The Archivist XXXIV: We WILLIAMS You A Merry Christmas

by Ryan Lewellen

The Archivist

Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand & Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at some of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

On August 11, 2014, the world lost one of its most versatile performers. Robin Williams’ shocking death changed the way many thought of him and his talents, and undeniably altered how many of his darker films are perceived. He left behind a legacy of tremendous cinematic ups and downs, and The Warner Archives has preserved a couple of what many would categorize as the latter. I must say, however, this installment of The Archivist is among the few fully recommendable double features for me. The World According To Garp is a wonderfully strange film which deserves a larger audience, one I’m hoping this recent Blu-ray release will provide. Death To Smoochy, a movie I deeply loved as a pre-teen, surprisingly holds up when viewed as an almost-adult-person. Both films are hilarious, ahead of their time, and uniquely life affirming.

In 1982, director George Roy Hill tried his hand at another challenging novel adaptation, having previously succeeded with The Slaughterhouse Five. John Irving’s bizarre book, if the film is any indication, practically begs for a cinematic interpretation, with its penchant for dream-like imagery and sumptuous settings. It tells the story of self-willed Jenny Fields (Glenn Close), who has possibly raped a dying sergeant in WWII because she wanted a child, but not a husband. So, T.S. Garp (Robin Williams), named for his singularly illegitimate father, is born. He has a happy childhood, obsessing over the father he never met, and chasing girls. He transitions into a happy teen-hood, wrestling constantly, and still chasing girls, until he meets the love of his life. His love, unrequited, inspires him to become a writer, a role for which he happens to be naturally suited. He becomes one of the greatest fiction writers of his era, but his fame and fortune never quite outgrows the shadow of his mother’s feminist manifesto. Her lengthy essay spawns a cult-like devotion to her and her ideals, and for a time, Garp resents her for it. Life goes on, but not without some odd and tragic difficulties.

I would call Garp a challenging film if it weren’t so damn entertaining. It’s so funny, and the characters are so wonderful, one can’t help but stay glued to it in spite of how seemingly meaningless it feels at times. This is the kind of movie which aspires to get at universal truths of the human condition in just over two hours, and if it’s a failure, it’s a glorious one. Williams, Close, Mary Beth Hurt, and John Lithgow (who lovingly plays a transgendered woman) have rarely given finer performances. They carry us through the complicated structure and light plot, giving us hope the resolution will deliver a message. However, so much of the film hinges on what it has to say about the intersection of life and fiction and storytelling, and also on symbolism, especially in the anomalous character of Poo. She is sociopathic, or perhaps mentally impaired, but every time she shows up, she briefly torments Garp with sadism. Thanks to her, and plenty of other sad supporting characters, the film is as brutally tragic as it is uplifting. In other words, love it or not, it’s a film you have to see just for the sake of weighing-in on its controversy. It also foresees the true-to-the-future backlash of evil men to the strongest-ever rise of feminism.

Maybe the post-911 world wasn’t ready to take it seriously, maybe it arrived too late in Danny DeVito’s fading career as a director, maybe it was purely bad timing, but nobody was ready for Death To Smoochy in 2002. Williams plays Rainbow Randolph, a disgraced children’s entertainer busted for taking bribes. He is quickly replaced by Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton/Smoochy The Rhino), a man whose new executives (Jon Stewart and Catherine Keener) are praying is the genuine article: an entertainer who legitimately cares about children and running a clean, quality show. Mopes’ plans run afoul of a dangerous children’s “charity” run mafia-style by Harvey Fierstien and Danny DeVito, however, and soon his life and reputation are threatened both by The Parade Of Hope, and Rainbow Randolph.

The movie is twisted and dark and a rather fabulous indictment of the seedy underbelly we all know exists in children’s industries, but would love to ignore. Plenty of entertainers and charities have been caught or alleged for an abundance of unsavory behavior, but perhaps it wasn’t so well publicized in the previous decade. Today, we know every major philanthropic organization has alterior motives behind its charitable front. There are many dirty fingers in many humanitarian pies in Smoochy, and the plot is impressively complex, yielding plenty of damn crude and uncomfortable situations. It might be bleak at times, but the outcome of the cruelty is the triumph of a character who is truly incorruptible, even when pushed to his absolute brink. The movie cleverly insinuates Mopes suffers from a crippling anger problem, and even despite that one major vice, he always finds a way to do the right thing.

Neither film is a masterwork (flaws are admittedly abundant), but each succeeds at showcasing Williams’ many talents, if nothing else. Gift-giving holidays are oncoming, and this year, it is recommended you give the immortal gift of Robin Willliams.

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