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Tag Archives: Midnight in Paris

A Serious Talk About American Comedy

Katherine Stuart, one of the brightest of my former students from the College of Lake County, recently asked to interview me for an argumentative research paper she is currently writing in an English class. The topic of the paper is why classic comedy films are better than the comedy films of today. With her permission, I am reprinting the wide-ranging interview in its entirety below.

KS: You used Bringing Up Baby in your class. What characteristics do you think this film has that make it a classic?

MGS: The screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde (who incidentally fell in love while writing it) is very clever and contains a lot of witty banter within a very solid narrative structure, the direction by Howard Hawks is flawless and, most importantly, the chemistry between the two leads (Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant) is palpable and irresistible. I always describe the mixture of their distinctive speaking voices as sounding like a beautiful musical duet. Furthermore, there’s a “wildness” to the film, an element of chaos represented by the leopard, that I think is crucial for a screwball comedy to be effective. The leopard is associated with Hepburn’s independence and untamed sexuality, which is presented in stark contrast to Grant’s frigid fiancé (“no domestic entanglements of any kind”). Plus, it’s just so damn fun watching this woman turn this man’s life upside down.

KS: What do you think are some of the best qualities of classic comedy films?

MGS: For the most part, it’s the screenplays. Look at the scripts for Some Like It Hot or The Apartment: they are completely sound according to the rules of narrative logic and the characters are three-dimensional and highly memorable. Billy Wilder could have made those films as dramas and they might have been just as effective but he chose to make them as comedies instead. Or consider any of Preston Sturges’ films. Those movies are just incredible pieces of satirical writing. It’s what I think Mark Twain would’ve done had he been born in the 20th century and decided to become a filmmaker. Nobody even tries to write comedy like that anymore. Or if they do, their screenplays certainly aren’t being produced.

KS: Why do you like Howard Hawks as a classic screwball comedy director?

MGS: Hawks’ style is completely unobtrusive. It’s invisible. You’re never aware of where he’s putting the camera, when he’s moving the camera, when he’s cutting, etc. and that’s because he’s always making the right choices. He was the consummate professional Hollywood director. The first close-up in Bringing Up Baby doesn’t even occur until 17 minutes into the movie! It’s a close-up of Katherine Hepburn’s face expressing disappointment after she finds out Cary Grant is engaged. She doesn’t say a word and yet it’s an unbelievably effective moment. Hollywood comedies nowadays are slathered with close-ups from beginning to end and there’s no thought behind any of it. It’s just to try and make a movie star’s face fill up the screen.

KS: Do you think that classic comedy films are better than comedy films today and why?

MGS: It seems inarguable to me that the best comedies from Hollywood’s golden age are superior to the comedy films of today. The problem with today’s comedies is that the majority of them are nothing but a long string of jokes from beginning to end. The approach of most of these filmmakers is to throw everything they can think of at the screen and see what sticks. The end result is that even a relatively funny movie is going to have a lot of unfunny moments. (I do love the original Airplane! but I hate most of what it has spawned.) Also, the tone of today’s comedies is almost always uneven. In a movie like Superbad, there are some moments where the dialogue and performances are surprisingly naturalistic but then the next minute something completely absurd and cartoonish is happening. The problem is that the filmmakers can’t get from point A to point B smoothly. The tonal shifts are completely jarring.

KS: Who are some of your favorite classic comedy directors?

MGS: From the silent era, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were geniuses. Their humor is entirely visual and is therefore universal and timeless. Their best movies are just as funny today as they ever were. The reaction of students in my Intro to Film classes (the majority of whom have never seen a silent movie) is proof of that. In the sound era, Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges are my favorites. Sturges was the best comedy writer who also knew, as a director, how to get the best out of his actors. Everything William Demarest says in a Sturges movie sounds hilarious. Lubitsch’s movies are just so elegant and so damn effortless. In addition to being very funny, they are actually beautiful. No one tries to make comedy beautiful today. Also, the early Marx brothers’ movies at Paramount are among the funniest – and most insane – movies ever made, especially Duck Soup, which was directed by the great Leo McCarey.

KS: What are some of the characteristics of comedy films today?

MGS: Most comedies today fall into one of two subgenres: the gross-out comedy, which is aimed at male viewers and the romantic comedy, which is aimed at female viewers. The gross-out comedy is a more explicit, contemporary version of the “teen sex comedy” that was popular in the 1980s. It is characterized by humor involving bodily functions and fluids and was first popularized by There’s Something About Mary and American Pie in the late Nineties. The less said about contemporary romantic comedy, the better.

KS: Who are some of your favorite directors of comedy films today?

