After Keystone and before Mutual, Chaplin spent a year at Essanay Studios in Chicago.


His New Job

Oh man, these Essanay shorts are a half hour long? And there are seventeen of them, so that’s gonna be… about a hundred hours of dudes opening doors into other dudes’ faces and knocking them down. But if I wasn’t amused, I’d quit… the only thing that definitely has to go is the generic silent-film music on the blu-ray. If they’re gonna play music with no regard to the visuals’ mood or editing anyway, next time I might as well just put on something of my own. Anyway, Charlie comes to a film casting office, gets hired as an extra but fucks that up, is made a carpenter until a lead actor is fired, then Charlie replaces that guy in the film-within-film. So many asses get kicked and stabbed and sawed and thwacked, and finally a hammer-wielding Charlie flies into a workplace-violence rage. With Charles “no relation” Hitchcock as the late-arriving male lead, and Gloria Swanson as a background stenographer… I love that extras played movie stars, and stars played extras.

That must be Gloria in the back:


A Night Out

Katy joined me for most of this, making it the first Chaplin we’ve watched since The Gold Rush in 2010. I suppose it’s better than the previous short, but not much. Chaplin plays a fucking asshole, out drinking with his crosseyed friend Ben Turpin, who tries to keep him out of trouble and whom Charlie will later try to murder with a brick. In the meantime he gets into hijinks with Edna Purviance (her first Chaplin film) and hides from her husband Bud Jamison (a Three Stooges sideman who died in the 1940’s from being a Christian Scientist). This one’s more notable for the personnel involved than anything that takes place in it.


The Champion

Charlie is down and out, but still offers a bulldog some of his lunch. He signs up as a human punching bag for boxer Spike Dugan (Ernest Van Pelt, on loan from the Broncho Billy cowboy series) and gets his face kalsomined, then fights back with a horseshoe in his boxing glove. So Charlie is pitted against Bob Uppercut (Bud Jamison) for the championship (featuring some fun long-take boxing shenanigans) and wins with help from the bulldog. Also, the movie stops dead for a while when a shady character arrives (prolific mustache villain Leo White) trying to bribe Charlie into throwing the fight while continually stopping to talk into the camera and do his Snidely mustache thing. Edna appears as an obligatory love interest. I listened to Bill Orcutt, which didn’t really work at all, but I got used to it.

That must be Essanay cofounder Broncho Billy next to our black-hatted villain:

Charlie and Edna heard us looking:


In The Park

In the park are: (2) romance-novel-reading Edna and her would-be-man (Bud Jamison in a short tie), (4) a pair of lovers (Leo White with his nogoodnik mustache, and Leona Anderson, Broncho Billy’s little sister), (5) the world’s most obvious pickpocket (future film director Lloyd Bacon), (7) a couple of violent bumpkins with a pot of sausages, (8) a cop, and (9) Charlie, going around being an absolute ass to everyone. More people get whacked in the head with bricks, the rest get kicked into the lake, and this terror spree is all fun and charming because Charlie is the one doing it.


A Jitney Elopement

Wow, a car chase, with Chaplin driving and being filmed from another car alongside. This is advanced stuff, but not very funny, as he spends 85% of the movie running away from his girl’s dad, her suitor and two cops, pausing to kick them in the ass or throw bricks at their heads. A promising intro section though, Chaplin pretending to be “Count Chloride” to get dinner at Edna’s house, but has table manner troubles. Some prop stuff we didn’t follow – the servants keep destroying the food and dishes, I’m not sure why, and Chaplin is constantly fidgeting with cigarettes. All the same actors as usual, now joined by Irish theater star Paddy “Bungling Bill” McGuire as one of the butlers.


The Tramp

More bricks to heads, in fact there are some worrying head injuries in this one, but now some new actions, as Charlie jump-kicks a guy, gets shot, and sits in a drain pipe cuz his ass is on fire. Naive Edna has two dollars, and everybody wants them, but Charlie wants mostly to protect the girl from his fellow tramps because she is his true love. When it turns out she’s not in love but just helping him out, and he sees her with fiancee Lloyd Bacon (also one of the tramps!), he sneaks away and walks off down the road, an ending he’d keep coming back to.

Edna and her two dollars:

Edna’s dad Ernest has more than two dollars:


By The Sea

Filmed at Crystal Pier, reportedly because Chaplin was between studio locations, having found the Essanay sets unacceptably low-rent. Chaplin gets mixed up with a mustache man because their hats, both tied to their coats with string because of the high wind, get tangled. He torments the guy, who ends up punching a cop, they make up then antagonize big Bud Jamison and an ice cream man, while Charlie takes time to flirt with all the wives. After minor roles in the previous films, Billy Armstrong has his big moment as the mustache man, with newcomer Margie Reiger as his wife, and extremely prolific sideman Snub Pollard as the ice cream man. I played a mix of Book Beriah songs, which worked great, especially Banquet of the Spirits.


