Highly Recommended

Gowanus, Brooklyn (2004, Ryan Fleck)

Gowanus, Brooklyn is quite possibly the best you could hope for early aughts digital video short. Director Fleck and cinematographer Chris Scarafile know the limitations of the medium. Some of those limitations are seemingly self-imposed—if a scene isn’t obviously handheld, it’s because Scarafile was standing really still that shot. Since the short is so traditional—it’s basically a legit after-school special, like something “Sesame Street Junior High” would do—only with a complicated ending.

Tween Shareeka Epps catches her coach and something or other teacher Matt Kerr smoking crack in the girls locker room after he’s closed up for the night. She gets a ride home and a burger and fries out of it. Director Fleck and co-writer (and producer and editor) Anna Boden take a hands off approach to a lot of the story. It’s one of those “oh, the answer’s from a better world” moments. Only they don’t end on that positive sentiment, they go about fifty percent on it just so Epps never seems in danger and use it all the time. All the time. There’s also a message in the short about gentrification and it’s very hard not to see it as a perspective on Epps and not from her. The short is very much the story of this girl and this weird time in her life but it’s not the girl’s story. Gowanus examines Epps. It describes her, instead of her informing it. The narrative distance is inverted and leveraging the heck out of 2004 digital video verisimilitude; the short never exploits Epps—going out of its way to never do so (it’s so safe, so safe—but in a good way)—but sometimes it seems like the scenes are constructed more for that purpose than ever to do actual character development. Gowanus is comfortable throwing things in Epps’s way and watching her get through them… but refusing to examine her reaction to them. Everything in the short is tailored around Epps’s performance, which is great—she’s excellent—but it’s also a bit too safe. Fleck’s not willing to try anything. He never wants it to look too video, just video enough.

Kerr’s good as the teacher. Fleck’s not willing to take any chances with him either. Everything’s so controlled. And it’s masterfully executed. I’m reluctantly enthusiastic about Gowanus, Brooklyn because it’s got such a strange feel to it: the hyper reality of the video, the pseudo-intrusive nature of the narrative distance. It’s as perfectly made a short 2004 digital video could a 2004 digital video short be, positive proof a short video could hold up for twenty minutes.

I’m so glad it didn’t catch on.

But Fleck knows how to get it to work. Epps, Kerr, everyone; they give serious performances, even when the direction’s framed around not showcasing that performance because video is so flat. Boden knows when to cut away from that flat too; the cuts seem based on when the lack of depth becomes distracting. Because you’re usually wondering if it just looked better, how much better would it be. Fleck’s ambitiously strict to reliable techniques with no interest in exploring. Gowanus is very constrained.

Which just makes Epps’s performance more impressive. Her performance is enthusiastically ambitious while the short itself isn’t.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Ryan Fleck; written by Anna Boden and Fleck; director of photography, Chris Scarafile; edited by Boden; music by Ronit Kirchman; produced by Boden for Gowanus Projections.

Starring Shareeka Epps (Drey), Matt Kerr (teacher), Karen Chilton (mother), Timothy Nesbith (brother), and Regina Milligan (friend).


24 Hours in the Life of a Clown (1946, Jean-Pierre Melville)

Per 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown, those twenty-four hours go from sad to happy. Well, wait; they actually go from narrating man in the shadows, face in said shadows, only the brim of his fedora visible—because l’inconnu fantôme wants to tell you all about Beby the clown.

Once the short gets past that opening narration, which is way too much for what the short turns out to be. It’s a look at the life of a clown—Beby—in his late sixties as the world and the place of the circus in it are changing. It’s never clear how much of the film is Beby, outside his keepsakes (but was it his idea to showcase the keepsakes), and how much of it is director Melville. Most of the dialogue in the film is the narrator paraphrasing the actors’ muted dialogue. Even when Beby is speaking, it’s not matched with the image. Clown obviously took some putting together and Melville doesn’t address how that process affects the narrative distance.

