I happened to know somehow that Michael Gerardi would soon be watching THE RULES OF THE GAME and I thought back to when I was in my “exhausting the canon” phase, as a young whippersnapper, as he is now. And wondering whether he realized what a corker of a film he was in for, and how many more films he (or any other college student) still has to see for the first time that I now can never see for the first time. It makes you feel old (I turn 40 next week; forgive me). He’s put up several reviews of old classics in recent days, and he’s my reactions to some of them.
INTOLERANCE — Here, I largely agree with Michael. There’s no doubt Griffith’s folly is a masterpiece (with BIRTH OF A NATION, it even establishes the template of “great blockbuster commercial hit” followed by “great film maudit commercial bust”). But as Michael notes, by contemporary standards, INTOLERANCE is hardly “entertaining” at all. And I say that as someone who has seen it in a theater, albeit via projected video. I really think it takes willed self-discipline to get much from INTOLERANCE, which isn’t to say the effort shouldn’t be made for Griffith, the Aeschylus of film-makers. Peter Reiher really captured all the issues involved with silent films in this essay here. As big a silent-film fan as I am, INTOLERANCE is a wee bit primitive to really stand up well on its own feet, in Peter’s words, it requires allowances to be made for it simply because the state of the art is still so young, so close to the 1890s invention of movies. Stat geekery: of my 20 favorite pre-1920 films, only the one at #1 did I rate higher than 8; of my 10 favorites of 1928, at the end of the silent period, every one is a 10 or 9. I think the end of the silent period, 1925-28, lapping over into the silent holdouts of 1929-31 — films like CITY LIGHTS, EARTH, L’AGE D’OR, MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, L’ARGENT, TABU — was one of the great eras of film. The 1910s, not so much.
THE RULES OF THE GAME — Here, I’m going to register a disagreement with Michael. Not that it isn’t MUCH more productive to see RULES than THE DA VINCI [sic] CRAP. Duh. But Michael says that RULES has “violent shifts of tone.” I think the tone of RULES is like the smile on the MONA LISA, one of those endless enigmas that most please in their inability to be pinned down, but which are a large part of what makes the work a masterpiece. I don’t think the tone really shifts that much, because I think Michael overstates how belly-laugh funny it is and/or understates the tragic aura overlying it at every moment. It’s not really a comedy as much as a tragedy told though the conventions of comedy. Oh, there’s no doubt that RULES follows all the rules of the comedy of manners and the boudoir farce — parallelled class distinctions, foppish aristocrats, scheming servants, sex-partner roundelays — while ending in a fatal shooting that’s a triple-mistaken-identity but not even arguably played for laughs, even in the immediate setup. The Mozart overture at the start and the quote from Beaumarchais promises a silly romantic comedy, a la Figaro. Which the film certainly does deliver — in a sense. But a big part about what I find so brilliant in RULES is that it played so consistently ambivalently to me, via that impossible-to-pin-down tone, all through scenes that on the surface sound so comic or serious. The film is mordant without being tasteless; serious without being stuffy; wry without being cynical; rueful without being gloomy. And in the end, accepting it all as inevitable and tragic, without tears. IMHO at least, the film famously keeps that crazily-balanced tone for all 110 minutes.
Take what Michael properly identifies as among the most brilliant scenes ever created — Schumacher chasing Marceau through the chateau while everything else becomes unglued around it. Yes, on a certain level, it’s hilarious, like an enraged Schumacher Fudd chasing a wily Poacher Bugs, while La Grande Dame Christine gets the vapors. But the laughter sticks in the craw for a couple of reasons. For one thing, this scene follows, albeit not immediately, the brilliant rabbit hunt sequence, and the gunshots on the sound mix reverberate back to that unfaked carnage (today’s Humane Society film-guardians would have a fainting spell worthy of a French Grande Dame at that scene). It also has quickly followed the strange Danse Macabre that is one of the most coldly-elegant and chilling scenes I’ve ever seen. And while everything’s spinning out of control, a couple of aristocrats think the Schumacher-Marceau chase is part of the evening’s entertainment. You want to laugh and yell at them at the same time — “what is it, you think this is all about the rules of the game or something.” At every moment, Renoir undercuts his comedy with tragedy — well, maybe “undercuts” isn’t really the word. It’s more like Renoir … well, he said it best himself: “During the shooting of the film I was torn between my desire to make a comedy of it and the wish to tell a tragic story. The result of this ambivalence was the film as it is.”
Forget the DA VINCI HOAX. Madonna, in her latest attempts at shocking, cutting-edge … yawn … envelope-pushing is having herself tied to a cross for her performance of “Live to Tell” on her latest tour. According to the New York Daily News, she defending herself by saying Jesus would forgive her (which is a reason to piss Him off in the first place, I guess).
