The Comedic Frame

22/02/2024

Between the Jocular and the Tearful  

   Few filmmakers challenged the idea of comedy more than Jacques Tati, and especially in Playtime. He wondered what would happen if a joke wasn’t telegraphed but observed; that the comedian’s purpose wasn’t to signal the gag but to create a frame of such visual complexity that the humour could be hidden within it, with the viewer scanning the image, capturing the joke the way an angler might catch a fish. Vital to the project was patience, and for much of the first hour in Playtime it is as though Tati wants to test that patience as both a provocation and as an apprenticeship. It is a provocation because viewers expect a comedy to make them laugh, and an apprenticeship because Tati insists that a person must learn to read the frame so that the jokes can thus be spotted. 

    Tati perhaps remains the most challenging comedian of the image, the one who has taken aspects of Bazin’s respect for the ambiguity of film and wondered how it would play out in the arena of comedy. As Jonathan Rosenbaum says of Playtime: “during the later stages of the Royal Garden festivities, one gag at the bar is repeated twice: a drunk and the stool he is sitting on simultaneously crash to the floor when he leans back too far. What makes this event a great deal funnier the first and third time it happens is its unexpectedness; amidst a flurry of other focal points.” (Sight and Sound) This flurry of focal points is what distinguishes Tati from many other comic filmmakers and suggests the observational acuity Bazin wished the spectator to develop and which the French theorist saw for example in the depth of field work adopted by Jean Renoir. But while Renoir was a dramatist who didn’t expect humour to be available in separate planes, Tati was a humourist who did. Observation expects no external response: one observes in silence. Humour is more of a social demand: the viewer often laughs out loud. This can lead to a viewer laughing at one moment that might seem inexplicable to another, and vice versa. If laughter is the best medicine, Tati is wary of assuming that the same prescription should be given to all. 

    Looking chiefly at six films, we can see how PlaytimeSongs from the Second FloorI Hired a Contract KillerThe Royal TenenbaumsThe Time that Remains and The Illusionist ask for a framed comedy, one that wishes to see the humour more in the frame than in the cut. Many a very fine comedic work relies on the gag as reaction shot, with Bill Murray excellent at showing an unfazed response to the most astounding of events, no more so than in Ghostbusters, just as Richard Pryor can offer an exaggerated one to circumstances that baffle him. Tati’s humour never relied on the close-up and, instead, we see usually his full body within the frame, and framed amongst numerous other bodies as well. Yet in Tati, there is still the comedic centre held by his own presence, a sort of signifier of the comedic even if we’re not quite sure where and when the gag will go off. 

        In some of the other films that signifier is absent, and we may wonder if Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor is a comedy at all as it shows us a loosely associated set of scenarios that, when it uses the cut, does so as an ellipsis rather than as a reaction shot or as causal assertiveness. When Murray looks mildly bemused by the ghosts in his midst, or when Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful sets up a gag, where we know that the eggs placed in a man’s hat must a shot or two later go splat when the man puts his hat back on, the shots construct the gag. In Songs from the Second Floor it is the ellipsis between two scenes that usually makes us laugh — the edit a necessary shift in a scene rather than a cut within the frame that emphasises the humour. In one lengthy take filmed from the back of the stage, an unassuming young man is hauled out of his seat and brought on to the stage despite his protestations. A magician and his assistant put him in a box and the magician proceeds to saw his way through it until the man squeals in pain and the audience realises this isn’t part of the act. The film then cuts to the next scene, which shows the victim arriving at the hospital with the magician and his assistant, before cutting again to the victim, this time in bed with his wife, who seems more concerned by the lack of sleep she is getting than the pain her husband is in. The comedy is resistant rather than insistent, with the cut between scenes offering us the comedic but hardly pressuring us into laughter. If the reaction shot often cues the humour within the shot/counter shot, Andersson’s fixed frame, long-take aesthetic doesn’t allow for such comic grammar. The humour must be found either within a single frame, or through the juxtaposition of sequences. “In my opinion, in my films a larger portion is comedy than tragedy”, Andersson says, “But I know that many people think the contrary. I prefer comedy, but not a comedy that is very easily read.” (Mubi)

   It is this question of comic legibility that Lucy Fischer addressed in a piece on Playtime in the mid-seventies. Fischer disagrees with Tati’s idea that his humour is democratic, saying that, if one listens carefully to what Tati has to say about the film, and if we watch and listen to the film itself with much care, the freedom to laugh at what we choose is tempered by how Tati uses colour and sound design. Tati admits that in black and white so much emphasis would have been lost, and Fischer says that sounds if playing fair to the logic of the audio-visual would have been absorbed rather than pronounced. She gives as an example a waiter’s trousers ripping, and suggests this is acoustically a closeup even if there is no closeup of the waiter. Equally, Fischer notes that one reason why we keep noticing a particular businessman in the film is because of his bright blue folder, a detail perhaps lost if Tati had shot in monochrome. Fischer believes Tati “is a marvellously benevolent despot” (Sight and Sound), someone who gives the impression of allowing for immense freedom while constantly controlling the material.  

  It needn’t be an either/or as Tati created his own controlled environment to generate the comically experimental, building a studio on the outskirts of Paris that would create the space for the sort of humour he was pursuing. This was a comedy based not on the isolated gag but the comedic milieu; creating out of an entire space plenty of room for the joke, yet as if what mattered more was the world offered up as an absurd universe. When Andersson says his films can be read as tragedies or comedies, this becomes a matter of perspective contained by absurdities that must remain constant. It is absurd that the volunteer ends up in hospital with a saw wound that leaves his jacket and tie cut in two, but for Andersson it is no more so than a later scene when he shows a wealthy, former and now very old general lying in a cot while others talk of him as one of the most significant landowners in the country. There he is incarcerated in a side rail bed and all his land isn’t worth much. He is celebrating his hundredth birthday and various army worthies turn up and the man, who has lost his marbles, finds once again his Nazi sympathies when he offers a Hitler salute. 

    What we are proposing is that the films create a world that might be funny rather than a generic demand that insists the films must be. If Fischer is right to say there is more to Tati’s cinema than the viewer given the freedom to notice what they like, nevertheless what they notice is still based on perceiving the comedic rather than the filmmaker pronouncing it. When Andersson says some might find his work more tragic than comic, it is partly because the angle offered is asking us to see both the comedy and the tragedy, and deciding for ourselves which is the more prominent. Much of Andersson’s work plays on history as we find in the Hitler salute in Songs From the Second Floor, and in a scene in You, The Living, where a worker reckons he can pull a tablecloth clean off without touching the items on it. He yanks away and the stunt goes disastrously wrong. Then we see what hides under the cloth — a Nazi insignia. Andersson is often interested in Swedish complicity, in a generation that was sympathetic to the Nazis. “We are really living in both our time and the past all the time. Everything is affected by what has gone before.” (Film Quarterly

       Tati’s work tends to look forward, to see in the developing consumer society the way people try and adopt to new mores with varying degrees of aplomb and incompetence. Bourgeois hypocrisy moves in different directions: Andersson’s with people denying the past; Tati’s folk attempting to grapple with the future. The fancy restaurant in Playtime has all the latest gadgets, the most nouveau of nouveau cuisine and takes place. in the most modern of venues. It all goes wrong of course and the staff are forced into keeping up appearances and the guests into practising denial. When one of the glass doors of the entrance smashes, the doorman mimes opening and closing it as he lets guests in and out holding the door handle. But whether looking to the past or mocking a present that hints at the future, Tati and Andersson create worlds that are chiefly observationally funny rather than systemically so: the filmmaker rather than weighing the humour, balances it. We can think for example in Playtime of the heating that nobody can adjust and watch as people become increasingly sweat-stained. It isn’t a funny moment; it is humorously extended as the film asks us to notice how some people struggle with the heat, just as we notice others find themselves with indentations on the back of their clothing: the chair-backs are made of hard metal in the shape of a crown. In Songs from the Second Floor, the comic is often no less based on our observational faculties. In one scene we see the closest to what passes for our main character in the background of the shot, two people speaking in the foreground, and several large Jesuses on crosses behind the two speakers. A man is showing a couple of possible customers Jesus and has taken him off the cross for this purpose, but then finds when putting him back that one of the nails has gone missing. Christ swings on the cross more like Tarzan of the Jungle than Jesus of Nazareth. All the while we are observing this, we might also notice our main character moving towards the table, and can’t help but notice even by Andersson’s standards that the speakers have horrendously grey skin tones, as if the living dead. What Andersson refuses to do is weigh all the humour on the dangling Christ; it becomes just another element of an absurdist mise en scene. The humour is balanced rather than weighed.

    In our example from Life is Beautiful it is the other way around, and this is a common approach to humour that weighs rather than balances, In his response to Fischer’s piece, Jonathan Rosenbaum talks of Noel Burch’s notion of the refused gag, and this would be where the eggs don’t splatter on the dignitary’s head. It would deny the expectation but for such humour to be more than a mechanical reversal it would need to contain an observational purpose beyond the refusal. In Monsieur Hulot’s Vacation, a child goes down some stairs precariously with an ice cream in a cone, and we might expect the contents of the cone to fall, but Tati instead asks us to observe the fragile concentration of the child over her misfortune. By refusing the gag or refusing to prioritise it, the filmmaker creates a milieu much broader than the concentrated purpose of the joke. We don’t usually notice the environment, we anticipate the humour. However, a filmmaker can generate an anticipatory field that allows for attentiveness to return as anticipation. In Playtime, the architect is still finishing a few details at the restaurant as a few problems also start to present themselves. Dinner guests are soon to arrive and we become increasingly aware that the humour will come out of the unfinished work and the undoing of the work that has been done badly. `When just after the first guests arrive, the waiter finds one of the tiles stuck to his foot as we await further flaws in the restaurant’s design. It isn’t so much an isolated gag as he struts over to the diners’ table with a tile stuck to his sole; it is the first detail in what will be an elaboration of a catastrophic series of architectural cock-ups. 

