Tuesday, February 06, 2007

OPEN FORUM: THE DEATH OF COMEDY?

Do movies like Date Movie and Scary Movie 1-4 and last week’s number-one ranked Epic Movie make anyone else really depressed? Surely no one ought to expect The Lady Eve or His Girl Friday when they lay their dollars down to see Epic Movie. But as Rob Humanick notes in his pan of the movie in the virtual pages of Slant,
you don’t need to reach back to the golden age of screwball comedy to realize how far short of the mark these parody movies fall—just note the law of ever diminishing returns when applied in a straight line from Airplane! to Scary Movie 4 (both co-directed or directed by Jerry Zucker) to Epic Movie. Then again, Owen Gleiberman might suggest that those whose knickers are in a twist about these lowbrow comedies should redirect their anxieties—his B- review indicates at least one critic managed to get on the movie’s wavelength and live to tell the tale. So forget God and etiquette for the moment: Is comedy, at least for the 18-25 demographic that filled theaters for this latest spoof movie, dying or dead? Or are there just a whole bunch of us old farts who just don’t get it?

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Speaking of death and rebirth, Matt Zoller Seitz and Keith Uhlich recently engaged in a fascinating discussion about the year in movies 2006 and ”The Death and Rebirth of Cinema” for The House Next Door. Matt kicks off the conversation with a comment regarding New Yorker critic David Denby’s recent piece (it’s either mournful or alarmist, depending on your take) regarding the changing world of cinema:

“Denby, who was one of the guys I admired and read very closely coming up, has declared movies dead on more than one occasion. Declaring cinema dead is a favorite hobby of critics. Armond White's done it, I’ve done it. Peter Rainer, who’s now at the Christian Science Monitor, did it back in 1998, when he reviewed Armageddon for the now-defunct Los Angeles New Times. But that’s the salient point here: Denby’s piece reads suspiciously like what Godfrey Cheshire would call a ‘Death of Cinema’ piece. Even though the intent of this New Yorker article is supposedly to suss out how the delivery system that brings movies to us is changing, what really comes through is a kind of mourning for the way things used to be.”

Matt and Keith have given us a very enteraining, insightful read with plenty to chew on and argue about. I’m still masticating, but when I’m finished I’ll check in with some thoughts, and I hope you do too.

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A friend of mine who has never seen it gave me the DVD of Craig Baldwin’s super-duper conspiracy head-trip fake (or is it?) documentary Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America for Christmas. His only comment: “Dennis, your taste is wide-ranging…” So is Baldwin’s hyperbolic, free-associative vision and his pitch-black sense of humor. If you haven’t seen it yet, please rent it right away, and then check out this interview with Baldwin which comes courtesy of, as many wonderful things do, the good folks at Green Cine.com. Have you seen Tribulation 99? If so, what did you think?

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What are your Oscar predictions? This will be the first year in 20 years that I will not being doing an office Oscar pool, so I beg your indulgence to help me satisfy my unexplainable craving to know how people are predicting this thing. The Best Actress category seems pretty straight-up obvious, but none of the other categories do. So, despite the general feeling that the crop of nominees could have been stronger, the race itself is fairly unpredictable. Will Scorsese get his due? Does he deserve to? Will Peter O’Toole upset Forest Whitaker’s apple cart? Is it possible for Jennifer Hudson to blow an entire Kodak Theater’s worth of formally attired Oscar attendees out the back of the theater when she performs one of the Best Song nominees? (Especially if she does so as a recently crowned Best Supporting Actress winner?) And perhaps most importantly, will Kevin O’Connell finally win?

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Jim Emerson has some new toys! Visit Scanners and put them to use by voting for your choice for Best Comedy of 2006 (my choice: Borat), Favorite Martin Scorsese Movie (my choice: Mean Streets-- See how these so neatly dovetail with all of the above?) and, freshest of all, BestMovie Ad Tag Line Ever! (So much for thematic parallels— but it’s still fun! My choice, of those listed-- "Poultry in Motion!" from Chicken Run.)

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And finally, a shout-out to all you lurkers out there who drop by occasionally but have yet to comment or otherwise make yourselves known. This is another invite to drop a line and let me know who you are, how you found out about SLIFR, perhaps even how full of shit I am. (Fans of Babel, that’s as much of an open door as you’re ever going to get!)

Okay, that oughta be enough to get a good forum rolling! Let me know what you’re thinking about!

