Director's Cut

Eisenstein's final subject was his own grandstanding self-absorption. He would've filmed Das Kapital if allowed, and made a helluva show of it. Thus, his corpus doesn't add up to a statement about anything—unlike the films of AMMI resuscitatee W.C. Fields, which investigate the nihilistic impulses at the heart of the low-rent American family. The museum's retro coughs up the bulk of Fields's comedy features, from 1925's Sally of the Sawdust (with live accompaniment) to 1941's Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and what emerges is one of the most ferocious renderings of nuclear-unit stress in film history. More than merely a notorious comic and singular package of grumpy tics, Fields was the preeminent gag writer as domestic tragedian, his character sometimes an extension of his showbiz con-man persona but more often a family guy beset by the Fates.

His best films—It's a Gift, The Old-Fashioned Way, You're Telling Me (all 1934), and The Bank Dick (1940)—all revolve around Fields as a hostile schmo for whom home life is a deceptively ordinary circle in hell, where children draw blood, wives are insidious maenads, and the laws of physics have only personal misery as their logical outcome. Trying to nap on the porch in It's a Gift becomes a Camusian study in retributive torture. Whereas the other Golden Age comedians pitted themselves against authority or each other, Fields held combat with his loved ones; he was alone for decades as the only Hollywood voice willing and able to grasp how easily familial intimacy can turn homicidal.

Overcome with bemusement: Jacqueline McKenzie, McBurney, and Coulthard in Eisenstein
photo: Film Forum
Overcome with bemusement: Jacqueline McKenzie, McBurney, and Coulthard in Eisenstein


Written and directed by Renny Bartlett
Film Forum
Through January 15

W.C. Fields
January 5 through 20
American Museum of the Moving Image

Of course, that Fields's rummy, abusive, careless victim is fully responsible for his plight and his family is a fact implicit in every film—he's a kitchen-sink Mephisto/Faust combo, flagellating himself into derangement and turning his garden into a wasteland. (Just as he echoed the Underground Man, he thematically foretold Celine and Beckett.) At the same time, any one of his films expresses the sad dynamics of alcoholism more eloquently than The Lost Weekend. Easily the most despicable comic icon in America, Fields is every inch the pop-cult bête noire, making mean laugh-getting hay out of self-ruin.

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