I’ve been working with visual gags in my film and television work for over ten years now, so it’s probably high time I tried writing down a few thoughts on the field, just to see if I actually have any.
I guess I have a few, all right, but most of them are probably half-assed and unexamined and it might be good to hold them up to the light and see if they hold water. If they don’t, I guess I’ll get water all over my light, but life is risk, as Buster Keaton could tell you.
Thought 1: Buster Keaton is better for studying than Charlie Chaplin. Why do I say that? I’ve always argued against comparing the two, I don’t see why one has to lose out to the other, you don’t have to pick Hawks over Ford or De Sica over Rossellini, why should the field of silent comedy be narrowed to two, and then down to one?
Personally, I probably incline more to Keaton (do opposites attract? I could probably have had a better conversation with Chaplin who shared my taste for intellectual posturing) but I see no reason to give marks out of ten. Comparisons may produce some qualitative differences that are interesting to analyse, but that doesn’t mean we have to make rigid qualitative judgments.
My feeling that Keaton is more useful to look at is more to do with a feeling that Keaton’s gags could, and did, work for other comedians (he wrote gags at MGM in the ’40s) more readily than Chaplin’s. I can’t explain that, it just seems that the fact of the Little Fellow’s presence in a scene is a bigger factor in the scene’s success than Keaton’s. And Keaton is one of those actors whom one really would pay to see reading from a phone book – silently. Chaplin is more persona-based – though both comedians sometimes played different characters, even when the appearance stayed the same. Chaplin’s rich drunk in 1 A.M. (Charles Chaplin, 1916) is not the same as the chap in The Tramp (Charles Chaplin, 1915) and Keaton’s hapless millionaire in The Navigator (Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp, 1924) is not his resourceful newlywed in One Week (Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline, 1920).
So if I’m looking at strategies for creating comedy, Keaton is a better model, just because it doesn’t have to be him up there – he’s just the best possible choice. The other thing is that Keaton’s gags tend to be more clever and surprising than Chaplin’s. Very often they’re not as laugh-out-loud funny, but that’s because there’s an artistic pride in Keaton that he’d never admit to. He wants to make us laugh as loud as possible, but he doesn’t want to make it easy on himself. Maybe it’s the same as his compulsion to risk his neck doing physically dangerous stunts – he wants to risk his films doing jokes so surprising the audience might not even realize a joke is being attempted.
Consider the scene in Sherlock, Jr. (1924) where he climbs into a film on a movie screen and has difficulty adjusting to the edits – he keeps getting stranded in a new locale every time the scene changes. What was there in cinema before this to prepare the audience of 1924 for the possibility that you could climb into a movie but that it would take a while before you became part of the film’s metabolism? That it would try to reject you by randomly cutting from street scenes to oceans to lions’ dens, in the hopes that you would be run over or drowned or eaten before you could become a real movie character? How could Keaton be confident this would work as an idea, let alone as an amazing technical feat of framing and editing?
So looking at Keaton broadens my horizons more. Looking at Keaton I feel I can take risks with situations far more demanding than kicking the bad guy in the pants, and find solutions that look beyond the immediate effect that I know will work. (Looking at Tati’s Playtime  makes me think maybe I can get laughs without necessarily having gags at all, and then I start to feel giddy.) Keaton’s jokes are always the cleverest pay-offs for the situations he’s dealing with. You can’t top them. But you can try to emulate them in your own situations.
Actually, the area where Chaplin is most breathtaking is his mixing of tones and even genres. He can go into pure melodrama, shuffle sophisticated comedy with slapstick, and place the broad next to the subtle and it doesn’t even seem to occur to him that there might be a problem. Nobody ever taught Chaplin the principles of storytelling, and he thinks he can just do anything he likes. And most of the time he can, because he’s a genius. If you want to try daring leaps of tone, take a look at Chaplin, and then just go for it.
