Reviewed today: Funny How? How Am I Funny?, Kiss Me Kate, Legacy, Live From New York!
Well, not today, obviously, we've got films to watch. But towards the end of this unauthorised history of Saturday Night Live - which, it turns out, we're watching on the exact 40th anniversary of the show's first broadcast - it's acknowledged that over the last decade, the way in which people consume the show has undergone a seismic shift. The SNL Digital Shorts - music-based sketches shot in advance of transmission, by the team which was to become The Lonely Island - were tailor-made for uploading to YouTube and gathering an audience way beyond the people who tuned in on Saturday night.
Which is interesting, because before Andy, Akiva and Jorma started making clickbait like Lazy Sunday and Dick In A Box, my favourite parts of Saturday Night Live were Robert Smigel's TV Funhouse animated segments. Bits of handmade genius like this and this stood out on SNL for the same reason why Lonely Island's work did: they weren't live. Most of SNL's reputation stemmed from its live sketches, performed by virtually everyone who's ever been anyone in modern American comedy. To me, those always seemed like the most slipshod bits of the programme: watching them after transmission, as you have to if you're not in the US, you lose the thrill of the live highwire act and just focus on the many places where the comedy falls flat, rather than the few places where it soars.
That's always been my experience of the show, anyway. So it's nice to see Bao Nguyen's angle in this documentary, focussing on the two-way relationship between SNL and American politics and culture. When it first hit the airwaves back in 1975, it was a fairly radical proposition - a dream team of new comic talent (Ackroyd, Belushi, Chase, Murray and so on) using a live primetime show to satirise whatever was at the top of the national agenda that week. For forty years, they've continued to do that, with varying degrees of success: as with any such institution that's lasted this long, it's gradually become part of the mainstream it was originally satirising.
Nguyen is more interested in the overall arc of SNL as a document of American history, and less in the personalities behind it. So we don't get a fade to black to mark the passing of John Belushi, but we do get one to mark 9/11, and producer Lorne Michaels' dilemma about how to reassure the country that it was time to breathe out again. The clip of Michaels and Rudy Giuliani on the first post-9/11 episode is irritatingly geo-blocked, but if you can get past the US-only restriction you'll see that it's the whole show in microcosm: a musical number, a recognition of the importance of the city to SNL, and a perfect example of how to break tension with a laugh.
Although made independently, Live From New York is enough on SNL's side for it to have been broadcast on NBC last week, as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations. It's generally a positive view of the show's history, but still managing to touch on its most controversial moments, not to mention its acknowledged problem with having been largely a white boys' club for much of its history. And the clips are carefully chosen, with plenty of context attached: it does a better job than any of those SNL clipshows on Netflix of explaining its importance in the American media landscape.
3.30pm: Kiss Me Kate [trailer]
I’m going to get all geeky about 3D here for a couple of paragraphs, apologies in advance.
I've been attending the LFF since 1989, as I've mentioned in the past. Over that time I've seen quite a few presentations of archive 3D restorations. Generally, they've been from the 1950s, which a couple of decades ago was generally considered the height of the 3D boom. So what is it now, then? Only last weekend, The Belated Birthday Girl and I caught two of the most recent 3D releases in rapid succession - The Martian and The Walk. I mention this because both of them used the Real3D system with polarised lens glasses, which is the most widely used one nowadays.
This restoration of Kiss Me Kate, however, chose to be different, and used an active 3D system instead. In brief, the projector runs at 48 frames per second, where each frame alternates between the left eye and right eye view: your glasses are then picking up a signal from the projector that makes each of the lenses go dark at precisely the right time to filter through the correct image for each eye. When it works, it's technically rock solid, with none of the image ghosting problems that you get in, say, IMAX 3D screenings when you tilt your head a little too far to one side and knock the polarisation out of whack. (That's presumably why there's nothing in the script for The Walk that you need to think too hard about.) But as I said: that's when it works. Which made it all the more embarrassing for the BFI when as the opening credits rolled, at least 30 audience members had to get out of their seats to get their faulty glasses replaced, The Belated Birthday Girl being one of them. You never had these problems with red and green cellophane lenses, that's all I'm saying.
Anyway, enough of the 3D tech geekery, what about the film? Well, it's a beautifully restored example of fifties 3D: a mixture of subtly framed depth effects and gratuitous hurling of objects directly at the audience. Storywise, it's a curiously postmodern mishmash: a Cole Porter backstage musical, set on the opening night of a different Cole Porter musical also called Kiss Me Kate, itself an adaptation of The Taming Of The Shrew, where the battling relationship of Petruchio and Katherine is mirrored in that of the actors playing them, former couple Freddie Graham (Howard Keel) and Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson).
If you thought about it too hard, you'd go nuts trying to pull apart the various layers of reality that interweave with each other. It's best to go with the flow and just accept it for what it is: a daft romance between two characters (whoever they are at any given moment), depicted with some breathtaking Hermes Pan choreography and accompanied by some of Cole Porter's most familiar songs. (Thanks to the 1990 Red Hot And Blue charity album, they’re songs I most closely associate with the likes of kd lang, Erasure and Jimmy Somerville.) Brush Up Your Shakespeare is still the showstopper, though it was a shock to discover today that The BBG has spent coughty-cough years on this planet without hearing it before. All in all, it's a delightful way to spend a Sunday afternoon, though these days you have to marvel at an adaptation of Taming Of The Shrew whose gender politics are ultimately even dodgier than Shakespeare's.
