Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What Makes Us Laugh -- Part Two: Romantic Comedies, when Opposites Attract

I wonder what the dog is thinking...
My apologies on getting this up a day later than promised, but the best laid plans go to waste and all that jazz.  But anyway here's this week's theoretical post.

I mentioned in our last segment (Part One) in the What Makes Us Laugh series that Comedies are primarily about the sick becoming healthy again. No more is this so true than the genre of the Romantic Comedy where you have not just one sick person but two sick people--who by interacting with one another heal themselves into a healthy, balanced whole. Generally Romantic Comedies are that simple, two "sick" personalities make each other "better" and more "balanced". This is especially true of the good Romantic Comedies of today, but it wasn't always the case.

Romantic Comedies are often critiqued as "chick flicks" but I'd argue that in a lot of Romantic Comedies you could never find a stronger difference between the sexes. Men are typically manly men's men in Romantic Comedies and women are typically whatever the current definition of womanly virtues. And this dichotomy is persistent throughout most of Romantic Comedies, with the exception of a few modern films where the man is made less of a man's man and the love interest might be a guy more obsessed with technology than his physical prowess--still a manly obsession, but it is still considered less manly on the scale of manliness all men hold themselves up to. Yes girls, such a scale exists, just like the scale of femininity exists for you. ;-)

She's leaving him.
One of my personal favourite things about Romantic Comedies is that it blends two things together quite nicely. It blends in the Comedic formula of usually being about two people who fall in love and their struggle to be together. However it takes something from the genre of Romance--which will be discussed further in another essay--which I'll call here the "lost love principle". Romance typically is about love AFTER marriage (along with many other things) when it decides to focus on love as a subject manner. And as such Romance typically deals with the subject of rekindling love that has either faded or been lost. Romantic Comedies take this principle and try and fit that pattern in the pre-marital stages that Romantic Comedies typically live in. And as such the formula which is industry standard came into existence: Boy gets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy gets Girl. How he loses her is usually due to some truth about him being revealed (very often the situation of "The Liar Revealed" occurs here) or the misunderstanding blows up the relationship at this moment, etc. Somehow the relationship will be put into doubt and the two characters will learn that they miss and truly love and appreciate the other.

My second favourite thing about Romantic Comedies, is that it typically keeps the wacky and quirky character list from comedy proper, thus prompting some notable and memorable side-characters who tend to appear in Romantic Comedies, that truly entertain in their own way and sometimes, but not always, they get their own "partner" so to speak. Generally these characters are there to round out the world and provide for us the sense that the Romantic Comedy is inhabited by intriguing and notable characters. Often times they'll attempt to help the protagonists in their lover match, but this isn't always the case.

Commedia costuming.
What about the history of the Romantic Comedy, where did it begin? Well back in Renaissance Italy when travelling theatre troupes performed small improvised mask shows of Commedia dell'arte from town to town, there was such a thing as tropes. These tropes were common characters that were found in most of these improvised scenarios. One of the most central of these characters being the Innamorati, aka the lovers. It should be noted that the "masks" for the Innamorati, was typically lacking. They were the only characters who typically went without a mask of some sort. The lovers main purpose in the improvised scenario is to be in love, and to throw childish tantrums whenever separated, and having to use a clever slave or tricky servant to serve as go-between messengers. The entire point of the Commedia scenario usually was to find a way to keep the lovers separated until the end. This tradition extends back to Roman Comedy and Greek New Comedy, but the Renaissance takes an interesting turn on the entire affair in their plays. The most influential being that of William Shakespeare.

Ol' Billy Shakes.
Now I know what the men in the readership are thinking, Shakespeare created the Romantic Comedy? He created chick flicks?! Well, not exactly him alone, but later playwrights and authors chose him as the inspiration for their works, which then became our modern day Romantic Comedies, but even so, Shakespeare and his contemporaries did lay the groundwork, it's just later people from the 19th Century chose to put Shakespeare on a pedestal in terms of influence.

The two earliest Shakespeare plays that one could argue are Romantic Comedies are:

Taming of the Shrew
Much Ado about Nothing

Now I know I'm offending all the women in the readership with the first choice but hear me out. Shakespeare draws from the Commedia dell'arte tropes, but then he twists them. Usually there's only one pair of lovers, who to be perfectly honest are very bland characters. Shakespeare instead in both plays provides TWO sets of lovers. One set is generally the traditional childish lovers who love to be in love that can be found, and then you have what I lovingly call the "sick pair". And if you view Shakespeare as experimenting and toying with the conventions of his time, you can see a clear evolution from one to the next in the above two plays. As such Taming of the Shrew is an early experiment that like most early experiments is ground breaking but not exactly the perfected formula so to speak. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Shakespeare and his contemporaries played around with the traditional formula by adding additional love interest couples. This wasn't unheard of in Commedia dell'arte as the examples of Arlecchino and Columbina & Pierrot and Pierrette give. however in those cases the couples are various "servants", with the love match between Arlecchino and Columbina being more often about lust & the one between Pierrot and Pierrette the adoration of finding one's sensitive soul mate. What Shakespeare and his contemporaries do is provide what I'd essentially call a rival couple of equal status to the Innamorati. This "rival couple" are typically at odds with one another, and have a lot more problems and issues. Typically they're a bit more cynical of life and love and more practical in how they dispense their heart. As such we typically congregate around them as a couple more than we do the Innamorati equivalents--seeing them as "too young, too naive, and too self-absorbed" to consider our central characters when we read his plays, and that's because Shakespeare and his contemporaries are indeed moving away from the Innamorati and creating their own problematic characters.

