Tag Archives: charlie chaplin

One Hour Mark: Mon Oncle

This is an image from 1:00:00 into Jacques Tati’s playful, faultlessly composed Mon Oncle (1958). It’s a kind-hearted comedy set in a Parisian suburb where modern homes coexist with ramshackle tenements, and where the hopelessly unfashionable Monsieur Hulot (Tati) must get along with his sister’s ultra-bourgeois family. Hulot may be the main character, but he’s not the film’s real focus; unlike, say, Chaplin’s comedies, Mon Oncle has no interest in extracting pathos through close-ups. Instead, Tati patiently observes Hulot’s environs – especially his sister’s gray, gadget-filled house of the future – and constructs subtle jokes along the margins of the frame. Through these wide shots, Tati invites the viewer into his colorful, unpredictable, and very funny world.

All of these traits and techniques are on display in the image above. That well-dressed little boy is Gérard Arpel, Hulot’s nephew and the “mon” of the film’s title. He’s been forced into a suit and tie so as to look refined for his mother’s garden party, but he has no intention of playing the part. He’s peering out into the street and whistling at an approaching guest; moments later, the guest (distracted by the whistling) bangs into a streetlamp. It’s a perfectly timed, childish joke – one that’s reprised at the end of the movie – and its punchline isn’t even explicitly shown, but rather manifested through the wiggle of the streetlamp and a loud “BANG” on the soundtrack.

Whereas many comedy directors feel compelled to hammer home the point of every joke, Tati gets more done by sparingly applying a few precise tools (i.e., a wide shot, judicious editing, sound effects). He takes his comedy seriously, and takes a similarly subtle approach to characterization. Tati shies away from psychologically profiling his characters, preferring to develop relationships and attitudes visually. (The content of the dialogue is almost irrelevant in his films, especially Playtime [1967].) For example, we get the sense that Gérard gravitates toward his bumbling uncle because he’s so alienated by his family’s pretentious, repressive lifestyle. He never says this (I mean, he’s 9), but it’s clear through his actions and the way he’s filmed relative to his parents and the house itself.

Just look at the image above: Gérard, the petite, curious troublemaker, stands in stark contrast to the flat, monolithic barrier in front of him. He’s creeping around its edges and peeking through its slats, counteracting the fence’s primary function, which is to separate the Arpel household from the outside world. Gérard, by virtue of being an energetic kid, can’t and won’t be fit into his family’s narrow constraints, whether social or architectural; this aligns him with his uncle, even if Hulot’s unsuitability for bourgeois life is more a matter of clumsiness than rebellion. Both characters contribute to the film’s overall critique of technological modernity, and I think Tati sympathizes with Gérard’s youthful mischief as well as his alter ego’s frustrations in the Arpels’ cutting-edge household.

This gets at one of Tati’s greatest strengths. Even though Mon Oncle is a gentle, deliberately paced study of a small-town community – with an eye for the absurdities of everyday life – it’s still an ideologically potent (and sharply insightful) film in ways that flow organically from the comedy. The contrast with Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) – a film I absolutely adore, which also exploits the comic properties of antagonistic machinery – grows more relevant here, because Chaplin inserts his political message directly into his Tramp’s melodramatic struggle. Tati, meanwhile, expresses it through the ironies and rhythms of day-to-day life. He doesn’t use a single language, but speaks through the sights and sounds of the sensory world.

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Opening Pandora’s Box

In honor of The Film Experience’s most recent entry in its “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series, I’m finally going to talk about the woman whose visage graces the Pussy Goes Grrr banner. That’s right: we’re going to look at the quintessential flapper Louise Brooks and her best-remembered role – as Lulu in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), or Die Büchse der Pandora if you know German. The challenge of the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series is, fittingly, to pick your favorite shot from the film in question. Therefore, I’ve picked a single image to summarize how I feel about this movie. I decided to go minimalist.

This shot comes midway through the film, as Lulu lingers around the home of her now-dead lover Dr. Schön. She hears his son, Alwa, in the next room, and sneaks in on him, dressed only in her bathrobe. But before she does her sneaking, she peeks her head into the doorway and glances in. Her expression slowly changes from one of carefree curiosity to the seductive grin you see above. I just love how she’s occupying this in-between space, getting her act ready (Lulu’s always performing), about to descend upon Alwa.

