- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (20/3/2020)
(Reviews of The Truth; Dogs Don't Wear Pants; The Great Buster: A Celebration; and Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am)
Cinemas may be closed during these effing dismal days. But there are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release over the next few weeks and months. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.
Film-makers have been working outside their own countries since the first flickings. Frenchman Louis Le Prince produced moving images in Leeds in 1888 before the mysterious disappearance that makes Christopher Rawlence's The Missing Reel (1990) and David Nicholas Williamson's The First Film (2015) such compelling viewing. Compatriot Alice Guy-Blaché crossed the Atlantic to set up her own studio in New Jersey, as Pamela B. Green recalled in Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2019). Indeed, once Hollywood became the world's film capital after the Great War, it was scarcely unusual for European pioneers like Maurice Tourneur, Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller to work there.
Shortly after Paramount, UFA and MGM agreed to collaborate under the terms of the 1924 Parufamet Agreement, however, the introduction of sound complicated matters. It was no longer simply to substitute language-appropriate intertitles and popular films were made in multiple-tongues to sustain the export market. Eventually, subtitles and dubbing were introduced and cinema became a much more parochial enterprise.
There were still émigrés, of course, with numerous continental directors fleeing the various fascist dictatorships in the 1930s, The postwar period saw a rise in globe-trotting as co-production became the norm. But it still makes headlines when film-makers of the calibre of François Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman and Wim Wenders step outside their native traditions. More recently, Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Asghar Farhadi have followed suit and Japan's Hirokazu Kore-eda joins their number by making The Truth in French and English.
Grande dame Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) is promoting her memoir, The Truth, when screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) flies in from the United States with her actor husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), and their eight year-old daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier). Lumir is annoyed that her mother has broken her promise to send her the manuscript in advance in order to check for inaccuracies and surprises. But she is furious that Fabienne has falsely claimed that she used to collect her from school, when she was always too busy and left the chore to her father, Pierre (Roger Van Hool), or her assistant, Luc Garbois (Alain Libolt). Fabienne couldn't care less, however, as the unvarnished truth bores her and she feels entitled to tell any version of her past that she pleases.
Charlotte is intrigued by the notion that her grandmother has magical powers after hearing that she once played a witch and totally believes her when she says that Pierre the tortoise used to be a man before she put a spell on him. She joins Fabienne and Lumir on a visit to the Epinay Studios for a read through of the former's next project, Memories of My Mother, a science fiction adventures that stars Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel) as a woman who returns to Earth after seven years in space.
While Fabienne pretends not to have heard of the director (Sébastien Chassagne), Luc watches Charlotte cutting down the snooty child star playing Manon's daughter, Amy at the age of 10 (Hannah Castel Chiche), by claiming to be a big star in Hollywood. Lumir recalls being at the studio years before with her mother's great rival, Sarah Mondavan, but rallies to her side when it becomes clear during the rehearsal that Manon is trying to steal her limelight. Luc suggests she sounds like Sarah, but Fabienne is affronted that this starlet should be compared to her old friend. She is playing Amy at 73 and chats cattily with the actress playing the same role at 38 (Ludivine Sagnier).
Back home, Fabienne is dismayed to hear that Luc has decided to quit her service to spend more time with his grandchildren. He confides in Lumir that he was hurt by the fact that Fabienne made no mention of him in her book and her utter disinterest in his family only strengthens his resolve. She has no time either for ex-husband Pierre when he drops in unannounced in the hope that she will give him some money for the cutting references she had made to him in the text. Something of an ageing hippie, he mistakes Hank for Fabienne's new partner, Jacques (Christian Crahay), while Charlotte is intrigued by the fact that her grandfather's arrival coincides with the disappearance of the tortoise.
At the studio, Lumir watches a scene between Manon and Amy at 17 (Mailys Dumon) and notes how she later urges Amy 38 to repeat a hair-fiddling gesture to create character continuity. Fabienne is unimpressed by the business and is disappointed with Lumir when she lunches with Manon, while she makes do with Amy 38, who is mourning the death of her dog. Manon tries to stir things by telling Lumir that she had wounded Fabienne by being so aloof as a child and she refuses to believe her mother when she claims not to have confided in her co-star.
Over dinner that night, Fabienne dismisses the TV series that Hank has been acting in and implies that he has an imitative style. Realising that her husband has been stung, Lumir reminds Fabienne that she had won her second César by sleeping with the director and stealing a role that Sarah had already created. She shrugs and declares that she won because of the quality of her performance and refuses to shoulder any responsibility for her friend dying in an accident shortly afterwards. Lumir wishes Sarah had been her mother and Fabienne asks Hank how he manages to put up with such a drain on the emotional resources he needs to act. As he sips wine for the first time since giving up booze, Fabienne admits to having been a bad mother and friend. But she avers that the public couldn't care less about a star's personality as long as they deliver on screen, which she always has.
Returning to their bedroom, Hank shrugs off the fact that he's drunk and warns Lumir that her plan to make her mother jealous by playing happy families is never going to work. She hisses that he was in rehab last time they came to Paris and he promises to behave when they go to watch Fabienne perform the next day. Charlotte gets up in the night and finds Pierre mending her mother's wooden theatre. He gave it to her after she had played the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz and he pretends to be scared when Charlotte growls. Next morning, when she finds the tortoise in the garden, Charlotte asks after Pierre and Fabienne says he asked to be turned back.