18 comments:

pacheco said...

As a 21 year old, sadly, I struggle every year to find enough good comedy in the theatres, leading my family to believe that I only like dramas. This year actually seemed to have some pretty good comedies (just look at Jim Emerson's first poll), but count those up and compare them to the good dramas of the year and it's not even funny (pun intended...sort of). But as long as people keep watching what's put out, they'll keep making them, so...stop watching the bad stuff, people.

The Oscars seem fairly obvious to me for the most part (meaning I will be totally wrong, of course). I see Hudson, Mirren, Whitaker, and Scorsese as easy wins, with Murphy's only competition being Wahlberg. Best Picture, however, is anyone's guess in my opinion.

I think I may have posted a comment here once or twice before, but I may be one of the lurkers you're calling out. I found SLIFR, I believe, through Jim Emerson's scanners, and I'm glad I did. (As for Babel, I have yet to see it, but the online backlash only makes me want to like it even more)

Flickhead said...

"Is comedy dead?" reminds me of the noble crusade undertaken by David Suskind in the early 1960s when The Beverly Hillbilles first aired on TV. Should we allow trailer trash humor into our living rooms, will it lower our standards, he wondered.

Overall, the subject may seem worthy of investigation...until you realize that, during the 1930s and 40s, for every supposed classic, for every Lubitsch or Sturges, there were heaps of utter trash: the Ma & Pa Kettle movies (no fewer than 9 produced between 1949 and 1957), the justly forgotten Blondie movies (Penny Singleton, not Debbie Harry; twenty-nine films from 1938 to 1950), the Ritz Brothers (low rent Marxists), Wheeler and Woolsey (ghetto Marxism), Francis the Talking Mule (seven films), etc., etc., etc. You gotta drink gallons of beer or smoke bales of grass to crack a smile through any of these.

When I was a kid I watched the Bowery Boys on TV on weekends, and their stuff was funny...back then, when I was ten or eleven years old. About twenty years ago they issued a few of their films on VHS and I made it through fifteen or twenty minutes on one of them until hitting the eject button. Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, et al made more than eighty films from 1937 to 1958.

The public loves lowbrow and/or simpleton comedy (remember the "message" delivered at the end of Sullivan's Travels during that tent show screening), and what's going on today is no different from what was going on back when...and even before the movies. I'm sure in the Bard's day, The Two Gentlemen of Verona was passed up by the legions flocking to whatever now-forgotten schlock was being performed in the mud at the other end of ye olde village.

And besides, despite my respect and admiration for quality, I still think the funniest guy I've ever seen in the movies is Curly from the Three Stooges.

Chris Oliver said...

Tribulation 99 is great. I saw it back in '92 or so, and recently wrote a piece on the film and other Other Cinema Digital releases (self-promotion alert!)here:

http://www.thefakelife.com/blog/2007/01/digital-underground-12607.html

I also have a copy Baldwin's documentary Sonic Outlaws, which I haven't watched yet. I'll probably watch that tonight, and I'll let you know how it is.

As for stuff like Epic Movie, it's such obvious junk that it doesn't even register on my radar. I don't even count something like that as a movie, so I don't really care how obviously unfunny it is. But to be fair, it's probably about as funny as The Last Remake of Beau Geste, which I thought was the funniest movie I had ever seen when I was 11.

Bill said...

Dennis, I'm younger than you (although I'm also older than the demographic you mentioned), and movies like "Epic Movie" fill me with an unspeakable dread. There seems to be a belief these days among certain people that simply by mentioning something from recent pop culture, you've somehow managed to successfully make a joke about it. And never mind that "pop culture", as much of it as I consume, has never struck me as the richest mine for comedy you can work.

In the spirit of full disclosure, and to partly contradict what I said above, I enjoyed the first "Scary Movie". I also have no interest in ever seeing it again, but I did enjoy it. So it's not that this sort of thing can't be funny. However, if memory serves, that movie contained actual jokes. The commercials for "Epic Movie" make it appear as though they've skipped that little element, and are going almost exclusively for "Hey-I-Saw-That-Movie-They-Just-Referred-To!" laughs. It's bad enough that the people who write these "jokes" considering them as such; it's even worse that some people, evidently, laugh at them. Or, perhaps, "laugh". I don't know.

