Blindspotting: A Night At The Opera and The Navigator

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I remember a Saturday evening many years ago sitting down with my Dad to watch the Marx Brothers. I think we had tuned into PBS around 7PM and a double bill of Monkey Business and Horse Feathers was showing. Together they didn’t even total 2 and a half hours, but holy crap did we cram in the laughs. It was silly, goofy and appealed to every juvenile instinct I had in my body (and still have). It seemed to have the same effect on my Dad since he sat in his chair giggling in that “Dad” fashion and shaking half the house along with him. Of course, that just made everything that much funnier. I was probably about 10-11, so I was also old enough to catch some of the puns, banter and sharpness of these obviously practised comedians and realized that this was a craft. A well-honed one.

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And speaking of artists and their crafts…Buster Keaton remains to this day one of my all-time favourite artists in any medium. Far more than just simple slapstick, his silent comedies of the mid-to-late 20s were things of beauty and marvels to behold that would make you smile, laugh and question basic laws of physics. A somewhat “life changing” experience was watching a 3 hour American Masters program on PBS dedicated to Keaton (which I fortunately taped to VHS and wore down to microscopic width). His life had tragedy, regret and failure, but also contained some of the greatest work to ever be caught on celluloid. As the “great stone face”, Keaton rarely broke a smile or showed a sense of fear while throwing himself (or mostly being thrown) info a myriad of dangerous stunts and physical gags. Though he was also an obviously well-rehearsed funny man with razor sharp timing, the falls, leaps and tumbles seemed almost improvised. It was part of his brilliance and was fascinating to hear him reflect on the broken bones and sets of cat-lives that he had. Those interview clips of Keaton in his late 50s also greatly reminded me of my Dad – there was just a certain way he told a story.

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Blindspotting #8 – Our Hospitality and The Family Jewels

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If you’re wondering what Jerry Lewis’ decidedly non-classic The Family Jewels is doing on my Blind Spot list, well, you can easily be forgiven. I blame the NetFlix gods for unceremoniously turfing The Nutty Professor from the ranks of their streaming library, so I took a flier with his 1965 effort that (just like The Nutty Professor) was also written and directed by Lewis (and additionally produced in this case). The intent was to watch and compare two of the top comedies from a pair of brilliant physical comedians who also worked behind the camera. One of them (Buster Keaton) is a personal favourite while the other (Jerry Lewis) is someone whose filmography has barely been scratched by me. Keaton, of course, is the great Stone Face: a gifted and slightly bonkers physical comedian who did insanely dangerous stunts, but whose characters on screen rarely showed any emotion. Lewis, on the other hand, drew strongly on his elastic facial expressions to double down on the physical gags of his films. My preference has always been with Keaton (knowing Lewis just from clips off TV, etc.), but a viewing of one of Lewis’ earliest films called The Bellboy made me reconsider digging into his film career.

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Therefore The Nutty Professor was the obvious next step for investigating Lewis – it’s typically his highest rated film (among those he directed and starred in), is rife with potential for slapstick and is essentially part of general pop culture at this point. The Bellboy was an excuse to squeeze numerous skits and ideas together into a non-plot film, but it succeeded in impressing me along several lines. Lewis showed he could actually be subtle and very inventive while being a complete goofball. The Nutty Professor will have to wait, but I had some high hopes going into The Family Jewels that I’d get at least more of the same and build further anticipation to his other films. How did that pan out? Well, let’s review my first sentence of this post again…Barring several moments of reasonably inspired absurdity and several deftly timed bits by Lewis, the film flops and flounders as it haphazardly wanders through its plot mechanism: a 9-year-old heiress (first time actress – and boy does it show – Donna Butterworth) gets to spend 2 weeks with each of her five different uncles (all played by Lewis) to see who she prefers to be her guardian. The family chauffeur Willard (also Lewis) is her best friend and escorts her to each new candidate. He also happened to accidentally stop an armoured car holdup at the start of the movie which is not forgotten by the gangsters he thwarted.

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Shorts Program: Happy Birthday, Buster Keaton!

As my classic film buddies on Twitter were so kind to remind me, today would have been Buster Keaton’s 117th birthday, and what better time to break out a classic Keaton short than that? Not that you ever really need an excuse, but hey, when one presents itself…

You might expect the still above, with Buster riding toward the camera on a locomotive’s cowcatcher, to come from his best-known feature, The General – but look closer. He’s not wearing his Johnny Reb Civil War outfit from that film, but his familiar porkpie hat and a regular suit. Nope, this is from the 1921 short film The Goat, a film which has much in common with his well-known short Cops, but for my money, this one is even more hilarious and manic. Here, a down-on-his-luck Buster is mistaken for an escaped criminal and spends the rest of the film on the run from every cop he can find. It doesn’t have the sheer volume of cops in the chase that Cops does, but it’s totally non-stop and has an above average number of both incredible stunts and hilarious sight gags. It’s one of my favorite Keaton shorts, so enjoy and celebrate this man who’s been entertaining us for 95 years.

