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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: The rambunctious talents of Elaine May

Screen Grabs: The rambunctious talents of Elaine May

Plus: African Film Festival, cinema and histories of incarceration, the Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, more movies

Nichols & May were probably the first comedy duo to be popular with the intelligentsia as well as the mainstream. Their improv-based skits may look unremarkable now, but that’s because they more or less invented a school of hip, flip, urban-neurotic behavioral-observation satire that subsequently became its own norm, from Woody Allen to Lena Dunham. When they split in 1961 after several years’ comedy albums, TV appearances, club runs, and a hit Broadway show in 1961, everyone wondered just what these two extremely bright, somewhat unclassifiable talents would do next.

The late Nichols, of course, very quickly went on to become one of the most famous American directors of the 20th century’s second half, first on stage (he was Neil Simon’s preferred interpreter), then in movies (starting with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate), and prestige television. May scripted two of his more successful later films, The Birdcage and Primary Colors, as well as Warren Beatty’s hit Heaven Can Wait, and did a fair amount of valuable but uncredited work on other screenplays (including Tootsie). But such occasional writing contributions aside, what would she do? She was not considered conventionally appealing enough to be a star by the standards for women in the ’60s and ’70s. Nor did she seem interested in pursuing it—she only made a handful of films as an actress, notably giving a great performance Allen’s 2000 Small Time Crooks.

Maybe she, too, could direct? There were virtually no prominent female directors in Hollywood circa 1970—but then, May’s comedy career had already stubbornly hewn its own path. So Paramount agreed to let her direct and star—two roles she had not initially sought—in her own script for A New Leaf, provided the popular Walter Matthew take the lead. He steps out of his usual screen persona in a delicious turn as Henry Graham, a rich layabout who discovers he’s run through his entire inherited fortune. In desperation, he seeks a wealthy woman who’ll maintain him in the lifestyle to which he is accustomed, ideally one without family or heirs so he can be her estate’s sole beneficiary after the tragically premature death he plans for her.

A New Leaf comingles 1930s screwball, 1940s Preston Sturges, and 1950s Ealing comedies to uneven but sometimes sublime results. It was too odd, too out of fashion to be a hit, despite largely admiring reviews. But the commercial disappointment was nothing compared to the behind-scenes conflicts, which set an unfortunate pattern for May’s future endeavors. The modestly scaled production went wildly over budget, and when she took forever editing it, Paramount’s Robert Evans radically reduced it to a 102-minute feature—cutting over an hour of darker subplots that, sadly, may be lost forever. (No one seems to know if that footage still exists.) May sued, but the court sided with the studio.

Rather amazingly, given that ugly public spat, Columbia then agreed to have May direct a rare original screenplay by her friend Neil Simon, The Heartbreak Kid. It was another comedic “romance” heavy on humiliation, with Charles Grodin as a NY-bred schlemiel who meets a stupefyingly beautiful, corn-fed All American Girl (Cybill Shepherd) on the beach in Miami—where, unfortunately, he happens to be honeymooning with his considerably-less-perfect bride (May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin).

He pursues that new obsession nonetheless, despite the vigorous objections of the shiksa’s very rich Minnesota daddy (Eddie Albert). This maximally cringe-inducing comedy—in a good way, and certainly a better way than the awful Farrelly Brothers/Ben Stiller remake—apparently suffered no notable production woes. It was also among the bigger critical and commercial successes of 1972.

Due to complicated rights issues, however, that Heartbreak Kid has been hard to see for a long time—all the more reason to go when it plays BAMPFA on September 17 as part of the series Elaine May: Age of Irony. Much easier to see, ironically (ahem), have been the two later films she directed, both of which entered the Hollywood Hall of Ill Fame in terms of bad press, cost overruns and on-set battles well before they were released.

