Woody Allen: The Last Comedian

Introduction:

In this small essay, I will explore Woody Allen as the last comedian. By this I mean, Woody Allen as the last of the lineage of great comedians from Keystone Cops to Jerry Lewis? In this essay I will analyze Woddy Allen’s comedy, and explore the history of comedy briefly.

History Of Comedy:

After the decline of burlesque in the 1950s, which was due to various reasons, exhaustion of its capabilities, the end of a certain era of entertainment, the audience may have experienced it all. The stand-up comedian begins to enter the scene, an actor, director, comedian like Steve Martin fits perfectly this new world of comedy.
Already in 1963 Roberto Rossellini (Oliver Lyttelton (2012) claimed that Cinema was dead, did the world stopped producing great auteur comedians, or it is due to the decline of cinema itself? Most of the comedians we see today on film or television are stand-up comedians, like Woody Allen himself. When a stand-up comedian does well with his Stand Up special, he or she is then instantly put to use on a Tv Show (and Late night shows) like Louis CK in Louie, Amy Schumer in Inside Amy Schumer. 
Every year a multitude of comedy films are produced, in close inspection their lack of image to use Deleuze term is clear. The comedy aspect of these films is unclear, Tropic Thunder (2008), Borat (2006), The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), what form of comedy is this?

Most of the well-known comedians of Cinema came either from Vaudeville or from Burlesque. They had their start doing a comedy sketch or gags in front of a live audience. In the beginning, Cinema had not yet developed it is vocabulary, how to use the camera to make audiences laugh. In these early films, which seem Childlike to us today, pie-throwing, slipping on a banana, jealous husband suspect his wife cheating on him. Early Keystone Cops films seem to be extremely naive to us today. It takes Fields, Chaplin, and Keaton a couple of years to perfect the art of slapstick comedy. If Chaplin was against the modern machine, then Keaton created, used the machine as a tool for his gags. Keaton was able to develop and enlarge the gag, which previously was only used in a small form.
” Permit him (Keaton) to be perhaps the only constantly beautiful and continuously hilarious man ever seen, as though the ugliness in laughter should be redeemed. They permit Fields to mutter and suffer and curse obsessively, but heard and seen only by us; because his attributes are those of the gentleman (confident swagger and elegant manners, gloves, cane, outer heartiness), he can manifest continuously, with the remorselessness of nature, the psychic brutalities of bourgeois civilization.” (Stanley Cavell (1979): 37) Cavell gives the example of Groucho Marx, in one of his film ” Groucho gets it when he looks into the audience and asks something like, How did I ever wind up in this lousy picture?” (Stanley Cavell (1979): 125).
This self-reference was brilliantly used in Woody’s Annie Hall (1977), after the breakup with Annie Hall, Woody looks into the camera and starts asking questions as to why his relationship failed, then starts to stop people in the street to get relationship advice from them.
In his political film Bananas (1971), the protagonist Fielding, Woody Allen’s character is demonstrating the modern way of exercising in the office, it’s easy to see where the inspiration of this scene comes from (Chaplin’s Modern Time (1936) the machine that automatically feeds the inmates). But the implication of using a phone or a deck as exercising tools is very different, the modern office has become an unhealthy prison.

In his essay on Laughter, Henri Bergson tries to define what we find funny, he explains: ” But the art of the storyteller or the playwright does not merely consist in concocting jokes. The difficulty lies in giving to a joke its power of suggestion, in making it acceptable.” (Henri Bergson (1914): 64)
The Diane Keaton character, Sonja in Love and Death (1975) says:
” To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you’re getting this down.” There is no punch line to the joke, there is only a line of arguments, Bergson defines this comic form as a resemblance, it makes us laugh by reasoning that can go on indefinitely. It is in Woody’s joke: ‘I’m very proud of my gold pocket watch. My grandfather, on his deathbed, sold me this watch’ (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982).

