Variations in American Vitalist Film Comedy
Work in Progress
by Paul H. Grawe and Robin Jaeckle Grawe
© Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies 2015
Vitalism of Gladness-Impulse Spirit
Form then, as we have just considered it, comedic form and particularly vitalist comedic form, not only creates feeling, as Langer proved. Form can be its own humor awaiting an alive humor response from its audience. Frye and Watts, from very different theoretical perspectives, end up pointing to the same basic vital humor, the humor of Regain form.
Fundamental to any vitalist theory is that life responds to life. And the response of life to life is primordially positive, affirming, and humorously vital itself. Vital response may not typically respond with guffaws, but it consistently responds with inward and often outward smiles of intense satisfaction, smiles that normally are of much longer duration than laughter created by jokes.
We turn next to yet another fundamentally distinct type of vitalist technique in theatre. This third type is also rooted in very deep, evidently primordial human feeling. We call this Gladness-Impulse Spirit Vitalism, because it derives from a basic human impulsive response to extraordinary life, to being extraordinarily alive. Like the vitalist realities described by Langer and Bergson and by Frye and Watts, this deep impulse can be divided into sub-forms. And like Langerian and Bergsonian humor, we can distinguish between a positive voice, which is central to vitalist theatre, and a negative voice, which may sometimes be present for specific effects but is not central in itself to the overall vitalist comedy import and to its engendered special vitalist dynamic.
Unlike Langerian and Bergsonian humor, which is primarily momentary and embodied in joke structures, impulse vitalism is primarily a “sprit” of the whole artistic achievement.
Admittedly, sometimes Langerian and Bergsonian jokes are extended by art to encompass a whole play. And sometimes impulse vitalism by art can be compressed into a simple joke. But their central roles in vitalist comedy are at opposite extremes of momentary humor on the one hand and pervasive play-long spirit on the other.
Unlike the sense of re-form which is an intellective matter, impulse vitalism is an evidently automatic feeling response. This feeling includes humorous approbation, best summarized as a warm and inward smile, an uplifting, a glad enlivening.
Generally, impulse vitalism can be considered under a concept of gladness. And for our purposes we will be happy to divide gladness into four distinct sub-types. Since gladness is a positive term, like Langerian humor or Regain form, we should be on the alert for a negative form as well.
The first and most common of these gladness sub-categories or types is the impulse to sing. Feeling extraordinary life in oneself and vicariously sensing it in artistic representation encourage us to “sing along.” The second which comes trippingly behind normally in the same phrase, is the impulse to dance. Extraordinary life makes our toes, feet, and fingers “wanna dance.” Many of us “just can’t keep our feet still” and some of us can’t keep from swaying (though most of us have been intimidated by convention to hold still anyway.)
A third of these basic impulses is the impulse to delight, which often bursts forth in smiles and laughter or even tears. And a fourth of these basic impulses, often the quiet type, is the impulse to awe. When we recognize the unfathomable in life, when we recognize the immeasurable in what in less lively moments we take for granted, when we sense the immensities we almost never deal with except when we are extraordinarily alive and “up to it,” these are the moments when our humanity responds with the impulse of awe and wonder. Awe can be quiet, as just indicated. It can also be raucously loud. But underneath it has no need for any intensity except itself.
All four of these sub-types constitute vitalist Gladness. Gladness is a “breaking forth,” and more, a “shining forth.” It has an inherent sense of breaking through and breaking out, possibly a breaking through all the mechanical encrusted on the living that Bergson posited. Gladness then breaks forth in Song, in Dance, in Delight, and in Awe.
Sometimes Song and Dance are obvious; often they are less obvious. We will need an appreciation of both the obvious and the subtle in each of these categories. Song can mean something with music and lyrics. It can additionally feature strong percussion cadence and “beat.” It can be associated with melody alone, but it can also be thought of as melody and harmony combined. In some highly artistic cases, it may move to counter-melody or polyphony. We will consider any of these elements to be elements of Song that may have vitalist power.
