Comedia Film Festival: The Features

by Donato Totaro Volume 6, Issue 7 / July 2002 19 minutes (4544 words)

Comedy is by far the most tenuous of film genres, defying rigid categorisation and subject to the whims of cultural and historical specificity. Every popular genre is defined by a dominant spectatorial emotion or psychological quotient: horror = fear, thriller = suspense, melodrama = tears, science fiction/fantasy = wonder, pornography = sexual arousal. We know that a comedy is supposed to make us laugh, but there is no laugh-meter to gauge how much we need to laugh for a film to be a comedy, or how much we can laugh at a non-comedy. Or whether non-intentional laughter counts as comedy (the ranks of the so-bad-its-good category and ‘camp’). Laughter is often the worst possible consensus builder. What one person may find funny in one country, time, or place, another will stare at in stone silence. I experienced this first hand when revisiting Pulp Fiction in Italy. I first saw the film in Montreal, and found myself laughing on several occasions along with a healthy segment of the audience. About one year later I happened to see the film again in Rome, dubbed into Italian with a partisan crowd. No laughter, nothing. You could hear the sound of a pin drop through the dull silence. It’s not that Italians don’t have a sense of humor, but that the film’s gallows humour was too tied to Tarantino’s American-inflected gangster movie argot and the performances to survive a dubbed translation into any language.

No other genre can claim as many sub-genres (musical comedy, screwball, romantic comedy, black/dark, camp, situation comedy, teen exploitation, comedy of manners, gore-gag, mockumentary) and terms (abstract/surreal, ironic, farcical, lowbrow/scatological, non-sensical/absurdist) as comedy. Even with such a broad range there are, thankfully, general rules that still hold for comedy. The most general and still fertile is the French philosopher Henri Bergson’s wonderfully evocative ‘leitmotif’, “the mechanical encrusted upon the living.” That is, we laugh whenever life, in its varied forms, acts like or gives us the impression of being like a machine (the latter in the loosest sense of the term). Anyone interested in comedy, from either the critical perspective or as a hopeful practitioner, would do well to read Bergson’s timeless monogram from 1900 entitled “Comedy.” [1] There are a handful of other general comments/truisms that can be said about comedy (some gleamed from Bergson):

1) Comedy always involves a modicum of truth. If there is not truth at some level, then there is no humor.

2) The comic screen is a mirror, exposing us to ourselves, our neighbors, and society.

3) Comic laughter always involves the intellect: to laugh without knowing why is not comic laughter (i.e. reflex humor, laughing gas, nervous laughter, etc.).

4) Comedy always involves the human and the social (exemplified by the numerous animal comedies that give human qualities to animals).

5) Cutting across all the above sub-genres, style, and forms, are three key comic modes: parody, satire, slapstick. These are the true, tried and tested that comedians keep coming back to, from The Three Ages (1923) to Austin Powers (1997) (in this case parody)

6) A comedy’s ability to translate well across time and culture is in proportion to its reliance on visual humor (slapstick, pantomime, sight gag aesthetic). The greater the dependence, the more universal the comedy [hence Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, Jacques Tati, Michael Hui, etc.]. The greater the reliance on verbal humor (dialect, slang, argot), the less universal the comedy (Fernandel, Toto, Stephen Chiau).

