Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Guest Post: Sacred Clowns by Mike Funt


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It is a pleasure and honor to have Mike Funt, artistic director of Four Clowns, join us as a guest contributor. Mike is well-known internationally for his workshops in clown, mask, and circus arts, and for the many physical theatre shows he has directed, including Servant of Two Masters, a stage adaptation of the 1971 film, Cold Turkey, and his own translation and adaptation of Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid. Clown training includes work with Philippe Gaulier, Aitor Basauri, Stefan Haves and John Gilkey of Cirque du Soleil, Avner the Eccentric, Aziz Gual, and instructors from Ringling Brothers. He has also studied with play expert Dr. Stuart Brown and trained extensively in Laughter Yoga with Dr. Madan Kataria. Here he shares his longtime interest in the sacred clown, which has led to him teaching a workshop on it this weekend (Dec. 3 & 4) in Los Angeles. Check it out here!


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Jacques Lecoq, the renowned clown and theatre teacher was famous for his pedagogy. He helped to inspire and train some of the most brilliant and innovative theatre artists currently working. And at the heart of his teaching are the principles of le jeu (play), disponsibilité (openness), and complicité (connection or togetherness). When I became a clown twenty years ago, I found these tools useful as a performer. Now, more than ever, I find them useful as a person.

I suffer from anxiety disorder, with frequent bouts of depression. For years I was on medication as I worked to start a career in the performing arts, not a task that is exactly helpful for those two issues. Then, as I began to work in clown more and more, I suddenly found that I no longer felt the need for the medication. So with the aid of a doctor, I was slowly able to ween myself off the medication and use clown as my anti-anxiety/anti-depression drug. (I repeat that I did this with the aid of a medical professional. I do not recommend taking a clown class and quitting any medication cold turkey.) For eight years, I have been without any medicine for my mental issues. As I began reading up on this, I discovered that there was an anthropological and scientific reason why this works.

When was the last time you sang?
When was the last time you danced?
When was the last time you told a story?
When was the last time you sat in silence?

These activities are fundamental to a person’s well-being, and early humans knew this before they knew how to farm. By doing these things in a regular practice, the way you would yoga or tai chi, you begin to feel a sense of well-being and peace. So I began to understand why these aspects of performance can make a person feel good, but these things are not exclusive to the clown. What is it that clown adds to the process that made clown, at least for me, such a soothing panacea?

Then I came across a book called Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde. This is a fascinating book and it was eye-opening in answering my questions. The trickster is the “laughing shadow of the shaman.” The trickster sees the pageantry and ceremony of the shaman, and simply cannot take it all seriously.
Illustration of Coyote the trickster

In fact, according to Byrd Gibbens, Professor of English at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, “Many native traditions held clowns and tricksters as essential to any contact with the sacred. People could not pray until they had laughed, because laughter opens and frees from rigid preconception. Humans had to have tricksters within the most sacred ceremonies for fear that they forget the sacred comes through upset, reversal, surprise.”

Heyoka, sacred clown

With this insight, I added a fifth question to the shaman’s list: When was the last time you laughed? And so my answer was clear. Why did clown help me so much? Because it has been helping people for thousands of years before I set foot on this planet. With this in mind, I created “The Sacred Clown,” a workshop that takes the principles of the clown and transforms it into more of a healthful mindfulness practice rather than exclusively a performance tool. Those familiar with clown will recognize Lecoq’s principles:

Le jeu. Play. Do everything you do in life with that sense of play and joy and childlike innocence. Do your job this way. Go to school this way. Go on vacations this way. Treat every situation like you are the dumbest person in the room, and you will learn more, discover more, and be amazed by more than most people. And you will have a lot more fun.

Complicité. Connection. A sense of "oneness" with others, what Emile Durkheim calls “communitas” or “collective effervescence.” Find that human connection with everyone in your life. Your friends. Your family. A stranger across the room at Starbucks. The person next to you on an airplane. Connect with other people, make eye contact, talk to them, touch them, share affection. Find your complicité, change the way others breathe, and you will meet new and fascinating individuals every single day.