The Spirit of Song is a Spirit of articulation, of saying something, typically specially saying something, saying it beautifully, well, lyrically, or strongly (which implies succinctly). There is thus a Spirit of Song in Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the Spirit of a soaring Song which Lincoln’s immediate audience, evidently expecting a long-winded oratory, didn’t hear. It was only later that the Song impressed itself on America not only as a memorial to those who fell at Gettysburg but as an ideal definition of the American experience and destiny.
The Spirit of Song is quintessentially lyric. It is not long-winded, instead saying with excellent economy. And the Spirit of Song is rhetorical, routinely relying on all the tropes of formal classical rhetoric as well as all the emotional appeal of words in a language of the heart as well as of the head. All those English- class words like metaphor, alliteration, consonance and assonance, rhyme and meter dwell familiarly with the Spirit of Song and often yield privilege of place to even more complex aspects of language. Eloquent lyric can have very exaggerated rhetorically vital power in itself.
A famous scene from My Fair Lady, “The Rain in Spain” scene, comes to mind to exemplify the range of song elements within an artistically elaborate scene dominated by the Spirit of Song. Where does Song begin in this scene? For theory of Gladness purposes, Song begins with Eliza’s careful, rhythmical enunciation of an exercise: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” Eliza has been holding fast to her cockney accent, having originally said “The rine in spine sties minely in the pline,” (orthography of International Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058385/quotes?ref_=tt_ql_3). It is three o’clock in the morning and everyone has a headache. But Higgins, in a quite uncharacteristically kind gesture, offers Eliza his ice bag. He then makes a kind, emotionally-powerful appeal to her on behalf of the power of the English language And she pronounces the line correctly, rhythmically, in a melodic voice. The song has begun. Her correct pronunciation astounds Higgens, who asks, “What was that” She repeats the line. Eliza has spoken a line twice, correctly and rhythmically, with beautiful tonal and emphatic variation. She has not sung. Yet the Song is progressing. From there, the Song takes on melody, with repetitions of the key line, with rhythmical interjections and “Ah hahs” from Higgens and Pickering. It picks up steam and builds to a celebratory tango and chorus with full orchestral accompaniment. In short, one element of Song has succeeded another. The climactic song, “The Rain in Spain,” we easily remember, but the Spirit of Song emerges before the melody. Eliza’s triumphant articulation of upper-class pronunciation, which is moreover a moment of epiphany to the potential beauty of spoken English, acts as a springboard for a full-blown song in tango rhythm.
Song and Dance normally share many musical elements (and in fact the “Rain in Spain “scene can be reanalyzed within the Spirit of Dance). Rhythm and tempo are two of the overlapping elements which may be either Song or Dance. Lyric is an element of Song. Steps, as in left foot right and back, are an element of Dance.
The Spirit of Dance In contrast to Song, is a Spirit of energy, movement, and physical prowess. It is a Spirit of doing, not of saying. It is fundamentally a Spirit of kinesthetics.
The Spirit of Dance is also, in the main, a Spirit of connectedness, a connectedness between multiple dancers, a connectedness between musical accompaniment and dance movement, a connectedness between dancer kinesthetic and other kinesthetic, as, for example, light displays on the dance floor or the swirl of skirts in many ethnic European traditions.
Dance is routinely but not invariably associated with appropriate “steps,” and throughout, the Spirit of Dance must distinguish between what is proper and appropriate and what is awkward and inappropriate in its dynamic appearance.
The Spirit of Dance is typically both intimately connected with life and at the same time a displacement of the demands of on-going life.
And the Spirit of Dance ranges from the purely conventional, utterly regimented realities of a line dance to the absolutely idiosyncratic and individualistic improvisational dance. Dance is the waltz; it is also the foxtrot and the two-step. Dance is a barn dance and a square dance. Dance is ballet. Dance is a girl swishing around a ballroom dress before her mirror. Dance is break dancing and Pentecostal exuberance à la The Blues Brothers. Dance is a slight swaying of a romantic couple on the dark edges of the dance floor.
That said, the Spirit of Dance pervades many things which we don’t normally call dance. For example, Dance includes parades—and as we all know, everyone loves a parade. Dance includes a troop of soldiers marching in step or two joggers running in step side-by-side.
