Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A site devoted to rare foreign and U.S. features

I have avoided spotlighting sites that offer streaming video of copyrighted films and audio. A site appeared earlier this year, however, that is focused on uploading subtitled copies of foreign features that have no U.S. distributor (thus no DVD release) and American oddities from the pre-Code era, as well as titles made during the most fertile time for oddball productions, the Sixties. Rarefilmm is a very ambitious endeavor that may not be around for long, but the moderator's attention to obscurities that have fallen “through the cracks” of cinema history is most appreciated.

The moderator, who goes by the name “Jon Rarefilmm,” has thus far posted links to 644 films that are housed on other sites (first YouTube, then another upload site); he takes requests for film titles on the site's Facebook group, so presumably he himself is posting these films on those sites – I'm not certain whether he's digitizing the films himself, but the number of titles he's made available in just 12 months makes that highly unlikely.

Jon doesn't offer any opinions on the material he's posting, although he has created a side menu linking to films he's uploaded that were made by great foreign filmmakers. Thus I thought I should zero in on the more significant and entertaining features that have shown up on this odd site, especially in light of the fact that Jon has noted he will be putting up a “pay wall” on January 1 (see update below). If foreign and pre-Code film fans are interested in the material, they can check it out for free for the next week.

If I had to chose one title to recommend above all others currently on the site, it would be Resnais' 1997 film On connait la chanson (“Same Old Song” in English). It is perhaps the late New Wave master's most charming picture, a modernist musical dedicated to the memory and genius of TV deity Dennis Potter. The film is currently unavailable in the U.S., because its American distribution was handled by New Yorker Films, which went out of business several years ago and its titles are currently lurking in limbo.

In the Potter tradition, Resnais' characters express their frustrations and ecstasies through popular song, lip-synched to classic old recordings. The screenplay by Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui is a delight, and Resnais' fragmented approach to Potter's technique is glorious, both for what it says about the characters' inner lives and popular culture's hold on the imagination and emotions. The post for this film is here.

Another truly rare item posted on the RF site is The Devil's Cleavage (1975) by George Kuchar. The film is George's longest-ever feature (running over two hours) – his other long works were composed of shorter “episodes,” or were screenplays directed by other filmmakers, as with the amazing Thundercrack!. 

Cleavage is a fun feature with some great, torridly melodramatic sequences (in the classic Kuchar style), but it's a bit too long for its own good. If you've ever seen George's great short works, try it out for a bit – it includes (for those who want to see underground comix artists undraped) a topless Art Spiegelman in one scene. The film is posted here.

Another must-see is a film that is so insanely egomaniacal that it's hard to describe, Anthony Newley's Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1970). It's a classic Sixties misfire that mimics 8 1/2 but retrofits it to accommodate Newley's lusts (he wants us to know all about his womanizing), his family (including then-wife Joan Collins), and oddball guest stars (Fellini's embodiment of death was a beautiful woman, while Newley's is Georgie Jessel). The post for Heironymus is here.

Another film of note that's been posted by Jon is Alain Corneau's sublime Jim Thompson adaptation – for my money the single best Thompson adaptation ever – Serie Noire (1979).

The film stars Patrick Dewaere (whom we lost way too young, a suicide at age 35). He plays a door to door salesman/con man who concocts a plan with a quiet girl to rip off her rich aunt. The film is wonderfully underplayed and Dewaere beautifully cast as the amoral lead. The post for that film, thus far unavailable in the U.S. on VHS or DVD, is here.

A final spotlight should be thrown on yet another French feature that lurks in distributor limbo, Rivette's Haut Bas Fragile (1995). The film is a joyfully self-conscious affair that is similar to Godard's Une Femme Est Une Femme, offering stars who can only mildly carry a tune acting out the most blissful of movie-musical cliches as they sashay around the set. Like most Rivette titles, it's a long feature, but worth the time spent. The post for the film is here.

Other notable foreign items on the RF site include Scola's The Family, Varda's Kung Fu Master!, Sternberg's Anatahan, Antonioni's La signora senza camelie, Losey's The gypsy and the gentleman, Ophuls' La signora di tutti, Bunuel's Wuthering Heights and The Monk (based on an unproduced script he cowrote), Mizoguchi's Love of the actress Sumako, Oshima's Boy, Rohmer's Les rendezvous de paris, Gillian Armstrong's Starstruck, Maxmilian Schell's End of the Game, and Paul Verhoeven's The Fourth Man.

