Monday, 16 April 2012

Thoughts on film comedy

 Eventually all of my thoughts on comedy come back to Old Charlie and his spiritual successor Jacques Tati. Charlie's birthday gives me the perfect opportunity to write about comedy, via his ideas.

Chaplin had a gift for expressing his vision of comedy with superb economy. I found two anecdotes in his autobiography that seem relevant.

Charlie in his non-Tramp persona.
The first is a hypothetical scenario: a man goes to a funeral. Everyone is standing. The man keeps his hat on a chair beside him. When everyone sits down, the fellow next to our man sits on his hat without noticing it. No one else has paid any attention to this little incident, but between the two of them the sombreness has been lost. I have no idea if Tati ever read Chaplin's autobiography but there's a reenactment of this in M. Hulot's Holiday. The ever-bumbling M. Hulot happens upon a funeral when his car breaks down. Dry leaves stick to one of the spare tyre-tubes in his jalopy. One of the attendants at the funeral takes it for a wreath and places it by the corpse's side. As upper-class mock-sombre people pass by the deceased in a file, air leaks from the tube and the "wreath" droops. The spell of seriousness has been broken.

The second is one of Chaplin's childhood memories: a flock of sheep are crossing by his house. This delights the kid to no end, until he realises that they are being led to the neighbourhood slaughterhouse. Comedy and tragedy often live with each other in an uneasy space.

Which bring us to Chaplin's most memorable quote: "Life is a tragedy in close-up, a comedy in long shot." Virtually all comedy - and not just the distinctively visual comedy practised by the likes of Charlie and Tati - has its essence in that one line. In a strictly visual interpretation it is probably best summarised in Tati's Playtime - a film of magnificent ambition where every frame has multiple gags being played out in various planes in the foreground and background, often contrasting each other, sometimes creating a sort of magical symphony. Needless to say everything is in long-shot - most of the film's situational humour is derived from the fact that the players are lost in their own internal worlds, unaware of the other players in the frame, whereas we can see all of them at once. A classic example is the scene where Tati's M. Hulot goes to an old army friend's house - an glass-walled apartment building where every movement can be seen from the streets. While the army buddy undresses, we can also see his female neighbour watching TV. The resulting visual gag suggests that the lady is seeing the man strip!

Visual interpretations aside, all black humour also relies on the same principle of the larger picture undercutting the smaller one. Consider Dr. Strangelove. In the scene where Bat Guano is sent to Burpelson Air Base to get to Jack D. Ripper, he's confronted with Mandrake. Mandrake assures Guano that he knows that Ripper's commands mean nuclear annihilation, and only he can stop it if he can put a call through to the US President. The phone booth requires loose change - and since no one has the required amount to place a call to the President - Mandrake suggests Guano blast the Coca Cola machine and get some. Which prompts Guano's much-quoted rebuttal, "That's private property. You'll have to answer to the Coca Cola company!" As in Tati, our previous knowledge of imminent nuclear disaster provides this banter-driven scene the darkly comic tone it is remembered for.

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