Today we are going to talk about two 'body' genres. What we mean by this are types of films that expect from the viewer a strong, categorical reaction. Comedy, horror, pornography and the weepie are all categories of films that elicit a clear response from the viewer, as Linda Williams notes in Hard Core. Imagine if you're the film director standing at the back of the cinema and you have made a comedy and by the end of the film nobody has laughed; or the director of a horror film and nobody has screamed, you would be inclined to think your film has failed.
Not all genres insist on this response, and someone can watch a western, a sci-fi or even a musical and a bodily response isn't expected. Here though we will focus on two genres where it is - the comedy and the horror film.
In comedy, the laugh out loud response is a useful barometer of the film's success; nevertheless the best comedies don't always extract the strongest of bodily reactions. Are There is Something About Mary, Zoolander and Airplane! better films than the three comedies we are focusing upon here, even if we laugh out loud more often in the 'silly' films than those by Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen and Bill Forsyth, or is the laughter level only one aspect of the comedic film? We should remember that the comedic isn't only about the reaction on the audience's part, but also about the sensibility offered by the director: the comic perspective.
In the three comedies we've chosen, there is this distinctive comic sensibility that leads us to think of the singularity of the comic: the Chaplinesque, the Allen-ish, the Forsythian. The Farrelly brothers may have a universe, but is it not one that coincides with many a scatological, daft comedy of the last decade or so, often starring Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller - fine comedians though they both are?
In Modern Times it as though the comedy isn't only funny, it also serves the general sensibility of Chaplin, and the social problematic of the time. As critic Robert Warshow astutely noted in The Immediate Experience, "the society was concerned only with the pursuit of profit, and often not even with that so much as with the mere preservation of the ugly and impersonal machinery by which the profit was gained. The Tramp was concerned with the practice of personal relations and the social graces." Chaplin was drawn to how the misfit remained 'misfitting', unable to fit into social systems, and found its perfect metaphor and actuality in the factory at a time when society was moving towards Taylorism: towards "production efficiency in a shop or factory [that] could be greatly enhance by close observation of the individual worker and elimination of waste time..." Chaplin didn't simply make us laugh, he also showed us the inability of the individual to function in social systems, and more especially a factory system that reduced man to a piece of machinery. In the classic scene where Charlie works the production line and tests out the new eating machines, is Chaplin's comic logic also the absurdist logic of capitalism, where a man is merely a unit of production?
Society is equally and relevantly present in the great Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth's work. In Gregory's Girl he films in a Scottish new town and emphasises not the bleak out of town housing estates that were supposed to improve the lives of many who moved from the inner city Glasgow slums, but that often instead left people aimless and bored and far away from necessary amenities. No, Forsyth utilises actual locations, but for his own comic ends. The scene where central character Gregory walks out of his front door and sees playing on the estate a swarm of children captures well Forsyth's comic ambivalence: where are the parents, we might ask, but at the same time there is a healthy new generation safely playing in this out of the city mini-town. Throughout the film Forsyth plays our social expectation against a comic sensibility, so that when Gregory bumps into his father on the road, the conventional failure of communication between father and son is turned into the unconventional opportunity for the father to play up his knowing awareness of youthful shiftiness and uncommunicativeness. What Forsyth does so well is indicate another perspective on events, exemplified by a joke he tells, in Alexander Walker's National Heroes, that captures Scottish pessimism and his own multiple perspective on the world. Once a Scot climbed Mount Everest and his ascent to the top was met with general acclaim; only for a compatriot to insist "that's all very well, but he's still got to come down again."
Woody Allen's Manhattan barely seems a comedy at all, and with most Woody Allen films from the mid-seventies to the late-eighties, the comic aspect is usually channelled through Allen's character, and comes in the form not of situational humour but verbal wit. Think of the scene early in the film where Woody and friends sit in Elaine's restaurant and discuss the morality of saving a man from drowning. Woody self-deprecates at the same time he gives us the best line: he needn't worry about the moral problem at all since he can't swim. Often in Allen's films there is the presentation of the urban intellectual with a facility for words but incompetent in life. This is a comic persona, obviously, but it also tells us much about the urbanisation of man, and never more so than in Manhattan, a city he presents to us in all its glory over the opening credits, but that also turns the characters into indecisive neurotics as the metropolis of plenty results in the anxiety of choice. We often laugh at the humorous put-upon Woody and co's anxious inability to commit to anything decisively.
Critic Gerald Mast, quoted in The Cinema Book, once usefully proposed the term the comic climate to suggest that events can happen in the genre that makes it specifically generic. When someone slips on a banana skin we don't expect them to break their back, but promptly to get back on their feet. But all genres we can say have a climate, and it may be useful to explore what that climate might be. In the horror film what is it that makes us feel we are in a chilling world, no matter if, as with the comedies, each film has been made by a major filmmaker with a strong creative identity? In Repulsion the early scenes in the streets of London could be documentary images of the city, but is it the way Roman Polanski films with a wide angle lens, the way he moves not from a shot to a counter shot but allows a character to invade the frame, or the way sound is harshly amplified that gives it a threatening air? Polanski is a great filmmaker of menace, of the undermining of the individual by an oppressive, often claustrophobic environment. However this claustrophobia is often partly of the individual's own making, and in Knife in the Water, Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion, even Death and the Maiden, Polanski psychologises the horror. London in-itself isn't especially menacing, but Polanski's interest in warped minds and the horror films interest in warped framings and exaggerated sounds lead to a wonderfully perverse marriage of elements.
The same could be said of David Cronenberg, a director fascinated as much with the body as the mind. When the magazine Screen devoted an issue to Body Horror in 1986, Cronenberg was central to it, as his work shows exploding heads, arm wrestles that break arms as we hear the crack of bone, and protuberances growing out of the body. Was it inevitable that a filmmaker determined to see the body as a site of horror exploration would make a film about twin gynaecologists, Dead Ringers, or that he would remake The Fly with the emphasis on bodily decay? When a character in The Brood realises his body is falling apart he jokes that he 'has a small revolution on his hands', a comment consistent with Cronenberg's idea, in Cronenberg and Cronenberg, that if we can imagine the film from the disease's point of view, a number of his films have happy endings. But if Cronenberg, like Polanski, searches out the atmosphere of the horror, and also uses wide angle-lenses, hushed sounds and then sudden noises that keep us from feeling we are in a safe environment, Cronenberg is interested first of all in the body; Polanski in the mind.
Stanley Kubrick may not be known as a horror filmmaker, but frequently his work has the eeriness, the wide-angled sense of distortion and use of sound that recalls elements of the horror film, so that when he came to direct The Shining, it needn't have been seen as much of a departure. In the early scene where Jack Nicholson's character applies for the job as the winter janitor in a hotel, we notice how the sort of deliberate cadences and the distorted angle shots that cramp the room, create a threatening atmosphere. Like all the filmmakers we have talked about today, Kubrick simultaneously conforms to genre expectations and at the same time stretches the genre. There are moments where we're likely to scream, but it is as though Kubrick was more interested in the atmosphere of the genre than the punctuated thrills expected of the horror filmmaker. As a director of frequently unusual worlds (Dr Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut) and a director who has worked in horror, historical drama, the war movie, sci-fi and the thriller, Kubrick is aware of the notion of genre convention, but he also wants it to serve his own ends. What those ends are, in all the filmmakers mentioned above, we will hopefully now explore, while at the same opening up the discussion to incorporate what makes a comedy comic and a horror horrific.
© Tony McKibbin