Sunday, December 20, 2015

Gett: The Principle of Patriarchy

Religion is the arena of popular, especially traditional, philosophy and ethics.   Courtroom dramas push the envelope of ethics, displaying where law fails ethics, or the law can uphold ethics, depending on the story.  Gett is the intersection of traditional and modern ethics in the midst of a curious courtroom drama.

The set up sounds like the Iranian drama from a couple years ago, A Separation, in which a woman desires a divorce from her husband, but obtaining that divorce isn’t at all clear cut.  In Gett (which is the Hebrew term for “divorce”) it is clear that the husband is a righteous man, a scholar of Torah, who neither abuses nor cheats on his wife, and although it is clear that their marriage is far from a happy one, he refuses to give her a divorce.  And he has the right to refuse her.

In a secular court, divorce, especially since the 1950’s, has been much easier to get.  The trickiest part is if money or children are involved.  In a religious court, such as Orthodox Jews or Catholics might have, a divorce is much more restrictive, and a level of unfaithfulness must be proven.  Of course, one could always obtain a divorce through the secular court, but not if you want to remarry a Catholic or an Orthodox Jew.  Then the right to remarry a religious must be obtained through religious permission.   Vivian Amsalem is a religious woman, and wants to live her life at peace with a religious man.  Thus, she must have a gett.

The ethical principle primarily being challenged in this film is patriarchy.  Ancient Jewish culture is the oldest patriarchy based on a rule of law that considers all in the society, still in existence.  Many Jewish cultures have set aside patriarchy, but many have not.  Certainly, a strict reading of ancient Jewish law says that a divorce may only be obtained if the husband hands a written divorce to his wife.  Thus, the husband has all the control of a divorce.  A woman might sue for divorce, like Vivian, but she does not have the right to speak for herself, and if the husband refuses to give a divorce, then the judge’s hands are tied.

As a narrative, the great mystery is the marriage itself.  All we see is the speech offered in court and in the anteroom.  We have no idea how they lived or why Viviane is so desperate to get a divorce.  And the courtroom proceedings, for the most part, carefully steps around the marriage, speaking of reputation and the public face of the marriage, only giving us small glimpses of the marriage itself.  So we, along with the judges, are piecing together the truth and the motivations behind Viviane’s desperation and Elisha’s refusal.

While the hesitantly granted details are interesting, what is really on trial is the process itself.  The greatest benefit of modern justice, in the instances when it is allowed, is the ability to speak one’s own perspective.  An older male can never understand what it means to live as a woman.  A wealthy person will never really appreciate the difficulties of being poor.  The sane will never understand the way a mentally ill person undermines themselves without knowing. The white person won’t understand the limitations of being a black American.  We can intellectualize the situations, even appreciate the difficulties, but the life of an oppressed person is much more difficult than any of us realize until we have experienced it ourselves.  The life of a person of power is all the same, but each life of oppression is uniquely different.  Thus, the oppressed must have the opportunity to speak, to explain, to give windows to the difficulties.  And if there is a system in which the weak are not allowed to speak their peace, then no one can say it for them.  No one will give them justice, because no one other than they even know what justice looks like for them.

Everyone must be given an opportunity to speak for themselves, to explain who they are and the difficulties they face.  And people of power must be forced to listen to them or else justice will be thrown out the window.

The film is sparsely decorated, simply scripted, but the cinematography is interesting.  Each scene is uniquely set up, with cameras seeking out different details.  So we look at each time frame with different eyes, even though we are in the same rooms.  It is clever and powerful and strongly reminiscent of 12 Angry Men in it's simplicity and power.

Spoiler discussion of the ending below the pic: 

The very last shot of the movie confused me.  It is a shot of a pair of feet and lower calves walking over the tile of the courtroom.  They couldn't be Viviane's, I thought, because the calves are too big.  These are the legs of a larger woman than Viviane.   I looked back over the film at the women who were a little overweight.  But it didn't make sense for it to be them.  They weren't important enough for the film, and what would it mean?  It only makes sense if it is Viviane's feet but she...

Actually there has been a lot of attention given to her feet in the film.  At first, you couldn't see them, but given the rest of her outfit, we assumed that they would be simple, conservative shoes.  We notice her feet about halfway through her film, where she is wearing open toed high heels and her toes are painted.  That's odd, and unlike her.  Later, she is wearing a loose bright red blouse.  Clearly, she wants to be seen as a loose woman.  She wants the court to think she's a loose woman.  And they do.  They accuse her of having an affair with the lawyer.  He is offended by that, perhaps too offended?  But nothing is really made of it.

In thinking about this more, I realize that the feet in the last scene could be Viviane's if she were pregnant.  She had warned Elijah that she could do something to make him sorry that he wouldn't give her a divorce.  And when she agreed that she wouldn't be with another man after the divorce was given, she agreed, but had a funny smile on her face, as if she were disingenuous.  OR if she had already been with another man.  And she got pregnant by that man.

And then I remembered a story.

It's a Bible story, from the book of Genesis, so every Torah scholar in the courtroom should be familiar with it.  It is the story of Tamar, who was married to a son of Judah, the ancestor of the Jewish kings.  Judah's son died, so he married Tamar off to his second son.  The second son also died.  At this point, Judah was thinking that perhaps his sons died because of Tamar, although she had nothing to do with their deaths.  He had the responsibility to give his third and youngest son in marriage to Tamar, so that she can bear the children of Judah's inheritance.  But Judah held off, not wanting to put his youngest son in danger.

Tamar realized what Judah was doing and understood that she would never be married off to the youngest son.  She then heard that Judah's wife died.  When Judah was travelling a distance, she went ahead of time and set up a prostitute's tent on his path, dressed as a prostitute, and lured Judah into her tent.

Months later, it was discovered she was pregnant.  Judah was relieved because it proved that she was an adulterous woman, and he didn't have to marry her to his son.  As judge of his family, he declared her guilty and sentenced her to death.  She asked to meet with him privately, and showed him a possession of his that she had taken when she was masqueraded as a prostitute.  Then he understood that he was the father, and that she had tricked him.  But, looking at the whole situation, he responded, "You are more righteous than I."  Her son later became the patriarch of the tribe. 

Viviane is also a woman trapped by a system of injustice, and she also used sex to escape this injustice.  And, I believe, she had sex with the judge, the one determining her fate.  Note that the judge left the proceedings and refused to deal with it anymore, right after fingers were being pointed as to who might be having a sexual relationship with Viviane.   He was the one who was most upset when she let her hair loose and played with it.  She was being blatantly sexual in the courtroom to catch a judge in temptation, so she could take advantage of the situation and be freed from her self-righteous, cold, miserable husband. 

