915 King of Jazz

Discuss DVDs and Blu-rays released by Criterion and the films on them. If it's got a spine number, it's in here. Threads may contain spoilers.
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swo17
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915 King of Jazz

#1 Post by swo17 » Fri Dec 15, 2017 5:23 pm

King of Jazz

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Made during the early years of the movie musical, this exuberant revue was one of the most extravagant, eclectic, and technically ambitious Hollywood productions of its day. Starring the bandleader Paul Whiteman, then widely celebrated as the King of Jazz, the film drew from Broadway variety shows of the time to present a spectacular array of sketches, performances by such acts as the Rhythm Boys (featuring a young Bing Crosby), and orchestral numbers overseen by Whiteman himself (including a larger-than-life rendition of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue")—all lavishly staged by veteran theater director John Murray Anderson and beautifully shot in early Technicolor. Long available only in incomplete form, King of Jazz appears here newly restored to its original glory, offering a fascinating snapshot of the way mainstream American popular culture viewed itself at the dawn of the 1930s.

SPECIAL FEATURES

• New 4K digital restoration by Universal Pictures, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
• New audio commentary featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, music and cultural critic Gene Seymour, and musician and bandleader Vince Giordano
• New introduction by Giddins
• New interview with musician and pianist Michael Feinstein
• Four new video essays by authors and archivists James Layton and David Pierce on the development and making of King of Jazz
• Deleted scenes and alternate opening-title sequence
All Americans, a 1929 short film featuring a version of the "Melting Pot" number that was restaged for the finale of King of Jazz
I Know Everybody and Everybody's Racket, a 1933 short film featuring Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra
• Two Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons from 1930, featuring music and animation from King of Jazz

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#2 Post by DarkImbecile » Fri Dec 15, 2017 5:32 pm

I'm not familiar with this (or much of the rest of the genre), but the package here sounds extremely enticing.

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#3 Post by kcota17 » Fri Dec 15, 2017 5:35 pm

Wow this sounds fantastic. Looks like another packed Lonesome-style release which was a great discovery, and this looks like it’ll be one too.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#4 Post by matrixschmatrix » Fri Dec 15, 2017 5:41 pm

I've seen this- it showed at the Harvard Film Archive as part of a Busby Berkeley thing- and, uh. It really makes you appreciate the artistry of the Berkeley films. It's not awful, but apart from a couple of memorable numbers (Rhapsody in Blue in particular, and a weird contortionist dance act) it's pretty dull, with a lot of space filled by unimaginatively staged and uninvolving stuff, with an overall conceit that celebrates a man who seems justly forgotten by history.

I mean, the package looks interesting enough that I'll still probably buy it, but don't expect a miracle like Lonesome.
Last edited by matrixschmatrix on Sat Dec 16, 2017 12:34 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#5 Post by Timec » Fri Dec 15, 2017 8:26 pm

Yeah, I saw this at the AFI Silver last year and found it... Not great. It's clunky and inert, and it features the static filmmaking that afflicts a lot of early sound pictures. It feels more like a time capsule than a fully realized film - and the revue format itself doesn't help matters. The nadir of the film is the interminable Melting Pot sequence - a literalization of the concept of the "American melting pot" that didn't ever need to be.

With that said, there's a lot of talent on display here, some of the brief comedic skits were laugh-out-loud funny, and it was fun to catch a glimpse of some of the "before they were famous" stars. And in spite of thinking it's a not-very-good film, I enjoyed watching it with a large audience.

This is a packed release, and the restoration itself is gorgeous - so I'll still be tempted to buy it. I'm especially interested in the deleted features - the comedic skits were the highlight of the film for me, and according to Layton and Pierce (who introduced the screening), the routines were interchangeable and different in different versions. Apparently, the 1980s VHS cut had the most ribald sequences.

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#6 Post by matrixschmatrix » Fri Dec 15, 2017 9:05 pm

The melting pot sequence reminded me of nothing so much of the children of the word but from the MST3k movie Santa Claus, if you played it three times running. There's some joy to be gotten by the incredibly fine gradations of Western Euro white people that go into the pot, though.

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#7 Post by whaleallright » Sat Dec 16, 2017 1:07 am

This might be damning with faint praise, but I've always had a fondness for the Christmasy hues of two-strip Technicolor, and this will be one of very few two-strip features that's benefited from a thorough restoration and a HD presentation.