Pabst’s complex, shifting mise-en-scène does such a great job of visualizing the terms of the film’s conflicts. Here, for example, we’ve got a single vertical line splitting the frame, concealing Lulu’s all-too-desirable body. It’s like a curtain about to rise. This image has other metaphorical implications that I like: 1) the opening door is obviously reminiscent of a certain mythical, evil-releasing act associated with Lulu, and 2) it’s a sign of how easily Lulu is able to navigate the confines of Pabst’s frame. This is a movie about an unstoppable force (Lulu) bypassing one immovable object after another. Lulu’s ease of movement reminds me of Chaplin in Modern Times; they’re both surprisingly capable of moving through crowds, social entanglements, and geopolitical boundaries.

I really enjoyed this shot from early in the film because it demonstrates the sheer energy and the unmatchable vivacity that Brooks brought to this role. Like other great silent actors/actresses, she could express herself visually as clearly as if she’d used her mouth. No words are necessary when you’ve got body language like Louise Brooks. Her physicality, her audacity, and her eroticism all bypass verbal self-expression entirely; throughout the film, she communicates strictly on a visual level.

This facet of her performance, in concert with Günther Krampf’s textured, gorgeous photography, make Pandora’s Box a supremely sensual film. Many of the male characters self-righteously complain about Lulu’s promiscuity, but ultimately everyone wants her to open that box. All their hypocrisies are proven false by the raw, beautiful power of Brooks’ performance. It’s a performance with so many subtexts; it’s one that encapsulates so many of the moral and sexual dilemmas of the 1920s, both in Germany and the United States. Brooks as Lulu takes every option into consideration.

This image looks almost like a religious ceremony in progress, as the Countess’s fixation on Lulu makes the rest of the party recede into the background. This moment, like so many in Pandora’s Box, is all about desire, and Pabst shows this with silence in ways that wouldn’t work with sound. If it had been made a couple years later, so many of the film’s subtleties would’ve been crushed under torrents of crackly dialogue and ambient noise. But, working at the tail end of the silent era, Pabst and his team turned out one of the most profoundly sensual, sexual films of that or any time.

Louise Brooks’ performance as Lulu calls to mind Norma Desmond’s famous battle cry: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” And what a face! Pandora’s Box is great erotic melodrama and social commentary, but above all it’s a triumph of iconography. Lulu is a mystery to the men around her, a fluctuating set of behaviors and whims, and since she’s a consummate silent actress, it’s all made manifest in her face. I’ll end with an image of an image; it suggests that no matter how often Lulu is treated as an object of the male gaze, they can never truly know her. She’s just unknowable. She’s Lulu. And she’s Louise Brooks.


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Billy Loves Stu and the Meme of Horror!

We here at Pussy Goes Grrr love community-building. We also love telling our reading audience about our selves and our opinions. And Pax Romano over at the delightfully queer horror blog Billy Loves Stu has provided an outlet for doing just that: it’s The First Ever Billy Loves Stu Meme for Horror Bloggers. (Even though we’re not a horror blog per se, this whole place is infused with the spirit of horror. So STFU.) So, without further ado, here’s our response (us being Ashley & Andreas) to this getting-to-know-you FAQ/survey/meme…

1: In Ten Words or Less, Describe Your Blog:

Angry feminism meets culture-analyzing acumen and horror movie love.

2: During What Cinematic Era Where you Born?
A: The Classic Horror Era (late 30’s to 40’s)
B: The Atomic Monster/Nuclear Angst Era (the late 40’s through 50’s)
C: The Psycho Era ( Early 60’s)
D: The Rosemary’s Baby Era (Mid to Late 60’s)
E: The Exorcism Era (Early to mid 70’s)
F: The Halloween Era (Late 70’s to Early 80’s)
G: The Slasher Era (Mid to late 80’s) (Ashley)
H: The Self Referential/Post Modern Era (1990 to 1999) (Andreas)

[We both have some issues with these chronological breakdowns, however, primarily in the later years: e.g., wouldn’t the “Halloween Era” just be the part of the “Slasher Era”?]

3: The Carrie Compatibility Question:
(gay men and straight women – make your choice from section A)
A: Billy Nolan or Tommy Ross, who would you take to the prom?
(straight guys and lesbians – make your choice from section B)
B: Sue Snell or Chris Hargensen, who would you take to the prom?

Same answer for both us: Sissy Spacek and only Sissy Spacek.

4: You have been given an ungodly amount of money, and total control of a major motion picture studio – what would your dream Horror project be?

Andreas: If  that “ungodly amount of money” can be used to fund the resurrection of the dead, I say we zombify the corpse of F.W. Murnau, give him whatever money’s left over, and watch him go. That’s my dream horror project.