This is a lot of words, but I think this is the undercurrent of the second half of the film.

I win.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Adventurer and The Pilgrim

The Adventurer (1917)/The Pilgrim (1923)

(I only posted a link to the Adventurer because I couldn't find a good full copy of The Pilgrim streaming)

I decided to watch the Adventurer as a lark (because it was the only other Chaplin film on a silent film list I hadn't seen yet), but it turns out to be quite appropriate.  Both are "fish out of water" comedies, and both begin with the Tramp as an escaped convict taking on a new identity.  In the Adventurer, he claims he is a Commodore, and in The Pilgrim it is assumed that he is a minister.

The basic joke of both is that the Tramp must act like an educated, cultured gentleman, when he is anything but.  In The Adventurer, this is shown by Chaplin eating ice cream without a spoon, realizing his mistake, which then causes even more mayhem.  In The Pilgrim, it is primarily shown by him being told he must lead a worship service, when it is clear he had never been to one in his life. The last is a hilarious sequence.

The real difference is what Chaplin learned about comedy in the intervening years.  Although he was a matured comic in his final Mutual film, and the timing and story of his comedy is coherent and well ordered.  But in The Pilgrim we can see that he also learned about the necessity for real drama to make the human connection with those in the film.  It isn't enough to add some tension, he pursued melodrama and truly heroic action. 

A comparison of the endings of each film also shows quite a bit of maturity.  This is surprising, really.  Many directors and writers and comedians have a schtick and stick with it, not growing.  Chaplin has his bag of tricks, but he is constantly expanding and improving his art.  It is this that makes him an artist and not just a comedian.

The Adventurer-- 3.5/5

The Pilgrim-- 4/5

The Kid (1921)

It has been more than a year since Chaplin released his last film.  First National Films agreed that Chaplin could set his own schedule for films, but this was getting a bit carried away.  They had spent a million dollars on their star, but this isn't the way they would be getting their money back.  They knew he was working on a project, but it was simply taking too long.  So they approach Chaplin, and demanded that he produce something, quickly.  He showed them some of the film he had put together up to that point.  And then he had the execs meet his young co-star, Jackie Coogan.  Mollified, they gave Chaplin what time he need.  From their perspective, they were rewarded, for The Kid grossed the second highest amount of any film that year.

And we are still rewarded today.  Here we have a film that captures everything that Chaplin had been trying to do, almost from the beginning of his career, and it is all wrapped up here.  It isn't primarily a comedy, but a compelling drama with some comic elements.  We don't see the Tramp for the first five minutes of the feature, which is shocking for a star vehicle of the time.  Instead we are given the story of a woman (Edna Purviance) who is desperate from her poverty to surrender her infant son to a wealthy family.  But just after she deposits her son in the family's car, the car is stolen, and the ruffians leave the child on the side of the road, where he is found by the Tramp, who raises him as his own son.

The plot is touching and melodramatic, but the secret of the film is the chemistry between Chaplin and Coogan. Coogan's actions resemble the Tramp's, but doesn't exactly imitate it.  At times, we look at Coogan and we really see a small version of Chaplin-- the charm, the smooth action, the precise hand movements.  But Coogan as something that Chaplin never had-- he is adorable, and he can emote believably.  This is a great Tramp movie, not because the Tramp is so wonderful, but because it really is a shared performance.  For years, every Tramp film had the Tramp in every scene, and it is rare to find a single cell without him.  Here, we have long stretches of the film without the Tramp ever appearing.  And we appreciate him all the more for his absence, for he shares his screen time with other fantastic performers.

This is possibly Chaplin's most personal film.  He grew up with mean social workers controlling his early life in London.  Just before production, Chaplin lost his firstborn son, probably the inspiration of the film.  This project was so important, and Chaplin gave it his all.  We can see it in the quality of the production, the excellent writing and the fact that he shared with Coogan many of the big laughs of the film.  This, plus City Lights, are the perfect combination of pathos and comedy, and they changed the definition of the superior comedy forever.


Destruction of a Creative: Amy

Amy (2015), a documentary about Amy Winehouse

It's pretty rare that I just love a documentary.  Even more so to love a doc about a celebrity.  I mean, really, can't we find someone who hasn't been focused on for a decade to do a doc on?

But for Amy Winehouse, the celebrity culture is the focus-- it was her downfall.  She was an easy person to take shots of because she did embarrassing things in public.  But what if her uncontrolled actions was a direct result of the fact that she had no private space?  What if the whole concept of celebrity destroys? 

My friend, Bondo, points out that it is not celebrity, but her weaknesses that caused her death in 2011.  I say that it is both.  I have known many people with the same weaknesses as Amy, and they had lived to survive and eventually thrive.  It is clear, in the doc, that those controlling her life, including boyfriends, her husband and her father wanted the fame and crowd that tore Amy down.  I understand her perspective.  I, too, am a creative introvert that longs for the ability to live a creative life, but is torn by the demand of being in crowds.  I’m sure for Amy her finances required concerts.  But being around people who desire a piece of her celebrity drove her toward self-destructive tendencies, and those tendencies cost money.  Bulimia and alcohol are problems when you don’t have people pushing you toward it.  But they aren’t death sentences unless there is an additional force. 

Before watching this film, I didn’t know about Amy.  I might have heard a joke or two about her addictions, but a celebrity girl with addictions isn’t really surprising.  But after spending two hours with this girl, I felt like I knew her a little and I recognized her talent.  But not like the great Tony Bennet comparing her to Sarah Vaughn and Billy Holliday.  He knows, and through her songwriting and singing the talent slaps us across the face.

What is great about the film is that the comments and interpretations come from people who knew Amy, without speculation of the filmmaker.  No question, this is interpreted through editing and who he interviewed, what parts he picked.  But the film is a blueprint for an excellent film about a celebrity.  Show us, let's hear the witnesses, the friends.  Let them share their grief, we don't need to hear false guesses or re-interpretations.  The interviews and footage are raw, realistic, powerful.

By the end of this film, I was weeping.  Not just because of the loss of a great talent, but because we keep finding new ways to destroy people.  Is she just a repeat of Judy Garland?  Maybe.  But her story is faster, and her death more sudden.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Shoulder Arms

Shoulder Arms (1918)

In the final year of WWI, Chaplin releases this comedy about the soldier’s life in the trenches. There is a long tradition of films that cater to the enlisted man, and this would be close to the first one.  Unlike most of those films, this one is actually funny-- still, almost a hundred years after it was made.

