Review: Why people laugh at old film

Not at old movies, but at old film.

I noticed this phenomenon first at a screening of Singin’ in the Rain in the 1980s.

I had no special feeling at the time for Singin’ in the Rain other than that I was being taken to the NFT by a friend who had told me that it was a ‘significant’ movie. The ‘best movie’ ever made, apparently. I had never seen it before and was unconvinced.

When we took our seats in the NFT I was still wailing about whatever arsehole could have thought that Singin’ in the Rain could be a better movie than, say, Citizen Kane.

When the lights went up, someone came on stage and introduced the person who thought Singin’ in the Rain was the best movie ever made.

Unfortunately, this person introduced happened to be a guy in a leather jacket sitting in front of me in the auditorium listening to all my wailing.

He leapt up on stage and gave a brilliant exposition of why he thought Singin’ In the Rain was the best movie ever made. Then, looking me, personally, straight in the eye, he said, “Citizen Kane may have been the best movie made about Power, but Singin’ in the Rain was the best movie ever made about Hollywood. I cringed back into my seat.

The screening began and, to tell you the truth, I thought he was right. He had won me over. I have loved Singin’ in the Rain ever since.

But during that screening I was disturbed that people were laughing at it. It is a funny film, a musical comedy, and so it is right to laugh at it, but this was not done in that way, not being laughed at the way in which it would have been laughed at in its own time, but laughed at in mockery.

I encountered this again, a long time later, at a documentary film screened at a political event held by the Socialist Workers Party about the A4 Murder, in which the investigative journalist most closely associated with that enquiry was Paul Foot, a member of the SWP himself.

Most members at the screening were younger people who knew Paul Foot now. During the screening they saw an image of Paul Foot being interviewed twenty years before. A different, younger Paul Foot.

The audience at the screening laughed.

It is surely not unreasonable that a person you know now, yet who was captured on film twenty years ago, should not then look twenty years younger than they do now. Why should that be funny?

I was reminded of this at the Deptford Film Club screening of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.

Well it is a funny film but why was the 2010 audience laughing in mockery rather than in appreciation?

They obviously were not getting the joke so what in hell were they getting?

I guess it is what someone once called the enormous condescension of the present towards the past.

The visual codes of the past are fair game. Perhaps we cannot take on real enemies because real enemies might be dangerous. Instead we choose to strut our stuff and fight phantom enemies. The Past can never answer back.

So when Les Demoiselles de Rochefort reached down to us from the years to invite our laughter we laughed in a different way from that invited. And perhaps not in a good way.

Horrors – perhaps there is a future that will guffaw at our cinematic codes in the same way. Is that what we would wish for all our artistic efforts?

But there was a way, guffaws and all, that the press of people in the back room of the Birds Nest pub that evening, pressed together, standing and sitting, screen starting to strip itself from the wall and people sellotaping it up again, that took cinema back to its earliest days.

And that was good.

Richard Katona, Deptford Film Club Supporter