Notebook is the North American home for Locarno Film Festival Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian's blog. Chatrian has been writing thoughtful blog entries in Italian on Locarno's website since he took over as Director in late 2012, and now you can find the English translations here on the
Notebook as they're published. The Locarno Film Festival will be taking place August 2 - 12.
If I think back to my earliest memories of the cinema, one fact—along with the names of certain films—leaps to mind. Or rather, not a fact, but a sensation. A sensation that fades into a hazy memory. At the movies I laughed at the twists and turns of bodies that could transpose acrobatic moves into everyday life, and at other bodies, too, ones that really were made of rubber, or seemed to be. Bodies that could be bent out of shape and absorb incredible falls, shocks and blows as if nothing had happened. And to the subversive pleasure of the above—the mouse busy under the cat’s nose, the kid getting away without being punished—was joined the satisfaction of a simple reality transcending into another dimension. Funny films are a magnificent Utopia: a world in which laughter and all that it engenders reign supreme.
I could go further: before even their irreverent power of words can take effect, comedy films are an impossible challenge to the laws of nature. The force of gravity, the laws of mathematics, even the speed of light are all put to one side... The best comedies create the illusion of establishing the supremacy of motion over calm, of disorder over order. Somewhere at the bottom of every gag lies hidden a brazen staring down of death, the final horizon of all things.
Comedy films go against the stream. Not just in the usual sense of debunking the established order by the process of upheaval and reversal that every comic entity practices on human society and its expressions, be these the police or an assembly line. They do so also in a more intimate way: comedy goes against that order which is required by cinema itself, for its very existence. Far more than literature or theatre, cinema is an attempt to give meaning to the world’s incoherence: that meaning derives from a mise en scène which in turn highlights one point of view (among the many possible), and from a narrative which cuts out one story and a range of characters from the multitude offered by reality. The comedy film works in accordance with an opposite principle: it upsets the rules of mise en scène, often destroying the very backdrops (real and symbolic) that set the stage for the emotional response and credulity of the viewer. And at the same time the comedy disintegrates the linear, sequential clarity that filmic narration so desperately needs. In a certain sense, therefore, one might say that the comedy film works against the rules and language which allow it to exist.
This is why the best funny films (The Cameraman, Modern Times, Dr. Strangelove, To Be Or Not To Be, all the Tex Avery shorts) are all more about cinema than about men and women and the reality in which they live. They are films which question the cinema and its rules, so much so that any attempt at synopsis is likely to be a clumsy failure, precisely because their stories are in themselves illogical or inconclusive. You don’t tell the story of a comedy film. Fortunately. At best you can describe, as methodically as possible, the details of a given scene; but all the time you are aware that, like a Russian doll, one form contains another—and what’s inside has all the essentials of the whole.
That being the case, I am not going to try to tell the story of this film by Blake Edwards, which I first saw quite late on, in my teens, and have ended up seeing over and over again, at various times and in various versions. At first glance The Party (known to Italian audiences with uncalled for precision as Hollywood Party—a name since taken over by a deservedly popular Italian radio program on film) looks like an exception to the rule I outlined above: it describes a return to normality, starting on a film set and ending with a return home after an all-night party.
The first scene opens in a landscape that looks like the backdrop to a Western—though it turns out to be the India of the Raj. Like many Westerns it is centered on a lone, solitary man, an outsider. Only it’s not a Western. And—it is 1968 after all, the counter-culture is at its height—the main character is not a gunslinger but an Indian, a real one. He’s an outlaw, but not by temperament or because of what he has done; on the contrary he is motivated by the desire to fit in, but his efforts to do so produce the opposite effect. His outsider status is ethnic, social and professional. He is not a lead actor but an unknown extra. An extra who, from the very first frame, oversteps his role. Whether out of obduracy or politeness, he does far more than is required of him, detouring attention away from the center and revealing all the inconsistencies and falsehoods that underpin a system to which he does not belong.
This reading of The Party is implicit in the very first camera movement, which tracks behind a rock to discover a man with a trumpet. The movement describes a shift from the center of the set to its margins. Hrundi V. Bakshi is what might be called, to borrow a lexical item from the period, “non-aligned.” In its historical context, this shade of political meaning expresses one of the classic mechanisms of comedy, whereby an intruder penetrates a closed system. That closure is an aspect underlined by the mise en scène: the off screen dimension hardly ever makes itself felt, because that dimension is where the main character comes from, or indeed is what he represents. So there is no need to evoke or even allude to it: the film is a triumph of the profilmic event. Or, to put it another way: the film is the story of what happens when an extra happens to become the lead. The inevitable consequence is a revolt: the turning upside down of the system—Hollywood, but also the American Neo-Colonialism that Hollywood embodies.
A magnificent angel of destruction putting on an Indian accent, Peter Sellers’ character simultaneously personifies the demand for freedom that was the keynote of the period, and expresses awareness of how that demand would not be fulfilled. Hrundi V. Bakshi ends up by destroying everything: the feature film he was supposed to have a bit part in, the home where he was invited by mistake, the hypocrisy—and sometimes the mental health—of the guests, the relationship between masters and servants, even the hierarchy among the waiters... Yet he himself seems blissfully unaware, tearing through it all like a monsoon. Mind you, the title itself already hints at Blake Edwards’ position. It’s only a party. For all the euphoria and the damage caused, we have the idea that, once the hangover has lifted, things will slowly get back to normal.
In my view, it is essentially this attitude which has saved the film from becoming dated. Unlike Zabriskie Point, another film/reflection dedicated to the 1968 revolt, Blake Edwards’ work seems to be looking ahead and beyond. The explosions of color and sound, even the revolts themselves, are just a prop, a way of masking the underlying solitude in every person: past or present, Indian or American. Because when you get down to it—as is revealed rather than concealed by the make-up—the two are none other than the same person.