Another comedy about Hollywood filmmaking, this one written by Steve Martin, who knew a thing or two about it, that somehow passed me by when first released. Eddie Murphy plays the biggest star in Hollywood (and his cousin). Steve Martin is making a film on the fly, starring Murphy´s character, without his knowing it. It´s full of terrific gags, a very pointed commentary on the Hollywood of the time. But the Heather Graham character comes across as too sexist now I think, and Baransky as an earnest, slightly deluded diva, doesn´t quite make up for it. Robert Downey is very good as a Hollywood insider. Murphy is phenomenal.´We´re trying to make a movie here, not a film!
The Spearchucker bit above and the Buck the Wonder Slave gag below are terrific:
Thinking about films about filmmaking and/or Hollywood led me to Hellzappoppin. I don’t know why I avoided it for so long. I suppose I thought the humour would be dumb, cheap, low-down, coarse, which of course it is. But it is also very clever with it. It tries to get laughs from practically everything at all times and I often succumbed. It has great audio-visual gags, humour made possible only by the medium itself, something which contemporary comedy directors could learn from.
Some examples below:
As you can see above some of the humour, well done as it is, is cartoonish, talking dogs that comment on talking bears, the leaky suit etc.
But some of the gags are unthinkable without cinema, here above, following from The Invisible Man, making an entire sequence around disappearing tops and disappearing bottoms, and ending the gag with the double exposure. Hellzappoppin was based on a hit Broadway play but the mediu was definitely taken into account for the movie.
‘Ít´s a great picture see how much it weighs.’ Ít´s a movie, we change everything’. The dialogue is brilliant and the visual gags fantastic. See how the pictures talk back, the comment on the story, which is a comment on cinema. A friend said Olsen and Johnson don´t just break the fourth wall, they explode it.
‘There never has been a picture without a story and there never will be a picture without a story’ But there is space and here Olsen and Johnson move through a whole series of spaces in the studio.
There are songs throughout, good ones, and some terrific lindy hopping but then note how the whole Stinky Miller gag is developed here, through writing over the images, then we see the shadow of Stinky leaving the theatre, before the protagonists also draw their own vision of happyness on-screen. Brechtian evokes some of the techniques but none of the pleasures. The film takes pleasure, and makes humour from, every aspect of cinema, uses the form to make gags with, and even goes beyond it to the projection booth and the audience.
Hellzappoppin is not seamless, there will be elements that will jar. But it is brilliant and made me think of this great video essay by Tony Zhou. Everything that Zhou admires in Edgar Wright´s comedy (and finds lacking in much of the rest of contemporary comedy films) can be found in Hellzappoppin. In spades. Mischa Auer is terrific, and seeing Martha Ray on the rampage after him is a sight to behold.
A film about cinema itself, in all its variants; and, from the first, one is dazzled by the technique; the extraordinary compositions, the use of space, the inventiveness of the shots, the use of mirrors to bring off-screen space into the frame, the way off-screen dialogue is used as a kind of Greek chorus on the action; and then there’s Lucia Bosé as Clara Manni, the shopgirl who’s ‘discovered’ and becomes a big star. She’s dressed fifties-style, with bullet bras and a belt cinched as tight as possible to reveal what must be one of the smallest waists in the history of cinema. But it’s the beauty of her face that arrests – the ineffable sadness it evokes, the sense of mystery, the feeling she’s got longings that will never be sated; and her presence draws you in so as to share and understand those feelings without never quite knowing for sure which ones they are. The film ends on her gorgeous, sad and vanquished face attempting a smile.
The film starts with a young shop-girl, Clara Manni (Bosé), waiting outside the cinema during the preview of her first film. She’s anxious, wonders into the cinema and we see that she’s such a hit that the filmmakers want to enhance her part, make it bigger add a bit of romance and sex to it. One of them, Gianni (Andrea Checchi) falls in love with her and, before she knows it, he’s arranged a wedding her parents are delighted by, and a combination of gratitude and responsibility lead her to submit to the wishes of others. Gianni, however, is jealous, won’t let her film any more sex scenes with others, and he idealises her to an extent he sees her only in heroic and virtuous roles. In a clear nod to Rossellini and Bergman, he decides that his first picture as a director will be Joan of Arc, the role that will showcase all that he sees on her. The film is a terrible flop and comes close to bankrupting them. She takes on a role in a commercial film that succeeds and thus rescues her husband financially but seeks solace in the arms of another, Nardo (Ivan Desny). Whilst she’s ready to give up everything for him, he’s only after a fun adventure with a glamorous movie star. Her career is now back on track but she decides to learn how to act, to get serious about her art and only accept roles in film that aspire to more than just making money. The husband who formerly idealised her has just such a role to offer. But he doesn’t see her as an actress now. And neither does anyone else. The film ends as she accepts a role in an Arabian Nights movie with lots of harem scenes.
The film raises questions that cinema has incited since the beginning: cinema’s relationship to sex, realism, fantasy, noir, the business of it, the selling of it, the art of it. At the beginning of the film director Ercole (Gino Cervi) claims that sex, religion and politics are what’s needed for success. We get to see Venice during the film festival; and almost all areas of Cinecittà: it’s coffee shops, dressing rooms, the various sets, the ramparts of sets, behind backdrops, its entrance, its screening rooms. It’s a film buff’s delight.
In the biography she wrote with Begoña Aranguren, Lucia Bosé, Diva, Divina (Marid: Planeta, 2003), Bosé tells us:
‘To return to La signora senza camelie, it turned out to be a big hit. In my second film with Antonioni I could forget about the torment of the lights. He was the first director to begin shooting with ‘foto-flu’. It was a lighting system in which, at last, the whole set was lit at the same time, and this made possible that it wasn’t you that had to go blind in the darkness searching for the light. This is why Antonioni was able to make those extraordinary compositions. He lit the whole set and then the camera could move freely. The new system was very time consuming and the fuses kept blowing up frequently..But what impressive shots he made!’ (pp.58-59).
In an interview with Antonioni that accompanies The Masters of Cinema booklet to La notte, Antonioni says that ‘La signora senza camelie ….is a film that I consider to be a mistake, mainly because I started off on the wrong foot from the very beginning of the film by concentrating on a character who then turned out to be the wrong one.’ I wonder what the right one was? And I wish more filmmakers would make ‘mistakes’ of this order. La signora senza camelie is a cinephile’s dream of a movie. Antonioni’s comments only want to make me see it again.