The Disintegrating Comedy

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Cold Bishop
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The Disintegrating Comedy

#1 Post by Cold Bishop » Thu May 06, 2010 5:41 am

I am posting this in this section as opposed to "Other Lists" in the hope that the topic inspires some discussion, although I am uncertain what direction such of discussion could take (or whether the topic is substantial enough for such a discussion). Recently, on rereading the late Robin Wood's Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (or more specifically, finally reading the "Beyond" section), in his surprising, but characteristic defense and analysis of My Best Friend's Wedding, he sidetracks the conversation to bring attention to several other contemporary "screwball" comedies. One title which he focuses on which caught my attention (or rather, whose concept caught it) was Greg Mottola's The Daytripper. What interested Wood - and what caught my eye - was the narrative trajectory the film takes: A movie about a woman discovers his husband is cheating, and sets off in the city to find his mistress, it begins with the characteristic, lighthearted tone and premise of a straightforward comedy. However, as the movie progresses, the movie grows increasingly darker, and the expected reunion that is always inevitable at the end of such a movie never occurs, the relationship increasingly revealed as broken beyond repair. As I have never seen The Daytrippers, the mental image I'm having of the movie and its actual reality may be night and day; it could very well be much lighter or much darker than what I expect it to be. However, its narrative premise does bring to mind the possibility of a loosely-defined genre of film which I can only characterize, for the lack of a better term, as "The Disintegrating Comedy".

In simple terms, it's a film that begins firmly planted in the realm of comedy and its various genres - slapstick, screwball, romantic, comedy of manners, of errors, and so on - but in the process of its narrative, either gradually or sharply, grows increasingly darker, more troublesome, more tense, until it ends on a note of disquiet, if not downright tragedy. As opposed to the often ill-defined concept of the Dramedy - which attempts from the outset to try to establish a mix of lighthearted humor and more serious drama - the Disintegrating Comedy begins in one end of the spectrum (the comedic) and proceeds to exacerbate the various tensions and anxieties which the Comedy's ultimate goals is to resolve and smooth over, and does so well past the point that the genre can handle them and still retain humor as its dominant characteristic. If you were to watch either the film's first ten minutes, or its last ten, in complete isolation from one another, with no exterior point of reference, you could almost think they belonged to two completely separate films.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three features that could fall firmly into this definition. Perhaps, not surprisingly, all were released in the late 60s, early 70s:

Richad Lester's Petulia: It's initial premise is that of a whole sub-genre of late 60s generation gap comedies in which a white middle-age, middle-class man initiates an affair with a young, adventurous, kooky free spirit, and we follow the various swinging hijinks and groovy mishaps that follow. (The Cactus Flower and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, and barring some discrepancies, The Owl and the Pussycat being the most characteristic; Candy the most extreme and ridiculous; The Graduate as something of an inversion). Take the opening scenes: George C. Scott meets Julie Christie at an ultra-chic charity party, and surprised by her forward sexuality, initiates an affair. They go to an ultra-modern fully-automated hotel, where Scott is constantly one-upped by the various technologies he encounters. First glance, it's brand of comedy seems perfectly at home with the films above. But as the film enfolds, the narrative grows increasingly more unsettling and fractured, punctuated by the use of elliptical flashbacks and flash-forwards (which would go on to influence Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, both of whom worked on the film), the picture of the relationship grows increasingly starker and more complicated, and the comedy of manner increasingly reveals a level of alienation, neurosis and brutality which the humor can no longer contain. If the movie begins on a note of kookiness and irreverent humor, its ending is pessimistic and haunting, highlighting the breakdown of the modern relationship, and the increasing impossibility of meaningful communication, and by definition, love.

A film which should be no stranger around these parts is Alan Arkin's The Little Murders. Of course, that the film is a subversive black comedy that from the outset seems to preoccupy itself with urban violence and alienation would almost preclude it from this list, its disintegration being inevitable from the outset. But even such a set-up and basic premise can't prepare you for the trajectory the story takes. The bulk of the film concerns the idealistic Marcia Rodd and her attempts to pull Elliot Gould out of his paralyzing fear and apathy. As such the movie starts with the premise of a romantic comedy, it opposites-attract premise standing at the forefront, while the violence and decay of modern society is kept in the background, the increasing paranoia and anti-establishment views never upending the "quirky" relationship comedy at its center. That is until its shocking conclusion, where all the violence kept in the background literally breaks through to the foreground: a neighboring window across from the main couple's apartment, literally an inconsequential piece of background scenery, produces a sniper, and the random, irrational violence that the couple had been avoiding all along - and which Marcia Rodd's boundless optimism had attempted to transcend - finally engulfs the narrative. The fact that this turn comes so quickly and rapidly - only in about the last 15 or so minutes of the film - makes the disintegration feel all the more traumatic and audacious. The movie is essentially about disintegration: the disintegration of society, of community, of values, of authority, of hope.

