Monday, May 2, 2022

Film Club Featurette: The Princess Bride (1987) 1h 38m

On Saturday, 7 May at 6:31pm, The Phnom Penh Film Club relishes its chance to share the simple joy of one of the simplest and most joyful films we’ve yet seen, Rob Reiner’s *The Princess Bride*, written by William Goldman and starring Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, André René Roussimoff, Fred Savage and Peter Falk. 

Movies were never intended to change the world. They weren’t supposed to awaken you to the outrages of post-modern cultural decay, they didn’t embolden you to tip your life over and shake it by the ankles, and if they kept coming up later in your outlook and your thoughts it was because something somewhere had gone horribly wrong. In the early days, the point of movies was pure escape: A top-of-the-craft cast set its egos aside to plow gamely through shaky concepts and shoestring budgets and hazardous d-i-y stunts, and no one involved ever took him- or herself seriously enough to forget that entertainment was supposed to be the bloody point of the thing. 

This is important for cinephiles like me to remember, especially when struggling to process the universal cachet of a film like The Princess Bride. Yes, it offers a fun evening, spent with a fun story, with a fun structure and a quotable script and the perfect director and cast. But ask me on the sidewalk why this movie is such an abiding worldwide favourite and, to be perfectly honest, I’d have to mostly look at my shoes and mumble. 

Just why, exactly, is “Never bet against a Sicilian when death is on the table” a more memorable line than, say, “...Well, yeah, plus half of all the graft I take in!” [1] ? What is it about the line, “You keep saying this word; I do not think it means what you think it means” which elevates it so completely above, “There’s a foot in your way?!? Well why don’t you just eat it!!!” [2] ? How exactly do we all come to know “My name is Inigo Montoya...” when almost nobody knows, “You ain’t goin’ anywhere until you tell me who shot this guy Rembrandt!” [3] ? I’m genuinely not sure. Truth is, until we scheduled this picture for our club, I wasn’t sure that I even had a theory.  

Let’s be clear: I love this movie. I love it for its basic and unassuming innocence, for its delicate balance of alternating subplots and perfectly unfussy dénouements, for its writing, for its directions, for its cast. For its effervescent joie de vivre. I love it because it knows exactly what it wants to be and how seriously it doesn’t need to take itself if it wants to work. None of which is good enough reason for a picture to amass the sort of cross-cultural iconography as this one has.  

No, it seems to me that in the counter-examples of some other pictures that could have “been” the Princess Bride [1-3], some magic element of an evocative connection to early cinema just isn’t quite as immediate. A struggling used car lot somewhere on the muddy outskirts of Phoenix is a great platform for a story, but the resulting story—even at its funniest—won’t work at all unless there are some real and possibly even ugly stakes.  A murder mystery on a trans-continental train will find plenty of opportunities for laughs (on the train and off, come to that), but to do that story well in the modern era, the resulting movie will require budgets and soundtracks and a self-seriousness that had all been chosen to please the accountants as much as the theater-goers. Meanwhile Joseph Bologna is a fine actor, yes, but nobody is ever going to mistake him for a maestro performer who consciously elected to put his well-earned ego aside in order to play along with a silly romp and just see folks enjoy themselves. 

The Princess Bride, by contrast, is a deft, cagey, impeccably-cast yet deliberately un-serious, great big popcorn box of stakes-free escapist nothing. Indeed it is as close to literally nothing as a person can get out of a movie crew and a completion bond without accidentally making Koyaanisqatsi In Tights instead. 

The story (such as it is) is easily told and just as easily forgotten. A doddery grandfather reads a tale of adventure to his sick and jaded grandson, while the tale itself unfolds before our eyes into a sort of Narnia-by-Mel-Brooks—complete with a beautiful princess, a dashing hero-boyfriend, a duplicitous count, and enough needless b-story players to keep us continually guessing about which one will come along next to disgrace himself for our amusement. Eminently quotable lines compete for screen-time with costumed sight-gags and touching chemistries. Music swells and dips and never makes the vaguest real impression. Nothing matters, nothing happens, nothing crystallizes in the minds of any of the main characters, and when it’s over nothing’s changed. 

That, friends, **that** is why we love this film so much. It demands to be watched; it demands to be loved; it demands to be quoted and it demands to be remembered as one of the great movie-watching experiences of our often troubled and complicated lives. And all without striving for the first, tiniest shred of importance or cultural cachet. Its cultural cachet is that it hasn’t any. Its claim to our hearts is that it started from inside them. It is known and loved by everyone because it is simply ours, and always has been.    

I hope everyone will make a very special effort to attend this, perhaps the most widely beloved movie we’ve yet screened, Saturday 7 May at 6:31. To miss it would be inconceivable.   


[1] *Used Cars* (1980) directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Kurt Russell, Jack Warden and Deborah Harmon

[2] *The Big Bus* (1976) directed by James Frawley and starring Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing and John Beck

[3] *Silver Streak* (1977) directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Patrick McGoohan, Clifton James, Ned Beatty and Jill Clayburgh  

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