Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The American Comic Film Tradition: Allen, Brooks, Apatow

"Laughter is evanescent, as fleeting as an orgasm and with equally limited capabilities for permanent fulfillment. And yet, it is a task that grown men and women set themselves to, plunging time and again into the abyss of discomfort, uncertainty, and potential humiliation, in the hopes of emerging, triumphant, with a single good laugh." - Saul Austerlitz

Here is a proposition: the two most important and influential American comic filmmakers are Woody Allen and James L. Brooks. Allen’s impact on the genre comes from his ability to incorporate stand-up into his films, and Brooks is important for incorporating a theater sensibility. These are the two distinguishing features between both filmmakers: stand-up and theater.

These two forms of performance are so intrinsic to these filmmakers' art, as if they were part of these films'  DNA. Allen’s use of stand-up is a model that relies heavily on wisecracks, a shtick, build-up and punch lines. For example, in To Rome With Love, when the young woman Hayley is describing her awkward parents, it’s then funny when the film cuts to a dolly-shot on a plane and there is Allen (back in front of the camera) kvetching to his wife. The build up is that of a joke.

Brooks, on the other hand, doesn’t rely on tricks and formula but instead if there is humor then it comes out through the characters and/or situations that they are in.  As Brooks quotes, it comes from Oscar Wilde's belief that, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you.” For example, in Brooks’ most recent film How Do You Know when Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) one night has to decide between going home with her date or not, the framing of shot is set-up in a humorous way. The dramatic force of the story comes from what is this former softball-player Lisa is going through and less so on the laughs. But through using a variety of forms, and in this case the burlesque, Brooks is able to find the humor in the everyday.

For some more background information, which expands on this thesis: Allen started his career, when he was still in high school, by writing jokes for comedians and for talk shows. When Allen became a filmmaker his films had this rough quality as their slapstick and wisecracking vignettes seemed loosely tied together - as in a stand-up comedy act. Ralph Rosenblum, who edited these early films, speaks at length about his collaboration and efforts that went into shaping the films into their final form. Saul Austerlitz, in his great book Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy, posits that Allen's two major influences were Bob Hope and Ingmar Bergman, and that Allen who had a "natural whiz with wisecracks" was "striving for something deeper, something less instantly gratifying," and that with Annie Hall created, and would popularize, the somber comedy.

Brooks’ background is more in television than it is in cinema: he has worked as a producer on numerous popular series including The Mary Tyler Moore show, The Critic and The Simpsons. Compared to Allen’s filmography (IMDb has 48 listed director credits) Brooks’ directing career is a lot more smaller and includes only six films: Terms of Endearment ('83), Broadcast News ('87), I'll Do Anything ('94), As Good as It Gets ('97), Spanglish ('04) and How Do You Know ('10). It seems like Allen’s response to things is like the joke: you can fake quality but you can’t fake quantity! But, anyways, back on-topic. When How Do You Know had it’s theatrical run there were only two film magazines that gave it its due: Film Comment and Cahiers du Cinéma. The features in Cahiers on Brooks were especially good, which included a glowing review of Comment Savoir (its French title) by Jean-Sébastien Chauvin (N.664) and an interview with Brooks by Chauvin (N.665). Chauvin’s piece James L. Brooks, en toute discretion includes a nice introduction ("The lucidity of Brooks doesn't contradict the tender gaze he has towards people"), and many insightful answers about his life, career and new film. "I come from theater," says Brooks, who also speaks about his thoughts on a variety of subjects like drama, humanism, The Simpsons, and his research process. When Brooks is asked if he was a cinephile before he was a filmmaker: “I had a great passion for the theatre, to the point of just liking it when the curtains goes up, and keeping the torn entrance ticket, etc. I really like the cinema of course, but it is not my first love.”

So who are the new generation of mainstream Hollywood filmmakers that have been influenced, inspired or had the patronage of Allen and Brooks? In the Allen camp there is: Judd Apatow, for his comedic structure; Todd Solondz, for heightening the perverse; Whitt Stillman, for exploring the inner-lives of the upper class; and Wes Anderson, for his idiosyncrasies. In the Brooks tradition there is: Cameron Crowe, whose first film Say Anything… was produced by Brooks; Alexander Payne, for some shared preoccupations; and Noah Baumbach, for taking the material into darker places.

