Archive for Cracking Up

Bedtime for Tantalus

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2021 by dcairns

ONE A.M. is a wild experiment. Chaplin resuscitates his drunk act — he hasn’t been this hilariously incapable since the face on the barroom floor — and is the only one on screen for nine-tenths of the action. Poor Albert Austin is frozen like a wax dummy — I always found him uncanny and a bit disturbing as a kid — so he barely counts as co-star.

I invoke the mythical Tantalus because Chaplin plays a man tormented by his environment and its objects. All he wants is to go home and get into bed, but he’s so inebriated his home has become strange to him (he’s horrified by all his stuffed animals) and the furniture and architecture conspire to prevent him doing anything he tries. Even the matches in his pockets are useless to him since he can’t remember the simple sequence of actions that results in a smoke. Which may be for the best — his mishaps get more and more violent and he could easily set the whole hideous joint ablaze. And you can’t rely on the fire brigade in Chaplin World, as we’ve seen.

The struggle with the taxi door, which is milked for longer than you would think possible, a foretaste of tortures to come, is astounding. The bit that really got me hysterical was the attempt to put away his handkerchief in a pocket, but with his arm through the taxi door’s window, so that the door panel intervenes between hanky and trouser. Charlie — definitely not a hobo, he has usurped Leo White’s topper — finds himself vigorously wiping the door rather than pocketing his kerchief.

I watched my old DVD, then the restoration, which looks much, much better but lacks tinting, which I think we need for the opening exterior. It’s never going to look like night, it’s all too glaringly a bright Los Angeles day, but a hint of blue would at least suggest that’s what we should be imagining.

This is another film that seems to have entered Stan Laurel’s DNA, to emerge when needed. Charlie has lost his door key so goes in by the window. Then he finds his key, so he goes out the window again and comes in by the door. Echoed in THE MUSIC BOX’s broken logic when the boys discover the easy way up to Professor von Schwarzenhoffen’s house, and then redundantly use it. Just as the endless, repetitive journey up the stairs made by Chaplin, calculated to make the audience scream with frustration as well as laughter, is echoed by the struggles with the crated player piano.

The slippery floor, upon which the many little rugs glide like magic carpets, frequently sending Charlie tumbling, occasionally transmitting him to just where he wants to be, like Star Trek transporters, sets up another comparison, with Jerry Lewis’ insanely slidey psychiatrist’s office in CRACKING UP. Lewis was more of a Stan Laurel man, I guess, but he clearly absorbed a lot from Chaplin (including the pathos, which comes out funny when Jer tries it). I’d be fascinated to know what Chaplin thought of Lewis, but we already know he’s a better clown and filmmaker than he is a critic. He liked Benny Hill, if that helps.

The best bit of sliding may be the first, because Charlie is trying to steady himself on the door knob, which is attached to a door which is of course hinged, and swinging wildly, a very unsuitable object to steady yourself with, but all he’s got. A good metaphor for drunken stupor. Attempting to combat treachery from the floor leads you to struggle with treachery from the wall.

Every now and then it’s good to remember that Chaplin’s father died from the effects of alcoholism. It’s getting less and less acceptable to laugh at drunk routines, isn’t it? Back in the day, we weren’t supposed to regard drunks as tragic — the falling-down incompetent kind were funny in a way that disabled people weren’t, because it was a temporary, Tom & Jerry kind of physical handicap, and it was self-inflicted. The vicious treatment of the gouty in Chaplin’s films is similarly “justified” by the sufferer being responsible, it would seem, for his own condition.

Personally I’m very happy I wasn’t “protected” from this film as a child. And I have no problem with laughing at Chaplin’s skill (or Arthur Housman’s, or Foster Brooks‘) rather than laughing at alcoholics or alcoholism. But see also Nietzsche’s “A laugh is an elegy for the death of an emotion.” Chaplin is attempting to kill with laughter his most painful memories, and who has a better right?