The set is quite reminiscent of Kubrick’s trenches in Paths of Glory, which probably just means that’s what the trenches looked like.  Still, it almost seemed a comic take on Kubrick’s classic, although I’m certain they had nothing to do with each other.

Chaplin fails boot camp, unable to follow a single order.  In the trenches it’s even tougher where it’s so wet that even the bottom bunks are covered in water.  But Charlie soon becomes such a great soldier that he captures a whole trench because he surrounded all 13 of them.  But then comes the challenge of his military career—going behind enemy lines.

The film is well paced and the jokes feel fresh, although I could see some of them telegraphed well in advance.  As a solid comic film, this is one of Chaplin’s best.


Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Cure and The Immigrant

The Cure (1916)

This film is one of Chaplin’s most celebrated early films, and it is a genius of slapstick.  The setting, a spa with a spring well as the center of the health cult, is just perfect for Chaplin’s version of comedy.  He appears completely inebriated, attempting to navigate a revolving door.   As the film goes on, he becomes a chivalrous gentleman toward the ladies, and then a wise guy trying to get out of some uncomfortable situations.

It is just a set of gags, without much plot, but it flows quickly from one set to another, without giving us any time to be bored.  I didn’t laugh often, but the film kept me entertained, which, I suppose, is the point.

I’d like to make special note of Eric Campbell, who is the giant foil of most of Chaplin’s Mutual films, and a wonderful, if obvious bad guy.  Right at the end of the Mutual run, Campbell died in an auto accident.

The end of the film is missing, but it was found in 2013.  It should be included on DVD in some future release of the film.


The Immigrant (1917)

This is one of Chaplin's most acclaimed and popular shorts.  Certainly it is a jump ahead of his other films as far as cinematic stunts go-- tilting stages and live footage from ships. You can tell that his films are selling better than ever, allowing him to have the finances to attempt the new. 

Unlike many directors who take chances on a new look or special effect, but doesn't put any effort into making it entertaining, Chaplin puts his full imagination into presenting something the audience hadn't seen before, as well as putting a new spin on old gags.

Chaplin and Edna are immigrants into New York.  The first half of the film takes place on the boat in which there is a heavily tilting boat, sick passengers, money lost and won.  The second half takes place in a restaurant where the Tramp is doing is best to pay a bill at a restaurant with a grumpy waiter.  There isn't a single story that follows through logically the whole film, but especially the first half is funnier than most of Chaplin's early shorts.

It is no surprise, really, that the second half in the restaurant was shot first, because many of Chaplin's early shorts take place in an eating establishment.  But the fact that he invented the first half of the film while he was filming the second is amazing, since it really works and is quite innovative.

I learned something, too: The Tramp pantomimes "flute sandwich", which I looked up and found it is a name for a sub sandwich.  Why the waiter gave him beans and bread, I don't know.

The first half is great... I wish it would have followed through more.  3.5/5

The Floorwalker and The Vagabond

The Floorwalker (1916)

At Mutual Films, Chaplin finally is free from the demand to produce a film every week or two.  He now has a month to produce a two-reel film, which gives him the creative space he needs to create truly unique films.  He establishes a new setting and plot for each film, giving the Tramp the opportunity to develop as a character as well.  Here, the Tramp is neither a rake, nor a sad sack, but a homeless man trying to get by, taking what opportunities he gets with more than a little mischievousness.

The Tramp wanders in a department store, where he takes advantage of items on display to do his morning grooming, stunning the store employee to silence.  Meanwhile, the store managers, including the floorwalker (who bears some resemblance to the Tramp) is attempting to get away with 80,000 dollars they embezzled from the store.  The floorwalker decides to offer the Tramp his job, so he can get away with the money.  The Tramp saves the day, unknowingly, using silliness to keep the murderous manager at bay.

It’s a more coherent, complete story than we’ve seen Chaplin do for a while.  Also, we can see Chaplin’s influence on comedy of the future.  We see the first mirror sequence and the first moving stairway gags.  The persona the Tramp uses in this film clearly influences the Bugs Bunny cartoons of later years.  Perhaps I didn’t laugh at this film as much as some earlier ones (His New Job, The Tramp, Triple Trouble), but that is more because the best sequences are copied again and again by later performers and comics.

3/5, but 3.5 for effort and recognizing the ingenuity copied by many others.

Additional note about the quality of copies:  Some are trying to fill the wider horizontal size by cutting the top of the film.  That's awful, just awful.  I know I would have enjoyed this film more if I had been able to see the faces all the time.  I linked to a YouTube version that doesn't have it cropped.

The Vagabond (1916)

We truly see Chaplin come into his own as a filmmaker here.  Here we have a film that is somewhere between The Tramp and City Lights: It is a full story, with many interesting characters, full settings, and full scenes that give proper comedic impact without overstaying their welcome.  It took a while for him to become the director we recognize, but here he is.

The Tramp is busking outside a bar, but when another band steals his thunder, he passes the hat “for” them.  They get upset, there is a fight and chasing.  Although there is much we have seen before, there is some good choreography here.  But not as much fun as the next scene when he busks for a sole girl, and when that girl is beat with a whip, the Tramp can’t stand by idly.

This is an almost perfect little film, with a good number of laughs, and some good romantic drama.  Chaplin has finally entered the realm of the modern comedy, a genre he helped invent. (Keaton is still a year away from his first film).


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Triple Trouble

Triple Trouble (1918)

After Police, Chaplin worked on his first full-length feature Life.  Essanay Studios decided that his film was taking too long, and that he needed to keep on his schedule of a two-reel every other week.  Chaplin disagreed, and so left the studio, going to Mutual Studios, where he could run his own division Lone Star Pictures.    

Meanwhile Essanay still had many reels of outtakes, as well as the unfinished picture Life.  So a year later they requested Leo White to compile a film from the old footage, which is Triple Trouble.  Chaplin sued Essanay, but the court ruled that the footage belonged to the studio, so they could do as they pleased with it. In Chaplin’s autobiography, he listed Triple Trouble as one of his official films.

And rightly so.  Although it holds together as a single story poorly, and the end is just tacked on, it contains some of the best material Chaplin did at Essanay, especially the chaos at the flop house, and the choreography of the “free for all” at the flop house is one of the best scenes Chaplin’s ever done.

Charlie is hired as a janitor at the Nutt House, where Professor Nutt is working on his wireless explosive, which the politician Hun wants to get his hands on (remember, this was filmed in 1916/17 when World War I was still going strong).  The focus, though, is on the Tramp who makes more of a mess than cleans up.  After his work is done, the Tramp goes to a flop house where there is a drunk shouting in the middle of the night, and a thief picking people’s pockets.  That same night, we follow the Tramp back to the Nutt house, where there is criminal activity and a well organized, if clueless, police force.

