Friday, December 16, 2011

Without a Hitch

I had a rather pleasant image of Hitchens walking through the pearly gates, scowling at the angels and shaking his head with disgust at a very long, smug queue of the bovine deist-departed waiting to have their first meeting with God; St Peter puts an arm around his shoulder and says, "Well, on the bright side", as he steers Hitchens to a celestial bar where the Scotch is good, cigarettes are lit with stars, and the conversation is about to get better.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Choleric Purple

One of the things about writing that can be really annoying is when other people do it.

I hasten to add: there are some people out there who write very well and I am really glad they do. Haruki Murakami. Philip Roth. I could name literally hundreds more. But the rest? Like little ticker-machines producing airribbons of language in a continuous chattering stream, the invisible snake-like wordribbons evaporating into a coffee-scented breeze around our chests; horribly, a great many of these coils are translated into print and then pasted across our visors.

Friday, November 18, 2011

They're baa-aack

Imagine I have my hands lightly on your shoulders, my face only inches from your own; I'm looking straight into your eyes, you can smell my licorice-scented breath as I say to you, "You know the joke's on you, right? You get that, don't you?"

A few days ago, a reporter with a news camera was roughed up by a cop operating as some sort of bodyguard for Herman Cain. He pushed her into Cain's campaign bus and then clotheslined her. The cop's commanding officer justified his vigorous oaf's assault as concern for the safety of Herman Cain; Lt. McHugh of the Coral Springs Police Department went on to add that "the officer, Sgt William Reid, suffered a hyper-extended elbow." Aha! The cop (whose name was not given in the news report until this point, when his suffering deserved a proper noun and a subjectivity) was the real victim here. His elbow was hyper-extended as he knocked the reporter off her feet. Can you imagine what sort of damage she did to the cartilage and ligaments in his elbow as she hurled herself into his arm?

It's comic.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mockupy Wall Street

It has been crushingly unsurprising to witness the rampantly dishonest, patronising, and snarky coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement(s), from the freebie rags (the AM and Metro syndicates) to the populist servants of the rich. The New York Post has been chomping at the bit, frothing over their front pages:

OWS are "shits"; they're "animals". Fox Nation managed to transmit one article with a story that cuts to the chase, turning them them into shitting animals:

NYers Furious at Protesters: 'Neighbors Don't Defecate in Streets'.
Even in outlets one might expect to be sympathetic, journalists and writers are straining to distance themselves from the soiled, spoiled youth. Hendrik Hertzberg ended an otherwise curious and partly sympathetic lunchtime stroll through Zuccotti Park with a sour burp of condescension:
If Occupy Wall Street can continue to behave with nonviolent restraint, if it can avoid hijack by a flaky fringe, if it can shake the center-left out of its funk, if it can embolden Democratic politicians (very much including President Obama, who, lately and belatedly, has begun to show signs of fight), then preoccupied Main Street will truly owe OWES. Big ifs all. It’s too early to tell, but not too late to hope.
In the next week's New Yorker, Lizzie Widdicombe made frequent use of cutesy brackets in her bubbly trip to a cartoon Zuccotti Park. Yes, Lizzie, it is "erroneous" to say that Michael Bloomberg is the richest man in the United States; he's actually the second richest man in New York, and only the twelfth richest man in the United States.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Yankee Fan with the Golden Gun

What exactly is the "news value" of a picture of a dead body that is not already contained in the information that said person is dead?
Do such images add "news value" to descriptions like:

In a cellphone video that went viral on the Internet, the deposed Libyan leader is seen splayed on the hood of a truck and then stumbling amid a frenzied crowd, seemingly begging for mercy. He is next seen on the ground, with fighters grabbing his hair. Blood pours down his head, drenching his golden brown khakis, as the crowd shouts, “God is great!”

When the news first came out about Gaddafi's execution, the photographs and video images did - not despite, but as evidence for, the analyses of Barthes and Sontag - provide a sense of confirmation, but this sense of confirmation may be adding something other than what I would understand by "news value"; its value lies elsewhere.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Outer Mong-don't-go-there

Okay, so my arm was twisted by an alert reader, I'll enter the fray.

Apparently, twitter has been a-flutter after Ricky Gervais tweeted a series of jokes in which he plays with the word "mong." Previously, we dealt with profoundly mean-spirited, nasty, spiteful jokes about disability (Ofcom and About A Boy), but this has a different quality to it.

As I'm sure you all know, "mong" is a term of derision for people with mental retardation, especially people with Down Syndrome. The "stigmata" of Down Syndrome can include macroglossia (a big tongue, hence elegant impersonations that involve putting your tongue under your lower lip and going "nhhhuhhhh"), the rather more imaginatively-named "simian crease" ("get your simian crease off of me, you damned dirty ape"), and, of course, prominent epicanthal folds, which spurred the popularisation of the term "mongoloid", cleverly contracted to "mong". There is nothing affectionate or endearing about the word "mong"; it's a crass and pejorative diminutive of a weirdly racist characterisation of a feature associated with a number of conditions associated with mental retardation. A whole history of dismissive, contemptuous, belittling, and arrogantly misconstrued cruelty is captured in that term.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

In the news

Does anybody else think this report might be the first, innocent indication of our eventual demise?


An alert reader directed me to this, a wonderful example about the uses and abuses of language, with a very amusing core question: were they joking when they insisted that 'punani' was a "sandwich sold locally and is made of Italian bread with cheese and tomato which is heated up"? One has to admire the several conceits in the line - the notion that it is a local custom, the concession to tenuous Italian origins in Italian bread, and the culinary explanation that it is heated up, all in all displaying a lovely ignorance of panini. Comedy is a wonderful guise for innocence, through uncertainly brilliant relays of stupidity, gullibility, and distraction.

Religious Fiction Double Feature

I just emerged from the Film Forum, which was packed with men in their (to be generous) late thirties, with retreating hair lines and expanding waist lines (it was nice to stand out from the crowd for once), where I saw a double feature - Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992) and William Friedkin's Cruising (1980) - that was supposed to be showing there on September 11, 2001. I considered the arbitrary significance of that fact, and it was a touching thing to replay those films (indeed, they're replaying the series that was showing then, NYPD). It's another New York and the same New York; both films are from a different era, somehow more in contact with each other than with us now, although that might be true of any two points in the relatively recent past; but it would be hard to imagine either film being made today, and I'm not sure that's a sign of progress.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Say what?

Not having bothered to blog in a while (during which time, this blog escaped and went feral, submitting posts under its own name on bizarre astronomical and eskimo-porn web-sites; I wrangled it back this morning with the promise of cookies, and then subdued it with a benzodiazapene-spiced cracker), I had no real inclination to blog today. If I didn't have anything to say, why say it?