Arthouse items worth checking out include Robert Frank's Me and My Brother, The Wild Duck with Jean Seberg (her last film), Anna Karina as a non-Godardian hooker in Le Soldatesse, Marcello in Everything's Fine, the caper film Rififi in Tokyo, the only post-Breathless reunion of Belmondo and Seberg in Echappement libre, and the only pairing of Belmondo and Moreau, Moderato cantabile. 

Some vintage Hollywood titles: Clara Bow in Call Her Savage, the wonderfully titled Are Husbands Necessary?, and the Spencer Tracy pic Now I'll Tell, costarring Helen Twelvetrees and Alice Faye (based on the memoirs of Mrs. Arnold Rothstein!). Also, Hawks' Ceiling Zero, Capra's Dirigible, and a later oddity, William Castle's Let's Kill Uncle.

A number of lesser known noirs are up on the RF site, including The Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Hugo Haas' immortal Pickup. You can see Tim Carey do a lovely little dance in Bayou and watch one of Dean Martin's most underrated performances in Career.

Rarities that Jon has posted include Bette at her kitschiest in Beyond the Forest, Otto Preminger's misbegotten Porgy and Bess, the patriotic Song of the Open Road (with a W.C. Fields segment), the Dean Martin comedy Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?, the rare comedy Funnyman with Peter Bonerz, the trippy Sixties pic TheTouchables, the Patty Duke vehicle Me, Natalie with Al Pacino's screen debut, The Dion Brothers (aka “The Gravy Train”) scripted by Terrence Malick, The Incredible Sarah with Glenda Jackson, Ulu Grosbard's Straight Time with Dustin Hoffman, the female buddy movie Heartaches with Margot Kidder and Annie Potts, and Paul Bartel's farce Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.

Fans of cinematic bombs and oddities will want to check out Mickey Rooney with a talking mule in Francis in a Haunted House, the ridiculously titled Cottonpickin Chickenpickers with the immortal Sonny Tufts, the beatnik oddity Once Upon a Coffee House featuring the movie debut of Joan Rivers, the big giant bomb Che with Omar Sharif as Guevara, the Filippino variant on The Most Dangerous Game called The Woman Hunt (take a guess), the rock fantasy Oz: a Rock and Roll Road Movie, the Doris Dorrrie comedy Me and Him with Griffin Dunne and his talking penis (no kidding), and something that sounds like it will either be very funny or quite awful (but is most likely both), Jesuit Joe.

Feast while ye can, and happy holidays to all! 

Thanks to John W. for pointing the way.

UPDATE: The "download" feature is still working on the film entries, as of 1/3/15. You click the link and then you have a choice of MP4 download "sizes."

Monday, December 22, 2014

New, free (legal!) download of ‘The Dream World of Dion McGregor’

I noted in my last blog entry on the strange phenomenon that was, and is, Dion McGregor that it is surprising (and welcome) to find that there is new material available from the renowned “sleep talker.” Now the friendly folks at Torpor Vigil Records have made the long out-of-print 1964 LP by McGregor, The Dream World of Dion McGregor — yes, the one with the Edward Gorey cover — available as a high-quality, totally remastered, legal download. For free, even!

Many audio and video rereleases use the phrase “remastered,” but in this case the folks at TV went back to the original tapes of McGregor’s monologues made by his roommate Michael Barr back in the Sixties to obtain better-sounding versions of the material on the LP. So this isn’t just a digital rendering of the original record, this is a clearer version of the material (specific notes about the process are available at the download page).

McGregor, for those who are unaware, was a songwriter (now deceased) who has acquired a cult not for any of his music, but for the bizarre and dark monologues he delivered in his sleep. The situations he would craft are disturbing (the best example is the piece about people in a swimming pool that is slowly getting hotter and hotter) but his “concerned observer” narration is what sells the pieces.

I discussed in my last post how I had a problem with the notion that McGregor was fully asleep; arguments to shore up that position, provided by Torpor Vigil founder Steve Venright, are in that blog entry. In the time since, I came across a very interesting NPR discussion about McGregor’s monologues, in which two experts on sleep discussed what state he might have been in — one of the two maintains he was “sleep talking from a sort of atypical REM stage.”

Whatever the hell he was doing, McGregor produced surreal and grimly funny material that was not his forte in the waking world (it’s even more bizarre to consider the fact that he had this stuff locked up inside his mind and never became a humor writer of any kind). The first LP was a distillation of the “best” (at that point) of McGregor’s monologues, replete with the traffic sounds of midtown Manhattan in the background.

