David Shepard (1940-2017)

David Shepard.

“It cannot be stressed too strongly that the sound motion picture was an entirely different medium from the silent motion picture, and not merely the extension of it,” William K. Everson wrote in his groundbreaking 1978 history American Silent Film. “The difference between the two media is literally the difference between painting and photography, and the frequent unreality — or stylized reality — of much of the camerawork of the silent film was, artistically, one of its greatest assets.” Nor is this all. The silent film also required, ironically, a more naturalistic and nuanced performance style from its performers; from its audiences, it required (and still requires) a new way of viewing, a close attention to the visual. In the sound film, dialogue cues might fill you in if you look away or are distracted for a moment. The silent film requires a studied intention to see. To be a silent film enthusiast is to be an advocate for a unique art form that retains, even (and maybe especially) now, remarkable pleasures and aesthetic experiences. But, strange as it may seem, contemporary appreciation of silent films doesn’t begin to approach the contemporary appreciation of literature, music, and visual art of the same period — from 1895 to about 1930.

Anyone who appreciates the unique appeal of silent film will be sorry to hear of the passing of film preservationist David Shepard earlier this week. Shepard made it his life’s work to collect, preserve, restore, and disseminate (as widely as he could) the first thirty years of American film history. He, along with Martin Scorsese and Kevin Brownlow, was one of the major figures who recognized the immense historical and continuing value of these films.

Shepard began his career at the American Film Institute, which was started in part to preserve the American film heritage, in 1968. Later, he joined Blackhawk Films, a company that distributed classic films to the home market in 8mm and 16mm formats; following the closure of the company, he acquired both its restoration technology and its film catalog, which included films by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and many many others. In more recent years, Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates worked closely with Kino Lorber, Lobster Films, and Flicker Alley to ensure that the restoration and dissemination of these films continued. Realizing that mere archival restoration wasn’t enough, he worked assiduously to keep these films in front of the public eye. A partial list of the hundreds of films that Shepard had a hand in restoring can be found here.

Shepard kept a low profile; he never published any books, and Film Preservation Associates never even had a web site; Scorsese (obviously) and Brownlow (who produced many documentaries himself and wrote several historical studies) were much better known to the public, but all three knew and admired each’s efforts. His enthusiasm never wavered, however, and many have paid tribute to his achievements and advocacy for silent film, as this and this demonstrate. An obituary from the Hollywood Reporter can be found here, but this interview from 2000 at digitallyobsessed.com has a wealth of other information. An appropriate moment of silence, then, for one of the heroes of American film history.

Everybody has their reasons

Parasites: Jean Renoir as Octave and Julien Carette as Marceau in The Rules of the Game.

Jean Renoir’s 1939 satire of Europe on the eve of the Second World War, The Rules of the Game, should be on most people’s lists of the best movies ever made. A rare chance to see it in its full 35mm big-screen glory comes to Metrograph on the Lower East Side this weekend. The showing at 7.00pm on Saturday night features a discussion with cineaste Peter Bogdanovich and Renoir biographer Pascal Merigeau; this showing is sold out, but two others follow on Sunday.

Renoir’s conception of society as a farcical merry-go-round of casual violence coated with a very thin but necessary veneer of manners and morals speaks to America in the 2010s as much as it did to Paris in the late 1930s. (If it speaks to us at all, that is; it was banned by the French government in 1939 as being “depressing, morbid, immoral [and] having an undesirable influence over the young.”) The Prophets Without Honor Department also reports that the film was only available in a cruelly truncated version until the late 1950s, when The Rules of the Game was finally restored to a version close to Renoir’s original intent.

Is it still depressing, morbid, and immoral? Will it still have an undesirable influence over the young? Find out this weekend. Tickets and more information about the Metrograph screenings are here.

Burglars singing in the cellar

Redeemed by the love of a daughter: Mary Brian as Hope and W.C. Fields as her father Ambrose in Man on the Flying Trapeze

Christmas Day 2016 will be the 70th anniversary of W.C. Fields‘ death, and to mark the occasion Metrograph will present a screening of one of his best films, the 1935 Man on the Flying Trapeze, on Thursday, December 29, at 7.00pm (with special guests to be announced; it’s a part of the FieldsFest that’s been going on for the past few months, spearheaded by popular entertainment expert Trav S.D.). Trapeze, according to Metrograph, is “a pure poem of domestic desperation,” as are two other films that Fields made around the same period, You’re Telling Me and It’s a Gift. (We’ll take the plot details of Trapeze as read.) The latter has come to be regarded as one of Fields’ greatest films, but all three together form an informal trilogy of satires about small-town American life that must be considered Fields’ greatest achievement.

