Setter’s ‘Spectives: Leaving Halfway Through ‘The Trip’

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Films that think they’re funnier than they actually are bug me.

The Trip is one of those. The documentary-esque story of two friends (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) journeying through Northern England as they dine at fancy restaurants and do not-always-successful impressions of famous actors, this film is only sporadically amusing and meanders quite a bit. I guess that’s the point, but it’s virtually without any conflict whatsoever, and that wears on me. Hence, I was only able to get halfway through the movie before leaving it last night for the comfort of my bed.

Ah, to sleep, perchance to dream … of movies that are much better than The Trip.

Coogan’s a talented actor; I like him a lot. If I wanted to watch a series of impressions, however, I’d digest some stand-up comedy. A movie filled with impressions as a substitute for funny business just isn’t my cuppa tea. Plus Coogan and Brydon are always talking over each other, so after a while their efforts become grating. The ability to generate laughter is lost.

Ultimately, the feeling I got about The Trip is that it tries to hard. I don’t like to watch a film flailing around. I prefer something with direction. In general, this Trip doesn’t have drive. And I don’t regret stopping it halfway one bit.

Skip’s Quips: Give ‘To Be or Not to Be’ a Medal

Blog Sketch 082813I love Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.

Brilliant script. Terrific performances by Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Sig Ruman and the rest of the brilliant cast. And of course perfect, sly direction by the immortal Lubitsch.

Sure it’s in questionable taste – what with a story concerning a company of Polish actors and their wartime efforts to foil a Nazi plan – and even now some of the material seems iffy. But it remains razor-sharp, as well as still topical to this day. I watched this film again last night for what may have been the 45th time, and it’s still fresh. That’s the mark of a great movie. It just doesn’t get old.

I’ve seen the remake with Mel Brooks, too, and it’s just not the same. The Lubitsch version is tops; there’s no comparison. I’m giving the medal to that one for quality.

Skip’s Quips: Details on the ‘Interiors’ Doctrine

Blog Sketch 082813These days, I refuse to see any Woody Allen movie made after 1975.

That’s right: I didn’t see Blue Jasmine. You know why? Because I already know I won’t like it.

Plus, Mia Farrow told me years ago that I have a “beautiful singing voice,” so I do kinda feel biased. But that’s another story.

The problem is, I just don’t care for any of Allen’s films with serious themes. Even Annie Hall; it just isn’t my favorite. The non-humorous dialogue and situations peppering his later pictures aren’t credible in my book. And I can’t help but wonder why he gravitated to such content after making some of the most hilarious films to hit the screen in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those include Bananas, Sleeper, and Love and Death, laugh-a-minute jokefests that, to my mind, are of higher quality and greater import than anything he has made since. He’s a terrific comedian. Why does he seem to feel an all-comedy flick is beneath him?

I’ve remarked before on the phenomenon of great comic actors taking on serious roles in, perhaps, an effort to be recognized for more “significant” work. Yet I wonder sometimes about a theory I have: that great actors are often great comedians, yet great comedians aren’t always great actors. It is just a theory, but it has held true in many a case.

Don’t worry; I’m not gonna patent it or anything.

Woody’s not going to go back in time, I assume, and recreate the past. We’ll just have to live with his annual or semiannual churnout of lackluster, serious films dotted with big stars. And I will have to live with not going to see them. What price contentment, huh?

I’ll just put on Sleeper instead.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: To Like This Movie, You Must Be This Old

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Another college story.

The setting: a lively freshman dorm. At the end of the hall, in a small, loungey area, sits a TV with a VCR (remember those?). Enter me, with a videotape, accompanied by another resident.

“What movie are you gonna watch?” asks the resident.

The Producers,” I say. “Wanna join me?”

“Oh, no. That’s old humor.”

Exit resident, like tears … in the rain.

To this day, I repeat that phrase to myself: old humor. What does that mean? How old does humor have to be in order to be old? Does it get Social Security? And how do we know when new humor becomes old? It’s like that Groucho Marx routine in Duck Soup,  where the funnyman cancels out any discussion of “new business” seconds after it’s mentioned: “Too late, that’s old business already.”

Here’s my theory: There’s no such thing as old humor. Just good and bad. Many of the attitudes in The Producers are dated, but it’s still funny. And I’d rather see that any day over The Secret Life of Walter Mitty  (which, in its original short-story incarnation, ones-up The Producers in the age department, anyway).

