Straight Shooting – 1917

Straight Shooting was John Ford’s first feature film, and at times it feels strongly like someone’s first film. This is mostly apparent in the first hour, which is concerned with providing an introduction to the cast of characters, meaning simple shots and title cards all over the place, spending a great deal of time setting up the film’s primary conflict. It’s not an elegant or particularly efficient way to do it, and it feels a bit like the person behind the camera is learning as they go. The setup feels like a first draft, a first run at trying to establish something, and if it’s surprisingly dull and anti-cinematic, well, that’s why. Ford would get better at this sort of thing – seemingly during the production of this film, in fact – but it can feel like he’s learning as he goes along.

The setup is that there are farmers and ranchers. The ranchers, lead by Thunder Flint (Duke Lee), dislike a particular farmer, Sweet Water Sims (George Berrell), and want him to get off his land. They buy all the streams and prevent Sweet Water from getting his sweet water. Then they plan on shooting him. There’s a rogue element in Cheyenne Harry (Harry Carey), a gun for hire who is initially brought on to help get rid of Sims.

The film doesn’t really get going until a scene in a bar, with Harry and a rancher named Placer Fremont (Vester Plegg) trying to match each other drink for drink. It’s a great scene, using alcohol as a way to have the men push each other further and reveal things in their character. It’s a scene that relies heavily on the actors’ performances, as the characters try to assert domination over each other – Plegg plays an excellent weasel – and it works as the film in miniature.This is where the film starts moving, and once it does it becomes a solid bit of storytelling.

There’s still a feeling that people in the early silents were making it up as they went along. Sometimes this results in genius, such as a shot with a long-distance assassination, with both the assassin and victim in frame, the victim barely visible in the corner. It’s a clever way to depict an execution that is done better than many modern films, but it also feels risky and new, even today when the shot is 100 years old. Sometimes the results are not as good, like in the climax, which is staged for maximum chaos but without much thought as to how to actually film it. There are a lot of stunts – a succession of people being pulled off of horses, for example – which are interesting in theory but sometimes barely in frame, thrown in because the stunts are exciting. Chaos is exciting, but Ford hadn’t cracked the code of how to actually film chaos at this point, though he gets close – he throws in a ton of insert shots of vases breaking near actors, a good way to have a high impact way of showing gun shots. Still, wide shots of men on horses riding in circles isn’t as thrilling as it could be.

There is some acting that seems a bit cheesy to modern audiences – the death scenes are amusingly over-dramatic – and some flaws in the way it’s filmed, but once it gets going the film holds up better than you would expect. It’s the most American genre with the most American story – plucky underdogs taking on the well dressed oppressors – made by the most American director, John Ford. There is enough good here to overcome the flaws.

Playing games: Beyond Two Souls

I own too many games. I admit this, it’s a weakness and perhaps a bit of an addiction, but on the upside I don’t do heroin. As a result of this, and as a flimsy way to justify my excessive number of games, I will now do a brief review of any games I happen to finish. The majority will not be new – some will be very old, in fact – and this is not going to be particularly interested in keeping up with current trends or products. It also won’t be something that is done on a consistent or regular basis, as I have no idea when a game might be finished, some might be long, some might be short. The first game in this ongoing yet sporadically updated series will be Beyond: Two Souls, a game I purchased for $3. It was not designed as a budget title, so the purchase price should tell you something about its actual quality.

Beyond: Two Souls has very high production values. The graphics are very good, the characters all look like their real life actors, the environments are believable and well designed. A team of people spent a lot of time and money making this game look as beautiful as they could make it.They hired Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe to play the main characters. Which makes it extra amazing that it’s absolutely awful.

The game controls so badly that it could be used by SGI to demonstrate to teenagers the decreased amount of ability they have after drinking. The plot makes absolutely no sense, even by the standards of its weird internal logic. The player has little to no impact into what actually happens in the game, it’s so heavy on story sequences that it becomes a bad TV series interrupted by parts where a drunk person has to walk across a room with great difficulty. It is obsessed with suicide, to the point where, during one sequence, I accidentally stumbled onto ways for the main character to kill herself three times. Character motivations turn on a dime and are built around dumbfounding twists.

There are two ways to play, you can either control both Jodie and her ghost friend Aiden, or play it with a friend where one of you is Jodie and the other is Aiden – which is how I played it. You never play both at the same time, however, so you’ve got a clever co-op mechanic that’s not actually used to benefit anyone or make the game more interesting. Of course, long stretches of the game make it so you’re not playing at all, just watching the plot unfold and occasionally pressing a button to prove you’re still awake. If you take too long to press a button the game just decides for you, which may make you kiss someone as the game desperately tries to build a romance subplot with a male character who is both a bit of a jerk and your boss, which makes it all weird and gross.

