“FELLAS, I’M DYING OUT THERE!:
DEATH HOUSE COMEDY
Long List for a Projected Retrospective The Ruling Class, Peter Barnes/Peter Medak “You’ll catch your death. Odd expression."
Rasputin, Elim Klimov
A charismatic monk of dissolute reputation gains far too much influence at the court ofTsar Nicholas under the patronage ofTsarina Alexandra. For the good ofthe state he must be put down, but mother! Is he hard to kill.
A Drama of Jealousy (and Other Things), Scola/Age/Scarpelli
“It’s the blowfly ofour love. A little disgusting, a butterfly would be better."
The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse, Anatol Litvak/John Wexley/John Huston
If the subject ofyour study is the root cause ofcrime, planting yourselfwith a gang of thieves may be a prolific, but also a dangerous strategy.
Seven Beauties (Pasqualino settebelleze),
Lina Wertmuller “First you eat. Then you fuck. If you can’t fuck -- kaput."
Our Hospitality, Buster Keaton
“Can you lend me a rope so I can swing a fellow out where I can get a better shot at him?"
Allonsanfan, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani
Turn and turn your coat again. The consequences may prove abundantly fatal, but what concern’s that of yours unless you turn it once too often. . .
The American Friend, Wim Wenders
“Try to break into my house--I ought to blow
you away. I got to tell you the truth--the
only reason I don’t is because someone might
To Be or Not to Be, Story, Melchior Lengyel, script/direction, Edwin Justus Mayer, Ernst Lubitsch “Help me out fellas, I’m dying out there!"
Life of Brian, Python Gang (nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition) “Always look on the bright side of death
Just before you draw your terminal breath."
Scarlet Street, Fritz Lang/ Dudley Nichols
Repression is the murder ofdesire, and vice
versa. Discuss. O Lucky Man!
Lindsay Anderson/David Sherwin
Death House Comedy
“Try not to die like a dog."
Dr Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick
“Mister President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I am saying ten to twenty million dead, tops.Depending on the breaks."
La Grande Bouffe, Marco Ferreri “If we don’t eat. . . we won’t die."
Performance, Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg “Come now, gentlemen, your love is all crave you’ll still be in this circus when I’m laughing, Laughing in my grave."
Little Big Man, Arthur Penn/Calder Willingham “Mister Hickock, that man’s really dead."
“Got him through the heart and lungs both."
Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Werner Herzog
“That man’s a head taller than me. That could be corrected."
Drole de drame, Marcel Carne/Jacques Prevert
. . . with an animal rights serial killer going around, slaughtering butchers. As its high point it has Louis Jouvet as a confused English bishop, murmuring, -- Bizarre,
bizarre’, and Jean-Louis Barrault parading around in the nude--and a pretty sight he is too!
After Hours, Martin Scorsese/Joseph Minion Joseph K (or is it Yossarian?) in Soho.
A Touch of Evil, Orson Welles
“All right then, who do you like as the
Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen
“There’s a high speed pursuit, we got a
shooting and then this execution type deal."
Yoj imbo, Akira Kurosawa “Destruction’s our
Hot Tomorrows, Martin Brest
To the best of my knowledge the first (All that Jazz was the second) musical comedy about the death wish. Martin Brest’s first and still, to date, finest film.
Lulu the Tool or: The Working Class Goes to Paradise, Elio Petri “Duck mort."
The Ladykillers, Alexander MacKendrick, William Rose, Jimmy O’Connor Are five hardened thieves a match for a woman in her dotage? Well. . .
Winter Kills, William Richert (from a novel by Richard Condon)
“You beggin’ to die? You got eyes in that empty head?. . . When this old clock comes undone, you watch where the wheels’ll fly."
“I won’t buy it, pa."
“I’m the only thing that stands between you and darkness and night, son. The other side ofme is chaos."
Hex, Leo Garen
“Shoot then, if it pleasures you."
Roxie Hart, Nunnally Johnson/Willia m Wellman
It doesn’t matter who fired the fatal shot. Played right, a murder might be a showgirl’s ultimate career move.
The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, Luis Bunuel “I could cheerfully kill her."
King of Hearts, Philippe de Broca/Daniel Boulanger/Maurice Bessy “The Iron Cross is still a great honour even posthumously."
The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman
“No matter what you do, your rear end’s always behind you."
Blue Velvet, David Lynch
“And now your disease is in me."
Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby/Colin Higgins
“So these faked suicides of yours are for your mother’s benefit?"
“No. I would not say benefit."