Let's look at Taming of the Shrew for a moment. What most people forget is that the play proper is a play performed by a group of travelling actors for a drunken slob named Christopher Sly who's being made fool of by a Lord into thinking he's a Lord. Which means that the characters of the play proper are literally Shakespeare's interpretation of a Commedia dell'arte type play. Using Commedia dell'arte to analyse the play proper briefly, Bianca and Lucentio are easily our Innamorati. Baptista is our father figure who stands in the way of Bianca and Lucentio marrying easily, thus requiring Lucentio to trade places with his Arlecchino-like servant Tranio in order to sneak into Baptista's house under the guise of a servant scholar to woo Bianca. Other suitors for Bianca's hand in marriage fill out the Pantaloon and Braggart roles. However Sheakespeare throws a curve ball at us by including Katherina and Petrucchio who are unlike any characters typically involved in a Commedia dell'arte show. The closest you could argue that they come would be a Punch and Judy puppet show. But even that's limited as they don't stay like that for the entirety of the play. Katherina is arguably the "sick man" of the play. She's the Shrew--which was an archetype all its own in Late Medieval culture, first associated with men and then later with women come the beginning of the Renaissance. And the fact that the archetype was originally associated with men is a factor that should be kept in mind when viewing the play and trying to understand the character of Petrucchio. Petrucchio is thus the "healing" character who "heals" the sick Katherina of her Shrewishness and wins a wife you'd think, right? Well, this is where Shakespeare again likes to tinker. Petrucchio doesn't so much as "heal" her of her Shrewishness, but simply teaches her how to play more than just one role. Petrucchio himself seems to like to play many roles and mind games and recognizes the same ability in Katherina (as they have a battle of wits when they first meet that proves that both have sharp minds and like the back and forth they have going for themselves) and I'd argue he teaches her to like the games he plays just as much as he does by teaching her to play more than one part. These two characters are hard-bitten, much more realistic with their thoughts of how the world works and the expectations placed upon them. Even so, these cynics are both rough around the edges and their love match is more about two people running head long into each other to find love than the simple gentle versions we find in later Romantic Comedies. Petrucchio and Katherina dominate the play after their initial meeting and the whole Commedia-esque plot that Lucentio and Bianca have going pales in comparison. And it should be noted that the true Shrew of the play does get tamed and I'll say that the true Shrew is not Katherina. ;-)

Petrucchio and Katherina meet for the first time in this Commedia dell'arte influenced production of  The Taming of the Shrew.

Continuing our Shakespeare period, after the early experimentation that was Shrew, becomes more refined in Much Ado About Nothing. Here Shakespeare gives us a more tempered example of two characters falling in love in Beatrice and Benedick. Here Shakespeare takes the witty give and take that Kate and Petrucchio had in the above video scene and makes it the defining feature of his "rival couple".

Bragnaugh & Thomson as Beatrice and Benedick match wits in this production of Much Ado about Nothing.

The physical comedy of Commedia dell'arte is taken away from our developing genre and we're given witty repartee. It is from Much Ado About Nothing that we have the Renaissance origin of our "arguing couple"--however where modern tastes have returned to making it simply about two people who are opposites and grind on each other's nerves and balance each other out, Shakespeare here makes it a point to say that such behaviour is an act (Shakespeare's constantly pointing out moments in life when people are "acting" and "playing roles" and comedy and courtship are usually where he finds it the most), and that really, underneath all their cynicism and hard-bitten outer edges are two people in love with one another and very much alike, but afraid of getting hurt. They truly here completely outshine our main paring of Hero and Claudio who still play the Innamorati roles.

Austen in her matronly glory.
Romantic Comedy's next influential evolution comes arguably two hundred years later, from author Jane Austen, the unofficial queen of the genre. While she didn't set out to influence the genre, simply tell stories that would entertain her own family and be worthy of publication, she has been chosen by modern audiences to be the most influential person on the genre since Shakespeare. And obviously the most influential of her works on the genre is Pride and Prejudice, in which we finally get the final crucial ingredient to the Romantic Comedy genre: the misunderstanding. While arguably one could say that the "misunderstanding" was present in Much Ado About Nothing, it isn't as vital to the plot as it is here in Pride & Prejudice, where our hero and heroine, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, have a bad first impression of each other (the alternative title was First Impressions), which goes on to dominate how they interact with one another for most of the book. Eventually events occur which show each other's true merits and character which cause them to realize that they in fact are perfect for one another, and to scrape the horrible first impression . While the modern 2005 version tried to play up how they are an argumentative couple, thus supporting the modern Rom Com bias towards arguing = love, the fact of the matter is that again like with Beatrice and Benedick before them, it's not who they truly are--it's just a part of their misunderstanding of one another that fades as the novel progresses and both come to love one another and see that they have more alike than they first thought

Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam talk and tease as they dance.

