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The 1960s were a time of huge social change, and this was reflected in an overdue period of diversification in the movies. Changes in audience tastes plus new technological possibilities created new waves in filmmaking around the world.
In the States, the notorious Hays Code – a charter of decency, intended to prevent rude films from corrupting the populace – was finally abolished. Finally, characters were allowed to say everyday words such as “hell,” “damn,” and “Gawd,” to give birth on screen, and to ridicule the clergy. The comic possibilities were endless.
Perhaps most importantly, an atmosphere of irreverence and even revolt was in the air: people were sick of staid institutions, social repression, and movies and music that reinforced the values of their rotten system, whether it was aggressive American economic and foreign policy, or totalitarian regimes in Europe.
Regardless of whether the gags were politically motivated or just born from an ageless desire to poke fun at the self-important, comedy was now liberated, and silliness was ‘in’.
I should like to make films that are not lowering to the spirit. A new building can be very harrowing, I should like to give people a chance to whistle.
Filmmaker, actor and comedian, Jacques Tati was by no means ‘new’ in the late ‘60s, but his epic ‘Playtime’ was different from what everyone else was doing. It also put a new spin on his own previous work.
‘Playtime’ is not so much a comedy movie as a comedy city, expertly co-ordinated and filmed by the ringmaster Tati. His cinematic vision of an inhumanly modern Paris was built as a massive set (with skyscrapers on wheels!) outside of the city. Rather than a linear story, ‘Playtime’ takes us on a tour of Tati’s Paris over 24 hours, alternately following the journeys of a group of American tourists and of Tati himself as the iconic Monsieur Hulot.
While the act of rebuilding (an imaginary version of) Paris on such a massive scale was undoubtedly an act of tremendous folly – Tati was bankrupted shortly afterwards – the level of absurd detail on show makes it an incredibly rewarding watch. The little twists on the everyday reality tickle the mind, and the gags are silly but entirely original. This is modern life as science-fiction, but Tati’s revolutionary fervour is not so much set on returning western society to a more organic age, as encouraging us to misuse and toy with the ridiculous urban environments in which we find ourselves.
Nobody wears beige to a bank robbery!
Right when Jacques Tati was maturing as a writer-director-actor, another all-rounder was about to make his exquisitely immature debut.
Woody Allen’s frankly daft early work has been overshadowed, in time, by his more ambitious comedy-dramas – ‘Annie Hall’ (1977), ‘Manhattan’ (1979) etc. But this mock-documentary about a small-time, hard luck crook (Allen himself) bubbles over with ingenious, stupid jokes, both physical and one-liners. It’s the work of a chap more interested in making people laugh than in being considered an artist.
If ‘Take The Money And Run’ wasn’t exactly revolutionary, it signalled the arrival of an exciting new (neurotic) voice in cinema and set its author on a path to develop an important new strand in film comedy – something we might call metaphysical slapstick. And laugh-for-laugh, it straight down out-funnies much of his subsequent work.
Ok, let me see if I’ve got this straight. In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.
Released the same year as Robert Altman’s more commercially successful ‘MASH’, ‘Catch-22’ is likewise a war comedy locating its bite in the behaviour of eccentric military folk living close to the front line.
But where ‘MASH’ was an out-and-comedy with slacker-hero lead performances from Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland, ‘Catch-22’ can be considered a ‘serious’ comedy whose uncomfortable humour is inseparable from its observations on the absurd contradictions of war.
Further, ‘Catch-22’ is one of those rare novel adaptations that somehow manages to keep the feeling of its (excellent) source material without succumbing to literary conventions. This film is a work of cinematic art. And, not to knock ‘MASH’ (which is a very funny film), with the situation in Vietnam worsening, ‘Catch-22’ was a heartfelt anti-war argument.
As with the book, the humour hurts because it finds its target in the darkest depths of human nature.
A drowning man takes down those nearest…
Four years before the war satire of ‘Catch-22’, director Nichols set his sights on the institution of marriage – particularly within the confines of the smug bourgeois enclaves of post-war America.
Real life couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s mind games (witnessed by an optimistic young couple who are probably setting out on the same path) are expressed through biting dialogue and the legendary leads’ uncanny eye for body language (and Taylor’s voice, which deserves a thesis of its own).
There’s a bittersweet edge to the movie, prefiguring the contradictions at the heart of ‘Catch-22’: the couple’s mutual torture and shared delusions are what keep them together, but also might be what tears them apart.
F-R-double-E-D, D-O-M spells Freedom! We fight for freedom, for one and for all! It’s you-and-me-dom, and ten foot tall! Freedom, freedom, and oh-can-you-see-dom, we’ll always beat ’em with star-spangled freedom!
I could probably make the case that ‘Mr. Freedom’ is Woody Allen, ‘Catch-22’ and ‘Playtime’ all rolled into one. But I won’t.
Suffice to say it’s an absurdist superhero movie, sending up American patriotism and commie fundamentalism at the same time, set in an alternative Paris, and intricately designed (on an apparently tiny budget) by American ex-pat photographer William Klein. (And if this one’s a bit too wacky for you, he sends up the fashion industry in the moderately more sober ‘Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?’ (1966)).
The period between the French New Wave and the first ‘Star Wars’ (1977) was a curious window for filmmaking, as old structures dissolved and genetically modified, marketing-friendly film packages had yet to get their stranglehold on the cinemas.
Of course, there are some pretty square films from that era all the same, but gems like those I’ve listed proved to the discerning film-goer that it’s possible to be hilarious, original, and to make a point all at once. Boom boom!
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