Equinox, Alan Rudolph
“Sometimes I feel as if my life’s going on without me in it."
Daisies (Sedmikrasky), Vera Chytilova/Pavel Juracek
Cutting off a head or an arm’s a little extreme in most contexts but. . . “Do you mind?"
“I don’t mind."
Coup de Torchon, Bertrand Tavernier
“So now white people wait until they’re dead to talk to black folks? Well it’s too late!"
La Victoire en Chantante/ Black and White in Colour, Jean Jacques Annaud
A pineapple tossed during manoeuvres turns into a hand grenade in it passage through the air and World War I is on in earnest.
To Have and Have Not, Howard Hawks/ “Was you ever bit by a dead bee?"
Badlands, Terence Malick
“Kit’s the most trigger happy person I ever met."
Head, Bob Rafelson/Jack Nicholson
War as a football game, a tank in the desert blowing to smithereens a malfunctioning Coke machine, a script by Jack Nicholson with Bob Rafelson directing, a lip synching, prepackaged rock group--what’s not to love?
Twelve Monkeys, Terry Gilliam/David & Janet Peoples
Can time travel undo a disaster, or will it only add a personal bite to a universal catastrophe?
Peeping Tom, Michael Powell/Leo Marks “And what magazines sell best?
“The ones with ladies on the front covers and no front covers on the ladies."
All that Jazz, Bob Fosse
“Hospital hallucination scene, take two."
Eijanaika, Shohei Imamura
“I’m interested in the lower classes and the lower parts of the body--(Imamura)--but the state’s mainly interested in repressing them, with gunfire ifnecessary.
Underground (Podzemlje), Emir Kusturica/Dusan Kovcevic
Very controversial in the former Yugoslavia, where many consider it pro-Serb propaganda. Ifthat’s the intention behind the fiery caricatures ofBlackie and Jovan, the principal Serbian characters, it certainly doesn’t play that way.
A Matter of Innocence, Mohsen Makhmalbaf
A delicate counterpoise between life and death, bread and the knife--an airy comedy on life’s mosttroubling questions.
With a Bullet, m.w.h. (in development)
Fargo meets the song stylings ofLeonard Cohen. “Toughest audience I’ve ever faced. I’m dying out here."
Bonus: Oz, Season 6, Episode 8: Exuent Omnes(Tom Fontana)
Bu fy the Vampire Slayer: Hush, Once More With Feeling,The Body (Joss Whedon)
The Death of M. Hulot
In the latter part of his career Jacques Tati increasingly found his most famous creation a burden he’ d prefer to be free of. He described how he might kill o f the bemused pipe smoker with the gangly frame and the fore- tilted walk, without violating the form and logic that animated his films. (I’ d hoped to quote this directly from Tati in a critical biography I read some years ago, but I don’t own it any longer, can’t find it in Toronto’s excellent library system, and find no trace of the passage through the magic of Google, so I’ m obliged to reproduce the gist from memory and leave its full elaboration to readers luckier or more patient than I: M. Hulot is in the back kitchen of a restaurant where an incident of gunfire occurs in the dining room. A bullet passes through into the back and strikes Hulot, instantly killing him. The first concern of the restaurauteurs is to make certain this death doesn’t cast a shadow on the reputation of the restaurant, so they arrange to have him transported in a box disguised as goods being shipped out. He passes by the guests of the establishment unnoticed, and the story continues on.)
The instrumental point of this would have been to remove the Hulot millstone from around Tati’s neck, but the significance of the scene should he ever have filmed it--even of that bare description of the scene as here given--would have been much the same as Breughel’s The Fall ofIcarus (as Auden described it):
how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. W H Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts
But even people watching the never-to-be-realized film in which, as it happens, this tragicomic death did not occur, would have had another and sharper reaction. Hulot might well be easily dispensable to the people who hustle his body out of view, and of no account to the people who don’t even notice, in either sense, his passing, but he’s been the fulcrum of the film to this point--assuming Tati has followed the strategy of Les Vacances de
M. Hulot, Mon Oncle, Playtime and Trafic--he has anchored the story in some sense and his sudden death must cast the narrative adrift. Therefore his death may impact little on the busy, personally preoccupied lives of the other characters, but it’s a powerful, deranging event for anyone who’s been taken up with the hilarious action to that point.
Astute reviewers--which is to say nobody--would have pointed out how this resembled Tolstoi’s The Death of Ivan Illich--equally profound, funnier of course, and with the added frisson that Tati hadn’t given away the shock of the ending in the title, and in fact hadn’t ended the film there--as in Breughel, death’s an episode, almost invisible--unless made prominently visible for an instant--in a movie whose tidal flow carries on for another full hour of hilarity, minutely observed, crowding every frame. What a moment, and what a film that would have been!