Throughout Western history, intricate movements generally are often called dances, as in a phrase like “he led us a merry dance.” More specifically, where anyone can be said to be on lead and another is asked to follow the lead, this also is a dance, however abstracted from physical movement.
And at the other extreme, whenever an activity is composed of orchestrated or choreographed “steps,” it is possible to again talk in terms of dance. For example when a power couple arrives at a cocktail party and “works the room” smoothly for a pre-determined effect, we can say it was an impressive dance. When one partner plays straight-man and another gets all the laughs, whether that is the analysis of George Burns and Gracie Allen or of Abbott and Costello, we may start talking in terms of a “jig” or in some cases even of a “fandango.”
The most fundamental definitions of Dance, though, are kinesthetic. America’s game, football, has very many elements of dance that are best appreciated by true fans of the game. On the surface, there is an offense which is “on lead.” And there is a defense which “follows.” A beautifully executed play on both sides of the ball, especially in slow motion, seems entirely choreographed and physically, kinesthetically beautiful.
Within that holistic picture, every player has a choreographed role, a dance step to go through, and more, a number of potential dance steps from which the dancer must almost instantly choose the right alternative. Such, for example, is the case for great passers and their equally great receivers. False “reads” by either vastly increase the chances of interception by a defense which is similarly playing its choreographed but multi-potentialed part.
Since we have just mentioned slow motion, let us recognize that such cinematic devices vastly add to dance repertoire. Mimes consistently work in dance, and often slow the action down for dance effects. Slow-motion photography of flowers blooming or swans flying, especially when set to music, are some of the most intense of vital dance imagery.
But whatever the pace or form, the Spirit of Dance is trying to get in touch, in synchronization, in agreement with greater realities and ideals than itself.
Delight and Awe are fundamentally inner states, not exterior action. Narrative fiction may be able to move to descriptions of inner Delight and Awe rather simply, but for drama, Delight and Awe need to be actualized or acted out. When that acting out seems highly choreographed, intricate, or the like, it will not be surprising to find the act doubly analyzed as Dance as well as one of the inner gladness impulses.
Without belaboring the point here, good criticism must be on the watch for such acting out. It must not be dogmatic about what constitutes or does not constitute Delight or Awe acted out. Instead, good criticism must be able to make a reasoned case for its analysis based in sensitive observation and careful connection between critical argument and fundamental meanings of Delight and Awe in the cultural context of the specific work. A good production of Fiddler on the Roof, for example, will embody specific ethnic Russian Jewish movement idiosyncrasies which are indicative of Delight or Awe.
Again, Delight is an inward state which ultimately can only be known to the being experiencing it. So at a quite literal level, we cannot successfully look for Delight itself in a play or screenplay. We instead look for outward dramatizations which we conclude to be signs of Delight.
Thus, for example, a character may be laughing, and we may, looking at the full facts of the situation, conclude that what we are witnessing is the dramatization of inward Delight. All drama asks us almost continually to be drawing such small conclusions and, in fact, to be able to refine or even contradict such conclusions on the basis of further dramatic evidence supplied by the script and/or production.
In this sense, it is possible for drama to portray someone laughing with the confident expectation that a normal audience will conclude that this is a manifestation of Delight only for the drama to go on and provide more information so that, somewhat disconcerted, we as audience decide that what we originally thought was incorrect and that the laughter in fact, ultimately but distinctly, did not indicate Delight.
Now when we further posit that we are not directly talking about Delight itself but about a Spirit of Delight, we move even further away from any direct ability to “see” what we are talking about. A Spirit of Delight is in fact a high-level abstraction from the work as a whole (and like most high-level abstractions, it is far enough removed from specific facts to become somewhat subjective and somewhat controversial in many cases.) In vitalist theatre, the more sensitive the controversy, the more sense of subjectivism in establishing spirit, the more dubious it becomes that such a spirit can in fact have any dynamic effect.
The Spirit of Delight is a Spirit of appreciation, of taking in value and making it one’s own. It is a discriminating Spirit that knows the difference between the bad and the good but devotes all its energies into taking in and fully appreciating the good in things. In this sense, the Spirit of Delight can easily be seen as disregarding anything which is not its subject.
