(In the first of a recurring series of featurettes, CINEMA UNDERGROUND continues to scandalize the cozy, smug coterie of film critics and academics by impudently yoking together two entirely unrelated film artists/icons/works/motifs that will astound your senses and undress your prejudices! Prepare to be taken… by our insights!)
In this corner, hailing from Belgium, the tough-minded, docu-drama filmmaking brothers and multiple Cannes Film Festival Palme D’or winners, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
And in this corner, ha ha ha… in this co–cor–*giggle*–from New York City… Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo. Ha HAAA HAAA! The sublime, the inimitable, the eternally entertaining Marx brothers, ladies and gentlemen!
Join us, won’t you, for this unprecedented pugilistic juxtaposition of two transcendent teams of cinematic titans!
1. ROUND ONE: Best Film
Brothers Dardenne: Rosetta
I learned everything I needed to know about the Dardennes the very first time I watched Rosetta. Their naturalistic camerawork positively swells and exhales with the powerful cadences of a marathoner’s respiration. The film’s relentless focus on its protagonist–summoned as much as portrayed by Emilie Duquenne–provides the immediacy of a blow to the solar plexus; yet Rosetta’s narrative is so richly observed, so truthful, so nuanced that I swear you could isolate any of the film’s minutiae–the huffing-puffing sound design, Rosetta’s harried gait, Ricquet’s culinary and musical skills (or lack thereof), the sad symbolism of her soft grey skirt and yellow tights–and you would still behold the entirety of Rosetta‘s living, breathing soul immanent in its DNA.
Young filmmakers should simply forego film school and apply themselves to repeated viewings of this naturalistic masterpiece.
Marx Bros.: Indeterminable
Everybody has their own favorite Marx Bros. film. Some prefer Monkey Business, others Animal Crackers, Duck Soup or A Day at the Races. It simply becomes a matter of whether one prefers the free-for-all gags and pacing of the earlier Paramount classics or the more structured lunacy of the MGM films.
It doesn’t really matter. All their best films manage to masterfully weave frenetic slapstick, virtuoso musical interludes and inventive comic tableaus into a slowly-winding apogee of barely-contained chaos. (Oddly, their best films all seem to have animal themes in the title, and most include Zeppo.)
Just as it’s perfectly understandable to favor, say, Groucho’s barbed mockery over Chico’s chicanery, or Chico’s verbal slipperiness over Harpo’s mercurial pantomime, it’s pointless to suggest that one is superior to the other or that the comic whole is not greater than the sum of their parts. Likewise, choosing a favorite film is only natural; but declaring a “best” Marx Bros. films is missing the joke altogether.
WINNER: Brothers Dardenne (1-0)
2. ROUND TWO: Cinematic Muse
Brothers Dardenne: Olivier Gourmet
Beady-eyed, balding and bespectacled Everyman. Appeared in all five Dardenne features. Featured as the haunted, saintly protagonist of The Son.
Marx Bros.: Margaret Dumont
Convivial, classy and civilized Grand Dame foil. Appeared in seven Marx Bros. pictures. Charmingly shocked, dismayed and befuddled in all of them.
WINNER: Marx Bros (1-1). Of course, Gourmet is the better actor, but aside from his moving portrayal in The Son and a strong under-stated role in Rosetta, he is under-used in the Dardenne canon while Dumont was rightfully referred to by Groucho as “practically the fifth Marx brother.”
3. ROUND THREE: Methodology
Brothers Dardenne: Start with a scene. An idea. An emotion. Develop those themes together in isolation. Then rally together familiar actors, a familiar crew, familiar locations. Rehearse your actors sans camera, sans dialogue. Allow no discussion of psychology. Then film them moving, working, resting, being–shot mostly with steadicam under natural light. Then observe closely the details of your careful orchestration for real flashes of truth or discovery.
Through strict adherence to proven methods, the Dardennes closely mirror the same workmanlike ethos evinced in the text of their films–Rosetta’s waffle making, Olivier’s carpentry–putting process ahead of product, the dignity of labor before delight in its fruits.