Dion in a 1972 de Rome film.
There definitely would seem to be a documentary in all this, and yet there may never be one, due to the fact that most people who knew McGregor have died. The most recent was his roommate before Barr, the pioneering experimental gay porn filmmaker Peter de Rome, who is the subject of the new documentary Peter de Rome: Grandfather of Gay Porn — which I can heartily recommend for those interested in experimental filmmaking, gay porn, portraits of eccentric and endearing artists, and those who love seeing vintage footage of NYC in the Sixties.

In any case, although I don’t think there is a McGregor monologue that directly concerns the Yuletide season, this free, vastly improved digital version is a very nice Xmas gift for the listener who likes strange and dark humor. There is ample information on the download page concerning the other McGregor albums, which are all available on CD. As for explaining what it was that McGregor was doing, nothing beats just sampling the monologues, which can be done directly on the page.

Sweet Dreams!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ten reasons why Robert Altman is *the* great modern American filmmaker

The best Xmas gift for film buffs in NYC this winter is MoMA's comprehensive festival of the work of Robert Altman, who is arguably the great modern American filmmaker. The festival includes all of his theatrical features, some of his best television work, and early rarities, from the industrial films made in Kansas City to his tongue-in-cheek Scopitones.

Viewers of the Funhouse TV show will know that I'm a diehard fan and student of Altman's work, thus my attempts to keep up with which of his titles are debuting or being “upgraded” on DVD and Blu-ray (see my reviews here, here, and here).

The last comprehensive Altman retro took place at the Museum of the Moving Image back in the early Nineties. In that case the rarities were grouped together into two or three programs; the MoMA program has distributed them throughout the retro, pairing each rarity with a feature film thus the cultist has the dilemma of whether to revisit an Altman feature in order to catch a 4- to 20-minute super-rarity (read: items that have near to zero chance of appearing on a DVD).

A few key rarities have already played in the festival but there are plenty more to come in the next month. The most notable are the shorts “Pot au Feu” and “The Kathryn Altman Story,” “Precious Blood” (half of the “2 by South” program that was Altman's first recorded piece of theater), a segment from a Dinah! episode about A Wedding, and Jazz '34.

For those who are newcomers to Altman's work, there are several films that serve as perfect introductions to his style. A short list would have to include Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, California Split, Nashville, Three Women (the film that drew me in), Secret Honor, Vincent and Theo, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. I am one of those who really loves O.C. and Stiggs (1987), but realize it works best for those of us who dislike teen movies as much as Altman did.

But now onto the “listicle,” since that bite-sized manner of distilling complicated or detailed information seems to be the preferred way to reach the Net reader. I'm not overly fond of it, and I suspect Altman didn't love it either.

In any case, there are many individuals who could be called “the great American filmmaker” of post-1965 cinema. The most likely figures are trailblazers/geniuses like Kubrick, Cassavetes, Coppola, Scorsese, Malick, Lynch (who was seen on the Oscars, right, telling Altman "you should've won" when Ron Howard beat both of them for Best Director), and (least fave) Spielberg. Others, like Woody Allen, Spike Lee, the Coens, Tim Burton, Clint Eastwood, and Tarantino have made certain films that remain influential. Many independent and “underground” trendsetters changed the face of cinema (Kenneth Anger, Shirley Clarke, to cite just two), but their films were never widely distributed.

Altman’s position is thus very unique in “the Pantheon” one wonders if Andrew Sarris would have granted him entry, but we’ll never know, as Sarris never updated his hierarchy of American filmmakers after 1968. Right after Nixon became president, Altman solidified his distinct visual style, crafted his films in a highly unique way, and stayed true to his own vision of the world, which permeated everything from socially conscious political commentaries to out-and-out frame-filled farces.

With this list of elements I’m not saying that Altman was better than Kubrick, Cassavetes, Coppola, et al. Instead, I would maintain that he was a filmmaking genius on their level, but his work combined so many different elements that he qualifies as the ultimate modern American filmmaker. Argue and comment if you’d care to. On with the list!

1.) He was an incredibly versatile filmmaker. Altman made comedies, dramas, crime films, musicals, westerns, science fiction, thrillers, military dramas, and uncategorizable “dream films.” The phrase “revisionist” has often been slapped onto his well-regarded Seventies features (which have been the most revived of his films; a few years back a local rep house programmed a much smaller “Altman’s Seventies” retro); he did indeed rework and comment upon classic genres in his genre pics.

