From Tragicomedy to Cyber-Punk: 6 Movie Mash-Ups

Sholay In the beginning there was tragedy and there was comedy. If the mask was smiling, you were in for a riotous night of theatre. If it wore a frown, well, then the gods were angry and you could be sure the poor humans in the play would suffer. For thousands of years, there was tragedy and there was comedy.

Sure, enterprising dramatists played around with blending disparate elements. That Shakespeare fellow inserted some pretty funny things in the middle of heavy dramas. I can’t read “Exit, pursued by a bear” without cracking up.

But still, by and large, there was tragedy and there was comedy.

Things began to change in earnest in the 20th century. The global devastation of WWI caused artists to question all the old ways of seeing the world. A few decades later, the Bomb finished the job. One of the many things it destroyed was the notion of tragedy and comedy. You couldn’t tell if the gods were smiling or frowning because there were no gods anymore. Storytellers began seeing every story as some sort of blend. Tragicomedy became the dominant genre. I mean, January 3, 1956 Miami Beach: the American premiere of Waiting for Godot, starring Tom Ewell and Bert Lahr. How much more of a genre mash-up can you get?

Except in the world of movies, where the genres held more firm. Maybe it’s because movies were still a young art form. Maybe it’s because they cost so much to produce. Whatever the reason, mainstream movie producers did not seem as eager to take the risks in form that their stage play brethren were attempting. As poignant as Charlie Chaplin was, his movies were always known as comedies. After he made Smiles of a Summer Night in 1955, you won’t find many laughs in Ingmar Bergman films.

But adventurous filmmakers do occasionally crack open the genres. Here are six examples of mash-ups from world of movies that work pretty well.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Preston Sturges)

Sturges was a brilliant writer whose 1930’s screenplays ran the gamut from dramatic epics (The Power and the Glory, 1933) to razor sharp comedy (Easy Living, 1937). When he ascended to the director’s chair in 1940, he focused almost exclusively on comedy. But The Great Moment, about the development of ether, blended comedy with borderline horror, and Sullivan’s Travels, perhaps his best-known work, combines genres to an even better effect. The slapstick buffoonery of the early sequences is balanced by genuine tragedy toward the end. The scenes of John Sullivan suffering in a work camp are as beautifully shot as they are terrifying. Sturges was mixing things up to make a very clear point: in this cockeyed caravan of life, laughter has great value.

Pursued (1947, Raoul Walsh)

After WWII, the world turned dark. Film Noir became a dominant stylistic trend and it pervaded other genres. This is a noir western, written by Niven Busch, and starring Robert Mitchum. Mitchum was the ideal candidate for such a role. He seemed equally comfortable as a western hero or a noir fall guy, and here he is a bit of both. He even narrates – a hallmark of noir, but not used so much in westerns. Noir is usually confined to cities and it often would make use of the claustrophobia found in tight interior settings. Leave it to all-time great cinematographer James Wong Howe to figure a way to bridge the gap – to bring a nourish sensibility to wide open spaces.

Charade (1963, Stanley Donen)

I am not including any Hitchcock, who was a master of blending suspense and comedy and romance. But I am including the best film Hitchcock never directed. Charade may not be the deepest of movies. It may not be the most emotionally riveting. But I dare you to find a more perfect entertainment. A brilliantly witty Peter Stone screenplay, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn at the top of their games, an outstanding supporting cast, Henry Mancini. What more do you need? Donen included suspense and comedy and romance and mystery and music in a way that Hitch would have loved.

Graveyard of Honor (1975, Kinji Fukasaku)

It’s as if Salvatore Giuliano (1962) had been directed by Sergio Corbucci and set in Japan. Fukasaku, maybe best known in the West for the Hunger Games forerunner Battle Royale (2000), opens with a sequence that appears to be right out of Italian neo-realism, only there’s some modish Italian western music playing on the soundtrack. From there, he never stops the jarring elements. At times, it looks like a documentary. But the garish, red-paint blood plays against that. At times, it’s almost a slapstick comedy, until the shocking violence interrupts. Throughout it all, Tetsuya Watari, head constantly bowed toward his navel, plays one of the most despicable characters ever seen on film. And he’s the hero. Talk about mash-up.

Sholay (1975, Ramesh Sippy)

OK, it seems a little strange to include an Indian movie here. After all, Masala Film is defined by its very blending of multiple genres. Ten lists just like this could be comprised of movies that originated in Bombay/Mumbai. I chose this one because it came at a crucial time, helping to reinvent the entire Masala genre, turning it harder and tougher. Star Amitabh Bachchan had already begun this transformation in Zanjeer two years earlier and he would continue it in movies like Deewar (all scripted by the Salim-Javed team). Whereas Zanjeer and Deewar were primarily urban crime stories, Sholay is a true mishmash. Derived from Seven Samurai, it features brutal action scenes and Chaplinesque comedy, music and romance, all dressed up as a western. And the amazing thing is, it all works better than many less-ambitious mash-ups.

