Legendary director Tsui Hark has been a fixture on the Hong Kong cinema scene since the 1970s (except for a little hiccup in the 90s when he made a couple crappy Hollywood movies with Jean Claude Van Damme, but let’s not talk about that now). His string of significant cinema work started in 1979 with The Butterfly Murders, moved through the 1990s with a slew of indispensible films including A Better Tomorrow (producer), A Chinese Ghost Story (producer), and the Once Upon A Time In China series (director), and continues to the present day with a clutch of period action films including Detective Dee 1 & 2 and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. His latest joint, The Taking of Tiger Mountain, just opened in the U.S. a week after its successful debut in China, where it’s the top film at the box office.
The film is based on a popular Beijing opera (from the novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest) that was one the Eight Model Plays sanctioned by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. The opera was adapted into a film in 1970 that Tsui Hark, along with most of China’s other 800 million people at the time, viewed as a youth. Tsui’s current adaptation is a co-production of the heavy-hitting commercial studio BONA Film Group and the August First Film Studio, which is the film-producing branch of China’s People’s Liberation Army, and the influence of these disparate financing sources shows in the finished product. While it mostly passes as an energetic action/adventure movie, Tiger Mountain also has the smell of Chinese military propaganda, which inhibits some of director Tsui’s more maverick instincts.
The story is based on a true incident that took place in 1946 during China’s civil war, in which a small platoon of PLA fighters overcame a much larger bandit crew (alluded to as affiliated with the Kuomintang, the PLA’s opposition during the civil war) that’s holed up in a mountain stronghold. The film opens with a framing device in which Jimmy (Han Geng), a young modern-day Chinese student in the U.S., sees a snippet of the 1970 Taking Tiger Mountain film. As his buddies laugh at the old-fashioned opera stylings, Jimmy smiles fondly and later watches the film on his phone as he travels home to Harbin. The movie then cuts to the main action as the PLA platoon struggles to protect a village from the KMT bandits while confronting a lack of food and supplies as well as the onset of winter. As the situation worsens the platoon’s leader, known only as 203, decides to storm the bandit’s hideout on Tiger Mountain, sending in Yang (Zhang Hanyu), a PLA intelligence agent, to infiltrate the gang. The main body of the film follows Yang as he works from within the bandits’ lair while his compatriots endeavor to attack the stronghold from without. After a somewhat slow setup the narrative picks up speed around the forty-minute mark once Yang makes his way into the good graces of the bandit leader, Hawk. Following much intrigue and double-crossing the film concludes with a rip-roaring battle in the snowy mountain as the heroic PLA troops clash with the diabolical KMT bandits.
Tiger Mountain was released in China in 3-D (although its U.S. release is only in 2-D), and the film’s first brief battle sequence feels a bit too gamish, with slo-mo bullet-cam shots and computer-animated blood spurts probably better appreciated stereoscopically, The later, more extended action sequences, including an outstanding siege of a small village, are more engaging and rely less on CGI and more on real hand-to-hand combat and kinetic fight choreography. The climatic battle sequence and a brief coda involving a runaway plane are both pretty thrilling and demonstrate Tsui’s sure hand with action, characters, and special effects.
Tsui draws out solid performances throughout, although some of the film’s characters fall into standard war-movie types. Zhang Hanyu is dashing and resourceful as Yang, the fearless PLA spy sent to infiltrate the bandit camp, and he has several outstanding moments that convincingly demonstrate Yang’s ability to think on his feet. Tony Leung Ka-Fai plays a few years older in a bald-wig and hook nose as Hawk, the ruthless bandit leader, and it’s great to see him sink his teeth into the meaty character role. Lin Genxing is forthright, square-jawed, and handsome as the platoon’s captain but otherwise isn’t terribly compelling. Yu Nan doesn’t get to exercise her usual steely bravado since she’s mostly a captive throughout, though she does escape her bondage several times during the course of the film. Tong Liya as Little Dove, the doughty nurse, is predictably brave and lion-hearted. There’s also a cute little traumatized kid who gets to play a heroic role in the last battle as well as provide a manipulative emotional moment at the film’s climax.
