Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: February 2006

Elaine May: A New Leaf

Elaine May tries her hand at many things in this, her first film. Not only does she write, direct, and co-star, but the material of the film is a mishmash of black comedy, verbal comedy routines derived from her past work with Mike Nichols, physical comedy centering on her own character, a riches-to-rags morality tale, culture clash comedy, class comedy, and more. Who knows what else was in May’s original three-hour cut of the movie, which I hear was drastically different from (and darker than) the studio-tinkered 105-minute version? But even as it is, May’s whole career is in this film: a brilliant writer and comedienne who was unable to prioritize her strengths.

May’s sporadic career since then has included a decent attempt to make a John Cassavetes film in Mikey and Nicky, which not only starred Cassavetes but used his uniquely inefficient directorial and improvisational methods. It’s a good movie, and I like it more than most Cassavetes flicks, but any trace of May’s past personalities are subsumed by seeming Cassavetes worship. She also helmed notorious disaster Ishtar, which I haven’t seen. Like her ex-partner in comedy Mike Nichols, she’s proved herself a capable hack on several occasions, script-doctoring decent Hollywood movies like Reds and Tootsie (as well as Labyrinth, inexplicably), and adapting Washington hack Joe Klein’s Primary Colors for the big screen.

A New Leaf stars Walter Matthau as a useless, decadent upper-class playboy who, after spending himself into the ground, decides he has no choice but to marry for money, then kill the wife, so that he doesn’t have to put up with her. He finds his match in Elaine May’s botanist heiress, a thoroughly oblivious, Clouseau-level klutz who falls hard for Matthau’s rather skillful romancing. Matthau himself is so antipathetic towards women as to be asexual, but is excellent at feigning interest when the stakes are financial ruin.

(As to why May incongruously cast herself and Matthau as two upper-class WASP gentiles, I can only chalk it up to instinct. Matthau has the harder task, but when it works, which is mostly, it works brilliantly.)

The first quarter of the film, before May’s heiress shows up, plays like a collection of leftover Nichols-May routines. They reassert the problem of Nichols and May, which is that toothless satire can be very funny, but calorically empty. (The two are positively genteel next to Beyond the Fringe and Woody Allen’s standup material.) May’s script makes a great catchphrase out of “There’s carbon on the valves,” but mostly it’s a warmup act. Then May shows up and the picture turns inside out. May’s flightiness and physical schtick is so impressive that it comes to dominate the whole film. Dry wit is left behind for inspired slapstick, something that’s always been in rare supply. Matthau is perfect as the foil once he has May’s hapless force of nature to reckon with, but May’s physical presence is overwhelming. Nothing before had revealed her abilities in this area, and not much has since. Her huge glasses are perpetually falling off her nose, she ties herself to a tree to unroot a fern tree on the side of a shore ledge, and she’s incapable of wearing clothing correctly.

May is as good as Peter Sellers or Jean Harlow, and she completely absolves the picture of its disjointedness and slow bits. She could have staked a claim as a screen comedienne as brilliant as Andrea Martin or Madeline Kahn, and in this movie she was.

Quick Hits

  • RIP Peter Strawson. Good obit from The Guardian.
  • Underneath the Bunker opens its doors. Like Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum, this web journal focuses on experimental literature, mostly of the Eastern European variety. Highly recommended.
  • Carl Schmitt manifests himself through Stanley Fish in the New York Times, with his attack on “liberalism’s theology.” The combination of Fish’s abstruse theorizing and its irrelevance to the debate makes me heave a heavy “Whatever.” I still think the academic left’s interest in Schmitt is one of the most depressing things to come out of the universities in a long while.
    Update: I always think of these things too late, but Fish is more or less quoting Walter Sobchak’s “Say what you want about the tenets of Islamic fundamentalism, at least it’s an ethos.”
  • How to Make Garfield Funny…Remove His Thought Balloons. This quickly led to “Remove Garfield Entirely.” Including this thing of beauty:

Bela Tarr: Satantango [3]

(Also see Part 1 and Part 2.)

I just think about the quality of human life and when I say ‘shit’ I think I’m very close to it.

