The opening salvo from one of America’s greatest living filmmakers is not only an unconventionally-told comical farce, but also a salute to his country’s cinematic heritage. Mark Fraser takes a look at an experimental movie that, while not entirely successful, contains undeniable historical value.
At the start of Brian De Palma’s partly directed-debut feature The Wedding Party (1969), the indecisive groom Charlie (Charles Pfluger) – probably against his better judgement – has dutifully heeded the advice of a marriage guide called The Compleat Bridegroom and taken one of the final pre-marital steps towards a life of domestic bliss.
“It is customary,” the document states, “for the bridegroom and his ushers to arrive on the day before the rehearsal.” Accordingly, along with his groomsmen Alistair (William Finney) and Cecil (a 20ish-year old Robert De Niro in his first screen appearance)*, the soon-to-be-hitched bachelor travels by ferry to New York State’s Shelter Island, where the well-to-do family of his future wife Josephine (Jill Clayburgh) live.
Upon arrival, Charlie is not only overwhelmed by the sheer number of in-laws he will have after the nuptials, but starts getting cold feet.
This nervous rot begins to set in when Alistair and Cecil, quite unhelpfully, try to convince him to drop the idea of relinquishing his freedom.
His suspicions that they may be right are confirmed the following morning when an annoyingly chirpy Josephine – with whom he has not been able to find a moment of privacy since arriving – fusses over him while preparing his breakfast. The fact he has just endured a sleepless night (during which he failed to attend his buck’s party) doesn’t help his fragile state of mind.
“We’re going to have to have a little money, so why don’t we just get together and write a new cook book,” Josephine prattles.
“Charlie, I’m going to make you wonderful breakfasts just like this. You’re going to love seeing the sun come up because we won’t go out at night – and it’s going to be like this every single day.”
Later on, his future father-in-law Mr Fish (Raymond McNally) sows further seeds of doubt in the groom’s mind during one of the movie’s funniest exchanges, in which the hapless Charlie asks the older man what he can look forward to once married.
“Well, you lose track of your friends, learn to sit at a desk, eat what’s good for you instead of what you like, take pills so you can sleep better, forget about free time,” he replies.
“You, um, expect to get measles from the children, you drink a bit too much, learn to mow the lawn and wash the car on Sunday.”
With his lifeboat now sinking a little further, Charlie comes up with another question: “Marriage must have some advantages. When did it start to pay off?”
“Well,” Mr Fish reflects, “it took me a while to swim with the school. But the older I got, the better I liked it. The year I retired was the best I ever had.”
Just to complicate the situation, Charlie gets plastered (along with the rest of the guests) at the pre-ceremony dinner, during which he finds himself ogling over organist Celeste (Judy Thomas). Nothing comes of it though, as they are interrupted by an indignant Mrs Fish (Valda Setterfield), who chides her future son-in-law for the indiscretion, but promises to keep it a secret from his bride-to-be.
While The Wedding Party – which was shot in black and white and directed, written and edited by De Palma, Wilford Leach and Cynthia Munroe – is a reasonably straightforward yarn, it’s told in quite an unorthodox way for a 1960s movie, mixing archaic narrative techniques with some New Wave film making sensibilities.
On the one hand it is undeniably a loving homage to American silent cinema – particularly the Keystone works of Mack Sennett and, to a lesser degree, those of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Aside from employing fades, title cards and some iris lens trickery in its visual landscape, the movie also contains many shots where the film speed has been under-cranked to create a fast motion slapstick effect.
For instance, when a chauffeur-driven car collects the groomsmen from the ferry jetty at the start of the story, the whole thing is turned into a hair-raising farce as the vehicle hectically zooms home, at one point almost knocking down Reverend Oldfield (John Braswell) while it whizzes past the church. This comedic technique is later used extensively during the film’s climatic chase scene as Alistair and Cecil – who have rescinded their earlier advice – pursue Charlie on the morning of the wedding as he desperately tries to escape from the island at the eleventh hour.
Although these reverential references to the past are a prominent feature of The Wedding Party’s narrative palette, the directors also show off their modernist credentials during the movie’s numerous dialogue scenes.
Over-the-shoulder reversals between speaking characters, for example, are pretty much non-existent, with the filmmakers instead relying on jarring jump cuts or moments of edit-free mise-en-scene (mostly extended two- and three-person shots) while they interact.
As a result, during the dinner party scenes a portion of the over-lapping dialogue – a technique used extensively here before it was made more mainstream in American cinema by Robert Altman with M.A.S.H in 1970 – becomes a little nonsensical as De Palma and company truncate the various conversations using pragmatic editing.
Indeed, there are times when the voices are even out of sync with their characters – a ploy which seems intentional, thus suggesting the directors really were willing to throw as many standard film making conventions out the window as possible.
Back in 1923 the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky premiered a four piece ballet called The Wedding (Les Noces), describing it as “a collection of clichés and quotations of typical wedding sayings” that could be compared to a scene in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses insofar as “the reader seems to be overhearing scraps of conversation without the connecting thread of discourse”.
“But The Wedding might also be compared to Ulysses in the larger sense that both works are trying to present rather than to describe,” he said.**
Although it is a bit of a stretch mentioning The Wedding Party, Stravinsky and one of the 20th Century’s great novels in the same breath, it’s fair to say that, in its strange way, the De Palma/Leach/Munroe movie – with its busy and frenetic story telling – actually achieves a similar effect throughout a significant portion of its running time.
And while the film is quite removed from much of De Palma’s subsequent output, it does highlight one interesting aspect of his modus operandi as an auteur – namely his willingness to salute cinematic traditions of the past while trying to put them in a contemporary context.
*Although released in April 1969 when De Niro was 25, the film was shot in 1963 and, according to its copyright credit, ready for theatres by 1966. Also, the actor’s surname is misspelt as “Denero” in both the opening and closing credits. Whoops!
**Taken from the liner notes of the Igor Stravinsky Edition’s Ballets Vol 1, which were published by Sony Classical.
Words by Mark Fraser
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The Wedding Party was released on December 18, 2018 as part of Arrow Video’s De Niro & De Palma: The Early Years box set which also includes Grettings and High Mom.