Comoara [2015)

It’s such a joy to return to Romania.

Not that I’ve ever been there.

Except in films.

But so you understand, no national cinema has moved me quite so much as the Romanian.

[With exception to the French.]

Iran is close.

But oh so far.

Because we don’t see Iranian movies.

Not real ones.

And on Netflix, we don’t see the history of history.

Just a recent interpretation.

And that is so often fool’s gold.

Netflix, like its dire counterpart Hulu, is heavy on Holocaust films.

This would be appropriate.

If the films were any good.

Because the Holocaust is the most important event of the past hundred years.

But the films aren’t any good.

By and large.

However, fear not:  this film does not try to take on what cannot be documented.

[see Histoire(s) du cinéma for the only good Holocaust film ever made]

No, we are after buried treasure.

Indeed, this film is listed as The Treasure on Netflix.

And I commend that streaming service for its ostensible dedication to quality foreign films.

[even if the same company has no concept of history]

If you look at the “classics” section of Netflix, you will find a paucity of titles.

This is problematic.

Last I checked Hulu (before I quit it), their “classics” section was just as bad (if not worse).

But Hulu had, for awhile, a distinct competitive advantage over Netflix (while it lasted).

The Criterion Collection.

Sure, it was not the collection in its entirety, but it was a treasure (pardon the extended metaphor) of classic films…many from countries other than the U.S. and U.K..

As I have reported previously, Hulu began to surreptitiously phase out its lost licensing (apparently) of the Criterion catalog.

Once I realized what had really happened, the damage was done.

I was out of there.

Nothing, I imagined, could be worse than the current laughable joint venture (and anemic selection) of Hulu.

And I was right.

Netflix has been a breath of fresh air.

I had previously seen Netflix’ hopper.

Years ago.

It seemed very light on classic films.

And it still is.

But what Netflix lacks in historical perspective, it makes up for (marginally) with its plentiful “international” category.

And thus we come to this fine Romanian film: Comorara.

It may be incredibly naive for me to postulate thusly, but Romanian cinema is the future.

No national cinema rivals the French.

Yes, Germany has had its share of important films (especially in the silent era and soon thereafter).

But the French-language library of films which has been passed down through the “ages” is nonpareil.

Of that tradition, nothing comes even close (for me) to equaling Jean-Luc Godard’s output.

[though he was, and always will be, gloriously Swiss]

Thus, he stands head-and-shoulders above the rest.

But there are others.

Especially those with whom Godard would have been nothing.

Jacques Becker.  Robert Bresson!  Marcel Carné.  Henri-Georges Clouzot.  Jean Cocteau.  Jean-Pierre Melville.  Jean Renoir!  Jean Rouch.  Jacques Tati.

And then there are those foreigners who worked in French (to varying extents) such as Luis Buñuel and Max Ophüls.

But the French cinema has given us other visionaries contemporaneous to Godard.

Alain Resnais.  Eric Rohmer.  François Truffaut.  These are just a few that come to mind.

And until Netflix (and even the Criterion Collection itself) gets beyond to utter genius of Abbas Kiarostami, we will know little of the Iranian cinema beyond its undisputed master.

[Indeed, Netflix has not even broached the true cinema of Iran by featuring Kiarostami…as far as I know.  It is solely the Criterion Collection which is to thank for exposing people to films like Taste of Cherry and Close-Up.]

But I must give Netflix their due.

They have made available the very fine Romanian film under review.

Yet, before we delve into that…I would like to delineate exactly what makes Romania different as far as being “the future” of cinema (in relation to, say, Iran…for instance).

The simple answer is that there are multiple genius (genius!) directors working in Romania.

They may not (certainly not) get the budgets they deserve, but their output is of the highest, most sublime quality.

And, sadly, Abbas Kiarostami is no longer among the living.

But it bears mentioning the auteurs of Romanian “new wave” cinema.

Cristi Puiu. Cătălin Mitulescu.  Cristian Mungiu.

And the director of Comoara:  Corneliu Porumboiu.

The Treasure must not have been an easy film to make.

Indeed, the very end of the film evinces a directorial sigh of relief (if I am interpreting it correctly).

