James Garner and Some Forgotten Western Laughs

James Garner’s recent death left me thinking about some of my favorite films starring the low-key star. And one title, rarely mentioned today, leaped up immediately: Support Your Local Sheriff.

That title pretty much guarantees that the movie would be forgotten. A topical joke in 1969 (a popular conservative bumper sticker of the day read "Support your local police"), it just seems weird to people too young to remember the reference. The title has aged; the movie has not–or at least not as much.

Although marred with some serious flaws (more about them below), this western parody makes good use of Garner’s talent and star appeal. As the fastest draw, the most accurate sharpshooter, and the smartest man in the unnamed territory, Garner gets to play his laid-back, unflappable persona at its calmest, all the while showing off a sense of comic timing that seems almost unfair in such a handsome leading man.

Most comic protagonists start out utterly inept–the worst possible person for the job (consider The Big Lebowski and anything starring Bob Hope). But Garner here plays the opposite. He’s always a step ahead of everyone, and never seems truly worried. While remaining calm and polite, he keeps a blood-thirsty murderer (Bruce Dern) in a not-quite-finished jail with big open spaces where there should be iron bars. (It helps that this particular killer has the brains of a drugged sparrow.)

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Comic westerns have been a movie mainstay for about a century. Harold Lloyd, Bob Hope, Don Knots, and Jackie Chan all made them. When the Marx Brothers made theirs, they stole the title from Buster Keaton’s entry in the form and the plot of Laurel and Hardy’s. But if there’s a comic western that understands the western genre as well as Support Your Local Sheriff, I haven’t seen it. The plot comes from Rio Bravo, with a little bit of High Noon thrown in.

Garner did a number of westerns, and the cast is peppered with veterans from the glory days of the genre. Walter Brennan (Red River, Rio Bravo) does a comic variation of his vicious patriarch from My Darling Clementine. Henry Morgan (High Noon, How the West was Won) shows off the low-key timing he would soon bring to the sitcom MASH, and has some wonderful comic dialog with Garner. Dern (Hang ‘Em High, Will Penny) does wonders as a fool who thinks he’s a tough guy. But it’s Jack Elam (The Comancheros, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), who steals the picture as Garner’s somewhat reluctant, wild-eyed sidekick. Director Burt Kennedy and writer/producer William Bowers were also western veterans.

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Overall, Support Your Local Sheriff provides a healthy collection of big laughs, with a real understanding and love of the genre it’s lampooning. But as I said before, It’s far from perfect.

Consider Jeff Alexander’s horrendous score, which has the horrible habit of telling you when you should laugh. Alexander provides a few good musical moments–especially in a sequence when hired killers come to town. But for the most part, the music just annoys the audience, and hurts more gags than it helps.

Other flaws include a clumsily-written romantic subplot (Joan Hackett plays the spirited ingénue), a slow first act, and a prospecting sequence that offers nothing and changes Garner’s character for some cheap laughs.

And the climax disappoints. It has its funny moments–some very funny moments–but there should have been more. After watching Garner outsmart everyone for over an hour, we have every right to expect a brilliant for the finale. Screenwriter Bowers failed to come up with one.

I can’t honestly call Support Your Local Sheriff a comic masterpiece. But if you really love westerns, this is a comedy worth catching. And a celebration of Garner’s comic strength.

Rediscovering The Big Lebowski

I saw The Big Lebowski at the Pacific Film Archive Wednesday night–my first time seeing the cult favorite with an audience. Now I get it. I may be the last person to realize this, but on the big screen, with a room full of people, Lebowski is an exceptional comedy. The laughs are nearly constant.

And yet there’s more to it than laughs. The characters, although broadly drawn and larger-than-life, have a ring of truth to them. And the plot is as complex as a Raymond Chandler novel.

In fact, the story feels very much like something from Raymond Chandler, except that the protagonist is no Philip Marlowe. He’s a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned slacker and competitive bowler who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). In other words, he’s the least competent person you could possibly imagine to be placed in the middle of a Raymond Chandler story.

A bit of personal history:

Lukewarm reviews kept me from seeing The Big Lebowski when it was released in 1998–despite my already being a Coen brothers fan. But I rented it soon after it came out on DVD, and watched it when my then-teenaged son. (My son was also with me Wednesday night at the PFA; this time with his wife.)

Soon after I started this blog, I started recommending The Big Lebowski
when it played in local theaters. It wasn’t long before I realized that it played more one-night stands than any other movie. This perplexed me. I remembered it as a pleasant comedy but not a great one. When I started the letter grades, I gave it a B.

But it kept turning up. People obviously loved it. I even made jokes about it in my weekly newsletter, calling one Lebowski of Arabia and another A Lebowski-Free Week. Slowly, I began to suspect that I needed to see it again, and this time in a theater.

On Wednesday night, I finally did it.

As usual, Steve Seid introduced the movie, which the PFA was screening as part of the series Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010. This is the last of three American comedy series that the Archive has been running since the beginning of the year.

To help program this final series, the PFA "worked in cahoots with the East Bay Express," with readers recommending films. Seid called Lebowski part of a "great bowling trilogy" that also included King Pin and Spare Me, which is "about a kind of outlaw bowler who gets kicked out of the league because he has anger issues," and was advertised with the tag line "When you hear thunder, God is bowling."

Seid also brought out his father’s bowling ball. His father bowled until he was in his 90s.

The Big Lebowski is more than a bowling movie, and more than a Raymond Chandler story with a comically inept protagonist. There’s a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen to it–as if you could throw yourself out to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t.

Consider Sam Elliott’s prairie philosopher narration, which sort of sets the scene but is stylistically at odds with everything else in the picture. Or John Turturro’s utterly bizarre turn as a bejeweled bowler named Jesus. Or the dancing dream sequence that looks like something out of Busby Berkeley, only weirder.

Amongst a great supporting cast that includes Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman at his funniest, John Goodman stands out as the Dude’s friend Walter–a Vietnam vet with a very bad case of PTSD. This is a guy who pulls a gun to settle an argument over bowling scores. On one level, Walter is the sort of dependable friend who will always have your back. On the other, he’s crazy, dangerous, and doesn’t think things through. The Dude gets into a lot of trouble because of Walter’s shenanigans.

