Daily Archives: October 1, 2009

1941 (1979)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

1941 (1979)

One of Steven Spielberg’s most underrated films is
not only a virtuoso piece of filmmaking but a flagrant
piece of mean-spiritedness and teenage irreverence
that underlines aspects of his work that his more popular
and commercially successful works tend to either
disguise or rationalize. Both of these qualities
are partially the contributions of cowriter Robert
Zemeckis –- who exhibits these traits more independently
on such later features as Used Cars (1980)
and Forrest Gump (1994). But there’s also a strain
that one might associate with the more progressive
and Tashlinesque reflexes of a Joe Dante, helping to
explain why John Wayne not only refused indignantly
to play in this comedy but also tried to persuade
Spielberg that making such a movie was tantamount
to spitting on the American flag. In Spielberg’s
hands, much of the comedy here seems to derive
from a desire to see large sets destroyed as if they
were Tinker toy constructions, complete with tuttifrutti
mixtures of splattered paint, and without the
messy inconvenience of either deaths or morals.… Read more »

THE LADIES MAN (1961) (upgraded, 5/25/13)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

Jerry Lewis’s opulent second feature as a director
(1961), in some ways his most ambitious (and his first
in color), is also the one that has the most to say
about his character’s sexual hysteria, intensified once
the hero discovers that he’s been hired to work as
houseboy in a boarding house full of sexy young aspiring
actresses -– all of whom are initially seen simultaneously
in their separate rooms as part of a single gigantic
dollhouse set occupying two soundstages at
Paramount. (To keep track of both this set and his
own performance, Lewis invented the video assist, a
filmmaking technique used in Hollywood filmmaking
ever since.) Furthermore, Lewis’s talent for freeform
psychic fantasy, which clearly distinguishes his
work from the social satire and narrative motivations
of Frank Tashlin, reaches a kind of apogee here when
he encounters a Bat Lady (shades of Artists and
Models
) lurking inside a “forbidden” room, along
with the Harry James Orchestra. And his character is
no less free to dance with George Raft (playing himself)
in another sequence.… Read more »

TURNABOUT (1940) & ADAM’S RIB (1949)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

TURNABOUT (1940)

A bickering husband and wife (John Hubbard and
Carole Landis) switch bodies and lives (but not voices)
after encountering a Buddhist curse. Hal Roach
directed this extremely odd 1940 comedy -– the only
feature I’ve selected not because it’s good, exactly
(some would regard it as pure camp), but because of
how singular and uncanny it is as a kind of freakish
prelude to Adam’s Rib, with gay undertones to spare.
(Not surprisingly, the Catholic Legion of Decency
found it “objectionable”.) It’s adapted from a novel
of the same title by Thorne Smith (1892-1934), who
became one of the most popular sources of erotic
fantasy and whimsy used in Hollywood movies of the
30s and early 40s (in Night Life of the Gods, Topper
and its sequels, and René Clair’s I Married a Witch,
among others). The secondary cast is also notable:
Adolphe Menjou (actually given top billing),
William Gargan, Mary Astor, Donald Meek,
Franklin Pangborn, and Marjorie Main.

ADAM’S RIB (1949)

This comedy, directed by George Cukor from a script
by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, is probably the
best of all the features pairing Katharine Hepburn
and Spencer Tracy.… Read more »

Idiocracy

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

IDIOCRACY (2006)

My only concession in this series to the recent vogue in gross-out, bad-taste comedies (as exemplified by such Farrelly brothers features as Dumb & Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and Stuck on You) as well as comedies predicated on their characters’ stupidity (on which both Sacha Baron Cohen and the Coen brothers have virtually built their respective careers) is this dystopian satire (2006), directed and cowritten by Mike Judge, the creator of MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head. It’s mainly set in the year 2505, when fast-food franchises and all-American stupidity, helped along by The Great Garbage Avalanche, have taken over the mental, spiritual, and physical landscape of presumably the entire planet, to the exclusion of everything else. (The implication that the entire planet now consists of a single country -– or else that, solipsistically speaking, the United States’ lack of awareness of the remainder of the planet has now become total -– is never spelled out, yet it remains inescapable.) Culturally speaking, this fantasy might be regarded as something close to an inversion of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr.Read more »

Two George Landow/Owen Land Films

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the

U.S., a catalogue/collection put together to accompany a film series at the

Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

WIDE ANGLE SAXON (1976)

This comic short by Owen Land from 1976 could
conceivably be regarded as the Hellzapoppin of the
American experimental film. Just as Hellzapoppin
alludes to the then-contemporary Citizen Kane,
Wide Angle Saxon includes a parody of Hollis
Frampton’s 1971 (nostalgia), called Regrettable Redding
Condescension
(alluding to Land’s own 1971 Remedial
Reading Comprehension), which is credited in
turn to one “Al Rutcurts” (i.e., the word «structural»
spelled backwards). But to complicate matters considerably
(if quite obscurely), Land (or George Landow,
as he was known at the time) converted to fundamentalist
Christianity shortly before making this film,
and we are told at the outset that this film’s nominal
hero, “Earl Greaves,” has recently had a religious
conversion as well.

ON THE MARRIAGE BROKER JOKE AS CITED BY SIGMUND FREUD IN WIT AND

ITS RELATION TO THE UNCONSCIOUS, OR CAN THE AVANT-GARDE ARTIST

BE WHOLED? (1979)

Owen Land continues his obscure blend of deconstructive slapstick and

various issues arising from his then-recent conversion to fundamentalist

Christianity in this puzzling if hilarious 17-minute short, during which

a “panderer” in one of the textual interpretations of the Marriage Broker

Joke becomes corrupted into “panda,” and then two men in panda suits

proceed to make a structural film about Japanese salted plums -– or

something like that.… Read more »

JOAN DOES DYNASTY (1986)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the

U.S., a catalogue/collection put together to accompany a film series at the

Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

Long before the advent of Slavoj Zizek, U.S.
academic Joan Braderman in 1986 offered a bracing
exercise in standup theory and comic deconstruction
in this half-hour unpacking on video of the most successful
nighttime soap opera on television, which is
said to be the favorite series of one hundred million
people in 78 countries. Utilizing some of the special
effects of codirector and coeditor Manuel De Landa
to project herself literally into Dynasty and thereby
critique its cultural and ideological underpinnings,
Braderman manages to mix appreciation with scorn
in almost equal quantities.

Read more »

MONKEY BUSINESS (1952) & GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

MONKEY BUSINESS (1952)

Although technically a fantasy, this characteristically
grim Howard Hawks comedy about the fear of aging
and the worship of youth is arguably one of his most
honest and realistic, therefore among the most frightening.
A chimpanzee in a chemistry lab manages to
create a youth potion accidentally ingested by the
middle-aged scientist-hero (Cary Grant), who regresses
first to his teens and then, after a second dose, to
his attitudes and behavior in grammar school, which
also happens eventually to his wife (Ginger Rogers)
and boss (Charles Coburn), thereby debunking a
good many myths about youth and happiness (such
as those involving carefree innocence) in the process.
Broadly speaking, this movie does for (and with)
ageism what Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, shot half a
year later (with some of the same cast members, including
Marilyn Monroe, Coburn, and George Winslow),
does for (and with) capitalism, albeit with less
celebratory cynicism and more visible despair. This
doesn’t mean, of course, that it isn’t funny; at least
four Hollywood pros (Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer,
I.A.L.… Read more »