Saturday, April 12, 2008

Not quite a movie recommendation...

Not quite a movie recommendation this time, but rather some thoughts about contemporary filmmaking practice (esp. with regards to comedies) and a link to a clip.

I'm reluctant to simply lead with the clip - from the original The Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1963) - because the only version I could find on the internet isn't all that great. The scene - a complex car chase around a fountain in a small Swiss town, involving crooks and police officers, all in "fancy dress" costumes - needs widescreen presentation to really do it justice. Unfortunately, the internet clip crops the image and doesn't even show the entire scene: the rhythms of the editing and the camera movement seem a lot choppier than they should and the climax is missing. Still: there's enough there that what I'm saying shouldn't seem completely unfounded.

Here's the link.

What strikes me about this scene is not only how good it is as a gag, but also how its "goodness" (i.e. what makes it funny, what makes it interesting, what makes it work) is tied up with a number of (related) elements that are nowhere to be seen in contemporary Hollywood/Indiewood/Eurowood comedies (or movies in general).

They are:

(1) Longer takes/fewer cuts/camera farther away from the action. Everything here is accomplished with very little fuss in terms of camera placement, camera movement, and editing. Edwards stays (mostly) in long shots and doesn't do too much to "energize" or "push" the sequence. He achieves his effects through: the choreography of the driving, the silliness of the drivers, the reaction of the silent witness.

(2) It is primarily a visual gag, although by no means a "silent" one (the sound/image choreography is very important). It relies on a very inventive use of the location, precisely coordinated stunt driving, moments of visual rhyming, a playfulness regarding off-screen space and the edge of the frame (for instance: the "climax" - not seen in the clip - happens off screen - anticipating JLG's Weekend(?)), and a few basic camera movements (most noticeably the pans from one side of the circle to the other and the dollying in and out).

(3) Builds as a gag/built to as a sequence. Edwards takes some time to set things up and then goes through a few variations, which get more complicated (and funnier) until the final, capping moment. But more importantly: the entire car chase itself builds on some of the movie's earlier gags. The two gorillas meeting echoes their earlier interaction in an homage to the Marx Bros. "mirror" sequence and throughout the movie Edwards has built gags around the edges of the frame - for instance, Sellars's stymied romancing of Capucine in the hotel room. That means that the sequence can't be completely appreciated divorced from the movie as a whole, not just in terms of plot and character (i.e., why that guy is doing that thing and what it means in the big picture of the story) but also in terms of filmmaking choices. We're still (somewhat) used to seeing that kind of deliberateness in Hollywood action movies (e.g. 300), even if it is not always appreciated, but it is virtually absent from most comedies. And when we do come across a comedy with this kind of elaborateness/deliberateness, it is usually carried by the dialogue (e.g. The Big Lebowski) or the set design (e.g. Dick and Down with Love) or both (e.g. Wes Anderson's movies).

(4) The whole scene is presented from the POV of a "background" character. This seems like a little detail, but it might be one of the biggest differences between this sequence and the kind we're most likely to run into today. It isn't just that we spend the whole scene without ever seeing the faces of the stars, but adding another pov helps to open up the movie. That is: the movie doesn't limit itself to the povs of the stars. This kind of choice is digressive from a stylistic standpoint (although not a narrative one): these kinds of digressions are rare in contemporary Hollywood-style movies.

(In David Bordwell's terms, these are all things that have been lost because of the move towards "Intensified Continuity" as the default style for popular narrative filmmaking).

So what does this all mean? Well, to get back to Judd Apatow...

As much as I like Superbad and as funny as I think it is, it doesn't come close to The Hollywood Knights. My somewhat glib reason: unlike Superbad, The Hollywood Knights was made by a filmmaker, not just someone who (to borrow from my friend Nick) turns on the camera and lets the actors be funny.

To be fair to Mottola/Apatow/Rogen/et al.: they are near the top of this school of moviemaking, but their main gift - nailing down a certain kind of post-slacker dude banter - manifests itself on a scene-by-scene basis, without ever coalescing into something bigger.

