Monday, April 18, 2005

The Pink Panther (1963)


An Evening IN


I’ve had the soundtrack for the film forever, bought for the song "It Had Better Be Tonight" and bought despite the overfamiliar "Pink Panther Theme." My wife, my mom and my grandmother and I are all on vacation together, and family fare was demanded for an EVENING IN. Father-in-law had loaned us his new 6 DVD set, "Blake Edwards' 'The Pink Panther' Film Collection Starring Peter Sellers," a natty volume with a multi-fold black vinyl enclosure and an original way of arranging six DVDs over just three interior panels.

I didn't know much about these films other than what I'd seen onscreen in previous viewings spread over the last 30 years. But as in all quality DVD experiences these days, esp. these Blue Chip "Film Classics", we were lavished with lots of extra stuff, and since our first viewing I've learned a great deal through those wonders of adjunct film education, the DVD Bonus Material and Commentary Track. (Isn't this really what most people feel "Film Studies" can be reduced to: pottering recollections and trivia, ie., "Sellers' psychic had told him he'd meet someone who'd be very important in his life with the initials 'B.E.' Sellers thought this meant 'Britt Ekland.'"?)

In surveying the five films offered in the collection, we decided on the first. I had hoped to see a later film whose title I didn't remember, but one I saw years ago with my mom (and dad!) at a drive-in (this was "The Return of the Pink Panther," with Christopher Plummer, done by Edwards but absent in this collection--legal problems--a film that feels very much like "The Spy Who Loved Me" in my memory, with its desert settings and double-crossing darkness, though some of my mnemonic conflation must come from watching the Bond at the same drive-in--with the same two parents!).

Everyone got comfy and our screening commenced. We were quickly won over by the well-known DePatie-Freleng title sequence and the Mancini theme music accompanying it. This essential synergy between the title itself, ("The Pink Panther", damn that's a catchy name—and enigmatic!), theme music and animated character must have been as essential to sustaining this "franchise" in the viewer's mind as Seller's performance. The titles promise a lot more invention and mobility than the movie proper delivers, and in retrospect they seem like one of those hoped-for but unplannable “flash-bombs” that sometimes go off in a film: after the detonation, every frame that follows this lucky burst is influenced positively, making the whole seem much more accomplished than it is. Acted out in the protective shadow of this thematic drop-cloth, the movie itself benefits in every way from this intro's intelligent couth—Mancini isn’t Miles Davis, but his lower-case art leaves an opening for some upper-case Animation, bringing us some slightly desperate sprightliness and Mod Colored violence, calling on a Looney Tunes heritage in a way Saul Bass never could. (A few eerie moments must be traversed for the modern cartoon fan, who will wonder if he isn’t watching the title sequence for the old old Bugs Bunny Road Runner Show on CBS [ABC?], even down to the font for the lesser credits—I was waiting for Bugs and crew to stride in from stage right, “Overture! Hit the lights! Here it is, the night of nights!”)

Everything after the title sequence, all the way up to the final scene where Sellers is trundled into a tiny Renault police car between two beefy Gendarmes caked in make-up and exhibiting strangely sexual aggression toward him—everything in this picture smelled slightly stale and phony.

There's nothing disingenuous about the film's desire to succeed.

As we all watched, (Mom, Gran, Dear Wife and I), we soon realized the Pink Panther franchise was planned to center on David Niven's Sir Charles. After filming, and by the time they'd gotten around to designing the titles, they were maybe hedging their bets, including the first appearance of Clouseau's animated self for a brief flash.

The film makers are clearly on the side of the thieves, and expand their circle of guilt to include everyone but Clouseau. They seemed to think the more ridiculous the law-and-order opposition to their favored characters, the thieves, the more likely the audience would be to join them in exalting the smug, the suave, the selfish and jet-set. But damned if they didn't figure it completely backwards: powerful humiliation makes for powerful sympathy, and who the hell like rooting for an overdog, anyways, other than a Yankees fans? While the movie is trying desperately to sell us on everyone’s very continental sense of self-worth, Sellers is quietly eating away at his part, striking the only authentic notes among any cast member. And it’s not his pratfalls that win us over, which are usually over-the-top choreographic concoctions that smack of Edwards’ baton and bullhorn—it is the guile-less desire for his wife, his acceptance of her refusals, and his devotion to duty. Little business like Clouseau’s initial discomfort on the witness stand add a texture to his performance that is comic because it’s specific. Edwards labors (he might prefer 'labours') to show us all the swanky sights of Europe and some of its flashiest cars, kittens, frocks and fellas, but in the end we are compelled by one man’s humiliation. It’s a little too easy to trot out “International Jewel Thief,” “Junior International Jewel Thief,” “International Jewel Thief’s Lover,” or “Princess” and expect us to gape. We like something a little more specific. Like a pink cat.

