Category Archives: Film Analysis

Character or Action?: Egri, Langdon, and the Comedy of Unnecessary Struggles

Currently in the middle of Lajos Egri’s sole work, where the Hungarian tailor-turned-theater-director first describes the existence of three-dimensionality to fully realized dramatic characters, an observation the slapstick genre successfully subverts. More on this point later.

First, there’s a crux in the book (the middle, right, where else?) where the author really digs it to Aristotle for claiming character is subordinate to action. Now, to be fair, Ergi’s whole work is really the first substantial study to emphasize the role of psychology (the third dimension to basics, physicality and sociology) as well as the internal dialectics of character that work in the creative makings of a memorable play. And to be fair, too, Egri’s point on Aristotle is instructive.

But it’s also totally confused. Egri faults Aristotle based on this confusion: Aristotle wasn’t a playwright, he was a philosopher. So when the ancient Greek writes in his Poetics about drama and catharsis and all that good stuff he does so as a witness to theatrical drama. Aristotle is discussing the appearance of drama unfolding before the crowds, an essential component of what dramatic theater is. So, if you remember this then it absolutely is true that, as Aristotle put it, action precedes character: it is through a character’s motions that an observer derives their motives and begins to compile a picture of character.

This is full blown within the complexities of cinematic slapstick. Take the case of Harry Langdon’s “The Odd Fellow” in his masterpiece Three’s A Crowd. It’s one of the most psychologically insightful comedies ever made, but also the film that  best explores the passive nature of Langdon’s comic persona, a concept Egri deplores and considers poor drama.

The riddle is how can passivity be three-dimensional? Three’s A Crowd (1927) is radically dream-like and structurally experimental (second perhaps only to Field’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break of 1941) and especially so considering it’s a piece by a silent clown of the twenties.

The logic of the story is full of odd jokes: washing dishes with a clothes washing board (but Odd Fellow never realizes his mistake); an absurdly long staircase separating characters to and from points of action (an architectural quirk never explained); and an inanimate rag-doll – Odd fellow’s equally passive doppelganger – bumming around through the harsh seasons, city streets, and unconscious nightmares. The joke are half punch lines, half humdrum. They are abstractions – and featured in the background setting rather that in the decisions of our anti-hero – of all the small things in life that people put up with without thinking about at all.

[NOTE: Memorably, Langon rarely makes use of cops, which is extremely rare for the genre. The abstraction of official persecution is common, something people irrationally think about terribly often (in my own case, at least three times a week). It’s this sort of exacting detail – the absence of cop scenarios – that raises questions as to what logic is propelling Langdon’s story-lines and why he remains such an enigmatic figure in slapstick cinema.]

So, it’s these features of the external world that reflect the inner workings of the passive character. Woody Allen has confirmed this idea in interviews, presumably grasped during his post-Annie Hall work with Gordon Willis, saying that for a filmmaker visuals in the outside should reflect the inside emotions (which is Jacque Lacan’s idea of “ex-timacy” for those interested in psychoanalysis).

Odd Fellow is the prism for all sorts of miscommunications and hallucinations that move along in an exacting yet illogical way. Anonymous letters falling from the sky, neighbor’s distrusting and ridiculing his every move, floors giving out, abandoned women being extracted from his home just as improbably as they had entered. Harry’s “The Odd Fellow”  – unlike a schlemeil, them that can literally do no right –  is instead confronted with a host of unnecessary struggles, literally and figuratively, and in a way whose explication evokes comedy rather than Sisyphean tragedy. For that reason Three’s A Crowd should be entered alongside the work of Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien and W.C. Fields.

This is that point that is a blow to Egri: the external world can, indeed needs to, reflect the character within the language of film. Egri’s specialty was theatrical in nature so we can’t fault him for ignoring the visible reflections of all that he has to offer: character, conflict and progression through dialectics. However, it is in film, and especially evident in slapstick, that passivity in character can be counterbalanced by authorial (later to be identified as Hitchcockian) attention to detail in the background, in the setting, in the universe of the story. So the facility of psychology in Langdon’s work is relegated to the margins; his internality – especially in this film which was his first to write and direct –  is reflected in the world outside.

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Slapstick with Bullets – Part 1

Are gangster films slapstick or not?

