Friday, August 3, 2007

Artists and Models

Although he hasn't much of a reputation in North America, Frank Tashlin was a particular favorite of the Cahier du Cinema critics, especially Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, who went on to become the directors of the Nouvelle vague, and in his film The Dreamers (2003), Bernardo Bertolucci acknowledged his debt to Tashlin--most apparent in Bertolucci's second feature, Partner (1968)--in a scene where Michael Pitt takes Eva Green to a screening of The Girl Can't Help It (1956) at the Cinémathèque Français. My own impression after seeing five of his films--Artists and Models (1955), The Girl Can't Help It, Hollywood or Bust (1956), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and The Disorderly Orderly (1964)--is that he's a minor figure who some how made at least two major films. If Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is singular enough that one senses Tashlin's presence behind the camera in almost every scene, with the cast putting their talents in the service of a unified vision rather than trying to steal the spotlight for themselves, Artists and Models is all over the place, a vehicle for its wildly eclectic cast, which includes Jerry Lewis, Shirley MacLaine, Dorothy Malone and Dean Martin, that runs the gammit from pop culture satire to broad slapstick to honoring the conventions of a romantic comedy to parodying them to musical numbers that are appropriately eclectic, alternating between fantasy numbers (in which the characters suddenly burst into song and dance) and show business numbers (in which the characters perform for an onscreen audience).

What's most Tashlinesque about the film is its satire of consumerism and pop culture, which thematically bears a certain resemblance to Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995). Rick Todd/Martin is a serious painter and Eugene Fullstack/Lewis dreams of writing a children's book, but to make money they're reduced to painting billboards for cigarette companies. For the sake of argument let's assume that art is Truth and Beauty; the billboard is a garish eyesore that attempts to make something unhealthy and unattractive seem appealing. And it's no secret that the vast majority of new smokers are kids well below the legal age. But to survive, one has to compromise. When Eugene gets them both fired they don't even have enough money to eat, and the landlady is on their case about the rent. Her idea of a "real artist" is one who pays the rent early. Of course she's referring to Abby Parker/Malone, a commercial artist employed by a comic book publisher--another insidious and unsavory product that targets children--who moves into the apartment above Rick and Eugene's. But when her publisher, Mr. Murdock/Eddie Mayehoff, pressures her to turn up the gore in her Bat Lady comics, Abby refuses to budge and quits.

As in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, where the title character/Tony Randall becomes a tabloid sensation when a Hollywood starlet, Rita Marlowe/Jayne Mansfield, plants a phoney story about them to make her boyfriend jealous, television and comic books represent a modern day correlative to Plato's cave, and the "slightly retarded" Eugene isn't the only one apt to confuse appearances for reality. Thinking Abby is a high artist and that she might be able to help Rick with his career, Eugene decides to introduce himself to the new neighbors despite the landlady's warnings to stay away. At that moment however, Abby's roommate, Bessie Sparrowbrush/MacLaine, is posing for her as the Bat Lady (Eugene's favorite super-hero), and when she answers the door dressed like Irma Vep, Eugene--who has a childlike mentality--believes that the Bat Lady is real. Later, after Abby quits the comic and Rick swoops in to sell an idea to Mr. Murdock for a gory comic book based on things Eugene shouts in his sleep (and conveniently forgets upon waking), he's on the town celebrating his newfound wealth when he sees Eugene on a TV in a shop window denouncing comic books' negative influence, and Rick pleads for him to stop as if Eugene could hear him. This confusion of reality and representation reaches its natural end when the rocket formula in Rick's comic book turns out to be half of a real rocket formula being developed by the U.S. government and the Soviets send a Hungarian spy, Sonia/Eva Gabor, to Rick's apartment to sex the other half out of him.

Although Tashlin is some times referred to as Lewis' mentor, based on the three of their collaborations I've seen so far, from this film to Hollywood or Bust but especially in The Disorderly Orderly, Lewis gradually emerges as the driving creative force behind the films with Tashlin reduced to a director-for-hire. Here this tendency is apparent only in two sequences built around Lewis' slapstick routines, one with Eugene running up and down the same flight of stairs and the other immediately after in a chiropractor's office, where the punchline is their own excessiveness. Hollywood or Bust is an overly familiar road movie, lacking both the satirical elements of this film as well as Malone and MacLaine, that's not even recognizable as a film by Tashlin apart from the opening sequence where Martin pays thanks to moviegoers around the world, an otherwise sly dig at television that's marred by Lewis' desperately unfunny caricature of a Chinese person. The Disorderly Orderly doesn't even have Martin, and what qualifies for the plot is merely a clothesline on which to hang Lewis' slapstick.

