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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

On Storytelling

Break's over! at least for me. I have a lot of work to do on the next class assignment--which I've done before, though never with so many students.
There was time for a post New Year's party with friends...and we wound up watching, not the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but a few short films and cartoons, some of whic were made over eighty years ago.
The first was Harold Lloyd's NEVER WEAKEN from 1921, a truly terrifying film (although it is nominally a comedy.) The terror comes from seeing Harold Lloyd hanging off girders on an unfinished skyscraper. Even though we modern viewers know he lived to be an old man, and that there is a safety net off-camera, the staging and timing of this film is still riveting today. You can see Harold wearing those 'piano key' gloves in this still; the glove on the right hand had a prosthetic device to camouflage the fact that Harold had had two fingers blown off that hand by a bomb during the previous year. He also nearly lost his vision at the time and had facial scars that might have ruined his career. Bravely, Lloyd vowed he'd be a director instead of an actor. The scars healed and he didn't tell anyone about the injured hand until after his career ended. He was afraid no one would laugh at him if they knew. (Those silent comedians were a hardy lot.)
Speaking of Hardy, we also ran one of my favorite Laurel and Hardy short films, HELPMATES. It was very appropriate on this particular day since it is about Stan "helping" Ollie clean up the house after a very messy party and ruining Ollie's life, including burning down the house at the end! (Just kidding. My party was nice.) The third film in the series was Buster Keaton's wonderfully surreal 1920 film (his first), ONE WEEK, about a newly married couple receiving an unassembled pre-fab house that goes entirely wrong. ONE WEEK was just inducted into the National Film Registry (about time too). And for dessert, there was the charming Disney cartoon, DONALD'S BETTER SELF.
Now, there's one thing that these films have in common besides comedy: they are meticulously constructed from believable premises and they build to inevitable comic climaxes--whether disasters in the the Keaton and Laurel/Hardy films, or triumphs (?) in the Lloyd and Disney ones) while never letting a gag go 'untopped'. This is a skill that is sadly lacking in nearly all the modern live action comedies I've seen. (The last modern film that I saw that really knew how to top gags in the old way was THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY.)
Harold Lloyd was a master of the 'topper'; the longest sustained sequence of this kind was in his amazing film SAFETY LAST, which is the one where he does this.
But the 'clock' scene is only part of the sequence; while climbing up that building Harold runs into every conceivable distraction and danger. incidental to the location. A mouse runs up his trouser leg. Someone throws a net out the window. Pigeons land on his head. The topper comes when Harold DOES get to the top of the building. That rotating device in the picture smacks him in the head and knocks him silly so that he does a drunk walk on the ledge. And Lloyd and his crew even top that gag. But I won't spoil it. Go see for yourself what they do.
Buster Keaton was also brilliant at topping and 'twisting' gags. He rarely telegraphs things, and never gives you what you quite expected to see. The rotating house in ONE WEEK is topped by having it actually melt in the rain--then it has to be moved to another lot....but his best topper in this film is the shot where the house appears to be stuck on the tracks in the path of an oncoming train. There appears to be a problem in the shot--a telegraph pole is prominently featured...but when you watch the clip, it is obvious that Keaton, who also directed the film, and his cameramen staged the shot from the most perfect angle available. It's a brilliant 'topper'.
Laurel and Hardy's HELPMATES is an escalating series of disasters taking place inside a few rooms in Hardy's house. Its timing is precise and things proceed with tragic inevitability. (The line between tragedy and comedy is mainly one of timing: if you play tragedy too fast, it becomes funny.) Or, as it is said: "Comedy is what happens to you. Tragedy is what happens to me."
Laurel and Hardy are unusual in that they normally telegraph their failures so the audience knows what is going to happen to them and laughs anyway. HELPMATES does have some telegraphing, but there are also some brilliant toppers in which insult is added to --insult --to --insult...Ollie first is hit by water, then by coal dust, and finally by flour in the course of one or two minutes in one scene. The water was telegraphed, the other indignities are 'twists' that make his predicament worse--and all because he will insist on taking charge and make Stan do the work. Because of his bossiness and selfishness Hardy loses, in inevitable progression, his best suits, his kitchen, his furniture, his marriage, and finally the entire house.
The Donald Duck cartoon is more conventional in its storytelling (good literally triumphs over evil) but it is so sincere, and charming, and the relationship between Donald and his angel and devil 'selves' is so believable--that it ranks as one of my top favorite cartoons. Donald is younger here than he was 'played' in later years; I prefer the naughty child to the malicious adult he became. Here, too, gags are 'topped'--with a literal kick at the end. The animators learned their comic craft from watching Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy, and the influence shows.
I won't editorialize since the films can do the 'talking'. None of them are self-aware, smugly calling attention to technique or special effects, or belittling their heroes. (Laurel and Hardy belittle themselves.) They do not, above all else, patronize the audience.
So that's why I love running the old films.

When I was a student at Cal Arts I brought my 16mm prints--one of which was more expensive than an entire set of DVDs of Keaton or Chaplin films--to the campus, and would do action analysis sessions as best I could in the dorm after classes. Some of the guys teased me about this once.

"I'll bet you wish you were around in the '20s!" one of them said laughingly.

Sure, I replied.
"And so do you. You could have gotten in on the ground floor with a guy named Walt Disney!"

I was never teased again.


Brett W. McCoy said...

I love those old silent comedies. You right, modern comedy (with a couple of exceptions) does not have that same sense of escalation that leaves you on the edge of your seat and laughing your ass off at the same time. I think a lot of British comedies do this well, like Fawlty Towers and Black Adder, but not American comedies. And especially not American cartoons. Animators would do well to study many of these old films.

Nancy said...

Actually, it's not true of animated cartoons. Animators still study the old films.
I had a poster once from A BUG'S LIFE autographed by the late Joe Ranft, head of story at Pixar. He wrote "Thank you for introducing me to Buster Keaton's films!" and I saw Keaton-inspired material in TOY STORY II and other Pixar films.