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The Last Laugh

Strange Humors of Cinema

Edited by Murray Pomerance

Publication Year: 2013

For critics, fans, and scholars of drama and film, the laugh has traditionally been tied to comedy, indicating and expressing mirth, witty relief, joyous celebration, or arch and sarcastic parody. But strange, dark laughter that illuminates non-comedic, unfunny situations gets much less attention. In The Last Laugh: Strange Humors of Cinema, editor Murray Pomerance has assembled contributions from thirteen estimable scholars that address the strange laughter of cinema from varying intellectual perspectives and a wide range of sources. Contributors consider unusual humors in a variety of filmic settings, from the chilling unheard laughter of silent cinema to the ribald and mortal laughter in the work of Orson Welles; the vagaries and nuances of laughter in film noir to the eccentric laughter of science fiction. Essays also look at laughter in many different applications, from the subtle, underlying wit of the thriller Don't Look Now to the deeply provocative humor of experimental film and the unpredictable, shadowy, insightful, and stunning laughter in such films as Black Swan, Henry Fool, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Kiss of Death, The Dark Knight, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The accessibly written, unique essays in The Last Laugh bring a new understanding to the delicate balance, unsettled tensions, and fragility of human affairs depicted by strange humor in film. For scholars of film and readers who love cinema, these essays will be rich and playful inspiration.

Published by: Wayne State University Press

Series: Contemporary Approaches to Film and Media Series


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. 3-10


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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Introduction: The Great Corrective

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pp. 1-14

Wandering through one of the great screen spectaculars of the 1950s, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), is Buttons the clown (James Stewart). Sporting whiteface and a great grease-painted red maw at all times, inside the ring and out, Buttons is forced to dramatically amplify a grin so that it becomes visible at a great distance. Like many circus clowns, he is the very embodiment of facial...

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Laughing Silently

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pp. 15-30

The sound of laughter is, in many respects, the sine qua non of laughter itself, and so laughter would seem to pose special challenges for the ostensibly visual medium of silent film. Yet laughter—like other forms of sound—was, of course, never excluded from the profilmic universe of silent cinema and is seen (if not heard) in countless films...

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Wellesian Laughter

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pp. 31-46

Orson Welles’s laughter was one of his most distinctive features, by many reports. An interviewer for the Saturday Evening Post, visiting Welles in France in 1963 on the completion of his film version of The Trial, describes a “gust of wicked laughter shaking his Falstaffian frame” (qtd. in Macdonald 295). On the set of the “The Tonight Show”...

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Jerry Made His Day

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pp. 47-58

This text is about a film that for all intents and purposes does not exist.
So what? We who love cinema have always been able to dream films as well as to watch them. Sometimes we dream them instead of watching them; sometimes we dream them while watching them. I often proudly acknowledge that I slept during all my favorite films, from...

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Noir at Play

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pp. 59-74

Even though films noirs have always been among my favorite movies, I never taught a course in noir until a few years ago because I couldn’t imagine what twenty-year-olds might find appealing about black-and-white films over half a century old that presented a world so unremittingly bleak. I’m happy to acknowledge how much my students have...

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“So Bad It’s Good”: Critical Humor in Science Fiction Cinema

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pp. 75-92

Perhaps more than any other Hollywood film genre, science fiction tends to provoke deeply divided and often impassioned popular response. Whether a science fiction film is considered “good” or “bad” in press reviews frequently hinges upon a reviewer’s understanding of its narrative coherence, as well as the apparent credibility of its special...

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Wrenching Departures: Mortality and Absurdity in Avant-Garde Film

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pp. 93-108

The greatest filmmakers explode not only the forms but also the moods of conventional cinema, injecting our neural circuits with affective tumult and intellectual uproar. In this essay I focus on the cinema of the absurd, an aesthetic modality built on oscillation between breakthrough and breakdown, geared to what Gilles Deleuze calls “the violence...

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Time’s Timing and the Threat of Laughter in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now

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pp. 109-126

“Oh, God, he thought, what a bloody silly way to die . . .” (57). So ends, with disconcerting, throwaway abruptness, Daphne du Maurier’s short story “Don’t Look Now.” John Baxter, the central character, spends his last moments of conscious life considering the absurdity of the chain of events that led him to confuse a female dwarf serial killer for his...

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The Gangster Giggles

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pp. 127-142

My argument here rests upon the proposition that like other oral enunciations made socially, laughter is linguistic. It is one of those productions of the body that interactants feel freely compelled to interpret for the meaning of its descriptive nuances, the detail of its contextual placement, and the emphatic value it adds to articulated language...

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If Only They Had Meant to Make a Comedy: Laughing at Black Swan

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pp. 143-162

Several years ago a friend and I were in a movie theater watching the generic backstage ballet film Center Stage (2000) in which young ballet hopefuls (some played by dancers, some by actors) spend a summer trying to make it into a fictional but world-renowned New York ballet company where they hope to become stars. There was the usual stereotypical...

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Foolish Bum, Funny Shit: Scatological Humor in Hal Hartley’s Not-So-Comedic Henry Fool

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pp. 163-176

A man named Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), drifter, pedophile, ex-con, and alcoholic womanizer, bursts into a suburban bathroom where a woman is taking a shower. He hurriedly pulls down his trousers and sits on the toilet, his underwear caught unglamorously around his shins. Henry farts and defecates uncontrollably. He is experiencing the...

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Homeric Laughter in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

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pp. 177-192

Like many a Hollywood film, John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) ends with a rapidly moving pursuit that, its object attained, unties the knot of events that constitute the narrative, resolves the plot, and permits a central revelation, which is neatly summarized by a main character, Howard (Walter Huston). For commercial films...

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“Why So Serious?”: Battling the Comic in The Dark Knight

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pp. 193-208

Our first glimpse of the caped crusader in Christopher Nolan’s celebrated The Dark Knight (2008) is not quite as impressive as we might have expected. The setting is a car-park after dark, where a posse of bemused drug dealers confront their supplier, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a.k.a. the Scarecrow—the psychedelic rogue from...

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The Laughter of Robots

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pp. 209-222

Laughter has a cultural significance which has elevated it far above the corporeal convulsions of hilarity. It has been diagnosed as a symptom of insecurity, of repressed desire, of horror, and of spite; it has been read as a psychological safety valve and as a form of social glue. Laughter is often contagious—in its most hysterical form one can “catch...


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pp. 223-226

Works Cited and Consulted

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pp. 227-234


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pp. 235-244

Back Cover

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p. 260-260

E-ISBN-13: 9780814338551
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814335130

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 39
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Contemporary Approaches to Film and Media Series