Sunday, May 23, 2004

Monsieur Verdoux

Charlie Chaplin movies are interesting. I know I already wrote about The Gold Rush, which, though Wes Gehring wrote about it in the context of dark comedy film, I thought had a more slapstick brand of humor. This one, Monsieur Verdoux, is definitely a dark comedy. Like any Chaplin film, though, my overwhelming sense of it is that it is sad. I always thought Charlie Chaplin was a sad figure; certainly his life story is a sad one. He was an orphan on the streets of London, starving. I forget how he managed to find his way into film. I know, though, that that sadness always creeps into his face and into his stories. It always interferes with my having any real belly laughs from his films.

Monsieur Verdoux, though, is complex and provocative, in addition to being quite amusing. It is based on the true story of a French serial killer, Monsieur Henri Desire Landru, who married rich widows and "liquidated" them (as well as a couple of dogs and a boy). It was originally Orson Wells's idea to make a documentary about Landru, and Wells received credit for the original idea and even at one point claimed to have written a draft of the screen play, though his contract with Chaplin Films doesn't support that claim. The ending is the most provocative part, when we realize that Monsieur Verdoux has become a completely sympathetic character--sympathetic to the point of being sentimental--and then suddenly the focus of the narrative turns global and makes some startling (and apt) comparisons. Let me summarize briefly, though.

Verdoux has a girl in every port, literally. To each he tells a different story, but his goal is always the same, and that is to bring her money into the house along with a foolproof murder method. We never see him murder the women, but the murders are strongly implied enough so that, well, even if we did miss them, we'd see him furiously counting the money the next morning and know that the woman would have to be gone. Some of his wives prove more difficult to kill than others. The best one is the character played by the young Martha Raye, who plays the nouveau riche loud-mouthed lottery winner whose fortune has been told as always lucky. Indeed she is because every supposedly foolproof method he uses to kill her fails. It is quite funny, particularly since Martha Raye so brilliantly plays an obnoxious woman that I find myself hoping that he'll kill her. But then we see him visit a house where a little boy hugs him and calls him dad. At that house, the wife, wearing leg braces, is confined to a wheelchair. While the sentimental background music plays, we surmise that this is his true wife, for whom he's stealing all the money.

Another equally sentimental part comes when he learns the recipe for a foolproof undetectable poison from his chemist friend. Mixing up a batch, he plans to try it on a bum, someone no one will miss, who when found dead will be autopsied and the results printed in the newspaper. It will be a perfect way to test the poison. So we see him walking down a rainy street, where he stops and talks to a beautiful woman standing alone in an alley. He takes her to his apartment and pours her some poisoned wine. He asks her about her story and learns that she is the perfect candidate--just out of jail with no family. He is kind to her and cooks her a meal, but remarkably, she never takes a sip of her wine. They begin to have a philosophical discussion, in which she reveals that she is truly optimistic about humanity and about love, that no matter how tough life has been for her, she will not give up her hope. When he hears this, Verdoux obviously decides he can't kill her. Claiming that he sees cork in her wine, he takes away the poisoned glass and brings her a safe one to drink, later sending her on her way with some money. Still later he sees her and she thanks him for his altruism.

I think the sentimentality of this film is worth commenting about because sentimentality is the kind of mood that detracts from dark comedy, for my money. I think we have to look at this film in its historical context, though, and be somewhat forgiving. The late 1940s audience, I believe, would expect a certain amount of sentimentality, niceness, or kindness from a film, particularly one that jokes about murdering widows, or else it would have been poorly received. Think of it as the gentle touch of kid gloves that the audience of the time required. Now in this jaded age, those sentimental scenes take away from the dark comedy because they soften Verdoux as a character too much. He becomes so sympathetic that I am saddened when I see him get caught.