His Regeneration

What is happening… it’s a crime drama with a cameo by Chaplin but mostly starring Broncho Billy with creepy glowing eyes as a thief and murderer. He gets shot, apparently not too badly, in a bar fight over a girl, then breaking into the same girl’s house that night he kills his partner Lee Willard. Lee was a Broncho regular, likewise the girl Marguerite Clayton, who agrees to tell the cops that she shot the partner breaking in, while Broncho promises that he’ll turn over a new leaf because of her kindness. More Book Beriah: Secret Chiefs and Julian Lage worked fine, but Abraxas just reinforced how unexpected this thing is.


Work

Charlie drives an equipment rickshaw up a steep hill, narrowly missing the streetcar, whipped the whole way by his abusive boss Charles Inslee (he played bosses and professors, made it to 1921’s Adventures of Tarzan before dying at 52). They are meant to wallpaper a house full of its own petty dramas (with the usual suspects plus housewife Marta Golden), but of course these workers are incredibly incompetent – and it’s kinda a mess of a movie too, feels excessively padded. One good bit: Marta puts her silver in the safe, and in response the workers safety-pin their watches into a pants pocket. I played my new guitar+cello CD from Drag City but it proved too dissonant for slapstick, so back to Zorn.


A Woman

Even before the crossdressing second half, this is an improvement in the action. Opens with more messing about in a park – a “flirt” is aggressively picking up guys, and family man Inslee fights Charlie over her and ends up in the lake. Charlie in turn picks up Inslee’s wife Marta and daughter Edna and they invite him home for doughnuts (whatever conditions these movies were filmed in, you can see the table is crawling with flies). When the man of the house comes home and Charlie realizes who it is, he dressed as a woman (even “shaves” his mustache) to escape, pauses to taunt dad and his new friend Billy Armstrong, then declares his love for Edna. Pretty much nonstop activity, with one delicious pause trying to find the perfect lakeside spot to kick in the blindfolded Inslee. One of five Chaplin shorts on the Anthology Film Archives Essentials list.

Edna is not impressed by Charlie’s initial attempt to be a woman:


The Bank

Back into filler territory already… cute bank vault intro, then it’s mostly Charlie feuding with fellow janitor Billy Armstrong and playing havoc with his mop, and a mixup where Edna is in love with a cashier also named Charlie. Things pick up when Lawrence Bowes (a newcomer but wearing the same fake mustache as all the heavies, so who can tell) brings some guys to rob the bank after his meeting with the president goes badly, our Charlie singlehandedly takes them all out while Cashier Charlie hides under a desk, and the girl switches Charlies… but in the apparently deleted final minute, the janitor wakes up kissing his mop, the robbery just a dream. Cashier Charlie was Carl Stockdale, bit actor and alleged murderer of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922.

A Tale of Two Charlies:


Shanghaied

More intricate than usual, and with some good acrobatics, mostly involving keeping things upright while a boat sways – even while doing flips! – then smashing everything anyway, because the general public didn’t pay their five cents to see Chaplin carefully protect a bunch of dishes. Ship owner pays captain (Bowes again) to destroy his boat for the insurance, captain needs a bunch of men onboard who I guess are supposed to drown to make it look convincing, so he pays Charlie to bonk sailors on the head and toss them into the boat until the sailor pile is large enough to go out to sea. Charlie was also dating the owner’s daughter Edna, so everyone ends up on board along with a barrel full of gunpowder. Newcomers: the cook in the best scene (Charlie absolutely ruining the soup) is John Rand, who would get minor parts in Chaplin films through Modern Times, cabin boy Fred Goodwins, who would make the jump to the Mutuals before dying of bronchitis at 32, and as the owner: Wesley Ruggles! After ten more Chaplin shorts, Wesley started directing, made about 50 movies in the 1920’s, then won best picture with Cimarron and directed Mae West in her censor-defying I’m No Angel.

Conspirators Bowes and Ruggles:


A Night in the Show

A very drunk Posh Chaplin, predating his excellent drunken Mutual short One AM, is seated up front in the richie section for a variety show, while a Poor Chaplin with completely different mustache and eyebrows sits in the balcony cheap seats. On the plus side, it’s all very funny – on the minus, there’s Leo White in blackface. Newcomers: As the chuckling fat boy who brings two pies to the performance (guess where those end up) we’ve got Dee Lampton, whose final film would be the Harold Lloyd short Haunted Spooks before he died at age 20 of appendicitis. May White (no relation to Leo?) plays a performer, and Carrie Clark Ward (woman with the feather hat that Charlie destroys) appeared in the first screen version of The Awful Truth (the Cary Grant was its second remake).