BTW, the folks who painstakingly brought this film back to life, so to speak, put together an impressive coffee-table book about it. This is the rare Criterion release that seems like one for the serious cinema-history nerds, and for that reason alone, I applaud it.

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#8 Post by Saturnome » Sat Dec 16, 2017 3:56 am

How the hell Paul Whiteman dared to carry that "king of jazz" title? Did Paul Mauriat and Franck Pourcel called themselves kings of Rock N Roll? The man was popular, made things like the first electric microphone recording I believe, but I don't think there's much of interest about him. I've heard of the film a few years ago because the first animated cartoon in technicolor is included in it, but it seemed a bit too dull for viewing.

But... I'd love to own a two-strip technicolor film on Blu-ray... I... I think I want it anyway...

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#9 Post by Brianruns10 » Sat Dec 16, 2017 11:06 am

I totally get the reservations many of you feel about this title. It is a fairly creaky film, an artifact of a transitional period when the twin technologies of sound and color were emerging, and hollywood didn't quite know what to make of it, resulting in really stagey, static revue type films that were high on production value and low on story.

And the racial politics are pretty bothersome what with the near total whitewashing of the contribution of blacks to Jazz in favor of the title of the King of Jazz bestowed to the aptly named Paul Whiteman. As a film...it's not very good.

But where I feel it ABSOLUTELY belongs in the collection is its historic value as a transitional film. I've long felt the Collection really had a blind spot in terms of examining the crucial years 1928-1931 when sound and color really began to be perfected. The King of Jazz is an ideal representative because of the presence of high quality elements (most of the early color films - On With the Show, Gold Diggers of Broadway are lost or only survive as B/W dupes), and because of its complex sound track, one of the first that aspires to be more than the proverbial talking dog to instead use the technology of sound to capture the music that defined the 20s and 30s.

Moreover, its problematic approach to the racial history and origins of jazz represents an important part of the historiography of music and jazz, showing who was elevated and who was ignored, while also showcasing some very important figures in the genre. And for all the (rightful) criticism made of Paul Whiteman, he WAS an important figure in how he made jazz popular in the mainstream, even if his claim to be the King of Jazz is rather absurd.

The King of Jazz is one of the best restorations of its kind, and a landmark in the development of sound and color technology, sounding and looking gorgeous and rich and as a historical document, I believe it has found a rightful place with the Collection.

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#10 Post by Gregory » Sat Dec 16, 2017 1:07 pm

Brianruns10 wrote:the near total whitewashing of the contribution of blacks to Jazz in favor of the title of the King of Jazz bestowed to the aptly named Paul Whiteman. As a film...it's not very good.
If there was ever a total whitewashing of anything, I think this film deserves to be unequivocally in that category. The hubris of it is astonishing: the way it makes such a big showy point about how "America is a melting-pot of music, where the melodies of all nations are fused into one great new rhythm," while not permitting a single black man or woman to be glimpsed anywhere in the film. And the film doesn't even manage to present its major Gershwin centerpiece without butchering it in compositional terms
.
And I love a good restoration of a creaky early Technicolor film as much as the next person, but it's almost comical to think of how no one involved in this film, certainly not its green director or Gershwin, had any sensible idea of how to visualize "Rhapsody in Blue" for the film. Isn't the enjoyment of the format per se fairly ruined when what's recorded on it is a pretentious dog's breakfast of a revue?

I'm fascinated by this film because of the sheer number of misjudgments that went into it and all the bizarre facts of its production and how it came to be such a notorious flop, and it'll be interesting to see just how much of that is acknowledged in Criterion's presentation. I expect that Gary Giddins and Gene Seymour will acknowledge the obvious, that Whiteman was the King of Jazz in name only, who had little if any idea what actual jazz musicians of the 1920s were doing creatively. Yet I'd be very surprised if criticisms of the film in the supplements don't turn out to be much more gentle than harsh, as the archivists who restored it seem to be very invested (in every sense) in the narrative that this movie is an Important Masterpiece of film's transition to sound and want to emphasize that at the expense of all else (judging from that coffee table book at least).

