Make 'Em Laugh (Please) By Konstantinos Blathras

in 19th Athens Panorama of European Cinema

by Konstantinos Blathras

Comedies? Why not! This could be the conclusion of the 19th Panorama of European Cinema. The festival opened with the musical comedy Dying in Athens (Pethenontas stin Athina), the brand new film from the productive Greek director Nikos Panagiotopoulos, and ended with Woody Allen’s new Scoop, just after the closing ceremony. Both screened to full, happy houses. By coincidence or not, the FIPRESCI jury gave its prize to a comedy – Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story.

I believe it is significant that, even in this melancholic new century, people still love their comedy. That both Panagiotopoulos’ and Allen’s films open with the death of pivotal characters, and still remain comedies, makes them more interesting. Since, according to Aristotle, “man is the only laughing animal”, it is not curious that comedy survives as a cinematic genre.

I wonder whether the festival’s Panorama program should have more comedies. We saw some very interesting films in this festival, among them a dozen classics – from Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, Luis Buñuel’s L’age d’or and Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu) to Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma). We also saw such prophetic works as François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

Unfortunately, the ready availability of these films on DVD kept a large part of their audience away from these screenings; sure, it’s now possible for one to watch whatever film one desires at the time of one’s choosing, but great films have their own stature and beauty, and movie theatres are their temples. How can watching a DVD at home offer the touching effect of the tremendous close-ups of Harriet Andersson in Bergman’s Summer with Monika (Sommaren med Monika), especially as compared to the new print screened in Athens?

Andersson (photo above) was honored in this year’s Panorama, along with Zoe Laskari (photo left), a very famous and beautiful Greek movie idol of the 60’s, known for her many appearances in musical comedies. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to see any of her films. Cinematographer, editor and director Dinos Katsouridis, another honoree, is also well known for his work in comedies, having worked with two big comedy actors in the 50’s and 60’s, Costas Hajihristos and Thanassis Vengos. His film What did you do during the War, Thanassis? (Ti ekanes ston polemo, Thanassi?), with Vengos, still remains the best anti-war Greek film; it is the only film I have ever seen in which an enemy soldier at the end becomes part of the hero’s destiny.

Making comedy out of hunger, death and Nazi torture is a great challenge. Meeting this challenge successfully, Katsouridis created a great film. Since this film had already been presented in a previous Panorama, we saw instead his 1960 film Backstage Crime (Eglima sta paskinia), an interesting film noir.

Maybe film festivals are a little bit prejudiced that comedy, as a genre, isn’t always cinematic. Remember Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, and how his hero, a comedy director, dreams of making an epic? In the end, he realizes his comedies are of more use to the poor and downtrodden than a big, serious epic about their lives.

And how close tragedy to laughter is! As Bertold Brecht — whose work was represented in two films here — used to say: “A play without laughter is a laughable play.” And a film festival without comedies is not worth seeing. Thus, this year’s Panorama was well worth our attention.