But anyway, those journalistic pikers at the Daily News were not able to reach Jesus to confirm or deny this statement. But thanks to my brilliant journalistic acumen and deep sources at the Vatican, I was able to ask Our Lord to comment. He said:
Of course, I forgive her. But for SWEPT AWAY and SHANGHAI SURPRISE, the slut has to burn in Hell
*I stole that joke from a DC radio station. I forget which one.
OVER THE HEDGE (Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick, USA, 9)
I’ve been annoyed by previous Dreamworks’ animated films (like A SHARK’S TALE here; I make reference to SHREK) — with their “decadent po-mo flaunting of in-jokes only adults will get” and “seem[ing] to be more interested in replicating the consumer culture and its pop-culture baubles … with [creatures that] get personified, homogenized and flattened into the same pop-culture stereotypes as everything else.” But with OVER THE HEDGE, Dreamworks produces its best animated movie precisely by making these tendencies the subject matter of the film.
HEDGE stars animals who, during the course of the film, are threatened by human development and their own love for it. They wake up from hibernation to find their forest mostly turned into a uniformly faceless subdivision (named Camelot, amusingly). But then a shyster raccoon with his own agenda (voiced by Bruce Willis) and tells them “why don’t you get food food from the humans?” and sells suburbia to the animals in an incredible montage sequence that both follows and parodies those “buy your dream” PowerPoint presentations, culminating in the unveiling of nature’s most-perfect food — the nacho-cheese chip. And his description to the other animals of the SUV is priceless and perfectly delivered up to the brilliant punchline (“one”). But here’s the deal — rather than being threatened, the animals take to it like a fish to water, especially the kids. They fill their food stock in a couple of days, leaving them nothing to do for the remaining 270 before their next hibernation. Abundance enervates. We get into quarrels over Monopoly tokens, comparison of life to video games (“this is just like Auto Homicide 3”) and John Tesh DVDs. In other words, this is basically the ultimate Crunchy Con movie (Rod; if you’re reading this, see OVER THE HEDGE. And take Matthew and Lucas.) The animals become more “humanized” and acclimated to human ways, degrading them, taking them away from (their) nature, alienating them into forgetfulness of Being (“dat ist called Seinsvergessenheit” … “shut up, Heidegger”).
Part of the charm and the reason for the film’s success is the voice casting — which isn’t show-offy or has celebrities obviously “playing themselves.” It’s like Tim Allen and Tom Hanks in the TOY STORY movies — who never echo Home Improvement or Forrest Gump (or Ellen DeGeneres in FINDING NEMO). Wanda Sykes was the only voice in OVER THE HEDGE I instantly “spotted,” but she has a really distinctive voice (and she, thus appropriately, also has The Character Role). But Garry Shandling as a nervous-but-sensible turtle — that’s just perfect, without being eccentric. As is Steve Carell as a hyperactive squirrel. Willis basically plays his “Moonlighting” role, but without specifically reminding you of David Addison until you look back at the cast list. Even William Shatner, you have to strain your ears to figure out … it’s *him.* Shatner. Really. I mean — *really* Shatner. Really.
The movie and pop-culture in-jokes are hit-and-miss but somehow I found them less annoying than I did in SHREK and SHARK’S TALE. The CLOSE ENCOUNTERS joke was really funny (and well-hidden); the CITIZEN KANE reference less so (I saw it coming). And while I also saw coming the reversal of the Pepe LePew scenario — dressing up a skunk as a cat to seduce a real cat — I admired the film followed it to the end, and made it consistent with Sykes’ persona and voice. But can we please have a moratorium on characters named “Stella” until screenwriters have learned to resist parodying Marlon Brando? But since even the pop-culture jokes are intrinsic to what the movie is about — the spread of contemporary suburban culture and its threats to a “natural” life — even when they miss, I didn’t resent them. You don’t have to be Naomi Klein to think that life is not about what you own and what brands you use (the fact that the film is a satire of consumerist suburbia means there is no actual product-placement that I recall). The drawing is elemental, spare, with bright colors and not-too-many eccentric angles and “look what I can do with depth of field” showing off). The human characters are flamboyantly bad, even the Type-A psycho-bitch who had the best line, one worthy of STRANGELOVE — “I can’t be arrested. I’m president of a homeowners’ association.” And finally, any movie that has a joke based on the Theory of General Relativity must be awesome.
Personal point, not related to the movie per se. I deliberately saw OVER THE HEDGE as part of the Other-cott of THE DA VINCI [sic] CRAP. I went with a bunch of Church friends on the Saturday afternoon of opening weekend, one of whom was this guy. David’s been in a very bad place of late, after Holy Week brought him the death of his father and a car-wreck hospitalization. I happened to sit next to him and he was yukking it up like I’ve never seen him. I tease David a lot about economics-related issues (he once called me “Boss Tweed” and a robber baron), and so based on the trailer, I suspected that he would take to OVER THE HEDGE like catnip. I felt glad that, for atwo hours at least, he forgot about it all and just had an uproarious good time.