chabrol

Happy Fifth Birthday to Me (with movies)

Today is my fifth anniversary of joining Movie Morlocks. My first post, “Hey, down in front!” was posted on Saturday November 6, 2010. This week marks my 260th post—and since it’s been 261 weeks since I first showed up, that means I’ve only missed my slot once. And I didn’t even really “miss” it, since the day I dropped was when TCM took over the site for a themed promotional event and pre-empted the usual Morlocks posts.

Rather foolishly, I saved the best for first, and haven’t managed to top “Hey, down in front!” Maybe I should’ve done a mic drop and walked away then and there—instead I’ve gone on an interminable downhill slide as I’ve used this platform to broadcast my contrarian ideas about classic films (click on any of the titles to read the original post, if you’re interested): FW Murnau’s Sunrise is a slapstick comedy! Buster Keaton’s talkie pictures are actually quite enjoyable—especially The Passionate Plumber! Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent is a slapstick comedy! The inner frame of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari does not function like a dream sequence! The shorter cut of Metropolis is actually more authentic than the longer “director’s cut”!  Chaplin mimics aren’t worthless ripoffs!  FW Murnau is not the most important creative force behind Nosferatu! Star Trek The Motion Picture is a great movie, for exactly the reasons everyone hates it!

It’s a wonder y’all haven’t kicked me out of here yet.

Here are a few of my personally most memorable posts.

 

 

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1. Hey down in front!

Prior to my debut here, most of my professional writing on movies had been about horror or science-fiction subjects. This was in some ways a kind of typecasting—I’d made my name writing about Godzilla movies, so it just sort of naturally followed that later editors would assign me the cult film beat. But with Morlocks, I realized I had a platform in which I could go my own way. I knew I wanted to spend the majority of my time here writing about comedy, and I had a thesis about the evolution of screwball comedy from slapstick that I wanted to explore here, so I decided to do my debut piece on Charlie Chaplin’s Kid Auto Races in Venice.

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For those of you who don’t know it, it’s a 10-minute long Keystone comedy from 1914 in which a drunk hobo keeps wandering into and disrupting a documentary about a soapbox derby. It is, for all intents and purposes, the debut of Charlie Chaplin as a screen comedian—not literally, mind you, but this is where the Chaplin we know and love first shows up on screen. Beyond that fact, though, it is not a generally well-regarded film—for reasons that escape me.

I’ve generally opposed the trend to treat classic movies as museum pieces—they may be art, but they are also commercial products created by an industrial system for mass consumption, and should be embraced as entertainment first if we want to really appreciate their artistry. But when it comes to the early Keystone comedies, they belong to an obsolete mode of pop culture that now feels so alien, connecting with them as entertainment is a tall order. With Kid Auto Races in Venice however, there are easy points of connection with contemporary mockumentaries and reality shows, making this one of the most accessible Chaplin films of all.

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2. You people must really like William Haines

It’s a very good thing I never pursued my dream of making movies, because I am a terrible judge of what other people like.

I am reminded of that failing every week, as I make wrong predictions about what material will inspire robust discussions in the comments threads. I mean, sometimes I guess right—I know that my obsession with Claude Chabrol is not widely shared, and whenever I spin off on that tangent I’ll hear the comments thread equivalent of crickets. It makes sense—people are more interested in discussing movies that they’ve seen. No big secret there. But then I’ll write something about a TCM staple—like Palm Beach Story or Key Largo—and wait for a reaction.

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So imagine my puzzlement when, of all the insane theories I’ve trotted out here over the last 5 years, the biggest and most intense reaction I’ve ever provoked was when I criticized William Haines’ 1930 comedy The Girl Said No.

It’s an example of that transitional American comedy where the frenetic vaudevillian aesthetic awkwardly commingled with a new approach to romantic comedy, and as such was exactly the kind of movie I wanted to write about.   But it was an unpleasant experience to watch—with Haines’ character alternating between abusing innocent bystanders and exploiting women in a way that had rape-y characteristics.

What intrigued me, though, was how the screen persona of William Haines (at least in this film) differed so much from his off-screen self—and if anything, the real-life William Haines was a heroic example of individualism.

Somewhere along the way, my trying to thread the needle between praising Haines as a person and critiquing the film was too confusing, because some people took deep umbrage at what their perceived as my “hateful” attacks on Haines. I re-read my essay earlier today while writing this, and I still don’t see where I said anything mean about Haines, just about that one film.

