8 Inexplicable Cinematic Miscalculations
The Mystery of Oberwald: Michelangelo Antonioni
After seeing The Mystery of Oberwald, I was struck by how utterly mystifying it was that Michelangelo Antonioni had decided to make that film. It wasn’t just that it was excruciatingly bad (it definitely was), but what struck me was that it seemed completely obscure as to what had attracted Antonioni to the material. A talky period-piece melodrama that plays out almost exclusively in close quarters? Really? A leaden script full of overly expressive dialogue that intends to spell out what the characters are thinking? Antonioni clearly wanted to experiment with the then-new medium of video tape, but why did he also abandon every stylistic, artistic, thematic, philosophical dogma he ever expressed? Sure, new mediums call for new methods, but he couldn’t have been so misguided as to think that covering one character in a hazy digital bluishness or having the screen wash green every time there was gust of wind would somehow be an upgrade over the delicate “landscape as psychological signifier” style he had been perfecting for years. Did the muddy blur and dull tones of low-grade video hold so much allure that he suddenly thought it could work magic with the eye-rolling “amidst courtly intrigue, a mourning princess meets a poet/would-be assassin who looks like her dead husband and teaches her to love” script? Where did this complete suspension of critical intelligence come from? Anyway, it got me to thinking about some of the most head-scratching auteur projects that I’ve seen: the times when you sit back and can’t imagine why a talented artist wasted so much time and effort on a film.
Pirates: Roman Polanski
I kind of wanted to leave notorious studio-film disasters off of thislist because despite how inexplicable many of them seem, the reason for their existence is obvious: somebody thought they would make money. That’s why it’s hard to list something like Steven Spielberg's 1941, David Lynch’s Dune or Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man here – clearly, the filmmakers were under the impression that they were making a commercially viable commodity and that said commercial viability would, at very least, justify the film’s existence. Certainly, Polanski had done commercially-minded genre parody in the past (although I would count The Fearless Vampire Killers among his worst films); but Pirates is so aggressively un-fun, so openly hostile to the very idea of comedy, that it passes from the realm of “Airplane-style pirate parody!” and into the world of Michael Haneke-esque critique of viewership, spectacle, and genre. It’s practically a “fuck you” to the idea of making a crowd-pleaser, to the idea of making money off of an artwork. It’s hard to say why after a seven year absence following Tess, Polanski returned with this sour, unpleasant film. Walter Matthau fans must have been even more bewildered. I’d imagine folks coming in expecting their stomachs to hurt from belly laughter must have felt more like they were punched in the gut.
The Five Days of Milan: Dario Argento
There are plenty of examples of horror directors trying unsuccessfully to break into comedy: John Carpenter’s Memoirs of the Invisble Man (see below), Sam Raimi’s Crimewave, Wes Craven’s Music of the Heart (that wasn’t a comedy?). Maybe it's that the two genres hew so closely together; in fact, the whole sub-genre of horror-comedy (Braindead, An American Werewolf in London, The Toxic Avenger, Evil Dead 2, Gremlins, Dead Alive) has produced many an enduring film and many truly disturbing horror classics skirt the line of black comedy – there’s always a portion of the audience laughing during Texas Chain Saw Massacre and From Beyond even if those films aren’t intended as comedy per se. Of course, in that way “the disturbing” is so close to being “the humorous.” Argento’s body-function obsessed “comedy” The Five Days of Milan is the type of film that makes you want to put everything in quotes – here, “the disturbing” is unfortunately simply “the disturbing.” Because what’s funnier than war profiteers and rape? It might actually be unfair to call this film a comedy at all because it’s more in the style of Lethal Weapon/Beverly Hills Cop action-comedy. Only there’s basically no action. It’s also kind of a rip-off of Fistful of Dynamite. Maybe the most apt description is this: The Wild Bunch re-imagined as a back-slapping “hardy-har-har” gross-out comedy.
The Great Moment: Preston Sturges
The long-gestating pet project of a man who expertly took screwball comedy to the elusive sweet-spot between high-brow and low-brow was, naturally, a biopic about Boston dentist W.T.G. Morton. The man who invented anesthesia. Seriously. What’s weird about this misguided project isn’t that it’s an ill-conceived drama about a minor historical event or even that Sturges attempts to alleviate its narrative sluggishness with pratfalls and bug-eyed double-takes – what’s so puzzling here is that Sturges obsessed over this film for years and, riding the hot streak of The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels and Palm Beach Story, used his financial and critical success to jam it into production. Certainly, whatever struck him as remarkable about this story doesn’t end up on screen. It’s an impersonal and slight journey, following a decidedly average doctor through a process that is decidedly not fraught with resistance. It seems as though the comedic elements exist in it exclusively because Sturges grew tired of flailing around helplessly in a drama-less drama and fell instinctively back on what he knew best: Joel McCrea slipping on things. Sturges always called “studio interference!” on this one, but I can’t imagine a scenario in which it’s anything other than pointless.
