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Film Comedy
Geoff King
London & New York: Wallflower Press, 2002.
£14.99, 230 pages, ISBN 1-903364-35-3.

Nicolas Magenham

In the introduction of Film Comedy, many general ideas on the topic are discussed, such as the fact that comedy is not a genre but a mode: "comedy is a mode—a manner of presentation—in which a variety of different materials can be approached, rather than any relatively more fixed or localized quantity" [2]. Admittedly, this kind of idea is rather hackneyed in comedy theory, that is the reason why King tries as much as possible to find original examples to illustrate it. For instance, he evokes music in films (an "often neglected ingredient", as he himself puts it [12]) to show how capital this element is to mark modality in film comedy. The use of major chords notably triggers a light resonance that clearly indicates that the film is a comedy. But King also evokes comedy composers whose music offers a complex modality, combining lightness with darker or more sentimental tones (King refers to Danny Elfman, but it must be added that before Elfman, many 1960s and 1970s comedy composers also combined conflicting tones: Henry Mancini, Neal Hefti, etc.).

Chapter 1 revolves around comedy and narrative. King presents the history of the often conflicting relations between gags and narrative, from the early comedies to the 1930s, and describes the main narrative lines of romantic comedy, one of the most popular forms of Hollywood comedy since the 1930s. Although they are welcome in such an introduction on comedy, these pages never really depart from general ideas, and King's personal analyses are nothing but frustrating outlines. When it comes to the study of comedian comedy, it is nevertheless much more original: King shows how these comedies—consisting in mere showcases for comic stars—disrupt conventional Hollywood norms in terms of narration. King evokes a scene of Mrs Doubtfire (Chris Columbus, 1993), in which Daniel Hillard (Robin Williams) impersonates different characters or things, in order to impress a court official. As King puts it, this scene is partly outside the fictional space of the film and constitutes a staging which is "at least half-way in breach of the classical Hollywood norm" [34]. Then, King undertakes a formal analysis of the scene, asserting that its editing is "the decisive indicator of a break from classical convention": the shots are "separated by jump cuts", whose effect is "to emphasize the virtuoso skills of the performer" [34]. Besides, when in the same chapter King studies the use of cinematic and narrative devices (such as editing and dramatic irony) in comedy, it definitively makes the reader forget the more banal parts of the chapter evoked above. One of the films chosen by King here is Guy Ritchie's Snatch (2000), a film which uses conventional formal devices like zoom and pan effects to excess, in order to create a comic flavor.

In Chapter 2, Geoff King evokes transgressions and regressions in comedy. His discussion on transgressions ends with an interesting example taken from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983). Like many comedies, the film underlines and undermines some taboos erected by society, but one of its scenes also shows that there are different degrees of taboos, that they do not all have the same significance. The scene spectacularly presents a taboo (vomiting), but it is the less spectacular transgression of another taboo (menstruation) that interests King here. It takes place

[…] in the midst of a major gross-out sequence: a classic manifestation of the Bakhtinian grotesque body in which the hugely obese Mr. Creosote (Terry Jones, plus prosthetic body extension) projectile vomits his way through an obscenely enormous dinner before exploding over his fellow diners in a posh restaurant. The passing reference to menstruation—specifically, to the possibility of 'bleeding all over the seat', a comment that causes discomfort to the woman's male accompaniment—is perhaps more transgressive of the representational norms of male-dominated culture than the main gross-out attraction" [77].

After a few pages recalling the worst transgressions of the cruder comedies (from John Waters' films to Paul Weitz's American Pie (1999)), this analysis of such a small detail is an unexpected way of concluding the discussion.

When it comes to the regression issue, King's discussion inevitably revolves around the Freudian conceptions of the pre-Oedipal and the Oedipal, giving as examples Jerry Lewis's or Jim Carrey's films in which the actors behave literally like children. But King fails to show that many comedies also present regression in a more implicit, subtle (and sometimes funnier) way. For example, the French comedian Pierre Richard (one of the most popular comic figures of the 1970s) made up a persona whose innocence and enthusiasm are quite childlike, but not obvious enough to define him as a regressive character. However, if regression stands out more clearly in some of his films, it is less due to his own behavior than to other characters' behaviors toward him. In Yves Robert's Le Grand Blond avec une chaussure noire (1972), Christine (Mireille Darc), an attractive spy who has to make Richard confess his so-called secret activities, behaves as if she were his mother: she suggests "playing at having a tea party", she orders him to go to bed the way a mother would, etc. This character brings out the underlying regressive aspect of the Richard character, a personality trait that would not have come out without her. But if this type of subtle representation of regression is absent from the account, King nevertheless concludes with an evocation of Howard Hawks' s Bringing Up Baby (1938), a film in which the infantile aspect of adult characters is presented in a rather implicit way (through parallels with the animalistic).

The last three chapters are perhaps the most appealing pages of the book, as King often offers brilliant interpretations of film comedies. In the discussion of satire, the corpus is rather original, since it is composed of films from different regions of the world. The account concerning Soviet satires produced during the Stalinist era is particularly interesting. King demonstrates how a film like Kuleshov's Neobychainyie prikliucheniia mistera Vesta v strane bol'shevikov (1924) is "a satire of American anti-soviet propaganda" and at the same time, a more implicit "critique of the Soviet system itself" [96]. King also makes a rather complete survey of parody, in which he refers to the Scream series (West Craven, 1996, 1997, 2000), Scary Movie (Keenen Ivory Wayans, 2000) or The Last Action Hero (McTiernan, 1993), notably showing the way they either fail to combine or succeed in combining similarities and differences with the parodied films. Then, King writes about the links between comedy and the politics of representation of gender, race/ethnicity and nationality. For the gender issue, King refers to such drag classics as Mrs Doubtfire or Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982); but he particularly likes Some Like It Hot (1959), Billy Wilder's film being, he writes, "the more radical of these films in its treatment of gender" [136]. That is absolutely undeniable. In the last chapter, King shows that he has come full circle, since he deals with the use of comedy in films which are not regarded as comedies strictly speaking, and thus has to speak again of the notion of modality, already discussed at the beginning of this very good introduction to film comedy.


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