Thought 2: the best visual gag happens in one shot. I think I first read this idea in an interview with Richard Lester. Looking around, I noticed he was right, and tried to do likewise. But I don’t know if I ever explained to my own satisfaction WHY I think this idea is true.
Exception! Something like Mouse Hunt (Gore Verbinski, 1997) gets boffo laffs with scenes where a cupboard takes three shots to fall on Lee Evans. What’s happening here? Well, it’s a new style, of which Sam Raimi might be the spiritual fairy godmother. A pastiche of action-movie pyrotechnics (film the explosion from three angles and use all of them – in fact, show the explosion blossom and fade from the front, then again in from the side, and then again from behind), this style creates a hyperbolic effect of maximum impact, all the time. Each moment of the wardrobe falling must be as big as possible, so the low angle shows the suspense of it toppling towards its prey, the close-up of hands shows the cringe-making impact of wood on knuckle, and the close-up of the head bursting through the back of the furniture gives us the pained reaction as well as another gag. It undeniably works, it’s just a different genus of filmmaking from the classical slapstick approach.
Returning to our silent heroes, look at a moderate gag in The Three Ages (Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline, 1923). A caveman throws a rock at Buster, he knocks it back with a knobbly club and floors the villain, inventing baseball at the same instant. With an irregular prop rock and club, it becomes difficult to predict or control where the “ball” is going to go. Keaton took 79 takes to get it to hit the other fellow, but he considered the effort worthwhile (1). He could, of course, have simply cut from a long-shot of the baddie hurling the boulder at him, to a close-up of him hitting the rock and knocking it off-screen in the right general direction, to a close-up of the antagonistic Neanderthal being floored by the same rock flung easily from off-screen. Why was it so important not to do this?
My best answer, aside from the obvious pleasure in seeing something at once unlikely and undeniably real, is one of timing. As soon as you break up the film, it seems like the laugh can get lost between the pieces. Control of the comedy’s timing is now in the hands of an editor, and few editors are as funny as Buster Keaton in a bearskin wielding a knobbly club. If cut together perfectly, the sequence will still be funny, just not as funny. Broken into beats it loses the flow of the real action, becomes a sequence of events rather than one. It’s no accident that we’ve yet to see an Eisenstein or a Hitchcock of comedy.
Keaton could create gags from sequences of shots, as in his amazing trajectory gags, where he is propelled through space, a plaything of momentum, gravity, and the objects in his path. Here the secret is in each part of the journey being a joke in itself, adding up into a bigger joke when considered as a whole. The movement across a considerable distance is also a perfect justification for cutting. The right distance is everything.
Why is the right distance so important? Because a close-up of a caveman being smacked with a rock is a bit more painful, a bit less amusing, than the image of him, in long-shot, being knocked off his feet by the very same stone he himself threw a second ago in the same continuous piece of footage. Because a detail can be so small in a long-shot that we either don’t see it at all or miss its significance; because an over-emphatic close-up can tell us what’s coming and some gags gain from surprise.
Jean-Claude Carrière reports Jacques Tati worrying over a shot in Mon Oncle (1958) where a terrier’s tail triggers the photocell controlling a garage door. The dog’s hapless owners become prisoners of their own fancy garage, and have to try to persuade the dog to repeat its action so they can be freed. But Tati very particularly didn’t want to use a close-up of the tail. It was essential to his purpose that we see the movement of the dog, the position of its tail in relation to the photocell, and the action of the garage door, all at once and without stressing individual details (2).
He made it work, somehow directing the audience’s eye to where it needed to be. I guess this is why they say comedy is difficult.
On my first short film, The Three Hunchbacks (1990), I knew next to nothing. I had a scene where an actor had to play the flute. He couldn’t. I had him move his fingers up and down black dots painted on a wooden stick while a real flautist played his instrument from off-camera. I didn’t quite realise I could dub the music later. That’s how inexperienced I was. But I’d read that Lester line and so my film got a few good laughs with visual gags, and I thought “Who says comedy is difficult?”
