Monthly Archives: October 2013
The great screen comedians need to create a world of their own. In their best films, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, W. C. Fields and others inhabited a universe that was governed by their own set of rules. I think this is one of the reasons comedians have such a hard time sustaining their careers. They tend to choose projects where they get to do funny things, instead of choosing projects that will allow them to be themselves. Woody Allen has been more successful than many, I think in large part because he writes and directs his own movies. Steve Martin can be brilliant, but his films are often crippled by directors who seem more focussed on framing the action than creating a world where the star can be his eccentric, outrageous self. Richard Pryor is one of the greatest comics this country has ever seen, but aside from his concert documentaries, he generally ended up in movies where the makers seemed to have no idea what to do with him.
For a time, Buster Keaton managed to create a world on film that was his alone. While his movies usually have a love interest, and there’s always an assortment of supporting characters, Keaton is the only one who truly has a presence. The rest are two-dimensional figures drawn with a few bold strokes, staying on screen just long enough to fulfill their purpose. In a Chaplin film the supporting players often have a life of their own. We might recognize them as people we’d meet on the street, and sometimes they have surprising emotional depth. The laughs in Laurel and Hardy’s silent films come out of their absolute inability to cope with everyday situations. They just aren’t equipped to deal with the real world. But Keaton’s films have little to do with the real world. They take place entirely in his imagination.
Cops starts off with Keaton’s girlfriend telling him to get lost. He’s not successful enough, and she doesn’t want to marry a loser. In the very next scene, Keaton finds a wallet full of money. It’s actually not quite that simple, but it would be impossible to describe the high-speed, knockabout ballet that ends with our hero making his getaway with a wad of cash. Now having the necessary capital to invest, our hero runs across a man sitting on the curb next to a mountain of furniture. The man says he’s just been evicted, and has to sell his belongings. Keaton, trying to act like a real businessman, makes the purchase, thinking he can sell everything for a tidy profit. Naturally this would impress his girlfriend. Unfortunately, the man on the curb doesn’t tell him that the furniture is not his. It actually belongs to a family that’s getting ready to move. They’ve put everything they own out on the sidewalk to have it ready for the expressman.
Soon Keaton is driving a horse-drawn wagon, the back piled high with furniture. The magical series of misunderstandings leading up to this is completely absurd, but in the context of the movie it all seems to make perfect sense. After a fairly prosaic beginning, this tight little two-reel film is rapidly moving into the realm of surrealism. A boxing glove is transformed into a turn indicator, which works well until a policeman is decked. Keaton decides it’s easier to communicate with his horse by calling him on the phone. One minutes he’s driving down an empty street, the next minute he’s in the middle of a parade, doffing his hat to the cheering crowd. As if all this weren’t enough, out of nowhere an anarchist tosses a bomb, and all hell breaks loose.
Of course, Keaton gets the blame for it all. He has gone from being a rising entrepreneur, calmly driving his cart down the road, to being public enemy number one, now fleeing from an army of cops. And it gets worse. Completely in keeping with the film’s absurd logic, it turns out that the head of the household that lost all its furniture is a policeman. And to take it even further, the father of the girl he’s trying to impress is the chief of police. Soon Keaton is dashing madly down the city’s streets, pursued by a horde of cops that seems to keep growing larger and larger. In the hands of a less talented man, this might seem like overkill. In the world that Keaton has created, it seems like the only possible outcome. Years later, Edgar Ulmer directed Detour, a noir classic which tells us in the starkest terms imaginable that there’s no point in running. We can’t escape our fate. Cops basically has the same premise, but in this case it’s played for laughs. It’s not surprising Samuel Beckett was such a big fan of Keaton’s work.
If you’d like to take a look at Cops, here are a couple of links you can follow….
The reason I’m giving two links is not because the prints offer different versions of Cops. It’s the music. The first one was scored with a small chamber ensemble for a contemporary release of the film. The second one is scored with a large pipe organ, which is much more in keeping with what you would’ve heard in a theatre back in the twenties.
I have to say I’m not totally happy with either version. While the chamber score is certainly a nice piece of music, it doesn’t capture the spirit of Keaton’s world. The music is too genteel for this rough and tumble comedy. The organ soundtrack, while probably close to the accompaniment Cops would have had in the silent days, is too big and too busy for my taste. It doesn’t give the film room to breathe, and doesn’t capture the subtlety that was so much a part of Keaton’s genius.
I’d prefer something in between the two. Actually, I remember a night years ago when the Silent Movie Theatre was still actually showing silent movies. They had a Keaton night, and I’m pretty sure Cops was on the bill. At any rate, to accompany the films they had a guy on piano, and I thought he really nailed it. He knew how to complement the action on the screen without competing with it, and he had a light touch where it was needed. I was so impressed with his playing, I went up to him during intermission and asked him his name. Of course, that was years ago, and now I’ve totally forgotten it.
Rojo amanecer [Red Dawn] (1990)
An older man wakes up, gets out of bed and makes his way to the kitchen. He tears a page off the calendar, revealing the date October second. This date probably has no meaning for most people, but for Mexicans who were alive in nineteen sixty eight, it means a great deal.
