“The General” - Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman (1926)

Of the string of brilliant silent-film comedies Buster Keaton made in 1920s – which include Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), Seven Chances (1927), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and The Cameraman (1928) – the one that is most remembered and most honored today is The General (1926). This is particularly interesting, since the The General lost money and was initially a flop with the critics at the time of its release. But that work was the most carefully preserved of Keaton’s films and the one that has been most seen by subsequent audiences.  And since those early days, the film’s reputation has swelled dramatically.  Many film critics consider The General to be Keaton’s greatest film and one of the greatest films ever [1,2,3].  In fact in the British Film Institute’s decennial polls of greatest films ever made (published in its outlet Sight & Sound), international critics ranked it #8 in 1972, #10 in 1982, and #34 in 2012 [4,5].  And in the British Film Institute’s 2012 poll of international film directors, The General was ranked 75th greatest film of all time [6].

There are a couple of things that stand out in connection with The General.  For one thing, the film is based on true events that took place during the American Civil War (1861-1865).  It tells the story of the Union army military theft of a railroad train in Confederate (Southern) territory in 1862 and the ensuing chase for its recapture, known as the Great Locomotive Chase [7].  Although the original memoirs of these events were told from a “Northern” perspective, Keaton felt audiences would be more sympathetic if the narrative focus to were shifted to the perspective of Southern protagonists.

Another distinguishing feature of The General is its unrelenting presentation of a manic series of physical events that draw the wonder of any viewer as to how the filmmakers were able to engineer (and survive) them.  These all contribute to the usual Keaton theme of an innocent and intrepid young man facing a hostile and seemingly overwhelming universe blocking his sincere intentions.  Actually, this was always a feature of Keaton’s films at that time, but The General went to further extremes in this regard than any of his other films and could be considered to be a marvel of cinematic engineering [8].

The story of The General is told in five acts of unequal length.  But the core of the film and the source of its appeal is presented in the two acts featuring chase scenarios – “Chase #1" and “Chase #2".

1.  A Locomotive is Stolen
The film starts in 1861 in the Southern city of Marietta, Georgia, where young railroad engineer Johnny Gray (played by Buster Keaton) has two passions – his girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and the locomotive for the Western and Atlantic Railroad for which he is the engineer (driver), The General.  When news of the Civil War’s break out, everyone rushes to enlist in the South’s army.  But Johnny is turned away, because, unbeknownst to him, the authorities think he is more valuable continuing to serve as a railroad engineer.  He is immediately branded as a coward by Annabelle and her family, and she tells him that she won’t see him again until he is wearing a military uniform.  Thus Johnny’s big problem is disproving to the world that he is a coward.

One year passes, and we see Johnny setting off northward from Marietta in his train.  Annabelle, who is still not speaking to Johnny, is a passenger onboard on he way to visit her wounded father at the front.  When the train stops for a dinner break at Big Shanty (Kennesaw), some disguised Union army saboteurs enter and steal the train while it is empty and head north.  But Annabelle was looking around inside a baggage boxcar at the moment and becomes a prisoner of the train thieves.  When Johnny looks up and sees his train heading off, he chases after it.

2.  Chase #1
The scene is set for the first of the famous chase sequences.  To hinder their pursuers, the Union saboteurs cut telegraph lines and dislodge track rails.  But Johnny furiously chases after them, first on foot, then in a handcar, and then in bicycle.  When he gets to the town of Kingston, he finds a train full of Confederate soldiers to help out in the chase.  But when he hurriedly takes off in the train, he doesn’t realize that the engine was decoupled from its cars, and he finds himself speeding down the tracks alone.

Now we have two trains racing, one in pursuit of another.  The pace of the film becomes absolutely frantic.  There are a number of ingeniously filmed actions shown, as the saboteurs try to impede Johnny by decoupling one of The General’s boxcars so it will be left behind to slow up Johnny’s train and by dropping railroad ties on the tracks in hopes they will cause Johnny’s train to derail.

Johnny manages to overcome these obstacles by performing amazingly dangerous and dexterous feats while perched on his pursuing train’s cowcatcher.  Keaton always worked without a stuntman, and anyone who watches this movie will wonder how they filmed it, when modern special-effects techniques were not yet available.

Eventually, Johnny notices that he has crossed into enemy territory in Tennessee.  He abandons his train and escapes on foot into the forest.

3.  Behind Enemy Lines
Johnny just happens to hide inside a house where Union army generals have come to meet in order to plan their next offensive.  While hiding precariously under their meeting table, he overhears their plans to have their advancing army join up with a Union supply train at Rock River Bridge.  He also is shocked to see that Annabelle is being held prisoner in the house.

So then in a few slapstick action sequences, Johnny manages to knock out a Union guard, don his uniform, and then sneak Annabelle out of the house.  They make their way to a train station where the stolen train, The General, just happens to be parked.  There Johnny smuggles Annabelle onto the train, decouples the engine from most of its boxcars, and then steals the train.

4.  Chase #2
Johnny, back driving The General, is now heading south, and as Union soldiers pursue him in a separate train, the second chase begins.  Again it’s a hectic sequence of back-and-forth manic maneuvers between the pursued and the pursuers, but this time the roles are reversed, and Johnny is the pursued.  Once more we see frantically sabotaged telegraph lines, train track switches thrown off, and Johnny littering the track behind him with boxes from the car he is pulling.  This time, though, Johnny is accompanied by the well-meaning but overly household-concerned Annabelle.  At one memorable point the exasperated Johnny begins choking Annabelle out of frustration, but ends up kissing her instead.

There are actually two Union trains rushing after Johnny in The General in this sequence.  One has soldiers intent on capturing Johnny, and a following train has supplies intended for a meeting up with the Union army at the Rock River Bridge.

5.  Rock River Bridge
Johnny arrives at the bridge first and manages to set a fire on the bridge and leave it burning there.  Then he and Annabelle make it to a nearby town where a Confederate army camp is located and summon rebel soldiers to confront the Union army back at the bridge.  Johnny wants to join these soldiers but is ignored, because he is not a member of the Confederate army.

At the Rock River Bridge, the Union train attempts to cross over the burning bridge, but the bridge collapses, and the train falls to its destruction.  This bridge destruction was an incredibly expensive action for Keaton and co-director Clyde Bruckman to film, and they had only one camera take in which to record it [3]. Note that Keaton was normally a painstaking perfectionist who often demanded many shooting retakes to get things just right – the shooting ratio for The General was greater than 30:1.  So Keaton’s carefully planned craftsmanship and elaborate physical action sequences like this bridge collapse and train engine destruction were what caused the production expenses for this film to run way over budget.

Then the assembled Confederate army soldiers ambush the Union army trying to ford the river, and the Union army is forced to beat a hasty retreat.  With the battle won, the Confederate soldiers return triumphantly to the town.  Johnny is still ignored by the celebrants, but when a Confederate general learns of Johnny’s capture of the commanding Union train saboteur, he hastily appoints Johnny to the position of army lieutenant.  Johnny is recognized as a hero at last.