As a Western viewer it’s a bit odd for me to root for the PLA since in my mind the Chinese army is forever linked with the 1989 brutality of Tiananmen Square, but PRC audiences undoubtedly have more positive associations with China’s military. Chinese viewers also probably feel a more visceral response to the strains of the familiar revolutionary opera on the soundtrack and find kinship with Jimmy and his nostalgic journey home to rediscover his family’s PLA roots.
In fact, Jimmy can be seen as a surrogate for Tsui himself, as at the outset of the film he recalls his nostalgic U.S. encounter with the original Taking Tiger Mountain film. Later, at the film’s conclusion, Jimmy is surrounded by a cadre of PLA soldiers and can only smile helplessly, submitting to the collective PLA memories, even as he tries to re-imagine a different version of the narrative’s conclusion. The PLA perspective, and by extension the August First version of the story, is too overwhelming to contradict.
Under different circumstances Tsui really could’ve cut loose but may have felt constrained by the sanctity of the material and/or by the military film office breathing down his neck. The film is much less irreverent and less of a pointed critique than some of his earlier productions that scathingly sent up organized religion (Green Snake), corrupt government officials (New Dragon Gate Inn), and colonial malfeasance (Once Upon A Time In China). Nonetheless, hints of Tsui’s signature style sneak in via the Road Warrior-esque bandit fashions including mohawks, facial tats, and various other quirky costuming choices that recall the art direction of Tsui’s earlier films including The Blade. Another glimpse of the film that might have been is an electrifying throwaway coda involving a speeding fighter jet, a long tunnel, and a very high precipice. Still, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is nowhere near as heinously patriotic as earlier glossy August First propaganda productions like The Founding of A Republic from a few years back. It’s to Tsui’s credit that he’s able to create a highly watchable and sometimes exhilarating film, however restricted he may have been by his material and his funding sources.
I’m in Asia right now so I’m viewing the Ferguson grand jury verdict aftermath from afar, but this article is an outstanding resource for talking about all the issues around it. I can’t add too much more to it since it’s thorough and comprehensive.
Originally posted on [smut & sensibility]:
Introduction From The Curator
Note (11/29/14 at 8:00 PM EST): Holy moly, this got a ton of traction. Thanks to all the folks sharing, commenting, and helping us correct typos, inaccuracies, and the like! Keep it coming! Also please note that comments are moderated to filter out spam & I’m not on my computer 24/7, so responses and updates will not be immediate. We’d love to hear what you’re doing with this information, so definitely let us know of success stories in talking to family-members, using it in lesson-plans, and the like.
The only kind of bombs I fully support are truth-bombs, and that’s why I’ve come together with a group of POC and select White allies to write this post. We feel it’s critical to have conversations about social justice loudly, noticeably, personally as well as systemically, and eloquently*—in this case, specifically around Ferguson, #stoptheparade, #BlackLivesMatter, #IndictAmerica, and…
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2014 was a pretty good year for Hong Kong movies and this year’s Hong Kong Cinema, the San Francisco Film Society’s annual film series from the former crown colony, reflects this uptick in cinematic quality. Recent output from brilliant directors Ann Hui, Pang Ho-Cheung and Fruit Chan are part of the mix, superstars Chow Yun-Fat, Tang Wei, Nicholas Tse, and Louis Koo (twice) are featured players, and the films run the gamut from crime thriller (Overheard 3) to youth romance (Uncertain Relationships Society) to wuxia pian (The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom) and beyond. The series also includes a twentieth-anniversary screening of Wong Kar-Wai’s glorious slice of Hong Kong-meets-the-Nouvelle Vague, Chungking Express, which is definitely worth a watch on the big screen. A few other highlights follow.
