The Basics: A re-introduction to a new column

02.01.10 8 years ago 5 Comments

Universal Home Video

Okay, so that didn’t exactly go as planned.

Waaaaaaay back on May 8th of last year, I wrote a piece called “The Basics:  My Favorite Film, or Where The Conversation Begins.”  It was meant to be a spin-off from my ongoing series, “The Motion/Captured Must-See Project,” and it began because of some criticisms that were leveled against another online writer.  Here’s what I wrote about the reasoning behind the column:

“… one of the reasons I have spent the last 14 years writing about movies online is because I think those of us who have this voracious appetite for movies, who have gone out of our way to mainline thousands and thousands of films, good and bad, big and small, mainstream and obscure… it’s our obligation to pass on to others why we do that, what makes those films worth that sort of investment of time and energy, and to steer people to the things that we think are most essential. In a world where you have as many options as we do now for entertainment, where you can constantly swim in the new without ever looking backwards, it seems to me more essential than ever to communicate our enthusiasm for the greats, the films that we hold dear.

So I called Alex [Billington]. And instead of just lambasting him about what he hasn’t seen, I suggested a different approach to this, one that acknowledges that there are probably far more people out there whose relationship to movies is like his than like mine. Or Devin’s. Or Harry’s. One of the reasons I’ve had this long friendship with some of these other film writers is because they speak the same language I do. They have the same vocabulary. If I reference a movie, they’ll understand it, and they understand why I draw a comparison. And so if we’re going to treat this… all of it… like a conversation, then we have to acknowledge that if we want people to take part in that conversation, we have to invite them in, not attack them for something they haven’t experienced yet.”

At that point, my idea was that I would reach out to Alex and suggest one film at a time to him that he hadn’t seen, writing a column to explain why I felt like that film was essential, and then he would write a response column on his own site in which he could talk about his reaction to the movie.  To start, I suggested he go see a 70MM screening of my favorite film, “Lawrence Of Arabia,” and he agreed.

That was the last I ever heard from him about it.

Oh, there were a few half-hearted demurrals, but that was it.  He never wrote a piece about “Lawrence Of Arabia,” and I realized that you can’t make someone the same sort of film fan I am.  You can’t force someone to become film literate.  You can extend a friendly hand, but when it gets slapped away, that’s that.  Alex said he was interested, but he wasn’t.  Not really.  And why should he be?  What he does on his site isn’t criticism… it’s cheerleading, and he seems fine with that.  Critics are not only people who offer their opinions in public, but who can also explain those opinions, and who are willing to write both good and bad reviews, who are willing to be tough on films because they demand more from the experience than just a neat way to pass a few hours.

At SXSW last year, I had the opportunity to hang out with a young writer for Cinematical, William Goss, and in many ways, he struck me as the anti-Billington.  He’s still in college, but he’s already a strong writer with a clear voice, and he seems hungry to fill in the gaps in his film knowledge.  One of the things I like most about Erik Davis and Scott Weinberg is the way they are constantly looking to recruit new voices to their site, and the way they encourage their writers to follow their interests.  When Billington rebuked me with six months of silence, I figured that was it for “The Basics,” but late in 2009, Goss surprised me by approaching me and asking if I had any plans to continue the idea with someone else.  We discussed it back and forth, he looked over the List of Duh, and he sent me a list of titles off that list that he’d never seen.

And so here we are.  Relaunching the column.  Today, I officially throw the challenge down to Mr. Goss, who has been given the go-ahead by Cinematical to publish his half of this column on that site, and for the first film, I’m asking him to watch one of the greatest comedies of all time, a film that works on so many levels that every time I watch it, it feels brand-new.

That movie is Leo McCarey’s “Duck Soup,” the Marx Brothers classic from 1933.

“Duck Soup” is the perfect piece of film absurdism, a film that is as savage and knowing about the way politics works as last year’s “In The Loop,” a remarkable display of non-stop verbal gymnastics and physical comedy that comes fast and furious.  I like pretty much all of the Marx Brothers films to some degree, but “Duck Soup” stands head-and-shoulders above all the rest.  There’s something magical about the story of Rufus T. Firefly and his efforts to rule the country of Freedonia.  The story is absolutely lunatic, and yet within the nonstop surrealism, there is a wry and pointed satire of the way power is brokered and the random way major world decisions are frequently made.  It’s hard to believe that this film is over 70 years old, because there is a contemporary edge to it even now, and to me, that suggests that nothing has changed in terms of the way the world’s political stage works.  That would be depressing if it weren’t so damn funny.

Every Marx Brothers film is basically a series of comic set pieces, and “Duck Soup” contains some of the greatest they ever put together.  Some of them were riffs on familiar comic ideas, like the mirror sequence, something that was done before “Duck Soup” and that has been done many times since.  No one’s ever done it quite the same way it’s done here, though, and at one point, the sequence even becomes a joke about how the joke itself works.  That meta-breakdown, those moments where the fourth wall goes transparent, were bold at the time, and they helped establish a vocabulary that comic filmmakers have employed ever since.  “Duck Soup” failed at the box-office to such a degree that Paramount cancelled their contract, leading to a new contract at MGM and a revision in the way they made films.  From this point on, their movies were loaded down with love interests and other characters, and they became increasingly conventional.  My guess is that audiences in 1933 weren’t really ready to digest something as non-stop as this film, and no matter how much they laughed, they were unsettled by the sheer adventurousness of the film.

“Duck Soup” casts a long shadow over pop culture, and its influence can be felt in everything from MAD magazine to “Love and Death” to “Blazing Saddles” to “Airplane!” to the work of Charlie Kaufman, and without it, I can’t imagine what film comedy would look like.  And yet, no matter how significant the film is to the continuum of film comedy, what is most important about it is that it is simply, plainly, unstoppably funny.  The personas created by the four Marx Brothers are on full display here, refined from years of performing together but not yet so set in stone that they had lost their punch.  Two of the most frequent of the foils for the teams, Margaret Dumont and Edgar Kennedy, both turn in some of their best work here, and they’re perfectly utilized.  When the Marx Brothers would work on material, they’d take it on the road, perfecting each piece in front of live audiences.  No one works that way today, but based on how great this film remains after all these years, I’d say perhaps they should.

So… ball’s in your court, Goss.  Watch the movie.  Write it up.  Let’s see how it strikes you at this point in your film education.

And for the love of god, don’t Billington me.

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