PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Film

In 'The Party', Peter Sellers' Brownface Is the Elephant in the Room

While Peter Sellers' role as an Indian man in The Party may represent just another one of his masks, it also does problematize this 1968 film.


The Party

Director: Blake Edwards
Cast: Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet, Marge Champion, Steve Franken, Gavin MacLeod
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Rated: PG
US DVD release date: 2014-09-16

The Party begins with shots of the blue skies and vistas of a Hollywood epic before it segues into a long gag about a military hornblower wailing through his injuries. This, in turn, is revealed as more metatextual sort of bumbling: we're watching a movie set, and a take ruined by Hrundi Bakshi (Peter Sellers), an Indian actor who goes on to lose his gig when he accidentally blows up a massive outdoor set in the style of, well, a comedy starring Sellers and directed by Blake Edwards (somehow, no one in the movie recognizes this signature bit of large-scale slapstick).

All of this happens in the first five minutes or so of the movie, providing set-up for a ruthlessly efficient mix-up: when the director calls the producer to demand that Bakshi never work in this town again, the producer jots down his name on a slip of paper that turns out to be a guest list for a swanky Hollywood party. His secretary takes the name as a last-minute addition, and soon Bakshi is hobnobbing among the very people he's supposed to be exiled from.

This all needs to happen quickly because Edwards has elaborate slapstick set pieces to devise, and almost all of them (save the opening explosion) take place in an ultra-modern (circa 1968) Los Angeles pad. The Party runs for 100 minutes, most of it taking place at this single location during this single event. It might sound like a bit much, and it is, but Edwards and Sellers are more than up to killing the time; they can devote a solid five minutes to Sellers simply losing and recovering his shoe on his way into the house.

Some of this material is funny, and some of it is even surprisingly subtle, like the little hand-dance Sellers does when trying to remove his tie, after it gets stuck under the arm of the party's host. But not all of the movie's scenes proceed with such unavoidable comic logic; at one point, Bakshi walks up to a control panel on a wall and simply begins pressing buttons at random. There's a half-hearted payoff to this bit during the movie's climax, but the initial mayhem isn't all that funny -- not just because people falling into pools isn't especially funny on its own, but because at that point Bakshi truly is making a nuisance of himself. If The Party sometimes more technically impressive than laugh-out-loud funny (primarily for its individual feats of choreography and its commitment to building a feature film around them), the film does tap into a near-universal anxiety: who hasn't, like Bakshi, arrived at a party or gathering and felt somehow out of place?

It's a good thing that this registers some empathy, because it's also an unavoidable fact that Sellers is performing in brownface. Of course, cultural values were not the same in 1968 as they are now, almost fifty years later, and to Sellers' credit, Bakshi is only a figure of fun in the sense that most of his slapstick creations are. Like his Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling detective he and Edwards were taking a break from during this film, Bakshi has no malice in his heart, and is ultimately the movie's hero. The brownface, unfortunate as it looks now, doesn't entirely play as racist caricature because chameleonic comedy was the actor's stock in trade. The Indian character is just another Sellers mask, regardless of the extremely poor taste.

No such context is provided on the Blu-ray of The Party, which presents only the film in a high-definition transfer that does show off the widescreen frames that Edwards fills with people, then mayhem, often panning across semi-wide shots to track Bakshi's unwitting havoc. The movie doesn't have much of any place to go beyond the creation of additional havoc, so it must up the ante with bigger slapstick, floods of bubbles, and, eventually, an elephant in a pool, why not. The movie's descent into '60s anarchy has an admirable lack of arc for the Sellers character, beyond a sweet if wisp-thin romance between Bakshi and another partygoer. But as foolish as some of the Hollywood windbags wind up looking, Edwards isn't really after anything satirical, beyond the vague subtext of a polite Indian man sending a group of mostly white people into chaos. He and Sellers are just there to have a pretty good, expertly staged time.

5

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Music

'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.