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#11 Post by Lemmy Caution » Sat Dec 16, 2017 1:52 pm

Saturnome wrote:How the hell Paul Whiteman dared to carry that "king of jazz" title? ... The man was popular, made things like the first electric microphone recording I believe, but I don't think there's much of interest about him.
Well, Whiteman got in early first recording in 1920, was prolific, toured relentlessly, had over 2 dozen #1 hits in the '20's. He was on radio nationwide, Broadway frequently, and was the best known jazz/dance orchestra leader in the time known as the Jazz Age. Most Americans who heard "jazz" in the 20's heard Whiteman rather than the black bands. Sure a good deal of that is due to the institutional effects of racism and segregation.

His rather white approach to jazz, blending it with classical music and trying to make it respectable and limiting improvisation is one pathway that the music could have taken, but didn't. In that way, Whiteman is a rather interesting figure. As far as significance or relevance today, in 1924 Whiteman commissioned Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and his orchestra premiered it with Gershwin at the piano. Whiteman also hired the best white jazz musicians of the 20's and helped them reach greater prominence -- Bix, Trumbauer, Teagarden, Lang, Venuti. Helped launch Bing Crosby's career, had Fletcher Henderson arrange for him, etc.
These days folks interested in early jazz tend to listen to Whiteman or Jean Goldkette primarily to hear some Bix and other top white jazz musicians of the day.

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#12 Post by 371229 » Sun Dec 17, 2017 3:38 pm

Still... it's hard to know where Whiteman would fare today (in the jazz pantheon) if racism was not a huge factor back in the 20s and 30s... and black musicians had not been shut out of popular success.

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#13 Post by danieltiger » Sun Dec 17, 2017 4:49 pm

It's a bit like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Is it true that their success had a lot to do with the fact that they were European-American, and not African-American? Absolutely. Were they also one of the better jazz bands of that era? Absolutely.

It's entirely possible to acknowledge the first point, and also that their leader Nick LaRocca was a fairly odious racist, while also acknowledging the later.

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#14 Post by Lemmy Caution » Sun Dec 17, 2017 8:24 pm

Putting race to the side and turning to literature, Sinclair Lewis was the most celebrated American novelist of the 1920's, with quite a run of successes:
1920: Main Street
1922: Babbitt
1925: Arrowsmith
1927: Elmer Gantry
1929: Dodsworth
Culminating in the 1930 Nobel Prize for Lit.

But for the past half century or more, we view the 1920's as the time of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner.
Lewis wrote social and political critiques of his age, but his prose often consists of awkwardly constructed sentences, while the three we praise had much more elegant and modern styles.
Times and tastes change.
While they both achieved unparalleled popularity in their time, Jazz diverged much greater from Whiteman than Literature did from Lewis.

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#15 Post by domino harvey » Sun Dec 17, 2017 8:38 pm

Lewis wrote social and political critiques of his age, but his prose often consists of awkwardly constructed sentences, while the three we praise had much more elegant and modern styles.
Utter nonsense

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#16 Post by Lemmy Caution » Mon Dec 18, 2017 1:04 am

I know Lewis is a favorite of yours, and partly on your rec I'm 3/4 of the way through Kingsblood Royal, and find myself constantly editing down and streamlining his sentences. It's amazing that someone with his clunky prose style won the Nobel Prize. In the book thread you asked why Lewis hasn't seen a revival, and the simple answer is his writing style with its bloated awkward, overlong sentences, filled with little asides, sort of like this one that meanders and isn't necessary, but exists nonetheless, even if sensibly it shouldn't, but you know how it goes with asides and writing styles. Actually that flows better than Lewis' clunky sentences, but I have a cold and my sense of awkward rhythm is off. Will gladly open the book at random and quote a terrible sentence in the book thread if you wish to continue this.

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#17 Post by matrixschmatrix » Mon Dec 18, 2017 11:27 am

Is there any part of that critique that couldn't be said of Faulkner

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#18 Post by knives » Mon Dec 18, 2017 12:59 pm

This thread is a fish.

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#19 Post by L.A. » Wed Feb 21, 2018 2:03 pm


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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#20 Post by domino harvey » Wed Feb 21, 2018 2:21 pm

This bump just made me mad about the Sinclair Lewis diss all over again. Man, if you can't see how the way Lewis constructs his sentences is part of his artistry, I don't know what to tell you. Go back to boring Hemingway proto-tweets, I guess

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#21 Post by Minkin » Sun Mar 25, 2018 10:11 pm


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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#22 Post by bearcuborg » Mon Mar 26, 2018 8:37 am

I always found it amazing that you didn’t see people sweat- it was reported to be 140 degrees on the set to film in color, they said the veneer on the violins melted!

