentally acquired new pet monkey sometimes running the camera, making it all the funnier when the news fellas later see the footage and declare it the best camera work they’d ever seen. But first Buster has to be sadly disgraced and lose his girl to a showoffy strongman then he has to disgrace the strongman via a daring speedboat rescue, regaining the girl and securing a job at the news place. And everyone is happy except for the strongman (no girl, probably no job) and me (only two funny scenes, Buster losing his distinctive personality with no apparent gains). Not a waste of time or anything, don’t recommend against it, just sorta personally disappointing.

Sign on the door: “Ladie’s dressing rooms”

Limelight 1

Five years after Monsieur Verdoux, twelve after The Great Dictator, and his third-to-last movie. This would be an interesting one to read more about. Charlie plays a clown (Calvero), used to be the most famous in the country but now all washed up. Meets a ballerina on the verge of success but with suicidal tendencies. She tells of a songwriter she once fell for, but insists she’s now fallen for Calvero, wants to marry him. He says that’s ridiculous, that he’s a failing old man and she’s a lovely young woman. Interesting philosophy, since Chaplin (63) wrote + directed and the lead actress (21) was much closer in age to Chaplin’s real wife (26). Anyway, they help each other out, Calvero fades away and lets the girl do her own thing without him. Doesn’t work – she tracks him down, gets him huge sold-out final gig, after which he conveniently dies leaving her to her dark handsome composer and a future as a world-famous ballerina

Limelight 2

Not a comedy, drama all the way, with a few funny bits. Sweet story, good looking movie, totally enjoyed it. I guess the most “personal” movie I’ve seen of his… seems more so than the Great Dictator.

At Calvero’s final gig, he’s doing some of the same jokes he does at the beginning of the movie that get walkouts and disinterest. But at the big sold-out show, audiences are hooting their appreciation, thunderous applause, love love loving it. The jokes haven’t gotten better, but the reception has. Old star suddenly propped up by current new stars and given a benefit gig with hugely overappreciative audience, seemed to me like the crowd is applauding themselves for supporting the old man, the kind of award-show self-important applause that has more to do with being important enough to attend the Big Event and cultured enough to recognize the Famous Talent than it does the actual performance. Don’t know if that’s what Chaplin intended, but anyway, the applause made Calvero feel a whole lot better.

Buster Keaton was in it!

Limelight 3