   Our eye searches the frame, looking for and awaiting what will happen next. The assumption leads to expectation: we wonder over the various things that will go wrong but Tati also insists that we will have to look out for them. They won’t necessarily become part of a gag-sequence, the gag won’t be contained by a punchline. In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, before Alvy Singer heads out to LA, he is sitting with a few others discussing the price of the cocaine on the table. The gauche Alvy takes a sniff and sneezes a small fortune away. It is a great gag but very much a contained one: we aren’t surprised when he sneezes and the joke comes to its completion. It is true as well of Jerry Lewis in Who’s Minding the Store? He mimes typing out a masterpiece and the scene offers all the sounds of the typewriter with none of its physical presence, until at the end of the scene a piece of paper appears yet with nothing on it. The scene ends; a mildly amusing play on presence and absence as the sound conjures up a hint of the visual but not enough for there to be anything on the piece of paper. 

   In neither example do the films rely on the sort of observation Tati insists upon, which is why Fischer can offer a solid argument within a misguided premise. If Tati is so significant it rests on how much he has absorbed the Bazinian notion of the ambiguous frame into his work; not how much he resembles any other comic filmmaker in making sure a viewer comprehends a gag. It is perhaps why critics talk of the influence of Tati upon Elia Suleiman, an influence he denies but is flattered by nevertheless.” I’m always saying the same thing over and over: I was never influenced by… Jacques Tati:, he says, adding “I don't think that images come from images only. They come from your own images” (Mubi). This is surely an important aspect of the Bazinian project: to see images out there in the world that can be recuperated into cinema. Of all the filmmakers under discussion, it is Suleiman who uses comedy to reflect on the contemporaneously real, with much of his work on the Palestinian question. In The Time that Remains, he often shows us details that can seem close to slapstick-predictable but contains them within a specific form and a broader question. In one scene, after a shootout between Palestinians and Israelis, he shows us an ambulance pulling up outside a hospital. It is an establishing shot with the ambulance seen outside the entrance and with the hospital walkway above in the frame. Suleiman holds the shot as our eyes move from the bottom of the frame to the top as paramedics push the injured person along on the trolley, while our eye then moves again to the bottom of the frame when an army vehicle pulls up. Our eye then moves to the top once more as the army personnel grab the trolley and aim to take it away — only for us to see the medics running after them and pulling it back as we witness a to and fro between the army, the family and medics. 

     It is a wonderful example of the comedic frame, a fixed shot that asks us to scan the image and also to see the absurdity of a situation that has the army in conflict with the medics, and wishes us to side with the absurdity rather than engage in one side of the conflict over the other. This isn’t at all to say Suleiman is neutral. “…I want an end of occupation. That is what a Palestinian state should mean. I oppose the notion of statehood as it stands at the moment. And yes,” he says, “I do think that Israel should cease to exist as a state for the Jewish people and commence to be a democratic, secular state for all its citizens, and that includes the one million or so Palestinians living there who are marginalised, with racist practices against them.” (Guardian) However, he sees in a certain type of passivity something greater than the polemic. “If I had an answer to even one image when I started making it, it would not be on the screen. If you have answers for an image, there’s no poetic space for it—there’s already a closure of some kind.” (Journal of Palestine Studies) What Suleiman offers in this scene from The Time that Remains isn’t a shot that claims the Israelis are terrible and vindictive, though they are petty and ridiculous. This doesn’t mean the Palestinians cannot be as well, but their pettiness comes from a position of weakness and not of power and thus can be the relative innocents in the war of absurdity.

   Something of this absurd prowess we note in a scene where a man puts out his rubbish as a tank arrives foursquare on the street. As the man exits his flat and puts the garbage in the bin, the tank turret whirs into action and follows his movements. During the chore he gets a call on his mobile and walks back and forth, all the while the tank turret is whirring back and forth too. We see a petulant potency in the action, as though here are people with too much money to spend on military hardware and not enough sensitivity to leave people in peace. “The United States has provided Israel with $146 billion in military, economic, and missile defense funding. Adjusted for inflation, this amount is equivalent to $236 billion in 2018 dollars, making Israel the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. assistance since World War II.” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). Suleiman takes such a fact and turns it into the comedic without removing the political. It is more there is a greater chance of change coming out of realisation than polemicisation — why escalate a conflict with anger when you can try and de-escalate it with humour? 

  Yet this isn’t any old humour and returns us to slapstick and the violence often inherent within it. When we look at early comedies by the Keystone Kops, the violence is contained by the comic. But partly what is interesting about Suleiman’s work is that he takes a violent conflict and removes much of the aggression from it, as though countering simultaneously the politics of conflict and also potentially the primal aspect of film comedy: that it is based on brutality. As Burch says, “The aggression [in silent film] sometimes comes a good deal closer to crossing the pain threshold. Harold Lloyd dangling over the ledge of a skyscraper is an image out of a nightmare; laughter and terror mingle, giving a very special coloration to some admirably structured acrobatics.” Burch notes too that “when Laurel and Hardy in one of those "proliferating" structures that were their own special secret, demolish a whole line of cars, make scores of people double up in pain on the sidewalk by punch­ing them in the solar plexus, or push a whole crowd of people into a mud puddle (scatological aggression such as this is extremely com­mon in slapstick films), the viewer feels that he is the direct victim of a structured aggression, and his somewhat strained laughter is ac­companied by a very pure aesthetic satisfaction.” (Theory of Film Practice)

   Partly what Suleiman, Tati, Andersson and others have done is risk reducing an aspect of the humorous by emphasising the gentle. If Burch can talk of a refused gag, then in the directors under discussion this refusal often rests on a pacifistic humour that counters the violence of slapstick. It thus reduces not only the telegraphic gag but also the graphic aspect often behind it. When people slip on banana skins, when things fall on their heads, when doors are flung open and a person is half-flattened behind them, this is all part of the comic lexicon of slapstick, and all can be found in taking a look at a few clips from Laurel and Hardy films. However, instead of the aggressively comic, we have the ‘melancomic’, a sad, benign worldview that becomes more important than the instantaneous guffaw that can be extracted. If Suleiman can say “it’s about making the reading of the film a democratic moment,” (Little White Lies), this is also because the comedy isn’t victimising. There are more than enough people oppressed in the Palestinian conflict without Suleiman adding a few more for the sake of a good joke. 

    What the filmmakers often do is find a problematic the humour can exist within, and then the perspective finds funny various aspects of, usually, contemporary life. In Playtime, as in Mon Oncle and Traffic, Tati wonders how people negotiate the increasingly hazardous conditions in modern living. Some adjust to them better than others but Tati’s purpose is to show that these changes are happening. Thus, when Tati offers a variation of the slapstick gag of a door slammed in someone’s face, he offers it as self-clumsiness in the light of new circumstances. A character who is looking for Monsieur Hulot confuses him with someone else, at the same time he confuses transparency with a door, and slams into it. In a world of glass, where walls, doors and windows all look similar, and all can give the impression of transparency, it makes sense that someone will feel that distinctions have disappeared, including the outside and the inside. In classic architecture, generally, walls were stone; doors wooden, and windows glass. What happens if they all become glass and lose their distinguishing coordinates? Most people most of the time adjust to this architectural shift; nevertheless, a wry comedy can come out of their confusion. In Playtime, this most critical of modernist films, Tati takes an old gag and gives it newness by suggesting that we shouldn’t so much find the joke funny; we should find the circumstances alarming. We have taken modern architecture too easily for granted and only in error are likely to realise how much has changed. 

     In Playtime, much is made of the new; in Aki Kaurismaki’s London-set I Hired a Contract Killer, the emphasis rests on the old, the derelict and the tired. Playtime was made in 1967 and Kaurismaki’s film in 1990. But it looks more the other way round, with Tati’s film showing well the glorious post-war years of French prosperity, and Kaurismaki’s a decade of austerity under Thatcher. I Hired a Contract Killer shows a low-level French emigre bureaucrat living in London who loses his job and takes a hit out on himself, then spends the rest of the film trying to dodge the assassin. It gives Kaurismaki the chance to view London with an outsider’s eye but what he sees isn’t very different from many realist filmmakers of the period (Loach, Leigh, Clarke): a country falling apart. Opening on fixed frame shots of various parts of the city looking usually dilapidated, much of the rest of the film shows central character Henri and others wandering through what amounts to a very late addition to the rubble film: Italian and German films showing post-war devastation. There is comedy here but it seems constantly contained by the director’s astonishment at what he finds locationally. If Germany and Italy lost the war, then this is Britain having made a real hash of the peace. We might wonder if it has anything to do with Britain as a country that has never had much of a problem with wealth and class, with the Thatcherite Britain Kaurismaki indirectly exposes augmenting that wealth with two major tax cuts for the comfortable in 1980 and 1988 — cutting the top rate to 60 per cent, then to 40 per cent.  

   Kaurismaki has always been drawn to the desolate and the denuded, but few watching the film won’t see city poverty as readily as the director’s yen for the miserable. True, Simon Hattenstone notes when interviewing Kaurismaki that he is “miserabilist's miserabilist” (Guardian) but he came to London without much need for a despairing imagination: reality was sufficing. Kaurismaki’s skill here is to use the frame as though he is making a socially realist film but contains it within the world of the comedic. Palette-wise, comedy usually makes much use of brighter colours, innocuous oranges, yellows and lime greens, and lest one regards this as no more than an impression, some analysts have inevitably tried to make objective such a claim: “Colors in romance and comedy tend to have higher contrast and brightness and are rich in red and yellow while in horror, sci-fi and action it is the reverse. Sci-fi films usually show the highest average standard deviation of brightness, as well as red, green, yellow, and blue among these five film categories. This indicates that colors of sci-fi films tend to vary greatly as the story progresses. The color analysis protocol developed in this study can be a valuable tool for exploring the aesthetic functions of colors in films.” (Characteristic Color Use in Different Film Genres) There may be a sharp red (Henri’s lover’s scarlet dressing gown) but that is a nod to hope that the environment generally retreats from acknowledging. 

