Tag Archives: comedies

Cinema of the Ants

There were only two possible outcomes for Luc Besson’s The Family: either it was going to be bad or Besson was going to direct his first good live-action feature (I haven’t seen his animated work). Well, Besson hasn’t broken any creative ground and his latest is bad in the usual way, with flurries of incoherent action interrupted by clock-watching dialogue scenes. You could say that the replacement of his usual pseudo-philosophizing by comic back-and-forth is a step in the right direction, except for the fact that Besson doesn’t have much of a sense of verbal humor.

Obviously cast for their associations with gangster movies, Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer (sometimes people forget 1983’s Scarface and 1988’s Married to the Mob) play a married couple who, with their two teenaged children, relocate to Normandy under the federal witness protection program after dad turns mafia snitch. It’s a hallmark of how much the family resorts to criminal ways that the government has run out of U.S. locations in which to squirrel them away.

The plot follows the family’s interactions with Besson’s take on the “insufferable” local French and then shifts to the mafia’s eventually successful attempts to track down and murder the “protected” Americans.

Besson takes what, for him, is unusual care in depicting peripheral characters, primarily locals (some of whom are relatively nice) but also the family’s bodyguards. One might almost think that Besson has awoken to the human potential of his typically flattened supporting casts.

As it turns out, though, Besson is just setting these folks to be slaughtered in the most graphically violent ways imaginable, often at just the moments they are expressing their inherent humanity. Besson has found that what for him is a more agreeable way of expressing his directorial control: Sadism.

Sadism has been a running, if minor, strand of European cinema practically since its birth. Bunuel, who explored it and expressed it, found it woven throughout the human condition. Michael Haneke hides his under a gloss of artistic “objectivity” and thus turns it into middle-class “art.” Besson just seems to enjoy it. Gesturing towards the humanity of the bodies on screen makes him all the more gleeful when he shatters those bodies into blood, bone, and flesh.

He takes the view of the man on the tower looking down at ant-sized people and, rather than imagining, actually tosses something off the roof for the sake of amusement. Luc Besson is not an auteur; he has neither the eloquence nor the preoccupations to stake that claim. But he has created a cinema, the Cinema of the Ants.

–Henry Sheehan



­­Frank Tashlin was a rare example of an­ animator who made a successful switch from directing drawings to directing live action. Justifiably, much has been made of his habit of staging action with the nutty freedom from physics that are routine in cartoons but generally absent from movies.  That liberating madness is captured in a line Bob Hope shouts out in Tashlin’s second feature, Son of Paleface (1952): “Hurry up – this is impossible!”

Tashlin’s contortions of the laws of the universe weren’t his only borrowings from animation. He also translated cartoon backgrounds into feature language. Tashlin worked at Warner Bros., where stingy budgets prevented any experiments with the illusion of three dimensions. Stuck with flat backgrounds, the Warner animators responded by using broad swatches of color and strict geometric forms to replace naturalistic scenery. Tashlin kept doing that when he turned to features, whether he could use the sharp brilliance of Technicolor or was stuck with smudgy, bleary “Color by Deluxe.”

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That’s pretty much what Pedro Almodόvar does with the background of the main set in I’m So Excited, the first class section of an airliner cabin. The set-up involves a full complement of crew and passengers stuck circling for hours in Spanish airspace after the discovery of a mechanical clitch. Having ingeniously trapped a large cast in a small space, Almodόvar sets in motion the cartoon version of a telenova, with extravagant romantic and sexual complications built on the already baroque designs of a flamboyant cast of characters.

Imsoexcited 1The problem is that caricaturing a telenova is the same as sending up a Bond film: How do you send up a send up or – as here – caricature a cartoon? Almodόvar does as well as can be expected, though he produces an amusing comedy rather than the gut-buster he seems to have had in mind (occasionally you can note the mini-beats he’s built into dialogue to accommodate anticipated yuks from the audience).

But this brings us back to Warner cartoons, which were built around the lifelong struggle between the id and the superego. In his few outright comedies and undoubtedly in his dreams, Almodόvar constructs a world where the id always triumphs and always with happy consequences (id doesn’t necessarily translate to sex; there are repressive, though acted-on, sexual relationships in nearly all his films, especially over the last decade).

Imsoexcited 2The Warner animators could depict these fights and consequent transformations literally, even to the point of distorting a character’s shape. Tashlin, especially when he worked with Jerry Lewis, managed to do the same thing with live action. Almodόvar’s movies and Tashlin’s exhibit different sorts of genius and so Almodόvar responds to the cartoon challenge with hair styles, costumes, make-up and behavioral tics. It’s not as big a laugh-getter as Tashlin’s style, but it is an effective means of expression.

I’m So Excited is, thus, a must-see for Almodόvar aficionados and for the curious, but not for those who simply want a burlesque with a Spanish accent.

–Henry Sheehan