Some years back when Justin Souther and I were still working at Carmike, we were stuck there on New Year’s Eve. Now, you have to understand that after the money has been counted, deposited, and all that, you’re basically just babysitting the theater until the last movie ends. So our plan was to run a movie of our own choice in the one theater that was capable of DVD projection (and, yes, we always made sure that that theater would be empty first — the perks deciding what movie went where). The original plan was that we would watch The Hours (2002), but my wife intervened, saying it was too depressing for New Year’s Eve (not that she was watching it, mind you). Justin, however, took her advice and we ran Help! (which he’d never seen) instead. Reasonable enough, but somehow seeing the Beatles as they were — in their early and mid-20s — depressed the hell out of me. Not so, Mr. Souther, who decided that I had a marked tendency to drop random lines from the film into my everyday conversation. I daresay there’s something in that, but I can say no more.
Help! is, in many ways, the first truly self-aware comedy. It works on the assumption that the audience is in on its every joke, starting with its very premise and its deliberately unreal depiction of the Beatles. The story has it that an Indian death cult—headed by such decidedly non-Indians as Leo McKern as the high priest Clang and Eleanor Bron as his assistant Ahme, who is not what she seems (as she constantly tells us)—are after a sacrificial ring that has become stubbornly affixed to Ringo’s finger. Seems a fan—in actuality Ahme’s sacrifice-bound sister—sent him the oversized bauble in a letter. The entire plot hinges on Clang’s attempts to retrieve the ring and, later, his attempts to sacrifice Ringo. Complications arise in the form of a mad scientist, Foot (Victor Spinetti), who thinks he can—“Dare I say it?”—rule the world with such a ring. And then there’s his addled assistant, Algernon (Roy Kinnear in the first of eight Lester films), whose love of animals would, he thinks, make him better suited to a career in vivisection.
The Beatles are presented as a kind of cartoon version of themselves—all living together (pop stars are funny that way, as witness the Dave Clark Five in John Boorman’s Catch Us If You Can that same year) in a fantasticated series of knocked-together houses. They never seriously pretend to be doing anything other than playing the Beatles making a movie, the sole reason for which is to have fun—and poke fun at their own image and society. It’s this effortless sense of fun—mostly executed with spot-on deadpan timing—that pervades the whole movie, resulting in 85 minutes of pure enjoyment with the bonus of Beatles songs. It would really be rude to even contemplate asking for more, but actually there is more.
Lester is at the top of his form with the filmmaking. He throws every stylistic trick in the book up on the screen—and those that weren’t in the book, he made up. Nearly all of them work and seem as playfully fresh and alive today as they did in 1965, even though many of them have since become assimilated into our basic cinematic vocabulary. The difference with Lester’s approach is that it invites the audience to be a part of the process—again, it’s the sense of being in on the joke. There’s nothing intrinsically funny about seeing the words “A tiger” appear on the screen. There is something funny about poking fun at the literalness of things by suggesting that the viewer might need telling what the animal is. It’s a throwaway gag, but it’s one of a nonstop parade of such gags—so many in fact that they become the actual fabric of the film. More, Lester takes the rules he’d broken in A Hard Day’s Night a step further where the musical numbers were concerned, showing no concern whatever over traditional standards of how things should be photographed. It doesn’t look odd now, but the close-ups in “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” flew in the face of every rule of filmmaking at the time.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Help! Tuesday, Sept. 30, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.