Comedy

Neighbors (Nicholas Stoller, USA, 2014)

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neighbors

 

Coarse, vulgar, cheap, low: Neighbors is a very big hit and a very depressing sight. It’s as if the terrain mined by Porky’s in the early 80’s has now become the only vein American comedy excels at: tit jokes, pissing contests, cock measurements, passing out with drink, getting high on anything. You can’t blame the very attractive cast. Most of them are comedians; and who could blame a comedian for stooping to a laugh? Moreover it’s funny: the audience reaction is proof of it. It is in fact also very intelligent and has some good lines (‘He looks like something a gay guy designed’, say Seth Rogen’s character of Zac Affron’s). But there’s the rub for me: all that intelligence, all that comedic talent… for what? Tit jokes? Even ‘with a twist’? In the words of Jonathon Gatehouse, ‘Everywhere you look these days, America is in a race to embrace the stupid’. Neighbors is just one more example. A sad commentary on American Comedy and on America itself.

 

José Arroyo

Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, USA, 1941)

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sullivan's travels

Joel McCrea is John Lloyd Sullivan, the very successful director of Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1939 who has decided that he cannot continue making frivolous, light films in a world where Europe’s at war and where there’s so much unemployment and misery in America, not when he’s got the greatest educational tool ever invented by man at his disposal: movies!

He convinces his studio bosses to let him make ‘O Brother, Where Art Though?’, a film about the plight of the common people; realistic, pedagogical, depressing. ‘I want this picture to be a document! I want to hold a mirror up to life! I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!’ Nothing could terrify the movie moguls more, but Sullivan is so successful that they have no choice but to agree to let him make it, though he in turn concedes to put ‘a little sex in it’.

When the studio bosses point out that the reason he makes such light, optimistic and successful films is that he’s had a privileged life –what does he know about misery? — Sullivan decides to dress as a tramp, go on the road, and find out. At first everything conspires to bring him back to Hollywood, but then, just as he feels he’s done enough research and he’s out handing out dollar bills to those less fortunate than he who helped him on his quest, events conspire to send him to jail, put him in a prison chain-gang and teach him what real misery is really like. As he learns that, he also learns the value of the light, the frivolous – what joy, laughter and entertainment can bring to a world full of misery — i.e. he learns the value of his own work.

In many ways Sullivan’s Travels is a self-serving and self-affirming film, with Sturges and Hollywood patting themselves on the back for doing exactly what they’ve always done. But it’s also a marvelously entertaining film that shoots the audience with such a quick, smart, and witty spray of jokes that you might miss out if you’re not quick on the uptake. It’s great to see a film that assumes each individual member of the audience is the smartest and brightest person in any room.

Sullivan’s Travels successfully satirises Hollywood and the audience’s own trivial sentimentalising of the poor whilst offering quite a critique of: Hollywood’s pretensions; the issue of class in America; the inadequate system of poor relief, with prayer often being the price – non-negotiable – of a floor to sleep in and a bite to eat; and the brutality of prison chain-gangs. It might even have tried to critique race, certainly the NAACP commended it in 1942; though what the film does on this score now sits a bit uncomfortably.

David Thomson has written that ‘Sullivan’s Travels falls flat when it tries to move from comedy to pathos.’[1]I’m not sure I agree with him. Firstly, I don’t think the film sets out for pathos. It tries to reveal poverty and injustice, to make the audience aware of it, but not to induce pathos, or at least not until Sullivan himself is imprisoned and seems to have no way out. Until then, we see the misery from the outside; from Sullivan’s eyes, but the eyes of an outsider whose experiences are purely optional; and the jokes, the winks, the acknowledgment that even your brothers in the soup-kitchen can steal the very shoes from your feet unless you have eyes in the back of your head and can see whilst sleeping, all take priority over the arousal of emotion.