It’s not as far-fetched as one might think, especially when considering the slippery slope of connotation in three closely related terms: “gangster”, “crookster” and “huckster”. This provides a spectrum of silliness. On one end, “gangster” designates a dramatic (not quite tragic) criminality where various illegal activities are organized in such a way that produces not only material wealth but also a compromised level of political clout in the everyday operations of city life. At the opposite end, a “huckster” implies a petty man who thinks he can outsmart everyone despite obvious evidence they’re not smart enough not to be in their situation of needing to habitually con other people to scrape by. So a “crookster” is simply the mid-ground and as such never appears as a central protagonist but only as henchmen, black sheep, bullies, jerks, or they just litter the background for a little color and edge. Here’s a typical “crookster”:

Crooksters are all the different character variants that exist somewhere between the gangster’s dramatic struggle not to be predetermined by existing social forces of legitimacy and power from which they are excluded, and the huckster, whose painfully comic existence makes everyone around them enraged, confused or appalled thus reinforcing the former’s fantasy of being intellectually superior to everyone around them.

But what if the archetypal “gangster” identity, just like the crookster above (and both made iconic in the 1930’s at Warner Brother’s studio), never really extracted itself from the dominant slapstick era that preceded its own popularity? What if Cagney and Robinson are nothing more than Chaplin and Fields stuck in a world full of flying bullets, loose women, bare knuckles and speakeasies?

Take as a for-instance these two clips of the same gag:

 

The top clip is from Roy Del Ruth’s Taxi! (1932) and, while hardly seen in the context of great Warner gangster films, is nevertheless completely typical of the formula: racketeering, corruption, murder, chips on shoulders driving traditional neighborhood allegiances to contest with a main character’s extra-neighborly ambitions, a street brawl or three and finally some less-than-deep philosophical fadoodling on the nature of right and wrong. In the scene, one of the film’s openers, Cagney’s character is caged in by two rival taxis and moments later cleans their clocks in a impromptu fist match, all of it egged on by onlookers and passersby. [Note: Roy Del Ruth, like another WB mainstay, Lloyd Bacon (discussed below), was brought up in slapstick and directed films staring Harry Langdon, Mack Sennett and Ben Turpin.] This scene from Taxi! is violent, quick as a newspaper catching fire, and depicts clear adversarial interests.

The second clip, from The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), W.C. Fields is caged in by two cars and and this slowly instigates a mob-like sapping of the old man’s simplest, stupidest, most private wishes from his tired, ever-shrinking soul. The scene is not explicitly violent, but it is absolutely brutal and painful insofar as public humiliation and arbitrary bullying is a kind of bloodletting even doctor’s can’t stop. But the scene is not quick at all; it’s slow as molasses, agonizing, cruelly drawing in the audience to watch a man with a raincloud over his head get yelled at for being wet by people with the sun on their shoulders.

It’s the same story told through two different aesthetics, a through-the-looking-glass moment.

Let’s not leave out all of the slapstick elements in the first Taxi! clip. The fight is a wide shot, not a chopped up P.O.V. Like a prat fall, the audience is invited into the fun of the fight, rather than any of the hurt or desperation. Also, we have stock characters: the loose cannon, the blockhead, the confused immigrant, and a couple of jerk-faced crooksters. These are all comical archetypes of physicality and sociology, but they all lack the aspect of psychology necessary for a fully-formed dramatic character. They are flat, which means they are better served in sight gags. Not to say that there aren’t humorless gangster films like Public Enemy or The Roaring Twenties, only that a clip like this bridges a gap between gangster films and slapstick in meaningful ways:

So speed is a feature of the gangster film. Warner’s two-week-wonder-tron, Lloyd Bacon, was given his first job in the teens (not his teens but the century’s) by then Human Resource Director at Mutual Films, Charlie Chaplin. They worked together often, for instance here as the Tramp’s double in 1916’s The Floorwalker:

But when is this speed not used to comedic effect in WB gangster flicks? When they want to be dramatic, they simply stop the break-neck speed and pace scenes differently. Speed – and this goes for a lot of entertaining 75 min features of the Pre-Code era – is a lingering effect of the breathtakingly quick gag work happening in slapstick pre and post sound. Here’s a prefect example of speed having a punch-line effect in the reform-angled gangster piece, Picture Snatcher (1933), directed by Chaplin’s protege-of-sorts, Bacon:

More on this questionable parallel in the coming weeks.