If slightly less audacious formally, but no less brave in its themes, there stands Hal Ashby's The Landlord. While his first film, I still think its his greatest, showing a formal creativity, moral complexity and satirical courage lacking in most of his subsequent output. It's premise is once again fairly by-the-numbers, almost sitcom territory: A wealthy twenty-something young man (Beau Bridges) buys a crumbling tenement building in hopes of turning it into a bachelor pad, but soon has to contend with its black tenants. The feel-good liberal expectation of such a story is that after several ignorant, but ultimately well-meaning, confrontations of class and race with the tenants, Bridges will ultimately decide to help (you could say save) the black tenants, restore their home, and allow them to stay there, enforcing the idea of a brotherhood beyond race here in America. If the movie is remarkable, it's that after spending half its time on such topical, but light-hearted, spats between Bridges and his tenants, it proceeds not to begin resolving them, but by revealing tensions and animosities of race and class that run so deep that the movies can't dream of resolving them. In fact you can mark the point where the comedy begins to disintegrate: at a rent party thrown by the tenants, Beau Bridges begins having several conversations with several different black occupants about what it means to be Black in America. The camera taking the P.O.V. of the Beau Bridges (and by extensions, the white audience that is surely to comprise the majority of its viewership) we cut back and forth from the various statements, dictated directly into the camera. As the sequence unfolds, the conversations grow increasingly more hostile, the topic moving further from newfound black pride towards revealing an increasing rage at White America. The sequence ultimately reaches it crescendo when one man makes the following key statement: "You whities scream about miscegenation and you done watered down every race you ever hated". From then on, the second half of the movie concerns itself with exploring the class and racial tensions of the film until they're left open raw and naked like a wound. With a script by Peter Gunn, the movie gives one of the most complex, honest, and as such, pessimistic views of race relations in all of Hollywood, certainly up until White Dog and Do the Right Thing. Even then the movie stands out in the manner it strips naked the liberal naiveté of its young, white protagonist, exposing the condescending white privilege that lies at the heart of his well-meaning progressiveness. In view of this film (sadly only available on MGM on Demand), Harold and Maude seems like a step backwards into the sitcom trappings that mark this film's first half, and he would certainly never take the risk of confronting his audience the same way ever again.

A special mention might be given to Rules of the Games, which starts in the framework in the comedy of manner, but grows increasingly more acidic and audacious in its duration, the rabbit hunt being its turning point. If it doesn't quite fit, it's only that its reputation is such that few people will ever walk into it expecting its initial premise to be its sole modus operandi.

Paul Verhoeven's Turkish Delight also has an increasingly disintegrating romantic comedy/drama at its center, but its complicated by several factors. 1) It would be difficult to categorize, even at its lightest, as solely a comedy. 2) Verhoeven's subversive and anarchic preoccupation with human transgression is always present in the film's guiltless feeling towards sexuality, but also, creates a feeling of unpredictability that makes one certain something darker is always around the corner. 3) While the movie has something of a trajectory of a Euro sex comedy leading towards tragedy, it opens with a downright shocking opening which has nothing to do with either traditional comedy or drama, but is more at home in the slasher film: a sweaty, deranged naked Rutger Hauer masturbates, while he remembers?/imagines?/fantasizes? himself committing a series of cruel, violent and increasingly misogynistic murders. While the segment makes surprising narrative sense by the end, the audience can never be fooled by the romantic comedy center of the film after such a shocking opening.

Certainly these groupings of films, and the manner in which they use genre, is tentative and loosely-grouped at best, but I'm curious if anyone here can think of any other examples of this? I feel like I'm making major oversights, and I'd love to find more films that don't correspond only with the 70s burst of anti-establishment filmmaking.
Last edited by Cold Bishop on Sat Dec 04, 2010 9:03 am, edited 3 times in total.

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Tom Amolad
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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#2 Post by Tom Amolad » Thu May 06, 2010 7:44 am

A very interesting topic. One film from a slightly later moment that comes to mind is Demme's Something Wild. I'm honestly not quite sure how to explain the film's abrupt turn halfway through, but for the question about rebellion, I'd point to Jameson's discussion of it (in the Postmodernism book) in which he argues that the film is built around a tension between fifties and sixties ideologies of rebelion, both of which it rehearses in a rather deracinated way.

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Gregory
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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#3 Post by Gregory » Thu May 06, 2010 11:30 am

Cold Bishop wrote:[In The Daytrippers] the expected reunion that is always inevitable at the end of such a movie never occurs, the relationship increasingly revealed as broken beyond repair. As I have never seen The Daytrippers, the mental image I’m having of the movie and its actual reality may be night and day; it could very well be much lighter or much darker than what I expect it to be. ...
You (and Wood) have described it accurately, I think. However,
SpoilerShow
it is not only this central relationship that disintegrates but all those of all the couples. With the parents, one supposes they will remain together out of habit and to avoid disrupting the family, even though the basis of romantic love and even respect between this older couple seems to have largely disappeared. In the case of the younger sister (Parker Posey), not only is her current relationship a ruin at the end, but I find that the viewer is even encouraged to have doubts about her prospect in Campbell Scott's character. So it is perhaps even more bleak than you suspected, although there is a silver lining in the undiminished bond between the sisters that Mottola underscores at the very end.
As for other films, do you think Pierrot le Fou would fit this category? Its premise is a romantic lark, with Godard seeming to use a playful style to downplay the implications of what the couple has done. He then introduces elements of stress and conflict that make a gradual transition to outright tragedy. At its most basic level, I think it's an entirely conventional story of "amour fou" and its impossibility.
I'm undecided on the hypothesis that the late '60/early '70s were a rich period for films in this vein (and I've seen few of the other films listed so far). But I think Pierrot le Fou is a 1965 film that somehow anticipates the mood in 1969 (and after, for some) of futility and disillusionment that many hopeful, politically conscious people felt after the events of '68 and their perceived failure to usher in a better world.
(Edited to remove a potential spoiler)
Last edited by Gregory on Thu Aug 15, 2019 1:33 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Michael Kerpan
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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#4 Post by Michael Kerpan » Thu May 06, 2010 4:09 pm

