„Lubitsch shows you first the king on the throne, then as he is in the bedroom. I show you the king in the bedroom so you’ll know just what he is when you see him on his throne.„
Erich von Stroheim
The writers of Jugend ohne Film begin a new series called Glimpses at, in which we share our ideas about certain topics. Whether we identify humour with repetition, persistence or diversity, if it means liberation or rejection, comedies profoundly shape our understanding of cinema. Thus, let’s start with a discussion on what we find funny in a film. Laughing far away from one another and at different situations and lines, we use this opportunity to learn about each other and, consequently, about comedies.
IVANA MILOŠ: What is laughter but the unwinding and undoing of constrictions and restrictions, an introduction of familiarity and equality where none have reigned before? Proper laughter, that is, and this phrase already constitutes an oxymoron. But this is what lies at the heart of comedy — opposites and extremes brought together, unadvised revelations and disclosures in the bright light of day, actions repeated to the point of absurdity, leaps into the surreal, and in all of these a common factor. For me, this shared trait is what makes comedy shine: surprise. In that sense, it is like tickling — if it’s going to work, it has to spring on you unexpectedly, from an angle beyond your field of vision. My favourite joke for a very long time was a kind of pocket-size absurdist poem, where a fare inspector asks a tram passenger for a ticket. The passenger’s calm reply to this accosting is: „Giraffe.“ Inspector: „What giraffe?!“ Passenger: „What ticket?“ It’s like having the rug pulled out from under your feet. My love for humour is the love for how such a small snippet of words can lay bare the actually absurd system we rely on in order to be capable of leading our daily lives within it. In Stanley Donen’s Indiscreet, despite all of Cary Grant’s antics on the dance floor, my favourite moment is the line spoken by an elderly British gentleman whose function as a side character has up to that point been an upholding of form and courtesy — the embodiment of society, as it were, with all its laws intact. After much tomfoolery leading up to an inevitable eruption, which we might as well call a carnival with Bakhtin in mind, the gentleman in question settles down to his table and says: „You know I’m too old for this sort of evening, I always was.“ A brilliant revelation of character as well as a rebuke of the tiresome constancy of rules made to be broken, this moment captures a simple, but relevant collapse. In stripping away the contours of society, humour makes us see through veils. It’s a magical encounter in a place where things and people are closer to their inherent selves. Maybe that’s why it only comes in bursts and fragments — its revelatory power is a force to be reckoned with.
PATRICK HOLZAPFEL: Here is what makes me always laugh in a film: a character, mostly it’s a man, continues doing whatever he does although the world around him is changing in a way that would urgently ask for him to stop what he is doing. One of my earliest memories of such an incident is a scene in Mr. Magoo in which Leslie Nielsen tries to prepare a frozen chicken for dinner. Since cooking is not his strength, he needs help from a cooking programme on television. Yet, his eyesight is not at its best (to put it mildly) and when he gets distracted for a moment, his dog accidentally changes the television programme to a kind of aerobic workout broadcast. As soon as Nielsen returns to his chicken, he begins to stretch, jump and rhythmically dance with the frozen animal.
This can go pretty far. I saw Will Ferrell put a knife into his thigh, Charlie Chaplin jump out of a window (more than once) and Peter Sellers, well Peter Sellers doing almost everything with this joke (as well as Rowan Atkinson). Another favourite of this kind is even closer to life. In Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl a schoolboy is enthusiastically reading from Shakespeare in class when suddenly a window cleaner appears at the window and takes away the attention of everyone including the teacher. However, the boy is so into his reading that he doesn’t stop. It goes on and on and even if I laugh about it, I know that I have been this boy many times in my life.
One of the sentences sometimes uttered under these circumstances is already a sign of advancing chaos: I have everything under control. Strangely, men pretending to go on with what they are doing whatever is happening around them has become a norm when it comes to political behaviour or even behaviour in general. So maybe I’m not laughing because somebody is doing whatever they are doing but because a change is visible. It’s called tragic irony.
ANNA BABOS: Luc Moullet’s short, Barres is a film that I watch almost every week and it makes me laugh from time to time. I attribute my tenacious enthusiasm to the fact that the film essentializes the elements I appreciate most in comedies. First and foremost, repetition and variations. I love catalogue-like structures, examples of solutions that are offered to resolve the same situation in manifold ways. Going to the metro, the people in Barres try to dodge the system, which seems rather irrational. These people often fail. I find their falls, crashes and other kinds of physical injuries fascinating. Charlie Chaplin’s Kid Auto Races At Venice perfectly exemplifies the combination of these sources of fun, a film that had a similarly overwhelming impact on me. Apart from being a great comedy, it’s also one of Chaplin’s most reflexive early works, about a man who does everything to be the centre of attention, which makes for a liberating experience to those who find it hard to allow themselves to be eccentric.
