Tag Archives: billy wilder

The Silent Treatment

“The American silent cinema of the 1920s gave us three great comedians,” wrote Dave Kehr in last week’s Times, “Harold Lloyd, whose hyperkinetic optimism seemed the perfect embodiment of his epoch; Charles Chaplin, whose Victorian sentimentality was just a touching bit behind it; and Buster Keaton, who was so far ahead of his time that we’re still running to catch up with him.”

What is it about this period in film history that invites such useless debate? You never hear anyone debating Cary Grant vs. Humphrey Bogart, or Howard Hawks vs. Alfred Hitchcock. But when it comes to Chaplin and Keaton, it always gets hot. Why?

Don’t get me wrong. I love heat. Crave it. But where there’s smoke there’s not always fire. Exhibit A: Dave Kehr. Is Lloyd’s hyperkinetic optimism relevant only to his epoch? Is Chaplin’s Victorian sentimentality really his defining characteristic?

To those who have seen Speedy and Safety Last, the ridiculousness of the Lloyd remark is self-evident. The famous scene of Lloyd slipping from the hands of a giant clock ticking a hundred stories above the pavement is simply ageless. Comedy – silent or otherwise – has hardly produced a more eloquent expression of our most basic fear. Lloyd’s films were time and technology obsessed, slapstick comedies à la Dziga Vertov. Nothing could be more modern.

Now for Chaplin.

When oh when oh when can we retire the Chaplin/Sentimental polemic? What good has it done us? (I find it curious, by the way, that Chaplin’s team has not devised a counterattack. You never hear them nail Buster Keaton for, say, his simplicity. Like the Los Angelenos in the L.A./N.Y. debate, they are rarely on offense.) Taking this angle with Chaplin is as fruitless as condemning Billy Wilder for being cynical. It is merely a fact of his sensibility and speaks neither for or against his genius.

It is fashionable for “serious” film scholars – often highly analytic types who eschew sentiment – to raise themselves above the Chaplinesque masses by way of extolling Keaton’s craft. There is a utilitarian function to this; not only is “craft” the domain of the educated elite, it’s a hell of a lot easier to write about. Let me be clear: I mean no disrespect to Keaton – only to those who champion him at The Tramp’s expense. They have obviously never stopped to marvel at the mind that made dancing feet out of two bread rolls. Sentimental? I call that surrealism.

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The Way the Cookie Crumbles

Manohla is on her game this morning. Her review of The Back-Up Plan is a sad reminder that romantic comedy continues to scrape up against the dank, dark bottom of the Hollywood barrel.

For any number of reasons, the genre that was once typified by It Happened One Night and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, has fallen farther than any other. With the possible exception of the Hollywood musical, which has a very good excuse for its dissolution (end of studios, end of resources), the decline of the romantic comedy is undoubtedly the most grievous lesion on the lumbering zombie that has become popular American film.

Blindfold yourself, spin around twice, and land a finger anywhere on Manohla’s review and you’ll find a reason why. Go ahead, try it. I did:

“The Back-Up Plan” is innocuous and unmemorable, and pretty much looks like a lot of sitcoms do. It will scale down well on your television, a medium that was made for close-ups of characters sharing and caring.

Right. A large part of the problem is that romantic comedies all look the same. Action films, epic dramas, science fiction adventures – these films are practically all look, and as such, jump whole hog into visual style, varying their aesthetic from prequel to sequel and back to prequel at the rate of a fourth grader trading baseball cards, and almost to a shameful degree, as if it were a cover for their lack of original content. Then there’s the romantic comedy. They all look the same. Bright, evenly distributed light, easy-going medium shots, and no sudden movements. But this is not cinema – this is the anesthetic aesthetic of the convalescent hospital. “Don’t worry, Grandpa! You won’t feel a thing!”

It seems silly to speak of aesthetics when discussing the genre responsible for films like The Bounty Hunter and 27 Dresses. I can already hear cries of “They’re just meant to be entertaining,” as if the doctrines of comedy and thoughtlessness were intended to go hand in hand. But I can remember a time – a time before I was born – when style was entertainment; when Annie Hall was funny not just because of its “entertainment” value, but because Woody Allen found a visual correlate for the searching, elastic mind of Alvy Singer; when a film like A Shot in the Dark, which never aimed higher than gut-level, could be as committed to boffo laffs as it was to widescreen framing; when The Apartment, which has more laughs than a whole season of romantic comedies, allowed its bitterness to come through black and white, courtesy of cinematographer Joseph LaShelle.

True, these are masterpieces, but the same could be said for all sorts of other, lesser films made before Hollywood gave up on its once favorite genre. The only reason I don’t mention them here is because they don’t make the point as forcefully. But I assure you, they make the point. Watching Soapdish again the other night, I saw it wasn’t nearly as good as I remembered it, but I didn’t mind. With its vigorous camera moves and robust palette, the film had the feeling of a low-calorie Almodovar movie, and in my book of damn good efforts, that wins it a hearty handshake and a slap on the back.