"Family Guy", a show I watch periodically, does this as well. The also sometimes work in jokes, but I get the sneaking suspicion that the current popularity of such jokes might begin there. Which is not to say they started it, just popularized it. Maybe the otherwise "edgy" (not in itself a compliment) nature of that show -- the kind of edge around which cults are born -- allowed these reference-jokes (at some point during all of this I'm going to settle on what to call them) to sort of piggyback. The result being that these reference-jokes seem edgy by association, and edgy comedy -- both funny and otherwise -- will always sell to the 18-25 crowd, who, generally speaking, all believe they're too hip for the room.

All is not lost, however, since I don't think any of this heralds the death of comedy. It just heralds the popularity of a particularly shitty kind of comedy. But we still have our Christopher Guests, and our Ricky Gervaises and our Sacha Baron Cohens, and on and on. I think there are a lot of very funny people out there, getting to do the kind of work they want to do. My advice is to just not see "Epic Movie". Also, don't read Owen Gleiberman.

On a side note, my wife and I recently had dinner with friends, who started talking about "Epic Movie" as though it might actually be worth seeing. They're nice people, but never have two smiles been more frozen, nor two heads more insincerely nodded.

Anonymous said...

I've been a fan of TRIBULATION 99 ever since seeing an early video copy of it at a friend's house in SF in the early 90's. You can view how his collage work evolved on that disc by watching the two earlier films, WILD AMERICA and ROCKETKITKONGOKIT first before watching TRIBULATION (though I warn everyone ahead of time that TRIBULATION is more audience engaging).

Also recommend his other work on DVD - SONIC OUTLAWS and SPECTRES OF THE SPECTRUM.

Robert H.

Chris Oliver said...

Tribulation 99 is great stuff. Self promotion alert: I reviewed it recently:

http://www.thefakelife.com/blog/2007/01/digital-underground-12607.html

I first saw it in a video store in the early 90's, and something about it just made me want to rent it. Crazy movie! I played it at the last party I had at my house, and it certainly puzzled people. I also have Craig Baldwin's documentary Sonic Outlaws, but haven't gotten around to watching it yet. Maybe I'll watch it tonight and report back.

As for Epic Movie, stuff like that is so far off my radar that I don't even think about it. I wouldn't even count it as a movie. But to be fair, it's probably about as funny as The Last Remake of Beau Geste, which I thought was the funniest movie I'd ever seen when I was 11.

[Dennis--sorry if I already submitted this comment--I think it got lost, but maybe it's just waiting for you to approve it.]

Dennis Cozzalio said...

The comments are back! Sorry, everyone! I was poking around, performing some minor surgery on my settings, and somehow I set things up so comments had to have approval, yet I did not indicate that I wanted to be notified when they came in! All is well again!

Pacheco-- I recognize you from Jim's site. Welcome! I think O'Toole is a possible spoiler for Whitaker as Best Actor, and though Scorsese now has DGA approval, I still think something could happen in this category that might not be preordained. But I'd be fine if Wahlberg upset Murphy. And though I haven't yet seen Notes on a Scandal, and though she's surfing her own backlash, I'm still sufficiently enamored of the gorgeously zaftig Hudson and her towering voice to hope she gets it. (A little modulation, and she could be a real keeper.)

Flickhead: It is true that we don't often recognize just how many lame B-movies (and beyond) were released during those years of Hollywood's Golden Age. (I have access to some printed show programs from my local theater from roughly the late 40s to the early 60s, and they testify to the high ratio of crap to classic, or even good, movies available at the time.) But I see such a difference between movies like Blazing Saddles and Airplane!, which didn't get universally good reviews when they were big theatrical hits, and the low aim of this current crop of crap, that I couldn't help but pose the question. I also have to confess a ridiculous love for Ma and Pa Kettle (especially Marjorie Main) and the Ritz Brothers.

Chris: Thanks for the shameless self-promotion! I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on Baldwin.

Bill: I've been at that dinner party too. There's hardly anything you can say or do in that situation that won't get you branded and grump or a snob. I just finished Epic Movie this afternoon, and I can say without hesitation, that it has not one laugh in it. It does, however, a promising comedienne by the name of Jayma Mays-- you might remember her from RedEye-- she was Rachel McAdams' assistant, the one coordinating the hotel while R.M. was tied up on her flight. In Epic Movie, Mays is appealing and seems to be constantly on the verge of doing something funny-- she has a very vivid, alert presence and a humorous way with vocal tics. The problem is, the script never asks her to do anything or say anything remotely funny. I have a feeling she's gonna be one to keep an eye on, though.