Somebody’s talking down to me already…


Was Robert Wagner just an unloved seed for a sequel that never sprouted, registering here only when he masticates and gurgles on Capucine, chiefly in the scene where she’s crawled into his bed, mistaking him for her lover, his Uncle Charles?


In this year we also have "Charade," exhibiting many of the same frictions as "The Pink Panther" in a barely less looney continental setting. We have the release of Goddard's "Contempt/Le Mepris," (starring a Bridget Bardot who never looked more like a Cardinale, and vice verse). But most amazingly, within this twelve month period Claudia Cardinale, the sort-of star of "The Pink Panther", could be caught in this film, in Lucchino Visconti's "The Leopard/Il Gatopardo", and Freddy Feline-y's "8 1/2." Fellini, panthers and leopards... ("Panther" must have gotten her last—she looks exhausted). What an unpredictable landscape of new releases for the film spectator that year! (What an unpredictable year, outside of the movie houses, too… ah, social significance!) I will spare you any entry trying to scare up a similarly bright film harvest from 40 years on, the year 2003 (40 years!).


By the time of “The Pink Panther,” Blake Edwards had been working his own auteurist-lite schtick on the west coast for a few years, unburdened by any Cahiers approbation, and motivated by the desire to prove himself an “Artiste” in the mildewy mold of Billy Wilder. Question: Were guys like Edwards, Kubrik and John Frankenheimer the inoculation Hollywood sought against foreign competition? Is this why their producers seemed a little more indulgent than the bottom-line alone would suggest? Were they viewed by studio bigwigs as Hollywood’s in-house New Wave, a contra-New Wave? (this all before the arrival—once the situation got really bad—of the new New Wave, those gay blades like Mazursky, Coppola, Nichols, Altman)

No, I think Hollywood was still a bit vague about La Nouvelle Vague.


YSL did the costumes for the two female principals—is that New Wave? Everyone involved seems mighty preoccupied with creating a veneer of euro-panache, which here is interpreted as draping most extras in tropical colors better suited to a Polynesian picture: hard industrial tourquoises, violets, and chartreuses that pop against snow and sky, white cloaks and brown woods.

Mainly, the New Wave is here interpreted as sex. I guess it went over with American audiences because the sex was among Europeans. But the bitter misogyny that underlies all this frou-frou must have been comforting—still is, I hear.

To counter this New Wave charge, there is a suspicious air of TV-thought seeping into some of the sets and set-ups, clearest in the Meri Welles music video the casts joins mid-flick—an alarming Holiday Variety Special look, with the proscenium staginess implying a studio audience lurking behind the cameraman. (APPLAUSE)


Bland musical number aside, Edwards’ chief concern after making money is choreography. He choreographs bodies as though he’s angling for a job at Mack Sennet’s studio, circa 1926, bursting with ideas for improving the silent product via 1960’s technology—Technirama, Technicolor and sound effects. In a scene too physical for Lubitsch at UFA, just right for Laurel and Hardy on an off day, a protracted dance performed by two gorillas around a double-sided wall safe (a pillar safe? A buttress safe?) is interrupted just long enough for them to wonder at the spectacle of an enormous, ugly, smoking sparkler dragged inexpertly by some propman thru the phoniest second story backdrop seen in a United Artists release since the launch of their TV division.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Manny Farber: Film Critic as Art Hunk


He's got two careers, each with irrefutable (and irrefusable?) calling cards: the first film critic to artfully argue the leading, lasting merit of American "genre" films, and a painter included in the very first exhibitions of the mythic American Abstract Expressionists. 'American', twice in the first sentence: clear enough.

