The Definitive Subjective Ranking of the Best Theatrical Muppet Songs

I grew up watching the Muppets. Loved The Muppet Show, Muppet BabiesFraggle Rock, Sesame Street, The Jim Henson Hour, you name it. The Muppets’ variety act lent itself to parodying countless popular songs over the years, but it also led to numerous original songs, some of which are really hard to forget. This is a ranked list of the original songs from the theatrically released Muppet movies (the lack of cover songs kinda kills Muppets from Space, unfortunately).

Is this list subjective and based on my temporary whims? Definitely. Disagree? Tell me your favorite Muppet songs. But I did. I ranked 50 Muppet songs. Like a goddamn man. A MAN!

[Pictures and composers names taken from Muppet Wiki.]

Sorta Forgettable:

me

50. Let’s Talk About Me – (The Muppets, 2011) Chris Cooper gets crazy as Tex Richman and sings a mean-spirited hip hop number. Sadly, it’s not that memorable. [Bret McKenzie]

Wedding.mtm

49. He’ll Make Me Happy – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984) While it’s nice to see all the characters at Kermit and Piggy’s wedding it’s just too slow. And isn’t Piggy a modern, liberated pig? Does she really need a frog to make her happy? What’s the message here? [Jeff Moss]

The_Magic_Store

48. The Magic Store – (The Muppet Movie, 1979) After so many great songs in their very first big screen adventure, I’ve always felt their big closer was a bit of a letdown. The spectacle feels artificial. [Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher]

Whistling_Caruso

47. Whistling Caruso – (The Muppets, 2011)  It’s whistling. Walter whistles to save the show. It’s okay, I guess. [Andrew Bird]

Mary_-_Me_Party

46. Me Party – (The Muppets, 2011) It’s light and breezy and gives Amy Adams and Miss Piggy something to do. Not the worst, but not my favorite. [Bret McKenzie and Paul Roemen]

Rightwhereibelong

45. Right Where I Belong – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984) Kermit snaps out of his amnesia after a truly jarringly insult-filled rant against Miss Piggy. Then we get this slow, forgettable little ditty. [Jeff Moss]

Canttakeno

44. You Can’t Take No for an Answer – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984) It’s a montage of Muppet rejection as they walk around the city. Like a lot of songs from Manhattan, it’s not the most memorable. [written by Jeff Moss]

Weddingchart-1080p

43. Somebody’s Getting Married – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984) It’s cheery. It’s upbeat. But why does it make me feel like everything is so forced? Did every single Muppet really care this much about Kermit and Piggy tying the knot? The highlight is the dancing tuxes. [Jeff Moss]

Something_better

42. Something Better – (Muppet Treasure Island, 1996) The two Brian Henson (son of Jim) directed Muppet films actually are some of the strongest for song consistency. Both Treasure Island and Christmas Carol boast some strong musical numbers. This trio of the boy Hawkins, Gonzo, and Rizzo is not one of them. [Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil]

A Bit More Personality:

Go_back_there

41. I’m Going to Back There Someday – (The Muppet Movie, 1979 and Muppets from Space, 1999) This is where the Gonzo mythos officially started. On the show he was a background character, but in the movie he became more fleshed out and this was his most bizarrely sobering moment. He’s hinting at suspecting that he’s an alien from outer space, yet it’s strangely serious and wistful. It’s a little slow, feels out of character for the usually more zany Gonzo, and I never really got it, but it ain’t bad. [Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher]

number1

40. I’m Number One – (Muppets Most Wanted, 2014) Ricky Gervais sings with Kermit’s doppelganger, Constantine, and it’s got a few great lines, but it goes a little too long and Ricky seems like he might be playing it almost a little too kid-friendly. I found that distracting and it didn’t entirely work for me. [Bret McKenzie]

MUPPETS MOST WANTED

39. Interrogation Song – (Muppets Most Wanted, 2014) This one has so much personality and a lot of clever lyrics and Ty Burrell gives his all as the Interpol agent, but I was still trying to get over the new Sam the eagle voice and this song, while funny, felt to be the most kidsy Muppet song ever. A little too soapy and kidsy for me, I guess. [Bret McKenzie]

Rat_scat

38. Rat Scat (Something’s Cookin’) – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984) This song introduces Rizzo the rat and company, but it’s more of an amusing spectacle than a great song. [written by Jeff Moss]

boomshakalaka

37. Boom Shakalaka – (Muppet Treasure Island, 1996)  It builds a lot of tension and suspense for the big comedy reveal of Miss Piggy being an island goddess who then takes an awkward fall down a flight of stairs, but there’s not a whole lot to it lyrically. [Hans Zimmer and Nick Glennie-Smith]

When_love_is_found

36. When Love is Found – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992)  This song reprises “When Love is Gone”, but with an obvious shift to a more joyful tone. It’s a good payoff at the end, but this reprise does not outclass the original somber theme sung my the crestfallen Belle. [Paul Williams]

When_love_is_gone

35. When Love is Gone – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) I know. Everyone hates this one. The thing is, it’s not a bad song. It’s serious, yes, but appropriately compelling. Sung mournfully by Scrooge’s lost love by a woman who had the thankless task of being completely serious in a movie with wacky felt animals and monsters. [Paul Williams]

Officially Muppets:

Walter-Man

34. Man or Muppet – (The Muppets, 2011) So this won the Academy Award for best song. Jason Segel and Walter explore their identity crises and it all comes to a satisfyingly silly conclusion. It’s funny and Muppet-y, but I submit this is not yet the best song from The Muppets. [Bret McKenzie]

cabin fever

33. Cabin Fever – (Muppet Treasure Island, 1996) The crew gets a little stir crazy and it’s the perfect timing for a wacky song. It happens at a lull and it operates purely as filler, but it’s welcome filler. The line, “And now that we’re all here, we’re not all there,” is perfect Muppet lyrical lunacy. [Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil]

together again

32. Together Again – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984 and Muppets Most Wanted, 2014) It’s buoyant and one of the more iconic Muppet songs. It’s a pleasant and small Kermit-led charmer. [Jeff Moss]

Sayinggoodbye

31. Saying Goodbye – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984) It’s a touching farewell that sees many beloved characters going their separate ways. It’s a surprisingly human moment from the Muppets. [Jeff Moss]

MUPPETS MOST WANTED

30. We’re Doing a Sequel – (Muppets Most Wanted, 2014) This is Most Wanted‘s version of “Hey a Movie!” from Muppet Caper. It even has villain Ricky Gervais popping in, echoing Charles Grodin’s appearance in the Caper opening. It’s cute and has some nice pop culture references, but “Hey a Movie!” is tough to beat. [Bret McKenzie]

Night_life

29. Night Life – (The Great Muppet Caper, 1981) This is an unapologetically abrasive Electric Mayhem song whose loud beats are matched and timed with the backfiring of their ramshackle, multicolored tour bus. The joke is that this is why they don’t get many gigs, but I actually like this willfully obnoxious jam. [Joe Raposo]

Hispaniola_Figurehead

28. Sailing for Adventure – (Muppet Treasure Island, 1996) It’s funny and has a solid tune with some classic comedy lyrics (“People die by falling overboard!”). It lags a bit when Hawkins and Long John Silver sing, but overall it’s a song full of the anticipation of a high seas adventure. [Barry Mann]

Higher and Higher:

Scrooge3

27.  Thankful Heart – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) This was the bouncy finale song Scrooge earned. It fills the screen with all the characters he was a dick to throughout the film and suddenly all is right with the world. It always puts a smile on my face. [Paul Williams]

