Roberto Benigni

Roberto Benigni is one of my favorite film makers.  Like many great comedians he is at his best directing and acting in his own films.  In 1999 his tragicomic film, Life is Beautiful earned him an Oscar for best actor, and a nomination as best director.  I will never forget his reaction to winning, when he was the first and only winner to literally jump to the top of the seats as shown in this clip.

On IMDB, he is credited with this quote about Charlie Chaplin:

Charlie Chaplin used his ass better than any other actor. In all his films his ass is practically the protagonist. For a comic, the ass has incredible importance.

I love his verbal delivery and energy. If you were to read them as text, think how much would be lost from listening to him. Here are two interviews with him for you to learn from.

The Great Dictator


I have a confession.

Until this week I had not seen Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”.

Fortunately for me, there is a new release from Criterion, and it includes some wonderful extras that make the dvd or blue ray totally worth viewing. First I watched the film with the commentary track from Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran, which is one of the very best commentaries I have ever heard.  Dan Kamin wrote the excellent book, Charlie Chaplin’s One-Man Show.

The story concerns the fictitious land of Tomania, clearly representing Germany. Chaplin plays both Henkel (the dictator who looks like Hitler) and the nameless “Jewish Barber”. The challenge for Charlie was to portray the fascists as both dangerous and laughable. The slapstick was carefully measured in with realistic violence to keep things in perspective. When Henkel (Hitler) tumbles down some stairs, Chaplin plays it realistically. He wanted Henkel to look like a normal person falling, and not a gifted comic.

Disc two includes a documentary from Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft.  “The Tramp and the Dictator” tracks the parallel lives of the two men, who were born just 4 days apart in the same year. They show clips of color film shot by Chaplin’s half brother Sydney during production. The movie is black and white, but when intercut with the color footage, it has a startling effect. When Chaplin began production on the film, he met with criticism from many in the movie industry who felt we shouldn’t antagonize Hitler.  Chaplin appears to have been a fearless man, and my respect for him has only grown.

The second disc includes some visual essays, and a deleted scene. The set comes with a 28 page booklet that features Al Hirschfeld’s original press book illustrations for the movie.

Of course the Nazi government never allowed The Great Dictator to be shown to the people. But did Hitler see it? The records show that Hitler had ordered it for viewing, not once but twice.

Everyone should know this speech.  I am sorry to say it feels more necessary than ever.   Please watch.

 

10 Types of Comedic Entrances

I have a previous post about character entrances, but I have put a lot more thought into it.  The result is my first Comedy for Animators video.  10 types of comedic entrances looks at various funny ways characters can enter a scene.  I have found at least two examples from both animation and live action films to demonstrate each one.

The term “entrances” covers a few things.  It can be a character walking into a scene.  It can be the very first scene where a character is shown to already be.  It can be a scene about a character entering another place.  A character can be revealed when something in the scene changes.  Basically, it is the shot where you, or someone in the story, first sees the character and the effect it has in the telling of the story.

The ten different types of comedic entrances are:

1:  The big entrance.  This is an attention grabbing entrance.  It should emphasize the character’s style and have an effect on the other characters in the scene.

2. The downtempo entrance.  If the character has a low energy style, you may want to create a story that begins with a high energy. By clashing with the situation, the character will stand out as unusual. A low energy character in a low energy place would be inherently uninteresting from a physical comedy point of view.

3.  The surprise entrance.  The character is hidden in some unexpected place.

4.  The misleading entrance.  The character enters the scene in some way that leads the audience to make assumptions.  Then the reality proves to be very different.  Such characters usually go on to prove they are not what they seem to be.

5.  Bad timing.  The character enters at a really bad moment.  Prior to the character entering, the situation is set up for them to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

6.  Exit as entrance.  We first see a character as they are being kicked out of some other place.  Often, they are literally flying out the door

7.  The disguised entrance.  The character enters the scene in some disguise that is comical in itself.

8.  The subverted entrance.  This is a scene about a character entering, but the entrance does not go as planned.  It can be seen from the entering character’s point of view.

9.  The strange, surreal doorway.  A character simply walks into the scene, but it is through some very strange doorway.

10.  The forced entrance.  The character is forcibly brought into the scene or story.

And there you have it.  If anyone can identify a type of entrance that I have overlooked, I would be very happy to hear about it in the comments.

The Problem with Evaluating Comedy

Elimination

Currently I am reading Steve Seidman’s book, Comedian Comedy: A Tradition in Hollywood Film.  For my purposes, the book is invaluable.  In all my reading, I was continually on the lookout for small pieces of information that could be instructive.  Tips on how things are done.  Each tip was a clue.  Any of them might spark and idea or a direction, or solve a problem.  It’s about collecting tools and materials for artists to work with.  I have read a great many books on the topic of comedy, and it is interesting how many different approaches are taken. In the introduction to his book, Seidman makes some observations about how other writers treat comedy, and I find those observations to be thought provoking.  Here is a quote to get the discussion started:

This study intends to avoid the tendencies of this literature; it is not based on a validation of my personal tastes or my subjective conception of morality.  If the reader is looking for a list of the “best” comedies, the “funniest” comedians, or praise for the most “human” the most “meaningful,” most “significant” “statements” about society and human values to be found in certain films, then he or she will be disappointed.

The idea here is to take an objective look at the art of comedy.  Rather than try to explain why something is funny (an effort that is often unsatisfactory), Seidman’s book makes an effort to create meaningful terms to describe the sub-genre he calls “comedian comedy.”  (I will probably go into more detail about that in another post.)  By creating these terms, he is able to explain how different comedians are similar.  By understanding their similarities, it is then possible to open up new ways to discuss comedy, and, for us, to create new comedic characters.

In one well known book about animation, the author dismissed Buster Keaton as inferior to Charlie Chaplin because Chaplin’s work had more emotion.  I wonder if a young reader would take that statement, and avoid Keaton in favor of the “superior” Chaplin.  What a loss that would be!  As a fan of Keaton, I did not support that concept.   I am constantly on the look out for new physical comedians to observe. Other authors dismiss Chaplin because his work can be overly sentimental, so it’s all opinion anyway.  In my book, Comedy for Animators, I tried to focus simply on them as individuals, and avoided qualifying either as “better.”  Traveling down the road of judging which comedian is funnier could lead to a sort of tournament bracketology.  You start with a whole field of competitors, and narrow them down by pairs until you have a “champion.”  And what is to be gained by that?  How does that help animators to understand the vast potential of comedy.  Continuing with the sports metaphor, a newspaper sports writer has unlimited opinions and judgements about a team’s performance, but they probably would make a bad coach.

Documentary: The Chaplin Puzzle.

This is a worthwhile documentary about Charlie Chaplin’s early film work. It goes into some detail about his development as an actor in the movies.

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