Pathos has no bigger enemy than laughter. But it’s Sturges choice not his lack. Personally, I rejoice in that choice. When McCrea, feverish and trembly from illness, reiterates his convictions as if a spirit of daffy do-gooding giddiness has taken hold of him in Church —  ‘nothing is going to stop me. I’m going to find out how it feels to be in trouble. Without friends, without credit, without checkbook, without name. Alone’ — he’s irresistible; as close to reaching the endearingly irrational heights of the great  screwball dames (Colbert, Hepburn, Lombard) as any male actor except for Cary Grant.

Andrew Sarris indirectly touches on this and attributes it not only to McCrea but also to Sturges. In fact he sees it as a characteristic of Sturges’ work: ‘It is as if his characters were capable of being lit from within by the cartoonist’s device of the instantly ignited light-bulb in the hero’s skull. Joel McCrea’s movie director in Sullivan’s Travels experiences and expresses such a flash of practical creativity at the stirring moment in the film when he proclaims himself to be his own murderer’.[2] Although I don’t quite agree with Thomson that the film falls flat when it moves from comedy to pathos, the film’s various changes in tone and register, seem to catch the audience by surprise.

There are those who delight in the surprise. Steven J. Schneider in his appreciation of the film in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die has written that the script is a tour de force and ‘brings together a remarkable range of genres, including slapstick, action, melodrama, social documentary, romance, musical and prison movie.’[3] But there are also others who have found in these shifts, a loose and shambly shapelessness. Manny Farber called Sullivan’s Travels ‘immature in its philosophy, formless and without a single discernible characterization; but it had an astonishing display of film technique.[4]

We can agree on the philosophy and on the astonishing technique; but as to the rest, I’ve already mentioned McCrea and his performance as Sullivan and I find the film formally clever too, beginning at the end of an ‘entertainment’ with a fight scene on a train that’s still thrilling, and later, near the end, signaling clearly to the audience that the film is at a turning point and that it needs to unravel the tangle of plot its gotten itself into before the closing credits. The montage with which it does so is a marvel of narrative economy that can still thrill those who are interested in visual story-telling.

Veronica Lake is ‘The Girl’. She’s given no name. And this might have been part of why Farber accuses the film of ‘lacking characterization’. However, ‘The Girl’ is a function rather than a character and thus needs no name and no characterization, though Veronica Lake is a very memorable look and presence in it. Moreover, she matches up with McCrea beautifully, the disparity in their height alone creating an element of comedy that doesn’t intrude on the romance needed to put ‘a little sex in it’. It’s also joy to see all the Sturges stalwarts: William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore and other wonderful comic actors who would have been just as famous to audiences of the period as the stars.

There are scenes that still linger in the mind: the opening sequence, the sex-starved sister locking McCrea in his room, the first real experience of a Hooverville, the black parishioners singing ‘Let My People Go’, the pettiness of the bureaucrat in the train station, the injustice of the court, the brutality of the chief of the chaing-gang.

Sturges achieves what the film says on one level isn’t possible; a film that both documents and critique its time — brimming with social relevance — that teaches us a lesson on the social conditions of the Depression, the filmmaking practices of the Hollywood of the period and on how brilliant and bright American comedy once was – directed by one of its greatest practitioners — but with some feeling, thrills, chills, lots of laughs ‘and a little sex in it’.

José Arroyo

*** Film buffs might be interested in knowing that, according to Pauline Kael, ‘Sturges himself can be glimpsed behind Veronica Lake on a set inside the movie studio’.[5]


[1] David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, London: Little and Brown, 2002, p. 846.
[2] Andrew Sarris, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949, Oxord: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 323
[3] Steven J. Schneider, ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ Steven Jay Schneider, General Editor, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, London: A Quintet Book, 2004, p. 180.
[4] Manny Farber, Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, edited by Robert Polito, A Special Publication of the Library of America, 2009, p. 40.
[5] Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982, p. 568.

What’s New Pussycat? (Clive Donner, USA, 1965)

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Romy Schneider in a Blue Angel Hat but evoking a sweetness and innocence forever outside Dietrich's powers.
Romy Schneider in a Blue Angel hat but evoking a sweetness and innocence forever outside Dietrich’s powers.

