Finite Focus: Battling the Elements for 116 Years [Buster Keaton]

Well, not quite 116 years. Buster Keaton would’ve turned 116 today, and his films have been delighting audiences for 94 of those years. One of the three great silent comedians (along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd), Keaton’s name doesn’t always strike the immediate recognition among mainsteam audiences that Chaplin’s might, but for me, and for many who have seen his films, Keaton’s particular brand of stone-faced endurance against any and all elements that would seek to do him in – from enemy soldiers to angry fathers to hordes of cops to nature itself – can hardly be beat.

Keaton was a genius at physical comedy, and though Chaplin practically has a patent on the word “pathos,” Keaton’s stoicism manages to get just as much or more true emotion. You feel for him because he refuses to ask for your empathy. Meanwhile, he was busy working through some of the most incredible stunts ever put on film, which he did all himself. The first “whoa” moment watching a Keaton film is always “whoa, they did this before they had computers and stuff,” and the second is always “whoa, he’s doing this himself without stunt double to fill in.” Chaplin did this too, don’t get me wrong, and I love Chaplin to bits, but I get a sense of real danger with Buster that’s quite exhilarating without ever failing to be funny.

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Finite Focus: “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” (Lost Highway)

Lost Highway posterI‘ve already professed my love for the work of director David Lynch in my previous Rank ‘Em post. To me he has made some of the most interesting and thought-provoking films ever, whether it be getting under the skin of the everyday (Blue Velvet), getting to the heart of humanity (The Elephant Man) or exploring the myths and pitfalls of Hollywood (Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire), I find his films not only fascinating but weirdly rewatchable in spite of their strangeness.

For this Finite Focus I thought I’d highlight one of my all-time favorite Lynch scenes, from his labyrinthine Lost Highway (which Kurt already highlighted in a previous Finite Focus), in which Bill Pullman is at a party and is suddenly approached by a mysterious pale-faced man (Robert Blake). What follows is a baffling and creepy-as-hell conversation in which the Mystery Man (as he’s credited) seemingly is both at the party and at Pullman’s house. Is it as simple as the Mystery Man having a twin? Or is there something altogether more bizarre and sinister going on? It’s a Lynch film so who knows but the scene stands as one of the creepiest of all time in my eyes.

Whether you’ve never seen it before or just need a refresher, here’s the scene in question below.

Don’t have nightmares, now…

Finite Focus: “Are they?” (Shadow of a Doubt)


Suspense as a genre can be distinguished from mystery by the simple fact that in a mystery, you don’t know whodunit until the very end, and in suspense, you do – the suspense comes from the fact that you know more than the characters, or that you AND the characters know the truth but cannot get out of a dangerous situation. Suspense works because we’re caught between our knowledge and our helplessness – a situation ripe for exploiting audience identification. Alfred Hitchcock excelled at suspense, and this brief scene from Shadow of a Doubt shows why.

Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) has returned to his small-town extended family, sending his namesake niece (Teresa Wright) into fits of joy. But we know not everything is right with Uncle Charlie – he’s fled his city apartment quickly, with a large wad of cash and two men tailing him. Hitchcock leaves a bit of mystery at this point, as we don’t know for nearly an hour what exactly he’s running from – not until young Charlie get suspicious and looks up a newspaper clipping that Uncle Charlie had tried to hide. But she’s still not sure (as we definitely are, since we have more clues to piece together and don’t have Charlie’s adoration for her uncle to overcome), and leads the conversation to poke at Charlie’s insecurities.

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Finite Focus: “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” (Rio Bravo)

Rio Bravo posterHallmarks of the Western genre include shoot-outs, cowboys battling Indians, chases on horse-back and the classic good versus bad mentality. But Howard Hawks’ wonderful Rio Bravo (which I just saw for the first time recently, I am ashamed to admit) is one of those which proves that a little sing-song is welcome every once in a while.

Instantly taking its rightful place on my list of all time favorite movie scenes is when Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson sit back, relax and join together to sing “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” Added touches of joy come from Walter Brennan’s Stumpy playing the harmonica while he awaits eagerly to join in on the next song (and he very much does!), as well as Western veteran John Wayne happily watching on without singing a word. The scene is so well played that you forget, if only for a few moments, the overall plot of the movie.