I laughed more at this one picture than possibly the whole set of films at Essanay.  Although the Tramp is a better film, this has some of the most entertaining stunts.  How I wish Life had been finished, because I think it might have been the best of Chaplin’s work in this time period.

4.5/5 with .5 taken off because there wasn’t enough material to make it coherent =   4/5

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Tramp

The Tramp (1915)

This film is going to get a high rating.  Not because it's popular, or because it is named after Chaplin's beloved character.  But because it is only the second film that really expresses the character of The Tramp, as we have known him.  In most of the films previous, Chaplin's tight-vested, baggy-trousered often-impoverished character is either a drunk, a coveter of women or a criminal.  Not just an unsavory character, but also not a particularly likable one, for he has very few redeeming qualities. 

In The Tramp, however, our tramp does lust after the girl and her money, but proves himself heroic and chivalrous. He could have taken money, many times over.  Mind you, he is still clumsy and lazy and a horrible worker, but we like him despite all that.  That is the charm of the Tramp, and the only time his character really works.  We saw this character in The New Janitor, and we see it again, even more so, in this film. 

This doesn't mean that the film is a complete winner.  Most of the gags aren't funny, and the film seems pieced together.  We have the events around the Tramp and the country girl, and we have the tramp trying unsuccessfully being a farm hand.  Neither are deeply funny, but the country girl story is adorable and the plot is strong.  It holds together as one piece.  And the bittersweet ending is perfect for future Chaplin films, and it works well here.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Tillie's Punctured Romance

This film is very significant in cinema history.  It is the first full-length feature comedy (at 115 minutes), and it is the first film that features Charlie Chaplin, although in a co-starring role.  The film was clearly meant to feature Marie Dressler, who is a great comic, but Charlie stole the show in small ways, again and again, showing him to be the star he later would be.

Marie Dressler plays Tillie, a country girl from wealthy roots, but she remains naive.  Charlie plays the city con, who escapes from the city on the lam, finds Tillie and her wealthy father and decides to play at romance with the poor, homely, but strong, girl in order to get at her father's money.  With some help from a female accomplice (Mable Normand), he succeeds, only to find that there were bigger fish to fry in Tillie's family-- an uncle who is a millionaire.

Dressler is certainly a comic who deserved her celebrity status.  Especially in the scene where she plays drunk and all the binds of character are loosed, she is hilarious and unique.  But it is Normand who is the character actor here.  She is the only one who is believable, who refuses to mug for the camera and is actually interested in acting instead of playing a series of comic sketches.

But Chaplin is the star.  He is more funny than not, and his movements look fluid and spontaneous, a breath of fresh air in the midst of tired cliches.  Yes, I know it is 1914, but since the country/city comedy sketch gets played out again and again as does the naive v. con man.  They are classic tropes, initiated in the ancient world (Aesop used them, for instance), but you can see how tired some of the players are of doing this routine again.  Chaplin keeps it fresh and the fact that his now common stances and pratfalls are still interesting and funny is part of the reason he is one of the best performers of cinema to this day. It is nice to see him play a role outside of the Tramp character, and he does it well.

An additional benefit is the use of the Keystone Kops at the end of the film.  Again, their shtick is familiar, but fun to watch.

Overall, this is not only a historically significant film, it's a pretty funny one as well.  It is certainly worth watching for both reasons, and a good, short entertainment.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Masquerader

The Masquerader (August 1914)

The best disguise Chaplin has in his makeup box is to take off his mustache.  A different mustache, I can recognize him in, but if he's clean shaven, I have no idea who he is.  Clearly that's the case of his fellow filmmakers at Keystone, as well.

Chaplin plays himself, famous movie star, who is a bit too into himself and he makes enemies of his fellow actors (Arbunkle has great repartee with Chaplin in his early scene) and his director (Charles Murray) and so is fired.  So Chaplin does a Tootsie, dresses as a woman who is so convincing that the director makes a pass  tries to rape her.   It's a funny gag with some great small moments, including one at the end where Chaplin is fighting with a Keystone staff member and the staff tries to hit him in the face and he keeps ducking... well, you'd have to see it.

In the process of them really improving, this has a coherent story, excellent sight gags, but the ending is too rushed.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Face on the Barroom Floor

Face on the Barroom Floor  (August 1914)

Just a couple weeks before the creative low point of Chaplin's time at Keystone, Recreation, they decided to adapt a poem going around at the time "The Face on the Barroom Floor".  The original poem is about a man who enters a bar, and for a bit of whiskey (and then a bit more) he promises to tell them a funny story, and he tells them about his love who ran away from him with another man.  He then draws her face on the floor of the bar and collapses and dies.  Not exactly comic material.

And, interestingly enough, the film doesn't make a comedy out of it.  They tell a slightly different story, just to the side of the poem's story.  Chaplin, is, of course, the man telling the story, and emphasis is placed on his days as an artist, where he is looking at his past through the sorrow of his present.  There are a few sight gags, but it frankly works better as a melancholic piece with a good punchline two thirds in.   They finish it off with a fight and Chaplin drawing and dying on the painting, but it doesn't fit the story.

If I hadn't read the poem first, I'm not sure I would have understood the film as well.  I think it was really meant to be for those who already appreciated the poem, and so offers commentary and humor to the side of the poem, without actually tackling the poem as a straight adaptation.  That's a great way of adapting a work to film-- not ignoring the original work, but assuming that the audience experienced the work already, and providing tone and humor and side stories to the heart of the work. 

I'm torn about this short.  In the end, I feel positive toward it, although I think the end of the film was unnecessary.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

The New Janitor

The New Janitor (1914)

Although still in 1914, this is Chaplin's 27th film for Keystone Studios, and the first where we see The Tramp as being the character we recognize as the classic character.  The first we see as a full-fledged character at all, sympathetic, clumsy, well-intentioned, at times pathetic, at times heroic.  Even so, the film is at times comedic and at times dramatic, with the action being played for laughs and thrills, sometimes at the same time. We can see the mixed emotions and sympathy for a sorry plight we will often find in Chaplin-directed films.

The Tramp gets a job as a janitor in a tall office building, which he finds himself completely incapable at.  While washing windows, he drops a bucket on the head of the owner, which gets him fired.  In another office, an important employee of the office is threatened with gambling debts, and he decides to take a desperate action.

This was a pleasure to watch, an almost perfect gem of a film, which could easily be remade into a longer film.  And it was, another longer Chaplin short, The Bank.  Jess Dandy played the boss well (reminding me of a later Lionel Barrymore).


