The Badlands Collective Film Screenings - Painfully Funny: The Complete Directorial Works of Elaine May
The Badlands Collective is a London based collective of cinephiles and film curators founded by Phil Concannon, Ian Mantgani and Craig Williams. Their mission is very simple, to show great films, mostly on 35mm and to celebrate their love of film. They’ve been doing this since 2013 at various cinema venues in London and are now one of the recognised and respected film collectives in London. I’ve attended two of their screenings, in May 2015 for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America: Extended Director’s cut, which I wrote about here, and in September 2015 for one of the double bills that was part of their Tribute to Canon Films.
This month they are hosting their biggest tribute to date, Painfully Funny: The Complete Directorial Works of Elaine May. All four films directed by Elaine May will be screening between September 21-23 at ICA, all on 35mm. It took the Badlands Collective five years to be able to achieve this, which is great news for Elaine May fans and will certainly be a discovery highlight for anyone that isn’t familiar with her work.
Elaine May is a comedic genius that unfortunately not many people are aware of.
In my previous post, I wrote about the challenges of preserving Arab films, and finding out that despite there are more institutions in the West that restore and archive films, some great gems fall through the cracks, like Elaine May’s films. I interviewed Phil Concannon to ask about the challenges faced in finding and getting Elaine May’s films, why her work is important and why isn’t she a household name.
Congratulations on Painfully Funny: The Complete Directorial Works of Elaine May, all 4 films to be shown on 35mm. This is a great achievement. I know you've been working on this for five years and would like you to share the challenges you faced in getting these films.
We formed The Badlands Collective in 2013 and one of our very first ideas was to celebrate Elaine May. We couldn’t understand why her films had fallen out of favour and were non-existent on the repertory circuit or on DVD/blu-ray at the time.
Unfortunately, when we began to investigate the possibility of screening her films, we quickly learned that viable prints are very hard to come by and some of her films have been allowed to fall out of copyright. It’s a shocking sign of the way these films have been neglected over the past 40 years that they have been allowed to slip through the cracks like this. In the end we have secured the very best quality 35mm prints for each film, and a couple of these prints probably won’t play in UK cinemas again for a very long time, so this feels like a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
It feels like the film industry is very behind in centralising information to help programmers locate films and to get screening rights.
It is very frustrating. It requires a lot of detective work and we have had to learn a lot about how distribution, archiving and rights management works over the course of the past five years. In working on this season, I’ve spoken to people in London, Dublin, Paris, Stockholm, Chicago and Los Angeles to source the prints. We also have a couple of other projects that have reached a dead end currently because we can’t track the prints or the rights.
There should be some kind of centralised system for this kind of information; the BFI archive is searchable, but that’s just one archive (and they’re all archive prints and therefore require reel-to-reel projection, which limits you further). It has been shocking to me during the five years I’ve been doing this how often studios let the rights lapse for their films; and these films were a big deal at the time! The Heartbreak Kid is Elaine May’s one bona-fide hit and it got two Oscar nominations, and now nobody knows who owns it.
It also feels like Elaine May is finally getting the praise and recognition she deserves, even though she is still not a household name. The TIFF Cinematheque recently had an Elaine May retrospective, showing the films she directed and also films she wrote. Now that all her films will be shown in London, do you think this will get other film exhibitors to screen her work?
It really should. When I’ve spoken to people about this season, so many have never heard of Elaine May or seen her films. She should be regarded as one of the great comic filmmakers instead of this obscure figure. I was struck by how little writing there is on her. Some filmmakers have dozens of books devoted to them and it seems crazy to me that nobody has written one about her and her films.
I’d like to think that this recent surge of interest will continue with retrospectives and celebrations in cinemas everywhere, but first we have to make sure the materials are there. Right now, the scarcity of the prints and the messy rights situations make such a widespread tribute impossible. It would be great to see Elaine May’s films become a regular fixture on the rep cinema circuit but first we’d need her work to be restored and made more widely accessible, and I think we’re still some way off from that happening.
I've not seen Heartbreak Kid, and was only able to see her other three films online, A New Leaf (on Netflix), Mickey and Nicky, Ishtar (on Mubi). It's crazy to think there's no Elaine May boxset in existence. Do you know if this is something that could happen or in the works?
It would be difficult, given the rights situations and the fact that Ishtar was released by Columbia, but one would hope that it could be worked out at some point down the line.
Currently A New Leaf has a fine UK blu-ray edition and Ishtar was released on Blu-ray in the US (but with no extras, which is insane given the history of that movie), while Mikey & Nicky has had a DVD release – which I think is out of print now – and The Heartbreak Kid has had no kind of release at all. I’d love to see a beautifully produced box set with contextualising extras and brand new restorations; there is so much to say about each one of these movies. If it happens, we’re willing to write the booklet copy!
Ishtar is my least favourite of her films, I know the film is a commentary on American foreign policy in the Middle East, but I found the way the Arabs are portrayed in this film problematic, like in almost every American film and TV show. On the Badlands Collective website the film is described as her "most underrated and misunderstood" film. Can you elaborate on why you think so?
