Cops (1922)

The second entry in our ongoing Short Film Month is an example of Buster Keaton as a short film actor and producer in his film Cops.

Buster Keaton in Cops (1922)

Buster Keaton started producing, directing and writing his own films (often in collaboration with Edward Cline) around 1920. Before that, he had usually acted as a sidekick to “Fatty” Arbuckle in films like The Bell Boy (1918). In his own films, Keaton started experimenting with more sophisticated stories and stunts. In a historical retrospect, the short films of the first few years can be seen as preparation for the true masterworks that were to follow in the shape of his feature-length films, such as Our Hospitality (1923) or Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

Cops is about a man whose girlfriend threatens to leave him unless he shows some initiative and starts a business. Chance throws him into the moving business, and from there on it is chaos. When Buster accidentally happens to throw a bomb(!) at a police parade, things quickly escalate into one of the most celebrated chase sequences in all of Hollywood history.

Like many other silent films at the Internet Archive, the visually best version of Cops does not have a soundtrack. If that bothers you, there is also a version with a soundtrack, but considerably inferior image quality.

Below, I list other Keaton films at the Internet Archive from the same period as Cops. Technical quality varies.

This film is best enjoyed for the magnificent stunts.

Buster Keaton in Cops (1922)

Cops
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Year: 1922
Running time: 18 min
Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (157 M)

The Stars Look Down (1940)

There is something about British film, and I just cannot seem to put my finger on what it is. For one thing, a film with such pronounced social relism as The Stars Look Down could never have been made by a major Hollywood studio. Just compare it with John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath from the same year, which is an excellent film but much more romanticized.

Mine workers rioting in The Stars Look Down (1940)

But there is something else as well. Even when looking at a film such as Q Planes (1939), a film which is clearly influenced by Hollywood in terms of theme and dramaturgy, there is a kind of British fingerprint. It seems to me that there is something in the dialogue and body language of the actors, and it lies beyond superficial things like that lovely British accent.

But let us go back to The Stars Look Down. Davey lives in a small English town. He works in the coal mine, just like his father and his brother, but his sharp intelligence has earned him a scholarship at a university, and he starts to become politically active. Love gets in the way of his academic aspirations, but there are still important fights to fight for his fellow coal miners.

The Stars Look Down is not only a film about the hard life of the miners. It is also about the conflicts between family and career, between different social classes, and between profit and maximum welfare for all.

The edition available at the Internat Archive is, unfortunately, the American release, which has minor but unnecessary changes at the beginning and end, making it significantly more romanticized, melodramatic, even. Speaking of differences between British and American film.

This film is best enjoyed for its believable and warm portrayal of the lives of English miners. It handles all of its various themes well, and weaves them together into a balanced whole, but the beginning and end, which let us into the miners’ lives, are clearly the high points of a very good film.

Michael Redgrave in The Stars Look Down (1940)

The Stars Look Down
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Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 34 min
Director: Carol Reed
Stars: Michael Redgrave
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (700 M)

The Corporation (2003)

Pollution. Underpaid workers. Control of the media. Contempt of governments and courts. Patenting of genetic information. Those are only a few of the problems caused by today’s global corporations, corporations that claim to have the same rights (but not always the same responsibilities) as living persons.

This is what The Corporation is about, a Canadian documentary trying to convey the message that corporations have become far too powerful to actually do good for society. It is an extremely well produced documentary. It is clear that it was made by professionals, and also that it must have had a high budget for that kind of film. Many celebrities critical of corporations appear, including Michael Moore, Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky, each with his/her own angle on the subject matter.

"Harm to human beings: Toxic waste" from The Corporation (2003)

Though this is a relevant film with an important message, it is most interesting to me personally for two reasons. One is that it puts the corporation into a historical perspective. In fact, I would have liked to see an entire film devoted to that subject alone, as it is only briefly sketched here. The other reason is that it focuses on the corporations as entities and tries to tell us why those entities become a menace to society, even though the people in them may be good and well-meaning.

The story is told from a very American perspective, and even though it was produced in Canada, focus is very much on the US. We Europeans like to think that we do not have the same kinds of problems with commercialization that the US does, but it is important to remember (as the film reminds us several times) that these are global corporations. Therefore, whatever problems these corporations cause in the US, or in their Asian sweatshops, those become problems in Europe, too. Or in Africa. Or wherever you happen to be.

If there is a problem with The Corporation, it is mainly that the film tries to cover too much ground. There are so many threads going in all kinds of directions that it is impossible to pull it all together into closure. Instead the film ends in what is perhaps a little bit cliché, as we are fed the message that yes, we can do it! If we work together, we can do it! And maybe that is just not true? Only time will tell.

This film is best enjoyed when seen together with the documentaries Orwell Rolls in His Grave and Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room from around the same time. These three films tackle different aspects of what is basically the same cluster of problems. When seen together they help to provide a larger picture, and even though they cannot subscribe to the absolute truth, they show that many people see the same kinds of things from different perspectives.

"Bow your heads. The corporation will now lead us in prayer." Anti-corporate demonstration in The Corporation (2003)

The Corporation
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Year: 2003
Running time: 2 h 26 min
Directors: Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×368)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: DivX (700 M + 699 M – 2 parts)

Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

On the Internet Archive, there are quite a good number of well-made documentaries from the past ten-or-so years. One of them is Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room. As the title implies, it is about the rise and fall of the energy corporation Enron.

The Enron offices in Houston, Texas, from Enron - The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

The Enron scandal, unravelled shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001, is considered to be one of the worst cases of corporate fraud ever committed. As a result of the scandal, tens of thousands of employees and private shareholders lost huge savings, in many cases resulting in personal disaster.

The documentary points out three major perpetrators to Enron’s criminal and unethical actions: The founder and CEO Ken Lay, President Jeff Skilling, and Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow.

The narrative structure of Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room is fairly straight-forward by today’s standards. A narrator guides us past many interviews, TV news clippings and senate hearings, as well as various audio and video recordings for internal Enron use. There are also interior and exterior shots of the main offices, and of course the mandatory flashbacks to education and early careers of the central persons.

The whole mix is presented in a believable and appealing way. The conclusions, including some interesting speculation on what caused so much callousness and greed, seem to hold up when I double-check some other Internet sources on the subject.

This film is best enjoyed if you have been pondering questions of good versus evil in mankind and want some more food for thought.

Enron's Jeff Skilling from Enron - The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room
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Year: 2005
Running time: 1 h 49 min
Director: Alex Gibney
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Medium (720×416)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.5 G)