Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Minor Miscalculation

Weekend again.

I took a punt, a while back. I ordered Mel Brooks Silent Movie online, drawing on the impressions and memories of my much younger self. I hadn't seen the film since it came out, so very long ago, but I recall that when I was about ten or so, I thought it was hilarious. I figured at the very least, my young sons would probably respond likewise, so I put it on for the family on Friday night.

That was a pleasant surprise. Mostly, I'm not too impressed by Brooks' stuff. His work often strikes me as a kind of American "Carry On" series -- full of cheap sight gags, oo-er double entendres, and randomly exposed women. Sometimes he gets it right, though. Blazing Saddles has all those things in it... but it also tackled a bunch of American taboos in a very front-on, no-prisoners fashion, and there was a lot of cleverness to the film as well.

Silent Movie doesn't have the same political or racial charge that Blazing Saddles did, but it's still a very funny movie. It works on two levels: in one, it's simply a slapstick silent film, with all the ridiculous qualities that implies. (Yes. It's actually silent. Oh, except for just one word, spoken by the least likely person in the film. See it for yourself if you want to know.) On that level, it's pretty good. Marty Feldman, for example, is at his absolute best here: all goggle-eyed, sweet-natured innocence wrapped up in a Bruce Lee jumpsuit and a Flying Ace leather helmet. Graves' Disease is a bastard of a thing, and Feldman suffered for it - but he really knew how to work his unusual appearance, and in Silent Movie, he's so funny at times it's actually painful.

At this basic slapstick comedy level, Silent Movie is great. The plotline is simple: alcohol-damaged director Mel Funn (Brooks) approaches his old studios with a plan for a silent movie. The head of the studios (American comedy veteran Sid Caesar) is desperate for a hit to keep vicious corporate bastards Engulf & Devour from taking over his beloved studio, so he greenlights the movie. Funn and his comrades (Eggs and Bell, played by Feldman and Dom DeLuise) decide they have to get an all-star line-up for the cast in order to guarantee a big hit... and so they set out across Hollywood, trying to recruit the big names of the day.

The sequences in which the various stars are wooed are lovely. It's wonderful to watch people like Paul Newman, James Caan, Marcel Marceau (yep. Even he.) and Lisa Minelli take the piss out of themselves - but the standout scenes are the recruitment of Burt Reynolds in a hilarious shower sequence, and a great dance number with Anne Bancroft. Reynolds and Bancroft in particular show no fear at all of parodying their own public images, and the results are lovely.

On another level, though, the movie is an affectionate tribute to the great era of silent comedies. You can feel Brooks' childhood coming through -- Saturday afternoons in darkened cinemas, flickering black-and-white images, and an abiding love for the marvellous clowns of a bygone time. Brooks and his companions don't deliberately recreate classic routines from the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and others - but if you know your cinema history, you can certainly see where various scenes in Silent Movie clearly represent an homage to these, and to others.

It's not highbrow, no. But the boys laughed until they cried, and the Mau-Mau fell about the place laughing, and Natale laughed even though she kept knitting, and yes, I laughed too - more than I have at pretty much any comedy I've seen in the last decade. If you've never seen Silent Movie, I think you've missed what may be Brooks' funniest work. And if, like me, you haven't seen it since you sat in the cinema and watched it on the big screen, you should consider revisiting it. The effort will pay off.

Obviously, that wasn't my minor miscalculation. No - the miscalculation turned up yesterday afternoon, in the form of my friend Smileyfish. I got my dates mixed up... thought she was visiting next weekend, not this one.

Happily, it didn't really matter. The weather had turned to the best of Tasmanian spring - all warm and sunny and green and alive with bumblebees and apple blossoms - and I'd already planned an evening cookout. We had skewers of beef, seasoned with pepper and salt and paprika and cumin, and there was twice-cooked pork, and green salad, and even a few bags of plain marshmallows. All I needed to do was spruce up the guest room briefly, lay in some Royal Swan rum, and pick up a few corn tortillas for the gluten-intolerant Smileyfish, and we were good to go.

That firepit really is working a treat. The boys built the fire, and we fed it for a while, then let it die back so we could cook on it. Meanwhile, Smileyfish discovered that rum and lime is a Very Good Thing on a warm spring afternoon, and the children ran about and climbed and played and shouted.

The marshmallows were a bit disappointing, though. We thought we'd scored, when we found them in 'Chickenfeed' - a Tasmanian overflow store. I mean - they were plain! White! No nasty pink or yellow or swirly shit. What could go wrong?

Ah. Artificial vanillin. That's what could go wrong.

Tastes almost but not quite entirely unlike vanilla, to paraphrase the great Douglas Adams. Marshmallows shouldn't leave a bitter aftertaste, should they? Nor should they burn in quite the fashion these did. They were unnervingly like unto marshmallow, without actually being marshmallow, and even the kids gave up on them in short order.

Happily, we had some decent lengths of PVC tubing about. I took the opportunity to deliver a lesson in the use of the blowgun, using my children as moving targets, and rather nasty half-marshmallows as projectiles. The kids took to the idea with alacrity. They climbed the big swing-fort, and blatted marshmallows back at me. Meanwhile, Smileyfish grabbed a blowgun for herself, and ran around shooting at either side as the opportunity arose.

The whole situation was made more ludicrous by the marshmallows. They didn't quite fit. We had to tear them in half, and sometimes they still didn't fit, and sometimes they got sticky as hell. You never knew if you were going to successfully blast a marshmallow at your opponent, or perhaps blow up your own sinuses with back-pressure, or simply just make a sort of flubby, farting noise while a half-marshmallow vibrated its sticky way down your blowpipe and fell out the end with a pathetic sort of flup.

A good time was, therefore, had by all.

We finished up the evening by watching Hayao Miyazaki's Laputa up in the Cinema Shed. Smileyfish brought that one along for the kids - but I have to say I enjoyed it too. Good clean storytelling, fine animation, engaging characters.... yep. That was fun.

And in the morning, Ms Fish arose, had breakfast, and bid us farewell. The Mau-Mau went to the beach with her best friend. I got into the garden (and the cooking, and the laundry). Natalie was on call. The boys practised their instruments, and their Swedish... and we had a fine, quiet Sunday which ended in a charcoal-grill pork roast.

That was a pretty good weekend.


  1. I remember seeing Silent Movie on a double bill at the cinema (remember those) with Blazing Saddles. It would be had for me to choose between which I enjoyed more.

    Some chemist labored for hours in a lab to come up with a compound that tasted almost but not quite entirely unlike vanilla. Where's the respect for their craft, where's the love?

  2. Noted. Will grab it next time I can. I still remember the look on your face when you realized I wasn't joking about being a qualified blowpipe operator. I think I even had my chainsaw ticket in my wallet as well.