It is also here that we find the idea of "opposites attract" that crops up probably for the first time arguably. Both Kate and Petruchio & Beatrice and Benedick were more alike than unalike--but it's here with Elizabeth & Fitzwilliam (yes that's his first name) that we get the lively and gregarious woman partnering with a quiet and reticent man. But even here this division proves to be a false one as Fitzwilliam can be quite gregarious and lively when amongst friends and in an environment he's comfortable in, while Elizabeth can likewise be quiet and reticent when not on her home turf and amongst her family--so to speak. This doesn't preclude that both do have preferences that are differing as Elizabeth speaks her mind when comfortable and Darcy holds his tongue until in private consul, but still they both have more than enough in common for one another, and enough differences to balance each other out without driving each other absolutely crazy like Elizabeth's parents do who are the ultimate example of opposites who've married to find that not enough was there to make the match work well and so have retreated into their own spheres of influence.

Opposites attract like magnets... hmm... perhaps we need a new analogy.
This of course brings me up to modern day where the concept of "opposites attract" has run wild to the point that I have a hard time watching certain modern Romantic Comedies without wondering if the two "lovers" really love one another or that they love arguing with one another. That's not to say that there aren't some really good Romantic Comedies out there today, but too often than not, the relationship gets wheedled down to just the variety of relationship that evolves from the school yard boy pulling the pigtails of the school yard girl. And I have to look around and ask if there is more to love than just that level immaturity in a relationship, or have we redefined our marriage rituals to prescribe that if there isn't this "spark" then that person isn't the "one" that if we don't argue then we're not "truly in love". When did romance become a battlefield? Why do people have to constantly fight? I'm not saying that ALL relationships should be devoid of argument--but expecting there to be this competitive edge in a relationship doesn't always work out for the best. So I truly have to ask, is it healthy to consider "opposites attract" a stand-by policy in romance? Probably not, but we sure do find it full of entertainment gold in Romantic Comedies.


Next Monday there'll be a surprise theory post, and I'll give you a hint, it's somewhat related to tonight's topic.

Have a good night,


Thursday, May 16, 2013

LCC Review: Last Places (2010)

Simple and poignant.

Last Places is quite a good read and author Matt Guion manages to weave together a well crafted narrative of heartache and grief. The novel quite simply is an eight piece character study on how eight friends have dealt with the grief from the death of their mutual friend Peggy De Witte.

I loved Guion's wide variety of characters that he managed to create in the novel. He paints each of the eight friends as a notable personality in their own right without having to fall back on hackneyed ways to do so. I also liked the "Island of Misfit Toys" quality they seemed to take upon reflection of how they'd all first became their large group of friends. Guion manages to capture the settings well enough, but truly manages to paint more scenic pictures in certain scenes over others depending upon the character that is narrating and whether they'd notice such things or not--which I thought was a clever and intelligent touch to literally give us not just the settings impartially drawn but also as seen through the bias of the character we were following at that particular moment.

The group of friends are much alike the Island of Misfit Toys.

A tiny little nitpick I have of the novel is that once every thirty to forty pages or so, you'll find a word omitted that should belong in a sentence, a misspelling, or some other minor error. However these things are few and far between, and the novel is all together well edited and laid out.

The only critique I had character-wise was that I really felt I didn't get a chance to know Geoff as a character that well. He seemed to start out well early on in the novel. He held a lot of potential in his own introductory perspective shift, but as the novel develops the rest of the more colourful characters blossom more fully and crowd him out by the end.

The only critique I had plot-wise was the chapter where they all went to visit the character of Josh, who was responsible for the death of Peggy. The situation seemed to me to not have been the best version of that chapter. And by that I mean that I believe a still better version of that scene could possibly exist if teased out a bit more. I can't describe it fully but I can only say that that chapter specifically could have made different dramatic choices that would have really fit it, and the novel better. It's fine the way it is, don't get me wrong, but there's hidden potential there that didn't get fully fleshed out, I feel. And a lot of that has to do with whether information has been earned or worked for--which in other chapters characters are constantly striving to wheedle out of each other information, and when they come to Josh, his enlightened perspective simply just comes too fast and too easily. There is some working for it which Josh employs upon the characters, but it's almost tossed out as a formality instead of a true soul-searching challenge that that moment begs to be.

