In my freshman year of college, I learned that a kid down the hall had never seen Star Wars. None of it. He had actually never heard of Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader or R2-D2 — I don’t know how; he seemed normal enough. Once my roommates and I overcame our shock, we plopped him down in our common room for a marathon viewing: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, with no digital enhancements — the complete series, at the time.
We sat like anthropologists, observing our perfect test subject, completely silent to avoid spoiling anything, watching him discover this strange new world. “Wait, this is the beginning?” he asked as the intro scrolled across the screen “Why does it say Episode IV?” And then: “Whoa, they just blew up the whole planet?” And: “He can strangle people with his mind?” And: “Oh my god, they’re freezing Han?”
By the time we got to the most famous line, the line, the spoiler it’s virtually impossible not to hear at some point growing up — “Luke, I am your father” — the look on my friend’s face was one of pure wonder. I could not remember a time when I didn’t know who Luke’s father was, and I envied the excitement he was feeling, the unadulterated thrill of discovering something that, though verging on the cliché for me, was completely fresh territory for him. I kept thinking, How lucky he is to get to see this for the first time now.
As adults, it’s easy for us to feel that everything fun is already finished, that all the worlds have already been thoroughly mapped, especially when it comes to books. The last time I felt that childlike glee of discovering a new world was with Harry Potter, and by that time I was already in college. Now Harry has vanquished Voldemort. Aslan has fought Last Battle. Frodo has destroyed the One Ring. Katniss has — well, in case you’re waiting for the movies, I won’t spoil it for you.
But really, you don’t have to be young to experience that excitement. Here are five children’s series you might have missed when you were younger (and please add your favorites in the comments, too). Each offers a thoroughly imagined world that’s immersive enough to make you feel like a kid again, with writing sharp and smart enough to satisfy a book-loving adult. If they’re unfamiliar, I envy you: how lucky you are to get to read them for the first time now.
1. The Wolves Chronicles by Joan Aiken (12 books starting with 1962’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase)
Aiken’s series is set in an alternate version of 19th century England, in which James II was never deposed and the Hanoverians — that would be the ancestors of today’s royal family — scheme against the rightful ruler, James III. Stay with me.You don’t need to know or even like history to enjoy this series, which centers around a plucky, streetwise Cockney girl named Dido and her younger sister, Is, and includes a healthy dash of fantasy while still being grittily real.
Wolves roam London at night. There are hot-air-balloon chases, plots hatched on Nantucket whaling ships, and hypnotic puppet shows. In The Stolen Lake, Dido journeys to a strange country ruled by Queen Ginevra — better known as Guinevere — who has been awaiting the return of her husband, King Arthur, for hundreds of years. In Is Underground, Is ventures into the terrifying mines — worked by kidnapped children — to rescue her missing cousin. Aiken’s series is hardly known in the U.S., and I don’t know why: she’s the forebear of steampunk and all kinds of other historical-fantastical mashups.
Oh, and did I mention that Edward Gorey did the book covers? Yeah.
Can two books count as a series? I vote yes, because these are too good to leave off the list. Howl’s Moving Castle was made into an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki in 2004, but even the master couldn’t capture all the incredible flourishes of the book. Sophie, the eldest of three daughters and certain she’s therefore doomed to be a failure, is transformed by an angry witch into an old woman. Forced to flee her home, she talks her way into in the moving castle of the title: inhabited by Howl, a youngish, temperamental, and very vain wizard; his apprentice Michael; and a curious and powerful fire demon named Calcifer. Sophie and Calcifer strike a bargain: he’ll take the spell off her if she can break a mysterious bargain he’s made with Howl — but what is the bargain, and what will it cost to break it?
The novel is slyly funny, with gentle sendups of both fairy-tale tropes and modern-day life — at one point, Sophie and crew end up in a small town in Wales. (Don’t ask; just get the book, trust me.) Lit-nerds will delight in the John Donne poem that plays a central role in the plot. It’s clever and deeply satisfying, as is its sequel, Castle in the Air, which gives the same treatment to Arabian Nights territory.