Let me just say this:  nothing much happens in this film.

Indeed, this might be the type of film which illustrates the different way in which film critics view films (as opposed to most moviegoers).

Not to mince words, my guess is that most people (98%?) would find The Treasure boring.

But I loved it!

The defining characteristic of this film is tension.

But it is not the type of tension which strings us along in a film such as Rear Window.

No.

The tension here is far more mundane in comparison.

And yet, there is real inspiration at work in Porumboiu’s mise-en-scène here.

Toma Cuzin is our brooding “star”.

And he is very, very good.

But his “foil” is the Dudley-Moore-lookalike Adrian Purcărescu.

Cuzin is calm.  And yet, the dreamer…

One might even think “gullible”.

Purcărescu is frazzled.  Cynical.  Either a conman of a saint.  Hard to tell…

But the fellow who pulls it all together is Corneliu Cozmei.

He’s the man with the metal detectors.

Yes, two…

[this is a treasure hunt, after all!]

Cozmei is caught between the personalities of Cuzin and Purcărescu.

And yet he’s not just an innocent bystander (so to speak).

He may be the independent party in this whole treasure hunt, but he’s smack dab in the middle of a very tense situation.

Bogart fans will not be far off if they faintly recall the Sturm und Drang of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

But most of all…it’s just good to be back in Romania.

To see a half-lit, grey day.

To see the funny looking cars.

To notice all the details of a culture I truly love.

-PD

#3 The Curse of Mr. Bean [1990)

Just who does Donald Trump think he is???

Answer:  Sam Walton.

It’s the big, goofy, mesh-backed baseball cap.  The ones with the plastic snaps and infinitesimally small corresponding holes.  And then the squishy, peaked frontispiece:  “Make America great again” –or– (alternately) “Wal-Mart”.

That is the Donald’s costume…out on the campaign trail.  It’s bold.  Comedic.  A bit like George H.W. Bush “shopping” for groceries out among the common folk and being dumbfounded by this whole newfangled barcode scanner.

Yes, Donald Trump:  man of the people.

And so who did Rowan Atkinson think he was with Mr. Bean?

Well, that one’s a whole lot harder to pinpoint.

We might know Chaplin.  And Sellers.

But then there’s all these other institutions which don’t quite translate outside of Britain…The Goon Show, Dudley Moore, The Goodies…

Just from whence was Atkinson pulling his stuff?

We want to think it’s all original.  And perhaps it is.

But influence is unavoidable.

And so with the third and final episode of 1990, Atkinson gave us The Curse of Mr. Bean.  [1991 would yield only one episode of the show.]

The curse…hmmm…certainly sounds like an allusion to Sellers’ Clouseau.

Whatever the case may be, Atkinson’s material is all tied together with a very cohesive theme this time:  fear.

Fear of the diving board (afraid of heights).

Fear of public nudity or embarrassment (lost his trunks in the pool).

And finally the orgiastic grand guignol of laughter:

fear of movies.

It sounds like a pretentious art school pop album.

For instance, the Talking Heads’ Eno-produced Fear of Music (1979).

But for Bean, the horror was more of the Freddy Krueger type.

Indeed, by December 30, 1990 (this show’s airdate), there had already been five (yes, 5ive) A Nightmare on Elm Street movies.

Churned out of the dream factory like diabolical cotton candy, they appeared in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, and 1989.  The series then would recommence in 1991.  Which begs the question, just what was Freddy Krueger up to in 1986?  Laying low?  Vacationing?  The Caribbean?

To wit, Bean is scared witless while on a date (yes, those things where aspiring romantics “go out”) with the absolutely adorable Matilda Ziegler.

For those of you (like me) who can’t live without pithy character names, Ziegler’s role (like my beloved Enid Coleslaw) is that of Irma Gobb.

And Bean, therefore, is the man-child…the everlasting Gobbstopper [sic].

[Which is to say, Ziegler’s character is a reoccurring one.]

