Tag Archives: Comedy

CAPSULE: THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977)

That Obscure Object of Desire has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry. Comments on this post are closed.

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DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Carole Bouquet, Angela Molina

PLOT: A rich French businessman courts a beautiful young Spanish woman over the years, but although she sometimes professes to love him, she continually refuses to consummate the relationship.

Still from That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Obscure Object is one of Buñuel’s best, but not one of his weirdest. If you merged the two actresses who inexplicably share the role of Conchita into one, you could almost mistake this parody of obsessive bourgeois eroticism for a normal comedy—almost.

COMMENTS: The “gimmick” of two actresses playing the object of desire is the high-concept highlight of That Obscure Object of Desire, but make no mistake: the casting was not a desperation move to salvage some sort of novelty value out of a dull script. Buñuel’s final film is one of his most tightly controlled and plotted movies, the work of a 77-year old master intent on putting the final punctuation on a distinguished career. The story is simple: prosperous, respectable, middle-aged Mathieu meets 18-year old serving girl Conchita and attempts, and fails, to seduce her. She leaves his service, but as the years go on he continues to encounter her, whether by chance or by design, and gradually he works his way closer and closer to her heart—but although she declares her love for him, she never surrenders her virtue. Buñuel and his totally committed trio of actors push the dramatic scenario further than you would think possible: the erotic tension builds and builds until surely, you think, something has to break. Either Conchita will give in or Mathieu will tire of being teased and rid himself of her forever. And yet, after each frustrating encounter, the bourgeois businessman comes back for more, and Conchita is willing to continue the dance. There are moments when rape seems inevitable, but that solution would wreck the game, so they push right to the brink before pulling back and resetting.

It’s not all unbearable erotic tension: Obscure Object is, at heart, a droll and absurd comedy, full of sophisticated, off-kilter jokes; even if you don’t always get them, you feel smarter for chuckling at them. Some gags are obvious: there’s a variation on the old “waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!’ joke—this time, it’s in a martini. One night, Mathieu lures Conchita to his bedroom; Angelia Molina asks “can I change?” and goes into the bathroom to put on her nightgown; she emerges as Carole Bouquet. At other times the humor is more oblique and surreal, and we’re not sure what to make of it. Mathieu tells his story to traveling companions on a train; one is a dwarf, and a professor of psychology—but he only gives private lessons. A Spanish fortune teller carries a pig wrapped in a blanket like a baby. The movie is set in a Europe where terrorist bombings are a background fact of life; one of the revolutionary groups is named “the Revolutionary Army of Baby Jesus.”

This being a Buñuel film, there’s a constant subtle mockery of the unexamined values of the middle class. Mathieu casually tells the strangers in his train compartment how he essentially tries to purchase Conchita off her cash-strapped mother, and how he beats and humiliates the girl after he’s been sexually frustrated. Rather than being scandalized by the shameful confession, everyone takes his side, nods understandingly and comforts the respectable victim. Obscure Object is Buñuel’s attack on what he sees as the capitalist system of romance: men, the class with the capital, protect and provide for women, and in return they receive love and sex. This arrangement, based on inequality, can never satisfy either sex: men will remain emotionally frustrated because women only give in to them out of hardship, and the disenfranchised women use the only weapon at their disposal—their erotic power—to revenge themselves upon men. Just as the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie never get to eat, Mathieu never gets to… you know.

As for why two women play Conchita, it’s one of those deliberate Surrealist accidents that suggest interpretations that remain obscure. Do Bouquet and Molina represent two sides of the same woman, a divided personality, female duplicity? I lean to the reading that there are two women because Mathieu, the bourgeois man, can’t understand the “object” of his own desire; he no more notices that his love changes before his very eyes than he sees that the society around him is crumbling into anarchy.

According to co-writer and longtime Buñuel collaborator , the idea to cast two women in the role of Conchita occurred in an early draft of the script, but was discarded. When production began on the movie Buñuel was unhappy with the woman chosen to play Conchita (Last Tango in Paris’ Maria Schneider) and came close to abandoning the project before resurrecting the idea of using dual actresses in the role.