Disponsibilité. Openness. Give 100% of yourself to everyone you come in contact with. Hide nothing and share everything. Oh sure, there will be people who will respond negatively to this. They'll say you're weird or dumb or irresponsible. They'll try to take advantage of you. But don't take it personally. "This is not my audience," says the clown. But if you keep celebrating your flaws in public, you will eventually find your audience. You will find your people because, as Philippe Gaulier says, the clown’s motto is, "Next time it will be better."

In “The Sacred Clown,” you will find elements of Lecoq and Gaulier as well Richard Ponchinko. However, you will also find a lot more tools to help you bring your clown off the stage and into your real life, and of course there will be LOTS of singing, dancing, stories, silence, and laughter. It works. I know from experience. To me Anxiety is an overwhelming and uncontrollable worry about the future, and Depression is an overwhelming and uncontrollable worry about the past. The clown lives only in the present. And when you force yourself to play and live exclusively in the present moment, a nifty little trick is played on Depression and Anxiety: there is no past or future for them to feed off of.

Every day I still wake up to those two foes of mine, and they are worthy adversaries. I don’t always beat them, but I do fight them, every day. And my clown is my greatest weapon against them. The clown is pure goodness. He is the opposite of everything that is evil in the world. Joy and peace await the trickster if you try to stay in the mindset of what Gaulier calls the “Beautiful Idiot.”

A Photo Essay on the Heyoka Clowns:




A little info about Pueblo Clowns: 

Friday, October 14, 2016

On the Inevitable Triumph of Clowning and Circus

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Dario Fo
It seems that the world we know is being torn asunder. I speak not of Donald Trump and the wreckage and foul taste of his campaign, though it's in some ways related. I'm thinking of all the wonderful clown sages we've just lost —first Dimitri, and then in the past two days, both Dario Fo and Pierre Etaix. (Which reminds me of U.S. presidents #2 and #3, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, staying friends and pen pals in their later years, and then dying on the same day.)

These losses were inevitable, but more stinging in a time when the media is suddenly obsessed with sightings of so-called "clowns" frightening people, as if these idiots were the real deal. Dressing up as an astronaut wouldn't get me on the space shuttle, but a costume, make-up, and fright wig somehow make me a clown.

The craze started here in the United States, spread to England, and is apparently headed for the rest of Europe. It is not only damaging the image of clown performers, but costing them gigs as well.
Pierre Etaix
Just as the media has allowed Trump to drastically lower the level of discourse, they have allowed these masqueraders to be taken seriously. Once again, real clowns have to defend their art and answer the same stupid questions, which are  on a par with "when did you stop beating your wife?" And that's if they can find anyone to interview them. Part of me wants to write an Op Ed piece for the newspapers, patiently explaining that these are "Halloween clowns," people dressing up as clowns with an exaggerated, macabre look designed to scare people, and have nothing to do with the noble and quite loving tradition of clowning.
Dimitri

But I haven't bothered to write this, and won't. The media is the media, and they will take this and run with it until it runs its course. Which it will. It's a fad, and even its shallow-minded perpetrators will soon grow tired of it. The good news is that true clowns, who value and delight in the tradition of Dimitri, Fo, and Etaix, will honor these grand fools by continuing to do their good work tomorrow, next year, and centuries from now.

Here's an à propos discovery I'd like to share with you. As some of you may know, I am working on a revised and expanded version of my book, Clowns. I'm not updating it, which is why I think of it as Clowns: Volume 1, but but but I know a lot more than I did forty years ago, when it was first published (Nov. 1, 1976!), so some sections are being significantly improved. One of them is the very beginning of the book, which starts with the clowning traditions of the native American cultures of the U.S. southwest, especially the Hopi peoples. What I am emphasizing more this time around is that the clown is a central part of the Hopi creation stories; the clown is there from the very beginning, is part of the fabric of life.