How little I knew. Try making a film where all, or even most of the gags actually provoke a smile or more. I blindly followed a good principle and it paid off, and the film was short and naive enough that people didn’t mind the fact that the beginning and end were pretty lame.
About editing: my most recent short, The Return of Peg Leg Pete (2003), contains the following: our hero, a swashbuckling pirate inexplicably adrift in the modern world, stumbles upon an upsetting scene.
Shot 1. A little boy’s sailboat has drifted out of reach.
Shot 2. From the other side of the duck pond, Pete draws his flintlock and fires at the boat.
Shot 3. Splashing into the water, his pistol shell propels the tiny ship closer to land.
Shot 4. The lad begins to hope.
Shot 5. Encouraged, Pete fires again.
Shot 6. Again, the bullet splashes the boat in the direction of shore.
Shot 7. The lad is delighted, he jumps for hoy.
Shot 8. on a role now, Pete blasts away again.
Shot 9. the wee boy crumples, slain.
Shot 10. Pete is horrified. He looks around for witnesses, then legs it.
The joke has been a success around the world (prizes in Australia and the US). Audiences expect, knowing Pete, that he will fuck up. But they expect a smaller disaster, the sinking of the toy boat. The child will be upset, and maybe that too can be made funny by having him hurl abuse or stones at his would-be benefactor. I decided to short-circuit expectation and try to make the audience (a bunch of foreign strangers whose tastes I don’t know) laugh good-naturedly at the death of a child. Surprise is the weapon that allows me to do this.
But what happened to the single shot gag, you ask? Well, I reckon maybe Tati could have pulled it off in one shot. The child’s distress could have been signaled with sound, everything else could have been conveyed with body language and special effects. I didn’t even consider the single-take option as I couldn’t spend a whole day on one joke (I had four days to shoot the entire film), my special effects weren’t that advanced (we did the bullet-splashes with pebbles slung by the AD, an excellent markswoman) and I couldn’t afford a ten-year-old stuntman who could fall into a filthy pond and swim to safety.
So I broke the sequence into beats. The repetition of shots (pirate, boat, child, pirate, boat, child) creates some of the sense of flow and inevitability that a single shot could have achieved. And breaking the rhythm by cutting to the child instead of the boat on the last gunshot is my surprise.
I just thought of another way to do it. The same as before, but when Pete fires the third time, we cut to the boat. Not moving. Cut back to Pete, puzzled. Now we cut to the dying sprog.
You see what I’ve done? I’ve added an extra dramatic beat, created an intriguing moment where the audience’s expectations have been foiled but they still don’t know what’s happened. I think I’ve also lost the laugh.
Of course, heartless brutes who find the idea of murdering a tot with an antique firearm inherently amusing will probably still be tickled (in other words, I’ll be the only one in the cinema laughing). But the rest of the crowd will have had their laugh broken into pieces by the cut, and the pieces will trickle away into the splices. The unaffected boat will let them know that they’ve been wrong about what was going to happen before they realise what has happened. They’ll suspect something more serious is on its way, and the slaughtered wean will drop in silence. A good joke delivers its comedy payload all at once, which is why if you stutter on the punch-line you can kill the laugh even though everybody understands what you meant.
Larry David argues that you get extra points by being funny about difficult, painful subjects. The risk if you fail is greater. I’m really glad I pulled off this joke. You probably hate me right now, but trust me, if you saw this film I think you’d laugh too. When Nietzsche said that a joke was an elegy for the death of an emotion, he was possibly thinking of me.
Thought 3: Flatness is good. In a recent conversation with the cinematographer who has shot my last three shorts, he talked about the difficult adjustment he had to make on Cry for Bobo (2001) our first collaboration.
“I’m used to thinking in cinematic terms, and what one thinks of as cinematic is, for example, a big close-up of an eye, with everything behind it out of focus.” I’m paraphrasing. I can remember long sequences from films, but generally forget anything anyone says to me within seconds.