Another facet of Barres is that it shows scenes that we might have imagined while travelling by public transport – at least I imagined some of them several times. Travelling is dead time, you do not have something else to do, so you can let your mind wander. I like Technoboss for the same reason – the main character has a lot of free time and imagines things. He also fills his job with creativity and this way of life, which might be called boring or uneventful, becomes a rather adventurous and lovely story. The film stands against the concept of boredom.
Égigérő fű was my favourite film during my childhood. I was totally amused by the unique characters. The tenement house, which is the centre of the story, works, again, like a catalogue, and the residents represent figures from an at once fable-like and realistic picture book. Only this year I realized that the whole story had been made with exceptional creativity and wit – and the simplicity of the story continued to amaze me. “That lovely green grass. I will only miss that. The grass.” says Misu’s grandfather, who is preparing to retire, but he worries about his life afterwards. We follow Misu’s adventures as he lays down green grass in the inner court of the tenement house, in order to ease the worries of his grandfather. While asking for permission and working on the great plan, he and his friend Piroska meet lots of funny characters, for instance an old lady, who has been removed from her big house to a small flat, hence all the furniture had to be cut in half to fit in. While it is hardly possible to live in a flat as crowded as this one is, the lady and her son have very creative ways to solve this situation, and their flexibility is confronted by Kamilla, an anxious adjuster, who is always preoccupied with horrible news and gets terrified by the irregularity of the old lady.
With a lot of funny scenes and surprising plot twists, Spanglish talks about a great variety of everyday issues – parenthood, marriage, cultural difference and so on. However, what makes this comedy a particularly funny and touching one, is the character of Deborah, the mother. Deborah is a neurotic woman, a terrible mother and an unfaithful lover who is in constant rage. Her unforeseen bursts and absurd reactions are hilarious – partly because of the exaggerated acting of Téa Leoni, and also because one can easily recognise and empathise with the state of unbearable hysteria. The situation is clarified step by step as we get closer to Deborah, who got herself into a vicious circle, but taking responsibility does not make solving the situation easier. In the end, her husband, John Clasky forgives her – Adam Sandler’s low-key, humorous acting is another gripping aspect of this movie.
Finishing the list of my favourite comedies, I realised that all of them are made in the mood of love and empathy. It does not mean that I do not like black humour, aggressiveness or grotesque stories, rather it speaks about my personal understanding of comedy, as something that calms me and cheers me up.
DAVID PERRIN: Ozu’s children thumbing their nose at parental authority; Jimmy Stewart as the Texan Marshal Guthrie McCabe in Two Rode Together and really not giving a damn about his civic duty, or the law for that matter (and note how different he leans back in his chair compared to Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine); the great pleasure of watching people getting totally, joyously sloshed on screen, for example in Hong Sang-soo’s hilariously awkward table gatherings exacerbated by endless supplies of Soju; Peter Falk, John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara as three boorish drunks desperate to mask their own despair by gulping down drink after drink and singing and stripping bare in front of strangers, or Bela Tarr’s villagers jubilantly shitfaced on Pálinka while wildly dancing and careening across the floor of their local tavern while outside the rain pounds down; the everyman presence of Matti Pellonpää (the saddest pair of eyes in Finnish cinema according Peter von Bagh) in any Aki Kaurismäki film, where the humour is so achingly dry and bittersweet you never know whether to laugh or cry; Roberto Benigni’s twitchy hyper-caffeinated body language as it tries to contain itself within the claustrophobic confines of a New Orleans prison, and even when he is still his body appears to jitter and shake (not to mention his frequent linguistic mishaps as he tries to negotiate, as a foreigner, the ecstatic poetics of Walt Whitman and the hip flattened American parlance of John Lurie and Tom Waits); Ernst Lubitsch howling with laughter on his own set, because even he can’t resist the humour in his films and finally isn’t it a delight to watch an exasperated Cary Grant stuck in a puffy silk negligée as he tries to wriggle his own clothes back from Katherine Hepburn’s lovesick grasp in one of the great screwball comedies: Bringing up Baby.