So while Beby’s “performance” looking through his old photographs isn’t amazing, the sequence itself becomes amazing thanks to the story told through those photographs. It’s also the first time the short addresses Beby being “real.” If you weren’t familiar with him going in, there’s no indicator Clown is documentary not fiction.

There’s also a cute dog and the suffering wife or maid or daughter person. She doesn’t even get credited. Neither does the dog, which just makes things fair, I suppose.

The next day—the twenty-four hours are from after one night’s show through the next night’s show, which is a great framing—Beby meets up with partner Maïss (who was in the beginning) and they go about doing their research. They just watch life. As they watch life, Melville finds the calm beauty of humanity, even when it’s being a little slapstick.

Then the evening’s performance is excellent and the twenty-four hours are up.

The Phantom Stranger comes back, unfortunately, to tell us so. Because film noir tough guys are all about the circus clowns.

But even with that unfortunate flourish, Clown’s a great little film.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville; directors of photography, Gustave Raulet and André Villard; edited by Monique Bonnot; music by Henri Cassel.

Starring Beby (a clown) and Maïss (a clown).


Veracity (2015, Seith Mann)

Veracity is exceedingly impressive, in its parts and how they make up the whole. On their own, the filmmaking, the writing, and KiKi Layne’s performance are enough for the short to impress. Each has a different, perfectly suited strength. Mann’s direction flows, moving the camera to catching the actors’ performances; the actors aren’t performing their scenes for the camera. Veracity always feels bigger than its story, which the film even addresses—there’s a wider world around, Layne and her friends are just a part of it. Mann’s direction and Janaya Greene’s script imply that world. Amanda Brinton’s production design is also very important for it, ditto Christopher Dillon’s editing. Mann wouldn’t have the same flow without Dillon’s infinitely graceful cuts between angles and scenes.

The short takes place mostly at Layne’s high school—though, again, there’s this implied, larger setting to it all—as Layne meets new girl Shea Vaughan-Gabor and tries to befriend her. Vaughan-Gabor’s polite and pleasant, though not overly enthusiastic about making a new friend. When Layne lets friend Christina D. Harper drag her to a party, which Layne wants to avoid because of creep ex-boyfriend Denzel Irby (who’s throwing the party), things get weird, wonderful, and then awful. Vaughan-Gabor is Irby’s cousin, who’s moved in with him to go to the high school. Layne and Vaughan-Gabor kiss, only to be interrupted by Irby, leading to Vaughan-Gabor not wanting to talk to Layne and Layne all of a sudden ostracized at school.

The personal turmoil weighs on Layne, knocking her down. If the second act ends when things are direst for the hero, Veracity manages to have two ends of second acts, but only one third act resolution. Greene was a high school senior when she wrote the script, which doesn’t matter exactly, but does just impress more. There’s so many moving layers, influencing each other at different points throughout and at different intensities. The script’s just so good.

As is Mann’s direction. As is Layne’s performance. They all work together so perfectly. Veracity is steady and assured, but also nimble and inventive. Sometimes it’s in Mann’s direction, sometimes in Greene’s script, sometimes in Layne’s performance. Vaughan-Gabor’s really good (all the acting is really good, Harper and Irby too and Aubrey Marquez in a single scene), but no one else has as many opportunities as Layne and she takes them all. Such a good lead performance.

Veracity is exceptional.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Seith Mann; written by Janaya Greene; director of photography, Tommy Maddox-Upshaw; edited by Christopher Dillon; music by Albert Chang; production designer, Amanda Brinton; produced by Rob York for Scenarios USA.

Starring KiKi Layne (Olivia), Shea Vaughan-Gabor (Imani), Christina D. Harper (Karolyn), Denzel Irby (James), Dominica Strong (Sage), Tai Davis (Ms. Gillian), and Aubrey Marquez (Joseph).


