Les Enfants Terribles (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1950) – Started watching this one thinking it was a 1929 film directed by Jean Cocteau, only to find out this is the 1950 film adaptation of Cocteau’s 1929 novel. Hate to talk influence, but it’s so hard to watch this without constantly thinking about Jules et Jim, The Dreamers, and The Royal Tenenbaums. All four of these films are obsessed with spaces, love triangles, and unrequited incestuous love. In Les Enfants Terribles, the refusal or inability of the brother and sister to grow up corresponds to their addiction to their shared bedroom, a space plastered with photos of ideal heroes and heroines, just like in The Dreamers. Death intrudes on the narrative twice before the more climactic deaths, and we are so sutured to the brother and sister that we as viewers treat the deaths with the same indifference as they do. The protagonists are dispassionate to the extreme, “in a perpetual state of arrested development,” as one sitcom has put it. The little statue of a woman with a mustache graffiti-ed onto it anticipates Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim. Like those nouvelle vague characters a decade later, these characters are too caught up in themselves to break out of their own self-made prisons. Without this a priori criterion being met, the (again, self-inflicted) tragedy that follows is both predictable and welcome.
Best In Show (dir. Christopher Guest, 2000) – Wanting to watch a certain film for years on end has a downside: expectations rise higher than they should. Having appreciated Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind, I thought Best In Show would be right up there with them. Add to that Christopher Guest’s somewhat popular image as a creative comic genius, and one may be disappointed to find that Best In Show falls short of the subtle humor of some of Guest’s other material. It would be easy to fall into a mode of mockery witha subject matte like a dog show. People who think animals are people are fish in a barrel. Formally, this one seemed to employ fewer of the more obvious documentary styles that defined Spinal Tap and Guffman, or maybe it was just the jerky camera work that was toned down. Mockumentary has become very popular these days, almost to the point of cliché. It’s a staple of the contemporary sitcom, and movies over the last 15 years have done it ad nauseum. That being said, Guest was probably one of the forerunners of the movement. Of course, THAT being said, Guest probably knows the potential pitfalls inherent in the genre, such as overacting. Parker Posey and Eugene Levy appear guilty of this in Best In Show. I’ll note that I dig the ending of this one, though, which I think is the same type used in Spinal Tap and Guffman. It’s the where-are-they-now ending, the the type used in serious documentaries (like Spellbound) and avoided at all costs in normative narrative film, for the reason that the happiest of endings, in real life, is never really an ending. Life goes on and silliness happens to both winners and losers.
A Shot in the Dark (dir. Blake Edwards, 1963) – A lot of silliness. They found a great vehicle for Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther, and they ran with it in the sequel (and kept on running, a decade later). What to talk about here? The English contempt for the French? A new, upbeat take on the private investigator from the days of film noir? Some kind of key to the puzzle that reveals Clouseau to be a stand-in for the modern, homophobic man and the commissioner as the embodiment of the repressed? These are all deeply unsatisfying. Apparently, sometimes movies get made just for the pleasure of watching them and, more specifically, the pleasure of watching someone fall down over and over again. It’s just a little curious that a master of comedy like Sellers would find satisfaction in repeating this part.
Gunga Din (dir. George Stevens, 1939) – I’d only seen some clips of this in a class a few years ago, so it was enlightening to see the whole thing. The main clip, I recall, was used to illustrate colonialism in cinema. I went into the full feature doubtful that this was the main thrust of the film as a whole, but seems that it might be. The opening shot is a tribute to the era of its setting, with a statue of Victoria on the throne and “Victoria Regina Imperatrix” engraved below her. Immediately following is a tracking shot of various flags, presumably belonging to the nations colonized by the Brits during the Victorian age. The story that follows assumes benevolent colonial rule and the savagery of the colonized. The titular character, an Indian wannabe-soldier who ends up sacrificing himself for the British (colonial) cause, is only a hero by virtue of bending the knee completely to foreign rule. The music is lighthearted, even during fight scenes. Native Indians both are knocked out and killed right and left during the remarkably lengthy battle sequences, during which the film creates a carefree and fun-loving mood. This mood is carried out through the music, the mannerisms and dialogue of the characters, and the camera’s focus on the Brits who are effortlessly throwing punches with disregard for the falling bodies of the colonized people. I wondered while watching this if a close reading could be performed on Gunga Din as a text, apart from the massive colonial elephant in the room. This would be a great exercise of exegetical discipline. I’m not there yet.
Operation Petticoat (dir. Blake Edwards, 1959) – Once, again, can’t help but think of Woody Allen’s adage from Crimes and Misdemeanors: “Comedy equals tragedy plus time.” Apparently that’s often true, in the cases of Cary Grant’s later-career films like Father Goose and Operation Petticoat. They’re both very enjoyable comedies set during and are very much about World War II. And yet, they both rather sidestep the once-real gravity of the war they use as their subject matter. What fascinates is that they don’t attempt to adjust the viewer’s mindset toward the war. There exists a commonly accepted attitude toward the war, toward the Holocaust, and toward Nazism that even the most genre-bending films assume. Take Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which uses Western and fantasy tropes to create a fictional take on history that the viewer is supposed find more satisfying and pleasurable than “what really happened.” Tarantino is permitted to unleash his trademark vengeance in this context, since the accepted attitude toward Nazis is, they deserve whatever they’ve got coming. Fair enough. But movies like Operation Petticoat and Father Goose use the context of the war to create hilarious situations – both of which, incidentally, involve battles of the sexes. The films avoid any real acknowledgement of the brutality behind such funny scenarios, the goings on in the south Pacific, the fact that a great many of the bombings on Allied forces actually killed people (which they don’t, in these two movies). This is not to say that there is something wrong with these films. It’s only to observe that even in avoiding the more violent realities of the war’s history, the films paradoxically acknowledge them. One also thinks of the film Mister Roberts, which blends a little more drama into its comedy and has moments of admitting what’s behind the curtain. Roberto Benigni famously brought WWII into comedy territory with Life Is Beautiful and was criticized for it. Interestingly, though, his films sort of stands out from these others by (1) showing a distant and hazy pile of bodies in a concentration camp that is in no way meant to be funny and (2) killing off the main character in an act of selfless heroism that also acknowledges the horror of the war and reveals that the comedic moments in the film were actually serving a narrative much more composed of the stuff of melodrama. But all these films have in common an unstated agreement to cooperate with the accepted attitude toward WWII. Perhaps there are counter-examples, but I would guess that they are less popular than these fairly mainstream films.