Category Archives: COMEDY

A comedy is usually light, entertaining, and is designed to make people laugh. In this group of films, we look at other aspects of comedy that are not so light and/or amusing to all audiences.

American Graffiti: How Time Flies When You’re Cruising

About a decade before George Lucas created that galaxy far, far away, where Jedis wield lightsabers against the "Dark Side," he directed a low-budget film called American Graffiti that defied low expectations and exploded with profitable success. This coming-of-age film is about teenagers not all marching well into adulthood in the summer of 1962. While the plot does not sound terribly exciting, there are several reasons that this movie resonated so strongly with its audiences.

The Class of '62

One reason is the time setting: 1962. I would know. I graduated from Northside High School in 1962, and our motto was, “We cover Dixie like the dew; Hooray for the Class of '62.” That puts both George Lucas (who was born the day after I was) and me, at the exact same age as the characters in American Graffiti. Like Curt and Steve, I was leaving the nest and heading for college in the fall. Along with most of America, my family and friends were surfing the wave of the prosperous and peaceful ‘50s. World War II, which was two decades behind us, was not even an active memory, as my peers and I were not born until its end. Yes, we all heard our parents talk about the "Great Depression" and saw firsthand how it influenced how they lived, but all we had ever really known was peace and stability. The big scandal? Elvis Presley gyrating his pelvis on TV!

What happened to those times? JFK was assassinated in 1963, and our nation plunged into shock. Before it could really recover, young men were being drafted to fight a war in some obscure country halfway around the world. People started to protest. Drugs were discovered. Hippies started appearing. Rock ‘n Roll gave way to Rock. John Lennon said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus ("More popular than Jesus,” 2016).

Ripple effects continue

Another shocking assassination—Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis. Man walked on the moon! The mid to late 1960’s truly shook things up, and the ripple effects continue to this day in 2016. People are more politically aggressive than ever. Drugs are everywhere. Some people deem it appropriate to wear hoodies regardless of the weather, as well as jeans riding so low that their underwear shows. Music has gone places that would make Elvis Presley look like a choir boy. Mass shootings are happening often enough for Americans to think, “Not again!” Now, NASA is more about politics than outer space. Man has never returned to the moon.

American Graffiti touches a nerve

When American Graffiti was released in 1973, enough time had passed for it to touch every nostalgic nerve in the audience. American Graffiti gave us the chance to escape into a time that wasn’t complicated—a time when riding in a car up and down a street was considered an exciting pastime.

But in our era, it was more than just a pastime. It was called "cruising," and it was uniquely American.  Cars were a big part of the culture then. Teenagers would cruise to seek out peers, romance, and to see-and-be-seen. In Atlanta, the popular cruising destinations were the Varsity and a drive-in on Peachtree called Rusty’s.

Ready for cruisin'
Jayne, Judy, and Lucy: Ready for cruisin'

It had been over 50 years, but I got to experience the joy of cruising again recently when Jerry Hassebroek suggested that he, Pam, Judy, Jayne, and I cruise down Elk Avenue in Crested Butte, Colorado in his "Pimpmobile." (We were there for the Crested Butte Film Festival.) Crusing in the Pimpmobile was a joy that only those our age would understand, including George Lucas.

George Lucas' aspirations

George Lucas was fixated with cars, and originally aspired to be a race car driver, but a terrible wreck in June of 1962 caused him to pursue other interests such as filmmaking.

George Lucas also wanted to explore man’s relationship to technology and machines. By making cruising a major theme in American Graffiti, he accurately portrayed how cars shaped the social lives of young adults. In anthropology-speak, cars actually played a role in the mating rituals of the 1950’s and ‘60’s.

By putting "Wolfman Jack" in the cast, who was a famous disc jockey of the time, George Lucas made another point about how technology influences man. Technology enables a man to feel closer to a public personality than his own next-door neighbor—a phenomenon that we saw through the 1980’s and 1990’s with Princess Diana, and which we continue to see today with Facebook and all forms of Social Media.