Coarse, stupid, vulgar: What’s New Pussycat is a film that speaks its time — a culture on the cusp of a sexual revolution made possible by easily available contraception — and vomits up the most misogynist aspects of it. The film gets its title from Warren Beatty’s customary greeting to the women who phoned him. Beatty was initially set to play the protagonist,  Michael James, a playboy in love with his girlfriend but unable to resist the lure of other women and seeking help for this from a psychiatrist (a role initially set for Groucho Marx but here played by Peter Sellers) who’s got problems of his own.

O'Toole in a dream sequence, whipping away all the women who are after his body
O’Toole in a dream sequence, whipping away all the women who are after his body

In his brilliant biography of Beatty, Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, Peter Biskind writes of how Beatty had three reservations about the project as it was being developed: Woody Allen, who was writing the film, kept enlarging his part, initially just a few lines, at the expense of the protagonist’s; the casting of Capucine, who was then producer Charles K. Feldman’s girlfriend; and lastly, in his own words, that ‘My character had turned into some neo-Nazi Ubermensch who was unkind to women’.

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This is the body Capucine, Paula Prentiss, Ursula Andress and Romy Schneider can’t resist?

Beatty threatened to walk out of the project unless these problems were resolved. Feldman, who was Beatty’s great friend and mentor, shocked him by using Beatty’s threat as an opportunity to re-cast in favour of Peter O’Toole, fresh from Lawrence of Arabia and Becket and then much bigger box-office. But Beatty was right: Woody Allen’s part adds nothing to the story; Capucine is beautiful to look at but painful to watch; and the character of Michael James, even as played by Peter O’Toole, is indeed unkind to women, though not as hatefully as the film itself.

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The kind of film where Ursula Andress parachutes directly into O’Toole’s passenger seat.

The women in the film aren’t people, they’re dolls, some of them barely sentient, designed to fulfill different male fears or desires: there’s the fat Brünhilde (Edra Gale) who sings Wagner as she charges after her husband, Dr. Fritz Fassbender (Peter Sellers); the frigid ‘poetess’ who’s a virgin but only on one side of the Atlantic (Paula Prentiss, redeemed by her expressive low voice, a hoarseness that expresses more humanity than any of the shit she’s made to utter); the nympho with sadistic impulses (Capucine); the dangerous dream with leopard-skin mittens and a shark-skin body-suit who parachutes right onto the hero’s 1936-7 Singer 9 Le Mans racing car (Ursula Andress); and the lusciously pretty hausfrau girlfriend, who suffers, waits, and thinks only of getting a fixed date for her wedding (Romy Schneider, who against all odds, succeeds in making her character into a human being).

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The film loves O’Toole’s blue eyes more than its female stars.

Peter Sellers gets top billing but is an unfunny blank. A young, even boyish, Woody Allen, whose film debut this is, does his usual lascivious schtick. These two comic ‘geniuses’ can barely get a laugh between them, and certainly not one that doesn’t make at least this viewer feel diminished as a human being. The film is more in love with Peter O’Toole’s blue eyes than it is with any of its female stars. We’re meant to find him adorable even when he takes his shirt off to reveal a chest that is both droopy and scrawny or when he dances like a shaky stick howling at the moon begging for rhythm. O’Toole, however, also brings a lovely stillness juxtaposed with bursts of theatricality that both centres and sparks the film and makes it bearable.

Paula Prentiss in paisley
Paula Prentiss in paisley

 

What’s Up Pussycat? was a top-ten box-office success in 1965, the year that The Sound of Music topped the list. Although it is set in France, it very much evokes the look and attitudes of ‘Swinging London’ not only in its inventive visuals (the animated sequence at the beginning) but also formally (the self-reflexive pop elements of the speech purporting to be a vehicle for the author’s thought indicated through a flashing title; the dream sequence). Today it is probably best remembered for Tom Jones’s singing of the title tune. Fans of the Bacharach-David songbook will also enjoy an early version of ‘Little Red Book’ and the great Dionne Warwick singing ‘Here I Am’. Pop fans of the period may also delight in seeing Françoise Hardy crop up as the Mayor’s assistant. Those interested in film history might also see in this producer’s package an early antecedent to the Simpson-Bruckheimer High Concept cinema of the 1980.