But Soapdish was released twenty years ago. What am I going to see tonight?

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Farce Populi

This week, The New York Times ran a piece about the all-African American remake of the all-British farce, Death at a Funeral. Will it work?

Farce, like the human mind, needs repression to survive; it’s the coiled spring before it’s sprung. That’s why the British, and in the golden days of Feydeau, the French, do/did it better than anyone else. There was much to hide; there were appearances to keep up. But in here in America, where expression and individuality are points of national pride, and one film comedy after the next sees the ante upped on vulgarity, containment looks less like a virtue than a sin. We like to get things off our chest. Freud always liked that about us.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some highly vulnerable, highly fulfilling comedies, like Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Cassavetes’s Husbands (to name only two), feature the distinctly American quality of earnest, open expression. But one has to wonder, aren’t we ashamed of something? Don’t we have back boudoirs, dark, guilt-ridden consciousnesses that need liberating?

Few contemporary American writers and directors, with the notable exception of David Mamet, have acknowledged the embarrassing reality of American secrecy; that we, like the British, like every culture on earth, are still very much afraid of very much. Mamet’s film State and Main, and his plays November and Romance – the greatest farce American theater has produced in my lifetime – are predicated on political and commercial duplicity, and what could be more patriotic than that? These aren’t the bedroomdoorslammers of Billy Wilder – just what the doctor ordered for fifties America, when the country was fraught with sexual repression –but the modern equivalent, perfect for today’s America, a country enmeshed in perpetual masquerade – Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot – from sea to shining sea.

The original version of Death and a Funeral understood this notion completely. Frank Oz’s film combined the British love of propriety with the staunch formality of mourning – the perfect spring, double coiled – and pulled that bad boy back, back, way back to its breaking point. Oh, the release! The release! But what will happen in the new Chris Rock version, when the British funeral becomes an African-American one?

It’s an exciting idea. Has there been an all-black farce? Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor only dabbled in the form; Trading Places and Silver Streak are straight-ahead comedies with the requisite farcical outbursts, and they are as much about Dan Ackroyd and Gene Wilder as they are about Murphy and Pryor. The new Death at a Funeral is a whole new thing entirely.

What will an all-black farce even look like? How will the African-American brand of mainstream comedy, which relies on sexual forthrightness and a kind of flamboyant grandeur, be expanded to include the precepts of containment? I for one am excited to find out.

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There’s Nothing Like Tile for the Tango

It’s a compulsion.

When I get within sniffing distance of Sunset Boulevard, this strange thing happens; I’m overcome with a kind of cinematic Tourette’s Syndrome. The connection to the movie may not be logical to anyone else in the vicinity, but that doesn’t stop me from bursting out, sometimes in the middle of a sane conversation, to share some chance thought or anecdote about the making of the movie I can’t ever seem to get enough of.

All this talk about New Years Eve plans tonight and it happened again. Last night, I was out with Goldblatt and Fleischer at some party by the Pacific Design Center, and though I made it seem like I was interested in the conversations at hand, what I really wanted to talk about was my favorite New Years Eve scene in the movies. I braced myself for a good while nodding and yessing and being good – and then came the point when I actually couldn’t contain it any longer. I burst open with the force of ten minutes worth of repressed Billy Wilder stories, regained consciousness ten minutes later to a circle of slackjawed faces, and promptly changed the subject to Invictus.

Well, now it’s blogtime.

One of the joys of re-watching Sunset Boulevard is hunting for the little real-life pieces of Hollywood history Wilder and co-writers Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman Jr., scattered like breadcrumbs throughout the picture, leading the viewer back home to the silents. Sometimes the references are overt (Gloria Swanson, a silent legend, plays Norma Desmond, a silent legend), but the really juicy – and I daresay touching ones – are more coded.

The pivotal New Years Eve scene, in which Joe Gillis (William Holden) discovers that Norma really actually does love him, contains its fair share of breadcrumbs, but my favorite is the one about Valentino.

“You know,” Norma says to Joe, “this floor used to be wood, but I had it changed. Valentino said there’s nothing like tile for the tango.” How clever, Billy. In real life, Swanson and Valentino made a film together, Beyond the Rocks in 1922, and in it they danced a tango.

But it gets cleverer. To shoot the tango, cinematographer John Seitz used a device called a Dance Dolly, which amounted to a sort of moveable platform on wheels. Nothing special there. But when you learn that Seitz first introduced the technique to shoot Valentino dancing the tango in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, you might be more than a little impressed.

Okay, one more thing. It doesn’t have to do with Hollywood per se, but this scene always makes me think of young Billy Wilder’s Weimar days, when he made his living quite literally haunting nightclubs as a dance gigolo, charging old ladies ten cents a turn. But did Billy, like Joe Gillis, ever provide them with more than just terpsichore? Wilder says no, but who can be sure? “I was not the best dancer,” he said, “but I had the best dialogue with the ladies I was dancing with.”

Happy 1951.