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On Film: the fine art of folly


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A mirthful tone creeps into Stuart Klawans's voice at the mere mention of Elaine May's widely panned 1987 movie, Ishtar. "Yes, that qualifies as a 'folly,'" he says, "probably the last from the U.S. for some time." Klawans, film critic for the Nation, has just written a history of this peculiar genre, Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order.

"A folly must convey extravagant madness," he explains. "It should have a crazy exuberance and suffer from an overflow of virtues. These are movies for people who want to die from too much cinema."

Klawans is one of those people himself, having developed a serious obsession with the movies after a heated childhood argument with his mother over the politics of Dr. Strangelove. A native of the city's south side, he attended Yale in the late 60s but returned after graduation and spent what he calls his formative years at the Clark Theater, the renowned movie-revival house in the Loop. He freelanced as a book reviewer for the Tribune and worked at odd jobs that included janitorial duties at the Organic Theater. Once he decided to become a writer, he packed up and left for New York City, where he still resides.

Klawans's notion of "film follies" originated four years ago as he was writing a proposal to the Museum of Modern Art for a series that he says would "parade those really big, big movies on MOMA's big screen." As he worked he developed a thesis "that not only sheds light on the common traits of all those oversize, grandly delirious movies but also connects them to the cultural milieu and economic order of their time." The impetus for Fritz Lang's costly extravaganza Metropolis, he notes, can be traced to the emergence of the "New Woman" in 1920s Germany. That country's changing fortunes in World War II brought about Goebbels's commission of Kolberg (1945). "The Nazis diverted military resources to complete this propaganda epic about a town whose citizens defied the forces of Napoleon," he says. "Considering that they were perpetrating war and genocide at the same time, this was a grotesque folly."

The most obvious trait of follies, Klawans says, is a "wasteful excess of money." Cleopatra is a famous instance that almost sank a studio. But a bloated budget alone doesn't elevate a movie into follydom. Otherwise, Klawans says, "Heaven's Gate would be one. Or Waterworld. Their total lack of imagination stands in contrast with the overabundance of imagination showered on Cleopatra by Joseph Mankiewicz."

Klawans, also a longtime art critic, finds antecedents of cinematic follies in architecture--"beginning with the elaborate, historicizing gardens of the 18th century that had on display useless replicas of ancient temples and pagodas, to the amusement parks and then the world's fairs that boasted crazily eclectic styles," he says. It's no accident that D.W. Griffith's Intolerance is a compendium of periods from the Babylonian to the Renaissance to the Victorian. "In 1915, as he was preparing for its production, Griffith frequented the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco," Klawans points out. "It inspired the movie's variety of spectacular sequences." An assistant to Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, continued this compulsion, reconstructing grand locations as sets; in his Foolish Wives, the Universal lot stands in for Monte Carlo. For 1965's Playtime, Jacques Tati built a small city outside of Paris. And over a quarter century later, Leos Carax, the enfant terrible of French cinema in the 80s, topped him by erecting a two-thirds-scale replica of a celebrated Parisian bridge and the neighborhood around it for The Lovers of Pont-Neuf (1992), a film so lavish in passion and singular in vision that it has acquired a cult following.

"Carax built this set in the south of France because it would've been impossible for him to shoot on location and because he wanted certain kinds of shots," says Klawans. "The production was halted a couple of times for various reasons. It was resumed because its star, Juliette Binoche, who was Carax's lover at the time, didn't quit. The whole thing took three years and ended up costing $28 million, comparable to the budget of two other French epics from the early 90s. But it alone was doomed by the aura of failure." Failure, or the perception of it, is de rigueur for a folly. Titanic and even Blade Runner did too well at the box office to be on Klawans's list. But he calls Intolerance the mother of all follies, partly because of the myth of its financial fiasco. "The movie probably broke even; by the 20s, however, it was deemed to have ruined Griffith's career," he says. "No matter, it's now endowed with the allure of failure."

Klawans bemoans the possible extinction of film follies. "Though there are similarities between now and the 20s, which saw the first wave of follies--infatuation with wealth and social liberalism--we don't have a sense of an outside threat, a force that can be embodied in grand gestures. Or an opposition to the prevailing order. Follies sabotage the system; they're the perfect fuck-yous in what they say and in how they are made." He cites Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line as an example. "A director acting as an artist and using a lot of other people's money. It should be a folly, yet it has success written all over it."

Klawans will discuss film follies after a screening of The Lovers of Pont-Neuf next Thursday, February 4, at 6 in the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson. Admission is $7. For more information, call 312-443-3737, or check out Jonathan Rosenbaum's Critic's Choice in the Section Two movie listings. --Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Stuart Klawans photo by Aaron Lee Fineman; "The Lovers of Pont-Neuf" (1992) film still.

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