The Unquiet American
Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.
October 7 to November 5, 2009
This year's joint Retrospective of the Austrian Film Museum and the Viennale is devoted to one of the richest continents in cinema: American film comedy. US critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, highly esteemed for his writing on film since the 1970s, is curating the show. Rosenbaum is well-known for his mordantly critical perspective on the dominant forces in American culture and politics, an aspect that shapes and sharpens the show’s approach to the topic: the intent is not to give a „representative“ picture of film comedy in the U.S. or to tick off the genre‘s „highlights“, but rather to delineate some of the more disruptive and transgressive threads in American comic filmmaking. For Rosenbaum, the boisterous, unruly and occasionally excessive nature of the selected films is an ideal vehicle for illuminating the "American character", regardless of whether this happens consciously or unconsciously.
The transgressive element in the films assumes various forms, extending from the seemingly stoic energy of Buster Keaton to the zany pop cultural approach of Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin, from the anarchic cartoon violence of artists such as Tex Avery or Chuck Jones to the subtle Jewish-American humor of Elaine May and Albert Brooks. It can be found in classic comedies by Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch and George Cukor, as well as in the work of contemporary Hollywood filmmakers Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson and Joe Dante, in independent cinema since the early 70s (in films by John Waters, Jim McBride and the rediscovered Chameleon Street by Wendell B. Harris, Jr.), and even in the works of the American avant-garde (Jack Smith, Owen Land, Manuel De Landa).The earliest and the most recent of the selected films are also opposites in terms of tone: When the Clouds Roll By (1919), a delightful parody of psychoanalysis and the best of all Douglas Fairbanks adventures, stands at the beginning; the latest work is Idiocracy (2006), a highly original vision of the future by Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butt-Head.
For the curator, the show is a self-examination on several levels: an American considering, in front of a European audience, the disturbingly comic images of America(ns) that were and are produced by the American cinema. His main criteria in making the selection were „fun and edification. And since they’re comedies, whether or not I find them funny is also important. But it’s important to bear in mind that there were no preset criteria for my inclusions. Imposing any criteria essentially means foreclosing certain possibilities in advance – which suggests that it’s the works themselves (or at least the best and most original works) rather than the critics that should be suggesting the criteria. As I see it, it’s the job of critics to assist discussions about films, not to end them.”
As the programme places Orson Welles next to Walt Disney or Steven Spielberg next to Laurel & Hardy, it becomes obvious how easily the walls between „mainstream“ and „art“ film, or between the truly grotesque and a sharply critical impetus can be penetrated. In order to install a minimum of order, however, Rosenbaum has five loose thematic categories: Americans Abroad (including, for example, William Klein's malicious anti-American satire Mr. Freedom), Class and Ethnic Tensions (from Sturges' Christmas in July to the aptly titled stroke of genius Laughter by Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast), Cultural Problems (as in the piano lesson-horror musical The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T), Deconstructive and Romantic Anarchy (from Spielberg's 1941 to the Marx Brothers), and Sexual Dilemmas (from John Waters' Female Trouble to Jim McBride's softcore extravaganza Hot Times).
The title of the Retrospective is a spin on a literary tradition from the 1950s. Novels such as Graham Greene's The Quiet American and William J. Lederer's and Eugene Burdick's The Ugly American (both adapted for film), invented the character of the reserved „American with the best intentions“, whose real activities, however – especially abroad, in Southeast Asia – caused considerable damage. Towards the end of the 20th Century, according to Rosenbaum, „one might say that the real-life 'Ugly Americans' abroad were no longer being very quiet or modest about their ignorance but had actually become loud and boastful about it. And this is what finally suggested my title, positing a kind of reckless, unbridled, and often solipsistic American spirit, at once exhilarating and dangerous, spreading anarchy, chaos, and other kinds of transgressive messes wherever it goes.”
Coinciding with the Retrospective, an extensive catalogue with essays and texts by Jonathan Rosenbaum will be published. Jonathan Rosenbaum will be in Vienna for the Retrospective's opening, and, from October 7 to 9, will present introductions on the films being screened.
In two follow-up projects of the Film Museum, the investigation of the comic in cinema will be continued. December will see a complete retrospective of Charles Chaplin's films, and in January, 2010, the Film Museum will present a comprehensive programme on Dino Risi and the Commedia all'italiana from the late 1950s to the early 70s.