That film would certainly have had a place of honour in a festival of death house comedies. None of those Tati actually did make could--not because they never concerned themselves with death (what self-respecting comic artist could ignore it altogether?) but because they tend to concern themselves with everything, and death is never emphasized as it necessarily would be if Hulot died on camera.
This isn’t a criticism of Tati, merely an attempt to establish boundaries. Death house comedy is by no means the only style of film, or even of comedy, that is serious and engaged at the highest level--but if we’ re going to talk about it as a viable category parameters (and other high sounding words) are going to be required. A film needn’t be exclusively about death, or funny all the time (neither of which is even possible) to be a death house comedy. But I think it can reasonably be required to be at least as much preoccupied with death as any subject, and at least as funny as it is anything else.
Needless to say, therefore, a significant number of first-rate filmmakers, while ignoring neither death, chuckles nor their sometimes intimate association, have never made a film that could legitimately be called a death house comedy. In spite of the 'death of the clown’ sequence at its close, I don’t think Fellini’s I Clowns qualifies though if that sequence could be extruded and presented as a short. . . Il Bidone might qualify if it were funnier, Fellini Satyricon if it were funny at all. (Mike Nichols made the same mistake with Catch-22, which is why the novel but not the film is a death house comedy.) And the Ship Sails On? Maybe, not quite sure. Close as anything in the Fellini oeuvre. No worries, this is only the long list for a first curated exhibition.
While we’re in Italy--Da Sica, Rossellini, Olmi? Not to the best of my knowledge, and I haven’t seen any of the films by Monicelli or a number of other directors that might qualify.
It’s a pity to leave Preston Sturges of any list of film comedies, but Unfaithfully Yours is the only one that
might qualify, and it’s an interesting film with a few great moments. The Great McGinty has finer comedy and deeper pathos, but dark and savage as its political satire may be, it’s not by any stretch of the imagination a comedy of murders. And as somebody states very early on in Miracle ofMorgan’s Creek, its central concern is a matter of life, not death--life a little superabundantly for some tastes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There’s no real excuse--except that I was limiting myself to a long list of fifty films--for leaving out Preparez vos mouchoir (Get Out Your Handkerchiefs), In a Lonely Place, River’s Edge or any number of others--help me launch this as a biennial event, or triennial if that’s the best we can manage, and I’ ll see if I can repair these and many other grave omissions. Synecdoche, New York, which fades out over a director’s cue, 'Die’? Enough! spare me breath yet awhile, I’ll repair such breeches yet. . . ]
This leads of course to the vexed question of
The Seventh Seal seems a non-controversial choice. Many of Bergman’s films are grey and grim to the most fastidious taste--not to say anything against them--as if that were a supreme artistic virtue. This one? Only if you give maximum weight to Max Von Sydow’s Antonius Blok and ignore completely his engagingly cynical squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), not to mention the merryandrew couple Jofand Mia (Nils Poppe and Bibi Anderson)--whose son (if Jofis to be believed) will perform the impossible juggling feat--to make a ball stand still an instant in midair. (Good luck with that! Where’s Eadweard Muybridge when you need him for a motion capture experiment viz. balls in the air? Of course there’s a cinematic in-joke in Jof’scontention also; as Bergman remarked once at the beginning of a talk, the motion in motion pictures is an illusion; they’ re actually still photographs moving through the projector at a speed, twenty four frames a second, which gives the illusion of a moving image. On the other hand these are generally successive images of people actually in motion as they are filmed, which means the illusion has an initial base in reality, unlike a politician’s promises.)
But Aguirre the Wrath ofGod? Unquestionably it’s as serious, engaged, dramatically rich and profound as A Drama ofJealousy (and other things). . . but is it as funny? No, but there can’t be more than ten films on this list that are. Very few of the most celebrated comedies in movie history would qualify if they had to pass that test.