In the car to the studio, Fabienne notes how all the great actresses have double initials and scoffs when the chauffeur (Helmi Dridi) mentions Brigitte Bardot. However, her good spirits soon dissipate on the set when she struggles to cope with Manon's improvisations. When she tries one of her own, involving a stumble and a burst necklace, the director calls for another take because the scene was 20 seconds too long and she sneeringly asks if they are shooting a commercial. Lumir comes to her dressing-room to check on her mother's knee, as she had banged it during the scene. She tells her to stop being a diva, but it perplexed when her mother asks her to write an apology she can deliver to Luc. In bed that night, Fabienne asks Jacques if she's washed up, but stops him from answering and switches the conversation to the cassata he had made for supper.
The family drives to see Luc at a chic restaurant and Fabienne tries desperately to remember the names of his grandchildren. They dance to a small band in the street outside, with Hank partnering Fabienne before she cuts in on Lumir and Luc. Everyone has fun and Fabienne uses the opportunity to ask Luc to come back, although she makes it sound as if she is asking on behalf of Lumir, who isn't able to cope with her demands. The next morning, Fabienne feels a little fragile and snaps at her daughter when she tries to brush her hair.
Despite walking her dog, Toto, she's still feeling vulnerable at the studio and is intimidated by Manon walking elegantly up a staircase. Rushing to the car, Fabienne asks her chauffeur to take her to a nearby crêperie. But Lumir stops her from leaving and orders her to finish the film or damage her reputation. Grumblingly, Fabienne returns to the set and the last scene between the dying Amy and a mother who cannot age because of her space travel goes so well that Manon comes to Fabienne's dressing-room to thank her for her wonderful performance. Much to Lumir's surprise, Fabienne invites Manon home and gives her a dress that had once belonged to Sarah because their voices sound so alike. She is overwhelmed by the gift and reveals that she feels Sarah's spirit on her shoulder.
Lumir is pleased to see her mother let the ice maiden mask slip and suspects she is genuinely pleased that Manon has been cast in a remake of one of her most famous films. At bedtime, Lumir shows Fabienne the repairs that Pierre had made to her theatre and is caught off guard when her mother discloses that she had seen her play the Cowardly Lion, but had stayed hidden, as she knew she wouldn't have been able to lie if Lumir had asked about her performance. They laugh and Fabienne confesses that she had made the film about the witch of Vincennes Forest because she had been jealous of her response when Sarah had read her the book. They hug and Lumir gets tearful, as she urges Fabienne to come clean about her emotions in the second edition of her memoir. But she spoils the moment by wishing she could have channelled these feelings into her last scene with Manon.
The next morning, Luc returns and Charlotte presents him with a No.1 badge she has made with Hank. She has also been learning a speech that Lumir has written for her to say goodbye to Fabienne, who is deeply touched by her ambition to place her in a spacecraft so that she would be able to see her become an actress. As the family heads to the airport, Fabienne asks Luc to persuade the director to let her re-shoot the last scene. She also tells him to contact the journalist who had been interviewing her in the first scene (Laurent Capelluto), as she has thought of an answer to his question about what she would like to hear at the Pearly Gates. Looking up at the sky, Fabienne delights in the crisp air of a winter's day in Paris and everyone follows in her wake across the garden.
It's hard to imagine a more French film and it would come as no surprise to learn that it had been made by Olivier Assayas, François Ozon or Arnaud Desplechin. Yet, the fact that it was written, directed and edited by Hirokazu Kore-eda comes as no surprise, either, as he revisits themes from such earlier works as After Life (1998), which also reflected on the ups and downs that can often make us feel like we are trapped inside a cheap melodrama.
Intriguingly, Kore-eda avoids extensive interaction with Paris itself and rarely strays from Fabienne's palatial abode or the Epinay soundstages whose green screens that can make anything a reality (or a passable imitation of it). But the towering presence of Catherine Deneuve looms larger than the Eiffel Tower, even though her blend of boastfulness and bluster often makes Fabienne seem like a female version of Donald Trump. Anyone other than Juliette Binoche would have been blown away as the resentful Lumir, but newcomers Manon Clavel and Clémentine Grenier also hold their own, with the latter reinforcing Kore-eda's reputation for directing children.
Ethan Hawke makes the most of a sketchy caricature, but Roger Van Hool - who was teamed with Deneuve in Alain Cavalier's La Chamade (1968) - shows what can be done with a quirky cameo. Yet, we don't even get to see the most tantalising character, as Sarah Mondavan remains elusively off screen somewhere between The Truth and Memories of My Mother, which was inspired by an unrealised screenplay by Ken Liu. It's tempting to speculate who this spectral rival has been based on, but there's surely a red herring in the dismissive `bof' aimed at Brigitte Bardot, who had taken centre stage in Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1960 film, La Vérité.
Rather than handle the truth, Kore-eda usually opts to blur the line between fact and fiction. He also prefers the tangibility of the moving image to the tricks that memory can play. But, such is the skill with which he weaves between theme and technique that he creates a compelling facsimile that is made all the more credible by Riton Dupire-Clément's production design and Éric Gautier's photography (which is kept in its place by Fabienne's acerbic crack about camera stands). Alexei Aigui's jaunty score reminds us that we are in a world of make-believe, however, most affectingly as Deneuve leads her entourage out of her enchanted garden. One hopes that the 76 year-old makes a full recovery from the mild stroke she suffered last November and will soon be gracing our screens again. But if this is to be a valedictory performance, it represents quite a sign off.
DOGS DON'T WEAR PANTS.
