The Vulgar Classes


It’s my pleasure to report that Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a well-executed caper. Eschewing payback, Allen’s funniest, least sour outing in nearly a decade is a small movie with a tidy payoff.

Unlike last year’s Sweet and Lowdown, Small Time Crooks isn’t a period piece, but given its old-fashioned virtues, it could be. The movie, which opens with a burst of Chick Webb’s “Stomping at the Savoy” and a proletarian Woody peering over his Daily News, maintains a distinct, if imaginary, ’30s flavor throughout. This is one Woody Allen comedy that does not cozy down in the lap of bourgeois comfort. The premise is irredeemably lowbrow: Ex-con dishwasher Ray Winkler (Allen) and his dull-witted partners (Michael Rapaport, Jon Lovitz, Tony Darrow) conceive a scheme to rob a bank, using a cookie store operated by Ray’s wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), as their cover.

Ray prides himself on having been dubbed “the Brain” in stir, although as a colleague argues, this may have been an instance of cell-block sarcasm. His plan naturally goes awry, not least because Frenchy’s cookies begin to sell like crazy. As in some fairy-tale enchantment, the dough really turns out to be dough; the crooks prosper even after Frenchy’s gloriously dim-bulb cousin Mae (Elaine May) blurts out the truth to a cop. A year and many franchises later, the gang is being profiled on TV as a “corporate culture that has business readers scratching their heads.”

Small Time Crooks strikes a balance between situation and character. The filmmaker himself plays a skinny, querulous old man; as an actor, he has better rapport trading one-liners with the nasal, rubber-faced Ullman’s quick-witted harridan than with any costar since he went one-on-one with the similarly voluble Bette Midler in Paul Mazursky’s Scenes From a Mall. Newly resplendent in blue jacket and yellow pants, Ray begins modeling clothes so loud they nearly drown out Frenchy’s parvenue hysterics. The jaw-dropping decor of the couple’s Park Avenue penthouse seems beyond the nouveau imagination of the Jacqueline Susann character in Isn’t She Great—it even trumps the crystal-palace fantasia of Tavern on the Green.

The movie’s garish set piece is the party, catered by Isaac Mizrahi, that Frenchy throws to launch herself in New York society. Wearing a creation that might have been ripped from the wall of the current Whitney Biennial, she overhears her guests dishing her vulgarity and, soon after, hires an upper-class hustler (Hugh Grant) as a tutor in taste. Thus, Small Time Crooks makes an artful segue from the precincts of Big Deal on Madonna Street to those of Born Yesterday. Throughout, however, the movie’s colorful cast, class-based satire, and controlled slapstick suggest the secondario-crammed comedies of Preston Sturges. Elaine May, who gets her own party scene to preside over, all but steals the show as a single-minded fount of empty-headed yammer. (May also demonstrates impressive chemistry with the Woodman, particularly in the art of conversational shouting.)

As if to acknowledge that May plays a better Gracie Allen than Gracie herself, Allen’s script tips its hat to the sitcoms of the ’50s: Ray greets his wife in the manner of Desi Arnaz; his last line is a variant on Jackie Gleason’s “Baby, you’re the greatest.” Greatest or not, at least Frenchy manages to upgrade her wig by film’s end. Hilariously designed, vibrantly shot, and deftly paced, Small Time Crooks is a conventional fable but a generous screwball comedy. The movie gives vulgarity a good name.

Battlefield Earth, the big-time Warner Bros. summer sci-fi extravaganza, got nearly as many laughs as Small Time Crooks—at least at the all-media screening I attended. Set a thousand years in the future, the movie posits a world conquered by extraterrestrial Psychlos who, operating out of their Human Processing Center in the sooty rubble of suburban Denver, have enslaved most of humanity and reduced the rest to a pathetic pagan tepee-and-buckskin lifestyle. The Psychlos, led by John Travolta and a Wookie-like Forest Whitaker, are big fellas with green eyes, dreadlocks, formidable paws, and mossy teeth. They are much given to evil chortling, and, when they’re not sadistically zapping the “man-animals,” their idea of fun is to hang around a windowless bar swilling tumblers of a chartreuse liquor with the baleful glow of radioactive urine.