Cheap Charlie grabs the firehose:


A Burlesque on Carmen

Atypical Chaplin short for a number of reasons… for one, his character has a name: Darn Hosiery. He’s a guard who turns on his fellow officer Leo White for the love of Carmen Edna, who has seduced him into helping him admit her smuggler friends through the gates. She runs off with bullfighter John Rand and Chaplin chases her to Seville, demanding that she belongs to him, then murder-suicides (kind of – it’s the second movie I watched this month to end with a gag knife trick). Added to the usual gang of idiots is Jack Henderson as a barkeep – his career of bit parts would fizzle after the silent era. Based on the famous novel/opera, which has also been filmed by Lubitsch, DeMille, Raoul Walsh (twice!), Jacques Feyder, Christian-Jaque, Charles Vidor, Otto Preminger, Terence Young, Radley Metzger, Carlos Saura, Francesco Rosi, Joseph Gaï Ramaka, Mark Dornford-May, Alexander Payne, Jean-Luc Godard, and Lotte Reiniger. I played an excellent Roberto Rodriguez album.


Police

“Each man kills the thing he loves” – I didn’t realize this Mike Patton & Jean-Claude Vannier album would have lyrics, but they’re appropriate, Patton croaking “where’s the money at” during the heist scene. Charlie gets robbed on his way out of prison by a fake preacher and fails to get into a flophouse. Why does he put an alarm clock in his pocket? A costarring role for Wesley Ruggles as Chaplin’s ex-cellmate who ropes him into burglarizing Edna’s house, and who later shoots Charlie multiple times in the butt. Charlie takes Edna’s side during the ensuing tussle, so when the cops arrive, she acts like he is her husband – shades of the fake-Chaplin His Regeneration. Consistently good movie – they’ve come a long way since the plotless slapstick nonsense of the earlier films.


Triple Trouble

The most poorly restored and shoddily edited of the bunch, cobbled together by Essanay after Chaplin had left the studio from outtakes stitched together with a newly-filmed framework starring unknown actors. I listened to Steve Gunn and William Tyler in honor of Hanukkah night one. Chaplin works as a janitor for explosives inventor Nutt, torments Edna the maid then retires to the flophouse from Police, where Billy Armstrong is robbing the residents and chewing the scenery. This ends in a pretty good brawl, then we’re out of fresh Chaplin footage, as he meets Ruggles in a couple scenes directly recycled from Police to get back into the inventor’s house, where a bunch of cops are flailing about. Thus ended Chaplin’s Essanay era. It’s a considerable amount of output for a single year. Essanay barely lasted past the Chaplin year as a studio; signed Max Linder and merged with Vitagraph before becoming part of Warner Bros.

Half-hour movies of Chaplin causing havoc a hundred years ago. Guess I’d assumed they’d be better with more planned-out gags, like my favorite Keaton shorts, since Chaplin had creative control at Mutual. Fun stuff though, and the HD restorations look great.

The Floorwalker (1916)

Charlie wanders into an awful department store, with abusive employees, a thieving manager and shoplifting customers. He swaps place with lookalike Lloyd Bacon (later director of Footlight Parade and 42nd Street), and fights both manager Eric Campbell and a confounding escalator.

The Fireman (1916)

Charlie is a very bad fireman who should not rightly be in the business of saving lives. Chief Campbell is supposedly corrupt, letting Bacon’s house burn down for insurance money in exchange for Campbell getting to wed Bacon’s daughter Edna Purviance. But there are two fires and Edna is caught in one of them and I lose track of what happens but Charlie scales the building, saves Edna and they run off.

The Vagabond (1916)

Good one – Charlie (more Tramp-like than in the previous two) plays violin for spare change, gets chased out of a bar and comes across a gypsy camp where poor Edna is being cruelly mistreated, so he rescues her with speed and violence. But the plot goes on – Charlie helps her clean up and she’s discovered by painter Lloyd Bacon, whose portrait of her wins a prize, attracting the attention of Edna’s real mom, who races to rescue her presumably-kidnapped daughter. Charlie refuses payment for his part in all this, is left sad and alone as usual.

A. Vanneman:

For the first time he “saves” someone, Edna, kidnapped by Gypsies as a child and kept as a virtual slave ever since. In real life Chaplin wanted to save his mother Hannah Chaplin, first from poverty and then from madness, which he was never able to do.

One A.M. (1916)

Wrote this up back in the public-domain DVD days.

