Thursday, June 30, 2011

Waiting for Comfort

June 30, 2011

     A few weeks ago I had the kind of hellish day that seemed to call for a stiff drink.   But I needed more. Something better than booze or comfort foods like mac and cheese or meat loaf.  What the doctor ordered was a comfort movie

     We all have such films -- dvds we’ve watched dozens of times and will watch many more, because they cheer us up or so engage us that no matter how often we view them, they provide consolation.  The content of my comfort movies is eclectic, and it’s not always lighthearted.  To wit, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, JFK, Chinatown and Dog Day Afternoon all have prominent places on my cinema of solace shelf.  But so do Bull Durham, A Room with a View and Stop Making Sense.  
     I could have watched any of these.  Yet I craved the special soothing that only a comfort comedy can provide.  Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman called out to me as it has many times before.  In fact, if Guffman were a vinyl lp, I’d have “played the grooves off it” by now.  Yet somehow I’d never viewed the “special features.”  So that night,  seeking an adult dose of comfort, I watched deleted scenes from the film, as well as its  insightful commentary track by Eugene Levy and Mr. Guest, for the first time.  And the bonus material proved to be quite healing indeed. 

     The film’s wit, warmth and intergalactic flights of imagination came across even as Levy and Guest chatted away.  But listening to their dialogue about making the movie and watching the excised material also affirmed the power and beauty of film editing.  

     Everything a lover of cinema or budding filmmaker should know about the process is here.  One just has to listen carefully.  First, the director refers repeatedly to 58 hours of raw material he ultimately turned into an 82 minute picture.  As he worked on Waiting for Guffman over a period of many many months, he and editor Andy Blumenthal created numerous iterations of the movie.  In an early one, around 10 weeks into post production, Corky St. Clair (Guffman’s protagonist, played by the writer/director) had actually become a minor character.  Producer Karen Murphy talked Guest into rethinking that choice.  Fine tuning individual scenes, reworking the order of others and dropping some altogether -- lots of careful work -- resulted in a seemingly effortless and side-splitting yet deeply affecting comedy.  

     What is likely to feel counterintuitive to non-filmmakers is the fact that Guffman was vastly improved by the deletion of a dozen or so truly great scenes.  Some were removed to enhance the flow of its story, others to make a given character or relationship less dark.  How hard to believe but true it is that one often has to take out great material in order to make the movie as good as it can be! 

     The first delightful Guffman outtake is an alternate version of Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey)’s audition for “Red, White and Blaine,” Corky’s amateur theatre piece celebrating Blaine, Missouri’s 150th anniversary.   Posey delivers a two page monologue, speaking to a stuffed doll she holds while standing over her hospitalized brother.  He’s had a nervous breakdown and is also (inexplicably) on life support.  When Libby and the brother were younger, she tells her doll, he overpowered her and made her do things she “did not like and that made (her) sick.”  The bit is brilliant.  Brilliant!  But so is “Teacher’s Pet,” the song and dance audition that remains in Guffman.  And that  scene is much more concise and lighthearted; it also establishes that Libby can, in fact, sing and dance.

     Another fine moment which the director and editor cut from the final version shows how Ron (Fred Willard) and Sheila (Katherine O’Hara) feel when Corky quits the production.  Such a scene seemed integral to the story when Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy wrote it.  What’s more, Fred Willard and Katherine O’Hara perform the material brilliantly.  Sheila is hung over to the point of catatonia.  Ron, wiffle bat in hand, recalls two landmarks in sports history that inspire him to keep going with the show.  The first is mediocre hitter Bill Mazeroski’s game-winning homerun for the Pittsburgh Pirates in frame seven of the 1960 World Series against the Yankees.  The second is Joe Dimaggio’s batting successfully in 17 consecutive games immediately after his record breaking 56 game hitting streak was snapped.  

     Had I been editing Guffman, I confess, I might have urged Christopher Guest to leave this scene in the movie.  The Pirates upset in the 1960 series (the Yanks outscored their opponents 55-27 over the course of 7 games) is, I think, my first childhood memory of baseball in all its dramatic glory.  Willard and O’Hara give memorable performances, conveying perfectly how Ron and Sheila feel.  

