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In Living Color

Tashlin's eye-popping '50s artifacts pile on gags like live-action Looney Tunes

For Tashlin, the media constituted a single system. In Artists and Models, Lewis overhears The Honeymooners' "Ralph Kramden" fighting with his wife "Alice" in the apartment upstairs; later, Dean Martin dances with "Shirley Temple" and the "Little Rascals," and when he serenades Dorothy Malone, it is noted that he sings like the guy who sang "That's Amore," i.e., Dean Martin. The social context is a nation of robotic image junkies. The movie fans in Hollywood or Bust and Rock Hunter are typical. In Artists and Models, Lewis is exhibited on TV as evidence of "what can happen to the human brain on a steady diet of comic books" while art is synonymous with idiocy. The movie's insipid, if outrageously derriére-garde, finale has Jerry and Dino duel with their brushes to body-paint showgirls in plumed headgear: "On the streets of Montmartre, there's a Frenchy kind of art . . . "

On the back lot in Burbank, however, Tashlin is the original pop-culture Pop Artist. Artists and Models, which ranks with Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? as his quintessential movie, opens with Dean Martin painting the lips on an enormous billboard face—James Rosenquist before he discovered his destiny. Like Roy Lichtenstein, Tashlin cartooned cartoons; like Andy Warhol, he represented stars as representations of themselves. His landscapes, where they exist, look like molded plastic. They have the fetishized surfaces, at once seductive and repellent, of a Tom Wesselmann still life. The guy couldn't help it.

Ewell and Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It
photo: Photofest/Film Forum
Ewell and Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It

Details

The Girl Can't Help It
Directed by Frank Tashlin
Criterion, August 25 through 31, Film Forum
September 1 through 7, Film Forum

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Along with Douglas Sirk, Tashlin embraced American vulgarity in all its lurid, widescreen splendor, deploying flesh-and-blood caricatures as if to cast Sirk's most famous title: Imitation of Life. That one director made "comedies" and the other "melodramas" hardly matters. Both trafficked in Technicolor flesh tones and laminated sheen, the supreme garishness of mid-'50s consumer culture—the flat, flaming all-American inauthenticity that Euro-theorists like Eco and Baudrillard would, decades later, term hyperreal.

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