When I was in college, I took some filmmaking classes. The school I went to was more of an experimental type that wanted us to be the next Stan Brakhage rather than the next Steven Spielberg (no link to Spielberg, you’ll notice) and it didn’t take long before all of us fresh-faced wannabes realized that any Hollywood aspirations were not going to be encouraged there. Which is fine, I knew what I was getting into. There were always a few students that tried to buck that system, however, and just wanted to make what they came there with their good money to make. One of those students was a guy I’ll call Guy.
Guy had an affinity for those charming silent movies featuring dudes with big pratfalls and even bigger hearts, a la Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. What I gathered from him was that he was determined to make these types of movies no matter what and in order to preempt any negative reactions from the professors or other students, he never showed any work in progress. All semester long, when it was his turn to present, he would say he had nothing. Then, during the final week of school, when we had to show our final cuts, he would brandish a complete film that usually featured him as the main character.
Guy was accomplished as a physical actor, doing different types of stunts and facial expressions and comedic bits. There were lots of charming bits of romance, exciting action sequences, and peppy piano music in his films, just like in Buster Keaton movies. Watching him in those films really made me think about physical comedy and particularly the pratfall. The pratfall is often thought of as a low-level form of comedy, something distasteful and only used if desperate or uninspired or both. It can be more than that.
A pratfall is just as hard as any other comedic attempt – it requires the same type of timing and execution as a good joke. When done right, it can ease tension to tough scene; it can add variety to a scene; it can simply be something fun to do. One time, during a critique, the professor asked for ideas on how to end a scene. The film was a dark comedy and satire, and the scene in question involved a man being tied to a chair and gagged, hidden backstage at a theater. I suggested having the man fall over. The idea was immediately met with a shaking of the head by the student and even a snort of derision from the professor. Had I had the wherewithal for quick thinking, I would have argued that a pratfall in that scene would not only have eased some of the tension of the film, but it would also give a sense of finality to that character. But nope, my idea was dismissed. (Tiny violins playing for me yet?)
As for Guy, what I think many of us wanted to reassure him at the time was that he was welcome to show his work to us and we would not poo-poo it. In fact, his films often showed a lot of promise and all he really needed to do was trim the editing and re-shoot a few scenes and he was good to go. Alas, he was stuck with a bunch of pretentious college kids going to art school, so maybe he wasn’t so far off the marker after all.