Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 29, 2015

I love Laurel & Hardy. I should note that a good number of their precious film productions feature marital relations that are not, shall we say, ideal. In fact, with a few quite pretty exceptions—see Stan, ensconced, at the conclusion of Sons of the Desert—marital prospects in Stan & Ollie films tend to be positively (August) Strindbergian. They never quite articulate it completely, or push it quite all the way, but these dire unions really do add up to some kind of Dance of Death.

Should I still be loving Laurel & Hardy movies? Well yes, thanks. This situation can, when poorly or carelessly rendered, descend to dumbest stereotype. But when it’s sharp, and we’re sensitive to the grain-of-salt or tongue-in-cheek, these monstrous marriages can be so archetypically and architecturally bracing. As in deep patterns of human interaction, and sturdily reliable narrative/comic structure.

Beyond that, they can be so funny! It’s true that just because inappropriate jokes are funny doesn’t mean that they’re not inappropriate. But on the other hand, comedy that’s always being polite just isn’t doing comedy’s job. Our reading, our film viewing takes place within a whole broader spectrum of communication. And we still have our wits about us; there’s no harm at all in this kind of thing, it seems to me. And there’s so much benefit.

Helpmates enjoins the battle by keeping the wives—Ollie’s, this time—all the way out of the frame. This is an effective, a powerful structuring absence.

Actually, let me leave all that alone now. It’s there, and interesting, and you can think about it if you want. More important is the fact that Helpmates is about the most violent movie I can think of, about the most violent movie ever made. It’s not so much enmity between man and man, and it’s certainly not the evil that men do. Rather, this is a tale of malicious materiality, of gravity unto entropy, a deep to the point of definitive playing out of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. It really has to be seen to be believed. And then you probably won’t believe it. There’s a fatefulness in the way that all of these seemingly innocent domestic objects loom over and threaten these poor benighted souls. Has Fritz Lang ever dramatized this notion more threateningly, more terrifyingly? And yet—craft consoles, and mitigates what might otherwise be pessimistic to the point of nihilism—can you possibly render disaster more brightly than this?

There’s a compound gag with an object in motion, and a window, and another window, and another window after that. Fatality! Or, and, such joyful brightness. Maybe there’s a domestic connection in this after all. That’s it! We watch these with our kids, as should you. Step back a bit, and as with Chekhov (1900), these sorrows might all be bathed in a perfect mercy.