The Big Lebowski is a blissfully vulgar movie. It just may have more f-words than any other picture shot. And it uses the word, and its constant repetitions, effectively to get laughs. The Coen brothers understand just how funny a word it is.

The PFA screened The Big Lebowski off of a DCP. As a rule, this doesn’t bother me; I like digital projection. But not this time. Universal’s transfer was over-processed. It looked like video, with film grain removed and everything smoothed over. I suspect this was an early transfer, done before people realized that a film projected digitally should still look like a film, and not like CGI. Considering the quality of this transfer, I would rather have seen a 35mm print.

But I suppose I have to accept the bad with the good. After all, "the Dude abides."

A Classic Comedy and a Colombian Thriller: Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival is beginning to wind down. Sunday was the last non-workday of the festival. I attended two events, and hit the jackpot both times.

The Mel Novikoff Award Ceremony and The Lady Eve

More than anyone else, Mel Novikoff helped bring repertory cinema to the Bay Area. The SFIFF’s Mel Novikoff Award honors someone who has helped keep a love of cinema alive. This year, the Award went to critic and historian David Thomson.

imageThomson is such an obvious choice I found myself wondering why it took so long. The author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and many other books, he’s considered by many to be the greatest living film historian. And he’s local, a British subject who’s made his home in the Bay Area.

I like to patronize used bookstores, and I always go right to the Cinema section. Despite their popularity, you rarely see his books there. People must be reluctant to part with them.

After introductions by Rachel Rosen and Sony Classics’ Michael Barker, Jeff Dyer interviewed Thomson. So highlights;

  • Thomson on Novikoff: "I lived around the corner from Mel’s office. Every other morning I would bump into him. He had an electricity, an energy, and grace, quite amazing. He had that buzz that was characteristic of great showman. And he was so much fun to be with."
  • Jeff Dyer described a game using Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary. You read one of the brief, very opinionated biographies, and someone else has to guess who that person is. Dyer played the game with the audience; the winner got a dollar.
  • On the original response to the encyclopedia: "Authors expect the world is waiting to acclaim them." It took six months before anyone bothered to review his book.
  • "I taught a class at Stanford two years ago Very smart kids. But their knowledge of film history was not that good. A lot of people think it began in the late 70s."
  • "Actors are not quite there in the way the rest of us try to be. There’s a terrible temptation to decide you like them and be kind to them."
  • "The movies that interest me the most are about the face."

Next came the Q&A with the audience:

  • I got to ask the first question, and I asked about old films being screened digitally: "I have very mixed feelings. I love film as celluloid. I’ve handled it. I love that part of it."
  • "People went into the dark to see things that were impossible. Places they couldn’t visit….What film has done is show us the world you couldn’t see. The wonderful privilege of voyeurism."
  • "Have the movies made us better? I can’t see it. They have filled our time and diverted us from other things."
  • "The remote allows you to be experimenting. It’s frightening. But it’s staggering."

He then introduced the movie he chose to be screened in his honor, The Lady Eve. "It was released a few weeks before I was born. They weren’t aware of that coincidence. The film is sublimely unaware of the war."

Then they screened the movie.

Thomson made a great choice in picking The Lady Eve. To my mind, it’s the perfect screwball comedy. You’ve got lovable con artists lifting money from wealthy snobs, and you’ve got Barbara Stanwyck at her sexiest, wrapping Henry Fonda around her little finger. We don’t generally associate Fonda with comedy, but he’s wonderful here as the shy and naïve son of a wealthy family–a man who’d rather study snakes in the Amazon than go into his father’s beer business. He’s the perfect mark for Stanwyck’s card shark.

I’ve seen The Lady Eve many times (I own the DVD), but it’s been 30 years or more since I’d seen it theatrically. And yes, that is the way to see it, with hundreds of other people laughing with you.

The Festival screened The Lady Eve off one of the most film-like DCPs I’ve ever seen. The grain structure was very visible, and there were even some scratches.

Manos Sucias

The 6:45 start time was almost upon us when the SFIFF volunteers finally let the audience into the Kabuki‘s tiny Theater 2. By the time I got into the auditorium, almost all the seats were taken. I got one in the front row, which in this particular auditorium is too close even for me.

But the movie, produced in part by San Francisco Film Society (which also produces this festival), was well worth the wait and the bad seat.

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First-time director Josef Kubota Wladyka uses the thriller formula to examine the society of of rural Colombia, where paramilitary forces and ruthless drug cartels control everything. And yet, somehow, people carry on, loving their families and trying to make the best of things.

Two brothers, barely on speaking terms at first, team up to deliver a very large shipment of cocaine. The coke is contained within a large, old torpedo, and they must tow it, via a small motorboat down river, into the ocean, and up to Panama. The container looks absurd, but it stays underwater and is rarely visible.

Older brother Jacobo (Jarlin Martinez) is stable, but hurting. The warlords killed his wife and son. Younger brother Delio (Cristian Advincula) is full of enthusiasm and hope. He’s only 19, a new father enthusiastically in love with his girlfriend and baby. He’s also an aspiring rapper.

It’s the end of them if they’re caught. But things will be worse if they don’t deliver all of their shipment. In that case, Delio’s family will be killed, as well. The suspense is built into the story, and the last half hour is as harrowing as these things go. The ending is not comforting.

But Manos Sucias does more than hold us in suspense. It shows us how society works in a part of the world rarely visited by outsiders. We see how people live, earn money, and find unique and original ways of transportation.

I’m giving it an A.

Manos Sucias has not yet found an American distributor. But you have two more chances to see it at the festival. It plays tonight (Monday) at 8:30, and Thursday (the last day of the Festival) at 6:00. Both screenings are at the Kabuki.

After Sunday’s screening, Wladyka, producers Elena Greenlee and Márcia Nunes, and cinematographer/co-writer Alan Blanco came up for Q&A. Here are some highlights:

  • How did you ended up shooting a film in Colombia? "I was backpacking in South America. As we were traveling, we were finding hidden beaches and towns under siege. We were told about narco submarines. After that, making a movie about it was always in the back of my mind."
  • On working with the communities: "We had to collaborate with people to get their blessing."
  • Cinematographer Blanco on shooting on a low budget under difficult conditions: "We knew we’d develop material and shoot no matter what…We knew we had to be flexible with weather and such….I don’t recommend shooting on water."
  • On using locations in what’s effectively a warzone: "We had to ask if a location was safe. And safe today didn’t mean safe next week."