Perhaps we need to look further back to find a precedent for Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean…perhaps out of the world of comedy proper.  Perhaps to the Dadaists?  I can certainly imagine Mr. Bean dressed as a sort of human tampon à la Hugo Ball…with lobster claw hands.  Or maybe Bean with a lobster telephone courtesy of Dalí.  Certainly Bean would have a pet lobster to take for walks in the Bois de Boulogne with a ribbon for a leash like Gérard de Nerval.

But we perhaps perhaps perhaps need to look further.  To the wry humor of Marcel Duchamp.  To the childlike fancy and brilliance of a René Magritte or an Erik Satie.  Even, god forbid, the humor of a Mauricio Kagel.

Conductors don’t have heart attacks mid-concert?  Not according to Kagel’s Ludwig Van.

Yet Bean never crosses that line of pretension.

He’s never Anthony Braxton’s Quartet for Amplified Shovels.

No, Bean always remains funny.

And so, perhaps, nothing is more revolutionary than comedy.

This kind of comedy.

Absolutely scripted, miniaturist-perfect comedy worthy of Jacques Tati.

In that sense, we might say that Mr. Bean is like Peter Sellers having Charlie-Chaplin-like total control over a production.  At least that’s the way it seems.

Perhaps we would be criminally neglecting the director of these first three Bean episodes:  John Howard Davies.

But in such comedies, the thing really does speak for itself.

Rowan Atkinson fills every moment of screen time in these gems with his thoroughly inimitable charm.

 

-PD

SNL Season 1 Episode 11 [1976)

Just as Buck Henry had me stumped in the last episode (Buck Who?), Peter Cook threw me for a loop right off the bat here.

Dudley Moore I knew, but Cook?  No idea.  In terms of firsts, this appears to be the first SNL hosted by more than one person (simultaneously).

Cook met Moore while at Cambridge University as a student (Cook) of Radley and (later) Pembroke Colleges.  Moore, on the other hand, was himself a student at Magdalene College (pronounced “maudlin”) of Oxford University.  They started performing together in these school days.

But the act which Cook and Moore were essentially reviving on this night in 1976 was their comedy duo which powered the BBC’s Not Only…But Also (1965-1970).  We can be fairly confident of this based on their throwback chestnut Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling.

Sir Streeb-Greebling’s featured skit (Table Talk) is one of the highlights of this episode.  In it, we learn of the knighted eccentric’s restaurant Frog & Peach (which serves, unsurprisingly, frog…and peaches [exclusively]).  If I remember correctly, the two dishes on the menu are frog à la pêche and, conversely, pêche à la frog.  This bit of absurd, excellent humor is indicative of the talents which Cook and Moore possessed as both writers and comedians.

Cook and Moore additionally did film work together such as Bedazzled (1967).  For all of you Yo La Tengo fans out there, this gives me an opportunity to wax informative on the song “Tom Courtenay”.  It is one of my favorite YLT songs (from the excellent Electr-O-Pura album).  Perusing the lyric sheet of the above song, not only is English actor Courtenay mentioned in the title (the narrative is likely from his perspective) but Julie Christie makes an appearance (her name being the first words sung by Ira Kaplan).  For our purposes, however, it is simply enough to point out that the real “star” of said lyrics (Eleanor Bron) played Margaret Spencer in Bedazzled.

Moving on…

Now that I have spent an inordinate amount of time on Cook and Moore, I should point out something important.  Saturday Night Live in its inaugural season was attracting what might be called B-list entertainers.  To illustrate this point, I would direct readers to my piece on the previous episode.  To have Bill Withers do but one song and have it be a tune from 1971 (on a 1976 broadcast) illustrates this point which has a parallel in Cook and Moore (who were ostensibly rehashing material from their show which ran 1965-1970).

But credit must be given to the comedic duo in question who persevered and relocated to New York City in 1973.  They did, in fact, win a Tony and Grammy for their production Good Evening.  This success was parlayed (partially) into a more risqué act where they assumed the personalities Derek and Clive.  In total, this new incarnation was featured on three LPs (that would be, for the young’uns, VI-NYL/RE-CORDS).

