December 2017, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour: 
Make Them Laugh – Laughing in the Cinema, Laughter in Film


"Make them laugh!" – The Lumière brothers seemingly already made this appeal their own: the first laughter in film history can be seen in the short sketch L'arroseur arrosé (or also Le jardinier), one of ten short films from the 1895 Grand Café program, the first very public film screening worldwide that was held at the Indian Salon in Paris. What we have no record of is whether the audience members present reacted to this first comedy short by laughing themselves or whether the entire screening wasn't accompanied by laughter of wonder and disbelief at the technical miracle of the moving image. 122 years later, cinema has diversified and amplified laughter, run through all its possible categories and pushed it in infinite different directions. We no longer just laugh at comedies – pars pro toto, one can mention here the classical "comic relief", when feelings of tension, fear, or sadness reach their highpoint and suddenly dissolve in a moment of laughter. Several of these huge varied forms of laughter in film and cinema and the equally wide-ranging ways it is produced and interpreted are being presented in December's Magical History Tour. Moving away from films by and with the comic greats and possible classics of the genre, the program also turns its attention to the apparent (no less amusing) byways of film history and all the many variations of the laugh, whether that which stems from liberation or unease, bursts out of the throat or ends up sticking there, or comes across as uncontrollable or cryptic.

SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, USA 1952, 1. & 23.12.) A playfully light hymn dedicated to laughter in film, to the high art of comedy and slapstick is contained in the musical number "Make them laugh", which inexplicably remains less well-known in public perception than the film’s title song. In a true tour de force, Donald O’Connor reveals himself to be not just a singer and dancer, but also a comedian, running through the entire classical slapstick palette in barely four minutes with massive physical effort. He makes Gene Kelly, laugh right at the beginning of the scene; as an audience member, you increasingly hold your breath on account of O’Conner’s circus acrobatics, only to realize at the end of the sequence that this musical classic has reached its first highpoint. Who wants to dance in the rain after that anyway?

VESYOLYE REBYATA(Jolly Fellows, Grigori Aleksandrov, USSR 1934, 2. & 7.12.) Eisenstein’s assistant Aleksandrov makes one thing clear from the start in the opening titles of his early Soviet musical comedy: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton are not in the film. The heroes of all kind of grotesque and satirical pranks and acts of anarchic, surrealist destruction are instead a literal herd of pigs, cows, and goats, who at least in the first part of the film obey kolkhoz shepherd Kostya. When the musically talented farm worker is mistaken for a famous composer by a group of “better society” members looking for relaxation in the Crimea, the buffoonery truly gets started. This enjoyable mixture of the grotesque, the eccentric, the nonsensical, the folkloric, and the musical was initially banned after its completion

YOYO (Pierre Étaix, France 1965, 3. & 19.12.) Despite its status as a “sort of "Citizen Kane" of the comedy film” (Joe Hembus), the internationally celebrated life and passion project by the French illustrator, comedian, clown, gag-writer, and director is barely known in Germany. YOYO is a comedy equal parts amusing and elegant, grotesque and mischievous, which follows a billionaire (Pierre Étaix) who loses his fortune as a consequence of the global economic crisis, joins a wandering circus together with the love of his life, and travels the whole of France in a circus wagon with his son Yoyo also on board. Years later, Yoyo (Pierre Étaix also plays the role of the adult son) is a celebrated comedy star at the helm of a vast entertainment empire and renovates his father’s former castle. A tribute to silent film and its comedians, a film of laughter, smiles, and occasional melancholy.

FREDJLECHE KABZONIM/WESELI BIEDACI (Jolly Paupers, Leon Jeannot, Zygmunt Turkow, Poland 1937, 6.12.) An entirely unsentimental and thus all the more sarcastic Yiddish comedy of errancy, in which the traces left behind by a leaky oil can on an open field leads two young Jewish workmen (played by Warsaw cabaret stars Dzigan und Yisroel Shumacher) in a Polish shtetl to dream of finding a major source of oil. The apparent discovery has hardly been made public, yet the two of them can already hardly keep up with all the business proposals, offers of help, and marriage propositions. A satirical look at the strained efforts undertaken by two men to escape their small-town misery. Despite all the setbacks, arguments, and doubts as to their mental health, Naftali and Kopl will not be discouraged. Back then, the film offered Jewish audiences a rare opportunity to flee the threat of National socialism and Anti-Semitism via laughter.