     Yet as cut, going from the cast learning that Corky has quit to a shot of the group marching up to his apartment and begging him to return, the film’s final version doesn’t feel like it’s missing anything.  Viewers know exactly how the characters feel: they want their director back.

     A scene in which Corky is hospitalized after a nervous collapse was also excised from the final cut of Waiting for Guffman.  His breakdown occurred after Blaine’s town council denied a request for $100,000 to finance his one night only community theatre production.  While writing Guffman’s script, the need to show how its protagonist was affected by rejection seemed obvious to Guest and Levy.  But a simple shot of Corky brooding in his bathtub -- picked up during 3 days of post-production shooting -- addressed this dramatic requirement elegantly and succinctly.

     Again, there is much to be learned here.  First, as Woody Allen has pointed out, an audience will never miss a scene of which it was unaware.  It’s hard to imagine viewers wishing Guffman included a segment with Corky in a mental hospital without having watched that bit in a rough cut.  So if the movie feels slow to the director and editor, and one shot conveys the character’s emotional state as well as pages of dialogue might have, there’s no reason not to enhance the pace by lifting the longer scene from the picture.

     Movie buffs and budding filmmakers, by the way, should also take note of the fact that good films do indeed shoot additional material during post-production.  Although Woody Allen is most notorious for extensive “reshoots,” picking up new material while editing has always been a mainstay of high quality filmmaking.  Howard Hawks shot new scenes of Lauren Bacall during a protracted post-production period on The Big Sleep, for example, to enhance her performance and to capitalize on the the fact that To Have and Have Not made her a star while he was editing Sleep.  Robert Flaherty even reshot on the classic documentary, Nanook of the North.  (long story for another post.)
     Of course, much of Waiting for Guffman’s commentary has nothing to do with editing.  One of the joys of the play-by-play is Eugene Levy’s description of Dr Pearl’s performance of a particular joke as “Pearl doing Carson doing Gleason while delivering a Pat McCormick joke.”  It’s a wonderful “inside” moment, revealing the passion and intensity with which  a contemporary master of comedy has studied the work of great comics who came before him. 

     One more fascinating remark from Christopher Guest is that “in another context, ‘A Penny for Your Thoughts’ (a musical number he performs with Parker Posey) would be moving.”   Doesn’t he know that it is moving?  It is deeply so.  To quote Woody Allen on filmmakers and viewers seeing the same work differently, “It’s amazing how subjective those things are.”  My very strong feeling is that “A Penny for Your Thoughts” should have earned an Oscar nomination for Guest and his co-writer Michael McKean.

     The idea of subjectivity is a good place to conclude this piece, because what one finds comforting is itself quite subjective.  Discussing this topic with crew members in Ohio last week (I'm editing here), The Shawshank Redemption was named by many as a comfort movie.  So when we discovered that Mansfield Prison, where that film was shot, was a short drive away, we took a field trip to the facility.  Disconnected from the motion picture, conditions were as far as one could imagine from comfort  But movies are magical.  Watching Shawshank, one is far more deeply affected by the comradery and the triumph of the “good guys” than by the brutality of penitentiary life. 



  1. Fantastic analysis!

    We just re-watched RUNAWAY TRAIN. Not exactly a comfort movie, but also worthy of analysis. I’ll try to post one soon.

  2. I'm definitely with you on Guffman... feel much the same about Tremors, too (not Tremors II).

  3. I've used the idea of comfort movies for years without calling it that. One of my personal favorites is Wonder Boys.

  4. Somehow in the wild-west days of P2P filesharing, I ended up with a copy of "Penny for Your Thoughts" on mp3. It's not just ripped from the film; there's an extra verse during the part in the movie where we visit Ron and Sheila backstage, working on his hair. I can only imagine that it came from the "Red, White, and Blaine" cast recording that was, for reasons unknown, criminally withheld from us. But I can confirm that it gets me misty-eyed every single time it plays on my iPod.