Criterion Sunday 12: This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

This wasn’t the first ‘mockumentary’ film to blend the documentary format with a fiction subject in a comedic way, but in many ways it set the standard for all subsequent attempts (including this year’s What We Do in the Shadows, as just one of many examples), not to mention much of writer/star Christopher Guest’s subsequent career. It also, rather more to the point given its thirty year vintage, holds up rather well, not something that can be said of a lot of 1980s films, let alone comedies. Part of that is to do with its target, the bloated pomp and self-importance of those within the music industry, which hardly seems to have diminished in subsequent years, and indeed many of the film’s plot points and characters are inspired by noted musical groups of earlier decades (the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in particular). Spinal Tap the band (formed of lead guitarist Guest, vocalist Michael McKean and bassist Harry Shearer along with a rotating array of drummers) typify many of the trends of the era, from baroquely introspective progressive musical noodling to hair metal and electro-pop, and exhibit the same boorish tone-deafness in each of them — though the particular way they manage to do so is part of the comedy, for they’re not by any means awful musicians. The corporate shmooze and unprofessional management also gets a kicking though, and the image of Spinal Tap’s public school-educated manager wielding his cricket bat is a difficult one to dislodge easily. It’s a film which is still held in high esteem for good reasons, and it remains consistently entertaining.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rob Reiner; Writers Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Reiner; Cinematographer Peter Smokler; Starring Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer; Length 82 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, December 1997 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 7 December 2014).

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

I’d like to tell you that this romantic comedy from the pen of Nora Ephron, which is coming up on its 25th anniversary, hasn’t dated at all, but I can’t tell you that. There are few scenes featuring either Billy Crystal or Meg Ryan (you can figure out their characters’ names, I’m sure) which do not provoke some gasp of incredulity at the 1980s fashion and hairstyles. Thankfully, though, the comedy set-up at the film’s heart is rather more resilient (using the time-honoured structuring motif of will-they-won’t-they antagonism and resolution) and, by the end, even the most ridiculous feathered hairstyle or cropped shorts cannot distract from the romance. Partly that’s on account of Nora Ephron, whose touch here is so central to the film’s success. Ephron went on to helm her own comedies in the 1990s, yet although this is directed by the workmanlike Rob Reiner, her writing style is all over it, channelling the shmaltz and brazen sentimentality of similar films from the Golden Era of Hollywood (the 1940s and 1950s) via the neuroses of latter-day New York bard Woody Allen. I daresay for some this would be enough to write off her own efforts in a mire of gloop, but I feel like her work is deft enough to avoid these pitfalls. There’s certainly a rather brittle framing device, using interviews with apparently real New York couples from an older generation, who comment on what it is to be in love. However, it’s easy enough to instead focus on the central story, and at that Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan do very well, the latter well enough to basically keep her in this kind of territory for most of the following decade (my favourite of the Ryan-Ephron cycle remains 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, for what little it’s worth). It may not be a masterpiece, but it sums up something about the 1980s, and it’s all rather pleasant nonetheless.

When Harry Met Sally film posterCREDITS
Director Rob Reiner; Writer Nora Ephron; Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld; Starring Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 25 December 2013 (also on VHS at home, Wellington, years ago).