I recently escaped the bitter chill of Philadelphia in early March and traveled to Zamorano University (affectionately referred to here as ‘Zamo’), an oasis of warmth situated approximately 45 minutes outside of the capital city of Tegucigalpa, Honduras (or ‘Tegus’ as the locals call it). I was fortunate to be a part of a course studying the language and culture of various groups, ranging in age from children to college students, while traveling. We had the unique opportunity to work with Zamo students on their conversational English through the sharing of ‘dichos’ or proverbs. While translation from Spanish to English often proved difficult, the proverbs presented a way to bridge the language gap. Students had the chance to act out their proverbs, all the while subjecting themselves to the laughter of their fellow Zamo classmates as well as a few giggles from the American students. We also worked with children at REMAR, an orphanage on the outskirts of Zamo. While this trip was momentous in many ways, it was here that I had a humor epiphany.
While there is much research on the understanding of humor through cross-cultural communication in the fields of psychology, sociology, linguistics, and others (Bell, 2002, 2007; Coulson et al., 2006; Hay, 2001; Carrell, 1997), my epiphany came through physical humor, the kind of slapstick we’re accustom to from the likes of Charlie Chaplin or The Three Stooges.
You see, in Honduras, soccer is ingrained into the fabric of everyday life. Boys and girls alike know how to ‘bend it like Beckham’ – seriously. One mention of Mario Martinez’s goal in the 2012 Olympic quarterfinals against Brazil brings nods and smiles to many of the young faces. In case you missed it, take a look:
At REMAR, the young children place soccer balls at their friends’ feet and emulate the master, volleying the ball between the posts with flawless precision. They then place a ball by my feet, and I cross it through the air and onto the foot of an anxiously awaiting 13-year-old who dreams of playing for FC Barcelona. When they direct me to stand by the goal line and await a pass, I play along. Not only do I miss, but the ball also pops up and hits my face, knocking me to the ground. It is while I am on the ground that I come to a realization: I hear the children laughing. Similarly to the Zamo students’ feelings while acting out their proverbs, I, too, felt a pang of gelotophobia. There existed a major similarity to the classroom activity and the game: slapstick humor, above all else, seems to be universal in cross-cultural communication. We encountered language barriers and a few laughs through the translations, but it was not until the Zamo students acted out the proverbs that a real bond formed between the two groups of students, the native Spanish and English speakers, through laughter. The children at REMAR picked me up and helped to dust me off, all the while laughing and ‘high-fiving’ me for my mishap. They referred to me as ‘Martinez’ for the rest of my time there – a joke – easily translated and understood by all.
Was it our ability to let down our guard, to fumble and be picked up, that made the communication between these diverse groups possible? Is there something in the mishaps of the body that translates better than language? What other types of humor easily translate across cultures? My epiphany, much like my soccer skills, is still under construction, but for now, I’m headed outside to practice.
c 2015 Tara Friedman
It seems to me that the timing is right for an unapologetically mercenary post that plays with both my innate passion for making lists and my desire for starting arguments. This means that this post will be more self-indulgent than usual. –how can that be?
Here is what I propose: a three-part series that argues not for the twenty-five most important American film comedies but, more specifically, the twenty-five most important American film comedy scenes as represented by screenshots. By “important,” I mean “iconic,” “seminal,” “best,” “most hilarious,” “provocative,” or, in other words, “my favorites.” They should be yours, too.
I intend to start with 7 screenshots that indicate essential comedic moments in American film history in this the first of three posts on the topic. I hope to encourage others to chime in with their favorites by commenting on this post and, ideally, including links or files with the screenshots they suggests. I will follow in subsequent posts with the growing list.
For now, the images are not ranked or presented in any order other than my impulses as I think of them or run through my library of screenshots. In the end, I may try to rank them just for the hell of it.
Here are the first seven:
From Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In perhaps one of the most iconic moments in film comedy history, the Tramp is consumed by the industrial machine but continues to perform his job. It is a concise but cogent statement of class tensions and the perils of the “factory worker” caught in the cogs of industrialism. It is so iconic that one cannot talk about it without puns and symbolic flourishes. See above.
From Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. This first appearance of Clark Gable’s torso provides more than the titillation that such a statement implies. The scene is a remarkable and intricate power struggle between two formidable performers in a comedic gem. The scene, the film as a whole for that matter, would go one to influence the romantic comedy formula to this day. If he had only tried a similar approach to Scarlett.
From the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers. This is a shot from the big finale scene wherein everybody gets on stage like the closing of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards show–lots of folks on the stage but with only a few who do anything worthwhile. In this case, that is fine because it is the Marx brothers who demand the attention in every scene. This scene demonstrates the wonderful comic interplay between the brothers but also mocks the pretensions of respectable society and the smug coziness of the officer’s advice to the subversive Harpo.
From Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. This panoramic shot of the big board and the big table captures a more elaborate scene that the other screenshots selected. It is meant to imply the entire sequence of the power brokers at work to save the world–or at least themselves. In short this shot cuts to the core of all American satire by implicating the inherent horror of a star chamber, no matter how comic.
From Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. This is the money shot–well, that sounds wrong. What I mean is that this shot has its own iconic status and provides the core symbol for both the dramatic and comedic aspects of the film. The triangulating power of Mrs. Robinson’s leg, and little big man Benjamin trying to keep up.
From Harold Ramis’s Caddyshack. No apologies for this one. This shot is from arguably the most concise illustration of the American dream at work in the mind of an inherent loser. Yes, Cinderella is the most American of the European fairy tales. He is the working man dreaming of a Masters championship when all he will end up with is more work replacing the flowers he is destroying.
From The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona. This shot is a shot within a shot. The McDonnoughs try to record for posterity their new family portrait, complete with their freshly stolen child. “It’s about to pop, honey.” As we say in the business, this is funny.
Please send suggestions for other essential screenshots via comments to this post.
What is more eloquent than silence?
Charles Chaplin was one of cinema’s first — and perhaps still its greatest — auteur. He starred in, produced, directed, edited, wrote and scored the majority of his films, all while inventing the language of film. He did so as he defined the silent era, as well as transitioning into the modern times of talking pictures with inventiveness and artistic, if not mass commercial, achievement.
The side of Chaplin that is least appreciated or discussed is his role as music composer. Chaplin scored 18 of his feature films. He rescored several of his early “Little Tramp” silents in later decades, rereleasing the films with the newly recorded score, breathing into them new life which propelled them further into the modern era. At least four of the musical themes in his films were retailored into pop songs, at least one of which remains a timeless staple of the Great American Songbook.
As with many musicians, Chaplin remembered the exact moment music first made an impression on him. In My Autobiography, Chaplin recounts a time when, while wandering the streets of London as a boy, he first noticed music coming from a neighborhood pub.
Suddenly, there was music. Rapturous! It came from the vestibule of the White Hart corner pub, and resounded brilliantly in the empty square…I had never been conscious of melody before, but this one was beautiful and lyrical, so blithe and gay, so warm and reassuring. I forgot my despair and crossed the road to where the musicians were…It was here that I first discovered music, or where I first learned its rare beauty, a beauty that has gladdened and haunted me from that moment.
Music seemed to come to him naturally. While on tour with his traveling act as a young man, he made the acquaintance of Debussy, who was in the audience one night. The composer told Chaplin he was “instinctively a musician and a dancer.” He even formed a music publishing company in 1915 (which published only three songs). In fact, Chaplin’s only Oscar win was for his music, the score to Limelight.
Perhaps he is less appreciated as a composer because he was not a trained musician or orchestrator. Chaplin played the cello, violin, piano and organ, and he would pluck out or hum the melodic motifs he wanted to sync with the action on screen. He then worked with an orchestrator who would write out the score, filling in the harmonies and flourishes. These arrangers received deserved co-credit for the films’ music, although Chaplin remained hands-on throughout the process, working closely with these arrangers and personally conducting the orchestra. According to film historian Jeffrey Vance, “not a note in a Chaplin musical score was placed there without his assent.”
Chaplin’s scores are so perfect that they sometimes go unnoticed. Instead of using two-dimensional, obvious comedic cues, Chaplin’s scores are wistful and romantic, which help to underscore the comedy, and the humanity, on screen. Chaplin grew up in the British music hall tradition and he makes heavy use of the waltzes, tangos and two-steps that were so prevalent in music hall. His scores are almost ballet-like in their effect, lending a grace and narrative to supplement the dance-like action on screen. His use of leitmotifs — a recurring musical theme assigned to specific characters — gives his scores, and thus his films, their cohesiveness and familiarity.
When one hears the name Charlie Chaplin, one’s first thought is that of the Little Tramp. Continue reading →
One of Charlie Chaplin’s more famous routines is the table ballet scene from the The Gold Rush from 1925 (linked above). However, my first exposure to the scene was from a small film with a young aspiring actor Johnny Depp. He had recently gotten a lot of good press for “Edward Scissorhands” (for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe) and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” I was a young impressionable 23 year old and I loved “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” However, I really loved the goofiness of 1993’s “Benny & Joon” (clip linked below), yes goofiness. I don’t know another word for it. I’ve always loved Depp’s eccentricity. It is a certain something that does remind me of Chaplin however being a cultural critic there are somethings that as an audience strike us very differently. These scenes deserve a closer look. Next week I will follow up with a comparison. I invite readers to do the same.