Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Standard Operating Bullshit

Blake Edwards is one director whose movies have benefited a lot from the advent of DVD. Ever since The Pink Panther in 1963, Edwards has made nearly all his movies with the wide Panavision screen, and (as he notes in his rather sparse DVD commentary for Panther), he fills the whole screen with people, using the screen like a proscenium stage. Edwards doesn't use a great deal of camera movement -- observing a complicated 360-degree camera move in Victor/Victoria, he grumbles that he usually hates those gimmicky shots -- and he doesn't cut much; what he does is set up carefully composed shots, with movement by the actors, as opposed to the camera. All this is lost on TV or VHS with their pan n' scan format; on DVD, with widescreen format, it's possible to appreciate just how good Edwards is at composing for that rather awkward screen shape, and what an eye he has for the kind of lighting and design that makes a shot look good. In an era where more and more directors are using the wide screen but hardly any of them actually bother to compose for it (even now, most movies are composed in such a way that they won't lose much when they're Panned and Scanned), Edwards' movies are an object lesson in the art of film composition.

That said, there are a number of Blake Edwards movies that don't have much else to offer besides beautifully-composed shots, and a number of others that mix great moments with terrible ones. You have to wonder, looking at Edwards' career, whether he even knows a good joke from a bad one -- I know it's absurd to think that an experienced, successful writer/director wouldn't know the difference between a good joke and a bad one, but it's also pretty absurd that someone could write and direct Victor/Victoria and Trail of the Pink Panther in the same year. Everyone makes bad movies, but few people with Edwards' ability have chosen to produce and direct movies that were quite as bad as A Fine Mess or Blind Date. Not to mention his famous lack of discrimination where individual jokes are concerned -- any Edwards movie, even a good one, will include some really bad gags. He seems to think that the sight of someone falling down is inherently hilarious (it's not), and that ethnic stereotypes are inherently funny (you don't have to find Mickey Rooney offensive in Breakfast at Tiffany's to find him unfunny).

But what prompted me to write about Edwards was one of his good ones, S.O.B.. The story of this movie is pretty well known; after he was driven out of Hollywood in the early '70s by a series of flops, including the big-budget Darling Lili with his wife Julie Andrews, Edwards wrote the script for this bitter satire of Hollywood. He finally got to make it in 1981, after the new Inspector Clouseau movies and 10 had restored him to box-office favor. The fact that the script was written in the early '70s is evident all through the film, and made it seem a bit passe in 1981; Edwards was clearly hoping to shock people with his denunciation of Hollywood, but the stuff he was denouncing was almost gone by then, to be replaced by new problems.

S.O.B. is basically a story about Hollywood in the early '70s, when old-school professionals, like Edwards, found themselves being forced out of the business. Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) is a producer who suffers a disastrous flop with an old-fashioned musical starring his wife (Julie Andrews); this is a stand-in for the Darling Lili fiasco, though the musical as seen in the opening sequence is so stupid that one wonders if it's Edwards' own comment on Darling Lili (is he saying it deserved to flop?). Noting the then-recent success of movies like Last Tango in Paris, and the degraded, sex-crazed youth culture he sees all around him, Farmer realizes that the way to become a success is to "give 'em sex": he'll turn the film into an R-rated, nudity-filled, pretentious and obscure wallow, and get his wife to go topless as the film's selling point. The plan works, but Farmer is stabbed in the back by the amoral representatives of the New Hollywood, including a youngish studio head (Robert Vaughn) based on the ex-agent types who were sliding into studio management positions in the '70s. Farmer gets the ultimate one-two punch: having sold out to make the kind of movie that the New Hollywood wants, he now finds that the New Hollywood wants to take his movie away from him and get rid of him.

Apart from Felix, the only characters who come off well in the movie are other Old Hollywood types: a lecherous alcoholic director (William Holden), a Dr. Feelgood type (Robert Preston, who is so good in this movie that he makes it worth watching even to people who hate the rest of it), and a publicist (Robert Webber). None of these guys are admirable, but they have the one quality that Edwards identifies with the Old Hollywood: loyalty. They're the only people in the movie who give a damn about Felix when they don't have to.

This is pretty bitter stuff, but it's bitterness vintage 1973; by 1981 Hollywood was changing again, and a lot of the things that S.O.B. is about -- the jettisoning of old pros, the contempt for craftsmanship, the race to make movies sleazier -- had been replaced by new things, such as the rise of the Blockbuster. A movie where the characters talk about Last Tango in Paris when they want to talk about What's New in cinema is not a movie that's exactly in step with the times. The movie would have been stronger if Edwards had just made it a period piece, a snapshot of the way things looked to him in 1973. As it is, it's a Hollywood satire that doesn't have a particular period in Hollywood history to satirize. And made from the vantage point of someone who was by then a re-established success, it seems a little petty.

But viewed as a movie about '70s Hollywood, S.O.B. is pretty interesting as a glimpse of how this era -- now routinely referred to as a Golden Age -- looked to a lot of the old-school professionals who saw their talents rejected as old hat (Dennis Hopper famously snarled to George Cukor: "We're going to bury you!") and their movies re-cut to fit the tastes of the Easy Rider audience. And I think a movie like this goes some way toward answering the question of why Edwards' career has been so uneven: he always comes across as an old-school director who was born too late. His movies are shot through with a nostalgia for the "classical" cinema of the studio-system era, with their stylized dialogue and their carefully composed shots and lighting. Instead Edwards had to make his movies in the collapsing studio system of the '60s, the free-for-all of the '70s, and the corporate '80s; this was a time when it was hard for old-style professionals to know what the studios wanted or what audiences wanted. And that's what I sense in a lot of Edwards' bad jokes and bad movies: a certain contempt for the audience and for the people who are paying for the movie. This even carries over into his better movies; 10 is an aria of contempt for youth and people who are obsessed with youth; the inclusion of nudity comes off as, again, a contemptuous gesture toward audiences that seemed to want that sort of thing. (I don't think it's a complete coincidence that Edwards' personal favorite of his later movies, Victor/Victoria, is scrupulously PG-rated in terms of its content.) S.O.B. is a funny movie, but it does sum up a problem with Edwards' career: it's one thing for a filmmaker to dislike Hollywood, but it's quite another thing for a filmmaker to dislike the people who pay to see movies. And the overall message of S.O.B. seems to be: people want crap, might as well give it to them. It's not a formula for a completely successful movie career.

One more thing: has anyone ever noticed the similarities between S.O.B. and Network (which was written after S.O.B. but filmed five years before)? Don't read any further if you don't want the endings spoiled, but:

- Network, written by a guy who rose to prominence in the '50s, is about an old pro (Peter Finch) who has no place in the new, cutthroat business run by amoral opportunists. The old pro fails miserably and goes nuts (and the only character who can communicate with him is his wizened old-pro buddy played by William Holden). But in his dementia, he comes up with something that appeals to the public. The amoral opportunists step in to exploit him. He dies in the end.

- S.O.B., written by a guy who rose to prominence in the '50s, is about an old pro (Richard Mulligan) who has no place in the new, cutthroat business run by amoral opportunists. The old pro fails miserably and goes nuts (and the only character who can communicate with him is his wizened old-pro buddy played by William Holden). But in his dementia, he comes up with something that appeals to the public. The amoral opportunists step in to exploit him. He dies in the end.

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