If literary critic Northrop Frye were still alive today, he'd classify Last Places as a "Second Phase Tragedy", where the heroes and heroines are young people first encountering the realities of adulthood. I'd definitely say it's a decent example of such a story. To quote him:  

"The phase is in one way or another the tragedy of innocence in the sense of inexperience, usually involving young people. It may simply be the tragedy of a youthful life cut off. It is dominated by the archetypal imagery of the green and golden world, the loss of the innocence of Adam and Eve, who, no matter how heavy a doctrinal load they have to carry, will always remain dramatically in the position of children baffled by their first contact with an adult situation. In many tragedies of this type the central character survives, so that the action closes with some adjustment to a new and more mature experience." --Northrop Frye

Living in a green and golden world & losing one's innocence.
It's that last sentence I find most applies to Last Places. Although the "central character" of Peggy De Witte does not survive, the central characters of her friends do--and all have been forced to adjust to a new and more mature experience due to her death. This is where Guion spends most of the focus of the novel, in the adjustment period. While he paints for us the "green and golden world" of their last moments with Peggy quite beautifully--even unconsciously painting the literal green and golden world symbolism by them having a special tree that they sit under for their school lunch--he quite beautifully captures that awkward stage of adjustment after a tragic event and allows the reader to truly feel each individual character's confusion over how to properly deal with the loss they've experienced.

If you ever are able to purchase the novel, I'd highly suggest it. While it has a few flaws, for the large part it is itself a beautifully written young adult novel that I believe is well worth its purchasing price and more. Allow Guion to share with you the memories of good friends, troubled times, and of course last places.

Monday, May 13, 2013

What Makes Us Cry -- Part One: Tragedy, with Fear and Pity

Time for the flip side.
As covered in last week's post our stories in our entertainment the media has generally divided our stories up into two halves: that which makes us laugh aka comedies, and that which makes us cry aka tragedies. Today I'll begin a long series of posts exploring that often "sad and serious" side of our dramatic mask duo. This series will alternate with exploring several genres. The two series will alternate as I explore the many sub-genres and ask if they truly can be considered subgenres of Comedy & Tragedy or genres in their own right. Here's a question, do you simply consider something "sad" as tragic? Is Tragedy simply something that's sad, or is there something more to it? Obviously I'm going to spend the rest of the article trying to convince you that there is more to it, so let's cut to the chase, shall we?

Noh is equivalent but also different.
Tragedy is arguably our oldest and most preserved genre known to mankind. And it doesn't just exist in western literature, but has its equivalents in Asian literature, most notably in the Noh theater of Japan. While comedy is more nebulous, tragedy has had a clearly defined set of rules to it thanks to Aristotle and the people who preserved his works. As such we can read Aristotle's Poetics today and get a strong sense of what tragedy was like for ancient Greeks. In fact for the majority of our history from the Renaissance to today, writers of Tragedy have gone back to Aristotle to get a sense of "the rules".

Peer pressure never looked so good.
When you read Poetics, one gets a strong sense that Aristotle adored tragedy and thought Comedy was rather base and ugly. Aristotle however does go on to give a good history of how both genres came about, saying that comedy came from the "phallic songs" and tragedy the dithyrambs, or wild and ecstatic songs sung in praise of the god Dionysus. Dithyrambs were typically about a chorus of singers interacting with a "leader" telling the story of some part of Dionysus' life. Supposedly the big shift occurred when Aeschylus added a second "leader" thus disturbing the "call and response" nature of the dithyramb by sometimes having the two leaders interact and butt heads.

Let me pause for a moment on the term "call and response". To those familiar with a religion, one would typically find within a religious service there are moments when the audience is asked to read or chant something in response to the religious leader. This sense of religion is important because ultimately, no matter how we try to hide it, tragedy ultimately comes from religion and thus has a lot of religious overtones. Specifically it came from worshipping the great god Dionysus--who was a male fertility god, god of wine, and god of theatre. It was thought each year that the god Dionysus would be ritually killed and then dispensed to be "consumed" by the rest of his followers, giving them life from his harvested death. If that ritual sounds familiar it's because you can still see it in practice in the religion of Christianity today. It's the communion ceremony, only its "dying god" is Jesus Christ--not Dionysus.

This ritual surrounding the death of a god and how it renews the community is still at the heart of tragedy, for all tragic heroes act as stand in for the "dying god" and their deaths are an act which renew the community that surrounds them. However, like Dionysus, just because they die that doesn't mean they're dead. It's here where we have to explore why the tragic deed is done in the first place.