Even so, the film remains extremely provocative for one that is more than 60 years old. Interestingly, this is Chaplin's last American film; it came out during the first wave of McCarthyism, when there were some suspicions already about Chaplin. The message of the film didn't help. I mentioned before that the focus of the narrative changes at the end. Suddenly we see a montage of film clips of some of the political events that led to World War II: First, there are the newspaper headlines announcing bombings, then the film clips of Hitler and his troops marching and so on. In the end of the film, we come upon Monsieur Verdoux as an old man who has come to regret his actions. He encounters his old friend, the young woman who thinks he altruistically helped her, and she thanks him again by taking him to a fine restaurant. There he is recognized by the family of one of the wives he killed and is arrested and put on trial. At his trial, Verdoux speaks out, knowing he will be hanged nonetheless. He wonders at the hypocrisy of a society that rewards and honors the men that make and use weapons of mass destruction that kill thousands upon thousands of innocent people in World Wars, yet punishes or executes the man who kills only a few.

When one watches the news at present, seeing reports of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners, this seems like a very timely argument. When death is practically mass produced by these enormous bombs that are dropped without regard for the innocent lives they end, how can we blame the soldiers for not valuing the lives and dignity of individual prisoners? There couldn't be a timelier argument. It would probably be about as popular in today's totalitarian regime as it was during the McCarthy era. The message made Chaplin immediately suspect as a communist sympathizer, which made it nearly impossible for him to do much promotion. When he was interviewed around the time of the film's release, reporters asked him questions about why he had turned down American citizenship and about his finances and taxes, which were more the concerns of the McCarthy hearings. Not much attention was paid to the film, sadly. It's a bizarre form of censorship we Americans have.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Death Race 2000

This is one of those movies that people refer to without ever having seen it. I know I have! It's such a famous cult film that I'm sure I must have seen parts of it in some dorm room or at some party somewhere in the last 20 years. At least it looked familiar. But when you think about it, cult films, with their low budget looks, have a way of appearing all the same--particularly the gory ones.

Well, anyway, this one has made such an impact on the popular culture that even my GRANDFATHER made jokes that could be traced back to it. See, the very basic idea behind the movie is that the main characters are in a national race and they score points by hitting people on purpose; the crueler the hit, the higher the points. So my grandpa would be stopped, say at a stop sign, where crossing in front of us would be a rather large woman in a pair of tight pants, whose ass cheeks looked (as my great aunt would quip) like two pigs fightin' in a bag. Then he would say "Two extra points for her!" Even worse would be a guy in a wheelchair or a kid with braces on her legs. You get the idea. Talk about dark comedy!

Really, Death Race 2000 isn't quite as twisted as my family evidently is. The characters in this film hit just the average person on purpose, but that is gruesome enough. It's certainly an example of dark comedy, a completely over the top example, but perfect for someone who wasn't quite clear on the difference between your average funny movie and a dark comedy. It does serve to draw the line: It crosses over the line and stomps on it. Directed by Paul Bartel (who also did Eating Raoul), Death Race 2000 is another example of formalism: it has poor production values on purpose, at least in part.

Just look at the title for the first bit of evidence: This is one in a long line of movies, books, films, and television programs that addressed the fear of the turn of the century. Growing up in the 1970s, I saw these become clichés, because so many had considered the question of what life would be like in the rapidly advancing future. On television alone I can think of a jillion examples: The Jetsons, Lost in Space, Star Trek, Speed Racer....all those were set in the 21st century, which at the same time always seemed impossibly remote and impossibly close. My favorite part of Death Race 2000 is the sets; whenever we see the starting place of the race, from where the announcers are speaking, we see the cityscape behind us, in which there are some fairly realistic skyscrapers and then the rest is very obviously cartoon-ish
"city-of-the-future" color line-drawings of minaret-like structures (like in the Jetsons) suspended in space and connected by a monorail of some kind that speeds by, all in a crayon-ish animated way, and in the same shot as the announcers and the more realistic skyscrapers, so the juxtaposition really highlights the contrast.

Another example of the formalistic treatment of the subject matter has to do with the gory scenes. When the racers purposely hit pedestrians, it is at great speed, and the result is flying bodies and body parts, which the camera zeroes right in on. These are gory and graphic scenes, but not especially realistic. So we see the accident coming, the car hits the man, the man flies in the air and then it falls to the ground covered in a red paint-like substance that we're supposed to believe is blood. If Bartel had tried a little harder and made it more realistic, I don't think those scenes would be funny.

