Skip to main content

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party
(1968)

(SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

Edwards conceived of The Party as a silent movie – very much in the manner of Jacques Tati, to which it owes a considerable debt – but this fell away once Sellers was on board, and the actor realised he would have to speak in order to embrace the character. Edwards and Sellers had previously fallen out while making A Shot in the Dark (Edwards suggests Sellers’ desire to receive serious, Kubrickian acclaim, rather than just adoration for his Clouseau prat falls, was part of the issue; this also led to Alan Arkin playing the signature role in Inspector Clouseau, although ironically, both Sellers and Edwards were working together again on The Party by this point). The decision was made to improvise a 56-page outline, which sounds great in theory, but you only have to look at the deceptively precise comic vignettes of Tati – or even, and I’m not a fan, Mr Bean, who owes a debt to Bakshi – for the readily apparent difference in results.

Simply, The Party can’t sustain itself once Bakshi, instead of being condemned never to work in Hollywood again for messing up a Gunga Din style epic, is mistakenly invited to the self-same producer’s swanky party. And because it has an intentionally haphazard quality, you’re never under the illusion that something truly inspired is occurring, as with Monsieur Hulot. Of course, comedy is the most subjective of genres, but I think Pauline Kael was correct when she suggested “it’s too long for its one-note jokes, and often too obvious to be really funny”. And yet, she identified that it is, nevertheless, “agreeable in tone”.

The house set itself is absurdly impressive, but there’s much in the comic construction that rather goes on, in particular Steve Franken’s frantically mugging and increasingly-inebriated waiter. And, inevitably, Bakshi’s need to use the toilet (which he, also inevitably, destroys). On the other hand, his interactions with Denny Miller’s cowboy star Wyoming Bill Kelso are quite charming, and Longet manages to be both winsome and strike an oddball chemistry with Sellers (although, Longet’s impact on Vladimir Sabich almost a decade later was decidedly more pronounced).

The Party does feature very funny moments – an extended piece of slapstick involving Bakshi’s shoe that manages to swing neatly around to his being served it on a platter, "Birdy Num Nums", Bakshi losing his roast chicken in another guest’s hairpiece – and it’s gratifying that, apart from the producer (Gavin McLeod) and studio head (J Edward McKinley) who had it in for him anyway, Bakshi doesn’t manage to outrage or infuriate the rest of the guests, even if they mostly don’t know what to make of him. But the movie proceeds to climax in a massive foam bath after Clutterbuck’s daughter Molly (Kathe Green) arrives home with a bunch of friends (“I thought you were out protesting” says her reluctant mother Fay McKenzie). Fun as it is, and symbolic of 60s free abandon (a recurrent theme of the middle-aged Sellers’ work around this time) while accompanied by Henry Mancini’s title track The Party, it isn’t exactly ground-breaking (indeed, Norman Wisdom made much more effective use of foam frolics in The Early Bird a couple of years er, earlier).

The Party was a family favourite as a child, mostly for the aforementioned “Birdy Num Nums” scene where Bakshi decides to feed a macaw but manages to drop most of its food on the floor; later, he then happens upon the house intercom and broadcasts the phrase to the guests; it remains a highlight. Sellers is also on great form throughout, embracing the opportunity to go for it with a character (he apparently became addicted to the video assist developed for the picture, constantly returning to it to study his performance). Bakshi’s nationality seems less essential to Sellers than serving as a peg to hang the character on; it is referenced a number of times, but the key is that he’s an outsider. When Bakshi does reference his heritage in a serious manner, though, it concerns the elephant mentioned at the outset.

This baby elephant arrives with Molly and her entourage, daubed with slogans, and Bakshi takes issue with such disrespectful treatment of a symbol of his country; Molly and her friends quickly set to work washing the little fellow down (all of which leads to the foam-based fun). He is soon scrubbed of an assortment of statements, including “Socrates Eats Hemlock”, “Green Power”, “Go Naked”, “Chicken Little Was Right”, “Love Is A Sugar Cube”, “Freak Don’t Fight”, “Turn On Tune In Drop In”, “Boss” on its trunk, and “We’d Rather Banana”. And, most singularly, since it adorns the elephant’s forehead, “The World Is Flat”.

Noel Joshua Hadley suggests that, what with Sellers being something of a lapsed mason – he only really showed up to be inducted, shamelessly used his membership to get ahead, and then had a habit of dropping their secrets in unguarded fashion, all of which are considered big no-nos – the elephant’s most central statement might be something of a message on Sellers’ part, an announcement of one of the core freemasonic tenets. On the other hand, given the combination of non sequiturs and trad hippy slogans appearing elsewhere on the creature, it’s possible that it was intended as just another riff on counter-culture programming.

The Party may be forever damned for its egregious brown-face, but Bakshi represents one of Sellers’ most charming roles, imbued with an innocence he’d return to, to acclaim, in Being There. I really don’t buy the “one of the most radically experimental films in Hollywood history” tag you can find cited on Wiki; The Party is pleasingly done, but still typical of a certain carefree indulgence of many a comedy of that era.




Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

You have a very angry family, sir.

Eternals (2021) (SPOILERS) It would be overstating the case to suggest Eternals is a pleasant surprise, but given the adverse harbingers surrounding it, it’s a much more serviceable – if bloated – and thematically intriguing picture than I’d expected. The signature motifs of director and honestly-not-billionaire’s-progeny Chloé Zhao are present, mostly amounting to attempts at Malick-lite gauzy natural light and naturalism at odds with the rigidly unnatural material. There’s woke to spare too, since this is something of a Kevin Feige Phase Four flagship, one that rather floundered, showcasing his designs for a nu-MCU. Nevertheless, Eternals manages to maintain interest despite some very variable performances, effects, and the usual retreat into standard tropes, come the final big showdown.