Onwards, then, to the parade of stuffed animals. It is admittedly implausible, in literal terms, that our hero, who keeps a set of climbing gear and is therefore a traveler and presumably the man who bagged all these big cats, bear, ostrich etc, has forgotten all about this and is thus horrified at finding what he presumes to be his home occupied by wild animals. But there IS a metaphorical truth about the way familiar things can come alive and be uncanny at night. And so, though Chaplin is playing a drunk magnificently, maybe he’s also playing a child, as usual. Drunks don’t SEEM that much like children, but they have regressed to that stage where they don’t have control of their bodies of their emotions, so there’s a confluence.

One can sympathise with Charlie’s dismay at discovering this wretched undead Stouffer lurking at the foot of the stair. This film also features numerous examples of Charlie’s intimacy with the camera. A fresh taxidermic outrage… a wary glance to his chums in the audience — “Can you see it? Is it as bad as it feels?” Yes, Charlie. Yes, it is.

The sawdust atrocity comes into its own when Charlie kicks it and its curving body causes it to banana round and counter-attack. Brilliant comedy physics.

Then the rotating drinks table. A loooooong bit here. Brilliantly extended by having the victim recognise that his snagged cape is the trouble, then having him doff the cape, but tread in it, so his foot drags it along and it’s STILL snagged and so off we go again. I always assumed that Beckett’s Act Without Words and its sequels were primarily Keaton-derived, but a case could be made for Chaplin exerting an influence through this film, or at least mining similar terrain.

Fiona observed that a lot of what happens here would work well for Keaton, and is the kind of thing we associate more with him. Keaton, in fact, rarely played drunk, but in the thirties often was drunk. But he certainly struggled with objects which sometimes seemed imbued with a malign consciousness. The line between alive and inert is blurred, erased. Chaplin is usually more in command of this, can get away with treating people as objects, objects as people. Keaton transforms one thing into another without conscious choice, simply thinking with his body and adapting. Chaplin seems to generate a protean field around himself which allows things and people to swap qualities. A dangerous thing to mess around with — look what happens when he gets drunk.

“Familiar objects seem to stir with a writhing furtive life.” William S. Burroughs.

And enjoy the sight of Charlie in tight trousers for once. The black-sheened spider legs become more expressive — the baggy pants actually robbed us of many possibilities, but gave us an indelible outline.

Failing to light cigarette after cigarette, or the same cigarette multiple times, leads Charlie to climb atop the spinning table and try to reach the chandelier, a doomed effort. A little later, it will turn out he has another match after all, which is the way of these things, isn’t it?

Incidentally, I don’t much like the intertitles, which try too hard to be “witty.” Replacing them with inarticulate grunts and swearing would emphasise the basic miserable reality of what we’re facing.

Now to the stairs. After throwing his silk hat onto a stuffed ostrich with perfect finesse — the hostile universe will allow Charlie the occasional, purely trivial triumph — our adventurer sets off upstairs. He’d used a wire to allow Eric Campbell to hold him aloft by the throat in THE FLOORWALKER and it’s possible he uses one to let him lean back at the top of the stairs, another to let him slide down feet first on his belly each time he loses his balance. The stairs look to be heavily padded, anyway, which is a kind of relief.

The further up he goes — in Freudian terms, into the higher conscious — the more vicious the house gets. The clock with the Poe-esque pendulum is completely impractical, a literal health and safety nightmare. It guards the bedroom door like Cerberus. Playing it safe, Charlie slides along the wall like Cesare the somnambulist and is biffed on the chin by the clock’s pugilistic upswing, sending him downstairs again.

Many, many attempts later, Charlie tries the other stair, is terrified by a stuffed bear, and eventually makes it — twice — using the coat stand which had proved useless for hanging coats but makes a neat if precarious climbing frame. A tussle with a stuffed bear, and he gains the bedroom, after adding concussion to inebriation via a round with the killer clock.

The Murphy bed is the boss villain of this fever-dream game. Fiona points out that no rich drunken hunter/mountaineer would have a Murphy bed, something Chaplin might have encountered in cheap rooming houses during his Karno tour of the States. Anyway, this bed is possessed. It’s main desire seems to be to prevent Charlie sleeping in it, or perhaps to destroy him. Starting gradually, it displays more and more independent action, and more complex movements, being able to flip like a YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN secret panel, lower like a drawbridge, then pull up from the head, reversing itself. It has the alarming, unnatural flexibility of Linda Blair’s neck.