Ashley: Due to massive amounts of genetic tampering in local chickens, one chicken mutates into the dreaded CHICKENCLIT! It’s a clit! It’s a chicken! It’s 50 STORIES TALL! This movie would be a beautiful abomination and would tank miserably before going on to become a cult classic 20 years later.

5: What horror film “franchise” that others have embraced, left you cold?

Andreas: I’m not really a “franchise” sort of guy – I’m pretty insistent on quality over quantity, and rarely find myself watching sequels beyond “II.” By way of example, I didn’t much care for Friday the 13th Part I, and am in no hurry to see anything past that.

Ashley: All of Scream and all of Friday the 13th. FUCK THOSE MOVIES.

6:  Is Michael Bay the Antichrist?

Michael Bay sucks. Damien is the Antichrist.

7: Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Frankenstein Monster – which one of these classic villains scares you, and why?

Andreas: They’re all scary, each in their own special way. But whereas the Monster is more pitiful and Dracula’s more aristocratic, the Wolf Man can tear your fucking throat out and wake up the next morning, as if from a drunken binge, with no memory of the event. Poor, poor Larry Talbot.

Ashley: Lord Summerisle, fersure. He may not be classic, but he’s retro! Also, Billy. He will fuck your Christmas all up.

8: Tell me about a scene from a NON HORROR Film that scares the crap out of you:

Ashley: The rape scenes in Rashomon (1950) and The Virgin Spring (1960). The brutality experienced by the female characters in both films is very scary. On a lighter note, Judge Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) is one scary motherfucker, and not just when he turns into the murderous, demon-eyed toon.

9: Baby Jane Hudson invites you over to her house for lunch.  What do you bring?

As long as she’s got enough dead rats and pet birds for both of us, there’s no reason to turn this into a potluck.

10: So, between you and me, do you have any ulterior motives for blogging?  Come, on you can tell me, it will be our little secret, I won’t tell a soul.

Andreas: I’ve never told anyone this before, but… I have an earnest desire to share my thoughts about film with the world, and to read the opinions of others. Now shhhh! We can’t let this get out.

11: What would you have brought to Rosemary Woodhouse’s baby shower?

Do they sell infant contact lenses?

12: Godzilla vs The Cloverfield Monster, who wins?

Neither of us have seen Cloverfield, but I’m just going to take a guess and say that Godzilla wins. Because you know what? Godzilla wins pretty much everything, from Godzilla vs. Megalon to the Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla. Plus, he’s got half a century of experience.

13: If you found out that Rob Zombie was reading your blog, what would you post in hopes that he read it?

Ashley: Rob Zombie, if he just happened to be a long-time reader, would already be pissed off about me calling him an asshole for remaking films that don’t need to be remade here.

14: What is your favorite NON HORROR FILM, and why?

Andreas: Favorite, schmavorite; I can never narrow my preferences down to absolutes. But, uh, I’m very fond of The Third Man, Johnny Guitar, and anything by Fassbinder.

Ashley: A lot of my all-time favorite films ARE horror films e.g. Repulsion and Let the Right One In. These movies hold their own next to any other movie of any other genre. But if I had to choose some favorite non-horror, I love Miyazaki’s films (and even some of them have slight touches of creepiness) and lots of other animated films (like the aforementioned Roger Rabbit). Double Indemnity is one of my favorite films and so is Gaslight (which also has touches of horror) and I love, love, love Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

15: If blogging technology did not exist, what would you be doing

Andreas: Pursuing my college education without distraction. Jesus, how boring would that be?

Ashley: Since I don’t spend ALL of my time blogging, I’d probably just spend (even more) time perusing the interwebz.

I hope you enjoyed this intimate look into our creepy little minds. Thanks to Billy Loves Stu for the meme; go check it out!

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Chaplin, screwball, and sexual ambiguity

There’s really so much to blog about, and so little time. I want to dive head-first into the strange intersections of film history and sexuality – for example, Ashley and I have recently been watching many, many Charlie Chaplin films – right now we’re halfway through Monsieur Verdoux. Here he plays a Bluebeard, seducing women and then killing them for their money (to support his ailing wife and child). However, I recently noted that one reason we can sympathize with the Tramp or Buster Keaton is because they’re so unthreatening; they’re lovable and couldn’t genuinely, intentionally hurt a fly. So Chaplin’s turn from harmless icon to mass murderer is pretty astounding, and creates a kind of absurd confusion. It reminds me of the oddity that is Adenoid Hynkel, one of Chaplin’s dual roles in The Great Dictator.

