A little Clouseau, a bit of Truffaut

The Oak St. Cinema presents a mixed bag of films by the French and French-impersonators

Gabriel Shapiro

The Oak Street Cinema loves you. They bring you tons of fantastic movies, they have that great old-cinema ambiance and they are right on campus so you can walk over and say “howdy.” And in case you needed any more proof, they are pulling out all the stops to show how deep their love is. They are holding two (that’s right, not just one, but two) mini-festivals just for you. Even your mom never got you anything that good, did she? Stupid cookies.

As the summer gets rolling and the haze of last semester lifts, you start looking for something to do that does not risk irreparable liver and/or brain damage. Movies should begin to look better than ever. If you’re enrolled in May term, which just completely sucks, you’ll need to blow off steam before the pressure makes you plotz. Either way, the megaplex, Hollywood fare might not be for you, and that is where your crush on the Oak Street is born. There are films full of comedy and films full of French people; either way, you are golden.

First of all, let’s talk funny. “Dumb and Dumberer” will not be funny, so why waste eight bucks? Many things are kind of funny: Monkeys, Canada and anything with the word “loaf” in it are only a few examples. Peter Sellers, on the other hand, is completely funny. Sellers was one of the world’s greatest comic actors, taking comedy beyond simple slapstick or mugging. His characters were brilliant creations, subtle when a given role required it, and gloriously over-the-top in others. Sellers could carry a whole movie on one good performance, but the movies Sellers chose were of a caliber all but absent from today’s incessant parade of tripe. Working with other geniuses such as Stanley Kubrick, Vittorio De Sica and Vladimir Nabokov gave Sellers’ talent a showcase, and he used it to deliver some of the most memorable performances in cinema.

First, the bad news: by the time this issue is printed, “Dr. Strangelove” and “Lolita” will have played. But take heart – those are the easiest Sellers movies to find, and should be found at any worthwhile video store. Although these two big hits are over, the remaining movies cut a broad swath through Sellers’ career.

“The Party” teams Sellers with Claudine Longet, who, although quite good, is perhaps more famous for killing her boyfriend, world champion skier Spider Sabich. In Hrundi V. Bakshi, Sellers takes a role that a lesser actor would make a mess of. Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler would have made this character the butt of a series of stereotype jokes. Sellers does something different, creating a lonely clutz whose status as a foreigner only underlines his isolation. The result is an incredibly funny movie. Sellers had to lobby for eight years to get Jerzy Kosinski’s novel “Being There” adapted for the big screen. The character Chance the Gardener is a simple man. His constant television watching, and the eventual accidental fame he stumbles into, set up one of the finest pieces of cultural critique in a movie, comic or otherwise.

Next there is Sellers’ iconic French detective, Inspector Clouseau, a character whose indelible mark can be seen in every silly buffoon-cum-hero or hapless accessory to a crime that followed. Sellers’ physical humor, some fantastic disguise costumes and impeccable delivery and style make this Sellers’ best-known character. The goofy French accent is funnier than any “yeeeah, bay-bee!” Austin Powers ever uttered, and the nude guitar scene, well, you’ll just have to see it. Be warned: they rarely let scenes this funny see the light of day anymore, and you might wet yourself.

Finally, Sellers shows even more of his great range of characters in De Sica’s “After the Fox,” in which he jumps to the other side of the law, portraying a talented thief. Neil Simon penned the script, and if you’re familiar with De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief,” this will be worth a look for a glimpse of another side of the great director.

In “The World of Henry Orient,” Sellers’ character provides the engine driving a narrative more about the other characters, two adolescent girls who stalk him. The movie offers an early look into issues that would later become sitcom cliches, divorce, inter-class friendships and other issues associated with the move toward taking young people and their issues more seriously.

Turning now to the second, concurrently running mini-fest, the Oak Street is running a series of

Truffaut Tuesdays, which brings one of the New Wave’s true heavies back to the big screen where he can be fully enjoyed. There is a quality to Francois Truffaut’s films that brings them closer to being truly personal than any of the big-budget films today, all wrapped up in business and dollars.

Truffaut, who repeatedly claimed that the cinema had “saved his life,” gave more to each film than he took. The films screened all focus on the character of Antoine Doinel. What more appropriate kickoff than to simply start at the beginning with Truffaut’s first and most popular film, “The 400 Blows”? This is the first appearance of Doinel, a semi-autobiographical scamp who would appear in five films between 1959 and 1979. Here he is just a boy of 14, misunderstood and written off to a life of crime.

Next on the Oak Street’s calendar is “Stolen Kisses.” Almost 10 years after “The 400 Blows,” this film finds Antoine working, trying to get romantic engagements to come together and having grown into a man. It also introduces Christine, who will also feature in the next film, “Bed and Board.” Only a couple of years have passed, and Antoine and Christine are married. Antoine tears himself between the happiness of family life and the temptation of what lies beyond. “Love on the Run” is the last of the Doinel films. It involves a lot of mental inventory by the characters, who have been played by the same people over the 20-year span of the saga.

Meet some new people – well, new characters, anyway – and get out to a great local independent cinema for some thought-provoking entertainment. It will at the very least save you from the standard summer movie dreck, amuse you more and make you think.

The World of Peter Sellers continues June 11-19 (except June 16-17). Truffaut’s “Antoine Doinel” series runs Tuesdays, June 10-July 1. Oak Street Cinema (612) 331-3134, www.oakstreetcinema.org

Gabriel Shapiro welcomes comments at [email protected]