FILM / The Last Detail

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The Independent Culture
'YOU have a way with women, Signor Columbus.' 'I'm from Genoa, your Majesty.' That exchange - mimicking with pinpoint inaccuracy the colloquialisms of 15th-century Italy - is one of several in John Glen's Christopher Columbus which had the press-show audience cracking up in disbelief. How, everyone wondered, did no one detect the absurdity of such a chestnut before it was too late? But then, it's the blissful essence of unintentional humour in the cinema that it isn't merely the line of dialogue which makes one laugh but the realisation that someone somewhere wrote it and, as with God and His Creation, saw that it was good.

Restrictions of space preclude any attempt on my part to formulate a theory of unintentional humour, but three basic points might be worth making:

First, the filmically 'unintentional' seems to apply exclusively to humour. No spectator is likely ever to have shed tears at a scene that wasn't designed to elicit them from him, or emitted a scream that the director hadn't premeditated to the last degree.

Second, no matter what the orthodox opinion might be, I myself infallibly know, from some inner, intimate conviction, when I am laughing not with but against a film - so that, even if I have no rational counter-argument to offer them, I simply cannot be swayed by admirers of Polanski's new erotic psychodrama, Bitter Moon (an absolute hoot), who claim that it was always meant to be funny.

And, third, although I laughed louder and longer at Bitter Moon than I have at most recent comedies, I realised, when it was all over, that for some mysterious reason I hadn't actually enjoyed it as much as I did those comedies.

Typically, Hollywood has now begun to appropriate and consciously exploit the pleasures of unintentional humour. Think of the Airplane] and Naked Gun spoofs. The jokes are crude and obvious enough, perhaps, but the sublime Leslie Nielsen remains so deliriously straight-faced throughout that one can only suppose his performance is intended to prompt a unique and paradoxical form of intentionally unintentional laughter.