The shadow of Aki Kaurismäki looms large over Finnish cinema, with his trademark brand of droll deadpan even being evident in Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää's study of grief and sadomasochism, Dogs Don't Wear Pants. Following on from The Visitor (2008) and They Have Escaped (2014), this thoughtful, if somewhat contrived drama eschews the kinky sensationalism of the film trilogy spun off from the novels of EL James: Sam Taylor-Johnson's Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) and James Foley's Fifty Shades Darker (2017) and Fifty Shades Freed (2018). But an imbalance in the backstories of the principals proves recurringly problematic.
Heart surgeon Juha (Pekka Strang) is enjoying a blissful break at his lakeside cabin with his wife (Ester Geislerová) and four year-old daughter, Elli (Ellen Karppo). However, his world falls apart when he fails to untangle his spouse from an underwater net and he is fortunate to be rescued by a passing fisherman. A decade later, Juha has still to come to terms with his loss and goes about his business with a detached moroseness.
When he accompanies Elli (Ilona Huhta) to have her tongue pierced for her 16th birthday, Juha wanders off in search of a coffee machine. However, he strays into an S&M dungeon, where he is pinned to the floor in the red neon glow by Mona (Krista Kosonen), a dominatrix who subjects him to autoerotic asphyxiation until they are interrupted by his daughter. Nothing is said about the incident on the drive home, as Juha fondly recalls past birthday treats at the Museum of Natural History. But Juha realises that losing consciousness had enabled him to reconnect with the sensation of being on the lake bed close to his wife and the resulting sense of solace prompts him to revisit the piercing parlour.
Despite Juha having phoned through his preferences in advance, Mona forces him on to all fours and orders him to strip (as dogs don't wear pants). He tries to protest, but is told to obey and he meekly takes a seat when ordered. Mona places a glass orb in his hand before sliding a plastic bag over his head. Once again, the shortage of breath takes him underwater and he urges Mona to continue until he lets go of the blue sphere that acts as a safety device. Climbing off his lap, Mona leaves Juha to sob with a mixture of humiliation, grief and release.
Having been teased about her tongue stud, Elli throws it down the sink in the school washroom. She is preparing for a concert and hopes to matchmake her father with her music teacher, Satu (Oona Airola). But Juha is solely interested in seeing Mona again, as he has started to experience an unusual feeling of well-being that he channels through a bruise under his thumbnail. He calls her while she is working as a physiotherapist and books a second encounter.
Mona has bought him a black leather harness and posing pouch and he tries to make small talk when he enters the dungeon. But she refuses to engage and slips on his choke chain before pushing him back in his seat. Once again, Juha has a vision of his wife in the cool blue water and he is almost disappointed when he drops the globe and his eye pop open again. His hand reaches out to stroke Mona's blonde bobbed wig and she is so taken aback when he envelopes her in a hug that she kisses him hard on the mouth. However she also slaps him across the face before stalking out of the room, leaving Juha to deal with his increasingly tangled emotions. Feeling sheepish, he knocks on her dressing-room door to apologise and she agrees to cancel a client to see him again the following night.
Despite Elli becoming concerned about her father's eccentric behaviour, he reassures her that he will be at the concert. However, he fails to show and cuts his hand on a door in barging past fellow surgeon Pauli (Jani Volanen) when he tries to prevent him from leaving early to keep his rendezvous with Mona. She is also becoming intrigued by Juha and has him on her mind while tending to an ailing child during a therapy session in the hospital swimming pool. Moreover, she wears a red dress over her leather catsuit in order to add a little frisson.
Noticing the plasters on Juha's hand, she rips them off and urinates on his palm before pulling the bag over his head. Across town, Elli's band begins to play `And Then He Kissed Me' and her annoyance at her father's absence causes her to crash the cymbals with extra vigour. Her grip on the drumstick contrasts with Juha's on the orb, as the combination of fluids prevents him from dropping it as he slips out of consciousness. With a rising sense of panic, Mona has to thump his chest in order to bring him round and she flees into the night, leaving Jaana (Sofia Kaipainen) the tattoo artist to call an ambulance.
Elli is distraught when classmate Jose (Samuel Shipway) gives her a lift to the hospital on his scooter and Juha calmly informs her that he saw her mother. But she tries to carry on as best she can when he is discharged with a neck collar. Pauli is much sterner when he finds Juha in his office and warns him that the authorities want him placed under psychiatric observation to ensure all his Moomins are in the Valley. Despite calmly pulling off his blackened thumbnail, Juha insists he is fine and that there will be no repeat performances once he returns to work.
However, he is eager to see Mona again and becomes increasingly desperate when she refuses to take his calls. When he tries to follow her to a nightclub, she sends out another reveller in her clothes as a decoy and he pepper sprays Juha in the eyes. He is still reeling when he gets home and fobs off Elli with an excuse that he can't open the bathroom door because he has food poisoning.
In order to show goodwill, he agrees to go on a date with Satu. Her incessant laughter at the restaurant irritates him, but he goes back to her apartment and she consents to wearing the perfume he gave her when they go to bed. However, she is embarrassed by his request to throttle him and her giggles only make Juha more insistent. Eventually, he leaves and we are left to speculate about what happened before he is locked out in the hallway.
One rainy night, he sees Mona leaving the parlour and follows her home. He slips in through the street door and pleads with her for a last session. Much to his delight, she agrees and a neighbour stares as he makes his way upstairs on all fours. Mona's dog barks when he crawls inside and retreats to its bed, as Mona removes her stockings and ties Juha's hands to a hook above the door. She explains that she will only pander to his needs if he allows her to pull a tooth with a pair of pliers. It's a prolonged and painful process and they both fall silent when someone rings the doorbell. But, such is Juha's need, that he lets Mona resume and she stares at the extracted tooth with a mixture of intrigue and revulsion.