From Vegas To Macau (dir. Wong Jing) is a cheesy quasi-sequel to Hong Kong’s many, many successful gambling comedy movies from the 1980s and 90s. Although luminaries including Stephen Chow Sing-chi and Andy Lau Tak-wah made their mark in gambling epics from that time, one of the pillars of the genre is God of Gamblers (1989), starring Chow Yun-Fat and directed by Wong Jing. In From Vegas To Macau Chow and Wong reunite in an attempt to resurrect their glory days, and by extension the glory days of Hong Kong movies, and the current film is a reminder of the best and worst of those times. In the plus column is Chow cutting loose in a wacky Hong Kong comedy, which helps to counter his mostly disappointing 10-plus years sojourn to Hollywood and which enables him to regain his crown as the Chinese god of actors. Appearing in the sidekick role, Nicholas Tse is an earnest straight man, and Chapman To overacts mightily to insure that Cantonese-language cinema’s laff-riot slapstick tradition continues.
For anyone who’s only familiar with Chow Yun-Fat’s iconic work as a soulful gangster in John Woo movies (and who haven’t seen him as a childlike amnesiac in the original God of Gamblers), this zany farce should be an eye-opener, as Chow turns on the high-pitched giggle and the crazy dance moves as a Ken, the godly gambler/con man at the center of the film. Watching a Wong Jing movie is kind of like blindly sticking your hand into a big mysterious barrel—you never know what random trash you’re going to pull out, and From Vegas To Macau is no exception. Wong strings together a series of vignettes and set pieces without regard to narrative logic, each scene clashing violently with the the others, and the tone of the film swings from action to slapstick to farce, with kung fu, booby-traps, CGI-enhanced card-shuffling, and fat-chick jokes all a part of the overstuffed mix. While it’s not a good movie in any sense of the word, its manic energy and illogical construction combined with the spectacle of Chow Yun-Fat goofing his way through a typical Hong Kong comedy makes it a decent timepass.
At the other end of the cinematic spectrum is Ann Hui’s The Golden Era, starring Tang Wei (Lust, Caution) as iconographic Chinese author Xiao Hong, who worked during the Republican era in China (she was born in 1911 and died in 1942) and who was one of the first modern-day female writers in the country to gain recognition. The film is beautifully made, with a lot of money evident in the stunning cinematography, costumes, and art direction, and boasts an excellent cast, but at three hours it’s overly long and at times glacially paced. The film makes liberal use of direct address, including an opening speech by Xiao Hong herself as she announces her birth and death dates, adding a self-reflexive layer to the narrative structure. Tang Wei is thoughtful and arresting as Xiao Hong, who was born into a patrician Chinese family but subsequently lived in poverty and uncertainty for much of her short life. However, her performance lacks a sense of agency and ferocity that a more intense actor might have brought to the role. In addition, those viewers unfamiliar with Xiao Hong’s body of work might be at a loss as to her significance, although many of the supporting characters repeatedly attest to her importance in China’s literary canon. Still, it’s interesting to see what director Hui has done with a generously budgeted film set in historical mainland China, since much of her oeuvre have been in the vein of A Simple Life or The Way We Are, which are much more quickly sketched stories deeply rooted in contemporary Hong Kong. Although there are stylistic differences between those movies and this one, Hui’s filmic intelligence shines through, as she’s made a smart and intriguing picture about the intersections of history, art, politics, and creativity.
Splitting the difference between Wong Jing and Ann Hui is Pang Ho-Cheung’s Aberdeen, which is an engaging look at contemporary Hong Kong through the lens of several intertwined relationships. The film follows the lives of the members of two related families, including a thirty-something actress/model (Gigi Leung) who is transitioning from her ingénue stage to something less well-received; her husband (Louis Koo), who is concerned that their daughter isn’t as pretty as he thinks she should be; his sister (Miriam Yeung), who’s obsessed with her fraught relationship with her late mother; and her husband (Eric Tsang), a doctor who’s making time with his receptionist. Intercut with these various subplots are a beached whale, unexploded WWII ordnance in the heart of Hong Kong, fantasy sequences with larger-than-life lizards, and Taoist funeral rituals. By interweaving these disparate elements director Cheung examines notions of beauty, fame, family, and loyalty amidst the backdrop of modern-day Hong Kong. The film continues in the vein of much of Cheung’s past work exploring Hong Kong life and relationships, which range from the brilliantly satirical Vulgaria to the rom-com Love In A Puff to the dark and disturbing Isabella.