Fiona, having laughed harder at this than anything in Chaplin apart from THE CIRCUS’ monkey attack, which reduced her to breathless narration, as if by describing what was happening she could lessen its side-splitting agony, began to grow tired of the bed, but then laughed when Charlie leapt onto it as it rose, ripping the bed from the frame.

“Oh well, at least it can’t hurt him now,” she said, and on cue the bedframe viciously tripped its victim.

To the bathroom. The film MUST be ending soon. The attempt to fill a glass of water from the shower drew laughs of anticipation, then bigger laughs when the reaction to a drenching exceeded all anticipation, and when the shower’s exit could not be found, owing to the camera angle concealing it. Charlie performs a full circle of the interior without locating it, and so attempts to climb out…

Finally he beds down, sodden, in the bath, with a wet towel for a blanket, his deep stupor finally coming to his aid by making him oblivious of his miserable, wet, freezing, hard-surface discomfort. The End — of a comedy of frustration beyond even Bunuel.

omg gramps u r totes mbrsng me : )

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2013 by dcairns

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Wilder on Wilder — filmmaker Matthew Wilder joins the fray with an impassioned, possibly insane defense of Billy Wilder’s despised last picture show, BUDDY BUDDY — a film maudit to end them all. He makes a good case…

As a kid who became aware of cinema in the late seventies, then moved into adolescence in the eighties, I had an experience of the Old Masters of Classical Cinema that I suspect is shared by many Gen-X people now shading –or careening—into middle age. We got the “late style” first; then the heyday second; then the juvenilia last of all. Which is to say, many an X kid’s first pungent taste of Alfred Hitchcock was FRENZY (coupled, of course, with its well-behaved cousin PSYCHO on the late show). Then came VERTIGO and THE WRONG MAN and NOTORIOUS; and much later—as one ticked off filmographies in a more academic fashion—came UNDER CAPRICORN and YOUNG AND INNOCENT.

For X cinephiles, sometimes catching these dementia-praecox classics first run, sometimes on an also-ran VHS tape (still a novelty in our puberty), we encountered the Grandmasters in Benjamin Button fashion. How exciting to see George Cukor mature from LOVE AMONG THE RUINS and THE BLUE BIRD into THE WOMEN and HOLIDAY! Imagine that that guy who made SEVEN WOMEN would go on to do THE SEARCHERS! And who would think that the hot mess who squirted out SKIDOO would go on to craft such elegant films noirs!

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I may have a different emotional take on this than other once-green youths who got the dregs before the red red wine. Perhaps because of a chemical combination of critical hosannas for these architects of the Golden Age + the late, fubsy works themselves, I have always had a special affection for these shambling late films—so much so that I feel that affection steers me out of the realm of any form of objectivity altogether. Could one really, with a straight face, and wanting to appear of sound mind and body, say that one passionately loves Rossellini’s MESSIAH more than OPEN CITY? But I do, I absolutely do. The reasons are, I think, so personal and anecdotal, I would have to reverse-engineer a whole boring memoir to explain them. But let’s sum it up like this: even in forgetful ruins, dusted in dandruff you had to brush off their shoulders, the Grandmasters brought the touch of another, better world into the era of Atari consoles and Flashdance sweatshirts. Profoundly out of step with a high-tech Reaganite America, their work felt—and feels—like artifacts of a long-lost alien civilization.

There is late work, in the seventies and eighties, of these old masters, that feels elegiac, exquisite—the last sigh of a show horse that once flaunted its glory at noontime. Bunuel’s THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, Huston’s THE DEAD, Visconti’s CONVERSATION PIECE and THE INNOCENT, Preminger’s THE HUMAN FACTOR. Then there are those works where the antiquated sensibility of the maker clangs against the surface of the modern world in ways that are partly noble and stirring, partly uncomfortable-making.

And then there is BUDDY BUDDY.