The Count (1916)

Chaplin and Campbell are tailors who crash Miss Moneybags’ society costume party hoping to hook up with a rich countess, or at least get some free booze. It doesn’t go well. By the end there’s cake and punch bowls flying into faces, flip kicks and ass beatings (also an unaccountable scene about stinky cheese). Charlie gets the hell out of there, running for his life.

The Pawnshop (1916)

Pretty bad, mostly padding with fight scenes and ladder gags. Chaplin and John Rand work for pawnshop owner Henry Bergman (later Chaplin’s assistant director). He knocks around with Purviance, destroys stuff, threatens the customers and incidentally foils a robbery.

Behind The Screen (1916)

Charlie works for Campbell in movie sets construction. There’s some business with a lever-operated trap door, striking workers and Edna pretending to be a boy to find work, then this all devolves into a pie fight. Ends with Campbell being blown to bits! Poor Eric didn’t have a mustache to twirl in this one, though all the other actors with big fake beards couldn’t stop playing with them.

The Rink (1916)

From working at a restaurant to roller skating and back again (Charlie was both a skater and waiter in Modern Times as well). There’s an attempt to add extra plot and characters (Eric Campbell and his wife are both cheaters) but mostly it’s Charlie hurting people and causing gleeful chaos.

Easy Street (1917)

Elevated by the local mission (actually by missionary Edna), Charlie decides to get his life together and become a cop. He’s assigned to the worst street in town, run by ultraviolent wife-beater Eric Campbell. Charlie defeats Campbell (twice), an angry mob and a needle junkie. Some good moves in this one.

The Cure (1917)

Back to the rich drunk character from One A.M. (“Alcoholic Gentleman” in the credits). This time, Rich Drunk heads for a spa, with hot springs (which he pollutes with booze), a frightening masseur and a confounding revolving door. Eric Campbell is a short-tempered lout with a bad foot (“Gentleman With Gout”).

The Immigrant (1917)

Seen this before. Charlie and Edna immigrate to the U.S., he helps her out a few times, they somehow get jobs and evade Eric Campbell as a sadistic waiter, then Charlie marries Edna by force.

I’ve noticed Albert Austin before (a cook in The Rink), especially liked his reactions here:

Used this same shot last time, but it’s a favorite:

The Adventurer (1917)

Watched before. Charlie is an escaped convict evading police across a beach and mountain, then an endless succession of watery rescues featuring Edna, her mother and her loser fiancee Campbell, and finally Charlie and Campbell have an ass-kicking contest at a society party.

I told Katy it was more a string of comic episodes than a consistent story, but I badly misremembered. Very consistent indeed… almost too consistent, with some mopey bits and plot necessities dragging down the comic momentum. But Chaplin’s goal was presumably not to make just the funniest film, but something both funny and true.

From A. Vanneman’s terrific Chaplin articles in Bright Lights:

Charlie has three big men to contend with in The Gold Rush, Tom Murray as “Black Larsen,” Mack Swain as “Big Jim,” and Malcolm Waite as “Jack Cameron.” Wolf Larsen scarcely has a personality. He is merely a symbol of the savagery of nature. He murders two Mounties and leaves Big Jim for dead, before Nature herself, reclaiming her own, sends him plunging to his death in an avalanche.

Big Jim is Chaplin’s partner/rival searching for gold. They don’t do much searching, really, just hide out in murderer Larsen’s cabin attempting to keep peace and stay alive through the cold and hunger. Among the danger and misery we get Chaplin turning into a chicken, a cooked and eaten shoe and the famous cabin-on-edge-of-cliff number. Big Jim found plenty of gold at the start of the film but can’t get back to it, and when he does Larsen clubs him (amnesia!) before heading for death by avalanche. Jim, dazed, wanders towards town and isn’t seen for 45 minutes.

Charlie takes the second half with a love story, pining for Georgia Hale who makes fun of him, then feels sorry for him, and finally decides she loves him moments before Charlie reveals he’s become a millionaire by helping Big Jim re-find his gold. Not quite a City Lights ending but it’ll do.

More Vanneman:

“Oh, you’ve spoilt the picture,” exclaims the cameraman when Charlie and Georgia kiss, an inside joke based on the cliché that in Chaplin’s pictures he never got the girl. When Chaplin re-released The Gold Rush with a soundtrack in 1942, he cut out the kissing scene for some reason, although it’s still clear that Charlie and Georgia are going to get married.

Second time I’ve avoided the re-release, which is shorter and supposedly has Chaplin’s bemused voice narrating instead of the intertitles. Sounds ghastly, but maybe I’ll be on a Chaplin completist kick one day and check it out.