Negative Space is biblical for film fans of a stripe either pretentious or deep, take your pick. It may also be read by many who are less serious toward the art side of film, more serious about the success side; and they will be turned-on by the early reviews, the hard-nosed syntax and the iconoclasm. "Underground Films" (1957, before the "underground" as we know it was built), "Fight Films" (1949), "Ugly Spotting" (1950), "The Gimp" (1952), "Hard-Sell Cinema" (1957): the perceptions documented in these essays were bold positions in 1949, in 1957, and they come across as divination to a 21st Century eye.

But to whom do tracts championing Hawks or the French New Wave sound radical now? Farber and film began to break apart in the post-60's era, and his late reviews sound puzzled by the advent of movies built by men educated on his precepts, but not his scruples. “Taxi Driver”? Farber's late career piece dedicated to this Scorcese/Shrader celebration of murder is ambivalent, appearing very near the end of "Negative Space," dripping palpable discomfort now as he witnesses his criticism's big influence on these guys, an influence as responsible for the bad parts in the flick as the good. Must have been bracing.

At this point in our Nation's cinematic life, Manny retreated from the critic's battle to inform and confront. He claims, believably, the break came when the public started embracing the mythic in earnest. The grand visions being manufactured by the New Hollywood (the old New Hollywood, of Coppola, Lucas, etc.), turned him off—and just when he thought film would break from the strictly small-time commercial, and give us the vast universe of the personal intelligence! Instead it decided to sell tickets, lots of tickets, and in unlocking this route to the mega-commercial with fake venerations of the commonly mythic, or mythically common, Hollywood lost Manny forever. More interesting to the Farb Man at the end were Herzog and Snow and Chantal Akerman (the names become less and less familiar the further we progress toward the end of his critical career, don't they? Wouldn't most "film fanz" of today shout, "Manny, lighten up! It's a story about a killer kabbie! Lean back and enjoy the ride!").

Was the problem that Hollywood started succeeding with brutal machines inspired in some perverse way by his own ideals? Or did he just lose interest, or get old? I think he recognized his interests had veered off into a scorched field of commercially useless art films, and he didn't like the idea of becoming irrelevant, "that old kook, that artist, Farber." It was great to play the prophet for a while, and then an apostle—but when nobody converts, you gotta change jobs fast. Becoming yet another irritating academic championing unseen art must not have appealed, so logically he gave up writing his elaborate criticism/poems for an audience so small and refined. He must have missed the bright lights, big city of the earlier days, and ultimately, he couldn’t stand to surrender all traces of populism. The goose was cooked once he saw "the public" wasn't going to follow him into these formalist art films and their aesthetic determinism. The fun for him must have always come in creating these masterpiece meditations with oodles of high art appeal as mere adornments for mass-media popular entertainments—a Marlowe-like detective, bent on discovering the transcendent art in the transient and commercial.

He left the scene when the business side superseded all other concerns—superseded? I mean finally obliterated. When the canny, ambitious film-men that came in the wake of his revolutionary insights grabbed at the one fact he promulgated that supported their program—"Action films are valid art!" —and began ramming it down our throats (The Star Wars? Sahara? The War of the Worlds? it hasn't stopped yet). We love him for that, and for being "early" on the fine art curve (instant legitimacy in Hollywood, much more so than being early on the criticism curve).

It's really these gnostic credentials as a bona fide painter, as a real “artiste”, that have kept the Hollywood buzz around his name all these years, and which confer the ultimate respectability upon him in the eyes of the film world. "Negative Space" ends with an interview of Farber, and the interview ends with his description of the many visits to his art studio from the directors he wrote about, and who had been influenced by his criticism. Not one visitor took the time to apprehend his paintings, or had the tools or patience to even look at his canvases with a semi-intelligent eye, (except—of course!— Godard, that other titan of film criticism for a certain generation). This lack of comprehension only helps the film makers he helped create (and arm) venerate him all the more passionately: Manny, the inscrutable sage! The alchemist, the prophet for our cinema age! From their lofty esthetic height, this judgment drifts down to coat the film-brains of everyone remotely connected to the medium. New Hollywood, Blockbuster Hollywood and VHS/DVD Hollywood, Weekend Box Office Hollywood; their inability to create work that lives up to his standards hasn't stopped them from supporting their bankrupt efforts with silver-dollar citations from his book. Spielberg and Lucas and Coppola Hollywood, Dreamworks and Lucasfilm and Zoetrope Hollywood, Cinecitta, Toho and CANAL/PLUS Hollywood; Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter Hollywood: they all own a copy of "Negative Space".

And now, after my birthday, so do I.