In some ways Aberdeen recalls the glory days of UFO, the United Filmmkaers Organization production house that back in the 1990s was responsible for a slew of dramedies including Dr. Mack; Heaven Can’t Wait; Tom, Dick, and Hairy; and Twenty Something. UFO movies were smarter and less formulaic than the typical commercial Hong Kong output of the time and starred early 1990s superstars like Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tony Leung Ka-Fei, Karen Mok, Jordan Chan, and Anita Chan, all of whom were looking for prestige projects that were a break from Kong Kong’s usual kung-fu historicals or generic crime movies. Aberdeen carries on in this tradition, which stars current A-listers Louis Koo, Miriam Yeung, Eric Tsang, and Gigi Leung, as well as appearances from Hong Kong movie vets Ng Man-tat and Carrie Ng, in a quality production by a name-brand director. For the most part, although flawed, Aberdeen is infinitely more intelligent and watchable than much recent commercial Hong Kong cinema and gives its cast members a good opportunity to stretch out and to exercise their acting chops.
Hong Kong Cinema runs from Nov. 14-17, 2014 at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco. Go here for ticketing and full schedule.
As Asian American film scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu notes, there is “a long tradition in Hollywood movies of iconic portrayals of Asian American men (as) rapacious and brutal, pedophiliac, criminal, treacherous and also romantic, and quaint. Sexuality and gender act as forces in the racialization of Asian American men.” Sadly, despite tiny steps towards improvement, Asian male representation in Hollywood still remains timidly entrenched in stereotypes. Sure, John Cho is the leading man in Selfie, (although he’s already starting to be a bit stalkerish), and Glenn (Steven Yeun) from The Walking Dead is still alive and human (though there are persistent rumors of his imminent demise), but on the big screen the ridiculously hot Lee Byung-Hun is still playing the bad guy (most recently in the upcoming Terminator: Genisys) instead of fulfilling all of our fantasies as a romantic lead.
Strangely enough, our modern era is in some ways more regressive than, say, 1959. Althought the 1950s weren’t known for their progressive portrayals of Asian Americans in Western films, in that year Asian men appeared as objects of desire in two significant movies. In 1959 the Hawai’ian born Sansei actor James Shigeta made his big-screen debut in Sam Fuller’s film The Crimson Kimono, playing a Los Angeles detective assigned to the case of a murder of an exotic dancer. The film is an engaging cop movie but it’s most notable for its portrayal of a love triangle involving Shigeta, his white partner Sgt. Charlie Bancroft, and Bancroft’s girlfriend Christina, who is also white. Unlike most such romantic conflicts involving an Asian man opposite a white guy, in this case Shigeta got the girl, which made The Crimson Kimono a groundbreaking anomaly in Hollywood. James Shigeta was a co-winner of the 1960 Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Male Newcomer and he would go on to a moderately successful career as a romantic lead for a few years but he never became the superstar that his good looks and charisma would indicate. Like most Asian American men in Hollywood up until and after that time Shigeta ran into the impenetrable glass ceiling of racism.