It could turn on him at any moment...
While Comedy focuses on the community at large, Tragedy usually follows the journey of a special individual who is the stand in for the dying god. Typically tragedies tell serious or sombre stories about a tragic hero attempting to change some aspect of his or her society. In trying to change the "way of the world", the tragic hero butts heads with the "order of things". Literary critic Northrop Frye describes their position as being "atop the wheel of fortune" reaching up towards the heavens and by doing so causing the wheel to turn and them to fall. The higher plane they reach out to is typically a cosmic order such as the gods or God, or sometimes an abstract mystical order like "destiny", "fate" or "the stars" which is greater than the heroes themselves, but at the same time slightly a part of or desire to be a part of. Remember the term Alazon from the last theoretical post on comedy? Well, now we get to view the world from their perspective--not the Eiron's. In this world view accepting things "the way they are" is seen as an unjust crime, and not striving to liberate oneself from the chains of the human body and be part of that cosmic order is tantamount to being corrupt and giving in to our base natures. Being human is seen as something negative here, for being human means we aren't perfect or transcendent. Whereas comedy relished and found strength in the idea that "we're all human, we all make mistakes, and we're all dependent on our bodies", tragedy sees our humanity as a curse--as it traps our "immortal souls" for lack of a better term. This is why death in tragedy isn't truly about death, it's about the liberation from these chains of life and our ascension into the immortal realm. And this is accomplished now in a modern society that generally doesn't believe in an afterlife (or at least the same afterlife) by a person falling in order to rise and become a legend or a story in their own right to be told throughout the ages. That's the note Othello ends on with his final monologue asking us to tell his story and remember him as "one who loved not wisely, but too well." In the same sense you see Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, doing the same thing in her own ritualistic suicide filled with life-giving symbols (putting the asps to her breasts and turning herself into a mother goddess figure of sorts). 

Time, that ticking rascal!
There is a sense in tragedy of the ticking clock. In the beginning the tragic hero seems to have control over time, or at least is in sync with it. After committing the tragic deed which violates the "natural order", they then become wild and crazy (much like Dionysus) and out of sync with "time" as it increasingly moves faster and faster. Time and timing are both especially important in tragic works by Shakespeare. This is why tragedy always seems to take place in the past, and very rarely in the future. Because the sense of time and having the right timing can be played up by the author in the past. When set in the past the ticking clock is inherent as the audience on some level knows the coming wave of history and it can create the sense of fear and pity for our tragic hero as they continue unaware of that coming event. And when a tragedy does take place in the future, it's usually about the end of one age and beginning of another, with man trying to hold on to a vanishing past that now has become legend.

And all of this is great and wonderful, but how does all of this make us "sad" or "cry"? Well, for that answer, I turn back to Poetics:

"A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; ... in dramatic , not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions." --Aristotle

It's the senses of pity and fear that cause us to feel sad or to cry. And that feeling of sadness or the action of crying is a purgation (aka catharsis) of those feelings of fear and pity. Catharsis gives us a feeling of "release" or satisfaction and it all ties into how we connect with the tragic hero and his or her plight. Were they noble causes to fight for? Did they end up making mistakes along the way that they ended up paying for? Were the forces they were up against needed to be changed? And how does that reflect our own positions?

Aeschylus, the father of tragedy
A tragic hero's attempt to change their world and inability to do so as "mere human beings" inspires those feelings of pity and fear within us as readers and viewers. We pity that they were "doomed to failure" and fear ourselves what consequences would come from overturning "natural law". But yet we also look on them and find inspiration to change the so called "natural order of things". Even Greek tragedies end in an old system giving way to a new. The father of tragedy, and most influential tragedian, Aeschylus, shows us with his tragic trilogy of how the death of Clytemnestra by Orestes' hand led the Greeks out of the monarchial world of blood feuds and helped establish the justice of democracy in ancient Athens, by having that murder be tried by Pallas Athena herself and twelve jurors of Athens. From the violation of "natural order" by a matricide that had to be committed (since Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon) we come to see how that act led to the end of that system and the beginning of a new system, which WE (the Athenian audience watching the play) established. In that light, tragic heroes are criminals who "had" to commit the cosmic crimes in order to bring about change in the long run--long after they're gone. They become our martyrs--though not all tragic heroes have to die in order to become so, they can become martyrs simply by their act of falling.

Tragic heroes are our martyrs, and like Mark Antony's speech from Julius Caesar, can turn a crowd of hatred and indifference into a loving crowd baying for the blood of those who killed their martyr. Tragic heroes fall, but they fall to inspire us and through their fall live on in how they continue to inspired and renew us--the audience members. We pity their fall, we fear their fall, but through fear and pity we come to a catharsis which allows us to see how we have changed the world for the better, or how we can continue doing so in the future. It's a communion ceremony for society, except without the bread and wine.


Classical Examples:

The Oresteia
The Bacchae

Modern Examples:

The Diary of Anne Frank
The Matrix
I Am Legend
Cloud Atlas

Here's your video clip: Mark Antony's speech from Julius Caesar that I spoke about. Watch as he through the power of story telling transforms Caesar into a tragic figure.

Until next time,



Next Theoretical Post: 5/20/13 - What Makes Us Laugh -- Part Two: Romantic Comedies, when Opposites Attract

Next Serial Post: 6/3/13 - What Makes Us Cry -- Part Two: Melodrama, when to bring a handkerchief

Thursday, May 9, 2013

LCC Review: Emma (1972) - BBC TV

This is an older review I wrote for IMDB, that I've spruced up a bit, do enjoy!