I’ve seen it in Bologna in 2016 I think. The greatest number is Happy Feet with Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys. Also you see Joe Venuti play the violin. Lots of outrageous ensembles.

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#23 Post by CSM126 » Mon Mar 26, 2018 6:08 pm

Minkin wrote:King of Revues
Image

Ooh, sorry. We were looking for “King of Bassoon”. King of Bassoon. Alright, we’ll take a break and then Minkin goes first in Double Jeopardy!.

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#24 Post by Brianruns10 » Tue Mar 27, 2018 12:18 pm

bearcuborg wrote:I always found it amazing that you didn’t see people sweat- it was reported to be 140 degrees on the set to film in color, they said the veneer on the violins melted!

I’ve seen it in Bologna in 2016 I think. The greatest number is Happy Feet with Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys. Also you see Joe Venuti play the violin. Lots of outrageous ensembles.
I suspect makeup helped. You can see it used pretty heavily in "King of Jazz," and Max Factor soon developed a special line of makeups just for Technicolor.

But your point is well made, and if you look closely you can spot proof of the heat of the lighting in other films in Technicolor. "Kid MIllions" had an technicolor sequence set in an ice cream factory, and most of the ice cream used is fake, but when you do see real ice cream in kid's dishes, it's already melted to a puddle.

Also, if you watch "The Red Shoes," look carefully at the breakfast table as Lermontov dines when meeting Craster for the first time. The flowers in the vase and horribly wilted and sagging from the lights.

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Re: 915 King of Jazz

#25 Post by Revelator » Fri May 18, 2018 8:13 pm

I became interested in this film while reading about another early musical, Dixiana (1930), in A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film by Richard Barrios. This superb book is likely the definitive one on the subject, and, as Barrios makes clear, many early musicals simply weren't very good. King of Jazz was an exception:

"As with the other isolated Universal films of high quality, it reflects its origins only in its director's ability to cut through the studio's workaday tradition to create something special...the effect of the resulting work is that of the most elaborate stage spectacle filtered through a burgeoning cinematic intuition. With no one to tell Anderson that such-and-such could not be done, his staging and design and use of color and effects resemble those of no other film musical before or since. King of Jazz, then, is an arresting hybrid embracing many of the best qualities of early-1930 stage and cinema, including good songs by a variety of composers and striking art direction by Herman Rosse that won an Academy Award. King of Jazz is in its way a glorious, unrepeatable stunt."

After reading this I was quick to attend a theatrical screening of the restored print. I think Barrios was right, whereas some of the reactions on this thread strike me as wide of the mark. I'm not a musical buff, I'm not especially charitable toward early talkies, and I have little interest in music from this era, but I never found this film dull. And having suffered through stuff like Dixiana, which really is boring and creaky, I believe it's wrongheaded to call King of Jazz "static" or "unimaginatively staged."

John Murray Anderson gave an interview to the New York Times in 1930 that clarifies Barrios's praise and why Criterion thought the film worthwhile:

"We would employ everything that most producers were afraid to use and everything I had ever imagined might do in a photoplay. I called our photographer, Jerry Ash, and asked him to make up a list of all the trick photography he had ever hoped to do in his life....He came to us with a bag of tricks, most of which we found feasible and used in the picture. We then employed colored lights, where Technicolor had only used the regulation white arcs, to illuminate our production. The result was the addition of color subtleties that a public may possibly not appreciate, but that nevertheless add considerably to the quality of tinted photography…We tried to establish a new system whereby our photography danced to the rhythm of the music. Where a three-quarter bar of music was being sung we allowed it the full swing and at its conclusion jumped into another sequence with a similar beat...The old method of cutting only showed the lack of imagination on the part of the director."

All of these innovations are clear and present: the (mostly in-camera) trick photography; the ravishing colored lighting, which gives the film an aesthetic richness that turns the limitations of two-color Technicolor into an ethereal strength; and noticeably rhythmic editing. Though Anderson didn't utilize a moving camera the way Berkeley did, he creates rhythm from how the distance between the performers and the camera is negotiated through cutting (as the commentators on the Blu-Ray note).