That was obviously not the motivating question for the syndicated cartoonists in the Sunday Newspapers, who today banded together for the first time since they met up during lunchbreak in the maths classroom, played Dungeons and Dragons, and wondered what girls were, a few dozen years ago. And that includes the girls. Anyway, they put out a collective commemoration, in which they pretty much had nothing to say, and said it en masse.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Sunday Recommendation

It is looking increasingly unlikely that I will complete my Hall Pass analysis before this blog - rather crassly in my opinion - goes on vacation again, this time not for sordid adventures but because it wants to spend some time "meditating" and so will be in a secluded spa on a mountaintop somewhere, drinking rainwater and communing with itself. No doubt it will return cleansed, emptied, and, I'm sure, will consist only of entries about new vegan recipes and self-purification rituals. Fucking blogs.

However, I would like to recommend Hall Pass and Friends With Benefits, as I hope to deal with these in the near future, providing, of course, this blog is not devoted to mantras and ecstatic reports about how it is now having the best sex of its life with some holistic homeopathic blog, without even reaching orgasm.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Making a Good Expression

A very alert reader e-mailed me this, asking "Why are impressions funny? Don't they show us things we already know?" And I was all like "Are you e-mailin' me? Are you e-mailin' me? 'Cause I don't see nobody else in your 'sent to' line" and then I was all like [in gravelly voice:] "Ith a wery intuhwesthing quethun. [stroke chin with back of forefingers] Makel, what do you think? Thud we ask Fweddoh?" and then I left work, wondering what is so funny about impressions, and was almost hit by a car in the street, and I was all like "I'm walkin' here, I'm walkin' here", and then I took the train home and it was running late but I did eventually get home.

[That last bit should be read as though it was being said by George from Gilbert and George.]

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Light That's Going Out

Happiness is always the same, but there are an infinite number of ways of being unhappy. While that's not quite an original thought, I was reminded today of another way of being unhappy; it's not a sorrowful feeling, it's not melancholic, it's not the dizzy nausea of loss, or a dank depression or despair, it's got nothing to do with pity or sympathy; it's much milder, much more pointless, less an experience of unhappiness than a sort of existential yawn that somehow aches. At what point does one stop being a fan and cut those precious, invisible strands of devotion and dedication and admiration that bind you to somebody from afar? What does it even mean to stop being a fan? Is there a point where someone's actions so influence you that you're turned off by their art as well? I'm not talking about those avid watercolourists who face the dilemma of being great admirers of Hitler's oeuvre and yet must struggle to reconcile the art with the man; I actually don't know if such a group really exists, but I like to think that they do, and that their annual newsletter is fraught with aesthetic-ethical debates. No, it's Morrissey again, a man who would apparently now like to be both famous and righteous and holy. The man has rather insistently put himself into all sorts of awkward positions over the past few decades in a manner that has been reliably truculent and often associated with animal rights (although, as I'm sure everybody has noticed, there's a peculiar, irrepressible and boringly regular strand of xenophobia and racism laced in with his animal rights rhetoric); in his dotage, Morrissey has become a sort of petulant, fey version of Elizabeth Costello, but without her hesitation and, I'm sorry to say, lacking her charm.

As an alert reader pointed out with disgust, in an e-mail poisonously titled "I've changed my verdict to guilty", and as I'm sure everybody is now aware, Morrissey compared what happened in Norway to the fast food industry; or rather, he turned the comparison on its head and said that what happened in Norway "is nothing compared to what McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Shit every day". The alert reader is giving away his Morrissey tickets for the forthcoming concert; sans tickets, sans opportunity, I'm not facing a similar ethical quandary.

I don't think I need to offer any incisive commentary on what Morrissey said; for a man who has long prided himself on his wit, his comment lacks any whatsoever. That his comment lacks many other things as well can be left unsaid. But he lost a lot of people who really enjoyed defending him through thick and thin; we were, in fact, a sort of subspecies, and we're fast going extinct.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Importance of Being Santorum

An alert reader notified me about a segue, or a sequel, to one of the great comic political bitch-slaps of modern times, Dan Savage's take-down of the puckerbutted, sweaty-browed Pennsylvania Bigot, Rick Santorum, previously discussed in the blog; you can find the sequel here. Anybody interested in the political use of language will enjoy this comic twist to a story I still find amusing; I've tried to interest some people in considering this an act of speak, as opposed to unspeak, but they just look at me like a little part of them died when I spoke. It's not an unusual experience for me.

Keep checking in; I promise, over the next few days, a post on impressions and at least one on Hall Pass.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sunday Recommendations

Do you ever feel jealous of the news? Anxiously protective of it, wanting to fend off the churners and the gurners, the huffingtonposts and the op-ed spewers, the twitterers and the commenters, the bloggers and - oh. Yes. Of course. It's one of those weekends; I'm not even going to name names, events, places. It's just a weekend where the news deserves to be the news.

Anyway, here's the rec:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Summer in the City and in the Country

My guess is that Michael Billington has made no secret throughout his career of aspiring to be one of those "national treasures" - public figures who are too prickly or intellectual to have been considered attractive in their early years but who, in their dotage, are generally treated in the media as though they are widely loved - and has cultivated a persona greatly attuned to achieving this status: never too supportive of the avant-garde to suggest radicalism and conservatively disappointed in the art of today, but with a few gentle foibles and preferences suggestive of taste; a generally anti-nationalist, belligerently anti-racist position with just the right touch of xenophobic snapping and loyal patriotism; grumpy enough to make the establishment suspect he really is a closet Tory.

An alert reader directed me to his latest postprandial belch, a review of Much Ado About Nothing. I think the ending rather proves the point I was making above:

But a carnivalesque evening would be better for a touch of self-restraint. In some theatres, actors play to the gallery. Here, they are in thrall to the groundlings.

Well, la di da. Fuck the groundlings! And that's just what impressed Bakhtin about the carnivalesque, isn't it? Its restraint.

But of course, it is the beginning of Billington's review that had the alert reader's steaming to such an extent - well, I'll tell you a little secret: this alert reader woke me up to tell me about this review. Yes, it's true. I sleep with my readers. Not all of you, though. But you should know it's at least possible. In any case, this alert reader was fuming about the following:

On a chill, damp night Jeremy Herrin's production, pre-empting next week's West End version (starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate) conquered its audience. But, although Herrin's production is full of intelligent touches and neatly blends Shakespeare's Messina and Morocco, I found it hard to surrender completely to a show that contains more mugging than you'll find in Central Park on a Saturday night.