   Most of the time, the film offers greys and blues, and when offering red and greens they are usually worn and tired, like the reddish brick wall where Henri meets with gangsters as he arranges the hit, or the red, green and yellow interiors of a burger cafe. They match the rundown exteriors, with Henri constantly passing high-rises, back streets, buildings in disrepair, places where it is hard to discern whether they are inhabited or dis-inhabited, rundown or about to be taken down. If Suleiman offers a mise en scene in The Time that Remains capturing a people under occupation, Kaurismaki gives us a mise en scene that proposes a dystopian capitalism where most are living a hand-to-mouth existence in a wasteland. Early on, Henri loses his job working for the water board and the posh boss says “redundancies cannot be avoided”, after announcing that the government has decided to privatise. The film might have been more obvious if it had a photo of Thatcher on the wall behind him but, instead, it is Pope John Paul II, a more ambivalent presence than the UK PM. Meanwhile, anyone who sees Boris Johnson in the plummy voice and blonde mop will probably be projecting from the future into the past, no matter if at the time he was already writing articles for the Daily Telegraph that made him a Thatcher favourite. In each instance, in The Time that Remains and I Hired a Contract Killer, the films seek humour out of a milieu that wouldn’t lend itself to the comedic. 

   While Suleiman would seem much more precise in his framing, Kaurismaki is more exploratory in his attitude to milieu. The frame is secondary to locale and Claire Monk emphasises “its cinematic geography and the specifics of its resonant choice of determinedly off-centre locations (drawn largely from the post-industrial, post-imperial east London docks and old East End, but extending to a wider palette of districts in London EC, north and west), and in the insights that might emerge from detailed attention to these.” (‘Where I Come From, We Eat Places Like This For Breakfast’) If realism can sometimes appear contrary to comedy, it rests on the need for the comedic usually to contain the joke and for realism to open up the milieu. When Tati all but invokes the Bazinan this might seem paradoxical, because Bazin wanted us to see more of the world partly so that its socio-political dimension could become evident. Tati would seem to want to close the world off and create his own internal universe. It was a preoccupation so great that for Playtime his studio-created environment became known as Tativille. Bazin might not have been chiefly a politically-oriented film critic (his concerns were more spiritual and phenomenological), but his enthusiasm for the neo-realistic showed a critic interested in the immediacy of people’s lives and their living conditions. So did Tati, even if he was more inclined to work them out in controlled environs rather than the found realities of the Italians. Though our chief interest may be the frame as a specific cinematic thing the filmmakers respect as they use it for expressing humour, we also want to keep in mind how they can utilise it to offer a worldview that goes beyond the specifics of the image, seeing humour as a frame initself - as a way of looking at things.  

  In I Hired a Contract Killer, Kaurismaki seeks to convey a loser’s world and finds it as much in the locations he shows as the characters he focuses upon. It isn’t just Henri losing his job; it is his newfound lover Margaret who gets by selling flowers, two henchmen who make a dismal job of a robbery that ends up involving Henri, and the assassin who coughs up blood and lives in a basement at a disused yard. Even Henri’s landlady lives in as dismal a dwelling as he does. We see her sitting smoking a fag, against a bare, smoke-stained, off-white wall. In Playtime, the frame is constricted and the environment controlled; in I Hired a Contract Killer, the frame is more open and the locations very much there to be found even if they might look very different today. As Paul Newland reckons: “shots of dilapidated buildings and dismal sites of urban dereliction – partly-demolished east London industrial units and closed shop fronts. Here the city is clearly depicted as an ‘inbetween’ space — between the past and the future — between dereliction and renewal.” (Widescreen)

    Whether the filmmaker works with found realities or restricted environments needn’t be a defining feature of the comedic frame. Andersson and Tati look for those constraints, Suleiman and Kaurismaki wish to create a comedic perspective out of identifiable realities others would be inclined to take straight. But where does that leave our two other main examples, Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist? These are the most cartoonish of the films we are addressing, and Chomet’s is an animated work. Yet both Anderson and Chomet work paradoxically with the locational. Anderson insisted that the main location The Tenenbuams’ residence, “was a real house. At the time I was very adamant that this would be a real place and that we have to make it a real place.” (Vulture Magazine) However, Anderson also says. “a lot of the time we have built something to play our scene, and we really haven’t built anything outside of the frame. This is the way we’re going to do it, because that’s all there is and that’s all there is going to be! And we’re probably not going to have another choice when the time comes. But over the years I may have gotten more planned with how these movies are going to be filmed. It works better for me. I hope that the actors don’t feel trapped.” (Far Out Magazine) Anderson wants reality and he wants it on his terms, with creative geography often useful: “for the 375th Street Y, the exterior was in one place on the Upper East Side, and for the interior we found a place in New Jersey.” (Vulture

      If Anderson wishes to take the real world of New York and turn it into his filmic, frame-restrictive playground, Chomet with The Illusionist offers an animated work that nevertheless wants the viewer to see the locational specifics in what he and his fellow animators have drawn. He wants the reality of Edinburgh as visible to the viewer as Anderson wants to hide most of New York. This might reside partly in Manhattan’s ubiquity on screen next to Edinburgh’s only occasional presence, but also in Anderson’s determination to turn reality into the subjective, and Chomet’s desire to turn the animated into the objective. As Chomet says, when he and his Edinburgh studio, Django Films, started researching 1950s Scotland, they discovered that electricity arrived in Iona exactly in 1959. “That was amazing," admits Chomet. "It's why it was crucial that we lived and worked in Scotland. It makes the film rich with detail and we could really do our research into the 1950s. We could send background people to Mull and Iona to study the light and the colour of the grass. We could look at the stations, the trains, and the buses. We could take photos on our walk to work .” (Scotsman

     Both Anderson and Chomet create ‘made’ frames and this might seem the best way to describe the cinema we are proposing. We needn’t underestimate how careful filmmakers are in showing what appears on screen, but the frame is usually what contains the image rather than what defines it. However, it is as though Anderson has asked how restrictive he can make the frame as he worries whether the actors might feel trapped, while Chomet muses over how much he can get into the frame; he often shows Edinburgh at oblique angles all the better to get more of the city into the image than we might expect. We can think of the shot where the train carrying Tatischeff and the young woman Alice, who has joined him after his stay in the Highlands. We see as the train pulls in, someone on the other platform, tiny in the shot, looking at his watch. What we also see is Waverley station, Waverley Bridge and the Balmoral Hotel. In the next shot, Tatischeff and Alice are exiting the station and the frame contains also the National Gallery and the castle. 

         Anderson can fill his frame as well, but he usually seeks a fetishistic clutter, a frame full of knowing bric-a-brac that makes the viewer scan the image for the most pertinent instance of visual wit. There is a moment after his step-daughter Margot has put on a play and Royal critiques it as he would a critic reviewing a work by a grown-up professional playwright. While this is amusing in its cruelty, we notice too that though he is surrounded by kids he is smoking a cigarette, and that, though he is indoors, he is wearing as usual his shades. We notice as well that Margo’s half-brother Richie is still wearing his headband even as he is also wearing the tiger costume, sans head, he was wearing during the production. In the background, we notice the framed paintings, all painted by Richie, all paintings of Margot. In a shot/counter shot later in the film, when the kids have grown-up, Richie is visiting his childhood friend Eli in his bachelor pad and in the shot Anderson shows Richie and behind him a painting of men in jeans, bare-chested and wearing a mask attacking another member of the gang, who is now maskless. In the counter shot, the same men, all masked and riding on dirt motorbikes have their arms raised. Any attention to the story (or for that matter Erik Satie’s music heard playing) is secondary to these large, grotesque paintings that Richie tries surreptitiously to glance at. All becomes sort of clear when Eli says he has been regularly tripping out on mescaline. 

   In Anderson’s films, the shots usually feel loaded with content that doesn’t augment character but defines it. When, say, we see Bickle’s apartment in Taxi Driver, Harry’s in The Conversation or Bree’s in Klute, the filmmakers offer in each instance a space that allows us to comprehend an aspect of their loneliness, but we don’t at all have a facetious relationship with it. In different circumstances, they would live differently, and we see this in Klute when Bree leaves the apartment at the end, seeing it empty of all the furniture. It is now bare yet it seemed somehow empty when there were things in it as well. In The Royal Tenenbaums, we might wonder if Anderson would fear such a framing, as though, without the clutter, his films would be devoid of meaning: that they are willing to risk sacrificing the meaningful to arrive constantly at a more instantaneous comprehension. Anderson is without doubt a filmmaker of the frame but we might not always see this as a positive. It can give to his non-animated films the suffocation that the animated The Illusionist resists.  

   One can perhaps best explain this by noting that Chomet, while he incorporates caricature, is often an implicit filmmaker. It comes when we notice Alice has sneaked away from the island and when two cars crash, the film cuts away first to the cows who react to the accident we don’t see, and then when we see the crashed vehicle we also notice, small in the frame, Alice popping her head out from a cover in the back of the open truck. The crash is elided, and Alice noticed — neither is telegraphed. Later, in Edinburgh, the ventriloquist who has been living in the same hotel as Tati, sells his dummy, We might first notice it when Tatischeff goes to sell his suitcase at the same pawnbrokers. As he exits the taxi and goes into the shop, we can see the dummy in the window. When he leaves the store, we do get a close-up of the dummy but we also get more information. The dummy, on sale for £6, was reduced from £4.50 and is now £3. When later the film cuts again to the dummy in a beautiful series of shots that are more Ozu than typical animation, after Tatischeff leaves Scotland, we see it is now free for anybody who will take it home. The moment is wonderfully done because this shot is contained by a series of others where the lights are being switched off in different Edinburgh locales that we have witnessed at various stages in the film. It is contained by the steady collapse of the ventriloquist over the later stages of the film, as we have seen him drinking alone in a pub, and then later asleep, begging on the street as Tatischeff passes him. His obsoleteness finds its correlative in the dummy the shop owner can only give away.