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Mabel's Strange Predicament

Mabel's Strange Predicament (February,1914)

Here, the first time the Tramp was filmed, we have a complex short, in perfectly timed comedy, with Mabel Normand as the star.  Mabel Normand had a series of films that she starred in and sometimes directed.  The films are of mixed quality, but they were among a number of films directed and presented from a woman's perspective, along with films by Alice Guy-Blache and Lois Weber.

The Tramp is drinking himself silly in the lobby of a hotel, where he pays his rent for a chair which he keeps falling out of, driving other customers away with his presence (and we assume, his smell).  Mabel happily passes through with her dog and goes upstairs to play with her pet.  Soon, she is locked out of her room in her bedclothes with a lecherous Tramp after her and her boyfriend to visit and a couple across the hall to further her embarrassment.

I am disappointed to see the Tramp in such an unsympathetic light, but really the star is Mabel, whom I might watch more of because she is a perfect victim here.  Although Chaplin isn't the star, he is the cause that moves the "predicament" to such hilarious heights, and his perfect timing along with Normand, Harry McCoy and Alice Davenport really keeps it going.  In a modern film, we might see this comedy stretched to a half hour of a film, but it is perfect at just over ten minutes with many laughs.   

This is certainly the better introduction to the Tramp, between this and The Kid Races, but we see that the Tramp was first imagined as a completely unsympathetic character.  We were meant to feel superior to him, as well as of the people who blindly reject him with prejudice.  We are to see in him the people we are irritated by, the drunk or the person who insists being in the film.  That's a good start, but of course, I prefer the more sympathetic Tramp of later years.

Chaplin says that as he was on his way to dress the part for the film, "I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennet had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small mustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression."  Mark Sennet was the producer of the film.

Note: this is the funniest of these films from 1914 I've seen so far, as well as the best choreographed.  And it is the only one directed by a woman, for Mabel Normand directed it herself.

4/5 -- Check it out!  It's short and funny!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Introducing Chaplain: Making a Living and Kid Races at Venice

Making a Living (February, 1914)

A strange short, but it is Chaplin's first starring role, and occasionally funny.

Chaplin is a poor man, dressed to the nines with a long mustache, trying to obtain an engagement with a wealthy woman.  He only does so through stealing a ring from his rival (Henry Lehrman, who also directed the short), and after fighting, Chaplin comes out the victor.  But he still has another obstacle before he can be wed-- getting a job.  So he battles with his rival over getting a reporter's job at the local paper.

The strange part of the film is the editing.  Clearly, there are portions of this film left out.  It drops us in the middle of the story without context (which isn't so bad), there are cards for what we can tell from the context, but no cards for scenes that would be useful to have them.  It feels as if part of the story was cut out, it just feels perfunctory.  It turns out, the director admits that he purposely made cuts to Chaplin's role because he disliked Chaplin and wanted him to fail.  So, rivals both in front of and behind the camera.  Unfortunately, this did little to improve Lehman's role, either.

Despite this, Chaplin still shines.  Somehow, although his rival is the hard working, upright one, we root for Chaplin because the rival is more of a buffoon, and Chaplin is just more likable, although deceptive.  But this film isn't very funny, except for a couple scenes, and is sometimes confusing. What is clear that it isn't the fault of the performers, all of whom did well, but the director/editor.

This film shows up under many names, including Doing His Best or Busted Johnny.  


Kid Auto Races at Venice (February, 1914)

It is 101 years since the Tramp first made his appearance in this film.  From this time, the Tramp has been an icon, at times center in the world stage.  Hitler probably borrowed his mustache style from the Tramp, being a huge fan, which Chaplin used to great effect in The Great Dictator, at the other end of the Tramp's career.  Yet the Tramp's beginnings were small, an inside joke between two people, with him doing nothing more than mugging for the camera.

The plot is simple.  The Tramp is doing his best to get in front of the camera, posing, and Henry Lehrman, the director of the film, is doing his best to keep him out of it.  By itself, the film is kinda dull.  But the meta-meaning of the story is what really brings entertainment to it.
Just as background, the races were a "kids" version of the Vanderbilt Cup, an auto race of some importance in 1914 Santa Monica, CA. The children's version were mostly soap box races, using a ramp to give speed.  A few motorized cars were also used in a separate race.

As we saw in the last film, Making a Living, Lehman didn't care for Chaplin and tried to edit the better part of the star's role out of the film.  So here is a throwaway film, six and a half minutes (the "longer" version is simply the film twice in a row, as above), of Chaplin trying to force himself in front of the camera and Lehrman pushing him out of it.  To me, it is funny to think of them coming up with this film as the only one the two of them could agree upon.  It is also funny to think of the filming, where Lehrman is directing himself as a director, doing the same thing in front of the camera, beside a camera, which is also capturing Chaplin.

Unfortunately, I can't imagine it being too entertaining for the audiences watching it for the first time in 1914.  This film isn't given great applause, and certainly Chaplin's performance is relatively poor.  It isn't even the first time the Tramp was filmed, because the movie Mabel's Strange Predicament, which also stars the Tramp, was filmed first.  This short was released first, though, so it is given first credit.

4/5, just as an inside joke.  

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Survival Kit

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“Survival is just a matter of logic.  Looking at the possibilities and preparing,” Chuck said, walking quickly with his unusually flowery tote down the theatre aisle.

I had no idea what in hell I was doing here.  Chuck told me it was a “once in a lifetime opportunity” and that I “would commit hari-kari” if I missed it.

Honestly, I had never heard Chuck speak so strongly about anything, except perhaps Pixar.  He is an insane movie nerd, and all the time I’ve spent with him he has been speaking about this film or that, this scene or that.  I like movies, but I have a life.  I’m not so sure that Chuck does.

We climbed over the black lip before the screen of the cinema and I queried, “You never told me what this is about.  What are we getting into?”

“I did tell you.  It’s a Purple Rose of Cairo situation.”

“And I told you, I’d never seen that film.”

“Simple.  A movie character sees a lonely woman in a theatre and he climbs out of the film to spend time with her.”

“So movie characters will be spending time with us?”

“The second half of the film, she visits the world of the film that she had been watching.”

“So we are…”

Suddenly, the world around me turns dark, almost amber, but a hazy light shone through the trees.  Trees?  How are there trees?  And I would swear…  I turned around and looked at a car behind me.  It is a 1967 Pontiac LeMans.  It is supposed to be a bright yellow (how did I know that?), but instead it is a muted grey.

“Entering the world of cinema, to experience it firsthand.”  He gazed at me, eyes smiling, his hands stretched out.  “I told you, once in a lifetime chance.”