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The Economics of Pratfalls

Slapstick, like Noir, is a film genre tethered to the industrialized modern world. The most famous jokes involve enormous buildings (Harry Lloyd), coal-powered trains (Buster Keaton), unforgiving factories/nations (Charlie Chaplin), etc. There is further evidence of this link throughout the 20’s and 30’s in Hal Roach productions, early Capra, and on and on. Those of you following along at home can perform a pratfall as such:

What is it? It’s a wide shot, confirmed by Chaplin and Keaton. Why? Because we have to see the entire fall, the whole fall, uninterrupted, uncorrupted, unadulterated. It is a beautiful thing and therefore can speak for itself.

But as sound enters into films – 29-ish – the pratfall begins to obscure and fragment, as though filmmakers (except Hitchcock) have forgotten how to use them. We see by end of the twentieth century they have all but disappeared from movie houses.

There is the simple explanation: since sound and picture have integrated in narrative film production, the need for a purely visual spectacle is obsolete. So in comedy, physicality no longer takes primacy. Look at the masters of comedy since the pratfall: writer-directors Sturges, Wilder, Allen; actors Sellars, Martin, Allen. We see the transition so early with the downturns of Keaton, Langdon and Lloyd and the emergence of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and more of those singing-types.

In the scene below, from Easy Living (1933), we see an opera of pratfalls, they being a predilection of screenwriter and soon-to-be-director Preston Sturges. But also in this scene we can draw a direct parallel between this post-silent era exaltation of the pratfall and the economics of the Depression:

The pratfall is the Icarus myth told in less than two seconds but with all its complexity left intact. Pratsfalls are about the possibility of freedom, for, at least in North America, freedom is synonymous with two functions. The first is Choice, and the second is Success. Without freedom one cannot make decisions, which is an extension of responsibility to self and others. Nor without freedom can one be able to attempt at success. Contrary to the prevailing perversity of the ‘success story,’ in order to attempt at success one needs to be allowed to fail. This is one of the ways advanced, modern societies are desirous and humane: they allow for the possibility of, expect and accommodate human failure.

So what if the pratfall’s gradual extinction from cinema were a symptom of diminishing possibilities within society? If that were the case, society would act largely outside the guidelines of responsibility or, its sons and daughters, their consequences. And, more dire than privileging success over failure, the very opportunity to fail would be denied, the very cornerstone of a society that respects the privileges of success in areas of human achievement. This doubly make sense when we observe that the only time in modern cinema (with the occasional exception of some animated features) when bodies fly through the air is when they are reduced to corpses.

To a prude, writing a comedy about the Depression at its inception – and Preston Sturges would go on to write more than a couple – would seem exploitative and insensitive, even perverse. But comedy protects the right of failure in times of economic disparity and defends against the general harshness that accompanies tight-belt eras. And it’s during these that the act of falling down needs to be not only protected but practiced.

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Semon’s Anti-Rationalist Spirit

Like Herriman’s Krazy Kat universe and Langdon’s peculiar passivity, there is something extraterrestrial about Larry Semon’s chase sequences. An example culled from Dull Care (1919):

Here’s amazing angular photography work that’s refreshing for an early two-reel slapstick (typically filmed flat). This image is half comicstrip, half Duchamps; a grocery clerk walking on the surface of the moon:

Especially in masterworks like The Rent Collector (1921), The Saw Mill (1922), and the finale of  The Bellhop (1921) Semon’s daring sight gags and his incessant penchant for fallings, smashings and chasings are not simply crafty spectacle designed to surprise and thrill his audience. Though often plot-less, the stories are not tomfollery, or some inert loop of mania-for-mania’s-sake.

Instead, Semon plots are aggressively anti-rational: the internal logic of the narrative is constantly reversing itself, doubling over, and falling out its own windows. Who follows their pursuers? Why is the city next to the farm? What scientific property will be subverted in next frame? And while the visuals are clear, they’re not abundantly precise, a la Keaton, nor is the performance elevated above the setting, a la Chaplin. The settings are utter visual abstraction: high, low, up, down, big, small, busy, quiet, dark, light, etc., etc.

In the best of Semon there remains a dream-like distance to these visualizations, the effect of imagining stories that are half-real, half something else entirely. The timing is metaphysically perfect but physically impossible, provoking not only laughter but wonder and thought.

Here’s a triptych of diagonally composed thought bubbles. First, a horse looks on at a dubious attempt at murder:

Then the thugs replace the horse, finding themselves now on the other end of a gun:

But then the thugs’ mirrored threat of death manifests in a unmanned steamroller heading for their original target.