    There are of course many great directors of the frame, including Antonioni, Ozu, Tsai Ming-Liang etc, just as there are great directors of the image (Scorsese; Herzog, Rossellini), and some who work between the frame and the image (Bergman, Kubrick and Godard). Someone thinking chiefly of the frame wants to remind us of the image constrained; those thinking of the image often wish for us to acknowledge that the image isn’t just content but contains an intent, the texture of what it shows us. The camera is there to capture rather than to frame: to emphasise the pro-filmic dimension of cinema, of being a camera in the world. The frame reminds us of the camera as a limited observer. For a comedic filmmaker to be so concerned with the frame can seem a risk. If comedy is a genre that demands, like horror, a categorical response (laughter in the former; shock in the latter), then contemplation, reflection and observation can appear antithetical to that instantaneousness. However, if one views the comedic as a frame not just in the cinematic sense but as a type of bracketing, as a way of looking at the world in a particular manner that happens to be comedic rather than necessarily funny, then filmmakers aren’t undermining their own comic potential; they are insisting on a comedic perspective. This is one where we might laugh or we might not but our understanding of a given situation or moment, of a place, or a dilemma, becomes acutely realised. It could come in the misguided modernity of Playtime, the inertia of Andersson's Sweden, a country that may have created a generous welfare state but that hasn’t quite eradicated its Nazi leanings as his characters are contained by an enervation and isolation hard to comprehend. It can come in viewing the Palestinian/Israeli conflict as an absurd horror but where the absurd must be as present as the horrific, and where violence will often be contained by implicit humour rather than explicit aggression. Then we have in I Hired a Contract Killer a look at London as a city of astonishing decrepitude that seems to mimic the mind of the forlorn and depressed central character — without at all taking on an expressionist aspect. The Illusionist no less explores Edinburgh and suggests in an equally forlorn but antithetical way how much beauty the city contains. The Royal Tenenbaums is probably the most assertive of all the films, the one most inclined to use the comedic frame with the idea of a punchline, a term that proposes a force most of the other films resist. When Royal takes his grandchildren for a fun day out the film is full of telegraphing: whip pans to the kids stealing a drink; medium close-ups showing us small water balloons before they throw them at a cab; a side angle elevation shot as the three of them jump into the swimming pool, followed by a close up of the three of them underwater. Nevertheless, Anderson is a director of comedic framing and acknowledges the risks when he talks of potentially suffocating his actors. 

    However, the frame is there in an Anderson as it wouldn’t in a Mel Brooks, an early Woody Allen or a Jim Carey and Adam Sandler film. As Tati says of work by Allen and Lewis: “I recognize it’s good, but it’s not the way I want to express myself. I work more by observation: you see, when a president or a prime minister does a little something that’s funny, that makes me laugh much more than a comic does.” (Film Comment) Brooks and others are comedic pragmatists, with the camera usually going where the gag demands. Anderson doesn’t have the quiet rigour of Tati, Andersson, or Suleiman, who expect much more the viewer to look for the joke within the frame, but he does create images that indicate the frame’s importance, so much so that he will obliterate off-screen space. Wes Anderson makes clear the frame is formally restrictive, while Roy Andersson is more inclined to see it as empathically expansive. When an interviewer says Chaplin reckoned “"Life is a tragedy in close-up, but a comedy in wide shot.” Anderson replied: “I'm not sure that I agree with that. I think that the wide shot tells a lot about the human being that a close-up can't. About their place in the world. The wide shot defines the human being more than the close-up because, for example, the room where the person is tells about his tastes, his life. Even if it's not home, you can read the history of a person better in a wide shot. When you read this wide shot, there are so many elements that make the picture more tragic.” (Mubi)

    His remark would seem to be pertinent in different ways to Tati, Suleiman and Chomet, all of whom create feeling through the long shot, while Kaurismaki seems in this sense a halfway house between the compositional irony of Anderson and the broader context Andersson and others insist upon, We could trace a stylistic link from Kaurismaki to Jarmusch, Hartley to Anderson, one that is more inclined to make explicit the humour and to emphasise the close-up. But there are few contemporary filmmakers more concerned with humour and the frame than Anderson. It would be unfair to ignore him, even if we might insist that he is the least Tatiesque of the filmmakers here, no matter the direct allusion to Hulot’s apartment block in Mon Oncle in The French Dispatch, and his contribution to a Tati catalogue where he says “he has a silhouette that you can make into a cartoon; just his walk is a great creation.” (The Rushmore Academy) Tati says, “the dimension of the camera is the dimension of what your eyes see; I don’t come close up or make tracking shots to show you what a good director I am. I want your eyes to put you in such a situation where you come to the opening of the restaurant, as though you were there that night” (Film Comment). In Anderson’s work, the camera is rarely the dimension we see, as Anderson very much relies on tracking shots and close-ups. 

        In this sense, Tati’s main disciples would be Andersson, Sulieman and Chomet. Of course, Tati’s influence is unequivocal in the latter, as the film is based on Tati’s script, the character is called Tatischeff and Chomet even includes a clip from Mon Oncle when Tatischeff disappears into the cinema. For Suleiman it was accidental. “I was never influenced by Buster Keaton, or by Jacques Tati.” (Mubi) “Keaton, Tati, all those references, I only caught up with them after I started making my own films. I’m now in a position of being a profound admirer of them, but they weren’t initially an inspiration.” (Little White Lies) Andersson is more inclined to acknowledge a strong influence: “Tati is one of my favorites, especially Playtime. There’s this one sequence in that movie that I believe to be one of the most humorous in film history; they’re working in the kitchen and the staff is working very hard, and the boss in the kitchen notices the level of the sherry bottle is declining. And he’s very interested to know who the thief is.” (IndieWire) Andersson may have started out as a filmmaker who dissolved the frame, closer to Ken Loach or Milos Forman than Tati. Nevertheless, Suleiman (who hadn’t seen his work initially ) and Andersson (originally starting out with a very different style) are the two most innovative of Tati-esque directors, the ones who have turned the benign humour of the French filmmker into something a little more malign. 

   It is as if they are working with Freud’s idea of tendentious over innocent humour, with Freud saying “there are two kinds: a tendentious joke is 'either a hostile joke (serving the purpose of aggressiveness, satire, or defence) or an obscene joke (serving the purpose of exposure).” (Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious) Tati’s work is still largely innocent, and this might be why too he often retreats from the harshness of the gag, while Andersson and Suleiman insist on at least the harshness of the environment. There is the terrible moment when a young Palestinian intellectual says in The Time that Remains, “I want no life if we’re not respected in our land” and shoots himself in the head. In Songs from the Second Floor, someone slips and traps their hand in the door of a train. People stand around, waiting for someone to open the door from the inside as the man wails away. The scene from The Time that Remains isn’t of course funny at all, and the latter isn’t presented cruelly, though the pain is registered. But neither scene would be in Tati, with Tati’s critique of modernism more bemused and bewildered than damning and condemnatory. It is clear Andersson and Suleiman have a problem with their given societies, even if Andersson would be well aware that Sweden’s problems are of its own making, while Palestine is an occupied territory. Andersson says, “we’ve had a period where to look after one another is seen as old-fashioned. This is the path Sweden has taken politically. But it’s evident that it hasn’t worked out. It is a painful insight” (Guardian). His films capture brilliantly the atomisation. Suleiman reckons, “nationalism is a problem. I don’t particularly think that having a state is critical. I have been asked about this many times, and I said that I will fight to raise the Palestinian flag and when it has been raised I’m going to fight to lower it again. I’m extremely familiar with the Palestinian people, being one myself, but that doesn’t prevent me from fighting Palestinian oppressive forces, like what we have now [2020].” (Journal of Palestine Studies

   Their political position is clear but their comedic frame is of equal significance and won’t dilute the political, yet it will complicate it. However, one of the major differences between the two directors is that Andersson insists on frame, while Suleiman, perhaps less rigorous with the main frame, often works with frames within frames. In The Time that Remains, characters are often shown within door frames, on the edge of door frames, or where a side elevation shot on two rooms will create what looks almost like a split screen. It can give to Suleiman’s work a stronger aspect of the melancomic than Andersson’s, whose blank, harshly lit world, with the characters often wearing that pasty make-up, are closer to feeling sorry for themselves. In Songs from the Second Floor, the film’s main character comes into a bar and he is in the distance by the door as we hear a woman on the left hand of the frame at the counter moaning about getting caught in a traffic jam, and what turns out to be the man’s son half-sloped in a chair, in a gesture of gloom. When our main character comes in covered in soot and dust, he says “it’s not easy being human” as he later adds that his whole business has gone up in smoke. All three characters are within the one shot and the tone is that of atomised self-pity, even if one of them is the father of another. Andersson doesn’t mock his characters but he does insist on a perspective greater than the characters’ own. When the son speaks to a homeless man on a street corner, he tells the man rummaging in the bin that he used to live in the neighbourhood but his girlfriend threw him out, didn’t want to be with him anymore. The homeless man asks her name, then shouts up that she shouldn’t be so cruel and to let her ex in. The film cuts to why she isn’t so keen: she is in bed astride another man. The film doesn’t eschew compassion but it does insist on putting it in a context that dilutes the potentially maudlin.