For the Hopi, in the beginning was The Emergence, and it was the clowns who led humans from the underworld to a higher level of existence. It was the clowns because they were the ones who could cross borders and teach lessons. And this is not just some myth gathering dust in the archives; rather, versions of it are re-enacted time and again in countless Pueblo ceremonies. Which is why this wonderful sculpture, The Emergence (1989), by Hopi artist Roxanne Swentzell, will be the first illustration in the new edition of my book.


But that's not the discovery, this is:

This Mimbres bowl, whose subject shows a clear kinship with Hopi koshare, is from the same southwest region and dates all the way back to between 1000 and 1250 A.D. I know what you're saying! "It's been a thousand years and they couldn't even afford a new costume?" Point well taken, but that is how we know this stuff has been going on forever! My point is that what we should be talking about when we are talking about clowns is an elemental life force, and a very positive one. When pundits trash politics as a "circus" and politicians as "clowns," my only response is, "ah, if only they could rise to that high level..."

And here are some more reasons to remain positive. Those performance traditions that we group under such labels as clown, circus, vaudeville, physical comedy, etc. —and which are repeatedly pronounced dead— are actually becoming a more widespread part of our culture. Clown training and performance is everywhere, with hundreds of times more practitioners than half a century ago. Clowns are in circuses and hospitals; in the theatre, in the street, and in refugee camps. Circus training is no longer just a family tradition. There are professional schools everywhere, especially in France and Australia. Circus education that's not just for those with career goals is now contributing to positive youth development throughout the world. Social circuses —yes, I'm thinking of you, Circus Harmony— are doing amazing things to bring people and cultures together. There may be no formal vaudeville circuit, but countless individuals have embraced the variety arts as a means of self-expression, of sharing what they do best and what they love... and the staggering variety is a wonder to behold.

Likewise impressive are all the self-taught enthusiasts who do it for fun and only occasionally for profit. Think of all the slackliners executing incredible tricks between two trees. Or all the excellent jugglers who juggle because they love juggling. All the subway acrobats doing amazing hat moves with baseball caps. All the bartenders learning flair juggling to impress their customers. All the trick cyclists and parkour practitioners.... Clown and circus have indeed arrived, they just take different shapes and forms.

And this just today, which gave me a chuckle: a NY Times article on a new craze for bottle flipping, which is flipping a bottle so it lands upright on its own. (Depressingly, the last line in the article quotes the mother of an avid bottle flipper saying, well, at least he's not dressing up as a scary clown —as if these were somehow either-or choices.)

Here's the short video they share, but you can find more on YouTube.


And why do I chuckle? Because in 1973, as an NYU grad student and TDR Assistant Editor, I co-edited a special popular entertainments edition of The Drama Review, and had to fight to use this Diane L. Goodman photo on the cover. We had seen this guy at a carnival in Ypsilanti, Michigan earlier that year. I knew what he was doing with that bottle, but my TDR colleagues didn't think it was clear enough. Maybe they were right... or maybe I was just 43 years ahead of my time!


So my conclusion is: Don't panic! Try to take the long-range view. This crap shall pass (so to speak) and the good shall endure. Meanwhile, here's my recent tribute to Dimitri, and a tribute to Pierre Etaix that I wrote back in 2010. I subsequently got to meet Etaix in Paris and he was a very sweet man. Such an honor. And in 1990, I was likewise honored to attend rehearsals at the Comédie Française for Dario Fo's production of two Molière plays. I wrote an article about it for Yale Theater, which I will share with you in a future post.

To be continued... so keep on doing what you're doing!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

In Remembrance: Clown Dimitri



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There are professional clowns today who have never even heard of the great Swiss clown Dimitri, though they owe him a big debt. Dimitri died this week at the age of 80 in the Italian region of Switzerland, where he lived and, since 1975, operated the still-thriving Scuola Teatro Dimitri. But he sure should be remembered, because he played a major role in elevating the status of the clown as a performing artist. And I'll tell you why...