As he frees his hands, Mona returns with a roll of cling film. He lies passively, as she winds it around his face. But she suddenly panics that he has come to kill himself and she tears through the plastic. Responding to her sobs, Juha sits up and kisses her and she rests her head upon his shoulder. However, she gets up after he slaps her gently on the cheek and he leaves, thinking he has ruined everything. In fact, Mona had gone to her bedroom to fetch her red dress and she is disappointed to find him gone.
Returning home to find Elli missing, Juha tracks her down to a tree, where she is inexpertly trying to smoke. She dismisses his fib that he has been to a late-night dentist and refuses his suggestion to go to the museum. Instead, she zooms off on the back of Jose's bike and Juha seems content to let her grow up in her own way. Having been given a clean bill of mental health by the hospital board, he dons his harness and blags his way into the private members' club. He downs a few cocktails and makes for the dance floor and gives a gap-toothed grin when he sees Mona, who suppresses a smile because she's secretly quite pleased to see him.
Although there's much to intrigue about the Juha strand of the narrative concocted by Valkeapää and co-scenarist Juhanna Lumme, one can't help wishing that they had paid more attention to the supposedly peripheral cases of Elli and Mona. Despite having only been young when she alerted Juha to her mother's plight in the lake, Elli has to have been scarred by the incident. Thus, while she seems remarkably grounded, her small acts of rebellion suggest that she is done with tolerating her father's distracted brand of parenting. Similarly, something must have once happened to Mona to make her want to spend her nights inflicting the kind of pain that she seeks to alleviate by day. The red dress is clearly connected to this past trauma and, while it's fine to leave the audience with something to speculate about, the decision only to provide Juha with psychological justification for his actions skews the drama and makes it a little one-dimensional.
Whether it's viewed as a kinky love story or a non-fatal attraction thriller, the plot relies on too many contrivances from its initial `meet brute' to be taken seriously. Surely there are better places in Helsinki to get a teenager's tongue pierced than a tattoo parlour with its own sex dungeon? Similarly, why is there no police involvement after Juha's choking emergency and how is he able to resume his career so easily after majorly blotting his copybook? Yet, while such glitches will stick in many craws, the sex-positivity of this quirky redemption tale is unblushingly refreshing. Moreover, there's no denying that this is a slyly witty and bleakly empathetic saga that is played with consummate skill by Pekka Strang and Krista Kosonen, particularly during the grim encounter at her flat, when each passes up an opportunity to speak honestly about their needs.
Oona Airola brings some much-needed light relief during the hilarious date sequence, while Ilona Huhta capably conveys the sense of still waters running deep that is entirely appropriate in the circumstances. Cinematographer Pietari Peltola brings a glistening lyricism to the underwater sequences, but the red-tinged BDSM sessions are less visually innovative, despite the best efforts of editor Mervi Junkkonen. Composer Michal Nejtek also makes a vital contribution, as he provides discordant insights into Juha's mental anguish that contrast with the looser body language that Strang employs to suggest a broken man being healed.
THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION.
In 1957, Buster Keaton served as technical adviser on Sidney Sheldon's biopic, The Buster Keaton Story. Donald O'Connor took the lead and made a decent fist of emulating Keaton's unique clowning style. But the only accurate fact in the entire picture was that The Great Stone Face wore a pork-pie hat. Vernon P. Becher used this nickname for the title of his 1968 documentary, which saluted Keaton's genius two years after his death. However, this hard-to-see compilation was surpassed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's three-part Thames Television survey, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow (1987), which followed on from the pairs's peerless account of the silent era, Hollywood (1980), and formed part of a majestic slapstick triptych with Unknown Chaplin (1983) and Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius (1989).
Released to promote Cohen Media's restoration of Keaton's 1920s silent feature output, Peter Bogdanovich's The Great Buster: A Celebration falls somewhere between the aforementioned actualities. It lacks the scope, depth and focus of the small-screen tribute, but provides considerably more insight than Becker's greatest clips selection. However, Bogdanovich is a keen student of screen history and his affection for Keaton shines through. It's just a shame that he didn't opt to for a purely personal assessment rather than invite a surfeit of talking heads to make what are, in too many cases, gushingly self-aggrandising contributions.
Joseph Frank Keaton was born on 4 October 1895 in Piqua, Kansas, which just happened to be where parents Joe and Myra were playing with the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company, which they ran with Harry Houdini. Contrary to the film's contention, it was George Pardey rather than the great escapologist who gave boy the nickname `Buster' after witnessing him take a fall. But he really was only three years old when he joined the family act and The Three Keatons did become renowned as the roughest act on the vaudeville circuit, as the plucky kid was tossed around the stage like an unbreakable prop. His mother even sewed a suitcase handle into his pants to enable his father to get a better grip while flinging him. Yet, despite the occasional accusation of child abuse, Buster's mastery of stunt technique meant that he was rarely bruised, let along badly hurt.
Although siblings Harry and Louise eventually joined the family firm, Buster was always the star of the show and earned enough to buy his own miniature car at the age of 12. In 1917, however, Keaton quit to join Schubert Passing Show on Broadway. But a chance meeting with Roscoe `Fatty' Arbuckle, led to him signing a deal with the Comique Film Corporation to make two-reel comedies, instead. He made his screen bow in The Butcher Boy and his shtick with a pork-pie hat and a tin of molasses is shown in full.