Comedy and Popularity: Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman on Blu-ray

It might be possible to watch Harold Lloyd’s 1925 masterpiece, The Freshman, without laughing, or without hoping that the protagonist will win the popularity he so deeply wants. But it wouldn’t be easy. Every shot in this film is brilliantly designed to make you either laugh or care–or both.

Lloyd’s "glasses" character truly came into his own in The Freshman. He’s more than just the brash, clever, ambitious, and opportunistic young American of Safety Last. Here "Harold Lamb" is a naïve college freshman, caught in the tide of peer pressure, desperately wanting to be liked and admired by his fellow students. In his determination to become popular, he unknowingly becomes the class clown. Everyone pretends to like him, but they’re all laughing behind his back.

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How can you watch a story like that and not be moved? This kid has spunk to spare. Even when his ineptitude makes a mess of things, his spirit and fortitude seem admirable.

What’s more, the movie is peppered with brilliant, extended comic sequences–although none top the climax of Lloyd’s Safety Last. Silent comedy, which don’t have to pause for the laughter to die down so that the audience hear the next line, could build one gag on top of another, producing an unstoppable locomotive of laughter. Lloyd was one of the masters of this technique.

Consider the Fall Frolic sequence. Harold is hosting the big party. It’s clearly hurting him financially, but he springs for a tailor-made tuxedo. Unfortunately, the tailor is subject to fainting spells, and has only managed to baste the tux –it’s not properly sewn together. So we have Harold trying to be the life of the party while his guests are secretly laughing at him, his suit is coming apart, and an elderly tailor is sneaking around, trying to fix the disintegrating tux without being seen–and without fainting.

And all the while, the local working girl who loves him looks on, far more aware than Harold of his real status. And his real worth.

I’m not sure if Jobyna Ralston was the best of Lloyd’s leading ladies, or simply the one who was there when Lloyd reached his artistic maturity. She’s not as funny as Mildred Davis, who after Safety Last gave up a career as his on-screen ingénue to become his real-life wife. But Ralston’s on-screen persona seemed both pure and worldly, sexy and motherly. She could deliver a "believe in yourself" pep talk that would save the day–even in a silent movie.

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I suppose I should explain why I called this film "Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman," even though the directing credit goes to Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. Lloyd produced the film, and had complete control. Historians pretty much agree that Lloyd, who never took a directing credit, was the leader of the collaborative team that made his films.

The auteur is not always the director.

First Impression    

imageThis unusually thick three-disc set comes in a cardboard slipcover. The fold-out container inside has a cover designed as the Tate College 1925 yearbook.

Inside, on the left, are two DVDs stacked together. You have to remove disc 1 to access disc 2. On the right, a single Blu-ray disc contains the same content as the DVDs–looking and sounding better, of course.

Also in the box is a thin booklet dominated by an article by Stephen Winer, "Speedy Saves the Day! A Harold Lamb Adventure!" Mostly, this article puts the movie in its’ 1925 context. The booklet also has an "About the Transfer" page and disc credits.

How It Looks

This is one of the best transfers of a silent film I’ve yet seen–for the most part clear and sharp as a tack. Whether the image is pure black-and-white or tinted (the tints are based on instructions that came with the negative), it’s a beauty to behold.

I thought I saw, very briefly, some nitrate deterioration. It went by so fast I’m not entirely sure. (And no, I didn’t go back and look for it. I was enjoying the film too much.)

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How It Sounds

This version comes with a new chamber orchestra score composed and conducted by my favorite silent film accompanist, Carl Davis. Like his Safely Last score, this one is heavily flavored with jazz–appropriate for Lloyd, whose work is so much of the jazz age.

I love Davis’ work, but he made a serious mistake here. The music in the climactic football game was too subdued. It’s an exciting scene that deserves exciting music.

The score is presented in two-track stereo, uncompressed PCM. It sounds great.

Much as I love this score, I wish they had also included Robert Israel’s score from the previous Warner Brother’s release (part of The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, Volume 2). That one, too, is excellent. With silent films, the more scores, the merrier.

And the Extras

No wonder the DVD version comes on two discs. There’s a lot of stuff here.

  • Commentary by film historian Richard Bann, archivist Richard Correll, and critic Leonard Maltin. A bit of a disappointment, especially when you consider how well these three men know the subject. While their talk contains some social and historical insights, the three (who were recorded together) spend too much time explaining what’s onscreen and just enjoying the movie. This extra track is also on the above-mentioned Warner Brothers release.
  • Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life: 30 minutes. In 1966, Lloyd combined a re-edited version of The Freshman with an introduction and some narrated clips from his other films, and called the cobbled-together feature Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life.  This excerpt contains everything in Funny Side of Life except The Freshman. Its only real interest is in seeing how Lloyd marketed his films to a new generation.
  • Short films: I’ve always preferred Lloyd in features than in shorts. Here are the three shorts included in this package:
    • The Marathon: 14 minutes. This early 1919 one-reeler doesn’t provide many laughs. It’s also one of the most racist silent comedies I’ve seen, and that’s saying lot. Piano score by Gabriel Thibaudeau.
    • An Eastern Westerner: (27 minutes). This cute 1920 western parody is easily the best of the three, with a climax that seems to parody Birth of a Nation. Carl Davis’ wonderful score adds to the merriment.
    • High and Dizzy: (27 minutes). Harold gets drunk and walks along a skyscraper’s edge. Moderately funny and historically interesting. Another Carl Davis score.
  • Conversation with Kevin Brownlow and Richard Correll: 40 minutes. Our leading silent film historian and Lloyd’s personal archivist discuss their own initial Lloyd experiences, both in terms of falling in love with his films and getting to know him personally. Interesting and enjoyable.
  • Harold Lloyd: Big Man on Campus:
    16 minutes. John Bengson, who’s written three books on silent comedy locations, discusses where The Freshman was shot.
  • Delta Kappa Alpha Tribute: 29 minutes. In 1964, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts honored Lloyd in a gala event. On stage, Jack Lemmon, Steve Allen, and one-time Lloyd collaborator Delmer Daves ask him about his career. They’re all relaxed and friendly. And Lloyd talks extensively about his work. The best extra on the disc.
  • What’s My Line: (7 minutes) Lloyd appears as the mystery guest in this 1953 TV game show clip. Inconsequential, but fun.