There is trickery, manipulation, and violence at work,  but there is also magic, awe, and a general spirit of unpredictability; both sides of the anarchy coin. The chase concludes with Semon’s signature maddash-on-air, a continuing visual motif in his anti-rational cinema:

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Spelling Lesson #5: “A couple of tootins!”

Tootin /tu:tin/ n. 1. A person who uses the telephone to intimidate or provoke the irritation of others. 2. A fool

North America is rapidly becoming a frustrating place to tell interesting stories due directly to the intrusive presence of wireless ‘badgetry’, convergent idiocy and Gen. Digital Shenanigans (two-star General, that Gen. Digital Shenanigans). You simply can’t tell a dramatic story if everyone has access to same universe of information, there exists no barrier between public space and private space, and everyone is connected to anyone they want to no matter where they are or what time it is. If Hitchcock’s war with the MPAA censors during the 1950’s tells us anything about filmmaking, it’s that to realize the dream of total surveillance would be a most boring and meaningless experience.

No wonder then that the best Hollywood films and cable television circa 2012 take place in worlds and times where this function of reverse surveillance and instant mediation can be avoided. It’s one reason why the scenarios and plot devices at work in slapstick films are so appealing: it’s far easier to fall into a problematic situation where Time and Space (this is cinema, after all) are obstacles to one’s existence.

So, in comes this hilarious sight gag using a wired phone from Cold Turkey (1940) starring Harry Langdon and directed by 3 Stooges mainstay Del Lord. The prop carries a doubly deep sociological resonance for the actor. Harry Langdon was a giant in the silent era but in the sound era he was ruined, even though I think he has the best delivery of the silent clowns. [I actually think that his humor has always been a bit weird and dark, but once audience fit the voice with the actions this natural strangeness became more transparent and not to everyone’s taste (though biographers attribute his career downfall with a longstanding feud with the popular and powerful Frank Capra).] In Cold Turkey, four years before his death, Langdon uses a cousin of the microphone, the telephone, to signal why conversations over the phone can never be as funny as a gag that uses real time and space to it’s advantage, as was done one and two decades from this point.

Far from exhibiting mere post-modern self-reflexivity, we see the spectre of slapstick physically imposing itself into a world that has begun to forget it’s strength and will soon fully forget. The physical attributes of the phone are funny: its’ hard so you can hit someone with it; it’s connected by a wire so you can tug-o-war with it. But, the way society is hacked up and hung on display with them is, well, to a comic, more boring than tragic.

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Conjunctions and Chases

Most of Larry Semon’s films, with the extremely notable exception of 1925’s The Wizard of Oz, have a these-and-those-other-things structure to them: Bombs and Blunders, Babes and Boobs, Big Bluffs and Bowling Balls (and these are just half the ones starting with ‘B’), etc. Eisenstein theory of collision montage comes to mind:

“By what, then, is montage characterized and, consequently its cell – the shot? By collision. By conflict of two pieces in opposition to each other. By conflict. By collision” (from “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram” (1929) in Film Form, pg 37).

Memorably, however, such strict alliterated title structures rarely delineate any actual conflicts, characters or other signifiers in Semon’s short, two-reel films. In fact the title usually doesn’t mean anything except as a kind-of truncated haiku. But at their best, they detail ideas far far away from the story on the screen and come off as surreal tone poems, full of color and cultural irreverence. The best of these are Plans and Pajamas (anxious dreaming, perhaps), Rummies and Razors (a poetically fateful pairing, visually as much as anything), and Huns and Hyphens (as in: the long lost civilization of Hyphens).

Along with no mention of either Huns or hyphens (but featuring a young Stan Laurel), Semon’s 1918 film Huns and Hyphens contains one of the strangest most thrilling and complexly unpredictable chase sequences in all of cinema:


In the first instance, whom is chasing whom doesn’t seem to matter. Halfway in, Larry’s character (in overalls) preys on the antagonist wearing the apron. In the second place, spacial characteristics such as mass, weight, height – even geography! – are powerless to effect the outcome of this comedy. Not only do pillars and walls cave in like cheese and crackers, but notice, too, how the city scene becomes a rural scene in a span of two seconds, and then back just as fast.