Megalomaniacal whimsy

In the Politics & Film class I took last year, the professor made a note of Chaplin’s hilariously weird movements when he’s dancing around with the globe, as well as the way he scuttles up a curtain when telling his assistant Garbage, à la Greta Garbo, “I want to be alone,” and she suggested that it might indicate some kind of, oh, fruitiness or queerness of his character – thereby implying the same thing about Adolf Hitler (for which I turn your attention to the WWII song “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball“). This makes me wonder about queer characters in classical Hollywood films, and the role of sexuality in a comedy icon as timeless and endearing as the Tramp.

As a little more textual evidence regarding queerness and Chaplin, watching City Lights the other day, Ashley and I noticed a funny little scene where Chaplin flutters his eyes at a half-naked boxer, prompting the boxer to recede out of Chaplin’s view. Maybe it’s the possibility of homoeroticism being played for laughs. But I think it’s at least interesting to see how sexual fluidity works in comedy; another example is Bringing Up Baby, which we watched a couple days ago, where Cary Grant makes the (supposedly) first use of “gay” as a synonym for “homosexual” on film. (Watch it here, at 1:33.)

David: Because I just went gay, all of a sudden.

This, in a totally off-the-wall ridiculous screwball comedy where the rules of the normal universe seem to regularly break down – since identity, social class, dignity, everything is able to bend (and break) in Bringing Up Baby, why not sexual norms as well? And, thinking about all the cross-dressing going on (in Katharine Hepburn’s excessively garish outfits, no less), I remembered that some years later, Grant starred in another Howard Hawks film, I Was a Male War Bride, which also involved cross-dressing. I feel like I need to somehow get a handle on Cary Grant’s on-screen sexual persona.

Since I’m not sure where I’m going with this discussion (this is a relatively short, superficial post), I might as well also touch on another interesting topic brought up by Gloria in a comment on an earlier post:

I often wonder how many comings out of the closet of deceased people are actually true or just the result of unconfirmed rumour… when not the result of fan-fiction!

When personal affairs aren’t meticulously documented, when sources conflict, or for whatever reason, it can be hard to pin down facts about historical personages, even ones who lived in the 20th century. And one aspect of identity that’s especially hard to ascertain is sexual orientation. One reason could be that in many parts of the world, sometimes until relatively recently, homosexuality was considered not just perverse, but also a mental illness, or even a crime. (Cf. the sad case of Oscar Wilde, or the film Victim with Dirk Bogarde.) And so a question can be, does it matter? Do you regard their art, their life any differently whether they were hetero or not? Well, I think I would argue (I’m sleepy, mind you), does it matter if they were male or female? Black or white (or other)? Religious or nonreligious?

I guess this all just goes into this big question of how much life and art do or should interact. Can we set life aside and regard art as detached, or can we even admire someone from a purely biographical perspective? All I know is, I like to know the facts about artists (in this case, in film) who I’m interested in. And just as I enjoy looking at representations of or by female or black filmmakers in an era where their contributions were generally unappreciated, the same goes for queer actors, directors, etc. Just to give a random example, I think James Whale’s sexual orientation is very worth considering when analyzing The Old Dark House or Bride of Frankenstein. Not that the films are brimming with gayness or anything; just that it’s one of many parts of the artist’s identity to take into account.

And so, that brings us to the fact that it’s often hard to determine sexualities in retrospect. This causes all manner of problems; I’d recommend Cheryl Dunye’s intriguing film The Watermelon Woman for an example of this. One scene involves Cheryl interviewing a relative of a lesbian director from the ’30s about her relationship with the titular black actress. The relative, an old woman, is infuriated, insisting that the director was straight and that it’s nothing but rumors. This reaction seems to happen a lot, as if the suggestion that a deceased person may have been queer is akin to calling them a crazed sexual deviant and does a disservice to their memory. Maybe it’s related to the sentiment “speak no ill of the dead”: “speak no sexuality of the dead.”

My point, ultimately, is that as with anything else, we should base our conclusions about people on solid research. Random, poorly-formatted Spanish-language websites that speculate wildly, however entertaining, should not be taken as solid evidence; reputable biographies should. And so, I think I’ll wrap up this little post for now – I want to write about more actors and actresses, but I’m not sure who. I realized that the closest this blog has come to addressing the subject of pussies going grrr is my earlier exploration of the film Cat People, which gets better and better every time it enters my mind. But in the interest of further accuracy to the title, despite my hatred of lolcats, here you go.