Criterion’s release of The Freshman, containing both DVDs and Blu-ray, go on sale today.

The Producers & Take the Money and Run at the PFA

Friday night I saw a disappointing print of a great movie, and a great print of a disappointing movie. Guess what! I’d rather see a great movie than a great print.

I attended a double bill of late 60′s comedies by first-time American directors, both of whom would become major filmmakers–Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. This was at  the Pacific Film Archive; the opening films in their new series, Jokers Wild: American Comedy, 1960–1989.

(I’m never sure about using the phrase double feature with the PFA, since you have to buy separate tickets for each feature. On the other hand, if you buy tickets for both, the second one costs only $4. Besides, these two really felt like a double bill.)

I’ve never cared all that much for Mel Brooks, but I’ve been a Woody Allen fan since the original Casino Royale in 1967. But Brooks never again did anything else as good as The Producers, while Allen would surpass the quality of Take the Money and Run many times over. (He’s also made films that are considerably worse.)

A The Producers
A desperate has-been Broadway producer (Zero Mostel) and a timid, neurotic accountant (Gene Wilder in his first starring role) plan a bit of larceny that will make them a fortune if the play they produce flops. But if it’s a hit, they’ll go to jail. No wonder the play they’re producing is called Springtime for Hitler.

I can’t imagine the story working without the chemistry of Mostel and Wilder (I haven’t seen the musical remake and I’m not sure I want to). Mostel is a bolt of fat lightning, zooming from one oversized emotion to another, always over the top and yet in a strange way always sympathetic and believable. But while Mostel’s Max Bialystock displays every emotion with the subtlety of a canon, Wilder’s Leo Bloom holds everything in. Timid and frightened, he reacts to the absurdities around him with small yet hysterical facial expressions. Until he explodes. Then he’s bigger than Mostel.

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And yet the movie’s funniest sequence doesn’t depend on either star. The big production number, also called "Springtime for Hitler," manages to parody Busby Berkeley and Nazi iconography. It’s hysterical, but it also says something very true about the thin line between big-budget entertainment and fascist propaganda.

The 35mm print had a slight yellow cast. It wasn’t bad enough to ruin the picture, but it certainly compromised the visuals. From what I’ve read, I’m pretty sure that a yellow cast is a sign of something much worse than a faded print—a faded negative. If I’m right, The Producers is in bad need of a major restoration.

B- Take the Money and Run
When I wrote about Woody Allen’s directorial review in this week’s newsletter, I gave it a B+. I should know better than grade a film I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. Take the Money and Run is a weaker movie than I remembered.

A mock-documentary about a hopelessly-inept criminal named Virgil Starkwell (Allen), it has no real plot and no real character development. This is what I call an anything-goes comedy–one that’s willing to sacrifice plot, character, and any sense of realism for a laugh. There are several great anything-goes comedies, including Duck Soup and Airplane!, but they all provide more laughs than Take the Money and Run.

Which isn’t to say it isn’t funny. Much of it is hilarious. There’s the absurdist job interview sequence, the bank robbery ruined by bad penmanship,  and best of all, the interview with Virgil’s parents, wearing Groucho masks as they argue with each other.

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But for every great scene, there’s two that fall flat. Allen never was a great slapstick comic, and a scene where he struggles with a shirt-folding machine made me long to see what Buster Keaton could have done with that prop. Any many lines, especially those spoken by the very serious-sounding narrator (Jackson Beck) would have worked better in a standup routine.

Before the film, curator Steve Seid discussed the difficulties of acquiring a print of this independent film, now owned by Disney. The print they got–the only one available, apparently–was a rare, archival print. It was gorgeous. The colors leaped off the screen with a deep saturation you rarely see anymore. The movie carries a Technicolor credit, and I’m pretty sure that what I saw was a dye-transfer print. Only Disney or the projectionist could say for sure.

The two movies have an interesting connection: film editor Ralph Rosenblum. By the mid-60s, Rosenblum had been typecast as the editor for New York-based first-time comedy directors. He would spend most of the 70s as Allen’s editor. His memoir, When The Shooting Stops … The Cutting Begins, is worth reading.

Duck Soup Revisited

I watched Duck Soup Sunday at the Pacific Film Archive. Great fun. I don’t remember when I saw it last on a big screen with a real audience. Certainly more than 20 years ago. That’s all very odd, because I just may have seen Duck Soup theatrically more often than any other movie.

I first saw it in a packed theater in LA’s Westwood district, on a Saturday night around 1970 or ’71. It was on a double bill with Horsefeathers, which I had already seen on TV. I fell in love with the Marx Brothers that night, and especially with Duck Soup.

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Over the next twelve years or so, I rarely missed a chance to see my favorite Marx Brothers movie. And there were plenty of chances in those days. Revival movie theaters were doing great business, and the Marx Brothers were big money makers(one LA revival house extended a triple bill of some of their worst movies for several weeks). I could see Duck Soup two or three times a year.

But in the early 80s, parenthood reduced my movie-going habits considerably, and home video all but killed revival cinema. I think I took my son to see it theatrically when he was young, but I’m not sure (neither is he).

In the early days of DVD, I bought a box set containing Animal Crackers, Horsefeathers, and Duck Soup. These were bare-bones discs, with indifferent transfers and no extras. With the ability to see it at my leisure, I pretty much stopped watching Duck Soup. The magic, it seemed, had gone away.

Until Sunday. Watching this great comedy in a theater, with an enthusiastic audience, made it come back to life again. Over the years, I’d forgotten that even the name Rufus T. Firefly gets a laugh. And you barely notice that the mirror scene no sound at all when you’re surrounded by laughter.

