Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and . . . Dali ?

blogopenerThis Friday, August 14, TCM salutes Groucho Marx as part of this month’s Summer Under the Stars. Most of the day is devoted to the classic comedies of the Marx Brothers, which regular TCM viewers have seen multiple times. One of the most rewarding experiences for any avid movie lover is to watch a familiar film with a new perspective, leading the viewer to discover new insights and therefore a new appreciation. I hope my post today offers some of you a different perspective on the Marx Brothers’ movies.

Studying and teaching art history has prompted me to look at the movies in new ways. For example, when first studying the Dadaists in graduate school, I thought immediately of the Marx Brothers, because Dadaism was intentionally subversive and anarchic. It was born out of the anger and frustration over WWI and its causes, and it was designed to ridicule artistic traditions, moral conventions, and social institutions. In cafes and theaters, Dadaists dressed in ridiculous costumes, uttered meaningless noises, or performed poetry based on puns, nonsequiturs, and the interplay of words. Visual artists created collages and sculptures that reflected Freud’s and Jung’s ideas on the subconscious. After the war, the Surrealists picked up where the Dadaists left off, though their perspective was less nihilistic and they were more interested in tapping into the subconscious for their imagery. Surrealism is really about the irrational juxtaposition of recognizable images. Normal, everyday objects lose their identity or meaning because they have been taken out familiar contexts, or because they are depicted as warped or decayed. The imagery can be disturbing, provocative, and/or humorous. The artist whose work came to define Surrealism, at least for the mainstream public, was Salvador Dali, and Dali may have been the Marx Brothers’ biggest fan.

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June 28, 2014
David Kalat
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Caligari Glen Ross (Expressionism is for Closers)

Now that the announcement has been made official I can go ahead and ‘fess up: I recently recorded an audio commentary for the newly restored Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for the UK Blu-Ray release by Masters of Cinema.  It was a huge thrill for me—I’d been wanting to do a Caligari commentary for years and no one had asked me yet.  But not only was it a chance to finally yammer my way through Robert Wiene’s masterwork, but this new restoration is simply stunning—it’s from the original 35mm negative.  Looks like it was shot yesterday.

And seeing this film fresh makes all the difference in the world, because there are so many myths and misconceptions about Caligari that need clearing up.  Like, that this film is some kind of avant garde work of art.  Because (ahem) it’s not.

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KEYWORDS: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
COMMENTS: 10
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John-Cassavetes
May 31, 2014
David Kalat
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Cassavetes vs. Ottinger – Arthouse Grudge Match

Several weeks ago, I posted an essay that claimed that the reason movies get made is to make money.  I stand by that claim, and have spent the many of the last several weeks trying to explore the edges of it, but I’d like to clarify that I’m not saying that everyone who works in film is motivated solely by greed.  I am saying that the people who work in film have bills to pay, mouths to feed, kids to put through college, etc.  I’m sure there are some lofty-minded artists who resist and reject all that, and are only motivated to realize their own personal visions—but even they are better served by enjoying a modicum of commercial success.  And that’s where we are this week—to see what happens to artists so determined to buck the system they end up compromising their own art worse than any studio hack could.

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KEYWORDS: John Cassavetes, Ulrike Ottinger
COMMENTS: 10
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Daliwood

Salvador Dali’s surrealist career was bookended by his experiences in the movies.

I have to couch that statement with the limiter “surrealist career” because Dali was a prolific and prodigious talent whose larger artistic career in toto is almost incomprehensibly vast—he was painting like a pro when he was a small child, and kept at it until 1989.  That’s right, Dali was around to witness the first Internet virus.  Just wrap your head around that.

But… he is known and celebrated primarily as a surrealist, and it is that phase of his career which intersects the world of movies.  And therein lies our tale.

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Artists in the Movies

artistdanger1Recently, I watched a Depression-era comedy that I had never seen, or even heard of, before. Danger—Love at Work (1937) stars Ann Sothern as Toni Pemberton, the carefree daughter of an eccentric wealthy family. Despite being engaged to stuffy Edward Everett Horton, she is smitten with Jack Haley, who plays a lawyer trying to do business with a family of wacky individualists. As Mrs. Pemberton, played by Mary Boland, notes, the family owes its penchant for eccentricity to a grandfather who advocated free expression of personality without inhibitions.

My favorite character is Uncle Herbert, played by John Carradine, who puts a hilarious spin on the archetype of the eccentric artist. Carradine shows off his versatility as a character actor in his obvious spoof of Salvador Dali. When Henry meets Herbert, he is decked out in a smock as he paints the inside window of the Pembertons’ South Carolina mansion. He is so pleased with his modernist painting, dubbed “The Love Life of a Cup and Saucer,” that he announces he is no longer a surrealist but a post-surrealist. Henry ends up spending the night with the Pembertons and is given a room where the ceiling has been adorned by Herbert. The butler explains that Herbert suspended himself from the chandelier to paint “Friendship” on the ceiling, which consists of huge, distorted forks, knives, and spoons. The butler explains that the painting is called “Friendship,” because cutlery works together during a meal. Later, Henry watches Herbert furiously paint a seascape while standing in front of a fan in a raincoat (top photo). A butler pours water on his head from a sprinkler can, because, according to Herbert, the artist must experience his subject matter.

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