A group of people came staggering toward us, as if they had just suffered through a horrific battle.  “Really?” Chuck scoffed, “This is too simple.” As they came closer, I could see that they wore everyday clothes, if an older style, but their lower eyelids were darkened and their brows extended over their eyes. 

I stare at them as I realize that a huge group of zombies were cambering toward us, I moan, “No… not a horror movie.”

Chuck meanwhile is digging in his tote.  “Nothing to worry about.  We just need to be prepared.  And I am.”

I shake my head in terror, “I hate horror movies.  You know that.  I can’t stand to watch them.  And you put me in the middle of one?  This is a chance I would be happy to forego.”

Chuck doesn’t even glance back as he reaches the bottom of his tote.  “Look, I didn’t know that it was going to be a horror movie.  But there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“Doesn’t everyone die at the end of this film?”

“Yeah, but it’s all in good fun.  There,” he grunts as he pulls out a pair of handlebars from his tote.  Attached to the handlebars is a scooter, which he drags out of the tote.


“Yeah, I know, amazing, isn’t it?  I have a friend at Walt Disney Studios.  He let me borrow Mary Poppins’ carpetbag.  You didn’t think it was really my style did you?  But you have to be practical.”
“How did you know it would work?”

“This is the world of cinema.  Anything can happen here.”

He sets the scooter on the dirt road, as the zombies pause by the LeMans, looking for brains to chew on.  “Zombies here are so slow.  Just about any vehicle can speed past them.”

“Why a scooter?”

“You think a Ferarri could fit through the lip of the bag?  It’s big, but not that big.”  He climbs on the driver’s seat, and indicates I’m to sit behind him. “Besides, this isn’t a scooter.”

The zombies are but a yard away as he turns the key of the scooter and I rush over to secure myself on the back seat.  “It’s a Vespa.  From Roman Holiday.  You know, with Audrey Hepburn?”
He speeds off, leaving zombies in the dust.  Other groups of zombies lunk along ahead, but Chuck easily evades them with his Vespa.

“When you are in the cinema world, there is one other thing that helps one survive, beside logic and preparation.   And that’s imagination.”

“How did we even get in here?”

“I’m not exactly sure.  I received an invitation by email from an unknown address, but I don’t care who it came from or what their purposes are.  I could never pass up an opportunity like this.  I figured that no matter who it was that offered this to me, no matter what insidious purpose he had, I couldn’t say no.”


“Ah, just as I thought.  He wouldn’t just place us in a Romero film.  We’re in a series of clips. I wish we had the soundtracks, though.  We’re really missing out.”

Chuck sped quickly toward a motel on the side of the road.  Behind the motel was a hauntingly familiar house.  “Psycho, really?  Chuck, I didn’t come here to be stabbed.”

Chuck pulls over in front of the motel, next to the vehicle with NFB 418 on the plate.  He climbs off of the Vespa, puts down the carpetbag and reaches in, pulling out a lavish, shiny, samurai sword.  “Nothing’s going to happen to us.  Especially here.  Norman Bates is frightening because no one expects danger from him.  We are prepared. Come on!” 

We rush through the unlocked door (1960 was so innocent), through the bedroom to the bathroom.  And there he was, Norman, dressed in his wig and dress, attacking Marion in the perfect combination of sex and terror.  Chuck picks up a telephone book, and tosses it behind Norman.  He spins around, terrified to see someone behind him.  Chuck positions himself, samurai-perfect, and Norman attacks, knife over his head.  Chuck dispatches him handily, with two strokes.  Then he wipes his blade off on the back of his fallen foe.

“Now I know for certain who gave us this marvelous opportunity.  My arch-nemesis, Corey.  The only reason he would place us here is not to frighten us, but because of his weakness.  He has a shower fetish.”

Chuck spins around and begins to drag me out of the motel.  Suddenly, I find that we are both in the bed, sound asleep, and yet we see the motel room clearly.   A set of blades scrape on the wall, and the wallpaper rips and tears, blood cascading through the torn openings.  “Huh,” my friend grunts, clearly not expecting this.

“Nightmare on Elm Street.  I despise this film, “ I murmur.

Although asleep, Chuck’s carpetbag is still on the floor.  He quickly digs down and grabs two cans.  “Here.  Drink this.”  He throws me one.  It’s a twenty ounce can of Red Bull. 

Suddenly, a man with a wide brimmed hat, striped shirt and specially made finger blades hovers above me.  “You and I still have some business to attend to,” he mocks me.

I watched Nightmare as an older teen, and I stayed up for nights, frightened that my very dreams might attack and maul me.    I shook as Freddy placed his index finger blade under my chin and whispers, “You are very, very late for our appointment…”

“Drink!” Chuck yells, and his shout startles me out of my tharn-gaze.  We both guzzle the caffeine-drenched beverage together, as I feel the blade descend into my gullet…

Then Freddy, the blood, the tears in the wall all disappear.  We were instantly awake.  “Fast acting,” Chuck quips.  He grabs my hand , the sword, and the carpetbag and we run out of the motel room.

Instead of the Vespa and vehicle, outside the motel room is a beautiful, clear lake, surrounded by trees. “Ah, now this I might have expected.” Chuck tosses me the sword, and I miss it, letting it drop on the ground.  I was glad to see that we were finally in a color world, full of greens and mist.  “I’m going to be busy,” Chuck says.  “You need to keep your eyes open, and look around.  Don’t let anything take you by surprise.  And use that sword.  Quickly, when the time comes.”

Suddenly, right behind Chuck, the familiar figure with a hockey mask attacks him with an axe.  Chuck, displaying a physical confidence and swiftness I’d never known he’d had, kicks Jason in the gut, then shifts and knees him in the face.  “Where did you learn…”

“Behind you!” Chuck shouts.

I spin and there is Jason again, with a machete, pulling back to strike me.  I quickly lash out with the Uma Thurman sword and before I knew it, Jason’s head was rolling on the ground.  I glanced over at the man Chuck had dispatched, but Jason was still there.

My friend saw the shock on my face.  “You didn’t kill Jason.  That is his mother.  She was the villain in the first film.”

I collapsed on the ground, dropping the sword, still bloodied. “I’d never killed anyone.  I can’t believe I’ve taken a human life.”

Meanwhile, Jason gets up and attacks Chuck from behind, using his weight to push him to the ground, beating him with hard, swift blows.  Chuck winces from the pain, then pulls a switchblade from his pocket and opens it upon Jason’s unprotected chest, entering his heart. 

“You didn’t kill anyone,” Chuck breathlessly states.

I looked again at the decapitated head, hockey mask still attached.  “Then what is this?”

