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Five more reasons to see The General again

The General (Park Circus restoration)

Buster Keaton’s The General (1927) goes on theatrical release this Friday – which should be cause for celebration and mass ticket-buying among all of you. However, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you have probably seen this classic, poll-bestriding Civil War caper before, very possibly in the dim and distant. What worries me, what keeps me up at night, is that if so, you may feel a bit “so-whattish” and “seen-it-all-beforeish” about Keaton’s masterpiece. That would be a tragedy, as The General is one of the funniest, most ingenious and gosh-darn exciting films you will ever see in your long and happy life. If familiarity has bred a touch of contempt, or just complacency, in your bosom, I would gladly bend your ear about the pin-sharp 4k transfer, and the booming rendition of Carl Davis’s nimble and turbo-charged score on this digital print. But that geeky stuff isn’t for everyone, so if that doesn’t tempt you, here are five more reasons to see The General … again.

The early, funny stuff

So we all know The General as a chase film, packed with stunts and crashing locomotives. Well, it actually starts in a very sedate fashion, as our hero Johnnie (Buster Keaton) goes to visit his girl Annabelle, who prompts him to enlist and fight for the South. Patience is a virtue – don’t be in a rush to get to the fast and furious business on the tracks. Johnnie’s pratfall as he leaves Annabelle’s house, the beautiful recruiting-office sequence and that wonderful selfie of Johnnie and his other beloved are all worth arriving at the cinema nice and early for. The scene-setting opening ends with one of the quietest, but most dangerous stunts in the whole movie, as Johnnie perches forlornly on the coupling rods of a locomotive that is picking up speed …

Annabelle Lee

The General‘s Southern belle is far more than a damsel in distress. To be frank, she’s a pain in the neck – watch her daintily selecting firewood and feel Johnnie’s pain. But to be fair, she takes more than her share of punishment too: kidnapped, soaked (twice), caught in a bear trap, stuffed into a sack and loaded as freight. Not only that, but consider this: to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, you try doing everything Buster Keaton does, but backwards and in a crinoline.

There is another reason to take note of Annabelle – she is played by a fascinating woman. Marion Mack knew more than most about the silent movie business. A former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, she later turned her hand to screenwriting, including a semi-autobiographical flick called Mary of the Movies, which she also acted in. In the the 30s, she even wrote a talkie short for Keaton. And when critical favour began to smile on The General in the 70s, she was on hand to speak at screenings and festivals, explaining what it was like to play one of Keaton’s not-so-straight women. We don’t have opportunities like that any more, so thank you Marion.

Yes, that is a real train

The one that falls through the burning Rock River Bridge? Yup. It’s not a model (you’re thinking of The Blacksmith). And if you thought it was CGI – shame on you. Famously, the destruction of the train in The General is the most expensive shot in silent movie history, and it’s a salient reminder that everything you see on screen here is real – including the danger that Keaton and Co frequently faced as they went about those wild stunts.

Those damn Yankees

Marion Mack isn’t the only thing here that gives us a flashback to Mack Sennett’s mid-teens romps. Those Yankee soldiers giving chase to Johnnie and Annabelle are enjoyably, hilariously inept. Hoot as a whole gaggle of them fail to fix the points our man has so thoroughly snookered, until their driver appears with a an axe and a shove; chortle as they topple like dominoes with every jolt of the engine. These buffoons are Keystone Kops in all but name. A guilty pleasure in a very sophisticated film.

War is hell

It’s not all larks and big kids playing with big train sets, of course. The General is a war movie, based on a true story – the hijacking of a train headed for Chattanooga, Tennessee. And it’s easy to forget that The General has a rather grim battle scene of its own, with swords and snipers and several deaths. Even the jokes fail to lighten the mood here. The flag gag, in which Johnnie grabs a confederate pennant from his falling comrade’s hand, and waves it in victory from a rocky outcrop, only to discover he has seriously misplaced his feet, is an unexpected splash of black humour. It’s a nifty moment that sharply undercuts any jingoistic vibes you may get from this story of a plucky underdog and his little engine that could.