2.) There’s an incredible consistency in his work. As I noted in my recent obit for Mike Nichols, a filmmaker should always have a “signature,” a thematic and stylistic identity that runs through their work. From That Cold Day in the Park (1969) to A Prairie Home Companion (2006), Altman created a series of films, TV movies, and plays that all possessed the same “signature.”

3.) He was frequently bashed by the American critical establishment. Both Cassavetes and Altman received wildly negative reviews for some of their best work. Their soldiering on in spite of these bad reviews was one of the reasons they are so significant today, when critics run to throw garlands at the feet of Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and others from their first film onward. I believe the bad reviews they faced made Altman and Cassavetes stronger and more determined filmmakers as a result.

4.) He worked within the major studios, while fighting against them. In interviews Altman never hesitated to criticize the studio chieftans, and yet he was talented (and lucky) enough to work for the majors for a significant part of his career.
The fact that he made The Player (1992) with industry money was a spectacular “fuck you” to Hollywood. When the studios did refuse to work with him, he obtained funding wherever he could, from French and British production companies to game show mogul Mark Goodson (Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean).

5.) He had a distinct visual style. One of the most important aspects of Altman’s work is his visual style. In his films, the camera probes, explores, and pirouettes around the characters. To him a zoom shot serves not only to underline a character’s behavior, but also to isolate him/her from the crowd bustling around them. Altman was a “ringmaster” in a sense (see the end of Brewster McCloud) and his crowd sequences are bravura moments where identities are conveyed in the flash of an instant.

His work with audio was also revolutionary. One of the key elements in his mythology is that he was fired from TV assignments and the movie Countdown (1968) for having characters talk over each other. He often noted that he didn't create this technique – it had been used in the screwball comedies of the Thirties (Hawks loved doing it), and Welles employed it a number of times. When Altman used it, it both simulated and mocked reality — the viewer hears what he/she needs to hear and loses the rest of the noise. His films are indeed “immersive” experiences.

6.) He allowed his actors to improvise. While modern masters Cassavetes and Mike Leigh used the rehearsal period for improvisation to build their characters from scratch, Altman allowed his actors to improvise on-camera, especially in crowd scenes.

Some of the most memorable lines and physical bits of business were created by Altman’s cast members while the camera was rolling. When I interviewed Karen Black (see below), she proudly noted that her best remembered line in Nashville (about Julie Christie, “she can’t even comb her hair”) was something she came up with on the spot.

7.) He didn’t shy away from political messages. Many of Altman’s film tackled American politics, some openly (Nashville, Secret Honor), other more covertly (Thieves Like Us, Streamers, Short Cuts).

Altman’s finest comments on American politics were the Tanner '88 (1988) and Tanner on Tanner (2004) series. Scripted by Garry Trudeau, the Tanner shows spotlighted the negotiations and the compromises that drive American politics. The final plot point of Tanner on Tanner goes straight to the heart of the Democratic party’s standard operating principal: compromise must triumph over integrity.

8.) He “belonged” to different generations. Although Altman was 45 when he had his breakthrough with M*A*S*H* in 1970, his renegade sensibility meshed perfectly with the youth culture of the time, though, as evidenced by that film and his next, the wonderfully odd Brewster McCloud.

Throughout his career, Altman showed an affinity for things from his own era — the jazz in Short Cuts and Kansas City, and the radio shows in Thieves Like Us and A Prairie Home Companion. He also embraced new innovations (super 16mm, digital video), while telling stories that perfectly reflected the disillusionment felt in the youth culture of the Seventies.

9.) He never pandered to adolescent and kiddie viewers. At this moment Hollywood is a machine that cranks out copious amounts of multiplex crap aimed at teens and kids. Altman proudly noted in interviews and in his DVD audio commentaries that he added curses to his films to make certain that teens weren’t allowed to see them. He was not a Spielbergian sentimentalist who believed in crafting family-friendly fiction that plays on the heartstrings.

The only film he made that could be called a kiddie movie was Popeye (1980), which is actually a strange fantasy that entertains adults more than children. His sole “teen movie” is O.C. and Stiggs, a film that mocks teenage behavior and, again, eschews the sentimentality of John Hughes to create an Altmanesque universe inhabited by a variety of weird characters.