Most importantly, though, to fit in with Wes Gehring's definition of dark comedy, this movie quite absolutely demonstrates a disregard for death. Because I have some other films that do a better job of communicating that (as well as other dark comedy characteristics), I don't think I'll show this in class. However, I do want to say that this is the kind of film that is easy to write off as a big mistake for Sylvester Stallone and David Carradine (who play the lead roles)--but it's a lot more sophisticated than meets the eye. The premise of the race is that it is government-sponsored, at a time when the government is fairly totalitarian; we begin to realize during the race that its purpose seems to be to act as a kind of soporific spectacle to detract the public from the totalitarian government goings-on. We also learn that David Carradine's character has been raised and "programmed" by the government to be a heroic racer, and that the folklore of his having many facial scars and reattached limbs is just that--folklore, invented to fuel the fanaticism of the public. The side plot is that the underground protest group is trying to kill this racer in order to foil the government's propaganda materials. Whenever the protest group is in danger of getting publicity, the government denies it exists and blames its actions on the French, who are vilified throughout the film. It's rather chillingly prescient, to my mind, and very clever. My guess is that much of this complexity was lost on the audience that watched it for the blood and guts. Anyway, I go into this detail to make the point that this kind of movie often DOESN'T work because there isn't a complex substructure underlying the plot. When there is one, it makes the film worth watching, even 18 years later.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

The Loved One

I have been wanting to see this movie for about thirty years--see it again, that is. This is another movie that my parents took me to when I was in primary school (yes, and that's why I turned out as demented as I am today). I had this mixed up in my mind with another one they took me to, called Home for the Holidays, which is actually brilliant, and I wish I could find it on DVD or video. That one is the one I remember that is a combination comedy/suspense-thriller, where there are scenes like the one where the guy gets in the shower and the walls close in on him, ultimately crushing him to death. When you're eight years old, it doesn't occur to you how stupid it is that the character doesn't just step out of the shower stall when he sees the walls begin to come at him. All I know is that to this day, thanks to Home for the Holidays, I get a little panicky in a small stall shower. That is enough, though, of my childhood drama. Can we all have a group hug?

The Loved One is probably somewhat less inappropriate for a small child, though I remember some playmate of mine explaining that her parents had disapproved of my having gone to it. Oh--before you do the math and calculate me to be much older than I already am, I saw this movie in a theater in the mid-seventies, even though it had been released ten years before, in 1965. Remember, young'uns, that at the time there was no such thing as a videocassette (much less a DVD), so movie theaters commonly ran old movies that had been popular just for the hell of it.

Anyway, The Loved One would be a perfect movie to show either right before or right after The Trouble With Harry because both of them deal with the same issue, disrespect for death. Both cause us to consider the way Americans treat death in contrast with the way the Brits do. So in discussing The Trouble With Harry, the class would consider the fact that the movie did poorly in the U.S., whereas it played for months and years in some European theaters, proving, as one reviewer said, that dragging around a dead body is more funny to the English than it is to the Americans. I mentioned before that The Trouble With Harry was written by an Englishman, and Hitchcock changed the setting from England to America. Well, The Loved One has a continental genesis as
well. The movie is adapted from a book by Evelyn Waugh, who was inspired to write it after he was horrified by the experience of attending his Uncle's funeral in Los Angeles. For this one, the class would talk about the social commentary.

The two diverge when we get to the topic of social commentary. Hitchcock wasn't interested in that at all; he's more psychological, all in the mind. The Loved One is all about being a scathing satire of the American entrepreneurial greed and disregard for ceremony, social stature, and so on. It goes like this: Amid brassy, patriotic (American) music, Dennis Barlow disembarks the airplane at LAX to visit his uncle (played by Jon Gielgud, who was even old back in 1965!). When Dennis goes through customs, the agent is immediately suspicious of his "Beatles haircut" and his vocation (first he says "A.I.D., that is, artificial insemination donor" and then he says "poet"). The scene is funny because we find out a few things: first, that Dennis is a shady character, and second, that right away, Americans are just not as polite as this English character expects them to be. Just to be fair, the English characters are not much better. Dennis's uncle takes him to a social event with his English ex-pat friends, all of whom are pompous and very much about how things will look to everyone.

