Sunday, July 14, 2013

Death by Humor (Cracking Up,1983)

True to its (new) name*, Cracking Up splits up the body as soon as the film begins.  In fact, the first scene is Bressonian in its economy and emphasis of physicality: the shadow of a head lit on a wall; black dress shoes walking back and forth across a hotel room’s green carpet; and hands that scribble a note, clutch a suitcase, drag a chair, then grip a hangman’s rope.  The camera re-aligns its gaze, focusing on this figure’s chest now, teasing the viewer as to who these body parts belong to.  Who is this figure ready to die?  We will learn soon enough.  The camera fixates on the upper body as the hands toss the rope over a crossbeam (Yet one cannot be too sure, since the rope catches on something out of the frame).  A cut back to the shoes reveals them to be resting on a chair. 

It is here, the scene comes to a head, to a punch line: the soundtrack (heavy strings, a faux Bernard Herrmann score), which plays over the wordless scene and deliberately instills it with ironic artifice, climaxes.  All of a sudden, the music mutes as the shoes kick the chair out from under them.  The shoes dangle briefly, and surprisingly, drift back down to the floor.  The camera pulls back to reveal a flummoxed Jerry Lewis ("Who else?" onscreen text tells us later on, during the title sequence.)

I can think of no film that embodies Murphy’s Law better than Jerry Lewis' Cracking Up.  Better yet, the film renders the epigram cinematic.  For Lewis, a self-described misfit, nothing can go right, not even suicide.  To cure his neuroses, he seeks the help of a psychotherapist (a mild Herb Edelman).  Using such subject matter, this may be Jerry Lewis at his darkest hour.  Not too bleak though, since Lewis’ absurdist humor dispels any whiff of severity.

If this is Lewis’ “darkest” film, it is also his most experimental. With Cracking Up, the clown prince of film strips away anything resembling a conventional narrative structure.  Like his first feature-length film, The Bellboy, Cracking Up consists of a series of situations.  In the former, Lewis creates gags based on a bellboy’s behavior at a ritzy Florida hotel.  With Cracking Up, however, Lewis does not tether his gags to a “type” -- bellboy, patsy, ladies man, orderly -- but to a neutral, blank figure.  As Serge Daney puts it, Lewis “is no longer a nice, crazy simple kid with a big heart; he’s a universal type: the Misfit by essence, addicted to shrinks, a real loser of our time.  Age is no longer relevant.” 

Riffing off this essential premise (a man who seems to be a failure at everything), Lewis explores the principles of cinema, one of which is the dynamic between on- and off-screen space, and the hilarity that ensues from this relationship.  Now, Lewis is no stranger to the relationship, for it is evident in his previous work, such as The Ladies Man, and may even stem from his tutelage under Frank Tashlin.

In Cracking Up though, the exploration of spaces is pervasive.  It is apparent in the scene I described above, in which, concomitant with the reveal, (off-screen space becomes on-screen) in comes comedy, in comes cinema, emerging from the abyss that’s on the other side of the frame.  Lewis thus sets up gags at the edges of the frames.   They begin out of view.  Lewis allows only so much time to pass, building up anticipation, before revealing the gag on-screen.  When the concealed is revealed then, the moment of failure is upon us.

*Originally called Smorgasbord, the distributors re-titled Jerry’s last film with the generic name, Cracking Up.


For more writing on Cracking Up, look no further than Steven Shaviro's great essay on the film, in which he approaches it from the contexts of psychoanalysis and Jewish humor. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Images That Echo (Scarface, 1932)

Watching Howard Hawks’ Scarface recently, I was struck by how stylized the film was: Paul Muni’s histrionic Tony Camonte (no doubt a result of his upbringing in Yiddish theatre); Lee Garmes’ lighting, which results in ink-black shadows and silhouettes; the use of crosses and roses as leitmotifs. 

Many scholars and critics, however, characterize Hawks as a practical filmmaker, one who does not emphasize his sensibility explicitly.  Of course, one could say that these elements of Scarface are just accoutrements, just parts that do not correlate with Hawks the auteur.  If that’s the case, is Scarface one of the least Hawksian films in his career?

Andrew Sarris does not seem to think so, since he italicized the film in his book, The American Cinema, indicating its importance in Hawks’ oeuvre.  Considering his work as a whole, Sarris writes: “If Hawks does not choose to use technique as a reflective commentary on action, it is because his personality expresses a pragmatic intelligence rather than a philosophical wisdom”  (54).  For Sarris, Hawks does not call attention to his style.  Instead, what one sees in his films is the director’s expression communicated through (repeated) actions.

Echoing Sarris’ sentiments somewhat, David Thomson sees Hawks’ aesthetic as a humble one, which results from an interaction between viewers and director.  “The ‘style’ of Hawks rests in his commenting astuteness; no other director bridges the contrived plots of genre and the responses of a mature spectator,” he writes.  Since his films are so rich with “emotional intelligence” and “witty feeling,” Thomson claims that his “camera is almost invisible” (615).