   All six films, if in modestly different ways, are very good at finding a perspective, as though the frame is the method to contain characters without undermining them. They are all often great at recognising rather than going beyond the pain threshold: to see that pain needn’t escalate into slapstick but can retreat into the framing of a given situation. It gives to the work an awareness of cruelty (Songs from the Second Floor), oppression (The Time that Remains), obsoleteness (The Illusionist), individual insignificance (Playtime), desperation (I Hired a Contract Killer), and familial loss and conflict (The Royal Tenenbaums). However, it usually seeks a de-escalating aesthetic that rests on turning the comedic into the poignant, as if the comic shouldn’t earn its keep just on laughs but equally on tears. Though most of the films arrive at a gentle sadness, this needn’t of course result in a weepie, but a space between the tearful and the jocular, the space of the melancomic, of images framed.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

The Comedic Frame

Between the Jocular and the Tearful  

Few filmmakers challenged the idea of comedy more than Jacques Tati, and especially in Playtime. He wondered what would happen if a joke wasn't telegraphed but observed; that the comedian's purpose wasn't to signal the gag but to create a frame of such visual complexity that the humour could be hidden within it, with the viewer scanning the image, capturing the joke the way an angler might catch a fish. Vital to the project was patience, and for much of the first hour in Playtime it is as though Tati wants to test that patience as both a provocation and as an apprenticeship. It is a provocation because viewers expect a comedy to make them laugh, and an apprenticeship because Tati insists that a person must learn to read the frame so that the jokes can thus be spotted.

Tati perhaps remains the most challenging comedian of the image, the one who has taken aspects of Bazin's respect for the ambiguity of film and wondered how it would play out in the arena of comedy. As Jonathan Rosenbaum says of Playtime: "during the later stages of the Royal Garden festivities, one gag at the bar is repeated twice: a drunk and the stool he is sitting on simultaneously crash to the floor when he leans back too far. What makes this event a great deal funnier the first and third time it happens is its unexpectedness; amidst a flurry of other focal points." (Sight and Sound) This flurry of focal points is what distinguishes Tati from many other comic filmmakers and suggests the observational acuity Bazin wished the spectator to develop and which the French theorist saw for example in the depth of field work adopted by Jean Renoir. But while Renoir was a dramatist who didn't expect humour to be available in separate planes, Tati was a humourist who did. Observation expects no external response: one observes in silence. Humour is more of a social demand: the viewer often laughs out loud. This can lead to a viewer laughing at one moment that might seem inexplicable to another, and vice versa. If laughter is the best medicine, Tati is wary of assuming that the same prescription should be given to all.

Looking chiefly at six films, we can see how Playtime, Songs from the Second Floor, I Hired a Contract Killer, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Time that Remains and The Illusionist ask for a framed comedy, one that wishes to see the humour more in the frame than in the cut. Many a very fine comedic work relies on the gag as reaction shot, with Bill Murray excellent at showing an unfazed response to the most astounding of events, no more so than in Ghostbusters, just as Richard Pryor can offer an exaggerated one to circumstances that baffle him. Tati's humour never relied on the close-up and, instead, we see usually his full body within the frame, and framed amongst numerous other bodies as well. Yet in Tati, there is still the comedic centre held by his own presence, a sort of signifier of the comedic even if we're not quite sure where and when the gag will go off.

In some of the other films that signifier is absent, and we may wonder if Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor is a comedy at all as it shows us a loosely associated set of scenarios that, when it uses the cut, does so as an ellipsis rather than as a reaction shot or as causal assertiveness. When Murray looks mildly bemused by the ghosts in his midst, or when Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful sets up a gag, where we know that the eggs placed in a man's hat must a shot or two later go splat when the man puts his hat back on, the shots construct the gag. In Songs from the Second Floor it is the ellipsis between two scenes that usually makes us laugh the edit a necessary shift in a scene rather than a cut within the frame that emphasises the humour. In one lengthy take filmed from the back of the stage, an unassuming young man is hauled out of his seat and brought on to the stage despite his protestations. A magician and his assistant put him in a box and the magician proceeds to saw his way through it until the man squeals in pain and the audience realises this isn't part of the act. The film then cuts to the next scene, which shows the victim arriving at the hospital with the magician and his assistant, before cutting again to the victim, this time in bed with his wife, who seems more concerned by the lack of sleep she is getting than the pain her husband is in. The comedy is resistant rather than insistent, with the cut between scenes offering us the comedic but hardly pressuring us into laughter. If the reaction shot often cues the humour within the shot/counter shot, Andersson's fixed frame, long-take aesthetic doesn't allow for such comic grammar. The humour must be found either within a single frame, or through the juxtaposition of sequences. "In my opinion, in my films a larger portion is comedy than tragedy", Andersson says, "But I know that many people think the contrary. I prefer comedy, but not a comedy that is very easily read." (Mubi)

It is this question of comic legibility that Lucy Fischer addressed in a piece on Playtime in the mid-seventies. Fischer disagrees with Tati's idea that his humour is democratic, saying that, if one listens carefully to what Tati has to say about the film, and if we watch and listen to the film itself with much care, the freedom to laugh at what we choose is tempered by how Tati uses colour and sound design. Tati admits that in black and white so much emphasis would have been lost, and Fischer says that sounds if playing fair to the logic of the audio-visual would have been absorbed rather than pronounced. She gives as an example a waiter's trousers ripping, and suggests this is acoustically a closeup even if there is no closeup of the waiter. Equally, Fischer notes that one reason why we keep noticing a particular businessman in the film is because of his bright blue folder, a detail perhaps lost if Tati had shot in monochrome. Fischer believes Tati "is a marvellously benevolent despot" (Sight and Sound), someone who gives the impression of allowing for immense freedom while constantly controlling the material.

It needn't be an either/or as Tati created his own controlled environment to generate the comically experimental, building a studio on the outskirts of Paris that would create the space for the sort of humour he was pursuing. This was a comedy based not on the isolated gag but the comedic milieu; creating out of an entire space plenty of room for the joke, yet as if what mattered more was the world offered up as an absurd universe. When Andersson says his films can be read as tragedies or comedies, this becomes a matter of perspective contained by absurdities that must remain constant. It is absurd that the volunteer ends up in hospital with a saw wound that leaves his jacket and tie cut in two, but for Andersson it is no more so than a later scene when he shows a wealthy, former and now very old general lying in a cot while others talk of him as one of the most significant landowners in the country. There he is incarcerated in a side rail bed and all his land isn't worth much. He is celebrating his hundredth birthday and various army worthies turn up and the man, who has lost his marbles, finds once again his Nazi sympathies when he offers a Hitler salute.

What we are proposing is that the films create a world that might be funny rather than a generic demand that insists the films must be. If Fischer is right to say there is more to Tati's cinema than the viewer given the freedom to notice what they like, nevertheless what they notice is still based on perceiving the comedic rather than the filmmaker pronouncing it. When Andersson says some might find his work more tragic than comic, it is partly because the angle offered is asking us to see both the comedy and the tragedy, and deciding for ourselves which is the more prominent. Much of Andersson's work plays on history as we find in the Hitler salute in Songs From the Second Floor, and in a scene in You, The Living, where a worker reckons he can pull a tablecloth clean off without touching the items on it. He yanks away and the stunt goes disastrously wrong. Then we see what hides under the cloth a Nazi insignia. Andersson is often interested in Swedish complicity, in a generation that was sympathetic to the Nazis. "We are really living in both our time and the past all the time. Everything is affected by what has gone before." (Film Quarterly)

Tati's work tends to look forward, to see in the developing consumer society the way people try and adopt to new mores with varying degrees of aplomb and incompetence. Bourgeois hypocrisy moves in different directions: Andersson's with people denying the past; Tati's folk attempting to grapple with the future. The fancy restaurant in Playtime has all the latest gadgets, the most nouveau of nouveau cuisine and takes place. in the most modern of venues. It all goes wrong of course and the staff are forced into keeping up appearances and the guests into practising denial. When one of the glass doors of the entrance smashes, the doorman mimes opening and closing it as he lets guests in and out holding the door handle. But whether looking to the past or mocking a present that hints at the future, Tati and Andersson create worlds that are chiefly observationally funny rather than systemically so: the filmmaker rather than weighing the humour, balances it. We can think for example in Playtime of the heating that nobody can adjust and watch as people become increasingly sweat-stained. It isn't a funny moment; it is humorously extended as the film asks us to notice how some people struggle with the heat, just as we notice others find themselves with indentations on the back of their clothing: the chair-backs are made of hard metal in the shape of a crown. In Songs from the Second Floor, the comic is often no less based on our observational faculties. In one scene we see the closest to what passes for our main character in the background of the shot, two people speaking in the foreground, and several large Jesuses on crosses behind the two speakers. A man is showing a couple of possible customers Jesus and has taken him off the cross for this purpose, but then finds when putting him back that one of the nails has gone missing. Christ swings on the cross more like Tarzan of the Jungle than Jesus of Nazareth. All the while we are observing this, we might also notice our main character moving towards the table, and can't help but notice even by Andersson's standards that the speakers have horrendously grey skin tones, as if the living dead. What Andersson refuses to do is weigh all the humour on the dangling Christ; it becomes just another element of an absurdist mise en scene. The humour is balanced rather than weighed.

In our example from Life is Beautiful it is the other way around, and this is a common approach to humour that weighs rather than balances, In his response to Fischer's piece, Jonathan Rosenbaum talks of Noel Burch's notion of the refused gag, and this would be where the eggs don't splatter on the dignitary's head. It would deny the expectation but for such humour to be more than a mechanical reversal it would need to contain an observational purpose beyond the refusal. In Monsieur Hulot's Vacation, a child goes down some stairs precariously with an ice cream in a cone, and we might expect the contents of the cone to fall, but Tati instead asks us to observe the fragile concentration of the child over her misfortune. By refusing the gag or refusing to prioritise it, the filmmaker creates a milieu much broader than the concentrated purpose of the joke. We don't usually notice the environment, we anticipate the humour. However, a filmmaker can generate an anticipatory field that allows for attentiveness to return as anticipation. In Playtime, the architect is still finishing a few details at the restaurant as a few problems also start to present themselves. Dinner guests are soon to arrive and we become increasingly aware that the humour will come out of the unfinished work and the undoing of the work that has been done badly. `When just after the first guests arrive, the waiter finds one of the tiles stuck to his foot as we await further flaws in the restaurant's design. It isn't so much an isolated gag as he struts over to the diners' table with a tile stuck to his sole; it is the first detail in what will be an elaboration of a catastrophic series of architectural cock-ups.