Bonus reason

If you see The General on its extended run at BFI Southbank, it will accompanied by Keaton’s sublime early short One Week. If you were to ask me, right now, which of the two were the better film, I would have to say … “tough call”.

A Trip to the Moon – DVD review

Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

At the Cannes film festival in May 2011, one of the world’s finest movies was reborn – for the first time in nearly 100 years, we were able to see Georges Méliès’ masterpiece A Trip to the Moon (1902) in vibrant, psychedelic colour. And yet, there were those who considered the new restoration of the film to be a travesty. The hand-coloured print had been rescued from nitrate decay, cleaned and mended frame by frame – so far, so uncontroversial – and then a soundtrack had been commissioned. And we all know how contentious modern silent film scores can be.

Groovy electronic duo Air had been lauded for their movie soundtracks in the past – their music for Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides in 1999 was a big hit –with a debut album called Moon Safari the French band seemed an apt choice.  But the loudest reactions at Cannes – and at other festival screenings throughout the year – were those of horror. Air’s squelchy, organic electronica and mystifying animal noises were not, it seemed, music to the ears of the cinephile crowd. “It’s a disgrace!” commented one audience member at the Pordenone showing. “Oh no!” cried another at the London film festival.

Which is why, when I finally saw the restoration of A Trip to the Moon at the Ciné Lumière in London, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the music, which is presented here on the DVD release of the restored film. It’s often bizarre, and puzzling, but so is the film, and it powers through at a clattering pace that brings a real sense of blockbuster excitement back to this science-fiction landmark. Given the controversy, there’s an argument to be made for offering an alternative piano score on the disc – but there’s also a case to be made for sticking to one’s artistic guns. It’s ridiculous to speculate on what Méliès would have thought of the soundtrack. He may well have been more mystified that with his own narration missing, no alternative commentary was written. But given the film-maker’s love of cheeky humour and absurd theatricals I think he would have enjoyed it, just a little.

Georges Méliès' Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Georges Méliès’ Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

And the music remains a side issue with a film of this visual brilliance – enhanced by those deftly applied inks, which add both warm, natural skin-tones to the chorus line and lurid primary colours to the lunar landscapes and aliens on the attack. A Trip to the Moon follows the adventures of a group of bearded, chattering astronomers from their lab to the moon’s surface and back to earth again. It’s endearing dappy, from the first simple sketch of their flight, to the gory moment the rocket gouges the eye of the man in the moon, to the scientists’ battle with the selenites – umbrellas at the ready. This is live-action film, but transformed by Méliès’s ingenious in-camera editing and those gorgeous paints to be something more like a cartoon. It’s gorgeous, it’s ludicrous and it’s heaps of fun. The new restoration is a revelation, and here on DVD, it looks brilliant. I wanted to watch it again and again. So I did.

But for all its wonders, A Trip to the Moon is only a quarter of an hour long. It’s very rare to see such a short film as the sole attraction on a DVD, we’re more used to compilations of early cinema. Happily, however, there’s more to this disc than the headline act. Alongside image galleries, you’ll find a fantastic documentary by Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg and Éric Lange called The Extraordinary Voyage. It’s an hour long, packed with talking heads from the French cinema – and well worth a watch, particularly if you are new to Méliès’ work.  The documentary introduces the film-maker, his techniques and personal history, discusses the film and particularly its restoration in depth. There are also re-enactments of Méliès at work in his Paris studio, with Tom Hanks, yes, Tom Hanks playing the director. There’s also a slightly odd interlude when Hanks proposes Méliès as a pioneer not just in film-making but in space travel too.

That may be a stretch, but I remember that when I left the Ciné Lumière last year my mind was boggling that we had managed to put a man on the moon more than 40 years before we had managed to restored A Trip to the Moon back to its full-colour best.

A Trip to the Moon with accompanying documentary The Extraordinary Voyage is released on DVD in the UK from Monday 26 November 2012 by Park Circus. Buy on Amazon here.