The question is, if you miss the rippling cadences of laughter that pulse through Herzog/s epicthe head sent flying o f a man’s body by the sword ofAguirre’se, nforcer, which landing in a thicket some distance from the body, continues counting bends in the river it must pass to escape Aguirre’s megalomaniac rule;
.the eager dancing tribe eyeing Aguirre’s conquistadore riding up the Amazon on a capacious raft, whose cry is translated for Aguirre by the onetime native prince he’s made his slave:
“They’re saying 'Meat, meat, fresh meat, coming up the river.’ “
.Aguirre’s mad monologue at the close, crew all dead, the daughter he’s planning to breed a dynasty with unlikely to survive his own imminent demise (unless as a ward of a native tribe), his plans more grandiose and world-
conquering the narrower the helpless circle his raft makes in the water, nothing but inevitable death likely to check the vile spitting criminality of his speech
--how many octaves of resonance from depth to sublimity would be lost on any viewer who comprehended everything about incidents like this except that they were funny? Cosmically absurd? More than a few I’ d say. (Or is it just me? I laugh at Bosch’s triptychs. I think Dostoyevsky’s hilarious. I’ d never claim Bergman’s Winter Light was a comedy, but the spider-god passage at the end is pretty damn funny.)
The obvious question then of course is: if you’ve included Aguirre the Wrath ofGod, why not Leo Marks/Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom? Ju---ust one minute, let me check my master list again, aha! just as I almost thought, and almost forgot, I did include Peeping Tom, grim enough in patches, but at its core? a death house comedy if ever there was one.
The curious thing about Peeping Tom is that it’s regularly cited by film scholars as the movie which--because of the scandal it generated in its wake--effectively ended Michal Powell’s career as a director. Why is this curious? because a cursory google’ ll tell you that Michael Powelldirected 5 films (and five segments of episodic television) after Peeping Tom. The pace is diminished from earlier years, but he was getting on. I have no doubt he was persona non gratawith producers less impressed by the originality and daring of Peeping Tom (yawn yawn originality and daring’ ll get you a cappuccino at Starbucks if you’ ve got five bucks to go with it) than the speed of its torpedoed sinking at the box o fice, but at most it slowed his career. You could make a better case that Performance ended Donald Cammell’s. (I hope you’ re not going to get up my nose about calling Performance a comedy? Honestly, what other term is grand and sweeping enough to encompass its manifest contradictory beauties?)
Leo Marks wrote one other work of tremendous importance (that I know of), his memoir of army service as a code specialist in World War II, running teams of spies throughout occupied Europe, doing everything he could to keep messages, and especially agents, safe from the enemy--Between Silk and Cyanide:
Of course it was practical for WOKs to be invisibly printed! And ofcourse the agents could read them. He’d invented a new invisible ink which could be detected only when exposed to infra-red lighting. All the agent needed to do was switch on a torch with infra-red discs inside it and he could read the WOK-keys without difficulty. Nor did the torches need to be camouflaged. Everyone in occupied Europe carried one to cope with
My suggestion about handkerchiefs was good but there were other possibilities. WOKs could be invisibly printed on men’s shirt-tails and pants and on women’s knickers and petticoats. As for erasing each key chemically, it was a fascinating problem and would have his immediate attention.
The Tiltman ofcamouflage now galvanized everyone within earshot at his Barnet Bletchley. WOKs could be microfilmed and carried in tiny containers which could be hidden in an ordinary box ofmatches and the agent could identify it by a tiny indentation which only he knew about. As for reading the microfilm, he was working on a small powerful microscope with detachable parts which could easily be assembled and which would be no problem to camouflage.
He then began a long technical discussion with his assistants, many ofwhom he’d recruited from Elstree Studios.
They rapidly lost me. Nor was I any longer necessary. I was a little disturbed about codes being concealed in the rectum, and intended to be missing when the coders ofGrendon announced: 'We have received our first indecipherable due to anal interference beyond the agent’s control.’
But everything else I’d heard and seen had removed my last anxiety about the future ofsilk codes. IfWills could devise a lavatory chain that acted as an aerial, he was capable ofcamouflaging anything. He might even be able to return me to Baker street camouflaged as an adult.
I decided to leave before he had the chance.
Leo Marks, Between Silk and Cyanide, pp.21 2-213
That would make a memorable film, though you’ d be likelier to do it justice in a miniseries.
I’ ve yet to see the Powell film The Battle ofthe River Plate, (passages but not the film right through---blame the interruptive habits of tv viewing). I have read the book, GrafSpee, he wrote from the same material (a novelization before the term was coined? But the book and presumably the film is a scrupulous recounting of an actual incident and so, perhaps a non-fiction novel a decade or so before Capote’s.)
