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May 25, 2008


Not Comics: My Five Favorite Films

5. Network (1976)
imageNetwork seems to me slightly out of favor, but I'm not sure there's been a better satirical comedy in the last 40 years (tied for a distant second are two hospital movies, The Hospital and The Kingdom). The Paddy Chayefsky-written, Sidney Lumet-directed film mines its humor from a variety of places: the pitch-perfect and sweetly endearing crazy-man performance by Peter Finch, the right-on depiction of network television maneuvers as overt psychological and cultural warfare waged by the rich on the poor, even the bittersweet romance suffered by the still-potent Faye Dunaway and a never-better William Holden. The fact that the movie accurately predicts the rise of cable television programming makes it that much more amusing, but what sticks with me when I see it now is the acidic worldview and the way it shows how relentless pressure wears down everybody -- and what it doesn't wear down, it eliminates outright. Never have so many characters' crippling emotional peccadilloes been presented as saving graces. Now that's comedy.

4. The Singing Detective (1986)
imageOne of the great performances ever captured on film and a movie so stuffed to the core with sadness and regret even at six and a half hours long that it's almost unbearable to watch unless you spends days in preparation steeling yourself. Michael Gambon gives the best performance of the three great actors to work in a Dennis Potter series (Bob Hoskins and Albert Finney were the other two). Gambon plays a man scrambling for some vestige of meaning and dignity under circumstances that deny him, well, everything, but especially what he's looking for. Like many great works, the mission of the artist making the art and the lead character within the art is one and the same: self-mythology. For maybe the only time in Potter's relatively short but fascinating career as auteur, every choice the writer makes in presenting his patented combination of fantasy and haunting emotional realism feels appropriate and thematically insightful rather than forced and diversionary. The Singing Detective should be watched once a year -- but only if you can stand it.

3. High and Low (1963)
imageAn immensely pleasurable film to watch, Akira Kurosawa's take on the Ed McBain crime story "King's Ransom" offers up an irresistible plot hook and gently escalating expectations that rise from each previous plot point until they crumble and break apart in a final few, remarkable scenes. A businessman's son is playing with the chauffeur's same-age child. When they switch costumes, the chauffeur's kid is kidnapped and used instead of the son to blackmail the businessman father at a point when paying could cost him everything he's worked for. The father comes through, anyway, prompting the cops into an almost fanatical pursuit of the perpetrators in order that they may honor this selfless act. The reason for the kidnapping proves to be almost touching in its arbitrariness and for the dismal picture it paints of its criminal element and the pressures of caste-conscious Japan. I love the visual assuredness of this film, the restraint of its performances -- Toshiro Mifune has a scene in this film that's ten times as awesome as anything he ever did with a sword -- and the relatively complex meditation it provides on post-War communities.

2. Duck Soup (1933)
imageMy favorite thing in a Marx Brothers movie is when Groucho comes out right at the start of a picture and proceeds to just kill everybody dead, like some great god of unstoppable comedy. It's downright heroic, and there are few comedians in film history that by simply showing up could suggest a positive turn on crappy circumstances (the last for sure was John Belushi; Sacha Baron Cohen may or may not have this quality, I can't tell yet). When Groucho comes out and seizes the stage and shakes the audience in his teeth, it's like he's proclaiming, "I'm the funniest motherfucker in the world!" He practically dares anybody to stop him, to prove him wrong, to take him out. It's like watching Jimi Hendrix play his guitar blindfolded or hearing about how Dizzy Dean would yell at the batters what his next pitch would be.

Duck Soup has the most funny bits of any of the Marx Brothers movies, even if you don't care for the over-long mirror sequence, and that musical number near the end is one of the few things in life that scores as advertised. It's still astonishing the greatness that scene achieves every single time you watch it, some 75 years after it was filmed. It provides the same thrill you get during great, isolated moments in comedy, like Charlie Chaplin shooting through the gears in Modern Times, or Richard Pryor bursting into tears in Some Kind of Hero or that magnificent turn of phrase from Life of Brian, "Life's a piece of shit/when you look at it," except that in Duck Soup the scene lasts for several minutes and its giddy build adds to the anti-war message just as much as each moment does so on its own. (The only thing since that may come close is the initial Hanson Brothers mentally-limited violence eruption in Slap Shot.) Woody Allen once made the argument that Duck Soup was a symbol of all things of value in life. I think he may have understated his case. I'm not sure what heaven's all about, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's a place where you look over your shoulder and see the Marx Brothers playing a xylophone tune on top of a bunch of helmets.

1. Local Hero (1983)
imageI'm not sure how Local Hero became my favorite film, but it has been for a long while now. It may have something to do with the fact that Bill Forsyth's best work combines two of the things I find most richly satisfying while watching movies: 1) a beautiful place and 2) a fine-tuned comedy performance. I love the look and feel of the sleepy village in which most of the (subdued) action takes place, and I'm in awe of Peter Riegert's take on a man slowly waking to the stale horrors of the life he's made for himself. Riegert has three or four scenes in Local Hero that are worth other actors' entire careers, perhaps most memorably his drunken declarations about the wonders of a night sky to a star-gazing boss half-way around the world. Riegert's Mac is excited, and watching himself be excited, and not exactly sure how to be excited, all at the same pathetic time. The best shot in the entire picture and maybe the greatest single moment in film during the 1980s is a few seconds worth of movie showing Mac's sterile, lifeless apartment back in Houston. Like any of the most memorable scenes in the finest films ever made, it'll crack you up and break your heart.
 
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