Mickey and Nicky was a rambling, anecdotal crime-drama-cum-character-comedy with Peter Falk and John Cassavetes as middle-aged ne’er-do-wells on the run from a hitman and other messes of their own making during one long Philly night. Finally released in 1973, over three years after principal photography had wrapped, it was New Leaf deja vu: Again the budget had more-than-doubled, again editing a titanic amount of footage turned into a struggle with Paramount, and again the studio won. Very much indebted to Cassavetes’ own directorial films, this exercise emerged a muddled dud nobody much liked. It has been steadily re-evaluated ever since, though, to the point of now being considered a minor classic.

There was nothing minor about May’s next film a decade later, which producer-friend Warren Beatty had pushed for her as a reward for her writing contributions to his own Heaven Can Wait (which is also in the BAMPFA series) and RedsIshtar was envisaged as an homage to the Hope-Crosby “Road” movies of the 1940s, which parodied exotic adventure stories. Beatty and Dustin Hoffman played a talentless NYC songwriting duo nonsensically lured to a lounge-singing gig in Morocco, where they find themselves instead trapped in international intrigue involving the CIA, an assassination plot, a blind camel, and Isabelle Adjani as a Woman Of Mystery.

Released in 1987, when it earned back less than one-third of its (natch) out-of-control budget, Ishtar became the most famous flop since Heaven’s Gate, and a new byword for “expensive celluloid disaster.” It is still the butt of “worst movie ever” jokes by people who (mostly) haven’t seen it. The combination of May, Beatty and Hoffman—all notoriously exasperating perfectionists—was surely asking for trouble, not to mention working abroad in difficult conditions with undertrained local crew. Once again, Ishtar proved that however brilliant she may be, Elaine May is probably just not temperamentally suited to the rigor, compromise, and time-is-money pressure of major studio filmmaking, particularly as she likes to encourage improvisation.

But lost amidst all the negative publicity was the fact that Ishtar was never a bad movie. Yes, it’s overblown, uneven, and was out of step with mid-’80s mall-flick tastes. But it is terribly handsome (as shot by the great Vittorio Storaro), sleekly entertaining, usually amusing, and sometimes flat-out hilarious. Like every movie Elaine May has directed—the whole handful—it has only gotten better with age. The tangy misanthropy and ridicule that mark her humor, the cruelty alleviated by a certain loose silliness, may indeed be more in line with today’s sensibilities than they were 35 or 50 years ago.

All the above-listed May-directed films (plus Heaven Can Wait) are in Elaine May: Age Of Irony, running at BAMPFA in downtown this Fri/9 through Sept. 30. For full program/schedule info, go here.

BAMPFA is also starting two other major series this week. Undoing Time: Cinema and Histories of Incarceration (Thurs/8-Nov. 16) provides a wide range of films in which the prison industrial system’s impact is weighed on prisoners, those they leave behind “outside,” and society in general. Subjects include WW2 Japanese-American internment camps (Rabbit in the Moon), ICE detention centers for undocumented immigrants (The Infiltrators), Black Panther Bobby Seale (Staggerlee), the last century’s most famous US prison uprising (Attica), and the whole system’s parasitical-exploitative nature (The Prison in Twelve Landscapes).

There are also looks at how prolonged absences by the often unjustly sentenced take a toll on families and communities. Danny Lyon’s 1985 Willie compiles footage shot over many years to chart one New Mexico man’s path from petty juvenile offender to one very damaged recidivist lifer. In Kristine Samuelson’s 1974 Time Has No Sympathy, San Francisco County Jail #4 in San Bruno is a holding pen for women spending anywhere from a few days to a year in lockup, stuck in cycles of drug abuse, sex work or whatever that keep them from the children they’ve (once again) temporarily abandoned.

These are all documentaries, but there are also two narrative features: Haile Gemina’s B&W Bush Mama is a snapshot of mid-70s Watts life from the viewpoint of an African-American woman raising her child alone while her partner is in jail. Set around the same time, Jeff Barnaby’s 2014 Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a potent portrait of tense relations between Red Crow Mi’kmaq on a Canadian First Nations reservation and the often needlessly cruel “Indian Affairs” agents they must submit to. For for into on the series, go here.