1959 also saw the depiction of another desirable Asian male, in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. In that film Eiji Okada plays the intensely romantic Lui, a Japanese architect who has a brief and torrid affair with a Frenchwoman played by Emmanuelle Riva (seen most recently in Michael Haneke’s Amour). With a screenplay by noted Asiaphile Marguerite Duras (L’Amant/The Lover; Un barrage contre le Pacifique/The Sea Wall), Resnais’ film depicts Lui as suave, tender, and desirable, which contrasts greatly with the ways that Hollywood has typically portrayed Asian men. Okada is particularly swoonworthy as he and Riva’s character passionately discuss love, war, genocide, and beauty, against the backdrop of the site of first the atomic bomb attack. With the ruins of Genbaku Dome in the background, the film also utilizes a nonlinear narrative structure that links the European front, as exemplified by a long flashback set in France, to the Pacific theater, with Hiroshima repping for all of Japan. Set some fifteen years after the end of World War II, the film emphasizes the human cost of the war even many years after its ceasefire, as both Lui and Elle have been scarred by the loss of loved ones in the conflict. Elle fetishizes both her late German lover and Lui, as she is drawn to them due to their difference and otherness.
Now releasing theatrically for the first time in years in a new 4K digital restoration, Hiroshima Mon Amour remains fresh and relevant both thematically and stylistically (it’s regarded as one of the most influential films of the early Nouvelle Vague, or the French New Wave). It’s also an example of an early representation of an Asian male as not a caricature, a villain, or a clown, but as a fully fleshed out, highly desirable romantic lead. Now if only Hollywood could get a clue and do the same in the 21st century.
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Jeff Chang’s latest book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America (St. Martin’s Press), dropped last week and it arrives as the United States is in the midst of another particularly fraught period of racial politics. As recent events in Ferguson, MO have indicated, Chang’s book argues that we as a country and a culture are a long way from becoming the post-racial society supposedly heralded by the election of Barack Obama, yet despite the seemingly dire straits that we’re in, all is not hopeless. In WWB Chang recounts the effects of the changing demographics in the U.S. since the mid-twentieth century, from desegregation through multiculturalism to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and beyond, investigating the ways in which visual culture intersects with current and historical events.
WWB is an amazing tome, encompassing topics as broad as the civil rights movement and as focused as Budweiser’s “Wassup” ad campaign. The book is an outstanding look at the ways in which we as a people in the United States since the mid-twentieth century have moved through a sea change of perceptions, representations, and reflections of racial relations.
Beginning in the 1960s, Chang’s book interweaves topics as diverse as the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy,” the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, the subprime mortgage scandal, Occupy Wall Street, and the psychology of advertising. Chang focuses on a range of culture creators including cartoonist Morrie Turner, whose comic strip Wee Pals featured a multiracial cast of kids, Faith Ringgold, an early advocate for the Black Arts Movement, Daniel Martinez, known for his performance art/museum tag/culture bomb from the 1993 Whitney Bienniel, and Shepard Fairey, designer of both the Andre The Giant “Obey” street art campaign and the 2008 Obama “Hope” image.
Chang does a great job exploring the ways in which real life, visual art, and commerce interact and influence each other. For instance, Chang explores a proto-multiculti Coke ad campaign from the early 70s that tried to latch onto the youth culture and nascent ethnic studies movement of the time but that didn’t mention any of the harsher realities of, say, the Watts riots. Another section of the book drills down into the racism and elitism of the 1980s and 90s New York visual arts scene, including a particularly culturally tone-deaf incident surrounding the white artist responsible for “The Nigger Drawings.” Chang closely examines this volatile period during which contemporary arts gatekeepers like the New York Times, gallery directors, and curators were forced to confront their biases against creative work by artists of color and queer artists, which reached a crescendo during the controversial 1993 Whitney Bienniel, which was vilified by the art establishment as “a theme park of the oppressed.” Chang then discusses the ways in which these so-called culture wars in turn lead to the commercialized multiracialism of the United Colors of Benetton “Colors” magazine and ad campaign.
Chang also astutely looks at what he calls “the paradox of the post-racial moment,” wherein the U.S can elect Barack Obama president, yet still has trouble reconciling Obama’s biracial identity. Chang’s analysis is particularly keen when exploring the current confused state of race relations in the U.S., describing what he calls the tendency for many people to be “colormute,” that is, to avoid talking about race for fear of being accused of racism. He ironically notes the convoluted logic behind those who frown on discussing race in any way, stating, “If bad people had used race to divide and debase . . . then good people would be polite to never acknowledge race at all. It was better not to say anything than to risk being seen as a racist.”