Montreal movie fans had a chance to savor this broad palette with the Comedia film festival (July 11-22). The festival began in harmless fashion with the warmly nostalgic Elvira’s Haunted Hills (Sam Irvin, 2001), introduced by the actress better known as Elvira, Cassandra Peterson. In the intro she tells us that the film is truly an independent, wholly financed by herself and her husband by, among other things, the remortgaging of their home. Her intro served the film well by slightly exaggerating the skeletal financial means because the film’s production values are actually not that bad. This is in large part because they went to shoot the film in Romania, which, Cassandra tells us, “is cheaper than Canada.” With many castles to choose from, Romania provided the film with its single most important location. The film is a loving homage to the Corman-Poe films of the 1950’s and 1960’s, respectful but not too respectful. The most honest intertextual reference to the Corman films is right at the start, the psychedelic, color swirling credit sequence. The film, however, does not stop at Corman for its comic inspiration. In fact the film’s first intertextual gag references is not Corman but Kubrick’s The Shining. The film begins with Elvira sleeping in an Inn bed with her overweight ‘French’ maid Zou Zou. The innkeeper knocks hard on the door yelling to be paid. When the room’s occupants do not respond the innkeeper crashes through the door with an axe, sticks his head through the hole and says, “Here’s Johann!” The film’s humor derives from two conceits: anachronism and Elvira’s well-worn comic persona. Although the film is set in 1851 Elvira acts as if she were in 2002, using contemporary cultural references and language. For example, when the seeming male love interest Dr. Bradley Bradley makes a reference to the Village people’s superstitious beliefs about the house, Elvira replies, “Who listens to the Village People anymore.” And much of her interaction with other characters stems from her aggressive sexual persona.

In visual look and attitude Elvira is part Vampirella, part Mae West. Although in fairness to historical justice West, who slung her innuendo’s over 70 years ago, made far more of a cultural impact than Elvira ever could. While Elvira comes across as coy and ‘family-friendly’, West was perceived as a dangerous, subversive awakening of female sexual mores. I’m sure Cassandra Peterson would herself admit that West was a pioneer, Elvira merely a foot soldier. Like West, Elvira is not afraid to lust after men and does not hide her sexual promiscuity. When a male protagonist addresses her as “My slutty, adulteress darling,” Elvira fires back, “Don’t call me darling.”

For anyone familiar with the Corman films they will easily connect the reflexive dots: a woman buried alive in a wall, a pit with a pendulum, a man tortured by the spirit of his murdered wife (said woman in the wall), a man dressed in black with top hat and dark glasses moving through the woods, a house that cracks and crumbles in the film’s climax. One of the film’s more original comic touches involves the use of voice. When we are first introduced to Dr. Bradley Bradley (the charlatan, as he is called in the credits) he speaks in an imposing upper class British accent. When he comes clean as a villain his dialect changes to a working class Cockney accent. And the proverbial muscle-bound stable boy (Elvira’s “stable stud”) speaks with a heavy East European accent that is intentionally dubbed far out of synch (when Elvira first meets him she turns to the camera and asks, “How does he speak like that?” In a nice gesture to her image of female empowerment, in the film’s climax Elvira manages to rescue herself from the swinging pendulum and is not saved by the male hero

The Troma film documentary All the Love You Cannes! is an in-your-face (Troma president Lloyd Kaufman’s face to be precise) savage account of the inequities faced by true independent filmmakers at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. The film’s style wholly reflects the ethics of independent filmmaking. The 1960’s technological revolution associated with the cinema vérité (lightweight 16mm camera, Nagra sound recorder, fast speed film, etc.) reduced the film crew to a potential of two: director/cameraperson and sound person. In many instances Kaufman reduces this to its endpoint by holding his digital camera at arm’s length and filming himself! The film’s point of view is, as you would expect, one-sided. No official representative from Cannes is given much of a voice or sympathy. There is nothing at all wrong with this, but this one-sidedness eventually spells the film’s downfall. When the film attacks what Cannes has come to represent (glitch, glamour, money, networking, etc.) the film is fun and liberating. Some of the French press have even likened the film’s abrasive, intrusive, and aggressive attitude to the earlier French Dadaists (destroying art for art’s sake). But when the film becomes wholly insular by turning to the in-fighting among Troma’s own mini-hierarchy, mainly sophomorically-challenged Doug (who looks like the German underground maverick Jörg Buttgeriet) and Hollywood wannabe smug-King Steve, we really don’t care. They are both people I would not want to spend one nanosecond with. I ended up spending the final twenty or so minutes of the film (from about the beginning of the big Troma beach party scene) merely wondering who I loathed more, Doug or Steve.