Graciously, we might think that Billington is making an in-joke for his New York audience, referring to (and mocking, but perhaps affectionately) the several free productions of Shakespeare in Central Park every Summer: the Public's two productions (this year, Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well) at the Delacorte nestled above Turtle Pond in the centre of the park, and the New York Classical Theatre's productions around the pond at 100th. There is quite a lot of mugging in open air theatre and there's a lot of that going on on any Saturday night in the Summer in Central Park.

(image from

Less graciously, if we suspect he is not referring to the theatrical events in Central Park, we might think it rather odd that the theatre critic for The Guardian hasn't visited New York in over thirty years. And less graciously still, if he has visited New York once or twice since the Ford years, we might wonder about the cultural clumsiness and comic clod-handedness that would have him blurble this sub-sub-Anthony-Lane gag and like it enough not to edit it out. As the alert reader said, it's obvious that he really, really loves his line. In fact, taking a cue from his own sentence, one might say that he surrendered easily to a comic mugging by a bad line.

Speaking of newspapers, I thought I'd share this touchingly and oddly relevant scene from Brideshead Revisited:

Often, almost daily, since I had known Sebastian, some chance word in a conversation had reminded me that he was a Catholic, but I took it as a foible, like his Teddy-bear. We never discussed the matter until on the second Sunday at Brideshead . . . he surprised me by saying: "Oh dear, it's very difficult being a Catholic."
"Does it make much difference to you?"
"Of course. All the time."
"Well, I can't say I've noticed it. Are you struggling against temptation? You don't seem much more virtuous than me."
"I'm very, very much wickeder," said Sebastian indignantly.
"Well then?"
"Who was it who used to pray, 'Oh God, make me good, but not yet'?"
"I don't know. You, I should think."
"Why, yes, I do, every day. But it isn't that." He turned back to the pages of the News of the World and said, "Another naughty scout-master."

Brilliant stuff.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Go Ninja GO

There are obviously two types of people in the world: those who love Die Antwoordt and readers of this blog. In the comments to my last post, there was some skepticism about my affection for Enter the Ninja, though the video is obviously the best thing to happen to popular music since, I don't know, Nirvana Live and Unplugged. One comment mentioned my earlier "fascination" with Tatu as if it is something I should be ashamed of. I have no regrets that I adored a melodramatic disco pop anthem sung by a pair of teenage Russian lesbians. Do you know what Heaven is? It's not a place where nothing ever happens. It's a place where the angels are teenage Russian lesbians serenading each other with melodramatic disco pop anthems.

Now, you might respond by saying that Tatu were "contrived", or that they weren't even lesbians. Darling, I don't go to pop music for the authenticity. I go for the magic. And Die Antwoordt is magical in a way that we barely recognise any more, so blind are we to the non-positivistic, cracked, empiricism-flaying world around us: it is the magic of myth, the modern myth of the word-hopping, body-crumping minstrel of fury, and the ancient myths of warriors and maidens; the mythical dimensions are explored, as I have been shown, far more prominently in Evil Boy; and I can't help but love the punk bitch-slap of Rich Bich, a faux-gilded gauntlet thrown down to ersatz modern myth-makers Lady G, Pink, and Beyonce, performed with the knowing smirk that they will look at the gauntlet and, like prim sorority sisters in a college comedy, turn on their heels and storm away with their noses in the air, superior and humiliated at once.

Another comment asked if this was some kind of joke? I don't know if the commentator meant my seat-bouncing, seat-wetting enthusiasm for Enter the Ninja or the song itself. What is so striking about
Enter the Ninja and Die Antwoordt is that it does not matter. How peculiar is that? Under most circumstances, whether something is or is not a joke, whether something is or is not ironic, is of the utmost importance; it's usually crucial. But in this case, it does not matter at all. After all, one has every right to approach Die Antwoordt with a tremendous amount of suspicion. The Ninja, Die Antwoordt, also happens to be a satirist, a comic artist, indeed, something of a comic graphic artist; his work, which melds graffiti and Haring and Basquiat graces the backdrop to Enter the Ninja and YoLandi Vi$$er's clothing; and some of his more obvious comic-performance work here is deeply reminiscent of, ahem, this. So is it possible that Die Antwoord is another """performance"""? A sort of South African Larry the Cable Guy or a subsaharan Ben Elton mashed up with Eminem? Baron Cohen meets Kid Rock? The amazing thing is, it does not matter.

The friend who first forwarded me the link to this video did so without providing any context: I had no idea what I was supposed to be seeing. But as we discussed it afterwards, it became apparent how similarly it affected us. Die Antwoord is unapologetic; there is no caveat, no asterisk; and still it courses through convention with all the commitment of myth (for myths are often full of the familiar, the rote, the obvious; it is only recently that we have become shamed and flushed and
embarrassed by myths for being so unironic); it is no wonder they seem "primeval" or, as my friend put it, engaged in "paleolithic dionysian celebration" (you can see why I have so few friends; with friends who say shit like that you don't have time for other people). Die Antwoord is shameless, unapologetic. Comedy is always tussling with apology; one of the reasons why apology is such a problem for comedians is that their art, however brazen and bold, is already asterisked with a tiny apology (it might be called the fool's license; it might come in the form of the "just kidding" excuse where joking and kidding are already exculpatory, shedding responsibility, keyed to apology); in this case, any apology is like a magician explaining his tricks.

If it turns out that Die Antwoordt is a """performance"" - of course it's a performance - it's a next level performance; if the Ninja is a persona - of course it's a persona - I have no problems with that; and remember: an apology is a revocation. If it turns out that this was intended comically - there would still be no revocation. The paper-thin, papier-mache mask of authenticity has been stripped away, leaving us with much more impressive, intrusive, unsettling, and exhilarating masks, faces, grimaces, expressions.

A small addendum, of two points, related to faces. The video has spawned one new work of video art. And, one of the memorable performers in the video for Enter the Ninja is the South African painter and DJ, Leon Botha, who frequently opened for Die Antwoordt; he died just over a month ago of complications related to the condition progeria.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Answer

My blog is back from its vacation; it came back, erotically bruised, pierced in odd places, and with what is either a bizarre tattoo or a gunpowder burn along its right flank. It wanted to tell me stories that might explain the haunted look in its eye and the new lisp in its voice, but I said, "Save it for your therapist; I don't want to know."

I must admit I missed it while it was gone, and watched this video, hour after hour, to pass the time; if I can't waste time in the blog's company, I'll find other ways to eat up the hours. I suggest watching Die Antwoord's video at least three times before going on to explore their oeuvre, which, in the term of the person who recommended them to me, is next level.