In spite of the above, it is very difficult to see What’s Up Pussycat? today except as an exercise in a male privilege so entrenched it is oblivious to its own ugliness.

José Arroyo

Humpday (Lynn Shelton, USA, 2009)

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Two friends from college, Ben (Mark Duplassis) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard), meet up after several years, get stoned at a party and, as a result of a dare, decide that they are going to make a gay porn film starring themselves engaging in anal sex as an ‘art’ project. The whole film revolves around this question: ‘what would it be like for two men who are really straight to fuck?’ But it doesn’t fully engage with it because its answer is ‘if they’re really straight, why would they want to?’, which is how the film ends i.e. them not ‘doing’ it is just as much proof that they’re unpressured, unbiased, etc. as if they had; after all, they did consider it.

Much of the film’s humour comes from exploring questions such as: Who’s going to fuck whom? Will they be able to get an erection? What does it say about them if they do? etc. Thus the dynamic of desire and power relations, psychic and social, private and public, spontaneous or commodified, in relation to performing, feeling and/or watching, are humorously explored. But of course it is not so unusual for straight people, even of the same sex, to engage in sexual relations of great inequality, sometimes with a will to dominate, and for money. In fact, it’s a whole sub-genre of gay porn.

But if Humpday feels a bit of a cop-out at the end, I in no way found it offensive, which had been my great fear at the beginning.  It’s an interesting, amiable, shaggy film and in its own way a great example of mumblecore cinema.  It gives viewers a good idea of what ordinary people in an artistic community, at least insofar as any artistic community might be considered ordinary, around Seattle might be like (they don’t have the perfect teeth you see in American TV and movies, for example), how they talk (intelligently, sensitively, gently and with humour) and what they talk about (love, politics, sex, gender and homophobia) but one that promises depth it doesn’t quite deliver on. Visually, Hump Day is unremarkable but it’s an engaging dramatization of an idea that is greatly helped by the wit, affability and charm of its director and its performers.

José Arroyo

We’re The Millers (Rawson Marshall Thurber, USA, 2013)

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Comedy’s a wonderful thing. It can cut the rich and powerful down to size, deflate the pompous, make us question our institutions, our relationships and even ourselves. Nothing is outside its scope; and everyone is always grateful for a laugh; but who or what a work asks us to laugh at, what it asks us to laugh about; and how it makes us laugh can all vary enormously and are grounds on which it may be evaluated.

By such criteria, American movie comedy is in terrible shape. I thought The Heat earned its laughs but trafficked way too much in the crude, the base and the cheap. The level’s just as low in We’re The Millers but the laughs don’t come as quickly or as heartily: it’s all stupid Mexican drug dealers, big black dicks, anal penetration, gay jokes and making fun of lower-middle-class squares who ride in camper vans and pray. Fart jokes are about the only thing missing.

The premise is sitcom-y but serviceable; drug dealer David Clark (Jason Sudelkis), Rose O’Reilly (Jennifer Aniston) the stripper next door,  Kenny (Will Poulter), a latch-key kid who also lives in the building but whose mom has run off, and Casey (Emma Robets) the local homeless girl, pretend to be a family in order to smuggle drugs from Mexico into the US. Of course, as they pretend to be a family so they become one; and the film serves a stodgy mix of sentimentality, shoot-outs, and car-chases all stirred with a barrage of jokes and gags: some of them hit.

We’re the Millers never raises itself above the gutter. Though the audience I saw it with couldn’t help but chuckle; indeed, we’re so hungry for a laugh, we may be grateful for anything that approximates it, watching the film is a sad affair.

Jennifer Aniston’s very fit, but all her mannerisms are known to us from Friends, a connection Anniston’s been trying to run away from for the last twenty years but which the film exploits in the gag reel at the end. Rose is not a character; she’s simply Rachel, twenty-years later, reduced to stripping, smuggling, worse jokes and cheaper gags.