Yakov Smirnov, eat your cat out.

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Machine men with machine minds

It’s been a while since we’ve posted anything – between the Independence Day weekend and Ashley’s pinched sciatic nerve, it’s been difficult to find time for writing. So I figured I might take a few minutes to go over whatever it is I’ve been thinking about lately. We’ve watched a fair amount of (very good) movies; it’s nice to be able to go back and rewatch beloved classics. Since I’m so preoccupied with watching films I haven’t yet seen (and checking off lists, always lists), this is an opportunity I don’t often get.

And, well, I think all in all repeated viewing is important to understanding and loving film – after all, it’s a very visually and aurally dense art form. So it’s good to be able to watch movies from all time periods, regions, styles, genres, and directors, but at the same time, occasionally it’s good to do some deeper viewing, possibly paying attention to aspects of the work you haven’t noticed before. Beside that, it’s just fun: the two of us are sharing movies we love with each other. What’s more romantic than that?

Among the movies we’ve watched have been, as I mentioned the other day, The Third Man and White Heat. This is going to be short, so I don’t really have time to jump into a full-blown exploration of the two films’ many nuances and significances, but I might as well just touch briefly on the thoughts I had while rewatching.

The symbolic recursion of man within man within man

With The Third Man, every other line in the first half of the film seems to be a clue, a subtle hint to the mysteries Holly spends the rest of the film furiously unraveling. The way the film so carefully traces the effects that Harry Lime had on those around him reminds me of some of Orson Welles’ other contributions to film: say, for example, Citizen Kane, which asks if one word can really sum up a man’s life, or Touch of Evil, which concludes with Marlene Dietrich asking, “What does it matter what you say about people?”

Of course here we’ve instead got the direction of Carol Reed, filling in the darkness and disorientation, as in his earlier films, Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol, where the confused protagonists (a dying IRA operative and an ambassador’s young son, respectively) wander through situations just as undecipherable as Holly Martins’ stay in Vienna. Between the nonstop canted angles and the blissfully idiosyncratic, often incongruous zither music, it’s a decidedly off-balance film – the truth is always behind another shadow, another corner, or as Calloway says, “We should’ve dug deeper than a grave.” And the film always keeps a very British sense of dark humor about the whole affair.

Martins: A parrot bit me.

Calloway: Oh, stop behaving like a fool, Martins…

I think The Third Man forms a great contrast with the other film on my mind, released the same year, Raoul Walsh’s White Heat. Both contain blithely smiling villains. But while The Third Man coyly clings to secret after secret, layer after layer, White Heat is blunt as hell. (I wonder if I could draw a parallel between Walsh and Samuel Fuller, in that both seem to trade in subtlety for raw brutality.) In the first 5 minutes, we’re introduced to our weirdly sympathetic, totally psychotic central character, Cody Jarrett, a mercilessly hands-on gangleader played by veteran actor James Cagney.

Cagney was returning to the gangster movie a decade after having helped define it with roles in Warner Bros. films like Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties, Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces (both opposite Bogart), and of course the grapefruit-smashing iconography of William Wellman’s The Public Enemy. His performance as Cody Jarrett, though, drops the relatively well-intentioned rags-to-riches element of these Depression-era films for a delusional but brazen figure fixated on the support of his mother and her dreams of him going to the “top of the world.” Jarrett doesn’t just want to be well-off and have his best girl by his side; instead, he’s consumed with id and despises his best girl (played with sluttiness and self-interest by Virginia Mayo).

The film is filled with one weird turn after another, from the scorching of gang member Zookie with steam from a train engine (the first of many symbolic images of “White Heat”) to Jarrett’s transferred devotion to partner-in-crime-but-actually-police-informant Vic Pardo, played by frequent noir straight man Edmond O’Brien. It almost reminds me of the way black holes curve space-time: Cagney’s white-hot performance seems to skew the whole film in bleak, slightly disturbing directions. So here we have an interesting way that two films are similarly effective: The Third Man‘s driving force is powerful through his absence, while White Heat‘s makes his mark through an overwhelming presence.

Finally, since you can never embed too many videos in one blog, here’s a climactic excerpt from another movie Ashley and I watched recently, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. It’s a great artist’s first sound film, and a passionate paean to human freedom.

I’m not sure when there’ll be more writing forthcoming from either of us, but we’ve both got plenty of ideas stewing in our heads (both collaboratively and individually), so more eventually.

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