Although Artists and Models rarely comes up in discussions of great Hollywood musicals, perhaps because Martin and Lewis were known primarily as a comedy team (even though Martin himself is better known as a crooner than an actor or comedian), its musical numbers account for a large part of the film's formal and thematic interest. The title song first appears over the opening credits, set to a series of shots of female models in static poses; it establishes the gaze of the male artist on the female model only to subvert it later on when Eugene poses for Abby. The first proper musical number, "When You Pretend," happens as early as the second scene to establish Eugene's childlike mentality. This number, and the subsequent "You Look So Familiar" and "The Lucky Song," clearly belong to the fantasy musical tradition outlined above, although that dichotomy becomes complicated with "Innamorata" where the music is explained by the presence of a small radio, though Rick's talents as a singer are justified only by Martin's cool persona rather than anything in his character (when Abby asks who the singer is, Bessie replies "He's the one who had that hit with 'That's Amore!'"--very Tashlinesque). The same applies to when Eugene and Rick perform the title song together at the Artists and Models Ball, the film's only pure show business number (even though it could be said to incorporate elements of a fantasy number--for instance, when Eugene paints off the canvas and onto the air. In the very final scene where all four leads run on stage and reprise "When You Pretend," the sense of euphoria the moment contains stems from seeing the characters escaping into artifice, which is solidified when the camera pans away to a toy church and then back to the four leads who are now, inexplicably, dressed for a wedding (they seem as surprised by the transformation as we are).

Despite the curious intimations of a homosexual relationship between Rick and Eugene early on (the latter does the cooking, and when the former threatens to leave he uses the word "divorce"), the story essentially boils down to a four-person romantic comedy with two diametrically opposed heterosexual couples; the same schema can be seen in the more recent Down With Love (2003), where the sexiness of the 'A' couple and the neurosis of the 'B' couple are both exaggerated to the point of parody. Both films seem to be taking their cues from Aristotle's Poetics, which makes the distinction between stories about greater than average men and stories about below average men, giving us both for the price of one. And as in that film, where Catcher Block/Ewan McGregor is a consummate ladies' man who meets his match in Barbara Novak/Renée Zellweger, here it's implied Rick left his hometown because he didn't want to marry a girl he knocked up, though he's transformed by his love for Abby, finding the courage to stand up to Mr. Murdock, who himself lacks the courage to stand-up to his wife (never seen) though some how has multiple mistresses. The film equates promiscuity among men with a lack of integrity. Late in the film, a model/Anita Eckberg observes of the new Rick: "Now when I pose for you, you just draw my picture." The 'B' romance between Eugene and Bessie is less complicated since she thinks their union is cosmically preordained, even though Eugene is in love with the Bat Lady, and the film bears out her metaphysic. When Sonia, dressed as the Bat Lady, lures Eugene to her hideout, he finds her a disappointment after Bessie whose kiss literally causes the toes of his shoes to pop open (a metaphor for premature ejaculation?).

Whether or not one considers Tashlin an auteur, Artists and Models is a major film by any standard, and its special qualities would be unimaginable without the four leads. I've said relatively little about Malone and MacLaine so far, even though their characters provided the inspiration for Rivette's Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974), one of my all-time favorites. I've only seen Malone in two other films, Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1946) and Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956); here she gives a performance as far removed from those two as one would imagine possible and pulls it off beautifully. What Marylee Hadley shares with Abby however is their sexual frustration, except here it's more a matter of choice--and both performances are a world apart from the cool elegance of her character in Hawks' film. If Malone seems somewhat over-shadowed here it's only because her performance is relatively restrained, while MacLaine on the other hand is completely unrestrained. I've had a thing for her ever since I saw Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running (1958), where she stole every single scene she was in (I mean, really, what does Dave Hirsch/Frank Sinatra see in that blonde chick anyway?), and here she's every bit as lovable. Forget Marlene Dietrich, forget Marilyn Monroe--Shirley MacLaine is my kind of sex symbol.

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