Still: Superbad and Knocked Up were two of the best-reviewed and best-received comedies of last year and I can't help thinking: "Is this all we expect of a 'great' comedy?" Not that they aren't funny or that they don't have some memorable/rewatchable moments/scenes/etc. - they made me laugh, they presented some very true-to-life characters, they capture the dynamic of guys engaging in that kind pop culture one-upsmanship that is a substitute for conversation - but they're scrawny when compared to The Pink Panther or The Hollywood Knights.

Placed next to The Pink Panther, we can see how limited their repertoire is: with only a few exceptions, the humor is either verbal or based on facial expressions. And it's not only that there's no physical humor or what I'd call cinematic humor (like the car chase from Pink Panther: gags that rely on staging, composition, choreography, etc.), the verbal, dialogue exchange-based humor is all of the same type and pitched at the same level.

Placing Superbad next to The Hollywood Knights or Knocked Up next to (say) The Apartment (because Andrew Sarris has suggested that Apatow has received the same kind of critical acclaim as "Billy Wilder"), we can see how limited the Apatow movies are in terms of range of insight and experience. By which I mean: the women characters in Superbad seem to exist mainly as props - they are important as characters only in terms of their relationships to the leading guys; the women characters in The Hollywood Knights (I'm thinking especially of Fran Drescher's character), though they may not have as much screen time as the guys, have their own motivations, desires, and integrity.

Both Knocked Up and The Apartment document shifting social mores. But though Knocked Up does a good job describing/depicting the contemporary phenomenon of extended male adolescence, it does so in a vacuum (how exactly any of those guys really maintain that lifestyle is never addressed, the women characters are only sporadically believable). The Apartment's take on alienated, urban office workers is grounded in a well-realized social context.


Anonymous said...

To be honest I always found "The Pink Panther" painfully unfunny, but maybe I should give it another look.

Jon Hastings said...

Hi James -

I have a mixed history with the movie, myself. I have always liked A Shot in the Dark, the second Edwards/Sellars Clousseau movie, which is much more of a showcase for Sellars, but when I saw The Pink Panther 12 years ago while in college (not for the first time in my life, but for the first time as a somewhat knowledgeable cinephile) I thought it was patchy and that its dull parts dragged the whole thing down (I'll call this viewing "A").

What made the difference when I saw it a few weeks ago (viewing "B")?

(1) Going into viewing (A), I think I was expecting a "Peter Sellars" movie, so I was surprised and a little bored that he wasn't really at the center of the movie. Knowing that it is more of an ensemble piece, during viewing (B) I wasn't just waiting for the next Sellars moment.

(2) I'm much more sympathetic now to movies with a leisurely pace. I'm not sure if this is a factor of aging or because today's movies tend to be pretty slam-bang-paced and it's nice to see something different or for some other reason.

(3) Related to (2) (and maybe the most important reason): between viewings (A) and (B) I saw Jacques Tati's Playtime at the Museum of the Moving Image and it joined my list of benchmark movies. Not necessarily "my favorites" (although there is definitely some overlap), but the films which have had the biggest impact on how I see Movies: (in the order they affected me) Blue Velvet, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Seven Samurai, Nashville, The Rules of the Game, The Apu Trilogy, Citizen Kane, The Night of the Shooting Stars, Way Down East, Sans Soleil, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, and Rio Bravo - then Playtime, which has significantly cahnged the way I look at film comedy. It gave me a greater appreciation for the great silent comedians in the same way that I had to read a lot of Robert Crumb's comics before I could really appreciate what made cartoonists like Harold Gray and Carl Barks so great. Anyway, what I really enjoyed about The Pink Panther this time around were the Tati-like (or maybe Tati-lite) gags - the car chase and the bedroom scene I've already mentioned, but there are lots of other little moments, too.

(4) Related to (3): seeing the movie in a widescreen format on a good-sized TV made a big difference. Edwards uses the entire frame, but a lot of the gags are built on very small gestures, movements, or changes in staging and composition. (I'd have to see A Shot in the Dark again to be sure, but my impression now is that it is a bit more sloppily put together than The Pink Panther).

Except for (4), these changes are all of a pretty subjective nature. However, my hope was that a close look at a single scene from the movie would work as a window for better appreciating the whole. Unfortunately, that clip is of such poor quality that I'm not sure if it actually works that way or, in fact, works against my intentions.