New book examines dark comedies that rocked the boat
Cinema that found laughs with a black tone
Challenging the status quo with biting humor
The edgy genre of dark comedies is given its due in a new book that zeroes in on a decade that has been lauded as a golden time for intelligent American filmmaking.
“Genre-Busting Dark Comedies of the 1970s: Twelve American Films” is described by author Wes D. Gehring as an examination of “pivotal” cutting-edge movies with comedic tones that were known for “frequently masquerading in other categories.”
Published by North Carolina-based McFarland & Company Inc., the illustrated overview of edgier humor includes analysis of “Slaughterhouse-Five“ (1972), “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), and “Being There” (1979). The 2016 book is published by North Carolina-based McFarland & Company Inc. ($39.95; www.mcfarlandbooks.com).
“Dark comedy, to me, is the most brave genre of all of them,” said Gehring, distinguished professor of telecommunications at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
In his new book, he states that black humor “scrapes away all the institutionalized crutches which prop up most people.”
“I’ve written a lot about dark comedy,” he added.
Gehring tackled the subject matter in his 2014 book that dealt with Charlie Chaplin’s handling of the subject: “Chaplin’s War Trilogy: An Evolving Lens in Three Dark Comedies, 1918 - 1947.”
“I had been aware of the fact that dark comedy didn’t really get any respect, and wasn’t really pulled to center stage until the 1960s with, like, ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ ” said Gehring, an associate media editor and columnist for USA Today magazine, www.usatodaymag.com.
Released in 1964, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” uses nuclear Armageddon for comedic fodder.
A classic scene that combines absurdist humor with morose darkness involves Major King Kong (played by Slim Pickens) “happily straddling a falling, phallic-shaped atomic bomb … , whooping his way to world oblivion,” according to Gehring’s book.
More than 20 years earlier, Charlie Chaplin utilized the persona of Adolf Hitler to evoke a type of black humor in “The Great Dictator” (1940).
The 12 movies released three decades later that are dissected in Gehring’s book hold special significance for him.
“They all had a huge impact on me,” the author assured.
The cover of the book features a color image from Woody Allen’s “Love and Death” (1975).
Calling it “arguably Allen’s funniest film” that was aided by “superb” moments of slapstick, Gehring, nonetheless, points to how critics and the public alike did not, generally speaking, give the movie credit for having “anything serious going on.”
Allen, according to Gehring, wanted people to realize his dark comedy goal and to say, as Allen put it, “this was a very funny movie, but there is a kind of, the futility of life and the … difficulty of love and the pathos and tragedy of death and ... how it haunts all our affairs.”
But there is one film out of the dozen chosen for inclusion in his “Dark Comedies” book that packs the most punch with Gehring: “All That Jazz” (1979).
“ ‘All That Jazz’ seems to sort of summarize everything that came before it in terms of dark comedies,” Gehring offered. “That film just fascinates me. The whole concept of it does.”
Starring Roy Scheider, the Bob Fosse-directed flick was edgy, gritty and experimental -- even showing actual open-heart surgery.
Gehring said the storyline essentially mirrored the experiences and travails of Fosse: “It’s his life.”
As Gehring put it in his book, “many critics were simply bowled over by the film’s audacity,’ noting that the “reviewing majority embraced Fosse’s fearlessness.”
Fosse’s autobiographical slice of cinema ended up garnering nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and a Best Actor nod for Scheider. It nabbed four Oscars.
Another of the films in Gehring’s book that has a particularly intense impact on him is 1970’s “Little Big Man,” a tale of the Old West that paints the historic Battle of the Little Big Horn with a subversive counterculture sheen.
What could be considered a surprising choice for inclusion in Gehring’s book is 1974’s “Chinatown,” directed by Roman Polanski.
“ ‘Chinatown’ is unlike ‘Little Big Man’ (1970), which turned the conventional Western on its ear,” Gehring writes.
He states any moves on the part of ‘Chinatown’ to rattle its genre -- film noir -- are “not as obvious.”
Still, Gehring maintains that Polanski and scriptwriter Robert Towne “were attempting to break several basic conventions of the genre in a film which is ultimately a black comedy.”
The subject and thought-provoking nature of Gehring’s book has gotten the attention of David L. Smith, author of numerous articles and texts dealing with film and media, along with the book “Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb.”
“It’s something I found to be very fascinating,” said Smith, who wrote the foreword for Gehring’s new book. “I haven’t seen anything quite like it.”
A professor emeritus of telecommunications hailing from Ball State University, Smith said Gehring’s book has a daring aspect to it.
“I think he’s a little courageous,” said Smith, a resident of Fishers, Ind. “I think, for one thing, people are reluctant to do something that is really different.”
The subject of off-center humor has held longtime allure for Gehring.
“Some of the earliest writings of my career have been about Chaplin and dark comedy,” said Gehring, author of more than 30 film-related books that include biographies of James Dean, Carole Lombard and Steve McQueen.
But “Genre-Busting Dark Comedies” goes to a deeper, more philosophical place.
In the book, Gehring alludes to “the religious jukebox of golden oldies on death: ‘It’s God’s will,’ ‘She is in a better place,’ ‘God needed him more’ … Black humor simply says this is it; there ain’t no more, so deal with it. Do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do, not for some promised heavenly reward and/or a damnation ticket threat to hell.
“For this genre, religion is a franchise driven by the fear of death, one of dark comedy’s basic themes.”