Two Rode Together
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon
Down by Law
Ernst Lubitsch on set
Bringing up Baby
Luc Moullet – Barres
Underdog Luc Moullet’s screwball gem of a short is a mischievous paean to “Schwarzfahren”, revealing the subtle forms of civil disobedience as Paris Metro passengers perform various ingenious feats of acrobatics and DIY maneuvers to bypass paying an exorbitant subway fare.
Orson Welles – Paul Masson Wine Commercial Outtakes
This is already very well-known, but I’ll include it anyways: a bulging and visibly drunk Orson Welles refusing even an attempt to act professional or conceal his boredom and contempt for the job at hand – a wine commercial for Paul Masson for which he clearly couldn’t care less.
SIMON WIENER: Einen Film, der gängige Konventionen und Seh-Muster hinterfragt, der ausbricht aus ihn für gewöhnlich bestimmenden, ins Korsett zwängenden Formen, nennt man häufig experimentellen Film; und einen solchen stellen wir uns meist als eine sperrig-ernsthafte Sache vor. Immerhin steht viel auf dem Spiel; der Weg ins Zukünftige soll gewiesen werden, und ein solcher Film trägt die Verantwortung, Vorreiter zu sein, bisweilen vorwurfsvoll hinzuweisen auf dem Medium offenstehende, aber nicht ausgekostete Möglichkeiten.
Diese unsere Vorstellung trügt – der experimentelle Film ist seit Anbeginn auch eine äußerst humorvolle Sache. Steckt nicht gerade im Überschreiten gängiger Grenzen, im Zutagebringen eines uns zunächst Ungewöhnlichen eine zwangsläufige Absurdität? Die Einsicht in einen neuen Blickwinkel, ein neues Zeitverstehen: sie erscheint uns absurd, und ist von Übelgesinnten deswegen leicht mit Kopfschütteln als unnütze Spielerei abzutun, wie sie uns Wohlgesonnenen aus gleichem Grund bewegt und anregt; denn eine vorwärtsgewandte Kunst ist immer eng mit dem Spielerischen verknüpft, schließlich geht es darum, deren festgefahrene Regeln abzuändern, zu missachten, oder, im Gegenteil, absurd genau zu nehmen.
Hier als Beispiele Max Richter, Oskar Fischinger oder Len Lye anzuführen, liegt nahe; deren abstrakte Filme, Tänze von Formen und Farben, welche, sich abstoßend oder anziehend, untereinander Kämpfe auszufechten scheinen, oft unterlegt mit witziger Musik, mühen den meisten von uns ein Lächeln ab. Ich sehe aber auch im streng seriellen Film, etwa jenem Kurt Krens, eine grosse Portion Humor. Just diese Strenge, also die mathematisch-berechnend-seriöse Struktur dieser Filme, die dem slice-of-life, dem völlig Unbedeutenden, das ihr zugrunde liegt, und das sie formt, widerspricht, ist absurd witzig. In TV werden fünf sehr kurze Einstellungen eines Fensters, vor und hinter dem einige wenige Gestalten auszumachen sind, in immer wieder neuen Anordnungen und Permutationen aneinander gereiht; „nach Art eines Kinderreims“, wie Kren selber sagt. Humor ist ebenso zu finden in Heinz Emigholz´ Sullivans Banken, wo lange und unbewegte Kameraeinstellungen auf die Banken des bekannten Architekten gerichtet sind; rigoros beobachten wir stumme Gebäude, die den Blick der Kamera zugleich erwidern und nicht erwidern; zeugen zwar von Geschichten und Menschen, unserem so bohrenden Blick aber ausgeliefert, ohne sich vor ihm in Sicherheit bringen zu können.
Zu erwähnen auch Patrick Bokanowskis spätere Filme, etwa La Plage, wo verzerrende Linsen Urlauber am Strand in kubistisch-komische Gemälde transformiert; oder Vivian Ostrovskys Cobacabana Beach: im Zeitraffer durchwuselt eine Menschenmenge das Bild, wie zu kleinen Ameisen reduziert, und wahrlich grotesk und drollig nehmen sich die Turnübungen aus, die da praktiziert werden, durch den Zeitraffer transformiert zum irrwitzig-quirligen Ballett.