In Take The Money And Run (1969), Woody Allen’s first film, the first image we see is Woody trying to sit on a chair and play cello while marching with a band on the street, this is, of course, is impossible since he has to constantly sit down and move in order to follow the group.
Before this comical scene, Woddy establishes himself as a small, weak, neurotic man. Woody has no relation to burlesque, he started as a stand-up comedian, the phenomena of the 1960s, in the first instance it seems he has little or no relation to all the filmmakers we have mentioned so far.
In-Play It Again, Sam (1972), his ex-wife Nancy tells him:
” You’re a dreamer. You’re awkward. You’re clumsy. They can see how desperate you are. You know this. You said it yourself. Oh, face it, Allan. You may be very sweet but you’re not sexy.”
The whole film is about fixing, the neurotic character Woody Allen has, of course, this is impossible since what we find most attractive in Woody Allen character is precisely is all of these things that his wife find repulsive in him. In the interview with Stig Bjorkman, Woody says about his character:
” Well, it seemed to me like a very standard film persona for a comedian. Someone who is physical coward, who lusts after woman, who is good-hearted but ineffectual and clumsy and nervous. All the standard things that you’ve seen in different various disguises. In Charlie Chaplin or W.C. Fields or Groucho Marx there’s the same things but in different forms.”
 (Stig Bjorkman (1993): 26)
The crucial aspect of Woody Allen’s identification in Play It Again, Sam (1972) with Humphrey Bogart’s character from Casablanca, is whenever Felix (Woody Allen) is in trouble or in need of strength to seduce women, he imagines himself as Bogart. This double image, is a crucial aspect of the comedy, when his friends (Tony Roberts as Dick Christie) introduce him, to his blind date in his clumsiness, his lack of self-control, he starts to bring destruction to his apartment, in his uncool character, which the Bogart character is the opposite of. The film’s final answer is if a short, ugly, guy like Bogart can make it, why also not a short, ugly Woody Allen?
There is a common thread between all the characters.
 Allen’s character is thrown into revolution, the future, into problems which he is utterly incapable of handling or solving. His comedy is this incapacity, his inability to handle even the smallest task or any task that is handed to him by others. In Sleeper (1973) after being defrosted, he disguises himself as a robot, he is then sent to the kitchen to prepare food, of course, he not capable of anything short of a catastrophe.

Bibliography:

Lyttelton, Oliver: ”Sound The Death Knell (Again): A Brief History Of The Death Of Cinema.” Indiewire. (2012) https://www.indiewire.com/2012/10/sound-the-death-knell-again-a-brief-history-of-the-death-of-cinema-105354/
Tropic Thunder: Stiller, Ben. DreamWorks Pictures (2008)
Borat: Charles, Larry. 20th Century Fox (2006)
The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Apatow, Judd. Universal Pictures (2005)
Cavell, Stanley: ”The World Viewed Reflections On The Ontology Of Film, Enlarged Edition” Cambridge Massachusetts and London England: Harvard University Press (1979)
Annie Hall; Allen, Woody. United Artists (1977)
Take The Money And Run: Allen, Woody, Cinerama Releasing Corporation (1969, original) MGM (2004, DVD) (1969)
Bananas: Allen, Woody, United Artists (1971)
Modern Time: Chaplin, Charles, United Artists (1936)
Play It Again, Sam: Allen, Woody, Paramount Pictures (1972)
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy: Allen, Woody, Warner Bros. Pictures (1982)
Bergson, Henri: ”Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic” NewYork: The Macmillan Company (1914)
Love and Death: Allen, Woody, United Artists (1975)
Bjorkman, Stig: ”Woody Allen On Woody Allen” London: Faber And Faber Limited (1993)
(2008)
Sleeper: Allen, Woody, United Artists (1973)


Steve Martin: Comedy Of Non-Realism

 

”Humor is enormously complicated and its very hard to come out with any generalized truths. I think what makes up comedy, like a chess game or a baseball game, are million psychological knows and unknowns. If something makes you laugh, its funny.” (Lax: 2009: 66)