Flashback to October, 1975, when Dimitri made his New York debut at the age of 40, performing his one-man show on stage to a packed house at Hunter College. (Yes, I was there.) Sure, Marcel Marceau was filling theatres bigger than that on a regular basis, but Dimitri was a CLOWN, not a mime. Audiences loved him and came away with a heightened understanding of what a clown could be. And aspiring clowns took inspiration from his success and began taking themselves more seriously. This was especially true in the United States, where clowns rarely got to play in theatres. And Dimitri reminded us that clowns were traditionally highly skilled, as he played ten different instruments (including four at a time), juggled ping-pong balls out of his mouth, and performed sleight-of-hand and balancing feats, all to great comic effect, as he got himself in and out of endless troubles.


Interesting connection: It was another great Swiss clown, Grock, who earlier in the 20th century packed European theatres with his full-length show and demonstrated that the clown could be a star in his own right, outside of the circus ring. Early on, one of Grock's whiteface partners was the French clown Louis Maïss  Decades later, after studying with Decroux and Marceau, Dimitri launched his clown career playing the auguste to —you guessed it— Louis Maïss.

Here's what the great Swiss playwright Max Frisch had to say about Dimitri:
Look at him, I say, this is a real clown. But, what is a real clown? I don’t know, but look at him – he can do practically anything, and yet remains calm and serene when he accomplishes something new and incredible. He’s a delight to behold, like watching a child discovering the pits and traps of the world who manages, as though by some miracle, to avoid falling. I was tense during the whole performance until someone started to laugh, roaring out loud as though alone – not how one laughs at a joke, but a laugh of joy, the laughter of a child. I was the person laughing, and the clown was Dimitri.


Thank you, sir!



Monday, May 30, 2016

Video from the Early 1800s! (or, In Search of the Harlequinade)

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(L-R), Joseph Grimaldi as Clown, Tom Ellar as Harlequin, James Barnes as Pantaloon (watercolor, British Museum)

The harlequinade is the holy grail of physical comedy.

No, not the kind of harlequinade you'll find if you do a YouTube search. That's George Balanchine's ballet, based on a 1900 Russian work, Harlequin's Millions, by Marius Petipa. The ballet is a prettier and romanticized version of the commedia tradition and of the Arlecchino/Harlequin character, sorely lacking the robust physical comedy of the earlier harlequinade that was central to 19th-century English pantomime during the Joseph Grimaldi era.

NYC Ballet's "Harlequinade"
That earlier, off-the-wall harlequinade is what we're searching for because it was by all reports highly skilled, wildly imaginative, and surrealistically insane AND provides the strongest direct link we have from the commedia dell'arte to 20th-century silent film comedy. And let's face it: silent film comedy remains the major inspiration for today's physical comedians.

And I know what you title-readers are saying: that's impossible, of course there's no video from the early 1800s. Ah, but wait a minute, there actually is. Sorta kinda.... but we'll get to that later.

First here's a pretty good introduction to the harlequinade from some clown book written forty years ago:

It was in the harlequinade, the long chase scene that concluded most nineteenth-century English pantomimes, that rough-and tumble comedy became an obsession and an art form. In those days, pantomimes were divided into two parts, a short opening — a fairy tale in dance, dialogue, and song — and the madcap harlequinade. The two halves were linked by a transformation scene in which a benevolent agent such as Mother Goose or a Fairy Queen miraculously changed the characters of the opening into such stock types as Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, and Clown. The plot shared by both parts usually centered around the romance between two young lovers (later Harlequin and Columbine) who were determined to be united, the opposition of the girl’s father (later Pantaloon) notwithstanding. The inevitable result was a long chase scene with Pantaloon and his not-so-loyal servant, Clown, in hot pursuit of Harlequin and Columbine. It was as if a performance of Cinderella suddenly turned into a Keystone Cops comedy.



Scenes from the harlequinade (c.1890), including blowing up the policeman and reassembling him, by caricaturist Phil May. Courtesy of Jonathan Lyons, from his excellent book “Comedy for Animators” Click to enlarge!