The final scene shows Lieutenant Johnny awkwardly struggling to at the same time both kiss his now-forgiving Annabelle and also duplicate in acknowledgment the salutes of troops that pass by the embracing couple.


Overall, Keaton’s The General manages to pack into a relatively complex plot structure an incredible mixture of slapstick comedy elements.  Throughout the story, Keaton maintains his never-say-die enthusiasm and determination to get past a seemingly endless succession of insurmountable obstacles.  What people undoubtedly remember most, though, are those two chase sequences, where the obstacle encounters appear at a dizzying rate.

Unforgettable for me is the time when Johnny is sitting on his speeding train’s cowcatcher and has to remove railroad ties that can derail his train and which have been left on the tracks by those whom he is chasing.  He somehow manages to hold a large, unwieldy tie in his arms and, with miraculously accuracy, heave it onto another tie lying ahead on the tracks, causing both ties to fall harmlessly away by the wayside.

On another occasion, this time when he is being chased by a Union train, Johnny stops by a log fence to gather more wood fuel for his engine, and he hurriedly starts heaving big fence logs onto his train  tender.  After laboriously managing to get three logs onto his tender, the fourth log he  heaves unluckily lands in such a way as to cause all of his previously loaded logs to bounce out of the tender and back onto the ground.

And, of course, there is the famous artillery cannon sequence, when the fortuitous encounter of a curve in the railroad tracks saves Keaton from being blown away when the out-of-control cannon fires its load.

Physical actions like these, which last only for a few seconds, must have taken extraordinary efforts to get right, and they successively appear to the viewer at a furious pace.  Keaton often doesn’t fuel the viewer’s expectations of critical events like these much in advance.  They just unexpectedly appear, one after another, and the ever-hopeful Keaton character has no time to reflect on or despair of what is swirling aground him.  This is an aspect that distinguishes Keaton from Chaplin.  Chaplin personalizes his encounters, making himself out to be the naughty underdog in a social world that is rigged against him.  Keaton externalizes the perspective, thereby pitting an upright, innocent man struggling in a world, in which all of nature, itself, seems sometimes pitted against him.  In that sense Keaton’s vision is often expressionistic, while Chaplin’s is not.

So this relentless succession of acrobatic and perfectly executed circus acts is what makes Keaton’s The General a great film. Brilliant as The General is, though, I still think Seven Chances is Keaton’s finest film.  But The General is excellent, nonetheless, and worth repeated viewings.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Roger Ebert, “The General”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (31 May 1997).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “The Films of Buster Keaton”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (10 November 2002).    
  3. Tim Dirks. "The General (1927)", Filmsite, (retrieved 17 April  2018).  
  4. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).   
  5. Roger Ebert, "How the directors and critics voted / Roger Ebert / Top Ten", bfi.org.uk, The Internet Archive, (Archived from the original on May 17, 2012).   
  6. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  7. “Great Locomotive Chase”, Wikipedia, (12 April 2018).  
  8. In this sense it might be compared to Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923).  

Clyde Bruckman

Films of Clyde Bruckman:
  • The General - Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman (1926)

Bahman Farmanarai

Films of Bahman Farmanarai:

"Smell of Camphor, Scent of Jasmine" - Bahman Farmanarai (2000)

Smell of Camphor, Scent of Jasmine (Booye Kafoor, Atre Yas, 2000) is Iranian writer-director Bahman Farmanarai’s mordant rumination on death and what it means.  The film’s story concerns an ageing Iranian filmmaker who, like Farmanarai, himself, has been unable for more than twenty years, since the 1979 revolution, to get permission from the rigid government censorship authorities to make a film.  He is shown finally getting permission to make a documentary for Japanese television about Iranian burial rituals, and this film recounts his activities on that project.  This directly parallels Farmanarai’s own situation, since Smell of Camphor, Scent of Jasmine was the first film he was allowed to make since 1978.  In a way this authorization that he received is somewhat surprising in view of the film’s consideration of the contentious issue of artistic freedom in Iran [1,2].

Given the film’s reflective, semi-autobiographical nature (Farmanarai, in fact, plays the lead role in this story), it may remind some viewers of Fellini’s (1963), but this film differs from similar introspections by maintaining its focus throughout on death in its various connotations on both the personal and social levels.  Anyway, the idea of our own death is often in the background of many of our innermost personal reflections, and as philosopher Martin Heidegger pointed out, “being-toward death” (“Sein-zum-Tode”) is a way of being that orients us to our most authentic selves [3,4,5].  It is up to the viewer to decide whether this assertion holds true in Smell of Camphor, Scent of Jasmine.

The film narrative is partitioned into three loosely structured acts as they progress towards a more philosophical compass. Linking these acts is an outer metaphorical narrative level showing the main character sitting in a train car and looking contemplatively out the window as if he is being taken on a journey to who knows where.  Along the way, there are various attitudes towards death presented, which I will identify below by the token “AtD”.  

Act One: A Bad Day
This act begins with filmmaker Bahman Farjami (played by the film’s author, Bahman Farmanarai) planning to visit his deceased wife Jaleh’s grave on the fifth anniversary of her funeral.  One of the perspectives towards death that apparently comes to our protagonist’s introspective mind is that of traditional Islamic burial rituals (AtD1).  This is depicted at multiple points in the film by showing a dour mullah looking straight into the camera and formally reading texts prescribing Islamic burial rites. 

Death has been weighing particularly heavy on Bahman’s mind lately.  Not only is he thinking about his beloved wife, but also his mother has recently been beset with dementia, and four of his dearest colleagues have recently passed away.  But for Bahman, being truly alive means having the freedom to engage fully in human interactions (AtD2).  As he says,
“When a filmmaker doesn’t make films or a writer doesn’t write, that is death. In fact I am not afraid of dying.  I am afraid of living a futile life.”
This notion of the essentiality of human freedom for life is later emphasized when Bahman watches a speech on television given by the more open-minded Iranian cleric Mohammad Khatami, who was the President of Iran (1997-2003) and who significantly asserted:
“. . . my belief that the social aspect of religion will always depend in our viewing of religion in such a way that it is compatible with freedom. . . . [history has shown that] if religion has fundamentally clashed with freedom, it has been damaged.”
(I would say that this speech needs to go viral on the Internet.) 

Driving on his way to his wife’s cemetery, Bahman stops to pick up a distressed woman hitchhiker.  The bundle she is carrying is revealed to be the corpse of her baby that was stillborn the day before and whose death was probably caused by her husband’s beatings of her.  She suddenly decides to forgive her abusive husband, and when she gets out of Bahman’s car, she leaves her baby’s corpse behind in the backseat (AtD3).  (This incident of a woman leaving behind her baby in the backseat of a car may possibly be Farmanarai’s cinematic homage to Ebrahim Golestan’s seminal The Brick and the Mirror (Khesht va Ayeneh, 1965), which featured a similar plot element.)

