Thursday, May 21, 2009

All You Need to Start an Asylum is an Empty Room and the Right Kind of People


I'm having a really good time these days. Let's start with cinema. Some absolute gems are to be found in the most classic of screwball comedies, and I'll tell you why.
My Man Godfrey (1936) stars the wonderful William Powell who requested to be teamed with Carole Lombard. The line I used for the title of this post sums it up quite accurately, actually. Everybody in this movie is utterly nutty. Powell plays Godfrey, a buttler hired by a rich family who would fill a whole asylum all by itself. I don't even know where to start. Every line, every shot is ridiculously hilarious and the contrast between Godfrey's sanity and the family's antics is priceless. Surprisingly enough, it is also quite a good commentary on the Great Depression: Godfrey is picked up on the street and is more sane than the rich family he meets. It seems that My Man Godfrey is simply a collage of the best screwball scenes ever. I absolutely loved it.

I talked about how much I adored The Awful Truth (1937) starring Cary Grant and the wonderfully versatile Irene Dunne. Recently, I've been wanting to check out more of Cary Grant's comedies and I started with His Girl Friday (1940), starring Grant and Rosalind Russell, who's absolutely perfect for the part. Now that's the textbook definiton of snappy dialog. I have never in my life heard people talk this fast. Now I know where Amy Sherman-Palladino, who created my favourite show Gilmore Girls, got her idea! If you think Lauren Graham speaks fast, fasten your seatbelts for His Girl Friday! In a way, it's the perfect counterpart to The Awful Truth, which uses a lot of physical comedy. His Girl Friday is the essence of verbal comedy. The plot is pretty simple, but the dialog and the great scenes make it all worth it: Grant plays Walter Burns who tries to win back his ex-wife, Hildy (played by Russell). They are both journalists. I think this movie is marvellous for numerous reasons: the fact that no matter how many times you see it, you still pick up some jokes you probably didn't understand before, the fact that it has a welcome dose of feminism (Hildy is the best journalist the paper has and is perfectly at her ease working with men). There's something incredibly entertaining in watching verbal wars and witty comebacks mastered by excellent actors. It's so close to theatre, in a way. Truth spoken out loud can be just plain rude and His Girl Friday is full of that, it's a delight from beginning to end. Watching My Man Godfrey and His Girl Friday - I'm sure that's what heaven looks like. Some lines to lure you in:

Walter Burns: Sorta wish you hadn't done that, Hildy.
Hildy Johnson: Done what?
Walter Burns: Divorced me. Makes a fella lose all faith in himself. Gives him a... almost gives him a feeling he wasn't wanted.
Hildy Johnson: Oh, now look, junior... that's what divorces are FOR!

And some more:

Hildy Johnson: I wouldn't cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up!

I want to say a few words about The Monk, written by Matthew Lewis and published in 1796. It's such a transgressive book. Ambrosio, a monk, is seduced by a beautiful woman named Matilda who plots his downfall. Little by little, Ambrosio is more and more attracted to Antonia, a beautiful virgin he meets. It's a horror novel: Ambrosio rapes Antonia on the ashes of a convent, then kills her because he feels too guilty. He is then caught by the Inquisition, sells his soul to the devil (through Matilda) to be saved but the devil has more suffering planned for him: he tells Ambrosio Antonia was his sister and Matilda was sent by the devil to lure Ambrosio into a world of decadence.
Does it get any more subversive than that? It's a fascinating book on many levels, so rich and interesting. I don't think anyone could be bored reading this. Ambrosio's torments and dilemna fill the most part of the book and some passages are really racy. It's a book of sexual and religious inversion, really. Funny how religion and sex are very much linked in this novel. But I think it goes further than a plain opposition between virtue and sin. It makes some interesting points about women (after the rape, Antonia's thoughts are never described, she's an object and the point of view focuses on Ambrosio, that shocked me, which I guess was the point), about conventions and obsession. Thumping good read that reminded me of Sade, in a way (have only read excerpts). Lewis was only 19 when he wrote the novel.

If I live, your truth, your reputation, your reward of a life past in sufferings, all that you value, is irretrievably lost. I shall no longer be able to combat my passions, shall seize every opportunity to excite your desires, and labour to effect your dishonour and my own. No, no, Ambrosio, I must not live; I am convinced with every moment that I have but one alternative; I feel with every heart-throb, that I must enjoy you or die.

Sidney Bechet is the best. I'm in love with quite a few American composers, but I think Bechet ultimately wins my heart. He does things absolutely nobody I've heard does. He's so playful. Listening to his music, you really get a feel of what New Orleans must have been like. His delivery is so energetic, each of his songs makes me want to dance and dance some more. Reminds me of these lyrics to a song by Martha & the Vandellas:

Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer's here and the time is right
For dancin' in the streets
They're dancin' in Chicago
Down in New Orleans
Up in New York City

All we need is music, sweet music
There'll be music everywhere
There'll be swingin', swayin' and records playin'
And dancin' in the streets

Have fun listening to Bechet's music, 'cause summer's here and the time is right!