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!