Archive for Carlo Ponti

George Melly’s Trip to the Moon

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 21, 2014 by dcairns

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Vicious-but-fair title art by actor-writer-cartoonist Willie Rushton — not that those actresses look like that, you understand, but they both make those faces in this film.

For reasons to be divulged later, I felt like seeing some sixties nonsense, and Fiona suggested SMASHING TIME — she’d seen it first as a teenager, on TV one afternoon, and had been seduced by the whole idea of the 1960s. I’d seen bits of it and been sceptical — I like the ’60s and I like nonsense but there are certain combinations of the two that can be nausea-inducing (cf JOANNA, HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH, GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE) — but I was game and so we tried it.

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It’s not the best-directed film in the world, former cameraman Desmond Davis can be oddly maladroit at framing a shot, even when there’s a heap of mod clobber and pop design on display, and he’s equally gauche at staging slapstick, which is a shame because the script does set up some good gags. Said script is by the late George Melly, an bulbous jazz eccentric who saw THE KNACK, loved it, and set out to up the ante with cartoonishness, character names out of Lewis Carroll (Bobby Mome-Rath, Charlotte Brillig, Tom Wabe), a gaudy palette and bawdy slapstick that’s nearly bodily — a joke involving Ian Carmichael being fed laxatives and forced to defecate in a bathroom in which every cubic inch is packed with foaming bubbles hints at the hidden meaning behind the pie fights, paint fights, food fights and general muck-throwing elsewhere in the film. A bit of a surrealist, Melly had obviously glommed onto the Freudian underpinnings of all that goop, and wanted to snort about it.

NEVER MIND, I say, because there’s more to enjoy. Rita Tushingham plays a hyperbolic caricature of her KNACK role, northern rube in the big smoke, dragged into the action by best mate Lynn Redgrave, who’s inanely set on becoming a star by going to Carnaby Street and waiting to be discovered. Of course that takes less than half an hour.

The song is listed as “I’m So Young” but Lynn/Yvonne refers to it elsewhere by its brilliant alternative title, “I Can’t Sing.” Fiona and I can’t get the damn thing out of our heads now.

Fiona pointed out that female picaresques are very rare, do not, in fact exist outside of this movie and I suppose things like CANDY — has there even BEEN a picaresque movie in the last thirty years? Female clowns are likewise rare, but maybe producer Carlo Ponti saw GEORGY GIRL and THE KNACK, considered NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, couldn’t get Richard Lester, and concocted this concept? The Italians do love clowns. Lynn R. is a natural at it, to the point of maybe indulging in it a tiny bit in films where it didn’t belong, but she leads here and The Tushingham gamely follows, proving able at mugging — those beautiful eyes go ping-pong at a moment’s notice.

Kurt Vonnegut called slapstick “grotesque situational poetry,” and that’s a good description of these antics — occasionally a little too grotesque, as with an ECU of a bare foot stepping on a drawing pin — an involuntary hiss of pain from the audience isn’t really the emotion you want, is it? — and as with the paint fight where Rita is turned an unfashionable streaky brown and looks, with her screwed-up expression, like some kind of filthy witch. I like it better when it’s just on the cusp of awful — later, lovely Rita takes a cream pie to the side of the head and a great mass hangs in her hair… horrible, but hilarious. Kudos to Melly for actually coming up with sixties-specific fresh gags for a pie fight — most big custard battles just vary a few basic tropes (and are none the worse for it) but this one is seriously inventive.

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If Davis is visually a touch uneven, he does assemble a veritable Who’s-Bloomin’-Who of fab gear talent, with Bruce Lacey and his kinetic sculpture assemblage automatons (one kissing machine threatens to go full DEMON SEED on poor Rita but settles for pounding Michael York with a giant boxing glove); Anna Quayle and Jeremy Lloyd and David Lodge (all from Lester’s films) and more comedy homosexuals than you can waggle a stick at (oops, careful, you’ll have someone’s eye out with that!)

