The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

The Best Medicine

July 25, 2014 | by

Gerrit_van_Honthorst_-_De_vrolijke_speelman

Gerard van Honthorst, The Merry Fiddler, 1623

“He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it.” —Catch-22

Can a reader and a character be simultaneously amused? I’m sure plenty of really smart people have written about this—and maybe even answered it authoritatively—but I can’t find any such answer myself. I suppose the question also holds true for movies and TV—although arguably the blooper reel changes the entire conversation—but I’m chiefly interested in the question as it pertains to writing. I really want to know!

So far as I can tell, accounts of people being amused are never amusing. (In my opinion, this also holds true for most stories involving drug-induced antics—a scourge of modern storytelling—but I’m willing to admit this might be one of my “things.”) When a character “laughs,” “jokes,” “kids around,” “cracks up,” et cetera, it is not funny, even in an otherwise funny piece of writing. (Although, I think you’ll find in the funniest, characters don’t go around guffawing much.)

I’m not saying a character can’t laugh within something funny, but, rather, that their amusement is wholly divorced from the reader’s. It’s not just that human beings are sadists who, famously, enjoy watching the misfortunes of others; we all like to see beloved protagonists find love, get redeemed, generally achieve happy endings. Emotion is communicable. Laughter, maybe, isn’t. Or at any rate, the necessary distance imposed by narration makes the communication tricky.

Nothing is deadlier than writing about the workings of humor, so I’ll keep this short. If you can think of an exception to this, won’t you let me know? Am I just reading the wrong books? Has some author cracked this code? Or is this, maybe, just one of my “things?” Inquiring minds want to know.

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Papa’s Risqué Mash Note, and Other News

March 12, 2014 | by

Marlene_Dietrich_in_No_Highway_(1951)

Publicity still of Marlene Dietrich in No Highway. Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • “Drunk and naked I would advance from the rear, or your rear, wearing evening clothes.” A ribald note from Hemingway to Marlene Dietrich is soon to be auctioned—their relationship was, alas, never consummated, but if the price is right, you could own a record of their long flirtation, replete with such swooning phrases as “whore blood,” “foaming at the mouth,” and “Dearest Kraut.”
  • Talking doors, gossip machines, super-duper turntables: here’s what Philip K. Dick, writing from the vantage point of 1966, thought 1992 might have been like. Would that it were.
  • While we’re on sci-fi: the New Museum’s new exhibition, “Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module,” plunges you into the old socialist vision of space travel. “Filko has a wall-mounted tablet nearby where, donning a wall-tethered headset that brings your forehead unnaturally close to the screen, you can ponder his ruminations on the fourth dimension.”
  • “Tomorrow starts here.” “One course at a time.” “Be the difference.” The surprisingly vacuous phrases copyrighted by universities.
  • A newly reprinted 1856 essay gives German comedy quite the drubbing: “German humor generally shows no sense of measure, no instinctive tact; it is either floundering and clumsy as the antics of a leviathan, or laborious and interminable as a Lapland day, in which one loses all hope that the stars and quiet will ever come.”

 

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Celebrating Alain Resnais, and Other News

March 3, 2014 | by

Screen shot 2014-03-02 at 5.03.52 PM

A still from a 1961 interview with Alain Resnais.

 

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Comedies Are Too Depressing, and Other News

January 10, 2014 | by

Sad clown

Chuchin the Clown, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Are today’s most prestigious “comedies” too depressing?
  • The Los Angeles Public Library is soon to offer high school diplomas. (You can’t just check them out for a few weeks; you have to work for them.)
  • More on the curious connection between prose and booze: “Writers in this office used to drink,” said an unnamed New Yorker fixture.
  • For the discriminating digital reader on a budget, a treasure trove of public domain e-books.
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    Notes on Comedy, My Own and Others’

    June 24, 2013 | by

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    Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

    Although we associate comedy with spontaneity, the comedies I’ve made to date—including this new one, I’m So Excited!—are rehearsed exhaustively during preproduction and afterward during shooting. Spontaneity is always the product of rehearsal.

    A script isn’t finished until the film has opened. I rehearse a script as if it was a play. As it happens, both Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and I’m So Excited! are play-like, in the sense that the action takes place mainly on one set. I rehearse them like plays, but I don’t film them like plays (actually, I’ve never directed a play, so I don’t know what it’s like). They’re very verbal comedies: the action lies basically in the words and in the openness of the characters.

    I usually improvise a lot in rehearsals, then I rewrite the scenes and rehearse them again, and so on, to the point of obsession. With improvisations, the scenes usually grow longer, but it’s the best way I know to find nuances and parallel situations that I would never discover if we stuck rigidly to the script. After stretching the scenes out and blowing them up, I rewrite them again, trying to synthesize what has been improvised. And then we rehearse again. Some of the actors, especially Carlos Areces, can’t bear you to cut a single one of their jokes, even if it has come up while the scene is looking for itself and hasn’t yet gelled. Everything that comes up and involves his character belongs to him. If it were up to him, the film would last three hours. (At times I shoot two versions of the same scene, and I admit that at times I edit the “improvised” one.) Lola Dueñas is another one who immediately appropriates all the antics that occur to me during the first rehearsals. Afterward, it’s heartrending to tell her that it was just a game, a way of stretching, of being crazy, of probing, of losing all sense of the ridiculous—above all losing respect for the script—and that it was all just an exercise. When Lola sees me improvising a scene with her character, however exaggerated it may be, if she likes it, she grabs on to it and it’s impossible to convince her that I was just fooling around. I admit that at times she’s managed to get her own way. When I had the idea for the mise-en-scène of the first time she goes into a trance in the cockpit, looking for sensations while groping the two pilots’ bodies, all those involved laughed, but I never thought about editing the scene like that—and yet that’s how it turned out in the film. After much insistence, Lola asked me at least to look at how she did it and then decide. The point was, I had to give her the chance to play the scene that way. She did it, and after seeing it, I had no choice but to include it. Lola is capable of breathing such truth into the most insane situations that she manages to make any craziness plausible. Read More »

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    Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: Modernists Go Off-Menu

    January 2, 2013 | by

    The opening scenes of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times demonstrate the indignities mechanized factory production perpetrates upon the bodies of its workers. The first shot, of sheep herded into a pen, dissolves into one of men leaving the subway. They’re bound, the viewer assumes, for the kind of job in which the next cut finds Chaplin’s Little Tramp: working on an assembly line, his motions so repetitive that they become reflexive. He can’t stop twisting his wrists, as if to tighten bolts, even when he leaves the station where he tightens bolts all day. His body is so bound to the line and to the factory that the same boss who controls the conveyor belt’s speed also controls the movements of the Tramp’s body. Finally, the factory extends its control to the Tramp’s last autonomous function: eating his lunch.

    A salesman so committed to mechanization that he lets a machine speak for him has brought to the factory boss’s office a prototype of “the Billows Feeding Machine, a practical device which automatically feeds your men while at work.” He asks the boss to pick one of his workers for a demonstration, and of course Chaplin’s Tramp is volunteered. Strapped into the machine, hands incapacitated, the helpless Tramp watches the machine rotate plates before him: soup, air-cooled between spoonfuls; corn, spinning on its cob; cubes of meat, pushed by a mechanical arm from the plate into his mouth; and finally cake for dessert. The machine promises to “eliminate the lunch hour.”

    Even before the machine goes predictably haywire—speeding up, spilling soup on the Tramp’s shirt and cake in his face (always pausing, hilariously, to wipe his mouth)—it’s clear to the viewer that some kind of line has been crossed. Read More »

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