You can find some excellent contemporary films of this type in Asia. Exhibit one would be the (clunkly -- and redundantly -- tiltled) Funuke: Show a Little Love, You Losers! (a dysfunctional family black comedy). Also Shonen merikensack (Brass Knuckles Boys) -- about a the struggle by a ditsy A&R intern (played by Japan's best young actress) to re-start the career of a long defunct punk rock group. The Korean film Crush and Blush comes pretty close to this category as well ( a high school girl with a crush on her teacher becomes his colleague -- and schemes with the teacher's daughter to take out a percieved rival). There are a good number of others as well.

Perhaps the classic black (disintegrative) comedies of Kon Ichikawa (Crowded Streetcar, 10 Black Women) provided a foundation for these newer films.

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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#5 Post by zedz » Thu May 06, 2010 8:10 pm

Probably not quite what you're looking for, but one film that takes this template quite pointedly to an extreme is the romantic-comedy-setup-degenerates-into-screaming-terror Audition. And Edward Yang's Mahjong is formally a comedy, but it makes repeated swerves into increasingly dark, disturbing and depraved territory, though it somehow manages to end on an upbeat.

Instinctively, though, I think there might be a significant difference between the rug-pulling of those films (and Something Wild) and the 'disintegration' into drama / tragedy you're looking for. Interesting topic, anyway, and I know there are more films of this kind lurking out there.

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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#6 Post by knives » Thu May 06, 2010 8:18 pm

I'm surprised Romeo and Juliet hasn't been thrown out. It might keep an ironic sense of comedy in the end, but most people stage it as purely dramatic in that last half.

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Mr Sausage
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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#7 Post by Mr Sausage » Thu May 06, 2010 9:43 pm

A "disintegrating comedy" sounds to me like a tragi-comedy. Comic structures are all about upward movement, going from a state of brokenness to a state of unity (think Chaplin's the Gold Rush, where the hero begins with nothing and ends with everything, or hell, something like American Pie, where attempts to get rid of unwanted virginity are thwarted 'till the end, where everyone gets it). Tragedy has the opposite structure, beginning with unity and spiraling downward to disintegration. Think King Lear/Ran: at the start the hero's world is all nice and ordered and calm, and the rest of the narrative chronicles its dissolution. Tragedies are the story of a fall.

The "disintegrating comedy" outlined in this thread combines both structures, an upward climb toward unity that ends instead with a sudden fall. I wonder, then, if they are properly a form of tragi-comedy.
knives wrote:I'm surprised Romeo and Juliet hasn't been thrown out. It might keep an ironic sense of comedy in the end, but most people stage it as purely dramatic in that last half.
Romeo and Juliet is weird, its basic set-up is right out of a comic play, but its narrative thrust and tone is out of a tragedy. I mean, it takes the very old comic narrative of two lovers whose love is prevented by a blocking figure or figures (usually family members, and usually over concerns of unequal rank) but who overcome those figures in the end and find love. Romeo and Juliet has exactly that narrative, except instead of the happy ending where after a bunch of shenanigans one or the other lover finds out they had a secret parentage or something and are actually of noble birth, the blocking figures become more and more desparate until people begin to die left and right, culminating in the deaths of the lovers. It's right out of tragedy.

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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#8 Post by MichaelB » Thu May 06, 2010 10:22 pm

Talking of Alan Arkin, I finally caught up with A Serious Man the other day, which isn't a million miles from this territory - certainly, it got noticeably darker to me as it progressed. Though whether there's a substantial genre shift is perhaps harder to call.

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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#9 Post by GaryC » Fri May 07, 2010 10:41 am

Many of Mike Leigh's films could be called "disintegrating comedies". Happy-Go-Lucky is far darker than it seems at first. And (with the proviso that's it's not a film but a video-shot TV play derived from a stage play) Abigail's Party is a prime example of a comedy ending tragically.

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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#10 Post by Zumpano » Fri May 07, 2010 11:06 am

Would you guys consider Payne's "Election" or Scorsese's "After Hours" as examples of this?

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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#11 Post by knives » Fri May 07, 2010 11:15 am

Well After Hours never becomes a drama so I wouldn't think it counts. It does get as pitch black as they come, but even the most 'serious' elements are played for laughs. Payne in general works the same way, though he tends to lean more on the drama side of things.