The big screen also helps Duck Soup. The movie is filled with mock pageantry, from Groucho’s belated entrance to the "His Excellency’s car!" running gag to the patriotic production number "Freedonia’s Going to War" ("We got guns. They got guns. All God’s chillin got guns").

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This really is one of the screen’s greatest comedies, and The Marx Brothers at their purest and most perfect. What makes so pure and perfect? Two reasons:

First, the Brothers were always at their best when up against the stuffy, respectable protectors of the status quo, and the richest strain of that gold can be found in the halls of government, where Duck Soup is set. Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) becomes absolute ruler of Freedonia, appointed by the wealthy elite (Margaret Dumont). (Harpo and Chico play spies for a rival nation, and Zeppo plays Groucho’s personal secretary.) Groucho encourages graft, refuses to take anything seriously, shortens workers’ lunch hour, and starts a war on a whim. And this film was made before George W. Bush was born. image

Second, it’s the Marx Brothers stripped down to the bare essentials. It lacks a romantic subplot. Screenwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby keep unfunny exposition to the barest minimum. The movie even lacks the usual piano and harp solos. There’s very little here that doesn’t provoke laughter.

Duck Soup is the only Marx Brothers movie helmed by a well-respected comedy director, Leo McCarey. McCarey started his directing career in Laurel and Hardy silents, and it shows. Harpo has always had a knack for pulling odd props out of his coat, but only in Duck Soup does one portable prop–a pair of scissors–become a running gag. And the peanuts vs. lemonade war, with Harpo and Chico making life difficult for slow-burn master Edgar Kennedy, allows those two Brothers to delve into an entirely different kind of comedy without ever losing character.

Having only seen it on DVD for many years, I was beginning to think that Duck Soup might not be the great motion picture I remembered from my youth. Now I know that it’s one of those amazing miracles that the Hollywood system occasionally produces.

Chaplin at the Castro: My Report on a Wonderful Day

On January 11, 1914, a Keystone movie crew drove to Venice–a beach town near Los Angeles–to improvise a comedy around an actual event of modest interest. Only one performer came with the crew–a young British Music Hall comedian recently signed with Keystone. The comic, Charlie Chaplin, quickly put together a costume and makeup, and created the most beloved, endearing, and popular character in the history of cinema. Perhaps in the history of the world.

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Exactly 100 years late, my wife and I spent all day (this past Saturday) in the Castro Theater for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s celebration of The Little Tramp at 100. And a wonderful day it was!

The movies were all projected digitally, but the music was live. So were the enthusiastic audiences.

Before I discuss the three programs screened, I want to talk about that famous imagecharacter, almost universally called The Tramp or The Little Tramp. Although Chaplin stumbled onto the costume and makeup soon after he first stepped in front of a movie camera, it took years of cranking out short subjects to flesh out the image into a human being. The mature Tramp, while desperately poor and surviving on subterfuge and petty theft, has the manners of a gentleman. He’s chivalrous to women, polite to men (when he’s not kicking them), and haughty when appropriate. He may carry a selection of cigarette butts in an old sardine can, but he handles that can like a gold cigarette case.

But he isn’t always horribly poor, and he isn’t always a tramp. He often has a job. Watch his films, and you’ll see him on a farm, working in a pawnshop, waiting tables, tightening bolts on an assembly line, and working in construction. He also occasionally returned to the character that first brought him success on the stage–a rich drunk.

But there’s one thing he never has: a name. A silent movie can easily have a nameless protagonist. In his film’s cast lists, he’s identified as "a factory worker," "an escaped convict," "a lone prospector," "a derelict," and–most frequently–"a tramp."

Here’s what I saw Saturday.

Our Mutual Friend: Three Chaplin Shorts

Over a period of 18 months in 1916 and ’17, Chaplin made twelve two-reel shorts for the Mutual Film Corporation. These represent his best work in short subjects–more mature than the Keystone and Essanay shorts that proceeded them, but without the artistic pretentions that sometimes mar the later First Nationals.

The Festival made an excellent choice in the three Mutual shorts it screened–and not only because they were all very funny. The first, "The Vagabond," is an early experiment into the sentimentality that would become a Chaplin specialty. The second, "Easy Street," may be Chaplin’s first experiment in social criticism, getting laughs in a story that deals with grinding poverty, violent street fights, battered wives, and drug addiction. "The Cure" is arguably the funniest Mutual. It’s also an excellent example of his rich drunk character.

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Serge Bromberg has recently restored the Mutuals, and his Lobster Films provided the DCP for this screening. "The Vagabond" looked so good it was a revelation; the image was so clear I felt like I was in those locations. "Easy Street’s" image quality wasn’t anywhere near as good, but it was certainly acceptable. "The Cure" was quite good–better than "Easy Street," but not the revelation of "The Vagabond."

Jon Mirsalis provided musical accompaniment on the Castro’s grand piano. He did an excellent job. The Tramp plays the violin (as did Chaplin himself off-screen) in "The Vagabond," and Mirsalis made you hear it through his piano.

The Kid

The middle show didn’t start with the main feature.

First, the Festival offered something common in the 1920s–a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like contest. Most of the contestants were children, and yes, they were adorable. The judging was done by audience applause.

Chaplin lookalikes

Next, they screened the very first movie with the character later called The Tramp: "Kid Auto Races in Venice, Cal." Running only about five minutes, it might today be called a found footage movie. A camera crew tries to record a children’s car race, but this little man with a toothbrush moustache keeps stepping in front of the camera and ruining the shot. And yes, it’s very funny.

It’s also a filmed record of the Tramp’s first audience. Once he became famous, Chaplin couldn’t shoot a movie with a real crowd; he had to hire extras. But here, people in the background look quizzically at this odd man getting in the way of the camera crew. They soon figure out that he’s intentionally funny, and they enjoy the show..

A century later, we’re still laughing at Charlie Chaplin.

Jon Mirsalis accompanied this screening on piano. The movie was projected off of a very good  35mm print–the only analog projection of the day.

Author and Chaplin expert Jeffrey Vance introduced the contest, the short, and the feature.

