Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Great Movies: "8 1/2" and "Duck Soup"

At the Movies with Michael5000

(What? "The Great Movies"? Explanation here.)

I admire Roger Ebert a lot. He writes well, which means he can deliver an inspiring rave or a hilariously devastating pan, but he also thinks long and hard about movies and is capable of expressing his ideas well. And, he's fair to a movie. If it's just trying to get cheap laughs, he's not going to attack it for not mustering an rationalist critique of the mechanized zeitgeist. Or whatever.

But that doesn't mean that I always agree with his assessment. In The Great Movies, Ebert writes lovingly of both 8 1/2 and Duck Soup, presenting all sorts of reasons why they are the most wonderful things ever filmed. The reviews made me anxious to watch the movies, and rereading them now gives me some deeper appreciation for what I have watched. Unfortunately, the part in between -- the part where I actually had to sit there watching these dogs -- was pretty excruciating.

8 1/2
Federico Fellini, 1963

There might be a defense of 8 1/2 in that it was a product of its era, but hell -- the visual art, the architecture, the literature of the early 1960s was all sophisticated enough. In this movie, absurdist fantasy is approached with all the subtlety and restraint of the sophomore class play. Even the technical aspects of filmmaking are frankly bad, for instance with clumsy lip-synching of the dialogue.

The central character wanders in and out of a fantasy life that is considerably less interesting than his real life. Both are inhabited by characters who are supposed to be grotesquely overdrawn, but who come across as just badly overacted. You can tell that the film is exploring psychological themes, because every thirty seconds or so a priest walks by.

The Plot: A burnt-out film director juggles his failing marriage, his pathetic mistress, and the demands of the producer, cast, and crew of a science fiction movie he is supposed to be making. Unfortunately for him, it is the heyday of existentialism and he has lost interest in all of the above. Every thirty seconds or so, a priest walks by.

The Visuals: There are two good things about 8 1/2. One is an enormous, incomplete set for the science fiction movie-within-the-movie. It is a very cool looking thing. The second is a scene where the main character is at the train station to meet his mistress. When she doesn't get off the train, he decides it's for the best. Then, as the train pulls away, he sees that she simply got off on the opposite platform. It's a nice moment.

Otherwise, it's pretty standard stuff, with occasional little sprees and montages to pack in shots of hot young women, mother figures, odd little religious-ish vignettes, and of course the priest parade.

The Script: Eh.

Prognosis: Recommended for people who have to watch it because it has been assigned for a film class, or people who want to talk loudly about films, or people curious to see what the Emperor looks like naked.

Duck Soup
Marx Brothers, 1933

Of all the genres, comedy is said to age the worst. I had plenty of time to meditate on this as I sat stone-faced through Duck Soup, although in fairness it has the virtue of being nice and short.

In more fairness, you can tell from this movie that Groucho Marx was an extraordinary comedian. Basically, the movie is just a clothesline on which to hang stand-up bits, and much of the material is pure gold. Seeing this stuff with an audience would help, since it is hard to laugh at stand-up by yourself. But even at that, a comedian needs an audience to respond to, and Groucho's delivery in Duck Soup often sounds like it is being recited off the script for the sixth or seventh take. It probably is. It's like an exhibit of stand-up comedy behind glass at the museum.

The less said about the other brothers, the better.

So, it's mostly a grueling slog mitigated by great one-liners. Plus, two great scenes. The famous "mirror" scene, where Groucho tries to expose his supposed reflection -- actually one of the brothers in Groucho drag -- is mesmerizing. A scene near the end where a call for help is met by a set of increasingly absurd stock footage, starting with soldiers on the march and degenerating through fire engines and parades towards elephants crashing through the jungle, is good lunatic fun. It is pretty satisfying in its sheer randomness.

The Plot: None.

The Visuals: On the cheap. Occasional genre parody.

The Script: I'd rather just listen to Groucho talk.

Prognosis: Recommended for those who were teens during the 30s, or unreconstructed Little Rascals fans, or film historians, or the very stoned.


Anonymous said...

Hmm. Yeah. Don't think I'll be renting either of these any time soon. I hate watching movies that I haven't already seen, especially when they come with mediocre reviews.

Jennifer said...

After one of the worst days in my entire life, when I had been crying for hours, we went out and rented several comedies with the goal of making me feel better. One was a Marx Brothers movie--not this one, but it probably doesn't matter. It seemed horribly unfunny, and I was never quite sure whether it was just my mood or whether it was them, but I can tell you anyhow I was NOT inspired to rent it again (or rent another). Thanks for confirming it wasn't just me!

The comments you're making about Ebert and his book remind me too of an old book catalog called A Common Reader (whose passing is mourned here http://thatrabbitgirl.blogspot.com/2006/01/rip-common-reader.html and elsewhere). It's hard for me to give examples of how they would entice me to want to read their books, but their descriptions were so vivid and personable that they could make even the driest kind of nonfiction sound like a sweet nostalgic read. When I actually bought some of their books, unfortunately, my reading experience usually did not match up with the one they described, which usually just made me feel sad that I couldn't achieve their level of zeal for the book, not mad at them for being misleading or anything.

So, how's The Brothers Karamazov coming? Did I miss where you finished that?

Rex Parker said...

Dude, how did I miss the beginning of this undertaking? This is the kind of "Let's Climb Mt. Everest / Go to the North Pole / Voyage to the Center of The Earth" kind of endeavor that I love. Quixotic! (I'm speaking as someone in the very early stages of putting my several-thousand vintage paperback book collection on line, complete with commentaries on every cover, so I know whereof I speak when it comes to White Whales).

I gotta catch up. Well, I've seen _Aguirre_ and loved it. Seen the first bit of 8 1/2 and slept through rest (as w/ every Fellini movie I've ever encountered). Duck Soup ... rings a bell. But now I have no desire to see it myself. What's next?!

Ebert is one of the best writers on film around, despite being completely wrong much of the time.

blythe said...

you know, i've never seen a marx bros movie all the way through. now or never, right?

Rebel said...

WEll, that'll shorten up my netflix list. ;)

Michael5000 said...

@mydog: Every time you say that I look for the typo -- is the "n't" a mistake? But no: you really do want to stick with the movies you've already seen. And I celebrate your difference!

@jennifer: Paragraph by paragraph -- it wasn't just you, the Daedelus catalog has had the same effect on me, and silence, worm.

@rex: I'm all about the Quixotic undertakings. You may have noticed my tortuous trek through the Bible? The Great Films slog should be especially fun, though. Even the woofers, I'll be glad that I gave 'em a try.

@blythe: I hope you will have a long, healthy life, with many, many opportunities to view the Marx Brothers at your leisure. It is not now or never.

@rebel: Look me in the eye and tell me you had Fellini on your NetFlix list.

Bridget said...

Thank God! Another smart person who really didn't like 8 1/2. Perhaps I am not doomed.