Also starting at BAMPFA this week is the annual (even if it skipped last year) African Film Festival, which kicks off this Wed/7 with a recent festival favorite, the Rwandan Afro-Futurist fantasia Neptune Frost. There are also newish features from Cameroon (The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman), Mali (The Promises), Ethiopia (Min Alesh?) and Nigeria (Mrs. F), plus a diverse program of “Women’s Stories: African Short Films” (on Sun/18).

Two older films are showcased as well, with 2000’s fanciful, frenetic Highway to the Grave culled from the “Golden Age of Nollywood,” while Med Hondo’s 1986 multinational co-production Sarraounia is a fact-based epic of a tribal queen’s struggle against colonialist forces circa 1900 that is impressive in its scale and sweep (as well as terrific soundtrack). It should make an interesting point of comparison to imminent Viola Davis vehicle The Woman King, which dramatizes a similar historical chapter. Full info on the African series (which runs through October 29) can be found here

It is, in fact, a big week for revivals in general, with the Italian Cultural Institute and Cinema Italia SF presenting Pasolini 100 at the Castro this Sat/10 to mark the late poet, intellectual and filmmaker’s birth centenary. It begins at 10:30 am with Abel Ferrara’s 2014 Pasolini, with Willem Dafoe well-cast (despite the lack of Italian accent) as the man himself in the days leading up to his violent, still-debated murder at age 53 in 1975.

The other films showcased are the writer-director’s own, including his very good vehicles for illustrious friends Anna Magnani (1962’s Mamma Roma) and Maria Callas (as Medea, 1969). There’s also his first feature, the 1961 Accattone, a neorealist portrait of a Roman pimp played by his personal discovery Franco Citti. And his notorious last: The posthumously released Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom, which updates de Sade’s infamous fictive catalog of perversities to Italy’s fascist era. Cut or banned in numerous countries, it remains many people’s idea of the ultimate in shock cinema—though frankly, the book is so much worse.

This day-long overview only scratches the surface of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s remarkable life, or even his film ouevre (notably skipping the folkloric trio capped by Arabian Nights), but after its 14 hours or so, you will definitely be sated. More info is available here.

Another European taboo-breaker, albeit one who lived to a ripe old age, was the Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel. You can argue whether it was his artistic zenith or not, but 1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise was (perhaps excepting Belle du Jour five years earlier) his popular peak, and it remains an insidiously puckish delight. Six highly privileged socialite types (played by such arthouse luminaries as Fernando Rey and Delphine Seyrig) wander through an exquisite-corpse-like series of dinners, parties, restaurants and so forth, each stop frequently turning into something grotesque or macabre. Yet they maintain their oblivious, “sophisticated” poise, like background actors in a 1960s TV commercial for some liqueur.

A little bubbling spring of absurdisms, hinging on disreputable behaviors by conspicuously reputable people, Discreet Charm is a deadpan farce forever flirting with anarchy. Criminality, politics, religion and sexuality are addressed en route, none managing to seriously dent our protagonists’ insouciance until the arrival of a machine gun. It’s a fairly small movie, but in its way an almost perfect one. It opens at the Roxie in a new 4K restoration this Sat/10 (more info here).

Last but not least, Other Cinema at Artists Television Access is presenting the first in a series of “Archive Fever” nights this Sat/10 with a program whose main attraction is The Village Detective, the latest from found footage specialist Bill Morrison (Decasia, Dawson City: Frozen Time). This “song cycle” was occasioned by the discovery in Icelandic waters of reels from a 1969 Soviet comedy—not a rare or important find, as celluloid history goes. But it’s one that allows Morrison to meditate on the beauties of decomposition, and the place in national culture of this nondescript feature, as well as its star Mikhail Zharov, whose career stretched from the last days of the Czar to the twilight of the USSR. We’re promised miscellaneous other found-footage goodies on the bill as well. Info here.

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