 The harlequinade began with the Clown’s traditional boisterous greeting, “Hello, here we are again” — a sure signal of the delights to come. The chase scene that followed was merely an excuse for a long succession of practical jokes and for dizzying displays of acrobatic agility. The actors danced on stilts, walked on barrels, suffered jarring pratfalls, and performed tricks of contortion (often disguised as animals), feats of strength, and daring leaps.
Early 19th-century cutout figures

Because they were performed on stage rather than in a circus ring, these pantomimes took full advantage of a wide assortment of trapdoors and elaborate trickwork. Nothing was ever what it appeared to be: illusions from stage magic became valuable comic tools; scenery could be transformed instantaneously into something quite different; objects literally took on a life of their own; and Clowns and Harlequins miraculously appeared and disappeared through undetectable gaps in the floor and walls. There was even a standard joke that some performers never met, for while one was going up to the stage, the other was coming down.

The star trap in action. Drawing
from Georges Moynet, Trucs et Decors.
French poet Theodore de Banville wrote in 1880 that... “...between the adjective “possible” and the adjective “impossible” the English pantomimist has made his choice: he has chosen the adjective “impossible.” He lives in the impossible; if it is impossible, he does it. He hides where it is impossible to hide, he passes through openings that are smaller than his body, he stands on supports that are too weak to support his weight; while being closely observed, he executes movements that are absolutely undetectable, he balances on an umbrella, he curls up inside a guitar case without it bothering him in the least, and throughout, he flees, he escapes, he leaps, he flies through the air. And what drives him on? The remembrance of having been a bird, the regret of no longer being one, the will to again become one.”

The stage in most pantomime theaters included a trapdoor known as the “star trap” or, internationally, as the “English trap.” This trap was usually circular in shape and consisted of sixteen triangle-like sections of one and-one-half-inch planking that were so lightly secured to the surrounding floor that the least bit of pressure from below forced them open. Underneath it (in the area below the stage) was a platform on pulleys, designed rather like an elevator, that could catapult a performer through the stage floor faster than the eye could see. When the counterweights attached to the platform were released, the performer — sometimes Clown, but more often a supernatural sprite — was shot through the trap to appear suddenly as if out of nowhere. The performer had to remain poised, for any sudden movement could result in a grave accident.

Harlequin dives thru a trap in the wall
 Similar to this was the “vampire trap,” said to have first been seen in 1820 in James Planché’s melodrama, The Vampyre; or, the Bride of the Isles. It was a segmented trapdoor on spring hinges, usually consisting of two spring leaves, which assumed its original configuration after the performer had passed through it, thus enabling him to enter or exit through what seemed to be a solid surface. These vampire traps were frequently placed in flats and drops so that Harlequin could escape his would-be captors by leaping through a “solid” clock or mirror. In John Fairburn’s description of Harlequin and Mother Goose, for example:

A bustle ensues, they [Clown and Pantaloon] endeavor to secure Harlequin, who eludes their grasp, and leaps through the face of the clock, which immediately represents a sportsman with his gun cock’d, the Clown opens the clock door, and a Harlequin appears as a pendulum, the Clown saying shoot, present, fire, the sportsman lets off his piece, and the Clown falls down, during which period Columbine and Harlequin escape, (who had previously entered through the panel). Pantaloon and the Clown run off in pursuit.

As another pantomime succinctly put it, “Aristotle in book concerning entertainments has laid it down as a principal rule that Harlequin is always to escape.”

These leaps and falls were not without their dangers. An acrobatic Clown by the name of Bradbury, whose fearless jumps included one from the flies down to the stage, wore protective pads on his head, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, and heels. Leaping through trapdoors was especially
difficult. The performer’s trajectory had to be exact; otherwise, he might crash into the scenery instead of disappearing through the appropriate flap. This took considerable training. First of all, he had to be remarkably adept at high, diving forward rolls. The process of diving through the trap was a unique experience, something he could practice only by doing. He had to be certain that his body remained elongated until had cleared the trap. If out of instinct he drew in his knees, he would bruise them badly against the bottom of the opening. Once through the trap, his hands had to be ready to take his weight as he tucked into a forward roll.

Tom Ellar in the role of Harlequin leaps through a mirror.