10.) He drew inspiration from other art forms and other cultures. Altman was a filmmaker first and foremost, but he also directed stage plays and operas. His filmed plays were experiments in blending theatrical and cinematic techniques, while some of his best “later” works are centered around fine art (Vincent and Theo), literature (Short Cuts), opera (his short piece for Aria and the PBS special “The Real McTeague”), and modern dance (The Company).

Although most of his films coalesce to form an incredible “tapestry” of American life, he set later features in the U.K. and Europe when it became clear that overseas funding was easier to obtain than money from Hollywood. Thus his fashion industry satire Ready to Wear (1994) was set in Paris and his pitch-perfect British class-conscious drama and murder mystery, Gosford Park (2001), was set in an English country house.

And because any tribute to an iconoclast like Altman should have an oddly numbered list, I close out with an eleventh reason why he remains the great modern American filmmaker. Namely the fact that he produced a large body of work.

I revere Cassavetes’ eight personal films and Kubrick’s baker’s dozen of dark, grim masterworks, but Altman left behind an extraordinarily rich heritage (37 theatrical features from ’69 to 2006, plus many TV and stage projects) that can be explored from an infinite number of angles. If you haven’t seen them before, the majority of his films are blissfully unpredictable. If you are already initiated, the bulk of his films are eminently rewatchable.

Like a prolific novelist (or considering his love of Carver, short story writer), Altman left behind a significant body of work that will be “discovered” over and over again for a long time to come. 

The festival at MoMA will continue through Jan. 17.
NOTE: Some of the photos used in this entry came from the Tumblr blog “Fuck Yeah Robert Altman.” The blog has a deep trove of both images and links to recent articles about Altman. 

Some rare clips about and by Altman. First his Jan. 1972 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. This episode is found on the Shout! Factory “Hollywood Greats” Cavett box, and it’s fascinating to note that Cavett’s producers booked as examples of “young Hollywood” Altman (46 years old), Mel Brooks (45 years old), and Peter Bogdanovich (32 years old). The guest of honor, Frank Capra, has a more positive view of the major studios than Altman, who refers to them as morons.

I posted this slice of an interview from the arts-cable show Signature from 1981. Altman is brutally honest about why he is out of fashion in Hollywood. (“I’m tired of car crashes…”)

My interview with Karen Black, who spoke about working with Altman on the stage version of Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean:

Some rarities from Altman’s many decades of work have surfaced on YouTube. The first film credited to Altman as director, an educational item called “Modern Football” (1951). You can see a news item about filmmaker Gary Huggins’ discovery of a print of this film here.

You can find a very shabby-lookin’copy of the silly but fun Corn’s-a-Poppin’(1956) on YT. Altman cowrote this low-budget country-music saga.

Something I’ve been waiting to see for a while, an episode from the 1961-’62 series Bus Stop. Altman directed the dark episode “The Lion Walks Among Us” starring Fabian.

Altman directed several Scopitones (music-videos made for film jukeboxes) for dough. This one features Bobby Troup singing “Girl Talk”:

For a long time this was was *the* Holy Grail for Altman collectors, a Scopitone he directed for an instrumental by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass called “Bittersweet Samba.” The film is called “The Party” (no connection to the Blake Edwards feature) in Altman filmographies:

When Altman suddenly became “hot” again in Hollywood circles, he was asked to direct films for ABC. True to form, he chose the most esoteric material possible, two short plays by Harold Pinter. The first one aired after Moonlighting; the second, “The Room,” to my memory aired on a Saturday night, tucked away at 10:00 p.m. ABC didn’t kill it, however. Film never dies.

Another item from Altman’s later TV career, an episode from the 1997 anthology series Gun personally directed by Altman (he was a producer of the series, which used as its conceit the fact that a particular gun was traveling from person to person):

A TV ad that Altman made for Parisienne cigarettes:

And, in closing, I’ll pick one scene from a wildly underrated Altman film. Here is a brilliant moment about creation, the artist, and madness from Vincent and Theo (1990):

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Now more than ever!

In this time of unrest, indecision, civil rights violations, over-militarized police, governmental surveillance, and involvement in Middle Eastern quagmires, we look back to a simpler time. A time when a former TV star – not yet doing local legal TV ads around country – could try to read the constitution, and bored Macy's employees could gather around him, dressed as clowns, and wave to their relatives.