And so who then are the other major comedy directors and where do they fit into a comedy filmmaker lineage? The Robert Altman tradition of black comedy is kept up in the films of the Coen brothers (Burn After Reading), Richard Linklater (Bernie) and the Paul Thomas Anderson of Punch-Drunk Love and The Master. The screwball comedy influence can be seen in something like Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc?. The Frank Tashlin-Jerry Lewis anarchic comedy spirit can be seen in the films of Adam McKay (Talladega Nights), the Farrelly brothers (Hall Pass, Movie 43) and Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You Philip Morris). And the Jim Jarmusch brand of dead-pan comedy (Stranger Than Paradise) is most on view in smaller scale independent films like Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel.


But these macro observations do not really speak too much about individual personalities and temperaments, and I want to talk more about Judd Apatow.

There have been many people who have made connections between the films of Allen and those of Apatow. Adam Kotsko, in his great cultural theory book Awkwardness, writes, “If Woody Allen was the king awkwardness in 1970s American film, then Judd Apatow arguably fills that role now.” And Austerlitz writes, "Before taking leave of comedy and entrusting it into the hands of the future, we must acknowledge the ever-growing influence of Apatow, whose films have come to define the 2000s like Woody Allen's did the 1970s." And regarding Funny People, Austerlitz writes , “It would be more accurate to describe the film as a stand-up drama, whose haunting emotional core is leavened by a steady stream of jokes and asides.” So let it be clear that there are many similarities between both the A-named directors (Allen, Apatow) and the prominent ones are that of awkwardness and stand-up.

Austerlitz describes the theme of friendship within these bromances as, "The becoming of one flesh is predicated on the abandonment of those who had once loved and cared for you. In the time of Adam, this meant one's parents. For Judd Apatow's man-boys, it means saying a painful farewell to the guys." And on his style Austerlitz describes it as, “Apatow's blend of no-holds-barred raunch, discreetly rendered emotion, and bromance brilliantly tweaked the formula established by Old School and its minions."

Apatow’s newest film This is 40 is about a struggling music producer (Paul Rudd) going about his life (the film also has interesting nods to the films of Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Franzen's book The Corrections). So far the best review of the film that I’ve read is from the great film-blogger Jake Wilson, who writes: 
“It's a far more believable and complex heterosexual relationship than anything Apatow has shown us in the past, which is one reason This is 40 marks an advance on his previous work. To be sure, for the moment he can't hold a candle to Cassavetes or Edwards or James L. Brooks (another obvious role model) or, for that matter, Albert Brooks or Lena Dunham. But so what?  This is 40 is all about doing the best with what you have – and like Pete and Debbie, he largely succeeds in muddling through."

Apatow writes more about his creative approach in the shooting script of This is 40,”I started out as someone who just wanted to write comedy. I never thought about comedy being an intimate, vulnerable act. Lately I have accepted that writing is a form of self-exploration. I am trying to sort through how I feel about this life while attempting to make it amusing on some level.” And one could look at the book of fiction that he edited I Found This Funny as where Apatow could have found other sources of inspiration.

But the best resource on Judd Apatow is a French book, Judd Apatow: Comédie, Mode d’Emploi – Entretien avec Emmanuel Burdeau (Capricci) where there is a thoughtful introduction and then for around 100 pages Apatow speaks about his life and career and so much more.

Some highlights: Apatow speaks about being a first generation Saturday Night Live viewer when it started in 1975, “this marked a golden age of comedy, […] and it took part in a tradition that is situated somewhere between the vaudeville and a talk-show.” On some of his favorite comedians, “as a Jewish kid from Long Island I already knew all of the films of Woody Allen,” and he also adored Steve Martin (there is a good photo-spread of the two in the Vanity Fair comedy issue). Apatow speaks about being a comedy nerd, his work on The Cable Guy (“I was devastated by its negative reception”), as a teenager he interviewed many famous comedians for a non-existent radio show, his work on the The Ben Stiller Show (“We were very much inspired by Albert Brooks…”), his work with James L. Brooks, and contributing punch-ups to screenplays to make them funnier and have more depth. On his new pre-production approach, Apatow writes, “I’ve learnt to adopt the strategy of a Cameron Crowe or of a James L. Brooks: to take my time, to dedicate several long years to refine one perfect screenplay that I would then be able to direct myself.” Apatow speaks about his work on the television series Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared and his frustration that they both only lasted one season (the new series Girls that Apatow produces is not encountering this). Apatow speaks about other filmmakers that he admires: Hal Ashby, John Cassavetes and Robert Altman. And what makes a good film? “If it connects people with people.” 

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