The 1972 version of Emma I admit I did not particularly like upon first viewing. Doran Godwin seems to be too old for her part, as does John Carson. I will admit that Debbie Bowen, who portrays Harriet, does have the annoying tendency to overact. However the character is almost written as such in Jane Austen's novel, so it's not completely her fault. Also the obviousness of being confined to the studio tended to irritate as well at times (like when a wall accidentally shakes when a door closes). However a look at the year of it's production brings many explanations. It after all was the style of filming, especially for television, in the 1970s. If you doubt me take a look at "The Six Wives of Henry the VIII" with Keith Mitchell that was made for television (not the film version). In that one for all the different palaces they use only one plain set, and only on a handful of occasions show outdoor scenes. Yet the brilliant writing and acting counterbalances these deficiencies quite well. I also would like to blame that we as modern audiences have become spoiled on "life-like" movies, like some posters obviously have, that this style of filming has become under appreciated.

However upon a second or third viewing this version grows on you. I like the way Doran explores the complications, paradoxes and perplexities of Emma's character much more than Gwenyth Paltrow's quick shallow one faced version. Although I will say that Gwenyth has much more of Emma's charm than Doran ever does.

The nice slow pace reminds me quite well of the style of Jane Austen's novels. They are slow paced, like a country stroll, but still they have their many entertainingly wry jewels along the course of the movie as it explores the less hectic and more relaxing early 19th century life. This style of filming also allows for character development and exploration to occur much better than modern attempts to adapt the novel have accomplished.

Modern films are more concerned about either action, romance, or special effects so much that proper character development seems to end up on the cutting room floor. So in modern films we are given stereotypical characters that everyone can relate to in substitution to proper character development and exploration. This gives the film makers more time to give you long sweeping kisses, sexual tension, explosions, CGI effects, and unnecessarily long action sequences featuring the gun slinging hero. However we as a people have grown to have such short attention spans that these changes in film making seem almost a necessary thing. For proper character development to occur, one almost has to sit through watching actual real life occur, which no one wants to do anymore, because there isn't enough "time in the day" to have the patience for it. But enough rambling.

Jane Austen's books are not so much about romance (as modern film interpretations seem to think) as they are about the self-discoveries and journeys each heroine and hero undergoes into learning more about life, the person they come to love, themselves, and the world/community around them. With Emma it is learning to not put her nose where it doesn't belong (for it causes more grief than joy), and that marrying a man she can truly respect is more like growing up instead of her childish proclamations of staying a single rich matchmaker for the rest of her life. The Doran Godwin version especially explores this, and after you get used to the style of
A dinner party scene at Mrs. Weston's.
filming one can take away from it the lesson that Jane Austen intended in her writing, that nosy gossiping and idle busy bodying cause more grief, harm, and drama than there needs to be. And that marriage should not be looked upon as a restriction or need based form of improving a woman, but a way of joining two people into a happy state of being where respect, trust, friendship, and love can be explored upon a more intimate playing field. After all that's what Jane Austen's books are all about, a celebration of marriage, virtues, and middle class English country living.

I also like how Jane's character is explored and I find Ania Marson to be the best cast Jane Fairfax of the any version I have seen thus far. She explores Jane's weariness at having to conceal almost everything in her life and her suppressed frustration at the interferences of other more vocal characters (Miss Bates and Mrs. Elton), quite well. And Fiona Walker, the actress who portrays the insufferable Mrs. Elton, manages to bring to screen probably the most clever and sympathetic version of one of the most laughable characters in all of Austen.

I also think that Robert East who portrays Frank Churchill is the best of the versions I have seen as well, capturing his similar sly Emma-like nature as well as his gentlemanly manners quite well. Of his portrayal you actually get that he's a well-intentioned overgrown kid who just can't help himself at times, while still remaining quite gentlemanly--it's an odd combination, but East manages to pull it off excessively well.

So if you have nothing to do for a night or an afternoon, this version is a nice way to appreciate Jane Austen's best written book.

I leave you with a small clip to whet your appetite.

Until next time,


Monday, May 6, 2013

What Makes Us Laugh -- Part One: Comedy, in Sickness and in Health

In our average day-to-day literary, stage, and film lives the term comedy gets thrown around a lot by Hollywood, authors, readers, actors, critics, and audiences. But what does it really mean? Is its indifferent usage truly suggest a broad category? Or are there many subcategories contained with in? Are they truly subcategories, or are they themselves different? Can they be separated, and if so, what's the history behind their development? And most importantly, where can we see examples in our day to day literary lives?

Happy or Sad, choose one.
To begin with, we have to explore the roots of the system our society has come up with for separating our entertainment. From small children, we're told simplistically that "comedies are funny" and "tragedies are sad"--I think I remember that explanation specifically from an old Walt Disney animated short from the 1940s or 1950s. But is that truly the root of the dichotomy? Let's start first with Comedy, as that seems to be the progenitor from which all "funny" drama seems to derive--one would think.

Comedy, as it is popularly understood, is the genre that makes us laugh, and then has a bunch of "sub-genres" contained within it--or so we think--depending upon the type of humour that makes us laugh. The word humour should give us pause, because it's an important one for the time when our modern version of Comedy was being formulated in the Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical periods. Why do I say it's important? Because the modern association of the word with "something or someone who is funny" isn't the first thing listed if you bother to look it up in the dictionary. In Merriam-Webster it isn't listed until the third definition, and our sense that it's associated with comedy doesn't come in until "part c" of that definition. What comes before it? Well, the short and simple answer is that both definitions prior to that have to deal with the medieval (and ancient) belief in the "four humours".