“She’ll be back.  They all will.  This isn’t our world, where people die, never to be experienced again.  In the cinema world, the past always exists, and we can always visit it.  It never disappears.  Jason’s mother is alive, and she can die, but she will always come back, good as new.” He catches his breath, “Let’s go.”

We run through the woods, and find just on the other side of the trees a huge bar, on the side of a lonely road.  My friend smiles, “Let’s get a drink. If we’re lucky, we might get a glimpse of Santanico.”

As we get a bit closer, I notice the gauche neon, in the shape of a half-nude woman with the words “Titty Twister” beside her.  I tried to remember what film I saw this in, but it wouldn’t come to me.  As we entered, I glanced around at the large, open room and knew it seemed familiar.  As the door behind me automatically locked and barred, I knew.  “Dusk till Dawn, really?” 

“I know.  And we already missed the dance number.  Damn.”

Hordes of vampires surround us, slowly approaching us.  I hold up the samurai sword, ready for the fight of my life.  Chuck calmly speaks to me, “Put that thing down.  It won’t do you any good here.”  He is already reaching in the carpetbag. 

A vampire jumps over the bar and lands next to me, ready to strike.  I punch him in the face. “Chuck…”

“Just a sec.”

Two more vampires approach me from either side.  I spin and kick them both in the chest in one swift movement.  Although I am getting the hang of cinema world, this particular setting truly frightens me.  I’ve learned a lot, but even George Clooney barely survived this bar.  “Chuck?” I shouted.

“Got it.”

Just as twenty vampires were ready to attack us, he pulls out a small stick, waves it and shouts “Lumos maxima!”

Suddenly, bright light shone over all the bar, leaving no corner darkened.  Vampires screamed and collapsed, some melted, but all died, handily.

Chuck begins shouting at the ceiling.  “Is that all you got, Corey?  You lack just as much imagination as you ever did in your idiotic reviews.  You wouldn’t know a good film if it bit you in the head and swallowed your forehead!  Come on, which horror film can kill me?  I’m ready for whatever you can throw at me!”

The dismal strip club disappeared and replaced with a bright, clear, blue sky.   I quickly realized that I wasn’t looking at the sky directly, but reflected off the mirror windows of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, with Dubai a thousand feet below me.  Only a few yards below me was Chuck, stretched across a window, sweating, his breath labored as he struggled with a panic attack.  I climbed up to an open window, just a yard above me.  Once secure, I reached down to my friend, terror in his eyes and shouted through the wind, “Just one step at a time, Chuck.  You can do it.” 

“I…I… can’t move.”

“You don’t need to have your carpetbag for this, Chuck.  Remember, it’s cinema world.  You can do it.”

“You can!  Just try!”

Chuck, for a moment, went within himself, closing his eyes, finding his strength.  With a steel resolve, he pulls a foot up, finds a grip.  Then he puts his hand up, stretching out his arm, gripping the window frame.

And slips.  The sweat on his hands was too thick, and he couldn’t maintain his hold.  He falls. A thousand feet.  Well, perhaps twenty feet until I couldn’t look anymore.

I wipe the tears from my eyes and the frustration from my soul.  “Okay, Corey,” I speak in an even voice.  “Yes, you knew his kryptonite.  He hates heights.  I’m okay with them.  I can’t stand horror films, but I love a good action film. And Mission Impossible 4 is one of the best.”

I looked out the window, trying with all my effort to see the smiling face in the projector’s booth far beyond the screen.  “You won.  You proved your point.  Now please rewind the film and let us go home.”

Monday, October 19, 2015

What’s the Deal with M. Night Shyamalan?

All right, full confession right up front: I’m a fan of M. Night.  I don’t think he’s some Hitchcock or Spielberg, but I like his style.  He tells great stories.  I think of him as a campfire narrator.  He’s the guy who we listen to at the campfire and we get creeped out or sometimes scared or at times we are incredulous at his tale, but we’ve learned that he’s someone to listen to, and he makes us forget the real world for a little while.   A good entertainer, if not especially deep. 

I do love his turns in his films.  I don’t call them “surprises” because they aren’t always surprises.  But he builds up a story toward a turn and then slowly finishes it after the turn is made.  And I love that kind of straightforward storytelling.  And I think enough of his movies are worth re-watching even after you know the turn. There’s enough detail and character interest that watching it a second time isn’t a chore.

I recognize that he’s made some duds. Every director has those.  But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the next tale he tells.  The darkness is lessened, the smoke a bit lighter while he’s telling his tale.

But the man has detractors.  Frankly, he is completely hated by some.  As if he had deeply hurt these people who just saw a film they didn’t like.  They call him names and say he hasn’t had a decent film since Sixth Sense, and blah, blah, blah.  And it is not a few people.  I was in a theatre when his name came up in a trailer and some in the audience booed the name.  I was sad at this.  I didn’t think he deserved it.  After all, he hadn’t participated in rape, statutory or otherwise. He just made some films these folks didn’t like.

And I wonder, why this hate?  Why is Shyamalan’s film The Visit greeted with as many haters as lovers?  While I don’t have any real answers, I want to share a few thoughts:
Reasons to hate M. Night Shyamalan:

1. Morals
Although he labeled only “The Lady in the Water” as “a fable”, the fact is that all his films are fables—stories with a moral.  The Visit openly gives a moral about releasing anger.  The moral in the Sixth Sense wasn’t as obvious, but all his movies lead to a point, even his written-but-not-directed movie Devil, which is about forgiveness.  Personally, I like a good sermon, and M. Night tells a good yarn with a good lesson at the end to wrap it all together.  But I can see that others may not like this approach.

2. Pseudo-fake
In The Visit and especially in The Happening the actors are directed, in parts, to act like their acting.  This is all part of the storytelling, but we prefer our actors to be more natural seeming.  This is a problem that Verhoeven and Richard Kelly also have, trying to communicate a sense of satire or falsehood by having their actors “act”.  But this doesn’t communicate to all audience members.

3. Your Slip is Showing
Shyamalan’s scripts are so straightforward and mechanistic, that all the parts are out there, easy to see.  There’s the three-part script, the obvious building blocks, the “surprise” and the wind up—a pretty basic outline, obvious to all.  And perhaps it’s too obvious for those who prefer a more artistic presentation.

