Friday, July 13, 2012

Comic Relief: High Anxiety

Here's another essay I wrote for my Comedy Film class.

Film:  High Anxiety (1977)

            Mel Brooks portrays Dr. Richard Harpo Thorndyke, the newly appointed administrator for “The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous,” where he quickly learns there are some strange happenings going on.  Not only do odd events happen within the story, odd things happen with the filmmaking!  High Anxiety is a parody, but it is also an example of breaking conventional filming techniques for humorous results.  Usually, filmmakers strive to achieve a sense of illusion for the audience.  The goal is to create a feeling of reality so the viewer can live vicariously through the characters in the film.  In the book Comic Mind, Gerald Mast says, “Any hint of artistic self-consciousness—that the filmmaker knows he is making a film—can wrench us out of the illusion of the film and let us know that the action is not to be taken seriously” (Mast 10).  Great pains are typically taken to keep the camera, lighting, crew and other aspects of behind the scene filmmaking, just that—behind the scene.  High Anxiety, however, takes delight in reminding the audience it is a film.  Camera movement and positions at times bring attention to the filmmaking process and bring great comic surprise.
            One of the first indications that a camera is present takes place in the airport early in the film.  For a brief scene, the camera focuses on people walking through the airport.  Nothing too unusual about that until the viewer realizes that most of the people look directly at the camera as they walk by.  It is as though the people are looking at something; then it becomes obvious that they are looking at the viewer (or camera) as though standing right there.  For that moment, the viewer realizes this is a film and I am the audience, and the illusion drops.
            Later, during a dinner scene, the camera position begins from the outside of the institute looking from a distance towards the glass French doors of the building.  The camera slowly moves closer to the doors, revealing more clearly the characters gathered around a long dining room table.  The viewer may be aware of the camera moving closer, but it does not seem unusual for a film viewing experience.  Then suddenly the camera breaks through the glass and the characters turn to look, bringing attention to the filmmaking process.  The camera slowly moves away again through the broken glass and the characters resume their conversation.  Now, that camera movement is unusual—and funny!
            Another scene has unconventional camera use for comic effect.  The camera is beneath a glass coffee table giving a low-angle shot as Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) and Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman) discuss the dilemma of Dr. Thorndyke discovering their deceit.  Dr. Montague pours more coffee into Nurse Diesel’s cup then places the coffee pot on the glass table partially blocking the camera.  The camera moves and repositions for a better view.  Diesel demands, “Give me a cookie.”  Montague picks up a plate of cookies and hands her one before placing the plate in another position on the table blocking the shot again.  The scene continues with adding the creamer, the sugar bowl, and various plates on the table requiring the camera to keep repositioning.  Finally, Nurse Diesel puts a large platter on the table completely blocking the shot.  The obvious movement of the camera for the scene is quite irregular, but for this film, it creates a humorous result.
            Not only is the audience aware of the camera movement during the final scene of the film, but they are aware of the camera crew too.  Dr. Thorndyke and his bride Victoria (Madeline Kahn) are lying on a round bed still in their wedding attire.  The camera begins to pull slowly away when someone speaks from off-screen: “Alright, last shot.  Pull the camera back nice and slow.”  “We’re going too fast!  We’re going to hit the wall!”  Suddenly there is a crashing sound; the camera and crew break through the set.  The bride and groom look in the direction of the camera, and hole in the wall.  The hushed voices continue, “Oh oh.”  “Oh jeez, now what are we going to do?”  “Never mind.  Keep pulling back.  Maybe nobody will notice.”  And the camera continues to pull back, and up, until the viewer sees a high panoramic shot of the city skyline with the hotel sign flashing, “Honeymoon City.” 
            High Anxiety uses several avenues for comedy, mainly parody of Hitchcock thrillers, but one parody within the film is of the filmmaking business itself.  The unconventional, literally intrusive use of the camera, allowing the viewer to recognize the film as simply a film, is daring, different, and funny!

NOTE: I have the citation references, but opted not to publish them along with this post (hopefully making it more difficult to plagiarize in full).  If you would like to know a specific source, please ask, and I will gladly provide the information.

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