Love Exists (1960, Maurice Pialat)

With a title like Love Exists, it seems reasonable the short might turn around and stop being so intensely depressing, but no. The film, written and directed by Pialat with narration by Jean-Loup Reynold, starts with people leaving the city (Paris) proper for their night in the suburbs. It’s not clear yet what the narrator’s take on the workers’ commute is going to be but there’s some definition foreshadowing. Pialat does some visual foreshadowing throughout, but never as much as at the beginning.

Once the film arrives in the suburbs, the narrator talks about growing up there and how it used to be. Pialat juxtaposes the contemporary with the memories, using the sound effects to bind the two. Sound is very important in Love Exists, especially in the first half, as Pialat and Reynold take us through these neighborhoods, introduce us to the people living there. The mostly poor, the mostly uneducated, the workers. They spend their lives on the commute, hoping to survive to retirement age, their lives as unchanging as their ancestors, the fourteenth century farmers.

Contrasted with the plight of the working class is the build-up of Paris. The build-up of some suburbs. Next to the brutal new housing structures, where the children play amongst the concrete and steel, on their way to becoming good worker drones too, are the shanty towns. The debris isn’t from the war, it’s from the constructed. It’s not from the past, it’s from the future, which leaves out the workers.

Just when you think Pialat can’t get any more depressing, he looks at the situation of the older adults, the workers who made it to retirement, who exist in homes. Casted off once they’ve survived. The last moment manages to be even more devastating.

And Pialat and Reynold get to that devastation with the melancholic Georges Delerue score, which ought to work against Exists, but doesn’t. The music never overpowers the narration, the narration never overpowers the sound design. Nothing can approach Pialat and cinematographer Gilbert Sarthre’s shots either. Early on, it seems like the world can only exist in the black and white of the short, but by the end it’s hard to imagine the world actually existing in color.

Great editing from Kenout Peltier.

Love Exists is an extraordinary, rending twenty minutes.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Maurice Pialat; director of photography, Gilbert Sarthre; edited by Kenout Peltier; music by Georges Delerue; produced by Pierre Braunberger for Les Films de la Pléiade.

Narrated by Jean-Loup Reynold.


Thistles and Thorns (2019, Kalie Acheson)

Thistles and Thorns opens with a girl (Madison Vance) going into a forest preserve after school. Vance is practically beaming as she does, which doesn’t initially make sense—when she’s walking on the street—but does once she’s in the forest, looking around at all the nature. She goes to a rock formation and gets a storybook out of a hiding place. She starts reading the book (Thistles and Thorns) and the action moves into the book.

The lead of the fairy tale is Yazmin Monet Watkins, who’s on a hero’s quest. Watkins also narrates the short from this point, reading the fairy tale. Watkins’s reading style is storytelling, excited by the text, so even though Vance has disappeared from the screen, Thorns feels like someone is reading it to her, being told to her; the story has a life of its own. It takes a minute or two for Watkins’s narration to really sell that tone. The transition between Vance and the fairy tale she’s reading is pretty sudden, even with the visual cues.

And Watkins’s narration is somewhat detached from the onscreen action. There’s no dialogue from the characters on screen, just Watkins reading the dialogue from the fairy tale. It also takes the narration a moment to catch on because the direction of the fairy tale itself is so fantastic, there’s not room to think about anything else, especially after director Acheson starts moving the camera. When the fairy tale starts, it seems like Watkins is moving through a realistic forest. As real as the one Vance entered at the beginning, albeit a fairy tale one. But Thorns’s set design is expressionist and entirely shot in profile. Acheson will move the camera behind Watkins but it’s always temporary, it’s always going to move back to that profile shot, showing this imagined landscape. The way the camera is always in a tracking shot makes Thorns feel like a story book being read, the action always being revealed from the right side of the screen, which works really well juxtaposed with the narration.

