Rik Mayall is one of my favorite actors. He was part of the great British television series “The Young Ones”. Many Americans may recognize him as Drop Dead Fred. I first saw him on a kid’s program called “Grim Tales” where he was a storyteller acting out all the parts in Grimm’s fairy tales. I love his wacky, subversive style.
The program also included puppetry and short sections of stop motion animation done with unusual materials, with Mayall continuing the narration. It is another example of creative people on a budget producing marvelous work. I recorded them all on VHS, but that tape has been lost. The videos are available on youtube, however the quality isn’t any better than my old tapes. Here are a couple of examples. Watch his face morph as he switches rolls.
A “tetralogy” is a succession of 4 theatrical plays, specifically 3 tragedies and a satirical comedy that pokes fun at the previous stories. In his latest animated film, based on a story by Jacques Tati, Sylvain Chomet has turned the concept on it’s head. Tati gave us a series of comedies, and Chomet delivers the melancholic epigram “The Illusionist”.
The film is beautiful to look at, with an astonishing characterization of Tati. He is a hybrid of Tati and his most famous screen persona, Mr. Hulot. If one wants to resurrect dead celebrities for movies, forget the digital reproductions and hire Chomet. He has the distinct movement of Hulot, but is clearly not the happy go lucky man beloved by his fans. I found it troubling to watch him smoke cigarettes instead of his trademark pipe, but I imagine that I am intended to feel that way. This is a troubled character.
His career as a stage magician in music halls is failing along with the other variety actors he shares the hotels with. When a Scottish girl stows away to become a kind of step daughter to him, he struggles to pay for the pretty clothes she desires. As a fan of Tati, this is the most difficult aspect of the story to accept. All of Tati’s previous films were about enjoying life, and not becoming caught up in materialism and work. It is a denial of his legacy. The film includes a reference to “Mon Oncle”, a Tati film where he plays the fun loving uncle with no responsibilities. I have had the pleasure of being an uncle to young children, and the worries of being a parent. If I go to a movie about being parental, I would like it be a more remarkable story.
The girl is drawn to the old magician because he appears to create a pair of red shoes out of thin air. The man has merely given her some new shoes out of charity, but from then on she sees him as some sort of sugar daddy. I do not recall him appearing to enjoy her company very much, he always appears distracted. So it is hard to say they have a real relationship. Also, the story begins with the magician already on his way down, and there is little hope the trajectory will reverse. The Hulot character was not a traditional protagonist, in that he didn’t intentionally make things happen. And here is where the film fails for me. There just isn’t very much drama.
Tati may have written the original story, but it is hard to imagine him actually making it. For it to fall to Chomet to deliver the sorrowful perspective, was probably a blessing for everyone involved.
3 days ago I posted some videos of Pee-Wee Herman, and I have been thinking about his character.
The name Pee-Wee is not without importance. The name Pee-Wee supports his childlike character. He is small, and harmless. Such youthful behavior makes him non-threatening, so the audience indulges his behavior as they would a child. The silent film star Harry Langdon had a similar quality.
In the wrestling video, Pee-Wee gets in the ring with a buffed out pro-wrestler and plays out his schtick. But the wrestler can only get in his face. If the wrestler were to knock him down, it would be like hitting a child. He would be picking on someone half his weight. When Pee-Wee mocks the wrestler, we enjoy his fearlessness. We would love to say such things to the guy, but we don’t have the nerve. It is one of the clown’s age old priveleges, to ridicule the powerful, to say the things we won’t.
One of the basic concepts of the clown is to not follow the rules of educated society. Children don’t follow the rules of society simply because they have not learned them yet. It gives them a license for such behavior, and is one of the ways to begin the creation of a funny character.
Charlie Chaplin rose from poverty to become the first international superstar. How did he do it? Here’s how I see it.
1. Extraordinary Talent. Duh.
2. Extraordinary Hard Work. Chaplin had to work very hard because he had extraordinarily high standards. While Mack Sennett would want most of the shots in his films done in 1 take, Charlie began asking for more tries. When he gained control of his own production, he would spend enormous time developing his ideas with an entire crew there shooting everything. The documentary “Unknown Chaplin” show some of these outtakes, which are quite rare.
Sometimes, he would shut down production at considerable cost, in order to rethink the entire film. No producer would allow this today. But Chaplin’s reputation was on the line. He owned the work.
3. Extraordinary luck. Yes, luck. It was luck that he happened to be seen on stage by Keystone Studio owner Mack Sennett, and was offered enough money to lure him away. The movies were a new technology, a risky venture. But when the right person finds the potential in a new technology, fantastic things can happen. While Chaplin had enormous confidence in himself, he could not have imagined what movies would do for him. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, he, like many stage actors, thought the movies would be a passing fad. He was wrong, but he was lucky.
The point is, new technologies are coming at us faster than ever. If you have talent, work really hard, and own what you do, the technology might be there waiting to take you someplace you never dreamed of.