Zilpha Keatley Snyder is surprisingly unknown, given how prolific she is: she’s written more than forty books (three of them Newbery Honor books) and is still going. As a kid, I read all of them I could find, but my favorites are — and still were — the four books about the kids in the Stanley family: sensible David, precocious Janie, stolid Esther and her eccentric, prescient twin Blair, and cranky, adolescent stepsister Amanda, whose arrival shakes up the family.
In the first book, The Headless Cupid, Amanda arrives at the Stanley house, bored, bitter at her mother for remarrying, and — wait for it — obsessed with the occult. Her prosaic new stepsiblings decide they want to learn about the dark arts as well, but things start to get a little creepy when they learn about the poltergeist that once haunted their house. Snyder’s vivid characters keep the series firmly grounded in reality, though, and the series could be a master class for writers in any genre: create interesting and dynamic people, put them together, and let the sparks fly. In the following books, there’s a kidnapping in rural Italy, a (possible) monster roaming the neighborhood, and a mysterious rash of dognappings, but at heart the focus is always on the dynamics of this quirky family.
The three series I’ve mentioned above could be considered YA from a time before “YA” was a thing, but the Half Magic series by Edward Eager are clearly meant for children Despite the younger audience, though, adults — especially book-loving adults — will still adore these stories of unabashed magic.
Each takes a traditional chestnut of children’s lit — the magic talisman, a wish-granting animal, time travel — and gives it a fresh twist. For instance, in Half Magic, four brothers and sisters find a magic charm that grants them exactly half of what they ask for, and in Knight’s Castle, a boy discovers that his toy castle comes to life at night. Jo and the Little Women, Merlin, Ivanhoe, and many more literary figures have cameos, making these books parents and kids will enjoy on different levels. Each book stands alone, but figuring out how the stories are connected — and then watching them overlap—is part of the fun.
5. The Vesper Holly series by Lloyd Alexander (Six books starting with 1987’s The Illyrian Adventure)
Many people know Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, including The Black Cauldron (and if you don’t, get thee to a bookstore or library). But fewer people are familiar with his marvelous heroine Vesper Holly and her adventures. Vesper is a teenage orphan, ferociously intelligent, insatiably curious, and completely unfazable; picture a teenage, female, red-headed Indiana Jones. She drags her elderly and devoted guardian, Brinnie, across the globe to just-barely-made-up lands — Illyria, torn by centuries-old civil war; El Dorado, where Indian tribes grapple with encroaching industrialization; Jedera, a desert land with an immense, ancient library under siege. In her first adventure, she makes an archnemesis, Dr. Helvitius; in each book, she thwarts another of his plots. These are fun, smart books, with witty characterization and sparkling writing. Growing up, I wanted to be Vesper, and now that I’m grown up, I still kind of do.
It is hardly news by now that Broadway theater has become a high-priced museum of its former self. This year’s Broadway season, which kicked off earlier this month, will feature a few new plays, including a limited run of Outside Mullingar from Pulitzer-winner John Patrick Shanley in January, but for the most part Broadway theaters will host the usual disheartening mix of jukebox musicals, retooled Disney movies, and revivals of hoary classics populated by downshifting movie stars.
For those who care about theater as an art form, it is this last category, the endless stream of revivals of classic American plays populated by movie stars, that really hurts. Sure, there are theaters off-Broadway and in other cities around the country that still commission and produce new plays, but the Broadway revivals, like the production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie starring Cherry Jones that opened earlier this month, show that there was once a time when serious new plays found favor not just with a small, theater-loving elite, but with a broad cross-section of middle-class America.
My own grandparents, like many educated young people in the 1940s, loved culture and fine things, but they lived in an isolated mill town in Southern Virginia without good bookstores or restaurants, much less a vital theater scene. So, like thousands of their fellow Americans, once or twice a year, they hopped a train to New York to eat a few decent meals, shop at the department stores along Fifth Avenue, and “see the shows,” which for them meant Broadway. This was, for a generation of American provincials like my grandparents, the height of sophistication and an annual ritual that sustained New York theater for decades.
