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Your September Unrandom Movie Club Results Are In!

Tagline: The Comedy Sensation of the Year!

Preshow: None

Pizza: Little Caesars



You're probably sick and tired of me saying stuff like, "This is the funniest movie ever" or "This is the most important movie ever" or "Why did that guy just pull out right in front of me, forcing me to slam on my brakes? There are no cars behind me. He couldn't have waited three more seconds??" I'm well aware that there can't be more than one "funniest ever" or "most important ever" as I'm also pretty sure there'll always be some asshole cutting us off. That said, LOVE AND DEATH (1975) is the funniest movie ever.

The first time I saw LOVE AND DEATH I was still on my SLEEPER high. I'd been waiting for this movie forever (under a year, actually). I took the Long Island Railroad into NYC, then walked to the Paramount that used to be in Columbus Circle and watched LOVE AND DEATH. And I laughed...once. Just once. When Boris hands Sonja a gift-wrapped box about six feet long. Boris: "I got you a present." Sonja: "What?" Boris: "Remember those earrings you wanted? The long ones?" Anyway, I felt ripped off. I wanted my money back for the movie and for the LIRR trip. I couldn't believe it! This from the guy who made SLEEPER? I was robbed!! No, actually, I was a moron. I just didn't get the movie at all. I was a stupid teen who wanted slapstick and got what appeared to be a history lesson. I was blind to the jokes and ignorant of the source material. It was amazing. Thinking back on it now, I can't even believe that was me.

But then they ran it on HBO. And ran it and ran it and ran it. And then, they ran it again. I couldn't get enough. I taped it onto an audio cassette and would listen to it in the darkroom while developing pictures. LOVE AND DEATH was my reason to live. And when I see a comedy made today, I realize that LOVE AND DEATH is still...my reason to live. I promise to try my hardest not to sound like a teen girl with a crush...

This time, writer/director Woody Allen takes on Russian literature and film. References to Dostoyevsky abound, which makes sense when you realize L & D is about a common man struggling with his conflicting philosophies in 1800s Russia. Visually, Woody nods to films like Eisenstein's BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN with imagery of the carriage rolling down the stairs, the lion statues, and the woman's broken glasses and bloody face, though here she's swapped out for a man (Whaddya know, that expensive NYU film school finally paid off.). He even uses Prokofiev for his score. All of that is brilliant, but believe me, you don't have to be a Muscovite to appreciate this giddy movie that may have more jokes per minute than any movie out there.

Woody plays coward (surprise!) Boris Grushenko, a man in love with his cousin Sonja (apparently, Soviet Georgia has a lot in common with American Georgia) played by Diane Keaton. Sonja's in love with Boris' caveman of a brother, Ivan, who marries someone else. Out of spite, Sonja marries Voscovec, the herring merchant, but only after 103 year old Minskov drops dead during the proposal.

Boris, seemingly the only Russian without facial hair, finds himself conscripted in the army ("I'm not the army type, I slept with a light on till I was 30."). He assumed his mother would protect him from the horrors of war, but instead: "You will go and you will fight and I hope they put you in the front lines!" As a private, and just like Captain Parmenter in F TROOP, Boris accidentally saves the day and gets promoted. Now a big shot, he has caught the eye of Countess Alexandrovna (Olga Georges-Picot), and for this, he must duel her jealous lover Inbedkov (I heart Harold Gould). Countess: "You are the greatest lover I've ever had." Boris: "Yes, well, I practice a lot when I'm alone." Because Inbedkov is a marksman, Sonja agrees to marry Boris, should he survive the duel. Much to her dismay, he does.




Eventually, as in any love story, Boris and Sonja become happy together and plan on having a family when once again, war interrupts. Boris wants to flee, but Sonja has a bigger plan - "Let's assassinate Napoleon!" This leads to just one of many philosophical debates Boris and Sonja have about, well, love and death...particularly the murder kind.


Remember, all this happens within a super-funny world, where Young Gregor's son is older than Old Gregor ("Nobody could figure out how that happened."), and Minsk holds Village Idiot conventions. Where, although it's Russia in the the early 1800s, you'll find black drill sergeants, "uppers," cheerleaders and T.S Eliot poems. There are colorful characters like Father Nikolai who always dressed in black with a black mustache ("For years I thought he was an Italian widow."), and the killed-in-action Maximovich (Tony Jay, who went on to do hundreds of cartoon voices) who comes back from the dead to talk to Boris, only to haggle with him about the price of a ring.

LOVE AND DEATH is a really smart movie. It's just dressed in a clown suit. By smart I mean, instead of going totally POLICE ACADEMY or AIRPLANE! (which are fine ways to go), it addresses philosophies about God and murder and love and the meaning of life. While awaiting his execution, Boris is visited by an angel of God who tells him his impending firing squad will be canceled due to Napoleon's change of heart. But Boris does die, and when Sonja asks his spirit what happened, he shrugs his shoulders and says, "I got screwed." And when Sonja says that we are made in God's image and he responds, "You think I'm made in God's image? Look at me, do you think he wears glasses?" to which she replies, "Not with those frames." And, "If I could just see a miracle like a burning bush or the seas part or my Uncle Sasha pick up a check." Yet sometimes his ponderings aren't meaningful; While thinking about Christ, he says, "If he was a carpenter, I wonder what he charged for bookshelves."

And then there's sex.

Sonja: "Sex without love is an empty experience. Boris: "Yes, but as empty experiences go, it's one of the best." And when Boris makes a move on her when they're in bed - Sonja: "No. Not here."

The comedy in LOVE AND DEATH is fast. So fast that he actually gets away with lines that aren't funny, but because of the rhythm of the jokes, they "feel" funny. Case in point,Mikhail: "It seems my brother has a yellow streak running down his back." Boris: "No, it's not down, it runs across." On its own, that line is sort of empty, a silly retort that at best is mildly amusing. But because it came after a rapid-fire spewing of jokes, we can laugh at it.

Now, at this point I'm sure it's obvious that I've seen LOVE AND DEATH dozens of times. Yet there's one thing in it that bugs me. Maybe you can help, you know, in the way you'd help anyone who is nerdy about something. Woody's character's name is Boris Grushenko. It's even spelled out on a sign at one point. Yet Sonja calls him Boris Dimitrovich (twice), and Inbedkov calls him Grushenko and then Dimitrovich. And to add even more confusion, someone calls Boris' father Dimitri Petrovich. Is this merely a mistake? Does "dimitrovich" mean something, maybe shorthand for "Dimitri Petrovich"? I must know. I need my life to be complete.

Rifle Shot

At the risk of repeating myself (as if you're actually reading this), BANANAS (1971) was mostly slapstick. SLEEPER (1973) was slapstick mixed with verbal jokes. And LOVE AND DEATH (1975) was more verbal jokes. The trajectory was clear. There'd be little-to-no slapstick in Woody's next movie, and that came to pass with ANNIE HALL (1977). The slapstick was gone, but his "grounded in real life" years began. Woody grew up, and he should have. And as much as I love much of his work from this point on, I sure miss the killer slapstick and fast one-liners, or as he says himself in his movie STARDUST MEMORIES - "The early, funny ones." Like Boris, Woody was fighting with himself to make his life have more meaning.

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