We soon find out, though, that Americans are far worse. We see Dennis's uncle, a painter, go to work at a movie studio where he has worked for many years, only to find out that he has been replaced by an appointment based on nepotism. Not only has he been replaced, but his boss is too busy to tell him; he finds out by finding another name on his door. The uncle goes home and hangs himself. His English friends, true to form, are most concerned with his being buried in the place where it will "look" the best, so they encourage nephew Dennis to go to the Whispering Glades cemetery and mortuary. Of course, hijinx ensue. It proceeds from bizarre to ridiculous, beginning with the mortuary intake interview, when the mortuary hostess, the aptly named Miss Thanatogenous, asks to be sure that the deceased is Caucasian (Dennis replies, "No, he's English.").

The cemetery and mortuary operation turn out to be a scam operated by a cultish religious figure and his disciples. By falling in love with Miss Thanatogenous, Dennis accidentally discovers and exposes the scam, which ultimately leads to a plan to fire the bodies into perpetual orbit around the earth (in "eternal grace") so that the cemetery land can be used more profitably. It's all very crass and American, and very funny. I imagined that this might be funniest to students who grew up in countries other than the U.S., because I think they would understand the commentary on American culture better than those of us who grew up here.

I have one more thing to say about The Loved One but it would probably also apply just as well to The Trouble With Harry and a few of the others. When I see these movies that are 30 or more years old, I am struck by the pacing, or rather the way the pacing has changed since then. There's so much story that would be omitted these days. Modern films leave a lot to the imagination, have many gaps in time and allow us to fill in parts of the stories in our own minds. These earlier films spend LOTS of time giving us background information or showing us the tiny details of how a relationship develops. To me they are sometimes ungodly slow. I prefer the quick, modern pacing to this plodding along. It would be interesting to see what students think. What does that say about us, about present-day society?

Friday, May 14, 2004


I watched this one in thinking about my PDE/dissertation. Between Three Amigos and this one, I feel like I have actually come upon some good ideas about where I'm going in writing about place and humor.

Crybaby really isn't one of my favorite of John Waters's films. In fact, it marked the beginning of his selling out. I don't really fault him for selling out; he had to if he wanted a budget and an audience for his films. But I'm partial to the really gross older ones like Pink Flamingoes and Desperate Living. Crybaby, though, is interesting because it's sort of a bridge between the earlier gross films like Female Trouble and the more polished mainstream films, like Serial Mom. In Crybaby, Waters has moved from using all freak actors to having some more widely appealing ones, like Johnny Depp as Crybaby himself, and Amy Locane as Alison. But he hasn't graduated yet from the freakish characters, like Kim McGuire as Hatchet-Face/Mona. So Crybaby to me marks Waters's transition from filth-filmmaker to a more mainstream guy; I think that Crybaby demonstrates that the transition was an unconscious one, since he seems to have used Hatchet-Face, who would have been an appropriate character for earlier films like Polyester or Desperate Living, alongside these newly cast characters who represent his more mainstream creative impulses.

Now, that said, I suppose I have to concede that representative of Waters's mainstream (later) creative work is Serial Mom, in which a suburban mother kills people who make her angry (including a wonderful scene where she runs over a high-school teacher in her mini-van several times and after which the words "pussy willow" will never be the same to the viewer); another representative mainstream work is Pecker, the sheer genius of which, I believe, lies in the title, which was officially John Waters's Pecker, meaning that he got everyone in America (who went to his movie, at least) to say "John Waters's Pecker" out loud. One of the structural elements in the plot of Pecker is the male strip-tease dancer's practice called tea-bagging. You'll have to look that one up on the Internet if you don't know what it means. Anyway, I'm explaining this by way of admitting that even John Waters's mainstream films are hardly mainstream.

So Crybaby is interesting because of where it fits within the Waters filmography. But looking at the elements of humor and place in Crybaby can be interesting too. I hadn't thought that much before about the important role struggles around class play in Waters's films until I read a journal article where the writer compared the storyline of Hairspray with some actual racial issues that happened in Baltimore at the time, commenting on the important role class played in the film. I don't have citation information on that (though I know I should), but that writer deserves credit for pointing me in the right direction. Class is at the very center of what happens in Crybaby.

