Monday, April 20, 2009

The Dilemma of the Comedy Plot

Lloyd Hamilton, who did not put an emphasis on plot in his short comedies, had trouble when he got into feature films and had to develop a plot that would sustain him through the longer running time without detracting significantly from the gags his writers had developed.

Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd set the standards by which feature comedies were judged. These comedymakers also struggled with balancing gags with plotlines and character development. I wrote at length about this subject in my Hamilton biography. Recently, I found some additional material on the subject, which I would like to include here. These are statements that Keaton made during a number of interviews he gave between 1920 and 1923.

Keaton resisted placing too much importance on plot. He talked about coming up with no more than a "little story." His rule, in simple terms, was that he should be able to "write the whole plot on a post card." It was Keaton's belief that, to create a comedy, he needed to get a plot first, then build gags around the plot, and then leave the plot out altogether.

Keaton provided the aforementioned remarks while he was still making short comedies, but he did not alter his position much after he got into feature films. He still didn't want to rely too heavily on plot. He insisted to a reporter that his second feature, Our Hospitality (1923), would have "No plot. . . Just gags." "But we'll space our laughs," he said. "If we ran five reels of the sort of stuff we cram into two, the audience would be tired before it was half over. So we'll plant the characters more slowly, use introductory bits, and all that." Unfortunately, that is a job easier said than done.

I have had my own struggle with plot. A great deal of enjoyment comes from people telling each other stories every day. These stories, which are based on people's experiences, do not necessarily have a beginning-middle-end structure or provide a last-act conflict resolution. They do not necessarily have villains or lessons. I was excited when the editor of a major publishing house agreed to read a novel that I had recently completed. The editor later told me that the book had a lot of "fun stuff" but, for his tastes, it didn't have a strong enough plot to bring all the elements of the book together. A lot of fun stuff? I assume that this means he laughed at a number of my jokes. Laughter is good. I have heard it said that laughter is its own reward.

I believe that a novel or film can be driven by themes and characters and does not need the structure of a plot to hold it together. Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly critic, wrote about the absence of plot in the film Two Lovers. Glieberman liked the film's "rambling unpredictabity of form." He wrote, "You have to watch it with different brain muscles than you're used to using, because the film has no. . . hooks. . . [or] visible 'arcs,' nothing to grab on to but the fragile humanity of the people on screen."

A film should be about the filmmakers sharing their observations about human nature. Humanity, when all is said and done, has no plot.

Wait, it might sound pretentious to end this blog entry that way. Okay, I got a different closing. Ready? We don't need no stinkin' plots.

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