I’d considered declaring August to be Shorts Month and watching hundreds of those, so I stocked up, but the inspiration had fled by the time the month rolled around. But we can’t let all these shorts go to waste, so I still watched more than usual.

73 Suspect Words and Heaven’s Gate (2000, Peggy Ahwesh)
Fun gimmick videos, one displaying the “suspect words” found by running the Unabomber manifesto through a spell checker, and the other listing off the search keywords of the Heaven’s Gate cult’s website. In the first the text appears quickly and fades out, and in the second the words flicker constantly.
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Apocalypse Pooh (1987, T. Graham)
scenes from Apocalypse Now and Winnie The Pooh inexpertly combined. Actually the lipsync and some of the shot selections were pretty wonderful. I’m pretty sure nobody will ever care about this movie again now that a hundred thousand video mashups are clogging youtube, but it’s a cute piece of cult history. The poor video quality would turn on the guy who made Out of Print.

Thanksgiving Prayer (1991, Gus Van Sant)
William S. Burroughs hatin’ on America, being a general bummer, as is the fashion among leftists around Thanksgiving time. Decent video but I far prefer Ballad of the Skeletons with Allen Ginsberg.
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Szalontudo (2006, Szirmai Marton)
That joke where guy 1 thinks guy 2 has stolen his food, so he starts eating from the other side, and they glare at each other eating the same food, then guy 2 walks off and guy 1 sees his food still untouched… he was eating guy 2’s food! Ah! This was terrible, with gross squishy chewing sound effects. Won an audience award in north-central Spain where they’ve never heard that joke before.
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Le Vol d’Icare (1974, Georges Schwitzgebel)
I think it’s primitive animation made on a lite-brite. Or maybe it’s HyperStudio version 0.1. Story of icarus, I suppose. I liked the flocks of birds. What is that, a harpsichord?
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Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005, Peter Tscherkassky)
Pumping stutter-motion! Variable-speed lock-groove dude in a Leone western having a death-dream. Ends with words “Start,” “End” and “Finish” overlapping as the guy, appearing to be on fire, runs with mirrored graveyards above and below him.
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The Adventurer (1917, Charles Chaplin)
Weird to see Charlie as an escaped convict threatening cops with a shotgun. But there’s plenty of ass-kickin and cliff-jumpin so it’s alright. I forgot the encoding quality is garbage on my copy of these… must buy a better one.
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Inflation (1927, Hans Richter)
Rich people, money, poor people, more money, stock traders, more and more and more money, digits rushing at the screen whilst speed-adjusted carnival nightmare music plays until the whole damn thing comes crashing down. Only two minutes long! An achievement.
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Yellow Tag (2004, Jan Troell)
In the old days we were close to our farm animals but today governments require tracking ear-tags. Fun movie… maybe didn’t need the classroom and religious art scenes, but it makes up for that in the end by going all wacky with shooting galleries and suited men raining down outside some kinda UN building.
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Crac! (1981, Frédéric Back)
Animated story of the creation and long life of a rocking chair, accompanied by drum and fiddle music. It’s much better than it sounds.
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Thigh Line Lyre Triangular (1961, Stan Brakhage)
Arrrrgh, another birthing movie! Why did nobody warn me? Apparently the title is Brak-code for “vagina.” Once I got over the initial shock, this is excellent. Hand-processed frames over live-action film, intense.
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Watched the DVD version – the reissue with Chaplin’s score and a little song he sings over the opening titles. This came between The Gold Rush and City Lights, same year as Steamboat Bill Jr. and The Cameraman, Lloyd’s Speedy, and the first Laurel & Hardy shorts.

Cute movie. Katy liked it because she knew exactly how long it would be. Charlie/Tramp has a run-in with a thief, ends up with a rich dude’s wallet. Chased by cops through a funhouse (featuring the hall of mirrors), runs right into a lame, tired circus and makes the audience laugh for the first time in the show. Hired by the ringmaster (the steel company president in Modern Times) as a clown, but does the routines just as sadly as everyone else, only funny when he doesn’t mean to be – so he stays on as a prop guy while secretly the hit of the show. Meanwhile, ringmaster’s daughter (Merna Kennedy, who retired 6 years later when she married Busby Berkeley), object of affection (and parental abuse), falls for the tightrope walker (played by Chaplin’s assistant director). Charlie does a tightrope act of his own (involving monkeys!) to impress the girl, but when they’re both fired he hooks her up with the tightrope guy in order to get her accepted back into the circus, then Charlie lets it ride off to the next town without him. My favorite bits involved CC trapped in a lion cage, and pretending to be an automaton conking the thief in the head to avoid police.