Watkins’s quest has a nice moral and a suitably positive, expansive finish for the tale. The direction, Watkins’s two performances, and the production design make Thistles and Thorns something special.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Kalie Acheson; written by Yazmin Monet Wakins and David Vieux; director of photography, Kyle Stryker; edited by Ethan Coco and Charles Latham; music by Dre Babinski, Selina Carrera, and William Collela; production designers, Acheson and Latham; produced by Acheson and Latham for Animi.

Starring Yazmin Monet Watkins (Assata), Kelli Wheeler (Hummingbird), Himerria Wortham (Fox), and Madison Vance (school girl); narrated by Watkins.


Two Cars, One Night (2004, Taika Waititi)

Trying to describe Two Cars, One Night without getting schmaltzy might be difficult. It’s sublime, gentle, tender, funny, brilliant, inspired, exceptional. Director Waititi’s just as phenomenal directing his young actors as he is at composing the shots to emphasize their experiences; specifically, how they perceive those experiences. The short starts with these two boys sitting in a car in front of a bar. They’re presumably waiting for a parent or two to get done hanging out in the bar. The little brother, Te Ahiwaru Ngamoki-Richards, is quietly reading a book in the passenger seat. The older brother, Rangi Ngamoki, is sitting behind the wheel and watching the adults outside the car.

Waititi does an amazing job subtly implying all these things going on around the boys, which they know are going on but don’t exactly understand. They also don’t understand they don’t exactly understand. Waititi sets up all these known unknowns before there’s the second car. Because amid this situation, where the boys are waiting outside a bar, in this isolated island surrounded by adults adulting, Waikato is going to unknowingly take the first steps towards adulthood.

And here’s why it’s hard to talk about the short without getting schmaltzy. While Waititi avoids sentimentality and instead focuses on his actors and how they convey the action, Two Cars, One Night is about Waikato teasing a girl, Rangi Ngamoki—who arrives in the second car, her parents also going in for drinks (there’s a whole other silent, subtle implication thing regarding the parents who come out first)—but it’s about these two adorable kids flirting. They go from tween and pre-tween (Ngamoki is nine, Waikato is twelve) fighting and teasing to—again—understanding their similar situations on a deeper level than they’re able to consciously recognize. Waititi’s real quiet about it too; he focuses on Ngamoki realizing he wants to talk to Waikato and not really understanding why. Because he’s nine. And she goes from being a grody girl to being worth trying to impress.

Little brother Ngamoki-Richards proves an intentionally bad, more intelligent and thoughtful, hilarious wingman.

Perfect performances from Waikato and Ngamoki. Waititi’s direction, on all levels, just gets more and more impressive throughout. The black and white photography, from Adam Clark, is great. So’s Owen Ferrier-Kerr’s editing. Both Clark and Ferrier-Kerr’s fine work contributes to the sublimeness.

It’s wondrous.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Taika Waititi; director of photography, Adam Clark; edited by Owen Ferrier-Kerr; music by Craig Sengelow; produced by Catherine Fitzgerald and Ainsley Gardiner; released by the New Zealand Film Commission.

Starring Rangi Ngamoki (Romeo), Hutini Waikato (Polly), and Te Ahiwaru Ngamoki-Richards (Ed).


Dirty Computer (2018, Alan Ferguson, Emma Westenberg, Andrew Donoho, Lacey Duke, and Chuck Lightning)

Dirty Computer is hard to explain. It’s fairly easy to describe—it’s a fifty-six minute short film (or “emotion picture” as creator Janelle Monáe describes it) compilation of Monáe’s music videos for her Dirty Computer album. There’s bridging footage to contextualize the videos. It’s a dystopian future where Monáe has finally gotten busted for being “dirty.” Dirty mostly seems to mean Black and queer, but only based on the people targeted. Anything Other is “dirty,” which is one of those things Dirty ought to just go ahead and make clear and get past instead of implying until a breaking point.

