Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Return of Biffle & Shooster: IT'S A FRAME-UP

I had the excellent good fortune this evening to be part of a private audience for Michael Schlesinger's directorial debut IT'S A FRAME-UP, which I believe has so far been screened only at Cinefest in Syracuse. Honestly, the last thing I expected from Michael was an art film. BUT IT'S AN ART FILM! You might think I'm saying this because it's set in a gallery and it has a Mona Lisa joke... and I sort of am, because a funny movie makes me want to crack jokes of my own. But, more than that, it's an art film because it's a pitch-perfect, impeccably studied recreation of the classic two-reel comedy style, featuring a no-longer-fictional pair of knuckleheads named Biffle & Shooster. An opening card, like something you'd find stuck on the front of a Raymond Rohauer acquisition, sets the stage for this "derivative" vaudeville act from an alternative past.

I've always known two basic things about comedy: 1) that the Three Stooges were great artists, and 2) that SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and the exodus of its cast members to the big screen basically killed screen comedy back in the 1970s. Aside from Larry Blamire's surrealist soundings of the funnybone (and some of their veterans -- and at least one of their props -- are found here, including Michael), I can't think of any other intentional comedies of recent years that have given me so many, or so many varied, big laughs in the space of 30 minutes. IT'S A FRAME-UP is chock-full of jokes: verbal, visual, crass, subtle, sensible, surrealist, nerdy, knowledgeable, physical, quotational, inside, outside, with one or two that literally hide in plain sight. I don't think even one of its jokes is topical, and not one is fart-related or in poor taste. Its sense of humor takes the Jules White tradition to a meta level; it's set in the past (well, "a" past) and manages to be true to that style and those comic traditions without entirely dwelling there. And it's not just slapstick because the more you know about this art form, the more richly you will laugh. At the same time, you could show this film to kids, adults, old people and film buffs and they would all get a different handle on it.

In short, it's both classical and contemporary, and it makes what has basically been a dead art form for the past 50 years feel vital once again. It deserves to be widely seen and enjoyed -- and that enjoyment cannot help but spread backwards to renewed interest in vault items as well as forward to new adventures. IT'S A FRAME-UP is now available for festival screenings. Michael and his crew are hoping to do more; they have titles and loglines prepared for more than 20 additional Biffle & Shooster shorts, including BLAND HOTEL, THE BRIDE OF FINKLESTEIN, FLYING DOWN TO LEO and OF HUMAN BANDAGE.

Netflix, this should be your next original series.

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