Chris Palazzolo wonders about what makes us laugh.
As I get older it’s often asserted that what teenagers find funny is different to what aging hippies like me find funny. I work in a video shop, and a film that continues to be popular with my young customers is the horror/teen/slasher spoof Scary Movie (2000). There are lots of very low grade gags in this movie, some of them work, a lot don’t. The one I wish to look at is the scene where Cindy (the all-American good girl played by Anna Faris) is chased through her house by the masked murderer. Cindy dashes into her bedroom, slams the door shut, and runs to her computer. The murderer pushes the door open trying to get in but the door gets stuck – Cindy has time to send a 911 Emergency email. The message reads WHITE WOMAN IN TROUBLE. Four police cars are instantly at her house, lights strobing, sirens blaring, driving up her driveway. The murderer, still behind the stuck door, hears the cops arrive and runs away.
The scene lasts seven seconds and consists of five shots. The last shot; the reaction of the murderer to the cops arriving, is the punchline. What it shows is that the cops do appear as fast as the cut from the email being sent, to them driving up the driveway – they do appear instantaneously. The cut isn’t the filmmakers making an Eisenstein type political statement, it shows the real amount of time that the cops take to arrive; they are there instantly. And naturally that’s because of the message WHITE WOMAN IN TROUBLE. That message, and that message alone, will summon the filth so fast that no time elapses at all. No other message will produce such a response. The very instant, the very point in time the SEND icon is clicked and the message WHITE WOMAN IN TROUBLE dissolves and is reconstituted on the police server in a digital eyeblink, the cops will be there. It is a universal constant. It is a Law.
In the real world, the police don’t arrive at an emergency call instantaneously. They usually take 10 or 15 minutes to arrive. Montage gives the filmmaker the opportunity to inflect or comment upon story events without upsetting the continuity with the laws of real time. A cut straight from the message being sent to the cops arriving can indicate that they arrived with unseemly haste, but not in such a way as to be incompatible with reality. In the world of Scary Movie however they do arrive instantaneously, if you send the right message. The viewer understands this when they see the reaction shot of the murderer at the door. If the cops had taken 5 or even 2 minutes to arrive he would be in by now, because the door is only jammed by a shoe or something. Instead, he’s still pushing at the door, so no time has elapsed at all.
Consider how the physical laws of space and time have to be adjusted in the viewer’s mind in order to grasp the physical laws of the Scary Movie world. Not only would the police cars have been driven at the speed of light, they would have to have accelerated at the speed of light to get to the speed of light too. The message on the other hand would not have travelled at light speed because the electronic impulse has to travel at least part of the way through material circuits, the inertia of which would have slowed it down. This means that the cops have responded before the message is even received by their own servers. Consider too how the cops, in all other respects atrocious small town stereotypes, one of them so backward he still poos his own pants, all of a sudden have the skills to navigate, in formation, the enormous cosmic forces that light speed releases and park at exactly the right point in space and time. Finally, consider how sweet innocent Cindy automatically knows the right message and has no problem at all using her privileged status as a WHITE WOMAN to get the Law working for her.
The humour comes from the absolute naturalisation of racism pervading American law enforcement stripped of any shame or embarrassment whatsoever, ready to go on record without a fraction of second’s hesitation that it responded, with miraculous efficiency, to the message WHITE WOMAN IN TROUBLE. This is funny for teenagers because whether there is endemic racism in American institutions or not, it’s not a ‘nice’ thing to talk about anyway.
– Chris Palazzolo
Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.