The contextualizing, bridging stuff is Dirty’s biggest problem. Directors Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning do fine setting it up with Monáe being brought through the sterile, future deprogramming center to the big room where they’re going to zap her memories, but then the music videos start and, by the second or third one, it’s real clear the music videos are directed much better. Worse, Donoho and Lightning stumble through the dialogue scenes. They leverage Tessa Thompson, who’s Monáe’s already brainwashed ex and the only actor who can make the direction and Lightning’s script actually work, but at Monáe’s expense. It’s all going to be okay, fine, but doesn’t get to okay because their handling gets better. In fact, the framing stuff only works because of the story and how effective the music videos (and Monáe in the music videos) become.

Dirty Computer’s first staggering success is in how it contextualizes music videos (and an album both as a single release and collection of songs) in a narrative. Then comes to second ending and it seems like it’s going to chuck all that success only for Dirty to surpass itself and contextualize itself—the music video collection, the emotional picture—both in terms of its narrative and its cultural reflectiveness. With a song. An accompanying song playing over the second finish, hash-tagging the movie itself before informing the first song, informing that song’s video, informing that video’s adjoining bridges, all over it. Had Dirty not been uneven, had Donoho and Lightning just been upfront, that second peak might seem like a plateaued victory lap but since it was uneven, it did meander away from Monáe, the second peak just keeps rising. It’s awesome.

The music videos have these familiar motifs. They’ve got Thompson, they’ve got Jayson Aaron, they’ve got this retro-cyber-punk early nineties thing going on with the production design. The future still has all the same iconography, it’s just a little fetishized, which makes sense given the mainstream sterility. So there’s clearly something going on with the videos and how they relate not just to their bridges but each other. And it’s not… obvious. It has a lot to do with how Monáe’s “character” develops through the songs. Because the about-to-be-brainwashed Monáe doesn’t have control over the songs, which are her memories. Instead it’s doofus white guys Dyson Posey and Jonah Lees; only Lees isn’t as much of a doofus and even he’s able to see what’s going on. Unfortunately, Lightning takes too long for him to catch on, which ends up wasting Lees, who’s the only other actor in the scripted bridges to succeed. Though Monáe does get better after her first big dialogue scene. And, by the end, you know that scene was the directors’ fault, not hers.

Dirty Computer talks about so much. Looks at so much. It’ll go from muted to loud with a snap. The songs are excellent, the music video editing by Deji LaRay is masterful, Monáe’s performance is magnificent. Peerless, actually. Without any victory lap ego. The Dirty Computer music videos are an object lesson in superior music videos; they’re exquisitely shot, edited, photographed, but Monáe’s performance is essential. It changes with every cut in the videos, without ever losing focus, always intensifying. She’s awesome.

Dirty goes from being a collection of great music videos to a great collection of great music videos to something even more layered. Emotion picture? Maybe; but it’s the only one for now, right? Is it a great emotion picture or are emotion pictures great by definition. Only Monáe knows.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning; screenplay by Lightning, based on a story by Janelle Monáe, Nate ‘Rocket’ Wonder, and Alan Ferguson; director of photography, Todd Banhazl; edited by Donoho and Taylor Brusky; music by Wonder and Wynne Bennett; production designer, Fernanda Guerrero; produced by Nicole Acacio and Ian Blair for Wondaland.

Music videos written and directed by Ferguson, Emma Westenberg, Donoho, and Lacey Duke; edited by Deji LaRay; produced by Justin Benoliel, Judy Craig, Melissa Ekholm, Maya Table, and Blair.

Starring Janelle Monáe (Jane 57821), Tessa Thompson (Zen), Jayson Aaron (Ché), Dyson Posey (Cleaner #1), Jonah Lees (Cleaner #2), and Michele Hart (Virgin Victoria).


