Sunday, November 25, 2007

THREE FOR THE FUNNY. Politics, ugh, so discouraging. I want to do something fun. Not in real life -- on my stupid blog! So here's the mission: name three unjustly neglected film comedies. And by "comedies" I mean funny, not necessarily life-affirming goatsongs or anything like that.

I propose:

Slither. This caper film is sort of the comedy version of those 70s paranoid thrillers. Riddles wrapped in engimas. Ominous black vans. Nerve-jangling musical stings. Except they all end in laffs. James Caan's Dick Kanipsia, who walks out of prison into a poorly managed big-money scheme, is a ridiculously diffident hero -- maybe stupid is a better word -- whose journey, artistically speaking, is to figure out that he's finally had enough of this shit. The pace is shambling, with lots of ridiculous digressions (e.g., discussions of the family connections of the various Polish characters). And the climax is one of the all-time great cinematic non-sequiturs. Nothing meta about it -- just a good time on the film company's dime. Slither was indie before there was indie.

A Guide for the Married Man. I take a very strong position on 60s sex comedies, the best of which are so intoxicated by the sexual promise of the era that they achieve delirium. There are cases to be made for the deranged misogyny of How to Murder Your Wife, the SoCal surrealism of Lord Love a Duck, and of course the all-around strangeness of the films of Rock Hudson, Doris Day, and Tony Randall, the Mercury Players of the Priapean Age. Guide covers all the bases and then some as it follows Walter Matthau's attempt, goaded by a Mephistophelean Bobby Morse, to cheat on Inger Stevens. The dramatic stakes are purposefully reduced to Topic A essentials: Matthau's motivation is absurdly slight -- no bitterness, no discomfort even, just a craving to get with what he's convinced everyone else is getting. He's so charmed by Morse's apparent authority that he's oblivious to his more sinister agenda ("And you know how I feel about Ruth"). Morse's lessons, conveyed in celebrity blackout sketches ("That reminds me of a guy...") are the 60s Hollywood equivalent of Godard's alienation devices. I think they're much cleverer than Godard's. What Matthau takes as helpful hints, the viewer will see as rancid jokes on the American way of sex-life. As in all these movies, equilibrium is restored, but with a little more bite than usual: Matthau learns nothing but fear and compliance with old social norms. Guide will remain the capstone of the genre until some genius makes the Lockhorns movie.

A New Leaf. Here's Walter Matthau again (I love Walter Matthau), this time in a spectacularly bad wig, an aging playboy who has run out of money and has to find a rich wife. Though without funds, Matthau retains a high opinion of himself, and is oblivious to most external realities -- as the scene in which his accountant tries to convince him of his bankruptcy ("Just what are you trying to say?") demonstrates. When the fact finally penetrates his thick skull, he drives past Manhattan's palaces of plenty, mournfully crying "Goodbye!" Then he finds his chance: a botanist flush with cash but completely lacking in social graces, or even skills, played with adenoidal vigor by our auteur, Elaine May. Matthau, who is at first utterly uncharmed by May ("She has to be vacuumed every time she eats"), plans to marry, then murder her, but May is a holy klutz and cannot be killed. Eventually this wears Matthau down, and they reach an accommodation that may be something like love. The rich-boy humor is much better than that found in Arthur: the world of wealth is not, as in that film, a nest of vipers from which the hero insulates himself with drink, but a silly if stylish counter-reality that he cannot bear to leave, something more like the fantasies of old screwball films than the vulgar villainy seen in our present social comedies. You could say that about A New Leaf in general: it has a lot of that 30s sparkle, with just a spritz of 70s cynicism for body. The public has never developed a taste for it. It's for connoisseurs.

UPDATE. Speaking of connoisseurs, our commenters bring some exciting dishes to the potluck, some known to and even reviewed by me, some surprising (Ishtar, really? Conventional wisdom sucks). I am happy to see a groundswell for Albert Brooks, and would add Modern Romance, a comedy of solipsism that makes "Seinfeld" look like "Friends," and Defending Your Life, the first and most successful of the later, positivist Brooks films.

Premiere's Glenn Kenny schools us that Godard got his schtick from American comedy rather than the other way around. Julia of Sisyphus Shrugged nicely encapsulates the moral of A New Leaf. And SamFromUtah clues us to the Lockhorns trailer, which gives me hope for the American cinema.

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