The Spirit of Delight is ultimately reactive rather than active. Its reactions, however, are often expressed in extremes like exuberance, ecstasy, enthusiasm, and the like. As the etymologies for these extremes suggest, the Spirit of Delight is ultimately a stepping outside of oneself, an accepting of a spectator-like role in which we know that the Delight is not ourselves and that we have stepped outside ourselves to experience it.
The Spirit of Delight is also typically overpowering. It takes over. It takes us over. It takes on a life of its own and moves to its own conclusion. The Spirit of Delight is often so pervasive that we lose ourselves in it and don’t even recognize how delighted we are, as for example a young pugilist in his strength is often unaware how much he is delighting in his physical abilities—he knows his Delight for itself when he is older, wiser, and less physically able.
And finally, there is a Spirit of Awe. That Spirit loses itself in the sense that it recognizes an “other” of stupendous relative magnitude. It is a Spirit of smallness in the presence of the very, very large. It is a Spirit of inadequacy which, in Watts’ terms, is not the spirit of the marketplace that gets us through practical affairs. It is thus a spirit that steps back from the oversimplifications we use to get through life and recognizes the unfathomable that ultimately not only surrounds but much more undergirds our every act and our very being.
The Spirit of Awe is quiet but extremely powerful, and thus power people have worked extremely hard to master it, whether those power people are kings and emperors or priests, popes, academicians, or actors. The Spirit of Awe is profoundly the Spirit of the medieval cathedral. It is also the spirit of a coronation ceremony. Academically, it is the Spirit of graduation exercises, the conferring of degrees, the academic procession. Judicially, it is the Spirit of judicial robes, bailiffs, lawyerly deference to the bench, raised daises and juries separated from the proceedings by a rail.
The Spirit of Awe is inculcated to wake us up from the reverie of our quotidian life and to remind us of an Other which is far greater than the world normally thought to be around us. Ultimately the Spirit of Awe leaves us to experience it as we may: some of us may find our rest in it, others of us may find it to be Purgatory itself. We may laugh with it or cry in it. We may delight in it or despair in it. The Spirit of Awe finally can’t be that concerned with our reaction because it is not about reaction; it is about the large-scale realities that are beyond, above, and beneath our full or even adequate understanding. The Spirit of Awe properly appreciated gives us no kudos for our apprehension; (even the demons know that God is.) The Spirit of Awe is purely a Spirit of perception and of acceptance. In Vitalist Comedy, Awe is most typically a richly satisfied, smiling acceptance.
All of which brings us back to the possibility that there may be negative forms of Song, Dance, Delight, or Awe which we cannot afford to ignore in contexts of practical criticism. The major form of negative gladness is an analog of a Bergsonian joke. Bergsonian jokes, again, focus on the mechanical encrusted on the living, that which has a perceived animation but is less than fully alive, and any Bergsonian analog makes us laugh at, not with its object.
Exactly such mechanical encrusted on the living can be the case for Gladness as well. Let us take the example of Sound of Music and one of its dances, the precision parade of Nazi infantry in a main square of Salzburg. This is clearly a parade. It is kinesthetic, orchestrated, choreographed, and no doubt intricate in its potential alternatives despite its deceptively straightforward execution. It has everything about it that we would expect of a broadened sense of Dance. And if we could imagine it in slow motion, we could imagine possible effects powerfully intensified.
Culturally, however, the original audience was already sensitized to instantly see in Nazi precision the mechanical encrusted on the living. It remains so for us 70 years later. And no sensitive practical criticism that sees a Dance component in the scene can afford to ignore the negativity.
It thus should be readily apparent that Dance must be carefully judged in its cultural context, particularly the context of the art work’s intended original audience. The negative Dance of the Nazi Infantry is not to be ignored; it is of fundamental aesthetic importance for the vital movement of the screenplay as a whole. It simply must be sensitively and fully analyzed to include the negativity which the audience can be easily expected to recognize.
