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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The Post Apocalyptic Movies You Didn’t See…Way Beyond the Thunderdome

Deserts and desperation. From Mad Max (1979) to Children of Men (2006) we sure do love speculating about what the world might look like after a nuclear holocaust. The post-apocalyptic sub-genre of the dystopian movie is something of a Hollywood staple nowadays (The Road, Book of Eli). There have been many a fine example of what a story can do with a clean slate. After the disaster you can make your own rules…unfortunately a lot of post-apocalyptic flicks don’t seem to realize that the possibilities of what a post-apocalyptic world can be are endless. You can go all out weird-bad bonkers like John Boorman’s misguided wtf Zardoz (1974) with Sean Connery, or you can go total glittery-cape-wearing zombie-war like in the Charlton Heston classic The Omega Man (1971). Most of the films mentioned in this paragraph are fairly well-known or popular (ok, Zardoz is a little out there), but I’d like to focus on a few post-apocalyptic movies you probably didn’t see. Both good and bad these films celebrate the endless possibilities of life after the bomb drops.

Come travel back in time with me as we explore the future.

When I hear a title like Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987) a little twinge of excitement tickles my spine. I watched this movie knowing it was going to be bad. It did not disappoint. Hell Comes to Frogtown stars wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (They Live) as Sam Hell, one of the last remaining fertile males in the not too distant future. Hell is captured and his netherbits are locked up by the provisional government so that he can go on a mission—wait for it, wait for it—to impregnate all the fertile females that are held hostage in Frogtown. So what is Frogtown? Frogtown is the steam-filled factory-like settlement inhabited by mutant frog people. Ribbit. If this movie sounds a little campy and chauvinistic, it’s only because it is. This movie can’t go ten minutes without women disrobing themselves. Frogtown has everything you’d expect from a campy eighties sci-fi action comedy. You got your butch, cigar-chomping, short-hair chick who’s always stroking a big gun (Cec Verrell). Then there’s the “nerdy” chick with the stick up her butt who lets her hair down and removes her gigantic owl glasses (and several articles of clothing) to reveal she’s secretly super hot (Sandahl Bergman). There’s your regular Joe protagonist (Piper) who just wants to get the blasted electrocution diaper off his junk. Finally there are some truly silly people in big frog puppet suits. The film is ugly and terrible…just the way I like it sometimes. If nothing else, it’s better than Super Mario Bros.

The eighties had some hits, but man, when you find its forgotten misses. Don’t hate this one because it’s Canadian. Hate it because it sucks. The mercifully short Rock & Rule (1983) is just as yucky as anything to come out of the eighties. In the distant future some mutant rodent people have formed a mediocre rock band. The band is made up of the obnoxious tool of a guitarist, the loveable but paunchy intellectual keyboardist, the goofy and uber-annoying drummer, and the kind and soulful hot girl. Everything is going nowhere for these guys until an evil all-powerful rocker named Mok needs to use the girl’s voice to unleash a demon out of hell for some reason. I found it interesting that all of the male characters look rather gross or strange but with the girl they really try to minimize her rodent features and sexualize her. Anthros will love it. The story is stupid, the characters are grating, the colors are oppressive and dim, and there’s really nothing to care about in this unpleasant fantasy adventure, but the animation is actually really, really good. I was genuinely impressed by the animation in this dumb movie. The same studio animated Eek! The Cat and The Adventures of Tintin cartoons. Most of the songs are pretty forgettable, but there’s a few decent ones. The songs are performed by (get this) Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick, Debbie Harry, and Earth, Wind, & Fire, so there’s that. All in all something this bad and strange should not be forgotten…because that means I have to find it.

The bad is now behind us. Now we move into the realm of the good ol’ off-the-wall post-apocalyptic movies.

A Boy and His Dog (1975) is the touching tale of the undying bond between man and man’s best friend. Kind of. In the distant future (post-apocalyptic, of course) Vic (Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire) search for food and females. The landscape is reminiscent of Hell Comes to Frogtown, but it was actually Mad Max who was inspired first. A Boy and His Dog was directed by L.Q. Jones (the old, blonde, mustachioed guy in The Mask of Zorro) and is appropriately taglined as “a rather kinky tale of survival.” The protagonist, Vic, is not only a bit of an immature, reckless jerk, but he’s also a bit of a rapist too. The dog is ten times smarter than Vic is, which really makes you consider a dog’s steadfast loyalty in a whole new light. When Vic meets Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton) he is convinced he must see the strange, enigmatic underground city. If everyone above ground is wild and dangerous and resources are scarce then maybe it’s time to go subterranean. The problem is that Blood is wounded and so he elects to wait for Vic to return up top. Once underground Vic discovers a whole populated world of people wearing clown makeup (and the world is run by Jason Robards!!!). He then learns that they need his seed to repopulate (Frogtown! Confound you!). Initially the idea appeals to the perpetually randy Vic, but when they take all the fun out of it and keep him prisoner that’s when things get serious. I would love to tell you more, but I can’t ruin it for you. It’s a pretty odd film that gets away with a lot of its shenanigans by not taking itself too seriously. Oh, and the ending is definitely one for the books.

Lastly, and my personal favorite on this list, is the surreal British comedy The Bed-Sitting Room (1969). The film takes place in a desolate British wasteland full of oddball characters trying to carry on with their daily lives. These characters are played by many familiar English personalities such as Michael Hordern (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), Sir Ralph Richardson (Time Bandits), Dudley Moore (Arthur), Peter Cook (Bedazzled), Roy Kinnear (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), Rita Tushingham (Doctor Zhivago), Marty Feldman (Young Frankenstein), Harry Secombe (The Goon Show), and more! It was based on Spike Milligan’s play (he also stars in the film alongside everyone else) and it was directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers, Superman II). The film really operates more as a series of somewhat connected interludes and non-sequiturs, all as bafflingly surreal and morbidly funny as all get out. It almost feels like what would happen if Terry Gilliam and Alejandro Jodorowsky did a movie together. It has that absurd—almost Monty Python flavored—satire, but with the stark desperation and dreamlike transmogrifications that imply an even more cynically surreal hand at work. It’s a marvelous commentary on society and if you can get into people turning into furniture then this just might be the film for you. I absolutely loved its darkly warped wit. This is Richard Lester untethered and the cast is superb. And even weirder than Lester’s How I Won the War.

Post-apocalyptic movies have remained popular through the years and it’s no wonder. You can get really imaginative with them. I picked these films not only because they are exceptionally unusual and maybe less well known, but also because they employ a unique and welcome twist to the genre: a sense of humor. Hell Comes to Frogtown and Rock and Rule may be rather heinous, but they only mean to have fun and provide a strange escape. A Boy and His Dog and The Bed-Sitting Room are inventive and edgy, but it is their humorous spirit that defines them and makes them special. Humor affords them special privileges. Humor can say and do things drama cannot, and vice versa, but with so many dour and serious post-apocalyptic films out there, why not take a chance on one of these weird babies? If you like post-apocalyptic movies you might enjoy checking out these peculiar specimens…but you already know which ones I’d recommend first.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 13, 2011