Movie won an honorary “versatility and genius” award at the first Oscar ceremony.

Three from A. Vanneman:

1. “The darkness and despair that are the flip side of the artificial glamour and gaiety of the circus have been a potent symbol in art at least as far back as the haunted pierrots of Watteau. The classic film version is the classic of classics, The Children of Paradise. The fifties brought more treatises on three-ring existential despair, Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel and Fellini’s La Strada.”

2. “The shots of a 38-year-old Chaplin 40 feet off the ground with no net and no wire are not faked.”

3. “The Circus is the only Chaplin feature that has an unhappy ending.”

Is this the best we can do? Foggy, low-res, windowboxed, interlaced versions of Chaplin’s classic shorts? Oh wait, no I see i can get nicer copies from BFI for $70. Bah.

One A.M. (Chaplin Mutual #4) has been a favorite since I first saw it a couple years ago. Weird Thing #1: This is a Chaplin one-man show, a solo slapstick performance interacting with props and sets (actually one other actor, a cab driver, but he barely moves). Weird Thing #2: Chaplin is rich in this, apparently a big-game hunter with his own two-story house. Our man comes home very, very drunk and tries to negotiate the cab door, his bunches of stuffed animals, treacherous furniture and slippery floors, two staircases, a clock with a murderous pendulum, and a self-aware hideaway bed. Hilarity ensues.
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The Immigrant (Chaplin Mutual #11) returns us to the guy we know – poor, but sweet and resourceful. In the first reel, he’s on the boat coming to the U.S., thwarting a card cheat and helping out Edna Purviance (seen next to C.C. below).
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The second reel is essentially a whole new movie – Charlie finds some money so takes himself out to eat – sees Edna and treats her too. But the money has disappeared, and now C.C.’s got to figure a way out of the place lest he be beaten to death by head waiter Eric Campbell. Fortunately more money shows up rolling around on the floor (streets paved with gold, and all that), but another guy grabs it, and through some trickery, Charlie pays with that guy’s tip. He celebrates this victory by practically forcing Edna to marry him.
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I am pleased to say that the movie never quite dives into gritty, depressing realism. It seems like it will… I mean, the second scene is set in a horrible homeless shelter with our hero lying half dead on the floor, his leg smashed after a car ran over it, being dragged unconscious into the showers by the shelter’s other miserable-looking occupants. But forty minutes later he is motoring down the Seine towing Juliette Binoche on waterskiis, surrounded by fireworks in what must’ve been one of the most exuberant film sequences of the decade. When he’s sick of it, he throws away his crutch and in the next scene his cast is gone too. The movie reminds us of real-world problems but its heroes are above them… homeless, sick, injured, lonely, hungry, fighting with each other, but never so bad that the next scene can’t fix everything.

Guy with the busted leg is Alex, resourceful homeless guy who lives on the under-construction bridge with his scary mentor Hans (who dispenses whatever drug Alex needs to sleep at night). Binoche is heartbroken Michelle who was a painter before she started going blind and ran away from her treatment. After they fall in love, Alex rebels when he hears that a search is on to find and cure Michelle, preferring her to be dependent on his care. But she finds out and gets the cure, while he inadvertently lights a guy on fire and goes to jail for a couple years. Very romantic-comedy-like, they make a date to meet on Christmas on the repaired bridge and end up together. Sounds dreadfully obvious, and it does get a bit indie-film-cutesy, but the love story and the ballsy storytelling pulled me right in… loved the movie.

Binoche was nominated for a best actress Cesar, but running against Emmanuelle Beart for La Belle noiseuse and Irene Jacob for Double Life of Veronique, the “brave young actress in awesome art film” vote was split, and the award went to elder Jeanne Moreau for a comedy I’ve never heard of. But up against a completely different group of actresses, Binoche took the European Film Award that year. Denis Lavant, also star of Carax’s Bad Blood and Denis’s Beau travail, unsurprisingly (because he’s funny-lookin’) later appeared in A Very Long Engagement. Hans was Klaus-Michael Grüber, previously a director for television, who has appeared in nothing else.

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Learned some stuff on other sites. Everyone wants to talk about the movie’s huge spiraling budget as Carax, unable to use the bridge itself, built a new bridge (and the surrounding buildings!) over a lake for a movie set. And everyone wants to talk about the movie being a flop upon release in theaters. And Americans want to gripe about the nine-year-delayed release to theaters here. And everyone makes a point of mentioning that Leos Carax is a made-up name, but I only saw one mention that the character Alex is a stand-in for the director (real name Alex), who was dating Juliette Binoche while this was in production. Also found plenty of comparisons to other films:

Titanic – for the ending (“king of the world” bit on the barge), fact that it’s a super-expensive movie but plot is a simple two-person love story.