Once you're done, we'll get back into the comedy business.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Brief Hiatus

This blog will be on a brief hiatus for about a week, as it is going on holiday. I, however, am not. I'll be at work. But the blog has packed its bags, left a mound of dry food beside a trough of water for the dog, and is heading off in the early light, quite possibly to a salacious destiny with ping-pong-flinging pole-dancers, hookah-smoking criminal masterminds, and all-night binges of late Roger Moore Bond films. I can't say I envy it, but I'm sure that when it returns it will have plenty to say about the relationship of comedy to the worst attributes of humanity; and perhaps, one can hope, some passing asides about comedy's relationship with the scant whispers of humanity's better attributes?

Monday, June 27, 2011

On no he didn't

An alert reader, one of the few who has remained alert after reading this blog, which is particularly impressive as most either click away quickly or end up in a self-soiling torpor, sent me news that Tracy Morgan surfed into New York on the wake of his recent anti-gay scandal and performed what sounds like an excellent gig at Carolines. Unlike bigoted, racist gutter-slurpers like Mel Gibson, Morgan promptly did a lot to make amends since his famous Nashville rant, so the audience at Carolines was no doubt in a forgiving mood.

And so, he ended the evening thus:

Then, just before midnight, Mr. Morgan said he had something going through his mind “that I can’t share with y’all.” Though the audience goaded him to continue, Mr. Morgan said, “I can’t. I just got out of controversy, man. This is diabolical.”After another brief flirtation with a woman in the crowd, Mr. Morgan turned sincere. “I love you all so much,” he said, “did I tell you that tonight? I’ve been in trouble lately, and this was big for me that you all came out.”Whatever he had been accused of, Mr. Morgan said, “I don’t have that in me. I believe gay, straight, anybody, everybody’s supposed to be happy in this world, man.”
Resuming his routine, Mr. Morgan warned his audience, “Don’t ever mess with women who have retarded kids.” As groans and cries of “Uh-oh” were heard, he continued, “Them young retarded males is strong. They’re strong like chimps.” Finally, he concluded with a bit about his alleged teenage romance with a girl he described as “a cripple” with a prosthetic arm, a mechanical larynx and a portable dialysis machine. See you at the next apology?

I don't know about you, but I was reminded of an extensive discussion of a strikingly similar joke on these very pages some months ago when this blog was just a baby-blog, wobbling to its feet, flinging its pudgy arms in all directions to stay balanced. It was a Frankie Boyle joke, first discussed here and then, in more detail, here. I quoted it as follows:

Katie Price – aka Jordan - has complained to Ofcom about Frankie Boyle, after the comedian made a joke about her disabled son, Harvey, who suffers from septo-optic dysplasia and autism.

Boyle said on his Tramadol Nights show: "I have a theory about the reason Jordan married a cage-fighter. She needed a man strong enough to stop Harvey from f***ing her."
There are three notable differences:

1) Morgan was not directing his joke at a specific woman and a specific son.
2) He was suggesting that the retarded sons are, at least, defending their mothers and not raping them.
3) There is something in Morgan's performance that suggests - no, more than suggests, that demands - you consider him somewhat limited himself.

I would expect point 1 not to be controversial. Whilst somebody who thinks he or she knows a lot about jokes and is a sophisticated analyst of comedy might try to insist that every joke, even if directed by narrative details towards specific figures, is already generalising, already sweeping in those who might be formally excluded by the details but are nevertheless otherwise identified with that figure, I can't help but feel that this person would be an idiot. It's worse when it's personal. It's meaner, it's crueler - it might be funnier, too.

I can't imagine anybody really objecting to point 2 as a distinction between the jokes?

Point 3 might be somewhat controversial for a number of reasons:

1) Is it okay to compare Tracy Morgan to a retarded person?
2) Is it okay to compare Tracy Morgan, by way of question number one and Morgan's routine, to a chimp?

I'm not sure it's okay, but let's face it; Morgan's allure is as a modern fool. He's not whip-smart Chris Rock, he's not haunted Dave Chappelle, he's not even angry. He's a man who can barely muster the concentration to tweet, which is the non-sexual social human activity that requires the least amount of concentration ever, and when he does, it's about his penis. It's quite a good tweet actually. But anyway, the point is, there's more than a sliver of a difference between Frankie Boyle's condescension and Morgan's goonish expostulations, and their performances, in this case, draw upon two very different histories, the history of the comedian as the court's most formidable and scorching propagandist and the history of the comedian in exile.

Of course, the rubber-kneed, tin-eared, sugar-titted masses are clamouring for another apology, but the real problem with Morgan's joke is much more obvious: it's basically an old joke. It was done. Comedians aren't really supposed to be stealing others' routines. I know that Morgan doesn't have the foggiest notion who Frankie Boyle is, so it is looking increasingly obvious that he must have stolen it by reading my blog? In any case, while Johan Hari faces the wrath of God, or really the wrath of right-wingers, which is, I suppose, the wrath of God, for allegedly doing something that isn't so great, Tracy Morgan is free to roam the streets.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

I love you love me love who exactly?

I swear I'm not doing this to increase my readership; I have no intention of bolstering my page-hits by picking up the pedos, but I'm afraid that I am going to discuss Gary Glitter today. But only peripherally. Those who have not followed The Hangover Epistles, volume one, volume two, volume three, and volume four, may want to do so before reading on.

So, an alert reader pointed out that Morrissey has covered Bowie ("Drive-In Saturday"), Bolan ("Cosmic Dancer") and now Reed ("Satellite of Love" - I mentioned in response that it would have meant so much to me if he had covered that particular song two decades ago); the alert reader said that all Morrissey had to do now was cover Glitter. The alert reader had no way of knowing that I had just been reading a decades-old interview with Morrissey, reproduced in NME's trashy, otherwise useless celebration of the 25th anniversary of the release of The Queen is Dead. The interview ends thus:

Together we talk about the future, the dreaded beast of Morrissey's worst dreams. You could almost say everything looks rosy. The world's favourite misery goat [eh?] seems radiant for a man in torment. He's left school, left home (almost), what next...a relationship, I suggest as a parting thought.

"I wanted to say this to you," he says slowly in a tone of confidentiality. "I always thought my genitals were the result of some crude practical joke. I remember an NME interview in the very early 1970s - it was Gary Glitter. It concluded with the remark 'the constant reminder that there's something between his legs.' And I thought it might be quite fitting to end this with...the constant reminder that there's absolutely nothing between his legs."
I'm sure you're disappointing millions!
"I doubt it...which is very disappointing to me."

[This was edited only to remove an exclamation point inserted by the author in Morrissey's quoted speech, one that I found to be intrusive; forgive my own intrusion.]