Then Bahman goes to pay his visit to his wife’s grave and is disturbed to discover that the adjacent burial plot he had reserved for himself has already been occupied due to bungling of the cemetery managers.  They callously tell him that most married couples don’t like spending time together, so why should they want to spend eternity under the ground next to each other? (AtD4)

Afterwards Bahman still has to deal with the corpse in his backseat and wants to avoid trouble, so he goes to visit his lawyer, Dr. Arsteh (Reza Kianian, who has also played in The Wind Carpet (Kaze no Jûtan, 2003), The Fish Fall in Love (Mahiha Ashegh Mishavand, 2006), The Maritime Silk Road (2011), and A Cube of Sugar (Ye Habe Ghand aka One Cube of Sugar, 2011)) to see what he can do.  Arsteh cynically tells him that he has “connections” for dealing with this kind of thing and that they should avoid official procedures (AtD5).

Later in this bad day, Bahman is asked by a writer friend’s wife to look for her husband, who has gone missing.  In modern Iran, the fate of intellectuals can be dire, so Bahman makes many inquiries, including a visit to the city hospital’s morgue.  At the morgue, an elderly doctor informs him that the only corpse that has appeared there in the last day is that of a fifteen-year-old who had committed suicide.  When Bahman expresses shock that a teenage could feel such despair, the doctor dryly remarks (AtD6):
“only the young have the courage to take their own lives.  Old people like us hold onto life with both hands.”
Act Two: Funeral Arrangements  
In the following days Bahman sets about planning for his documentary on Iranian death rituals.  We have already been tipped off that Bahman’s own health is not good – he has suffered several heart attacks recently, and now he suffers another mild heart attack.  His doctor tells him to give up his chain-smoking and change his diet, advising him that
“anything tasty is bad for you, . .. and everything that tastes bad is good for you.”
Afterwards, his bossy sister drops by and scolds him for continually mourning the loss of his wife and not moving on with his life.  She tells him, in fact, that he should start a new life (AtD7).  But Bahman rejects all such gloomy and “practical” advice and goes ahead with his usual self-indulging habits. 

Instead his investigations about death rituals set him off to imagining his own upcoming death, and now it is if he is working on a film for his own death.  He visits a hejlehs (burial lights) vendor and a termeh (traditional woven cloth to cover a corpse) vendor and imagines how these might be used in connection with his own burial.  He also visits some of his own old actor friends and lines them up to appear in the documentary he is making.

At his film editing studio, Bahman looks at some stock footage his assistant his found for him to be used in his documentary that show crowds of people mournfully engaged in self-flagellation.  He scolds his assistant for providing him with footage that is only appropriate for mourning dead saints, not for dead artists.  This signals to the viewer that Bahman has switched his intentions from making a film covering the wider compass of Iranian death rituals to making a film about the death of an artist, i.e. himself.

Later Bahman scans through some of his old photographs of himself and discusses with his family servant which ones would be appropriate for display at his funeral and in his obituary.  But his servant dismisses his concerns, reminding him that once you are dead, you are gone, and these things don’t matter (AtD8).

Then Bahman goes to visit his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, who no longer recognizes him.  He laments the fact that since our sense of our own identities is essentially based on our remembered narratives, her condition is already “death before dying” (AtD9).  Hoping to trigger something hidden in her memory, he begins reading to his mother Edgar Allen Poe’s macabre short story “Silence - a Fable” [6].   I can’t imagine why Bahman would choose to read that particular story to his mother, but Farmanarai’s reference to it here is telling, because Poe’s story chillingly invokes the deathly horror of silence.

Bahman goes home to work on his film script, which we can has now become a recounting of his own recent experiences, when he gets a phone call from his writer friend’s wife.  She informs him that her husband committed suicide, and this news seems to trigger another heart attack for Bahman. 
While unconscious in the hospital, Bahman has dreamy visions not of people but of scenes from nature.  Afterwards he informs his old actor friend that he no longer wants to make the film he has been working on.  “We have forgotten the meaning of life”, Bahman tells his friend, and he says that he now just wants to somehow return to that youthful feeling for the wonder of nature.

Act Three: Throw a Stone in the Water
Bahman, asleep in bed, has another dream of his wife Jaleh walking in her burial shroud (he had an earlier such vision at the film’s outset).  Then he goes outside to his backyard and suffers another heart attack.  While swooning from the attack, he has a nightmare of his own funeral being filmed in his home.

This sequence is the most creative and surreal part of the film.  In the dream Bahman is distressed to see that the shooting crew are not following his original instructions for his own funeral, nor are they filming it according to his plans.  He tries to intervene in these scenes, but noone can see him or is aware of his presence. Finally, he screams out, “Cut!”, and he wakes up from his nightmare.  

He now gets a phone call from his son Nima, who informs him that his wife has just given birth to a baby girl, whom they have named “Jaleh”.  Then Bahman goes out in his backyard again and walks over to the small water pond there.  He picks up a pebble and tosses it in the water.  The final shot shows the circular waves spreading out in the water from where the tossed pebble landed.


Smell of Camphor, Scent of Jasmine’s meandering depiction is more like a set of personal reflections than a clear-cut narrative account.  There are a number of traditional attitudes towards death (AtDs) presented, but none of them are satisfactory to Bahman or to us.  Instead of arriving at the sought-after closure about death, the film and Bahman end up closing on openness.

With the focus on Bahman’s mundane, portly figure (which may remind some viewers of Alfred Hitchcock), the story is conventionally filmed.  Bahman Farjami comes across as a relatively passive, but dissatisfied, protagonist riding along on his long existential train ride to nowhere.

In this sense the evocation of his subjective anguish is only equivocal.  Admittedly, some feeling for his existential isolation is indeed emphasized by a number of long tracking shots showing him walking about in the cemetery or in hospital corridors.  The dynamism of the cinematography shifts, though, when we get to the nightmare funeral-filming scene in Act Three.  Here the view falls into an almost subjective frenzy, with several 360-degree pan shots, one of which is an accelerating multi-circular pan precipitating Bahman’s desperate calling out of “Cut!”.

One is tempted to compare Smell of Camphor, Scent of Jasmine to Abbas Kiarostami’s prize-winning Taste of Cherry (Ta'am-e-Gilas, 1997), which is also about death.   But to me the two films  have quite different feels to them, and Farmanarai’s Smell of Camphor, Scent of Jasmine is the superior work.  Some people have considered Farmanarai’s film to be a comedy, but I don’t see it that way.  There are indeed moments of irony, but the overriding topic is deadly serious.  Though the film has its limitations, I feel that it does offer an interesting coverage of a challenging theme.
★★★ 

Notes:
  1. Flora Roberts and Ed Hayes, “Between life and death: two Iranian films”, openDemocracy, (31 January 2002).   
  2. Acquarello, “Smell of Camphor, Frgrance of Jasmine, 2000", Strictly Film School, (2003).  
  3. “Being-toward-death”, “Heideggerian terminology”, Wikipedia, (22 January 2018).   
  4. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1927), translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Harper & Row, (1962).
  5. See also:
  6. Edgar Allan Poe, “Silence - a Fable”, (1837), EDGAR ALLAN POE: Tales, Sketches and Selected Criticism, The University of Virginia.  

