There is a really useful term from Gerald Mast, quoted in The Cinema Book, where he talks about what he calls the 'comic climate'. All sorts of events can take place given the nature of a kind of comic suspension of disbelief. So when someone steps on a banana skin, slips in such a way that he would probably break his back, only immediately to get on his feet, that's an example of the comic climate at work. In Robert Benigni's film Life is Beautiful, the comic climate is at its most stretched: we have to suspend our disbelief to accept that a Holocaust Death Camp can be a source of ready humour. That many people loved the film suggests that, generally speaking, it successfully pulled it off: it managed to make the viewer see the comic over the horrific, just as when we see in film somebody slip and hurt themselves we manage to laugh, aware that it is contained within a specific genre climate.
In one scene from the film Benigni plays with two elements of comedy: what we will call the comedy of expectation and the comedy of surprise. So for example when Benigni leans against the window sill and the plant pot falls out of the window and lands on a local dignitary's head we have the comedy of surprise: we're not supposed to see it coming and it's funny because it is surprising. But afterwards Benigni's character runs down the stairs determined to assuage the dignitary's mood, who's busy rubbing his head after removing his hat. Benigni tries to help, and while doing so puts the eggs he's been carrying around with him into the dignitary's hat and, sure enough, when the hapless man puts the hat back on the eggs splat. These might not be particularly successful gags, but they are good examples of the comedy of surprise and comedy of expectation following in quick succession.
Benigni is in many ways a 'visual' comedian, where somebody like Woody Allen is much more 'verbal'. Often there is a high/low dichotomy between the visual and the verbal, and yet many of the greatest comedians have been essentially visual, people like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and also Peter Sellers for example, especially in say A Shot in the Darkand The Party. This isn't to undermine the verbal - for in this camp we can find not just Woody Allen, but Groucho Marx and Jack Lemmon - but to see the verbal and visual as different approaches to humour. Some students have claimed that visual humour is always much funnier than the verbal, that to split our sides we need a visual gag, where with the verbal we're more inclined to acknowledge the wit, chuckle briefly and then move on. It's a debatable point but a useful generalization.
What might also be of import when thinking of comedy is Freud's distinction in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconconscious between tendentious and innocent humour. In the former Freud notes there is the telling of obscene jokes or the offering of hostile gibes. Where an innocent joke might be a light pun, a tendentious joke will usually be at the expense of someone. No matter how politically correct we try to make our humour, will tendentiousness always demand an outlet, will we always need a scapegoat because we want in our lives a certain type of humour? Woody Allen's films for example are full of tendentious jokes about class, education and social status, and even concerning looks, height and sexual adequacy (think of Woody's response to Wallace Shawn's character in Manhattan), and they are also full of what might be called socially specific humour: like the joke in Annie Hall where a media teacher discusses Marshall McLuhan and McLuhan himself turns up and tells the teacher he knows nothing about the master's writings.
This can raise interesting questions about how 'democratic' is a comedian's work. Generally the more visual a comedian the more universal his humour is likely to be: if Buster Keaton is seen as such a great comedian today, it may rest partly in that his gags go beyond the specifics of time and place and we're left to admire the sheer clockwork ingenuity of the visual in films like Steamboat Bill Jr and The General. Woody Allen, brilliant though he often is, seems to require much more the social scaffolding that holds his comedy together, no matter the masterpieces, Annie Hall and especially Manhattan.
We needn't only think of comedy as demanding a climate. All genres to some degree work off one, off a set of expectations that the viewer suspends disbelief in relation to as it deploys its genre mechanics. Just as there are tropes - elements - the genre demands, so the viewer has expectations that these tropes must meet. This often creates a certain paradox in horror. Sometimes students will talk about loving horror films but that they're no longer scared by them. They will still watch horror, perhaps with the hope of finding a genuine frightener, but more readily as connoisseurs, as viewers who will see how well the film matches their generic expectations. This might help explain the appeal of a film like Wes Craven's Scream, a self-conscious homage to the slasher film - of which Halloween is the exemplar. The knowing viewer will anticipate the next scene not with the anticipation relevant to fear or dread, but with anticipation closer to relish: with an awareness that a character is about to be bumped off and they, as viewers, already know what is going to happen.