One From The Heart – for the romantic tone, but mostly for the huge, awesomely expensive artificial set created for the movie, and the subsequent damage to the director’s career after the movie was not well-received.

City Lights – blind girl, in love with a homeless man, regains her sight at the end. Clearly an influence on the story.

L’Atalante – ahh, there’s the one Carax probably had in mind. Protagonists are poor but resourceful, in love but in a rocky relationship, joined by a moody father-figure old man, end up together on a barge. Perfect.

This will be one to watch again when I know more French, or just when I’ve lived longer.


Chapter 1(a), “Toutes les histoires” (“All the (Hi)stories”)

Dedicated to Mary Meerson (Langlois’s companion who helped run the Cinematheque) and Monica Tegelaar (producer of Raoul Ruiz’s On Top of the Whale).

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IMDB says parts one and two came out in the late 80’s, and the rest followed in the late 90’s. This one seemed more like a 50-minute trailer than an episode. Montage of archive footage, still and moving, edited and faded and superimposed and blended together. The footage includes scenes from films of course (rules of the game, great dictator, day of wrath, germany year zero) but lots of stills (producers, directors, Thalberg, Hughes) and paintings. Lots of focus on World War II, and ending with that Germany Year Zero segment, the whole thing came off as vaguely depressing. Maybe that’s why it took ten years to get the rest of the episodes made?

Three images overlapped: (1) Rita Hayworth dancing, (2) a drawing of Howard Hughes in his final days, (3) the witch-burning scene in Day of Wrath.


Chapter 1(b), “Une Histoire seule” (“A Single (Hi)story”)

Dedicated to John Cassavetes and Glauber Rocha (Brazilian director of Black God, White Devil).

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Surprising number of references to Godard’s own films. Tons and tons of stuff I am not getting because I don’t know much French (I pick up half the film titles and some of the short sayings printed onscreen) or art history, and haven’t seen most of the films. Should’ve known better than to think part two would be more straightforward or make more sense. Even if I don’t know what it’s saying, I still get interesting juxtapositions of images and nice shots from great films seen and unseen, which is enough to keep me watching. Sounded like I heard some Leonard Cohen and Neil Diamond.


Chapter 2(a), “Seule le cinema” (“Only Cinema”)

Dedicated to Armand J. Cauliez (a writer, published a book on Jacques Tati) and Santiago Alvarez (Cuban filmmaker).

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Fast-forward a decade. Same ol’ thing here, but two big changes:

(1) Not just montage of pre-existing footage edited with Godard in his study anymore. An actual actor, Julie Delpy, reading poetry. Also an interview with Godard by another guy (couldn’t be Serge Daney – he died in ’92), 90% untranslated.

(2) Me getting a little tired and pondering making my own historie(s) of cinema instead


Chapter 2(b), “Fatale beauté” (“Deadly Beauty”)

Dedicated to Michele Firk (film writer turned militant radical, killed herself in Guatemala to escape arrest) and Nicole Ladmiral (actress in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest).

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Sabine Azema (above) recits some poetry, much of it untranslated. Godard types at his typewriter some more. I listened in the headphones and a background noise (JLG’s pet bird?) frightened me. Something about photography being invented in black and white as the colors of mourning to note the death of reality. And something about women, and murder, and Band of Outsiders and Rancho Notorious and Gone With The Wind. Good to see that Godard appreciates Tom Waits.


Chapter 3(a), “La Monnaie de l’absolu” (“The Coin of the Absolute”)

Dedicated to Gianni Amico (Italian filmmaker, assistant director on Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution and Godard’s Le Vent d’est & James Agee (film writer, champion of Chaplin’s Monseiur Verdoux, writer of Night of the Hunter and The African Queen)

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or part 3A, the war and futility episode. WWII talk leads into an appreciation of Italian Neorealism and the most clearly presented introduction to a certain aspect of cinema and history thus far in the series. Says that Italian cinema in the 40’s and 50’s changed film like Manet (the godfather of modern art) changed painting. Closes with a nice montage of Italian film (minus too much onscreen block text and crazed fade transitions) set to a Richard Cocciante song. This episode has a clear point and meaning and narrative arc and supporting arguments… I don’t understand. Maybe the others have too, and I’ve been missing it. Juliette Binoche appears with Alain Cuny (of Les Amants and La Dolce Vita), who died in 1994, four years before this episode aired. Julie Delpy looked mighty young in her segment too – maybe all this footage was shot in the 80’s and not finished editing until ten years later.


