Monday, August 03, 2009

Musing Pictures: The Philadelphia Story

For all that can be said about this wonderful, classic comedy, the thing that struck me the most was its pacing.

It is said of good comedy that it relies on a mysterious thing called "comic timing" in order to work most effectively. This comic timing seems to have a lot to do with the careful buildup, maintenance of and eventual reversal of expectations. Somehow, we enjoy the resulting surprise, and in the best cases, we appreciate the process by means of which we are led along to that surprise.

And so, before I saw "The Philadelphia Story", I expected a speedy sort of rhythm, a comedic cadence, something that I could identify as "comic timing". I think that much of my expectation rested on the film's editing. In most recent comedies, comedic timing is manufactured in post production. The amount of time we spend between a joke and its punch-line is dictated by an editor's choice of when to cut from one shot to the next. As a result, comedies have developed a certain quickness, especially around those scenes and moments where the greatest humor is intended. "The Philadelphia Story", by contrast, was surprisingly patient in its cutting. Some wildly witty conversations even seemed to transpire without so much as a single cut. The humor inherent in the film, then, is not so reliant on the editor's wit, but on the comic senses of its actors. The editor can't fix bad comic timing when the entire scene is contained in one shot.

This kind of comedy is rarely seen in contemporary movies. Filmmakers, understandably, hedge their bets by covering scenes from multiple angles, and by shooting with the expectation that comic timing come together in the editing room. Actors, too, seem to be deferring to the editor. There's less risk of a joke falling flat if it can be tweaked to perfection before the film hits the screen.

But there are many bad comedies! With all of this control over comic timing and delivery, it's astounding how hard it is to make a comedy work! I think that a part of the issue has to do with the palpable sense of risk. The best jokes are the ones that are riskiest to tell, because they can fall flat so easily. We've all had the experience of trying and failing to re-tell a joke that cracked us up when we first heard it. With constant editing and tweaking of comic timing, the danger of a flat joke is minimized, and as such, the humor that results is quite a bit less surprising. We know it'll be something funny, which already makes it less funny than it could have been. When the risk is still present, still palpable, there's always the chance that the most un-funny, profoundly level-headed thing will be said next, and when that's the case, the unexpectedness of the punch-line adds to its powerful effect.

The longer takes and sparser cutting of "The Philadelphia Story" inject the comedy with that very sense of danger, of unexpectedness that many comedies miss. Not every joke is funny, but since we're not primed for the funny jokes, and since we learn to expect some of the humor to fail a little, the successful jokes hit us all the harder.


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