Thursday, February 4

Things I Don't Understand, Pt. Seven Billion

Erik Nelson, "The Perfect Double Bill: Zombieland and Road to Utopia". February 2

I THINK I've lived a little too long/ On the outskirts of town…. There are few moments as personally satisfying as this, which, of course, I find more than a little disturbing, in that it means a lifetime's worth of helping the Universe in its ongoing efforts to beat every last jot of irrational hope (if that's not oxymoronic) out of me has failed, or missed a spot; it really must be harder than it looks to be a Buddhist. Anyway, Nelson not only praises Bing & Bob here, but later throws Artie Shaw into the bargain.
[The Road pictures] were defining moments of the 1940s, an era that seems impossibly remote today. The Greatest Generation is remembered for storming Omaha Beach, not laughing at jesters of the republic like Abbott and Costello or Fred Allen. It seems Preston Sturges is the only comedic film artist of that era who has made the jump to those fly-in-amber Criterion box sets.

It's not exactly Nick Drake returning from the grave to chart, after I'd spent twenty years pressing his stuff into the hands of intelligent listeners who'd been too young to join the throngs which ignored him when he was alive, but for some reason it perks me up, despite the fact that the world never learned anything from that Volkswagen commercial.

So here's what I don't get:
If it's a culture crime that a decade of comedy has simply vanished from memory, a simultaneous witness for both the defense and the prosecution is Bob Hope. Here's an American comedic legend who quite simply was not funny -- at least publicly -- for 50 long years, a creative desert entered the day that principal photography was completed on Frank Tashlin's "Son of Paleface" in 1952, and left by Hope's death in 2003. This very public lack of discernible humor not only doomed Hope to critical oblivion, but may have impacted the reputations of many of his contemporaries as well.

But still.

Because, as someone who thinks 92.6% of the films which can truly be called Great are in black-and-white, I'd like to know who's watching any of 'em. Who's talking about The Thin Man? His Girl Friday? Ball of Fire? The Devil and Miss Jones? Okay, Ivan (who ain't trading no samizdat, Mr. Nelson, and in fact may be the only honest man on the internets).

I grew up with the worst of Hope--not just those phone-it-in-from-waaay-long distance teevee specials, but his vocal support of a jungle war that kept his name in Variety for something other than Call Me Bwana. But I knew at the same time that Hope had an unmatched sense of timing, at least in talkies, at least until he grew fat and comfortable and chummy with Presidents. Yeah, he coasted for thirty years or so; you get that option when the audience allows, which doesn't mean you have to take it. I just find it a little difficult to accept that today's audiences are still turned off by his middle-to-old-age reputation, which resides in that same musty corner as everything else that occurred before the vast majority of them was born. I can't think of anyone under 30 in my extended family, or my neighborhood, who could be made to sit still for a Road picture, or a screwball comedy, or an episode of The Honeymooners or The Dick Van Dyke Show, for that matter. Although if someone turned them into cartoons…

And I don't know why this is, exactly. Not lack of wit, or intellect; more like a proprietary sense about CGI, and a consumerist streak that borders on Stockholm Syndrome. Yeah, time marches on. Yeah, yeah, Ted Turner cornered the market. That doesn't explain why every other channel shows an endless Roadhouse loop. Y'know, the Silents don't speak to me much, either, but I made the effort to see The Passion of Joan of Arc, Metropolis, Greed, and Napoleon, and I'd count it as a personal failure, not excuse it as a cultural artifact, if I were anything less than a huge fan of Buster and Charlie. This is the cultural equivalent of the old Red Barn question: farmers say they paint barns red because that was the color the Merchantile stocked; the retailer said he stocked it because that was the color farmers asked for. You're excused if you don't really like this stuff. You're not excused for thinking Judd Apatow is the greatest comic genius ever if you didn't look first. Or thereafter, but that's another story.

Obligatory clumsy segue to Indiana politics: So "Dan Coats to challenge Evan Bayh" becomes the latest headline-borne example of how careless political writers are with minor details (Coats has essentially said he wouldn't resist having his name placed in nomination, which may be as good as a wink to a blind camel, but it's not the fucking same, is it?). So in the space of a couple weeks we've gone from the Massachusetts election, to the Indiana Republican party deciding that made Fidel Bayh vulnerable, to them "proving" it with a Mike Pence poll, to every legitimate Indiana Republican contender immediately declining to run or talking his wife into getting temporary cancer--unless you count John "Concealed Weapon" Hostettler as legitimate--to the party somehow dredging up the only Indiana Senator since sleeve garters with an emptier legislative resume than Bayh himself. Sometimes you can get the vague impression that none of these people really means what he says. And despite the potential contest of Chamber of Commerce Hairdo vs. Mr. Beige-on-Beige Interior, it's actually started off pretty well, from an entertainment point of view, with state Democrats officially welcoming Coats back to Indiana (he's been living in Virginia), and the GOP making noises about running against "Mr. and Mrs. Bayh," which I hope they will, as it'll be a little hard for ol' Ev to blame that one on Leftists.


Doug said...

Let's not speak ill of Roadhouse. (Also, I love this review.)

TM said...

An independent network in Los Angeles (KTLA) used to show the Road films, along with other black & white comedies (the Ghost and Mr. Chicken comes to mind) on Sunday afternoons during the late 1970s and all during the 1980s.

And because we didn't quite have 500 channels of cable yet, most people who grew up there around that time watched 'em.

I don't know where I'm going with this, but yeah, I loved those films and thought Bob Hope was great, at least when I was a kid.

JMC said...

So anyway, Stan wore a size small derby and Oliver wore a size large; when the action got too frenetic they lost their hats. When they picked them up and dusted them off and plonked them on their heads they wore the wrong hat. After a reaction shot including (to the watchful) barely-discernible emanata, they bashed each other back and forth and recovered their hats, plonked them on their heads and stalked off, each wearing the wrong hat.
This is the funniest thing ever captured on film.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I had a post ready on this article, but you've beat me to the punch. Normally I would be enraged, but it's so well-written I can say nothing but hell of a job, DR.

Vivek said...

I'm under 30 and quite enjoy all of those things, but I definitely have friends who won't sit down to watch anything the second they become aware that it was produced before 1980 (certain martial arts films excepted). Actually, come to think of it, Star Wars may be the appropriate milestone.

In any case, for a lot of them (and I'm not claiming that there's any more general insight here), it has to do with stuff happening, which has a little to do with CGI but not entirely. A lot of movies these days tend to lack in the building tension department due to constant chase scenes and/or things blowing up, and my friends would claim to a priori find movies like The Third Man boring (I don't think anyone could say that after having watched it, but that's the hurdle).

The same goes for comedy. I can't personally understand anyone not finding Buster hilarious, but I can see someone used to the style of comedy most frequently used in the 80s and 90s being turned off from the start by the awareness that a different sensibility is in play, whether or not that sensibility is also (or in many cases, actually) funny.

LittlePig said...

It still annoys me that TCM hasn't snown The Lemon Drop Kid(my personal Hope favorite) at Christmastime for years, despite it being the premiere of "Silver Bells", starting with a parody verse sung by Bill Frawley yet.

Sheesh. Kids today.

mndean said...

Hope's Lemon Drop Kid is a remake. Kids today...

Anonymous said...

I enjoy Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton very much, but can't stand the smugness of Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis just seems stupid and Dean Martin's variety show makes me cringe.
Then again, the 70s sitcoms I liked as a kid (Happy Days, Good Times, Welcome Back Kotter) look like horribly lazy catchphrase-ridden repetitive dreck today.