Blessusall

26. Bless Us All – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) Another one most people probably forget, but it’s one of the sweetest and most tender songs the Muppets ever did. Framed as a prayer around the Cratchit family table, little Robin leads and even Miss Piggy appears genuine in this quiet moment of tearful thankfulness. Fully aware they are all on the edge of tragedy, the family takes stock of what they do have—even if it all only be temporary. [Paul Williams]

Scat

25. Christmas Scat – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) This is about the only time there has ever been a genuine connection apparent between Kermit and Robin. Nobody ever likes Robin, but this short, upbeat scene shows a beautiful affection that had never been previously shown. [Paul Williams]

MMWtrailerNov20-0082

24. The Big House – (Muppets Most Wanted, 2014) Prison jokes set to music featuring Tina Fey with Jemaine Clement, Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo, and a solitary confinement-bound Josh Groban singing backup. It introduces Kermit to the gulag. It’s so enjoyable I can even get over rhyming getaway with get away. [Bret McKenzie]

Marley_and_marley

23. Marley and Marley – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) This might be the weirdest Muppet song ever. Longtime peanut gallery hecklers, Statler and Waldorf, become actual characters in the Dickens classic as Jacob and Robert (Bob?) Marley. It’s mostly dark and dour, a terrifying warning about the consequences of greed and selfishness, yet it takes breaks for a couple offbeat “doh-ho-ho” jokes. The suitcases sing backup as Scrooge is wrapped in ghostly chains. [Paul Williams]

GMC-UnderwaterBubbles

22. Miss Piggy’s Fantasy – (The Great Muppet Caper, 1981) This number is purposely over-the-top and it is hilarious. Pretty much anytime Miss Piggy has a number, it’s going into her absurdly treacly imagination. Synchronized swimming ballet reminiscent of Busby Berkeley and Charles Grodin lip synching in a truly hilarious manner make this a great one. It’s trying to outdo the previous film’s “Never Before, Never Again” and maybe it comes close, but not close enough. [Joe Raposo]

Feelslikechristmas

21. It Feels Like Christmas – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) The jovial Ghost of Christmas Present sings this very cheery introduction to the joy of Christmas morning. We see so many characters spreading good cheer and love that it really is quite infectious. [Paul Williams]

Steppin_Out

20.  Steppin’ Out With a Star – (The Great Muppet Caper, 1981) This is a really nice sequence showing Kermit getting ready for his big date with who he thinks is Lady Holiday. It has all the excitement of getting ready to go out on a first date. Fozzie and Gonzo also join in the fun. The puppetry was always impressive in this sequence as well. [Joe Raposo]

Even More Fun:

mmw

19. I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu) – (Muppets Most Wanted, 2014) This is the most Flight of the Conchords song Bret McKenzie ever snuck into a Muppet movie. It’s a very funny and kinda sexy sequence where Constantine dials up the faux-charm and promises Miss Piggy all the romantic things in the world—including armadillos. [Bret McKenzie]

Propirate

18. Professional Pirate – (Muppet Treasure Island, 1996) This is a high stakes song about moral ambiguity and it’s funny as hell. Tim Curry leads the pirate chorus as they try to lure Jim Hawkins to their side and betray Captain Smollet. A regular sea shanty, but with some Muppet spice. [Barry Mann]

Canyoupicturethat

17. Can You Picture That? – (The Muppet Movie, 1979) This is probably the best Electric Mayhem song. They rock out in an old church as they disguise Fozzie’s Studebaker. It’s a lot of fun and ends on a nice joke when Kermit and Fozzie finally see their psychedelic work. Fozzie: “I don’t know how to thank you guys.” Kermit: “I don’t know why to thank you guys.” [Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams]

Neverbefore

16. Never Before, Never Again – (The Muppet Movie, 1979) Miss Piggy’s imagination certainly is a wild place. She first lays eyes on Kermit the frog at a fair and immediately goes into a hilarious dream montage borrowing cues from every romantic cliche off a pulp romance novel cover. This might be the funniest Piggy song. Highlights include her pretty much amorously forcing herself on the all-too-gallant amphibian in a field and her final note that turns into an abrasive scream. [Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams]

Piggy_and_Kermit

15. The First Time it Happens – (The Great Muppet Caper, 1981) It’s a peaceful waltz where Kermit and Miss Piggy fall in love and we are completely in their heads. This is one of the few times in Muppet history where the pig and the frog are on the same page romantically…maybe because nothing is spoken. [Joe Raposo]

happy song

14. Life’s a Happy Song – (The Muppets, 2011) Jason Segel and Walter sing this joyous and silly intro to the film. It sets a safe and light tempo that borders on self-parody. After this song you accept the soft, sweet cheesiness of the rules for this new Muppet world. McKenzie’s songs always felt more intimate and cute compared to the bigger sounds of some of the previous films’ scores. This is a nice introduction to that change. [Bret McKenzie]

Powerful Stuff:

always love you

13. I’m Gonna Always Love You – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984) This is another moment that’s all Piggy. Once again her imagination runs wild and we get the first appearance of the Muppet Babies as she fantasizes about what it would have been like had she met Kermit when they were all babies. It’s a catchy and stupidly cute little tune. [Jeff Moss]

Love_led_us_here

 

12. Love Led Us Here – (Muppet Treasure Island, 1996) This might be the most powerful moment between Kermit and Piggy. As Capt. Smollet and Benjamina, they dangle upside-down off a cliff as a candle burns through the rope. Realizing the end is near they stop fighting and embrace their fate as they profess their love and pontificate on how destiny has led them to what seems like disaster, but maybe it has brought them closer. It’s weirdly emotional. [Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil]

IslandHeads

11. Shiver My Timbers – (Muppet Treasure Island, 1996) Following a fantastic instrumental prologue and a salty Billy Connolly narration, we are plunged into a densely atmospheric pirate adventure with weird Muppet critters singing an ominous warning while cutthroat buccaneers bury their treasure. It’s got an intense build and it’s one of the few Muppet songs that actually feels dangerous. And the tikis. My god, the tikis. “One more time now.” [Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil]

greatmuppetcaper-01

10. Hey a Movie! – (The Great Muppet Caper, 1981) This might be the fourth wall breaking-est song the Muppets ever did. They pretty much give away the whole story and set the tone for the rules of their movie world. This was the first time the Muppets were not about being a variety show and were just straight up diving into genre storytelling, but they retained their sense of anarchy throughout and this song showcases that perfectly. [Joe Raposo]

1moresleep

9. One More Sleep ’til Christmas – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) This song is so soft and happy it’s hard not to love. It really does feel like a special night as Kermit and the rat bookkeepers tidy up and walk home, taking a moment to even join some skating penguins. “There’s no such thing as strangers when the stranger says ‘hello.'” [Paul Williams]

ForkinRoad

8. Movin’ Right Along – (The Muppet Movie, 1979) This was the charming, pun-filled road song that became the pulse of the whole film. Fozzie and Kermit are so full of hope for their new lives. You really buy their camaraderie. [Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams]

The Final Countdown:

pictures

7. Pictures in My Head – (The Muppets, 2011) This was my favorite song from The Muppets. In it, Kermit quietly reflects on his past regrets and his fading memories of his distant friends. We’d never seen Kermit this wistful and defeated before. It was strange and sad and then sculpted itself into something hopeful and magical as all the pictures came to life and sang to Kermit before retreating back into its own pessimism. Wonderfully crafted and kinda moving. [Jeannie Lurie, Aris Archontis, and Chen Neeman]