By October, the company had relocated to Long Beach, California. However, Keaton was called up to fight in the Great War and suffered hearing loss from the boom of the guns, even though he never got near the trenches. On returning Stateside in April 1919, Keaton resumed his career at Comique, where he learned a great deal from Arbuckle, who directed his own films. When he moved to Paramount, however, manager Joseph M. Schenck promoted Keaton and he proceeded to make 19 two-reelers over the next three years. Filmed at Charlie Chaplin's old studio and distributed by Metro, these shorts allowed Keaton to refine his technique as both a performer and a director. They also made him a star.
Clips follow from The High Sign (which was made in 1920, but delayed because of Keaton's misgivings) and The Saphead, a feature directed by Herbert Blaché (the husband of Alice Guy-Blaché) and Winchell Smith at Metro. Keaton was cast on the recommendation of Douglas Fairbanks, but Bogdanovich dismisses the film because he was a hired hand and had nothing to do with the script or direction. Instead, he hails One Week (both 1920) as the solo venture that started Keaton on the road to riches. Rightly, praise is given to the crooked house that inspires much of the dazzlingly innovative comedy (including an inspired on-rushing train gag). But there's no mention of the contribution made by co-writer and director Edward F. Cline, who would become a trusted collaborator during this period.
Following a passing mention of Convict 13 and Neighbours (which included a scene with father Joe), we see part of the meal sequence from The Scarecrow (all 1920), complete with the condiments dangling from strings. We also see snippets from The Haunted House, Hard Luck, The Goat, The Playhouse (in which he plays every role in the dream sequence) and The Boat (all 1921), which required a special mechanism to ensure the Damfino sank in the last scene. Nothing is said about Georges Méliès duplicating himself in a single shot in The One-Man Band, 1900), as this would detract from the intimation that everything he did was new. But we do learn that Keaton became Joe Schenck's brother-in-law after he married Natalie Talmadge, whose sister, Constance, was the much bigger star of the pair.
Old muckers Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks reflect on Keaton's engineering acumen in constructing prop gags and the expressiveness of the eyes that belied the Stone Face reputation. He could be as subtle as Jean-Louis Barrault in Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), but he chose not to smile. Werner Herzog suggests he was `the essence of cinema' who exuded a brand of tragedy that is always hilarious, while director Jon Watts reveals that he watched a lot of Keaton before directing Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), as the Marvel superhero's face is also a blank mask.
Seven shorts followed in 1922, with short shrift being given to The Paleface, My Wife's Relations, The Blacksmith, The Electric House and Daydreams. A little longer is spent on Cops, which included a remarkable car-grabbing stunt. But the most time is devoted to the William S. Hart parody, The Frozen North, which Quentin Tarantino likes because Keaton played the clown as a hero rather than the underdog or coward.
While Keaton was making these films, Arbuckle was being charged with the manslaughter of starlet Virginia Rappe and Schenck changed the Comique name to Buster Keaton Productions to prevent his star from being tainted by the scandal, as he released The Balloonatic and The Love Nest (both 1923). We hear various talking heads claiming kinship with Keaton, including Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame, who also performed his own stunts, Dick Van Dyke reveals that Keaton preferred improvisation to planning and rarely worked with more than a script outline. He also comments on the control Keaton had over his body to ensure the precision of his gags and their safety, as stunts like the collapsing building facade could have ended in disaster if he had not been such a perfectionist.
At this point, Bogdanovich pulls the cinematic rug from under our feet. Instead of discussing the remarkable run of 10 features between September 1923 and May 1928, he fast forwards to the coming of talkies and the decline and fall that followed his calamitous decision to accept Schenck's offer to join Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Up to this point, Keaton had been his own boss, who had worked with little pressure to finish a picture before he was satisfied with it. He was afforded no such luxury at MGM, however. For all its airs and graces, this was a film factory like every other Hollywood studio and Keaton was expected to deliver on time and on budget. But this became increasingly difficult, as he struggled to acclimastise to sound while dealing with the breakdown of his marriage and the onset of alcoholism.
Louis B. Mayer paired Keaton with director Edward Sedgwick on his last two silents, The Cameraman (1928) and Spite Marriage (1929). Bogdanovich claims that Keaton had nothing to do with their actual making and questions their quality. But it's widely accepted that Sedgwick regarded Keaton as a co-director, while the sequence in the latter that sees him trying to put a drunken Dorothy Sebastian to bed would be revived on stage when he and third wife Eleanor returned to vaudeville in the 1940s. However, the technical strictures imposed by recording live sound forced Keaton to cede the floor to Sedgwick for his first talkies, Free and Easy and Doughboys (both 1930).
Bogdanovich quotes from his own 1969 review of Free and Easy, which suggested that it had been designed to destroy Keaton's career. It certainly wasn't on a par with his silent masterpieces, but few pictures from this transitional period are highly regarded. No mention is made of Keaton's performance in Zion Myers and Jules White's Sidewalks of New York (1931). Instead, Bogdanovich and others lament his waste in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) and the Jimmy Durante trio of The Passionate Plumber, Speak Easily (both 1932) and What! No Beer? (1933), all of which were directed by the much-maligned Sedgwick.
Keaton's actor friend James Karen (who also hosted the TCM documentary, So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM, 2004) wishes he had spoken out against the shoddy projects. But he was too mild a fellow to make a fuss and went with the flow and self-medicated to ease the pain. He admitted to Karen that he hadn't been a faithful husband (which somewhat glosses over the issues that prompted Talmadge to change their sons' surname from Keaton), while a second marriage to nurse Mae Scriven proved even shorter lived after Mayer fired him from MGM. Critic Leonard Maltin points out that MGM had a poor track record with creative comics, as the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello all struggled under the stifling regime.