Chang concludes his book with two contrasting case studies–a detailed look at George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin and the rise of the DREAM Act, the proposed federal legislation that addresses the citizenship status of undocumented young people brought to the U.S. while children. By juxtaposing these two cases Chang emphasizes the fact that, while the Martin killing demonstrates that the U.S. remains far from being a post-racial society, there is still reason for hope, as seen in the increased activism by immigrant youth of color under the DREAM Act.
Chang’s writing is clear and accessible, and his analysis is thoughtful, concise, and innovative. Though by no means a dis on the theory queens among us (and you know who you are), after recently wading through a few visual culture publications, it’s a pleasure and a relief to read an author who writes with clarity without sacrificing intelligent intellectual commentary. Who We Be is a significant and essential addition to the study of contemporary U.S. art, culture, and politics.
Jeff Chang is on a book tour to promote WWB! Find out more here.
The Mill Valley Film Festival’s 2014 edition starts this weekend and as per usual it’s a star-studded affair, with guest appearances by the likes of Hilary Swank, Jason Reitman, Billy Joe Armstrong, Ellie Fanning, Laura Dern, Metallica, and many more Hollywood glitterati. The program also boasts an outstanding lineup of documentaries, including several by local filmmakers, so the reasons for driving across the Golden Gate Bridge (or the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge, depending on your homebase) are manifold.
This year the festival is spotlighting Spanish-language cinema from around the world, including the excellent documentary Que Caramba Es La Vida, an intriguing portrait of the fierce and talented women mariachis of Mexico City. Directed by veteran German filmmaker Doris Dörrie, the movie documents the experiences of several female performers working to make a mark in a field dominated by men. The film is shot mostly verite-style with no narration, as each of the women describes how she came to be a mariachi and why she continues in the business. Some come from mariachi families, with parents or grandparents who performed before them, while others are the first in their families to perform. A particularly compelling story is that of Maria del Carmen, a mariachi singer who lives with her single mom and young daughter in a small apartment in Mexico City. Del Carmen’s mother recalls that even as a girl, her daughter Maria had a voice “that went right through you,” and this is pretty apparent after hearing del Carmen soulfully belt out a couple songs in the Plaza Garabaldi, which is home to scores of mariachi bands plying their trade every night. The film depicts del Carmen’s everyday performance prep routine, as her mom and daughter help her with her makeup and hair, as well as revealing her concerns for her daughter’s future as a female growing up working-class in Mexico. The movie also follows Las Pioneras, a group of older female mariachi groups whose members who are now in their sixties and seventies and who started out as mariachis in the 1950s as teenagers and young women. The last quarter of the movie follows the Dia de los Muertes celebrations in Mexico City, neatly contextualizing the mariachi tradition. Que Caramba Es La Vida effectively looks at some of the social and cultural milieu surrounded the women, including the effects of drug dealers, misogyny, poverty, and crime on their ability to keep performing.
Mexican music of a different sort is profiled in For Those About To Rock: The Story of Rodrigo y Gabriela. Rock journalist and first-time director Alejandro Franco narrates his very accessible portrait of the popular Mexico City guitar duo, from their roots in the capital listening to thrash and heavy metal like Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer as teenagers. Both subjects are fluent in English and were raised in middle-class Mexican families, so their stories for the most part are very different from their mariachi counterparts in Dörrie’s film. The film is a standard biopic of a successful musical outfit so, unless you’re a big Rodrigo y Gabriela fan, the movie is less compelling than Dorrie’s movie. The film starts out strong, quickly and succinctly contextualizing the Mexico rock music scene, but bogs down in the middle as it becomes a fairly linear recounting of R&G’s career.Although the film is about musicians, one of its shortcoming is that there isn’t actually enough of R&G’s music in the earlier part of film, so if you’re unfamiliar with the duo you might not know what the fuss is all about. The film makes the mistake of telling and not showing, which weakens its impact—there are a lot of talking heads explaining things and not enough things happening instead. Whereas Que Caramba takes place on the streets and in the plazas of Mexico City, For Those About To Rock happens mostly in recording studios, backstage, and at clubs, and concerts, and is more of a fannish tribute about legend-building than an incisive look at the duo. There is also not much dramatic tension—the director refers to the story as a “fairy tale’ and it’s presented as such, with R&G destined to achieve their rock star ambitions. The viewer learns very little about either musician’s personal life or any deep, compelling reasons for why they make music other than “it’s fun”, and the film lacks a strong sense of a cultural context for who they are and where they came from. The film ends with about ten minutes of live concert footage that only underscores the relative paucity of music in the rest of the film, which may be enough of a reason for admirers of Rodrigo y Gabriela to watch the film.