American Graffiti is a time capsule in itself. Having an interest in anthropology, George Lucas simply intended to document his own era in the movie, and as a contemporary, I will say that he succeeded.

REFERENCES

Lucas, G. (Director). (1973). American Graffiti [Motion Picture] USA: Universal Pictures.

More popular than Jesus (2016). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/More_popular_than_Jesus

American Graffiti: To Write or Rite of Passage?

American Graffiti (1973) is a coming-of-age film directed by George Lucas, and one of the most profitable blockbusters of the twentieth century. Set in Modesto, California in 1962, it contains four story lines of teenage angst and comedy. Can you decide the significance of the title?

What is Graffiti?

What exactly is "graffiti"? It's the plural of graffito, a noun from mid-nineteenth century Italian, meaning drawing, writing, or scribbling on walls, usually in public places. It probably traces its etymology back to Vulgar Latin through Greek, meaning "to write."

Ancient Graffiti
Ancient Graffiti

Graffiti is also an art term, a form of decoration in which designs are made by scratches through an outer layer of plaster or glazing to reveal a ground of a different color below. While such art has been found in Pompeii and ancient Roman ruins, graffiti is currently a pejorative term because of its association with vandalism. Vandalizing public or private property, e.g., via toilet paper or eggs—or by drawing on buildings—is often perceived by teenage perpetrators as neither art nor unlawful behavior, but as a "rite of passage."

In the title American Graffiti, however, the term graffiti also suggests "glib, funny, and immediate," a correlation with the comic side of the film. Producer Francis Ford Coppola, along with other big dogs involved, did not want Lucas' title used, but George prevailed, and it was etched in stone—American Graffiti.

Who's Who in this Movie?

The four distinct story lines in this film are all mal-centered. Watch how the lives and exploits of Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), Steve (Ron Howard), John (Paul LeMat), and Toad (Charles Martin Smith) all coincide to advance the plot and outcome. Other stars in this venerable movie include Harrison Ford—our beloved Han Solo; Candy Clark, who earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for this, only her second film; Cindy Williams of "Laverne and Shirley;" Mackenzie Phillips of "One Day at a Time;" and the iconic Wolfman Jack. There was a sequel, More American Graffiti in 1979 directed by Bill Norton, which was a box-office disappointment (Erickson, 2003).

After American Graffiti, all the actors continued to work in the film industry and each has led an interesting life. Paul LeMat, hot-rod, smooth-talking John in the movie, was a boxer and won service medals in Vietnam. He was married with three children, then divorced. As of 2008, his former wife, Suzanne dePasse, is the only African-American woman nominated for a screenplay Oscar.

Ron Howard (Steve, in love with Laurie—Cindy Williams) starred in "The Andy Griffith Show," "Happy Days," and others. He is now a director and the father of Bryce Dallas Howard, who played the role of bitchy "Hilley" in The Help.

Richard Dreyfuss
Richard Dreyfuss as Curt

"People who commit adultery must die. Everyone knows that. Any movie tells you that"—a direct quote from Richard Dreyfuss who played the role of thoughtful and intellectual Curt (“Richard Dreyfuss Biography,” 1990). Dreyfuss has been married three times and has three children. He has starred in major films including The Goodbye Girl, Jaws, and Mr. Holland's Opus. He was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and is frank and open about his past drug use. He is a Civil War re-enactor and lives in San Diego.

Wolfman Jack for President
Wolfman Jack for President

Wolfman Jack plays himself in American Graffiti. A Brooklynite named Robert Weston Smith, Wolfman was the son of an Episcopalian editor of "Financial World," and became a disc jockey and manager of radio stations--some in Mexico that broadcast across the US border. Smith died of a heart attack in North Carolina at age 57. He had one wife, Lou, whom he adored. George Lucas liked Smith and thus gave him a portion of the profits from the movie. Smith said he was grateful for those royalties from American Graffiti, which benefited the "Wolfman and Wolfwoman."