Ishtar is a film that was damned by the pre-publicity - the stories of
on-set clashes, budget overruns, etc. led many to dismiss the film sight unseen. Seven years after the reaction to Heaven's Gate brought down a studio and marked the end of the New Hollywood era, with unbridled creative freedom for American directors, people were sensitive to stories of egotistical Hollywood excess and Ishtar seemed to fit the bill before people even saw it.
Indeed, the fact that many of the people who trashed it didn't even see it has become somewhat of a running joke with May and her collaborators. I’d acknowledge that it is May’s weakest film and that there are a number of recognisable flaws, but it’s still a very funny and unusual picture that is significantly better than its reputation suggests. The film has never really had a fair shake and now is the time to watch it with fresh eyes.
A New Leaf is such a well loved film by anyone that knows her work, and yet, to think she made a three hour version that was cut in half makes me think we're missing out on seeing her true vision of the film. Through your research, is there any indication of the complete cut stored somewhere?
One can only hope so, but as yet I haven’t seen any evidence that the deleted scenes still exist or that Paramount has any interest in finding and restoring it. I think the Blu-ray release of the film a couple of years ago would have been the perfect moment for this to happen, and given the fact that Elaine May is now 86 years old, it would be nice for this to happen while she’s still with us. May has said in the past that the deleted footage, notably a murder scene involving Walter Matthau and Jack Weston, was among the funniest material in the film. It’s certainly on my wishlist next to Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons!
I unfortunately (and tearfully) won’t be able to be in London for the screenings, and I hope that enthusiasm for Elaine May will grow and that cinemas in other cities will try to screen her films too.
Here’s the line up of films and schedule. If you are in London, don’t miss this very rare opportunity to see of all four films directed by Elaine May, and on 35mm which is an absolute treat in itself. All four films will be screened at ICA. You can book your tickets here.
A New Leaf (1971)
September 21 at 6.30pm
Elaine May starred in her directorial debut as the timid and socially inept heiress Henrietta Lowell. “She has to be vacuumed every time she eats!” Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) exclaims in disbelief, but she is the perfect target for this bankrupt ex-playboy, who has designs on marrying and murdering a rich woman to reclaim his status among the elite.
A New Leaf set the tone for May’s filmmaking career in a number of ways. It established the keen interest in relationships and betrayal that would remain integral to all of her films, and it brought her into conflict with the studio, which took the film away from her and drastically re-cut it. May’s original three-hour version, which reportedly contained two murders, is unlikely to ever see the light of day, but the film we have is a near-perfect black comedy, a stinging commentary on class, and a surprisingly affecting love story.
The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
September 22 at 6.30pm
Written by Neil Simon, based on a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman, The Heartbreak Kid is one of the great American romantic comedies. The story of a man (Charles Grodin) who falls in love with a woman (Cybill Shepherd) he meets while honeymooning in Florida with his new bride (Elaine May’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin), the set-up is pure screwball, but May executes it as a brilliantly excoriating black comedy.
Like Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance, it takes the tropes of the traditional romantic comedy and dismantles them one-by-one, twisting Thomas Jefferson’s American ideal of the pursuit of happiness into the selfish folly of a stupid, egotistical man. It’s a sharp, hilarious picture, which not only demonstrates May’s deft grasp of tone, but the remarkable breadth of her vision, as she betrays the influence of everything from classical Hollywood comedies to The Great Gatsby.
Mikey & Nicky (1976)
September 23 at 4.00pm
Mikey & Nicky is Elaine May’s darkest film, and her most pitiless examination of masculine behaviour. Peter Falk and John Cassavetes play the small-time gangsters on the run from the mob, whose lifetime of memories and resentments come to the fore during one long, panic-stricken night.
Developed through a long process of improvisation, with May often running three cameras simultaneously to capture every gesture, Mikey & Nicky transcends standard genre tropes and confounds audience expectations with its exhilarating, freewheeling style and the riveting intensity of the performances. Having been delivered months later than scheduled and wildly over budget, the film almost ended May’s filmmaking career, but it stands as arguably her most audacious and complex work, with the anticipated laughs gradually being stripped away to reveal the tragedy of a friendship that has been irrevocably broken.
September 23 at 6.30pm
Ishtar, Elaine May’s latest, and certainly most underrated and misunderstood film, is the story of two musicians, played by Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, who become unwitting pawns in a diplomatic crisis after agreeing to play a concert in Morocco. The film flopped on release, but its ongoing notoriety speaks more to a sexist industry’s discomfort with a maverick female auteur than it does to the film’s quality. “If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman today,” May quipped to Mike Nichols during a post-screening Q&A in 2006, encapsulating the absurdity of the film’s reputation.
Ishtar marks the culmination of May’s morbid interest in unchecked male egotism, as her gaze shifts from the pathetic vanities and neuroses of her protagonists to those of the establishment itself. It’s a terrific takedown of Reaganite foreign policy, sharp and incisive, but full of the kind of raucous silliness modern viewers will recognise in the films of Adam McKay (“I can’t believe these men may control the fate of the Middle East!”). In 2018, its time has finally come.