Cut! Shoot! The Directorial Styles of Blake Edwards and Richard Lester
The Party, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Juggernaut give us good clean fun about slavery and brothels.
The PartyDirector: Blake Edwards
Cast: Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Release date: 2014-09-16
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ForumDirector: Richard Lester
Cast: Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Release date: 2014-09-09
JuggernautDirector: Richard Lester
Cast: Richard Harris, Omar Sharif
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Release date: 2014-09-09
Blake Edwards and Richard Lester define the mod, hip '60s comedy more than any other film directors, both coming to the fore with huge (even "iconic") hits in that decade. Edwards' hits include the first two Pink Panther movies while Lester's breakthroughs were the first two Beatles movies. And we shan't be discussing any of those today, class, but Edwards and Lester offer a handy index for comparing two "schools" of film grammar that some critics erect in false opposition to each other: montage vs. mise-en-scène.
In other words, meaning is created by juxtaposing footage through editing (the cut) or through the composition or movement of the image (the shot). In practice, of course, it's both, but certain stylists tend to emphasize one over the other.
Edwards' mastery of the meticulously composed and timed widescreen shot, across which visual gags happen in homage to classic slapstick or the gentler choreography of Jacques Tati, reaches an auteurist apotheosis in the cult favorite The Party (1968). It was conceived at first as a silent comedy and largely improvised from a 63-page script, as Edwards and producer Walter Mirisch explain in bonus interviews on the new Blu-Ray.
The idea: an Indian actor named Hrundi V. Bakshi (Peter Sellers) is accidentally invited to his producers' swanky Hollywood party, which escalates into havoc. The first part of the film is an exercise in the comedy of discomfort and awkwardness that's become the stock of observational TV comedies (e.g., The Office ), albeit with visual wackiness amid the chic guests and the mod, high-tech, high-art mansion -- a stunning set designed by Fernando Carrere. The closer you study the party and the guests, the more sadness and desperation you see, the more pretension, the more acting out, the more anger, the more anesthetic drunkenness (especially from Steve Franken as the hilariously sozzled waiter), and the more a sense of dancing over the abyss, or in this case, the swimming pool.
While today's viewers may question the PC-ness of Sellers' Indian act, it's not a broad caricature or intrinsically funny, and the point is that Bakshi is the movie's nicest, most unphony guy, the one whose basic self is the most humane and likeable. He's comfortable in himself; when an angry, predatory producer (Gavin MacLeod) asks who he thinks he is, he replies, "In India, we don't think who we are, we know who we are" (a line quoted by Indira Gandhi, according to internet sources). His awkwardness is due to the unnatural world in which he finds himself, while his personal affinity is with nature and lack of pretense. It's why he identifies with a bird in a cage, and why he's angered by the graffiti written on an elephant, and perhaps even why he has a pet monkey.
As long as he's restrained and uptight in his casual (western) dress suit and its treachorous tie and shoes, his efforts to fit in only call attention to him and invite calamity. When he finally relaxes and undresses (and is unwittingly plied with alcohol, against his Hindu religion) and connects with another uncomfortable foreigner (Claudine Longet) in the midst of being sexually exploited (the two of them having gotten soaked), he and the party enter its final phase of gay abandon: the gleeful destruction of all around them as the two of them spin in a karmic circle of joy. Both of them have been told they'll never work in this town again, and now both are free.
If Edwards' visual sense of humor relies on the widescreen photography of Lucien Ballard, it relies equally on the sense of rhythm proved by editor Ralph E. Winters, for one crucial aspect of those long wide takes is knowing when to end them. While many jokes are contained within a single lingering wide-shot, many others are constructed from precise editing, such as the early stunt where a shoe flies through the air in an admirable ecomony of cuts, climaxing with a calmly held shot in which the shoe ricochets into a door that swings shut, only to open again a moment later with the shoe displayed on a waiter's tray. The film feels loose with good reason, yet it also feels precise.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)
Two years before The Party, Richard Lester released his film version of the Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) (with many of Stephen Sondheim's songs dropped). True to the Beatles musicals and his frantic comedy The Knack and How to Get It, this film is all about editing. Indeed, the rapid editing becomes the joke at certain moments, as it serves the winking self-consciousness of Zero Mostel addressing the audience, the complicated nonsense of the plot, and the barrage of anachronistic vaudeville set in Ancient Rome. Phil Silvers, Jack Gilford, Buster Keaton, Michael Crawford, Annette Andre, Patricia Jessel, and Michael Hordern are among the actors running around in circles.
Also as in the Beatles films, the songs are presented in what we now call music-video style. The opening, "Comedy Tonight", is a montage of rapid images: some are local "atmosphere", some are moments from later in the plot, and some (like Crawford knocking the head off a statue) never appear in the story. It's a battery of odds and ends to disorient the viewer and signal that we'd better fasten our retinal seatbelts. "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" violates time and space more freely than Busby Berkeley; every couple of lines shifts to a new location, most famously atop the Aqueduct.