Yes, of course, there’s taste, and it differs greatly when humor is involved. You may not like Mel Brooks’ comedies or Zero Mostel’s mugging. Yet to call something old humor seems to me just absurd. If something’s good, it stays that way. The years don’t make it worse.

For the record, I want to note that I’m not just about older comedies. One example: I liked Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Though, wait … is that old humor because it’s a sequel to an older film? Does it still count as new?

Ahhh … whatever.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Looking Anew at a Laurel and Hardy Classic

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613To me, watching March of the Wooden Soldiers is like opening a Christmas present.

It still offers surprises, no matter how many times you do it. The fact that it was on TV on Xmas Day, as usual, drove that point home. This year, I marveled at the elegance of Laurel and Hardy’s routines. I smiled at the charm of Victor Herbert’s lilting score. And I pondered the idea that those mean “bogeymen” invading Toyland at the end were racist caricatures.

Yep, I did just that. It basically ruined my naive memory of viewings past. But it also instilled an awareness that many of the pleasures we grew up on don’t always retain their innocent luster.

OK, you say, but this movie is totally silly. It’s just fantasy and isn’t political. It’s escapist. It’s Laurel and Hardy, for crying out loud!

It is, but I’m reminded of other “innocent” routines in otherwise sterling pictures, such as the big musical number in A Day at the Races, that have disturbing social connotations attached to their entertainment value. In March, the bogeymen are monstrous, cartoony, but also apelike in their movements, unintelligible and savage. Plus, they attack Toyland in masses, attempting to carry off the inhabitants while causing as much damage as possible.

Doesn’t that sound like the white establishment’s worst fear—that the race it has pressed down for so many centuries will invade and destroy it?

This isn’t a subtle message, yet I’m chagrined that it has taken me this long to understand it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen it so many times and, in the past, have only looked at it superficially. Now, however, I’m noticing the subtext, and although I still find the movie amusing, my joys are somewhat deflated. Like Races, it’s attained a mark that—though based in misconceptions of yore—serves as a strike against it. These ideas can’t be discounted, no matter how old they are or antiquated they seem.

That’s because they still appear on TV … every year, in the case of March. And they still have the capacity to be offensive.

If we examine all of our holiday traditions, I’m sure we’d all find concepts we disagree with. The hardest ones to explore, though, are the ones we’ve grown up accepting but don’t make sense once we revisit them with older eyes.

I’m feeling that way about March, though a present worth opening is also worth discussing. Perhaps we can continue to do that as the holidays amble by.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: The Ugly, Ambiguous Truth About Art

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Back in the day, when I still thought good taste had nothing to do with opinion, I sat down with a dear friend of mine to watch the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera on video. Ed adored classical music, especially Puccini, and had such elevated sensibilities that he often preferred singers who were just a smidgen flat to more on-pitch, yet less idiosyncratic performers. He was so erudite that I thought he’d go ga-ga over Night, one of my favorite comedies and, in my opinion, an affectionate look at the opera world. If anything, he’d get the joke and, like me, want to see it over again in the future.

Once we got to the scene, however, where Harpo and Chico switch the sheet music for Il Trovatore with that of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” I knew my choice was ill-conceived.

“This is a travesty,” Ed said as the brothers tossed a baseball in the orchestra pit.

The takeaway: Not everyone likes the Marx Brothers. But there’s another takeaway, and it’s less definite. It’s the question of what’s good and what’s not, and how do we know if something’s art or junk?

Tommy Chong answered that hilariously in the movie After Hours as his character steals a statue containing Griffin Dunne’s hapless yuppie: “Art sure is ugly.”

It would be easier to assess if it always were.

The problem is, it’s not always anything. You can’t say: Art has this quality and this quality, so therefore it’s what it is. And it’s not always known at first sight, either; plenty of works are pooh-poohed when they first debut and only obtain recognition years later. The lexicon has no deadline.

To a certain extent, art should affect you greatly, as A Night at the Opera does to me; it makes me laugh, and I never get tired of watching it. Yet what of those who prefer other comedies—or those who like slightly off-pitch singers? Their opinions matter as much as mine … if not more.