Sudelkis and Poulter are new to me and a bright spot in the film; Sudelkis has an intelligent, emotionally open face that can look straight at the audience right through the camera and then go right back into the situation (accent on situation — there’s nothing dramatically believable here) without missing a beat; and he’s got an ear for speaking that beat: his timing’s ace. Will Poulter is an even happier discovery; the audience I saw the film embraced everything he did; he’s emotionally transparent, and though he’s got the gauche, thin physique of an adolescent, he moves gracefully and manages to maintains his and the character’s dignity even when a director sends a tarantula up his trousers. He’s a real find and could become a big new star if judiciously cast.

Director Rawson Marshall Thurber has a good ear for a joke and a good eye for a gag but I wish he’d use that eye and that ear to better ends than We’re the Millers.  American cinema used to make us laugh whilst also making us want to be like the people we were laughing at and with; it satirized the culture whilst making us yearn to be a part of it. You’ll laugh at the Millers and their world; but you wouldn’t want be them and you certainly wouldn’t like to live as and where they do.

José Arroyo

Labyrinth of Passion (A note on) (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 1982)

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The film is over thirty years old now, still potent, and now seems a lot darker than it used to, with the incest and the rapes taking on a different significance in the light of Almodóvar’s subsequent work. I first saw it in the mid-1980s at a packed midnight screening at the Alphaville cinema in Madrid where the audience itself made the event seem a party for and a celebration of what the film represented (a new way of being in a new Spain) and of themselves (a postmodern coalition of dissident youth cultures, gay and straight, with a shared view of the past and shared hopes for the future). The audience knew all the lines and uttered them before the characters in the film did, with the appearances of Fabio de Miguel as Fanny McNamara being greeted with particular enthusiasm (he remains a highlight, his very presence a witty and forceful protest against domineering institutions and homogenizing ideology).

fanny

This 25th of July, over thirty years later, it was the opening film at Kitoks Kinas, the LGBT film festival in Vilnius, introduced by His Excellency Don Miguel Arias Estévez in front a whole host of dignitaries (Ambassadors from The Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Denmark etc.). Lithuania is going through a transition not unlike what Spain went through in the 1980s. The right to a Gay Pride March through Vilnius City Centre was against the wishes of the City’s Mayor, had to be fought all the way through to the Supreme Court, and was won only just before the march itself, which took place in the face of vociferous right-wing opposition. It was an honour to be there and to participate. The Spanish Ambassador gave a witty and elegant introduction to the film explaining why it had been chosen to open the LGBT film festival in Vilnius and what it had meant to his generation in Spain.

Labyrinth of Passion was never a masterpiece. It is technically rough and the shoe-string budget (reported then at 20 million pesetas) is everywhere evident. However, it’s still cheeky, corrosive, queer punk at its best. Worth seeing for many reasons not least Fabio McNamara, early appearances from mainstays of Spanish-speaking film and TV such as Immanol Arias and Cecilia Roth and Antonio Banderas’ very first appearance on film, already fearless as an actor and clearly a star from the get-go, as a gay Muslim terrorist with pictures of the Ayatollah on his wall and an unerring sense of smell.

The scene with the sniffing of the nail polish, and the one where Almodóvar himself directs Fanny in a fotonovela where Fanny is pleasured by having his heart and his guts drilled, are still hilarious (and we get to see Almodóvar and McNamara in a rare, crudely camp performance of ‘Satanasa’ as well). And of course, all of Almodóvar’s themes (sexual identity, gender, uncontrollable desires, consumer culture, various kinds of violations, etc) are already present, some in scenes that recur and get better executed in later films (for example, the chase to the airport that we later see in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but many others as well).