That feature is Chaplin’s first, The Kid. Although it was many wonderful sequences, it’s actually my least favorite if Chaplin’s five silent (and almost silent) feature comedies. This story of the Tramp raising a child, and fighting to keep him, occasionally falls to deeply into sentimentality. And the dream sequence near the end never worked well for me–despite a few laughs. It’s always felt like padding.

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On the other hand, when The Kid is good, and that’s most of the time, it’s terrific. The Tramp’s early attempts to not take responsibility for an abandoned baby are side-splittingly funny, as are the domestic scenes of unorthodox child-rearing. And the chase across the rooftops manages to be heart-breaking, suspenseful, and hilarious at the same time.

Chaplin recut The Kid in 1921, and that’s the version shown. The changes, as I understand it, were minor. I’ve never seen the original.

Visually, The Kid was the big disappointment of the day. It looked awful, showing the harsh lack of detail that comes when you project standard-definition video onto a large screen. I suspect we saw a DVD, or a DCP made from a DVD master. I can accept that no one has yet spent the time and money required to convert the The Kid to theater-quality digital. But couldn’t the Chaplin estate have loaned the Festival a 35mm print?

Before I discuss the musical accompaniment by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, I need to disclose a conflict of interest. My wife played First Viola with this orchestra for many years. We know a lot of musicians.

For Saturday’s screenings, the Orchestra played Chaplin’s own score, written for the 1971 re-release. (In addition to being an actor, writer, producer, and director, he was also a composer.) Timothy Brock, who has been working with the Chaplin estate to adapt the filmmaker’s scores for live performance, conducted.

The small orchestra sounded great. I have only one complaint–and the fault lies with Chaplin, not Brock or the Orchestra. For the above-mentioned rooftop chase, Chaplin wrote a soft, sentimental, romantic piece. It hurts both the suspense and the humor.

The Gold Rush

The day closed with Chaplin’s epic comic adventure, The Gold Rush, and if you’re presenting Chaplin with live music, nothing could beat that. Here you’ll find some of Chaplin’s funniest set pieces, including the Thanksgiving dinner of boiled shoe, the dance of the rolls, and my favorite–the fight over the rifle that always points at Chaplin. All within the context of a powerful and touching story of love and survival.  You can read about the film itself in my Blu-ray Review, and my report on seeing it with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (as opposed to the Chamber one).

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So I’ll go right to Saturday night’s presentation. The image quality was uneven, which is hardly surprising for a restoration that’s being called a work in progress. But most of it looked very good, and none of it looked dreadful. Considering the film’s history (see that Blu-ray Review for details), it’s amazing that The Gold Rush looked as good as it did.

Once again, Timothy Brock conducted the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra in his own adaptation of Chaplin’s score. It’s one of Chaplin’s best scores, and Brock did a great job adapting it for the longer silent version and for a smaller orchestra. In other words, I loved this accompaniment.

And it improved upon earlier performances of the score. Brock’s recording of this score on the Blu-ray lacks the musically-created sound effects that are a big part of silent film accompaniment. I’m glad to say he fixed that problem Saturday night. The orchestra provided gunshots, hand clapping, and a strange, whale-like sound for a cabin teetering on the edge.

I do have one complaint about how the festival was managed. A huge number of seats in the center section were reserved before the audience was allowed into the theater. And it wasn’t always clear which seats were reserved. My wife and I picked seats that were not marked as such, but staff members asked us to move because the seats were, in fact, reserved. Then they told us that we could move back. The reserved seats next to us were empty for the first two shows.

But despite the seating shenanigans, I couldn’t imagine a better place to have spent an overcast and drizzly day. Or even a nice one.

Music, Fame, and American Insanity: My Blu-ray review of Robert Altman’s Nashville

For an all-too-brief time in the 1970s, the Hollywood studios financed and released serious art. They greenlit films without likeable heroes, clearly-defined villains, or conventional, three-act plots.

They even financed Robert Altman, who did his best work during that time. And Nashville was unquestionably one of his best. It’s tragic, funny, thoughtful, and filled with interesting and entertaining characters. It’s a realistic slice of life, an over-the-top melodrama, and an absurdist comedy. As is appropriate considering the titular city, the film is filled with great music. And amazingly, it all works.

In lieu of a conventional plot, Nashville follows a lot of different people, all with some overlapping connection to each other, as they go about their business in country music’s home town. In the course of the film’s long running time (160 minutes), Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury introduce us to famous singers, obscure singers, one horrible singer, businessmen, and a politician whom we never actually see, but whose voice we hear constantly over loudspeakers.

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And Altman–a director that every actor wanted to work with–put together one of the most impressive casts in movie history. And almost everyone got to play a fully-developed character and show their acting chops.

And their singing chops. Laugh-in veteran Henry Gibson and 70′s icon Karen Black play big music stars. Not only do they sing in the film–and sing very well–they wrote their own songs.

I can’t discuss everyone who stands out in Nashville, but here are some of my favorite characters:

Lily Tomlin plays a devoted wife and mother, a religious Christian, and the only white person in a Gospel choir. But she has something to hide, and that something–or perhaps I should say someone–comes back to town.

Like Gibson and Black, Ronee Blakley plays a big country western star. But she’s been away for a while; and she is very much not well. Her public loves her, but that love may slide as she mentally deteriorates.

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Keith Carradine plays a singer/songwriter who enjoys being irresistible to women (and not much else). In one scene in a bar, Carradine sings the song "I’m Easy" (which he wrote), and four different women think he’s singing about them.

Geraldine Chaplin plays an astonishingly inept BBC reporter (if she really is a BBC reporter), with a knack for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Chaplin proves herself an excellent comedian, which is hardly surprising considering her father.

Also worth noting is Ned Beatty’s businessman, Shelley Duvall’s groupie, Keenan Wynn as a man with a sick wife, and both Barbara Harris and Gwen Welles as hopeful singers. Two actors who would become famous in the following decade, Scott Glenn and Jeff Goldblum, turn up in many scenes with little explanation..

Tewkesbury’s script finds many ways to bring all of the characters together. There’s a triumphant return at the Nashville Airport, the aftermath of a car accident, and several concerts. Many of the characters know each other and their lives overlap in various ways, but they all have their own separate stories.