Blade Runner (1982, 1992, 2007, Ridley Scott)

In whatever incarnation you prefer, this may be the most influential mash-up ever. Scott’s audacious conception married sci-fi and film-noir. There are also elements of the action film and the police procedural, but it was the nourish city that is most memorable. Working with “visual futurist” Syd Mead and effects specialist Douglas Trumbull, Scott created a different future. Most earlier sci-fi films like 2001, George Lucas’ THX 1138, or Trumbull’s own Silent Running envisioned a mostly clean and sterile future. But Scott drew more from George Miller’s recent post-apocalyptic Mad Max and Blade Runner in crafting a punk look. Only this was not post-apocalyptic. This was the natural order of things. Technology still ruled. Hence, a new offshoot, cyber-punk was born. Of course, there’s far more to say about Blade Runner, among the most-discussed American movies of the past fifty years. Suffice to say that any movie that could invent its own gibberish language derived from Japanese, Spanish and German, and stick it into a story with Sean Young’s femme fatale shoulder pads and hairdo straight out of the ‘40s, deserves a spot on any mash-up list.

Well, that’s a start. There are plenty more to choose from. What are your favourites? Or do you still long for a time when there was tragedy and there was comedy?

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

11 thoughts on “From Tragicomedy to Cyber-Punk: 6 Movie Mash-Ups

  1. Interesting piece, Jon. I’d like to posit that the mix of tragedy and comedy was not just relegated to Shakespeare and other dramatists; writers such as Cervantes and Dickens juxtaposed the forms, and this heady soup also has been present in the music world–in operas and ballets such as Otello (Iago’s credo, for one) and the brilliantly tragicomic Petruschka. There are even serious, tragic elements in comedies such as The Marriage of Figaro–notably the Countess’s relationship with her husband and the tender resolution at the end when she pardons him. So this combination has been around and used often for a while in the arts.

    When it comes to the cinema, none can top the tragicomic masterpiece of Seven Samurai, in my opinion. It features doses of high comedy–mostly in the antics of the character Kikuchiyo–coupled with the immense tragedy of death–the demise of four of the noblest samurai. Nothing else in film comes close, methinks.

    • Thanks Simon. Here’s why I didn’t include Seven Samurai, or other movies like it. To me, Seven Samurai is an action-adventure movie. The fact that it uses comedy to offset the action doesn’t change that. As you point out, artists in all fields have used conflicting or contrapuntal elements to support a genre. This may not be a perfectly logical explanation, because I imagine most viewers would consider Sullivan’s Travels a comedy first and foremost, but I think it does morph into a completely different genre for an extended period. With these movies, I really can’t claim one genre is primary.

      • I don’t know about that. To my mind, as much adventure and action as Seven Samurai contains, the film could almost be considered a comedy, given the fact that most of the farmers turn out OK in the end … and they end up together (sort of) with the remaining samurai. But it’s definitely a pastiche of genres, with a sweeping epic scope, intimate drama and scintillating comedy. I’d find it hard to classify–certainly much harder than Charade, which I’ve always considered a mystery, and Blade Runner, which to my mind is straight-up sci-fi.

  2. Nice survey, Jon. Will have to check out “Charade” which I’ve never seen. That blender at the start of it’s trailer is a great illustration of your theme. I’ll put in a vote for Goddard’s “Alphaville” which I recently re-watched, a very heady mix of noir, sci-fi and philosophy.

    • Good call on Alphaville, Rick. I haven’t seen it years and had forgotten. But having just seen Goodbye to Language, it’s pretty clear that Goddard has been playing with genres for more than fifty years, and does it more creatively than anyone ever has.

  3. I liked Sullivan’s Travels a lot. But Blade Runner is in a different league, and another time of course. One of the best films ever made, surely?
    Nice theme Jon, and well-explored.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. When it came out in ’82, I was lukewarm about Blade Runner. I wasn’t alone. Most critics dismissed it. Pauline Kael said it failed “on a human level.” It is a movie that has grown in stature and influence over time. I suspect some people reacted to the mediocre voice over in the original cut, but I think it had more to do with the uncertainty — what exactly was it? Who were you supposed to root for? Those are the very things that make it as significant as it is today. And the fact that it helped usher in the dvd era, and the entire concept of director’s cuts adds to its impact.

      But Sullivan’s Travels and Charade are more fun.

      • I was rooting for Sean Young, Joanna Cassidy, and Daryl Hannah personally!
        But seriously, it was all about feeling sorry for the replicants and asking lots of questions that everyone had different answers to, even now.
        Fun, what’s that? I’m an elderly Englishman. We don’t have fun!
        Pauline Kael sounds like she doesn’t have much fun either…
        Best wishes, Pete.

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