ANDREW CHRISTOPHER GREEN: In Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle the clash between the rural and urban-industrial maintains a linkage between the past and the then-present. The audience gets a last laugh at the rural-folk who haven’t yet fully adjusted to the mechanized rhythms of city-life in contrast with the absurd technocratic control of the emerging nouveau-riche’s consumerism. Tati’s tenderness demands a counter-identification with the Oncle’s dysfunction while simultaneously prohibiting a simplistic epithet for the automated bourgeoisie. The film doesn’t escape the world that gave birth to it; it bears the marks of its contradictory situation. But unlike with most comedies, which draw their life-source from a formulaic rejection of the absurd thought that things could be otherwise, I think the warmth that permeates Tati’s film is strong enough to give us a heartfelt and sober look at what we go on thoughtlessly rejecting. My lingering experience of the film isn’t with the forgetful laughs but with the dissonant way they grind against the melancholic task of reconciling that which no longer has a place in our increasingly ugly world. I think Tati’s film can fortify us with the strength necessary to go into dangerous places and objectify ourselves. But if what I have said is true, this would mean that Tati’s film is an anti-comedy.
RONNY GÜNL: EINSAME FRAU Ich heiße Barbara und das klingt besser als Dingsbums. Ich bin eine einsame Frau und verbringe jeden Urlaub auf dieser gottverlassenen Insel.
BLÖDE WOLKE Ich sage, daß Dingsbums besser klingt als Barbara. Barbara ist ja ein ganz einfaches Wort. Da ist Dingsbums schon richtig kompliziert dagegen. Zweimal bar und dann ein a. Soll das auch schon was sein?! Bar-bar-a
BARBARA Und der, der neben dem Plapperlaplapp, warum trägt der einen Stahlhelm?
LETZTE SUSN Weil er sich fürchtet.
BARBARA Wovor fürchtet er sich?
LETZTE SUSN Vor den Deutschen.
— aus Herbert Achternbusch: Das Haus am Nil, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp 1981, S. 147f.
Das letzte Loch
SEBASTIAN BOBIK: What makes a comedy? How is it defined? What do we want from it? In general, the idea seems to be that if a film is happier than sad, more funny than tragic, we can speak of a comedy. So, if comedies are supposed to make me happy and tragedies sad, how come I have probably cried more in comedies than in tragedies? (Playtime, Inherent Vice, Hausu, The Last Detail,…) There is clearly a potential in comedies to move and touch us in ways that are specific to them. Something funny is something that rings true. Comedies often catch moments and behaviours in which we might feel embarrassed. Yet comedies are often also downplayed, their potential underestimated. “It’s just a comedy,” they say.
Comedies are treated as a silly little pastime.
Comedies have for a long time had the potential to threaten power. The hypocrisy of those in power can be laid bare. The Emperor has no clothes. Sometimes I think this potential seems lost these days. Comedies also have the potential to create utopias in some way, by showing us love, community and tenderness. I think of Chaplin in The Kid (or in any of his films), Kitano and the band of outsiders in Kikujiro, the townspeople in Tati’s Mon Oncle. There is an idea of not adhering to society, of resisting the norm that is celebrated in comedy more than in any other genre. Their outsiders and outcasts are allowed happy endings and prospects; their eccentricities are appreciated, not judged. Oftentimes comedies are celebrations of the art of living.
There is a saying attributed to Charlie Chaplin that goes: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” It is a quote one stumbles upon quite often to the point where it has become a bit of a cliché. Obviously, it means on the one hand, that instances in life seen in the very moment can be tragic (“in close-up”) but once you step back and see the bigger picture of your life you can see the humour and comedy in that same situation (“in long-shot”). Does this also mean, that comedies are somehow wiser than dramas because they see the bigger picture? Is this why so many great filmmakers of comedy like framing in wider shots (Keaton, Chaplin, Tati…)? Though these same artists are also known for wonderful close-ups (just think of the faces of Chaplin!). So, of course, it isn’t just a question of wide versus close, but the delicacy of the close-ups themselves must play a part in this balance.
SIMON PETRI: „He was Lord Aldergate’s valet for 20 years but it didn’t last. They differed in their political views. The situation finally became impossible when Lord Aldergate joined the Labor Party.“ Listen to the butlers and look for the subplots in Lubitsch’s films. And remember to be common and land on your ass every once in a while!
Maybe after having a drink or two with Michel Simon, tasting some of Jerry Lewis‘ poisons or the left jab of Michael Clarke Duncan from The Whole Nine Yards.
Then let a strong man, Alberto Sordi, Carlo Pedersoli or Eddie Murphy take you under each arm before Zero Mostel sits on your face. You’ll be standing in a moment!