The Criterion Collection lost the rights to Studio Canal’s Buñuel collection, and therefore the 2013 Blu-ray of That Obscure Object of Desire was released by Lions Gate (buy). It has different special features than the Criterion DVD, including interviews with both Bouquet and Molina.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Buñuel creates a vision of a world as logical as a theorem, as mysterious as a dream, and as funny as a vaudeville gag.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

THE NAVIGATOR (1924) AND FROZEN NORTH (1922)

The Navigator (1924) was ‘s biggest commercial success and remains one of his most popular features. Co-directed by Donald Crisp, it is a bona fide classic.

Affluent society heir Rollo (Keaton) wakes up one morning, sees a newlywed couple outside of his window, and, bored to tears, decides he wants to get married. Love, of course, never enters the picture. He starts planning a regal honeymoon and eventually remembers that he needs to ask the bride-to-be, another socialite named Betsy (, Keaton’s leading lady from Sherlock Jr.).

The super rich were a favorite target for 1920s audiences, which certainly helped this film’s box office appeal. (Yes, once upon a time, the one percent were not adulated by Hollywood. Rather, they were ridiculed because that ancient, naive generation actually believed that people were not defined by dyed green paper or quantity of possessions).

Betsy turns down Rollo’s proposal of marriage and, after a series of circumstances, they find themselves aboard the adrift schooner, the Navigator. When they are left to fend for theirselves, without the aid of a servant, pandemonium is the result. Far from the idyllic honeymoon he imagined, Rollo is forced to assist in fixing breakfast. Much to his dismay, he discovers that a butcher knife is not the best way to open a can of food. Betsy learns how not to make coffee. Unground beans and seawater do not a good brew make.

Still from The Navigator (1924)An expressionistic play on shadows, via clever use of candles, reveals the consummating kiss Rollo and Betsy will never have. This is but one example we find of Keaton pushing the art of film in ways no other American filmmaker was doing at the time.

Co-director Donald Crisp makes an unbilled cameo, in the form of a sinister sea captain’s picture inadvertently placed in front of a porthole, which predictably gives Rollo a bad case of late night jitters. (With the advent of sound, Crisp abandoned directing and became a much sought after character actor, appearing in such films as Mutiny on the Bounty, JezebelHow Green Was My Valley, and National Velvet). Roman candles, soggy cards, a rainstorm, and sleeping arrangements round off a disastrous “wedding night.”

The first night over, Betsy and Rollo have brilliantly overcome the menial chores, which of course makes way for larger-scale challenges to come. A master of the slow burn, Keaton, as usual, revels in the second half. Nothing less than cannibals craving white meat is their first obstacle. (Unfortunately, one area in which audiences of the time were indeed embarrassingly naive was in their racial stereotypes, and Keaton was not exempt from that).

In order to fix a leaky ship drifting towards the excited natives, Rollo and Betsy pull out the deep-sea divers manual. Down in the murky ocean below, Rollo meets a couple of swordfish and, in the film’s most iconic highlight, he seizes one fish and engages in an underwater fencing duel with the second.

The showdown with the cannibals is worthy of a Loony Tune, and a grand finale gag is amongst the best of silent cinema. Aside from the stereotypes, The Navigator is remarkably contemporary. McGuire is a near-perfect and sweet foil for Keaton, breathlessly matching him. In one of their best scenes together, she straddles him (in his diving gear), using him as a lifeboat, and paddles them back to the temporary safety of the ship.

The Navigator was among a generous crop of 2012 Kino Keaton Blu-ray releases. It is also available in Kino’s indispensable “The Art of Buster Keaton” DVD box set.

The Frozen North (1922) is a seventeen minute short, co-directed by frequent Keaton collaborator Edward. F. Cline. It is another of Keaton’s venture into informal surrealism. Unfortunately, it is not an entirely successful effort, which may be due, in part, to its missing three minutes of footage. Frozen North is Keaton’s parody of western actor . Hart had publicly condemned Keaton’s friend and mentor, Roscoe Arbuckle, during the comedian’s famous murder trial. Upon seeing Frozen North, Hart was incensed and did not speak to Keaton for years.

