SNL Season 1 Episode 15 [1976)

Starring Jill Clayburgh!!!  Who???

Yeah, kinda like the Jimmy Hoffa Memorial (?) High School.

This is one of those episodes which reminds me that I know a lot more about music than I do about anything else.

Leon Redbone I knew.  Had a record of his as a kid.  The one with “Sheik of Araby” on it.

But back to Jill Clayburgh.

Twice nominated for the Best Actress Oscar.  Ok, see…this brings up my claim to be a film critic.

It’s kinda, “Fake it till you make it.”  I know I’m not a realll film critic, but I take pride in what I do.  I’m an amateur.  It’s a passion.  I’m always seeking to learn.

Well, here’s a great opportunity.

The two films for which she got an Oscar nod?  An Unmarried Woman (this goes back to the play on words I was discussing in an earlier piece…the French word for woman [femme] being the same as the French word for wife [femme]…hence the wordplay of Godard’s Une Femme est une femme [not to mention Une Femme mariée]) and Starting Over.

Please excuse the momentous interpolation.

That is, An Unmarried Woman and Starting Over.  Those career highlights were ahead of Ms. Clayburgh when she hosted Saturday Night Live in 1976.

The auteurs in question were, respectively, Paul Mazursky and Alan J. Pakula (the latter having a surname which is, perhaps, the only conceivable rhyme with Dracula [not counting Blacula]).

Ok, so…apparently this is going to take a lot of parentheses and brackets.

For all of you conspiracy theorists (I usually fall into that category), Clayburgh starred in a 1970 Broadway musical about the Rothschilds (!) called, appropriately, The Rothschilds.  The libretto was by Sherman Yellen.  No easibly-identified relation to Janet.

The end of 1976 would see her in Silver Streak with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.

One further C.V. note:  Clayburgh won (in a tie with Isabelle Huppert) Best Actress at Cannes for An Unmarried Woman.

Ok, so that’s who she is.  A charming lady.  I had no idea who she was.  I’m an idiot 🙂

Sadly, Ms. Clayburgh passed away in 2010 after a 20-year battle with leukemia.

Well, she was pretty great in this episode!  And I must say…SNL once again reached a new height in intelligent writing with this installment.

One really senses that the writers were toying with the censors.  It was dangerous.  It’s impressively counterculture.

One of the funniest skits is Clayburgh as guidance counselor Jill Carson (a fictional personage).  She is the overly-optimistic crusader for social justice.  It is quite a complex, multi-staged piece.  John Belushi plays a delinquent whom Carson (Clayburgh) is attempting to rescue from “squalor”.

The opening sequence of the show, however, really sets the tone for what’s to follow.  Chevy Chase shows up in Lorne Michaels’ office insistent that the pratfalls and “newsman” stuff should be retired.  Chase’s subsequent weave through the studio audience is really priceless.  The comedy is just so damned smart!

Speaking of which, we finally get my hero Andy Kaufman back.  [On the hero worship scale he’s nowhere approaching Jean-Luc Godard (for me), but he’s definitely the comedic actor who (along with Peter Sellers) most got into my head.]

Well, Kaufman here does another lip-sync piece with immaculately-memorized dialogue.  The song is “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and the special part is Andy in a cowboy hat directing the traffic of four audience participants.  It is a sweet piece, and yet it still shows off Andy’s genius as resplendent and unique.

Leon Redbone is really fantastic in his two songs…particularly the first (“Ain’t Misbehavin'”) where he conjures the “me and the radio” loneliness at the heart of a usually-raucous song.

One of the weirdest sequences is a visit by The Idlers (a singing group of the United States Coast Guard Academy).  The show’s producer (Michaels) and writers take the opportunity to remind the viewing audience that dolphins are definitely smarter than The Warren Commission.  No doubt!

It’s a strange, bold sequence.  Chase’s Weekend Update is similarly racy (particularly the bit about the Mattel anatomically-correct male dolls…in white and black…the former $6 and the latter $26.95 or something).  Good god…

Most necessary was the political prodding.  Michaels begins the show with a photo of Nixon on his desk.  By Weekend Update, it is the People’s Republic of China which is pardoning Nixon for Watergate (and Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead, of course).

But I must admit my ignorance once again.  I had no idea Gary Weis’ (sp?) film featured William Wegman (!)…  The dog should have given it away.  Duh!

Well, anyway…thanks to Wikipedia for a generally informative blurb about this episode (though I have expanded upon that information quite a bit).

The running series Great Moments In Herstory punctuate this episode at various intervals.  Particularly risqué is the Sigmund Freud (Dan Aykroyd) and daughter Anna (Laraine Newman) dream interpretation featuring a titillating banana.  A later episode highlights Indira Gandhi and father Jawaharlal Nehru.  It is a bit of a clunker…

Walter Williams’ famous Mr. Bill debuted on this episode as part of the solicited home movies from viewers.  Williams and Mr. Bill would become a significant part of the show in the coming years.

Once again, this episode is not to be missed.  It was an essential step for a show on the rise.

 

-PD

 

 

 

Čovek nije ptica [1965)

It makes sense that Man Is Not a Bird was Dušan Makavejev’s first film.  It has that first-film “breadth” to it.