We can take this passage two ways. First, we can peer at it as a distant relic. How young Morrissey is. It still makes sense to talk of him leaving school and leaving home (almost). We can look back and wonder about the role of the closet in his refusal to indulge in romantic details and in his famed celibacy (although perhaps the celibacy and the bodily discomfort is less a function of social reproach and more Crispian in nature?) and, at the same time, relish the fact that he has come to acknowledge that there is something between his legs, although we necessarily are forced to reconcile this with the comparison to Gary Glitter whose spangled, anthemic phallic enterprise now looks less like glam hedonism and more like an offer of sweets to passing youth. Or, we can take a more Morrisseyian approach and refuse to impose a historical filter; we can reject rolling the condom of nostalgia down the shaft of our memory, and see continuity and contact. After all, in the mid-1980s Morrissey cites an NME article about Gary Glitter from the early 1970s; we can appreciate his own sense of history as something continuous and ongoing. For all his supposed wry bathos, and however revolutionary The Smiths were, Morrissey was the last original glam rocker.

It is interesting that his choice of covers of Bowie, Bolan, and Reed are so uninteresting. With his intense musical scholarship and fastidious taste, we might have expected him to dig out a real rarity to cherish; instead, he picks Drive-In Saturday, Cosmic Dancer, and Satellite of Love. These are unimpeachable covers, to be sure, and I think the reason he picks these, other than the real reason, which is that they're amazing songs he loves, is that he is refusing to indulge in the retrospective analysis that makes these songs obvious classics; there was a time when he first heard them, when they were new and fresh and had not yet been canonised, and it is in this spirit that he covers them. What makes them so uninteresting is precisely what made them interesting.

Now, we spent a lot of time last week studying penis-horror; Morrissey's notion that his genitals are a "crude practical joke" refines the horror into something palpably crude, and, as a "practical joke", both functional and dysfunctional at once (which is the key dynamic and ambiguity of a "practical joke"). And we then come to that dynamic of plenitude and emptiness, of phallic insurrection and castration: the man who is a constant reminder of what is between his legs, and the man who deems himself a constant reminder that there is nothing between his legs. This is, one might think, a somewhat mellower, somewhat more subdued version of The Hangover, but the interviewer gives Morrissey the last word. The interviewer, sweetly exposing himself as a fan and admirer, enthusiastically says, "I'm sure you're disappointing millions!" Morrissey coolly responds, "I doubt it...which is very disappointing to me." At his most snapping and casually over-articulate, Morrissey rejects the sallow presumption of the phallic, and admits to desire. And that is exactly what was lacking in The Hangover. Desire, the desire that doubts itself and yet still desires; the desire that is dangerous and as explosive as it is implosive (Gary Glitter); the desire that always disappoints. It is this amusing, surprising impinging of desire and hope where there would seem to be none (where Morrissey says, there is none) that sweetens and deepens; the mistake made by The Hangover is that it opts for disgust (in penis-horror, but elsewhere as well) without having the courage to offer desire.

Now if you'll excuse me, it looks like Beyonce's set at Glastonbury is online; I'll be busy for a while, watching a force of nature.

Sunday Recommendations

My last few posts on The Hangover have seen my readership soar into the double digits; the last one in particular inspired an influx of page-views. I am enlightened enough to know, however, that putting "pedophilia", "pederasty" and "she-male" into any single post will guarantee more page-views than usual.

I promise I will never judge my readership, but may I just say? If you were disappointed for non-intellectual reasons when you came across my postings on The Hangovers, I suspect this is not the blog for you and you are not going to meet the kind of people you're looking for in the comments section. If you were disappointed intellectually, then by all means read on: I promise you much, much more of the same.

For today's Sunday Recommendation, I'm just going to recommend a book I really enjoyed. An alert reader bought it for me, I still don't really know why, except I read it and have enjoyed it thoroughly. It's about Tintin. And Barthes and Baudelaire and Derrida and Professor Calculus and Captain Haddock. It's called Tintin and the Secret of Literature by Tom McCarthy. The thing is, it's really enjoyable. It's like reading chocolate cake.

Now, I do worry. I suspect that if I were to investigate Tom McCarthy further, I'd discover that the chef of this cake is someone I might not like; it might be like eating a delicious chocolate cake and then discovering that it was cooked by a New York State Senator who voted against gay marriage. Of course, the opposite is also possibly true: it might be like eating chocolate cake and discovering it was cooked by . . . hmm, the New York State Senators who voted for gay marriage are for the most part cynically corrupt, foul-breathed creatures whose palms smell like sweat and coins, they just happened to get this one right. But you know what I'm saying. I might discover a novelist whose works I would treasure. Perhaps there are people shaking their head as they read this right now, the same sort of people who shook their heads because I didn't watch Flight of the Conchords; I can remedy that (I did with FotC).

By the way, Eminem has always been an interesting artist because he begins most tracks as though he's at the end of his tether, frothing, with the veins in his neck about to burst with pulses of rage, and from there he only gets angrier. But I think Nicki Minaj kicks his ass here and makes him sound a bit . . . silly?

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Hangover Part Two, Part Two: Treatment of LGBT Issues

A few days ago, an alert reader asked me about the treatment of GLBT themes in The Hangover II, prompting me to see the film. I would have sent a bill to the alert reader for the cost of the film and a pack of peanut M&Ms, except that the astute reader turned out to be right that this is a tremendously rich subject of study, quite possibly dissertation-worthy. Any fledgling queer-theorists (or "thinks" as I call them) should read the following analysis closely.

Over the past week, distracted only occasionally from the task at hand, I've attempted to track concepts of comedy, reality, and consequence through a pair of films. The world these films create and inhabit is extraordinarily self-contained, exemplified by the laughter of the characters, which ensures safety and protects the films against breaches in their surfaces. The movies promise to take us wild places but they never go there, making only small incursions into the unknown and then retreating quickly to the familiar and the pat, epitomised by two destinations rich with history, glamour, anthropological interest, and narrative opportunity, Las Vegas and Thailand, and yet what we get is """Vegas""" and """Thailand"""; and when the films do slide into wildness, they uncomfortably rein themselves back in (Tyson); or else they forget about where they were going (pedophilia) as the reassuring backdrop of the status quo is re-established.

So what about GLBT issues? Well, I'm going to make two arguments, both of which are, I'm sure, obvious. Just in case they are not, I've bolded each one.

1) This is not a film geared towards making GLBT youth feel good about themselves.

Just as we got to enjoy the now-classic "Paging Dr Faggot" scene in The Hangover, so we hear "gay" flung around as a modifying slur in the sequel. Watching these movies, one has the slightly sickly feeling that the auteurs are indulging in the post-ironic, post-identity transmission of: Of course we're not homophobic, that's why we can make gay jokes, like Chow saying "niggaz" isn't racist, because we're not racist either.

