64. Forbidden Words, Unfunny And Funny Movies

64. Forbidden Words, Unfunny and Funny Movies

Today's blog-like Reminiscence (2/8/09) opens with my seeing on television, several nights ago on a PBS station, one of a series of programs about American stand-up comedians, this one on some who pushed the limits of politics and propriety, of what was permitted—Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor, sometimes the Smothers Brothers. But also two who, by establishment standards, went over the edge: Lennie Bruce and George Carlin. Both did it, and suffered seriously for it in their careers and personal lives, by ridiculing and breaking the laws against obscenity, which prohibited the public utterance of certain "dirty words." Commentators on the PBS program presented these two as semi-martyrs, with some implication that we had progressed beyond the narrowness and regulatory zeal that pilloried them. But I thought while watching it: have we really? The words they were prosecuted and persecuted for using are still pretty much forbidden, on TV and in other "family" media. This has always seemed to me stupid, and I've told my children, how can words hurt anybody, or damage your morals? Learn them and say them and then ignore them: Five one-syllable (four-letter) words: fuck, cunt, shit, piss, fart. (I think I have them right. No, add cock and prick. Five letters.) All forbidden, all with meanings expressible in perfectly acceptable synonyms. (Latin-derived: OK; Anglo-Saxon: No!) Will I get angry protests for writing them here?

What I object to, mainly, is the deep hypocrisy of it. A big official fuss was made, and big penalties imposed, when one of Janet Jackson's breasts was accidentally and briefly exposed to a "family" audience during a Big Game interlude. But exposed breasts (and much sexier ones) are to be seen commonly on other TV programs and on internet sites (I haven't explored them much, but writings on the volume and popularity of website pornography suggest that breasts are minor attractions there.) As for the f-word, it can't be uttered on TV or in family movies, but a film called "Meet the Fokkers" was permissible and popular. In it Robert de Niro's square family travels to Florida to meet their new son-in-law's parents, obviously Jewish (Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand) and sexually super-active, the "Fokkers." Get it? Snicker snicker. Augh.

Once on the subject of funny and unfunny movies: here are two more. Several nights ago my favorite TV station, Turner Classic Movies, showed "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," a 1963 film in which Stanley Kramer tried to make a super-funny movie (Robert Osborne commented that some consider it the funniest of all time) by bringing together all the old movie and TV comedians still able to appear in it, giving them a Great Chase plot (like the endings of Buster Keaton masterworks), adding Spencer Tracy (near the end of his career and acting rather listless) and letting it go on for several hours. My memory was that it was a huge failure, but I tried watching it again, off and on. It is still, in my judgment, profoundly unfunny, a disaster. Watching all these once-good comics pulled from their proper retirement pursuits to repeat their old shticks and play out this dumb plot was more painful than enjoyable.

But last night I saw, by good chance, a really funny movie on a PBS station, one I've missed up to now: the 1979 film "The Inlaws," with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. A director I didn't know, Arthur Hiller, and a cast mostly unknown to me (outside those two), but with a script full of turns and twists and surprises, a series of laugh-out-loud comic situations, and brilliant performances by the two leads. When was the last time you saw a movie in which you really couldn't guess what was coming next, or, for a long stretch of enjoyable puzzlement, how to explain the strange behavior of one of the principals (Peter Falk)? Rent it, buy it, watch it.  


Last night Turner Classic Movies showed, for the first time, the old film of "Pygmalion", 1938, with Leslie Howard and the wonderful Wendy Hiller (her first movie), screenplay by G. B. Shaw himself! So that the ending was as Shaw originally wanted it, not as rewritten to satisfy the popular demand for romantic endings. (I enjoy the "My Fair Lady" movie like everyone else, and was/am in love with Audrey Hepburn, while agreeing that Julie Andrews should have had the part.) But seeing Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) named as the composer of the score reminded me of another of the elaborate musical pranks that my composer-friend Gordon Cyr and I performed during our early college years in the early 1940s, when we were ushering regularly at the San Francisco Symphony and ballet and concerts. It was Gordon's idea to form the Honegger Society of America, made up, in principle, of a league of admirers of his music, but in fact consisting of the two of us and two not-very-committed others. Honegger was at that time little recorded or performed—available were his symphonic poem imitating the sounds of a freight train, "Pacific 231", his "Concertino for Piano and Orchestra", later his oratorios "King David" (one of the vocal parts on the recording sung by the great Charles Panzera) and "Joan of Arc At the Stake," a few others. In principle, the Honegger Society was agitating for more performances and recordings; in practice, we would sit or stand together when (infrequently) his pieces were played at concerts and cheer loudly and conspicuously afterwards. We may have had other activities I have forgotten about. Gordon also wrote him a letter, using letterhead stationery contrived for the purpose, and received a reply expressing his great pleasure and honor at learning about this society. I hope he never found out the truth about us.

My enthusiasm for Honegger actually was and is less than for two others of the French composers group "Les Six," Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud. Milhaud spent his late years in nearby Oakland, teaching at Mills College. Discovering that he was in the phone book, I could not resist (as a high school student) phoning him to express my admiration for his music. Later I met him and was able to do it in person. Sarah and I used to play (me badly) his two-piano work "Scaramouche," with its jazzy Latin rhythms. Poulenc's piano music as played and recorded by himself, and his songs as sung by his longtime partner Pierre Bernac (I heard the two of them perform once in San Francisco), affected me so deeply that I used to use them as musical analogies when talking about the bitter-sweet expressiveness, the super-sophisticated evocations of past styles, in some late-period Chinese paintings (See Reminiscence 3, "Music B," above.) But for my teacher Max Loehr, with his Germanic belief in the profound seriousness of musical expression, the sometime playfulness, even irreverence of such music was more disturbing than pleasurable: after I played for him a new recording of a Poulenc piano concerto, a piece with impudent parodies of romantic style, he said, after a long pause, "One should not be allowed to compose such music." He was serious. Loehr's Germanic response to French music, in turn, reminds me of an imaginary conversation between two Frenchmen listening to a late Beethoven quartet, with which I will conclude. First Frenchman: "Isn't that a lovely melody!" Second Frenchman: "Yes. it is. Let's leave quickly before he starts developing it."

Latest Work

  • Conclusion Conclusion
    VI Conclusion It is time to draw back and look, if not at the whole Hyakusen, at as much of him as we have managed to illuminate in this study. Dark areas remain, and doubtless many distortions, but...

Latest Blog Posts

  • Bedridden Blog
    Bedridden Blog   I am now pretty much confined to bed, and have to recognize this as my future.  It is difficult even to get me out of bed, as happened this morning when they needed to...