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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#12 Post by HarryLong » Fri May 07, 2010 11:38 am

I'd nominate Robert Benton's under-rated BAD COMPANY which begins almost farcically with a round-up of young men trying to avoid being conscripted into the Union Army during the Civil War. That one has tried eluding this by putting on women's clothing gives an idea comic tone of the opening scenes. Yet, as the film was made in 1972, as the Vietnam involvement was becoming less & less popular with the US public, even these scenes have an edge to them (or at least certainly did at the time). The film follows one lad who escapes (the late Barry Brown) and heads west only to fall prey to con-artists (Jeff Bridges being the first) and worse. As Brown & Bridges first reluctantly join forces and, because of the circumstances, move into a life of crime, the tone isn't consistently downward (lighter moments are still present), but things definitely don't get better or stay better for long. And the ending is hardly one filled with promise. (It's been a few years since I watched it, so I'm a little fuzzy, but I seem to recall a fairly tragic sequence somewhat before the very end.)
There may be better examples of disintegrating comedies, but this film is such a gem - and one which it seems to me is little known - that I promote it whenever I can.

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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#13 Post by Jonathan S » Fri May 07, 2010 11:44 am

Many of Laurel & Hardy's comedies, especially the shorts, might be prototypes of this genre. In my book about their films I termed them "narratives of failure". Towed in the Hole begins with sunny optimism ("For the first time in our lives, we're a success - a nice little fish business and making money") but their attempt to expand their business results in the destruction of its two main assets (boat and car). In films such as Helpmates and Block-Heads Stan manages to completely wreck Ollie's stable life, including his marriage and his residence - he's a "homebreaker" in both senses. At the start of Helpmates the house is merely untidy, but at the end Ollie sits in its charred ruins... and then it rains. There's a genuine poignancy as the image fades out on him alone - the end was scripted with the boys linking arms and smiling at misfortune, but this was deliberately rejected for something much darker.

Their films tend to invert the traditional success story pattern in "male" genres; they start out with a set objective but often fail spectacularly to accomplish it. This can be something as simple as going on a picnic in Perfect Day which devotes all its twenty minutes to the impediments which delay their departure. One could say that the narratives themselves "fail" or disintegrate, their development being retarded by repetition and slowly cyclical action that can challenge many viewers' patience! There are exceptions such as Way Out West which is more of a traditional Hollywood comedy with its happy ending and mission accomplished.

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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#14 Post by Cold Bishop » Wed Jun 02, 2010 6:56 am

Another one that came to mind recently: Brian De Palma's very underrated Hi, Mom!. Of interest because it shares more than a few qualities with the aformentioned The Landlord and Little Murders. Thematically, it has the former's racial tensions, and the latter's focus on escalating urban violence. I'm talking about, of course, the famous "Be Black Baby" sequence. Cinematically, it's one of the best demonstration of Michael O'Donoghue's notorious adage: "Making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy". In an already satirical movie, one that has already established a tone of dark and subversive humor, it disrupts the narrative by becoming darker and more subversive than anything around itself. It's satire so razor sharp, so precise, so daring - and as such, so confrontational and close-to-home for it's potential audience - that it bypasses humor and becomes simply uncomfortable and unsettling. It goes farther than The Landlord in attacking the naiveté and liberal condescension of it's progressive audience. And like Little Murders (although much earlier along in the narrative) it marks a turn towards violence. However, Hi, Mom! does become a comedy again, albeit a markedly different one than before the "Be Black Sequence". The film's first half is largely a comedy about pornography and voyeurism. It's second half is a comedy about urban guerrilla warfare and American violence. The "Be Black Baby" sequence, as such, is an unflinching look at the ideological and social crisis that allows this shift to happen. It's less a disintegration from comedy-to-tragedy than a disintegration from one type comedy to another darker and far more acerbic one.
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Tom Amolad wrote:One film from a slightly later moment that comes to mind is Demme's Something Wild.
Actually a very good example. All the better in that it doesn't fall into the 70s era of ideological crisis (although as you mention, some of those tensions are there), and while it risks disintegration, the film is able to "recover" by the end.
Michael Kerpan wrote:You can find some excellent contemporary films of this type in Asia... Perhaps the classic black (disintegrative) comedies of Kon Ichikawa (Crowded Streetcar, 10 Black Women) provided a foundation for these newer films.
Interesting. While I haven't had nearly enough exposure to Ichikawa's string of black satires (although I'm certainly aware of them), one of the films I'm almost tempted to include is Imamura's The Profound Desire of the Gods. Seeing all his 60s output in a matter of weeks during the recent retrospective, I was surprised at how much "lighter" the film felt to me. All his films have comedy, that's true, and certainly ...Gods isn't lacking in any of the thematic richness that his other films have, but I felt it stood apart from the rest of his films in tone, the humor being more front and center, and not always as dark as his other films. However, it too disintegrates, culminating in the violent mob-punishment scene and the haunting epilogue. Perhaps its the fact that the "fish out of water/going native" story lends itself more easily to comedy. Perhaps its was a conscious attempt on Imamura to lure an audience in for his foray into expensive epic filmmaking. Perhaps its the fact that the movie isn't in black-and-white and set in claustrophobic urban areas, but there was something much more "lighter" about the initial premise of the film that I feel almost fits the category of films I'm trying to single out.
zedz wrote:Probably not quite what you're looking for, but one film that takes this template quite pointedly to an extreme is the romantic-comedy-setup-degenerates-into-screaming-terror Audition. And Edward Yang's Mahjong is formally a comedy, but it makes repeated swerves into increasingly dark, disturbing and depraved territory, though it somehow manages to end on an upbeat.
Well, I never felt the initial premise of Audition was particularly "comedic". And its also a problem in that the film's reputation precedes it to the point that it's unlikely anyone will approach it as a comedy. I've considered Mahjong, which I'm a huge admirer of, but "swerves", not "disintegrate" is a very apt description. Yang establishes the balance from the outset, so I'm not sure if it really fits.

