JUST BEFORE NIGHTFALL & SHAKES THE CLOWN
christopher funderburg & john cribbs
Every day, it seems like there's more being written about fewer films. The internet is an endless expanse of opinioneering, but every blogger seems to be working from the same limited Rolodex. How many times do the virtues of The Godfather need to be extolled? If you love horror movies, do you ever need to read anything else about (the truly excellent, totally brilliant) Halloween or The Evil Dead? How many "Top 10____" lists do you need to see recycle the same titles before you realize, "Gosh, maybe I should see The Shining and Casablanca?" There's a whole universe of movies out there, but you wouldn't know it by perusing critical websites. Look, we love Funny Games (both versions) as much as anybody, but maybe it should be mentioned at some point that The Seventh Continent and Benny's Video are equally interesting films. It's possible some people never tire of reading about standbys like Stranger than Paradise, Breathless and On the Waterfront, but once a week give your palate over to the Pink Smoke and we'll recommend some films that maybe you didn't even realize were thoroughly, totally, 100% worth your attention. At very least, they're not films you'll have already read about 453 times.
JUST BEFORE NIGHTFALL
claude chabrol, 1971.
If you like:
Claude Chabrol, existentialism, long walks on an empty beach, blink-and-you'll-miss-it Francois Truffaut cameos, movies that open with a dead naked woman.
The married couple - Michel Bouquet and Stéphane Audran - are the same from Chabrol's La femme infidele. Once again, one has had an affair which ends in the killing of the third party by Bouquet. Except this time the victim is a woman, the kinky wife of Bouquet's best friend whose love of fantasy roleplaying leads to his throttling her to death, and it happens in the first scene of the movie. Instead of going through a series of Psycho-inspired steps towards eluding the cops, Bouquet prepares himself for punishment... but it never comes. And the fact that the killing leads to no retribution whatsoever sends him into an agonizing melancholy. He spends his days moping around his weirdly-designed house (built, appropriately enough, by the friend whose wife he's murdered), shutting the curtains of his office-like bedroom to keep Audran and the kids from witnessing his desolation. It's not guilt, exactly - it's the torment of impotence in the aftermath of his crime, carrying over from his affair with the dominating dead woman, that wrecks any semblance of a happy upper-middle class lifestyle. The typical fear of being caught has been flipped; Bouquet's anxiety is over getting away with it.
At the time of his death last year, only about half of Claude Chabrol's 50+ film catalog had gotten a dvd release in the United States, leaving a huge percentage of his filmography frustratingly inaccessible. Perhaps out of respect for the great director, there seems to have been a lot of activity towards making more of his movies available in the last couple of months, most notably Criterion's exciting upcoming double-release of his first two efforts, Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins. This film, which came at the end of the director's hot six-movie streak from 1968 to 1971, debuted on dvd last March and is absolutely essential. Although I can't claim to have seen every film he made in the 60's, it kind of feels like a turning point, as if for the first time Chabrol is considering his own work rather than the films of directors he admires. Audran plays a variation of her famous Le Boucher role, only rather than try to rationalize her emotional connection to a remorseless killer and come to terms with her own culpability in inspiring his murder spree, she has to convince her husband that turning himself in is not the right choice of action. The widower/best friend comes to a similar compromise of emotion when Bouquet breaks down and confesses to him: why bother seeking vengeance if it will only lead to more misery for everyone involved? The brilliant bit of Chabrol magic in this movie is that he creates suspense out of whether Bouquet actually will end up going to the cops, and even milks the absurdity of everyone's acceptance of Bouquet as the killer for some subtle humor (I kept thinking of the last reel of Cemetery Man where the policeman becomes increasingly blind to Dellamorte's guilt: "You've got a gun? Good, you can defend yourself!") Further, by doing away with the "noose tightening around the killer's neck" angle, Chabrol turns the reversal of the cliché into a weird and funny study of existential self-pity. Does the crime itself matter? Does the victim? A woman has been horribly killed, but it means nothing - all Bouquet has to do is refrain from exposing himself. So why can't he do it?? In a beautifully underplayed, distinctively Chabrolian subplot, Bouquet tries to understand the motive of an employee who commits a crime of passion. Why the answer eludes him, and why he can't remain content to have perpetrated the perfect crime, are both part of the same equivocation in this quiet Chabrol chef d'oeuvre.
- john cribbs, 8/18/11.