REFERENCES

Encarta world English dictionary (1999). (Microsoft ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Erickson, H. (2003). More American graffiti. Retrieved from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/more_american_graffiti/

Lucas, G. [Director]. (1973). American Graffiti [Motion Picture] USA: Universal Pictures.

Lucas—George, & plans, his future career (2016). George Lucas. In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Lucas

Norton, B. [Director] (1979). More American graffiti [Motion Picture]. USA: Universal Pictures.

Paul Le Mat (2016). In IMDb.com. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0494432/

Richard Dreyfuss (2016). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Dreyfuss

Richard Dreyfuss Biography (1990). In IMDb.com. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000377/bio#quotes

The compact edition of the Oxford English dictionary (1985). London: Oxford University Press.

The Birdcage: Can we learn from our films?

Many have mourned the loss of Robin Williams and his comic genius. In revisiting his films, we can consider aspects of his work that may have changed us all without realizing it.

[W]hat makes the film interesting is that [Robin Williams] must play against type, toning down his manic persona in the face of Lane’s hilarious over-the-top turn.
—Chuck Koplinski, The News-Gazette

You do an eclectic celebration of the dance! You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! Or, Twyla, Twyla, Twyla! Or, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd! Or, Madonna, Madonna, Madonna! … but, you keep it all inside.
—Armand, The Birdcage

genre-comedyA comedian has been described as a person who seeks to entertain audiences, primarily by making them laugh. Filmmakers employ comedy in the same way, seeking to make their targeted audiences laugh. How do they do this? We have learned from our series on comedy that they do this in a number of different ways—using social satire, slapstick, etc. Might they do this also as a way to dispel prejudice against certain groups or against certain individual characteristics? Alternatively, might screenwriters focus so totally on what to them seems funny that the result is irresponsibly mean?

Comedy is where filmmaking began

We have learned a little (and witnessed a lot ourselves over our lifetimes) about how filmmaking has evolved since the beginning of the cinema. At the outset, comedy was central to explorations with the medium. Imagine our positioning comedy films in chronological order of release date in order to assess our culture in stages of social adaptation and advancement. Where would films about same-sex relationships come in? Could we track and assess social attitudes about this topic with this method?

Movies about same-sex relationships

The following movies are among many others that include this cultural component:

8: the Mormon Proposition (2010) And the Band Played on (1993) The Bird Cage (1996)
Boys Don’t Cry (1999) But I’m a Cheerleader (2000) The Celluloid Closet (1995)
The Children’s Hour  (1961) Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean (1982) Desert Hearts (1985)
Far from Heaven (2002) Go Fish (1994) How to Survive a Plague (2012)
The Imitation Game (2014) The Kids Are Alright (2010) Fire (1996)
The Laramie Project (2002) The Matthew Shepard Story (2002) Milk (2008)
Philadelphia (1993) Pride (2014) Kinky Boots (2005)
Queens (Reinas) (2005)  Maurice (1987) Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Nemar (1995) Torch Song Trilogy (1988) Transamerica (2005)
 Brokeback Mountain (2005)  The Danish Girl (2015) Carol (2015)

Does our present film show gay men in an unflattering light or not? —as “the other,” not fitting our pre-conceived ideal or image of a “normal” man? Alternatively, are the depictions of relationships or cultural/societal settings so enjoyably funny as to diminish the focus on gay men, and thus are the characterizations harmless—or even helpful? I would like to know how a gay man felt about this movie in 1996 when it was first released, or even now for that matter.

Dirk Shafer, a "closeted" gay man

Dirk Shafer, who died this year, posed nude as a Playgirl model in earlier decades and wrote about his experiences. Posing as a sex object for straight women, he had to portray himself as a straight man to keep his job (Stack, 2015). Man of the Year, a fictionalized version of his life story, explores the tension of being a “closeted” gay man. The film was a public “coming-out” for Shafer and, as one might imagine, his nude modeling career slowed after the publication.

