Last night, I was awakened from a fitful sleep by a shrill, sibilant, faceless voice. I couldn't make it out at first in the dark bedroom. (I think it might have been Patrick; he’s very… sneaky.) The Voice said to me: “I want you to tell the people the truth about movies—not an easy thing to do because the people don't want to know the truth about movies.” And I said, “Where have you been? I’ve been writing on this website for eight fucking years. I taught film classes for thirty fucking years.”
The Voice said to me: “Do you eat with that mouth? Garbage mouth! Do you really need to use language like that? And do we all really need to hear your god damned Curriculum Vitae again? Sheesh. Just do your best. And be good to your parents; they’ve been good to you.”
And I said, “Both of my parents are dead.”
Then, after an awkward silence, the Voice granted me some hella magick powers. It was the coolest! He said unto me: “We're not talking about eternal truth or absolute truth or ultimate truth. We're talking about impermanent, transient, movie truth. God-dammit, we should all be able to talk about movies like little ladies and gentlemen!' And I said, 'Why me?'
And the Voice replied, “Because you're on the Internets, dummy!”
I am still not sure; I either transubstantiated last night or I had a stroke. There is only one thing left of which I am sure. I now have an ability hitherto reserved for certain magicians from the turn of the 19th century: the ability to self-decapitate. I can detach my head and, free from the anchor of my body, my head can float freely about the house, or indeed, the world. It’s a trip.
During the upcoming year, my free-floating head (or, as ancient Hindu shamans called it, “Pudatsa”) will fly willy-nilly around my office and type with its nose, prognosticating, prescribing, and prevaricating on the world of film. Please join the Mysterious Pudatsa on its journey, won’t you?
The filmmakers choose to focus on the famous comedy team’s decline, with only a passing mention made to the halcyon days of their career. Perhaps this is because the movie’s source material was a book about Laurel and Hardy’s ill-fated tour of England in 1953, or because the screenwriter thought a movie about the geniuses of silent film comedy actually “getting along with each other” and “creating timeless comedy” lacked dramatic interest. The film opens with the pair filming the famous saloon dance number from Way Out West, and Reilly and Steve Coogan do a great job recreating it. Still, one senses the director is only including this material to emphasize during the rest of the narrative how the mighty have fallen—or that perhaps this charming sequence exists only as background for a later scene in which the pair recreate the dance… DESPITE THE FACT THAT WE ARE TOLD OLIVER HARDY MAY HAVE A FATAL HEART ATTACK IF HE EVEN STEPS ONSTAGE AGAIN, MUCH LESS DANCES AROUND.
This VH-1 “Behind the Music” sensibility drives me nuts. I would like to know why filmmakers and studios insist that these bilious biopics must revel in the decline of famous artists. At first I thought perhaps they desired a built-in narrative arc so that audiences would enjoy “a good story” with a beginning, middle, and end. Yet thinking about Stan & Ollie, I concluded that some filmmakers are baffled by genius. They don’t understand it, and they certainly don’t know how to explore that intellectual concept on screen for two hours in any compelling manner. Coming to terms with any artist’s genius also leaves some filmmakers feeling like their own self-esteem is being kicked to the gutter.
“Orson Welles was 26 when he made Citizen Kane,” muses a 40 year-old filmmaker, “I am incapable of making anything approaching Citizen Kane. I therefore hate Orson Welles.”
It just seems lazy to focus on such Lifetime Channel movie fodder as built-up resentments, meddling wives, audience disinterest, and “the show must go on.” Surely there is more of a story in the careers of the legendary LAUREL AND HARDY than two foundering comedians past their retirement ages attempting a semi-successful tour of England? Laurel and Hardy deserve more than this. They deserve a movie that explores or demonstrates their genius and what endeared them so to millions of movie fans over three decades, not a boring show business soap opera. This movie is beneath the dignity of Laurel and Hardy.
Though Stan & Ollie does not get make the same mistake as Bohemian Rhapsody—which turns its story of Freddie Mercury’s genius into an Audio-Animatronic simulation—the movie spends almost no time on what made its two subjects great in the first place and what I feel audiences would find compelling: Laurel and Hardy discovering and developing their genius. That film would be an artistic challenge to write and produce. Stan & Ollie is just too easy.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a rabid L & H fan. I come by it honestly. In the pre-VHS and pre-cable days of my misspent youth, I first developed a jones for motion pictures because my loving parents gifted me with a silent Super 8mm projector one Christmas. I would check out silent films from our local library and project them in our basement onto a hanging sheet. It was in that basement that I first fell in love with Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Lon Chaney. I then discovered Blackhawk Films, a mail-order house out of Davenport, Iowa that actually sold silent Super 8mm films. Taking pity on twelve year-olds with small allowances, Blackhawk films featured a monthly special: a silent comedy two-reeler that could be had for the low, low, discount price of only $6.99. Three of the first films I ever purchased in 1975 were Laurel and Hardy in Double Whoopie, Wrong Again, and Big Business. I still think that Big Business is one of the most perfect comedy films ever made.
Typing “Laurel and Hardy” into the YouTube search box reveals a treasure trove of the duo’s work, unhindered by pesky issues like “copyright” and “ownership.” I must admit that I am so old, stodgy, and set in my ways that it had never occurred to me to do this. Thanks, John C. Reilly. You have not only suggested a way to prepare for your awful film, but also suggested a much more entertaining substitute for seeing it at all.
Here are links to my two favorite L & H silent shorts. Forgive the odd foreign translation on Two Tars, but it’s the best-looking transfer of the many versions posted there. Enjoy.