It’s hard to imagine Albert Brooks, Fawlty Towers, or Curb Your Enthusiasm without Fields’ influence and example. He seems to have single-handedly established the Comedy of Discomfort: a combination of muttered complaints and insults, cynicism and general misanthropy, and embarrassing physical situations turned often enough against the comedian himself as well as the world. In contrast to those others, though, there’s a vein of melancholy that also runs through Fields’ work. The domestic comedies present Fields’ characters as trapped in small-town mediocrity, with unhappy personal and professional lives; every attempt that Sam Bisbee, Ambrose Wolfinger, or Harold Bissonette makes to break free of this mediocrity, even (as in Trapeze) just to play hooky from work to attend the fights one afternoon or (as in It’s a Gift) to catch just a little extra sleep before the day begins, ends in comic chaos.

There’s also a touch of tragedy associated with each of these characters. In the aftermath of a professional disaster, You’re Telling Me‘s Bisbee seriously considers suicide; Trapeze‘s Wolfinger is on his second marriage, his first having ended with his wife’s early death, leaving him with a daughter to raise on his own; and, in the penultimate scene of It’s a Gift, Bissonette is left in a landscape of astonishing devastation, abandoned by his entire family except for his dog, bereft of comfort or even a future, his dreams destroyed. After the raucous comedy of the previous 60 minutes, the scene is still something of a shock. These being comedies, there’s always a deus ex machina (in the form of a princess, a real estate speculator, or a job offer) to save the character at the end, and more often then not Fields’ failed father figures are redeemed by the love of a daughter. But in real life, deus ex machinas are all too rare, a realization that occurs only a few minutes after the credits roll.

Fields came to the movies rather late in his career, appearing in his first major film, D.W. Griffith’s Sally of the Sawdust, in 1925 at the age of 45; it wasn’t until his mid-50s, with the three films I mentioned above, that he hit his cinematic stride. Before that he had risen from vaudeville’s backwaters as a comic juggler to some considerable fame on Broadway, reaching the top of his profession as a stage comedian in 1923’s Poppy, which ran for over a year at the Apollo Theatre and provided the basis for Griffith’s film. After that, the movies came calling, and Fields appeared in a variety of silent features before his sound debut in the short The Golf Specialist, an adaptation of a sketch Fields created for the stage Follies, which was released in 1930. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fields’ films can be grouped into three different categories: the middle-class domestic comedies; the period pieces (like Poppy, remade in 1936, often set in the late 19th-century or turn-of-the-century) such as The Old Fashioned Way — the best of these, in which Fields plays the leader of a theatre troupe travelling through the small towns of middle America, performing the melodrama The Drunkard; and here and there a few absurdist essays, from 1932’s Million Dollar Legs and 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. It was in the first two groups, though, that Fields really shone. While the absurdist films have their moments (and nearly all of Fields’ films have an absurdist moment or two), his comic studies of Americana retain the most interest for us now.

After 1936, Fields began to suffer from a variety of physical ailments, some of which were exacerbated by his heavy drinking, and though he returned to the Paramount studio in 1938 he was never the same. While 1940’s The Bank Dick, made for Universal, is often cited as the quintessential Fields movie, I find his performance and the comedy there somewhat forced; compared to his appearance in Trapeze, Fields looks physically bloated and slow, and the deft grace of his movements in those earlier films has deteriorated.

I’m not sure whether the work of the great comedians like Fields, Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy still appeals. While it may be thought that we live in a more cynical age, seeing Man on the Flying Trapeze may prove to you that, on the contrary, our age might not be cynical enough. You’ll have the chance to find out for yourself at Metrograph on December 29. (The film — along with most of Fields’ other work — is also available on this DVD set from Universal.)


The standard biography these days is W.C. Fields: A Biography by James Curtis. This can be supplemented by W.C. Fields by Himself, a substantial collection of Fields’ letters, scripts, and other writings, recently republished by Taylor Trade Publishing, and the still essential 1967 study of his films by William K. Everson, The Art of W.C. Fields.

Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders comes to Metrograph this Sunday

Little-Murders-images-9844eb35-7b7c-47f7-b74d-085c39570f2This Sunday, August 21, at 2.30pm, the delightful new Metrograph theater at 7 Ludlow Street will offer a very rare 35mm screening of the 1971 film Little Murders, directed by Alan Arkin and with a screenplay (based on his play) by Jules Feiffer. Though Metrograph describes the film as a “surreal, nightmare vision of Mayor Lindsay-era New York,” it’s a film that has continuing, even greater relevance in an increasingly violent society like our own, as I explained in the below essay about the film, first published here in March 2015. Tickets for Sunday’s screening are available here. You should stay after the show for a drink or two at the theater’s relaxing downstairs bar.

Metrograph will offer a second showing of the film on Thursday, August 25, at 6.30pm. At this screening, Jules Feiffer will be present to participate in a question-and-answer session and sign copies of his new graphic novel Cousin Joseph. More information here.

