Monthly Archives: August 2005

Stone Face

The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1927)

If you’re going to introduce somebody to silent films – and what a good, true friend that would make you – then there is no better place to start than with the works of Buster Keaton. While Charlie Chaplin was always much more admired in his lifetime, and managed a vastly more successful career after the introduction of sound, Keaton’s work has probably aged better. He’s more cinematic, less sentimental, and simply more fun. Chaplin was considered at the time the pre-eminent comic artist of silent film, but as much as I like his work, to modern audiences I think he is too obviously striving for greatness. Looking back, now that neither has a point to prove – we take it as a given that both were seminal film artists – Keaton’s lack of pretension is more appealing. The General isn’t quite his best work (Sherlock Junior is even better) but it is the best of his films available on DVD in this country.

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Putting the Hustle into Kung Fu

Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, 2004)

It used to be possible to split martial arts films roughly into two broad categories: those that featured largely unassisted physical feats, such as the films of Jackie Chan; and those reliant on more over-the-top, heavily faked wire-work, such as Once Upon a Time in China or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The last few years, however, have seen the emergence of a variant of the latter: computer assisted martial arts, as seen prominently in the fight with many Agent Smiths in The Matrix Reloaded. Here the computer fakery moves beyond just the digital removal of wires, and starts creating digital stunt men and props. Once a fight is at least partially animated inside a computer, anything is possible. In unassisted martial arts, a kick might knock someone over. With wire-work, it might send them flying across a room. With digital martial arts, however, it can send them over the horizon.

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Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (Tom Shone, Simon & Shuster, 2004)

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Tom Shone’s Blockbuster, which charts the rise of blockbuster filmmaking in Hollywood over nearly three decades (starting from the wild success of Jaws in 1975), echoes Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls in a number of ways. Just picking it up, you can tell the publishers must be hoping it can replicate the runaway success of Biskind’s book. It even replicates the insert of photos, each captioned with the snappiest, most appealing quotes that can be found in the text.

The most important link, however, is subject matter. Biskind’s book concluded with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas drawing an end to the “New Hollywood” era of the seventies, and Shone picks the story up at that point. Yet Blockbuster is also a reply to Biskind. For Biskind, the coming of the blockbuster was the triumph of barbarism over art: the death of good filmmaking, but Shone’s take is much more receptive to the way in which Spielberg and Lucas did things than Biskind. The beauty of his approach, however, is that he can embrace the pleasures of the blockbuster without giving up his critical faculties. Regular readers will know I’m sympathetic to the point of view Shone espouses here, but it is always a struggle to articulate a critical framework that allows appreciation of such films on their own terms, while still maintaining a distinction between art and trash.

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My Body May Belong to You, But My Soul Belongs to Warner Bros.

Note: this post has been updated; see the bottom for more details.

When the Australian division of Warner Bros split the four disk Looney Tunes Golden Collection released in the United States into three separate collections (two single disks and a double disk), I was fairly philosophical. Even allowing for the fact that we missed out on some of the extra features the Americans got – notably The Boys From Termite Terrace, a documentary about the studio – I was just happy to be getting any release of these wonderful cartoons at all. It did cross my mind that the format of the release, and its cheap-looking cover art, would lead to poor sales for the DVDs. But I could enjoy great cartoons like Rabbit Seasoning, Rabbit of Seville, and Hair-Raising Hare on DVD at last. And there would be more to come, I told myself. So I have waited calmly ever since that release, in March 2004, expecting that the next volume would follow.

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Wartime Filmmaking

I finally caught up with Batman Begins last weekend. I don’t plan to do a full review, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s too late in its run to be worthwhile; secondly, the guys at Hoopla pretty much covered all the points I would make about it. I didn’t like it as much as they did: I thought as soon as it moved in to action film mode it was pretty poorly made, and that its take on vigilante justice was fairly confused (I actually think the deceptively light and frothy Spiderman films, particularly the second one, balanced substance and action with considerably more finesse). But they got it right about the political undertones of the film, and I certainly found the film much more interesting than its predecessors. This is the other reason I don’t want to write a full review, however: having written so much about the political undertones of Revenge of the Sith and War of the Worlds I didn’t really want to wade too deeply into those waters again.

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The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)

There are few films that are so associated with a particular moment in time as The Graduate. It’s the definitive Hollywood inter-generational sex comedy, but it’s also one of the most important youth pictures of an era defined by the actions of its university-age population. The Graduate was a defining film for the emerging late-sixties youth movement, and the virtues of the film remain clearly apparent nearly forty years later: while it might be dated, its palpable sense of period is also one of its great virtues. (Its wall-to-wall use of Simon & Garfunkel songs as score, for example, is extremely evocative). Yet it remains an intriguing movie precisely because of its association with the political turmoil of the late sixties. It is, ultimately, a deeply cynical film that was adopted by an idealistic generation. Why a film that sees youthful rebellion as futile was so heartily adopted by the late-sixties college crowd remains deeply puzzling.

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