Bigger than life

In praise of the overabundant films of Frank Tashlin
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Artists & Models

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How would you define an improbable Tilt-A-Whirl Technicolor or Vistavision or Cinemascope view of American virtue and vice? Jean-Luc Godard's term for it was Tashlinesque. Watching the feverish films in the Pacific Film Archive's short Frank Tashlin retrospective, we see an artist pushing the outermost limits of cinematic realism, gorging 1950s America on its desire for bigger, better, and faster.

The Tashlinesque land of excess encompasses Jayne Mansfield's breasts, Kool Aid-red convertibles, and bubblegum teenagers. If there is a milk bottle in a Tashlin film, it will cream when a pin-up walks by. Ten-gallon hats spontaneously ejaculate oil. "The room temperature is changing, if you catch my cruder meaning," Mansfield coos in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), and we do, over and over again. Tashlin's America is a nation of alcoholics and dupes, softheaded nincompoops and sexpot cynics. France had Jacques Tati, and we had — and have — Tashlin.

Just as it did with other stateside pulp visionaries, it took the French to recognize Tashlin's genius. "There is not a difference in degree between Hollywood or Bust [1956] and It Happened One Night [1934]... but a difference of kind," Godard wrote in a 1957 assessment for Cahiers du Cinéma. There's a touch of cruelty (and a trace of the director's cartoon roots) in Tashlin's preference for physically excessive actors like Mansfield and Jerry Lewis, though the way he uses these figures to channel the distorting nature of American gluttony and naïveté is brutally effective.

It's not just the bodies that are inflated. The frame itself seems to be stretched over the course of these films, with camera angles and props used to accentuate the horizontality of the widescreen image. Just as Preston Sturges outdid his era of talky screwballs with dialogue-mad farces, Tashlin amplified '50s Hollywood's taste for grandiosity and crudeness to a pointedly unmanageable extreme. His self-aware movies give a sharp sense of the studio system in its death throes.

As satire, Tashlin's send-ups of ad men and agents are as prescient as they are unsparing. A typical Tashlin alarm is sounded when Dean Martin's character in Artists & Models (1955) announces at the outset that he moved to New York to make money in order to study art. In Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Tony Randall's title character turns on the television to hear what the starlet Rita Marlowe (Mansfield) is saying to reporters on his front lawn — an apt commentary on the way technologies abstract reality and invade our privacy. The spin cycles continue to gain speed: the '90s were an especially prime slice of the Tashlinesque, what with a booming economy, celebrity sex tapes, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Cinematically speaking, Richard Kelly just tried his hand at Tashlinesque with Southland Tales (2006), though I can't help thinking the originator would have done better with the musical numbers.

Tashlin's burlesque is dexterous, but it doesn't hatch from any stable logic. Television is clearly the enemy, but the movies aren't much better. With every bathing beauty and each overripe burst of Technicolor, the director indulges and implicates our most blithering desires. (One feels like a child reaching out for a lollipop while watching Tashlin's films: when Godard famously quipped that there was no blood in his own 1965 Pierrot le fou but only red, he might have been quoting his American forebear.) If the plots nominally resolve themselves, the tone and visual style remain pitched between splendor and disgust.

"By exposing people to an endless stream of advertising, television taught them to take nothing at face value, to read everything ironically," Louis Menand recently wrote in the New Yorker. It was Tashlin who taught us to see this way.

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