[dropcap]W[/dropcap]es Gehring has a fondness for dark comedies, a genre that has viewers riveted in horror and breaking out in laughter in the same scene.
“The basic premise of a dark comedy is that life is absurd, and it’s the only genre that doesn’t necessarily want to please the public,” says Gehring, a film professor and associate media editor and columnist for “USA TODAY Magazine,” a monthly periodical of the Society for the Advancement of Education. “Dark comedies are based on the notion that our lives are driven by fear and that we make life much worse than any hell there might be.”
His 34th book, “Genre-Busting Dark Comedies of the 1970s: Twelve American Films,” due out later this spring, examines movies that are as grim as they are hilarious. He analyzes how “All That Jazz” (1979) turned the musical-making industry upside down by focusing on a dying man who imagines life as one big show.
Gehring said “M*A*S*H” (1970) was one of the best antiwar movies ever produced, with director Robert Altman melding the bloody day-to-day life of combat surgeons with insanely funny ways soldiers cope with death. “Little Big Man” (1970) transformed the Western by making the Indians likable and the cavalry brutal.
“Much like today, the ’70s was a polarizing decade, and the dark movies from that era were just a dividing line. People loved them or hated them. And most critics simply didn’t understand them because these movies skewered a lot of genres or they thought the movies were simply in bad taste.”
The influence of ‘Huck Finn’
To write about dark comedy of the 1970s, Gehring reread several of his favorite novels that were adapted for the screen during that era, including “M*A*S*H”, “Little Big Man” and “Being There.” But the inherent absurdity of man is buried in his all-time favorite novel, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which is an ongoing reference for his new book and his life in general. The classic had a huge influence on him growing up in the 1960s. “Huck Finn wanted to free his slave friend, Jim, but it’s against the law and against his religion because the Bible said keeping a slave was OK. He says, ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell,’ and helps his friend.
“That always had a big impact on me because I believe you live by a certain code of ethics. I believe that you do the right thing because it’s the right thing.”
Gehring’s four favorite books
“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain
“A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Twain
“All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque
“My Autobiography” by Charlie Chaplin
About Wes D. Gehring
Position: Professor of telecommunications; joined Ball State in 1978
Education: Bachelor’s, 1973; master’s, 1974; PhD, 1977, all from University of Iowa
Specialization: Film, American humor, criticism, writing
Concept of his work: “I am a teacher and a scholar. Each role complements the other. Research and publication keep me on top of my specialties and enthused about my work.”