Finite Focus: Buster Keaton tries to relax (Our Hospitality)

Buster Keaton has always been famous for his daring stunts and his deadpan face. Rarely does he break expression as he tumbles down mountainsides, fights vicious storms or survives buildings crashing around him. One of his best stunts occurs near the end of his classic Our Hospitality – as his beloved floats uncontrollably towards a huge waterfall and certain death, he ties himself to an overhanging log and swings out to catch the falling body as it plummets over the edge of roaring water. It may only be a dummy that takes the plunge over the edge, but that’s Keaton arcing out like a pendulum to catch it while swallowing torrents of water. It’s a fantastic scene that provides an exciting climax and is possibly even more remarkable in its execution today than almost 90 years ago when he performed it. There’s no editing out of safety wires or harnesses here – just a basic knowledge of physics and a great deal of nerve.

As great as it is, though, my favourite moment in the film comes much earlier and shows off one of Keaton’s other comedic skills – his impeccable timing. Unaware of a long-standing family feud (similar to a Hatfield/McCoy battle), Willie Mckay returns to his family home for the first time in decades. There he meets a young woman who just happens to be a member of his family’s rivals and she invites him over to dinner. The menfolk of her family are, of course, aghast when he arrives, but since they are hospitable southern gentlemen, they would never kill him inside their house. So they wait until he must eventually leave. Willie realizes this and stalls his departure – which also gives him more time with his new girl.

As he watches her play the piano, he becomes aware of the baleful glares of his hopeful executioners. For a full 10 seconds, he tries to appear unfazed by looking for a natural relaxed mode, but continues to shift positions, trying folded arms then leaning against the wall then hands in pockets, but never quite doing any of them before changing his mind and trying something else. It’s a wonderful little piece of funny business that shows his awkwardness and nervousness at the situation – while never letting his expression change.

You can see that snippet from the scene below:

Shorts Program: Buster Keaton vs. proto-IKEA

Buster Keaton started off in a series of shorts with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in 1917, but soon branched out to write, direct, and star in his own short comedies. One Week is the first film he did sans Arbuckle, and you can already tell this guy is destined for greatness. It follows the first week after a pair of newlyweds tie the knot (hence the title), and deals mostly with their attempts to build their house-in-a-box, but with plenty of time for other gags as well. Take putting together IKEA furniture and multiply it by a thousand, and that’s what Keaton is dealing with here.

Part two is under the seats.

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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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Cinecast Episode 214 – I Hate that I Know That

 
 
We start things off simple. No Kurt. Just some Pirates and Priests. With unpleasantness out of the way, Kurt jumps in with both feet for a indie post-apocalyptic film out of Toronto, a re-evaluation of Inglorious Basterds and Tarantino’s career. Trains and Toni Collette keep the conversation chugging along and with Gamble here, “Game of Thrones” is sort of unavoidable. We all revel in the love for Rip Torn and South Korea before rounding everything out with a talk about sequels that are crazier than a rat in a tin shithouse (ala Caddyshack II and Gremilns II). Nobody dies.

As always, please join the conversation by leaving your own thoughts in the comment section below and again, thanks for listening!


 
 

 

To download the show directly, paste the following URL into your favorite downloader:
http://rowthree.com/audio/cinecast_11/episode_214.mp3

 
 
Full show notes are under the seats…
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Cinecast Episode 205 – See Thomas Howell

 
 
Welcome one, welcome all! The latest episode of The Cinecast sees the destruction of four things: Los Angeles (or a back-lot set) from invading aliens, in Battle: LA; Dartmouth Nova Scotia gets bloody and graffitied up, exploitation style, from gangs going to war with a Hobo With A Shotgun; Catherine Hardwicke’s career with the flirts-with-camp-total failure of Red Riding Hood (Gamble took one for the team on this); and finally the end of Robert Zemekis’s Mo-Cap technology with the Disney mega-bomb Mars Needs Moms. Furthermore, while it was more of a mild pummeling by release circumstances than the complete destruction of what is a very solid film, the unfair treatment of I Love You Phillip Morris is discussed. Then we dig deep into what we have been watching. On the menu are political British Gangster dramas, Nazi propaganda films, Art-Giallo hommages, silent comedies, a knuckle-biter suspense spectacular, the Bard with music ‘n guns, more 80s nostalgia and TVs Party Down. We are back to our usual tangents, in particular on a certain actor that has Matt losing it, in tears, mid-show, and an angry ranting-slash-bit-o’-tomfoolery regarding Robert Redford’s baseball movie to close things out. We cram a lot into this show. I hope you enjoy it in all of its shaggy glory.

As always, please join the conversation by leaving your own thoughts in the comment section below and again, thanks for listening!


 
 

 

To download the show directly, paste the following URL into your favorite downloader:
http://rowthree.com/audio/cinecast_11/episode_205.mp3

 
 
Full show notes are under the seats…
Would you like to know more…?