Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Art House in the Middle of the Street #3: The Importance of Being Earnest

There's no grand philosophical project behind Charge Shot!!!'s new feature. Jordasch's mom got him Janus Films' absolutely untouchable Essential Art House box set, and he's going to watch the whole thing. It's a behemoth set, collecting 50 films released since 1956 by one of the first distributors to bring honest-to-goodness world cinema to U.S. shores. The films contained in the collection serve as a crash course in world cinema, encompassing everything from major works of the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealist period to films from lesser-known corners of the filmmaking world, including Brazil and Poland. The collection is 50 discs, weighs 16 pounds, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it.

There are messy films. There are big, sprawling films jam-packed with ideas, practically full to overflowing. Robert Altman made an art out of it with movies like Nashville and Short Cuts, films that could credibly claim to have close to two dozen main characters. Paul Thomas Anderson picked up where Altman left off and carried the dynasty of the sprawl into the 21st century with films like Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. Truffaut's made messes, and so has Fellini. And we can't forget about Terrence Malick,  a filmmaker so messy he practically forgets to tell a story.

The messy film is an accomplishment in and of itself, but it's almost innately flawed. If you bring that much to the table, it's inevitable that you're going to leave something off: half-developed plotlines, a grand philosophical project that never quite comes together, performances so brief they could be considered cameos.

Anthony Asquith's adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is perhaps the least messy film I've ever seen.

The play/film resembles, above all else, an immaculately assembled chemistry equation, with each element and formula on the left side balanced perfectly by something else on the right. It's clear that Earnest is the work of an unrivaled genius, a playwright who seemingly never committed a line of dialogue to the page without knowing its exact purpose in the overall scheme of the play.

Wilde did not assemble a cast of layered, multi-faceted characters for his magnum opus. These are not characters who seem like real people who just happened to experience the events depicted in the play/film. They're ciphers, pawns in Wilde's immaculate plotting and vessels for his epigrammatic dialogue.

The plot, such as it is, follows the exploits of Jack Worthing (Michael Redgrave) and Algernon Moncrieff (Michael Denison). Basically, Jack wants to marry an aristocratic belle named Gwendolen (Joan Greenwood), and Gwendolen's equally hot for Jack. Problem is, Gwendolen's sole preoccupation with Jack seems to be his name, which she believes is Ernest. "My ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest," doe-eyed Gwendolen tells Jack. "There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence."

Jack, you see, has created a person named Ernest, whom he tells everyone at his country estate is his very sick brother who lives in the city. That gives him the opportunity to escape as often as he likes to the city, where he assumes the role of Ernest himself. He tries to suggest to Gwendolen that he'd be just as worthy a mate if his name weren't Ernest. She doesn't buy it.

His best friend Algernon has concocted a similar scheme, except that his revolves around a supposedly  invalid friend in the country named Bunbury (said by Denison with such exquisitely English pronunciation that it practically pops offscreen). Algernon, then, gets to retreat from the stuffiness of Victorian-era London whenever he likes. When Algernon discovers his friend's plot, he dubs it "Bunburying" and takes every opportunity to poke fun at his delightfully stuck-up friend Jack.

Algernon's got his eye on Jack's seventeen-year-old ward Cecily Cardew (Dorothy Tutin), a seemingly innocent maiden who's chief goal is to find a bastard she can call her own. Thing is, he's got to be an earnest bastard, and his name has to be...wait for it...Ernest.

So Algernon and Jack both end up at Jack's country estate, as do Gwendolen and her incensed peacock of a mother (Edith Evans) and Cecily, who lives there to begin with. The labyrinth of linguistic tricks Wilde builds for his characters to escape from is almost unbelievably clever, and I wouldn't ruin its inimitable pleasures by spoiling the ending.

Not that the stakes are particularly high. The full title of the play, after all, is The Importance of Being Earnest, a Trivial Comedy for Serious People. And Wilde trades almost exclusively in trivialities. The relationships are feather-light, the conflicts unserious, and characters' motivations border on downright silly: early in the play, Lady Bracknell tells jack that "to lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."

Think of Earnest as an ingenious card trick. It's not going to tell you much about the nature of modern life, but it's fiendishly entertaining. Wilde deals a wicked hand.