Rumor has it that when Elliott Gould secured the film rights to Jules Feiffer’s 1967 Broadway satire Little Murders (according to the Internet Broadway Database, it ran for all of 23 performances, including previews; Gould appeared in the play on Broadway), he tried to interest Jean-Luc Godard in directing the film; eventually Godard withdrew and the film was completed and released in February 1971 in a version directed by Alan Arkin. The idea of Godard directing Gould in Feiffer is daunting, to say the least. But the film that resulted in the end is one of those products of Hollywood that makes you wonder how it was ever made in the first place, let alone released — and it’s very very certain that it would have been neither produced nor released had it been proposed today. Little Murders is an extraordinary work that retains a profound significance for 21st century America, and putting things like Richard Nelson’s Apple family plays, presumably also a family-centered meditation on the conflicts in American culture, next to it is an indication of just how toothless American drama has become over the past four decades.

The play’s lead character, Alfred Chamberlain, the son of Chicago-area intellectuals, describes himself as an “apathist.” He is frequently mugged and beaten by strangers for no discernible reason, but he never fights back; if he puts up no resistance, he observes, the muggers get bored and eventually leave him alone. One day he crosses paths with a woman named Patsy Newquist, who becomes determined to introduce him to happiness and compassion, as well as the necessity of fighting back against whatever forces conspire to rob him of his dignity. It is an uphill battle. Late one night, Alfred reveals the source of his quietism to Patsy (and actors seeking unusual audition monologues, take note):

Having made this confession of his own paranoid cruelty, Alfred finally realizes the importance of fighting for what he believes in, of hope, of trust, and of love — and, in the next moment, all of these are cruelly shattered by a tragic act of random violence.

Feiffer was writing about the American culture of the late 1960s, but the violence, the surveillance state, the rapid crumbling of traditional values remain central dynamics of the 2010s. In Little Murders, he proved himself a far more observant and caustic satirist of the American scene than his status as West Village Liberal might have suggested. “It’s dangerous to challenge a system unless you’re completely at peace with the thought that you’re not going to miss it when it collapses,” Alfred says at one point — and he turns out, with terrible consequences, to be right. It’s a line that should echo through things like the Occupy movement.

Among Feiffer’s many targets in Little Murders are the upwardly-mobile middle class; the justice system; religion both old and new (the parson who marries Alfred and Patsy in a disastrously ridiculous ceremony is the head of the “First Existential” church); homophobia; both apathy and idealism (obviously); the art market and photography; and, as I mentioned earlier, intellectuals. Beyond all this, though, it’s a shockingly emotional and compassionate work. Patsy’s Upper West Side family seems oblivious and ridiculously hypocritical, but it’s revealed early on that their promising first son was killed in a random, unsolved act of violence on a New York City streetcorner; the revelation undermines an easy dismissal of their defensively bourgeois perspective. In many ways, the rhythm of the plot is cruel, not only to Alfred and Patsy but to the audience as well; and though the conclusion of the play appears facile at first glance, there is a poetic rightness to it that gives the play a cohesive shape. I know that a few artistic directors of regional and New York non-profit theatres read this blog; though I’m usually loathe to make recommendations, I would hope that they would take a look at Little Murders, a cruelly underrated and even forgotten American play that ranks with the most powerful work of Twain and Swift. (A 1969 revival at Circle in the Square, also directed by Arkin, enjoyed a more successful 400 performance run and won Feiffer an Obie for the play.)

“And of course it’s funny” is often a phrase used to encourage audiences to see a play that presumably has a darker core — and it’s usually wrong. But in this case it’s right. Little Murders is an extremely funny play, with gorgeous setpieces like the first meeting of Alfred with Patsy’s parents and the wedding ceremony itself. Somewhere about three-quarters into the film (and the play), though, Little Murders splits apart explosively and powerfully. It’s a remarkable piece of work, with standout performances from Elliott Gould as Alfred and Vincent Gardenia (who should have been given an Oscar or two for his performance, which is one of the most textured I’ve seen in this context) and Elizabeth Wilson as Patsy’s father and mother, but also memorable cameos from Lou Jacobi, Donald Sutherland, and Doris Roberts. (The director of photography, Gordon Willis, captures New York of the 1970s perfectly — not surprisingly; he later shot The Godfather, Annie Hall, and Manhattan.)

And screw Godard. Director Alan Arkin has a brilliant four-minute cameo towards the end of the film as an insane police detective that makes Joe Orton’s Truscott look like Lenny Briscoe; I doubt Godard would have been nearly as effective. Arkin’s cameo is below (and, again, actors seeking unusual audition monologues, take note):

Friday roundup

This week my wife directed me to an inspiring quote from German philosopher Martin Seel; I expanded on this and its possible application to drama and theater the next day.

To conclude the week, below you can find the second part (“A German Dream Until the End of the World”) of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Hitler: A Film from Germany. The first part is here.