The plot goes like this: The preppy/cheerleader/jock set hates the stoner/biker/redneck set, but the prettiest cheerleader girl, Alison, falls for Crybaby, who is nothing but trouble. That's a pretty universal plotline for a romantic comedy, not so far, in fact, from its comedy cousin, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe a little closer to this story would be Grease, particularly in the way Alison's character is "trashed up" to please her trashy man. The class differences are fairly universal for most of the film. However, the part that interested me was where we see Pepper (played by Ricki Lake) have her baby shower in her aunt and uncle's basement. Up until that time, they could
have been any trash anywhere, but here they are securely located as Southern White Trash, in the decor of the trailer, the gifts, the toothless expressions, and the speech. Just for example, the baby crib she receives has a rebel flag pillow. I think these scenes where the characters are identified so strongly as Southern Maryland poor people are funnier than most others precisely because the details are so correct.

The scene has total authenticity and we laugh at what we recognize, and then when it has been authenticated, we get a laugh at the incongruity, because of course, no one would try on purpose to be like these poor white trash folk, but Alison here does (even, unbelievably, with her snooty grandmother's support in the end). So for these reasons, I think Crybaby is actually a pretty interesting film. It's evidence of a change in Waters's writing style, and it demonstrates how the humor works best when elements of place are used most accurately.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Three Amigos

I watched Steve Martin's Three Amigos the other night (in the process of thinking about which of Steve Martin's films I might want to consider in my dissertation). I have TIVO set up to record any Steve Martin event, so I regularly get his appearances on Hollywood Squares or strange things like his tense interview with Ellen DeGeneres (and from this we would gather that he hasn't gotten over his ex, Anne Heche leaving him for Ellen). But I also see every movie Steve Martin has done, whether or not he has written it. There's a real difference between the ones he writes and the ones he just stars in. The cynical among us would say that the difference is that when Martin writes the film, we can count on the fact that it doesn't make money. I don't know that that's always true, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were. The fact is, intelligent movies often don't make money.

Three Amigos is one that Martin wrote (or co-wrote, along with Lorne Michaels and Randy Newman--of "Short People" pop music fame), and it's a great example of the way Martin's films are intelligent, even though they might come off as stupid to the mainstream audience. The basic plotline is silly: three silent movie heroes lose their jobs and go to Mexico, believing they have been hired for acting jobs, when in fact they have been hired by a small town who believes they are actual heroes. Hijinx ensue. Of course, the presence of a beautiful woman helps to urge them to stay and fight the actual bad guys, regardless of the fact that they are fools. We know they'll prevail, by some sort of fool's luck, and indeed they do. The very predictability of the plot would be a turnoff to many viewers.

But an interesting observation here, I believe, is that Martin never meant to develop a complex plot. Rather, he wrote a predictable, "Hollywood" silent film plot in order to parody the form. A great deal of the film's humor, in fact, relies on our knowledge of early Hollywood films, of the formulaic pictures in the genre that my mother would call "horse-shit and arrow." The movie begins, for example, with establishing scenes from one of the Three Amigos's supposed movies. Filmed in black and white, the scene is appropriately melodramatic, with the requisite stops in action for the insertion of dialogue frames. Even better is the makeup, an exaggerated version of that macabre pancake white with the deep, dark appearance of black lips in what we know now had to be highly painted red perhaps in the effort to make them show up in black & white. It's exaggerated, but not by much, and that fact alone is funny to the viewer who has seen those old silent films. We laugh in recognition at how adept a parody it is!

I spoke before of melodramatic scenes: I think Martin went to much trouble to try to incorporate every possible cliché--the one where the villain rides away with the screaming, yet plucky heroine, the little boy who looks up to the cowboy hero, the cowboys' double-cross of the villain (just when we think they're sunk), the way the townspeople give up on the heroes, which fuels them to conquer the villains. Martin isn't trying to be mimetic here; rather than imitating life, he's imitating art. He is making fun of these formulaic endings by having silly, unbelievable characters go through the motions in familiar plots. I find it very clever, actually.

