Movie of the Week #10

The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film
(Richard Lester; 1959)

That small charming pocket of cinematic joy known as The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film is said to have begun with no more ambitious intent than Peter Sellers' desire to give a 16mm Bolex camera he'd purchased a work-out. A few months after shooting for one day with fellow Goon Show mastermind Spike Milligan in the summer of 1958, Sellers enlisted a group that included Joseph McGrath and Graham Stark, David Lodge, Richard Lester and Leo McKern (all of whom had been involved at one time or another with the Goons' television incarnations), along with a few non-professionals and his own Chauffer. He then hauled them out on location one day to finish . . . whatever it was he and Milligan had started. There was nothing you could call formal about this shoot. But for the results and the cumulative talent of those involved, it was not very different from any occasion when a group of people, for a lark, screw around with a camera. They brought a few props and some loosely premeditated gags (most of which were devised by Sellers); that was all. They had no script. What would be the point? As it was, the whole thing cost £70-80, tops. You could then argue that if the stakes hadn't been so small the potential for chaos would have been exceeded only by the possibility of disaster.

The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film represented Richard Lester's first effort as a film director. At 27, he was an overeducated American-born whiz kid and pop culture polymath who'd made good across the Atlantic (he was already a veteran television director by this time) and would soon have as defining an impact on the development of Cinema in the 1960s as anyone you can name. He did not, as so many believed, coldly wield a deadpan humor and an arsenal of technique carried over from television commercials . . . or the avant-garde (depending on which critic you were reading) . . . to assault the viewer with sensation. He sought, rather anarchically in retrospect, to break through the formal conventions of narrative film without fundamentally altering its nature. His 1966 adaptation of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, for example, almost gleefully toyed with every idea moviegoers ever had, good or ill, about what a Musical was supposed to look like while remaining at the end a fundamentally solid exercise in that mode. The balance he could strike between subversion and fidelity on these occasions was bewildering; and the sheer exhilaration with which he carried it out made whole enterprise irresistable. In the 1970s Lester's methods became more understated, the balance so commonplace as to be invisible; his genre subversion in that decade grew incredibly nuanced and, almost as a result, his star fell somewhat with each (often brilliant) film. Few could see what he was up to; fewer cared. By the mid-1980s he had more or less walked away from filmmaking entirely.

But when he went out into the field to direct and act in today's offering, he could still afford to pretend that the horizons were limitless. And if his ambitions at this moment included a career directing motion picures, he could scarcely have begun with a more modest triumph.


IA said...

It's a shame that Spike Milligan is still so little known in the US. I'll put my head on a chopping block and say that his Q series was actually better than the Goon Show. Being a TV show, it also offers more to the eyes.

Rich said...

Thanks for shining a little spotlight on the all but forgotten Lester. "Hard Day's Night" and "The Knack" will forever be in my top ten. I could watch "A Funny Thing Happened..." on a daily basis. And with your help, the poignant, touching, ahead-of-its-time "Petulia" might be discovered (sorry I can't say "RE-discovered".

What a shame he ran out of gas after that. Two very black comedies ("Bed Sitting Room" and "How I Won The War") missed by a mile. Then he seemed to sell out for bigger budget flicks like the Musketeers series and "Superman" sequel.

Please re-visit the Sellers topic. He deserves to be remembered.

Mike D said...

my word i havent seen this since i was around 12 - many thanks i cant wait to watch.