But this transmission is invariably accompanied by episodes of good old-fashioned gay panic, just to ensure the following simultaneous transmission: of course we're not homophobic, that's why we can make gay jokes, but look, we'll also experience some gay panic, because we don't want you to think we're actually gay.

And so when Ed Helms discovers that he has been penetrated by a she-male, we get run-of-the-mill gay panic: wide-eyed babbling, shivering, clawing for sanity while struggling for breath, the desperate search for a moral shower that can wash away the sins of the flesh and even, in what I do not think is a parody of The Crying Game, wretching. Seeing a penis on the object of desire results in horror, shock, and vomiting - not unrelated responses. The horror and the shock come from finding alien desire in oneself, vomiting is expelling that alien desire, barfing it out. In The Hangover II, the episode of panic is followed by a discussion of the obligation and capacity to forget. The message is clear: a male should be panicked to discover a penis as his object of desire; he must purge this or, most conveniently, repress it.

On the other hand, it would be unfair to fail to note that it does not deny Ed Helms' pleasure in being anally penetrated. This is oddly resolved at the end of the film. The "demon in me" is confused with the "semen in me", a rhyme of unmitigated castigation, and yet Stu seems to claim that demon; he demands recognition and, one might detect the stirrings of a political consciousness: it's about time that randy straight white men are freed from centuries of moral stricture and condescension and even downright prejudice. Sadly, there is very little to suggest that his unearthed desire and his newfound pride is going to find fruition in the marriage. That his wife might "get used" to his demonic side and his tattoo is promising, but, as I have said, these films promise more than they deliver. She insists on switching sides with him for the wedding ceremony itself so that as she marries him, she has the blank, untattooed side of his face to look at. So, maybe she'll accommodate him later? Maybe? Either way, there is only the promise of affirmation, the retreat into the safety of the "normal", and the punch is pulled. (Imagine if she whispered to him as they stood in front of the altar, "I have a strap-on", and Stu's expression turned to delight>? But that would be a very different film with a very different message).

Now, let's address a glaring issue. I started talking about LGBT themes. While this film disparages "gay" and puts the "trans" into sex work, we must not get confused. The Hangover oeuvre is about the kinds of guys who are shocked and disgusted by being anally-penetrated, the kinds of guys who end up with women (we are guaranteed a shot in the credit sequence of Phil and Alan with proper, vagina-toting women). The crucial point is this: Gay and Trans themes come up here not as "gay" or "trans" per se but as ways of conveying penis-horror.

The central scene in the movie is, of course, the discovery of Chow through his penis, poking up through fabrics in their Bangkok hotel room. "What is that?" "A spider's nest?" An ugly, dangerous thing spewing mites. Alan tastes it: "Shitake". This moment, as I know you know, specifically recalls the shower-room scene in Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming Pool Library, but I hardly need point out to you how different The Hangover's and Hollinghurst's narrator's approaches to the penis are? No, I don't.

The only figure in the film without penis horror is the monkey. The monkey licks Chow's penis, the first of many gags about the "gay monkey" and its fondness for putting its mouth on penises. Once again, we should hesitate before calling this mere gay-bashing (or monkey-bashing, for that matter). It's something more. The comic-disgusting actis replicated when the monkey licks the dismembered finger. It's an important point, because it's not just a visual rhyme playing on the similarity of the dismembered finger and a dick; the monkey is a Virgilian guide leading the men through the psychosexual hell that is The Hangover. Confusing the dismembered finger for a dismembered member is no accident made by a stupid, gay monkey; it's a crucial point: Teddy has, in a way, cut off a dick when he cuts off his finger. The dismembered finger is not a symbol of Teddy castrating himself, but rather castrating his father who lived on in the phallic image of his perfect son.

So, we have a film that, in every way, encourages forgetting and repression, and has a compelling, convincing, and consistent message: the penis is revolting, even when appended to a woman. Gays and Trans aren't evil or moral reprobates, they just have a disgusting relationship with a disgusting object. Arguably, as Stallybrass and White famously said, "disgust bears the imprint of desire", but a film like The Hangover is too formally committed to its retreats, too immersed in the convenience of disgust, and too uninterested to allow that concept any room to breath (in just the same way that it suffocates the possibility of any good Asian jokes with jaw-droppingly obvious ones; in just the same way as it stifles Tyson, particularly in his return in this film).

2) So, the first point is obvious: the auteurs have no real interest in gay or trans issues, gays and transgendered people aren't targetted per se, they're just collateral damage; the real point is penis horror.

The more confusing issue hearkens back to Part One, Part One.

Once again, we are invited to see Alan as a pederast, this time with 16 year old Teddy. Um, even his name gives it away: Teddy to the Bear.

When he first meets Teddy and learns he is "pre-med", Alan asks him about Doogie Howser and then points out that the actor was gay. He says he learned this in Teen People. His immediate associations are sexual and, shall we say, age-inappropriate?

Alan quickly explains his antagonism towards Teddy. Teddy would disrupt the "wolf-pack", i.e. his friendship with the other lads. But is that entirely convincing? Is that why he stares at Teddy with such lingering intensity? Is that why he blurts out "in your face", or why he says to the boy: "It's illegal. It'd be a shame if anybody reported you"?

The subtext is barely sub at all. Once again, there is the implication that Alan is a pedo. But when Alan's head is shaved, he is effectively neutered, Samson-like, and the Alan-as-pedo routine is dropped, at which point pederasty becomes an explicit, instead of an implicit, topic. The tattoo artist tells the 9-year old he's tattooing to show them his balls. When the wolf-pack enter a bar, one of them says they're looking for a little kid. The owner answers, "Okay. $2000."

What does any of this mean?

I trust that you will have picked up two themes in these postings about The Hangovers. One, my attempt to find some meaning in the comedy; two, my acceptance of my failure to do so. Not everything has to be clever. Not everything has to be heavy. Yes, there are very interesting undercurrents suggesting that the only lovable weird character in the films is a pedo; yes, Mike Tyson has quite an interesting role in the first film; yes, there's one of the few parodies I've seen of the photograph of Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner; yes, there is a Virgilian monkey leading the characters through the psychosexual symbolism of penile hell; but ultimately the film works to forget these problemata, to erase them.

One fascinating possibility is that these films are arguing that the reconstruction of memory can only take place with the forced repression of memory; or, even better, the reconstruction of a narrative memory can only take place with the forced repression of certain memories. It's not just a matter of simplification, but rather the formed story needs to be a linear, coherent, normatively-paced substitute for the ambiguous, haphazardly-beating pulse of life itself, and must silence, or forget, the off-tempo beats that dysregulate it. As each Hangover moves towards the reconstructed narrative, it sheds the confusion, it forgets what it needs to forget; it presents us with violence, pederasty, sodomy, and then demonstrates how these must be shed to reconstitute the "normal", with the recuperation of the status quo, where the remainders - the hangover - is no longer real, but only a symptom.