I once attended an event where basketball legend Michael Jordan was asked by movie critic Gene Siskel what his favorite film was. “Friday,” Jordan ultimately said, to Siskel’s visible dismay.

I saw Friday. Some of it was amusing. Some of it was junky. Is that personal taste, or can I say with authority that it doesn’t hold a candle to Night? After all, Jordan liked it. Who am I to dispute him?

We live in a world where the word “genius” is applied indiscriminately, where a man can break bottles pointlessly on the street and attract a curious audience—as I observed with bemusement one day during a trip to Paris. Can anything be called art as long as there’s someone backing the claim? Is it just a popularity contest?

I don’t think so. But I can’t figure out why. All I know is that some people love the Marx Brothers, and some people don’t. I don’t understand their perspective, but I’m not them.

If I knew how to sing just a little bit flat, maybe I’d get the idea.

Skip’s Quips: Paris, Je T’Aime … Uh, Most of the Time

Blog Sketch 082813One of my fondest cinematic memories is seeing a line outside a Paris movie theater for a Marx Brothers flick.

The Marx Brothers. A line. For a film that was, at the time, at least 60 years old.

See why I love France so much?

OK, perhaps the infatuation with Jerry Lewis–one of the silver screen’s least funny performers–doesn’t make sense, though I have to admit liking his Gallic equivalent, Louis de Funès, quite a bit. (Watch The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob and see if you agree.) Yet the truth is, there’s a film culture there that pervades the national fabric. Why? More than a century of cinematic prowess is one reason, but I think another is the notion that people just like movies there. Good movies. Old movies. And often new movies.

Many years ago, as I attempted to coordinate a showing of the original 1968 version of The Producers in my college dorm, a friend of mine pooh-poohed the idea, decrying the film’s “old humor.” True, not everyone shares those sentiments, but I wondered then–as I do now–why some feel nothing that’s been around more than 10 minutes has any value cinematically. Doesn’t quality last longer than novelty … at least, in most cases?

I’m not deluding myself: There’s no way every person in France likes the Marx Brothers or, for that matter, any old movie because of its age. Bad taste is everywhere–the admiration of les films de M. Lewis offers evidence of that–yet I think there’s a sensibility in France that suggests its inhabitants often understand what it takes to make a good movie … and why it should be valued regardless of the years behind it. Again, I’m not sure why this is, and I’m not saying one country’s better than another.

But when I summon up remembrance of movies past, I think of the line outside that French theater to see a Marx Brothers comedy. And I can’t help but find a love in my heart for Paree.


Setter’s ‘Spective: The Madness of Undervaluing Comedy

Are there any great comedians left who haven’t turned to drama?

I ask this question sometime after grumbling my way through Hyde Park on Hudson, director Roger Michell’s innocuous 2012 film starring Bill Murray as the womanizing Franklin D. Roosevelt. I couldn’t believe Murray, the wonderfully dry, talented jokester whose it-just-doesn’t-matter attitude enlivened flicks such as Ghostbusters and Meatballs, was playing it so straight–and dull–as the inimitable wartime President. This was what I was watching Murray for?

Sadly, he’s not alone when it comes to actors in his trade, nor is he a pacesetter in gravitating toward drama. Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Robin Williams and even Jim Carrey have all starred in dramatic pictures that didn’t take full advantage of their laughtastic talents. And I lament that, because it’s as if they’re discarding their specialties–the stuff that humorous dreams are made of–for something they’re not as good at, seemingly in the hopes that they’ll be recognized for their serious efforts more than their silly ones.

Yeah, watch Chaplin’s Limelight, and tell me it’s more enjoyable than Modern Times. I dare ya.

The truth is, great comedy’s just as respectable as great drama–and the idea that it’s not as important is nonsense. Look at Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro: the pinnacle of comedic (or, frankly, any) opera. I’d listen to that any day over Nixon in China. And would any of us really opt for Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio over any classic Beatles song? There’s nothing lowbrow about great art…even if it’s a popular form.

Not that I’m imploring Allen to go back to making wild movies like Bananas. His style has evolved, like so many other comics, and I don’t think that can change. But I thank my lucky Hollywood stars that Laurel and Hardy didn’t make Antony and Cleopatra. Or that the Marx Brothers made fun of Eugene O’Neill’s plays rather than put them on.

If that isn’t worthy of respect, I don’t know what is.