THE SLIFR WEEKEND READING LIST: JOKELESS COMEDIES, A DISMISSED MASTERPIECE and FELLINI'S ROLLER-COASTER
Keep the shiny side up and the dirty side down this weekend, especially when out shopping for designer-label merchandise and other signature trinkets of capitalistic decadence and excess...
I haven’t indulged this kind of exercise in a while, but since it’s the start of the summer and there is a new quiz now in circulation, the time seems to be right to resurrect something I used to do here with far more regularity. That is, compiling a list of links for some handy weekend reading/viewing, on the off chance that you don’t already have a thousand options lined up and at the ready to keep busy during your downtime. What follows is a brief, thoroughly unscientific survey of some of the pieces and posts I’ve run across over the last week or so that have grabbed me with their arguments, their analyses or their compulsive readability.
I’ll start with the curious notion of the jokeless comedy, which got some play in a couple of good pieces in the wake of the recent release of, and box-office hijacking at the hands of The Hangover Part II. David Edelstein’s take was brief but typically wise and made me awfully glad I stayed away from the sequel to the movie I labeled the worst movie of 2009:
“(The Hangover Part II) has all the same sick, misogynistic, puerile ingredients with none of the laughs to soften the ugliness. You can accept it as a skeazy horror flick about male bonding (and male-bonding movies) and marvel at the artistic bankruptcy and corruption. Who needs good jokes?... (M)y eyes kept drifting to Ed Helms. He plays Stu as a man so stricken by how low he has sunk that he doesn't appear to know he's in a comedy. He might have drifted in from a night of dismembering women in the latest Hostel picture.”
This on top of an entire think piece in the New York Times on the jokeless comedy, the phenomenon of which writer Adam Sternburgh lays squarely at the feet of Hangover auteur Todd Phillips and, of course, Judd Apatow, whose movies loom large on the landscape of modern American movie comedy and whose name cannot not be mentioned in any discussion of its anatomy:
“What these auteurs truly have in common, though, is that they have systematically boiled away many of the pleasures previously associated with comedy — first among these, jokes themselves — and replaced them with a different kind of lure: the appeal of spending two hours hanging out with a loose and jocular gang of goofy bros. (Also: ritual humiliation. Humiliation is a big part of it, too)… Surely there must be at least one indelible gag, line, or scene from just one of these films? If there is, I can’t identify it, and don’t call me Shirley.”
It all adds up to what Sternbergh labels “joke genocide,” and while I’m not at all sure I miss the kinds of movies into which beauties like Blazing Saddles, Airplane! and Top Secret! eventually devolved (Scary or Epic or Date Movie, anyone?), I often do find myself missing the strain of joke and character-oriented comedy that Sternbergh suggests Apatow and Phillips have helped obliterate. For mind-cleansing belly laughs, I’ll take the adventures of Black Bart and the racist denizens of Rock Ridge over those of the 40-Year-Old Virgin any day. That said, I’m surprised that Sternbergh doesn’t mention the one purely caustic example of the jokeless comedy that I would call a near-masterpiece of discomfort, Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad. There is no squirm squirmy enough to relieve the ghastly tension that this comedy of paternal impotence produces, quite separate from its refusal to access the blessed release of laughter. In World’s Greatest Dad, my mind was telling me what I was seeing was funny, but my clenched jaw told another story. No bromantic hijinks here, just the wail of a man (Robin Williams), neutered by parenthood and his own inability to express himself, trapped in a deception of his own making and, thankfully, finding a most unexpected way out. Sounds hilarious, huh? And no jokes!
And just to make sure we had something to talk about on Facebook today, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott tag-team a response to critic Dan Kois’ admission that eating his cultural vegetables has become a more daunting and difficult prospect as he gets older. In their double-duty piece entitled ”In Defense of the Slow and Boring” (headed by a lovely still from Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, my pick for best of 2011 so far), they pick a pretty good fight with Kois’ apparent guilt-plagued resistance to movies that choose to do things differently than the ways of most conventionally mounted cinema. Dargis attempts to define boring and decides that her answer is not the same as the one Kois offers:
“The Hangover Part II, which I find boring, raked in $137.4 million over the five-day Memorial Day weekend. It’s the kind of boring that makes money, partly because it’s the boring that many people like, want to like, insist on liking or are just used to, and partly because it’s the sort of aggressively packaged boring you can’t escape… This is the boring that Andy Warhol, who liked boring, found, well, boring.”
And then, having brought Warhol into the discussion, Dargis continues:
“Warhol’s own films are almost always called boring usually by people who have never seen or sampled one, including minimalist epics like Empire, eight hours of the Empire State Building that subverts the definition of what a film is (entertaining, for one). Long movies — among my favorites is Béla Tarr’s seven-hour Sátántangó — take time away even as they restore a sense of duration, of time and life passing, that most movies try to obscure through continuity editing. Faced with duration not distraction, your mind may wander, but there’s no need for panic: it will come back. In wandering there can be revelation as you meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think.”
The argument, which I think is a pretty sound one, reminds me of a film professor I once had who found himself countering protests in a class discussion of Jean-Marie Straub’s The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. The movie was dull and, yes, boring, protested the miffed student, who claimed he battled the tedium by allowing his mind to wander toward matters such as what he was going to have for lunch. “What’s wrong with thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch?!” the professor countered. His point was that though such considerations probably weren’t foremost in Straub’s specific intent, maybe part of what’s valuable about a film like this is that it clears one’s mind so that one can access things both trivial and perhaps even important in a meditative way, meditation being a method to which the average Hollywood movie remains allergic.
