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Avuncularity: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

6 Mar

kind-hearts-and-coronetsOh, the Darkness of Kind Hearts and Coronets. I forget how darkity dark dark some of the Ealing Studios comedies are. They’re innocent little things without boobs or expletives, so they must be nothing to worry about. (I did warn the Nephews about the N-bomb at the end of this one and tried to put it in a bit of context – “to Victorian Imperialists it was racist, yes, but racism for them was just fine in a nursery rhyme, so that’s why something that for us is a MAJOR meaningful word choice happens out of nowhere here. Stay calm.”)

kind_hearts_and_coronets_01But these boys have already been introduced to the wide acting range of Ben Kenobi – that wizard is no crazy old man to them after The Ladykillers. So the whole he-plays-eight-different-mostly-murdered-D’ascoynes was a significant draw. This one was chosen by Nephew The Younger (who enjoyed it more, though I got the impression that was for the common sibling reason that if one chooses something, the other has to be at least a little bit against it) back in December, when Throne of Blood won the toss and we didn’t have time/focus for another full movie.

I spent some of the setup scenes explaining to them the short version of A History of British Class-Based Snobbery (assisted greatly by a viewing of the first episode of Fawlty Towers a couple of days later).

fawltytowersThis got them through until the killing began, which kept them both focused, and by the fight with Lionel (husband of the just awful, awful Sibella), the unjust trial (the announcement of which got “What?! No!”s from The Younger), and the gleefully inconclusive ending (more “What?! No!”), they were ensnared.

sibellaBut the payoff for this one came after, when we played a few rounds of Cineplexity with the family, which the boys had never played. The game involves an Apples To Apples sort of thing wherein two movie element cards are put down and players come up with a movie that contains both of them. (One card says “A dog or dinosaur,” another names “Cary Elwes, Cary Grant, or Kate Winslet.” Bringing Up Baby, perhaps? There are others.) Anyway, Kind Hearts was used as an answer from one of the boys in at least three different rounds, as were a couple more of our Avuncularity viewings. My work here is – not done, but going quite well, thank you.

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Avuncularity, Delayed: Throne of Blood (1957), The Boat & The Goat (1921)

5 Mar

throne blood 1A couple of days before Christmas (as I said, I’ve been quite busy) the Aforementioned Nephews were given a choice of several semi-randomly selected movies, and they leapt at Throne of Blood (which was generally agreed to be a much better title than Spider’s Web Castle) when they discovered it was a) another samurai movie that was b) based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Now, neither has read or seen Macbeth and I didn’t ask why this interested them for the clear reason that one’s nephews asking to watch Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is what they call a Gift Horse. Its teeth looked fine from my vantage.

They were fairly mentally focused, as always, despite the constant physical fidgeting and the occasional and entirely legitimate questions about this and that throughout (usually Japanese military hierarchy/armor, some of which I could clear up and some of which I told them was wild guessing). It’s much easier to answer that sort of question when the movie is either silent or not in English. We can all stare at the screen and still discuss. Handy, that.

throne of blood ghostIt was so nice to watch this with a virgin audience that also knew nothing of Macbeth beyond a general awareness that it involves murder, witches and sleep-washing. No one knew beans about any walking forest, but they figured it out ahead of time, which made them feel particularly sharp. The ghost in the forest was, as it was when I first saw this, the source of immediate giggles followed by a seriously unsettled feeling. “What is that thing? Wait…what is that thing?” And after another moment of pride – “I KNEW it would end with the song again!” – the now-12-year-old asked, “So…when do the beginning and end parts happen again? Is that, like, now or…when?” A terrific question, I thought.

My only fear is that now when they finally see a production of Macbeth, no matter how good it is, the Thane’s death won’t be anywhere near as exciting as Mifune perforated by arrows. And yes, afterwards we told the story of that day on the set, which for them made it even better.

busterbw2That one is pretty heavy, though, so we finished our evening with some more Buster Keaton. The Boat was chosen first because the word “Damfino” had been discussed at our last Keaton viewing and that gag still packs the necessary gigglepunch for a 12- and a 13-year-old. The question remains: “Is it worth my limited disposable income to buy them memberships that they may be official Damfinos?”

There’s little story here to worry about, just gag after gag. For these boys, the funnel-in-the-floor moment was when they truly lost their shit. Why that? Why then? Who can say? But it was. The running bit with the world’s sturdiest pancakes wore them down as well.

They’re also still at the age where no matter what we watch there’s a moment of “that’s not real” or “that could never happen” which they just HAVE to vocalize. They really can not help it. Even when they’re enjoying themselves, “that’s fake” has to be said aloud – it’s comforting for some reason I don’t remember (but shared). My response is usually, “But the talking dragon (or whatever) isn’t a problem for you?”

I say this only because it’s Keaton alone that doesn’t inspire this. In The Boat, the collapsible masts and the uphill/downhill sailing nonsense is, even for them, so far gone, so over the cartoon-logic boundary, that he breaks them immediately of that habit. It’s fun to watch.