The dangers were multiplied when Harlequin, perhaps with a boost from a concealed springboard, catapulted through a trap-door located somewhat higher off the ground. In such cases, stagehands had to be positioned in the wings, like firemen below a burning building, to catch the leaping actor in a blanket. The stagehands expected to be tipped for their services, and it was unwise to ignore their demands. When Tom Ellar, the famous Harlequin, did just that, his leap through the clock resulted in an unpleasant surprise. There was no one there to catch him and he was lucky to escape with only a broken hand.


Even Superman needed help.

In the harlequinade, all of this related acrobatic work went hand in hand with the rough-and-tumble violence of slapstick comedy. Mastery of the fake blow and the relatively painless pratfall were essential to the harlequinade characters as they are to today’s movie stuntmen. The art of the swift kick in the pants was likewise eagerly cultivated. Butter was generously used by Clown to grease the path of shopkeepers, policemen, and Pantaloon, encouraging slipping and sliding and yet a few more pratfalls. The slapstick itself, which had been introduced to England by seventeenth-century Arlecchinos, was “improved” by inserting gun powder between the two sticks to add to the noise. To vary the arsenal somewhat, another comic weapon was popularized: Clown’s red-hot poker. Sneaking around the stage and indicating his intended victim, Clown would ask the audience, “Shall I?” When they gleefully shouted back, “Yes!”, the poker was firmly applied to the seat of the innocent victim’s pants. The pain was minor in comparison to what Clown felt when, later in the show, he accidentally sat down on the poker.

This knockabout business was the duty of all the principal harlequinade characters, including the elderly Pantaloon, who was a frequent victim of the Clown’s blows. Even Joseph Grimaldi, who was considered by his contemporaries to be a rather non-acrobatic Clown, was an excellent stage swordsman and choreographer of mock fights, and well accustomed to being knocked about. “It is absolutely surprising,” wrote a London Times critic, “that any human head or hide can resist the rough trials which he volunteers. Serious tumbles from serious heights, innumerable kicks, and incessant beatings come on him as matters of common occurrence, and leave him every night fresh and free for the next night’s flagellation.”

A standard decapitation effect.
 Much of the harlequinade violence depended upon special effects. With one’s real head hidden beneath a coat at what appeared to be chest level, an artificial head could be worn and used for a comical decapitation effect. Clown boldly swings his sword, and the man’s head falls off and rolls through a trapdoor. Clown says, “Oh, I beg your pardon,” and a real head resembling the artificial one pops through the stage floor to ask, “Where’s my body?” In another old scene, wrote a theatre critic, “Clown was mangled flat as a flounder, but we were relieved by his appearing down the chimney immediately afterwards in his natural shape just as if nothing had happened."


OK, you get the idea. There's more: animal impersonations; large-scale magic illusions, and of course the comic genius of Joseph Grimaldi, but I know you're still asking, where's the video??

So here's Exhibit #1, an amazing clip from the 1929 Lupino Lane movie, Joyland. (Feel free to turn off the music.)




Exhibit #2, a year earlier, is from Lane's Three Musketeers spoof, Sword Points. Lane was making about ten films a year in those days. Some were pretty formulaic but still rich in physical comedy.



Pretty impressive, eh, and a good match for the description you just read?

But why do I say this is likely the equivalent of footage from the 1820s? Because Lupino Lane (born Henry William George Lupino) was, like Grimaldi, descended from a storied Italian theatrical family who were big stars of English pantomime. Georgius Luppino (as it was then spelled) came to England in 1634, and his son (also Georgius) made his pantomime debut in 1718 in The Two Harlequins,  and thereafter that's pretty much what the Lupinos did."Our family holds the record for hurtling through stage traps," bragged Lane. "My record of jumping 8' and 5" has never been beaten. My record of 83 traps in six minutes made at the London Hippodrome has never been beaten."