In the days before Clare Stewart took over the LFF, my recommended annual allowance of short films was usually fulfilled by Jayne Pilling's excellent collections of animations from around the world. There's still lots of fabulous work being done in the form - I'm assuming that the British Animation Awards will re-confirm that early next year. But we haven't had a programme of animated shorts in the LFF for several years now, apart from the odd one for kids, and that seems like a terrible mistake to me. Anyway, in the meantime there are still other collections of global short films to enjoy, like this bundle of eight comedy films.
Thanks to the internet, short films have a much higher profile than they used to have, and it's amusing to discover that the weakest entry in this particular programme is the one that's had the biggest amount of internet buzz attached to it. David Sandberg's Kung Fury [entire film] opens strongly with a wild mashup of 1980s video trash aesthetics and rampantly OTT cheap CGI, and if they'd stopped after the pre-credits sequence it could have been glorious. But then the same idea is hammered into the ground for another 25 minutes, and there isn't really enough invention beyond that opening to justify it. To be honest, the Australian TV show Danger 5 does it all much better, and seems to be an unacknowledged influence on Kung Fury for both its carefully wrought technical incompetence and its Kill Hitler plotlines.
The half-hour running time of Kung Fury really works against it in this programme: all the other shorts do a much better job of getting their point across and stopping long before you get bored. Alicia MacDonald's Otherwise Engaged [entire film], for example, only really has one joke - the toxic effect of mobile phones on one of the happiest days of your life - but smartly works through all the variations of that joke in under five minutes and then gets the hell out. It's a similar story with Sebastien Petretti's Pink Velvet Valley [trailer], a nicely drawn character study of a man who's obsessed with his sunglasses.
If you can get a developing narrative in there with your joke, so much the better. Michael Yanny's Just Desserts [trailer] takes one bad decision during a restaurant dinner, and stretches it into a social nightmare, anchored by a terrifically pitched performance from Alex McQueen hiding behind a moustache. By comparison, the story of Interior. Familia. [trailer] is a much darker proposition, as a couple wake their son up in the middle of the night to tell him the worst thing he's ever heard, followed by half a dozen or so even worse things. Directors Gerard Quinto, Esteve Soler and David Torras crank up the horror inch by inch, continually pushing you to find the point where you stop laughing. Your mileage may vary.
The three best shorts in this set, interestingly, each have a racial component that adds a bit of an edge to the comedy. Peter King's Crack [official Facebook] takes the cliches of the Brixton street gang - the street corner deals, the backstreet boffin pulling off dodgy stuff in a kitchen, the car park confrontations - but then removes drugs from the centre of the story, and replaces them with conkers. King keeps the gritty documentary style throughout, even when a hard-as-nails teenager is boasting about his sixty-eighter to the camera, and the result is hilarious. Meanwhile, Basil Khalil's Ave Maria [official Facebook] takes an even more charged situation, as a Jewish family's car has an accident outside a West Bank convent. But rather than exploit the tensions between them, Khalil uses it as a whimsical culture clash story: the nuns are on a vow of silence, while the Israelis can’t operate machinery after the start of the Sabbath. Eventually the whole thing resolves itself in a rather sweet fashion, but the backdrop of minefields and the religious divide gives it a bit of spice.
The best of the shorts here takes all those good points I've talked about and combines them all in a single film. Christophe M Saber's Discipline [official Facebook] is confined to a single location, a Swiss grocery store run by immigrants. One little girl starts to misbehave while on a shopping trip with her father: from there, a carefully calibrated series of misunderstandings causes the whole situation to escalate in a spectacular fashion. Saber's logic behind the escalation is ruthless and perfect, and he makes the descent into chaos seem perfectly reasonable. With just the smallest change in emphasis, this could have turned into Do The Right Thing: but instead it's a hilarious farce, and that's one hell of a trick to pull off.
Notes From Spank’s Pals
Legacy [official site]
The Belated Birthday Girl - Roberto Anjari-Rossi’s documentary is a portrait of two women living in rural Chile, Rosalia and her granddaughter Laura. Laura has trained as a car mechanic, but the possibility of finding work as one in her town is slim: there isn’t really enough business to require many mechanics, and the local garage where she did her apprenticeship doesn’t need any more workers. Life in the town is hard, and a recent earthquake is a heavy presence. Most of the young women of Laura’s age already have children, and the men seem largely absent. Religion and superstition are prominent, with Rosalia prescribing spells to cure sick children brought to her, and the church leading solemn Easter parades through the town. We see Laura fixing up the house where the two of them live, working in the vineyards harvesting grapes, and going to a disco in a nearby town to wind down.
The film is shot intimately, with a lot of close-ups of the women’s faces. The director told us at the Q&A after the screening how he didn’t want the film to have the look of a documentary, so there are a lot of shots cutting between the pair of them. There is no big dramatic arc, no climax, just a sense of how these two women live their lives, and of the place in which they live them.