Altman was not the first filmmaker to use this type of multithreaded narrative. To my knowledge, Agnès Varda did it first in La Pointe Courte (like Nashville, named after the place the story is set). Kurosawa did it in Dodes’ka-den. And even George Lucas did it in American Graffiti. But Altman did it so often that it became one of his trademarks. And his first time, in Nashville, he did it best.

First Impression

imageThe dead-tree parts of the package–the cardboard slip cover, the outside of the disc holder, and the small booklet–are treated to look like old, yellowed pulp paper. The booklet contains credits for the film and the transfer, and an article by Molly Haskell.

Following Criterion’s current policy, the package offers the same content on DVD and Blu-ray. Because of all the extras, this requires three discs–two DVDs and one Blu-ray. Only a Blu-ray can hold both the movie and the extras–and have bookmarking features that DVD doesn’t support.

I do wish, however, that the package contained one other disc: the soundtrack album CD. This movie has some great songs.

How It Looks

Great. The Nashville Blu-ray has the look of the original movie–a 1970′s Hollywood film shot in anamorphic Panavision and Eastmancolor. The film doesn’t look razor sharp, but it was never intended to look that way. This was always–and I assume intentionally–a soft-focus movie. The colors are spot-on. The film grain is there if you look for it, but it’s not distracting.

How It Sounds

When I looked at the box, I was disappointed to read that it sports only a 5.1 surround soundtrack. Nashville was originally released in four-track magnetic stereo, and I was hoping that Criterion would recreate that original mix in 4.0 surround–as they did for High and Low.

But after watching the film and listening to the lossless MTS HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, I can’t complain. It sounded great, and had that "Wow! This is in stereo!" effect that movies had before Dolby made the whole thing ubiquitous. I suspect it was very close to the original mix, with maybe a little bit of barely-noticeable split surrounds and subwoofer lows.

And the Extras

  • Commentary track by Robert Altman: As I write this, I’ve only gone through about half of this. Altman has some interesting things to say, mostly about his seat-of-the-pants working methods, but he doesn’t seem to have enough to say, overall. He pauses a lot, often for long stretches.
  • The Making of Nashville: This new, high-def documentary by Criterion runs for 71 minutes. Cast members and other collaborators talk about Altman and the movie. Easily the best extra on the disc.
  • Robert Altman Interviews: Three different TV interviews, from 1975, 2000, and 2002. About 40 minutes total. Although there’s some repetition, all three are worth watching.
  • Behind the Scenes: 12 minutes. Footage shot during production, specifically of the traffic jam sequences and the big closing concert. Bad video, no sound. The little bit I saw wasn’t interesting.
  • Keith Carradine Demo: 12 minutes His three songs, recorded in Altman’s LA office. 12 minutes. Audio with photos to give us something to look at. Really rough.
  • Trailer: 2 minutes

Nashville is one of the great American films of the 1970s. Criterion has done it justice. The disc goes on sale next Tuesday, December 3.

Comic Perfection: My Blu-ray Review of City Lights

A great comedy seamlessly mixes a good story, an intelligent observation on the human condition, and a lot of laughs. Everything works together, and only on the third or fourth viewing do you become aware of how the filmmakers balanced all these ingredients, so that the gags and the emotional reality compliment each other instead of clashing. And even after all those viewings, you still laugh–and sometimes cry.

Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece,City Lights, must rank amongst the greatest comedies ever made. In no other film did the three elements of Chaplin’s work–slapstick comedy, pathos, and social commentary–mix so effortlessly. As his tramp romances and deceives a blind flower girl, and befriends a rich drunk, everything works perfectly.

Speaking of rich drunks, before he became the Little Tramp, Chaplin won fame on the British Music Hall stage playing just that role. He revised the part in several of his shorts, including "The Idle Class." This time, rather than playing the part himself, he hired Harry Myers, who carries the assignment well. It’s a difficult role, but Myers (pretty much forgotten except for City Lights) is up to it. When he’s drunk, he’s boisterous, generous, friendly, and embraces the Tramp as his best friend, although he sometimes turns suicidal. When he’s sober (which pretty much means he’s hung-over), he’s remote, angry, and doesn’t recognize the Tramp.

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Myers proves an excellent comic foil for Chaplin–no easy feat for anyone. In their comic scenes together, he matches Chaplin’s razor-sharp timing; the two work together like pieces of a clock.

Also central to the story is the Tramp’s relationship with the blink flower girl (Virginia Cherrill, who, like Myers, is only remembered for this film). The sound of a car door closing (which we don’t hear) makes her assume that the Tramp is a millionaire, and he plays along with the charade.

If she could see his ragged clothes, of course, she would know better. Some of the best gags in the movie revolve around his deception backfiring on him.

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Chaplin filled City Lights great, one-off gags and brilliant, extended comedy sequences as tightly choreographed as ballet. Consider Myers’ first scene, when the Tramp saves the millionaire from a suicide attempt and they both end up in the river. Or the boxing match where the Tramp, desperate to win money for the girl,  fights a man far stronger than himself.

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City Lights is both Chaplin’s first sound film and his penultimate silent. During the more than two years he spent working on it, the American silent cinema died, and the theaters fired all of their musicians. Chaplin, already the producer, director, writer, and star of his films, became the composer as well, creating a score that makes up the entire soundtrack.

He also created two sequences that are completely dependent on sound effects–scenes that would not have worked in a truly silent film. One of these, the film’s opening, manages to  lampoon both talking pictures and pompous dignitaries.

The film’s closing, which requires no sound effects, is probably the most emotionally-charged close-up in the history of cinema.

First Impression

imageFollowing Criterion’s new policy, the City Lights package contains both a Blu-ray and a DVD. Their contents are identical–or at least as identical as they can be considering the obvious advantages of Blu-ray.

The cover sports a cartoon of Chaplin smelling a flower. Inside the case, in addition to the discs, you’ll find a 40-page booklet. The bulk of the pages contain two large articles on Chaplin’s work. It also contains credits for the film and the transfer.

The discs themselves are stacked one on top of the other. I don’t like this increasingly common configuration. You have to take out the top disc and put it somewhere safe to play the bottom one.