The film’s best moments are the sabotaging of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s photo shoot and the ongoing ‘rivalry’ between the Troma team and the studio who were unfortunate enough to be located across the hall from them, Warner Bros. The horrified look on the face of Van Damme’s publicist when she realizes that the madcap Troma team, in full swing with its in-costume characters Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman, Killer Kondom Man, and the Dolphin Man, will not respect media protocol, is priceless. As is the mixture of utter disgust and barely contained anger displayed by the well-oiled, professionally-run Warner Bros. machine in face of Troma’s ‘less than respectful’ attention-grabbing antics. It is a pure case of Big Business versus the little guy, Corporate Smugness versus Cottage Industry, and Bourgeoisie versus Anarchy. The Troma theatrics are sometimes served with an overt political edge. Most strikingly, the team’s grass-roots Recycling campaign and Kaufman’s likening of the Cannes’ authorities predilection to building fences around events to World War 2 (the precise quote is something to the effect of, “The French are good at building fences, they built fences around the Jews in World War 2”). But it is hard to tell whether these are genuine political statements or another form of attention-grabbing (most likely both).

While Kaufman’s voice yells loudly for the spirit of artistic freedom, which Troma clearly stands for in one respect, what comes across more loudly is Kaufman’s indefatigable showmanship. Kaufman is the ‘missing link’ to an earlier era’s pioneering spirit of ultra-low budget, survival-at-all-costs, exploitation filmmaking. When the final history is written Kaufman will be (the last?) named in the same breath as such figures as Dwain Esper, Kroger Babb, David Friedman, H.G. Lewis, William Castle, Samuel Z Arkoff and James Nicholson (AIP), and Roger Corman. I would rather remember Kaufman in this company than by the film’s prankster post-credit coda: Doug relieving himself into Steve’s carrying bag.

Pumpkin struck me as a better than usual teen movie mainly because of its attempt at irony and its willingness to play with the genre’s stereotyping. Christina Ricci, doing a good imitation of Reese Witherspoon in Election and Legally Blond, plays Carolyn McDuffy, Pasadena Barbie doll whose life falls apart when she realizes that, beyond her pampered, sheltered upper class existence life is, well, not perfect. Things turn topsy turvy when Carolyn, who dates the school’s tennis star, falls madly in love with a wheelchair-bound, possibly mentally handicapped athlete named Pumpkin (Hank Harris). The film wears its pedigree on its sleeve by, for example, referring to some of the sorority types as being like “Stepford Wives.” The film borrows most of its situations or set-pieces from other films. The one’s that came to mind first were Heathers, The Stepford Wives, and, believe it or not, Rosemary’s Baby. The scene where the central character’s paranoia concerning all her friends, family, teachers, and boyfriend conspiring against her is played out precisely like the final scene where a drugged Rosemary moves into her guest-filled living room to discover the truth about her baby. But the tip scaled past the acceptable level when I found out from writer Randolph Jordan just how slavishly Pumpkin copies from a film I have yet to see, Todd Solondz’s Storytelling (2001). The main plot point of an attractive woman falling in love with a physically disabled person, as well as the character of the angry black poet are both lifted with little alteration from Storytelling.

What remains is still a cut above the usual teen comedy, mainly in its willingness to broach areas of teen/high school life which remain uncharted in most teen films. In a recent positive piece on the teen comedy, critic Robin Wood claims that he has yet to encounter an American teen film that dealt with the issue of teen suicide (apparently very high, especially among gay teens). [2] In fact the scene I described earlier in reference to Rosemary’s Baby comes after a scene where Carolyn attempts suicide by ingesting all the pills in her bathroom vanity chest. Although the scene is curt and we never really think for a moment that she will succeed, the film at least raises the stakes for teen depression/angst.