Bela Tarr in interview

Last time, I said that Tarr’s cinematic style deprivileged the characters humans from the center of the frame and put them with equal weight with the gray, surrounding scenery. Ultimately, I believe this makes Tarr’s style extremely compelling in the most physical sense of the word. But what does he say with it?

The plot of Satantango is very simple. Shocked by the suicide of a young girl, a group of townspeople in an impoverished Hungarian village choose to follow the manipulative “prophet” Irimias who, with promises of a bright new collective beginning, takes their money, leads them to an abandoned mansion, and then disperses them and sends them off to menial labor. This last task puts him right with the local authorities, who have been harassing him for being a petty criminal. With one slight exception, the townspeople are mostly sheep throughout the movie, something Tarr underscores in his long shots of cattle wandering through the streets early on in the film. Irimias too has contempt for them, though he is not above a bit of quasi-religious experience himself.

The center of the film is those two individuals, the girl and Irimias. The girl tortures her cat before poisoning it and herself. The obvious interpretation is that on the great ladder of being, she is taking out her frustration and impotence on the one creature lower than her. (She was earlier robbed by an older boy.) I’m not so certain. In one of the few points where Tarr quotes extensively from the novel, the narrator intones that the girl knows that even in death, she is still incontrovertibly connected to the entire town around her and its people. (Tarr’s shots of spiderwebs echo these words.) It is presented in a neutral manner, but one shouldn’t confuse neutral with benign. These people live together, act together, and are damned together. Irimias manipulates them as a whole, and ultimately there is little to distinguish them. I prefer to see the girl’s actions as a testing of the barriers between herself and an animal, as she wonders what other kinds of relations are even possible between beings. She poisons both the cat and herself alike, and does so, I think, in solidarity with the experience of “shit” of which Tarr speaks.

For Irimias, it’s best to consider another Tarr/Krasznahorkai creation: the Prince of The Melancholy of Resistance (book) and The Werckmeister Harmonies. The Prince is a creature of pure chaos who speaks in an unintelligible language interpreted by his “agent,” and accumulates a mass of followers that, at his command, go berserk and tear up the town, leading to martial law being imposed and a new regime. In contrast, Irimias does what the existing regime wants, but his own imprint is on the way in which he rips apart the community, thus proving the girl ultimately wrong.

Politically, the film is bleaker than Werckmeister. What I saw as a Burkean influence on that work shifts to the more absolutist perpsective of Hobbes in Satantango. Irimias serves as the sovereign: divested of their cattle and their happiness, they place their trust, their money, and their futures in Irimias’s hands. He offers them nothing in return but their lives, though here it is more metaphorical than in Hobbes. Their existing lives were poisoned and taken from them with the girl’s death, and in sending them on their way, Irimias does give them back some direction. It’s shit, of course, but the townspeople are not observably worse off at the end of the film, post-Irimias, than they were at the start. Like the Prince, Irimias is a chaotic force of change, shoving out the old and heralding the (no better) new.

I say absolute because Hobbes saw the power interchange between the people and the sovereign as the best possible choice to avoid a violent end. The liberal hope, from Locke to Rawls and onward, has been that better options can be created. Tarr’s position in Satantango is that such hopes are entirely false. (The Werckmeister Harmonies is more ambivalent and holds out the possibility of ephemeral beauty.) Beyond that, Tarr portrays this state of affairs as primoridally ontological: there is little sense given of how Irimias came to be or the inner minds of any of the characters. They act out their roles in the same way that the cattle, the spiders, and the scenery do theirs.

The overall effect is brutally powerful, but monochromatic. Tarr has put a grim Hobbesian view of the world on display in as visceral a manner as Godard and Antonioni used with their Marxism. Godard’s films succeed where Antonioni’s fail because Godard’s restless and relentless creativity causes the films to escape from their ideological straitjacket. Tarr is somewhere in between. In The Werckmeister Harmonies, the added element of fantasy provides a gateway out of the narrow political dynamics. The more mundane material of Satantango makes for a film that, for all its intensity and sheer length, cannot seem larger than the world in which it exists.

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