Another Day in the Country: Picnic on the Grass (1959)

PICNIC ON THE GRASS, (aka) DEJEUNER SUR L'HERBE,LE, (seated)Paul Meurisse, 1959

To view Picnic on the Grass, click here.

For Jean Renoir Picnic on the Grass was both a return and a departure. It was filmed in and around the country estate of Les Collettes, his late father’s land, where he had grown up as a child. It is the perfect setting for this back-to-nature comedy in which a scientist (and hopeful presidential candidate), is lured away from the world of the mind for that of the flesh. But instead of using this return to indulge in nostalgia or reiterate the naturalistic style of his still-famous triumphs – Renoir pushes further into farce and caricature. Picnic on the Grass is a broad and joyful comedy that was inevitably compared with Rules of the Game(1939) and Grand Illusion (1937), which had been restored and re-released around the same time, and so Renoir was compared to his previous self, and found wanting. Jonas Mekas, writing in The Village Voice in 1960, had a profound experience watching Picnic on the Grass and was baffled by its failure – he wrote: “I hear the critics did not like it. Who are the critics? Critics like to talk big – poor nearsighted things! They do not see beauty even when it is there.” FilmStruck presents us with another opportunity to see this beauty, so I attempted to find it there.

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Ralph Barton and Charlie Chaplin in the Jazz Age

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Charlie Chaplin—an icon of cinema—flirted with the fine arts. He sketched on occasion, and he could converse about art and music in social situations, but his strongest connection to the world of art was his friendship with illustrator Ralph Barton. During the 1920s, Barton was a highly successful caricaturist and cartoonist, whose work was elevated by an understanding of design, line and composition. He served as an advisory editor for The New Yorker from its very beginning in 1924, which reflected the type of social circle Barton traveled in. Barton seemed to know everyone who gave the Jazz Age its flavor, from Mayor Jimmie Walker to actor Paul Robeson.

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Let’s Party with Peter and Blake

PARTY, THE (1968)

To view The Party click here.

One of the most surprising and gratifying movie screenings I experienced in recent years was The Pink Panther (1963) in full Technirama at the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival. I had seen the film many times on television, and I thought I knew all of the funniest bits, but watching it on a big screen was a revelation.

Blake Edwards’s expert direction amplified those subtle comedy bits that were dependent on offscreen action, screen direction, exquisite timing and precise compositions in long shot. The impact of these techniques is not nearly as effective on television, or, heaven forbid, computers. The best example occurs near the end of the film after several characters in gorilla suits leave a costume party then jump in tiny cars to chase each other. A local resident watches dead pan as a gorilla drives a car across the street in front of him and exits screen right just as another gorilla in another tiny car follows. Filmed primarily in long shots with minimal editing, the sequence is funny because we have time to take in the absurdity of a gorilla driving a car, just like the local who has been carefully positioned in center frame.

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Heaven Can Wait (1978): Here Comes Mr. Grusin

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To view Heaven Can Wait click here.

It’s funny how film scores go through stylistic transformations every decade, and how you can almost always pinpoint the year a film was made (within a year or two) based on the music you hear. Case in point: Dave Grusin, whose sound was so omnipresent in the 1970s and 1980s you can barely throw a rock at a movie theater without hitting a poster from one of his titles. Here at FilmStruck we’re tipping our hats to Mr. Grusin, whose distinct sound isn’t something you hear too often in theaters anymore—which is a loss for us all. One of his most infectious and upbeat works, Heaven Can Wait (1978), is a prime example of the Grusin soundtrack and boasts one of his most memorable themes, though incredibly, it wouldn’t have an album release in any format until 2013 when it finally hit CD paired up with another of his unreleased scores, Racing with the Moon (1984). I’m still waiting for someone to put out his majestic score for My Bodyguard (1980), too, but you can’t have everything!

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Jeffrey (1995): Love in the ’90s Is Paranoid

JEFFREY (1995)

To view Jeffrey click here.

There’s something special about the wave of LGBT-friendly indies that swept into theaters in the mid-1990s, and it’s not hard to see why. Rapid changes were starting to take place in a community driven to fiery activism by the catastrophic onslaught of AIDS in the previous decade, and the news was becoming far more outspoken about relevant issues in that watershed year of 1994, when the United States started observing LGBT History Month and the military initiated its controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Filmmakers followed suit, with everyone from Hollywood to the most budget-constrained indies offering a wide variety of voices in films like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Beautiful Thing (1996), Philadelphia (1993), The Celluloid Closet (1995), Happy Together (1997), Bound (1996), The Incredibly True Adventures of 2 Girls in Love (1996), Broadway Damage (1997), Chasing Amy (1997) and As Good as It Gets (1997). Not all those films have held up to scrutiny over the years, but when seen together and as part of the entire decade’s output, you could make a very strong case for the 1990s as the most vital one in the history of LGBT cinema. [...MORE]

Quirks, Quips and Q Planes (1939)

CLOUDS OVER EUROPE (1939)

To view Q Planes click here.

Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier had already developed quite the reputation among actors in the 1930s as powerhouses of the London stage. Both had worked together in the West End and had recently worked together on a production of Othello at the Old Vic, with Richardson in the title role and Olivier as Iago. So the fact that their first film together should be a spy comedy seems counter-intuitive until you see it and ask yourself why it didn’t happen more often? Richardson and Olivier, joined by Valerie Hobson, turn out to be one hell of a good comedy team and Q Planes is a comedy so quickly paced and expertly timed, it still seems fresh today.

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Mad Men & Women: Good Neighbor Sam (1964)

GOOD NEIGHBOR SAM (1964)

To view Good Neighbor Sam click here.

In case you haven’t noticed, FilmStruck is spotlighting the lovely Romy Schneider with their Icons: Romy Schneider theme that brings together 17 of her films made between 1955 and 1980. A few of the highlights include Sissi (1955), which rocketed the Austrian actress to stardom, Boccaccio ’70 (1962), The Trial (1963) and That Most Important Thing: Love (1975) discussed by my fellow Streamline contributor Nathaniel Thompson last week. Today, I would like to draw your attention to Good Neighbor Sam (1964), a light-hearted 1960s sex farce that satirizes the wacky world of advertising. Good Neighbor Sam is notable for providing Schneider with her first starring role in Hollywood and it was also one of many films that inspired the critically acclaimed Mad Men (2007-2015) series.

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Have a Coca-Cola Kid and a Smile

THE COCA COLA KID, Eric Roberts, 1985, (c) Cinecom International/courtesy Everett Collection

To view The Coca-Cola Kid click here.

As a child of the 1980s, I grew up watching all of those movie review shows where two critics faced off and compared notes about the latest releases, from the biggest blockbusters to the tiniest indie art house offerings. Siskel and Ebert were the gold standard here, of course, but there were plenty of others to get a broader range of opinions… and if a movie got called out as a “stinker” or “dog” of the week, I made sure to put it on my must-see list to find out what made them so angry. In the process I heard about lots of films I’d never have any hope of seeing on the big screen – things like Liquid Sky (1982), Pauline at the Beach (1983) or My American Cousin (1985), which weren’t exactly the kind of thing an underage kid could easily go see.

Then there was something called The Coca-Cola Kid(1985), which looked really odd and fascinating based on the few clips that showed up on TV; every reviewer seemed to tag it with words like “sexy” and “zany,” a kind of racier Aussie cousin to something like The Gods Must Be Crazy (which was shot in 1980 but didn’t hit the U.S. until 1984) or Local Hero (1983). So I added The Coca-Cola Kid to my future watchlist and went on my usual movie-devouring way. Meanwhile VHS was really exploding, and it was much, much easier to rent foreign films down the street (plus they didn’t usually have MPAA ratings!)—a real boost for any young cinephile. It wasn’t long before some scouring exposed me to the films of Dušan Makavejev, the taboo-smashing Yugoslavian provocateur behind such groundbreaking films as WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967). (And yep, you can see those and plenty more right here on FilmStruck as part of the “Directed by Dušan Makavejev” theme.) [...MORE]

A Fish Called Wanda (1988): The Greatest Modern Comedy?

FISH CALLED WANDA, A (1988)

To view A Fish Called Wanda click here.

There’s nothing more disappointing than revisiting a film that was considered great at its release, only to discover that it’s horribly dated. Many of the films that I loved as a teenager, particularly ones made in the 1980s and 1990s, don’t hold up some twenty or thirty years later. A Fish Called Wanda (1988) was one these films I loved, and I was afraid it would suffer the same fate as so many of those other films from that period. I’m happy to report that the film not only holds up, but is still one of the funniest, quirkiest comedies ever made.

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Let’s Go Bananas (1971)

BANANAS (1971)

To view Bananas click here.

Thanks to its frequent afternoon rotation on cable TV, I’m pretty sure Bananas was the first Woody Allen film I ever saw. I don’t think anyone who grew up later than the 1980s will ever say that again, but this is a great film to watch when you’re young (even if, yes, it has a joke about a magazine called Orgasm) and the perfect gateway to Woody’s “early, funny” period. It’s hard to describe the omnipresence Allen seemed to have in pop culture from the mid-1970s into the Orion Pictures period of the 1980s; every middle class home seemed to have at least two or three of his books sitting prominently ­on a bookshelf, film critics seemed to compare every comedy that opened to Annie Hall (1977), and the man himself made numerous TV appearances including some celebrated turns on The Dick Cavett Show (1968-1974). On top of that, Allen and 1970s muse Diane Keaton were seen as the epitome of the urbane, hip New York couple who were attractive because of their wit and intellect.

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