The Scandal of Silliness
At the recent Viennale (24 October-6 November), I found myself in the grip of an insistent, mildly convulsing experience: I was giggling a lot. Not totally liberating belly-laughs, not cries of admiration over some virtuosic gag. It was the small detail, sometimes fleeting and hardly noticeable, perhaps even accidental (but lovingly preserved in the editing), that was tickling me — and, at times, I couldn't even say why it was funny.
Three current films — art films or 'festival films', no doubt — crystallised my intermittent fit of giggles: Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, USA), Tip Top (Serge Bozon, France) and The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher, Germany). Almost nothing unites these films, except that they explore a particular kind of humour in the same detailed, obsessive way.
This is a sense of humour that has nothing to do with Chaplin or Keaton, and only a little to do with Tati or Jerry Lewis (subject of a grand Viennale/Austrian Filmmuseum retrospective). It has more to do genuine oddball auteurs of film comedy such as Luc Moullet, David Wain and Nanni Moretti. But in these new comedies, plot and character count for even less than they do in those illustrious predecessors of offbeat humour.
No film title sums up the trend better than The Strange Little Cat. This resolutely strange movie is like a comic version of Godard's hellish portrait of cramped family living in Numéro deux (1975): interior shots offers an uncomfortably flat squeeze or a tight corner, through which bodies (try to) pass. And not only human bodies. A typical giggle-moment: the cat (who deserves an Oscar) suddenly jumps into the frame, onto a table; somewhere else on that table, a few seconds later, a glass falls. Totally incidental and meaningless. But after about one hundred of these details in sequence, shot after relentless shot, you are either helplessly giggling, or grouching your way out the exit.
Computer Chess is less avant-garde, but just as hypnotic. If the Mumblecore movement had to exist, solely in order to bring this film into being, then, at last, I forgive it. Bujalski's vision springs from an insane attachment to 1973: the (mostly) male nerds, the computer hardware (and software), the chess games, and even the lo-fi video cameras and unfussy split-screen vision-switching effects (Numéro deux again!) of that drab era in the technological revolution. Who could have guessed that the clunky, typewritten, computer titles of '73 could be so hilarious, no matter what the words say? The film's insanity is infectious.
Tip Top resembles the kookier moments in Eugène Green, but with the sombre, Bressonian bits cut out and a wayward Chabrol parody (his writer Odile Barski gets a credit) put in their place. The same laboured political incorrectness (this time directed to racial/multicultural topicality), the same faintly demeaning histrionics (according to Moullet's formula: every actor must stoop to conquer, make a complete ass of him/herself). It might be tiresome, but much of it works, because it gets weirder as it goes: every angular gesture or eye-squint from Isabelle Huppert, every crazy dance-floor move or kinky-sex posture, takes us further away from whatever nominal incident began proceedings.
Three films which are so magnificently silly. But en garde: we must reclaim this word. 'Silly', in the lexicon of film critics, is usually neither a nice nor a pretty term. It tends to express a closed, mean mind, and a constipated system of taste: anything odd, unbelievable, outlandish or risky is reduced to the devastated level of a bad thing, a mistake. When critics label a film silly, it is a sweeping gesture of dismissal: I refuse to engage with this film, and it should not exist.
But The Strange Little Cat, Computer Chess and Tip Top exist, and the Viennale had the good sense to program them. Silliness has a new value: even a militant, scandalous value. There is a giggle afloat in the zeitgeist...