In a review in The New York Times, Holden (1996) wrote this about the film:

On a deeper level, Man of the Year treats Mr. Shafer’s modeling experience as a metaphor for the way society pressures gay people to act straight. After watching Mr. Shafer wriggle uncomfortably inside the role he has agreed to play, it comes as a relief when he finally abandons it.

We have learned that during the days of the studio system, a number of film stars hid their sexual orientation in order to keep their jobs or simply their privacy: Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift (Petersen, 2014) and others. Did anyone really think about this aspect of Liberace’s life when he was at the peak of his career?

The Birdcage shows a committed relationship

The Birdcage
Nathan Lane and Robin Williams

Through The Birdcage, we can experience the lifestyle and social issues of gay men in a committed relationship, much as we can experience the life of the President and First Lady through Netflix’ House of Cards. I thought of the term “virtual reality” to describe the immersive environment of a film that is so well presented that one can be transported into the scene and experience the action and emotion first hand.

DEFINITIONS

Comic climate

The comic climate, in contrast to verisimilitude, often requires of the audience a suspension of belief.

Social satire

The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule in a text in order to expose and criticize social groups, often in the context of contemporary politics, customs, and popular trends.

Parody

Parody makes fun of or re-creates what people do. Parody is a frequent ingredient in satire and is often used to make social and political points. Characters or settings belonging to one work are used in a humorous or ironic way in another.

Comedian

A comedian or comic is a person who seeks to entertain an audience primarily by making them laugh. This might be through jokes or amusing situations, or acting a fool, as in slapstick, or employing prop comedy. A comedian who addresses an audience directly is called a stand-up comic.

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is an artificial, computer-generated environment that is aided by hardware devices such that the user suspends belief and experiences it as real.

Drag

Drag is used for any clothing carrying symbolic significance, but usually referring to the clothing associated with one gender role when worn by a person of another gender.

Drag queen

A drag queen is a person, usually male, who dresses in drag and often acts with exaggerated femininity and in feminine gender roles. Often they will exaggerate certain characteristics such as make-up and eyelashes for comic, dramatic, or satirical effect.

REFERENCES

Briggs, K. C. (2013). Trans, Genderqueer, and Queer Terms Glossary.   Retrieved from https://lgbt.wisc.edu/documents/Trans_and_queer_glossary.pdf

Ebert, R. (1996, Mar 8). The Birdcage, Movie review and film summary. Retrieved from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-birdcage-1996

Koplinski, C. (2015, Mar 19). Film capsules, March 19, 2015. Champagne, Ill: The News-Gazette. Retrieved from http://www.news-gazette.com/arts-entertainment/local/2015-03-19/film-capsules-march-19-2015.html

Nichols, M. (Director, Producer). (1996). The Birdcage [Motion Picture]. USA: United Artists.

Petersen, A. H. (2014, Sep 23). Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Long Suicide of Montgomery Clift.  Vanity Fair. Retrieved from http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/09/scandals-of-classic-hollywood-montgomery-clift

Scott, A. O. (2014, Aug 11). Robin Williams, an improvisational genius, forever present in the moment. New York City: The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/12/movies/robin-williams-an-improvisational-genius-forever-present-in-the-moment.html

Stack, L. (2015, Mar 7). Dirk Shafer, Playgirl centerfold who revealed he was gay, dies at 52. New York City: The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/08/arts/dirk-shafer-playgirl-centerfold-who-revealed-he-was-gay-dies-at-52.html

Zur, O., & Wolz, B. (2015). Therapeutic themes and relevant movies: addendums to movie therapy, reel therapy, or cinema therapy. Retrieved from http://www.zurinstitute.com/movietherapy.html#lgbt