Sunday, January 18, 2004

Step away kid, ya bodderin' me.

Actor W.C. Fields on 8th Street in Newhall, in front of his home, c. 1935.

Oy. I watch too many films. Two weeks into 2004 and a blog I started with the intention of documenting my viewing habits is already eight movies behind.
Better start bailing the blog boat before the celluloid waters creep over these internet eyes and I sink to the bottom of the media ocean.
Didn't strain that metaphor at all.
I didn't.
Don't look at me like that. Stop it.
Alright, I'm crying.
Are you happy now?

Here's the first.

small screen - january 2004 - starred!

Having never seen any Fields before, I wasn't too sure what to expect. GODDAMN, but this mutha was VICIOUS! Lord knows that was Fields' stock in trade; his misanthropy schtick was the cornerstone of his act, but I wasn't expecting someone THIS rude. He attempts to wrestle piggy banks away from little girls and angrily cuffs women in the head. In short, he gets away with shit you'd get booted off the stage for today. He plays his character unlovable, repugnant, belligerant and selfish; but it's so believable and gross that you can't help but root for the sorry bastard. He's a helluva anti-hero.

Six by Fields is a sextet of shorts (about twenty minutes a pop) from the early 1930's (his complete sound work from the period) including his first film, a mostly unremarkable silent from 1915.

By and large, they're all enjoyable. The highlights are his "job" films; The Dentist, The Pharmacist, The Golf Specialist and The Barber Shop. These job stories follow Carl Barks' Donald Duck approach to character: plunk your vainglorious gasbag lead into a professional setting then let the gags write themselves. The slapstick here is sadistic, fiendish and delectable; Fields is unflappable and the scripts veer wildly into dada. In The Pharmacist, Fields' dejected and hungry daughter eats the family parakeet; in The Dentist, Fields lifts a woman out of the chair with a pair of pliers attached to her molars and then proceeds to carry her around in a yank and pull hump that mimics rough coitus. Shades of Dario Fo or Ionesco, seemed t'me.

There is one especially offbeat short included to challenge the more adventurous of you out there. That Fatal Glass of Beer veers SO deeply into absurdity that it toys with incomprehensibility. Ostensibly a Gold Rush style parody, TFGOB instead satires Prohibition style paranoia, theatrical parlez of the day and... well, who knows what. The jokes are dated and then some. One of the running gags has Fields opening up his cabin's front door into the tundra and intoning in a wattle-rattling growl, "And it ain't a fit night out... for maaaaaan or beast." Then somebody throws a handful of fake snow in his face. They repeat this gag, no joke, at least NINE times. What we're meant to make of this, I don't know.

Which brings us to a necessary caveat: these films employ a visual license and storytelling technique that might as well be alien to an MTV generation viewer. Musical score? Nope. Only one joke every three minutes? Seems that way. Six minute static camera takes? Oh, definitely. These are films that demand patience and an ear for the well turned phrase. The rewards are insight into the film roots of the genre of dark comedy and the exemplary performances of a master at the top of his game. Fields is indeed a one note actor, but that one note cries out FUCK YOU in a basso profundo that echoes down decades in sneering hipster-ese. He's still cool and (based on the evidence here) overdue for a renaissance

This disc is a Criterion issue, which means you're going to get a nice quality picture, a clean transfer and crisp sound. Sadly, no bonuses here; I would've liked to have seen some newsreel footage of Fields in repose with his harem and his whiskey. Shame that. Still and all, great presentation.

Bottom line? Seventy years later, this stuff is still pretty funny. Anybody think Euro Trip will be palatable in 2074? Speaking of which, does that abomination not look like the worst, most exploitative piece of shit to come down from the Hollywood bowels since Stuck on You? Maybe I just picked up a bit of the curmudgeon from the master here, but you gotta believe: "They don't make 'em like that anymore."

One assumes that Fields must have dulled his uglier edge down for his later work (could this shit really have flown in the forties?). Even so, I'm looking forward to seeing more of this guy's work in the near future. Maybe The Bank Dick. I'm finding that there's really not much of his stuff on DVD, though . My Little Chickadee, f'r instance, is VHS only; which is especially stunning if you bear in mind that the only season of the TV adaptation of My Big Fat Greek Wedding _IS_ on DVD. Where's the justice there?

Fields said "Attitude is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than what people do or say. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill." That sunovabitch didn't have much more than a BAD attitude and he made it work for him and it's still working. Highly Recommended.


the essay accompanying the disc - A brief biography - Some Pics - The Juggling Dub-C - Runic Symbol and Tarot Card(?) (Wouldn't have thought he'd share a birthday with Mariah Carey... and Alan Moore... and Michael Jordan?) - a few quotes (Please note that this neglects my all time favorite W.C. Fields quote. When asked why he never did drink water, Fields replied "Because fish fuck in it". Now _that's_ classy.)

More coming after football tomorrow. Calling Colts and Eagles. Let's see.