And I'm not necessarily looking for "rug-pulling", or films that end in tragedy. The type of film I'm looking for can slowly unravel (Petulia doesn't really have a rug-pulling moment, and based off memory, I don't recall a particular moment when the comedy falls apart, its disintegration being more of a gradual decline), and it certainly can end a note lighter than out-and-out tragedy (The Landlord ends on a note of uncertainty and confusion, but not tragedy, and Something Wild returns to "comedy' for its happy ending)
Mr. Sausage wrote:A "disintegrating comedy" sounds to me like a tragi-comedy.
I considered calling it that but 1) I don't think comedy-towards-tragedy is the only trajectory I'm looking for 2) More so than dramedy, its a very slippery term. While I think Romeo & Juliet certainly works, you're just as likely to see the term applied to Chekhov or Beckett, Nights of Cabiria or Sunset Boulevard. Many places incorrectly I'm sure. You'll see the term applied to the exact opposite of what I'm looking for: tragedy with a happy ending. I almost don't like using the term outside its original examples from the 17th century, partly because I don't feel I have a good enough grasp on the concept, partly because others abuse it.
Zumpano wrote:Would you guys consider Payne's "Election" or Scorsese's "After Hours" as examples of this?
Never saw Election, but I think After Hours has its feet planted squarely in black comedy.
Harry Long wrote:I'd nominate Robert Benton's under-rated BAD COMPANY which begins almost farcically with a round-up of young men trying to avoid being conscripted into the Union Army during the Civil War.
I'm actually a big fan of the film, and there are lot of other "buddy" films from the decade that have a similar mix of humor and seriousness, but I'd be tempted to categorize them as "dramedy" before "disintegrating comedy".
Jonathan S wrote:Many of Laurel & Hardy's comedies, especially the shorts, might be prototypes of this genre.
I haven't seen the Laurel & Hardy shorts since I was a kid, but you may be right. They may not be as "dramatically" serious as some of the other films mentioned, and as such they never leave the mold of comedy, but it is a trajectory towards destruction and failure which is worth looking into.
Last edited by Cold Bishop on Sat Dec 04, 2010 9:05 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#15 Post by Murdoch » Wed Jun 02, 2010 5:38 pm

Daytrippers is interesting since it maintains a lightheartedness up until the final twenty minutes, when everything that came before is kind of turned on its ear and all comedy is completely removed from the film.

I'd say Margot at the Wedding fits this category, and follows a similar evolution of themes to that of Daytrippers. Its editing (cuts occur sometimes in the middle of conversation) and subject matter (Malcolm's goofiness, the weirdo neighbors) highlight the film's quirkiness in order to steer audience expectations one way, then quickly go in the other direction. However by the end of the film it almost completely forsakes its comedic tone as Margot and Pauline have their shouting match, Margot avoids her mother and sister and Pauline reconciles with Malcolm in what I saw as moment of desperation on the part of Pauline. The film does a marvelous job in not letting its characters off the hook and casting a strong degree of doubt over their choices.

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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#16 Post by Shrew » Fri Jun 04, 2010 3:57 am

There's a fine line between black comedy and comedy that falls apart and becomes an outright tragedy. But I think many black war comedies follow this path of disintegration. Often the films dance around war or characters who are using comedy to deal with the absurdity of war until the full horror of it becomes unavoidable and everything becomes tragic. Catch-22 is an obvious literary example.

This technique is common in many war stories, but you certainly couldn't classify all as 'comedies'. I suppose it depends on how present the war is in the early part of the film.

I just watched Jiang Wen's Devils on the Doorstep last night, and the film fits this to a tee. For the majority the tone is straight black comedy (though Jiang does frequently add tension to temporarily raise stakes and sustain the film's pace). The war is acknowledged throughout, but the Japanese stationed in the base are barely threatening and not till the end does anything resembling horror enter the film. The last 20 minutes still invoke a comic tone at times, but it can no longer cover up the bloody insanity of war and the world.

Renoir's The Elusive corporal would be another example, though war never gets to the level of horror as in Devils, the film still ends on a rather down beat. Hell, even Life is Beautiful could count in here, since as much Benigni sentimentalizes and goofs around and tries to make the world seem a happier brighter less threatening place he still can't avoid getting himself killed in the end.

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Cold Bishop
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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#17 Post by Cold Bishop » Sat Dec 04, 2010 8:51 am

Should probably write more when I have the chance, but Chris Morris's Four Lions is one of the best recent examples of this. I don't like the idea of agreeing with Michael Medved on anything, but this is a very great comedy, which slowly turns into something much more tragic and complex.

And his gotten far too little recognition recently. Go see it. It should still be playing theatrically.