Suddenly an outcast, Keaton suffered a breakdown and is taken to an army hospital in a straitjacket. On his release, he left for Europe to make Max Nosseck's Le Roi des Champs-Elysées (1934) and Adrian Brunel's The Invader (1935). Little is said about these, but actor Bill Irwin talks us through an excruciating newsreel clip of Keaton's unhappy exchange with Jack Pearl, the so-called Baron Munchausen of the Air. However, he was grateful to be sober and threw himself into making 16 shorts like Jail Bait for Educational Pictures between 1934-37. Two years later, he signs to Columbia to make 10 more two-reelers, including Pest From the West (1939). But he had little input and referred to them as `cheaters'.
Having married MGM dancer Eleanor Norris in 1940, Keaton found some much-needed personal stability. Workwise, he crafted gags for Red Skelton (who was humbled by his help) before delighting postwar audiences at Le Cirque Medrano in Paris. Back at MGM, he took a minor role in Robert Z. Leonard's In the Good Old Summertime (1949), on which he also directed a bit of slapstick business involving Judy Garland and Van Johnson. James Agee's Life magazine article on silent comedy further boosted Keaton's reputation and he moved into television with The Buster Keaton Show (1950).
Its success led to Life With Buster Keaton (1951) and numerous guest slots and commercials. We see clips from What's My Line?, This Is Your Life and a brilliant 1962 bit at a diner bar for Allen Funt's Candid Camera, as well as ads for Ford, Simon Drew Beer, Northwest Orient Airlines and Alka-Seltzer. Keaton also turned his hand to dramatic acting, as in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950) and the Rheingold Theatre presentation of The Awakening (1954). But comedy remained his forte and he made a sublime guest appearance alongside Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (1952, which is wrongly dated 1953 in the film) and co-star Norman Lloyd (who is still going strong at 105) recalls the joy of watching them perform together.
The $50,000 Keaton was paid for the rights to his life story enabled him to buy the ranch in California that became his final home. In 1960, he was presented with an honorary Academy Award and went on to collaborate with Samuel Beckett on the avant-garde item, Film (1964). The following year, he made The Railrodder for Canadian National Railways, with his working relationship with director Gerald Potterton being recorded in Buster Keaton Rides Again (both 1965). Moreover, he found a new teenage audience with his appearances in William Asher's Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (both 1965) before he brought down his feature career with a choice cameo in Richard Lester's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), which was released posthumously. Buster Keaton's last performance before he died of lung cancer at the age of 70 on 1 February 1966, however, came in John Sebart's The Scribe (1966), which was made for the Construction Safety Association of Ontario and he deeply resented having to use a stunt double for a couple of shots.
But, rather than end on such a down note, Bogdanovich rewinds to 1923, as Keaton at the peak of his powers embarks upon a run of comic gems that still delight a century later. These pictures had been celebrated at the Venice Film Festival in 1965 and their diversity is simply dazzling. Parodying DW Griffith's Intolerance (1916), Three Ages contained vignettes set in the Stone Age, Ancient Roman and the present day, with Wallace Beery playing the heavy in each. However, Keaton attempted to tell a single narrative for the first time in Our Hospitality (both 1923), which was inspired by the frontier feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. In addition to demanding on authenticity with the period train, Keaton also insisted on risking himself and Natalie Talmadge on the climactic waterfall rescue. However, Bogdanovich makes no mention of the fact that the films were respectively co-directed by Eddie Cline and John G. Blystone.
The meticulously cross-cut dream sequence is the highlight of Sherlock Jr. (1924), which sees a projectionist step into a cinema screen to solve a crime. However, Bogdanovich also picks out the pool sequence (as Dick Van Dyke owns Buster's cue) and notes that he broke his neck shooting a water pipe sequence in a railway siding, but only learned of the severity of the injury several years later. Keaton had hired Arbuckle to direct as William Goodrich, but he was still suffering from his ordeal and his final contribution was limited.
The regular writing chores undertaken by Clyde Bruckman also go unmentioned, as does Donald Crisp's co-direction of The Navigator (1924), which Keaton made when a friend mentioned that USS Buford was up for sale. Bogdanovich picks out a splendid hide and seek-like sequence aboard the deserted ship, but fails to credit Kathryn McGuire as Keaton's partner in the routine. A clipped selection of sight gags follows (without mention of the blackface natives that Keaton beans with a coconut), but there's no real analysis of what makes the comedy work or how it contrasted with other slapstick pictures of the day.
Keaton felt obliged to make Seven Chances because Schenck had acquired the rights to a Roi Cooper Megrue play that David Belasco had produced in 1916. However, he transformed the chase finale involving the dozens of brides hoping to marry Buster's hapless hero by adding a mini-avalanches down a hillside. Bogdanovich has similar misgivings about Go West (both 1925), which centres on Keaton's relationship with a cow named Brown Eyes, who became so fond of him during the shoot that it kept following him around.
However, he is better disposed towards the often overlooked Battling Butler (1926), in which a milquetoast tries to convince his girl that he's a prizefighter. What's not raised here is the fact that the supposed weakest links in the chain of 20s masterpieces were all directed by Keaton alone and that the three that are among the most vaunted were respectively co-directed by Bruckman, James W. Horne (who would go on to work with Stan and Ollie) and Charles Reisner, who went on to direct the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello.
