Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Life Didn’t Imitate Art: Sullivan’s Travels

| by Justin Thomas |

When Chicago’s Music Box Theatre played a new 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia I jumped at the chance, took a vacation day, got lost on the way into the city and spent an hour trying to get around, and I kid you not, Lawrence Avenue while fretting about whether I’d reach the theatre on time. Lawrence in 70mm? That’s the Holy Grail and an experience any lover of the cinema must have at least once because Lawrence is too big to fit on even the largest television screen.

A funny thing happened when I finally got to the Music Box. I discovered Lawrence of Arabia is a riot; an honest-to-goodness funny movie with humor I had never, ever picked up on while watching it alone at home. The audience helped me. The audience thought it was funny and it made me pay just a little more attention to some of Lawrence’s responses, and many of them are gold, Jerry, gold. It was an unexpected and pleasant surprise.

Sullivan’s Travels doesn’t have the visuals of Lawrence (what movie does?) but I wish I’d seen it in the theater with an audience because it’s a comedy. Comedies from other eras – most notably slapstick – cause me more grief than anything else in movies because what registers as funny to me is so specific and so narrow in scope. What one person finds funny might not be the case for another person, which is why I’d campaign for the position of Pope long before attempting to sit down and write a comedy. No trainwreck is worse than watching a comedy that misses the mark, and the terror of missing the mark will keep me at a safe distance from the attempt.

But why want to see Sullivan’s Travels in a theater? Its humor would register with the audience and it would help serve as a guide for me in much the same way the audience helped with Lawrence. I’d be able to feed off it, get into the moment, be participatory and perhaps “get” Sullivan’s Travels. In the movie, Sullivan finally decides to give up on O Brother, Where Art Thou? while watching a Pluto cartoon, with an audience, where he doesn’t start laughing until the audience gets into it. In that sequence I found myself wishing for precisely what Sullivan was experiencing in the movie, but I wasn’t and it fell flat for me.

Laughter is contagious and, of all the genres, comedy benefits most by being seen in a theater with an audience. Contemporary or classic, it doesn’t matter. Get one or two groups of people really giggling and it’ll spread to another group or two and before long everyone is howling. Regardless of how sophisticated home video technology becomes there is no substitute for watching a comedy with scores of your best friends in the world even if they’re only your best friends for a couple hours.

I’ll give Sullivan’s Travels another chance once I can locate a place where it’s being screened because I know the laughs are there. I just need a little help finding them.

**this post was originally posted on**

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