I find the argument about what constitutes boredom compelling and I agree with what Dargis and Scott seem to be saying for the most part. But there is an element amongst cinephiles who would insist (I’ve seen the evidence of their indignant tweets) that disapproval of a meditative movie like The Tree of Life (which, in full disclosure, I have not yet seen) is automatically reactionary and narrow-minded, even if the viewer has entered the theater completely open to Malick's vision. One tweet I saw expressed exasperation with knee-jerk negative reactions to the film, locating the dissenter somewhere in the back of the peanut gallery, as if instant acceptance of the film as a masterpiece was any less a knee-jerk move. Of course, if one’s reaction is genuinely less than enthusiastic, it would be nice if one could manage to articulate why, beyond "That sucked!" or even some of the more generalized negative comments attributed to Richard Schickel in Scott’s section of the article. At the very least, perhaps embracing of one’s ambivalent reaction would produce a more probing thought process in the writing about any such film, which theoretically would then produce more solid intellectual reasoning for whatever conclusion about it was eventually reached. As far as stretching the limits of what most audiences would find tedious is concerned, Dargis’ precise and evocative impressions of Jeanne Dielman making meatloaf effortlessly lend credence to the notion that even the most mundane activity can be expressive, given the right circumstances and the confidence that somewhere there’s an audience for what the average Transformers opening-night audience might find boring.
UPDATE: Farran Smith Nehme, always a good read and the furthest thing thing from boring, has some choice words for the blogger's favorite critic Richard Schickel re Malick and The Tree of Life over at Self-Styled Siren.
UPDATE DEUX: And here's the fine writer Tony Dayoub, who has seen The Tree of Life. He thinks pretty highly of it, and I gather he was not bored.
Having just revisited Mitchell Zuckoff’s Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, it was a real treat to dive into the magnificent and exhaustive five-part analysis of Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson found at The Seventh Art. A box-office bomb that cost Altman the plum job of directing the movie adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Buffalo Bill is Altman’s sarcastic bicentennial gift to American moviegoers who, as it turned out, weren’t the slightest bit interested in the director’s grand, haunted rumination on the limits and horrors of a self-created mythology. Buffalo Bill Cody’s assumed identity as a Wild West conqueror and pioneering spirit is, of course, meant to reflect the self-mythologizing grandeur that America had wrapped itself in at the time the movie was released in 1976, but there wasn’t much room for Altman’s scalding chorus among the endless patriotic celebrations that marked that bicentennial year. Even some of Altman’s most ardent admirers have proved resistant to the allusive power and rich period ambience of this movie, which has grown on me immeasurably in the near 40 years since I first saw it. If you love this movie as I do, The Seventh Art’s finely mounted consideration will be a real joy to read, a rare piece of analytical writing about a movie that deserves far more respect and thought than it has ever actually inspired. The piece can be accessed by clicking on Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.
The British film journal Sight and Sound has a piece up entitled ”Forgotten Pleasures of the Multiplex” that could, I suppose, serve as a rejoinder to those who would bemoan the Hollywood sensibility, but as I haven’t jumped into it myself I’ll refrain from speculating just how it fits into the general boring/not boring argument. The piece looks like one of those amusing “How Could You Leave X or Y Out?” kind of pieces, though hopefully a little more highbrow coming from S&S than what you might expect from, say, Entertainment Weekly. At least the reasons for the multiplex-style love should be better articulated. And the piece is also valuable for some of the links that come at its tail end, including S&S’s terrific essay on ”The Lost Art of the Double Bill”, a subject that holds endless fascination for a geek like me.
Care to let your mind wander and imagine what film history would be like if Samuel Fuller had played Hyman Roth, longtime associate of Vito Corleone and central hub of insinuating villainy in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, instead of Lee Strasberg? Well, speculate no longer. The good folks at Trailers from Hell have unearthed Sam Fuller’s audition for that very role. I’m not saying another word. Just watch it for yourself and then imagine Fuller sitting in that unassuming Florida house with Michael Corleone, football game on the TV, discussing Cuba and the future…
Just another reminder from me about Ned Merrill’s absolutely essential and wonderful site Obscure One-Sheet, the pleasures of which are contained in that very expressive, hard-boiled moniker. Right now Ned is pimping the multicolored glories of the one-sheet for Jack Cardiff’s magnificent action epic Dark of the Sun and waving the flag for that long-unseen picture’s impending DVD premiere through the auspices of the Warner Archives. It’s a welcome celebration that also dovetails quite nicely with the appearance in theaters (it opens in Los Angeles today) of Craig McCall’s documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, whose impact as a cinematographer for such indifferently-lit films* as Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and The African Queen far outstripped his none-too-shabby work as a director (Dark of the Sun, Web of Evidence). (*This is intended as ironic comment not to be taken seriously. Careful with that ax, Eugene!)
The trailer for Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff
The Spielberg park would almost have to feature a Ferris wheel that goes off its axle, right?...
And finally, if you’ve ever considered what sort of carnival ride would best befit a director like Robert Altman or Stanley Kubrick or Quentin Tarantino, ruminate no further. Or you could continue to ruminate and add your own ideas to Julie’s excellent collection of Auteurist Amusement Parks at her corker of a blog entitled Misfortune Cookie. One of my favorite auteurist amusement parks is the one dedicated to Federico Fellini which features the 8½ Rollercoaster. Julie encourages us to indulge thusly: “Enjoy the delightful Nino Rota music in the background and pay no attention to the fact that they're building the coaster as you ride it.” The author is perhaps less prolific than we might like her to be, but she has an impish sensibility that often results in crafty and smart observations and clever pieces like this one. Keep up the Misfortune, Julie! And have a great weekend, everybody!