Keaton plays the villain, a caricature of Hart’s screen persona: melodramatic machismo (cigarette flip), questionable ethics (two-gun firing), and saccharine pathos (tears and all). Keaton uses a cardboard cutout of Hart in order to rob locals in a tavern, then brutally murders a kissing couple, only to realize that he has shot the wrong wife in the wrong house. Keaton callously dances with his wife’s unconscious body, vacuums an igloo, plays tennis with snowballs, disguises himself as Sam the Snowman, and is envisioned as Erich von Stroheim by a woman who he is trying to rape. Keaton also pays brief  homage to vamp Theda Bara, but it all turns out to be a dream.

The humor in Frozen North is atypical with Keaton at his blackest, bleakest, and strangest. With its Yukon scenes, it clearly influenced ‘s The Gold Rush (1925). Kino’s restoration is as good as it can be for a film that only exists in a dissipated, fragmented state. It is available on 2012’s equally essential Buster Keaton: Short Films Collection 1920-1923.”

*Next Week: Go West ( 1925 ) and One Week (1920).

PLAYHOUSE (1921) AND STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (1928)

These two Buster Keaton films, separated by seven years, represent the artist at his most hyperkinetic.

Playhouse (1921), co-directed by Keaton and Eddie Cline, is a twenty-two minute short and one of Keaton’s most surreal efforts. The movie iris-ins on Keaton’s Opera House. It’s actually a vaudeville show, in which Keaton is the conductor, every member of the orchestra (dubbed Buster Keaton’s minstrels), a stagehand, and the entire audience. The crowd consists of the actor in three drag guises, a spoiled tyke, a befuddled husband, a lethargic old man, and (alas) Keaton in (mercifully brief) blackface. This is the sole area in which Keaton proved less progressive than rival , who, atypically for his time, was sensitive to racism and usually refused to resort to blackface.

The surrealism here turns out to be a dream. Keaton’s bedroom, however, is merely a theatrical backdrop, adding yet another narrative layer. There is a delightful bit of business with a pair of twins, which confuses Keaton, inspiring a vow to lay off the sauce (this IS cinema. He made no such vow in real life). Again, the surrealistic elements serve Keaton’s narrative. A mirror transforms the twins into quadruplets, predictably causing more mayhem.

Keaton doubles as a trained monkey in an act. The simplistic simian face paint is brilliant; Keaton’s face perfectly structured for it. The scene of Buster-chimp going ape amidst the assembled patrons might serve as a reflection of Keaton’s own relationship with his audience. The audience is mystified, and eventually accepting, rather than idolatrous. Keaton does not seek the crowd’s adulation, nor does he have the audacity to portray them proclaiming their love for him, the way Charles Chaplin did in both The Circus (1928) and (more sickeningly) in Limelight (1952). Of course, both of these  iconic silent clowns had their virtues and faults, and comparisons are inevitably moot. Earlier, Keaton does not hesitate to engage in self-parody when he sides with the audience over the performer: “This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show.” That self-parody also might serve as a dig at Keaton’s limelight-craving competitors.

Still from Playhouse (1921)Keaton also pays brief, unsentimental homage to Harry Houdini here, who had given him the nickname of “Buster”.

Although half the length of Sherlock Jr. (1924), Playhouse lacks the compactness and polished narrative of that later film. Still, it remains a tour de force, aided greatly by Elgin Lessley’s camerawork combined with Keaton’s boundless innovation.

Keaton also served as an uncredited co-director and writer in the feature Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). This was Keaton’s last independent production. He looks considerably aged, with a touch of pathos, yet still elegant, romantic, and athletic. The film is understandably most remembered for the startling, stirring imagery of its third act. It begins with a reunion of a father (Steamboat Bill—Ernest Torrence) and son (Steamboat Bill Jr.—Keaton).

Sr. is a seafaring captain of towering machismo, and not sure what to make of his citified dandy of a son. He takes Jr. to a barber and attempts to get him a new hat (Jr rejects a series of hats, including his famous pork pie). Torrence’s portrayal of Sr. is an astute parody of blue-collar mores and traditions. In avoiding a maudlin relationship between father and son, Keaton’s handling seems remarkably fresh and less dated. So too it is with Jr’s romance with the daughter (Marion Byron) of his father’s rival (Tom McGuire). While avoiding heart-on-sleeve propensities, Byron’s character is underdeveloped, serving primarily as decor. Thus, Jr’s intense attraction to her fails to register.