It wasn't so long ago, but America was a different place. No YouTube, no Internet at all. We had to turn to television for inspirational moments like this.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Great comedian, mediocre moviemaker: Deceased Artiste Mike Nichols

I come to praise one Mike Nichols. And bury another.

First, Nichols the comedian. As the male half of the Nichols and May team (the “she” being Elaine May), Mike Nichols was an imaginative, poker-faced, utterly brilliant, and wildly funny performer and writer.

Then came Nichols the film director. [Note: I will not write about his career as a theater director because that is not my specialty, nor is it my interest. Saw two of his theater productions, and although both were critically heralded, it seemed as if the shows could have been directed by anyone with any level of solid craftsmanship.] The first four films showed incredible promise and talent. He evoked superb performances and had an identity as a director. By 1973, all that identity went out the window and he became a mainstream mulch-meister. His films may have contained great performances (and some pretty lousy ones), but Mike Nichols the director wasn’t wretched. He was simply another Herbert Ross. Or Arthur Hiller. Or Gene Saks.

So let me first praise the inventive, imaginative, very original part of Nichols’ career. He was a founding member of the Compass troupe in Chicago, along with May and Shelley Berman. The Compass preceded the Second City — by the time that moniker came around, Berman and Mike & Elaine had decided to pursue separate comedy careers. 

Berman, of course, became one of the first great modern standups, while Nichols and May were the first modern comedy team (read: their material was not dependent on them playing the same characters over and over — in fact they never repeated the same characters, something that would be verboten in today’s franchise-friendly comedy universe).

Nichols and May were part of a wave of American comedy that also included Jonathan Winters, Mort Sahl, and the one and only Lenny Bruce. Together the group were dubbed “sick comics” because they regularly dealt with grim topics and they depicted homespun, “all-American” topics in a wry, knowing, utterly sarcastic and sardonic way. As with the utterly timeless “Mother and Son” sketch from N&M:

While Nichols and May explored the mechanics of male-female relationships beautifully, they didn’t only play couples (or family members). Some of their best-remembered bits focus on bureaucracy and (a theme also explored by Berman) the way that one clings to any ounce of humanity one can find when dealing with bureaucracy. This is best illustrated by their “telephone routine,” a bit that the book The Compass: Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionized American Comedy by Janet Coleman indicates was created by May and Berman, thus explaining why both acts did variations on it after leaving the Compass.

The bit is perfectly calculated, in that May’s female characters grow “warmer” as Nichols’ caller moves through the gauntlet of operators. The middle operator also is a definite precursor to Lily Tomlin’s “Ernestine” character.

Nichols and May were a giant success in their day, and radically different from all that had come before them — thus my noting that they deserve a Mark Twain Prize, as do Sahl, Dick Gregory, and the Smothers Brothers.

Their humor evoked laughs, but thoughtful ones (yes, theirs could be described as “egghead comedy”). For the most part, Mike and Elaine played incredibly quiet characters, so many of their routines — especially the ones on their Improvisations to Music LP and their appearances on the radio show Monitor — are master classes in deadpan humor.
Both were razor-sharp comedy writers when they were a team, but more importantly they were great ad-libbers. Those listening to their routines these days can hear their influence on everyone from Stiller and Meara (who wonderfully filled the void left when N&M broke up) to the Portlandia pair. They rewrote the rules of male-female byplay in comedy.

And then they broke up, with Elaine May first working as an actress and then a (talented but too indulgent) film director and playwright. Nichols turned to stage direction and then film, and never wrote a word of comedy again. Perhaps they both needed each other to be funny, but I know that I, as a major Nichols and May fan, would be willing to swap out even the best of Nichols’ films —yes, even The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge — to get some more of his comedy with Elaine. I would certainly be willing to trade the hours that I spent watching the indelibly mediocre Working Girl, Heartburn, Regarding Henry, Wolf, and on and on.

That is why one can be delighted at the discovery of the many (many!) sketches Nicholas and May wrote and performed for the Monitor radio series. Here is one such bit — two twists in the course of a two-minute piece of comedy.

Onto Nichols the filmmaker. He had evident skill working at actors, while not demanding too much of them in the last three and half decades (with Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, and Julia Roberts, only so much can be given in the first place).

His experience staging plays obviously benefited his first film as a director, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). He and screenwriter Ernest Lehman did a little ill-advised "opening up" of the play, but for the most part Nichols just made sure to spotlight Burton's long-suffering husband and Elizabeth Taylor's career-changing turn as a shrill shrew (a great performance, but one she continued to give for the next 20 years). 