Compare with the classical presentation of Claudine Longet's performance of "Nothing to Lose" in The Party, where the subversion is within the shot. She performs at the right end of the screen while Sellers at the left mugs in the agony of a man who needs to go to the bathroom.
Both The Party and The Forum feel very '60s, and both indulge in open silliness and slapstick and sexist stereotypes and vulgar bawdy humor of the type newly acceptable in movies. The former is possibly the earliest Hollywood film to highlight jokes about urination, and the latter has lots of good clean fun about slavery and brothels.
Where the Edwards film feels loose yet precise, Lester's feels loose and ramshackle, and its sense of improvisation feels less a product of the actors than of the editing room. No shot is held for more than a moment, and some not so long as that. The editor, John Victor-Smith, becomes a more visible collaborator than photographer Nicolas Roeg, who would apply the same busy editing style to his own films as a director. The editor's contribution becomes as noticeable to the ordinary viewer as the design work of Syd Cain and Tony Walton, or the Oscar-winning background score by Ken Thorne.
One of Lester's techniques is to illustrate expository dialogue. When characters explain the plot to each other in shades of hysteria, we're treated to a battery of images that give the visual equivalent of hysteria--a purely cinematic joke. Lester's 1974 thriller, Juggernaut, showcases this technique in a dramatic context. In contrast to the Sondheim musical, the plot is as simple as possible: a bad guy has planted several bombs on an ocean liner in the middle of raging seas, and a bomb expert (Richard Harris) must figure out how to defuse them within 24 hours. We're not supposed to ask why the ship doesn't return to the Southhampton dock it's only just left.
Other characters are mere place-holders: Anthony Hopkins as the cop whose family is on that ship, including thoughtless moppets causing trouble; David Hemmings as the assistant bomb expert; Omar Sharif as the captain whose job is to look good in uniform; Shirley Knight as his sanguine squeeze; Roy Kinnear (seen also in Forum and many other Lester movies) as the falsely jolly social director. The latter uses the phrase "a night to remember" before realizing it's the title of a book and movie about the Titanic.
The lengthy setting-up of setting and characters is handled with continual cross-cuts lasting only a few moments, catching a circus of behavior and detail in a tense, restless way that was modern and unusual in the Seventies. The style can be compared fruitfully to the other "disaster" films, mixing effects with all-star soap opera, of which this item was considered something of a tail end, especially The Poseidon Adventure.
Juggernaut is more insouciant and contemporary (then and now) than these, and it's because of Lester's holistic editing style, here handled by Antony Gibbs. It prefigures the attention-deficit hyper-editing of more recent times, yet it's more focused on precisely meaningful images and movements instead of an impressionistic blur. Thus, meaning remains within each shot as well as between them.
In the sequence where the man who runs the shipping line (Ian Holm) picks up the phone and hears the first announcement by "Juggernaut" (Freddie Jones) of the bombs on ship and what procedure must be followed, Lester and Gibbs treat us to a montage of images, scored only by the whispering voice, as we see the reactions on ship and the discovery of the bombs. These events must be happening later, after the ship has been contacted, but the montage returns to the present as the monologue ends with Juggernaut announcing the detonation of a demo just to add a pyrotechnical exclamation point.
These flashes backward, forward, and sideways are common to Lester's approach, and are used most brilliantly in the drama Petulia (1968). It's probably impossible to imagine Blake Edwards slicing and dicing the present reality like that; the closest he comes to editorial disorientation is a hospital drama called The Carey Treatment (1972), and that film was heavily re-edited without his permission.
The last half of Juggernaut is the slow, tricky work of figuring out the bombs. Except for the passengers, who are attending a masked ball they suppose might be their last on earth, all the parties are connected by radio: the bomb squad members in their different locations, the ship's officers on the bridge, the authorities on shore, finally even the bomber. Technology is used within the story as the equivalent of Lester's tendency to connect disparate characters and places through the mechanical process of editing.
This is what I mean by holistic editing, as he gives equal time and emphasis to everything in his world, even people unaware of each other or their connections. In comparison, Edwards' long takes and wide compositions direct our attention in subtle ways, yet their tendency is to give everything equal weight within the frame rather than across cuts, for everyone to exist in the same space.
All three films are newly available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber under a rubric called KL Studio Classics. These are United Artists releases absorbed by MGM and subsequently acquired by 20th Century Fox, so both studios have their logos present on the packages. For some reason, the running time of Juggernaut is listed incorrectly at 126 minutes instead of the proper 110. Aside from the trailers, only The Party includes extra making-of material from a previous DVD release.
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Splash image: The Party (1968)