Such a self-conscious approach however is in danger of undermining the physiological nature of the genre. Certain genres are quite physiologically driven - horror, comedy and the weepie especially - in the sense that part of their appeal originates in the way they generate a quite concrete physical reaction: laughter in the comedy, a yell in the horror film, tears in the weepie. They are what Linda Williams (in Hard Core) and others have called body genres. But if people are responding too readily to the anticipation of their own knowingness, then where will the fright come from?
Perhaps it might be useful invoking Hitchcock here, and his differentiating of suspense and terror. Suspense demands forewarning; terror, surprise, he insists. So for example you can have a scene shot two different ways: one to emphasise suspense and the other to play up the shock factor. A wife is lying in bed at home with her lover, and the filmmaker cuts between them in bed and the husband entering the building and slowly making his way up the stairs. As the filmmaker cross-cuts between the two we know what will happen next, and it will be suspenseful as we await the inevitable. Alternatively the director could focus exclusively on the lovers in bed, and the only moment we see the husband is the moment he bursts in on them as they lie there in post-coital bliss. This will, if the scene is well shot, lead to immediate sense of surprise, even terror. We don't even need to register that it is the husband; what counts is that a sudden and abrupt surprise on the wife's face will be mimicked by the audience's reaction.
This is what Robert Baird has called the 'startle effect:' a sudden moment of surprise that can also be a moment of terror: Spielberg's Jaws, with the head popping out of the boat hull is a good example. Perhaps a good contemporary horror has to accept that many people will know the conventions, and the suspense Hitchcock talks about will be matched also by knowingness, but a good horror filmmaker should still be able to create the occasional effective shock, and thus give the viewer the odd physiological reaction that justifies the generic title of horror. One of the appeals of The Blair Witch Project for many viewers was that a number of the conventions were removed: it wasn't a post-modern, knowing horror film like Craven's New Nightmares and Scream, which emphasises the virtuoso mastery of the genre, but the reverse: an attempt to return the genre to its most primitive form; rather like a ghost story told not especially well but around a fire in the woods in the middle of the night, with everybody half scared before the telling. Maybe too many horrors films have sacrificed atmosphere to pyrotechnics, to technically impressive elements that can create the odd good shock effect within an atmosphere that is quite innocuous.
The Blair Witch Project, like the excellent Evil Dead long before it, like the little known but very fine Open Water, works chiefly off atmosphere. In Open Water, the film doesn't really work with shock, more unremitting realization; an awareness on the characters' part that they are unlikely to get out of the situation they are in alive. They are holidaying divers lost in the middle of the ocean after the boat forgets about them. Will they be found or will the sharks eat them?
What do we expect from the science fiction film? Students usually mention elaborate sets, la Blade Runner, fine special effects, as in 2001, a slightly made-up language, as in A Clockwork Orange. The vision is also often dystopian, with the future presented pessimistically, and usually as some sort of warning sign of the future to come. It is, we can claim, the most hypothetical genre, which isn't the same as saying the most fantastic. In many ways we could insist the musical is more 'fantastic' and 'absurd' than the sci-fi, with human motivation, psychology and behaviour in the former usually pretty far removed from the way we would act in our own lives. How many of us, having just fallen in love, or having been given the job of our dreams, have sung and danced our way down the street? But with science fiction the fantastic doesn't always require a great leap into the absurd, but just a slight tweaking of our psychological present.