While introducing The General (1926) on television, Orson Welles declares it to be one hundred times more visually stunning than Victor Fleming's Gone With the Wind (1939). Tarantino declares it one of the great action movies, as we see the spectacular (and hugely expensive - at $40,000 it was the most expensive shot in silent screen history) stunt involving a train crossing a bridge over a river. Yet, the picture opened to lukewarm reviews and only did modest business. But Bogdanovich is content to pick out classic moments rather than explore reasons why. Indeed, his rather flat narration is left to carry this segment, as the talking-heads are largely excluded to keep the focus on Keaton and the comedy.
According to Bogdanovich, the final two pictures in this golden age were among the funniest Keaton ever made. Following in the wake of Harold Lloyd's The Freshman (1925), College (1927) saw Buster causing chaos on campus, as he tries his hand at a range of sports, with uproariously little success. His bid to become a soda jerk is equally cackhanded, while the gag involving an umbrella slowing Keaton's descent as he is given the blanket bumps by a gang of toffs is also superbly realised. But it was Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) that confirmed Chaplin's contention that the silent era ended just as Hollywood perfected the artform.
The famous storm sequence remains a masterclass in construction and execution, with the falling facade having inspired countless copycats down the decades. Once again, however, while Bogdanovich outlines the storyline, he omits to credit Ernest Torrance as Keaton's father and Marion Byron as the daughter of their scheming rival, Tom McGuire. It could be argued that keeping the voiceover simple allows the audience to concentrate on the visuals. But Keaton's co-stars have too long been overlooked and this might have been a good place to start making amends. Instead, we get a few parting paeans from the acolytes before a slickly assembled final montage sends the audience in search of the glories they have just witnessed.
At times, Bogdanovich is guilty of printing the legend. He also sets too much store by the babblings of such avowed admirers as Bob Borgen, Richard Lewis, French Stewart, Bill Hader, Cybill Shepherd, Nick Kroll and Ben Mankiewicz, who have little of value to say compared to biographer James Curtis, critic Leonard Maltin and Patricia Tobias Eliot, the founder of the International Buster Keaton Society. But it's the inclusion of banner names like Tarantino and Herzog that proves most frustrating, as neither brings much to the party and it's hard to see how their half-hearted interjections will do much to win Buster a new legion of fans.
Some of the musical choices from the classical repertoire are also off key (despite the practiced playing of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra), while editor Bill Berg-Hillinger always seems to be in a hurry to get to the next clip. Yet, despite these glitches and the odd glossing over, as well as the overall lack of critical rigour, this is a solid enough introduction. Moreover, in such grim days as these, a celebration of a timeless talent like Buster Keaton's is more than welcome.
TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM.
There's always a risk that a subject's active participation in a documentary about their life and achievements will be dashed on the rocks of either modesty or grandiosity. Fortunately for longtime friend and regular portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the 87 year-old African-American novelist profiled in Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is too self-aware and secure in her status to court flattery or resort to false claims. The same can't always be said for the talking heads assembled to sing her praises. But viewers can always zone out during the more hyberbolic passages and concentrate on letting Toni Morrison tell them a story.
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio in 1931, Morrison remains fiercely proud of the grandfather who had boasted that he had read the Bible five times, in an age when black literacy was a revolutionary act. Her sister, Lois, had taught her to read when she was three and she had discovered the power of words when her mother blew a gasket after catching her writing the word `f*ck' on the pavement with a stone.
Becoming accustomed to waking before dawn in order to work before young sons Ford and Slade got up, Morrison remains an early bird and still enjoys solving the problems that her narratives throw up during their composition. As Columbia professor Farah Griffin and activist Angela Davis reveal, she was often criticised as a new author for her parochial preoccupation with African-American issues. But the reviews of Sula (1973) taught Morrison to ignore any clamour to view the black experience from the white gaze. She also remained wary of books that assumed that the reader was white, even when they were written by such key figures as Frederick Douglas and Ralph Ellison.
New Yorker critic Hilton Als hails her decision to follow James Baldwin's advice and dislodge the white man on her shoulder in order to write without prejudice. In The Bluest Eye (1970), she set out to explore the world from the vantage point of a young black girl who defied the stereotype set by Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). She also wanted to discover where the self-hatred evident in John M. Stahl's Imitation of Life (1934) came from.
Poet Sonia Sanchez and author Walter Mosley consider The Bluest Eye to be Morrison's rawest novel and she reveals that she got the inspiration from a childhood conversation with a friend who knew that God didn't exist because she had spent two years asking for him to give her blue eyes. She remembers how her grandmother had taken the decision to leave Alabama for Ohio to protect her adolescent daughters and she had given her husband an ultimatum to be on the train north or lose them forever. Times were tough and there wasn't a lot of money, but the family had settled in Lorain and this became the epicentre of Morrison's fictional universe.
Without ever feeling they were on the poverty line, parents George and Ramah Wofford scraped by in a melting pot neighbourhood and encouraged Chloe to study hard. She also followed Lois by working at the local library, where her love of words and how they could be used to create meaning developed. Harvard professor David Carrasco extols her virtuosity and declares her prose to be the Emancipation Proclamation of the English Language. In less more restrained terms, Griffin recalls Sula transforming her teenage self by showing her things about her milieu that she had never noticed before. But even she can't resist averring that Martians would read Morrison to discover what it means to be human.
Several of Morrison's works have been banned for being overly provocative and she refuses to accept that any book should be subjected to public prohibition. As her parents had been strict, she couldn't wait to go to Howard University, where she honed her cake-baking skills and revelled in playing Queen Elizabeth in a 1953 production of William Shakespeare's Richard III. She returned to Howard to teach after getting her Masters at Cornell and reflects on how she used to set assignments that took the students out of their comfort zones by having them write about subjects and situations that were very different to their own lives.
