Lee Marvin and some unlucky kid. "Violent Saturday."
Because I find Tumblr’s U.I. to be tricky whenever I publish long form pieces— which hasn’t motivated me to keep writing and posting new stuff- I have moved Invisible Work Film Writings to WordPress. You can find the new version of the blog, with its first post about The Creature From the Black Lagoon, here:
Yet, the Tumblr version of Invisible Work will stay up as it will serve as an indefinite archive of my previous posts as well as a place where I’ll announce/link upcoming posts at the new site.
Regardless, thank you for reading my work and I hope that you will continue to do so.
Trevor Howard (Source: The Guardian)
Alberto Cavalcanti—a man who once publicized himself just as Cavalcanti— made films as a peripatetic. Brazilian-born, he studied architecture in Geneva in the 1910s, fell-in with Avant Garde filmmakers Marcel l’Herbier and Louis Delluc in Paris in the 1920s, made industrial films for the UK General Post Office in the 1930s, directed features at Ealing Studios in the 1940s, and worked all over Europe and even Israel for the rest of his life.
Now I may be making myself seem like I’m an expert on Cavalcanti here. I’m not—I’ve only seen three of his directorial efforts (Went the Day Well?, Dead of Night (which he codirected) and They Made Me a Fugitive (aka I Became a Criminal)), and I’m just regurgitating information. But I wanted to include these biographical details to demonstrate that the man had a varied existence that could explain why his films and directorial style have a peculiar, idiosyncratic quality.
And to describe the style, here’s a descriptive analogy: if Cavalcanti were a fine artist, his style would consist of bold lines, jagged angles, curious chiaroscuro, slanted perspectives and acute representations. And his still images would even careen, making the world seem like a jolting, unstable place.
Alberto Cavalcanti (Source: Mubi.com)
The section of Cavalcanti’s storied career that is the most known is his stint at Ealing Studios, which resulted in movies like Went the Day Well?, Champagne Charlie, Dead of Night and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby. The film that is the focus of this post, They Made Me a Fugitive, was made shortly after he left Ealing but carries over the style on display in his Ealing work. In terms of film history, Cavalcanti’s best-known work plays like a triangulation between Pre-Code Hollywood Cinema, German Expressionism and 40s British Cinema. And in terms of worldview, his seems to be a winking cynicism, one that says, “sure I think people are capable of being this vulgar (and isn’t it funny?)”
Consider They Made Me a Fugitive. The story follows Clem (Trevor Howard), a grubby, wisecracking, ex-RAF criminal whom, after escaping prison, needs to clear his name after being double-crossed by the cruel, sociopathic and low-rent crimeboss Narcy (Griffith Jones.) Yet, all of postwar Britain seems to be in moral shambles in the film,
making turning the likes of Clem and Narcy into the rule, not the exception.
Sally Gray, Griffith Jones (Source: AV Maniacs)
The camerawork and editing are expressive in the film, often in the service of conveying the effect of violence. It’s as if Cavalcanti relied on an experimental understanding of cinema in order to convey force and shock when there were no censorial or acceptable ways to portray realistic violence. So instead of showing what would literally happen in a scene when Narcy beats-up a woman for tipping-off Clem, the speed of the editing increases and the camera eventually spins fast a la’ the Batman 60s TV series. There’s also a quick shot which has a Lettrist quality (the film image was altered through sheer physical means.) But whether the moment is deliberate or just the result of a printing mistake at a film lab is unclear. I choose to believe it was on purpose. [Plus: note the distortion in the mirror in the image above.]
There’s also a quiet and disturbing vignette in which Clem, after having escaped from jail, takes refuge in a residence. There Mrs. Fenshaw (Vida Hope) agrees to help him but on one condition: he must shoot her husband, who just came home drunk. Clem refuses and leaves but fails to removes his fingerprints from a gun that Mrs. Fenshaw presented to him. So she handles it with a napkin, sees her husband on the stairwell and blasts him away.
Vida Hope, Howard (Source: WondersInTheDark.)
What makes this scene disturbing is a) its superfluous nature, which only increases its strangeness, b) Hope’s demented yet matter-of-fact performance as Mrs. Fenshaw and c) its suggestion that danger even pervades in the homes of postwar Britain. In Cavalcanti’s pervious film Went the Day Well?, Brits retaliated viciously against invading Nazis within their residences. But during this vignette in Fugitive, viciousness occurs between a wife and husband, implying that the darkness of The War has become internalized and domesticated.
Yet, as Fugitive’s transgressive style/nature feels like an extension of an absurdist worldview, Cavalcanti’s bleakness isn’t without humor. The man was a Surrealist, after all. Take the dialogue in Fugitive: it’s snappy, hostile and full of wisecracks, but in a way that’s almost self-parodying. And the film is full of sly touches; for instance, in a funeral parlor hangs a framed, embroidered sign that says, “It Is Later Than You Think.” And after it’s shown close-up, it falls off its hook as a way to portend that a climatic confrontation won’t go well. Lubitsh and Hitchcock would’ve admired such a moment.
Another Humorous Touch (Source: The Movie Projector.)
Just on the basis of what I’ve seen, Cavalcanti’s directorial work is a subject for further research, and I recommend watching They Made Me a Fugitive.
—(Source: Total Film)
When it comes to playing a funny asshole, Steve Coogan is a marvel to behold. And outside of playing “himself” (see Tristham Shandy, The Trip and a great segment in Cigarettes and Coffee costarring Alfred Molina for that), his most celebrated asshole persona is Alan Partridge, a character whom Coogan co-created with Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep) and has been the focus of several successful radio/TV programs in the UK that have only reached cult status in the US.