Truly one of the great “take a break from the action” moments of all time and surely one to cheer you up if you’re feeling down. Sublime.


Finite Focus: Ustinov & Laughton (Spartacus)



As much as I enjoyed each and every one of the 196 minutes of my first viewing of Spartacus (in wonderful 70mm no less!), I wasn’t even halfway through it when I was able to pick out my favourite scene. Oh sure, the long shots of 10000 extras are magnificent, the massive battle scene both stunning and exciting (real rolling logs of fire!) and the individual gladiator fights quite visceral (far more so than anything from Gladiator), but for my money the most gratifying footage of the entire epic is the 3 and a half minute master class on “How to deliver your lines” as given by Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton.

Granted, they had some fantastic dialogue to work with as Dalton Trumbo’s script hits some high points here (though perhaps not quite as high as the subversive “oysters and snails” bisexual subtext scene that follows it directly and which was excised from the film until its 1991 restoration), but the two actors are delighting in their characters so much they add a sense of joy to the entire scene. It opens shortly after Spartacus and his fellow gladiator slaves have rebelled and broken out of Batiatus’ (a Best Supporting Oscar turn by Ustinov) gladiator training facility (where slaves are turned into warriors to eventually battle each other to the death for the amusement of others). Life was good for Batiatus – his role as buyer and seller of slaves had left him wealthy and with few worries – until the revolt crushed his prison facility and forced him to flee to his friend Roman Senator Gracchus (Laughton).

Though he seeks compensation and a bit of revenge, it isn’t against the rebellious Spartacus, but against Crassus (Sir Laurence Olivier) – Gracchus’ main rival in the Senate. Crassus had stopped by to see Batiatus recently and demanded to be entertained by a private death match between several of the slaves. Though completely against the standard practice, Batiatus relented and set up the fight for Crassus and the “capricious, over-painted nymphs” who had accompanied him. This indignity, along with Crassus purchasing Spartacus’ new love and taking her away, sparks the uprising. Gracchus entertains the idea of vengeance against Crassus as he too is no big fan of the politically astute and power hungry Crassus.

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Finite Focus: Billy’s classroom story (Kes)



Suppose a man has a hundred sheep. lf one of them strays, does he not leave the other 99 on the hillside and go in search of the one that strayed? And if he should find it, I tell you this, he is more delighted over that sheep than over the 99 that never strayed.


The bible passage above, as spoken by a young girl at a school assembly in Ken Loach’s magnificent film Kes, is pretty straightforward in its message: embrace those who are different and who wander away from the expected. It’s a shame none of the adults in the movie actually pay attention to it and quite ironic that they spend a great deal of the time bemoaning how “these kids” never listen.

Every single adult – parent, teacher, boss, social servant, etc. – appears to obstruct the children from pursuing their own paths. They berate them constantly, push them towards the same dull existences they were forced into and seem to demean them at every turn. The assembly scene is a precursor to the school’s principal admonishing a group of boys (most of them innocent) for various “crimes” and, before caning them, essentially telling them all that they are worthless and that it is pointless for him to even try talking to them since they never listen. It’s comical, yet very sad due to the very realistic style of the movie and the picture it paints of the working class of 1960s England.

It’s the scene that follows this, though, that is one of my favourites of the film and one that shows that you can occasionally find hope (even if at some point it may be dashed) in dire circumstances. The titular character of the film is actually a falcon (a kestrel to be precise), but it is his owner, the young schoolboy Billy Casper, that is the focus. Picked on by just about everyone and having just come from his own caning (simply for having fallen asleep at the assembly due to his early morning chores), Billy is pulled into his class’ discussion about “Fact And Fiction”. His teacher Mr. Farthing is asking students to define what a fact is and to tell the class a factual story or event that occurred to them. Catching Billy not paying attention, he singles him out and appears to be yet another adult trying to assert his control.

