Wilder: Buddy Buddy (1981)

One of the side effects of the rise of sex comedies in the late 70s and early 80s was a return to physical comedy across the board. At heart, films like Animal House were slapstick comedies, and not only did they impart that slapstick sensibility to comedies that ostensibly had very little to do with sex, but they generated a new kind of sexualised slapstick that had the ability to make even the most staid slapstick setups feel like sex comedies by proxy. In some ways, Billy Wilder’s final film, Buddy Buddy, is one of those sex comedies by proxy, which is perhaps why it feels both timely and weirdly old-fashioned all at the same time. Drawing his inspiration from Francis Veber’s play The Contract, Wilder presents another iteration of the by-now-familiar Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau duo, in the guise of Trabucco (Matthau), a mobster holed up in a hotel to take out a hit on a witness due to appear in the courtroom across the road, and Victor Clooney (Jack Lemmon), the mumbling, bumbling, abject divorcee who keeps getting in his way at every turn. While Wilder has more room to display his directorial flourish in the outside interludes, most of the action takes place within this single hotel room, creating a theatrical kind of intimacy that alternately recalls a play and a single-cam sitcom. As might be expected, Matthau and Lemmon sink into their roles quite naturally – Matthau is impassive, while Lemmon plays an oversharer who’s quite comfortable in one-sided conversations – but their rapport in this film is more physical and plastic than in any other, partly because for the comedy to work Matthau has to more or less play it straight and condense himself to a sufficiently brooding physical presence for Lemmon to blithely bounce off, which perhaps explains why it feels like one of Lemmon’s most elastically contorted performances as well. After the film was released, Wilder noted that it would have made more sense to cast a serious dramatic actor in Trabucco’s role, and while there is something strained about Matthau here, the film also captures everything cartoony about his screen presence at the same time, in one of the purest examples of Matthau simply playing Matthau, or Matthau’s star image. At the same time, Matthau’s presence very much sets the stage for the physical plasticity that defines the film, as he and Lemmon build off each other’s bodies with a slapstick intensity that imparts an intensely sensual, visceral and sexual energy to the rest of the film in turn, culminating with a visit to the sex clinic where Lemmon’s former wife has fled to escape their monotonous married life. Of course, the relationship between Lemmon and Matthau remains as circumscribed, homosocially, as it ever was, but there’s nevertheless a new kind of sensuality to the way in which they – and the film – relish the relaxation of censorship in the intervening decade, indulging in expletives, sexual innuendoes and crude physical self-presentation in a way that wasn’t really possible in The Odd Couple and would feel old hat by the time Grumpy Old Men came around. And that gives the film an astringent, ascerbic, brittle energy that’s not always easy to connect with, but quite unique at the most unexpected moments, thanks in part to one of the best scores of Lalo Schifrin's oeuvre, which almost single-handedly also turns this into something of a mock-Bond exercise as well. If Billy Wilder started his career with a somewhat tasteless sex comedy, The Major and the Minor, then there’s something fitting about this curious swansong, even if it’s not one of his most consistent efforts.


Maylam: The Burning (1981)

The first feature from Miramax Films – and the first screen appearance of Jason Alexander – The Burning tends to get less acclaim than other slasher films of the same era. Presumably, that’s because it draws quite a bit of its inspiration from Friday the 13th and Halloween, which cast pretty long shadows, but The Burning isn’t derivative so much as working within an established genre and innovating from the inside. Like Friday the 13th, it’s set at an American summer camp, five years after a teenage prank brutally burned and disfigured Cropsy, the caretaker. Where Jason and Michael Myers feel rather remote from any kind of human subjectivity, the opening of The Burning – after the prologue – offers a somewhat more sympathetic slasher, with an extended point-of-view sequence depicting Cropsy’s traumatic first few hours after being released from the burns unit, where he’s been holed up for half a decade. Cowering behind his trenchcoat, he’s more or less condemned to voyeurism, watching the world while too afraid to show his face, a situation that quite naturally leads him to the red-light district, where he murders a prostitute in what almost feels like a pre-emptive gesture, an attempt to halt her facial muscles before they can register the full horror of his own. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before we – and Cropsy – return to the camp, where we’re presented with a fairly ugly vision of the adolescents responsible for his plight in the first place. Although they’re undoubtedly charismatic – Jason Alexander is already George in training – they’re much more unlikeable than in Friday the 13th, in a kind of accelerated second-generation slasherscape in which simply being young and beautiful is no longer motivation enough for the bloodbath that’s inevitably going to come. Rather than a bucolic ecosystem of gorgeous teenagers, what ensues is more like a casually pernicious playground that just happens to be set in the middle of woods, free to indulge in all the bullying, hectoring and sexual harassment that wouldn’t fly at school – everything is inflected through rape, with the killer initially mistaken for one of the camp’s resident “prowlers” – and creating a teen drama that works really well on its own terms, even before Cropsy comes to make his mark, which is perhaps why there isn’t a single murder until at least halfway through. What makes the film so powerful, though, is that Cropsy doesn’t disrupt so much as intensify this bullying culture, picking off the vulnerable and victimised kids first, in a series of scenes that are quite traumatic in their sense of gore, full of shears penetrating bodies in all kinds of oblique and contorted angles, eschewing stock and stylised points of entry – neck, chest, back – in favour of a messy realism – lots of scrapes and cuts before the blade finally fits home – that makes this quite emotional for a slasher film as well. While that expertly timed and unusually framed gore is one of the things that distinguishes it from Friday the 13th and Halloween, it doesn’t detract from the unique sense of suspense either, which hinges on most of the murders being committed during the day, while even the night scenes are shot on such a light filter that it still feels like daytime as well, and the obligatory pitch black finale is shot in an abandoned mine in the late afternoon. Whereas Carpenter and Cunningham build everything around the slow but sure onset of evening, Maylam is more interested in daylight creepiness, that eerie moment when the woods get a little too quiet, or when you’re adrift on the middle of a river in the noonday sun with nowhere to hide and no idea who might be scrutinising you from the bank. In that sense, it stands in relation to slasher horror as soleil stands to noir, right down to the score by Rick Wakeman, which manages to blend the sunny and sinister sides of the synthesizer into the perfect complement to this blindingly beautiful vision of horrors hiding in plain sight.


