Report from the trenches: Slapsticon 2013

I used to say that Slapsticon was the most wonderful time of the year—but then last year it didn’t happen at all.

It’s like Christmas was canceled.  So its return this year is doubly sweet—it’s the most wonderful time of two years!

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For the uninitiated, Slapsticon is a putatively-annual four-day classic film convention dedicated to slapstick (mostly silent) comedy.  But that doesn’t properly describe it—it’s unlike any other classic film fest I’ve ever encountered.  For one thing, it’s all movies.  Other fests are mostly dealers’ rooms with an ancillary screening room attached.  Slapsticon allows its luminaries to hawk their own books and DVDs, but 99% of the thing is a bunch of film geeks packed into a screening room.

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Harold Lloyd’s Marathon

This past week TCM debuted a package of rare Harold Lloyd films from 1917-1919, including one especially eye-opening treat, The Marathon. Of all the thrilling discoveries shown that night, this was the one that quickened my pulse the most.

For those who missed it, let me show you a clip to set the stage for the discussion that follows:

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Yup, it’s the mirror gag, made famous by the Marx Brothers in Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup:

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Mission critical Harold Lloyd

This week TCM debuts some super-rare Harold Lloyd shorts from the early years of his career.  I cannot overstate the significance of this find.

I was asked by TCM to write some material for the web site to introduce Harold Lloyd in general and some of these shorts in particular, but the specific remit of that assignment was kind of limiting, so I have a lot else to say about these films that didn’t fit into the website content.  But hey—I have a blog!

Harold Lloyd, Film Land's Famous Comedian

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Dreams of a Rare Artistic Fiend

While we’re on the topic of great animators, it’s well past time I got around to saying a few words about Winsor McCay.

He’s rightly hailed as one of the early pioneers of animated cartoons. You can’t call him the creator of cartoons–not only did others get there a little before he did, but really, every single movie ever made is animation. Real life proceeds seamlessly, continuously, while movies sample intermittent fragments. Live action takes samples at the same rate at which the resulting sequence of stills is going to replayed–the interstitial moments can be safely ignored. But anytime you extend that interstitial gap, and replay the footage at a different rate than that at which it was taken, you are invoking the principle of animation. This is the gimmick that underlies Melies’ trickery as much as it is the way that drawings can come to life.

But that didn’t stop McCay from staking out a claim for himself as the first cartoonist in his 1911 movie debut, Winsor McCay the Famous Cartoonist of the NY Herald and His Moving Comics.

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The Human Splice

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring competing claims on the creation of movies.  The Lumière brothers hold a sizeable claim, for having pioneered the exhibition model that became the norm–and even if modern trends are moving back towards the Edison-style intimacy of one-movie-one-viewer, the bulk of film history belongs to the Lumière tradition.  I’ve also given props to Louis LePrince for his role in innovating the technology by which movies are recorded, even if he doesn’t get the credit for that.

But if we talk about the creation of movies as being all about the technology of cinema, or the business models of exhibition and distribution, we leave out the heart of the matter–it is the content of movies that enthralls audiences and creates shared dreams.  And if we want to talk about who pioneered what movies ought to be about, then it’s time to talk about George Méliès.

Melies fat head

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The Spring Lineup

Before delving into some highlights for my upcoming calendar film program, which has everything from singing cannibals and Robby the Robot to sex addicts and Pam Grier (in-person!)… I’d like to back-track a little. In my last post I wrote that the venues where I screen films were akin to a leaky rowboat. While this statement remains essentially true, especially when we are compared to any state-of-the-art dedicated film theater, I would like to amend the metaphor a bit. In retrospect, I feel it would be more accurate to say that the film series I program is more like the Orca boat commandeered by Robert Shaw in Jaws. It’s big enough to chase large game, but you still can’t help wishing you had a bigger boat – especially when you get a clear glimpse of the challenge ahead. When I previously said that we do a lot with very little, the “we” in that statement referred to the small crew that has kept this particular boat from becoming an artificial coral reef on the ocean floor, and this despite staying afloat long past its expiration date.  [...MORE]

Louis LePrince Takes a Fall

The inventor steps aboard the train, and loads the packing crates that contain his most wondrous device.  It will revolutionize the world.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is the very birth of the modern age.  The inventor takes his seat—it will be a few hours from Leeds to Paris, his old homeland.  Although the inventor has been living and working in England, he is French in his blood, and it is in France that he must tie up some last loose ends.

The competition has been fierce.  He has not been alone in working on such a device.  His is still embryonic and needs improvement—and the idiots at the patent office have fundamentally misunderstood his creation.  Sorting out that mess will take time and tact, he thinks to himself.  But he can content himself with the knowledge that he is first.  He will be rich and famous.  The future belongs to him.

But he never gets off the train.

Instead, it arrives in Paris without him, and he will never be seen again.  The authorities will search high and low for clues, but the mystery will never be solved.  And in the confusion following his disappearance, much of his equipment will also disappear.  His legacy will go to others, with more money and power, and his name will fade from the history books altogether.

 It is the kind of sensational tragedy that filmmakers like Louis Feuillade will make their names depicting.  Pulp films for generations hereafter would find inventors, bankers, and other keepers of valuable prizes attacked on trains.  Why, this will be the bread and butter of the nascent film industry in just a couple of decades.  But not yet.  We are only in 1890 at this point, five years before the first public screening of a motion picture show—the movies don’t yet really exist, and Feuillade is just a pimply teenager.  What we have just seen is no fiction, because whatever it is that happened to Louis Le Prince actually happened.  Ironically, his invention… well, it was the movies.

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Rare Exports

“I didn’t know you could mix Santa Claus and horror movies,” my son Max told me this morning (y’all met him last week when he guest blogged on my behalf). He was referring specifically to his and my current obsession, a movie that has been inaugurated as a holiday viewing tradition in our home: Jalmari Helander’s looney cult flick Rare Exports.

Never heard of it? Well — as Max said, it is a (mildly gory) horror movie about Santa Claus.

Scary Santa

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Langdon vs. Capra

The comments section to last week’s post developed a thread regarding the legacy of Harry Langdon, a comedian dear to my heart. Some of y’all said what I was going to say already, but nevertheless I feel it incumbent on me to step forward and explain my own position more clearly in this space. I haven’t really written about Langdon here in part because I wanted my work on the Harry Langdon DVD box to serve as my word on the subject, but also because I realize that Langdon is a love-him-or-hate-him performer, and I don’t like to argue about opinions. If you don’t care for Langdon, that’s not something that’s open to debate.

The comments thread was initiated by Jeff H. who asserted this position:

Langdon relied more on his team of people like Frank Capra and Harry Edwards, without realizing that the character that made him so beloved was created for him, not by him. If you want proof of that, watch THE STRONG MAN, with Capra and his team then watch THREE’S A CROWD, which Langdon made after he fired Capra-there is no comparison. 

That’s more a question of fact, not opinion, and it’s worth digging into it in more detail.

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The 2011 Migrating Forms Festival

For the Migrating Forms festival, now in its third year at Anthology Film Archives, a moving image is a moving image. Whether it’s a supercut on YouTube or a gallery installation, programmers Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry have their antenna up for playful, provocative work regardless of origin. This edition, concluded on Sunday night, presented films and videos from 49 artists from 15 countries, along with 12 retrospective screenings and one-off events. It’s impossible to reduce this multiplicity of material (culled from museums and film festivals and viral videos), into a unified theme, but it’s this very impossibility that gives Migrating Forms its vibrancy and its mission.

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