Shot on an 18-day shooting schedule in Montreal, the Canadian black comedy The Mallory Effect (US born Dustin Guy, 2002) was a nice surprise. This is much darker than a good deal of comedy hitting the screen these days, and bears a mean streak similar to the films of Neil LaBute, Todd Solondz, or David Manet. The writing is not quite in the class of the aforementioned, but the characters are easily as twisted and unpredictable. In this case twentysomething Charley (Steven Roy), an insurance salesman for a large corporation, turns into a near sociopath when his beautiful girlfriend Mallory (model-turned actress Josie Maran) dumps him unceremoniously on Valentine’s Day. What little sympathy we may have for Charley at this point quickly dissipates as he sinks into an ugly vortex of self-denial. Rather than take his crass, misogynist friend Nick’s (Sean Marble) suggestion of sleeping with anything that moves, he attempts to insinuate himself back into Mallory’s life any which way he can. Harmless phone calls and voyeuristic peeps into her window give way to more devious strategies. Such as befriending Mallory’s current boyfriend Curtis (Scott Hanks, who looks like a young William H. Macey) in order to sabotage their relationship. Curtis is a slightly older, mustachioed 1980’s sensitive guy to Charley and Nick’s 1990’s corporate ruthlessness (Curtis’ moustache and dress code are a source of recurring jabs). Charley quickly gains Curtis’ confidence and is invited over to his home. Charley ‘marks’ the territory like a wild animal by snooping around his bedroom, stealing a pair of Mallory’s underpants, and then urinating in his bathroom sink. Charley’s animalistic determinism is part of the film’s cool critique of male ‘corporate’ styled competitiveness. This is played out not only in the Charley-Curtis-Mallory triangle, but in the film’s represented workplace (a large insurance company), and co-worker-friend Nick’s single-minded obsession with sexual-ego gratification.

Curtis and Mallory, from The Mallory Effect

Things turn downright creepy when Charley continually breaks into Curtis’ home to plant incriminating evidence for Mallory to find. Like a used condom he masturbates into and leaves on the bathroom floor. While not quite in the murdering league of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, Charley and Nick’s menacing behaviour gives the film a comic tone which can be best described as ‘perversely pleasurable’ (Charley’s frequent subjective-fantasy interludes also recalls American Psycho, although never being as complex as the latter film’s treatment). The male characters do, however, get their ‘comeuppance’ in the end when all three male characters are emotional victims to the titular ‘Effect,’ while Mallory walks away stronger than ever. And for all their testosterone, both Nick and Charley are continually emasculated by their female boss Robin, played with just the right amount of coyness and sincerity by Clare Kramer.

Another Canadian film, Inertia (Sean Garrity), makes an excellent companion piece to The Mallory Effect. Like The Mallory Effect, Inertia begins with a young man being unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend. Only the beginning of Inertia contains perhaps a first among popular commercial cinema: an extended long take of the breakup with the man-in-denial standing by his bedroom door in full frontal nudity. The main characters in this taut, stylish adult comedy are Joseph (Jonas Chernick), the jilted lover, and his ex Laura (Sarah Constible), who teaches in a Catholic high school by day and enjoys uncomplicated sex by night (as evidence of her dualism, she gets reprimanded by her superiors for teaching her Catholic students about contraception and safe sex). Joseph’s jet set friend Bruce (Gordon Tanner), and his timid Japanese wife Yumi (Yumiko Sakamoto); and rounding out the cast, Joseph’s attractive 19-year old cousin Alex (Micheline Marchildon), whom Bruce lusts after, and Bruce’s misogynist co-worker Borowski (Mike Bell). Director Garrick adds an interesting visual and aural counterpoint to the psychological tensions engulfing the characters by periodically interjecting quickly pixilated images of empty spaces, traffic, and objects as transitional buffers in-between the scenes of emotional inertia. Garrick also makes effective use of static yet dynamic framing and mise en scène. An excellent example is the scene where Joseph appears unannounced at Laura’s apartment. Joseph stands frame left in the building hallway speaking to Laura, framed right, inside her apartment. The door between them remains closed, and the static camera assumes the position of the removed fourth wall. Several minutes into the long take we see the reflection of an off-frame nude man appear in a mirror hanging on the wall in the right background behind Laura.

