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Posts Tagged ‘Benny Hill’

As regular masochists readers will know, last week I enjoyed a DIY big-screen double bill of a Woody Allen documentary and a classic zombie movie. I was talking about this with a friend – yes, I do have a few left, believe it or not – and I must not have expressed myself with my usual pristine clarity, as she seemed to get a bit confused. ‘I can’t imagine that,’ she said. ‘Although for all I know Woody Allen is the king of the zombie movie.’ A cinematic zombopocalypse in the Allen style is certainly a mouthwatering prospect, but does not, as far as I know, appear on the great man’s slate of planned projects.

Nevertheless, this conversation, confused and meandering though it was (as usual), did lead me to realise that a full-on horror movie is just about the only genre Woody Allen has not tackled in the course of his career. (Oh, hang on: he hasn’t done a Western either.) He’s best known for his metropolitan comedy-dramas, of course, but looking down the list there are also thrillers, dramas, mockumentaries, costume dramas, and a musical (although, in the name of all that’s decent, spare yourself and don’t watch Everyone Says I Love You, the film in question: ’tis bilge). And, of course, a Hugo and Nebula award-winning SF movie. This movie, Sleeper, was my own personal initiation into the Allen canon, at the tender age of 12, and seeing the material on it in Robert Weide’s documentary made me realise I really wanted to watch it again. So I did.

Sleeper was released in 1973 and as such is one of Allen’s Early, Funny films. Despite this there’s very little in the plot or backstory that suggests that a laugh riot is impending. By the mid 2170s, America has become a totalitarian state under the control of a despotic regime headed by a nameless Leader. As is traditional, rebel elements have come together and are planning to strike at the administration. But to do so they need an agent who does not exist on the vast database recording details about every citizen, and so they decide to use a newcomer to the 22nd century. They have discovered a cryogenic suspension capsule from 1973, and the plan is that the person within will be the ideal operative to help bring down the Leader’s tyranny.

Unfortunately, the plan hits a bit of a snag when the person in the capsule turns out to be Miles Monroe (Allen), a jazz clarinetist turned health food restauranteur from Greenwich Village, who only ended up being frozen when an operation on his peptic ulcer went wrong. Miles is unenthusiastic about the role planned out for him, but finds he has little choice when the rebel hideout is raided by security forces and he has to go on the run. Disguising himself as a domestic android, he takes refuge in the home of Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton), a socialite and terrible poet. When Luna discovers his identity, will she help him in his quest? And what is the terrible secret of the Leader’s Aries Project? (Don’t Write In Dept.: yes, I know on screen it’s written as the Aires Project. But I’m prepared to bet this is a typo.)

As you can see, the main throughline of the plot could quite easily work as the basis for a piece of dystopian SF of the kind that was very popular in the early Seventies – and in fact this is a tradition into which Sleeper could comfortably fit, albeit as the joker in the pack. Certainly movies like THX-1138 and A Clockwork Orange have moments of startling visual and thematic similarity (there’s a conscious nod to 2001 at one point, too, as an uncredited Douglas Rain reprises his role as the voice of a computer). The apparatus of the authoritarian government is handled quite seriously for most of the movie – sympathetic characters have their frontal lobes fried and get brainwashed – and this is, apparently, the first SF movie to deal with cloning as a major plot point (although in a somewhat idiosyncratic fashion). That Sleeper stands up as SF as well as it does (which is to say, at least as well as most ‘straight’ movies, even forty years ago) may well be due to an uncredited spot of script consultancy by Isaac Asimov.

However coherent and serious Sleeper‘s plot may sound when written down on paper, even for an Early, Funny Woody Allen film this is a comedy of the broadest kind. To a modern audience, some moderately incorrect gags about gay androids and robotic Jewish tailors may come as a bit of a surprise, and some of the more scattergun satire doesn’t quite work. Mainly, though, this being an Allen script (collaborating with Marshall Brickman for the first time), there is a pretty much unceasing flow of smart one-liners – ‘I’m not the heroic type, I used to get beaten up by Quakers,’ ‘Sex and death both come once in a lifetime, but at least after death you’re not nauseous,’ and (when asked how it felt to be dead for 200 years), ‘It’s like spending a weekend in Beverley Hills.’ And so on, and so on. This is really what you expect from a Woody Allen movie (an Early, Funny one at least).

What you don’t expect is a succession of elaborate slapstick routines. Apparently Allen’s original plan was to make the entire movie without dialogue – always looking for a new challenge, even this early in his career! – but relented on this when he realised that one-liners were one of his strengths. But elements of this original idea persist – the long sequence with him as the robot butler barely gives him any lines, and there are numerous chases and similar routines in which the only real soundtrack is a bouncy jazz orchestra. The soundtrack is one of the film’s most distinctive features, even if it does seem very eccentric in places – one sequence involving Allen encountering some genetically-modified food, which includes a painfully knowing slipping-on-a-banana-skin gag, is accompanied by what sounds like ‘Rock Around The Clock’ arranged for the tuba.

Now I always thought that the slapstick silent comedy was meant as a homage to the black and white movies of Hal Roach and people like that, but the general consensus (which has even made it onto Wikipedia) is that Woody Allen is paying tribute to and expressing a deep admiration for Benny Hill. Really? I mean, really? I mean, both men are comedy titans, and I’ll happily wax eloquent in their praise, but Woody Allen being a huge Benny Hill fan? I can’t get my head around that. The two of them hardly feel like they’re on the same kind of wavelength in any way. But there you go, everyone seems to be taking it as read, and there is a certain stylistic similarity going on in Sleeper.

It may also explain some of the negative reviews floating around, basically along the lines of ‘I know it’s considered a masterpiece, but all I saw was a ninety minute Benny Hill sketch’. And this is supposed to be a bad thing? This is not the place to launch a defence of Benny Hill’s reputation, I expect, but what you can’t honestly deny is that the man was hugely versatile, endlessly inventive, and consistently very funny indeed. And the same can be said for the slapstick sequences in Sleeper – one of the best comes early on, in which Allen has to descend from a balcony, having been issued with a ladder which is, tragically, just a bit too short, followed by an attempted escape using an unco-operative helicopter backpack. Yes, these sequences are broad, and yes, they are silly. But they are also very funny.

The general seriousness of Sleeper‘s setting and plot and the silliness of the slapstick could have ended up clashing horribly and producing a horrible wreck of a movie – but, and I can’t figure out how he managed it but I’m still sure it’s a noteworthy achievement, somehow Allen manages to arrange things so the two offset each other rather nicely. The result is a film set in an interesting and fairly coherent future world, with enough plot to be interesting and enough good jokes to be a lot of fun. One of my favourite Allen movies to this day – certainly when it comes to the Early, Funny ones.

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