Shyamalan: The Visit (2015)

As a child, there’s something peculiarly uncanny and unhomely about your grandparent’s home. On the one hand, it’s familiar to your parents, but, on the other hand, it works to displace your parents as parents at the same time, drawing you into an odd identification with them as you find yourself in their old bedroom and amongst their old objects. In some ways, that sense of the uncanny is the subject of M. Night Shyamalan’s return to classical horror after the fantasy and sci-fi experimentation of The Last Airbender and After Earth. As might be expected, it’s about a pair of children who pay a visit to their grandparents, but the brilliant touch here is that they’ve never actually met their grandparents, who rejected their mother years ago and have invited the children – just the children – to spend a week with them in their rural Pennsylvania home as a first tentative rapprochement. With the film told primarily through a home video that the children make to document their experience, the stage is set for what would already be a fairly uncanny and unnerving experience even if it didn’t gradually devolve into horror, as their grandmother, in particular, starts acting in increasingly erratic, abject and unpredictable ways, especially at night. At first, it’s attributed by their grandfather to sundowning – a kind of temporary dementia that sets in after sunset – and the horror emerges quite naturally from this frequently documented condition, as the children aren’t sure whether what they’re experiencing are genuinely weird grandparents, or just the weirdness of actually having grandparents for the first time. For that reason, the film doesn’t exactly present a lovable old couple who get progressively stranger so much as a couple who already start out as pretty alien, but take a while for their alien qualities to manifest in fully discernible or definitie ways. Somewhat robotic and zombified from the start, they would almost puncture the suspense were this not also Shyamalan’s first fully-fledged horror-comedy as well, a study in agesploitation in which even the most bizarre behaviours are blithely attributed to old age: “Just come to accept that they’re old people, and it won’t be as weird.” For all that that plays as camp, it’s not such an implausible proposition for these children either, with the grandparents more or less relegated to their fringes of their awareness – chopping wood, making dinner, stoking the fire - for the first couple of days at the farm, as Shyamalan perfectly captures the way grandparents can just fill out and texture the backdrop of a young child’s life until something happens to jolt them into sudden visibility. And those jolts are where the film’s horror lies, as the grandmother and grandfather – and their grandfatherly and grandmotherly bodies – are gradually thrust up right against the handicamp, until it feels as if the true horror of the film is in realising that your grandparents are  embodied in the same way as you are, and recognising your own reciprocal mortality in the process. For another director, that might make for a somewhat morbid or depressing horror film, but here it veers more towards an otherworldly, alien atmosphere – certainly Shyamalan’s best fusion of sci-fi and American Gothic tropes – in a small-scale film that captures the grandiloquence of being a grandchild in quite a galvanising way.  