Where Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. (Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator) struck with absolute precision, Čovek nije ptica meanders about a bit in search of the appropriate film language. 

[N.B.  Wikipedia spells “bird” in Serbo-Croat for this film as “tica”.  I’m not sure why that is as “tica” seems to mean nothing (whereas “ptica” means “bird”).]

Though our film is set in a strange, backwards town, the narrative is considerably sprawled.

Eva Ras (the star of Love Affair…) is here as a more minor character.  However, she is the one who most lives out the message of the title.

This film has a strange obsession with hypnosis.  There is a hypnotist, but the film starts off with a scientific denunciation of superstition.  Through hypnosis (we are told), a distressed person can be made to abandon the grip of superstition.

Back to our hypnotist in the middle of the film…he is more of an entertainer than anything.  I am not entirely sure, but I believe the initial “legitimate” hypnotist (psychologist) and the later “entertainer” hypnotist are played by the same actor.

If that is the case, then Makavejev’s later metaphor (the circus) makes more sense.  But what is really complex about this film is the layering of metaphors upon one another.  It makes finding meaning very difficult.

One “reading” would be that life is a circus.  Another reading would be that “cinema” is a circus which purports to present a more truthful version of life than what we know.

But what does that mean?

Every day we experience life is some respect.  What could be “more truthful” than our daily experience?  Is Makavejev implying that we lie to ourselves?  Quite possibly.

As film viewers (spectators), we may become immersed in a particular movie and identify with characters and stories.  In a way, WE are the fourth wall.  The fourth wall is our temporary reality.  We enter into the false reality of film.

But, film gives us a chance to observe “ourselves”.  When we heavily identify with a particular character, we are having a sort of “out of body experience”.

And this brings us back to hypnosis.

Man Is Not a Bird is a very beautiful film (in a grimy, socialist, factory soot kind of way), but it is (perhaps not surprisingly) a dark film as well.

Shot, like Love Affair…, in black and white there is something more sinister about this film than the more gentle and humorous Love Affair…  But who are we kidding?  Love Affair… is inextricably wound up with death.  What could be darker than that?

Answer:  life without life.

It is what Eva Ras experiences as she is emotionally abused and disrespected by her husband.  Her husband, as it turns out, is working a job which is so hazardous to his health that the position is being eliminated ASAP.  And that’s in communist Yugoslavia!  All through this film we see a sort of poverty which separates East from West.  The poor Eastern Europeans.  What the West would come to realize (like New York Times film critic Vincent Canby) was that the East had something of immense wealth.  If pressed, I would call it soul.

Man is not a bird (even if, under hypnosis, he believes this to be the case).  Man is also no angel.  Janez Vrhovec plays a sort of martyr in this film.  Another more light-hearted character prods him as to whether he can feel the tingling of his burgeoning angel wings (the prodding is actually quite sardonic).

Man is not a machine.  But Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec), the deft Slovenian machinist/engineer, has become a slave to his job.  From Pakistan to Dar es Salaam:  Rudinski makes his comrades proud with his exceptional efficiency.

But let us return to Eva Ras.

To turn Godard on his head, A Woman Is Not A Woman.

Why do I say that?

Because the French word for wife (femme) is the same as the French word for woman (femme).

And so a whole new world of wordplay opens up for us concerning TWO Godard films (namely):

Une Femme est une femme

and

Une Femme mariée.

In the first, we could potentially have the proto-syllogisms:

A woman is a wife.

Or, conversely:

A wife is a woman.

Furthermore, we could have:

A woman is a woman (the accepted translation in the English-speaking world).

Or, on the contrary:

A wife is a wife.

It gets to be such that we assume there is some sort of “boys will be boys” idiomatic phrase in operation.  Not being a native French speaker, I cannot confirm or deny that.  But I do know that Godard loves word play.  And therefore, the simple answer may not be the intended answer.

To illustrate further we have,

Une Femme mariée.

The accepted English translation is A Married Woman, but could it not be the more perverse and thought-provoking A Married Wife?

One thing is certain:

Man Is Not a Bird will have you under its spell whether you understand it or not.  At least, that’s the experience I had.

I would add one final bit of exegesis (extra Jesus).

It may very well be that Makavejev was making a disparaging statement about the communist Yugoslavian state with his first film.  It would be like the secret messages which Shostakovich managed to work into his music (particularly the string quartets) while living in Soviet Russia.

In the hands of communist governments, art (and particularly film…after Lenin’s admiration of the medium for its uniqueness) had to represent the people.  On one side (with communist eyes) this is admirable.  From the other (with capitalist eyes) this is seen as propaganda.

Any astute capitalist would have realized that (particularly in times of war) there was not much difference from communist and capitalist propaganda.  Both economic systems availed themselves of the practice of propagandizing.

But my guess, regarding the film in question, is that Makavejev recognized his own role as a propagandist (he had no choice in the matter…either please the censors or leave the profession) and likewise saw film as a double-edged sword of hypnosis.

And so his first film is really a realization…of that power in film…that power that can drive the masses to love…or to kill.

 

-PD