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3. Remaking Howard Hawks

I’ve been keeping a diary since I was a kid, but it contains nothing but notes about which movies I’ve seen. Most of the time all I managed to do is scribble down what I watched and when; sometimes I write out a more thoughtful reaction. Every once in a while I get taken away and find myself writing several paragraphs, or even pages. Because I have so many years of these things, I tend to raid them for ideas of what to post here, and if I’ve had an especially busy week I may just retype my journal’s notes with minimal additions and call it a day.

Which is how I ended up twice posting almost identical material about Howard Hawks’ El Dorado/Rio Grande Westerns. Because I’d forgotten I’d already posted it, I went to the same well twice; and because I was basically cribbing my own notes, the text ended up word-for-word in places.

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As soon as I realized it, my first thought was, “Oh crap.” But then, when I realized that I hadn’t just recycled my writing about any film, but specifically recycled writing about how Howard Hawks had recycled the content of Rio Bravo into El Dorado. I half-imagine Hawks himself, sitting at the premiere and admiring El Dorado’s glory when John Wayne casually mentions something about liking it better the first time through… and Hawks going, “Oh crap!”

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4. Too much Claude Chabrol

Actually, there can never be too much Claude Chabrol. He’s one of the 10 best filmmakers who ever lived, in my opinion, and I’m not going to stop writing about him no matter how much apathy and disinterest I find here. You can’t stop me!

But that being said, even I’ll admit I made a fundamental misstep when, as my way of introducing this off-putting French New Wave cult artist here for the first time, to a readership who gather mostly for a discussion of Golden Age Hollywood, for some inchoate reason I decided to focus on his worst film, The Twist (a/k/a Folies Bourgeoises) which I can barely stand to watch. Exactly why I thought the best way to introduce one of the loves of my life to you by starting only with the warts, I’ll never know.

 

…Hmmm… maybe I need to write about Chabrol next week…

7 Responses Happy Fifth Birthday to Me (with movies)
Posted By Emgee : November 7, 2015 9:04 pm

“maybe I need to write about Chabrol next week.” You’re not going to claim Le Boucher is a comedy, are you?

Posted By Autist : November 8, 2015 12:21 am

I’m down for some Chabrol. I’ve been meaning to watch some of his movies. What wine would go with Chabrol? Chablis?

Posted By Steve Burrus : November 8, 2015 4:51 pm

I am sorry but I just don’t know wjho Claude Chabrol is. Except for a brief mention of him in “The History of the Cinema” in the French “New Wave” directors section as I said I don’t know him. Can someone please tell me a little about him?

Posted By David Kalat : November 9, 2015 12:36 am

@Steve Burrus–
Claude Chabrol was one of the cohort of French New Wave directors who burst onto the scene in the late 1950s, along with Godard and Truffaut. Unlike his contemporaries, Chabrol’s concept of “art” was a little weird: he basically fixated in a template of murder mysteries that he proceeded to remake, endlessly, each film being a slight tweak on the one(s) before it, dominated by a cold and alienating visual style that worked hard to obscure narrative details and characterization. Sounds fun, right?

But seriously, Chabrol is just about as addictive as cinema gets. It’s undeniably off-putting at first, but once you start to get his rhythms you simply can’t get enough. It’s the French arthouse cinema equivalent of jazz, with murders.

@Emgee–your idea intrigues me, but after I mulled it over Le Boucher was so obviously hilarious I didn’t have anything to add :)

@Autist–the best wine to go with Chabrol is lots of wine. The more delirious and dreamlike you find yourself, the better the effect.

Posted By Emgee : November 9, 2015 10:51 am

OK, Chabrol’s movies aren’t laugh-out-loud funny , but a lot of them have a peculiar sense of humour, especially his later movies. (Another thing he shares with his great example, Hitchcock.) For those unfamiliar with his work i’d recommend starting with Poulet au vinaigre or La cérémonie. If you like those, you could work your way back to his earlier movies.

Posted By swac44 : November 9, 2015 3:38 pm

I love the Chabrol films I’ve seen, but it’s only been a handful so far (including All-Day Entertainment’s DVD release of Cry of the Owl). I think I’m overdue for a binge session, perhaps spurred on by a future David Kalat column.

Posted By tyler : November 9, 2015 6:22 pm

I’m a huge Chabrol fan myself. I recently watched the Bridesmaid and was actually really creeped out by the ending. I really enjoy your views on cinema David. Your one of the few historians that show love for classic comedy, Godzilla, and Chabrol.

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