A second fascinating possibility is that these films are intentional enactments of the forgetting of obscenity, running through a formidable array of obscenities - the history of colonialism in the United States (Vegas as the ultimate symbol of a freedom for rich, white males purchased cheap) and globally (Thailand as a site occupied by Western sex tourists, foreign criminals, and importers of corporate goods), which is a history of the obscenity of power; the history of sex, which is a history of exploitation and the obscenity of the penis; the history of violence, which is also a history of cross-racial encounters and the obscenity of human difference. The films promises the reconstruction of obscenity as the characters piece together the violence and destruction and violations of the night before, but this reconstruction is accompanied by active forgetting, repression, justifications, and the construction of a normative narrative that will permit the final return to the status quo, where remainders and reminders are no longer threatening, they are symptoms of recovery. This is a crucial point: a hangover is a lingering weariness and suffering but is also a physical path back into sobriety, tinged with regret and recuperation.

Were you at all surprised that nobody was hurt when Alan ran the motorboat into the wedding reception? How much better would the film have been if Alan had run the motorboat into the wedding reception and run over and killed Doug? Why Doug? Doug is the excluded member of the wolf-pack, the facilitator, but ultimately the most castrated member of the group, the one without an ugly penis, but who is, like Teddy's finger, therefore a dismembered penis? There is no consequence other than regret, which is a form of moral reconstitution after-the-fact, and acceptance of physical punishment. Doug survives, Teddy is unmolested, the wedding goes on.

And we can add one more point: these films are enactments of forgetting, and it is precisely as such that they are compulsively repetitive. "It happened again . . ." There can be a Hangover III, Hangover IV, this series can go on forever, convulsively, repetitively, regenerating and forgetting and then repeating. If you want to take this theory seriously, then you must face the following: in a rejection of psychoanalysis (which would be odd, because this film seems to be so undeterred in making a psychoanalytically-derived theme its only sustained theme), the fundamental trauma is not the trauma of castration, but the trauma of having a penis in the first place. The fundamental obligation to forget is because you desire the penis you have. It is only through forgetting that you can reconstitute yourself narratively. And if this is true, then all psychopathology resides not in developmental regression or conflict, but in the constitutive ideal of heteronormative masculinity.

A third possibility is less flattering, but weird and, in my mind at least, ill-formed. What direction does a work of art look? Does it look to the real, whether because it is mimetic, or inspired, or therapeutic, or curious? Or does it look to you, the audience? In Part One of this series on The Hangover, I mentioned this issue: the film is full of guarantees of safety, most obviously in its persistent internal laughter; I am also certain that not a single person, not one, who watched The Hangover II thought that there was going to be the slightest hint of carnage when Alan drove the speedboat over the dock onto dry land, much less that there would be widespread boat-murder of the wedding party, Stu's wife, of the castrated penis, Doug. The film makes a promise to its imaginary "you" that there will be safety; to enjoy the film and to accept this promise makes "you" what exactly? What promises did you accept from this film, and were they delivered? Was it worth the cost of a price of tickets and a packet of peanut M&Ms? What exactly is the hangover from the Hangovers?

I haven't a clue, these films are beyond me, which is why I promise never, ever to write about them again.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hangover Part Two, Part One: Asians

Is found here. I started a paragraph a few days ago before getting distracted, and blogger apparently thinks it belongs on the day that first paragraph was written?

But since I'm here, the best thing I've read in ages.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Enchanted and slanted

I was enchanted and dispirited by three FAILs today.

The first is David Denby's review of Summer blockbuster films in the New Yorker, which was the least enchanting and somehow most dispiriting of the three FAILs.

Of the New Yorker critics, Denby's taste is the worst, actually worse than Lahr's and Lane's, but Lahr can be interesting, and both Lahr and Lane are sometimes pleasures to read. Hilton Als and Brother Sasha Jones have a lot going for them, and, obviously, the improbably-named Acocella and Schjeldahl are the two best critics the New Yorker has ever had. Denby's review, however, would have been considered creaky and dusty even for a rag like Newsweek or Time. Most of all, it betrays a complete ignorance of film history that left me blushing on his behalf.

The second FAIL is more retrospective, and also comes from the New Yorker, which, astute readers will have realised, did arrive safely in the mail. The FAIL comes in the form of the two letters about Malcolm Gladwell's last thought-marshmallow. How is it, I ask myself and now you, that the New Yorker continues to publish Gladwell if they find themselves printing letters a week or two later that patiently and succinctly show how utterly wrong and utterly superficial Gladwell's analysis was? I know everybody loves Gladwell: he's sort of a Foucault-figure, if Foucault had been kicked in the head by a wild horse when he was a small child wandering happily through a glade sniffing daisies. Take a cliche, turn it upside down, and illustrate with three anecdotes, all told in the vacantly-happy sing-song of a recent convert to a particularly impuissant cult.

The third FAIL is brought to us by the Republican Leadership Conference whose on-stage entertainment, an Obama impersonator called Reggie Brown, had the plug pulled on his performance when his act moved from mocking Obama to mocking the Republicans. Laughter turned to boos and a long cane came out from the wings and pulled him from the stage. Well, not quite; but they did pull the plug, turn on the music, interrupt his performance, and hustle him off. (There are some competing claims here: Brown himself says he just ran over time, and the RLC President Charlie Davis says he would have pulled the plug earlier if he knew there was going to be so many racist jokes.)

What are we to make of this? Well, okay, the Republican crowd laughed at crass racist jokes, given the imprimatur of non-racism because they were coming from a black man, followed by "controversy" over "inappropriate" jokes that were . . . about Republicans. It's a public relations FAIL, and tips the Republicans' hand: it really was about the racism and the chance to laugh at a black man. But then, I actually have some sympathy: who hasn't been in a situation where you're laughing at an act and then you start getting uncomfortable with what they're saying?

It seems that most analysts are scuppered. The story is blogged by Ta-Nehisi Coates a senior editor for The Atlantic, where "senior" presumably implies "toothless" as he gums helplessly at this peach of a story. Thank God for CNN, where the analysis is so banal and witless, that even Gladwell and Denby could watch it with furrowed brows. Dean Obeidallah calls Brown a minstrel and then bleats about Republican censorship.

But why not pull him from the stage? Who's obliged to keep any entertainer on stage at a political event when that entertainer starts crapping in your punchbowl? Does the Republican Leadership Conference have some sort of aesthetic-artistic-moral duty to sit through something they don't like simply because the comedian is being true to his art? I don't think it's admirable: I think it exposes their frailty and their fragility, but it's not "censorship".