The weird symbols are Zodiac Signs.
The four humours being four bodily fluids (or humours) associated with the more recognizable four elements (Fire, Earth, Air, & Water). The four humours themselves were Blood (Air), Yellow Bile (Fire), Black Bile (Earth), and Phlegm (Water). To further shorten the explanation, a person had to try and keep these four humours in balance with one another in order to remain healthy. An excess of one bile or another would, in this world view, cause a person to become sick and act in a manner that was contrary to their true nature. If you had an excess of blood you were of a Sanguine nature (impulsive, charismatic, optimistic, shameless, lazy, and boisterous). If you had an excess of yellow bile you were of a Choleric nature (aggressive, passionate, tyrannical, energetic, bossy, and strategical). If you had an excess of black bile you were of a Melancholic nature (considerate, cautious, thoughtful, perfectionist, sensitive, and depressive). And if you had an excess of phlegm you were of a Phlegmatic nature (friendly, consistent, affectionate, diplomatic, shy, fearful of change, and passive-aggressive).

Now how did this word humour get associated with comedy? Well, truly, old-fashioned comedy I'd propose is about these four extremes coming together and driving each other batshit crazy until they balance each other out at the end of the story. Typically one type of humour has "gotten out of control" to the point where the opposite kind of character has to come in and subdue and heal the sick person. Essentially I'd argue that comedy is in its modern origins about the sick becoming healthy and the story surrounding that process is "funny" to us because the people are so extreme that we find them to be "ludicrous or absolutely incongruous". In modern comedy notice how it always plays to the extremities in its characters, plots, and paces. Up until the Age of Enlightenment (hell even during it), Western Civilization had this common acceptance of four humours that had to be treated medically in order for "balance" to be achieved. Health is associated with balance and sickness is associated with extremity (you can still see that connotation today in politics when politicians label their opponents as extremists). And sickness is something we've found inherently funny. Yes, when we are laughing in comedy we are usually laughing at sick people.

Hint: Rom Coms will be reviewed.
Before anyone goes into a long rant about how horrible it is to be laughing at sick people, I ask you do you really think much has changed since then? Do we find a person with OCD who has to methodically have everything on their desk at right angles with one another sad or funny? Well, judging by our modern tropes and types, I'd say more typically we find it absolutely hilarious. Why else would the strong independent business-woman type with OCD marry the lazy dependant rebel-without-a-cause man type with Peter Pan syndrome? Both are seen as "sick-men of society" who have within themselves the capabilities of balancing each other out into "normal healthy human beings" when paired together in a romantic comedy. So this notion of sickness and health dominating comedy is not something we've disregarded--we simply have forgotten its origin. Its legacy though clearly remains with us.

All right, now that we know generally that we laugh at sick people who are destined to become healthy again by the end of the story, how is that employed in a comedy?

Menander in his stone glory.
The comedic formulae we are most familiar with derives first and foremost from the ancient Greek playwright Menander. He wrote a bunch of plays in the style which academics have labelled "New Comedy". The reason he is considered one of the most influential comic writers comes from the fact that Roman playwrights copied his works, Renaissance playwrights copied the Roman playwrights, and since the Renaissance we've been using the Renaissance playwrights as the basis for the rest of comedy. Menander isn't considered the "Father of Comedy"--Aristophanes is--but we'll talk about that guy in a later post. However, Menander was arguably more influential in what became standard comedic tropes and the basic formula for what we consider comedy today, and as such, let's look at the basics within New Comedy.

Each door says something about their owner, don't they?
In New Comedy you have on the stage "three doorways" as your basic background--out of which characters will enter and exit for the majority of the performance. Each doorway represents one place. For example in Dyskolos (aka The Grouch), the three doors are two houses with the shrine to the minor god Pan in the middle. What you make the three doors doesn't matter so much (they can be three houses on a street next to each other for example) but that's the set. Generally one person is dominating the neighbourhood and imposing his will onto the surrounding area like a little dictator--only his will is irrational since he's sick by being an extreme personality. Typically you find in comedy some sort of irrational law that has been forced onto the society of the play by this character. The society of the play can be an entire nation or a family and its surrounding neighbours, but somehow, some sick man (or woman) has forced himself to become the irrational leader of this land, and is enforcing his will on others. The next important element is typically a young character who has recently come into the neighbourhood or is returning after having taken his leave from the area for some time. This "new" element, inspires hope amongst the community and eventually will be the "new leader" of the community, as well as the element that will subdue and heal the sick man who imposes his will on others. This division of characters is called by literary critic Northrop Frye the difference between Alazons and Eirons.