It was perfectly true, as Ray Martin observed, that the arrangements for the German funeral were made with an eye to propaganda and were calculated to extract the utmost popular sympathy. The press photographers and news-reel cameras were busy. But under Langsdor fthe ceremony was conducted with dignity and good taste from first to last. It was only afterwards, when the Nazi propagandists go their hands upon the photographs and the reports, that vilifications set in, truth was distorted, and noble sentiments were labelled base. On this day in Montevideo there were no lies, no hatred. Men thought only ofdead shipmates. Many ofthe crowd were curiously moved to see, walking in the procession, a group ofthe senior British merchant-marine o ficers who had been prisoners in the Graf Spee.Captain Dove, Captain Stubbs and the others had come because they wanted to; because, seamen themselves, they wished to pay their last respects to the young seamen with whom they had been shipmates, and who had died as they themselves might have died in the terrible experiences which they had shared together. There had not been much discussion. It was not a concerted movement. Nobody had organized it. But one had said to the other at the English club, “Are you going?. . . So am I. . . Might as well. . . “ And now here they were, standing in the British Cemetery, a solemn little group. Some had been lucky enough to preserve their best uniforms and wore them. Others, like Dove, wore plain, blue, decent serge. Dr. Goebbels, who had already told the world that the British had used mustard-gas shells in the battle ofthe River Plate, was to put out a story that these British merchant-seamen spat on the graves ofthe fallen German sailors. But on this day, as they stood near Langsdor fbeside the graves, there was no thought ofthe brilliant inventions ofa diseased, club-footed paranoiac. There was only a fitting melancholy and a feeling ofkinship which covered the whole human race.
Michael Powell,GrafSpee, pp.192-193
That would make a memorable --no wait a minute, what am I talking about? it already has.
Laughing in My Grave
Some writers, directorsor both are quite cornucopious on this theme, which necessitated a few hard choices since I’ d decided none s
hould be represented more than once on the long list.
Bunuel exceeded the life expectancy ofmen born in Spain at the turn ofthe century by decades, and by roughly a decade the enhanced life expectancy projected for men coming of age at the time of his death. During his lifetime he made over forty films, death house comedies (with a very few exceptions) one and all. Which to choose? Why, out of all of them, The Criminal Life ofArchibaldo de la Cruz? It has a sprightly rhythm unique to his films, a fine-tuned balance between mordancy and amiability. Closest contender otherwise would be L’Age d’Or.
Kubrick--The Killing, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb; A Clockwork Orange. (2001: A Space Odyssey, a fine film, is neither very funny nor all that death-obsessed; The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut are plenty death-obsessed, but neither fine nor all that funny.) Maybe he should be represented by The Killing--his first mature work and a film that should certainly be better known. But I sort of promised myself nothing but masterpieces on this list, and The Killing maybe falls a little short of that. Dr. Strangelove. . . has one of the greatest long titles in the history of cinema; A Clockwork Orange we can put on the next short list after this curated festival has played to acclaim at cinematheques and specialty rep houses worldwide.
Peter Barnes -- writer, The Ruling Class, Might as Well Live; as writer-director, Leonardo’s Last Supper, Bye Bye Columbus. The only one I’ ve seen is The Ruling Class, though I’ ve certainly read, many times, Leonardo’s Last Supper and its companion piece Noonday Demons, which it’s unfortunate wasn’t filmed at the same time, and Bye Bye Columbus; only have descriptions (which sound very promising) of Might as Well Live. If The Bewitched, Laughter, Sunsets and Glories and Dreaming had been filmed as well as The Ruling Class, the choice would have been much more di ficult.
Bertrand Tavernier--Coup de Torchon, Que la Fete Commence, La Mort en Direct, perhaps even, ironically considering its title, La Vie et Rien d’Autre. Probably others that I haven’t seen as well. I decided on Coup de Torchon (loosely based on a novel, Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson) chiefly for the general a fability of Philippe Noiret as an initially reluctant serial killer.
Imamura was easy only because I’ ve seen so few of his films, and the best of those (on this theme) unquestionably is Eijanaika.
Orson Welles--Mr Arkadin, The Lady From Shanghai, A Touch ofEvil? All worthy choices (the fun house mirror duel that climaxes The Lady from Shanghai is rightly one ofthe most celebrated examples of pure cinema), but I decided to go with the recently restored A Touch of Evil it isn’t the version Welles originally produced , only Welles originally produced, only Welles could restore it to that condition or an acceptable facsimile and even his press agent doesn’t know how to get in touch with him these days. It was made however with Welles’ response to the evisceration he’ d just witnessed in the screening room; so it comes much closer in spirit to Welles’original intention; closer than the surviving prints (variously competing mutilations I understand) ofArkadin and The Lady from Shanghai.