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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#18 Post by Cold Bishop » Wed Dec 22, 2010 5:46 am

Four Lions (Chris Morris, 2010)

When I heard Chris Morris was working on a feature film, it immediately shot up to my must-see list. While underappreciated in the States, and controversial in his native UK, he's one of the few people in comedy who is conceivably possessed with genius. His various work in radio and television - On the Hour, The Day Today, Brass Eye, Blue Jam, Jam, Nathan Barley - are, to this humble yank's eyes, landmark works in the last two decades of comedy, all of which will last the coming decades. He's a savage, ferocious satirist, working in the confrontational, uncompromising tradition of Terry Southern and The Realist, Swift and Rabelais. And as if fulfilling the frustrated, repressed ambitions of Michael O'Donoghue (who is clearly an influence), Morris has turned the tools of the mass media on itself, cultivating a persona as a merry prankster, a subversive media-terrorist using comedy to launch a full-fledged assault on TV, radio and news conventions, gloom-and-doom social hysteria and the very ideas of good taste. Yet, what is perhaps most shocking about Four Lions is that Morris trades his usually violent edge for a more subtle approach, even approaching his titular terrorist cell with a sense of understanding not usually seen in the sneering acidity of his previous work. Even in its closest predecessor, the sitcom Nathan Barley, Morris couldn't hide the fact that he thought his titular character was an irredeemable prick. Here, Morris isn't able to settle with simple skewering, trying to make his film understand the contradictory, irrational impulses that drive well-meaning British citizens to mass murder.

Its insular approach may come with a conceivable downside, ignoring the larger social and political movements that breed terrorism, as well as the many travesties committed in the name of fighting terrorism. Perhaps some people will look at the film, an see a reinforcement of stereotypes, of every islamaphobes' worst fear, just by virtue of its single-minded approach. Certainly, a red flag should be raised when a neocon pundit like Michael Medved embraces the film, going as far as asking Morris on his show (an unholy union if there's ever been one). This is a film where seemingly westernized Muslims use their two-week vacations to take covert trips to Pakistan, and pay court with the Emir himself. Where a Islamic pundit stands in a panel, and decries Islamaphobia - and then uses that panel to recruit a suicide bomber from the audience. But this, of course, is to overlook the film's sly look at religious and cultural confusion within its group of characters. As mentioned, it is the most westernized Muslims of the film who are part of the cell, and the only one of the five leads who matches our "vision" of radical Islam is in fact a white British convert. The film traffics in hypocritical, confused juxtaposition of jihadist rhetoric and consumerist behavior, such as when its lead, Omar, edits together a jihadist video... on an expensive laptop, with expensive editing software, in a middle-class house decked with Ikea-like furniture. Or when terrorist meetings are held on a version of Disney's Club Penguin. All this is compounded by Omar's brother, Ahmed, a conservative, fundamentalist Muslim (who in fact receives scorn from Omar for his fundamentalism) who nonetheless attempts to stop Omar when he catches wind of his ideas ("there is no justification for what you have planned"). Later in the film, the police raid Ahmed's prayer meeting, confusing their fundamentalism for a threat, while Omar and co. are able to move around free. It's the film's great irony, and which makes one its points clear: terrorism cannot simply be defined by religious fundamentalism. The film's protagonists get caught up in terrorism since they are caught between and alienated by both religious devoutness and Western democratic-capitalism. It's no mistake that the film's final standoff occurs when a character threatens to blow up a room of fellow Muslims, not the planned "kafirs". This film is more about the way jihadism is an internal problem within western Islam than it is about its threat to western society.

As such, its biggest faults are understandable. Very few films have been made attempting to tackle Jihadism, nearly none of them "entertainments" like this. Perhaps the worst criticism that can be made of Morris's film is that its not the final, definitive film on the subject. But why should it be? Still, there are certain areas that could be conceivable expanded. Such as Omar's wife and child. In its quiet, unassuming way, their portrayal is as disturbing as anything in Jam, fully supportive as they are of his planned suicide bombing. This despite the fact that they are also westernized; the wife even works, and when Ahmed refuses to step in the same room as a woman, she stands up for herself. Yet, they are unquestionably behind him 100% percent; in one scene, when Omar considers giving up his jihad, they, in a spoof of such cloying scenes of familial unity behind the patriarch, rally behind him and give him back his strength. The kid even gets a would-be cutesy line ("He'll be in heaven before his head hits the ceiling.") Considering the research behind the film, I have no doubt Chris Morris has good reason to include such a portrayal, but one wishes for a closer look at the family's psychology, standing as they do as a big question mark in the middle of the film.

Similarly, the British convert's, Barry, history is glossed over, although what isn't said largely informs his behavior. Watching him, one can't help but think of David Myatt, former National Front neo-nazi, responsible for bashing many of those Muslim immigrants in the 80s and 90s, who nonetheless has refashioned himself into a radical Muslim this last decade. Barry seems more concerned with the Jewish conspiracy than religious devoutness; he is obsessed with bombing the unlikely target of a Mosque, killing moderate Muslms to mobilize the radicals; he has perverse obsession with control, and it is implied he's sexually molested the more impressionable members of the group; and in the end, he calls Omar a "paki bastard" without skipping a beat. In his case, the need for destruction precedes any religious cause behind it.