MCC-Screengrabs-George-a

6. Scrooge – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) What a great intro to a movie and a character. This was the first Muppet movie to try to be a reinterpretation of a classic bit o’ literature and they had to set the stage right and explain the tone and geometry of this world quickly. They did a great job and give many obscure characters a chance to shine as the camera movesd to every Muppet-filled nook and cranny of this Victorian street. It explains who Ebenezer Scrooge is with both levity and brevity. Alongside passages taken verbatim from Dickens we also get more Muppet-y lines like “Even the vegetables don’t like him.” Genius. [Paul Williams]

GMC-MuppetsOnBikes

5. Couldn’t We Ride? – (The Great Muppet Caper, 1981) Following a quarrel between Piggy and Kermit, this sublime song is pure elation. It’s Caper‘s version of “Rainbow Connection”. All the Muppets are riding bicycles without a care in the world. It was an impressive feat of puppetry as well. What starts as a quiet moment between a frog and a pig becomes a universal feeling of good feelings and serenity. [Joe Raposo]

MMW-SomethingSoRight

4. Something So Right – (Muppets Most Wanted, 2014) This is an epic moment that follows Miss Piggy’s emotional uncertainty following an uncharacteristic proposal from a frog who she thinks is Kermit. It’s a solid song with emotional depth and cashes in on the precedented joke that Piggy is a Celine Dion fan. Celine does indeed join in for a nice cameo, as does Dr. Teeth, Floyd Pepper, Scooter, Rowlf, Pepe the prawn, and even the rarely used Lew Zealand and Link Hogthrob (Beaker steals the scene with six well-placed “mee’s”). Piggy has another fantasy about her life with Kermit—having freak babies and growing old together. It’s a wonderfully executed song and features the most random assortment of side characters. It’s Most Wanted‘s “Pictures in My Head” moment and I daresay, it surpasses it. [Bret McKenzie]

Rainbow_connection_1

3. Rainbow Connection – (The Muppet Movie, 1979, The Muppets, 2011) What? The Muppet anthem classic isn’t number one? Blasphemy! Outrage! Well, it’s just my opinion. This really is one of the sweetest songs ever and it’s easy to see its universal appeal. Rather than go after jokes and gags, Kermit simply sings from the heart, putting words together for no other reason than they sound pretty and full of hope. The perfect introduction to the optimistic world of the Muppets [Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher]

SomethingBetter

2. I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along – (The Muppet Movie, 1979) This is a quiet moment of male bonding between Kermit the frog and Rowlf the dog (both voiced by Jim Henson). They sing a duet lamenting their failed love lives. It’s simple, playful, real, and even finds time for a few welcome jokes. It’s like a scene from Casablanca and at the end we feel closer to both of them. [Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher]

Happiness_Hotel_Song

1. Happiness Hotel – (The Great Muppet Caper, 1981) “Happiness Hotel” is an apologetic welcome to a shabby, hole-in-the-wall inn when Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo get to England. It’s sung in a bouncy, rinky-dink sort of way by the entire Muppet peanut gallery. It’s loaded with gags, puns, clever dialogue, and rhymes. What makes it great is it has that mock-apology sensibility that The Muppet Show always had. The whole idea of The Muppet Show was that a motley band of misfits and oddballs were trying to put on a variety show every week with Kermit and others usually trying to cover up backstage mishaps or onstage shenanigans while Statler and Waldorf heckled in the sidelines. The show was supposed to be about a flawed revue act that the characters were always apologizing for but, just like this song, the pretend problems are what made it great and funny. This song feels like a loving and energetic tribute to the original spirit of the old show. And it ends on a stinger where long-suffering straight man, Sam the eagle, opens his door, scans the room tacitly, and then finally mutters, “You are all weirdos.” Classic. [written by Joe Raposo]

Originally published for net.sideBar March 30, 2015.

http://www.netsidebar.com/the-definitive-subjective-ranking-of-the-best-theatrical-muppet-songs/

Beyond Bat Country: Madness in Every Direction

Remember Gore Verbinksi’s kiddie western, Rango (2011)? Did it remind you of anything? The parched, empty Mojave Desert, the alarmingly bright and out-of-place Hawaiian shirt, and then the words “starring Johnny Depp.” Clearly we were reliving one of the classic drug trips…but where was the TarGard Permanent Filter System cigarette holder, green translucent visor, and hallucinatory manta rays?

We can't stop here. This is bat country.

“We can’t stop here. This is bat country.”

The sixties are dead and the seventies don’t look like they’ll be near as much fun, echoes the wistful message of cult favorite Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Terry Gilliam (one of my personal favorite directors) might have been the ideal choice to film this unfilmable story by Hunter S. Thompson (one of my personal favorite writers). If you haven’t read the book (first published in novel form in 1972), correct this immediately, but if you have read it you would know just how impossible it seems to put on film. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a fractured quasi-autobiographical account of a drug-addled excursion to casino central. It is also a lament for the loss of the innocence and purity of the sixties counterculture while simultaneously an ironic discovery of how perverted and hollow the American Dream had become. There are isolated events and meandering amusing tales woven throughout the story, but nothing really strikes one as being particularly cinematic. The only real feature uniting the book’s passages are the two main characters—Raoul Duke (aka Thompson) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (aka Oscar Acosta).

Ralph Steadman

Ralph Steadman

That the movie works at all is an incredible accomplishment. The ink smeared intro evokes the instantly recognizable illustrative work of frequent Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman. Johnny Depp delivers a manic, cartoonish performance that might just be his most enjoyable to watch. His portrayal of Thompson is a hilarious caricature of the real person. Benicio Del Toro also gives a very dynamic and twisted performance as the unsavory, unpredictable “Samoan” attorney. Nicola Pecorini’s constantly tilting camera-work and wild color and light shifts also feeds the delirious experience very well. The classic song choices are perfectly placed too. The production does a marvelous job of recreating the demented, gaudy aura of a 1971 Las Vegas. Director Terry Gilliam’s bold visual style (from Time Bandits to Twelve Monkeys) made him an excellent choice to capture Thompson’s energy and anarchy.

"Let's get down to brass tacks. How much for the ape?"

“Let’s get down to brass tacks. How much for the ape?”

All of these things are fine inclusions to a strange project, but perhaps the most important element is that virtually every line of dialogue is ripped directly from Thompson’s typewriter. One thing that sometimes bothers me is that film adaptations of books I love often fail to capture the voice of the source material. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas uses the original words the whole way, which was the best choice because what makes Hunter S. Thompson so great is not always what he is writing about, but how he describes things. In adapting the language of the original Gonzo journalist, one has to use the words.

the reptile zoo

the reptile zoo

Directors like Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) and Oliver Stone (Nixon) said it couldn’t be done. And after seeing Gilliam’s take, some critics said it had remained undone. It may be a semi-lucid muddle, but I’d still call it a triumph. The film feels like a wild drug trip, complete with its highs and lows, but always anchored by the perceptive and dogged mumblings of our Virgil-like guide in the form of Thompson’s words ejaculating from Depp’s mouth. Fear and Loathing succeeds in being a cinematic representation of a grouping of abstract ideas. It’s a story that probes the mind rather than pluck the heartstrings. These guys are too concerned with making it out of this withering, neon-lit trap alive to share a fount of human emotion. They take note of their surroundings; imagine them to be altered; forget their surroundings; abuse their surroundings; navigate impossible obstacles and impositions all in the name of journalism; and then take note again.

