Tag Archives: comedy

Real, Funny

Flipping through the index in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls — a book about the rampage of sex, drugs and revolution in Seventies Hollywood and Hollywood in the seventies — one discovers that “Mazursky, Paul” has only two page numbers after it. (Scorsese alone takes up six lines.)

At the time, Mazursky’s status as one of the decade’s reigning directors was an item of popular and critical consensus, but by the early nineties, the tides had turned. The Pickle (1993) was panned, and Mazursky’s subsequent efforts, though intermittently wonderful, did not live up to the work of his New Hollywood golden age. These days it seems like many cinephiles and even some critics have simply forgotten Mazursky’s films, full stop.

But back then (way back), in the American cinema’s most formidable post-war decade, Mazursky was untouchable. So much so that Time magazine critic and Film Comment Editor Richard Corliss could confidently predict:

Paul Mazursky is likely to be remembered as the filmmaker of the seventies. No screenwriter has probed so deep under the pampered skin of this fascinating, maligned decade; no director has so successfully mined it for home-truth human revelations…. Mazursky has created a body of work unmatched in contemporary American cinema for its originality and cohesiveness. 

Mazursky’s pictures were explicitly, almost aggressively, enmeshed in the here and now (or from the vantage of decades passed, the then and there). Remember the psychedelic brownies? The suburban orgies? Remember the gurus, the shrinks, and the Rodeo Drive fetishists? They’re all there. Chronicling these shifts in the cultural ethos, Mazursky has preserved the changing passions of the American middle class in a kind of comic formaldehyde. The films were prescient, honest, and always hilarious.

Nearly forty at the time of his directorial debut, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Mazursky was some ten years older than the fresh batch of younger iconoclast directors. That fact understandably clashed with the then-popular image of directors as studio-lot rebels and insurgents of style. Mazursky, by comparison, seemed like an old-fashioned romantic and unreconstructed classicist. Like Frank Capra, he had an open heart but a satirical squint. Like Jean Renoir, he never let jokes get between him and the hard truths of his characters. And unlike most New Hollywood filmmakers, Paul Mazursky, part hippie, part father, had perspective andtendress. There was no other Hollywood writer/director with such a generous admiration of human foible, no other American auteur so shrewdly attuned to the cockeyed truths of how we love.

How could such an accomplished film-maker have slipped by?

Please continue reading reading excerpts from my new book, Paul on Mazursky, at Altscreen.

Goodbye, Blake Edwards

Is Albert Brooks a Genius?

I’ve been thinking about Albert Brooks since he told The New York Times he has a novel in the works – his first. Days later, I’m certain Albert Brooks is the most underrated Brooks in show business history. Richard Brooks is the most overrated.

Mel and James L. have been given their kudos, but Albert, somehow, has been passed over. How to explain this? The law of averages, I think. Brooks has directed only seven films, and he’s missed as many times as he’s hit. There’s really no mediocrity to be found in Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life, Mother, The Muse, or Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World; they’re either crisply brilliant, full of clear, persuasive satire – or they thud. Perhaps this is why he’s scored an undeserved zero in the cultural impact department.

But they scales ought to be tipped in his favor. Real Life, his debut feature of 1979, is unacknowledged parent of the (now-tired) relay of media-savvy, wink-to-the-camera mockumentaries, the sort we like to trace back to This is Spinal Tap. While its true the genre has been around for longer than that – I think Bunuel hit on it the earliest, in 1933, with Las Hurdes: Tierra sin Pan – it’s only in the last decade that our interest in observing what the camera does to innocent people has hit its satirical stride (i.e. “The Daily Show,” “The Office,” and reality television). And it was Albert Brooks, not Christopher Guest, who saw it coming.

But more than simply being there first, Real Life said it best. With its combination of witty, “bad filmmaking” camera jokes (consistently subtle enough to come across as credible), and its patient, slow burn handle on psychological deterioration, Brooks’s movie is a comic amalgam of The Truman Show and Network. It’s obvious, watching the film, that Albert Brooks has watched a lot of television and a lot of people.

Have I mentioned Brooks has the leading role? Well, he does, and he’s dazzling in it, even more dazzling than he was in Broadcast News, a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination in 1987. Playing “Albert Brooks,” Albert Brooks, in Real Life, constructs one of the shrewdest self-parodies I’ve ever seen. And not the ironic self-parody – the one that actually congratulates the actor for having a sense of humor about himself – I’m talking about the one that levels the distinction between performer and performance. Unlike many actors-playing-themselves, Brooks invests so much intensity into his screen-self that it becomes almost impossible not to believe you’re watching the real Albert Brooks too. And in a film about manufacturing reality, that’s an essential – and indeed courageous – line to blur. Now that is spinal tap.

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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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You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Well, I saw it.