Two disappointments were France’s Grégoire Moulin Contre L’Humanité (dir. Artus de Penguern, 2002) and the British Nine Dead Gay Guys (dir. Lab Ky Mo, 2002). While Moulin was by far the better of the two, both films suffered for likeminded reasons: trying too hard to be audience-pleasing and hip; and trying to emulate previous hits (respectively, The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulin and Locked, Stocked and Two Smoking Barrels). In the opening sequence of Grégoire Moulin Contre L’Humanité, “baby” Moulin begins his luckless life amid two warring parents who argue themselves out their bedroom window to their death. Moulin, played by director Artus de Penguern, grows up to become a likeable loser who, upon his caustic grandmother’s death, leaves his provincial origins for Paris, where he lands a dull desk job. Life perks up when he falls for a lovely, lithe blond dance instructor who works across the street from him. Through fortuitous circumstance he arranges a meeting with her at a local pub. The balance of the film recounts the forces conspiring against Moulin keeping the blind appointment. This is the point at which the film becomes a poor imitation of Scorsese’s After Hours (1985). But the film remains lightly enjoyable, with some fine comic set-pieces, such as the running scene of the motley group of Halloween-dressed partygoers (Ghandi, Darth Vadar, Marcel Proust, etc.) sitting transfixed in front of a television watching the French League soccer championship final.

Soccer also provides one of the festival’s funniest gags (a purely visual one at that). Moulin’s co-workers talk incessantly about the upcoming soccer match. One of the workers is shockingly disappointed when he learns that a work assignment may cause him to miss the beginning of the game. Moulin gladly offers to fill in for him, telling him that he does not care for soccer. The moment the words are out of his mouth the film turns deathly silent and cuts to a series of shots of each worker with their jaw dropped and mouth agape. Even a passing cyclist visible through the office’s glass wall, who could not possibly have heard Moulin’s sacrilegious words, stops in his tracks and stares at him in amazement! The influence of the World Cup was also in evidence in a film that featured the world of soccer as its central subject matter: 3 Zéros (Fabien Onteniente, 2002). Though ultimately conventional, it was nice to see cut throat player agents and prima Donna star players satirized in this age of greed-infested professional sports.

Martin and Orloff (Lawrence Blume, 2002) is a case study in the aforementioned point about the precarious nature of what makes us laugh. After the screening members of the cast and crew (lead actor Ian Roberts and director Blume, I think) asked the audience how it liked the film. The first respondent replied with the frank admission that he hated the film and found it wholly unfunny, finding fault in its writing, acting, and plotting. Immediately, someone countered this opinion saying they found it very funny and loved it. The truth is probably somewhere in between. The film takes its inspiration from the wonderful animated sitcom Dr. Katz, which is about a psychiatrist whose patients are exclusively stand-up comics (though Martin and Orloff is nowhere near as bright or funny). In this version the film features a burned out ad executive recovering from a suicide attempt who starts seeing a psychiatrist with, to say the least, unconventional work habits. During their first visit the patient Martin (Ian Roberts) embarrassingly points out to the good doctor (Matt Walsh) that he has bits of food hanging from the side of his mouth. The visit is abruptly cut when the doctor remembers he has a softball game. He urges Martin to come along, promising to continue the therapy. Instead, Martin, who has no knowledge of softball, fills in as the umpire and nearly has his head bitten off for a bad call by a neurotic, sociopath Vietnam veteran (who, we later learn, has the uncouth habit of relieving himself in sinks rather than toilets). The film continues along these lines, with a series of zany events smothered in off-color jokes and broad visual humor. The film feels like it was made by a time traveling vaudevillian eagerly subjecting his tired routines on a newly found audience (not necessarily a bad thing if you like tired vaudeville acts!). But the film falls apart in the last third when the filmmakers abandon the absurdism for a conventional, plot-character-driven happy ending (why bother?).