PREBROJAVANE NA DIVITE SAIJZI(The Hare Census, Eduard Zahariev, Bulgaria 1973, 6.12.) Wonderfully subversive, bitingly sarcastic, banned for a period in Bulgaria before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and since the 90s a cult film: Assenov (Itzhak Finzi), a representative of the municipal authority, has set his sights on the wild hares that live in and around the Bulgarian hamlet of Jugla. As part of cataloguing the “national wealth”, they are also supposed to counted, or that’s what the orders from above say at least, which have to be carried out immediately. Even as everyday life in the village falls apart, all the men are ordered to go into the surrounding cabbage fields with nets, where the hares have made themselves scarce in the meantime. The grotesque pointlessness of self-perpetuating socialist bureaucracy ends with an open-air banquet, heavy liquor, and one single answer to all the insanity: any amount of laughter – from the hesitant and the insecure all the way to the unhinged – both onscreen and in front of it.

AUF DER SONNENSEITE (Ralf Kirsten, East Germany 1961, 8. & 27.12.) A DEFA comedy that exhibits both a lightness of touch and a surprising lack of respect which was freely adapted from the biography of Manfred Krug, whose role as the steelworker and subsequent acting hothead Martin made him into one of the most popular actors in East Germany. Just like Krug’s own shift from worker to actor, Martin’s metamorphosis isn’t entirely straightforward: he is unceremoniously expelled from acting school for his cheek and insubordination and ends up at a building site, where Ottilie, the subject of a previous bet, happens to the construction supervisor. It is at this unexpected location that Martin’s emotional and professional education begins. The loose tone of the film and its songs, which also crack jokes aimed at DEFA productions, can be put down to the period of relative political calm of the time, which was to end abruptly in the mid-1960s.

LA VIE DE BOHÈME (Aki Kaurismäki, France/Germany/Finland 1992, 9. & 28.12.) Life as an artist for the three protagonists of Kaurismäki’s literary adaption – the novel by Henri Murger which the film is based on is, by his own account, what gave Kaurismäki the idea of becoming a director in the 70s – is not the most pleasurable of experiences: Marcel (André Wilms) can neither pay his rent, nor can he find a publisher for his 21-part play, Albanian painter Rodolfo (Matti Pellonpää) loses first his wallet and then his visa, and while Irish composer Schaunard does at least have a roof over his head, his only possession is an out-of-tune piano. This melancholy setting can only be met with friendship, love (two women join the three hedonists over the course of the film), and numerous small diversions that happily quote film history, which function as islands of laconicism, humor, and laughter within the melodrama both for the characters of the film and the viewers.

SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (Preston Sturges, USA 1941, 10. & 12.12.) "All right, can you give me a letter of introduction to Lubitsch!" – Receiving such a request that relates to "grandmaster of comedy" Lubitsch is hard to swallow for successful comedy director Sullivan (Joel McCrea) (which provides by no means the film’s first laugh), not least because he actually wants to move away from the genre in order to finally make a socially relevant work. He begins his research disguised as a tramp, initially with the support of the studio’s press office and later reluctantly on his own, to be confronted with the effect of laughter in darker circumstances when in the company of convicts. Fast-paced dialogue and leaps between different genres, eccentric characters and scenarios – the film is dedicated to the memory of those who make us laugh, inscribing itself into this chain of recollections as a textbook example of how it can be done.

RADIO NO JIKAN (Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald, Koki Mitani, Japan 1997, 15.12.) Seldom has a Forum audience filled the Delphi cinema with such laughter as during the premiere of Japanese screwball variant RADIO NO JIKAN. Shortly before the live radio play “The Women of Fate” is about to be broadcast, the voice actress playing the leading role demands that her character’s name be changed to Mary Jane. Panic ensues, for the foreign name turns the story entirely on its head. Surprising turns of events that take place while the program is on air subsequently transform the melodrama about a dissolving marriage into a wild action story. RADIO NO JIKAN is a hilarious comedy in which the vanities of the actors of a harmless radio play morph into a hysterical series of Japanese-American entanglements.