The battle scene from Chimes at Midnight, snipp’d from 'ts context, might serve as a short subject. Few images 've ever haunted me like the shot of two soldiers, collapsed to earth in combat mortal, close-by each other, muscle twitches suggesting a final competition.
Anyway, enough of all this, that gives you an idea how the selection process went.
I never got very far in my one shot at a career in standup. I don't project well and I'm not good at memorizing lines--too lazy really--or at improvising in high pressure situations. I do all right with a few friends in a bar-- keep my end of the conversation up at least. Onstage I'd clam up, the pipes would shut tight as bivalves and even with the mike at maximum amp I couldn't always guarantee I'd be heard by the back tables--God help me if I'd ever played a hall. I've often wondered how my career might have progressed if I'd taken Idi Amin up on his friendly o fer to lend me his bodyguards when I went out to do my five minutes. "I guarantee you'll soon be doing 1 5 minutes, 30 minutes, even whole nights to yourself."
"Myself and two burly men with loaded Uzis flanking me on either side. Wouldn't it be better to get ahead on my own natural talent?" I don't know why he laughed at that, but he laughed loud and long. Many others, not just me, have attested to how often he'd burst out laughing for no apparent reason at things nobody else could see the humour in.
It's not that none of my lines ever got laughs, and if you want to know the truth, to this very day I still resent that. Time and again I'd be sitting in the crowd watching a comic kill with lines I'd tossed o f the night before in my cups. We were working for beer or beer money at best in those days so I could hardly ask 'em to pay for my material, but a word or two of acknowledgment would not have gone amiss. Some have gone on to greater success and throw me the odd buck out of shame, but regrettably the richest and most famous of them are
completely shameless, my standard of living and position in the industry would be very di ferent today if it were otherwise. What I wouldn't give for a second chance to take up Idi's o fer of lead weighted muscle. I can't recall a single instance of any comic lifting one of his gags.
If you were unaware of Idi Amin's brief stab at making it in show biz, you're not alone. You could fill arenas with people who don't know that about the iconic figurehead who went on to become Uganda's strongman/funnyman/absolute leader. I couldn't tell you for certain when it was--around the time of the first village massacre? maybe as late as the expulsion of Uganda's entire Asian immigrant population?--but somewhere in there he quietly deleted those couple of years from his resume.
He didn't exactly fail as a standup, matter of fact he was steadily building a following before he abandoned it for greater, more terrible ambitions. The click of the safeties was easily as e fective as a drum roll for punch line punctuation, particularly if you as an audience member knew or suspected these were not prop weapons clutched in those huge mitts. The laughs may have been nervous but they were plentiful and if by chance they weren't? "It's a sure fire thing with me," he'd chuckle. "One way or another, when I do a show, I kill."
Notes on the Compiling of this List
There are fifty films on this list, all but one of which exist in fact (though there may be one or two buried in hidden inaccessible film cans somewhere; certainly there are a few not readily discoverable on DVD). Counting the one that hasn’t been made yet, I’ ve seen all but two. The one film I haven’t is Carne/Prevert’s Drole de Drame. I thought of Les Enfants du Paradis--naturally one would, for almost any list--but it didn’t fit, for much the same reason none of Tati’s do. Drole de Drame, on the other hand, I thought had to be included on the strength of Peter Barnes’ description alone:
. . . with an animal rights serial killer going around, slaughtering butchers. As its high point it has Louis Jouvet as a confused English bishop, murmuring, 'Bizarre, bizarre’, and Jean-Louis Barrault parading around in the nude and a pretty sight he is too!
Peter Barnes, To Be or Not to Be,
Limiting myself to films means leaving out some first-rate examples from tv. Surely there’s never been a finer death house comedy than Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven. Tom Fontana’s Oz, particularly the stunning two hour finale of season five hmm, now there’s a possibility; feature length; with a modest few explanatory remarks of introduction it could pretty much work as a standalone. Hmm. . .]]
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all seven seasons of it, is an embarrassment of riches, but what to select? (I know there was a feature film which preceded the series, but it was very much a rough preliminary sketch. From the first episode the series is far more sure-footed and compelling. And though it may be unpatriotic of me, I don’t think Donald Sutherland comes close to inhabiting the role of Watcher as Anthony Stewart Head does.) A story that had a two or three episode arc might work, or what about combining two episodes that spoke to each other creatively, say The Body and Once More With Feeling? (The Body is the episode in which Bu fy’s mother Joyce dies unexpectedly, which faces the Scooby gang with a horror in no way supernatural, and unsusceptible to being dealt with by stake, crossbow, rocket launcher or even the dynamite charge that kills a mutated demon, colossal and serpentine, with Sunnydale High (unoccupied) as collateral damage. But I digress. Xander’s response at one moment, memorably, is to put his fist through a section of drywall, which his demon girlfriend Ania explains thus: “Xander decided the wall was responsible."