Now that golden age of serious, culturally ambitious drama is gone forever.
Or is it? Certainly, given the sky-high ticket prices and the emphasis on circus-like musicals catering to baby boomer nostalgia, the next generation of great American dramatists like Tennessee Williams or Lorraine Hansberry, whose 1959 classic A Raisin in the Sun is being revived this spring, won’t be returning to Broadway any time soon. But in fact we have a platform for serious, character-driven drama in this country, and it is more popular and broad-based than Broadway ever was. It’s called cable television.
The inexorable slide of quality theater from the cultural mainstream and the rise of cable TV as the defining dramatic art form of the 21st century is a prime example of technological “creative destruction” at work. The theater of Broadway’s Golden Age was indeed terrific stuff, but as a consumer product it was wildly inefficient. Because shows were live and unrecorded, they could be seen by a limited number of people, many of whom had to travel hundreds of miles to get to the theater. Successful Broadway shows spawned touring companies – as hit musicals still do to this day – but such tours are costly to run and audiences in the smaller cities inevitably get a watered-down version of the real thing, with lower quality actors and production values.
Cable shows like Homeland or Breaking Bad, which airs its series finale this Sunday, are cheap and easily accessible to anyone with a subscription to cable or Netflix. More importantly, though, thanks to a complex set of market forces, all the incentives push cable channels to hire top-drawer actors and writers and allow them the artistic freedom to create compelling characters and story lines, much the way the best Broadway plays did half a century ago. This fragile cultural moment won’t last – more on that later – but for now it seems clear that if Tennessee Williams and Lorraine Hansberry were writing today they would be showrunners for a cable series, because that’s where the audience is.
You can measure the Golden Age of American theater in many ways, but I would mark it from the 1944 debut of The Glass Menagerie to the opening night of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1962. There were, of course, serious American playwrights before then – Eugene O’Neill is the best-known, but there were plenty of others – but those writers always seemed slightly ahead of the popular culture of their time. Likewise, many great American plays have debuted since 1962, and a select few, like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, became part of the wider national conversation.
But for a short time after the Second World War, American commercial theater hit that elusive sweet spot where popularity meets ambitious social and artistic agendas. In his fascinating 1987 autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller speaks of this era as
a time when the audience was basically the same for musicals and light entertainment as for the ambitious stuff and had not yet been atomized…So the playwright’s challenge was to please not a small sensitized supporting clique but an audience representing, more or less, all of America.
Miller explains how this broad-based, yet culturally hungry audience shaped the work of the era’s two greatest writers, himself and Tennessee Williams. Both men were, to differing degrees, outsiders to American culture – Williams because he was unapologetically gay, Miller because he was a Jew with strong radical beliefs. In another era, Miller says, they might well have slanted their work to please a minority audience that already agreed with them, but suddenly in the postwar years there was a mainstream audience waiting to hear what they had to say, and being both great artists and profoundly ambitious men, they opened their work outward to a mass audience.
To do that, they didn’t preach to their audiences like Clifford Odets did in his political plays of the 1930s or bash the viewer over the head with a bleak vision the way O’Neill too often does in his plays. Instead, Miller and Williams created characters – indelible, psychologically complex protagonists like the struggling salesman Willy Loman riding on a smile and a shoeshine or the tragic, half-mad Blanche DuBois forever depending on the kindness of strangers. These characters had to be psychologically complex and indelibly drawn because that’s how you appeal to a heterogenous audience not already united by social background or political outlook: you get audiences to care deeply about a character, to see themselves in someone who may not be in any outward way like them. Once you’ve done that, an audience will follow you anywhere.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the movies that put an end to Broadway’s Golden Age. Hollywood’s own Golden Age, stretching from the advent of sound in the late 1920s to the late 1950s, roughly overlaps that of Broadway. No, it was TV that killed the Broadway of Miller’s era – that and probably the jet plane. At a time when the only viable home entertainment was radio and all but the stratospherically rich traveled by train, car, or boat, Broadway theater was part of a broader leisure industry that catered to Americans like my grandparents yearning for cultural experiences they couldn’t enjoy in their own hometowns.