Another film which will certainly divide audiences is The Happiness of the Katakuris (Takashi Miike, 2002). Ostensibly a remake of the superior (I think) Korean black comedy The Quiet Family, fans of Miike’s gender-bending ways will love this one. An offbeat Japanese family run a hotel in a remote rural setting, waiting anxiously for their first customer. The first customer arrives, two in fact, a sumo wrestler and his girlfriend (or prostitute). Unfortunately, he dies of a heart attack during sex, with the woman suffocating to death under his massive body. This becomes the pattern, but instead of worrying or calling the authorities, the family react to the deaths by breaking into wondrous song and dance. Even with my dreaded aversion to the musical, I have to admit that some of the dance numbers brought a smile to my face, especially the first where a room turns glowingly white around the singing, dancing family. One important difference between this film and The Quiet Family is that in the Korean film the family begin to murder their customers in an attempt to cover the deaths, but in Miike’s film the deaths are all accidental, which results in a film with less of a dark edge. In fact all of the film’s darker elements occur in the animated sequences. Granted the characters in this film are far from fulfilled or content, but relative to Miike’s other films, The Happiness of Katakuris is his most upbeat and life affirming film.

Brief notes on two final films. Ultra low-budget Canadian film Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (Lee Demarbre, 2002) clearly has its heart in all the right places. For a film consciously made as a camp, midnight entry, it is far more entertaining than it has any right to be. I imagine it would play far less well to a small audience, but it proved to be the perfect tonic for a late night crowd, who ate it up. Think of Jesus Christ Superstar led by the kung fu kicking priest from Peter Jackson’s Braindead (“I kick ass for the lord!”). Below all the crassness and intentionally bad dubbing is some intelligent humor of the “wink, wink” variety; and, if you can get past the surface gore-gag humor, a film which manages to be liberal with its sexual politics and actually religiously positive regarding the Christ as hero motif.

One of the festival’s high profile US entry films was Double Whammy, directed by Tom DiCillo and starring Denis Leary, Elizabeth Hurley, Steve Buscemi, and Luis Guzman (who can do no wrong and sadly gets cut short in this film). I won’t say much about what is surely DiCillo’s worse film, but more annoying than the scenes with the two aspiring screenwriters, or the vacuousness of Elizabeth Hurley’s character, was Leary’s “introduction” to the movie. Why do stars insist on giving such short, uninspired, utterly predictable, by-the-numbers introductions (“director “X” was great to work with, actor “X” was so funny, I hope you like the film, but if you don’t, just shut up about it”)? I guess I’ll have to keep my mouth shut.

As part of the larger (and hugely popular) Just For Laughs comedy festival, Comedia is, frankly, a minnow. But in its third year, with new programmers aboard (Mitch Davis, Raphaëlle Catteau, Tony Timpone, Katherine Harris, Don Lobel) and a slightly higher profile within the festival, Comedia is showing signs of forging a niche in an already overcrowded Montreal summertime festival circuit. Unfortunately, bad timing and/or low festival profile no doubt led to the festival being unable to procure every film they would have liked. For example, some of the best comedy in recent years has come from the Republic of Korea (Attack of the Gas Station Kim Sang-Jin, 1999, The Quiet Family Kim Ji-Woon, 1998, The Foul King Kim Ji-Woon, 2000, Barking Dogs Never Bite Bong Joon-Hu, 2000, and Take Care of my Cat Jae-eun Jeong, 2001. I would think that the absence of any Korean film at Comedia reflects the above point rather than a programming choice. Hence this logistical fact, coupled with the sorry state of contemporary film comedy in general, resulted in some uneven programming. In the end, Comedia is a festival that still has a way to go before it establishes its own sense of identity. But the comedy genre, like the horror, will never die. It may wane and have its cyclical ups and downs, but people will always need to laugh, even when there’s little to laugh at.

Comedia: Documentaries & Shorts

Endnotes

1. Bergson, Henri. Comedy. (1900) intro. by Wylie Sypher. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books. 1956, 61-190.

2. Wood, Robin. “Party Time, or Can’t Hardly Wait for that American Pie: Hollywood High School Movies of the 90’s.” Cineaction No. 58, June 2002, 8.

Comedia Film Festival: The Features

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 6, Issue 7 / July 2002 Festival Reports canadian cinemacomedytakashi miike