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Like all Criterion Blu-ray discs, this one has a timeline, so you can bookmark favorite moments. When you insert the disc for anything other than the first time, it will ask if you want to start where you left off.

How Does It Look

The first thing you’ll likely notice is how narrow the image looks. City Lights was originally screened in the early talkie aspect ratio of 1.19×1. It looks almost square.

General sharpness and detail are fine, if not exceptional by Blu-ray standards. I’ve seen better transfers from films of this vintage.

How Does It Sound

Criterion presents Chaplin’s original soundtrack in uncompressed PCM mono. This is probably as good as it sounded with he signed off on it in the mixing stage. Maybe better.

Criterion didn’t include the Carl Davis modern-day re-recording of the score that came on the first DVD. I believe that the Chaplin estate blocked it. That doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

And the Extras

A lot of supplements here. This is, after all, Criterion.

  • Audio commentary by Jeffrey Vance. As I write this, I haven’t had a chance to listen to it.
  • Chaplin Today: "City Lights": This 27-minute documentary on the film was directed by Serge Bromberg. Although it covers some "making of" stuff, it mostly concentrates on why the film is so good. Aardman Animations’ Peter Lord offers some excellent insight into the art of physical comedy and how Chaplin fit into British stage tradition.
  • Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom By Design: 16 minutes. Made and narrated by visual effects expert Craig Barron, this short discusses Chaplin’s working methods, concentrating on City Lights but not exclusively so. There’s a lot here about art direction and sets, and why Chaplin avoided locations.
  • From the Set of City Lights: About 18 minutes. Outtakes, deleted scenes, rehearsal footage, and so on. No music.
  • The Champion: 10-minute excerpt from an early Chaplin short which, like one scene in City Lights, takes place in a boxing ring. Music by Robert Israel.
  • Boxing Stars Visit the Studio: 5 minutes. No sound.
  • Trailers.

Charles S. Chaplin was one of the cinema’s greatest artists. This is his best film. What else can I say?

My Thoughts on Fargo

Saturday night, my wife and I showed Fargo to another couple. About half an hour in, immediately after the first set of grisly murders, one of our guests asked "Why are we watching this?" After it was over, she asked us why we thought it was a great film.

I never thought I’d have to defend Fargo. But it’s worth defending. Many motion pictures have dealt with issues of good and evil. But few have dealt with them as thoughtfully, as vividly, and as entertainingly as Fargo.

The following includes spoilers. I’m writing this on the assumption that you have already seen Fargo. If you haven’t, stop reading. Or better yet, see it ASAP (really, it’s worth it) and then return and read.

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Within the context of a darky comic film noir, set against bleak snowscapes (just watching this movie makes you feel cold), the Coen brothers juxtapose good and evilimage as a matter of character. Easily the most evil character in story, the large, hulking and sulking, violent Gaear (Peter Stormare) is totally withdrawn into himself. His partner Carl (Steve Buscemi) complains of four hours without a word spoken. And this is a man who can kill in cold blood, without even a thought that he might feel remorse.

At the other end of the moral scale, Marge (Frances McDormand) is fully connected to imagethe people and society around her. She’s pregnant (giver of life while Gaear takes it away), and happily married to an easygoing artist who clearly adores her. A small-town police chief, Marge has a way of putting people at ease. When an old boyfriend makes a clumsy pass at her, she lets him down in a way that doesn’t even acknowledge the pass. She starts out seeing the best in everyone, but is nobody’s fool.

It’s fitting that late in the film, Marge gives Gaear, now handcuffed in the back of her car, a lecture on right and wrong. "There’s more to life than just money." He sits there, poker-faced and apparently unmoved. I’d hate to be his prison cellmate.

Other characters fall in between them on the moral scale, but most veer towards evil (this is, after all, primarily noir). With the film’s most interesting character, Jerry (William H. imageMacy in a performance that made his career) the Coens show us how evil begins. We’re never told what exactly put him in such horrible economic straights that he’d contrive to kidnap his own wife to extort his father-in-law, but we get the general idea. He’s self-centered, stupid, and cowardly. If he had Marge’s backbone, he would have gone to his wife and explained his situation. If he had had Marge’s brain, he wouldn’t have gotten into whatever fix he was in. But since he is who he is, he concocts an idiotic scheme that will end in disaster.

A large part of Fargo’s pleasure comes from watching Jerry self-destruct. The "mastermind" behind the kidnapping plan, he sees everything go wrong and his entire life fall apart. Six people are murdered in the course of the story, and he’s indirectly responsible for every single one of them.

in addition to character, the Coens play brilliantly with tone and genre. At first, Fargo seems simply a darkly comic thriller. The early kidnapping scene manages to be both horrifying and funny. The comic timing separates you emotionally from the violent act, and almost makes you root for the kidnappers (but not quite).

Then, as almost always happens in noir, the crime goes wrong. Gaear calmly kills a highway patrolman and two bystanders. The violence is gruesome and horrifying, Gaear’s utter lack of remorse–or any emotion–makes it even worse. Suddenly, we’re in a terrifyingly dark and violent film.

Fade out. Fade in.

Then we meet Marge for the first time, in bed with her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch). Note the name the Coen’s gave him: Norm. He’s normal. Actually, he’s better than normal. When his wife gets a call in the wee hours of the morning, he insists on getting up first and making her breakfast. Marge and Norm are funny characters. We laugh at their eating habits (Arby’s) and their small-town Minnesota accents. (Of course, we laugh at everyone’s Minnesota accents. The Coens, Minnesotans themselves, know how to milk laughs out of white people talking funny.)

But we also admire this couple–especially Marge. Introduced immediately after Fargo’s darkest moment, she becomes the film’s primary shaft of light. When things look darkest, the Coen’s cut back to her, and we enjoy her humor, her empathy, and her ability to see through the bullshit that everyone throws at her.

She is, in a sense, a small-town, pregnant Columbo–the working-class cop who nails the bad guys with one more question.

And in the end, she arrests the baddest bad guy in Minnesota, returns home to her husband, and compliments on his painting.

The world is full of evil, but there’s a lot of good, too. At least sometimes, it prevails.

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