One Hundred a Day (1973, Gillian Armstrong)

One Hundred a Day is a terrifying eight minutes. Rosalie Fletcher is a factory girl in the thirties and she’s in trouble. Her more worldly friends, Jenee Welsh and Virginia Portingale, know where she can take care of it. Day’s this grainy, high contrast black and white. In the factory, where the short spends most of its minutes, director Armstrong and cinematographer Ross King focus tight on Fletcher and her experience. There are asides with other workers, but the camera is mostly fixed on Fletcher, charting each of her panicked—or medically related—drops of sweat.

With just eight minutes, Armstrong doesn’t have a lot of time for an epical structure, but there’s a first and second act at least. The third act is just really abbreviated. In the first act, Fletcher’s friends take her to the nurse’s. The nurse, Eve Wynne, is terrifying. But situationally. Her house is medically sterile (the friends sit around and complain about the smell). She’s curt because they’re all breaking the law. She’s the scary lady who’s going to take away naive Fletcher’s baby. And, if the gossiping friends are right, possibly cost Fletcher her job and her life in post-procedure complications.

We never find out what Fletcher’s thinking. She never says how she’s feeling. We see it, in tight close-up, every micro-emotion moving across Fletcher’s expression as she slowly loses her composure.

The film is really loud—the factory wails around Fletcher, the conditions—when she’s in this situation—even more inhumane. It ratchets up the tension, just like everything else. Fletcher lays some of the gossip over action, except the action is just Fletcher working, thinking, sweating, and the gossip is all about the terrible possibilities. The second act of Day is probably five minutes and it seems like ninety. Armstrong matches the film to Fletcher’s perception of time. It’s awesome.

Most of Armstrong’s successes are with showcasing Fletcher, with how she and King shoot it, how she and David Stiven edit it; there aren’t many complex shots… at least not until the end when Armstrong all of a sudden does a wow transition pan. It’s a show-off move, perfectly executed, and changes the narrative distance a bit. That removal also positions the film more firmly on being detached from the question of anti-choice, which certainly seems like where it’s going to end, then doesn’t.

The film, it turns out, is about empathizing without necessarily understanding how to sympathize. Fletcher gets a lot of sympathy throughout, but she never gets any empathy, which just adds another layer to her situation.

One Hundred a Day is great.

:3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Gillian Armstrong; screenplay by Armstrong, based in part on a novel by Alan Marshall; director of photography, Ross King; edited by David Stiven; produced by Storry Walton for the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.

Starring Rosalie Fletcher (Leilia), Jenee Welsh (Sadie), Virginia Portingale (Mabel), and Eve Wynne (Nurse).


RELATED

Young Couples Only (1955, Richard Irving)

Young Couples Only is really good. Especially when you consider how Bill Williams is so weak in the lead and how director Irving never does anything special. He never does anything bad, he just doesn’t do anything special. He certainly doesn’t keep Williams in line. It’s probably a very good thing Williams’s real-life wife Barbara Hale plays his TV wife here. She can carry the scenes for him. And the other scenes usually have Peter Lorre, who does a phenomenal job implying all sorts of depth to his quirky character.

Hale and Williams live in a very nice apartment building. Furnished for–adjusted for inflation–about $600 a month. The only rules are the residents have to be couples, they have to be young, they have to be fit. Williams is an illustrator who isn’t particularly insightful; there’s a brief subplot about Hale not getting his humor (but other men do) but since it turns out Hale is right about everything in the world, maybe Williams doesn’t know what he’s doing.

See, Hale thinks there’s something funny about Lorre, who’s playing the janitor. He gives Hale and the other wives in the building the creeps, even though he’s never really done anything. Other than be Peter Lorre. Williams dismisses Hale–her exasperation at his inability to get past dismissing her because, well, she’s a woman is phenomenal–while she gets more and more suspicious. Especially after their dog disappears.