So the reason, maybe, that Martin's films don't enjoy critical success is that the mainstream viewer doesn't think through this kind of complexity in order to find out the point. As the world's biggest fan of absurd and silly comedies, I still want to feel like my two hours weren't wasted. So what's the point of
Martin's parody of the horse-shit and arrow genre? I think at least in part that Martin makes a bit of fun of the audience who falls for the kinds of formulaic plots he's sending up. I think he means for us to pay a bit of attention to the ideas behind the story. There's more to this, I'm sure. It's important enough to be a big part of my dissertation. It would be interesting, in fact, to look at this movie in conjunction with Christopher Guest's really bad Western. More on this later, to be sure!

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The Trouble With Harry

Ah, exquisite Technicolor! Really, the film could be about anything and it would be wonderful. Hitchcock, of course, is masterful for any number of other reasons, but he really does exploit the splendor of Technicolor in this film, since it is set in a mostly outdoor autumnal Vermont. The basic plot is utterly unlike the standard thriller Hitchcock fare. It goes like this: A man finds a dead body, who turns out to be Harry, lying in the woods. He thinks he hit the man by mistake while shooting at squirrels. Others come by, several with a good reason how they might have killed Harry. The original finder of the body tries to bury it, but new discoveries keep requiring that the body be dug up. The comedy in the film arises from the utter disregard for death everyone seems to have (a definitive mark of dark comedy, I might add). The two romantic side-plots take precedence over any remorse the characters might have had over death.

So anyway, The Trouble With Harry is based on an English novel (same title) by Jack Trevor Story, and really the idea of laughing at a body being drug around is much more European than American. In fact, we're reminded of this in the documentary that accompanies the DVD, which mentions that this film did poorly in the U.S., but ran for weeks and even years in some European theaters. Apparently it came
about when Hitchcock read the book and thought it would do well as a movie, choosing to use an American setting. Actually, I think that alone is worth discussion. The change of setting had to be quite purposeful. If he was making a Hollywood movie, I gather, he would have to use an American regional setting, rather than an English one, or the movie might not have been made. Perhaps the studios preferred it. I don't know. That's an interesting thing to consider, that setting could make a difference. Think about it, though. If someone invited us to a movie set in England, wouldn't we immediately imagine some god-awful, unbearably slow-paced period piece with unintelligible northern England accents? Blech. It's a terrible generalization to make automatically, but it's probably one that is fairly representative of the average mainstream American movie consumer.

Another interesting part of The Trouble With Harry has to do with setting as well, though it is more about style. I observed right away that the scenes are quite stage-y and the sets not especially realistic. It reminded me of Louis Giannetti's discussion of formalism vs. realism in Understanding Movies. Giannetti would say that Hitchcock clearly had the resources to design and film in extremely realistic sets, so the fact that he didn't has an intentionality about it. A filmmaker uses a formalistic style when he wants us to pay attention to what went into making the film, right? For those who doubt me here, I will recount the story I heard in the documentary about the making of the film. Hitchcock's daughter and a few of the producers narrate the documentary, telling the stories behind the making of the film. One producer explained that Hitchcock first filmed the establishing scenes around Stowe, Vermont, but then a terrible storm came and blew away all the leaves literally overnight. In order to preserve continuity, Hitchcock had the leaves collected into crates and shipped back to Hollywood, where they were glued onto fake trees on a set and sprayed in the proper colors. With that attention to detail, we can see that he had the resources to create realism if he wanted to...but he didn't.

Giannetti would call Hitchcock's staginess "stylistically flamboyant," saying that a filmmaker who chooses to use this expressionistic style is "concerned with spiritual and psychological truths" that they can portray better by "distorting the surface of the material world" (Understanding Movies 4). One reviewer I read somewhere (perhaps on said that the film was interestingly simplistic, so simplistic in fact that it could almost be a children's movie. I thought that was a fairly accurate statement. Of course dragging a dead body around isn't necessarily children's fare, but when we think of the simplistic gestures made by the characters moving through simplistic sets, there does seem to be a purpose behind it. What could it be?

