A brief interlude while I’m wading through a pile of Jan Švankmajer DVDs. I’ll post a bit about him shortly, but in the meantime I fancied another crack of the randomisation whip to refresh my eyes a little. To recap for new readers, the Randomisation idea came originally from Nick Rombes’ Digital Poetics via a heads-up from Catherine Grant’s Film Studies for Free. I’m using a random number generator to choose three points from which to take my grabs, and then I have a limited amount of time to write a little about each frame. It’s a quick workout for the critical faculties, and hopefully a way of snapping a jaded blogger out of the comfortable routines of selecting only the most appropriate or illustrative images for a piece of writing. Anyway, it’s fairly self-explanatory once you get started. I’m away from own home and office this week, so I don’t have access to all my own movies, but I just noticed on Tuesy‘s shelf a pair of comedies that might make a fabulous double bill of randomisation. They’re very similar in length, so I’ll randomly generate 3 numbers and take the images from the same point in each. The computer gives me the numbers 6, 18 and 61, which means that I’m obliged to begin with…
…The Man With Two Brains. Six minutes in, and Kathleen Turner has been hit by a car. Luckily, the driver is Michael Hfuhruhurr, probably the world’s leading brain surgeon. With astounding professional efficiency, he gives instructions to a bystander, a six year-old girl. The following exchange takes place:
“Little girl… I want you to do something very important, alright?”
“I want you to run home, and I want you to call the ER of North Bank general hospital. 932-1000. Tell him to set up O.R.6 immediately and contact anesthesiologist Isadora Turek 472-2112 beep 12. Have him send an ambulance with a paramedic crew, light I.V D5NW-KVO, you got it?”
“E.R North Bank General Hospital 932-1000 setup O.R6, contact anesthesiologist Isadora Turek 472-2112 beep 12. Ambulance with paramedics and light I.V. D5NW and KVO.”
“… That’s good.”
“Sounds like a subdural hematoma to me.”
“Oh… it does, does it? Well, its not your job to diagnose!”
“But I thought…”
“You thought, you thought, just go! Three years of nursery school and you think you know it all! Well you’re still wet behind the ears. It’s not a subdural hematoma, its epidural. Ha! God damn that makes me mad.”
It’s beautifully played, and director Carl Reiner knows exactly where the laugh is, fixing the camera on the girl’s face, which initially seems to betray dumb bafflement, which sets up the surprise of her total recall of the complex instructions. It becomes a parody of the earnest, jargonised dialogue of medical soap opera. Steve Martin is famous for playing it wacky, but just as often his humour comes from playing it so straight that it gets funny all over again.
The film’s 18th minute rounds off with this. Turner, now married to the surgeon who saved her life, and now plotting to string him along and tease him until he drops dead, grabs her husband’s face before he can kiss her, twisting it away to check out the ripped gardener outside the window. Helplessly manipulated by his bride, Martin’s body is possessed and contorted by thwarted desire, jamming his face and limbs into tense, unrequited postures of lusty readiness.
Turner’s character is a classic femme fatale, aggressively alluring with murderous intentions. Here she becomes a wicked parody of a housewife, sitting down to time the cooking of her husband’s brain-in-a-jar lover. Glamourously attired and viciously visaged, the kitchen is not her customary domain. The film will climax with Martin’s quest to combine Turner’s body with the mind of his disembodied beloved, a misogynist mad-scientist trope that somehow manages to end on a sweet note, partly because Martin’s self-absorbed skull doctor is mocked at every turn, but mostly because Turner enacts that mockery with such ferocious, unrepentent relish. She bakes a brain like she’s boiling a bunny, while the wind-up timer counts down to her imminent vengeance, turning the gadgets of domesticity to a new, more malign purpose.
This is Spinal Tap is comprised largely of talking heads interviews: this must be the most convenient stuff to improvise. An actor pretends to be a particular character, while an interviewer (also pretending, in this case director Rob Reiner as reverent fan and Scorsese pastiche Marty DiBergi) throws questions that will generate responses, some of which will hopefully turn out to be amusing. It’s a simple formula for creating verbal comedy, but it also allows the actor to keep on posing the question “what does my character think about this” or “what would my character do/say in this situation?” The three main members of the band are colour coded by their hair. They all have a certain lack of awareness about their own excesses and ridiculousnesses, which is essential for the smooth running of the film’s comedic project (mocking the eccentricities of a British heavy rock band without making them so obnoxious that you won’t feel a tremor of sympathy at their compulsive series of failures and embarrassments). At this point, the 6th minute, they discussing the death of one of their many ill-fated drummers, who choked on vomit. Watching the actors trying not to crack up is one of the joys of the scene, and key to “getting the joke” of the film as a whole. Fake documentaries hinge upon the dynamic interplay between fictional content and a form that is designed to authenticate that content. This is not a malicious deconstructive comedy that aims to overthrow the conventions of documentary, so the duff wigs and high comedy of the performances make it safe (and necessary) to recognise this as fabrication. In this frame, as he interjects with “it was actually somebody else’s vomit” (possibly an ad lib), Christopher Guest )left) can’t help but chuckle, nearly collapsing the scene, but it’s just about recoverable as an embarrassed laugh within the logic of the diegetic world.
Rob Reiner, son of The Man With Two Brains director Carl Reiner, plays Marty DiBergi, living his dream of making a film about the band he’s admired for so long. But we can see that he’s a little disappointed to find that they’re a bit stupid. On his hat he wears a naval cap; he’s not fully immersed in heavy metal culture (the square’s beard and practical clothing confirm this), and so he’s able to keep some critical distance and stay immune to the infectious rock n’ roll lifestyle: it is through his outsider’s eyes that the band can be made to look ridiculous. But DeBergi himself is not immune to ridicule. His cap reads “USS OORAL SEA”; he wasn’t given permission by the US Navy to advertise the USS Coral Sea aircraft carrier, leaving him branded with a slightly silly sign on his forehead.
The big bust-up between Nigel Tufnell and David St Hubbins is a key point in the narrative. The culmination of interpersonal pressures is the staple scene of any biographical documentary, and here a foul-mouthed, playground argument (over a girl who’s come between them) will lead directly into the net scene, an interview with Derek Smalls commenting on the poetic abilities of the band’s two frontmen. This is either the film’s fictional documentarian attempting to gloss over the fight with a reminder of the musicians’ importance, or an attempt to ridicule them by juxtaposing the overinflation of their self-image with the actuality of their petty squabbles. In this shot, we might be encouraged to notice and laugh at Hubbins’ striped sweater, which perfectly matches the perpendicular stripes of the studio walls. The gravity of his protestations are undercut by his obliviousness to the fashion faux pas.