Monday, March 12, 2007

Movie Chat: Egged On

"Egged On"


Or, even better, "Holy shit!"

Sometimes when I put a movie on, I expect to be wowed. For instance, I really loved A Tale of Floating Weeds, which I watched last week, but liking it or thinking it's a little masterpiece wasn't surprising to me. After all, it's an Ozu movie, Ozu's one of the greats, so, yeah, no duh that it impressed.

But for a movie to be a revelation it has to catch me unaware (which has gotten harder over the years as I've seen more movies and read more about film history).

Which brings me to "Egged Up", a short from Charley Bowers, a silent film comedian and animator whom I had never heard of before reading about him in this primer on the Green Cine site. (Just as a note: Bowers never came up in any of the silent film or general film history classes that I took during the 6 years I spent studying film as an undergrad and a grad student).

Well, I watched it last week and I thought it was pretty terrific. I can't believe I'd been in the dark about this guy for so long, but I'm kind of glad that there are still surprises like this out there for me.

After watching "Egged Up", I looked around on the internet for more info on Bowers. And I noticed that a bunch of articles kept giving the same reason for Bowers's obscurity: he wasn't as strong a performer (both as a physical comedian and as an "actor") as Buster Keaton. That explanation seems kind of bogus to me: while it's true enough - Bowers can't match Keaton when it comes to physical comedy and he doesn't seem to be much of an "actor" - there are so many other possible reasons that quoting this as the primary one seems a little lazy. (And, you know, no one can match Keaton, so it's kind of a weird bar to set, as if, in something that is at least kinda/sorta "art", you have to be the best to be remembered. In reality, lots of "second rate"/"minor" artists have staying power, for lots of different reasons).

It's the way that these judgments get passed down and repeated that bugs me. I mean, reading more about silent comedy, I kept coming across articles that talk about, say, Larry Semon's current obscurity having to do with his "failure to create a comic character" (sort of like this one). I wonder, though, if luck, and, maybe even the tastes and memories of influential critics and film preservationists, have a little more to do with it. The preservation and rediscovery of these films has been something of a chancy matter. For instance, this article suggests that Larry Semon had a better reputation in Europe than in the U.S. because the only films that survived here were from later in his career when he had fallen into formula. I have no idea how accurate this assessment is, but I buy the underlying concept.

This gets into a tricky area:

On the one hand, there are simply too many movies out there not to do some reducing - it can be useful to talk about "the greats" of silent comedy (Chaplin and Keaton) or Japanese film (Ozu and Kurosawa) or Westerns (Ford and Peckinpah) simply because we don't always have the time or the need to deal with subjects in great depth. On the other hand, sometimes we do need to step back and take note of the way focusing on the greats neglects other work that can be just as vital and rewarding.

There's a dilemma that I keep coming up against: now, thanks to Netflix and YouTube and similar sites, we can experience more movies and other pop culture performances more easily than ever before. And my guess is the quantity of content and the ease of accessibility will keep increasing. At the same time, faced with all of this stuff to watch, where are you supposed to begin and how can you know that your not missing things like these Charley Bowers disks? The answer I've come up with, for now, at least: watch whatever seems interesting at the moment, keep poking around the internet for more finds, and realize that I'm not going to get around to seeing everything that I might like to.

I don't know: I try to be generous and charitable when it comes to other people's responses to movie, but, honestly, if you watched "Egged Up" and your reaction is: "Eh, pretty good but Bowers is no Keaton" then I have serious doubts about your love of actual movies (as opposed to, heh, "cinema in general"). I'm not saying that it's a masterpiece or that we need to start teaching it in Cinema Studies programs: I am saying that if you can't enjoy it for what it is - a playful short comedy full of inventive sequences - then you might want to reassess why you were drawn to watch a movie like this in the first place.

1 comment:

Cram said...

silent movies are boring.