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It shouldn’t really hang together at all, but it does because Melly has put together a genuinely nice comic dynamic, with Tushingham trying vainly to keep her idiot friend out of trouble, and Redgrave oblivious to all this and clodhoppingly insensitive and unappreciative of her best mate. It’s a different dynamic from Laurel & Hardy altogether, but equally touching because you feel these two lady-schmucks really need each other, and that their friendship is worth more than anything Swinging London or Michael York with his Action Man hair and moustache can offer.

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The ’68 Comeback Special: The Fireman’s Ball

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on August 29, 2013 by dcairns

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Welcome. Scout Tafoya and I are blogging the entire line-up of the 1968 Cannes Film Festival — the Cannes that never was. Previous installments here and here.

I love this one. Milos Forman manages to square a number of circles here — he was able to make a film in communist Czechoslovakia with funding from capitalist Carlo Ponti. And he was able to combine Tatiesque behavioural comedy and comedy of movement with a documentary style, something even Tati couldn’t quite do (he tried, in TRAFIC). The stylistic trope is a success, though the financial one proved problematic, with Forman getting buffeted by censorship from the Czechs and lawsuits from the Italian.

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The movie is a pretty courageous attack on a system that doesn’t work because it fails to take account of human weakness and corruption — that’s maybe the mildest critique one could make of soviet-style communism, but it’s a critique all the same, and thus dangerous. (When I screened the film for students they found it so plain enjoyable they didn’t want to hear about deeper meanings — “An allegory? That’s spoiling it!”) The authorities objected strongly to the portrayal of regional firemen as incompetent and venal. In an effort to provoke a controversy they could use against the film, they screened it to a real fire department, only to find the Czech firefighters largely agreeing with the film’s depiction, and reminiscing about their most spectacular bungles, which topped anything Forman had dared to portray.

As for Ponti, he objected to the film’s very short running time and claimed Forman had failed to live up to his contract by delivering a film of less than feature-length. Forman argued, rightly, that the film was the perfect length for what it was (it’s not exactly slight, but it would start to seem slight if you inflated it). For a while, a huge and terrifying lawsuit dangled over Forman’s head.

The film itself pulls off an exceptional balance between affection — I think Forman loves his subjects, non-professional actors whose hesitant performances manage the difficult job of seeming realistic rather than amateur — and cruelty — the comic developments are mercilessly observed and much of the humour downright mean. How does he even get away with reducing to a shambles the ceremony intended to honour an ancient fireman, now apparently about to expire from cancer? By making it something that’s more important to the ball organizers, a bunch of stuffed-shirt bureaucrats (though again, observed with affection) rather than the recipient, who attends more out of a sense of solemn duty than pride. Bow-legged and befuddled, he seems impervious to harm, whereas the gradual disintegration of the ceremony is mortifying to the idiots in charge. Thus, tragedy is circumvented and comedy achieved.

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This strategy, whereby the real victims in the film are unable to suffer, is a very useful one. The climax, when a house burns down under the fire brigade’s noses, is kind of melancholic, but still hilarious, and part of its bittersweet ludicrousness comes from the fact that for once it shows the people acting together and trying to do some good, but in the most misguided way. The old man whose house is on fire is frail, so they sit him in a chair, one of the few belongings rescued from the blaze. Then they worry that he’ll be cold, so they move him closer to the fire. Then they worry that the sight of his life going up in smoke will be distressing to him, so they turn him around so he can’t see. Of course, the man shows no sign of distress, just bafflement at this odd behaviour.

There is a bit of pathos — somehow, speaking for myself, anyway, I’m able to laugh and feel pity and not blame the filmmaker for being a bastard,

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Oh, and another thing that strikes me as near-miraculous — the beauty pageant. It’s a good, but risky, anti-communist joke, the beauty contest where the girls are all selected for political reasons and do not exactly fulfill the normal criteria for Miss World. Kind of chimes with western jokes about female shot-putters and stuff. But of course the danger here is more cruelty, and sexism to boot. Forman manages to make the sweaty firemen the butt of the joke, and the more attractive girls, the ones they want desperately to take part, are all really odd-looking too, so the parade becomes a celebration of physical idiosyncrasy, rather than a nasty put-down of females who fail to come up to some societal standard. In the context of this movie full of wonderfully odd-looking characters, the girls are all rather lovely.

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I got the making-of info from Forman’s excellent memoir, Turnaround.

Buy this —