"Protest" - Masoud Kimiai (2000)

Writer-director Masoud Kimiai has been an important Iranian filmmaker over a fifty-year career that spans both the pre- and post-revolutionary periods.  However, his most influential films – Gheisar (1969), Dash Akol (1971), and The Deer (Gavaznha, 1974) – came early on, before the 1979 revolution.  But despite the vast changes in the Iranian social climate that have occurred since then, he has generally maintained his usual  focus on two main themes:
  • loyalty, honor, and revenge 
  • the disastrous effects of drug addiction. 
Of his more recent (i.e. post-revolutionary) films, though, one of the more interesting has been Protest (Eteraz, 2000), because it presents a more subtle and ambiguous picture of the normally crowd-pleasing themes of revenge and honor.  In fact the film presents the narratives of two men who go through an existential examination of just who they are and how they identify with and relate to the traditional socioculturally-defined themes of dignity and honor. 

The film starts by telling how Amir Farmanzad (played by Dariush Arjmand) vengefully murdered the unfaithful wife of his younger brother Reza (Mohammad Reza Forutan) in order to preserve his family’s dignity and self-respect.  He willingly and pridefully confessed to the crime and was immediately sent to prison.  When he learned that the woman he killed was pregnant with the unborn child of her paramour, Ahmed, Amir, rather than feeling any remorse, felt that his victim was even more guilty and more worthy of being murdered.  In short, Amir is a quintessential example of a man for whom dignity and family honor are the highest values.  He is willing to give up his own life in his efforts to maintain these tribal values.

In fact Amir had sacrificed his own career opportunities in order to work and earn money that could support younger brother Reza’s education.  But Reza’s college education evidently exposes him to higher, more humanistic, values than those of his brother.

The scene shifts forward twelve years, when Amir is released from prison.  Before he departs, his fellow prisoners, in particular a powerful gangster named Mohsen Darbandi (Mehdi Fat'hi), celebrate Amir for his heroic act of honor killing.  Just before his release, Mohsen gives Amir a valuable ring and urges him to look after his woman, Majdi (Bita Farahi).

When Amir gets out of prison, he is met by his family and learns that they have been shielding him from some awful news.  His father has died; his mother has become blind; and his opium-addicted brother-in-law’s mismanagement has led to the family’s financial ruin.  When Reza has a chance to talk with Amir alone, he tells him that they all now live in a different world, where revenge and concern for selfish dignity are no longer the highest values.  Instead, the world (in Iran) has embraced the higher, more rational and universally benevolent, values.  They have the following exchange on this matter:
Reza: “The days of such [vengeful] reactions have passed.”

Amir
: “So what about dignity?  [Things may have changed,] but is conscience not there
             any more?  Honor and dignity can’t be taken away.”
Reza:  “I was talking about today’s sense of reason, a progressive society."
Although Reza humbly acknowledges the sacrifice that Amir made, he tells him that what he did was wrong and even led to the ruination of their own family.  And even Ahmed, his dead wife’s lover, has lost his mind with grief.

Thus there are two ways of looking at the world that have been identified:
  • The Tribal 
    This focusses on dignity, honor, and loyalty.  Resentment is harbored, and revenge is the primary operation of justice.  Amir is associated with this view.
     
  • The Rational Humanistic 
    This focuses on human reason, human rights, and universal values promoting the common good.  Although Reza has been exposed to both moral regimes, he is now ready to embrace the one he has more recently learned – that of Rational Humanism.
Note that I have on several occasions commented on how mistaken is the notion that dignity can have objective validity and on the even more absurd idea that dignity can be so objectively identified that it should be recognized as a universal human right (see, for example, my reviews of The Last Command (1928) and Bicycle Thieves (1948)).  Dignity is a subjectively perceived posture, like pride, that is usually only internally assumed.  In this connection I have cited two references that shed further light on this topic [1,2].

Thus the Tribal moral regime, at the root of which is an obsession for dignity, is a false perspective founded in resentment.  Unfortunately, in the world today we are faced with a rising tide of what is referred to as “populism”, but which is really a return to tribalism under another name.  There is little in the way of policy that connects the various political figures who are currently regarded as populists, such as Bernie Sanders, Norendra Modi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Donald Trump.  What these  populist figures do have in common are calls for a restoration of lost dignity which has allegedly been damaged by shadowy elites.  Their popularity is fuelled by the  resentment invoked by their clarion calls for an authoritarian leader to suppress and punish these ill-defined elites who have attacked our dignity [3].  

To counter this rising support of authoritarian populism (which is another form of Tribalism) among the wider population, I have proposed a more compact and easy to remember formulation of the basics of sociopolitical Rational Humanism, using the acronym RMDL, in order to make it easier to conceptualize and discuss in wider forums [4]. RMDL stands for four basic pillars of sociopolitical Rational Humanism:
  • Human Rights.  These include freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to watch and listen, freedom from torture, etc.
     
  • Open Markets.  There needs to be regulated markets that allow for the open exchange of goods and services across society.  This includes necessarily ensuring there is sufficient wealth equity across society so that there can be widespread, fair exchange.
     
  • Democracy.  Some form of democracy involving universally inclusive enfranchisement needs to be in place.
       
  • Rule of Law.  There needs to be a written set of laws that are made known to everyone and that can be changed by actions of the democratically-elected government.
In the context of the film Protest under discussion here, we could say that these two social themes of Tribalism and Rational Humanism offer a conceptual background for our two protagonists, Amir and Reza, as they separately struggle to come to grips with who they are.  The rest of the film now follows two parallel and largely separate narrative threads showing their contrasting worlds.

Amir’s world is the lower-class, crime-tinctured milieu of the urban jungle, which is a favourite setting for writer-director Kimiai.  Amir goes to look for a job by visiting Mohsen’s agent, Fathollah, who operates a cockfighting pit for unsavoury gamblers.  When Amir asks Fathollah for a job but only making “clean money”, Fathollah reminds him that no money is clean.  Corruption is a part of everything.  The dark world Amir inhabits is also hinted at by showing a shadowy figure who watches him ominously from the background during one of Fathollah’s cockfights.  This turns out to be the embittered Ahmed, the lover of Reza’s murdered wife.