But once the desire for entertainment could be satisfied by a magic box in the living room and a desire for horizon-broadening travel could by satisfied by plane trips to Europe and beyond, Hollywood and Broadway had to adapt or die. They did so by splitting their audiences – “atomizing” them, in Miller’s terms – into high and low. After a decade of trial and error, Hollywood reinvented itself in the 1970s with ambitious, director-driven films like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and money-spinning summer blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars. Broadway did much the same thing, filling the bigger houses with crowd-pleasing musicals like Cats and A Chorus Line while supporting more adventurous, writer-driven work by the likes of David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Wendy Wasserstein.
This worked for a time, thanks in large part to off-Broadway and the regional theater movement, which allowed playwrights to grow their careers at subscription-based resident theaters around the country and then bring their most popular work to New York for a money-making Broadway run. This system, low-paying and outside the mainstream as it was, still made for some pretty terrific theater. Shepard, sustained by a long-running affiliation with San Francisco’s Magic Theater, introduced audiences to his singularly bleak and funny Western vision, while August Wilson, who premiered most of his plays at the Seattle Repertory Theater, opened a window onto working-class black characters quite nearly invisible to the mainstream.
But while regional theater provided an audience for more adventurous fare, unlike in Arthur Miller’s day, it was no longer the same audience that went to see the big musicals. Mamet, Shepard, and Wilson, talented as they were, were no longer writing for “an audience representing, more or less, all of America,” but for the “small sensitized supporting clique” that Miller saw as an artistically narrowing force. And then, lo and behold, the free market worked its magic. As Broadway ticket prices escalated to pay for ever more lavish, spectacle-driven musicals, it became harder to persuade theatergoers, even the ones who like the more ambitious stuff, to risk several hundred dollars on a new play.
Enter Carrie Bradshaw and Tony Soprano. Gallons of ink have been spilled, and thousands of terabytes expended, trying to explain why audiences have become so obsessed with characters on modern cable shows, but as Adam Davidson demonstrates in a December 2012 New York Times “It’s the Economy” column, the answer has more to do with business models than any quirk of culture. When there were only three major networks, programming success depended on producing a great number of shows that were just incrementally better than what was on the two other networks, which inevitably led to the creation of a vast wasteland of expensively bland mediocrity.
But once cable blew up the TV dial, giving viewers hundreds of channels to choose from, programmers had to shift their strategy. Now, it wasn’t enough to be just a little better than the competition; now, your shows had to be a lot better. You didn’t have to come up with a huge number of great shows, just one or two at a time would do, but they had to be so good that viewers would become obsessed with the characters and story lines to the point that they would shun cable providers that didn’t carry the channels where those shows appeared.
In other words, out of the morass of network TV, the very technology that ended Broadway theater’s Golden Age, came a sort of small-screen Broadway in which a few big talents – David Simon of The Wire, Lena Dunham of Girls, Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad, and so on – have been given wide artistic latitude to create characters and stories audiences will care about. Because cable providers often operate as near-monopolies, the average cable bill has doubled in the past decade, and viewers pay close to $90 billion a year for cable service. That is a huge pot of money, and for many cable companies nearly half of their revenue is pure profit, so there is an enormous incentive to get the formula right.
But as Davidson points out in his Times column, this fragile model is already fraying at the seams. So far at least, cable subscribers aren’t canceling in large numbers, but as piracy becomes more pervasive, fewer younger people are signing up for cable in the first place. “When people in their 20s move out of their parents’ house or dorm room, they are less likely to get into the habit of paying for cable,” he writes. “If they get addicted to Breaking Bad, they’ll often download it free through file-sharing services like Bit Torrent or wait for it to come out on iTunes.” To make up for lost revenue, cable providers have to jack up rates, which drives more new viewers away, setting up a vicious spiral that, according to one industry expert Davidson spoke to, could cause the entire edifice to collapse as early as 2016.