Our eye searches the frame, looking for and awaiting what will happen next. The assumption leads to expectation: we wonder over the various things that will go wrong but Tati also insists that we will have to look out for them. They won't necessarily become part of a gag-sequence, the gag won't be contained by a punchline. In Woody Allen's Annie Hall, before Alvy Singer heads out to LA, he is sitting with a few others discussing the price of the cocaine on the table. The gauche Alvy takes a sniff and sneezes a small fortune away. It is a great gag but very much a contained one: we aren't surprised when he sneezes and the joke comes to its completion. It is true as well of Jerry Lewis in Who's Minding the Store? He mimes typing out a masterpiece and the scene offers all the sounds of the typewriter with none of its physical presence, until at the end of the scene a piece of paper appears yet with nothing on it. The scene ends; a mildly amusing play on presence and absence as the sound conjures up a hint of the visual but not enough for there to be anything on the piece of paper.

In neither example do the films rely on the sort of observation Tati insists upon, which is why Fischer can offer a solid argument within a misguided premise. If Tati is so significant it rests on how much he has absorbed the Bazinian notion of the ambiguous frame into his work; not how much he resembles any other comic filmmaker in making sure a viewer comprehends a gag. It is perhaps why critics talk of the influence of Tati upon Elia Suleiman, an influence he denies but is flattered by nevertheless." I'm always saying the same thing over and over: I was never influenced by... Jacques Tati:, he says, adding "I don't think that images come from images only. They come from your own images" (Mubi). This is surely an important aspect of the Bazinian project: to see images out there in the world that can be recuperated into cinema. Of all the filmmakers under discussion, it is Suleiman who uses comedy to reflect on the contemporaneously real, with much of his work on the Palestinian question. In The Time that Remains, he often shows us details that can seem close to slapstick-predictable but contains them within a specific form and a broader question. In one scene, after a shootout between Palestinians and Israelis, he shows us an ambulance pulling up outside a hospital. It is an establishing shot with the ambulance seen outside the entrance and with the hospital walkway above in the frame. Suleiman holds the shot as our eyes move from the bottom of the frame to the top as paramedics push the injured person along on the trolley, while our eye then moves again to the bottom of the frame when an army vehicle pulls up. Our eye then moves to the top once more as the army personnel grab the trolley and aim to take it away only for us to see the medics running after them and pulling it back as we witness a to and fro between the army, the family and medics.

It is a wonderful example of the comedic frame, a fixed shot that asks us to scan the image and also to see the absurdity of a situation that has the army in conflict with the medics, and wishes us to side with the absurdity rather than engage in one side of the conflict over the other. This isn't at all to say Suleiman is neutral. "...I want an end of occupation. That is what a Palestinian state should mean. I oppose the notion of statehood as it stands at the moment. And yes," he says, "I do think that Israel should cease to exist as a state for the Jewish people and commence to be a democratic, secular state for all its citizens, and that includes the one million or so Palestinians living there who are marginalised, with racist practices against them." (Guardian) However, he sees in a certain type of passivity something greater than the polemic. "If I had an answer to even one image when I started making it, it would not be on the screen. If you have answers for an image, there's no poetic space for itthere's already a closure of some kind." (Journal of Palestine Studies) What Suleiman offers in this scene from The Time that Remains isn't a shot that claims the Israelis are terrible and vindictive, though they are petty and ridiculous. This doesn't mean the Palestinians cannot be as well, but their pettiness comes from a position of weakness and not of power and thus can be the relative innocents in the war of absurdity.

Something of this absurd prowess we note in a scene where a man puts out his rubbish as a tank arrives foursquare on the street. As the man exits his flat and puts the garbage in the bin, the tank turret whirs into action and follows his movements. During the chore he gets a call on his mobile and walks back and forth, all the while the tank turret is whirring back and forth too. We see a petulant potency in the action, as though here are people with too much money to spend on military hardware and not enough sensitivity to leave people in peace. "The United States has provided Israel with $146 billion in military, economic, and missile defense funding. Adjusted for inflation, this amount is equivalent to $236 billion in 2018 dollars, making Israel the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. assistance since World War II." (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). Suleiman takes such a fact and turns it into the comedic without removing the political. It is more there is a greater chance of change coming out of realisation than polemicisation why escalate a conflict with anger when you can try and de-escalate it with humour?

Yet this isn't any old humour and returns us to slapstick and the violence often inherent within it. When we look at early comedies by the Keystone Kops, the violence is contained by the comic. But partly what is interesting about Suleiman's work is that he takes a violent conflict and removes much of the aggression from it, as though countering simultaneously the politics of conflict and also potentially the primal aspect of film comedy: that it is based on brutality. As Burch says, "The aggression [in silent film] sometimes comes a good deal closer to crossing the pain threshold. Harold Lloyd dangling over the ledge of a skyscraper is an image out of a nightmare; laughter and terror mingle, giving a very special coloration to some admirably structured acrobatics." Burch notes too that "when Laurel and Hardy in one of those proliferating structures that were their own special secret, demolish a whole line of cars, make scores of people double up in pain on the sidewalk by punching them in the solar plexus, or push a whole crowd of people into a mud puddle (scatological aggression such as this is extremely common in slapstick films), the viewer feels that he is the direct victim of a structured aggression, and his somewhat strained laughter is accompanied by a very pure aesthetic satisfaction." (Theory of Film Practice)

Partly what Suleiman, Tati, Andersson and others have done is risk reducing an aspect of the humorous by emphasising the gentle. If Burch can talk of a refused gag, then in the directors under discussion this refusal often rests on a pacifistic humour that counters the violence of slapstick. It thus reduces not only the telegraphic gag but also the graphic aspect often behind it. When people slip on banana skins, when things fall on their heads, when doors are flung open and a person is half-flattened behind them, this is all part of the comic lexicon of slapstick, and all can be found in taking a look at a few clips from Laurel and Hardy films. However, instead of the aggressively comic, we have the 'melancomic', a sad, benign worldview that becomes more important than the instantaneous guffaw that can be extracted. If Suleiman can say "it's about making the reading of the film a democratic moment," (Little White Lies), this is also because the comedy isn't victimising. There are more than enough people oppressed in the Palestinian conflict without Suleiman adding a few more for the sake of a good joke.

What the filmmakers often do is find a problematic the humour can exist within, and then the perspective finds funny various aspects of, usually, contemporary life. In Playtime, as in Mon Oncle and Traffic, Tati wonders how people negotiate the increasingly hazardous conditions in modern living. Some adjust to them better than others but Tati's purpose is to show that these changes are happening. Thus, when Tati offers a variation of the slapstick gag of a door slammed in someone's face, he offers it as self-clumsiness in the light of new circumstances. A character who is looking for Monsieur Hulot confuses him with someone else, at the same time he confuses transparency with a door, and slams into it. In a world of glass, where walls, doors and windows all look similar, and all can give the impression of transparency, it makes sense that someone will feel that distinctions have disappeared, including the outside and the inside. In classic architecture, generally, walls were stone; doors wooden, and windows glass. What happens if they all become glass and lose their distinguishing coordinates? Most people most of the time adjust to this architectural shift; nevertheless, a wry comedy can come out of their confusion. In Playtime, this most critical of modernist films, Tati takes an old gag and gives it newness by suggesting that we shouldn't so much find the joke funny; we should find the circumstances alarming. We have taken modern architecture too easily for granted and only in error are likely to realise how much has changed.

In Playtime, much is made of the new; in Aki Kaurismaki's London-set I Hired a Contract Killer, the emphasis rests on the old, the derelict and the tired. Playtime was made in 1967 and Kaurismaki's film in 1990. But it looks more the other way round, with Tati's film showing well the glorious post-war years of French prosperity, and Kaurismaki's a decade of austerity under Thatcher. I Hired a Contract Killer shows a low-level French emigre bureaucrat living in London who loses his job and takes a hit out on himself, then spends the rest of the film trying to dodge the assassin. It gives Kaurismaki the chance to view London with an outsider's eye but what he sees isn't very different from many realist filmmakers of the period (Loach, Leigh, Clarke): a country falling apart. Opening on fixed frame shots of various parts of the city looking usually dilapidated, much of the rest of the film shows central character Henri and others wandering through what amounts to a very late addition to the rubble film: Italian and German films showing post-war devastation. There is comedy here but it seems constantly contained by the director's astonishment at what he finds locationally. If Germany and Italy lost the war, then this is Britain having made a real hash of the peace. We might wonder if it has anything to do with Britain as a country that has never had much of a problem with wealth and class, with the Thatcherite Britain Kaurismaki indirectly exposes augmenting that wealth with two major tax cuts for the comfortable in 1980 and 1988 cutting the top rate to 60 per cent, then to 40 per cent.

Kaurismaki has always been drawn to the desolate and the denuded, but few watching the film won't see city poverty as readily as the director's yen for the miserable. True, Simon Hattenstone notes when interviewing Kaurismaki that he is "miserabilist's miserabilist" (Guardian) but he came to London without much need for a despairing imagination: reality was sufficing. Kaurismaki's skill here is to use the frame as though he is making a socially realist film but contains it within the world of the comedic. Palette-wise, comedy usually makes much use of brighter colours, innocuous oranges, yellows and lime greens, and lest one regards this as no more than an impression, some analysts have inevitably tried to make objective such a claim: "Colors in romance and comedy tend to have higher contrast and brightness and are rich in red and yellow while in horror, sci-fi and action it is the reverse. Sci-fi films usually show the highest average standard deviation of brightness, as well as red, green, yellow, and blue among these five film categories. This indicates that colors of sci-fi films tend to vary greatly as the story progresses. The color analysis protocol developed in this study can be a valuable tool for exploring the aesthetic functions of colors in films." (Characteristic Color Use in Different Film Genres) There may be a sharp red (Henri's lover's scarlet dressing gown) but that is a nod to hope that the environment generally retreats from acknowledging.