Beginning as a spoof of superficial, out-of-touch broadcasters, Partridge became a richer comic character as he became more popular in the UK. And after years of being revised and revisited by Coogan and various cowriters, Partridge is now firmly in his middle age and a lode of buffoonery. His exploits are fueled by cultural insensitivity, petty hubris and a lack of self-awareness. Yet, he sees himself as suave as Roger Moore and as graceful as the melodies to ABBA’s “Fernando” or “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”*
—(Source: Red Carpet News TV)
Now Alan Partridge has his own eponymous movie, which was released a while ago in the UK as Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and will be theatrically released in the US (and is now available via many VOD services.)
If a criticism is to be made of AP, one could say that it’s just an extended and embellished episode of the TV show I’m Alan Partridge (as is the case with many movies that are adaptations of current TV series.) But considering that any episode of IAP is hilarious and top-notch, this is a good thing. And the movie’s premise is ingenious: Partridge— an incredibly tactless man— has to mitigate a hostage crisis— a situation in which lives depend on tactfulness— at the radio station he works at. And it doesn’t help that the hostage-taker is Pat (Colm Meaney), a disgruntled broadcaster who’s Partridge’s colleague and, unbeknownst to Pat, Partridge threw under the bus.
—The film’s opening credits sequence (sans credits.) (Source: British Comedy Guide)
But this scenario is mostly a way to deliver jokes and gags, many of which made me laugh while some even put me in a fit. Throwaway lines like “it was a jingle genocide” or “you can keep your Jesus; Neil Diamond, for me, will always be King of the Jews!” come often,** and there’s a bit of physical comedy that made me giggle like I was on nitrous oxide. So AP defied my jaded sensibilities and gets my stamp of comedy approval.
—(Source: The Spectator)
*Some Alan Partridge trivia: 1) as he’s a big fan of the actor, Partridge considers Roger Moore’s Bond to be the best; 2) Partridge named his short-lived talk-show after “Knowing Me, Knowing You” (which is the first Alan Partridge TV series) and his son after “Fernando.”
**Another favorite line of mine is when Pat lifts the blinds on a studio window to show Partridge where the hostages are and Partridge replies, “it’s like a zoo from Planet of the Apes!”
—(Source: Grape Soda)
As its best practitioners know, there’s a math to comedy. It’s basically a well-timed defiance of expectations. Hence, you have to count and know where the fulcrum of a joke is if you want to make people laugh.
And Harold Ramis, with his professorial look and attitude, was a great comedy mathematician.
Speaking to Mike Sacks for the book And Here’s the Kicker: Converations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft, Ramis had this to say about his stint as the Joke Editor for Playboy magazine:
“…In the first month, I already knew 95 percent of the jokes in current circulation in America. I could not hear a joke I didn’t know. I could anticipate the punch lines, because most jokes are like any other joke. In fact, the way I did the job was to spend an hour each morning just slitting open the mail and lining the jokes up before me. Then I would read punch lines, one every second. If I knew the joke, I’d throw the card away. I practically recognized them all. But as soon as I’d see one I didn’t recognize, I wouldn’t even finish reading it—I’d set it aside to savor it later, just because it was new. Not because it was necessarily good, just different.” (40)
And this was very early on in Ramis’s career. Subpar humor didn’t ever have too much of a chance with him.
From Playboy, Ramis trained as an improv performer at Second City under Del Close and worked as a writer on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, The National Lampoon Show, SCTV and Animal House. Then he became more involved in making movies by either co/writing, acting in or directing stand-out comedies like Stripes, Caddyshack, Vacation and Ghostbusters. And in 1993, he cowrote and helmed Groundhog Day, a film that could’ve coasted on its ingenious premise but, as Ramis understood that comedy could be profound and transcendent if the particulars add up to something grander, is so much more. You can learn how to live well by watching that movie. In total, it’s safe to say that American comedy would’ve been different without Ramis.
As Groundhog Day implicates, Ramis wasn’t just a clever, hip dude; he was also socially and spiritually conscious, and he never really seemed to curdle or become too jaded. Also, he transformed much of his generation’s anger and dissatisfaction into a form of humor that helped to bring counter-cultural irreverence into the mainstream. Yes, he might’ve become too much a part of the mainstream by making some M.O.R. movies later in life. But he was a big part of a movement that managed to get away with flipping-off the status quo by making many people laugh. There’s something beautiful about that.
-(Source: Rachel Trek)
On a personal note: when I was a little kid, I watched Ghostbusters obsessively, a movie that to many people of a certain age is what Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is to people of another age: a genre-hybrid work that implanted the idea into the minds of many young and impressional people that movies can be solid F-U-N.
And Egon Spangler, Harold Ramis’s role in the film, was my favorite Ghostbuster as a youngster. Maybe it was because I, like Egon, was often shy and awkward, and I identified. Or it could’ve been his pompadour, which is unconsciously cool and somewhat endearing.
But if you watch Ghostbusters closely, you’ll notice that Ramis often has to do the heavy lifting of providing exposition to the audience and that he’s the best among the principal actors at doing so. And if you doubt this, just consider how many people remember him saying, “don’t cross the streams” or him holding-up a Twinkie to demonstrate the psycho kinetic energy in New York City. This is because there was something to Ramis’s nature that indicated he was a person who could funnel so much into his mind and present it all as something unified and clear. And funny.
Galileo Galilei stated that “mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.” Comparably, Ramis seemed to know that comedy was an important way for people to understand, explain and cope with existence. And he had its math down pat.