Once More With Feeling is the episode in which all the characters compulsively (a spell is involved) dance everywhere and sing all their dialogue. Maybe the natural pairing would be with Hush, a mostly silent episode (another spell--you had to be there) shot in the style of movies made before sound came in. But why not all there? These are tv hours, so the total length of The Body Hush and Once More With Feeling would be roughly that of The Ruling Class or Little Big Man. Once more, hmmm. . .)
Prizzi’s Honour--shame to leave that o f, and I’ d happily enough fudge the point that Huston was credited as a writer on The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse. But I didn’t think I wanted two adaptations from Richard Condon on one list, and while I don’t think on the basis of what I know of his work to date that William Richert has proved himself a director of John Huston’s stature, Winter Kills is his best film, and fine as Prizzi’s Honour is, Winter Kills is deeper, broader, more fluid and a whole lot wackier--in a good way I mean. As a consolation prize Huston, also a fine actor, gives the performance of his career as Pa Keegan.
There are people who’ d no doubt argue The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse is too lightweight for a list of this kind--particularly perhaps in relation to Fritz Lang’s Scarlett Street, which also starred Edward G. Robinson. These can be succinctly defined as people who haven’t seen The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse.
In a hard year it’s eaten up by ordinary living expenses, but in a good year, one in which there are small recesses at least of cash in our bank balance, Marysia and I are free to spend on ourselves the hundred dollars my mother-in-law gives each ofus, in an envelope, with a Christmas card. That being, give or take, the case this year, I was able boxing week to hie me to HMV (where I’ d shopped for my family Christmas Eve: Ella on DVD for my mother-in-law Zosia; Tom Waits’ Glitter and Doom for my niece Ula (devil of a fine hat he’s wearing on the cover); Diana Krall on DVD for my sister-in-law Wieisia; but I bought Dali for Marysia at BMV--what’s with all these alphabetized store names?) to snap up ($1 9.99 a pop, a real bargain) season 1 , 2 and 6 of Tom Fontana’s Oz. (When they come up at comparable prices I’ ll buy nab 3, 4 and 5.)
I skipped ahead a little: started with season 6. I am holding to protocol within the season though, watching it episode by episode, which is rewarding in itself but also allows me to savour the anticipation of seeing again at last (ohboyohboyohboy!) possibly the single greatest episode of one of the unquestionable masterpieces in the history of World Drama, the stunning and reverberant two hour finale of Oz, Exuent Omnes.
(Let me clarify one point: I don’t call Oz drama to distinguish it from comedy, because that’s a distinction that only exists in anaemic critical theory, and there’s a good deal of fine brutal comedy in Oz. What I mean by drama is a work ofliterature intended for performance, viably analogous to the longstanding tradition of artistic representation in theatre--see? I can write in the highfalutin’ language of critical theorism too, I just like to be saying something meaningful when I do.)
Not to say anything against The Sopranos, which is a fine series, but it puzzles the hell out of me how tv critics can talk about the groundbreaking irresolute ending of its final episode. How groundbreaking is a fairly muted example of a technique that’s been relatively commonplace on film since the late 1960s--the most powerful example I can think of (much more potent than the last scene of The Sopranos) was in Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (what a career he might have had if he’ d gone on making movies)--and was not exactly unheard of before then: though it’s not particularly emphasized, there are all sorts of interesting questions about what might happen next at the end of Les Enfants du Paradis.
All right, all right already! these are tv critcs, they should know from movies? But surely the least you can expect from a reviewer in any medium is a knowledge of its history. St Elsewhere’s last episode quivered with irresolution; so did the last episode ofAngel.( Incidentally when a nurse at Oswald Penitentiary is exposed as a killer who’s been smothering prisoner/patients, one of two hospitals listed in her file that she was fired from under suspicious circumstances was St Elsewhere--under its correct name, St Eligius.)