"So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”

Is the movie about drug use? Many of its followers would say yes, but it is so much more than that. To me it is about writing and about somehow counting one’s losses and recovering. It is about how you cannot go back to the same place twice and expect it to be unchanged. If the film seems like a wreck, just remember that one of the themes is salvaging the pieces. There be much fear and loathing in this litany of a lost ideal.

Apart from all the Thompson documentaries, there were a few other cinematic incarnations. Johnny Depp played Thompson again in 2011 in The Rum Diary and before that Bill Murray played Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980).

The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary

Whitnail and I director Bruce Robinson’s Rum Diary movie suffers from being a little boring in comparison with Gilliam’s insanity, but it’s not that bad actually. I’d say it was unfairly maligned. It’s a gentle examination of early Thompson and a decent adaptation of the source material. I actually defend The Rum Diary. It never really finds a proper momentum and it’s not the tropical booze-binge the marketing insinuated, but it has great atmosphere and some fun characters. Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, and Richard Jenkins give memorable performances as well. As an American expat living abroad myself, I find myself strangely drawn to the characters’ plights of living from delayed paycheck to delayed paycheck at a failing business in a foreign land…and the looming threat of American industrial encroachment peaking over the horizon. It’s no Fear and Loathing, but it’s not trying to be.

Where the Buffalo Roam

Where the Buffalo Roam

Art Linson’s Where the Buffalo Roam suffers too from being a little tepid and unfocused. Buffalo Roam is kinda like Occupy Wallstreet, you can tell it feels strongly about something but you’re not quite sure how it plans to achieve anything or where it’s ultimately heading…maybe that’s the perfect Thompson movie then? That being said, it’s not a total waste as there are some moments of snarky wit and Bill Murray actually gives a pretty solid performance as Thompson. Peter Boyle is also pretty good as Dr. Gonzo.

Perhaps it makes no sense to harp on a film that has become a thriving cult classic. Perhaps Rango did not intend to pay homage either…but wait! Who’s that CG gentleman in the speeding red shark? Why, I do declare! Hunter S. Thompson has a cameo in RangoFear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a writer’s paradise and the movie (and Ed Wood) are the main reasons I still pay attention to Johnny Depp. Fans of Thompson shouldn’t be disappointed, and newcomers might be turned off, but them’s the chances ya take with a strong literary voice.

Get in.

Buy the ticket. Take the ride.

Top 10 Reasons to See Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

1. It contains what I hesitate-not to dub Johnny Depp’s best performance.

2. The incessant drug use is the perfect excuse for Gilliam to go crazy.

3. Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Harry Dean Stanton, Tobey Maguire, Cameron Diaz, Mark Harmon, Verne Troyer, Ellen Barkin, Michael Jeter, Katherine Helmond, Penn Gillette, Christopher Meloni, and even Hunter S. Thompson himself have cameos. What fun.

4. Is it better than the book? Not a chance, but I’d rank it alongside Watership Down (1978) and The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers (1973-1974) and a bunch of other great and worthy literary adaptations.

5. In keeping all the dialogue the same it basically functions as an audio book, but with Gilliam pictures!

6. You wanna get anxious? This film will make ya anxious. It’s got some scenes that’ll make ya anxious.

7. It manages to find somberness and sobriety amidst its hallucinatory mayhem.

8. Despite some grotesqueries it maintains a constant absurd sense of humor.

9. It’s a great gateway drug into the worlds of both Terry Gilliam and Hunter S. Thompson.

10. You will understand why The Rum Diary (2011) could never live up to it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 11, 2011

Facing Your Fears: The Top 13 Movies That Freaked Me Out When I Was a Kid

I loved movies my whole life. There were a lot of things I saw in movies that really freaked me out when I was young. These are the ones that left the most profound scars on my youthful psyche. I give you: The Top 13 Movies That Freaked Me Out When I Was a Kid.

Seriously. Why do this to children?

Seriously. Why do this to children?

13. Pink Elephants, Heffalumps and Woozles. Thank you, Disney, for haunting my childhood with not one, but two very scary songs about elephants. Dumbo (1941) has the “Pink Elephants on Parade” song—where drunk Dumbo and Timothy Mouse hallucinate some truly nightmarish pachyderm-themed imagery. Winnie the Pooh’s nightmare after meeting Tigger was also frightening to me as a kid.

Eerily prophetic of what would happen to the real life Val Kilmer.

Eerily prophetic of what would happen to the real life Val Kilmer.

12. You’re all pigs. Most people might remember a nasty troll turning into the two-headed Eborsisk and ripping his brother in half in Willow (1988), but for me there was a scarier scene. The scene where the evil sorceress turns the army into pigs. It was a particularly jarring morph scene that rattled my young impressionable mind.

Two decades later this image still really bothers me.

Two decades later this image still really bothers me.

11. Pigs are still scary. The song “I Found a New Way to Walk” performed by the Oinker Sisters on Sesame Street. I actually can’t explain this one. Something about those dead-eyed, floppy mouthed, felt pig puppets with no pants singing in that black void really got to me. That the song is frighteningly catchy too only makes it worse. For whatever reason, this clip from “Sesame Street” scared me when I was little and, truth be told, still kind of unnerves me today.

That's a bone-chilling image to thrust into your kiddie space adventure.

That’s a bone-chilling image to thrust into your kiddie space adventure.

10. There’s a wolfman in Star Wars?! The glowing eyes, drooling maw, nightmarishly slow and calculated movement, and that jarring noise he makes are all super scary to a kid of four. I dreaded the Tatooine cantina scene for that reason. Outside of that, the only other thing that ever bothered me in the entire Star Wars universe was when Luke takes Darth Vader’s helmet off. I think it was his scabby head.

Dwight Frye always dies.

Dwight Frye always dies.

9. Dwight Frye dies twice. He got to play two different creepy sidekick guys who die in Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). In the original he is the doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Fritz, who gets his comeuppance off-screen—although you do hear his cries echo through the moldy castle corridors. When Dr. Frankenstein arrives, the monster has hung Fritz’s lifeless corpse from the rafters. In the sequel he is Dr. Pretorias’ nasty henchman, Karl. The enraged monster throws him off a castle during a storm. Something about the lifeless dummy falling, arms akimbo, accompanied by Frye’s hideous screams is still unnerving in its fakeness.

Alfred Molina's first movie appearance,

Alfred Molina’s first movie appearance,

8. The first 10 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Spiders, booby traps, impalements, rotting corpses, poison darts, and a terrific sense of suspense—especially for children. Had I stuck around for the grand finale at that tender age I don’t know where I’d be now.

It's the ever advancing closeups that did it, man.

It’s the ever advancing closeups that did it, man.

7. A Hitchcock trifecta. I succumbed to the terror of Psycho‘s shower sequence (1960) and I’ve had trouble with shower curtains ever since. The wonders Hitchcock must have done for the glass shower industry. The Birds (1963) also has some good scares, especially when she finds the dead old man with his eyes pecked out. No one remembers Torn Curtain (1966) and it’s not a great one, but the scene where Paul Newman murders the hitman with the oven disturbed me.

No one ever listens to the old Chinese guy.

No one ever listens to the old Chinese guy.

6. The Gremlins in Gremlins (1984). The sequel was hilarious, but Joe Dante’s first movie was nightmare fuel. It forever changed how I experience the Christmas song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Those little slimy cocoons and the gleefully malevolent violence that followed really rattled my young, impressionable mind.

Alas, no photos could be found of the nasty executioner guy.

Alas, no photos could be found of the nasty executioner guy.