In nineteen sixty eight, the Olympics were held in Mexico City. The government had a huge investment in the event, and so did many powerful business interests. But like several other countries back in the sixties, Mexico had a growing protest movement. Students and others had been holding marches and rallies for months, speaking out against police violence and asking that political prisoners be freed. Tens of thousands of people had shown up for some of the gatherings. Finally, as the opening of the games drew near, the government decided to shut the movement down once and for all. On October second, a protest was held in Tlatelolco, a neighborhood in Mexico City. As speakers addressed the crowd, police and soldiers surrounded the square. Just as the meeting was ending, government forces opened fire on the protesters. It’s estimated that between three hundred and five hundred people died that day, though no one will ever know for sure. Hundreds more were taken to prison and tortured.
Governments don’t usually acknowledge acts like this, and often the media doesn’t either. It was left to artists to address one of the more horrific events in Mexican history. Rojo amanecer is a fictionalized drama based on massacre of October second, nineteen sixty eight.
The movie tells the story of a middle-class Mexican family living in an apartment block in Tlatelolco. The family is made up of three generations, the grandfather, the mother and father, and four children. Through this one family, screenwriters Xavier Robles and Guadalupe Ortega Vargas give us a broad overview of Mexican society at end of the sixties. The grandfather is a veteran of the revolution, an arch-conservative who respects the military and thinks the protesters need to be taught a lesson. The father and mother just want a quiet, middle-class life for themselves and their children. The two older sons are part of the protest movement, determined to change the system, convinced that victory is inevitable. The younger boy and girl are enjoying a happy, carefree childhood and have no idea what’s going on around them.
Director Jorge Fons immerses us smoothly and swiftly into the life of the family. The screenwriters waste no time in setting the scene and laying out the divide between the generations. As the grandfather tries to pour his morning coffee he complains that his grandsons are useless. The TV carries news of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. A Beatles song on the radio sparks a debate about long hair. The chatter around the breakfast table is initially pretty innocuous, but quickly gets heated. The two older sons are full of talk about the injustices committed by the government, and are convinced that the protesters will win in the end. But the father, who works for the city, becomes angry and tells them they’re playing with fire. He has heard rumors around the office of a coming crackdown. The mother is upset by all the arguing and worried about her sons. She just wants her family to get along.
The film is remarkably compact both in terms of space and time. Everything unfolds in the family’s apartment and the corridors just outside. The action takes place in a twenty four hour period. We are constantly reminded of the time. Fons frequently cuts to clocks, and we even hear the ticking of a clock under the opening credits. Fons’ approach is admirably straightforward. He doesn’t try to dramatize the events. For the most part he simply focusses on the actors, first as they go about their business, unaware of what’s coming, and later as they’re desperately trying to cope with the horrifying reality of their situation. The film is given resonance and texture by the characters’ surroundings. Production designers José Luis Garduño and Helmut Greisser, along with set decorator Mario Sánchez, deserve a good deal of credit for creating the family’s home. Not only does the apartment feel lived-in, the pictures, posters, knick-knacks and bric-a-brac that fill it up tell us a lot about these people. The older boys have a Beatles poster on their door, and a picture of Che Guevara on the wall. The living room is filled with family photos, including a black and white picture of the grandfather at the time that he fought in the Mexican Revolution. Early on in the film we see a picture of Christ on the wall. After the shooting has started, we see it again, now pierced with a bullet hole.
One of the reasons the film is so compelling is that the actors inhabit their roles completely. Watching Hector Bonilla as the father, it’s easy to see that his anger with his idealistic sons comes out of a very real fear that something will happen to them. María Rojo starts off as a housewife complacently doing her chores, is reduced to abject panic when the shooting starts, and then forces herself to deal with the situation as best she can. One of the most interesting performances is given by Jorge Fegán as the reactionary grandfather. He is disgusted by his older grandsons, but has a special bond with the youngest, and takes care to protect him when violence threatens the family. Bruno and Demian Bichir play the college students, brimming with fiery passion and frightening naivete.
Really, everyone involved in this making this film deserves respect, not just for the skill with which it was made, but for keeping the events of October second in the public consciousness. The Mexican government lied about the incident when it first occurred, and then spent years trying to bury the facts. Decades later, President Vicente Fox launched an investigation, but the results were severely compromised. Fox promised that those responsible would be brought to justice. Somehow that still hasn’t happened.
Rojo amanecer is hard to watch. It would be difficult even if the film were pure fiction, but because we know it was inspired by actual events, that people actually died, it is deeply disturbing. If you’re like me, you’d probably prefer to watch something entertaining, some escapist fantasy that pushes the real world into the background for a while. The news is filled with atrocities, so much so that it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the horror. If we spent all our time dwelling on the violence, we’d go crazy. But it’s just as dangerous to tune the world out and live in blissful ignorance. So how do we strike a balance? How do we acknowledge the bloodshed that’s occurred and still go on with our lives? Believe me, I know it’s tempting to forget….
But we can’t forget. We have to remember.
Released on DVD by Quality Films. In Spanish. NO ENGLISH SUBTITLES.