Sunday, February 16, 2020

Wild and Crazy Guys (2019).

One of the interesting things to note about the history of the arts is how often you tend to find differing and separate individuals grouping together or clustering around what can only be described as a burst of creative energy.  This is a subject that's been examined more than once on this blog.  We've looked at least two types of this same phenomena, one of them occurring in the mid to late 70s.  The other happened quite a while back, and centered around artists like Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling.  Both of those instances had a kind of continuity between them, as each group was concerned with taking the major materials of the fantastic genres and molding them into the modern forms that we know today.  What's notable about this interlinked artistic development is how it is both important on both a historical and aesthetic level, while at the same time being all too easy to miss.  It's this lack of notice that poses a danger to valuable bits of history slipping through the cracks.

This same phenomena of artistic group clustering was not limited to just the fantastic genres, however.  There have been moments during the closing years of the 20th century when varying talents would come together in collaboration in the field of the comedic arts.  Unlike the New Wave Fabulists or the California Fantasists, this comedy oriented phenomena was a bit more noticeable, and has managed to carve out a lucky space for itself in the memories of pop-culture.  To this day, there are still people who can recall every single line of dialogue from Ghostbusters, or Beverly Hills Cop.  Guys like Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis have managed to use their talent to etch their place in the hearts and memories of an entire generation of grateful fans.  Their collective ability to bring a laugh out of others is so impactful that it seems they're now in the process of winning over a lot of millenial fans as this is being written.  It's the kind of thing you hope goes on long after time has made them all take a final bow.

It's sort of why it's a service to future generations when some aspiring fan decides to set down a chronicle of the accomplishments of each one of the funny men of the 80s.  That's the goal Nick De Semlyen set out for himself when he decided to write Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the 80s Changes Hollywood Forever.  At the center of this study lies a small, yet substantial number of talents, each of whom would go on to have a major impact in the shaping of the pop-cultural landscape, part of them originating, according to the author, from the NBC stages of Saturday Night Live.  "Many huge starts would be launched from the show, including Dan Ayckroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Eddie Murphy.  Meanwhile, up in the chillier and considerably less glamorous environs of Toronto and Edmonton, John Candy and Rick Moranis were working alongside people like Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O'Hara, cutting their teeth at SCTV.

"Together they made up a sprawling, smart, subversive collective...Their approach to comedy was freewheeling, hip, and fearless.  And whether their on-screen mission was to save the world from supernatural forces, get the girl, or make authority figures fizz with rage, they were about to inherit the Earth (xv)".

Semlyen follows this statement up by asking a rhetorical question that has, at least as far as this critic is concerned, a definite claim to validity.  "Try to imagine what cinema would look like without them.  Collaborating with behind-the-camera talents including John Landis, Ivan Reitman, Carl Reiner, and John Hughes - and fellow stars such as Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, and Goldie Hawn - this new wave would produce a litany of big, brash blockbusters and evergreen oddities: National Lampoon's Animal House, The Jerk, The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, 48 Hrs., Trading Places, The Man with Two Brains, Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Fletch, Coming to America, and Scrooged to name but a few.  That list alone makes a compelling case that this period is as good as things have ever gotten for big-screen comedy (xvi)".

I'd have to argue that at least in terms of wit and delivery, that might be the case.  Although I don't think that's enough to erase all the genuine accomplishments of past cinematic eras.  Just recently I've had the opportunity to examine the work of old-timers like Carol Burnette and Tim Conway, and I found myself having to hold my gut just take in air.  It's a testament to level of talent involved, even before the 80s crew came in to take over things.  Because of this, I've got to go with the idea that humor is perhaps just a bit more timeless than a lot of jaded and cynical reviewers (the kind that are too focused on, or just plain obsessed with the present moment) are willing to give it credit.  This holds true just as much for older funny guys and gals like Lucille Ball or Mel Brooks, as for those who came after.  Still, the comics of the 80s have a fair share of accomplishments to their name, and it's the nature of these achievements that Semlyen is here to look at.  He lays out his goals of his study in the introduction as follows:

"This is the story not only of how these classic movies were made, against the odds and frequently under the influence, but how their stars handled the perils and pitfalls of fame.  Murray, Murphy, Martin, and company all hurtled onto the A-list, becoming global celebrities pursued by paparazzi and fending off, or accepting, frequent offers of sex and drugs.  Not bad for a bunch of guys - and despite the early promise of Gilda Radner, it was exclusively the men who hit big - who generally looked more like maintenance staff, or appliance salesmen, than members of the Rat Pack.

"There was plenty of fun, as these stars lived out an extended adolescence, getting paid obscene amounts of money to goof about in lavish screen fantasies.  But when you're flying so high, the pressure is immense, and even the seeming perks could become nightmarish.  "When I started plying stadiums, I did have girls trying to get into my room a few time," Steve Martin recalls.  "But it wasn't a fun thing like you'd imagine.  You don't want someone knocking at your door at two a.m. when you're exhausted and trying to sleep"

"Everyone acclimatized to the lunacy in different ways.  Rick Moranis wound up retiring in the early 1990s.  Eddie Murphy embraced his celebrity with both hands, strutting around in a red leather boiler suit from the stand-up set Eddie Murphy: Delirious and employing a full-time entourage.  Johns Belushi and Candy died tragically young.  Bill Murray sailed through rumpled but uncrumpled, seemingly doing whatever he damn well pleased (xvi-ii)".  The artistic highs and lows of the comic talents that came out of the SNL era is the kind of story that's well worth telling.  The real challenge for any chronicler of this particular artistic movement all comes down to two simple questions.  Is the story told well, and is it the truth?  

Saturday, February 1, 2020

RKO 281 (1999).

Orson Welles is and was the kind of personality that generates stories.  He collected tall-tales about himself almost as if was his own folklorist.  He would use them often in his interactions with others, especially when it came to funding his many celluloid endeavors.  That much is a fact of history, though its an open question of just how many today still realize it.  Perhaps its the director's penchant for taking creative license with his own existence that accounts for the strange back story for the film under discussion today.

I remember hearing that RKO 281 was originally slated as a big screen production featuring Marlon Brando as the main antagonist.  For some reason, however, the deal never managed to come together.  Instead, the whole thing wound up as a TV movie.  To be fair, that in itself is no determination of a picture's quality, especially not today, when guys like Scorsese, De Niro, and Peschi can use the small screen to deliver a film like The Irishman.  All that counts in the end is that the story is intact, or that there's a narrative worth telling.

The subject matter behind RKO 281 is the stuff of Hollywood legend.  That makes it ripe for dramatization.  There is a problem with this particular story, however, and its adaptation into film, that winds up raising more questions than answers.