 4. X Movie with Y Ending
Mark Harris earlier this year wrote a great analysis of why some critique the Oscars for not choosing the “great” movies for best picture 

He differentiates between “X” movies—dark and nihilistic films—and “Y” movies—drama that is light and often has a happy ending.  Some critics would only accept an X movie as being great, while Forest Gump and The King’s Speech, being “Y” films, are simply unworthy.  Where do Shyamalan’s films sit?  Perhaps Sixth Sense and Unbreakable could be considered “X” films (the two most likely to be considered “good” by M. Night), but the rest, while they might have a hard exterior, have a gooey center, a Y movie with an X wrapping.  So those who prefer X movies might see him pulling the dark out from under their feet, leaving them with a positive ending and a moral.  Yuck, say the X-promoters.

5. Self Promotion
But I think that Shyamalan’s biggest cinematic sin is wearing his self-promotion on his sleeve.  Maybe he did it himself, and maybe he was put up to it, but how it looks is that he thinks pretty well of himself.  We can forgive a bad film by Ridley Scott, because he doesn’t put his name above the title, or participate in gushing biographies about himself.  He does his work and lets others judge them as they will.  But by placing himself in actor’s roles and by the self-aggrandizing  turns in trailers, it seems as if he were comparing himself to Hitchcock or Spielberg, which is unacceptable.  That only works if you never put out a stinker.  But once you do, your ballooned reputation will pop, and no matter what good work you have done in the past, it won’t mean anything, because you will have used up all your goodwill in glorifying your name.

Again, I don’t think any of us knows whether Shyamalan did this himself, or was encouraged to do this by others in  the studio system, but it was a bad step.  And worse, when the campfire storyteller compares himself to Shakespeare, he’ll always come out defeated before he begins. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Christian Films and "Christian" Films

Earlier today I saw a post where a friend of mine was looking for Christian movies on Netflix streaming.  I can't find it now, but I figured I'd answer it anyway.

The first thing that I think it important to note is that most films that are named "Christian" are often not very much so, or they hold to a very narrow idea of what "Christian" means. Because of this, most of the time the acting in "Christian" films are often the worst, although the production value is getting better. Fireproof was the best non-sports "Christian" film I've seen. The rest wasn't worth my time. Another decent one I saw is Cry From the Mountain, from Billy Graham's World Wide Pictures. Both are, at best, mediocre. Neither of which, of course, is on Netflix instant.
A "Christian" film is a movie that expresses the carefully constructed doctrine and morality of the American evangelical community.  It often promotes family and usually has an evangelistic message of some sort within it.  The latest of these is a film called War Room.  They are often promoted by churches, and some churches even have special showings for their members.  Frankly, like "Christian" music, it is a business model.

When I call something "Christian", I would like to think it reflects the tradition of 2000 years, especially the values of Jesus, like loving your enemy or forgiveness or helping the needy.  Family is okay, but Jesus also said "If you do not hate your mother and father and wife and children... you cannot be my disciple."  I'm not saying that Jesus actually meant to hate people (he didn't), but he was certainly saying that "family values" isn't the center of all that is good.  And I don't think that the evangelical church's version of Calvin-lite really expresses the values of Christianity for the majority of it's run.

Still, there are thousands of great, truly Christian films that don't fall under that American production label. So here is a list of great films that reflect the values of Jesus, and make powerful statements AND are great films. That also happen to be on Netflix Instant.  Here are a few:

Ida-- A woman about to take her monastic vows finds out that her family was killed as Jews in the Holocaust.

The Kid with a Bike-- I think the Dardanne Brothers are the greatest producers of Christian films in the world right now. This one is about a single woman who takes in a troubled kid.

Together-- Okay, this isn't a Christian film, but it is a great movie about living in community, Christian or otherwise

After the Wedding-- A man who dedicates himself to the poor is called home for a wedding, and he is given an offer he cannot refuse.

The Selfish Giant-- A powerful movie about what it takes to bring redemption.

Short Term 12-- A look at a private school full of special needs kids. Much better than it sounds. Really, really good.

The Overnighters-- A documentary about a pastor who lets people sleep overnight at his church.
These are among my favorite films of all time. So if you don't like them, blame me.

I'll take some time to cover some other Christian and spiritual films in the future.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Dekalog 6: "You Shall Not Commit Adultery"

In the ten commandments, the word “adultery” is used exclusively for the breaking of a marriage covenant through unfaithfulness.  In Leviticus 18, there is a long list of other sex offenses, including incest, homosexuality and having sex with one’s wife while she is on her period (don’t ask me, I’m just letting you know).

   Interestingly enough, in Christian ethical discussions, one of the main sins that fall under “fornication” is sex before marriage.  The Bible does speak about this.  It assumes that a man would want a woman who is a virgin when they are married and if a bride deceives her husband about this fact, then she might be killed.  If a virgin is raped, then the man’s punishment is to marry her.  Let’s just say that those were different times.

The Bible doesn’t come close to speaking of the situation in this context.  Magdla (named after the “prostitute” in the Bible, Mary Magdalene, who wasn’t a prostitute at all, but possessed by seven demons), has a boyfriend or two, with whom she romps gladly in bed.  She leaves the curtains open, not only because she is on the third floor of her apartment, but because she is open and not ashamed of what she does.  Tomek (possibly named after the Bible’s doubting Thomas?) has stolen his friend’s small telescope and spies on Magdla from across the courtyard that separates their two apartment buildings.   But this peeping “Tom” is not only looking, but he enacts his obsessions with her in other strange ways.  He sends her notices, that informs her to go to the post office where he works to obtain money; when he sees that she has a lover with her, he might call the gas company to tell them her apartment has a leak; he gets hired as a milkman so he can ask her questions in the morning, allowing her to talk to her.  Frankly, he’s not healthy.

Finally, he is caught, and he confesses to her his spying.  She is offended, and then bemused.  She sees him only as a bundle of hormones, quivering with sexual tension.  He assures her that he is not, that he only wants to go out on a date.  But his humanity is blocked by her previous encounters with men, convinced that sex only has to do with a physical need and the release of tension.   There are three “loves” in this “Short Film about Love”: lust, romantic love and a third: the recognition of the person before us as an equal human being, a person of value and substance.  Magdla doesn’t experience that third love until the end of the film.

As much as this film is about love, it equally seems to be about privacy and shame.  Magdla flaunts that which most people consider to be private, and she sees herself as very open.  Tomek is full of shame and is always in a dark room, behind doors, fearful of what would happen if his secret were known.  But it turns out that his greatest fear isn’t to be found out, especially by the focus of his love, but to be spurned and mocked.  To have his most precious private thoughts cast back at him with spittle.  He is private, not just due to shame, but from protection, for if his love were laughed at, then the structure on which he has built himself would collapse.

This film is a tragedy, not unlike Romeo and Juliet, two people who are torn apart by assumption and misunderstanding.  It is a perfect film, without a single extra scene, a gem of plotting and character building.