BY DAVE KEHR
My favorite moments in Steve Carr’s hugely successful comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop
are the throwaway shots of the corpulent hero, a socially inept but bighearted security guard played by Kevin James, making the rounds of the suburban shopping center he has sworn to serve and protect. James doesn’t move on foot, but aboard a Segway, that endearingly absurd “personal transporter” of the early 21st century that resembles a pogo stick with a pair of wheels. It’s a dorky-looking contraption, but it’s also surprisingly elegant—a perfect visual correlative to the misunderstood main character.
To capture these images, Carr keeps his camera at a certain distance. The sight of James sailing serenely through his suburban domain brings to mind Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot, cruising through his crowded Paris neighborhood in Mon Oncle. In both films, the comedy blossoms from the relationship between a character and his physical environment: Blart and Hulot glide through space with an ease and self-confidence they’ll never know in their interpersonal relationships.
Comedy is in long shot; tragedy is in close-up. Or so conventional wisdom tells us. But that wisdom coalesced a long time ago, and long shots like these are becoming increasingly rare in contemporary comedy (as they are in contemporary filmmaking in general). A director who wants his or her film to be comprehensible in both a 1,500-seat theater and on an iPod is faced with a far more narrow range of choices than the filmmaker of the ’50s or ’60s, who could move with impunity between extreme close-ups to extreme long shots.
There are significant exceptions, of course, but today the typical studio comedy seems to exist somewhere between a loose close-up (face and upper torso) and a two-shot (framing the characters from the waist upward). Factor in a growing taste for shallow focus (no use showing those background details that won’t be visible on the home screen) and fast-cutting (viewers get restless if the screen isn’t constantly refreshed), and you’ve got a dominant style standardized around close to medium shots—talking heads, with just enough surrounding space to allow the viewer to identify the location.
It’s a shame, because in this narrowing of the visual vocabulary, filmmakers have lost access to a whole range of humor. Medium and close shots obviously can’t capture the kind of physical comedy practiced by the masters of the silent era: Chaplin and Keaton both kept their lenses short and their takes long in order to give the audience a full view of an action, played out in unbroken continuity.
Picture the famous shot in Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. in which the facade of a house, loosened by a tornado, falls over directly on Keaton. The dust clears and we find him still standing there, unhurt and unruffled, because he just happened to be standing in the precise position where an open window frame would pass over his head and spare him from being flattened. A closer shot would render the gag incomprehensible; a cut in to a close-up (of Keaton looking relieved, let’s say) would break up the continuity of the action, rendering something harrowingly real (and hence, hilarious) look as if it had been faked in the editing room.
But that was then, and this is now. Today, we have few physical comedians of the old school (as funny as they are, it’s hard to imagine Seth Rogen or Will Ferrell bringing off a Keatonesque sight gag) and as a result, the camera has moved in even closer in order to capture the more verbal, conceptual comedy that currently dominates the genre. In dramatic terms, it’s a formal strategy that makes perfect sense. Directors need to reinforce the audience’s identification with their socially inept protagonist, who usually finds himself an outsider for most of the movie. And for the one-line, insult gag—the basic unit of expression in much of today’s comedy—the close-up is ideal. Lines arrive with the force of a punch in the face; a quick cut to a reaction shot registers the pain and unleashes the laugh.
But in the process, we’ve lost some useful effects. Where a director like Leo McCarey would step back in order to frame the Marx Brothers (for instance in Duck Soup, 1933) in all of their interactive glory, or a Preston Sturges would fill his shot with half a dozen individually defined character actors (as when the members of the Ale and Quail Club invade Claudette Colbert’s sleeping compartment in The Palm Beach Story, 1942), contemporary comedians often find themselves working in visual isolation, cut off from their surroundings and separated from their fellow performers.
I miss the sense of bustle and dynamism that a carefully composed and rhythmically sustained group shot can give—like the passages of seeming anarchy in John Landis’ Animal House (1978) or gremlins run amok in Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) and its 1990 sequel. I also miss the quieter sense of group interaction and emotional connection, though Wes Anderson has created some wonderfully warm scenes in this style in crowded comedies like Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).
And by keeping too close, comedies can lose a sense of place. The shopping mall—in films like Paul Blart, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bad Santa, Observe and Report and many others—has become one of the most used locations in contemporary comedy, and yet the comic possibilities of these multi-tiered environments are very seldom explored.
As the visual field shrinks, comedies have become more solipsistic, more centered on the subjective emotional experience of the main character. In place of physical comedy, we now have what might be described as emotional slapstick: comedies about humiliation and revenge (Paul Blart eventually takes this tack, as do many of Adam Sandler’s vehicles); about fears of sexual inadequacy (most of the Judd Apatow’s oeuvre); and about self-delusion and obnoxiously unchecked ego (Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, or almost anything with Will Ferrell). For this kind of humor, close-ups are not only appropriate but necessary: we need to see the sweat on the brow, the trembling lip, the anxiously darting eyes. Trapped in their close-ups, today’s comedians can seem painfully alone up there. But behind the invitation to laugh can be heard a faint cry for help.
Dave Kehr is the DVD columnist for The New York Times. He was previously a film critic for the New York Daily News, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Reader.