Robert: I was hoping someone would have some thoughts on the other Baldwin titles I haven't seen. Of course it would be you! :) Are these widely available, say, on Netflix? Or are we off spelunking again?

Once again, sorry for the Blogger blunder, folks. It won't happen again!

Edward Copeland said...

Admittedly, I haven't seen Borat, but films that truly make me laugh a lot, instead of just sporadic bursts, certainly have seemed to have been coming less and less often. I haven't finalized my 2006 list yet (because I always want to catch something else) but the only comedy on the list is Little Miss Sunshine, which I liked a great deal, but which didn't make me laugh until I hurt, except for some of Alan Arkin's bits. Prior to that, the last year my 10 best ended up with a comedy on it was 2003 when two made the cut -- Bad Santa and A Mighty Wind. Even with those though the last movie I watched that actually made me hurt because I was laughing so much was South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut in 1999.

Bill said...

Regarding the Oscars: I think everybody here would agree that they don't actually matter. Some of us, though (like myself) do get caught up in them, but we know they're bogus. So, knowing that, why are so many people throughout the internet and beyond so against the idea of Scorsese winning (assuming he wouldn't actually be winning based on the merits of "The Departed". Which I loved). I mean, if the Oscars themselves are, for us, little more than entertainment and an opportunity to talk about movies, then I think the idea of Scorsese finally getting an Oscar is more important. Since they don't matter to us, you see.

Incidentally, I don't pretend to be above it all. I get worked up when people I like/hate win/don't win. It just seems a little strange to read various bloggers, critics, etc., saying, essentially, "The Oscars are irrelevant, and Scorsese doesn't deserve to win!", as though relevancy would be within reach, should Scorsese lose.

I would be perfectly happy if Scorsese won. Paul Greengrass, however, deserves it.

aaron w graham said...

I guess it all depends on where one looks. Big screen comedies the likes of EPIC MOVIE and all of those needless SCARY MOVIE sequels seem to be currently ruling the roost, but I have no doubt that something will appear out of the ether and resurrect truly funny screen comedy once more in the near future. Possibly next summer with the release of KNOCKED UP, Judd Apatow’s first film after THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN (a huge success, and one that would surely give Apatow the cache to indulge his comedic impulses on the sexual mores once more), not to mention the Farrelly’s loose remake of THE HEARTBREAK KID, which is one film that doesn’t need a remake, but if one’s to be made, it may as well be by those talents.

For me, the best comedy right now is from the UK (courtesy of television): I’ve just finished both seasons of Ricky Gervais’ “Extras” (well, co-produced by HBO, but still undeniably British), as well as “Snuff Box”, which lasted one Series last year and won’t have any others because of poor ratings. “Extras” is a worthy follow-up to “The Office”, with more of the same uncomfortable situational humour, but this time the stakes are raised partly because they’re in front of the likes of David Bowie and Robert De Niro.

The basic conceit of “Snuff Box” concerns two hangmen – one “ugly American”, the other a chic Brit – who spend all of their time in a luxurious gentleman’s club, hitting on women and making bets, and occasionally breaking out into songs (a la Dennis Potter, a large influence). And when they feel the need to make a reference-joke (great term!), it’s always clever and unexpected (Christopher Lee’s booming voice frightening a porn actress on set, for example).

My picks for old-time-radio-comedy-translated-to-features: the two Fibber McGee & Molly / Edgar Bergen films, directed by Allan Dwan - LOOK WHO’S LAUGHING (featuring Lucille Ball) and HERE WE GO AGAIN.

As for the Oscars: I’ll be watching, but mostly for the Ennio Morricone salute. Mirren will win for sure, but O’Toole may upset Whittaker, as you said. Best Picture is anyone’s call, in my opinion, though I’m fairly certain it will either be LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE or BABEL.

Chris Oliver said...

Wow--SEVEN Francis the Talking Mule movies? I had no idea.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

They just kept discovering more and more fascinating takes that the eloquent mule had on contemporary society and felt it wrong to shut him up. And I'm pretty sure he almost always had more dialogue per picture than Donald O'Connor!

Brian #2 said...

Re: Francis-- well, Donald O'Connor had acted opposite Gene Kelly and lived to tell the tale, so I'm sure a talking ass didn't seem like *that* big a stretch.