But of course, none of this is to talk about the humor of Morris's film, or the way it qualifies as a Disintegrating Comedy. Yes, its a black comedy, but early on, it establishes a tone of slapstick. Many people have invoked the Three Stooges, and while it doesn't go that far, the humor in the earlier parts consists of watching its five lead characters' ineptitude and aloofness in the face of their very serious goal, leaving us questioning whether they even have it in them. Likewise, Morris's compassion makes us genuinely like the five characters (well, four of them), hoping they find a way out of their fanaticism. This makes the inescapable sense of tragedy of the film's last thirty minutes all the more shocking. The "point of disintegration" comes when one of the characters blows himself up... not in an attack, but in a sheer, avoidable accident, dropping a bag of explosives in an empty field. The sheer wastefulness of his death (even by jihadist standards) drives home the very serious implications of their goal. And of course, it is the one character who has begun having reservations about the suicide bombing. After that, the four remaining characters reach a point of no return, and for all its light touches, their final attack on the London Marathon is genuinely taut and sad. Despite their last minute reservations, each character is forced to act out their suicidal gesture. After the playful and affectionate approach to the subject matter for the majority of the film, the last thirty minutes slowly culminates the very serious weight of terrorism, until it ends in one final, futile explosion.

Its closing credits, a collection of jihadist-video outtakes, and after-the-fact news bulletins, attempt to alleviate the serious tone with some final touches of humor, and leaves one with a brief taste of what a Brass Eye: Terrorism Special may have looked like. But this humor has its on implications. Just as the classic Disintegrating Comedies of the late 60s, early 70s captured a sense of social breakdown and confusion, these final humorous vignettes capture our own social disintegration in the face of terrorist fears. Ahmed, the wrong man, is threatened with rendition by federal agents, who hold up a completely innocuous Wheetabix Bar as damning evidence, completely misguided in their pursuits. In a press conference, the police attempt to cover up their fatal mistakes which left several innocent people dead ("Police shot the right man but the wrong man exploded”), invoking the Jean Charles de Menezes case. Omar's co-worker is unable to accept his seemingly adjusted friend as a suicide bomber, insisting he was an M15 agent ("Most loud bangs aren't bombs, they're just a scooter backfiring"). Omar decries Western consumerism and materialism in one of his video, and then his friend, Waj, demands, that even in death, an acquaintance pay him the 200 pounds that is owed. All this inter-cut with grainy footage which we're never sure is the group's own self-documentation or police surveillance (as throughout the film), creating a genuinely paranoid tone. No one is going to confuse Four Lions as the Dr. Strangelove of its era, and Chris Morris is capable of much more, but as a funny farce on deadly serious material, it maintains both ends of its bargain, maintaining its humor, but never losing sight of its subject matter. It's one of this year's best comedies, and recommended during this final leg of its too-quiet theatrical run.

BrianInAtlanta
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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#19 Post by BrianInAtlanta » Tue Dec 28, 2010 3:04 pm

The first one I thought of reading the description above was Sullivan's Travels. It starts at The Philadelphia Story and ends at I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang!

Another might be The Magnificent Ambersons. That starts out looking like a comedy about peoples' quaint old ways (look out for that bass viol!) and ends, in the original cut at least, in the deepest, blackest tragedy.

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JeanRZEJ
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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#20 Post by JeanRZEJ » Thu Mar 17, 2011 3:32 am

I've been writing about a few examples of this, although specifically those which begin as farce and end up as a distinctly realistic drama. Someone earlier mentioned Devils on the Doorstep, and Dogtooth fits this pattern as well. I have seen Petulia and Little Murders but I don't remember them well enough to determine where they fit into this discussion.

I think there is a definite difference between 'tragicomedy', which I take the definition from J. L. Styan's 'The Dark Comedy' as a persistent balance between the comic distance and tragic tension which stifles the comic response but remains entirely distinct from a tragic response, and the topic at hand here. This 'disintegrating comedy' simply talks about structure, so the function of the work would define it as tragicomic, tragic, or something else. In classical structural definitions this disintegrating comedy doesn't really distinguish itself from tragedy at all, as the main point of definition is that things start well and end poorly. Nowadays we tend to define works according to the way the audience reacts, so using a structural term can cause some confusion. I think there is a distinct class of audience reaction that films like Dogtooth and Devils on the Doorstep fit into, in that those elements which are initially treated not only comically but farcically (which is to say that they are not only presented in a way which accentuates absurdity but in a way which de-emphasizes their realism) end up being treated seriously. Tragicomedy works well to keep a constant tension between those things which are troubling but cannot merely be brushed off with satire, whereas this farcical approach betrays this tension. As a result, at least in the two films mentioned, I find that the effect is a separation between the human elements and the distinct elements which create the tragedy. In both cases it is violence which becomes the isolated element, although it could certainly be adultery or something else. As opposed to satire, which is a denunciation of the human effects, or tragicomedy (which I take to be synonymous with black comedy) which is an an investigation of subjects with an ambivalent view, or tragedy which is simply a lamentation of human failures, I find this 'tragic farce' to be reaction which forces the audience to focus on a troubling behavioral element which is not purely bad but to which there is a point where it is clearly damaging. Satire would render the issue too starkly, tragicomedy would understate its potential for misuse, and tragedy would cloud the issue with emotion, so to me it seems a very useful method of pointed discourse which will always fit into this 'disintegrating comedy' structure. I could see a tragicomedy or a tragedy arising from a similar structure, so I think it would be helpful to distinguish the effects both in order to understand the implications of each work and to better understand the various ways in which artists use this structure.