The movie’s mode is brutal and excremental. Such narrative as there is pivots on Travolta Psychlo’s scheme to strip-mine the Rockies for gold using man-animal labor. To facilitate this, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper), the most belligerent of the man-animals, is treated to an educational light show so he might be taught the Psychlo language. But the human learning curve is steeper than Psychlos imagine. Jonnie quickly picks up Euclidean geometry and the skill to operate a remote control. Before long, he reads the Declaration of Independence, flies a plane to the Library of Congress, and discovers Fort Knox. Under his tutelage, man-animals need barely 45 minutes to climb from the caves to the stars, egging themselves on with the primitive chant “Piece o’ cake.”

Remarkable mainly for rendering the prospect of human extinction inconsequential, Battlefield Earth was adapted from the 1982 mega magnum opus by L. Ron Hubbard, the Golden Age sci-fi writer who parlayed a pop positivist version of Freud into the Church of Scientology and composed this novel at a moment when his church was beset by lawsuits, federal indictments, and charges of criminal conduct. Since the movie’s star and coproducer Travolta is also a longtime Scientologist (reported in The Washington Post to be an Operating Thetan who can control “matter, energy, space, time, form, and life”), there has been much cyberspeculation that B.E. would bristle with subliminal messages and overt propaganda to advance the Scientology agenda.

No such luck. Though Battlefield Earth may have some relation to the church’s more arcane theories of alien control, its most disappointing aspect is the absence of subtext. No less than that of the industry that spawned it, the movie’s main purpose appears to be making money from the suspension of disbelief. Its one moment of truth is Travolta’s sneering reference to “stupid humans.”

L. Ron Hubbard employed “engram”—abiological coinage meaning the permanent change wrought by stimulus to protoplasm—to characterize repressed traumas. In a different sense, Carl Jung used the word to describe imprinted “racial” memories. Collage filmmaker Lewis Klahr, who calls his latest cycle Engram Sepals, is an artist who traffics in both psychic scars and cultural remembrance, conditions he suggests are organic by attaching engram to a botanical term for flower stem.

An artist who nourishes his intensely private visions on the compost heap of collective fantasy (most of his images come from old magazines), Klahr could be described as a “small-S” surrealist. His evocatively low-tech animations are as free-associative in structure as they are elusive in meaning. Engram Sepals‘ feature-length suite of seven mainly cut-and-paste “melodramas” (all produced over the past six years) opens in a heavenly blue cosmos on a note of dreamy fetishism, then turns noirish, and goes on to evoke the fashion-model sophistication and cocktail iconography of the early ’60s. Klahr’s films are often quite specific in dating their images. Engram Sepals‘ lone live-action episode combines late-’60s 8mm footage of campus antics and hippie weddings with the murky psychedelia of counterculture exploitation films, perhaps shot off TV.

In every case, juxtaposition is key. Pony Glass, located at the heart of the cycle, is one of Klahr’s greatest films—a convoluted romantic pentangle set in a sci-fi corporate world, starring Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen. Accompanied by an almost unbearably desolate-sounding Frank Sinatra, Jimmy loves and loses an airline stewardess (then shifts his sexual orientation altogether). Klahr lets these cutout creatures have sex, tenderly affixing their comic-strip heads to writhing bodies culled from skin mags. This tawdry, wistful effect, as funny as it is unexpectedly erotic, continues in less romantic fashion in Downs Are Feminine, which fashions a number of polymorphously perverse hermaphroditic constructions taken from an illustrated gay porn novel found in the street.

Engram Sepals comes more or less full-circle with Failed Cardigan Maneuver. Here, children in a garden of outsize fruit dream of food and love, then grow up to have unhappy office affairs in the glamorous Manhattan of the late 1950s. Sinatra sings another sad saloon song, but Klahr doesn’t need him for the mysterious alchemy that makes these paper dolls so expressive, eloquent, and moving.

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