SHAKES THE CLOWN
bobcat goldthwait, 1991.
If you like:
Alcoholic clowns, Adam Sandler in small doses, Mr. Show jack-of-all-trades Tom Kenney as a villain, Bobcat Goldthwait: artist.
Featuring supporting turns from a pre-fame Adam Sandler and Kathy Griffin and post-fame Bobcat Goldthwait and Julie Brown in the lead roles, there's a lot going against this movie. For his next starring role after Hot to Trot (featuring John Candy as a talking horse), Goldthwait cast himself in the lead role as Shakes, a beloved, talented children's party clown with a hardcore drinking problem. Make no mistake about it, that's not a throwaway plot-point: this is a film about alcoholism as much as it a delivery system for the cracked-voiced weirdo's distinct comic talents. The (admittedly unfocused) plot follows Shakes as his addiction to the bottle ruins his life, culminating in a blackout drunk evening from which he emerges believing he has committed a gruesome murder. It's R-rated all the way and features rampant drug use, filthy language (an elderly black clown delivers the classy come-on "I got that peanut butter pussy: brown, smooth and easy to spread"), disgusting scenes of alcohol withdraw and really gross looking pizza to rival the slices eaten in Driller Killer. The dark tone works, though, because the film almost instantly passes beyond the pale and doesn't seem concerned with upping the ante: in the opening scene, Shakes wakes up in a drunken stupor on the bathroom floor of the house where he just provided entertainment for a little boy's birthday party; the boy's mother declares him her "new boyfriend" just before he pukes and goes home while avoiding making any promises about ever seeing her again. It's crazy stuff: sure, you knew you were going to be treated to an extended sequence of Sandler, Goldthwait and Bill Murray's brother beating the shit out of mimes, but did you realize that you were going to see Tom Kenney (the voice of SpongeBob Squarepants) as a coke-head children's t.v. host try to rape a woman? Julie Brown plays Shakes' bubble-headed waitress girlfriend and their deteriorating relationship provides the core of the film: it's the type of movie that you look like a lunatic for suggesting is funny, but it's even worse to try to explain that there's something very poignant and painful going on beneath the surface, real life-of-an-addict drama that Goldthwait clearly believes is important and takes very seriously. Just wait until you have to go even farther out on a limb and suggest that the film really works, that Goldthwait pulls off a tonal balancing act that combines tough emotions with gross-out clown gags.
The Boston Globe memorably called Bobcat Goldthwait's directorial debut "the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies" but even that beautifully accurate assesment shunted the film off to that niche for wrong-headed works spear-headed by folks you wouldn't (or want) expect to step behind the camera (David Schwimmer, Diane Keaton, Anne Bancroft and Uli Lommel have produced some classic terrible films in this genre.) Shakes the Clown is a freuqently disgusting, dark-souled alcoholic clown movie with an extended cameo by Robin Williams as a mine, but it's also totally legit. Fortunately, in recent years Goldthwait has produced a duo of critically-acclaimed films, so those of us who would advise you to seek out Shakes are no longer fighting the same losing, embarrassing battle. The World's Greatest Dad and Sleeping Dogs Lie are works of a filmmaker able deftly handle outrageous subject matter like bestiality and autoerotic-asphixyation with an intelligence and sensitivity that goes much deeper than the cheap obvious gallows humor. Yes, Goldthwait's work is undoubtedly the product of this generation which is no longer shocked by pornography, lesbianism, foul-mouthed teenage insolence, parental ineptitude and sexual confusion; but his films are also a deeply humane and perceptive about the world's cruelties. Goldthwiat, by nature, is forgiving of characters that the rest of the world turns away from in revulsion; his protagonists are guilty of acts that reasonable folks would consider horrible, but their stories are told with sympathy, even fondness. The remarkable aspect of his work is that even though he exhibits a preternatural sensitivity to the human condition, he's absolutely fearless in mining it for comedy. "This is my bathroom, not your bedroom." The true alcoholic moment of waking up in a daze in an unfamiliar setting punctuated by a great one-liner from the snot-nosed brat who just accidentally pissed on his head. There are few filmmakers able to be as funny about brutal truth.
Cartoon clown fever, aaaaaahhh... catch it. (just to be clear, this movie is not a cartoon. that's the evil Binky's catchy t.v. show theme-song)
- christopher funderburg, 8/18/11.
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