To some extent, a vital comedy can make very profitable use of negative gladness. But it is a close-run thing when it is accomplished. The success of negative Gladness in vitalist comedy cannot be assumed, and good criticism again must join sensitive observation and impeccable argument to get it right. In Sound of Music, the negative Nazi dances are a wonderful contrast to the alive in Maria, perhaps most forcefully a wonderful contrast to her introductory solitary dance on the hills that makes her late for vespers at the convent. But it is ultimately the positive vitalism of Maria that is at stake. The negative vitalism of the Nazis cannot in itself direct anything with a Langerianly positive vital dynamic.
We do not use Annie as one of our chapter-length illustrative film analyses in this text. It is, however, a tremendously vitalist comedy. It is also very instructive about positive and negative forms of Impulse, benevolent and malevolent Spirit, life-giving and perverse Gladness. As we have argued, Song is more than songs in a musical. But let us take three of the songs of Annie. “Easy Street” is not positively vital, though Rooster and Miss Hannigan are very lively characters. They are perversely alive, and their duet is perversely alive. Let that kind of aliveness dominate, and life will indeed become nasty, brutish, and short.
“It’s a Hard-Knock Life” is more medial, more balanced between positive and negative vitalism. There is a sauciness, rebelliousness, and raw discontent about the song and its accompanying dance which clearly links it to Bergsonian vitalism. These kids have rough edges, and if nothing is done about it, they will be fit only for a life of the hard knocks they sing about. At the same time, there is a resilient vitality in these kids who have been brutalized by fate and by the Hannigans. They clearly haven’t given up, and perhaps with God‘s blessing, even if they never chip off the rough edges, the rough edges will preserve the vitally alive in them through lives most of us are thankful not to have experienced.
And then finally, there is Annie’s “Tomorrow,” a vastly eloquent, melodic tour de force of indomitable human courage. One can only hope that the other orphans have heard Annie’s Song in all her attitudes and that that Song, not just the small ”s” song, “Tomorrow,” will undergird any form of “It’s a Hard- Knock Life” that also accompanies them through life.
Along with recognizing Bergsonian along with Langerian uses of Impulse vitalism, we must also be aware that there are schools of thought highly prejudicial to vitalism. Many traditions have a somewhat or totally jaundiced view of vitality and with that jaundiced view a fairly automatic negative impulse. Philosophic negative vitalist impulse with respect to Delight has always been rampant but is most easily demonstrable in classic philosophies. We mention two of these jaundiced views here as exemplary.
The Stoic tradition has routinely felt that Delight must be severely controlled if not extinguished. The philosophic argument is that when we delight in things, we gratify our feelings and gratification intensifies feeling itself. This may seem all to the good, but when adversity comes along, the intensification of feeling leads to an intensification of pain. From a Stoic position, it is good to go through life with less Delight and a concomitant lessened potential for pain.
The Stoic position is particularly understandable not only when we recognize how few defenses the ancient world had against disease and how few procedures it had available to correct painful physical anomalies but also when we recognize the ancient world’s penchant for and its magnified craftiness and comprehensiveness in administering torture. If Delight hasn’t been one of the chief concerns of drama through millennia, the Stoic position certainly suggests that Delight is a delicacy which a less-than-free people—free in the sense of FDR’s Four Freedoms—may prefer not to taste.
The Judeo-Christian tradition—and not just its most Puritanical exponents—also has grave moral doubts about delight and its frequent precursor and post-cursor, desire. It is not that delight and desire are wrong in themselves. The fact that God created and saw that it was good highly suggests that delight is a godly response of being alive to Creation. But an exaltation of perverse delight as an end in itself and the desire that is so enhanced and engendered are repeatedly portrayed in Scripture as the employment of perverse and degenerate minds bent on deception, fraud, and the seduction of the good (the Hannigans seem a fine example). A seminal articulation of this position can be found in no less a Christian authority than the Apostle Peter’s second epistle. Traditionally, these complexities call for a distinction between godly Delight and self-indulgent license. Vitalist Comedy will often have to defend itself from a charge of moving toward or deeply into license.
We cannot expect an artistic dynamis to survive legalistic defenses. In the chapter-length expositions to follow, we have chosen film examples where Delight when it is a lead is so clearly itself and not simply license in disguise that the work strongly accomplishes a Delight-directed dynamis.
