Armchair Cinephile 

With previews of his P
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With previews of his P.D. James adaptation Children of Men just hitting multiplexes, it’s a perfect time for the Criterion Collection to fill in a gap or two in the filmography of Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. Next Tuesday, Criterion will release the DVD release of Sólo Con Tu Pareja, the director’s 1991 feature, which is bundled with some of his early shorts.

Pareja, a high-energy farce starring an ad man more interested in picking up women than in writing jingles, looks lovely but is too wacky to be taken seriously, hardly hinting at the panache of Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También. Looking to the screwball era for inspiration, Cuarón stages a back-and-forth-between-bedrooms sequence that threatens to gobble the film’s whole running time and will have most viewers rolling their eyes in exhaustion.

The ad industry is mocked to better effect in Putney Swope, the cult favorite by Robert Downey Sr. that helped define late-’60s underground cinema. Here, a contentious shakeup on Madison Avenue results in the unlikely promotion of the company’s “token black man” to the CEO spot, where, rather than become a Hudsucker-like pawn, Putney Swope turns the ad agency into hucksters for the counterculture.

Like most midnight movies, Swope isn’t satisfying throughout; and, as with most political films, some of its jabs have aged more awkwardly than others. But the gags that still work make up for the rest, in a hodgepodge with some moments that are still shocking (and shockingly funny) more than three decades later.

The “message from our sponsor” has a phantom presence in recent packages presenting highlights of Dick Cavett’s talk show. As Cavett often pitched products himself from his comfy chair, we sometimes see him reaching for this week’s beauty cream just as the DVD’s editor fades to black. In the immensely enjoyable collection The Dick Cavett Show: Hollywood Greats — which offers winning and refreshingly lengthy interviews with stars like Robert Mitchum, Orson Welles, and Katharine Hepburn — those missing ads are slightly more tantalizing when the guest is an aging Alfred Hitchcock, who on his own show had so often come up with wry ways to introduce those bill-paying station breaks.

Cavett and weird advertisements pop up again on another recent TV reissue, SCTV: Best of the Early Years. This three-discer gathers just over a dozen episodes from the years before SCTV moved from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to American television, and between early incarnations of Bob & Doug and Guy Caballero, Rick Moranis tries Cavett’s shoes on for size. He’s not as weird as the real McCoy — watch the Cavett show, and try not to imagine that he’s an alien sent to study the ways of Earthlings — but he gets the show’s patter down right; later, he reappears on behalf of Logos Galore, a fake ad outfit that “would like to help you find a suitable, catchy logo for your business, company, or religious faction.”

Grindhouse fans know that Times Square theaters of yore had a special way with ads. Connoisseurs and the curious should check out 42nd St. Forever: Volume 2, which delivers only the good stuff: While plenty of these exploitation flicks were dumb and dull, their salacious trailers could make you buy a ticket despite your better judgment; scores of them are gathered here — from Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 to the Tarantino fave Rolling Thunder — without the distraction of a main attraction. If only today’s trailers were this much fun.

Finally, in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, some of the great scribes of the ’20s often appear just one step away from being so hard-up they’d stoop to writing ad copy. Alan Rudolph’s sprawling period piece shows the influence of his old boss (and producer here) Robert Altman, with chaotic scenes in which witty barbs fly hither and yon without seeming to care if they hit a microphone. Liberties are taken, surely — portly humorist Robert Benchley is played by a lean Campbell Scott, the better to create some romantic tension with the leading lady — but the portrait of the Algonquin Round Table scene manages to be loving and unromantic at the same time. And Jennifer Jason Leigh is captivatingly sad as Dorothy Parker, whether the real Dot was anything like this or not.

More by John DeFore



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