At one point there’s a stealth section which seems really cool in theory – your ghost friend sets up a path for you to go through by throwing barrels and taking over people – but then you get caught on a barrier because of the bad controls and your girlfriend, who is playing as the ghost, gets frustrated because her controls are equally awful and she can’t find the barrel needed to distract the enemies. It’s like the game goes out of its way to avoid being any fun.

At another point you get to go on a magical journey with a family of Denee people who are haunted by ancient ghosts, which seems like it would catch someone’s notice if they drove through Monument Valley at night, which is where this family lives. It also really seems to want to make your ghost friend violent, which annoyed my very nice and peace-loving significant other, who would have greatly preferred being a “nice ghost.” You can resist this urge, but then you’re spending a ton of time not doing anything.

It’s not as though games where you don’t do very much aren’t valid works of art, of course. Telltale Games has made a business out of narrative games that play mostly with player decisions and the consequences of choices. The difference is that their choices feel as though they have some weight, their games control reasonably well and, most importantly, they feel as though they’re doing something that could only really work if it’s interactive – they get dramatic weight out of making you choose what happens in the story, so even if they’re effectively making TV series’ they gain something by being interactive. The problem with Beyond: Two Souls is that it doesn’t seem as if the team behind it really wanted to make something interactive, instead they wanted to make a TV show and were stuck trying to graft gameplay onto it after the fact. The choices come late and they don’t really make sense for the narrative, choices earlier in the game should block off some options but don’t, and the choose your ending setup doesn’t make sense as a result. There’s also the fact that the story they’re trying to tell is honestly pretty bad.

Plus it ends on a cliffhanger. Nothing in storytelling is worse than an unearned cliffhanger.

Chaplin Double Feature

I did not forget about this. Instead, I saw the chance for a lot of Chaplin shorts in the future of this feature and decided to string them together until I had a film that was not Chaplin related at all (which will be 1917’s Straight Shooting, if you’re keeping track). So, here we have two Chaplin shorts, both of which are similar enough that talking about them both simultaneously made the most sense.

To talk about both of these features is to talk about the Tramp, who gives the earlier film, The Tramp, its title and is Chaplin’s most famous character. It holds up, even if his films are antiquated, because it’s still a character that’s used in comedy to this day. Our modern tramps might not look like Chaplin’s, who dresses like the discard pile at a film studio’s costume department – that’s not even entirely inaccurate, since his costume was made out of pieces Chaplin found that would exaggerate proportions and just look wrong together – and has a mustache which gained unfortunate connotations in the 1930s – something Chaplin himself used to great effect in The Great Dictator. But they maintain the spirit of the character, who is just sympathetic enough to root for, but not so sympathetic that we can’t laugh when he falls in a bucket of water for the fifth time.

In The Tramp, our tramp rescues a girl from a roving band of miscreants and then starts working at her father’s farm, where he also has to foil a robbery by the same men who attacked the woman. The second, The Vagabond, casts him as a poor violinist who winds up saving a girl from a roving band of gypsys – played so broad and stereotypical that modern audiences could become uncomfortable – before she is painted by a passing artist and reunited with her families. Both are used as excuses for pratfalls, which is to be expected, for that is what people paid to see when they watched a Chaplin film. The man hitting people over the head with a big stick in the Vagabond is a solid bit of slapstick, especially as he hits more and more people – it’s a rare gag that gets funnier with repetition.

Both shorts feature Chaplin as a director, and here he’s not especially adventurous with the camera. It’s immobile, cutting between set scenes rather than moving with the actors. That does lead to a weird moment in The Tramp, where a pond seems to appear out of nowhere as the location shifts. It’s a pretty typical silent film style, of course, and Chaplin frequently uses a static frame as a way to set up a gag – chase scenes around objects are a clear favorite, right up to using a full-sized building as a barrier. The Tramp also uses film tinting as a way to indicate the time of day – a blue tint indicates night, an orange one indicates either that it’s evening or that night but the house has its lights on – which is clearly a way to work around the limitations of early film but does provide a welcome splash of colour. Chaplin also chafes at the limits of silent film with The Vagabond, since he brings musical characters into a film made before sync sound was invented – while it’s difficult to tell what it would have been like to watch the film in 1916, one thinks it would have benefitted from a consistent soundtrack across all showings, there are ample opportunities for extra gags in the music (the print I watched also didn’t have the greatest soundtrack recorded for it.)

It’s also notable that the films don’t just end with everyone falling over. The Tramp’s ending is best described as bittersweet, while The Vagabond has a last-minute twist that changes the same idea into a happy one. Chaplin is interested in more than just people falling over, even if that’s his primary concern for most of the running time, he also wants to explore how people relate to the hero of the film. It doesn’t take up a huge amount of the runtime, but it does reflect that he’s thinking of the Tramp as more than a setup for gags but instead as a complete person. He’s still primarily interested in the gag, but he’s also interested in making people care about the characters beyond the gag. We root for the Tramp because we like him, and the laughs are more effective because he’s making the character into a person rather than just someone who gets himself into wacky situations. That makes the gags funnier too.