Amir, himself, is shown to be tough, but he comes across as an essentially good-hearted and well-meaning person.  The crime he committed was an act of self-sacrifice for his family’s honor and not one motivated by greed.  When he visits Ms. Majdi, who turns out to be gangster Mohsen’s sister, he sees that she is a hard-working seamstress and finds himself motivated to protect her when she is bothered by a street tough. 

Meanwhile Reza is shown socializing at a restaurant with his former university classmates and discussing their favourite topic: Reformist Iranian politics.  Even among Reformists, though, there are disagreements and lively discussions.  They talk about the difficulties President Mohammad Khatami is having getting the Reformist agenda implemented, and a key issue discussed is whether the priority should be placed on opening up the economy or emphasizing freedom and human rights (i.e. whether RMDL dimension ‘R’ or ‘M’ should be prioritized).  This policy divide existed even within a single Reformist party, which is here loosely referred to as the “Kargozaran party”.  This was actually the Executive Construction Party, whose official news outlet was the Kargozaran newspaper.  The party’s two leaders, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Gholamhossein Karbaschi, differingly championed the M and R issues, respectively.

One of the friends at these discussions is Ladan, Reza’s new fiancé, who was recently attacked while peacefully distributing leaflets at a demonstration and now sports a black eye.  Reza also has another close friend, Ghasem, who shares Reza’s lower-class status and who suffers from opium addiction. Ghasem warns Reza that Ladan’s educated, higher-class family background means that she is not a good marriage match for him. 

All of these discussions make Reza stressfully wonder who he is and where he is going in life.  He has embraced new humanist values, but he feels himself unworthy of his brother Amir’s devoted (even though wrongful) sacrifice.  The only job he has been able to find after all of Amir’s sacrifices to fund his education is the humiliatingly low position of a pizza delivery boy. 

Further self-doubts presumably affect both Reza and Amir when they visit their younger brother Yousef, who suffered a brain injury when he was beaten while participating in a peaceful demonstration at his university.  Yousef is a sensitive and innocent young musician who harbors no resentment and now smiles at everything he sees. 

All of their separate encounters weigh on both Amir and Reza.  Amir, who had dreamed of marrying the seamstress Majdi, finally decides that the murder he committed has permanently polluted him and has made him unworthy of her.  He terminates his relationship with her and renounces further association with Mohsen’s gangster family.  Similarly, Reza, feeling that he and Ladan belong to two different worlds, terminates his relationship with his fiance, too.

The final fates of Amir and Reza offer a striking contrast.  After watching another cockfight and seeing Ahmed there, Amir steps outside and fatalistically invites the murderously intentioned man to finish him off.  The vengeful Ahmed goes ahead and fatally knifes Amir and then runs away in the night.

Reza’s ending is different.  At his work he is assigned to deliver a stack of pizzas to an upscale party and is shocked to discover when he gets there that the party is for Ladan’s wedding to a mutual friend of theirs.  Ladan and Reza momentarily exchange painful eye contact before Reza returns to his pizza café.  There he meets some of his old-college friends returning from Ladan’s party, who backhandedly console him by reminding him how filthy-rich Ladan’s family is and how she belongs to a different world from theirs. 

But then Ladan, still in her wedding dress, unexpectedly shows up at the café.  She has apparently had a last-minute change of heart.  She has renounced her Tribalistic arranged marriage and come to Reza to embrace the higher and universal feeling of boundless human love.


Kimiai’s other films often deal with honor and revenge in ordinary Iranian society, but Protest offers a more subtle treatment of these themes.  It gets the viewer inside the heads of its two main characters and presents these people grappling with changing social values. 

Admittedly, though, the film has some significant limitations.  The storyline is fragmented, and the film consists mostly of conversations shown in relentless back-and-forth closeups, which is a difficult cinematic rhythm to employ at length.  Another serious flaw is the treatment of the vengeful figure of Ahmed lurking in the shadows.  This is not well identified and signalled visually, and it represents a botched narrative opportunity for Kimiai.

Nevertheless, Protest probably deserves more appreciation than it has received.  It offers a thoughtful picture of Iranian society in disruption and of people trying to come to terms with it.
★★★  

Notes:
  1. Steven Pinker, “The Stupidity of Dignity, Conservative Bioethics' Latest, Most Dangerous Ploy,” The New Republic, (28 May 2008).    
  2. Samuel Moyn, “Dignity’s Due”, (2013), The Nation, (4 November 2013).    
  3. George Weigel, “Democracy and Its Discontents”, National Affairs, number 35, (Spring 2018).   
  4. For further reflections on RMDL, see my reviews of 

"The Hidden Half" - Tahmineh Milani (2001)

Tahmineh Milani is a prominent woman filmmaker and feminist in a place where it is difficult for a woman to be either of these things – Iran.  Probably her most impressive film so far is the insightful, The Hidden Half’ (Nimeh-ye Penhan, 2001), underlying the narrative of which are the provocative themes of politics and womanhood inside Iran.  Made during the relatively progressive period of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005), the film managed to get approval from the restrictive Iranian censorship authority, the Ministry of Culture, and was released inside the country.  However, shortly after its release and an interview with her was published in an Iranian newspaper, Milani was arrested for "supporting factions waging war against God”, a crime that carries the death penalty [1]. 

A  petition was quickly organized supporting Milani that was signed by hundreds of people from the international filmmaking community, and she was soon released on bail.  Although she has since been able to resume her filmmaking career, these events illustrate just how precarious is the condition of artistic expression inside Iran.  Nevertheless Ms. Milani has continued to speak her mind on socially sensitive issues that she believes in [2].

Much of what transpires in The Hidden Half takes place during the Iranian revolutionary period (1979-83), when the entire society was in tumult.   And in this film the focus is on women who were enthusiastically taking the opportunity to engage in political activities during these disruptive times.  You can well imagine that a film along these lines would come under close scrutiny of the Iranian censoring authorities.  However, Milani’s film (she both directed the film and wrote the screenplay) does not really adopt a controversial socio-political position.  Instead it primarily concerns a higher-level issue concerning how we all make judgements about people and social activities in our lives [3].  It is the presentation of this more philosophical concern that makes the film interesting to me, although some viewers only interested in melodrama may largely overlook it.  So in the discussion below, I will highlight points in the narrative that touch on the complexity of human judgement.

The film does suffer from being overly talky.  Many of the key events in the narrative are only described in spoken dialogue, and this misses out on some cinematic opportunities.  Nevertheless, we must make some allowances for the likely difficult production circumstances that can prevail in Iran when one wants to film women involved in political activities.

The story of The Hidden Half is relatively complex and feature events that are covered in an extensive flashback narrative, and even in a flashback within that flashback.  It transpires over roughly six segments.  To help trace the thread of judgement, I will label those points in the story that involve the topic of how we judge others with the symbol ‘J’.