The fifteen-minute cyclone finale is an apex of silent cinema entertainment. The stunt work, cinematography (by Bert Haines and Dev Jennings) and set design are simply jaw dropping, regardless (or perhaps even because of) its age. Remarkably, much of the death-defying action is continuous and unbridled. Even more remarkably, Steamboat Bill Jr., like The General (1926), was a box office flop. Shortly afterwards, Keaton made a move to MGM and was coerced into relinquishing creative control of his films to a fascistic studio. His voice, already marred by drink, was unsuited to sound. Clearly an instinctual artist, Keaton was predictably unable to meet MGM’S mass commercial sensibilities, which accelerated his already rapid decline. Alcoholism, depression and institutionalization followed. Yet, courageously, Keaton rebounded, and it is his genius which has endured, while the studio stormtroopers faded into well-deserved oblivion.

* Next week: The Navigator (1924) and Frozen North (1922).

CAPSULE: CASINO ROYALE (1967)

DIRECTORS: John Huston, Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, Val Guest, Richard Talmadge (uncredited)

CAST: David Niven, , Ursula Andress, , , , Joanna Pettet, Terence Cooper, Daliah Lavi, Deborah Kerr, Jacqueline Bisset, Bernard Cribbins, Ronnie Corbett, Anna Quayle, John Huston, William Holden, Charles Boyer, Vladek Sheybal, Burt Kwouk, Peter O’Toole, Jean-Paul Belmondo, George Raft, David Prowse

PLOT: There really isn’t one, but here goes: Sir James Bond (Niven) is called out of retirement by M (Huston) when the new head of SMERSH is revealed to be Bond’s nephew, Jimmy (Allen).

Still from Casino Royale (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird in the way a film by  or  is; nevertheless, it’s another one of those out-of-control, all-star, over-budget fiascoes that leaves you wondering “What were they thinking?” If this website were called 366Self-IndulgentMovies.com, Casino Royale would definitely make the list.

COMMENTS: Not to be confused, ever, with the marvelous 2006 Daniel Craig film (which might well be the finest Bond movie yet), this 1967 boondoggle is based very loosely on the same source material: Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel. The product of six different directors, including John Huston (The African Queen) and Ken Hughes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and six writers, among them Ben Hecht (Notorious), Billy Wilder (Ninotchka) and  (Candy, Barbarella), the 007 spoof Casino Royale is a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the soup. Clocking in at an excessive 137 minutes, it’s a completely incoherent psychedelic mess, which, if you’re in the right frame of mind, can come off as intermittently hilarious.  Reportedly, the film was as chaotic to make as it is to watch, with Sellers and Welles warring on the set, and the former finally walking off the movie before it was finished. The final result, however, comes off as so utterly insane that the abrupt departure of Seller’s character (“Evelyn Tremble”)–who is (SPOILER ALERT!) murdered offscreen–fits right in with the freewheeling, anything goes “storyline” of everything else in the film. This version of Casino Royale is probably best remembered for the two hit singles spawned from the soundtrack: the bouncy, jaunty title song played unmistakably by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, and the languid, Oscar-nominated Dusty Springfield ballad, “The Look of Love.” Burt Bacharach’s score is a true relic of the Swinging Sixties, and large chunks of it show up in the third Austin Powers film. In fact, Austin Powers probably wouldn’t exist at all without Casino Royale. If one pays very close attention, it is striking that parts of this movie actually do bear a resemblance to the Daniel Craig “remake.” Bond falls in love with Vesper Lynd (Andress) who is kidnapped and then betrays him. He also plays cards with Le Chiffre (Welles), who later straps him to a chair and tortures him (although not in the notorious way that he does in the 2006 film). When Bond escapes, Le Chiffre –(SPOILER!) is shot in the head by SMERSH. Of course, these plot strands go back to the original novel, but that’s all that is left of Fleming.

By the end of Casino Royale, matters have gotten so out of hand that there are appearances by the Frankenstein monster (Prowse, who later played Darth Vader), a performing seal, a clapping chimp, and a troupe of stereotypical tomahawk-wielding “Indians” dancing the Frug. Since the film opened right before the Summer of Love, one has to wonder; what were the cast and crew smoking?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A hideous, zany disaster… a psychedelic, absurd masterpiece.”-Andrea LeVasseur, The All-Movie Review