Most of the time, the film offers greys and blues, and when offering red and greens they are usually worn and tired, like the reddish brick wall where Henri meets with gangsters as he arranges the hit, or the red, green and yellow interiors of a burger cafe. They match the rundown exteriors, with Henri constantly passing high-rises, back streets, buildings in disrepair, places where it is hard to discern whether they are inhabited or dis-inhabited, rundown or about to be taken down. If Suleiman offers a mise en scene in The Time that Remains capturing a people under occupation, Kaurismaki gives us a mise en scene that proposes a dystopian capitalism where most are living a hand-to-mouth existence in a wasteland. Early on, Henri loses his job working for the water board and the posh boss says "redundancies cannot be avoided", after announcing that the government has decided to privatise. The film might have been more obvious if it had a photo of Thatcher on the wall behind him but, instead, it is Pope John Paul II, a more ambivalent presence than the UK PM. Meanwhile, anyone who sees Boris Johnson in the plummy voice and blonde mop will probably be projecting from the future into the past, no matter if at the time he was already writing articles for the Daily Telegraph that made him a Thatcher favourite. In each instance, in The Time that Remains and I Hired a Contract Killer, the films seek humour out of a milieu that wouldn't lend itself to the comedic.

While Suleiman would seem much more precise in his framing, Kaurismaki is more exploratory in his attitude to milieu. The frame is secondary to locale and Claire Monk emphasises "its cinematic geography and the specifics of its resonant choice of determinedly off-centre locations (drawn largely from the post-industrial, post-imperial east London docks and old East End, but extending to a wider palette of districts in London EC, north and west), and in the insights that might emerge from detailed attention to these." ('Where I Come From, We Eat Places Like This For Breakfast') If realism can sometimes appear contrary to comedy, it rests on the need for the comedic usually to contain the joke and for realism to open up the milieu. When Tati all but invokes the Bazinan this might seem paradoxical, because Bazin wanted us to see more of the world partly so that its socio-political dimension could become evident. Tati would seem to want to close the world off and create his own internal universe. It was a preoccupation so great that for Playtime his studio-created environment became known as Tativille. Bazin might not have been chiefly a politically-oriented film critic (his concerns were more spiritual and phenomenological), but his enthusiasm for the neo-realistic showed a critic interested in the immediacy of people's lives and their living conditions. So did Tati, even if he was more inclined to work them out in controlled environs rather than the found realities of the Italians. Though our chief interest may be the frame as a specific cinematic thing the filmmakers respect as they use it for expressing humour, we also want to keep in mind how they can utilise it to offer a worldview that goes beyond the specifics of the image, seeing humour as a frame initself - as a way of looking at things.

In I Hired a Contract Killer, Kaurismaki seeks to convey a loser's world and finds it as much in the locations he shows as the characters he focuses upon. It isn't just Henri losing his job; it is his newfound lover Margaret who gets by selling flowers, two henchmen who make a dismal job of a robbery that ends up involving Henri, and the assassin who coughs up blood and lives in a basement at a disused yard. Even Henri's landlady lives in as dismal a dwelling as he does. We see her sitting smoking a fag, against a bare, smoke-stained, off-white wall. In Playtime, the frame is constricted and the environment controlled; in I Hired a Contract Killer, the frame is more open and the locations very much there to be found even if they might look very different today. As Paul Newland reckons: "shots of dilapidated buildings and dismal sites of urban dereliction - partly-demolished east London industrial units and closed shop fronts. Here the city is clearly depicted as an 'inbetween' space between the past and the future between dereliction and renewal." (Widescreen)

Whether the filmmaker works with found realities or restricted environments needn't be a defining feature of the comedic frame. Andersson and Tati look for those constraints, Suleiman and Kaurismaki wish to create a comedic perspective out of identifiable realities others would be inclined to take straight. But where does that leave our two other main examples, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums and Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist? These are the most cartoonish of the films we are addressing, and Chomet's is an animated work. Yet both Anderson and Chomet work paradoxically with the locational. Anderson insisted that the main location The Tenenbuams' residence, "was a real house. At the time I was very adamant that this would be a real place and that we have to make it a real place." (Vulture Magazine) However, Anderson also says. "a lot of the time we have built something to play our scene, and we really haven't built anything outside of the frame. This is the way we're going to do it, because that's all there is and that's all there is going to be! And we're probably not going to have another choice when the time comes. But over the years I may have gotten more planned with how these movies are going to be filmed. It works better for me. I hope that the actors don't feel trapped." (Far Out Magazine) Anderson wants reality and he wants it on his terms, with creative geography often useful: "for the 375th Street Y, the exterior was in one place on the Upper East Side, and for the interior we found a place in New Jersey." (Vulture)

If Anderson wishes to take the real world of New York and turn it into his filmic, frame-restrictive playground, Chomet with The Illusionist offers an animated work that nevertheless wants the viewer to see the locational specifics in what he and his fellow animators have drawn. He wants the reality of Edinburgh as visible to the viewer as Anderson wants to hide most of New York. This might reside partly in Manhattan's ubiquity on screen next to Edinburgh's only occasional presence, but also in Anderson's determination to turn reality into the subjective, and Chomet's desire to turn the animated into the objective. As Chomet says, when he and his Edinburgh studio, Django Films, started researching 1950s Scotland, they discovered that electricity arrived in Iona exactly in 1959. "That was amazing, admits Chomet. It's why it was crucial that we lived and worked in Scotland. It makes the film rich with detail and we could really do our research into the 1950s. We could send background people to Mull and Iona to study the light and the colour of the grass. We could look at the stations, the trains, and the buses. We could take photos on our walk to work ." (Scotsman)

Both Anderson and Chomet create 'made' frames and this might seem the best way to describe the cinema we are proposing. We needn't underestimate how careful filmmakers are in showing what appears on screen, but the frame is usually what contains the image rather than what defines it. However, it is as though Anderson has asked how restrictive he can make the frame as he worries whether the actors might feel trapped, while Chomet muses over how much he can get into the frame; he often shows Edinburgh at oblique angles all the better to get more of the city into the image than we might expect. We can think of the shot where the train carrying Tatischeff and the young woman Alice, who has joined him after his stay in the Highlands. We see as the train pulls in, someone on the other platform, tiny in the shot, looking at his watch. What we also see is Waverley station, Waverley Bridge and the Balmoral Hotel. In the next shot, Tatischeff and Alice are exiting the station and the frame contains also the National Gallery and the castle.

Anderson can fill his frame as well, but he usually seeks a fetishistic clutter, a frame full of knowing bric-a-brac that makes the viewer scan the image for the most pertinent instance of visual wit. There is a moment after his step-daughter Margot has put on a play and Royal critiques it as he would a critic reviewing a work by a grown-up professional playwright. While this is amusing in its cruelty, we notice too that though he is surrounded by kids he is smoking a cigarette, and that, though he is indoors, he is wearing as usual his shades. We notice as well that Margo's half-brother Richie is still wearing his headband even as he is also wearing the tiger costume, sans head, he was wearing during the production. In the background, we notice the framed paintings, all painted by Richie, all paintings of Margot. In a shot/counter shot later in the film, when the kids have grown-up, Richie is visiting his childhood friend Eli in his bachelor pad and in the shot Anderson shows Richie and behind him a painting of men in jeans, bare-chested and wearing a mask attacking another member of the gang, who is now maskless. In the counter shot, the same men, all masked and riding on dirt motorbikes have their arms raised. Any attention to the story (or for that matter Erik Satie's music heard playing) is secondary to these large, grotesque paintings that Richie tries surreptitiously to glance at. All becomes sort of clear when Eli says he has been regularly tripping out on mescaline.

In Anderson's films, the shots usually feel loaded with content that doesn't augment character but defines it. When, say, we see Bickle's apartment in Taxi Driver, Harry's in The Conversation or Bree's in Klute, the filmmakers offer in each instance a space that allows us to comprehend an aspect of their loneliness, but we don't at all have a facetious relationship with it. In different circumstances, they would live differently, and we see this in Klute when Bree leaves the apartment at the end, seeing it empty of all the furniture. It is now bare yet it seemed somehow empty when there were things in it as well. In The Royal Tenenbaums, we might wonder if Anderson would fear such a framing, as though, without the clutter, his films would be devoid of meaning: that they are willing to risk sacrificing the meaningful to arrive constantly at a more instantaneous comprehension. Anderson is without doubt a filmmaker of the frame but we might not always see this as a positive. It can give to his non-animated films the suffocation that the animated The Illusionist resists.

One can perhaps best explain this by noting that Chomet, while he incorporates caricature, is often an implicit filmmaker. It comes when we notice Alice has sneaked away from the island and when two cars crash, the film cuts away first to the cows who react to the accident we don't see, and then when we see the crashed vehicle we also notice, small in the frame, Alice popping her head out from a cover in the back of the open truck. The crash is elided, and Alice noticed neither is telegraphed. Later, in Edinburgh, the ventriloquist who has been living in the same hotel as Tati, sells his dummy, We might first notice it when Tatischeff goes to sell his suitcase at the same pawnbrokers. As he exits the taxi and goes into the shop, we can see the dummy in the window. When he leaves the store, we do get a close-up of the dummy but we also get more information. The dummy, on sale for 6, was reduced from 4.50 and is now 3. When later the film cuts again to the dummy in a beautiful series of shots that are more Ozu than typical animation, after Tatischeff leaves Scotland, we see it is now free for anybody who will take it home. The moment is wonderfully done because this shot is contained by a series of others where the lights are being switched off in different Edinburgh locales that we have witnessed at various stages in the film. It is contained by the steady collapse of the ventriloquist over the later stages of the film, as we have seen him drinking alone in a pub, and then later asleep, begging on the street as Tatischeff passes him. His obsoleteness finds its correlative in the dummy the shop owner can only give away.