1.  Fereshte’s Journal  
The film opens in “the present” (2001) and introduces a married couple: Khosro Samimi (played by Atila Pesiani) and his wife Fereshte (played by Niki Karimi, who memorably starred in two feminist-oriented films directed by Dariush MehrjuiSara (1992) and Pari (1995)). Khosro is a justice officer from the Presidential Office, and he has been summoned to go to the southern city of Shiraz to investigate and interview a woman political prisoner who has been condemned to death and is appealing her sentence. 

When Fereshte learns of this assignment, she becomes disturbed and asks her husband what political group the prisoner belongs to.  Khosro says, “what’s the difference?”, and Fereshte thoughtfully responds with, “you’re right”.   But she warns her husband, who is essentially a judge, not to be too judgmental – that is, not to make too-quick judgments before all circumstances are considered (J1).  This introduces the key theme concerning judgment in this film.  The point made is that one should always keep an open mind and see things from the widest possible perspective.  An overly rule-based mind may jump to conclusions too quickly.

When Khosro is about to leave, Fereshte is startled to meet Khosro’s travelling companion from the government office, Mr. Rastegar.  It seems that Fereshte has a past unpleasant history with this man.  Rastegar beseeches her not to judge him based on things that happened twenty years ago (J2).  People can change over time, he tells her.

Khosro and Rastegar depart, and when they arrive in Shiraz, Khosro checks into his hotel room and begins unpacking his suitcase.  He is surprised to discover among his things a journal that Fereshte has placed there about herself that she invites him to read.  In her opening message, she tells him that although she has been a dutiful wife and mother over the seventeen years of their marriage, he doesn’t really know her well as a person.  This, we are given to believe, is the fate of most married women, who are often seen by their husbands only as role-players and not as equal companions (J3). This journal is intended to introduce him to her hitherto “hidden half”.

So Khosro begins reading the journal, which tells him about her life before she met him.  Now the film moves into an extended flashback covering what Khosro reads.

2.  A Young Radical  
The scene shifts to 1978.  Fereshte, from a poor family in a provincial town, manages to pass the then highly selective Iranian college entrance examination and comes to Tehran to study at a university there.  Tehran was then embroiled in revolutionary uproar, as the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was soon to be overthrown by a host of revolutionary forces. Now exposed to a world of new ideas, Fereshte soon joins a Communist organization opposing the government.  Her all-female cell meets every afternoon at a local café to share their experiences and discuss Marxist ideology.  When Fereshte and her fellow Communist cell-member Zohreh (Pooneh Hajimohammadi) occasionally  mention their interest in things like love and beauty, their cell leader, Nasrin, who is a cordial but highly disciplined rule-follower, insists that such topics are outside the scope of their discussions. But Fereshte insists that all people are complexly different and should not be only thought of as identical members of a social class (J4). That is, one’s political decision-making should not be constrained by overly restrictive categorizations of human nature.

Then we see Fereshte and Zohreh carrying out their assigned political activities, which involve handing out and posting on shop walls handbills expressing their Communist messages to the people.  Occasionally, their work is broken up by Islamic Hezbollah ruffians (who locally seem to be led by a woman, Zahra Khanoom) who threaten to beat them up.

One afternoon at one of their cell’s café sessions, Fereshte overhears a man at a neighbouring table of older intellectuals expressing similar views to her own about the basic heterogeneity of people.  This older man, Roozebeh Javid (played by Mohammad Nikbin, who also happens to be Tahmineh Milani’s husband and the film’s co-producer), is suave and articulate, and the teenage Fereshte can’t help from being immediately attracted to him.  Her persistent staring at him causes the two of them to make momentary eye contact.

3.  Fereshte and Javid  
Fereshte wants to see more of Javid and attends a commemorative ceremony for recently deceased actor Parviz Fannizadeh, which she knows Javid is attending.  Since Fannizadeh died on 24 February 1979, the viewer can tell that we are now already in the era of the Islamic Republic, which was installed in early February 1979.  But no matter who is in power – whether monarchists or Islamists – the Communists here are perpetual outsiders and are always suppressed by the government authorities. 

At the ceremony, Javid is introduced to the audience as a famous writer (even as another Sadegh Hedayat!) and magazine editor, and he makes confident, extemporaneous remarks at the lectern that demonstrate his own celebrity status among the educated sector of society.  After his remarks Javid approaches Fereshte for some small talk.  But when he calls her “a little lady”, Fereshte takes offence and leaves the gathering.

Later when Hezbollahi thugs attack the Communist ladies distributing their leaflets on the street, Fereshte flees and fortuitously finds refuge when she comes across Javid’s office.   There she is introduced to Javid’s guest, Ms. Pahlevan, who is an older radical and spent five years in prison.  After a brief conversation, Ms. Pahlevan scolds Fereshte for only studying global Marxist theory and knowing nothing about Iran’s own political history.  Fereshte takes this chastisement to heart and realizes that one’s political judgements must take into consideration local circumstances and not just rely on abstract, context-free theory (J5).

Then at another meeting of her Communist cell, Fereshte again asserts that personal love is an important aspect of life, even for a revolutionary.  But the official response she gets from the Communist higher-ups is that considerations of love must be suspended while one is working for the Party.  Again Fereshte takes issue with such doctrinaire thinking (J6).

On another occasion Fereshte goes to Javid’s’ office  to see if he will publish some of her poetry. Javid condescendingly rejects her poetry, but insists that they get to know each other better.  He invites her to an upscale literary party where Fereshte feels out of place, but Javid shows increasing warmth towards her.  He gives her a ride home, but when they see her home is surrounded by Pasdaran guards ready to arrest her, she takes refuge in her friend Zohreh’s flat.

4.  Coming to Terms 
Javid, becoming more intimately personal all the time, now insists that Fereshte take refuge for awhile in the UK, a trip and sojourn that he will pay for.  After going to her village to retrieve her birth certificate for this purpose, she returns to Javid’s office where she is intercepted by Javid’s assistant, Mr. Mansoori. 

Mansoori informs Fereshte, to her shock, that Javid already has a wife and son.  Mansoori then takes her to meet Javid’s wife, who fears that Javid is planning to run away with Fereshte to the UK.  It turns out that Fereshte is actually a dead lookalike for Javid’s youthful flame, Mahmonir, back in 1953.  Mahmonir was a member of the Communist Tudeh party back in that period when the democratically elected Iranian President, Mohammad Mosadegh, was overthrown, and she was apparently killed during one of the disturbances that took place at that time.   

Fereshte is horrified to hear about this and realizes that she really represents merely another incarnation of Javid’s past beloved and that she is not loved for herself. She vows to fully disconnect from Javid.  When Javid comes to her to give her another ride in his car, he this time proposes marriage to her.  But Fereshte gets out of the car and runs away. 