And here's what Lupino Lane's biographer has to say about it:

In Victorian times the family was closely connected with the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, the "Old Brit," which was owned by Mrs. Sara Lane, the celebrated actress and great-aunt of Lupino Lane. Five generations of Lupinos appeared there, and the harlequinade was often a family affair. In 1880, George Lupino appeared as Harlequin, Arthur Lupino as Pantaloon, Harry Lupino as a comic policeman, and George Lupino Jr. as Clown. With the turn of the century, the old-style pantomime, and in particular the harlequinade, began to die out... One of its last strongholds was the Britannia, and the last of the old-time clowns was George Lupino (1853–1932).
— Born to Star: The Lupino Lane Story by James Dillon White

Our hero Lupino Lane was born into all this tradition in 1892 and —like Grimaldi before him and Keaton after him— thrown onto the stage as a young boy, taking the name Lupino Lane in honor of the aforementioned impresario aunt, Sara Lane. The rest is history.

There were of course other thru lines. As the harlequinade faded in the 19th-century, its highly physical tradition was picked up by the Hanlon-Lees (Voyage en Suisse), who in America influenced the Byrne Brothers (Eight Bells), who in turn influenced Buster Keaton. For example, both the 3-high pyramid used for elopement in Keaton's Neighbors and the ladder on top of the fence from Cops can be seen three decades earlier in this Byrnes Brothers poster for Eight Bells, which was still touring as late as 1914 and was made into a film (unfortunately lost) in 1916.


Keaton, who grew up in vaudeville as part of his family’s knockabout comedy act, made considerable use of trapdoors or their equivalent in many of his films. This memorable sequence from The High Sign (1921) is the best example.



Finally, one more video from the early 1800s, a wonderful sequence from Keaton's Sherlock, Jr.




Have I made my case or what?


LINKS:
• Some of the best material on Lane is to be found in Anthony Balducci's encyclopedic works, The Funny Parts: A History of Film Comedy Routines and Gags and  Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.
The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain's Greatest Comedian is an excellent new biography of the great clown.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Your Memorial Day Funnies

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I sortakinda have this sometimes-but-not-always tradition of using major holidays as an excuse to gift you any cartoons related to physical comedy that I've come across since the last time. So here I go again. If you like this kind of stuff, links to previous compilations are at the tail end.

For better viewing, click on to enlarge. Enjoy!






























Past Compilations 
October, 2012
December, 2013
January, 2014 
February, 2014
March, 2014
April, 2014 
September, 2014
July, 2014
December, 2015

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Complete Book: Les Mémoires de Foottit et Chocolat

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As a follow-up to my previous post, here's the complete text of the 1907 biography of Footit & Chocolat. To read, just click on the full-page icon at the bottom-right. (Yes, it is in French.)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Film Review: Monsieur Chocolat

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Foottit & Chocolat were a legendary clown duo in turn-of-the-century, belle époque Paris, famed for their trailblazing partnership: the first white/black clown duo and first popular clown pairing of white face and auguste. Chocolat, born Rafael Padilla to slaves in Haiti, was to become France's first black celebrity, long before Josephine Baker.

The story of the rise and fall of Chocolat's career and its relation to racial politics has intrigued many writers, and it has recently gained more attention with a French play and a new biography (both by Gérard Noiriel), an exhibition, and now the release in France of a major motion picture, Monsieur Chocolat, starring the celebrated French actor Omar Sy and the exceptional physical comedian and clown, James Thiérrée.

Omar Sy & James Thiérrée in Monsieur Chocolat
The film has yet to find an American distributor, though I'm guessing it will. Meanwhile, I was lucky to catch it my last day in Barcelona. My cut-to-the-chase verdict:

Clowning / Physical Comedy:  A
Acting:  A
Cinematography:  A
Writing / Historical Accuracy:  D

Here's the official trailer.



The good news is that the depiction of circus life and the fragments of some very physical clown acts are well done, thanks no doubt to Thiérrée not only playing Foottit, but also choreographing the action. Thiérrée (grandson of Charlie Chaplin) has the physicality to pull off the manic acrobatic clowning of Foottit, who was very much in the robust tradition of 19th-century British knockabout comedy. And Sy, like Chocolat not coming out of the clown School of Hard Knocks, still very much holds his own in and out of the ring. You can actually imagine the audience finding them funny!