During the late sixties and early seventies there was a great wave of socio-speculative sci-fi, almost as if in reaction to Susan Sontag's claims in 1965, in her essay, 'The Imagination of Disaster', that "there is absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films." It's certainly there in Zero Population Growth, Soylent Green,Logan's Run, Rabid and Shivers, and even the Planet of the Apes films, all enquiring about how man is destroying himself or his planet, or living under a very dubious consciousness. After all Soylent Green was one of a number of science fiction films to take on board the Malthusian question of over-population, addressed also in different ways in Zero Population Growth and Logan's Run, and all touching upon the question of resources and/or the problem of a culture aestheticised to the detriment of the aging.
These films seemed much less special effects driven than those that came through in the late seventies and early eighties: Star Wars, Tron, Blade Runner, Firefox, but that is no more than a very loose generalisation; just as it's a little unfair to say there was no social criticism in sci-fi when Sontag was writing her piece. Both Fail Safe and Dr Strangelovehad recently been released and would seem to have called into question certain social assumptions. By the same token there were sci-fi films doing likewise in the eighties, especially the work of David Cronenberg.
Cronenberg has always been a filmmaker who has combined science fiction with social questions. The director of the aforementioned Shivers and Rabid, he's a science fiction filmmaker who works probably above all else with the psychological and the bodily aspect. What we mean by this is that he's a great filmmaker of disease and unease, and usually their combination. Thus Shivers and Rabid were sexual problem films, films where the disease runs rampant within a community and creates social unease. Some of course have seen the films as prescient of AIDS, and critics, including Robin Wood, have, at the same time, wondered whether Cronenberg is a conservative filmmaker whose cautionary tales are reactive. But it is probably more useful to see Cronenberg as someone who wants to speculate on where society is heading in a manner that hints at the future but also seems in terms of mise-en-scene to suggest more or less the present. This is evident in the early eighties Videodrome, where an opportunistic TV controller wants to do the next big thing in transgression and gets hooked into a video channel that blurs the line between reality and fiction.
It's also so in Cronenberg's intellectually elaborate re-make of The Fly in 1985, where genetic experimentation leads to the central character turning into the fly of the title but seeing each stage of his transformation as a development in scientific discovery. He might be losing his humanness, but he gains in all sorts of other ways. Crash may not seem like a science fiction film at all, but there is again the speculative aspect, a sense of a hypothesized near future, taken from J. G. Ballard's book, where the automobile becomes a fetish object, and many of the present sub-textual elements of the car as a phallic symbol become realized as a tool for pleasure out of pain. The idea is that sexual ecstasy combines with car crash culture and the future is nigh. One of the things Cronenberg can do is make science fiction without many of the elements that sci-fi might seem to demand: a clear futuristic sense and special effects and set design to match. He also makes us think about the borders of the genre, as he stretches them into areas of divorce (The Brood), gynaecology (Dead Ringers) and the video game (Existenz).
When we muse over the western we often think about good guys in lighter coloured clothing and bad guys in black. We may think of cowboys and Indians, and of the frontier spirit: of the move west, to discover gold or just generally to have a better standard of life. It is also a genre about the making of America, and if John Wayne in films like Stagecoach, Red River and The Searchers is one of the great American icons, is it because he often represents the values the country wants to live by: tough but often fair, no nonsense and unwilling to turn the other cheek?
But some have found the western too idyllic a genre, and in the late sixties a number of filmmakers made what were called revisionist westerns, westerns that called into question many of the assumptions of the genre. They were not first and foremost concerned with the making of America, but of critiquing it. If Andr Bazin in the essay, 'The Western' was correct in saying that the genre was an idealisation of historical reality, and thus very mythic, certain filmmakers wanted to demythologize its assumptions. In this context Sam Peckinpah is one of the western's greatest directors. For if the western is often seen as a fine genre of dichotomies - civilization versus nature, morality versus immorality, hard work versus idleness - Peckinpah wanted to dissolve the dichotomies that lend themselves to myth into the muddy reality of the everyday.