What comes after that? The short answer is nobody knows. It could get seriously messy there for a while, leading millions of Breaking Bad and Mad Men obsessives to bore their children with talk of the Golden Age of Cable. But if this history teaches us anything, it is that there is always going to be a sizeable audience that cares about quality drama enough to pay real money for it. After all, in the 1940s, Broadway’s principal competition was local amateur productions and guys on their front porches telling funny stories – a sort of analog version of today’s BitTorrent downloads and YouTube cat videos. My grandfather, who told some pretty funny stories himself, was willing to plunk down serious money to take his family to New York for a few good meals and a chance to see the best writers and performers of his age. I have no idea what entertainment technology will look like when my future grandchildren begin to hunger for something more edifying than a quick joke or a funny story, but my bet is they will be able to find it if they are willing to pay for it.
Image via studentrush.org
Today’s media machine is so consumed with Lindsay Lohan’s latest perp walk and whether Ashton really did cheat on Demi that the general moviegoing public is as functionally illiterate about the day-to-day workings of the film business as it is about the financial industry. Some day Michael Lewis may turn his sardonic eye from the business of sports to the business of Hollywood make-believe, but until then, those of us who want a smart, well-reported peek behind the camera will have to return to Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy, her classic behind-the-scenes tale of the making of The Bonfire of the Vanities, published 20 years ago next month.
The magic of The Devil’s Candy is that it wasn’t conceived or written as a hit piece. The book is subtitled “The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco,” but when Salamon, then a film critic for the Wall Street Journal, began following Brian De Palma around the Bonfire set, he was riding high on the success of Scarface and The Untouchables, and he saw Bonfire as a prestige project that could boost him into the first rank of Hollywood auteurs. It didn’t turn out that way, but no one — not the studio executives, the stars, the film crew, nor De Palma and Salamon herself — knew just how disastrous a flop the film would be until it opened in the winter of 1990.
As much as The Devil’s Candy benefits from the reader’s foreknowledge that the film everyone in the book is struggling to get made will turn out to be a notorious turkey, the true value of the book lies in Salamon’s reporting. She is blessed with that rare talent for not missing the forest for the trees while, at the same time, being able to see the trees. She places the production, a big-budget adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, a bestselling novel about the fiscal excesses of the 1980s, squarely in the age of Hollywood excess. The Studio System, with its tight budgets and cookie-cutter approach to filmmaking, was long gone, replaced by high-stakes, risk-hungry corporate culture designed to chase blockbuster hits like Jaws and Star Wars. Unlike the founding generation of immigrants who built Hollywood, she writes, the crop of executives then heading the major studios were “refugees not from Russia but from Wall Street.”
They were the young M.B.A.’s and lawyers who had come of age during the eighties, men and women who had never built or run a company, but who thought nothing of buying and selling them — before they were thirty… It didn’t matter whether [their companies] made food or furniture, or if the food or the furniture was any good. The companies were merely components. The thing that mattered was the deal.
Gifted financial reporter that she is, Salamon walks the reader through how this deal-centric mentality led studio executives not only to lavish multi-million dollar salaries on the movie’s director and stars, but also to squander many more millions satisfying De Palma’s every artistic whim. In one gripping sequence, De Palma’s second-unit director Eric Schwab spends hundreds of thousands of dollars choreographing a shot of the Concorde landing at JFK against a background of the sun setting over the New York skyline — a shot that, while breathtaking, lasts all of a few seconds in the final version of the film.
At the same time, Salamon allows all the book’s characters, from the most egomaniacal stars to the lowliest production assistant, to shine with real humanity. For me, the most poignant figure in the book is Melanie Griffith, who is cast as the blonde bimbo mistress of Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond trader played by Tom Hanks. Hanks comes off as a talented, hard-working young actor skillfully climbing the ladder to stardom, but Griffith, who was 33 and coming off her second pregnancy, was already on the downslope of her career. The film’s creative team holds meetings to discuss what to do about the age lines on her face (“Use Preparation H,” one producer says. “That’ll shrink ’em.”) and everybody on the set feels free to discuss whether she is too fat to be believable as a rich bond trader’s mistress. Griffith throws diva-like hissy fits about the size of her trailer and the crowds of onlookers on the set during her scenes, but for once, in Salamon’s telling, one understands Griffith’s neurotic rage, and even sympathizes with her.