There are a series of reveals in the second half, each better than the last. Not sure if Lawrence Kimble’s teleplay had the plot twist smarts or Richard Matheson’s short story, but they come off beautifully. Once Williams is in crisis mode, he’s a lot better. Until then, he’s just either having Hale carry his proverbial water for him or Lorre carry it. Young Couples Only sort of plays like a sitcom, with broad, affable performances from Hale and then Williams, only it turns out the show’s just getting warmed up and Hale’s along with the changing tone…and Williams isn’t.

But it still works out beautifully. Thanks to Lorre, thanks to Hale, thanks to the perfectly competent, unambitious technical execution. Young Couples Only is good.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Irving; teleplay by Lawrence Kimble, based on a story by Richard Matheson; “Studio 57” presented by Joel Aldrich; director of photography, Herbert Kirkpatrick; edited by Edward W. Williams; aired by the DuMont Television Network.

Starring Barbara Hale (Ruth), Bill Williams (Rick), Peter Lorre (Mr. Grover), Danni Sue Nolan (Marge), Robert Quarry (Phil), and Paul Bryar (Officer Johnson).



Hard Luck (1921, Edward F. Kline and Buster Keaton)

Hard Luck starts as a… failed suicide attempt comedy. Nothing morbid, just absurd and slapstick. And a little dumb. Star, director, and writer Keaton always has dangerous ideas for ending his life, but never particularly good ones. There’s a lot of physical humor from Keaton during this section; situational physical comedy. Most of it is smaller scale, behavior gags. Keaton’s got some amazing stunts in the short, but they’re for little things the narrative requires to keep the situational comedy going. The way he jumps out of the way and whatnot. Hard Luck is micro-physical comedy. At least for the average Keaton. Rare grandiosity. Usually, Keaton and co-writer and co-director Cline keep it pared down. The first act has a lot of Keaton interacting with other actors, a lot with other actors reacting to him.

Keaton’s great at the little comedy moves. He’s charming and sympathetic while still seeming a bit dumb.

And then when he’s not actively trying to kill himself, he stills gets into quite a bit of trouble, leading to a somewhat different feel for the gags. They do get bigger, but with Keaton and Cline very subtly pacing them out. They percolate then explode.

Virginia Fox plays the society girl who catches Keaton’s eye before going on to catch the eye of outlaw Joe Roberts. Roberts’s pursuit of Fox is downright terrifying; Roberts comes into the short late and has no character motivation other than to attack Fox (his men are busy robbing her friends in the other room). Keaton’s showdown with Roberts is smaller scale gags again, but a (literal) explosion by the end.

Besides the solo slapstick and measured physical gags, there are also many involving animals (great and small). Hard Luck is full of big laughs, little laughs, big smiles, little smiles. Despite the dark opening, it’s pleasant once it gets going. Keaton and Cline are meticulous in their direction and assured in the film’s production. The short isn’t pompous or anything and it never self-aggrandizes, but if it wanted to do either, it could easily get away with it. Because Hard Luck is hilarious.

Keaton’s also very willing to embrace the absurd. It helps remind at the beginning we’re not watching a suicidal young man, rather Keaton in a slapstick comedy about a suicidal young man. The narrative distance feels instinctive, with Keaton and Cline staying relatively close but also skewed enough they can get away with Keaton’s plight being for laughs. It does, of course, help they’ve got so much great stuff in store for the rest of the short. Its energy can’t afford to fizzle.

And it doesn’t, not even at the very end, when Hard Luck takes a few breaths before delivering its final punchline.

Keaton’s great, Fox’s fine, Roberts’s hilarious (but still dangerous). There’s not much character for Fox or Roberts, but it doesn’t matter—Hard Luck doesn’t leverage everything off Keaton (but could). He delivers lots on his own, but even more as he fits into the somewhat rigid framework of the story. The short is brimming with energy and potential.

It’s a great success.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton; director of photography, Elgin Lessley; released by Metro Pictures Corporation.

Starring Buster Keaton (The Boy), Virginia Fox (The Girl), and Joe Roberts (Lizard Lip Luke).


Scroll to Top