MGS: I think Woody Allen is still the best comedy director working in America today. His output might be hit or miss but I thought Midnight in Paris was a terrific movie. The premise of it was so clever and the tone of it so refreshingly sweet. I’m not surprised that it’s his highest grossing movie. Richard Linklater is a great writer and director of comedy. I especially like Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset and School of Rock. I like Harold Ramis a lot. Groundhog Day is probably my favorite Hollywood comedy to be released in my lifetime. The Coen Brothers do comedy well even when they’re not making official comedies. I like the Farrelly brothers’ early movies. And I like a bunch of random comedies that you might say succeed in spite of who directed them – like Office Space and Borat.

KS: Are there any modern screwball comedy films that you think are not as good as classic screwball comedy films? What characteristics do you think it lacks?

MGS: I would say that almost all contemporary films that try for a screwball tone end up not measuring up to the classic screwball comedies of the Thirties and Forties. Most of the contemporary examples (e.g., Runaway Bride, Along Came Polly) are too tame, cutesy and formulaic. They lack the anarchistic spirit of the originals. Also important is that a lot of the original screwballs were about class difference and therefore contain a certain amount of social criticism as subtext. Contemporary Hollywood isn’t interested in doing that. The Coen brothers probably do screwball the best and yet, interestingly, the times when they’ve tried to work purely in that mode (The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty) resulted in what are probably their least successful films. They’re better at marrying aspects of screwball to other genres. Also in that vein, The Social Network, which is of course a great drama, does contain a surprising screwball vein in Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and in the delivery of the performers.

KS: As the expert, what do you think I should know that I did not ask you?

MGS: A couple of things: I do think comedy is alive and well in America, just not in the movies. Nowadays, most people get their comedy from sketch comedy shows, stand-up comedy, Comedy Central or even YouTube. None of those things existed during Hollywood’s studio system era. One could argue that there’s less of a need to laugh at the movies today because we’re surrounded by comedy everywhere else we go. Also, I’m not a reactionary; I don’t think that movies in general are any worse than they’ve ever been. But almost all of my favorite American films of the 21st century are dramas (Zodiac, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Mulholland Drive, Letters from Iwo Jima, A History of Violence, There Will Be Blood, The Hurt Locker, etc.) It seems that if you’re a serious, intelligent, artistically ambitious filmmaker in America today, comedy isn’t a genre that you’re going to try to get into. Therefore, as a filmmaker, I am naturally pursuing comedy.

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Now Playing: The Tree of Life and Midnight in Paris

The Tree of Life
dir. Terrence Malick, 2011, USA

Rating: 6.9

Midnight in Paris
dir. Woody Allen, 2011, USA/France

Rating: 8.5

The bottom line: Movies about guys walking with their hands in their pockets!

Terrence Malick and Woody Allen are both directors who came of age in the 1970s, concurrently with but quite apart from Hollywood’s beloved Film School Generation (Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma, et al). Unlike their more commercially-minded countrymen, neither Allen nor Malick studied film production at a four-year university, both distinguished themselves by writing their own scripts and both showed a greater adherence to classical notions of “high art” in terms of both the great cinema of the past and, more importantly, the other arts – literature in Allen’s case, philosophy and painting in Malick’s. (Also, neither Malick nor Allen sported beards!) In the ensuing decades the two have come to represent polar opposite approaches to how an artistically ambitious American filmmaker can live and work; Malick’s output has been legendarily sparse (only five released movies in as many decades) where Allen’s annual releases (now totaling forty-one) have become as dependable as the turning of the earth. This has led to a problematic categorization of Allen as a businesslike journeyman, a talented comic writer but sloppy visual stylist who is indifferent to actors, someone who works compulsively to stave off a fear of death. By contrast, Malick’s advocates view him as the contemporary cinema’s great Romantic artist, a consummate perfectionist in the technical sense who is nonetheless open to improvisational whims, someone who only works when and if the inspiration strikes.

The sad reality is that since the release of Days of Heaven in 1978, Malick’s work has become increasingly bloated and pretentious, a state of affairs that hits a remarkable, dizzying, frustrating new high with The Tree of Life. Although Malick’s films have always featured de-centered narratives in favor of rapturous imagery, the balance here has shifted beyond all reason; Malick and his great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have captured some of the most magisterial images in contemporary movies (a volcano erupts, CGI dinosaurs wander a primordial landscape, a child chases soap bubbles on a well-manicured lawn) but, after an amazing first hour, the disappointing sense begins to settle in that they will fail to acquire the cumulative power necessary for the kind of transcendental payoff one is expecting. The narrative fragments (a grown man roams the modern world musing on his childhood in rural Texas as well as the creation of the universe) obstinately refuse to become anything more than broken shards and are held together only by the glue of Malick’s copious voice over narration, which by now is approaching self-parody in its new-agey pseudo-profundity: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”