The key dynamic underpinnings of Oz from its first season are ambiguity and irresolution, which builds and builds season by season to the towering climax of Exuent Omnes; Fontana and his creative team do what Peter Barnes said a serious writer should always aim to do, push “to the limit, then further, with no dead time,--(though this being Oz, not without a few dead bodies. Not real dead bodies you understand--the actors’ unions get sticky about that.) So far as high-powered dynamic use of irresolution as a dramatic principle goes, Exuent Omnes (how shall I put this delicately?) kicks the living shit out of The Sopranos’ final episode. I’ ll count the next time I watch so I’ ll know for definite, but I can safely say that at least six major plotlines, involving characters central to the series, are left terrifyingly unresolved as its last scene fades.(1 ) (Everyone at Oswald State Penitentiary is being hastily evacuated in school buses.(2) SPOILER ALERT: don’t read this sentence to the end if you haven’t seen the last episode of Oz and don’t want to know in advance the reason
prisoners and sta f have to be so hastily evacuated, which is that one of the prisoners has had a biological
contaminant sent through the mails to Oswald from outside, as a dying present to his lover. I will leave it entirely up to the interested reader to discover on what previous episode a school bus was a key motor of the plot, and why therefore the appearance of a fleet of them is hypercharged with ominous association.
Soon I’ ll catch up with that last episode and be able to live it all again ohboyohboyohboy!)
2. On re-viewing I discovered my error on this point---the buses used to evacuate Oz are blue and silver chrome and stamped Department of Corrections. I imagine what caused the error was an association with the school bus that did figure prominently in an earlier episode, which I’ m confident I do remember correctly though it’ ll be a while before I can confirm that it’s somewhere in season 3,4 or 5 I’ m pretty sure, they’ re well out of my price range at the moment.
Or do I have no previous associations that might be confusing me on this point? I certainly did associate school, right up until graduation, with prison, but no--I was a town kid, I walked to school--not with a spring in my step and a song in my heart usually, nor did they have to wrap me in tire chains and drag me. So my association was secondary compared to that of farm kids or kids bussed from other towns. Bumble bee colours, yes I’m pretty sure--I’d be greatly surprised if I was remembering that one wrong. The symbolic echo is still there--fainter is all.
1.Having seen the episode again, how close was my count? 1 ) Tobias Beecher is in one hell of a sticky web. 2) Miguel Alvarez, who was turning his life around, is thrown into a tailspin of despair. 3) What exactly is going to come of the deepening bond between Ryan O’ Reilly and Dr. Gloria Nathan? What of his (momentarily?) healed relationship with his monstrous father? 4) Tim Mcmanus has been given a month’s notice on his job administering Emerald City within Oz, but the new warden makes it clear this is partly contingent on whether Governor Devlin rides out a scandal or is impeached or forced to resign within that month. Partly it depends on how his performance this month measures up in the eyes of 5) the new warden Querns, previously a replacement administrator at Emerald City during a wilderness exile for Tim McManus--dangerously unpredictable then, he’s a brilliant man, by no means without conscience--how much has he learned from past mistakes? 6) Whither Lemuel Itzik, who murdered one of the most loved (one of the very few generally loved and respected) figures in Oz, and another prisoner for good measure, in search of a death sentence, though if that fails there’s the hope somebody in Em City will do the deed. 7) That biological thing, that’s sending prisoners (in shackles) and sta f o f to another faculty which will have to deal a) with the
volatile nature of Oswald State Penitentiary’s prison populace b) with a sudden state of massive overcrowding.
And a crew in biohazard suits that show not an inch of exposed skin sweep through Oz, where the now empty rooms and corridors ring with overlapping dialogue from the previous six seasons. . .
Not all of these, I suppose, are left terrifyingly unresolved. Tim McManus’s job prospects are pretty good if he is dismissed, O’Reilly’s transfiguration almost reads as totally hopeful, but there’ ve been a few conversion experiences in the course of these seasons that led nowhere--one led to Lemuel Itzik’s second murder--and O’Reilly’s rise to grace plays o f against Miguel Alvarez’s fall from it. Itzik’s fate, even if it seems less unpredictable than the others--he wants to die, he’s doing everything he can to provoke the state or his fellow prisoners to carry out his self-imposed sentence, there may be a slip or two from cup to lip but sooner or later. . .
Lemuel Itzik is an irreducibly individual creation, but a powerful symbol as well. His frank nihilism and perfectly out-front death wish is a direct mirror image of the hidden agenda at Oswald State Penitentiary. But Oz isn’t primarily about the death wish, human environmental toxicity or even crime--it’s about the resonances, unsurprising and surprising, of the human spirit in extremis. If almost every live impulse that arises in Oz is stifled, laid to waste, it’s a great pity, but doesn’t e face its indelible pictures of human grandeur--what a world we could make if we didn’t let programme, ideology and other straitjackets of thought stifle us at every turn!