BusterwantedThen, The Goat, which I’ve seen more than other Keaton shorts for no particular reason. The weeping moments for them in this were the fur stole mustache and the whole elevator chase, but I have to mention the early moment where, delicately extricating himself from the presence of a cop, Buster puts on his coat around a pole and is trapped. This was met with no laugh of any kind but instead a wonder-laden “That’s funny!” as if a laugh would not be enough. Some genius of gag construction was recognized – or maybe just the idea that gags are a constructible thing, not just an event but a crafted moment dawned on them. As before, such fun to watch, these dawnings of the sun over Marblehead, as they say in Boston.

buster pole

Dilatory Avuncularity: A Night at the Opera (1935)

19 Oct

Annex - Marx Brothers (A Night at the Opera)_01Yes, yes it has been almost a month. I’ve been building a show, doing some Big Life Decision deciding, and cutting Hamlet down to ninety minutes. So I have plenty of excuses.

I’ve also been daunted by the DVR – while TCM has been showing some terrific stuff, much of it silent and/or foreign, thanks to the otherwise-not-my-cuppa that is The Story of Film: An Odyssey, I’ve been exhausted into a comforting-and-stupid stupor to the point that it’s been difficult to muster up the focus required to engage with such high art. And we finished all the Torchy Blanes.

But I realized that I failed to report on one last entry in the Avuncularity Excursion – The Nephews’ viewing of A Night at the Opera.

The enjoyed themselves, though they weren’t as frantically, viscerally excited as I was back in the days of my first Marx viewings. Or theirs.

A year ago or so, I showed them Duck Soup in conjunction with The Blues Brothers (I got parental dispensation; they’ve heard worse from their grandmother) – they noticed connections between the two I had never thought to attend to: not just all the “hi-de-hos,” but the pilings-of-furniture-to-block-doors and the endless cavalry approaches of the climax (though the authorities are after the Blueses and aiding the Marxes), to the point where we all left the evening fairly certain that the creators of one had spent a good amount of time watching the creations of the other.

But Opera has an important element (that I never minded) that clearly registers differently with different people – opera. Clearly there was much focus to be regained after Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle did the things they do, which are resoundingly (you should pardon) Not the Funny Part.

Fortunately there is a stateroom to pack, some remarkably false beards to dampen, an apartment to rotate (for the record, they laughed harder here than at the stateroom), an orchestra to destroy (they both play in the school band now, so this particular bit of Marxian Decorum Arson resonated) and some Keaton gags to recycle marvelously in the wings and flies of a performance of Il Trovatore, so the movie-style high-culture didn’t get in our way too much.

Also a surprise hit: the very fact of the visual of Groucho and Ruman in each other’s suits. And they’re right. It’s funny.

gottlieb night at the opera

NB: Watch this space in the coming weeks as I a) return to semi-regular blogging and b) report on a pair of One-Woman Film Festivals to be hosted by The Wife and I for a couple of friends of ours. What does that mean? The next post will make it clearer, no doubt…

Avuncularity: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

26 Sep

Maltese FalconFurther dispatches from the nephew visit: Monday night was a night of unhealthy processed food, too often cheese-based, and The Maltese Falcon, which they chose for reasons I’m not clear on but which may be related to the fact that their aunt and I are in possession of one of those movie prop replica black birds that belonged to their grandfather. (Do not burn our house down, Templars. We do not possess the real Falcon.)

As a performer I have a preference for comic roles, partially because I grok their ways and enjoy them, but partially because of that moment-to-moment sense of whether it’s working. Laughs and snorts are clear and evident and one knows immediately whether it landed or whether it did not.

Similar issues arise when watching a non-comedy with the boys. Are they enjoying this? Usually deep sighs are the surest negative – at this age, even wandering off isn’t a sign, since a) they’re used to watching things from which one can easily wander and b) Food & Soda are the primary objective. Always.

So I took their relative lack of fidgets and their spate of questions as we approached the end as good signs.

maltese wilmerWatching a movie you’ve seen time and again is always better with virgin eyes in the room. I know these boys well enough that when Spade disarms Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr. long having been one of my favorite parts of this movie) I should be looking at them and not him that I may revel in vicarious response. Were I a parent, I would also fully expect one of them to try the coat-around-the-elbows move as soon as it gets cold.

maltese cairoI’m also intrigued at how this lets me reevaluate my own youthful movie-watching in certain ways. The Maltese Falcon is, for example, a plot teeming with sex- Brigid and Spade’s burgeoning and manipulative relationship, Ida and Spade’s dwindling affair, Archer’s lechery, Cairo’s obvious homosexuality if one is used to period codes (or read the book), the etymology of the word “gunsel” – which was entirely lost to me at that age and yet is vital to understanding what even the hell is going on. The boys got that Spade was having an affair with his dead partner’s wife, but that’s about it. Which is probably what I got at 11 or 12.

Also worth mentioning is a habit that the younger nephew, 11, has, seemingly a spontaneous reaction each time. He has a visceral need to say aloud that a thing didn’t really happen – this from a boy who enjoyed the Transformer movies. You’re right, 11, Wilmer’s kick to Spade’s head is not the best bit of staged combat in film history (“that was fake – he didn’t really kick him”). My seemingly spontaneous reaction each time has therefore inevitably become “It’s all fake; those aren’t even their real names.”