Maybe to answer that question, we ought to consider the end of the movie. If we try to figure out what the point of the whole story is, we see that at the end, the characters realize that the only sane thing to do is to clean up Harry (who is now a little worse for the wear for all the burying and un-burying he's endured) and then put him back where he was found originally. That way, they can report his death to the authorities as should have been done to begin with. The lesson is that there really was no point in trying to conceal the death, since no one could prove any of them were responsible for it. It's a twisted, dark comedy version of "It's always easier to do the right thing." So, since even the message of the film is a bit of a joke, I think that the consideration in the staginess and formalistic sets is Hitchcock's nod toward the snide humor of the film. He seems to want us to know "this is all in fun," or "we're all laughing here because it's so wrong and
we'd never actually do it." This is a film that is very much worth watching in the dark comedy film course, not just for the Technicolor alone!

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Eating Raoul (1982)

This low budget dark comedy stands up to the test of time surprisingly well! It was like mining the depths of my consciousness, way back to the days of my late adolescence, that one summer when we had HBO for free and I watched this movie about every third hour. I still knew some of the lines by heart.

The plot goes like this: a square, old-fashioned couple wants to open a restaurant. Surrounded by a world of people of poor taste--and worse, of loose morals--they constantly strive to maintain a certain purity while they save their money for a down-payment on their dream place. The problem is, the pesky swingers who are their neighbors keep intruding, with partygoers mistaking theirs for the swinger house. The result is that when a swinger comes in and nearly rapes Mary, Paul kills him accidentally by hitting him over the head with a frying pan. They discover $600 in his pocket and decide on a brilliant scheme that will help the world in two ways: By advertising dominatrix services in a local sex rag and then killing the respondents for their money, they will both earn enough money for their down-payment and rid the world of some vile people. Everyone wins! Then they are discovered by local crook, Raoul, who insists on a cut in the business.

To see the movie again as a scholar was a lot of fun because I noticed so many things that made it rise above its poor production values and last beyond its popular-culture-datedness. For one, it's very emphatically set in L.A. with an opening montage of shots of working class, seedy L.A. The voiceover humorously explains the gist of the film, that materialism has taken over, has become, in part, an obsession with having sex and that sex as a material possession of a sort has started to be equated with everything else, including food. Funny hot dog stand signs are shown to illustrate the point. This prepares us for the Blands, Paul and Mary, who are so proper they take turns undressing in the walk-in closet (door closed) while they get
into their matching pajamas and get into their chaste twin beds. It also is a great setup to the wonderful juxtaposition between their utter horror at the sexual deviance of the people around them and their disregard for their own violence and larceny.

In a juicy side-plot, Mary engages in an affair with sexy Raoul--with some pretty steamy scenes where they smoke Thai stick and get pretty naked. I should say as an aside here that one particularly graphic scene made me think about how comfortable I would be showing the movie to college students. But, hell, they're adults, right? And it's such a great example of dark comedy because I think a lot of what dark comedy is about is that tension between the old, rigid rules of behavior and the new, modern permissiveness. That is where so many laughs from this film (and many others like it) come from. Anyway, part of the tension of the film has us in the dark about whether Mary will betray Paul and stick with Raoul or break up with Raoul and stay with Paul. Raoul promises her that a restaurant kitchen is no place for a beautiful woman--he says he can keep her in style by expanding the "business." On the other hand, Paul offers stability and the fulfillment of their dream of owning a restaurant. Mary doesn't let herself be tempted by the lustful seedy life of the sexually gratified.

There's so much to this film. From the standpoint of semiotic analysis, one can find many clues about the characters. In fact, it would be fun to talk with students about semiotic analysis regarding this film because it's so heavy handed and funny--like the turgid cylindrical objects that seem to accompany Raoul in every shot. There's also the element of repetition--we might use the real estate agent's visits, for example, as a barometer for the way the characters change in this film. Each time he comes, Paul and Mary are in a panic to impress him with dinner. To discuss the way the dynamics of power change within that relationship would be productive. Certainly, a Marxist approach might be interesting too: class seems to be an issue here. The filmmaker spends a lot of time and precious film establishing shots of the working class L.A. How does that compare with the upper middle class existence of the swingers--and of Paul and Mary who seem to straddle the classes? How would a feminist read this film? It might be interesting to look at the women characters in this film, Mary and the dominatrix, and analyze them. Who is truly liberated and who is subjugated? might even be an easy place to start and to talk about critical approaches, then.

Well, I'm starting to think that the exploration part of writing this course needs to become somewhat more structured. I need to decide just how many films I want to bring into the course and start writing.