Chapter 3(b), “Une Vague Nouvelle” (“A New Wave”)

Dedicated to Frederic C. Froeschel (head of a cine-club in Paris, 1950) and Naum Kleiman (Russian film critic, director of the Moscow Film Museum).

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“Becker, Rossellini, Melville, Franju, Jacques Demy, Truffaut. You knew them.”
“Yes, they were my friends.”

A personal episode, sometimes celebratory but more usually melancholy. Godard himself is the guest speaker this time, but he’s actually into it, not just distractedly reciting behind his typewriter. These things never quite seem to begin, the opening titles still playing when the episode is half over. Some 400 Blows, some Henri Langlois, more goings-on about the death of cinema. What, is video the new art form?


Chapter 4(a), “Le Côntrole de l’univers” (“The Control of the Universe”)

Dedicated to Michel Delahaye (actor in Out 1, Alphaville, plenty more) and Jean Domarchi (1950’s, 60’s Cahiers critic, had a bit part in Breathless).

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Another really good one. Probably not coincidentally, all the voiceover on this one is translated, so I was able to understand it. Lots of voiceover – it’s getting to be more of an essay lately and less of a purely visual slideshow. Still plenty of that dull video text, white-on-black block lettering. The thing always drags a little when JLG decides to move those words around the screen for thirty seconds before returning to the film clips. When there were clips, it seems half of them were by Hitchcock, “our century’s greatest creator of forms.”


Chapter 4(b), “Les Signes parmi nous” (“The Signs Among Us”)

Dedicated to Anne-Marie Miéville (one of Godard’s collaborators since 1976) and to Godard himself.

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I hope nobody stumbles across this entry hoping to learn about the film, because I really doubt I understood most of it. More more more war images in this section (have I mentioned that the film is obsessed with WWII?) and more ponderings on love, death, art, history, man, the state, and Charlie Chaplin. And it seems to me that Godard is terribly depressed. Anyway, here’s a good bit of the voiceover from the last eight minutes:

I need a day to tell the history of a second…
I need an eternity to tell the history of a day.

We can do everything except the history of what we are doing. It is my privilege to film and live in France as an artist. Nothing like a country that every day walks further down the path of its own inexorable decline.

I am the fugitive enemy of our times. The totalitarianism of the present as applied mechanically every day more oppressive on a planetary scale. This faceless tyranny that effaces all faces for the systematic organization of the unified time of the moment. This global, abstract tyranny which I try to oppose from my fleeting point of view. Because I try, because I try in my compositions to show an ear that listens to time. And try to make it heard and to surge into the future.

The only thing that survives from one epoch is the art from it created. No activity can become an art until its proper epoch has ended. Then, this art will disappear. Thus, the art of the 19th century – cinema – made the 20th century exist, which barely existed.

Cinema feared nothing of others or of itself. It wasn’t sheltered from time. It was the shelter of time. Yes, image is happiness. But beside it dwells nothingness. The power of the image is expressed only by invoking nothingness. It is perhaps worth adding: The image, able to negate nothingness, is also the gaze of nothingness on us. The image is light. Nothingness, immensely heavy. The image gleams. Nothingness is that thickness where all is veiled. The most fleeting moments possess an illustrious past. If a man passed through paradise in his dreams and received a flower as proof of passage, and on waking, found this flower in his hand… What is there to say? I was that man.

Thought I’d watch the Cannes 1988 press conference, but after the first three minutes (“video artist” Godard passionately attacking television) it all turns French.

From a belatedly-discovered interview between JLG and J. Rosenbaum:

JR: Yes, but it also isn’t legally acknowledged that films and videos can be criticism.
JLG: It’s the only thing video can be — and should be.

With that strong distinction between film and video, it occurs to me that JLG considers Histoire(s) as being about cinema but not being a work of cinema itself. I watch Breathless on my TV and say I’ve seen one Godard movie, then I watch Histoire(s) on my TV and say I’ve seen two Godard movies. JLG should like to smack me for such a thought.

Yay, a public screening, but boo, a DVD projection. The roller skating scene and the singing scene and the opening factory scenes will never cease to be funny and amazing. Charlie gets fired from his factory job after going completely mental from being treated like a machine, ends up in jail. Foils jailbreak high on coke that fellow inmate slips into salt shaker. Gets letter of commendation from the mayor, which gets him night watchman gig at department store. Meanwhile, orphan girl (dad died in workers’ protest) is stealing to eat and dreaming of a nice home and a nice husband, meets Charlie and they play at the store after hours. The store is robbed and Charlie and the girl are caught up in the plot. Then I forget a few things, but she ends up dancing at a restaurant and Charlie gets to be a singing waiter, then The Song…

edit 7/31/07: Katy finally watched last night. Liked it!

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