In terms of the comedy question-- I agree a lot of Federline was produced in the 30s and 40s, but people like sturges and capra (at least when he made comedies) were still extremely popular. I love many of the folks people have mentioned as examples-- guest's rep company, sasha baron cohen, the insane (but in a good way) ricky gervais. And I'd also add Whit Stillman (if he'd ever make another movie) and Chris Weitz (am I spelling that right?). But, with the possible exeception of cohen, they're cult figures, all of whom have deserved followings, but none of whom have the kind of huge, mainstream success someone like sturges did way back when (Weitz has arguably gotten better-- funnier, and more richly character-driven-- with every movie, but unless someone sticks his willie in a pie, audiences don't seem that interested) (which is not a diss at the first American Pie, which I like a lot). Perhaps that's one way to split the difference on the denby "death of cinema" question-- not that good work isn't being produced, but that it doesn't seem to be reaching as wide an audience as it should. And in an age of niche marketing, the internets, netflix, etc., that's probably ok-- you don't need to be #1 at the box office to make money. But I do wish more people would see Metropolitan, A Mighty Wind, and the funniest, most alive film I saw last year, Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Do we really need alyson hannigan in a fat suit to make people go??

Wow, I said a mouthful (and another guy's mouthful). I can't remember if I found this space through scanners, or through a shout-out on james wolcott's blog-- they were roughly around the same time. But I can say the moment I fell in love with it was when Dennis had several beautiful posts eulogizing Robert Altman.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I saw Cheaper by the Dozen II when I was in the hospital and was stunned at how unfunny it was. I feel like some of the recent "comedies" as primarily triumphs of marketing, hence the career of directors like Shawn Levy and Adam Shankman. Thai audiences generally go for low-brow humor and I've had a few laughs with some of the films I've seen here. I even thought some of the stuff in the American Pie movies was funny. But it general, there seems to be little true visual or verbal wit.

I recently saw part of My Super Ex-Girlfriend because it was one of the few English language films I could rent from my neighborhood VDO store. No laughs at all. I also wanted to punch out the writer, Don Payne, for his totally ignorant line about The Crying Game and Denver. Obviously written by someone who doesn't know Denver like I do.

On the plus side, I did have the chance to see some Three Stooges shorts theatrically and have concluded that the bigger they are, the funnier they are!

Anonymous said...

Dennis,

SONIC OUTLAWS and SPECTRES OF THE SPECTRUM are available on Netflix, as is TRIBULATION.

Robert H.

Edward Copeland said...

How could I forget The 40-Year-Old Virgin? That was the last comedy that made me laugh until I hurt.

Chris Stangl said...

Oh man, you guys gotta loosen up. EPIC MOVIE is like flipping through a stack of CRACKED magazines. Not MAD. The crap you buy after you've read MAD already. It's not satire, it's barely parody, it's just so idiotic it starts to get... downright weird. By the time Fred Willard was running around topless in a lion wig, his old-man muscles wiggling as he shouted "roar!", uh, I admit I had entered some trance of appalled glee.

I admit, I went into EPIC MOVIE with the intention of laughing at every single joke. I did it, too!: Adjust your expectations from "that was a good joke" to "I can't believe that counts as a joke!"

How frequently in EPIC MOVIE is it a joke that a recognizable movie character appears... and starts breakdancing! And why don't you like that!?

Also: EPIC MOVIE is doing so well because it was a January release. That's it. There's nothing to see till NORBIT comes out.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks, Brian #2!

Peter: I agree-- the Stooges on the big screen is the way to go. Something about not being able to escape the lead pipes and swinging planks...

Edward: Thanks for mention South Park. At the time I saw it, I was not in the South Park camp, or the Parker/Stone camp either (I'd just suffered through BASEketball). So, despite the rave reviews, which I figured were pitched to those already in the know, I figured I'd get a few chuckles out of Bigger, Longer and Uncut and not much more. Blaaagh will testify that I reached near heart-failure laughter during the Terrence and Philip number, which is in the first 10 minutes, and it just kept going. I believe that the _______ Movie trend will dry up and blow away eventually, but it just amazes me that so many of them have been made, when I've never talked to anyone who thought they were remote funny.

CHRIS S: Funny you should mention Cracked. I evoked that very name to a friend when I was suffering through this movie, only I didn't mean it as a compliment. Let us know how Norbit goes.