This brings us to the movie’s real problem: even more so than The New World, there is an abiding sense of looseness and wastefulness about The Tree of Life. It feels like a film made by a man with an unlimited amount of freedom, as if Malick had all the time, money and resources in the world to shoot all the footage he wanted and then spent years massaging that mountain of footage into its final shape. The best comparison I can make is with Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, another loose, baggy monster created by a secretive, reclusive genius that dazzled in its early stages before painfully spiraling into seemingly endless tedium. And while Malick’s supporters are quick to point out that “loose” working methods have always been his modus operandi, that all of his movies are about poetic feeling more than intellectual understanding and yadda, yadda, yadda, the sense of rigor that characterized Badlands and Days of Heaven is long gone. The idea that Malick will ever again make a film as tight, compressed or short as those earlier hour and a half long masterpieces seems increasingly unlikely, even as Malick’s rate of production dramatically increases (he already has one new movie in the can and has reportedly begun work on at least one after that).

I don’t know or care whether The Tree of Life is an “autobiographical” film as some of its most passionate defenders are claiming, which to them I suppose makes it inherently brave. I do admire it for individual moments of beauty, Brad Pitt’s scary performance as the tough love father and Malick’s overall ambition and foolhardiness, qualities in short supply in today’s Hollywood. But I didn’t feel a sense of cosmic wonder while watching it, the interconnectedness of “all things” that seems Malick’s overarching goal, one that he appears to be laboring awfully hard to achieve. For a more effortlessly cosmic cinematic experience I think I’ll see again Pedro Costa’s lo-fi, black and white Change Nothing, a documentary about a singer that conjures up the wonders of creation without the digital dinosaurs.

Woody Allen has long had his pretentious side (the complaint that his Bergman influenced dramas were inferior to his “earlier, funnier work” became so ubiquitous that he actually worked it into Husbands and Wives in 1992) but his recent attempts to rebrand himself as a European filmmaker have actually produced some of the fleetest movies of his career; 2005’s London-set Match Point and 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona were simultaneously mature without being pretentious, succeeding as both penetrating character studies and nimble storytelling. If critics and fans (including me) have taken Allen’s best recent films for granted, it is likely because they’ve been sandwiched between lesser works that tend to make us judge Woody Allen not by his greatest hits but by his overall batting average. I suspect that will change with the release of Midnight in Paris, a delightful comic valentine to the film’s title city that ranks among the best and most imaginative movies Allen has ever made.

Like the short stories of Allen’s hero S.J. Perelman, the premise of Midnight is Paris is simple and irresistibly clever, and Allen executes the clean narrative arc to perfection: Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful Hollywood screenwriter vacationing in Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. The city’s romantic aura inspires him to contemplate moving there permanently and finally realize his ambition of becoming a serious novelist. These plans don’t square with the more pragmatic Inez who finds herself spending more and more time with a former college professor, an insufferable know-it-all (in a long line of similar Allen pedants) deliciously played by Michael Sheen. Gil meanwhile finds himself magically transported back to the Golden Age of Paris in the 1920s where he hobnobs with the world’s artistic élite and falls for Adrianna (a very lovely Marion Cotillard), a fashion designer and muse to Picasso and Hemingway. To give away more of the plot would be criminal but suffice to say that the film’s sweetness of tone is perfectly balanced by its cautionary notes about the dangers of idealizing the past. Crucially, one also feels that this latter aspect contains a healthy amount of self-criticism for its writer/director, something that can’t often be said of a Woody Allen film. Also important is that the film’s funniest and most entertaining conceits (like Adrien Brody’s inspired cameo as Salvador Dali) serve to effectively prevent it from becoming the academic exercise it might have in other hands.

The real masterstroke of Midnight in Paris though, and a risky one that could have backfired, is the casting of Owen Wilson as Gil. While it has become increasingly common for the now elderly Allen to cast younger actors to play the part of an “Allen surrogate” in the lead role, this has often been a problematic strategy; most of these actors (from John Cusack to Edward Norton to Kenneth Branagh) end up essentially imitating Allen’s familiar stammering-intellectual-nebbish speech patterns. Wilson, however, slows down Allen’s dialogue to fit his own laid-back Texas persona and the result is both hilarious and refreshing. He captures the typical Allen character’s excitability while softening the misanthropy. Check out Gil’s infectious enthusiasm in the short, wonderful scene where he talks to himself while lying in bed at night, amazed at his good fortune. In the end, it’s hard to say if Gil seems more romantic and naïve than the usual Allen protagonist because Allen wrote him that way or because Wilson’s line deliveries makes it feel that way. Regardless, Allen has allowed Wilson (an actor I have occasionally found grating in the past) to display his innate intelligence, sincerity and optimism in a role that he seems born to play. He is absolutely magical. So is the movie.


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