Starring with his first film The Jerk (1979), Steve Martin plays a man who is a complete idiot, he tells the audience ”I was born a poor black child” when he hears music (blues) he tells the audience ”I don’t know why but it depresses me”. There is a lack of reality in the film, why is a white man raised by a black family? Just think about how he gets rich, completely unrealistic, Steve Martin comedy is produced by absences of reality.
In The Man with Two Brains (1983), Martin plays a brain surgeon, he is a brain surgeon like he is black. There is nothing realistic in the way brain surgery is depicted, he performs brain surgery by screwing peoples scalp back on and off without any surgical equipment. When performing two brain surgery at once (another impossible thing), the audience watching the scene is an Indian who is dressed like a Native Indian, an Arab and Lone Ranger. Even the little girl he meets at the beginning of the film turns out to be an extraordinary person, who can remember an impossible things, which no ordinary child would be able to remember. When he runs over a girl, it turns out it was not an ordinary woman but a femme fatal (a dangerous girl who is after men).
When the women wake up after surgery, he reads her a poem by a one-armed man, who was killed by the worlds first car, the poems themselves a ridiculous, the poet was not a real poet, but a play on realistic expectation.
The further we are removed from reality the more comic the scene seems to be. From his name (Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr) to the elevator killer who works with a mad scientist, when asked what he wants for a drink he says Tahitian Tingle (a nonexistent drink).
In Roxanne (1987), the film losely adapted from Cyrano de Bergerac, about a man with a long nose, who is also a fire cheif, when the girl he loves (Roxanne) is locket out of her apertment, naked, she calls Charlie (Steve Martin) to open the door for her, he tells her alright, he just going to get his tool box, he does so, when they arrive at her house, he opens the box, we see in the box only a master card.
There is always an element of non-realism in Steve Martins comedy, in Three Amigos (1986), the three actors become what they pretend to be, in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), his journey is completely unrealistic (not that we expect realism), in Little Shop of Horrors (1986), he is a dentist, who acts more like Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) then any real dentist.
The first image we see on the screen in the film L.A. Story (1991), are of beautiful girls, by the swimming pool, tanning themselves then all of sudden a giant hot dog floats by. In the film Steve Martin is a weatherman (non-realistic of course, he is more of a comedian), while on the highway, he hears the news that its the first day of spring, his girlfriend start loading the gun, then everyone on the freeway begins shooting at each other, it is never explained why people in L.A become violent when it is spring.
Again while on the freeway, the freeway traffic condition sign, starts writing him messages intended only for him to see. If the non realistic element of the film hasn’t broken through to you yet, then when he gets home, a dog start barking at him, he tells the dog to be quiet, while he enters the code for the house alarm, after he turns it off, the dog stops barking, it turns out, that the dog was the house alarm.


Steve Martin With Cary Grant.

In the films of Steve Martin comedy is in constant battle with realism, you hear a dog barking, you assume, immediately that there has to be a dog. The logic of non-realism is tested to its utmost limit in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), the film supposed to be parody of noir films, but what they have done is insert shots of Steve Martin into old noir films, so that it seems Steve Martin is talking to Barbara Stanwyck or is in the same space as Ingrid Bergman. Woody Allen tried something similar in Zelig (1983), where he inserted himself in every historical event, he could find footage of.


Monty Python: Comedy Of Stupidity

It is difficult to describe the comedy of the British group Monty Python since they don’t play one continues character, but change constantly, the structure of their films is created through multiple comic sketches, which form into a future length film. In their first feature, And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), taken from their TV series Flying Circus, with minimal changes.
We can see Monty Python ask in every scene, one question, the question of intelligence, the intelligence of the audience, the intelligence of the characters portrayed in the film, and the intelligence of makers themselves. At the beginning of the film And Now for Something Completely Different, there is a sketch about (how not to be seen), when a man invisible is asked to stand up, he does, he is then shot because he is now seen.
Then another man is asked the same question, although he remains invisible, he is also killed, the first one was stupid to stand up, the second one was stupid to choose a bad hiding place.
We can see that the Monty Python play constantly with the question of intelligence in order to make the audience relax, and be able to enjoy the stupidity. Case and point the sketch ”A man with a tape recorder up his nose”, which is a film about a man puts his finger up his nose, and music starts to play. A couple goes to a marriage counselor, the husband suspects the wife of cheating, then the marriage counselor and his wife start to make love in front of the husband, how stupid is the husband? A scientist is going on an expedition on Mount Kilimanjaro in order to find the last years expedition.

We could describe this comedy as a comedy of stupidity, a man goes into a laundry shop, thinks it is a bank and tries to rob it, which he does by getting some pants. Although they play various characters, in different situations, there is a common thread, between all the characters they play, that of an idiot and an ordinary man. There certainly never has an idiot portrayed better than a Monty Python film, take the example I have already mentioned, the scientist is a complete idiot, who sees two people when there is only one (he is supposed to be cross-eyed). We have to note that again comedy is on the side of the idiots not on the side of the ordinary, is there anybody more idiotic then King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)?
King Arthur who runs through the country, pretending to have a horse while banging to coconuts together, he is like Don Quixote with a minimal difference, King Arthur knows he has no horse. When he sees an old woman from behind, it turns to be a young man, a peasant, who is much more intelligent then King Arthur (almost every one in the film is more intelligent then King Arthur). This isn’t saying much, when a guard asks Arthur, where did he get the two coconuts, Arthur gives him some stupid answer.
There is the stupidity of the characters, but there is also the stupidity of the film itself, when the King Arthur and the knight of the round table, meet their ultimate enemy in the quest for the Holy Grail, it turns out to be a rabbit, a rabbit so deadly that they resort to using a hand grenade to kill it. Another element that contributes to the fact of stupidity in the films is the fact that all the characters are played by the same group of six men, even the woman, for the most part, are played by the Monty Python’s. Therefore all the more comic, since all of the sudden you can see the six men play all the characters at once, we laugh when they die in one character then appear as another in a later scene, they are everyone and no one.
The theme of stupidity continues in their nest film, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), where Brian an ordinary man lives at the same time as Jesus Christ, who becomes a prophet through by accident, people as idiotic as him start to follow him, asking him all sort of question. We can see a gradual process in the theme of stupidity, in the first film, we see the stupidity of the characters, in the second the stupidity of the film, in the third the stupidity of the people. That is like King Arthur they miss-perceive, while one or two people see Brian as an ordinary man, the masses see Brian as the savior. In their final film, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), is supposed to reveal the meaning of life, but it is more like the Monty Python’s had something else in mind when making the film «It is a tale, Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.»