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To my knowledge, there has been no real defense mounted in a serious way—hell, in an unserious way!—of Wilder’s final 1981 feature. It is generally viewed as either giggle-worthy or grim, a signal that Grandpa needs to get with reality and hand over the car keys at last. The only kind word I have ever heard on BUDDY BUDDY came from longtime blue-chip auteurist and Wilder detractor Dave Kehr, who stood next to the police tape and wryly grinned, like a cop out of James Ellroy: “Well—it’s funnier than most of his recent movies.” BUDDY BUDDY was part of a pile-up of Christmas 1981 movies that signaled the end, no, really, the real end, of the seventies: oddities like the film adaptation of Dennis Potter’s PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, the seventy-one-minute Andy Kaufman sci-fi quirkfest HEARTBEEPS, the bizarrely morose Alan Pakula/Gordon Willis banking-apocalypse thriller ROLLOVER, a macabre film version of WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY? with Richard Dreyfuss and John Cassavetes, and above all, Warren Beatty’s bank-breaking salute to left-wing deludedness REDS, all hit the multiplex like pumpkins flung off a highway overpass. None received as little love as BUDDY BUDDY.

A final reckoning for the Lemmon/Matthau/Wilder trinity, BUDDY BUDDY collides suicidal schnook Lemmon with hardcase button man Matthau, who is screwing in his silencer about to clip his target when a despairing Lemmon literally lands on his head. (If your skull is pinging with memories of Jerry Lewis’ failed hanging attempt at the beginning of CRACKING UP a k a SMORGASBORD, you’ve come to the right place: these pictures are incestuous cousins.) Of course, beta Lemmon moves from literally falling atop Matthau to falling all over him with an effulgence of puppylike good spirits; Matthau wants nothing more than to finish his deadly job. And if you guessed that stammering schlemiel Lemmon has to help pokerface bulldog Matthau close the deal, you may have seen one or two American adaptations of French farces!

BUDDY BUDDY would make a brilliant double bill with another 1981 comedy that played to crickets, John Schlesinger’s HONKY TONK FREEWAY. Both films are built on the quicksand of borrowed glory: HONKY TONK is a kind of spritzing lapel flower based on Altman’s NASHVILLE (but broader), and BUDDY harks back to many happier days for the three craggy comedians. But in its way, BUDDY BUDDY is unique. Shot in widescreen in brilliant Bel Air sunshine, with an insinuating Lalo Schiffrin score proffering sinister mock elegance, BUDDY BUDDY comes on strong with the confidence of a movie made by a thirty-year-old. In that, it resembles a more financially successful ’81 comedy by a chap of a certain age—Mel Brooks’ HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART ONE. The difference is that Mel embraced humor addressing the body parts of the middle regions. Billy’s humor is more behavioral and, how you say…cultural? Only whose culture is it, anyway?

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It is hard to describe to a reader in our twitfeed era the sensation of seeing a picture in 1981 in which Lemmon and Matthau’s path is obstructed by a couple of dirty hippies in a hospital who birth a baby, and, after the kid is born, burst into song: “Happy birthday…Little Elvis!” (The looks across the theatre on “Little Elvis” spanned the generations.) For topical gags, there is a quackpot sex doctor whose typically Californian mumbo-jumbo seduces Lemmon’s wife, the statuesque, goosey Paula Prentiss. He tells a hotel conference of premature ejaculators to think about the names of the Seven Dwarfs, and he is played, with cocaine-hangover shades and a salon tan by a perfectly cast (and in-on-the-joke) Klaus Kinski. (A flyover attempt at doing some Youtube research on the subject yields the notion that Kinski, while a pain in Billy’s ass and vice versa, did not make any attempts on his life during shooting.)

