Eastern Slapstick: Let's Get Physical By Tristan Priimägi

in 17th Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Tristan Priimägi

I believe it was the infamous “independent British scientists” who announced awhile ago that they had discovered the oldest joke in the world. According to their research, the world’s oldest joke is a caveman walking, tripping over a rock and falling down, with other cavemen standing besides the whole scene laughing.

I have no idea if it’s true. What is certain enough is that physical humor preceded puns, double entendres and irony. Before cavemen started to express themselves verbally, they were more or less into slapstick.

The story of cinema is not different. Before people could talk onscreen, they had to find physical means of expression. Situational comedy, funny coincidences and mishaps made us laugh, but at the same time they had another, more important quality: They made us feel. Cinema history was made when physical weaknesses became loveable clumsiness. The great ones we remember now — Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd — wriggled their way into our hearts and history books by doing exactly that, endearing us to their characters’ imperfections and vulnerabilities.

The competition program of the 2007 Cottbus Film Festival of Young East European Cinema showed a certain resurgence of slapstick methods. Judging from these films, there are people all over Eastern Europe who are bumping their heads, tripping over and falling down, sometimes for no apparent reason. These instances of slapstick work just fine for a joke, but they also act as a cinematographic device to create an emotional link between the characters and the viewers. Often, these elements are brought into the equation fairly early to help us empathize with the people on the screen.

In The Russian Triangle (Rusuli samkudhedi), detective Niko bumps his head on the ceiling after ten minutes of screen time. For Filip from the Czech movie Rules of Lies (Pravidla lzi), it takes a bit longer to trip over the stairs, then stands up again and walks into a house as if nothing had happened. And, in a way, nothing has. Neither of these situations had anything to do with the plot. These carefully planned spontaneities didn’t offer any insight about the characters, but served as a general introduction into their movies, signaling us to take the film a bit less seriously, and, of course, going for the endearment effect.

Sometimes moments of slapstick serve the function of character development. When a mohawked Croatian soldier pretends to trip over a wire in a minefield in The Living and the Dead (Zivi i mrtvi), it’s clear that his literally explosive sense of humor represents a certain careless madness one needs to survive the insane circumstances of war.

And then there were those that went all in, maxing out on physical humor. The Kyrgyzstan film Pure Coolness (Boz Salkyn) was, in places, like homage to Abbott & Costello, with people falling over left and right. Some of the jokes were perfect in their comedic timing, others endearing in their utter clumsiness. Most important, I could actually sense the joy people had in doing this stuff. In other words, it worked. I felt closer to the characters, because I was exposed to their weaknesses. Extra cute points for getting physical were well deserved.

One thing Cottbus demonstrated was that films from very different genres can use similar technical devices to get a reaction. Every director tries his hand at magic; sometimes the spell comes easily, and sometimes you have to mix it with a little sleight of hand. But I don’t feel cheated; I may consider myself an intelligent film viewer, but sometimes it feels really good to laugh at the guy who trips over the rock.