Included in the collection Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang; I’ve said that much of this
review can be applied to the recent Moulin Rouge.
There is a sequence of a girl dancing in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum but the director, Richard Lester, breaks it up so much with camera and editing that we can’t see the dance, only flashes of parts of her body, and we can’t even tell if the girl can dance because the movement is almost totally supplied by his means. This technique is a good one for concealing the ineptitude of performers, but Lester’s short-term camera magic keeps cutting into and away from the comedians (Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Jack Gilford, Michael Hordern), who never get a chance to develop a routine or to bring off a number. What are we being distracted from?
There was probably no way to predict that Lester’s style would be at war with the form, which in Plautus, as in the musical comedy adaptation by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, with Stephen Sondheim’s songs, seemed the least strict imaginable; one might have thought it open enough for almost any kind of improvisation. But, seeing the result, we get the sense that Lester thinks it would be too banal just to let us see a dance or a pair of comedians singing a duet. Yet if they’re good, they’re a lot less banal than camera movement designed to cover emptiness. We go to see great clowns precisely for the way they move, for the grace and lightness of their style. The marvel of burlesque is that those lewd men become beautiful: their timing and skill transform the lowest forms of comedy. When Lester supplies the rhythms for them by film editing he takes away the one great asset of burlesque: that triumph of style which converts leering into art. He takes away their beauty and they become ugly and gross; he turns artists back into mugging low comics. (He also uses the women execrably: they are blank-faced bodies or witless viragos.) Some of the best moments are the least doctored: Hordern’s vocal inflections, a satirical entrance song by Leon Greene. Lester’s technique works successfully intermittently—as in the parody recap of the love duet which is lovely, like the song in the snow in Help!
It’s difficult to make dance and song “work” on screen, and it’s understandable that a talented, inventive director should fall back upon what looks so “cinematic”—the nervous camera, the restless splicing, the succession of “visual” jokes. But the sight gags of television commercials have a purpose: they are there to sell something and they make their point and they’re over. In Forum as in The Knack, when Lester strings these gags together, they’re just pointless agitation—just “clever” and “imaginative.” He proceeds in fits and starts and leaves jokes suspended in mid-air: it’s as if he’d forgotten what it’s all for. And for an audience the experience becomes one of impatience and irritation—like coitus interruptus going on forever.