A fishy something again
In the previous post I wrote about models for some of the comic situations or visual jokes in the cinepanettone. I mentioned that A Fish Called Wanda seemed to be a particular point of reference. To confirm this, I illustrate a couple of scenes from the film.
I wrote in the previous post about flattened animals. In the films discussed there, these animals (mice, cats, guinea pigs) are first flattened and then inflated. The latter doesn’t happen in A Fish Called Wanda where a plot strand concerns Michael Palin’s character Ken’s attempts to kill a witness who has implicated his jewel thief boss. She is a bad tempered old woman (Patricia Hayes) with three small yapping dogs (one of which has been run over by a car, above). The joke is that Ken is a mild mannered animal lover but he accidentally kills all three of the horrible little creatures before the old woman finally dies of a heart attack, much to Ken’s delight, as seen here.
This scene anticipates some of the taboo busting violence to animals and the aged in Neri Parenti’s cinepanettoni of the new century, as in this scene from Natale in crociera (2007), in which a naked Christian De Sica, ejected from his lover’s apartment, knocks an old lady unconscious in order to use her poodle to mask his modesty.
Why would A Fish Called Wanda have been such a key source? Well, although production values in the film (particularly the lighting) seem dated now, the camera work and editing, and so the staging of the humour, are extremely precise. The casting of the ensemble is almost perfect and the performances are great, each part played with conviction and a kind of joy. And last but not least, it makes a strong part of its appeal its transgressive aspect and potential to offend: it’s misogynist hogwash (John Cleese’s Archie is married to a shrew, played with relish by Maria Aitken, and his weakness for cute young American flesh vindicated in advance); the film finds hilarity in disability (Michael Palin’s animal-loving conman with a stutter, as seen above); the use of profanity throughout; the representation of a woman’s frank sexual (and masturbatory) desire; and, as we have seen, a refusal to respect the traditionally protected categories of animals and the aged.
As my reference to misogyny above indicates, I do not pretend there is no ideological aspect to all this, but I do think that it challenges those who want to describe the cinepanettone as essentially ‘right wing’. I have invoked a sophisticated version of this position in an earlier post on the grotesque body in the cinepanettone. I quoted there the Italian academic (and good friend of mine) Christian Uva as writing that the ‘cattiveria’ in the cinepanettone is ‘serialmente e programmaticamente indirizzata verso precisi obiettivi che, come visto, sono sempre gli stessi, e cioè le cosiddette categorie deboli, quali le donne, gli anziani, gli omosessuali’ ( from ‘La politica del panettone’, in Michele Picchi and Christian Uva, Destra e sinistra nel cinema italiano: film e immaginario politico dagli anni ’60 al nuovo millennio (Rome: Edizioni Interculturali, 2006), pp. 165-72 (pp. 169-70)). I want to suggest that the transgressive/taboo busting aspect of the cinepanettone operates at a ‘lower’ or at least another level than that of politics per se. Uva notes this too when he goes on to say that ‘Culture’ as such is presented in the films as a ‘noioso patrimonio di “sfigati” esclusi dalla grande orgia della vita’ (p. 170). It’s an old argument (it’s been going on for decades in relation to the real liberatory potential of carnival and the carnivalesque as paeaned in Bahktin): is the breaking of taboos and the transgressive unmasking of politeness a challenge to oppression, or is it rather the brazen confirmation of principles and prejudices conventionally disavowed? My position would be that this question cannot be answered in the abstract. It’s an obvious enough point to make that it will always be historically and context specific, but I want to remind ourselves also that the person watching and listening, laughing or not, has a competence not to be underestimated, and most can tell the difference between audio-visual narratives and reality.
ps. a couple of points. Firstly, as I have already mentioned, one of the things that seems to annoy about the cinepanettone is the fact that its jokes are often unrelated to plot (this is a theme in Franceso Piccolo’s essay on Natale a Miami). Thus, De Sica’s leveling of the vecchia is a purely spectacular moment, with no purchase in the story, whereas our enjoyment of the death of the old lady in Wanda (and Ken’s reaction to it) is justified by its place in the plot and by the iterative motif+variation in the film. Secondly, an interesting further aspect of the ‘transgression’ in Wanda is the emphasis put on the deliberate ‘constructedness’ of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Wanda, who is seen to choose costume and and performance style according to the seductive purpose at hand; at one point she is even shown bleaching the hair on her top lip. (This is in opposition to the carefully disavowed construction of ‘natural’ beauty of the desirable woman in even as transgressive film as There’s Something about Mary - an intertext omnipresent also in the cinepanettone - where Cameron Diaz is, if I remember, never shown as anything but gorgeous and fully formed.)
pps. It occurs to me to complicate a little my point in the post-scriptum about jokes in the cinepanettone being unrelated to plot. Yes, our enjoyment of the delayed death of the old lady in Wanda is justified by its place in the plot and Ken’s repeated bungling attempts to rub her out, but Wanda is a single film (there was a sequel made, but that’s another story). Yes, many of the jokes in the cinepanettoni might be purely spectacular moments with no purchase in the story, but it is a serial form, and the effect between films is cumulative, in a different but analogous way to the Ken/old lady events in Wanda.
More comedy models and motifs in the cinepanettone
Following on from the previous post in which I pointed out possible sources for the banterous ‘buddy’ relationships in Natale in Sud Africa (2010), and an earlier entry in which I pointed out the echoes in a Neri Parenti film of a satirical motif from the commedia all’italiana, I want to post here a few clips and photos to illustrate further comedy models for the cinepanettoni.
Director Neri Parenti’s fondness for silent comedy (he has made a pair of films with Paolo Villaggio and Renato Pozzetto entitled Le comiche (1990, 1991) - the title also once given to programmes of silent comedy on Italian TV), slapstick and violent cartoons is well known. These first few clips illustrate something of this taste.
Ignore for now - if you can - the race and gender issues in the following clip from Parenti’s Natale a Rio (2008) and concentrate instead on the cartoon inflation of the dead cat. Christian De Sica told me that he and Ghini (the two actors in the clip) were annoyed at how unpersuasive the fake cat was (and the digital rendition is clumsy too) but it seems to me that this absence of realism allows the viewer to collaborate in the joke.