So in his two greatest westerns, The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, he's interested in the outlaw position where the characters retain many of the elements of the western figure, but without a positive value system readily attached. In the former Robert Ryan is given the job of hunting down his former colleague, William Holden, as well as capturing the rest of Holden's gang. Ryan's action isn't particularly heroic - he's basically a lackey for the railroad magnate who wants rid of Holden - and Peckinpah as readily sides with the dangerous, violent outlaws as with Ryan. In Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett sells out and agrees to catch his old friend Billy the Kid. Pat's decided that he wants to side with the future - with the coming of civilization. Billy says times might have changed but he's unwilling to do so. Again Peckinpah's finally on the side of the outlaw over the civilizing element.
If many filmmakers suggest the western is a genre about the making of America for the good - apparent in Stagecoach, ambivalently so in The Searchers, mythically the case in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - Peckinpah asks us to wonder what that civilization has been based upon. On the one hand you have violent men surviving in an aggressive, gun-heavy society, and on the other you have the death of this primitive society with constant acts of duplicity and betrayal. Peckinpah's demythologizing undeniably has an element of cynicism to it, but it is an elegiac cynicism: he feels that in the old west the western figure might have had dubious values but he did at least have a code. There is a sense in both films that Peckinpah is perhaps more remythologizer than a de-mythologizer: that he wants the western to confront its past; and to say that many of its characters weren't heroically making America, but if anything were unheroically destroyed by the U.S.'s move towards a suspect civilization. One could contrast this with Sergio Leone's more knowing, playful approach to revising the genre, the self-reflexive approach in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, or in Once upon a Time in the West - where generic self-consciousness is much more present.
One of the key differences between the classic western and the gangster film might be found in the difference between machismo and masculinity. Excepting key revisionist westerns like Peckinpah's, is the western genre not first and foremost a genre of masculinity, and the gangster film primarily one of machismo? Let us try briefly to define the difference with reference to Scarface. In this Brian De Palma remake of the Howard Hawks original, the masculine values are presented hyperbolically. Now that is partly De Palma's style - he's an operatic filmmaker not known for his subtleties - but it also lies in the nature of the genre climate. Where in the western the gun is central to law enforcement, in the gangster film the gun - or often more especially the much less discriminate machine gun - is central to law-breaking. There is a loose cannon quality to the gangster film, and a sense that violence is no longer clean, but dirty: innocent people get killed, the central character isn't so much the individual hero but against the world, and his climb up the social ladder will leave numerous bodies lying below him.
We could also say that if the western is generally an heroic genre, the gangster film is an un-heroic form. When we think of Little Caesar and White Heat, and up to The Godfather and Goodfellas, we see that even if the protagonists have redeeming features, they are not heroic figures. Thus in many ways the gangster film is a cautionary tale, where we observe characters losing their humanity as they become greedy, duplicitous, uncaring and unscrupulous. That said, Al Pacino's character in Scarface looks like he had few redeeming features to begin with as he arrives in the States at the beginning of the film (he was a criminal back in his native Cuba), but if the western generally wants us to identify with the values of its leading character, in the gangster film we're usually expected to distance ourselves from those very values. In a film like GoodFellas we may admire the lifestyle, but we're hardly expected to admire the values of that life. Even if the character is initially looking merely to assert his masculinity - to become a breadwinner and earn a decent sum of money for his wife and family - the machismo usually kicks in as characters become increasingly aggressive with their loved ones, increasingly abuse their cohorts, and usually end up destroying themselves.
This doesn't necessarily mean the gangster film is a more realistic genre than the western. Robert Warshow, for example, in 'The Gangster as Tragic Hero', believed that the gangster film was a very self-referential genre. If Europeans really believed that the gangster film was realistic, shouldn't there be gangsters on pretty much every street corner, Warshow surmises? Genres, we should remember, are after all first and foremost about creating a set of expectations within a given climate.
© Tony McKibbin