Lemmon’s Victor Clooney—who is not victorious and does not resemble Clooney—is a TV censor who brags to Matthau’s Trebucco that he pinched a would-be clever writer who hatched a Spanish character named Senor Cojones. To launch Wilder’s kind of dated gibes at far-out sex therapy and wheat-germ-era California culture, you have to be quite a Senor Cojones yourself: the gags here inevitably play to “Springtime for Hitler” stares, as when faux milkman Trebucco blows away one of his victims, and Wilder cuts to the façade of Matthau’s milk truck: “Drink Milk. Live Longer.” BUDDY BUDDY brought a storied career to an ignominious close—so much so that Quentin Tarantino now cites it as the reason directors shouldn’t go on working into their old age. Billy got no more shots after that. Later, when Cameron Crowe met Wilder at an awards function, he asked with typical cheer, “So, what’s next for you, Billy?” “What’s next for me? Death!” was the candid, and accurate, response.

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It’s not hard to see why BUDDY BUDDY was greeted with grimaces, but the picture is not so bad it’s good, it’s so weird it’s beautiful. Wilder has the poise, conjures the assurance, knows the rhythm of a joke. It’s just that the material he’s serving on a silver platter only tastes like food on a distant planet. His similarly derided—and genuinely great—1964 comedy KISS ME STUPID also felt detached, the product of a bubble, but its premise was a visitor from the sex-forward, decadent big city bumbling into Dogpatch, with comic, then tragic results. The movie looks all the better now because it describes the changing sexual styles of its moment without being “of” its moment. BUDDY BUDDY, on the other hand, is purely otherworldly. Don Rickles used to make jokes about Japanese snipers still hiding in the palm trees in Pasadena. The Billy Wilder of BUDDY BUDDY may as well be one of those snipers—the difference being, Billy climbed up a palm tree at the Beverly Hills Hotel some time in the fifties.

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In an era when comedies are group-conceived spitball sessions where a bunch of comics throw out their best shots, and an anonymous committee cobbles together the zingers, you have to admire the brazenness, the naked risk, the cojones of this era of auteur comedies. For instance: every female person I have ever showed Blake Edwards’ 1981 S.O.B. to finds it grim and repellent beyond belief, but you have to hand it to him—it is a perfect rendering of Edwards’ acrid worldview, and it is as full an expression as any of his form of comedy. Spielberg’s 1941 is nothing if not the auteur theory writ large; and other mavericky efforts of the period, from Albert Brooks’ masterly MODERN ROMANCE to Hal Ashby’s dastardly HAMSTER OF HAPPINESS, have the personal signature we now associate with indie drama. None of them is quite so rich and strange as BUDDY BUDDY, though, where the grace of Wilder’s highly formal style—every set-up, every location is more beautiful than anything you’d see in a studio comedy now— and the perfection of the performers clash with gag-writing on the level of the smart-ass remarks at a Dean Martin roast of Doc Severinsen.

Is that such a bad thing, finally? Isn’t the pleasure of late style really “belatedness”—that aspect of the poet’s gift Harold Bloom describes as if it were some form of late-blossoming genetic defect that turns out, in fact, to be a treasure? And can’t we enjoy—or appreciate—aw, at the very least, love—the embarrassing grandpa, the Inappropriate Blurter, the alluder to that which no one remembers (or should), as much as the Serene Old Master, the unhurried one-take voice of wisdom, the repository of a long-dead classicism that shames us all? The mausoleum coldness of late style in movies can be bracing. But the spills, stains and overhang of BUDDY BUDDY prefigure 2013’s now highly commercial forms of “awkward comedy”—not to mention the truly awkward comedy that is the way we live now.

Matthew Wilder

The Sexy Sex Secrets of Sexy Sex

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2008 by dcairns

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Not, it’s not Sexy Week again, but it IS Antony Balch’s lamentable masterpiece SECRETS OF SEX, which I received through the generosity of cartoonist Douglas Noble. I am forever indebted!

Balch, a William Burroughs associate and cinema owner, collaborated with Burroughs on THE CUT-UPS and later made HORROR HOSPITAL, a deranged Brit-horror comedy thing, which has to be seen to be belittled/bemoaned/befouled. “Starring” Robin Askwith and Michael Gough and a dwarf, with a magnificently inebriated guest appearance by Dennis Price (one might call it a “walk-on” except he doesn’t walk and probably couldn’t) as a talent agent who leers at Askwith’s denim-swathed bulge, and featuring a Rolls Royce with DEATH RACE blades for decapitating fugitives from the titular place of healing, it’s not exactly good but it’s far far more imaginative than most British horror films, bearing comparison with the likes of SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (whose writer, Christopher Wicking, just died, all too prematurely).