5. The ugly torturer guy gets sandwich impaled. Remember the crappy Disney Three Musketeers from 1993 with Chris O’Donnell and Tiger Blood? The scene where Oliver Platt fights the jailer at the end is horrific. The guy is big and ugly and sweaty and half naked for starters. Then he gets slammed onto a wall of nails. He twitches and Platt moves in to inspect and he suddenly starts yelling like some sort of animal. Finally the other half of the spike-wall hinges shut—sandwiching the poor bastard in a bloody grid of iron and spikes. Rated PG.

Remember me, Eddie?

Remember me, Eddie?

4. Judge Doom gets run over by a steamroller. I was two years old when I first saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). It’s one of my favorite movies now, but when I was little I was scared to death of this movie. The scene where Judge Doom (Doc Brown! No!) gets run over by a steamroller is an unsettling bit of family-friendly horror. That he peels his own flattened body off the floor, sucks some helium to re-inflate himself, pops his eyeballs out, and somehow becomes stronger is just bone-chilling to a two-year old.

He doesn't eat people though. He just chews 'em and then throws 'em.

He doesn’t eat people though. He just chews ’em and then throws ’em away.

3. All the deaths in King Kong (1933). The original King Kong has also graduated to one of my favorite movies. Again, it was horrific and brutal as a child. People get chomped, smashed, and squished by a rampaging giant gorilla. Additionally, the budding dinosaur fanatic in me was flabbergasted that the apatosaurus was portrayed as a carnivore.

Nightmare fuel, that is.

Nightmare fuel, that is.

2. Gold guy’s face after getting impaled in Flash Gordon (1980). I never watched all of the ridiculously stupid-awesome movie that is Flash Gordon until I was much older and more appreciative of the camp factor. When I was but a lad, the only portion of this film I saw was the ending where green-cloaked guy with a gold mask comes out and says some dick things before he is thrown onto a big plank with spikes on it. His body flattens on the spikes and then there’s a disturbing closeup of his face: a gross sound-effect accompanies the dude’s eyes and tongue bugging out like worms emerging from a metal apple.

I couldn't find a really good still so you're just gonna have to watch the whole movie.

I couldn’t find a really good still so just take my word for it.

1. Violence and Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). A lot of the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies blend together for me and most of them had scary finales where everyone is captured, tortured, or horrifically killed by politically incorrect tribal guys. This first movie was the scariest to me. Never mind the animal cruelty, racism, and the fact that Tarzan is pretty much a rapist who gets lucky when his captive lady gets Stockholm syndrome. For starters, if memory serves, a pack of territorial hippos capsize the explorers’ rafts and then crocodiles get a bunch of the guys. That’s nothing. The ending is where it became too much. The surviving explorers and their porters are captured by a tribe of scary pygmies who sacrifice them to a man in a giant sloppy gorilla suit. One by one they are thrown into the pit. Before Tarzan shows up to graphically gouge apart the ape’s face with his knife, the monstrous primate repeatedly smashes Cheeta (the Chimpanzee sidekick) against a rock—the image of the big faux-ape swinging the smaller doll ape around still haunts me. Finally they use the carcass as a shield against the pygmies’ arrows before the elephants show up to trample their village. Movies were brutal back then, man. Brutal and racist.

(It was also the inspiration for my own shabby attempt at short film with Stewed).

Originally published for net.sideBar on Sept. 18, 2013.

Burns and Allen Deconstructed: Classic TV with a Darker Subtext

On the surface The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950-1958) appears like your typical early sitcom in the pioneering days of television. Gracie (Grace Allen) is a nutty and unsuppressible ditz who’s always mixing up words and meanings to delightfully malapropic comic effect, while her accountant husband, George (George Burns), is the cigar smoking straight-man. But look a little deeper and you see a subtly surreal meta tragedy of mythic proportions.

burnsandallen

What I am about to recount to you are my observations surrounding the legendary sitcom. Granted, my findings are based only on personal experiences and not necessarily founded in actual science.

George (Burns, that is) exists in seemingly two different worlds. First there is the husband and straight-man role he occupies quite serviceably, but he also dons the role as the semi-omniscent narrator to the events of the show. The laughter induced by a recent scene ends, the lights go down, and George appears in front of a curtain—passing through the looking-glass—and he begins to explain things to the audience directly. He summarizes and he fills in missing scenes and he puffs his cigar. It appears as though he has one foot firmly planted in a different reality. But is the other side of the curtain the real reality or are the laughs only in his mind?

If the audience is indeed real then is George Burns some sort of droll demigod? He is privy to certain information on the stage, but not all. He knows events that recently occurred and he knows some things that he was not even present for and occasionally he knows a few minutes into the next scene that will arrive shortly, but he rarely knows the ultimate outcome of these scenes. He only knows where he just came from, what other characters are doing right now off-screen and he knows everything that happened earlier and some things that have yet to transpire. He is borderline psychic, but even if he knows the route things will take he is still doomed to go through the motions and see them through to the end.

I knew this would happen.

I knew this would happen.

Here is the show in a nutshell: George Burns narrates half the events as they really happen before they happen but then he gets interrupted by the action as its happening, like the “tape delay” has caught up with him and is sucking him back four minutes into the past. What a hellish existence.

After a few laughs and a few cigar puffs Burns leaves the audience and returns to the sitcom world where his powers are meaningless and unknown. What if he could tell them all: “Hey, I knew you would say that” or “Don’t let her in. She doesn’t really have pie”? Surely they’d take him for a madman. I am certain Gracie would have some wry misinformed quip to lighten the mood should they conflagrate him a witch.

carnation

George Burns is a trapped victim living between two dimensions each equally alienating in their own way. There exists, however, another disturbing element to the Burns and Allen Show. Like many sitcoms and variety shows of the era when TV was new, commercials were oft times eerily interwoven into the events of the plot. Television had yet to fully separate the programs from the sponsors and the results were a Twin Peaks-esque nightmare of drama-driven advertising. Frequently characters will appear with strange quasi-hidden posters or product samples. Claiming to have some relation to the Burns and Allen storyline they would invite themselves in, skitter through their phony setups only to reveal their ulterior motives. It’s forecast pretty loudly so it’s hard to miss an impending in-show commercial, yet they always manage to surprise me with their thinness and surreality.

Burns knows this scam (I think), yet he is powerless to stop it. Perhaps he is aware that if he stops the advertisers from doing their bizarre ritualistic spiel then Carnation Instant Milk Powder will pull the plug on the money-flow that sustains Burns and Allen. Essentially to stop them is suicide. But what quality of life does he really have? Who is George Burns really? Does he sleep in the world of separate twin-beds, sitcom setups, and no toilets or does he make camp in front of the curtain?

burnsallen4

George Burns might have been a sort of failed Messiah. Perhaps he had it in his power to open up everyone’s eyes. He could have told the characters of the sham they were living. He could have given them the Pleasantville revelation that they are merely acting out a fictitious plot for the amusement of a savvy 50’s television audience. Maybe Burns could take Gracie and the cast by the hand and lead them to the other side of the curtain and open their eyes. But would this revelation not blow their mind? Think of the Square from Edwin Abbott Abbott’s mathematical masterpiece “Flatland.”

On occasion he does manage to pull Gracie to the other side, but her dimness of wit makes her ill-equipped to get a handle on things and she merely blathers on in character. Can she not recognize her salvation when it is at hand?

There is the risk that the studio audience on the other side of the curtain is just the hallucinatory manifestations of a deranged and deeply introspective George Burns. But how come Gracie pretends she can see it too when he transports her?