Short Films From China

A great way to think about Film Festivals and Films in general, is to see whether you remember anything. Last year, I tried to to see everything i could, at the Amandus Lillehammer Internasjonale Studentfilmfestival.
A year has gone by, just to mention a few film that was shown at the festival, Utover Øvre Ål, a music video with Stein Torleif, a Scifi short film, Finite ”Dir: Marius Rolfsvåg” made by students at The Norwegian Film School and a family drama, Glasshus ”Dir: Erik Ivar Sæther”.
All of this is good, but nothing had more impact, then the Baltic Highlights, five films from the Riga Baltic Student Competition Program (2016). These short are made in another planet, they show you, another world, a world you had no idea it existed. From sexual experience in Seven Awkward Sex Scenes ”Dir: Liene Linde”, to strange man working in botanical garden ”Fading Beauty: Dir: Tormi Torop”. The most memorable film, Warm Silence ”Dir: Rinalds Zelts”, a Baltic film similar to Into the Wild (2007), with Tarkovsky aesthetic and not to mention Everybody Misses Pranas Ivanauskas ”Dir: Vygantas Bachmackij”

In this year program, they were showing nine films from China, five made by women ”China Women’s Film Festival”, four by men, first they showed the films by women, which included Seguedille ”Dir: Gao Ge” and Hunting ”Dir: Ting Cheongyu” both inspired by the Opera Carmen with Tony Scott style filmmaking.
The absolute masterpiece among the five was, The Test ”Dir: Jinsui Song”, a comedy film, about a mother, who wants her son to go to kindergartens in Hong Kong. The film starts like a documentary, giving the audience facts about, the conflict of enrolling children into kindergartens in Hong Kong «children in order to be accepted has to take a test».
The whole film is about a mother trying to teach her 3 year old son, Cantonese ”which fails in a comic manner”. Unbelievable portrayal of a mother by the Chinese actress, she is so believable that, you forget, you are watching a fiction film. For instance, her conversation with her husband, who is working in another city, the way she collects toys laying around the house, or the way she cleans sweat of her son. For about 25. minutes you are laughing at the situation, the son reminds you of you when you were a little boy, the mother reminds you, of your mother.

The day after, they showed, the four films made by the men, among them was the film, Pink Pill ”Dir: Xie Xiaoshan”, which is based on a true story, about a girl who gets bullied in school for being a lesbian, but done in a manner if i may use Jacques Lacan’s terms The Real. There is something of the real in this film, you encounter a piece of reality, transported to China, you feel you know them, while being perfectly aware that you have never meet these characters before.
And finally my personal favorite, is the short, The Night of Arzu ”Dir: Taobike Nizhamiding”, a film about a girl and a boy, it reminded me of the long tradition of films, set in cities, Sunrise (1927) being the first. You are exported to another planet, when the couple go to a hotel, police shortly after enter the room, scanning their passport, asking them all sort of question, Li Dan «Festival Director» explained, that hotels by law, have to call the police, when foreigners «Chinese from a different city» rent a room «to see whether they are terrorist».
Again thanks to Li Dan, who told me that these two characters were not Chinese, since they looked a bit different but are Turkish Chinese minority called Uyghur, who have been living in China since 8th-century, maybe earlier.

One thing, me and the director Taobike Nizhamiding, have been discussing, is the ending of the film. After the police leave, the girl falls asleep, he then proceeded to write his number on piece of paper, and leaves.
Expecting her to call him later, my question to the director, was why did he leave her, all alone in the hotel? Now it would be wrong to give you his answer or mine, hopefully you will have yours.


The Lightness Of Dance

I Think, Therefore I Dance – Descartes.