Foolish bum, funny shit: scatological humor in Hal Hartley’s not-so-comedic Henry Fool

Martin-Jones, D. (2013) Foolish bum, funny shit: scatological humor in Hal Hartley’s not-so-comedic Henry Fool. In: Pomerance, M. (ed.) The Last Laugh: Strange Humors of Cinema. Series: Contemporary approaches to film and media. Wayne State University Press: Detroit, MI, pp. 163-176. ISBN 9780814335130

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When I first saw U.S. independent auteur Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool (1997) in the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh, I vividly remember laughing to the bursting point at this bizarre toilet-proposal scene. I laughed so hard, in fact, that I had to cradle my stomach in both arms. This reflex, however, was as much a result of the physical pain of the laughter as it was a response to the need to calm my body, which was threatening to retch in response to this revolting scene. This chapter focuses on this standout moment of scatological comedy in Henry Fool (1997), which is otherwise as “un-comedic” as Hartley’s previous droll, talky films. Exploring how it is both hilariously funny and yet simultaneously disgusting, I analyze the broader implications of this grotesque moment. The initial theoretical direction taken in analyzing this scene is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the carnival. I say it is unsurprising not only because of how well known this idea is, but also because the film invites exactly such an understanding of its scatological humor. Again following the film’s lead, this analysis of the carnival incorporates related discussion of the role of the character of the fool in theatrical, and here filmic, critiques of institutional power. In this way, Henry Fool is seen to deliberately mix the sacred and the profane, and through the base figure of the fool to juxtapose such institutional regimes of power as the normative role of the family against the more scatological aspects of the human physique. I conclude by examining the greater extent to which Henry Fool uses its scatological comedy to play to, but also in some respects to critique, the expectations of the target audience for such U.S. indie films. The so-called “bobo” (bourgeois-bohemian) audience has become a key demographic for U.S. indies. Its presence as such goes a long way towards explaining the presence and function of the character of the fool in Henry Fool, a theatrical figure traditionally associated with the ability to unite, often through physical, carnivalesque comedy, audiences as disparate as royalty and peasantry. Finally, this interpretation of the comedic nature of bodies in Henry Fool is enhanced when it is read in conjunction with Hartley’s far more obviously politically engaged sequel, Fay Grim (2006).

Item Type:Book Sections
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Martin-Jones, Professor David
Authors: Martin-Jones, D.
College/School:College of Arts > School of Culture and Creative Arts > Theatre Film and TV Studies
Publisher:Wayne State University Press

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