Public Affairs: Robert Bresson.
When one hears the name “Robert Bresson” there is a word that comes to mind so readily that his work is practically synonymous with that word. You know what word I'm talking about: wacky. I am basing my opinions of Bresson entirely on his recently restored debut film, a slapstick two-reeler called Public Affairs that owes a big debt to Duck Soup. From what I've heard, the film is a lead-footed farce with a plot very loosely conceived around the various wacky mishaps, miscommunications and misadventures between two made-up Europeans Republics. Allegedly it exhibits no sense of timing or staging and really rips off a lot of other filmmakers like Rene Clair and Buster Keaton in addition to the aforementioned Marx Bros. I’m not much of a Bresson scholar, so I have no idea what happened in the decade or so between the production of this film and his feature debut, but in his other films there’s absolutely no trace of the guy who made Public Affairs.
Hawks and Sparrows: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Toto, the Jim Carrey of post-war Italy, was one of European cinema’s hugest stars when Pasolini concocted this existential road comedy in which the mugging goofball starred. Toto’s broad, idiotic comedy is a terrible match for Pasolini’s dry, provocative, cynical style and it’s hard to see why either one agreed to the team-up. Maybe Pasolini had his Paul Thomas Anderson “Hey, wait, maybe I can make a great Adam Sandler movie!” moment and, certainly, there are plenty of unexpectedly successful pairings of mainstream comedic actors with serious filmmakers (Bill Murray in Rushmore and Broken Flowers, Ben Stiller in Your Friends and Neighbors and Steve Martin in The Spanish Prisoner come to mind). Maybe Toto’s low-brow popularity appealed to the condescending populist impulse common in Marxist filmmakers? The film is a mess though: it’s obsequious when it needs to be whimsical, sentimental when it needs to be heartfelt, broad when it needs to be intimate, didactic when it needs to be ironic. Imagine a young Billy Crystal mugging his way through a comedic version of Luis Bunuel’s The Milky Way but directed by Abel Fererra and you might get a sense of what this film is like. Or not. That’s a pretty convoluted comparison.
Black Moon: Louis Malle
It’s hard to put any Malle film on this list because he was so defiantly mutable – the breadth of styles in which he worked stretched from the tear-jerking autobiography of Au Revoir Les Enfants (or Reservoir Dogs as I like to call it) to the hyperactive absurdity of Zazie Dans le Metro to the salacious slickness of Damage to the charming, thoughtful Phantom India travelogues. So, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that he made a movie about a talking unicorn in a vague, post-apocalyptic future in which women are hunted down by a jack-booted military force. Maybe this thing is an allegory. Maybe it’s pure surrealism. Maybe it’s supposed to be some kind of a pseudo-feminist nightmare brought to life. Because of the portentous style and airless plotting, the only thing I can say for certain is that it wants you to take it seriously; very, very seriously. And that’s unfortunate because it’s such a laughable splat of a movie. It has gnomes.
Memoirs of the Invisible Man: John Carpenter
As I pointed out earlier, the worst mistakes seem to happen when genre directors try their hand at straight-up comedy. What’s strange is that these directors are often fully capable of pulling off the comedic elements in their other films: The Tenant, Knife in the Water and Cul-de-Sac all have fantastic darkly comedic moments, so why is Pirates such a misfire? Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew has a great dead-pan sense of humor and John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China has a bouncy sense of pace and timing that would make it seem like he could pull of a comedy. Even Dark Star has its moments, even if that film is really more a comedy in concept than one in practice (it’s essentially a regular science-fiction movie with a winking self-awareness of its budget limitations). So why did Carpenter decide to remake one of the more psychologically complex and disturbing Universal horror films as a comedy and why does it fail so badly? Claude Rains’ Invisible Man is a dude driven insane by the freedoms his special powers afford him and he literally can’t resist the impulse to kill without repercussion. Sounds like a laff riot. As is typical of James Whale’s films, the original has some moments of knowing campiness, but that’s an entirely different flavor than the spices of a late period Chevy Chase comedic thriller. Maybe they thought they were going to get some of that Ghostbusters money? Eight years after the fact? Sam Neil generates what little laughs there are to be had with some very Bruce Campbell-esque physical comedy, but that’s the problem – there are way too few jokes to go around and the material doesn’t lend itself to comedy after it quickly burns through the most obvious bits.
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