Flirt (1995)

15 11 2010

One story – told three times with only the slightest of differences. This is Hartley at his most experimental, his most deadpan, his most philosophical, but still extremely playful. Perhaps the Godard comparison is a little overused, but it fits all too well here. His characters border on being mouthpieces, which is usually a problem for me, but considering the stilted, deadpan delivery it only enhances the absurdity touched upon throughout all of the Hartley films I’ve seen. His performers never even attempt realism, instead they deliver each line as though they are reading the script for the first. For some reason, this is kind of amusing to me, which is odd considering it might be less acceptable when it’s in a film written by Alain Robbe-Grillet.

To Hartley’s credit, he does seem to be conscious of this type of humor. His wit is dry, but never condescending. In some ways, this is his most accessible work. At the very least, the first segment is a great introduction. It features a slew of his reoccurring performers (Martin Donovan, Parker Posey, Bill Sage) whose star power can maybe push even the least patient film watcher through the film’s first third. Additionally, this is the content at it’s most fresh state. It might be cheating to say since the point of the film is to observe the difference made between the three stories, but it definitely feels best when heard for the first time.

The slight differences found in the two segments that follows are meant to be minor shifts from the dialogue, but for me, the most interesting element comes from the difference in composition to the related lines. For example, Bill Sage’s description of what he’s thinking about in the hospital is read over a sensualist close-up of a nurse’s face, meanwhile Dwight Ewell’s similar speech is made over an extended panning shot. As it is, Ewell’s speech seems to lack the tension of Sage’s but maybe visuals aren’t the only justification of this, maybe it’s the element of repetition.

The third time around, the film sort of loses its momentum. This might be a fair assessment since it is essentially the third retelling of the story within an hour, but it definitely is the least memorable of the three. Maybe it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to watch it separately, but as someone who buys into Hartley’s intended experiment (albeit for only two segments) I have to feel a little disappointed. If there’s any saving grace in the Tokyo section it’s that the great music and beautiful visuals of the previous two segments remain in tact. Maybe that’s the whole theory and Hartley has outsmarted us all, or something.

Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

15 11 2010

I watched this less than week ago. Upon my initial viewing, I was more than confident that it was one of the greatest things I had ever seen. Now that a couple of days have passed, I’m sort of seeing that’s not exactly true. It’s still an amazing piece of art, one whose influence is immeasurable to Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s the type of picture that is so unique and bizarre, that it’s often a wonder that it was able to be made in a time when Hollywood was focusing on making either pro-war pictures that justified the country’s involvement or films that intended to make audiences forget about the war.

Hellzapoppin’ arguably falls into the latter category. After all, it is a comedy and carries an extremely playful tone of self-awareness for its entire running time, but that’s the sort of thing that elevates it from being a piece of mere entertainment. This is the definitive “movie about movies” from Hollywood, if only because it is constantly cross cutting from the movie to the movie with the movie, and the characters from both seem to be able to communicate with their opposing story. It’s textbook self-reflexive film theory. It seems frivolous, but the film is immensely more intelligent that just simple entertainment.

The story itself was birthed from the original Broadway production of the same name. It was enormously successful, thanks in large part to the charisma of the emcees Chic Johnson and Ole Oleson, who act as the self-conscious narrators in the film version. Much like the stage production, the film incorporates a satirical tone of self-awareness. The most notable example in the film being the skewing of Citizen Kane, which had been released only earlier in the year. It’s a perfect embodiment of Potter (and more importantly Johnson and Oleson’s) motive, that is to relate the audience to the form they’re already experiencing and commentate on it at the same time.

Speaking of commentary, there’s an especially groundbreaking sequence in which Ole, Chick, and the film’s producer watch dailies while providing their own commentary, dialogue to mask the actual audio from the “film within the film.” Maybe I’m giving the film too much credit but the way in which it (perhaps) unintentionally references the practice of benshi narration in Japan and then forms it into comedy is something that bears a remarkable similarity to the entire premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s a less polished example, sure, but the foundation is certainly there.

Hellzapoppin’ is a movie that is impossible to describe if only because it is layered in so many levels of filmness that opening them up in words seems futile. Perhaps the best description I can use is Sherlock Jr. but on a broader level. It teases film and filmmaking as much as it teases the audience and film-watching. It’s a complicated process and even though the film might not have the longevity I would like it to, it is still a remarkable experiment, and an insanely entertaining one at that.