And once you’re on your feet, take a walk around the city, engage with the streets as a Tramp and as a King. When you’re in the neighbourhood, say hello to cher Levy and join the dance of Rabbi Jacob. Stop at a cinema and smile at the ingenuity and magnitude of film – it doesn’t have to be humorous per se; the overwhelming sweep of a Samuel Fuller film, the opening images of Mean Streets or The Irishman, a montage in Mauvais sang, Erich von Stroheim’s gaze, the warmth of Menschen am Sonntag will get you energised and giggling, giving the feeling of “Here we go, this is my art form!”
Then escape to nature and learn about it from Elaine May.
Always be chivalrous and a proud petit bourgeois like Kabos Gyula. Cherish the cuisine of his time, dedicate a Schnitzel to him; for masterstrokes, see Fragments of Kubelka.
If not, don’t be surprised if you are cursed with a Xala. When cursed, you’ll be feeling down and nothing will cheer you up, like a cunt can’t Kant.
Make sure to release the pressure, learn from Governor Feuerstein in Dargay Attila’s Szaffi. Otherwise, you’ll explode like a mosquito by Winsor McCay.
MAËL MUBALEGH: I often feel the popular consciousness about comedies can indicate that they are more demanding and riskier in terms of writing than dramas or more “naturalistic” orientated forms of cinema. Why is it actually so? Because comedies are supposedly made for broader audiences and thus require an unequivocal universality of tone? And if so, then what should this universality consist of? I’m personally not totally convinced of that. A lot of mainstream comedies I have seen early in my life or in more recent years have only shyly stirred a smile from me, which makes me think this hypothetical universality of laughter is merely a myth crafted by the industry in order to maintain itself within its own system of belief. Rather than trying to define what “comedy” is within my own standards, I’ll casually and swiftly go through some aspects of cinema – ancient and modern, mainstream or more confidential – that could be connected to it.
Ambivalence: here it’s not really a single film in itself, a genre or a way of filming that I link to the term, but something more like a mood that can be conveyed by an actor or an actress. Even if typecasting can work wonders, I’ve always felt more attracted to comedians who evolve in a versatile universe, jumping from a tragic part to a much lighter one. I like, for instance, that Henry Fonda can be this almost allegorical figure of justice and order in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine whose imposing stature a few years before went through a whole lot of awkward twists in Preston Sturges’ delightful The Lady Eve. In recent cinema, I have the feeling this mixture or this fluid duality is more seldom to be found. Yet it still exists in some areas. In this respect, someone like Virginie Efira might be one of the most surprising actresses of the moment: though she started her acting career quite late after working for years as a popular TV moderator for various shows, she has already proven to be able to communicate a wide range of subtle emotions. In Victoria and, more recently Sybil, both by Justine Triet, she can appear irresistibly hilarious and vulnerable, making one unsure as to how one is supposed to react as an audience: to laugh? To cry? This is the question.
Vulgarity: for a scene to be really funny, the borders of good taste must sometimes be pushed out very far – laughter and subtlety don’t always get along well with one another. I think of Kirsten Dunst in the only mildly entertaining Bachelorette by Leslye Headland: the palpable enthusiasm with which she takes upon herself the trashiest aspects of her poorly outlined, almost one-sided character of the unlucky, bitter thirty-something, is a feast in itself. Elsa Zylberstein is another actress alternatively cast in dramatic and funny roles, who shows similar qualities: in Philippe de Chauveron’s very polemical A bras ouverts, she plays quite masterfully the slightly zany bourgeois, incorrectly politically correct spouse of a left-oriented star essayist pathetically struggling to act accordingly to his self-claimed ideals. The detached manner in which Zylberstein gives shape to the outbursts of stupidity and ridiculousness of her part is very often fascinating, and thanks to this precision in acting, the over-readable, Manichean comedy of manners then sporadically verges on a Buñuelian absurdness.
Politics: Maybe more directly than drama, comedy‘s register lends itself to politics, be it on an intimate level (screwball) or a broader one (“social” comedies among others). A strategy to make someone laugh is to be nasty – one that comedy screenwriters and directors have well understood – a nastiness that can in turn become political. Mark Waters’ Mean Girls is a very good example of this ability of mainstream comedies to tackle societal issues: on the surface, it is merely a high school movie dripping with over-the-top feelings, shrouded in an almost unbearable pink and “girly” cinematography. Yet on the inside, it is most certainly one of the best movies ever made on the issue of bullying, showing the cruelty of teenagers among themselves without the slightest bit of candidness. The film moves – sometimes deeply – because it doesn’t fear the radical meanness that often characterises this period of life.