Clowning in Cinema

Duration: 120 min

Six Weeks on Wednesdays, 7pm, from Feb 27 - 3rd Apr
The course will take place in the Education Room at Hackney Picturehouse
Lecturer: Jon Davison


This course will explore the many ways clowning has developed in and impacted upon cinema. We will explore the work of the classic creators from early silent comedy such as Chaplin and Keaton and consider the continued, yet underappreciated, influence of the clowning in modern comedy. The course will consider the restrictions as well as opportunities offered by the medium of film for the creation of physical comedy and will consider; the structure of gags, narrative styles, visual and verbal humour. Each week will focus on a key aspect by examining film clips leading to open discussion driven by participants’ interests. The course will end by asking how visual comedy works within the new technological arena of the internet and social media.

The course is aimed at all those with an enthusiasm and curiosity for the mechanics and history of clown comedy in film, from those working or studying in the profession as comedy writers, directors or performers, to those with an academic or personal interest in the art form.

Week one: The Origins of early onscreen Clowning
The ideas for early comedy in cinema didn’t just spring out of nowhere. The most known example is the repertoire and knowledge that Chaplin brought to California from Enlish Music halls and his work with Fred Karno, but earlier precursors such as the Hanlon-Lees had honed slapstick skills in mid-19th century circus which would prove to be transferable to film.

Week two: Action Gags and Emotional Narratives
While some, such as Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, were reinventing old-school physical clowning for the 20th century world of speed, danger and machines, others were exploring the balance between non-action-based narratives. Chaplin led the way with emotion-driven narrative, often at the expense of gag-density.

Week Three: Clowns and Technology
The impact of the talkies on cinema clowning would prove fatal for some but a blessing to others. Laurel and Hardy grasped the opportunity at first cautiously, but their use of short dialogues inserted into otherwise purely visual footage changed the pace of clowning radically.

Week four: Clown Biopics
We are all familiar with some of the common myths about clowns (the sad clown, the poor clown and, more recently, the scary clown), but curiously it has often been the performers themselves who have done most to propagate those myths. We will look at some self-presentations of clowns as hero on film, such as the Soviet clown, Leonid Yengibarov.

Week Five: Clown Theorists on Screen
Due perhaps to the presentation of the clown as an idiot, one might assume that there is no thinking lying behind the persona. Of course, this is nonsense. Clowns have frequently sought to articulate their theories of the artform, both in print and more commonly on film itself. The comedy lecture is not just a joke but also a vehicle for the author’s ideas. These ideas are, additionally, often disputed. The most telling dispute of all is perhaps Tati’s argument about the merits of his own comedy above those of Chaplin, which reveals an interesting insight into gag structures.

Week Six: The Internet Era
The way we watch clowning on screen has changed rapidly and radically in recent years due to new technology. Here we will survey the current terrain of clown comedy as determined by the immediacy of the internet and social media, ranging from practical jokers, through online clowning, to animals as clowns.

Tickets are £70 for the full six week course (£65 concession / £60 Picturehouse Members).



This course will explore the many ways clowning has developed in and impacted upon cinema.



Club and Group screenings

Wed 27th Feb 19.00 Film Course.



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