Pollack: Absence of Malice (1981)

Absence of Malice is one of the few procedurals in Sydney Pollack’s career, which is a bit unusual, since Pollack’s directorial touch is quite procedural, less invested in narrative than in the brooding spaces between narrative that make the best procedurals so atmospheric. In this film, that’s particularly clear, just because it’s structured as a series of mysteries that are continually deflected or diverted, to the point where it’s not finally about the story so much as what the story might have been. And that’s especially appropriate for a journalistic procedural, a film about what constitutes proper journalism, with Sally Field playing a day reporter for the Miami Tribune who starts to investigate a local business official, played by Paul Newman, after she receives a leak from a federal prosector, played by Bob Balaban, that he may be involved in the disappearance of a local longshoreman union official. What ensues plays out as a cat-and-mouse game in which Field’s efforts to ascertain Newman’s complicity produce some wonderfully ambiguous and ambivalent scenes of the kind that Newman does so well, set against a sun-saturated film soleil backdrop that makes it feel as if Field is always squinting just to meet his gaze, especially in a fantastic scene in which he takes her out for a boat ride on Biscayne Bay, surrounding by dazzling water in all direction. It’s a bit of a shame, then, that the film doesn’t quite maintain that ambiguity, devolving into a more traditional expose of reckless journalism – capped by a fairly heavy-handed monologue by Wilfred Brimley who steps in at the eleventh hour as an Assistant Attorney General flown down to tie up loose ends – and, worse, a romance between Field and Newman that is not only fairly implausible but actually tends to undo the mercurial dynamic that they share before they suddenly start dating. At the same time, the mystery of the longshoreman union is put to one side, as is the general hostility on the part of local businessman towards unionisation, and yet Pollack’s sense of hush, and the deftness with which he deals with pregnant voids, is almost at its strongest on the few occasions when the film visits abandoned working environments, spaces left behind by workers in the wake of this disappearance that is never even clarified as a homicide. Even more than film noir, film soleil depends on the sense of something unmentionable hiding in plain sight, and in all his forays along the Miami Shore, it feels as if this other story is still buried somewhere deep within Pollack’s tracking-shots – within his very vision of Miami itself, which gradually feels like a city on strike more than a city on holiday  – even as the story becomes progressively less and less local, less and less soleil, concluding with a miniature courtroom drama that seems more attuned to Sidney Lumet’s New York than the bleachy, beachy palette of the preceding couple of hours. In that sense, it’s very much a film in which the direction and story are at odds, or at least in a kind of productive tension, although that just makes the moments when Lumet’s languorous atmospherics manage to peek through the cracks all the more exhilarating.


Zemeckis: Used Cars (1980)

Used Cars was Robert Zemeckis’ second film, after I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and while it may be edging further towards the kind of big-budget spectacle that made his name in the 80s, this is still very much the work of a special effects director working without special effects. As in the earlier film, though, that turns cinema itself into something of a special effect, not just through Zemeckis’ flamboyant camera work, but through a hyperreal sensibility that makes the film feel as if it is in the process of being remediated and incorporated into some more emergent media complex. As in I Wanna Hold Your Hand, that remediation produces a retro-futurist aesthetic, in this case by way of the two used car lots in downtown Phoenix where most of the action takes place. In essence, the film is a standoff between these two lots, and their respective owners – Roy L. Fuchs (Jack Warden), who runs the Fuchs lot, and Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell), who runs the New Deal lot – as they each struggle to prevent their lot being appropriated and demolished to make way for an up-and-coming freeway ramp. Set on an old-fashioned Main Street that is on the verge of being colonised by the utterly new kind of space dictated by freeway infrastructure, the two lots feel curiously jettisoned from the surrounding neighborhood, floating in the middle of a notional, conceptual space that also makes them feel curiously continguous with more remote locations, or, rather, the kinds of representations of remote locations that abound on the screens and interfaces that seem to flood the film, which often seems to be taking place in one giant disembodied dashboard. Among other things, that prevents the action ever feeling circumscribed, despite only really taking place in one location, with the lots quickly expanding beyond their physical parameters to feel like a perceptual horizon, a panoramic fusion of cinema screen and windscreen whose clean, sharp, wide spaces often feel as if they’re tailor-made for drive-in consumption. If the film doesn’t really go anywhere, physically – with a few key exceptions – then that’s because there’s nowhere else to go, at least not yet, or on roads - you can see the genesis of Back to the Future quite clearly – as the imminent offramp looms over everything with the promise to port us to some quite different spatiotemporal configuration altogether. It makes sense, then, that the standoff between the two lots involves two quite different strategies, with Fuchs aiming for old-fashioned action sequences, and Rudy opting instead for what feels like an early form of culture jamming, rogue advertisements intercepted into live television events – a football game, a presidential address – to bring the New Deal lot into the very epicentre of the nation’s consciousness. As in so many films of this era – especially those with even a vaguely exploitative bent - there’s a continual feedback loop between images and recordings of images that finally makes it feel as if Zemeckis is trying to capture something of the erotics of live broadcast in a cinema format, or to formulate something like live cinema, not unlike the way he tried to recreate that first momentous appearance of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in  I Wanna Hold Your Hand. As a film that aspires to arrive by satellite, then, it’s very much of a piece with his subsequent efforts to stretch and surprise cinema’s capacities as a medium, which is perhaps why  it feels fresher and more immediate than some of his subsequent films some thirty years down the road.