BILGE EBIRI: THE NEW GUY IN COMEDY

As a critic, whose films make you laugh?
All sorts. I mentioned the older ones above. I think there’s a certain art to a well-crafted comedic set piece. This is going to sound like blasphemy, but the first “American Pie” movie had some of those — those moments that combine slapstick, plotting, intricate physicality, and cringing embarrassment, and do it so smoothly that when it happens, you don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. The nature of comedy today, especially in big American movies, is that you don’t go in hoping for a funny movie, you go in hoping for a funny scene or two, and you hope that the rest of it isn’t so ridiculously awful and bland that you’re going to hate yourself by the time it’s over.

One film that had me in stitches, and which got absolutely bludgeoned by the critics upon its release, was the Tom Green film “Freddy Got Fingered” — which was offensive, relentless, and just plain nonsensical. And I ate it up. I couldn’t stop laughing. This guy had the cojones to take some of these jokes so far they came out the other side, and you were almost afraid to be seen in the theater watching the movie. I mean, it was *transgressive*. That’s great comedy. And Hollywood is, by and large, afraid of that. Of course, how can you expect a critic to judge something like that? What are you going to do, judge its plot? Its script? It’s pure lunacy.

How have festival audiences reacted to the film? Which scenes did they especially enjoy? And have there been differences in American audience reaction versus audiences in other countries?
Festival audiences have been very enthusiastic about the film, which has been nice. One thing I’ve noticed is that the film plays a lot better at night than it does during the day. A 2:00 PM audience isn’t going to laugh as much as an 8:00 PM audience. A weird observation, perhaps, but I’ve noticed that. While the film *is* a comedy, it’s more of a traditional comedy in its first half, and in its second half it becomes, well, something else. The audiences definitely respond more to the first half, which is understandable — the first half is more of the office place humor that people can relate to, because chances are they’re faced with it every day at work. There are a lot of knowing chuckles in the first half. But probably the part they respond to most is the middle section. We’ve got an answering machine gag that seems to knock them dead every time. I’m very proud of that scene. In fact, there’s a scene that precedes it that’s one of the weaker ones in the film, but I refused to cut it because it’s setting up the big gag that comes right afterwards.

Foreign audiences respond a bit more to the absurdist humor in the film, the bizarre surreal elements, which is a tradition they’re often closer to. But then again, quotidian office life is not the same everywhere. In the US, people are very hard-working, but have a tendency to become immediately restless with their jobs. In a place like Turkey, where I showed the film at the Istanbul film festival, people are fortunate for the jobs they have and are more obsessed with job security. They don’t want to leave their job and write the Great Turkish Novel — I don’t think they’ve reached that level of social prosperity. So they identify a bit less with the frustrations of office life, and that sense of wanting to leave. But they probably identify with the bizarre aspects of the film.

One other thing I’ve noticed — Americans laugh a lot. They’re just very expressive that day. In other countries, people may find something hilarious, but they won’t necessarily guffaw like the Americans do. It was something of a shock to realize that. My first screening abroad, I thought it was a disaster. I was afraid that all my jokes were falling flat. Then I realized I’d gotten used to Americans howling with laughter at every little thing, and was just freaking out. It might just be a simple cultural quirk, but it was very unnerving.




Posted on May 3, 2004 in Interviews by

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