The Graduate (1967) remains a perfect time piece of its era, the kind that could be enjoyed by both young people and their parents (Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy it is not). It's a great film that reflects Nichols' awareness of the alienation techniques used by the iconic European filmmakers of the time, from Antonioni to Godard. Although it came after Virginia Woolf, it seemed to be Nichols' debut as a director, signifying that he was “going to do great things.” (Caution: Postcards from the Edge lies ahead.)

Nichols' next movie also captured the vibe of the Sixties very well, but bombed at the box office. Catch-22 (1970) was an excellent distillation of Joseph Heller's landmark anti-war masterpiece of “black comedy.” Nichols had a tight rein on the material and made sure to keep the picture moving while still presenting some of the troubling and touching repetition from Heller's original.

The cast was a scarily impressive round-up of comic (and dramatic) performers, but the film was trounced soundly by Robert Altman's M*A*S*H*, which derived from a much (much) lesser novel. Altman, however, was able to imbue the non-stellar material (that endless football game at the end!) with an even stronger Sixties vibe. It is time, however, to reappraise Catch-22.

Nichols' first two features are considered his most important, but Carnal Knowledge (1971) is probably his best film, as it combines a tight, character-driven script, razor-sharp performances, and a modern, identifiable visual style (an element missing from Nichols' work after this). The style can be readily identified as the play-to-the-camera, “conversations as interviews” approach used by Godard in Masculin-Feminin.

The other important thing about Carnal Knowledge is that it plays against the wistful nostalgia for the Fifties that was so prominent in Seventies culture in America. Jules Feiffer's screenplay (decades before Mad Men was a glimmer in anyone's eye) focuses on the sexist mindset that was at the forefront of the “good old days,” leading to the final play-acting scene that is the perfect resolution for the picture (and a sequence in which the POV quality of the visuals underscores the emptiness of Nicholson's character's sexist “script”).

After Carnal came The Day of the Dolphin (1973), which was (ouch) a watershed in Nichols' career. From that point on, his visual style is nondescript (barely there, just spotlight the actors and let 'em roll), the scripts are standard-issue Hollywood mulch, and the performances are a mixed bag of intensity with accents (Meryl Streep, who I do think is marvelous even in absolute crap like Heartburn and Postcards) and likeable nothingness (the aforementioned Ms. Roberts).

So Nichols shed his filmmaking identity in the early Seventies and never looked back. [Note: I have not seen Angels in America — someday, when my patience for Al's upper-register acting is stronger....]. Even the best of Nichols' post-Dolphin movies — say, a taut, meaningful drama like Silkwood (1983), which is superbly acted — could have been directed by any of the skilled Hollywood craftsmen who made such message dramas. For instance: James Bridges could've directed Silkwood and Nichols could've made China Syndrome, and the results would have very likely been the same. (At times, Nichols' films have seemed identical to those of Rob Reiner.)

Now that he's left us, I'll choose to remember and enthusiastically celebrate the Mike Nichols of Nichols and May, who broke new ground in comedy and was extremely versatile and inventive. Their routines might be dated in certain regards, but the majority of them (like all well-crafted humor) are timeless.

There are several Nichols and May TV commercials on YouTube. In this regard N&M were closest to Stan Freberg, in that they mocked the conventions of TV advertising while also hyping the product. Most of them are cartoons (for Jax and Narragansett beer). One of the most elaborate is this amazing piece trumpeting GE Refrigerators.

One of their best ad campaigns was for the IRS. As with their other ads, they created tiny little sketches in which they embodied melodramatic stereotypes and put the pitch for the product directly in the dialogue (as here). In this regard you might call their ads “ironic,” but they did definitely offer a solid pitch.

A very peculiar IRS spot in which Mike can't stop shaving the couple's dog:

And a very suitable setting for a Nichols and May routine, the therapist’s couch.

Mike and Elaine only released three albums, but each one is a classic. The bits from the albums have been reissued in various permutations. Two of the records were “concept albums,” so it's best to hear all of the bits in a row. As with Nichols and May Examine Doctors:

The tracks from all three albums can be found on this YouTube poster's account. (Beware: there are all kinds of music tracks in the mix; it's probably the only place you'll hear “Gangnam Style” pop up amongst N&M routines.)