Maybe it’s a risk worth taking. They could escape the advertisements and the tinny laughter. Maybe color would even be granted the weary travelers. Would that then be Nirvana? Not the band, but the utopic state of being in the afterlife. Maybe the band. The British Nirvana from the 60s though, not the other one.

burnsallen5

It is mere folly to speculate as Burns proved to be a failed Messiah. He never did bring divine revelation to his fellow cast members of this sick play. Maybe he was just a lost lesser X-Men who never realized his potential. Perhaps he never knew the others were not semi-psychic. How alone he must have felt.

No, George Burns was no Messiah.

But he did play God later.

…John Denver was a terrible actor.

http://vintage45.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/the-george-burns-and-gracie-allen-show-1950-58/

http://culturalproductionblog.com/?p=391

http://www.popscreen.com/v/61X0t/The-George-Burns–Gracie-Allen-show

http://www.oocities.org/4christ.geo/tour/cast_list.html

http://www.homevideos.com/movies/ohgod

Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle on April 18, 2013.

For Your Consideration: Mr. Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Ed Wood. The name is infamous. It is synonymous with crap movies. It is also the title of Tim Burton’s best film.

Ed Wood gained posthumous notoriety for being the world’s worst movie director of all time. While I’m inclined to think that he was strikingly inept at his trade, I cannot quite give him that illustrious title. He was not the worst director of all time. He stunk, but there have been stinkier. Coleman Francis for instance. I feel unfair even saying that he stunk as I actually genuinely enjoy some of his movies.

Action!

His films were bizarre yet personal and plagued by financial setbacks. Films Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) may be his most famous and I confess that at some level I do admire these schlock-fests. Tim Burton’s masterpiece, Ed Wood (1994) chronicled some of the life of the notorious filmmaker and the making of these three films in particular. Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) plays Wood and Martin Landau (Crimes and Misdemeanors) got the Oscar for his magnificent portrayal of an aging, morphine addicted Bela Lugosi. Burton’s movie also features folks like Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City), Patricia Arquette (Medium), Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and Bill Murray (Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Burton’s Ed Wood is a quirky yet affectionate comic portrait of a misguided man struggling in Hollywood and all the baffling trials of putting a movie together, albeit bad ones. Shot in sumptuous black and white by Stefan Czapsky (Batman Returns) and cleverly scored by Howard Shore (The Return of the King) and sporting snazzy production design it is almost ironic that the film is so fantastic and talent-filled.

Bad movies fascinate me because most bad movies are forgettable. It takes talent to make a memorably bad movie. There has to be a perfect balance of delusion and ineptitude to get it to work right. I applaud the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys for keeping bad movies that would have otherwise been forgotten around just a little longer. Ed Wood immortalizes Ed Wood in a way that might have never happened. Glenda, Bride, and Plan 9 are also fun to watch by themselves. But knowing your Ed history (as a floundering cross-dressing film hack) helps make them more interesting.

Are you quite comfortable?

Of his three most famous, Bride of the Monster might be the least interesting, perhaps because it is the most familiar. Mad scientist + monster guy + girl = standard sci fi horror derivative mayhem. A half-dead and quite feeble looking Bela Lugosi (Dracula, Island of Lost Souls) plays Dr. Vornoff (mad scientist) and wrestler Tor Johnson is the manbeast, Lobo. Will Vornoff succeed in creating a race of atomic supermen? Yawn. Not original enough. Still, it’s not bad for a movie that’s awful. It has its points, but Plan 9 from Outer Space is just so much loopier that it blows it out of the water.

Plan 9 from Outer Space is the story of aliens trying to resurrect the dead to scare humanity into not making the Solaranite bomb—a bomb that humanity has never even heard of. Take everything that was good and accessible about The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and make it ridiculous and you got yourself a movie. Awful special effects, obtrusive continuity errors, and hammy bad acting compliment the convoluted plot and unwieldy dialogue. It famously features the last footage the great Lugosi ever shot (about 2 minutes maybe) and was stitched into this film after he died. A double played him for the rest of the movie. Tor Johnson is also in it as well as TV’s Vampira. It’s silly and memorable. Basically great fun and you will laugh.

Joan Rivers on bath salts!

As wonderful as Plan 9 is, out of these famous three my favorite has got to be Glen or Glenda. It was only Wood’s first feature and it’s got it all. Science fiction, mystery, Satan with moth antennae, flashbacks, Bela Lugosi, buffalo, wildly inaccurate science, transvestism, sex changes, S&M…bondage…uh, suicide…okay so having it all might not necessarily be a good thing.

Wood wrote, directed, and starred in this nigh incomprehensible mess of mismatched ideas. I like it because not only is it horrendously done, it actually resembles something special: a movie with a personal—albeit somewhat deranged—touch from Mr. Wood himself. As a real life transvestite he brings us unnervingly close to the subject matter. He also conjectures that hats are the cause of baldness. Lugosi may be our Virgil-like guide on this weird trek but Mr. Wood provides us with a few other narrators trying to explain multiple storylines to different audiences just for good measure (but it’s nothing like The Saragossa Manuscript). The way it’s edited actually makes Lugosi’s narrator seem more like a pervy retired mad scientist suffering dementia in a detached environment than anything else. In addition to the several main plots there is a bizarre ten minute wordless fetish sequence of a woman whipping another woman tied to a couch. . . added in for punch, I guess. It’s a tremendously wretched collage of broken ideas and unrelated sequences that I actually really respect for being so blindingly strange. It’s a movie I can watch by myself and still laugh at.

Just like Orson Wells.

There are some bad movies I can’t recommend enough. Glen or Glenda is one of them.

If you have an attraction toward bad movies than I’m sure Ed Wood is already on your radar. Troll 2, The Room, Ben and Arthur, and Birdemic are great, but sometimes you just crave classic crap. I can’t get into “The Asylum” production company because they know better and purposely make bad movies. I’ve said it before: the best bad movies have incredible deluded passion propelling them. Now Ed Wood was not the worst filmmaker ever and he wasn’t even the first truly awful filmmaker, but his films were more than bad. They were weird and that weirdness makes them memorable.

I put it to you. What is worse? Memorable crap or forgotten mediocrity?

Pull the string! Pull the string!

Go watch some Ed Wood movies and then go watch the movie Ed Wood. You’ll get some of the best of the worst along with Burton’s best.

Quiet and at a Distance

“Tragedy is a close-up, comedy a long shot.”—Buster Keaton

“Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but comedy is a long shot.”—Charlie Chaplin

Playtime---"excuse me."

Playtime—“excuse me.”

The great silent comedians knew it best. The quotes up top reveal much in their simplicity. Serious is personal, funny is removed. When seeing a face contorted by physical or emotional pain, we have a tendency to empathize, but when seen in full juxtaposition against a much bigger world we sometimes get the feeling our own “big” problems are quite silly. Comedy can be a grotesque distortion of the real world or it can be a subtle exaggeration or unexpected emphasis. By taking those necessary steps back and poking fun at misfortune, we get a chuckle, but we can also realize something more telling about our society or identity than we might have anticipated because we are now the omniscient observer. Film teaches us…even when we are laughing.

1

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—so close but so far

One of the fascinating things about comic film auteur, Jacques Tati, is that it seemed he couldn’t get his camera far enough away from the action. Each successive film he made he moved further and further back until there were no characters, only bumbling specks. There is no plot, only impersonal environment and obstacle. If you saw Sylvain Chomet’s (The Triplets of Belleville) recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010) then you got a pretty good look at the man (the main character is modeled after Tati very closely and it was based on a script he had written before he died) and you got a sense of his tacit comic style, but to view the actual gentleman’s work is something a bit different.

Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Keaton’s stone-faced stuntman, and Lloyd’s bespectacled everyman, Tati too had a consistent onscreen persona in the form the bungling Monsieur Hulot. Instantly recognizable by his raincoat, hat, umbrella, pipe, and avian stiff-legged gait, Mr. Hulot is a fine comic character that has made his way into cinematic memory. Mr. Hulot found his debut in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953).

Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—ready for the beach

Hulot’s Holiday is light and affable and full of many memorable and creative sight gags. Essentially plotless, the movie follows the quiet misadventures of Mr. Hulot at the beach and all of the other peaceful—and far less clumsy—French folks on their seaside vacation. In Hulot’s first outing, we see Tati really toying with film itself to tell the jokes. Tati has been lauded for his impeccable mise-en-scène and we see a budding genius here in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. It’s not what can be seen in each frame, but also what information can be strategically hidden or subliminally inferred.

What Tati does with pictures reminds me of what comedian Bob Newhart did with words. Newhart had several stand-up bits where he would talk on the phone or to an invisible person whose presence was assumed. We never see or hear the other person, but we know exactly what they are doing and saying and thinking based solely on Newhart’s subtle pauses, inflections, and word choices in mock-response. Tati will either give the audience—or only a few characters—a bit of information, such as the surprising presence of a horse for example, and then alternate back and forth between who is privy to said information; the audience or the characters. It was all a clever grown-up game of hide-and-seek.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—a graceful exit

Tati liked to create beautifully set up spaces riddled with obstacles the characters would have to maneuver around. Scenes in Mon Oncle (1958) where we see Mr. Hulot navigating his way up or down from his rustic, old apartment dwelling are strangely, quietly amusing. The camera is always parked directly across the street as if the lens were from a voyeuristic Jimmy Stewart’s perspective. This distance reveals the labyrinthine absurdity and shows the audience the whole picture while Hulot himself is limited from room to room. Like watching the ending of an episode of Legends of the Hidden Temple, we in our chairs see exactly what obstacles lay in the next room before the participant. This allows for either suspense or suspended comedy.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—visiting the sister

The biggest production Tati ever did came in the form of Playtime (1967) and it had several layers to it. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday was an exercise in taking away the relaxation of a trip to the beach from would-be relaxers. Mon Oncle started to have more noticeable elements of satire. Mr. Hulot lives in a dilapidated, yet character-full, old apartment while his sister is obsessed with ever-backfiring modernity. Things are all about keeping up appearances for important guests with inefficient technologies and frivolities that “make our lives easier.” Tati satirizes this with his poetic Hulot character as the simple man who is poor in possessions, but rich in honesty and personality. Playtime takes this concept a step further. In Mon Oncle, modern architecture was merely imposing on old France. In Playtime, modern architecture has entirely engulfed old France. It is one of the grayest, most sterile, and concrete looking films you will probably ever see. The whole spectacle feels far away, hollow, and empty…and it is exactly what Tati was trying to do.

Jacques Tati returns as Mr. Hulot, a wandering old soul trying to find his way in this faceless new world. All of Tati’s/Hulot’s beloved old France has been relegated to a single street corner (in the form of an anachronistic-looking woman selling flowers under a tarpaulin). The real France is only ever hinted at in reflections or off in the distance behind “more important modern things.” Tati’s trademark plotlessness afforded him great opportunities to make very high-concept films about ideas and abstractions like modern city living in Playtime. One of my personal favorite sequences comes toward the beginning where Mr. Hulot is trying meet with someone and waits and waits and then, fed up with waiting, embarks on his own through a very homogeneous edifice interior full of identical hallways, rooms, cubicles, elevators, and people. Tati also plays with reflections and glass barriers to wonderfully inventive comic effect throughout Playtime.

Playtime

Playtime—the maze of cubicles

The running gag throughout Playtime is that modern (and many times American) culture has eaten the old world. Several of the characters are American tourists looking for old Paris, but happily accepting the modern soulless replacements. They get off the plane and wander through an immensely sterile and impersonal airport, board a modern looking bus, get stuck in a traffic orgy of nearly indistinguishable cars, and wander the cold concrete corridors of all that is left of Paris. One marvelous moment comes when a tourist is about to enter another very modern building and catches a fleeting glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the reflection of the glass door as she opens it. For a brief moment the tourist is struck by the magic and then continues on her way to shopping and sales.

Tati’s biases are clear and obvious, but his clever delivery of all these statements is masterful. Hulot visits friends in their big-windowed apartment (nothing like his place from Mon Oncle) and the camera stays outside watching the silent, ironic, and humorous events transpire from across the street. The scene is about ten minutes long and all we see for this ten minutes is a grid of square windows with people watching televisions inside (the juxtaposition ventures to ask, “who’s really on display here?”) and all we hear is the passing cars outside. Everything is conjured to be as unnatural as possible. Another classic gag comes when an apartment denizen leaves to walk his dog and as soon as he steps outside the little dog hops up off the concrete and onto the only green in the film: a pitiful strip of astro-turf lining the building.

Playtime--travel agency.

Playtime–travel agency.

It’s more than a re-imagining of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). The humor is soft and subtle and easy to miss if you’re not paying close attention to what Tati is doing. One joke I missed the first time I saw this was a gag involving a heated argument and then the “slamming” of a new and improved silent door. Those people expecting to find Mr. Hulot as a central figure in this huge film will be disappointed. Mr. Hulot has become not only distant from the camera, but distant from most of the action. Hulot has become just another character in a sea of faces, but his is still the most familiar and I’d say the most amusing. In parodying city life and the heart-breaking trend of embracing all that is sleek, streamlined, and new while bulldozing the artful past, Tati creates a film unlike any other. Cold buildings tower over gaudily dressed cartoon characters of the human race and kowtow to all things modern. The tragedy is, just like in Brazil, the modern stuff doesn’t always work and Tati would argue it is also far less pretty.

Playtime meanders about and then finally culminates in a swanky restaurant’s ill-fated opening night before sending all the tourists on their carnival ride through Paris traffic back to the airport. Fitting this film should end with traffic as Tati’s next film and final outing as Mr. Hulot would be Traffic (1971). Traffic gets crapped on as being lesser Tati, but it is still great and very clever. Playtime is a tough act to follow. In viewing Tati’s canon one gets the feeling he was feeling more and more archaic and out of place in a world that was constantly changing. He was a dinosaur, a silent comedian trapped in a land of sound, a wandering poet drowning in a sea of science. Mr. Hulot is really a tragic figure and many of the ideas in Tati’s films are rather sad and unfortunate when you think about how true so many of them are or have become…but then, he set the camera far enough back. From this safe distance we could clearly see the anarchy and lunacy of our society and appreciate the grim comedy of it all. Up close, many of the most important comedies would be far more serious affairs.

Traffic

Traffic

Many an homage has been made to the great Tati’s contributions to film and comedy, from Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) to Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention), but there aren’t many comedy directors today that are as bold and articulate as Jacques Tati was at the height of his powers. When comedy is at its best it is as intellectually effectual and perceptive as drama, but it has the added bonus of being clever and letting us laugh at ourselves too.

Top 10 Reasons to See the Films of Jacques Tati:

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

1. He was one of the last great silent comedians, keeping it alive and respectable well into the 1970s.

2. You think comedies don’t have as much artistic merit or visual brilliance as other genres? Correct your misconception.