This keen insight into the artistic personality, more so than her reportorial skill, is on display in Wendy and the Lost Boys, Salamon’s new biography of playwright Wendy Wasserstein, published in August. As the title implies, Salamon appears to have intended to use Wasserstein’s life story as a springboard for a group portrait of New York’s off-Broadway theater scene in the 1970s and 80s. Wasserstein, best known for her plays Uncommon Women and Others and The Heidi Chronicles, knew everyone who was anyone in New York theater and seemed to have a singular talent for falling hopelessly in love with the dreamy, driven gay men who made the theater world of that era tick.
The book is very well done, and if you are a Wasserstein fan, Wendy and the Lost Boys is a must-read, but it pales in comparison to The Devil’s Candy. In part, this is because Wasserstein, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles, is just not an important or interesting enough writer to merit the attention Salamon lavishes on her. At the same time, any effort on Salamon’s part to use Wasserstein’s career as a window to the broader theater scene is eclipsed by the sheer complexity of Wasserstein’s private life.
Wasserstein, the youngest daughter of a wealthy, hyper-successful Brooklyn Jewish family (her brother was billionaire investment banker Bruce Wasserstein), had a succession of tortured love affairs with gay men and finally a daughter, via artificial insemination, at age 48. In 2006, just seven years later, she died of lymphoma. The levels of secret-keeping and duplicity this life required is worthy of an Elizabethan drama, but ultimately Wasserstein comes off less poignant and plucky than self-deluded and bullheaded. In this telling, Wasserstein is a woman who simply refused to give up in the face of insurmountable odds, whether those odds were that the gay man she was in love with would return her affections or that the cancer she was hiding from the world would simply go away. This can be charming in characters of romantic comedies for whom all turns out well in the end, but for a real person, who leaves her daughter motherless and alone, it can get a trifle infuriating.
None of this is Salamon’s fault, of course, but books on the entertainment industry work best as guilty pleasures, and while the pleasures of Wendy and the Lost Boys are many, for sheer guiltiness, nothing can touch the pleasures of The Devil’s Candy.
My wife and I recently watched I Love You Again, a 1940 comedy starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. The film’s setup is preposterous: Powell plays a small-town stuffed shirt who, conked on the head at sea, develops an amnesia that reverts him to his former self — a smooth-talking con artist with no recollection of the tedious man he’d become. When his ship returns to harbor, Loy, his bored and long-suffering wife, is there with divorce papers — but she soon becomes intrigued by this magnetic version of her husband.
Complications ensue, and as is generally the case with Powell and Loy, the movie glides along on a draft of high-toned pleasure. Though its running time is roughly an hour and a half, it felt like forty minutes. And as the credits rolled, my wife and I asked what we always ask when such comedies — not just those of Powell and Loy, but of Grant, Stewart, Katherine Hepburn and the rest — come to an end: Why don’t they make movies like that anymore?
The question isn’t rhetorical, but neither do we need it answered; the reason seems fairly clear. Films like I Love You Again, Bringing Up Baby, and The Philadelphia Story aren’t made anymore because they’re simply out of style, like short ties or fedoras or Chicken à la King.
This explanation, though, does not satisfy. Unlike adventure movies or “issue films” of similar vintage — the Oscar-winning but now-excruciating Gentleman’s Agreement comes to mind — those old comedies haven’t aged. Both Holiday and Judy Holliday remain sharp and smart; decades later, they still do what they were meant to do — extract our laughter — as efficiently as anything made today. To watch a Cukor or Thin Man film is to take a Packard for a spin and find, to your shock, that it outdrives current models.
So why don’t they make such Packards anymore? A recent New York Times Magazine essay, “‘The Hangover’ and the Age of The Jokeless Comedy,” touched on an answer as it outlined the movement from joke-a-minute comedies to The Hangover, Part II — which it called a “Saw-style torture-porn movie with a laugh track.” But the piece, for all its passion, didn’t say much about a possible root cause for the change: modern audiences’ overall sophistication, which has paradoxically rendered comedy less sophisticated.