5.  Hiding Away    
Fereshte’s world now continues to diminish.  The Islamist authorities launch the Iranian Cultural Revolution and close all the universities for four years in order to supposedly cleanse them of their secular pollution.  The authorities also break up the girls’ Communist activities.  Their cell leader, Nasrin, is arrested and executed.  And given that their activities were organized as a clandestine cell system [4], the elimination of their cell leader meant that the rest of the girls in the cell were cut off from any further contact with the larger Communist organization.  Fereshte’s cell-mates Farkhondeh and Maryam are given long prison sentences, while Zohreh manages to escape to Germany.  Fereshte, herself, manages to hide away by getting a full-time, live-in job taking care of an old lady.

Four years later Fereshte meets the old lady’s son, Khosro, who had been away studying overseas.  He helps her get back into a university when they are finally reopened, and this means overcoming the nasty interference of a Hezbollah student, Rastegar, who is familiar with her Communist past.  Eventually Khosro proposes marriage to Fereshte.

6.  Back to the Present  
The closing segment of Fereshte’s journal concerns what happened when she attended the funeral of her long-imprisoned friend Farkhondeh’s father just two days earlier.  Javid, whom Fereshte hadn’t seen for twenty years, was unexpectedly there, and they guardedly exchanged polite pleasantries.  Javid tells her that one of his only regrets is that she only listened to his wife’s claims and never gave him a chance to tell her his side of the story.  Fereshte concedes the point to herself and knows that she will always wonder what his side of the story may have been (J7). 

She closes her journal by saying that she has revealed so much about herself, her hidden half, to her husband, knowing that the information will remove her image for him of innocence and purity but hoping that it will help them love each other more as equal partners.  In order for him to love her fully, she feels, he must know all about her.  And so she finally urges him not to pre-judge the woman prisoner in Shiraz until he has fully heard that woman’s own side of the story (J8).

The final scene of the film shows Khosro at the prison listening to the woman prisoner’s story.


Although The Hidden Half shows women activists trying to exercise their right of free speech to oppose the government, the film doesn’t present explicit criticisms of the existing government.  Nevertheless, it does offer an implicit critique of the way things are run in Iranian society.  Iranian society has long been governed by people relying on a highly restrictive set of narrow-minded rules covering all aspects of human behavior.  To deal with this social coercion, Iranians have organized their lives into two  distinct social spheres – the public sphere and the private sphere.  Of course, we could say that almost all societies make this distinction, but in Iran this separation is severe [5].  In the public sphere, the coercively enforced rules and social norms place harsh restrictions on human autonomy.  But in the private sphere, which Iranians go to some lengths to maintain private, social interaction is often much more open and liberal.  The public morality guardians are not supposed to cross the domestic doorsill and intrude on more personal interactions.  This protection of the inner social life is, of course, particularly important for women, who have much more opportunity to be themselves behind closed doors.

But this situation is a difficult compromise, and Tamineh Milani sees problems arising from it, becaise it leads Iranians to often mask themselves for their own survival [2].  The separation between the public and private spheres can never be absolute, and so people must always be somewhat on guard.  This can be an impedance to authentic human interaction.  In this regard, she is implicitly asserting that we need more openness. In particular, we should ensure that our judgments of others, as suggested by the encounters listed J1...J8 above, have the widest scope and tolerance as possible for the variety of influences on human behaviour. 

We are all thinking, feeling, and loving human beings, and many of us are likely to have our own “hidden halves”, too.  We need to withhold critical judgement until we have empathically looked at all aspects of others that we encounter.  And even if we can never see that hidden half of another person, we can still accommodate the possibility that it is there, anyway.  This is a message that I doubt goes down well with the oppressive Iranian authorities, but it is something that applies to all of us, everywhere. In that sense The Hidden Half is a thoughtful piece of universal human wisdom, and Tamineh Milani and her collaborators are to be commended for it.
★★½
   
Notes:
  1. Steve Ross, “Thorn in Their Side”, The Guardian, (2 November 2001). 
  2. Richard Phillips, “Iranian director Tahmineh Milani speaks with WSWS”, World Socialist Web Site, International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), (29 September 2006).   
  3. Sandrellita, “Iranian film The Hidden Half, directed by Tahmineh Milani”, Sandrellita on Cinema and Culture, (16 March 2011).   
  4. “Clandestine cell system”, Wikipedia, (27 March 2018).    
  5. Hooman Majd, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, Anchor, (2009).

Tamineh Milani

Films of Tamineh Milani:

Dmitriy Vasilev

Films of  Dmitriy Vasilev:

Paul Wegener

Films of  Paul Wegener:
  • The Golem - Paul Wegener and Carl Boese (1920)

Robert Wiene

Films of Robert Wiene:

Willliam Wyler

Films of Willliam Wyler:

"Safety Last!" - Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor (1923)

Harold Lloyd has always been considered, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, to be one of the three iconic giants of the silent screen era.  Interestingly, all three of them invariably produced, not dramas or exciting adventures but, instead, exhilarating comedies depicting a lovable underdog in pursuit of the American Dream.  Today, though, Lloyd is the least remembered of this awesome threesome.  In fact, although Lloyd was a prolific and highly successful performer during much of the silent period, he is known today primarily for just one masterwork, Safety Last! (1923).   But that one is a gem [1].

Note that Lloyd, unlike Chaplin and Keaton, was not listed as a film director (Safety Last! was directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor); but his unique screen persona placed a singular stamp on all his films and earned him the right to be called an auteur.  In this connection it is worth comparing the screen personae of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.  All three were underdogs chasing the American Dream, but they represented three slightly different stances with respect to epic uphill struggles to succeed:
  • Charlie Chaplin was always “The Tramp”, an insouciant guttersnipe who, despite his impoverished circumstances, was often naughtily cheeky towards those lording it over him.  The dramatic contexts of his films had an emphasis on The Tramp’s low social status and his struggles against seemingly socially superior bullies.
     
  • Buster Keaton was usually a dogged and unflappably determined innocent who tenaciously struggled against seemingly overwhelming obstacles.  He was upright, straightforward, and unsophisticated – almost like a bumpkin – and less crafty than the Chaplin character. The narrative context of his struggles was often more physical than social, although this physical visual context sometimes bordered on the surreal.
             
  • Harold Lloyd, in contrast to the other two, was more hopeful, in a naive Boy Scout Tenderfoot sort of way.  He was more conventional and sociable than the other two, but we still see him on the bottom rung of whatever ladder he is climbing. He, like the Keaton character, was innocent, but he foolishly fancied himself to be an All-American, Horatio-Alger-style hero.  His struggles took place in a mixed context featuring both physical and social obstacles.
All three of them were amazingly physically dexterous in their purely visual presentation of comic scenes, but I find it hard to believe that anyone could match Lloyd’s acrobatic movements, which had the artistry of a free-form ballet dancer.

In Safety Last!, the bespectacled Lloyd plays an earnest young man from a small town who comes to the big city hoping to make his fortune.  The first three-quarters of the film comically depict the young man’s various misadventures trying to succeed.  But what elevates Safety Last! into the pantheon of movie classics is the spectacular building-scaling scene that transpires over the film’s final twenty minutes.  Nevertheless, there is an overall narrative that leads up to that illustrious sequence, and it does have its own merits.