And then, the insane idea: human flight with your nemesis on an unguided umbrella. The complexity of this moment is that for Semon the filmmaker, the scene is a slapstick artist’s F.U. to the world encumbered by rules and disappointments. True flight, by which is meant the dream of human flight, by which is meant fake-flight, is the ultimate anti-Realist fantasy, and here it is the cathartic moment of the film. But, the characters are scared witless like they haven’t been throughout the chase. So, amidst this fantastic moment is revealed a very realistic human vulnerability: fear of death. Here we can sense Semon’s love of the ‘and’ conjunction, combining unrelated, even opposing ideas together with a simple grammatical function.

On a historical note, this high-hanging display of acrobatics atop a building predates both of Harold Lloyd’s sweaty-palms films: Never Weaken (1921) and Safety Last (1923), as well as Buster Keaton’s aerial, The Balloonatic (1923). All three are heavily influenced by this early feat of absurdity, and predates Eisenstein’s essay “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram” by 11 years.

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Sturges and Neologisms

Preston Sturges – that’s Tinseltown’s Shakespeare to you –  shouldn’t be considered just a sillier version of Ben Hecht or a craftier version of the Brackett-Wilder team. He, and his successful flock and fold (notably both Coen Brothers), produce cinematic scenarios where the written word can’t be stripped in any way from its visual dramatization. Dialogue after Sturges is no longer just a creative flare and flourish, or something to be seen as creative independently from the visual design of the film like two parallel lines moving left to right and that – no matter how exquisitely crafted or extremely pleasurable the two are drawn – have damned little to do with each other. Instead, the spoken word is grafted into the picture in a way that radically transforms and complicates cinema as a dramatic art.

Like the best of the Marx Brothers, Sturges not only played with Freudian parapraxes – those telling puns that let repressed or concealed meanings slip out like sore thumbs – but also linguistic constructions that have more to do with Joycean neologisms – finely conceived puns based on playing with words which have different but metonymically related definitions to produce new words that although made-up have a ring of insight and sometimes even epiphany.

Take for instance the character of Mr. Louis Louis (“Louie Louie”) in the Sturges-penned, Mitchel Leisen-helmed 1937 hit screwball, Easy Living, played by real life Louie, Luis Alberni:

Scenes with one character and one line are always amazing achievements, but rarely is the line this fantastic: “How can such a phenonument be a flop?”

There are converging ideas here. The first is the common idiom of a “phenomenal flop”. Hotel Louis is just that and the man is drowning in debt. A second idea concerns opposing ideas: that of a “monument” – a towering one at that – and that of a “flop”, which besides meaning a colossal failure is also slang for a bed, which the building is filled with. So in this combination of opposites we have also have a visual contrast between the vertical buildings and the flattened Louis, reiterated by the simple shot-reverse construction of the solitary hotel from a low angle hinting at a POV, and the POV’s source from a high angle of the worried Louis.

The puns continue as he enters into the hotel chased down by the ever-aghast Franklin Pangborn playing Mr. Van Buren, this time through the two exchanging mismatched signifiers “Bull”,”Broad”, and “Ball”, which along with “Chicken” carry latent but unqualified sexual double-meanings, which is what the scene is explicitly about: hinting at perversity. So again here the dialogue operates as a structural double to the drama.

Then we have the final pun, that seemingly of a traditional comically conceived parapraxis: “Mr. Van Buren, with a little corruption from you…”

Yet, even here we have another of Sturges’s structural doubles – or to be more precise, a structural onomatopoeia, where the concept that being is conveyed is being conveyed as an example of that very concept. This is because “Corruption” is another name for a parapraxis. The Oxford English Dictionary defines corruption as “the unconscious or accidental alteration of a word or passage so altered,” and cites the following passage from C. K. Chesterton, with some pretty Sturges-esque surnames: “It is not for me to settle the question between two such men as Professor Hugg and Sir William Whisky as to whether Notting Hill means Nutting Hill (in allusion to the rich woods which no longer cover it), or whether it is a corruption of Nothing-ill, referring to its reputation among the ancients as an Earthly Paradise.”

Corruption is, after all, a major theme in Sturges’ work. Unlike W.C. Fields’ obsession with suckers and cons, Sturges was interested in corruption as it underscores how fragile and impermanent life’s ideals truly are. How does his active corruption of language relate to this theme? The goal of neologisms as a literary tactic is for insight and epiphany, not ad hoc manipulation for manipulation’s sake. Like Fields, too, Sturges’ warmest characters came up with the most cockamamie schemes. He was corrupt through and through.

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