But Scott’s point is a good one. In drama one generally uses scale and focus and movement to create the illusion of depth in the flat cinema screen at every possibility, to fool the mind into becoming psychologically involved, to make the image overcome its natural limitations as a photograph. Depth is important.
Chaplin and Keaton both flatten the image as much as possible, in their own distinct ways, and other masters of the gag have followed in their wake (Soderbergh identifies the “Lester tableau” as appearing in all Richard Lester’s films (3)). Why?
For one thing, the degree of psychological identification required in a comedy is milder than that in a pure drama. We need to give a shit, but we can’t be so caught up in the character’s concerns that we perceive his or her suffering as genuinely painful.
The line that comedy = drama + distance applies here. I think maybe it originally meant the passage of time after a tragic event, meaning that we can now enjoy comedies on subjects once too painful to laugh at, but it applies equally to physical distance. Orson Welles points out that the extreme long shot (almost losing the character in the uncaring world) is a feature of tragedy, along with the close-up, but the long shot per se is a comic device.
At the root of both of these interpretations of distance is emotional distance, a certain alienation, like with Brecht but funnier, that derives from being far enough away to see the whole action, without being troubled by pained expressions and bone-splintering impacts. Of course, this all makes the need to cover the action in a single shot a little easier. The understatement inherent in seeing a man fall down after being punched, all at a distance without dramatic emphasis, gives the situation a better chance of being humorous than shocking.
In Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972) we can see a gifted dramatic director struggle with visual gags, in the film’s renowned climactic chase sequence. Most of them are shown in single long shots, but occasionally Bogdanovich can’t resist spicing up the action with something more dramatic – a POV shot racing through the legs of a step ladder, for instance. Like the talented dramatist he is, PB wants to put us in the scene, make us feel the characters’ emotions, and this clashes somewhat with the appropriate comic distance achieved elsewhere.
So the long-shot is good, and it’s well to hold back on our reflex to make it interesting with extreme wide angle lenses, shallow focus, canted camera angles or elaborate tracking shots. Because this flatness is a great comic tool in itself.
Gag after gag in the history of comedy depends on exploiting, rather than concealing the apparent limitations of the film frame. In The Paleface (Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline, 1921) Keaton runs into a thicket of bushes from which a horse’s head protrudes. Leaping astride, he spurs it on, but emerges instead on a different horse, which was concealed behind the one we saw, and is facing the wrong way. Buster rides off backwards. Now, obviously there’s no way for Buster to realistically make that mistake. One horse is behind the other from our point of view, but from where he’s standing they’re side by side and can be clearly delineated as distinct beasts. But by accustoming us to see the world as flat planes, Keaton the director has prepared us for a joke in which a character is surprised by the presence of depth in a world that appears, to him as well as us, as purely two-dimensional.
In Catch 22 (Mike Nichols, 1970) Orson Welles (a three-dimensional figure if ever there was one) is presenting medals to airmen. One by one they step into the frame to be honoured. When Yossarian appears for his, he is naked. (Where to pin his award?) The General and his underlings are dumbfounded. But how come they didn’t notice when he was standing in line before them? He must have been just as visible to them then as when he took a couple of paces forward. It’s all down to the borders of the frame – nothing exists outside of that box unless the filmmaker wishes it to. So Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson can step into shot in a Leone film and everybody is amazed – they were apparently invisible until they entered the widescreen frame.
This is an extension of the flatness gag – using the limits of the screen for unrealistic pleasure. Alienation as entertainment. The filmmaker reminds the audience that they are watching a film, and that it is funny.
- From the documentary Buster Keaton, A Hard Act to Follow (Kevin Brownlow & David Gill, 1987).
- From the Granada Television South Bank Show documentary on Carrière, 1994.
- Steven Soderburgh, Getting Away With It: Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw, Faber & Faber, London, 2000.