As to their real names, the boys seemed intrigued by our incidental knowledge of the names and careers of seemingly every single actor in the movie, all of whom have faces familiar to anyone who’s seen an average of about seven of your basic pre-1968 classics, but one forgets what a childhood of watching these (and Remington Steele) will leave stuck in your head.

On that front, Walter Huston’s cameo (which is a surprise to me every single time; it just doesn’t stay in my brain) made me bring up The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which piqued their greedy little interests. So we add another to the slate for Christmas… 

maltese_falcon_walter_huston

Avuncularity: A Shot in the Dark (1964) & The Ladykillers (1955)

22 Sep

LADYKILLERS2We’re currently visiting my wife’s hometown, in which there are two previously mentioned nephews – we’ll call them 11 and 13, at least until next year. They’ve been indoctrinated already (they’ve requested The Maltese Falcon on their own, to be watched later this week) and taken remarkably well to a wide array of boy-based selections like Duck Soup, The Blues Brothers, The Court Jester, Yojimbo, Hidden Fortress (sold on the Star Wars angle), The Public Enemy, The General, Safety Last! and of course the entire deathless Planet of the Apes saga. We have to throw everything at the wall for any sticking to ensue. So far the batting average is high.

Tonight was our first evening with them this trip (my wife and her sister, our hostess were in for this evening as well) and I told them what was in my Magic Traveling DVD Wallet of Wonders, from which they chose A Shot in the Dark and The Ladykillers.

They chose these, it should be further noted, with no knowledge of the significant cast overlap. They’re good at this kind of serendipity – watch Duck Soup and The Blues Brothers back to back sometime and you’ll see what I mean. I give you the keywords “hi-de-ho,” “blocking doors with nearby furniture,” “excessive footage of approaching military” to begin with.

ShotInTheDark02QuoteWe began with Clouseau. There’s always trepidation with an old comedy, because it doesn’t always translate directly across lines of time and generation. The pace of a Blake Edwards Pink Panther movie is, believe it or not, feels relatively slow compared to a modern comedy. Not the bad kind of slow, but when I think of how frenetic they felt in my youth, it’s strange to notice.

Watching the nephews respond is a delight – 11 laughs at Bits (the cigar guillotine, the hand-in-the-globe, the shielded nudity bit snagged by his beloved Austin Powers) while 13 is obviously moved more by the Builds (the “license?”/paddy wagon running gag, the descent of Dreyfus, the repeated briefings with Graham Stark as Clouseau’s assistant Hercule), but they responded with uniform glee to the extended set scenes, right from the silent opening door farce sequence on through the living room suspect roundup, with special mention for that lovely scene (maybe my favorite) in the Sûreté hallway in which Hercule and Maria (Elke Sommer) enter Clouseau’s office without his awareness. And, of course, every appearance of Kato.

shotdarkkatoI have no doubt that Kato will cause some trouble for these two lads at some point. But that is in no way my responsibility. This is one of the prime benefits of being an uncle: one is seldom around to see how things play out. Just wind ‘em up, let ‘em go and wave bye-bye. If a bathtub breaks, I disavow all knowledge.

Also, we had a brief chat about who the hell George Sanders is, or at least that a) he was the voice of Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book and b) Peter Sellers was ruining the billiard table of a man he had been doing a semi-impression of for years as Hercules Grytpype-Thynne on the BBC’s Goon Show, something I love dearly but I’m not quite sure I’ll be forcing on them just yet. Though 11, who’s building some sort of steampunk costume for Hallowe’en, has decided Admiral Hercules Grytpype-Thynne will be a great name for him. Again, my work here is done.

LADYKILLERS3Next they chose The Ladykillers, and again I was surprised and thrilled by how well they took to it – it has a darkness about it that clearly appealed to them, as well as the general madness of Alec Guinness in comic mode, something they don’t know they’ll be getting more of…

It was a bit of a jump to go from a movie in which the plot was just an excuse for various farce machines and slapstickery to one in which the unwinding situation is the real meat. Just before Mrs. Wilberforce’s lady friends come over (to me one of the most genuinely horrifying and nerve-shattering scenes in film history, but I have a lot of older female relatives), 13 said, “How much longer is this movie?” I was about to commence worrying, until he shouted, “…because I have no idea where it’s going from here!” in excited confusion. Which is what you want.

The-Ladykillers-007There was post-movie discussion about what would happen if their grandmother, my mother-in-law, was in such a situation. Their call was that it would end pretty much the same, but with more profanity and probably a violent hand of Rummy. I respectfully refrain from any personal statement at this time.

There will be further reports this week; I have no idea where it leads or how many nights we’ll have them. But the slow process of ruining their social lives is well in hand, never you fear.

THE-LADYKILLERS-1955_portrait_w858I should note here that Alec Guinness also inspired the evening’s accidental battle cry – when Guinness’s Prof. Marcus starts to develop the Dreyfus Twitch towards the end and rambles on about how many men it would take to off the redoubtable old Mrs. Lopsided…let’s just say the phrase “The Wilberforce will be with you…always” will probably get them some blank stares at some point if they try to take it outside the home.