Only a few short film clips survive of Foottit & Chocolat. Filmed away from the circus ring, these first two clips, shot in 1896 by French film pioneers the Lumière brothers, show fragments of a William Tell entrée and a chair routine.



This longer, colorized clip, likewise shot without an audience, provides more clues as to the range of their work and Foottit's agility.



In Fellini's film, I Clowns (1970), he had two contemporary clowns depict what Foottit & Chocolat's chair routine might have looked like. The results seem tamer and much jollier than the original work. (The old man in the audience is the clown James Guyon —Paris' first famous auguste— who escaped from his hospital death bed to catch one last performance at the Nouveau Cirque, but the excitement led to a heart attack that killed him —or so the story goes.)



Now back to the movie and that storyline, and why did I only give it a "D"?

First of all, some credit to the filmmakers for tackling an important subject. It's a tricky one, because the act very likely contained racist elements, and yet Chocolat often got to be on top and slap and throw Foottit around the ring. Chocolat played the auguste, aka "he who gets slapped," so being the fall guy wasn't by definition racist, though many spectators might have especially enjoyed that aspect of it precisely because he was black, while others may have savored his moments of revenge.
Chocolat Dancing in
the Irish-American Bar

Toulouse-Lautrec (1896)

We would have to have been there to truly understand the dynamics, but my sense is that the film oversimplifies matters considerably. In the movie, Foottit discovers Chocolat earning a  meager living in a poor provincial circus, playing an African "savage" whose job it is to frighten the locals. Foottit creates an act for the two of them, audiences love it, and a producer brings them to Paris. Their big break!! Their first taste of the splendors of the City of Light!! They become stars but flame out after what seems to be just a couple of years when Chocolat has had enough of being the lesser-paid, somewhat abused underling, slaps Foottit hard in the ring, and storms out, turning his back on him forever. Gambling and drinking send Chocolat on a downward spiral from which he never recovers.

Very dramatic and all, but...... not much of it is true. Chocolat was actually discovered by another
well-known clown, Tony Grice, around 1884, started performing in Paris in 1886, and soon gained a reputation as a very funny auguste, often working independently, as augustes did at the time. He was featured in several water pantomimes at the Nouveau Cirque, including starring in La Noce de Chocolat (The Wedding of Chocolat) in 1887 —with a white bride, no less.

When Foottit and Chocolat teamed up in 1890,  they were both already famous as comedians, in the ring and on the variety stage. And their partnership endured until 1909, which if you're counting is 19 years together —in clown years a lifetime. In the final stretch, they were both branching out, with solo appearances in  pantomime and music hall, notably at the Folies-Bergère. Nothing all that dramatic.

A biopic is bound to compress history and simplify matters in order to expound a theme, but the distortions in this narrative are large enough to drive a circus wagon through. A few other examples:
• Chocolat died of a heart attack, not tuberculosis, and Foottit did not miraculously materialize at his bedside, just in time for the duo to reconcile, Chocolat taking his last breath as we fade to black.
• They were not the first whiteface-auguste team, just the first wildly popular one.
• Foottit had two sons who eventually joined him in the ring; in the movie he is a loner, no family, and there is a strong implication that he is gay.
• Foottit was British and part of his comic persona was speaking French with a horrible accent; Thiérrée is Swiss and in the movie speaks normal French.
• In the film, Chocolat struggles with alcoholism. In life, they both did.

You get the point... Oh well, there's still a lot to like, so go see the movie, and kudos to Sy and Thiérrée. Worth the price of admission!



Click here for an excellent Circopedia entry on Foottit & Chocolat.
Click here for a post of mine on Footit & Chocolat from 4 years ago.
Click here for a post of mine from 5 1/2 years ago on James Thiérrée.
Click here for an article that explains why not everyone loves Fellini's I Clowns.
Click here for a good interview (in French) with Sy and Thiérrée.