Woody Allen, Alec Guinness, and Segei Prokofiev

So these two movies I want to mention today have almost nothing in common except that they are both wonderful comedies, star some of my favorite people, and feature Sergei Prokofiev’s effervescent Lieutenant Kijé – Troika (fourth movement) as their theme music. It just goes to show you how filmmakers can take great classical pieces and change their meaning. Consider Stanley Kubrick’s use of classical music in many of his films. It’s hard for many people to hear Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 by Strauss without seeing weird lunar eclipses and apes bashing tapir’s brains in. It’s hard for many people to hear Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 without imagining a humble and unprejudiced pig quietly herding sheep around a green. Do you first think Paul Dukas or Mickey Mouse when you hear the uppity bassoons from The Sorceror’s Apprentice? Sometimes movies take great music and make it their own by redefining it and giving it new context.

Me? I can’t hear “Journey of the Sorceror” by the Eagles without thinking the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio show is about to come on.

Sir Alec Guinness must have seen the comedic potential in this bouncy Russian tune for his film about a hard-headed artist named Gulley Jimson in the film The Horse’s Mouth (1958). Woody Allen’s use of the same piece might seem more logical as Love and Death (1975) is a satire on great Russian literature. In any event, such good movies, no matter how unrelated, deserve another mention.

The Horse’s Mouth is one of the movies I am sad more people haven’t heard of. Directed by Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Advneture, Hopscotch), The Horse’s Mouth is a splendidly buoyant and enjoyable little British comedy that stars the great Alec Guinness. Guinness is one of the British legends who most people probably only know as Obiwan Kenobi from the original Star Wars movies. In addition to jedi master he was also in many of the equally great David Lean films (Great ExpectationsOliver Twist, Lawrence of Arabia, and Dr. Zhivago) and Ealing studios comedies (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit, and my personal favorite, The Ladykillers). He was also George Smiley from the miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979). The Horse’s Mouth was the film Guinness did right after he won the Academy Award for his performance in Lean’s (best film, so says I) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and it’s also the only film for which he wrote the screenplay. Like another legendary British performer, Charles Laughton who only directed one movie, the amazing Night of the Hunter (1955), Guinness proved he was more than a talented actor with this singular outing as writer.

Prokofiev’s piece gives The Horse’s Mouth an extra does of comic energy at just the right times and fits the film perfectly.

Gulley Jimson is a lovable rogue. He’s eccentric. He’s a drunk. He’s lazy. He lies. He’s pinches women’s behinds. He’s in and out of jail. He lives on a dilapidated boat next to a crazy person. He ignores social parameters. He’s a struggling artist who wants to do things his own way. The Horse’s Mouth was based on a book by Joyce Cary, but Guinness makes it his own. He crafts a very fun character, with gravelly voice and tattered clothes. Despite it being a comedy, there is in fact a lot of pathos. Jimson is old and depends upon his long-suffering barmaid friend, Coker (Kay Walsh). The sparks and animosity shared between these two old souls could only have been founded in feelings of affection from somewhere down deep. Jimson may be eccentric, but he’s a three-dimensional character and we understand his plight. He wants to leave his mark. He sees wondrous artistic potential everywhere, but can’t find money and rarely feels too proud of his work once it’s completed. Life is a neverending wave of brilliant horizons and disappointing sunsets for Jimson. But why go on about the minutiae of the plot? Just watch the movie. It’s wonderful and funny and reveals much about Guinness’s talents as an actor and a writer. Michael Gough (perhaps most famous as Alfred from the Burton and Schumacher Batmans) and Ernst Thesiger (the incomparable Dr. Septimus Pretorius from The Bride of Frankenstein) also have supporting roles.

So Woody Allen is still making movies. After making at least one movie every year since 1965, the 76 year old New York intellectual nebbish director, actor, writer is still going. For my money Allen’s best work comes out of the 70s. Titles like Bananas, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask, Sleeper,  Annie Hall, and Manhattan are just a few reasons why he’s an important filmmaker. His skewering of Russian authors like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and even, curiously, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, is Love and Death. As usual, Allen wrote, directed, and starred in this fun classic comedy. This film was the last film Allen made before Annie Hall and that whole paradigm shift into the realm of mixing realism alongside his oddball style of humor. It followed Sleeper which was a hilarious mixture of Rip van Winkle, science fiction dystopias, and silent comedy. What all of this means is that Love and Death is still just a zany comedy for comedy’s sake (which is totally fine). What makes it work is that it mixes philosophy, theology, and history together so well and the anachronistic Jewish New Yorker with glasses and incessant existential crises just fits in with the philosophies but so humorously against the historical backdrop.

Once again, Prokofiev’s enchanting melody gives us an upbeat tempo and sets the tone. It feels unmistakably Russian but it’s joy and snappy pace are like Allen in that their levity offsets the heavy philosophical and theological quagmires suffered by the characters. It’s comedy.

Allen is Boris, the third son of a proud family or oblivious weirdos. In love with his promiscuous cousin (Diane Keaton, of course), but sent to fight the French in battle, the anemic hero must survive wars, duals, dullards, and cold Russian winters to be with his beloved cousin again. In the end they decide to attempt to assassinate Napoleon (played by James Tolkan from Back to the Future). There are some great lines and wonderful sight gags and clever riffs on classical literature in this movie and it is very funny from start to finish. My one complaint is that it does sort of run out of steam by the third act but the finale is enjoyably underwhelming. It’s about Woody Allen’s two favorite subjects; love and death, and his comedy is always best when it’s subject matter is a little depressing. Interestingly enough, the final lines from Sleeper are a response to if he believes in anything. His answer in Sleeper was, “sex and death.” Coincidental lead in to this movie?

For people who only know Sir Alec Guinness from his dramatic roles and Star Wars I would strongly suggest you check out his comedies. The Horse’s Mouth showcases Guinness’s comedic prowess as well as considerable writing talents. And for those of you who only know Woody Allen from Antz and Midnight in Paris, you should really acquaint yourself with his 70’s work and Love and Death is a pretty good place to start. I liked Prokofiev’s music before, but it’s fun to see it being used in different contexts. Whether it be a rambunctious renegade painter scarpering off into the horizon or Woody Allen dancing with the grim reaper we can all tap our toes along to this familiar, lively piece.

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