Anderson made his name with stage revues, so King of Jazz is an incredible grab-bag containing the first technicolor cartoon, the world's largest bridal veil, paintings that come to life, an entire jazz orchestra emerging from a valise, a parody of 1890s parlor music, anatomy-defying dancing, magnificent sets as gargantuan as they're airy, blackout gags obsessed with adultery, and a host of great musicians like Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Frankie Trumbauer, and Wilbur Hall, whose presence testifies to Whiteman's eye for talent.

In 1930 "jazz" was still a catchall term for modern popular music, and King of Jazz is best looked on as a panorama of American pop, poised between the soon-to-be-epochal swing of a primordial Bing Crosby to the backwards-looking but still impressive operetta stylings of John Boles. “Rhapsody in Blue" is not presented complete, for obvious reasons of time, but its staging is brash and swank to the point of over-ripeness; like the best parts of the film it has a dreamlike quality.

As for the deplorable absence of African American performers, my disappointment is reserved more for the system than the individuals trapped in it. Paul Whiteman had earlier tried integrating his band but was stymied by his management, and in 1930 no Hollywood studio would have allowed a truly integrated musical (Dixiana, also from that year, showcased Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in one isolated scene, self-contained so it could be cut when the film played in the South). Yet blackness haunts King of Jazz at its edges, starting with the Africans in the opening cartoon, which treats Whiteman’s jazz crown as a joke, and continuing in the film’s twice-made insistence that jazz began in "darkest" Africa. The film insists on sourcing "Rhapsody in Blue" to the African "voodoo" roots of jazz, and prefaces it by giving us the film's most startling performance, Jacques Cartier encased in black lacquer and dancing on an oversize drum with a directness, force, and eroticism that burns a hole in the film. And then there is young African American girl Whiteman holds up to the audience in “A Bench in the Park"--as the commentators astutely postulate, this might have been Whiteman's way of working into the film a black presence that couldn't be censored.

The mammoth “Melting Pot” pot finale shows various European nations fusing together to form American music and is based on a non-jazz stage show Anderson had devised a few years earlier (a film recording is included as a Blu-Ray extra). Its purpose seems to be to deploy European national stereotypes to showcase classic national songs. In that light, it's not surprising African Americans are unrepresented: The first thing slaves were deprived of after their freedom was any sense of regional or national belonging--even today most Americans cannot make distinctions between the musical traditions of Nigeria versus, say, Senegal. Nor could an audience of 1930 be relied on to recognize cultural distinctions between African regions or nations. No Hollywood film of 1930 was capable of satisfyingly addressing the racial problems at the heart of the country's music, and it’s tantalizing to imagine what John Murray Anderson and his collaborators might have done in a later decade, when Anderson's later revues featured Harry Belafonte and Eartha Kitt.

Despite King of Jazz's lackluster domestic performance Anderson was kept on contract at Universal, but none of the projects he proposed--adaptations of the play Berkeley Square, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, and a half cartoon, half live action version of Alice in Wonderland--met with the approval of both Laemmle Senior and Junior. The latter was receptive to the idea of "a rip-roaring satire on Hollywood itself," but after Anderson furnished a script the elder Laemmle said "he would never make a picture which held up to ridicule an industry of which he was very proud." A year later he paid a fortune for the rights to the the Kaufman-Hart satire Once in a Lifetime. By then Anderson had gone back to the theater.

The Criterion Blu-Ray looks every bit as good on my TV as the restoration did in theaters. Gary Giddins provides an introduction that aptly sets the film in context and tracks the modern fall and current rise in Whiteman's reputation. The commentary--from Giddins, Gene Seymour, and Vince Giordano--is very strong on musical history and the individual musicians. But it contains a couple of mistakes that could have been avoided by a re-reading of James Layton and David Pierce's King of Jazz book. Fortunately that duo provides four excellent visual essays (actually three, since one is mostly just a photo slideshow) that distill the most important parts of their tome. They're the most informative supplements on the disc. The most enjoyable ones are the two Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons--"Africa" (which reuses animation from KOJ) and "My Pal Paul" (guest-starring a slightly homicidal Whiteman). In the early 1930s the Oswald cartoons were produced by Walter Lantz, after he'd deposed the man who swindled Disney out of the character, and directed by Bill Nolan, one of the great animation pioneers. Nolan was responsible for developing "rubber hose" animation and for designing Felix the Cat's modern form. At Lantz's studio Nolan's boozy, surreal humor, with its specialties in floating movement and bodily distortion, had its last hurrah.

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