1.  Working in the Department Store
Act 1 establishes the situation and goal of the main character.  In the opening sequence we see “The Boy” (played by Harold Lloyd) at the train station of his small town, Great Bend, and about to depart for the big city.  He confidently promises to his mother and his fiancé (Mildred Davis), aka “The Girl”, who are there to see him off, that he will send for his sweetheart and marry her just as soon as he has made some big money.  Then the scene shifts to the big city several months later where The Boy is shown sharing a flat with his friend Bill (Bill Strother), aka “The Pal”, and living in impecunious circumstances.  The Boy hasn’t gotten anywhere with his plans to make it big. The Boy works as a lowly salesman in a large department store, and Bill works as a skyscraper construction worker, but the two of them don’t even have enough money to keep up with their $7 dollars-per-week rent.  Nevertheless, The Boy writes daily letters to The Girl falsely assuring her that he is making it big.

Then there are various humorous scenes showing The Boy’s harried salesperson work conditions in the De Vore Department Store and his struggles to avoid getting fired by his pompous and domineering floor manager, Mr. Stubbs (Westcott Clarke).

2.  A New Problem
In Act 2 a couple of important events occur that will impact what happens later.  The Boy runs into an old friend on the street who is now working as a cop.  Attempting to show off his insider status with the police in front of Bill, The Boy goads Bill into giving his old hometown friend an aggressive shove.  But the prank is botched when Bill gives the shove to  the wrong cop (Noah Young), aka “The Law”, who becomes incensed and tries to collar Bill. Bill manages to get away for the moment by skilfully scaling a building wall which the angry cop cannot climb.  The cop vows to arrest Bill the next time he sees him.

Meanwhile The Girl back in Great Bend is so impressed with The Boy’s boastful claims of success that she decides to go the big city and surprise him with a visit.

3.  Showing off to The Girl
When The Girl arrives at the department store and surprises The Boy, she assumes he is the store’s manager, and he frantically struggles to keep up with that pretense.   There follows a sequence of carefully choreographed antics featuring The Boy’s efforts to just barely maintain the facade that he is indeed the general manager of the store.  This is all the more difficult due to the stern overseeing eye of the floorwalker Mr. Stubbs.  But The Boy manages to keep things going, for the moment, even sneaking in a fake reprimand of Stubbs by momentarily masquerading as the real general manager.

Finally, The Boy learns that the real general manager is willing to pay $1,000 to anyone in their organization who can mount an event that will attract a mass of customers to the department store.  The Boy, having seen his pal Bill climb up the side of a building, hits on the idea of staging a publicized daredevil event of Bill climbing up the outside of 12-story De Vore Department Store building.  If he can pull it off, The Boy will have secured his fortune.  The event is duly advertised in the daily newspaper, and a large crowd of onlookers assembles around the store.  But included among those assembled is The Law, the disgruntled cop who suspects the unnamed building climber is Bill, whom he has vowed to arrest.  Everything is set for the dramatic closing act.

4.  The Climb
Although the experienced building scaler Bill is supposed to make the climb, the threatening presence of The Law forces The Boy to commence the ascent himself.  Their hastily formulated plan is for The Boy to somehow climb up one floor of the building, at which point Bill, who will be waiting for him on the second floor, will surreptitiously assume The Boy’s identity by donning The Boy’s straw hat and horned-rim glasses and then continue the ascent from there.  But the materialization of this plan is continuously delayed, floor by floor, as the suspicious cop keeps hounding Bill and preventing him from making the clothing swap.

So The Boy keeps going, barely managing to hold onto the bricks protruding from the building wall.  This is the breathtaking sequence that everyone remembers.  To make things worse, all sorts of unexpected hindrances bedevil him all along the way up. At one point some food droppings out of an upper-level window land on his shoulders and attract a flock of aggressive pigeons.  On another occasion he becomes entangled with a tennis net that has fallen out of a window.  And when he is lying for a moment on a ledge, a mouse crawls up his pant leg and makes him shiver uncontrollably.

The continual presentation of all these perilous moments of imminent existential annihilation in Safety Last! have a cumulative effect on the viewer, perhaps especially for those like me who have an innate fear of heights.  The relentless exposure not just to the possibilities of death but to the opportunities of self-obliteration when looking over a precipice provide a nonverbal and intuitive feeling for the preciousness of each moment of life, itself.  This is not something that occurs to the rational mind, but is more like a Zen Buddhist moment of satori [2].  Perhaps we are all unknowingly like “The Boy” in this film and almost blithely unaware of how near the advent of non-existence is to us at every moment.  We must fully and positively engage in this world for every moment we are able to live in it.  So these alarming moments in a supposedly comic film may give to Safety Last! almost a spiritual dimension for some viewers.

Of course the most memorable moment, and perhaps the most famous image of the silent era, comes when The Boy desperately hangs by his hands from the minute-hand of a building clock.  All of these occurrences are brilliantly filmed, and one can’t help wondering how they managed to do it in the age before special effects.

In fact reading about some of the production details draws even more amazement [3].  Lloyd performed essentially all the shots without a stunt man, and he was exactly as high up above the street as he appeared on film.  They did have a scaffolding platform for safety two or three floors below him and just out of camera range. But when they one time performed a test of a fall with a dummy, the dummy bounced off the platform and fell to the street below. And to top it off, Lloyd was handicapped by having had the thumb and forefinger of his right hand blown off in an accident a year or so earlier (this handicap is masked in the film by a glove that Lloyd wore).

This whole spectacular climbing sequence is not only the highlight of the film, it was the basis  for making of the film in the first place.  Lloyd had seen Bill Strother, known as “The Human Spider”, climb the outside of a building in Los Angeles as a publicity stunt and immediately proposed making a film with Strother (who was not an actor but who plays the role of Bill, The Pal, in the film).  In fact they shot the last act of the film first, before even having a full story worked out for the preceding acts [3].

It all works.  And it is not only the brilliant performance of Harold Lloyd that makes the film outstanding. The camera work and continuity editing are extraordinarily well done throughout the film, making it all fit together as an almost seamless narrative.  There is even a well-executed backward tracking shot in the film that show Lloyd being followed by the suspicious cop.

In the end The Boy makes it to the top of the building and gets his prize.  The Girl is waiting for him, and they passionately embrace at the close of the film.  Lloyd got his prize at the end in real life, too – he married his co-star, Mildred Davis, in early 1923 after the shooting of Safety Last! was complete.


Notes:
  1. Roger Ebert, “Safety Last”, RogerEbert.com, (3 July 2005).   
  2. Daisetz T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, Princeton University Press, (1959). 
  3. Richard W. Bann, “Safety Last”, National Film Preservation Board, Library of Congress, (n.d.).