There are of course many great directors of the frame, including Antonioni, Ozu, Tsai Ming-Liang etc, just as there are great directors of the image (Scorsese; Herzog, Rossellini), and some who work between the frame and the image (Bergman, Kubrick and Godard). Someone thinking chiefly of the frame wants to remind us of the image constrained; those thinking of the image often wish for us to acknowledge that the image isn't just content but contains an intent, the texture of what it shows us. The camera is there to capture rather than to frame: to emphasise the pro-filmic dimension of cinema, of being a camera in the world. The frame reminds us of the camera as a limited observer. For a comedic filmmaker to be so concerned with the frame can seem a risk. If comedy is a genre that demands, like horror, a categorical response (laughter in the former; shock in the latter), then contemplation, reflection and observation can appear antithetical to that instantaneousness. However, if one views the comedic as a frame not just in the cinematic sense but as a type of bracketing, as a way of looking at the world in a particular manner that happens to be comedic rather than necessarily funny, then filmmakers aren't undermining their own comic potential; they are insisting on a comedic perspective. This is one where we might laugh or we might not but our understanding of a given situation or moment, of a place, or a dilemma, becomes acutely realised. It could come in the misguided modernity of Playtime, the inertia of Andersson's Sweden, a country that may have created a generous welfare state but that hasn't quite eradicated its Nazi leanings as his characters are contained by an enervation and isolation hard to comprehend. It can come in viewing the Palestinian/Israeli conflict as an absurd horror but where the absurd must be as present as the horrific, and where violence will often be contained by implicit humour rather than explicit aggression. Then we have in I Hired a Contract Killer a look at London as a city of astonishing decrepitude that seems to mimic the mind of the forlorn and depressed central character without at all taking on an expressionist aspect. The Illusionist no less explores Edinburgh and suggests in an equally forlorn but antithetical way how much beauty the city contains. The Royal Tenenbaums is probably the most assertive of all the films, the one most inclined to use the comedic frame with the idea of a punchline, a term that proposes a force most of the other films resist. When Royal takes his grandchildren for a fun day out the film is full of telegraphing: whip pans to the kids stealing a drink; medium close-ups showing us small water balloons before they throw them at a cab; a side angle elevation shot as the three of them jump into the swimming pool, followed by a close up of the three of them underwater. Nevertheless, Anderson is a director of comedic framing and acknowledges the risks when he talks of potentially suffocating his actors.

However, the frame is there in an Anderson as it wouldn't in a Mel Brooks, an early Woody Allen or a Jim Carey and Adam Sandler film. As Tati says of work by Allen and Lewis: "I recognize it's good, but it's not the way I want to express myself. I work more by observation: you see, when a president or a prime minister does a little something that's funny, that makes me laugh much more than a comic does." (Film Comment) Brooks and others are comedic pragmatists, with the camera usually going where the gag demands. Anderson doesn't have the quiet rigour of Tati, Andersson, or Suleiman, who expect much more the viewer to look for the joke within the frame, but he does create images that indicate the frame's importance, so much so that he will obliterate off-screen space. Wes Anderson makes clear the frame is formally restrictive, while Roy Andersson is more inclined to see it as empathically expansive. When an interviewer says Chaplin reckoned "Life is a tragedy in close-up, but a comedy in wide shot." Anderson replied: "I'm not sure that I agree with that. I think that the wide shot tells a lot about the human being that a close-up can't. About their place in the world. The wide shot defines the human being more than the close-up because, for example, the room where the person is tells about his tastes, his life. Even if it's not home, you can read the history of a person better in a wide shot. When you read this wide shot, there are so many elements that make the picture more tragic." (Mubi)

His remark would seem to be pertinent in different ways to Tati, Suleiman and Chomet, all of whom create feeling through the long shot, while Kaurismaki seems in this sense a halfway house between the compositional irony of Anderson and the broader context Andersson and others insist upon, We could trace a stylistic link from Kaurismaki to Jarmusch, Hartley to Anderson, one that is more inclined to make explicit the humour and to emphasise the close-up. But there are few contemporary filmmakers more concerned with humour and the frame than Anderson. It would be unfair to ignore him, even if we might insist that he is the least Tatiesque of the filmmakers here, no matter the direct allusion to Hulot's apartment block in Mon Oncle in The French Dispatch, and his contribution to a Tati catalogue where he says "he has a silhouette that you can make into a cartoon; just his walk is a great creation." (The Rushmore Academy) Tati says, "the dimension of the camera is the dimension of what your eyes see; I don't come close up or make tracking shots to show you what a good director I am. I want your eyes to put you in such a situation where you come to the opening of the restaurant, as though you were there that night" (Film Comment). In Anderson's work, the camera is rarely the dimension we see, as Anderson very much relies on tracking shots and close-ups.

In this sense, Tati's main disciples would be Andersson, Sulieman and Chomet. Of course, Tati's influence is unequivocal in the latter, as the film is based on Tati's script, the character is called Tatischeff and Chomet even includes a clip from Mon Oncle when Tatischeff disappears into the cinema. For Suleiman it was accidental. "I was never influenced by Buster Keaton, or by Jacques Tati." (Mubi) "Keaton, Tati, all those references, I only caught up with them after I started making my own films. I'm now in a position of being a profound admirer of them, but they weren't initially an inspiration." (Little White Lies) Andersson is more inclined to acknowledge a strong influence: "Tati is one of my favorites, especially Playtime. There's this one sequence in that movie that I believe to be one of the most humorous in film history; they're working in the kitchen and the staff is working very hard, and the boss in the kitchen notices the level of the sherry bottle is declining. And he's very interested to know who the thief is." (IndieWire) Andersson may have started out as a filmmaker who dissolved the frame, closer to Ken Loach or Milos Forman than Tati. Nevertheless, Suleiman (who hadn't seen his work initially ) and Andersson (originally starting out with a very different style) are the two most innovative of Tati-esque directors, the ones who have turned the benign humour of the French filmmker into something a little more malign.

It is as if they are working with Freud's idea of tendentious over innocent humour, with Freud saying "there are two kinds: a tendentious joke is 'either a hostile joke (serving the purpose of aggressiveness, satire, or defence) or an obscene joke (serving the purpose of exposure)." (Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious) Tati's work is still largely innocent, and this might be why too he often retreats from the harshness of the gag, while Andersson and Suleiman insist on at least the harshness of the environment. There is the terrible moment when a young Palestinian intellectual says in The Time that Remains, "I want no life if we're not respected in our land" and shoots himself in the head. In Songs from the Second Floor, someone slips and traps their hand in the door of a train. People stand around, waiting for someone to open the door from the inside as the man wails away. The scene from The Time that Remains isn't of course funny at all, and the latter isn't presented cruelly, though the pain is registered. But neither scene would be in Tati, with Tati's critique of modernism more bemused and bewildered than damning and condemnatory. It is clear Andersson and Suleiman have a problem with their given societies, even if Andersson would be well aware that Sweden's problems are of its own making, while Palestine is an occupied territory. Andersson says, "we've had a period where to look after one another is seen as old-fashioned. This is the path Sweden has taken politically. But it's evident that it hasn't worked out. It is a painful insight" (Guardian). His films capture brilliantly the atomisation. Suleiman reckons, "nationalism is a problem. I don't particularly think that having a state is critical. I have been asked about this many times, and I said that I will fight to raise the Palestinian flag and when it has been raised I'm going to fight to lower it again. I'm extremely familiar with the Palestinian people, being one myself, but that doesn't prevent me from fighting Palestinian oppressive forces, like what we have now [2020]." (Journal of Palestine Studies)

Their political position is clear but their comedic frame is of equal significance and won't dilute the political, yet it will complicate it. However, one of the major differences between the two directors is that Andersson insists on a frame, while Suleiman, perhaps less rigorous with the main frame, often works with frames within frames. In The Time that Remains, characters are often shown within door frames, on the edge of door frames, or where a side elevation shot on two rooms will create what looks almost like a split screen. It can give to Suleiman's work a stronger aspect of the melancomic than Andersson's, whose blank, harshly lit world, with the characters often wearing that pasty make-up, are closer to feeling sorry for themselves. In Songs from the Second Floor, the film's main character comes into a bar and he is in the distance by the door as we hear a woman on the left hand of the frame at the counter moaning about getting caught in a traffic jam, and what turns out to be the man's son half-sloped in a chair, in a gesture of gloom. When our main character comes in covered in soot and dust, he says "it's not easy being human" as he later adds that his whole business has gone up in smoke. All three characters are within the one shot and the tone is that of atomised self-pity, even if one of them is the father of another. Andersson doesn't mock his characters but he does insist on a perspective greater than the characters' own. When the son speaks to a homeless man on a street corner, he tells the man rummaging in the bin that he used to live in the neighbourhood but his girlfriend threw him out, didn't want to be with him anymore. The homeless man asks her name, then shouts up that she shouldn't be so cruel and to let her ex in. The film cuts to why she isn't so keen: she is in bed astride another man. The film doesn't eschew compassion but it does insist on putting it in a context that dilutes the potentially maudlin.

All six films, if in modestly different ways, are very good at finding a perspective, as though the frame is the method to contain characters without undermining them. They are all often great at recognising rather than going beyond the pain threshold: to see that pain needn't escalate into slapstick but can retreat into the framing of a given situation. It gives to the work an awareness of cruelty (Songs from the Second Floor), oppression (The Time that Remains), obsoleteness (The Illusionist), individual insignificance (Playtime), desperation (I Hired a Contract Killer), and familial loss and conflict (The Royal Tenenbaums). However, it usually seeks a de-escalating aesthetic that rests on turning the comedic into the poignant, as if the comic shouldn't earn its keep just on laughs but equally on tears. Though most of the films arrive at a gentle sadness, this needn't of course result in a weepie, but a space between the tearful and the jocular, the space of the melancomic, of images framed.


© Tony McKibbin