Marx Bros.: The many faces of chaos. Don’t naively assume there is a hierarchy of comic prominence based on screentime. Groucho has the most punchlines but he frequently plays straight man to Chico’s absurdist designs; Chico is easily undone by or enlisted into Harpo’s idiocy. The rock-paper-scissors egalitarianism of their comic indifference to convention merely assails order from differing vantage points, using tactics of varying consequence.
Much of their best material and many of their most memorable gags were carefully groomed through vaudeville and other performances to be effectively delivered regardless of context. An emphasis on plot seemed to hinder rather than help them. Better than most of their directors, the Marx Brothers inherently understood that their particular brand of comedy derived more from the pastiche of their personas than from the narrative relief. The stories were never more than opportunities for their own Marxist deconstruction.
WINNER: Dardennes (2-1). Art can be collaborative, but it is never democratic. It is uniquely individual or it is nothing–even if the individual vision is from a duo of minds. The Marx Brothers are the less for their declining scripts with their increasing emphasis on plot and the changing rotation of directors. To be truest to their chaotic art, they should have ironically insisted on stricter control.
4. ROUND FOUR: Bastard Children of…
Dardennes: Robert Bresson and John Cassavetes
Rigorous and spare like Bresson, with the same crackling undercurrent of spiritual commerce, but with Cassavetes’ restless roving camera and virtuoso cast of amateurs.
Marx Bros.: Buster Keaton and Harry Houdini
Not stoic like Keaton, but equally intransigent in the face of absurdity. Always only ever themselves despite the dissolution of the world around them. But also, masters of slipperiness, verbal and physical. Houdini-like in their ability to evade, escape and confound authority, logic and stillness. Atomic energy viewed as physical gag.
WINNER: Marx Bros. (2-2). After a long apprenticeship in documentary film, the Dardennes style sprang forth virtually fully-formed from the brow of their first feature, The Promise. I see little incentive for them to need to innovate stylistically when their efforts have already yielded several perfect films (Rosetta, The Son, The Child). Rather, the galvanization of their style allows them to selectively refocus their gaze on whatever contemporary subjects catch their fancy (such as the seedy world of illegal immigration in Lorna’s Silence), and continue to trust in the revelatory potency of the filmmaking process.
The Marx Brothers’ style, on the other hand, remains, simply, often imitated but never duplicated.
5. ROUND FIVE: Implied Politico-Philosophical World View
Dardennes: Socialist Materialist
They still believe in the dignity of labor and the rights of workers and the marginalized to be, if not embraced, at least recognized by society. They carefully document processes, environments and conditions as the real keys to revealing elusive personal essences. A person’s breath and walk and habits are as important as her motivations. Film as document. Meaning as process.
Marx Bros.: Democratic Dionysian
Vaudeville is essentially low-brow entertainment. In every film, the Marx Brothers deflate another institution of the upper-class and powerful: education in Horse Feathers, art in Animal Crackers, health-care in Day at the Races, government in Duck Soup. Is “deflate” even the right word? They essentially ignore the premise of their own films, while reveling in the endless space created between foolishness and exaltation, between excess and freedom.
WINNER: Marx Bros. (3-2).
Do politics work beyond the personal? It is fabled that the success of Rosetta resulted in the passing of labor protection laws in Belgium, but the Dardennes themselves deflect that statement, insisting that the bill was in the political pipeline long before the film debuted. And how to properly account for the spiritual significance of Olivier’s strange saintly pilgrimage in The Son, or the weeping, redemptive denouement of The Child?
The Marx Brothers give the lie to political meaning in art beyond what is felt outside one’s lived, visceral experience of the film. It is not that ideas cannot exist or be communicated through film; it’s that these things are best conveyed AS experience–and, in the case of the Marx Bros., as the violent ebb and tide of laughter.
AND THE WINNER IS: the Marx Bros!
In a fiercely contested match, the Marx Brothers’ anarchistic ballet closely edges the spiritual documentary of the Dardennes! Rather than a victory of the humorous over the serious, however, I hope that others will join me in recognizing the affinities shared by artists sure in their craft and willing to operate at the extreme margins of social concern. Win-win for the viewers!