Oh I just can't wait to be king!
Alazon is the term for our "sick man" humour. Typically these characters are imposters of sorts--what you see is not who they truly are. Typically alazons suffer from delusions of grandeur, thinking they're greater than they are. Having an overinflated sense of ego like the Miles Gloriosos (aka the braggart) or is an overinflated heavy father figure which is called the Senex Iratus (aka the angry father), the point is, how they're acting is misguided and they are guilty of the crime of having too much presumption and ego, and need knocking down a peg or too.

There's more to me than first appears.
Eiron is the term for our healing youthful character. Typically these characters don disguises to make themselves to appear lesser than they actually are to counteract the alazons and undo their presumption. Your typical diamond in the rough kind of characters. And usually through this act of disguising only to reveal themselves truly this prompts within the audience the feeling of "ascension" that a character has risen from a lower status to a higher. Sometimes it might even be a smaller side character who's unknown parentage is revealed to be the long lost Duke of some Duchy. In which case the person's low status was a disguise which hid away their noble blood. From this sense of ascension we get the Cinderella archetype that persists throughout comedies, and another notable variant would be the slave who rises after having broken free their chains.

Cinderella, a staple archetype of most comedies about hidden worth being greater than obvious worth.

Hard to believe it's the same guy, huh?
From this one can guess that a big theme of comedy is the theme of identity. Characters are constantly shifting their identities, hiding their true identities, or thinking their identities are greater than they are, etc. This is so frequently touched on in comedy, that one might say that the "clothes make the man". The final act is the removal of these masks and the revelation of the people as they truly are. Similarly, to extend our allegory to comedy as a parable of sickness, this correlates to how a person's sickness is not their "natural state" of being, and the goal is to remove this imposing condition of sickness and bring back the healthy person that they truly are. As such, look to comedies to tell what a society considers to be "fake", "posturing", and "sick" about our society. They'll make us laugh for a while at these things and while doing so prescribe what it believes to be the cure to these sicknesses. Typically it'll be a marriage of opposites so that the two will "balance" each other out until health is restored. In a Comedy there'll be healing because ultimately it has a positive outlook on life, people, and communities. Sure, we might get sick from time to time, but we can heal and move forward.

I wonder how many pictures were discarded to get this particular one?
Ultimately comedy has, you could say, a very "hippie" kind of outlook on life. And by that I mean that comedies are communal in nature, concern themselves solely with "life on Earth", and celebrate all aspects of our humanity. Comedies concern themselves with life of the simple average everyday people that make up a community, and how each is vital to preserving life within it. Typically you'll find beyond the main hero in our story a flurry of other colourful characters who will all be partnered up. The reason every character is partnered up with someone is because that is the way to ensure life in the community--through marriage, which will generate children, which will go on to continue the community once our characters are dead and gone. This is one of many reasons most comedies end in a marriage or the promise of marriage--because what other ceremony in life better celebrates the idea of "continuation of life on earth" than a wedding? What ceremony better celebrates the  youth having grown up and joining a community than a wedding? And what other way can the community celebrate the newly initiated than through the communal group dancing that is all too common at weddings? As for being celebratory of our humanity, comedy is completely accepting of all aspects of being human. Isn't it great that we have faults, that we have a body that grows tired, needs to eat, sleep, and drink? Comedy is aware of the body and isn't afraid to employ it for a little body humour as well. It isn't ashamed of the body or think it a prison for a person like tragedy often tends to do. Instead it revels in the fact that we are human because it feels we find strength in being human and accepting our limitations. That's why slapstick is part of comedy, because while someone is on the receiving end of all those punches, throws, kicks, and pies to the face, it is usually people who aren't comfortable in their own bodies--thinking they're grander than they really are--and need a friendly kick in the pants as a reminder that they too are mere mortals. How is all that "hippie"? Well, I mean "hippie" in the idealistic sense of the ones who went out and formed communes (communities) focused around a more rural way of life (earth-focused) and were completely comfortable just being human beings with little pretensions otherwise. I don't mean the radical protest hippies, but instead the quiet ones who lived their ideals, not preached them. You'd find the same kind of lifestyle in a community of farmers, for those uncomfortable with the "hippie" label. Comedy thus is best when it has some connection with the earth, and although it can exist in a city, when it does it's usually a political or cultural capital city from which changes will spread and be felt across the whole of the nation.

Ultimately, comedy is about what society considers to be a healthy life, first and foremost, a celebration of simply being human, and isn't that great?

Some Classical Examples:

As You Like It
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Uncle Vanya

Modern Examples:

Once Upon a Mattress
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Django Unchained (it mixes in a few other genres, but its basic formula is Comedy)
Silver Linings Playbook

And now I'll leave you with a song... Comedy Tonight from (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)


I think I'll make this kind of post a weekly ordeal as this technically took two days to write and post. So expect approximately every Monday a post about genre or the theoretical side of entertainment. In between times I might throw in a small review of a film, book or play I happen to read.

Next Theoretical Post: 5/13/13 - What Makes Us Cry -- Part One: Tragedy, with Fear and Pity
Next Serial Post: 5/20/13 - What Makes Us Laugh -- Part Two: Romantic Comedies, when Opposites Attract