When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
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YOU CHOOSE: Lars von Trier or Moms Mabley
Categories: Theoretical

The other night I rented the 1974 movie, AMAZING GRACE, a star vehicle for the legendary black vaudeville entertainer Moms Mabley. Moms was 80 years old the summer this was released. So her performance has a fascinating double-meaning and readability: she may be slow and sometimes fuzzy in her blocking and stage business, but her ability to cover herself with non-stop humorous ramblings (developed over her half a century as a stand-up comedienne) keeps each scene moving. She knows where each scene begins and ends, what exposition needs to be delivered and where she should end up standing, even if she can’t recall her lines or blocking.

Since there is no dynamic and seamless drive of narrative nor conceptual rhythm to thespian interaction, Moms Mabley effortlessly achieves what some filmmakers strive for yet never reach: a simultaneous affirmation and denial of the illusion of drama and performance. It’s a kind of edgy immediacy that Dogme95 directors can only dream of attaining, generating a continual awareness of art-in-the-making in the mind of the viewer.

[Here’s a YouTube clip from the movie, where she gets so worked up she can’t remember a character’s name.]

The movie wasn’t all cake, tho’. The sets are cheap; the cinematography is bland; and some of the comedy is unintentionally painful. So, while Dogme95 was on my mind, I decided to compare it to DANCER IN THE DARK which to me had OK sets, some cool cinematography, and most of the serious stuff was unintentionally hilarious.

So, which made me laugh more?

Which was the “worse” [as hierarchially-obsessed critics would frame the argument] movie? To help you decide…


DANCER: Female protagonist is compliant, acquiescent, self-sacrificing and in denial of her illness; will not raise her voice in her own defense even when on trial for murder; when not whimpering, she alternates between smiling blankly and smiling demurely.
GRACE: Female protagonist makes Moe Howard look like a pussy: snatches the wig off her neighbor in a cat-fight, tells Mayor she’s gonna fix his buns.

DANCER: Bjork sings “My Favorite Things.”
GRACE: Butterfly McQueen sings “Yield Not to Distemper”

DANCER: Featured appearance by Joel Gray
GRACE: Featured appearance by Stepin’ Fetchit

DANCER: Takes place in Washington state but almost entirely shot in Sweden.
GRACE: Takes place in Baltimore but mainly shot in Philadelphia.

DANCER: Fabulous choreography. Great dancers.
GRACE: Some hoary vaudeville moves.

DANCER: Keep hoping the camera will stop shaking.
GRACE: Keep waiting for the camera to do something.

DANCER: Frequently gets queasily misogynistic.
GRACE: Sometimes borders on minstrelsy.

DANCER: Camera gets way into lead actress’ face.
GRACE: Camera gives lead actress a w-i-d-e berth.

DANCER: Some of the creative team got their start working in porn.
GRACE: Some of the creative team got their start working in Sesame Street.

DANCER: Leading lady occasionally bursts into song.
GRACE: Leading lady occasionally sings the praises of Tertia Mae’s potato salad.

If you haven’t seen them both, DANCER‘s plot deals with nearly-blind Czech lady making stainless steel sinks with a gorgeous French lady in a factory by day and rehearses to be in an amateur production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC by night. GRACE‘s plot deals with an African-American running for office in a previously white-dominated election, dramatizing the dirty politics strategy of introducing a dark horse candidate to split the liberal vote so the conservative power elite can retain power (viz. Ralph Nader in 2000, or the early part of ALL THE KING’S MEN).

Some audio collagist should mix the music of Bjork and the one-liners of Moms Mabley: now that’s entertainment!!

Doug / PoMoJoan

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1 Comment to “YOU CHOOSE: Lars von Trier or Moms Mabley”

  1. Screw Lars. Gimme more Moms! Better yet, gimme Moms and Redd Foxx on stage together.

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