3. He is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time…and he only made six features.

4. Playtime was the most expensive French film ever made up until that time so make his investment worth it.

5. You liked The Illusionist? Good. Now you can make it even more funny and important.

6. Impress your friends with knowledge of famous French filmmakers that aren’t Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard.

7. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I genuinely find him funny.

8. I can think of three truly memorable comic walks: Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and Jacques Tati…then there’s the whole Monty Python’s Flying Circus “Ministry of Silly Walks,” but that’s another story.

9. If you saw Elia Suleiman’s Palestinian film Divine Intervention (2002) and were lost or didn’t get it, acquainting yourself with Tati will really explain a lot of the mechanics of his film and, I think, make it funnier and more rewarding.

10. If you like your comedy to be significant or have a subtle, jabbing commentary to it, check out Mon Oncle, Playtime, or Traffic. Or if you’d rather comedy just be amusing without heavy societal messages watch Mr. Hulot’s Holdiay.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 28, 2011.

A Man for All Faces

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

My biggest regret in tackling this article is that I have not seen more of Mr. Lon Chaney, Sr.’s (1883-1930) work. Of the handful of films I’ve seen of his, none have disappointed and all have been wonderfully twisted. Lon Chaney—father of the Wolf Man, Lon Chaney, Jr.—was one of the biggest icons of the silent era. Praised alongside silent legends such as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Mary Pickford, Theda Bara, and Rudolph Valentino, Chaney was every bit as talented and engaging. Chaney’s trademark, however, is what separated him from his contemporaries. They loved Chaplin for his comic humanity; Fairbanks for his swashbuckling acrobatics; Pickford for her beauty and the dramatic chances she took; Bara for her exotic, seductive persona; Valentino for his rich, foreign good looks; they loved Chaney for playing grotesques and psychotics. His real claim to fame was that not only did he portray gross villains and sympathetic monsters, but also he designed all of his own makeup and prosthetics to astounding effect.

lon slapped

He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

Lon Chaney, Sr. made his living by playing some of the most demented characters in movie history. He was known for the incredible emotional power he could evoke even beneath layers of makeup and for his amazing facial and bodily expressiveness. Both his parents were deaf-mutes, so he had to learn at a young age how to express himself without words.

From mad doctors, to amputees and deformed deviants, to bent Chinese patriarchs, to tragic clowns, to insane killers and criminals, Chaney played them all.

Mr. Wu (1927)

Mr. Wu (1927)

The first film of his I ever saw was the classic 1925 horror flick, The Phantom of the Opera (directed by Rupert Julian). This is easily his most famous and well-known role. Naturally, he plays the diabolical and disfigured eponymous phantom. He wears a most unnerving rubber face-mask with a crude veil over his mouth to hide his hideousness. The best scene of the film occurs when his lovely muse, Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), is taken to his secret lair beneath the streets of Paris and her curiosity spurs her to approach her musical master while he plays the organ and she removes his mask to reveal his true ugliness. Chaney’s reaction is one of the most memorable few seconds you are likely to see on film. This movie also boasts a colored Masque of the Red Death segment. Although the lavish film presents the Phantom as a deranged killer out for revenge, Chaney brings a darker, more tormented side to his performance. He is the character we see the rest of the film through. We recognize his sorrow and—on those wonderful occasions—cavort as he executes his judgment on the little people of the opera house. We catch ourselves sympathizing with this murderous monster and even rooting for him.

Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Besides the Phantom, Chaney played a very noble Quasimodo in Wallace Worsley’s  The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), again implementing his own inventive makeup effects. In 1922 he was a pretty solid Fagin in a silent version of Oliver Twist (co-starring The Kid star Jackie Coogan). He played a deranged and possessive Chinese patriarch in Mr. Wu (1927) (he actually plays a double-role and Anna May Wong has a small part). Chaney received much acclaim for his performance as a tough Marine Sergeant in 1926’s Tell It to the Marines. He played a brilliant scientist whose heartless betrayal at the hands of his mentor and his fiancée, drive him to become a tormented circus clown whose sole act consists of being slapped in the face in Victor Sjostrom’s bizarre carnival tragedy He Who Gets Slapped (1924). Chaney played another conflicted, tragic circus clown in Herbert Brenon’s Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928). He joined the circus again for Tod Browning’s (Dracula, Freaks) The Unknown.

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown is a particularly strange movie. As only a sample of the weirdness of some of these plots, I shall explain. Set in Spain, Chaney plays a wicked fugitive with double-thumbs, who stuffs his arms in a corset-like device so he can join the circus as Alonzo the Armless, the amazing knife-thrower (he uses his feet…or rather Chaney used the feet of real-life armless wonder, Paul Desmuke). He falls in love with a beautiful circus girl, Nanon Zanzi (Joan Crawford) and—in order to ensure that she will love him instead of the circus strongman—he psychologically bewitches her into developing a phobia human arms. Alonzo kills and creates general mayhem while he dreams of how he will make this poor girl his own…until his sidekick reminds him that if they were to marry, Nanon would find out he really has arms and be repulsed. Distraught, Alonzo devises a plan. He cashes in on a favor owed him by a shady doctor and has the doctor amputate his arms. While Alonzo recovers in the hospital, the strongman gets cozy with Nanon and cures her of her fear of arms. When Alonzo meets Nanon again she is engaged to the strongman and Alonzo becomes quite mad. He sabotages a circus stunt to have the strongman ripped apart by horses on treadmills. It goes awry and Alonzo gets fatally trampled.

London After Midnight (1927)

London After Midnight (1927)

Chaney worked with Tod Browning on several projects, including the most famous lost movie in film history, London After Midnight (1927). The original The Unholy Three (1925) was another great film Chaney collaborated with Browning on. He played a circus ventriloquist who turns to crime along with a strong man and a dwarf (played by Freaks star, Harry Earles). Chaney dresses as an old granny who runs a parrot shop and the dwarf poses as a baby. Together the trio act as jewelry thieves. The film is wonderfully peculiar and a must-see. Chaney’s final film was the 1930 remake of The Unholy Three.  It was Chaney’s first and only “talkie” and he performed five different voices in the film. Apparently “the man of a thousand faces” (as he was so dubbed for his talent with makeup) was also ready to become “the man of a thousand voices” when he died of lung cancer in 1930 at age 47.

The Unholy Three (1925)

The Unholy Three (1925)

I think Chaney was at his best when paired with Tod Browning because it seemed Browning was about as messed up and screwy as he was. A few other Chaney-Browning films I really enjoyed were The Penalty (1920), The Road to Mandalay (1926), and West of Zanzibar (1928). Both are awesome and West of Zanzibar might be among my favorite movies. Yeah. It’s that pulpy, strange and great. Imagine if he hadn’t died and Browning had cast him as Dracula instead of Bela Lugosi. I don’t know if it would have been better, but our understanding of vampire motifs would be quite different today.

After making well over 150 films in his lifetime and establishing himself as a true master of his craft, Lon Chaney, Sr. stands as a real treasure that film has been able to make immortal. Chaney’s films are quiet oddities, psychotic marvels, and horrific tragedies and deserve to be celebrated. His performances have been highly regarded for decades and are still just as enchanting today. If you like movies and have never seen anything with Lon Chaney, Sr., I strongly recommend you remedy this, and if you’re like me and you’ve seen several of his films already then I needn’t hesitate to tell you to see more. My hat’s off to you, Mr. Chaney. Thanks for giving us so much.

The Penalty (1920)

The Penalty (1920)

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 29, 2009