Truth at 24 frames per second

By Steve Sedlak

In the past few years, a genre of American cinema has made an astounding comeback: the gross-out comedy. Gross-out comedies are pegged as beginning with the release of “Animal House” in the 1970s, but they’ve gone in and out of fashion for the past four decades. Recently, however, there seem to be quite a few of these films appearing in American cineplexes, mostly by the writer/producer/director Judd Apatow. Apatow has been involved in the production of films like “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and “Pineapple Express,” all of which appeared in the 2007 to 2008 movie season. Some of these movies have been more on the gross-out side of things, while some adhere more strictly to the romantic comedy camp’s rulebook.But what sticks out to me the most is how glossy some of these productions are. They are gross-out comedies marketed as chic, fresh films for progressive youth audiences. In a lot of ways they remind me of director Ernst Lubitsch’s sex comedies of the 1920s and 30s. While a movie like “The Marriage Circle” would probably seem obnoxiously tame to a modern audience, I can imagine that it was pretty scandalous to the folks watching it back in 1924.

But Lubitsch made scandalous films with class and elegance. These were highbrow sex comedies that, in some ways, justified their questionable content with their sophistication. The production code enforced in the mid-1930s ended Lubitsch’s output of such films, but the similarities between the Lubitsch’s and Apatow’s traditions are astounding, despite the decades between the directors’ careers. Times have changed, but marketing never does, I guess.

So while my knee-jerk reaction to some of these films at first was to criticize their idiocy, who knows where they will lead in the long run? While I thought “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was a boring story, clearly marketed as being a mildly sophisticated and hip film for a mindless youth target audience, the use of clever editing to cover up the genitals of a certain actor (á la the nude scene with Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate”) amused me. Walking out of the theater as I listened to criticisms from the audience that the male protagonist was “too weak and whiny” also made me smile a little. Perhaps this was an intentional decision on the part of the director to foreground the hegemonic presence of the know-it-all, stoic male protagonist in American cinema that still haunts us to this day.

In any case, I think I’d like to end this week’s column with a little piece of cocktail party trivia. Ernst Lubitsch directed the film “The Shop Around the Corner” in 1940. The plot is simple: a man (James Stewart) and a woman (Margaret Sullavan) don’t get along in “real life,” but the two end up falling in love via pen-pal correspondence. Sound familiar? I’ll give you a hint. It’s a film from 1998 and it has to do with a certain popular Internet service provider at the time.

If you dig deep enough, it’s hard not to believe in that whole everything-is-linked stoicism stuff.