If Hawks is an invisible director, he is at his most visible in Scarface.  In this film, the ghost materializes and Hawks reveals his hand.  Carlos Clarens said, “Scarface was Hawks’s most expressionistic film,” noting its “violent chiaroscuro, tight grouping within the frame, and fluid, stalking camera movement”  (93).  Such a stylization he believed fit a film where the gangster protagonist, Tony Camonte, rises and falls not from external forces (rival gangsters, law enforce, etc.), but from his own psychic struggle.  For Clarens, form fit content; Scarface’s stylization synced with the subject matter.

Robin Wood takes a different approach to the film.  In a moral argument, he considers viewer response in relation to the film, much like Thomson.  Wood highlights the famous use of the cross as a leitmotif.  By incorporating the icon into the film, Wood argues that Hawks offsets the humor of the disturbing violence running throughout Scarface (61).  The symbol follows after every death, giving the film a sense of doom, which punctuates the moments of farce. 

Beyond the apparent use of symbolism though, Hawks sculpts his images in more indirect ways, which Manny Farber articulates.  Writing about the film, Farber said, “few movies are better at nailing down singularity in a body or face, the effect of a strong outline cutting out impossibly singular shapes”  (653).  Farber finds in Scarface a film that distills characters into shapes with the slightest of gestures. 

Now, in order to open up Farber’s characterization, I am going to use an atomic-critical analysis perfected by Raymond Durgnat.*  (Ironically, Durgnat is not smitten with Hawks). During my recent viewing, a brief moment caught my attention and has stuck with me for a few weeks now.

Near the film’s beginning, Camonte stops at his boss’ house to inform him that he killed a rival gang leader.  Yet, here in the home is the boss’ girlfriend, Poppy (Karen Morley), an attraction to the primitive Camonte.  Immediately before a cut, Hawks shoots a long shot, a frame-within-a-frame shot.  In it, a statuette, placed between Camonte and Poppy, appears prominently in the foreground.  The statuette’s figure parallels Camonte’s.  I think the statuette (a human figure bearing a gift, with legs crossed), is emblematic of Camonte, because it highlights a few things about him.  One, that Camonte, and perhaps all gangsters are aesthetes.  Second, that Camonte may be plastic himself -- material goods attract him and the other gangsters all throughout the film. 

Going further with this observation, it is in this moment that one sees Tony in the midst of transformation, from oafish hoodlum to gaudy, brash gang leader.  From gunman to leading man, Camonte ascends to the top of the criminal underworld.  Along with this upward trajectory, Camonte is becoming a dandy, wooed by material and wooing others with material.  He is a man who has an ear for opera as well as hands to hold a Tommy gun.  


*This image, on further reflection, brings to my mind a sequence in Durgnat’s book, Films and Feelings, where he notes the “echoes” apparent in one shot of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.


Clarens, Carlos.  Crime Movies.  New York: Da Capo, 1997.

Farber, Manny.  "Howard Hawks."  Farber on Film: The Complete Writings of Manny Farber.  Robert Polito, ed.  New York: Library of America, 2009.

Sarris, Andrew.  The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.  New York: Da Capo, 1996.

Thomson, David.  "Howard Hawks."  American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until      
       Now.  Phillip Lopate, ed.  New York: Library of America, 2006.

Wood, Robin.  Howard Hawks.  London: BFI Publishing, 1981.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

UHF (Jay Levey, 1989)

In the 80s, a few cult musicians and TV stars made and/or performed in some zany, frantic films.  1982, Richard Elfman directed the musical-vaudeville hybrid, Forbidden Zone, as a vehicle for his band, Oingo Boingo.  Before revising his aesthetics for commercial fare like Dark Shadows and Alice and Wonderland, Tim Burton made a freewheeling road movie with the one-man novelty act, Paul Reubens, in the candy-colored world of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.

Rounding out this triumvirate of 80s cinema pop-art is UHF, a showcase for music parodist, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, and his absurdist humor, which consists of high-strung, Looney Tunes antics and playful anarchism á la Jerry Lewis.  Al’, our plucky hero, inherits a run-down local television station from an uncle.  Eventually, he makes something out of it, a leading TV station.  Managed by a militant Kevin McCarthy, a rival station leading in viewer ratings plots to suppress Al’s – it’s a tale of the struggling have-nots versus the oily haves for laughs.

No sense of pace and paying no attention to coherence, the story does not really matter, functioning simply as a chain for ‘Weird Al’ to string along his odd-ball gags, making the film seem schizophrenic.  This is a more hyperactive derivative of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker films that saturated the 80s. 

Packed with intertextual film references, popping primary colors, self-reflexive gestures (Early on in the film, we see ‘Weird Al’s’ face dissolve into a shot of a hamburger patty sizzling on a grill, making the film technique readily apparent), UHF seems Tashlinesque.  The film, however, is missing a key staple of this sensibility – social satire.  Instead, UHF indulges in parody – satire numbed of a political edge. 

UHF is a post-modern joke machine, pumping out gags a minute, sweetened by hysteria and visual inventiveness.