Ok, so Cook and Moore weren’t totally washed up.  That much is obvious when seeing this episode.  In fact, I find their humor much more effective than most of the hacks which preceded them as hosts.  The “One Legged Tarzan” skit near the top of the show exemplifies their shrewd method of laugh-getting.

It should also be mentioned that stars on one side of the pond aren’t necessarily stars on the other.  And so, dear readers, you must forgive my ignorance regarding Cook.  I have now done my research.

I should mention a further two bits.  Cook himself went on to work with some of my favorite musical acts (Sparks and 10cc).  That Ron Mael, Kevin Godley, and Lol Creme saw something in this chap is good enough for me.

Again, the separation between British and American entertainment really can’t be overemphasized.  I know there is a Doctor Who craze in the States now, but (back to Peter Cook) this bloke had a bleeding planet named after him in 1999 [20468 Petercook].

Furthermore, I am ashamed to say that I needed Wikipedia to tell me that Mr. Cook gave the world “mayorwidge” as the clergyman in The Princess Bride (1987).

Ok, ok…enough about Cook.  [I’ve hardly said a word about Moore, but we must press on.]

This is generally a great episode (with the notable exception of Neil Sedaka).  I really don’t want to hate on this guy, but his repertoire…ugh. And his sartorial choices (burgundy velvet jacket).  The jacket would have been great if he didn’t have Meathead’s haircut (Rob Reiner…Archie Bunker).  [“And now I would like to impersonate the Archie Bunker.  (…)  Tank you veddy much.”]

To be fair, Sedaka had talent.  Singing voice?  Check.  Piano chops?  Check.  But the schmaltz gluing it all together is what made it unpalatable.  Not to mention, what was an MOR guy like this doing on such a counterculture show as SNL?  Look to the corner office, my friend…the corner office.

On the whole, a great episode.  Just bite the bullet when Neil starts crooning 🙂

 

-PD

 

 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland [1972)

First off, this film has never been properly restored (to my knowledge) and the copy I have on disc makes this quite apparent.  From the opening titles one can hardly read a word.  It’s as if a taxi driver in Cairo went into a local cinema and set up his camcorder pointed at the screen.  Suffice it to say that the medium is the message to this extent.  The story would be almost psychedelic enough just based on the thoroughly bizarre film transfer.

Fiona Fullerton is actually quite good as Alice.  The Nigerian-born actress would go on to appear in A View to a Kill (1985).

It’s hard to quibble about a film which employs a dodo bird.  This, of course, is to the credit of author Lewis Carroll.  Peter Bull is oddly cast as the Duchess.  You might remember him from Dr. Strangelove as Soviet Ambassador Alexei de Sadeski.

The disembodied head of Roy Kinnear as the Cheshire Cat adds a rather clunky touch near the end of the film.

But this film really is worth it if for none other than the ten-or-so minutes of Peter Sellers as The March Hare.  With prim and proper accent he, along with the Mad Hatter and Dormouse, regales Alice with a pun or two (“spook only when spooken to”).  This really was my whole reason for watching, but I’m glad to have experienced the whole slice of mind-altering pie.

Dudley Moore seems a bit misused as the Dormouse as he spends most of the film asleep.  For fans of The Goon Show one can spot Spike Milligan as the Gryphon.  The scene with the Mock Turtle is when the film really gets going.  One even gets the sense that perhaps the production was shot in sequence (due to the comfort the cast seems to have by that point…a characteristic apparently missing in earlier scenes).

Of special notice in this film is the music of John Barry.  The world knows him best as the official James Bond composer.  His work here lends this production a timeless sheen of orchestral mystery.  Perhaps it’s just my faded copy, but there are some truly magical moments every now and then.  I wouldn’t call it on the whole a masterpiece, but director William Sterling did an admirable job.  This was, in fact, Sterling’s only foray into non-TV film directing.  Not bad at all, sir!

The song credits even give one an opportunity to view sous rature in the flesh (“How Doth The Little Busy Bee Crocodile”).  Whether or not Isaac Watts would be pleased, we can assume Heidegger and Derrida would find some jollies.

And so, plenty of croquet and even a Lobster Quadrille.  Someone call Gérard de Nerval.

 

-PD