One of their best audio concept pieces is from the album Improvisations to Music. “Bach to Bach” finds them playing an utterly pretentious couple out on their first date, listening to classical music in his apartment. Their condemnation of their bourgeois families is wonderful, as is Mike's bit where he agrees with some feeble point that Elaine's character has made (“I know exactly what you mean... exactly!”):

As with a lot of TV rarities, the only access the public has had to some of the best Nichols and May clips was through documentaries, like this great American Masters tribute to the team. Thankfully, some of the best bits have been posted on YT independent of the talking heads (and in their entirety).

Here the pair play a dentist and his patient in a parody of hammy Hollywood romances:

A bit that has to be seen to be enjoyed (in fact, I don't think it's on any of the records). Mike tries to put the moves on Elaine, as the duo play teenagers on a date. This is one of their most physical bits, as the characters try to figure out how to make out and keep smoking.

The final quartet of bits that mock hypocrisy and bureaucracy are must-sees. In the first routine, they play coworkers at the water cooler discussing the current game show scandal that is being investigated by the government (this happened in 1959). The best thing about the bit is that even though it involves a very specific historical event it remains relevant because it addresses the things that politicians and the media deem “important” (namely, so-called moral issues) and those they ignore (freedom and the like).

The next clip, about the money-grubbing habits of funeral parlors, is part of a larger body of black comedy that addresses the funeral “industry” (from the novel and film The Loved One to the Python sketch about burning or eating one's relative). Again, the hypocrisy is addressed through characterization: May makes a perfect “sympathy lady” who is first and foremost a saleswoman:

A beautiful takedown of show-business bullshit, a sketch from the Emmy Awards in which Elaine, as a very deadpan version of herself, gives the “Total Mediocrity Award” to Mike, who plays a man who consciously makes “garbage” TV, listening to the sponsors and not producing anything of merit.

I wouldn't go so far as to accuse Nichols of becoming this character in his later life, but a quick scan of his filmography will show he made some films that could've qualified him for the award. The Garry Shandling comedy What Planet Are You From?, The Day of the Dolphin, and oh yeah, Wolf spring to mind immediately, although certain “prestige” items like Primary Colors and Postcards from the Edge are squarely in that “Total Mediocrity” range.

In any case, this bit is just brilliant:

I close out with a truly classic routine, which I am very grateful to have found on YT. For obvious reasons (read: dealings with hospitals) both my parents had described this bit frequently, but I've never seen it until now. It's a hospital sketch, in which Mike is a man whose arm has been broken and Elaine is the business-like reception-desk nurse who is checking him in.

This sort of bit became regular fare on TV sketch shows over the years, but seeing it done by “the originals” is startlingly refreshing. None of the broader strokes favored by SNL, none of the over-the-top acting that is characteristic of today's comedy vehicle movies. Just Elaine cracking gum and asking a stream of questions as Mike sighs and says, “Forgive me, I'm a troublemaker. I'm sorry.”

Nichols and May reunited a few times after their breakup, but their only major collaborations were the films The Birdcage and Primary Colors (she wrote the scripts, he directed the films). You're better off with the three albums.

Monday, November 17, 2014

One last farewell to Allan Sherman

I wanted to end my exploration of the works of Allan Sherman with two clips that I find fascinating — the first because it’s amusing, the second because it’s kinda sad (on purpose).

The first clip features one of the great comedy writer/performers of today, a certain Larry David, singing (yes, that’s right, singing) one of Allan’s more tongue-twisting lyrics, “Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max” from My Son the Folk Singer. Larry does “pretty, pretty, pretty good” in this odd public appearance with the Boston Pops in August of 2011.

Here’s something I uploaded myself: a variant version of “Sarah Jackman” sung by Allan and Christine Nelson on a 1966 TV special. For whatever reason, Allan changed the lyrics (after the first identical verse) to have Sarah rejecting Jerry Bockman, in excruciating detail. I was pretty amazed when I first saw this clip in the Nineties — this was before I had read anything about Sherman’s private life. (He was, in case you haven’t read my preceding entries, a depressive.)

Allan’s clever wordplay is still front and center, but here it’s not used to describe a large Jewish family, but instead to depict an overweight boy being mocked and rejected by the object of his affection. JFK reportedly was heard humming and singing the original “Sarah Jackman” in a hotel lobby once. I doubt he would’ve dug this version, ladies’ man that he was.

I’m not thrilled to end this series of posts about Sherman on a “downer,” but the rarity of this clip makes it a must-see (plus, it has Allan once he’d ditched the glasses and was trying to lose weight).