Three films by French film critic and director Luc Moullet, the only burlesque filmmaker of the Nouvelle Vague. He steers everyday vignettes towards the absurd, and distills dry comedy from precise, almost documentary observations of the world around him, a brand of comedy that is less exaggerated than methodical in its presentation. Life and laughter according to Luc Moullet:
BARRES (Luc Moullet, France 1984, 16.12.) Travelling without a ticket in Paris is a sporting discipline above all: in encyclopedic fashion, Moullet examines the different ways in which the barriers in the Metro can be overcome.
ESSAI D'OUVERTURE (Luc Moullet, France 1988, 16.12.) 21 attempts to open a Coca-Cola bottle – a complex task that calls for extraordinary solutions.
LES SIÈGES DE L'ALCAZAR (Luc Moullet, France 1989, 16.12.) The hardships faced by a film critic in his favorite Paris cinema: shouting children in the best seats in the front row, "forgotten" film rolls, color films screened in black and white. When a critic from another, hostile film magazine comes to "his" cinema, a game of cat and mouse begins.

DOWN BY LAW (Jim Jarmusch, USA 1986, 17. & 22.12.) Jarmusch referred to his third film as a "neo-beat-noir-comedy", “half nightmare, half fairy tale”. The fairy tale elements shine through at different points in the unusual, fortuitous connections within the plot, the comedy ones soon emerging from the nourish atmosphere of the sad, severe world of shadows inhabited by Jack (John Lurie) and Zack (Tom Waits), who are abandoned and betrayed and end up in prison. It’s here that Bob (Roberto Benigni) appears, who as an Italian hustler and murderer first brings then three of them together and then leads them out of the prison and into the swamps of Louisiana. Bob’s tattered, both personal and personalized English dictionary, which contains all manner of sentences and sayings he’s picked up somewhere, repeatedly becomes a source of unusual comedic relief. When he says, “I scream-a, you scream-a, we all scream-a for ice scream-a”, at the very latest, it duly brings the house down.

TONI ERDMANN (Maren Ade, Germany 2016, 20. & 29.12.) The setting is Bucharest: a father (Peter Simonischek), sometimes decked out in a shabby suit with a shaggy wig and plastic teeth, at others playing a German ambassador or a tennis coach, and a daughter (Sandra Hüller), a steely, ambitious business consultant who is part of the global neo-liberal system. Their external and internal worlds couldn’t collide any more thunderously (even if they often do so in silence). In somnambulant fashion, Ade and her two outstanding leading actors explore the wafer-thin line that divides drama (or perhaps even tragedy) from comedy, making laughter tip into despair and extracting tears from comedy, and examines the fault lines and fragilities of these two seemingly opposing movements. Laughter through tears.

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1955, 22. & 26.12.) When looked at through the prism of comic relief, it’s possible to find more humor, irony, and even laughter in Hitchcock’s films than one might assume at first glance. This darkly morbid, grotesque thriller is clearly more about comedy than suspense, which is perhaps why the film failed to find an audience in the US, as they were unable to savor its dry humor. After a corpse is found unexpectedly in the idyllic, rural surroundings of New England in full autumn colors, a series of inhabitants of the neighboring village make some frenzied attempts at obfuscation. The more macabre the events become, the more cheerful the narrative tone, the more grotesque the different twists and turns, the more pleasurable the atmosphere in the cinema.

BRINGING UP BABY (Howard Hawks, USA 1938, 25. & 30.12.) The great possible amount of dialogue laced with exuberant wit are two characteristics of the American screwball comedy. The classic of the genre is BRINGING UP BABY, in which the carefully regulated life of the academically minded paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) is turned upside down when he meets an eccentric heiress to billions (Katharine Hepburn). Numerous entanglements and hopeless confusions surrounding bones, dogs, leopards, and the musical leitmotif of “I can’t give you anything but love, baby” ensue – all at breakneck speed. A veritable firework display of intelligent comedy, glorious chaos, joyful insanity – a celebration of laughter. (mg)

arsenal cinema: Magical History Tour: 
Make Them Laugh – Laughing in the Cinema, Laughter in Film

07:30 pm Cinema 2

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USA 1941 With Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake
DCP OV 91 min

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Repo Man

Repo Man Alex Cox USA 1984 With Harry Dean Stanton
35 mm OV 92 min