Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bank of America Cinema RIP/Babes in Toyland (1934)

Sad times last night as the Saturday Classic Film Series ends its run at the Bank of America Cinema. But happy times too since the Northwest Chicago Film Society will continue the series on Wednesdays at Portage Theater (4050 N. Milwaukee Ave.) with Written on the Wind in 35MM on February 16th. I'm embarrassed to admit that this was the first (and last) time I was at the Bank of America Cinema, especially after making the mistake of paging through their final schedule (I missed Sirk's Meet Me at the Fair on film?!?!). But anyone who failed to attend last night missed something remarkable.

Understandably, the lovers of cinema who kept this series going since 1971 (!) did not want to let go. So after the feature they raised the lights a tad, invited the audience to the lobby for free cupcakes, and then allowed the diehards to remain seated for some odds and ends that comprised one of the most singular and moving cinematic experiences I've ever had.

First, an Elvis vehicle in Scope, Roustabout (1964), but just one reel of it (!) (basically corresponding to this chunk here). He was still pretty punky even this late in the game and it featured a surprisingly decent song called "Wheels on My Heels" (oh and Barbara Stanwyck - what the hell was she doing in this??).

Then a National Film Board of Canada short, Dance Squared (Danse carrée, René Jodoin, 1961), that recalls the visual music experiments of Oskar Fischinger, Mary Ellen Bute, etc. Peep it here.

And then...something I can't youtube (ha!) - train training footage found by a local film enthusiast (right?) named James Bond (!). No titles. No sound. Just footage. The camera was mounted on the front of a train and filmed about 20 minutes of a ride (akin to Billy Bitzer's NYC subway footage). Presumably someone learning how to drive (is that the correct word?) a train would watch this footage in tandem with some sort of simulator. It reminded me of driver's ed sitting in mock cars which were (very poorly) synced to an ancient computer and even more ancient driver's ed films in order to test your ability to slam on the breaks along with the character on screen (gawd that was weird!). An exceedingly surreal way to end the evening/series, it winnowed the audience down its appreciative essence, to paraphrase J. Hoberman's on Jack Smith. The projectionist played some Hank Williams (which worked beautifully with the footage) and then some Beach Boys (much less so) which helped ease the film's de facto avant-garde impact...somewhat. As each song ended, our deep-seated knowledge of cinema conventions expected the footage to end along with it. But on it kept rolling, instilling more and more delirium in...well, at least me. I loved the shit out of it, particularly those Warholian, Peek-A-Boo For Adults moments that imbue minor changes with seismic significance ("Look! A man is waving!"). And I sincerely hope each trainee was able to avoid the oncoming train by switching to the track on the right.

I'd never seen the feature, Babes in Toyland, a children's musical directed by Gus Meins (who?) and Charley Rogers (who?) with music by Victor Herbert and starring Laurel and Hardy. Meins and Rogers were apparently afraid of analytical editing. Even in the dialogue scenes, they rarely cut to a close-up or indulged in shot-reverse shots. But all the better to show off the nursery rhyme sets. And the music was much less florid than I anticipated, especially "Don't Cry Bo-Beep."

The (stop motion?) 100 six-foot toy soldiers (not the 600 one-foot models Santa ordered) got some ooh and aahs. Oddly enough, on the bus ride over, I read an essay that had some bearing on this scene, Kristen Whissel's typically brilliant "The Digital Multitude" from the Summer 2010 issue of Cinema Journal (also check out her fantastic book Picturing American Modernity: Traffic, Technology, and the Silent Cinema). "The Digital Multitude" analyzes CGI masses in contemporary Hollywood film and how they're often positioned as a sea of enemies who will bring an end to the current chapter of history if the good guys fail to stop them. Describing their look and narrative function, she writes "(their) radical uniformity of appearance signals the subordination of each individual's actions and desires to a single, shared objective: to facilitate the rise of a new, oppressive power" (103-4). But in Babes in Toyland, the radically uniform toy soliders are enlisted to save Toyland from the evil Silas Barnaby and the equally uniform but much more freely moving bogeymen. So it'd be useful to see if the stop motion multitude in classical Hollywood cinema functioned to less oppressive ends overall.

Still, despite such special effects, I had trouble grasping the film's prestige level. Was this an A picture? The sets were elaborate but a bit chitzy nonetheless. Maybe I just couldn't distinguish it from the rather creepy Castle Films shorts that preceded it such as Suzy Snowflake (who?).

Finally, before the feature, a masterful Laurel and Hardy short I'd never seen. Big Business (James W. Horne and Leo McCarey, 1929) got off to a stiff start but quickly turned into something waaaay punker than Elvis.


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