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Finite Focus: Literary Interlude (The Big Sleep)


There’s pretty much nothing I don’t love about Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep – Bogart’s world-weary but somehow still idealistic private eye Philip Marlowe, the chemistry between him and Lauren Bacall (now an off-screen couple starring in their second film together), the cast of colorful supporting characters like Martha Vickers as Bacall’s crazy sister, the witty and caustic script, the florid dialogue, yes, even the fact that some of the mystery isn’t even resolved. I love the very messiness of it. But when I think back about The Big Sleep, the scene that usually pops into my head is essentially extraneous to the main mystery, is unrelated to Marlowe’s relationship with Bacall’s character, and is basically an all-but-unnecessary interlude to the entire rest of the film. I’m talking about the scene where Philip Marlowe goes to a pair of rare bookstores to follow up on a clue.

Read more and see the scene after the jump. (No spoilers for the film as a whole.)

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Finite Focus: The Client is Always Wrong (Desperado)

Having just caught The Losers, a sort of the 80s action and ‘splotions throwback in earnest stupidity with the stylistic nudge-nudge-wink-wink most definitely not in that era, my first point of entry into the films blend of super-cool-posturing and bantering snark was Robert Rodriguez’s big(ger) El Mariachi sequel/reboot Desperado. And it was not just the ‘keep moving the plot along’ speed of the film, like all the interstitial guts were removed in the editing process, but also the Zoe Saldana – Jeffrey Dean Morgan sex scene seems to be very much like the abridged Salma Hayak – Antonio Banderas candle lights and slo-mo playboy spread.

But enough of comparisons, let us talk of the indomitable Steve Buscemi! Here is a character actor who can be goofy overkill (watch how he puts out is cigarette) and confiding and very serious but also be quite self-aware. Basically, Buscemi’s body language is (more-or-less) the tone of the film. Heck, his character is even named “Buscemi.” In the below scene he is fishing for information by putting himself in a dangerous situation, a bar full of idle criminals and thugs, and proceeds to insult them without exactly insulting them, and intimidate them (as much as Buscemi can be intimidating, a joke likely borrowed by the casting agent of Con Air) not by his own presence, but by being harbinger of El Mariachi (but here re-invented a vengeance driven superhero). Hey don’t shoot the messenger!

Watching Buscemi enter the bar (comically full of trophy antlers), take a seat despite a distinct lack of hospitality, and be pleasant and intimate with the bartender is exactly the sort of weightless fun we like in a big silly action picture. Although it adds just an extra touch of goofy that had the (in my experience in talking with action-nuts) effect of actually putting people off the film. Much like Kick-Ass, the line of what you are willing to take in terms ‘wanting real’ and ‘wanting fantasy’ and the suspension of disbelieve varies from audience to audience. But still, you can’t knock the pure promise of fun and mayhem that is offered in the opening sequence of Desperado, and Rodriguez’s willingness not to ever get to serious with his premise. Throwaway fun? Sure. But cotton candy is good once in a while.

Finite Focus: The End of an Era (The Last Picture Show)


Spoilers for The Last Picture Show

Of all the New Hollywood directors, Peter Bogdanovich may be the one who carried his love of and nostalgia for Old Hollywood the most visibly on his sleeve. Before making his way out to Hollywood to be a director, he was a unquenchable cinephile, devouring the works of Ford, Hawks, Welles, and other Old Hollywood filmmakers, and quickly becoming close friends with many of them when he did arrive in Hollywood. Throughout his career, many of his films hearken back to the Golden Age of Cinema, from the Depression era nostalgia of Paper Moon to the screwball antics of What’s Up, Doc? But The Last Picture Show, one of his first major films, is special because it’s not only an imitation in some ways of classic styles (most obviously in its black and white cinematography), but it’s a eulogy to the end of an era that nonetheless pushes forward into a new era of both filmmaking and society itself.

Though the story of the film focuses on young people Sonny, Jacy, and Duane as they work through their love lives and desires to escape from small-town Texas, the heart of the film and of the town itself is Sam the Lion. Sam owns the pool hall, cafe, and movie theatre – the three major businesses in Anarene. He also acts as protector to the mentally slow boy Billy, keeping him safe and stopping others from mistreating him. Sam is the moral rock of the town, though he’s hardly a moralist – he’s just a strong presence that makes you want to do the right thing by the people around you simply because Sam is there and you know it’s what he’d want. Sam is the last Hollywood hero, the last in the line of Hawksian and Fordian heroes, men of quiet strength and personal honor.

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