For a long time it was hard to care about the latest Woody Allen movie because the latest Woody Allen movie was so bad. That was ten years ago. Now it’s even harder to care about the latest Woody Allen movie because, more than ever, it seems Woody himself doesn’t care. His 21st century life philosophy, the idea that nothing really matters in our world of arbitrary cause and effect, has more than simply turned his fans into detractors; it has damaged – I think permanently – his relationship to his material. On the occasion of Match Point, critics saw this narrowing of mind as a productive change of course, a new point of view they mistook for a mature turn in a tired body of work. But they were wrong. A close look at any of his films since Match Point and it’s easy to see Woody’s nihilism is no more revelatory than a shrug.

His new movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, opens with a narrator’s voice over. Borrowing from Shakespeare’s famous bit about sound and fury and signifying nothing, the speaker asserts – with an air of committed apathy – that the story coming our way is empty and purposeless. Not foolish, mind you, or even frivolous fun; merely naught. A zero.

So why tell it at all?

There’s no answer. Only 98 useless minutes of sitcom situations and banal chatter made excruciating by Woody’s flagrant, almost show-offy disavowal of meaning. Worse, discrediting the very notion of significance in his film, he actually reveals himself to be contemptuous of his audience. According to his logic of sound and fury, those who came to the cinema for a substantial experience in fiction film, would rather dull their acuity with fantasy than live in “enlightened” chaos. Where life is a series of aimless fragments, none of which add up to anything of value, organizing them into narrative form is downright pointless, like building a sculpture of garbage. So what should we do with ourselves when the total of our lives is less than the sum of its parts? (Incidentally, this is the big question in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. And no one is the wiser for asking it: loonies who seek comfort in fortune-tellers are made to look like idiots, and those who know better come off as mean.)

What happened to the Woody Allen who hadn’t made up his mind, who was still unsure about what really matters? From Take the Money and Run to Deconstructing Harry, there never really was much hope for the human race, but there were always hard-won glimmers of goodness, juicy bits of life’s pulp to be scooped out of the tumult. Perhaps that’s why Woody has moved his pictures out of New York. Because in New York, where his camera would be forced into contact with the skyline he once loved, Woody would either have to fall in love all over again or grieve for what he loves no longer. Shooting his film in London allows him to do what he did in Whatever Works – run away from all of it.

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Goodbye, Furio Scarpelli

Furio Scarpelli, the prolific screenwriter of (raunchy, fearless) Italian comedies, died on Wednesday. He was 90.

Scarpelli had a hand in an unbelievable number of films (imdb counts 141), the best and most historically significant of which belonged to the “Commedia all’italiana” movement of the late fifties and early sixties. For director Pietro Germi, (arguably) the unofficial leader of the brigade, he wrote Seduced and Abandoned, which I am certain is one of the greatest film comedies ever made, Italian or otherwise. It tells the story of Don Vincenzo Ascalone (played with outrageous fervor by Saro Urzi), the patriarch of a fairly well off Italian family. He’s a simple man, a proud man, and wants only respectability for his family, so he facilitates the engagement of one of his daughters to a promising young man. Then that young man sleeps with Don Vincenzo’s other daughter (the pretty daughter), impregnates her, and skips town, thereby compromising not only the family honor, but the possibility that Vincenzo’s pretty daughter will ever marry again. So Vincenzo, who now hates this boy, goes off to find him and make him marry his daughter, who also hates him. That’s act I.

Because it is as ridiculous as it is emotionally plausible, this is a sensational premise for a comedy. The “Commedia all’italiana” filmmakers understood, quite profoundly, that an emotion pushed to it’s extreme can be very, very funny, but also deeply problematic. Without moralizing, Scarpelli’s story gets to the heart of this very Italian dilemma: hot-bloodedness, like honor, is both the making and undoing of modern Italy, as much an obsolete, feudal ethic as it is a noble tradition that must be upheld. Seduced and Abandoned plays with this paradox like a feral cat toying with a mouse.

It’s the best kind of satire. Excise the specifics of Italian politics and society, and you still have airtight motivations, fabulous set pieces, and the kind of tempestuous extravagance everyone finds amusing, whether they can relate to it or not (see the film’s trailer above – even without subtitles it’s funny). It’s no wonder that Furio Scarpelli began (like Fellini) as a cartoonist.

As much as I love Seduced and Abandoned, I shouldn’t close without mentioning two of Scarpelli’s other great creations, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (written with three others) and Mafioso, which also fits squarely in “Commedia all’italiana,” and by virtue of its title, needs no introduction. But I’ll say this: imagine The Godfather if Michael were more invested in keeping Kay in the dark about his family than inheriting the Corleone mantle. Again, it’s the best kind of satire. Take Mafioso out of Italy and the point still comes across: Every family is a mafia. Bring your fiancée home to dinner and pray the weapons stay in their holsters.

Furio Scarpelli.

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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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