Novelist Paula Giddings eulogises about Morrison teaching Americans that they can't understand the history of their country unless they view it through the eyes of black mothers. Having married and divorced at Howard, Morrison applied to a job advertisement for an executive editor in the New York Review of Books. She was taken on by LW Singer and worked in Syracuse before Random House took over the company and she had to relocate to New York. Among the imprints was Alfred Knopf, which was run by Robert Gottlieb, who came to realise that Morrison was a fine author, as well as a gifted editor, and became her editor.
Among the writers Morrison published in the early 1970s were Gayl Jones, Lucille Clifton, Toni Cade Bambara and Angela Davis, who channelled Black Power perspectives into the mainstream media. As cultural critic Fran Lebowitz recalls, Morrison also commissioned Muhammad Ai's The Greatest: My Own Story (1975) and accompanied him on the promotional book tour. She was anything but intimidated by him and had no fears of her white male colleagues, as she always considered herself superior to them, as she had two kids to raise, while juggling her professional chores.
Struck at a sales conference by the notion that certain books were perceived as having race-specific audiences, Morrison produced The Black Book (1974), which collated primary sources from black history to give readers a sense of who they were. She never forgot her great grandmother commenting on the colour of her skin and contrasts her father's lifelong suspicion of white folks with her mother's readiness to make judgements on a person to person basis. But, having been brought up around a range of white ethnic groups, Morrison never felt excluded and was taken aback by segregation when she went to Howard. Yet, she was more surprised by the light and dark skin groupings that existed within the black student body.
Having been hailed for writing about the friendships between African-American women, Morrison decided to focus on two male characters in Song of Solomon (1977) after her father died and she felt his spirit guiding her pen. Its success prompted Gottlieb to suggest that she wrote full time and she recalls the sense of freedom and happiness that she felt at finally being able to devote herself to her art.
Following Tar Baby (1981) - which receives no discussion whatsoever - Morrison addressed the topic of the female slave experience in Beloved (1987). Davis declares the book to have been a turning point in the history of the world, while author Russell Banks commends the way in which Morrison blended research and imagination to create credible characters and situations that speak to the reader on a human rather than simply on an intellectual level. Richard Danielpour - who composed the music for the opera, Margaret Garner, for which Morrison wrote the libretto - lauds her for unearthing the untold narrative of American history and forcing a reappraisal of its brutal truths through a reworking of runaway slave Margaret Garner's piteous plight.
Oprah Winfrey was so moved by the book that she called the local fire department to get Morrison's unlisted number and she agreed to let her play Sethe in Jonathan Demme's Beloved (1998). Before this, however, 48 African-American authors wrote an open letter demanding to know why Morrison had been spurned by the country's major literary awards. On chat shows, she stated bluntly that white America wasn't close to solving its race problem and her voice was heard with greater clarity after she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.
Morrison hugely enjoyed the fuss made in Stockholm. But, in certain quarters of a criterati accustomed to fawning over the old guard of American literature, there was a white male backlash. One columnist even dared to hope that the Nobel would inspire Morrison to write better books instead of man-hating slices of fake history. But the various contributors rally to her cause and Winfrey echoes Pilate's words from Song of Solomon: `And she was loved!' Sanchez goes further in claiming that Morrison is surrounded by a halo of white light and was sent to Earth to enable people to walk a little taller.
As for Morrison herself, she recalls being asked to put her hand on a glass in a darkened room in a gallery in Vienna. Eventually, a woman walked towards her and placed her hand on the other side of the glass and Morrison believes that this action sums up her role as a writer - to reach out and make some sort of connection with anyone who cares to do likewise.
With Whoopi Goldberg, Kim Cattrall, Nancy Giles and Joel Grey among those providing `voice cameos', this is both a fascinating and a frustrating study that sometimes seems more intent on avoiding docu-cliché than it is in telling the whole story. Morrison died in August 2019. But she wrote several novels in the post-Nobel phase of her career. So, why is there no reference to Jazz (1992), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012) or God Help the Child (2015) beyond the odd dust jacket?
Moreover, why are the children's books that Morrison wrote with her late son Slade overlooked, as well as non-fictional works like The Source of Self-Regard (2019)? Yet, even if we only focus on what is included in the film, questions still arise about the artworks that keep cropping up between the interviews and the well-chosen archive material after the actuality opens with a dynamic collage composed by Mickalene Thomas. What purpose are they supposed to serve and why is no context offered before they are passingly attributed in the closing credits?
Setting aside puzzlement at some of the editorial choices, this represents a solid introduction to Toni Morrison and her impact on American society. Having previously featured his subject in The Black List (2008), Greenfield-Sanders makes no apology for pitching the discussion at an elevated level or for addressing much of it to devotees rather than newcomers. Similarly, Morrison leaves us in little doubt (and why should she) about her belief in her own ability and her cultural significance in the discussions with an unseen and unheard Sandra Guzmán that have been staged to look as though the writer is speaking directly to the audience.
It might have been useful to have heard a few more critiques that couldn't be dismissed as prejudicial rants, as well as something from her surviving son, Ford. But the focus wisely falls on Morrison herself, who has the charisma and trenchancy to hold the screen, as she protects her privacy while revisiting the oft-told anecdotes and insights that affirm that she not only gave the black female voice an indelible humanism and emotional clarity, purity and power, but also transformed the entire face of American literature by refusing to pander to its smug white elite.