This is also the place to point out that throughout this text we will use four capitalized words—Song, Dance, Delight, and Awe—to refer to the specific literary critical definitions of this chapter. These four concepts need to be kept distinct from the Spirit of Song, the Spirit of Dance, the Spirit of Delight, and the Spirit of Awe. Song, Dance, Delight and Awe are elements within life and within drama. A particular play may have a moment of Awe, a moment of Delight. Perceptive criticism will normally have to recognize these elements.
But there is also a Spirit of Song, which is pervasive to a whole work of art and which, as Spirit, is important to overall meaning and especially to overall dynamis.
Because anything else would be so awkward, however, we will be using these four capitalized words not only to refer to elements but also as short forms, respectively, of the Spirit of Song, the Spirit of Dance, the Spirit of Delight, and the Spirit of Awe. We will use the full phrase interchangeably whenever the context and flow of the argument allows.
But for now, let us exemplify the difference between the Spirit of Song and Song, and the like.
The difference between Song and the Spirit of Song is aptly demonstrated in My Fair Lady. While My Fair Lady is obviously a musical and filled with song, there is the anomaly that Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins cannot honestly be said to sing a single song through. Instead he intones his enunciation almost to the point of Song. Were there never a point in My Fair Lady when anyone actually broke into song as normally understood, Harrison’s performance alone would generate a substantial Spirit of Song for the work as a whole. Harrison’s performance alone puts My Fair Lady easily within the top tenth and probably within the top several hundredths of all plays in the English language for embodying the Spirit of Song.
Individual Song elements like “On the Street Where You Live” contribute to this Spirit of Song, but in themselves they are Song, not Spirit of Song. Incidentally, given that acting out is important to all impulse elements, Freddie’s contented waiting, leaning on a lamp post, becomes a separable Song element because it acts out the lyric character of “On the Street Where You Live.”
The Spirit of Song is a dynamic artistic drive of the work as a whole. As elements of Song proliferate throughout a work of literature, we accumulate evidence of a Spirit of Song for the whole. But this is not to say that the quantity of Song elements is crucial. Much more crucial is that the Song elements that do exist are fundamental to everything the play is about: characterization, plot, action, aspects of dynamic and the like.
Again in My Fair Lady, the climax of the action is a song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face,” again more intoned than sung. The song begins “Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn!” which is a fair summary of Higgins’ intellectual stance toward women in general and to his fallen state from that innocence he professed at the outset to Pickering. The song ends, “I’ve grown accustomed to the trace, Of something in the air, Accustomed to her face” which pretty much says it all for Higgins’ and Eliza’s future beyond the final curtain. There are many other musicals in which we admire a particular song for its sheer beauty—but its relevance to the play as a whole is tangential at best. Contrastingly, My Fair Lady would be close to exhibiting a Spirit of Song for “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” alone, even with no further backing of Song elements.
The Spirit of Song has dynamic work of its own to do. A Song or a Song element may do nothing to us as an audience. But a Spirit of Song makes us aware of extraordinary life and makes us feel a certain way. We will be discussing this dynamic work more fully in the next chapter. In general only practical criticism is capable of fleshing out the critical concept of the Spirit of Song or any of the other Gladness Spirits with the aid of superlative artistic and creative examples before it. But for now, a Song element and the dynamic work of the Spirit of Song are entirely different though intensely related concepts.
We then have three levels of humorous vitalist technique: the momentary joke level, the formal action level, and the gladness impulse of the whole. As positive vitalist humor, all three are subtle; all three are much more likely to provoke inward smiles than outright guffaws. That they are subtle as humor does not imply that they are generally subtle in feel. The feel, for example, of Rocky fighting back (again, re-forms can be translated as “back,” here “fighting back”) in the movie by his name should suggest how powerful even a single re-form can be when skillfully executed. Impulse vitalist expressions are potentially just as strong or stronger than vitalist re-forms.
The workings of these three vitalist techniques will become more apparent in later chapters where practical analysis of masterworks can bring these concepts alive. But before we can profitably move to practical critical insight, we need two more fundamental discussions: what makes something comedy and what can we expect to find when looking for comedic dynamic or dynamis.