But SECRETS OF SEX is something else again. A little closer to Balch’s Burroughsian side, it’s a scrapbook of ideas strung together by the narration of Valentine Dyall as an Egyptian mummy. Because naturally, when you make a sex film, you want it narrated by an animate corpse, don’t you?

It may be time to re-alert Shadowplayers to Operation Prole-Wipe, the initiative put in place by the Heath government to reverse the postwar population explosion by putting the British public off sex. While America and Europe bathed in a fountain of hardcore filth, some of which, by virtue of it’s sheer gynaecological explicitness, could be seen as vaguely instructional, plebeian Britain was subjected to an endless and debilitating stream of softcore “comedies”, designed to make sexual activity of any kind seem off-puttingly ridiculous, undignified and ugly. While the ruling classes continued to yank their planks to yellow-sleeved volumes or erotica with Aubrey Beardsley illustrations, the proletariat were suddenly exposed to the sight of Robin Askwith’s heaving bum working away like an oil derrick amid the soap-spew of a malfunctioning washing machine, Liz Fraser as a character called Miss Slenderpants, and graphic shots of the face of Bill Maynard, a gifted comic whose “distinctive” appearance radiates anti-orgone, the sex-destroying energy, causing him to spend his life within a force field of celibacy, a walking bubble of not-getting-any.

Britain’s acting establishment threw themselves into the proud task of sterilising the nation’s manhood, and renowned thespians such as John LeMesurier, James Robertson Justice, Irene Handl and future prime minister Tony Blair’s father-in-law Tony Booth, rushed to wallow in the steaming tide of buttock-thrusting pantomime. While low-grade pornographers like Derek Ford found themselves elevated to near-mainstream status, with actual budgets and actors to contend with, respected filmmakers like Val Guest enthusiastically mutilated their own reputations with tosh like CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER and AU PAIR GIRLS, films whose existence can only be accounted for by their makers’ fierce dedication to the production of widespread erectile dysfunction.

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Into this realm of conspiracy comes Antony Balch, with a project boldly conceived to rip the lid off this covert sex/class war. SECRETS OF SEX renders the anti-erotic propaganda overt, so that it can no longer be hidden. What other excuse for the repeated ECUs of an eye with a loose contact lens; the man terrifying a Hill’s Angel with his pet lizard; the male homosexuality, which in 1970 would have struck terror into hetero wankers; the glove puppet deformed baby; the closeups of puckered and wrinkled derrieres; the castration/disembowelment by guillotine blade; and that damned mummy?

Just as Goebbels reckoned Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL was too overtly propagandistic to be effective, Balch’s overseers in Whitehall blanched at his deliberate flaunting of their anti-erotic mission, and effectively blacklisted him from their 1984-like plan to pacify the masses with porn. But what remains is a truly demented Odyssey through the sick, the strange and the transweirdening. The only thing that really gets fucked is your head.

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Like Jerry Lewis’s SMORGASBORD/CRACKING UP, Balch conceives his film in the loosest terms, then violates those terms wantonly. A highly colour-coordinated spy spoof starring Maria Frost (Lindsay Shonteff’s PERMISSIVE, but she’s — incredibly — not good enough for a starring part there) stops dead while the characters watch a silent porno where everybody is in drag and nearly everybody is a violent rapist. Storylines are introduced (by the nodding mummy) to illustrate some philosophical point, but never do. The battle of the sexes is introduced as a theme, and Balch seems to take this VERY seriously, seemingly longing for the day when it becomes a shooting war, but no theme could truly account for the souls reincarnated as flowers skit, the bit with the lizard, or the grand fireworks display at the end.

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Whaaa?

SECRETS OF SEX may actually be the weirdest film I’ve reviewed here — the weirdest thing about it being that it’s seemingly intended to fulfill some sort of commercial purpose. Antony Balch is hereby inducted posthumously into Shadowplay’s LEGION OF UBER-HEROES.