Quick Recommendations: Masters of Their Craft

Over the past few days, the hostage and I watched a couple of truly remarkable films, and I wanted to pass along a quick recommendation. Neither was from our internet DVD service, so I didn’t think to take notes. I’m glad now, as I was able to immerse myself in each experience (sometimes when I take notes, I focus more on what I want to say about a movie than what it’s saying to me. Trying to work past that). Given that each film represents a true master at work, I thought I’d pass along their gospel to the unconverted (or maybe you’re already a fan, but haven’t heard of these somewhat lesser known flicks).

The first was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), a comedy about as dark as I’ve seen from Hitchcock (although, to be fair, I think the only outright comedy of his I’ve ever seen is The Trouble With Harry (1955), and that’s plenty dark too). Anyone familiar with the Leopold and Loeb case will recognize the story: two wealthy, educated young men commit a murder just to prove that they could. In Hitchcock’s version, they then invite his friends and family over for a dinner – which they serve on top of the trunk in which they’ve stowed the body. Come on now, that’s just tasteless. I saw this many years ago, after my fascination with serial killers (which seemed badass at the time, and now just sounds so clichéd and unoriginal) lead me to Leopold and Loeb, and ultimately, Rope. But on first viewing, I completely missed the element I found to be the most intriguing this time: Hitchcock filmed the entire picture in 10-minute-long takes, and then spliced it brilliantly together to make it appear as though the whole film is one take. It is a genius piece of filmmaking for that fact alone; Jimmy Stewart, black humour, and a body in a trunk are just the icing on this cake.

The second was Hal Ashby’s Being There (1980). Well, he directed it, but let’s be honest: this movie belongs to Peter Sellers. The story is basically a loose comedic retelling of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Sellers stars as a “touched” (special? challenged? What’s the PC term now?) man, set loose in the world when his employer dies, armed only with the knowledge he has gained from watching television over the years. In brilliant satiric form, his simple, concrete thinking (often somehow related to gardening or television) is misinterpreted by those around him as profundity, and he becomes known as a sage political advisor. This is the second Sellers movie I’ve watched in the past week (the first being an old favourite of mine, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). K, you ask, did you really need to write out the entire title? Yes, because it’s so good, it deserves a little attention). It struck me that Being There and Dr. Strangelove have a strange and powerful similarity in how they are filmed: they both look dramatic. Neither director (Ashby or Kubrick) hints that there is a comedy unfolding on-screen – rather the use of the camera, music, costumes – the entire feel of each is that of a serious drama. It is only in listening to the dialogue (“I’m sorry too Dimitri!”) and following the narrative that the insane comedy becomes clear. And these are funny, funny movies. But in Being There, when Sellers stands over the body of a loved one who has just passed, tears brimming in his eyes, and whispers, “I’ve seen this before. It happens to old people,” it took a good minute before I realized the hilarity of that line. His grief was so palpable, it took me away from the content of the line. It’s so well done, it fools you even though you know you’re watching a comedy. So I suppose I shouldn’t be so dismissive of Ashby just because Sellers is absurdly talented; this is a beautiful film.

As a final note, has there ever been a better comedic actor than Peter Sellers? Not a comedian, but an actor who treated comedy with the reverence most actors save for dramatic roles; an actor that could disappear in three roles in a movie with the audience none the wiser? And no, the Klumps don’t count. It seems that whenever an actor plays multiple roles now (Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers), it’s done with a wink at the audience who are all in on the gag. If I didn’t already know that Sellers plays Mandrake, Muffley, and Strangelove, I’d never have guessed. Even on repeat viewings I marvel at the completely distinct characters he created – mannerisms, voices, posture – a complete transformation each time. The hostage and I have this debate semi-regularly: who else would even be on the table as comparable?

Until the next, enjoy some Hitchcock and Sellers.

K.

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~ by K. Harker on December 3, 2010.

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