 

Seeing the film again all these years later made me reflect on camp humour, and how the film’s deployment of it now seems so culturally specific. The film went over well but not brilliantly in Vilnius and I suspect it’s because some of the humour is simply untranslatable. One of the things that fascinates me about camp is that the structure of its operations seems to be transnational, you find it almost everywhere, certainly everywhere I’ve been to. But its specific manifestations are often highly coded, work on various levels simultaneously and only manifest to a few, those in the know. The reference points to La Movida, the pop and underground culture of the era, even the narrative woven by Hola (Hello magazine) throughout the 1960s about the tragedy of the Shah of Iran having to divorce Soraya, the woman he loved, because she couldn’t bear him children, the basis for the film’s story, all of these sets of knowledges that enhance one’s appreciation of the film, I don’t find to be essential.

However, much of the camp humour in Labyrinth of Passion comes not only from situation, which is relatively easy to get, in spite of missing specific references, but from dialogue. Almodóvar is simply brilliant at everyday quotidian dialogue. I sometimes felt that I could close my eyes when seeing his films and hear my aunts.  But in this film more than others, those phrases work on multiple levels: who says them, the intonation with which they’re spoken, whether a line is inflected at beginning or end; all bring different meanings, draw on different sets of knowledges, set the perfect pitch and the optimum timing for the punch-line: the Vilnius audience only got the visual. Might this now be true of all audiences except the generation of Spaniards who grew up around the moment of the transition?

It’s worth remembering that the film was made a year after Colonel Tejero’s armed intervention in the Spanish Cortes, the coup that failed; that only a few years earlier, Almodóvar would have been arrested for such representations had they been possible; that in 1982 there was no guarantee that there would not be a political reversal (much as the situation now in the aftermath of the Arab Spring).  To dare to make a film as nasty, as queer, as funny as this one in that context: no Spanish artist of the last four decades has been braver or more true to himself. Few have grown, developed and improved as much as he did since Labyrinth also. The film works best as a document of its time. Yet, the wit, the daring, the corrosive critique, the in-your-face queerness of it all still thrills, still shocks, still makes it worth seeing at any time.

José Arroyo

Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, USA, 2012)

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Amateurish, self-indulgent, inept – I gave it £7.50 and 45 minutes before walking out.

José Arroyo

Dark Shadows (Tim Burton, USA, 2012)

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The dullest Tim Burton film I can remember. It is visually handsome but it didn’t seem as sumptuously textured as most of his others films (Edward Scissorhands,  his Batman films); it looks expensive but doesn’t feel it; maybe the projection, or the use of digital, or the new type of effects works against the warmly expensive glow a big-budget production usually suffuses an audience with. You know this cost a fortune but it feels cheap: a creaky adaptation of a not-too-well remembered TV show. It’s interesting in that it somehow seems to signal that the knowing ironic distance that has passed for a kind of charm in America since the 1980s might in itself now be retro. It certainly isn’t enough. The cast is wonderful and provides what pleasure there is to be found. Helena Bonham-Carter and a delicious Eva Green steal the show right from under Johnny Depp’s fangs.

José Arroyo

Popularie (Régis Roinsard, France, 2012)

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If you like Almodóvar circa Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the ‘Think Pink’ number in Funny Face, 1950s clothes, cha-cha music, the look of Doris Day/ Rock Hudson movies, or ironic romances laced with a dash of camp, you’re likely to find Populaire charming .

It’s a relief to see a pretty romantic comedy that doesn’t assume its audience is moronic. However, this is a film where the heroine’s idea of romance and adventure is to simply find Mr. Right; so the sexual politics of the film can at times seem as retro as its chic. It might be best to approach Populaire with the same amused, affectionate and ironic sense of wonder with which the film itself presents its characters and its world.

That said, Populaire  is a sustained achievement in that most difficult of elements to get right – tone: light, buoyant, gurgling with glamour but morally girdled. The effect is as if Samantha from Bewitched had twinkled her little nose at Don Draper, squeezed all the sourness out of him, and found him a princess who could type.

Romain Duris and Déborah François play the couple as if the only thing blocking their waft towards a billowy nest of love is their  (gentle) butting of heads. The typing contest, filmed like a gunfight at the ok corral if the ok corral were a gleaming art deco hall, is a joy. The whole lovely confection is directed  with great precision and crack timing by Régis Roinsard.

José Arroyo

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