There was a time when sci-fi directors could hang planets from strings and Dr. Zaius could speak through laughably stiff ape-lips. Audiences understood that effects had limitations, and could tolerate hand-painted backgrounds and monsters in rubber suits. But in 1977, Star Wars slashed a light saber through that tolerance. George Lucas’ exacting visual sense, aided by his own technology, instantly made his antecedents look baldly ludicrous. Godzilla was trounced by a nerd with a pompadour.
As he and Steven Spielberg bulldozed through the ‘80s, audiences came to expect no visual seams at all — and in the process, lost the willingness to do some of the work themselves. This expectation — that movies, whether set in space or in a Temple of Doom, should be effortless to watch — bled into comedy. The genre, dependent on setup and dialogue rather than effects, did more of the work by becoming more believable. The biggest comedies of the pre-Star Wars ‘60s and ‘70s — A Shot in the Dark, What’s Up, Doc?, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, M*A*S*H — felt no need to put us at narrative ease. Much like their screwball forerunners, they burst from the gate at a sprint and didn’t slow for stragglers.
Through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, however — as film technology advanced, culminating with Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park — comedy grounded itself, its setups and settings becoming fully mundane: two Illinois losers do public-access TV and sing along to Queen. Texas teenagers get high and drive around. Clerks crack wise at work. Even hits of the era that in retrospect seem outlandish — Mrs. Doubtfire, Liar Liar, The Santa Clause — took ample time to explain their premises lest audiences squirm. Tim Allen couldn’t just be Santa Claus; we had to have the details — as well as a side-story about divorce, insanity, and visitation rights.
In recent years Judd Apatow and friends, with their hyper-familiar brand of hairy-assed humor, have issued a crushing blow to the suspension of disbelief — and made the gap between old comedy and new unbridgeable: William Powell’s amnesiac con man is now Bradley Cooper’s rohypnoled best man. My Favorite Wife was set into motion when Irene Dunne returned from a desert island; Forgetting Sarah Marshall begins when Jason Segel gets dumped and flies to Hawaii to sulk. The comedies of today must make us feel as if these things could happen to us: events like getting drunk, dumped, and knocked up are, rather than minor elements, now the meat of the thing. Seth Rogen, rumpled and unshaven, doesn’t look like a movie star, and that’s exactly the point. We’ve become unable to laugh along with anyone but ourselves.
All this has turned comedy — once a genre of experimentation — into cinema’s narrowest style. 1976 saw the release of the following comedies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Love and Death, The Sunshine Boys, Shampoo, Smile, The Return of the Pink Panther, Let’s Do It Again, Cooley High, and The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. There is no clear through-line here; it was a year of satire, farce, screwball, and silliness. By contrast, this year’s comedies have been The Hangover Part II, Bad Teacher, Bridesmaids, Hall Pass, Take Me Home Tonight, and No Strings Attached — all featuring People Sort Of Like Us doing Naughty Things. Even The Change-Up dulled its body-switch setup with crap joke after crap joke. Individually, these may be funny movies; as a whole, the effect is smothering.
So this is not a heady time for fans of an older, less common comedy; Powell and Loy, breezing through nonsense plots, have never seemed more distant. Yet even now, there is hope from an unlikely source (and it’s not Johnny Depp, driver of a dreaded Thin Man remake). Woody Allen, once a specialist of just-go-with-it comedy — Bananas, Sleeper, Stardust Memories — has a legitimate hit with his Midnight in Paris. In it, Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender time-travels to the Paris of the past, getting his novel reviewed by Gertrude Stein and hanging with Dalí. He falls for a beautiful girl even though she might not exist. The film’s time-travel mechanics are never explained; Gil just hops into a limousine and gets out in the ‘20s. As vague and irrational as the device is, it works because it allows us to fill the blank spaces ourselves. Midnight in Paris proves that a sense of familiarity is an unnecessary cinematic crutch. One might say that they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.