Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Marxism, of the Brothers, not Karl (TFR Article)

Even though I saw Soderbergh’s Che on Friday, I wanted to examine different sorts of Marxists: The Marx Brothers.

The Marx Brothers were a famous vaudeville act in the 20’s, and when they moved to film in the early 30’s they established a unique approach to comedy, which becomes their tenants of Marxism.


The joke is king. Their ideology establishes that settings, backstories and characters are simply premises that one of the brothers will use to capitalize on a joke. Whether it’s interrupting a chess match or an argument, if something funny isn’t happening, it’s not a Marx Brothers film.

Tenant 1: If there’s no “in” (or setup) for a joke, make one.

This is largely a trope for Groucho, like when he walks into a conversation and makes himself a part of it. He takes the situation away from the characters in the frame and makes it a focus of him. Without it, the scene is reality and reality isn’t funny. This shows just how much the brothers other-worldliness is juxtaposed to the society that they are portraying and it’s about as far as any critique of something will go. The ultimate is when the critique is the joke, but the joke always has precedence.

Tenant 2: If it’s silent, it’s not funny.

Take Monkey Business for example. Throughout the whole film we are constantly berated with noises, being music or words. Groucho, either after a one-liner or while waiting for someone, will hum, sing or whistle. This makes any silence that does happen in their film awkward and uncomfortable. Even when they play songs, they are played in a humorous way. Harpo’s odd faces when strumming the harp, or Chico shooting the piano keys with his fingers or Groucho’s facial expressions when he sings. It’s all a push for a laugh.

Tenant 3: It’s never about you.

All of the Marx brothers have an approach to scenes and to characters with the knowledge that they are performing. Often the characters are playing straight to the audience. Groucho is constantly looking in the direction of the camera and saying a one-liner (sometimes with no reaction from the opposite character). Many times they will enter a scene and never acknowledge that the other person is talking. It adds to the fact that supporting characters are simply plot devices implemented for the story to progress and so more jokes can be used. The supporting cast are often a reverse comic relief to a film filled with comedy.

I would conclude by saying the unwritten rule of Marxism is never analyze the joke. If it doesn’t make you laugh, don’t worry - their are hundreds more to come.

(Link to article)

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