The Mill Valley Film Festival eleven days beginning on Oct. 2 in various theaters in and around Mill Valley. Go here for complete schedule and ticket information.
Buster Keaton’s The General is one of those movies that are on every cinephile’s best-of list, and with good reason. Elegantly structured, coolly executed, and funny as hell, the film was Keaton’s own favorite, although it was the movie that almost ruined his reputation when it first came out. It took a long time to shoot, was prohibitively expensive, and absolutely did not make bank when it was released—Keaton’s rep as a comedic star took a big hit and his studio reined him in after The General‘s box office failure. The movie was anything but well-received when it was released in 1926, although it’s now considered a classic.
The storyline follows a railroad engineer and wannabe Confederate soldier during the Civil War (nimbly played by the diminutive Keaton) who traces the theft of his beloved railroad engine, named The General, behind Union lines. The movie features some of the most beautifully choreographed stunts of the silent era, involving huge piles of rolling logs, steam engines on collision course, and the spectacular demise of a full-size locomotive. The sight of an actual train engine falling many dozens of feet from a bridge to a riverbed is still amazingly impressive, even in this age of CGI and digitally created special effects. The film is Keaton at his best, with its stripped down, symmetrically structured narrative, its large-scale, dangerous, and perfectly executed stunts, and its underdog hero struggling within a vastly unsympathetic world.
Silent film comedy of an entirely different sort are the Laurel and Hardy two-reeler short films, Two Tars (1928) and Big Business (1929). Two Tars follows a day in the life of a couple of sailors on leave in Los Angeles as they go joy-riding among the California chaparral with a couple of dames. Although Stan and Ollie play sailors, all of the action in the twenty-minute movie takes place on a pair of landlocked Southern California roadways. Featuring Laurel and Hardy’s signature physicality and escalation of destruction, the short also includes some very suggestive digital manipulation of a gumball machine as well as several excellent Stan Laurel pratfalls. The short concludes with an epic traffic jam that would make Godard proud that illustrates the primal allure of large-vehicle destruction, the weaponization of cow pies and rotten tomatoes, and a gal getting a faceful of black ink.
Big Business is even more of a felon’s wet dream, as a small misunderstanding rapidly escalates into complete mayhem, resulting in an entire house vandalized down to its spinet piano and brick chimney. L&H play door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen plying their wares in the sunny, overexposed 1920s Southern California suburbs, which were about as sparsely populated as the high desert at the time. The two get into a scrap with a feisty homeowner and soon the axes are out and windows, doors, and a Model T fall victim to the OTT belligerence of the battling adversaries. The humor derives from the extreme reactions of both Stan and Ollie as well as their antagonist, played with righteous fury by L&H regular James Finlayson.
All three of these comedy classics are screening as part of Silent Autumn, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s one-day event on Sept. 20 at the glorious Castro Theater. Also notable are screenings of new restorations of The Son of the Sheik, starring the beautiful Rudolph Valentino, and the German expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. As per usual with all SFSFF events, each program includes live accompaniment, by silent film score maestro Donald Sosin as well as the always innovative Alloy Orchestra. Go here for complete schedule and ticket info.