All of this is troubled by the contradictory uses of all of these terms, be it comedy, tragedy, tragicomedy, black comedy, etc. For instance, black comedy can speak of simple morbid humor or of a film's overall dramatic mode, and I think 'morbid humor' is both far too specific and redundant, since it is comic. Tragicomedy, though, is entirely distinct, and as a distinctly 'darker' form of the comic impulse I think the term 'black comedy' or 'dark comedy' works well. The main issue here is: define your terms, thereby avoiding issues of mere semantics.

Another film that would fit this 'disintegrating comedy' formulation is Birds, Orphans, and Fools. I haven't seen it in a while, but it may be a 'tragic farce' of responsibility and love (as opposed to the two I mentioned before which were both violence). I'll watch it again soon and think about it.

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Cold Bishop
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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#21 Post by Cold Bishop » Fri Sep 02, 2011 4:08 am

I don't know how I missed your post, but...
JeanRZEJ wrote:The main issue here is: define your terms, thereby avoiding issues of mere semantics.
Well, that's the problem: I don't have enough yet to create a working definition of a "Disintegrating Comedy", or whether it holds water as a distinct narrative structure. Consider the aim of this thread exploratory: to dig enough examples (as well as films which don't quite fit) to create a working definition.
JeanRZEJ wrote:I've been writing about a few examples of this, although specifically those which begin as farce and end up as a distinctly realistic drama.
And I'd appreciate any more suggestions.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#22 Post by matrixschmatrix » Fri Sep 02, 2011 5:10 am

How would you view something like Man Bites Dog, where it begins as an extremely dark comedy and eventually so punishes the audience that the initial comedy is drained out and replaced by horror? The structure remains fairly consistent throughout- there's certainly no possibility of integration within the comedic framework- but the audience's experience is similar to the examples of disintegrating comedy given. Is it part of your definition here that the audience expect a happy ending, and have it denied them?

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Quot
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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#23 Post by Quot » Fri Sep 02, 2011 6:23 am

I think Skolimowski's Deep End fits the bill.

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Roger Ryan
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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#24 Post by Roger Ryan » Fri Sep 02, 2011 9:10 am

matrixschmatrix wrote:How would you view something like Man Bites Dog, where it begins as an extremely dark comedy and eventually so punishes the audience that the initial comedy is drained out and replaced by horror? The structure remains fairly consistent throughout- there's certainly no possibility of integration within the comedic framework- but the audience's experience is similar to the examples of disintegrating comedy given. Is it part of your definition here that the audience expect a happy ending, and have it denied them?
I think this depends on the audience. Personally, I found MAN BITES DOG humorous throughout, so I perceived no "disintegration" of the comedy.

Normally I dislike films that set up comedic situations and then turn tragic as they strike me as being overly manipulative. I'm thinking of things like STEEL MAGNOLIAS where the film milks laughs with its wacky characters until...oh know, start weeping because someone young is dying of cancer! Maybe it's all in the way the film is handled. I love SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, but there is no doubt that it stops being funny two-thirds through - this film feels like the very definition of "disintegrating comedy". I suppose Chaplin went this route quite often where his films prefer to mine sympathy or pathos instead of comedy after the half-way mark. This is one of the reasons I prefer Keaton whose commentary on the human condition could be as dark, if not darker, than Chaplin's, but kept the gags rolling so any seriousness of tone was only apparent in retrospect.

A film that is explicitly a satire seems to have an easier go at balancing the comedy with a more sobering message. For me, BRAZIL is just about perfect at creating a world that makes you laugh and become fearful at the same time. But it's not that the comedy "disintegrates" in this film; I believe the viewer begins to recognize the implications of the comedic situations. I guess this would be true of LITTLE MURDERS, DR. STRANGELOVE, FIGHT CLUB and dozens of others as well.

Basically, I think I've just restated, in my own way, what "JeanRZEJ" said back in March a few post up! I guess I agree with that view.

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Re: The Disintegrating Comedy

#25 Post by MichaelB » Fri Sep 02, 2011 9:18 am

Roger Ryan wrote:
matrixschmatrix wrote:How would you view something like Man Bites Dog, where it begins as an extremely dark comedy and eventually so punishes the audience that the initial comedy is drained out and replaced by horror? The structure remains fairly consistent throughout- there's certainly no possibility of integration within the comedic framework- but the audience's experience is similar to the examples of disintegrating comedy given. Is it part of your definition here that the audience expect a happy ending, and have it denied them?
I think this depends on the audience. Personally, I found MAN BITES DOG humorous throughout, so I perceived no "disintegration" of the comedy.
For me, the disintegration can be precisely pinpointed to
SpoilerShow
the gang rape, in which the film crew participates. Not just because the scene isn't remotely funny, but because it represents the moment when the film crew cross the line from detached, ironic observers and become active collaborators in the protagonist's atrocities. The whole tone of the film changed from that point on.
Incidentally, I was lucky enough to see this film with absolutely no advance warning as to its content - not even a poster image.

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