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The ideal cause for cerebration: Kevin Jackson sees in the new year by crashing some memorable parties on film and in print

TO BEGIN at the most elementary level: parties are a leisure activity - which is to say, they're a way for writers to gather a group of disparate characters together without having to do any hard work on dramatic structure. Just as every soap opera from Ambridge to Albert Square relies on its local pub as the forum where the dramatis personae can be assembled without any need for their motives to be spelled out, so the party scene can be the zero degree of screenwriting. Why are all my characters crammed together in this one room / house / garden? Because they wanted to be, silly - can't you see they're all at a party?

Put like that, the habit of filming party scenes may sound pretty lazy. So it is. Yet even when the device is at its most transparent, it need not be dishonourable, and though there are all too many sub-Agatha Christie thrillers which round up the usual suspects for a weekend house party at which someone will get it in the neck, some of the very greatest films have borrowed the trick and made something unexpectedly rich and satisfying of it.

Most of the action of Jean Renoir's magnificent tragic farce La Regle du Jeu (1939), for example, takes place at a house party, and its many wonders include some spooky after-dinner theatricals and an unexpectedly bloody rabbit shoot, both of which show the skull beneath the grins. It's not surprising that Renoir also made the definitive (and no less melancholic) film about outdoor festivities in Une Partie de Campagne (1936), or that some accounts of Renoir's shooting methods suggest that he made his films in the same spirit with which an inspired host throws a party. (Other directors have done much the same, though only one - Lindsay Anderson - put a wrap party on screen, in O Lucky Man].)

There aren't many party scenes to match these, but the uses to which such gatherings can be put are suprisingly various, if not always that subtle. The crudest are those in which the on- screen jollities are the film's whole reason for being: the dismal British teenage comedy Party, Party (1983), the recent American House Party films and so on, each one aimed squarely at the age-group which is just discovering that there is more to home entertainment than jelly and trifles, and each one functioning as a sort of poor proxy for the activity itself.

Slightly less crass are those broad farces which exploit the event's rich potential for embarrassment and mishaps, such as Blake Edwards' The Party (1968), which stars Peter Sellers as a bumbling Indian actor. Fired from a movie of Gunga Din for accidentally blowing up the set, he is, in similarly accidental fashion, invited to a fancy Hollywood bash where his combination of gaucheness, curiosity and sheer bad luck ends up wreaking comparable devastation on his host's hi-tech mansion. It seemed rib-tickling on first release, but even those who don't find Sellers' goodness-gracious-me act rather queasy these days may find themselves wondering what is so amusing about his losing his shoe in a fountain or murmuring 'Birdie num-num' to a pet fowl.

Indeed, some of its comedy is so stilted that it comes almost as a relief to turn to the grosser forms of festive comedy, all of them predicated on the simple and indisputable principle that people behave badly when they gang up and drink. The archetypal modern instance of this gag is the Delta House toga party in National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), with John Belushi as Lord of Misrule - draped in his white sheets, he even looks like a mischievous pagan god. Vulgar? In spades; but anyone who fails to see anything amusing about these scenes - the little cartoon angel and devil which hover around the hero's head after his date passes out, Belushi smashing the folk-singer's guitar against the wall, then murmuring 'Sorry' - has obviously never been 15 years old and in the grip of cheap cider madness.

Many other movies of this, um, Falstaffian school also come from the land which coined the epithet 'party animal' and uses 'party' itself as an intransitive verb ('Party on, Wayne]' 'Party on, Garth]'), but there are dozens of other examples from other countries, some of which lace their broadness with a more sardonic edge. An underrated example of this is the Australian production Don's Party (1976), directed by Bruce Beresford from the play by David Williamson.

Set in a suburban Sydney household as a group of Labour supporters gather to drink tinnies and watch their side lose the 1969 election, it follows the classic pattern of the night which begins in high hopes and bonhomie and then degenerates, via a series of revelations about infidelities, failures and broken dreams, into a nightmare that is followed by the agonies of crapulous remorse. It is mordantly funny films like Don's Party which put a new emphasis on that American phrase: they are about party animals, the brutes which jump out of human forms when social rules are relaxed. One suspects that Homer had nights like this in mind when he wrote about Circe turning men into swine, as Joyce certainly had when he wrote the 'Circe' episode of Ulysses.

Not that it requires Greek spells or Dionysian frenzies for ugly truths to come to the surface. Sometimes, the farce becomes all the uglier if some or all of the guests are struggling to maintain a degree of decorum, as in Mike Leigh's excruciating Abigail's Party, or in Trevor Griffiths's punningly-titled The Party, about a group of English radicals who gather in May '68 to share drinks and dialectics, and generally fiddle about while Paris burns.

Griffiths's play is almost as intensely serious as some of its characters, and it's striking how many filmic, dramatic or literary parties have a gloomy, violent or even tragic edge - think of T S Eliot's The Cocktail Party. Joseph Moncure March's The Wild Party, still a highly readable verse novel from the Jazz Age, ends its ugly debauchery with a killing; it was well filmed by James Ivory in 1974, and then butchered by American distibutors who wanted to hint at similarities to the fatal Fatty Arbuckle shindig. And even The Great Gatsby (film and book), which glories in the sheer spectacle of party-giving and party-going as do many less complicated novels and movies, has a strong undercurrent of sadness, as though enforced jollity were the most potent means of evoking mortality.

In fact, a Martian visitor with temporary membership of the NFT might reasonably conclude that one of the principal functions of terrestrial cinema was to cast dire warnings about the evils of partying: from Cecil B De Mille's Roman orgies to Fellini's Satyricon and La Dolce Vita, or the spiritual vacuities of the Swinging London bash in Blow Up, or the innocent- in-a-den-of-druggy-weirdos sequence of Midnight Cowboy (reprised in The Doors when Jim Morrison visits Warhol's Factory), or the brutal snipes at conspicuous consumption in Altman's A Wedding, or business-party schmoozing in The Player . . . when a director shows up at a party with cameras, odds are he'll be a satirist.

It's a much harder exercise to think of filmic parties which are wholly agreeable, though a short-list of contenders would have to include Whit Stillman's delightfully intelligent comedy Metropolitan (a film which makes frequent and graceful bows to Miss Jane Austen, no slouch herself at having fun, and more than fun, with the role-playing dimensions of country- house gatherings and balls) and, more seasonally, the romantic New Year's Eve party which finally unites Harry and Sally.

For some of us, though, the definitive New Year's Eve party on film has to be that phantasmagoric thrash at the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick's The Shining (1980), in which the deserted corridors became suddenly thronged with the ghosts of former revellers, and long- empty rooms were filled with their ghastly deeds. This was the party scene to cap all party scenes, and one which put a whole new meaning to a festive phrase which had previously seemed so innocent: 'Should auld acquaintance be forgot . . . ?'

(Photograph omitted)