FILM / Comedies off the shelf

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
COMEDY must be the most ethereal of movie genres: the one that travels least easily and ages least well. So it's encouraging to report that, of the American funnies opening this week, a package of three 70-year-old Buster Keaton films (at the Barbican from tomorrow) effortlessly provides the keenest pleasures. The Playhouse (U) gives us a vaudeville show played by a troupe of Keatons (including a Keaton-ape), accompanied by an orchestra of Keatons and watched - with varying degrees of inattentiveness - by an audience of Keatons.

The Love Nest (U) has Buster putting to sea in a little barque and sailing into a baroque dream. In the famous climax of Sherlock Jnr (U), his lovelorn movie projectionist falls asleep, 'enters' the movie he's screening and becomes entrapped in its whirlwind editing. But it also proves a gratifying exercise in wish fulfilment - Keaton's character, a clueless amateur sleuth, is transformed in his dream-movie into a debonair, top-hatted master detective.

Reissued in sepia prints with witty new soundtracks (music and effects) recorded by a group of French Keaton fans, these films are partly plainly shot records of the man's own extraordinary agility, daring and physical grace, partly delighted celebrations of the medium's capacity for sleight of hand and illusion, partly bittersweet portraits of an absurd tragi-comic universe (at the end of his career, Keaton appeared in Samuel Beckett's only foray into the cinema, Film). The programme tours the country over the next few months. This weekend, meanwhile, Londoners have a chance to continue the great Keaton vs Chaplin debate, since Chaplin's City Lights plays with a live accompaniment at the Camden Parkway on Sunday (details: 071-267 7034).

The week's other monochrome American comedy is set at roughly the same period in some unidentified city haunted by a stooped, billiard-headed, pointy-eared Nosferatu lookalike. Woody Allen, who in his cod-Dostoevsky Love and Death fulsomely sent up the fatalism of 'high' literature, pays reverent tribute to German Expressionism in Shadows and Fog (15) - Threepenny Opera on the soundtrack and a travelling circus, that indispensible cliche of the weighty European art film (Bergman's Sawdust and Tinsel, Fellini, Wenders' Wings of Desire, Fellini passim), lurking in the margins as a Symbol of cinema, illusion, that sort of thing. All this Mitteleuropean gloom is combined, rather uneasily, with some decidedly late 20th-century urban-sophisticate sexual sparring. 'I've never paid for a woman before,' says Allen's timid hero visiting a brothel for the first time. 'Aw, you just think you haven't,' ripostes Jodie Foster's prostitute, quick as a whip.

This film predates Husbands and Wives, Allen's farce of marital imbroglio which was rush-released last autumn on the back of his real-life problems - who wants Art when they can have down-and-dirty scandal? But so entwined is Allen's life with his work that the parallels poke out even through the shadows and fog: here is Mia Farrow kvetching on about babies, while her partner, an artist who 'doesn't need a family' is off rollicking in another woman's arms.

And there is Allen playing the innocent 'Kleinman' (little man) whose reputation is threatened by grotesque misunderstandings and mob justice. The flashes of light relief are few, though it's nice to see Allen displaying his gift for physical clowning (the scene where he smuggles an incriminating glass into his coat is a tiny gem of conspicuous furtiveness).

Much more enjoyable, in a deeply guilt-inducing sort of way, was Stay Tuned (PG), one of those isn't-television-awful films which didn't look promising: a clutch of no-name TV sitcom 'stars' (John Ritter and Pam Dawber), a lame title and a grim premise: a suburban couch-potato gets trapped inside the boob-tube. It turned out to be high-class trash. Our spud is approached by a mephistophelean salesman (Jeffrey Jones), who promises him a satellite dish to end all eyesores if he will sign on the dotted line.

Thereupon he and his wife are sucked into 'Hellvision' a 666-channel network specialising in satanic parodies with titles like Duane's Underworld, Northern Overexposure, Golden Ghouls and David Dukes of Hazard. Plus a Home Shoplifting Channel and send-ups of spaghetti Westerns, films noirs, Errol Flynn movies, rap videos, Star Trek . . . The film swipes at compulsive channel-hopping (though its own storyline seems to be aimed at people with the attention span of a gnat).

If this all sounds a bit thin, Stay Tuned is redeemed by a manic script, good special effects and production values - it's shot in wide screen, like a sci-fi epic, by Peter Hyams, the director-DOP of Outland, Capricorn One and 2010, and the snappy animated segment was supervised by Chuck Jones, of Bugs Bunny and Road Runner fame. Most of the jokes arrive intact from across the Atlantic (another index of just how Americanised our own telly schedules and cinemas are) though one somehow doubts that they'll still be delighting audiences 70 years hence.

A Zimbabwean comedy: Jit (no cert), from the director Michael Raeburn, tells of a young man's quest to win the beauteous Sofi from her Flash Harry boyfriend and to raise her 'bride price', a kind of reverse dowry. It's an upbeat, brightly-coloured, artless film, impossible to dislike, but hardly in the front ranks of African cinema.

Agnieszka Holland's Olivier Olivier (15) is a strange, brooding piece which, like her last film, Europa Europa, deals (as both titles suggest) in Doppelganger. In the earlier movie a Jew passed for a Gentile to escape the Holocaust. Here, a small French boy goes missing one day to his family's desolation. Then, ten years later, a young male prostitute claims to be the lost Olivier and re-enters their lives, acting (shades of Theorem) as a lightning-rod for their repressed anger and desire. It's a cracking story, spoiled a little by the high-octane angst of Holland's direction and a ponderous, thundering soundtrack.

(Photograph omitted)