The amazing problem here is why comedy suddenly stops being funny when it targets what you hold precious, however vaguely and wobbly the targetting is. Rarely do we get to see this happen so spectacularly. The Republicans hoot like geese flying North as they glide along the slipstream of comedy over Obama's America, and then, as if struck by an airplane of full of Republican jokes, fall silent or emit strangled "boos" as they plummet from the skies.

Obviously one of the key dynamics in comedy is between inclusion and exclusion, and it's extraordinary to see the quality of funniness so closely appended to this dynamic. Calling Brown a "minstrel" for performing "racially-insensitive" gags at a Republican Leadership Conference is one way of reading inclusion and exclusion (see how Ta-Nehisa Coates smirks that Brown will get a membership in a country club for his performance), but not the only one, especially when the act's overall trajectory is rather more nimble and inclusive.

There is no lasso of inclusion or barbed wire fence of exclusion in comedy, but a play of interpretive connections that situate the joker, the audience, and the butt of the joke in relation to one another, intimating exteriority and interiority; what happened at the Republican Leadership Committee was so odd because the 'play' and the situating and the intimations were rendered so literal and so enacted. Faced with ambiguity and discomfort, they reacted forcefully to squash that ambiguity and discomfort; it is not surprising that this is the most powerful political party in the world today, despite being wrong about everything.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Hangover, Part Two, Part One: Asians

So, having discussed The Hangover here and here, we now move on to Part Two, the sequel, honing in on an alert reader's request that we spend some time thinking about how the film handles LGBT issues. We're not quite ready yet. We need to deal with something else before we can go there.

So, there were two surprisingly funny moments in a film otherwise as predictable as the look on a vegan's face when you tell her the tofu turkey isn't tofu.

(It's a bull-penis turkey).

Both comic moments came in the closing credit sequence where we're shown photographs from the forgotten night of debauchery; and yes, it's sad that the only two surprisingly funny moments in The Hangover II come in the closing credit sequence.

The first is a sequence of photographs revealing how Teddy (Mason Lee) loses his finger. (If you thought that throughout the film Lee was acting with all the forced mannerisms of a student actor, probably one who is the child of a famous director, you'd have been right.) Teddy chops his finger off when playing the game where you jab a knife as rapidly as possible between your splayed fingers. While it is quite funny in its own right, the joke also speaks to a developed if banal theme in the film. The overachieving Asian youth rebelling against his parents and sabotaging them by sabotaging himself is perhaps passingly familiar as a trope, and some harsh critics might assert that it is a "full-blown clic" (although we would quickly riposte that "full-blown cliché" is a cliché), but the gag at least was part of a narratively-driven, psychologically-consistent development rewarded with a punchline, something otherwise lacking in the film.

The second surprisingly funny scene was also the only shocking moment in a film that smugly tit-toes through the Garden of Transgression like it's the Queen of Shock about to roust the Trespasser of Complacency from his snooze. It involves the tiresome Chow, played by the go-to-guy for any director snapping at a casting assistant, "Let's find an Asian who'll be a stooge for Asian jokes . . . what am I saying? Get Ken Jeong on the line!"

In this particular amusing sequence of photographs in the closing credits, Chow is playing with a gun; as the photographs fly past, we see things getting out of hand until suddenly Chow is holding the gun up against Phil's neck.

It's a fairly mild gag about impulsive, unstable men with their drugs and their bombs and their guns and their bombs.

But suddenly, flashing before our eyes, right after we've seen Chow holding a gun to Phil's throat, there's a reversal. Phil is holding a gun to Chow's head.

Did you see it? And then it was gone. But the final snapshot in the Chow-Phil-Gun sequence in the closing credits was based on another famous photograph.

What famous image served as the exact model for the snapshot?

Let's take half a step back. In this stupid film, there are oodles of Asian jokes, mostly accompanied by the internal laughter I've been describing. Phil makes a crack about the size of Asian women's boobs - which was not the first time a single person in the world would have heard that joke, that day - and we get a cut to Ed Helms. As a white guy about to marry an Asian woman, he laughs the joke off on behalf of all Asians. Being able to speak for the single most populous racial demographic is something of a compensation for committing yourself to small boobs, is it not?

Anyway, the Asian jokes are, as they would say, rame. Thailand or, as Alan pronounces it,"Thigh-land" (I think they were trying for the "If it's not funny the first time, it'll be funny the fifth time, and then it won't be funny again, until the twelfth time, when it once again becomes funny" approach) - anyway, as I was saying, Thailand and Asia are reduced to backdrops, sometimes pretty, sometimes unfathomable, but of no real interest. We get the usual motifs: sex tourism, slurping noodles, small boobs, martial arts, monkeys and monks, all worth a joke or two. And come on, did we expect anything else? I didn't go see The Hangover II for its clever investigation of things Asian - and, that's okay. Not everything has to be about Asia. I get it.

What can we say about Asia, then, based on this film? There are some almost-interesting peripheral figures, but they're mainly not Asian: the Russian mobsters, the fat American . . . and an Arab of some sort? Why were all the criminals not Asian? Was it a radical take on Thai cosmopolitanism or a pointed refusal to fill the screen with Thai criminals? Who the hell knows. The film limits itself to obvious Asian jokes; it seems to imply that Asia is a receptacle for transnational criminality; and, in a film that burps up a new sponsor every few minutes, Asia merely belongs on a corporate continuum from IHOP through Smartwater to Long John Silvers, Fanta, and PF Changs.

But one thing is for sure, with that snapshot of Phil as Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan and Chow as a Viet Cong prisoner, the auteurs wink, blink, or grimace at a whole other set of relations between the United States and Asia. You might say it's weird having a Chinese-American in Thailand standing in for a suspected Viet Cong officer, but having Phil in place of Nguyen Ngoc Loan pulls no punches. What does it hit? I'm not sure. The whole thing has been so mushy and so afraid to move beyond the easily-recognisable stereotype and familiar jokes that it's hard for me to know quite what happened there. But it's the only astonishing moment of comic hubris in a film that thinks it hit the comic hubris goldmine; it's the only unsettling moment in a film full of gags intended to unsettle.

At the end of the film, One Night In Bangkok, the Andersson-Ulvaeus-Rice collaboration most famously performed by Anthony Head's brother, is performed by an off-key Tyson and edited into a bits. The song is one of the great, wry Orientalist tracks in music history, with several of the best couplets in pop history ("Siam's gonna be the witness/to the ultimate test of cerebral fitness/this grips me more than would a/muddy old river or reclining Buddha" - which arguably isn't even the best verse in the song). It could have served as a template for the entire film, with its confused synthesis of erotics and disdain, its contemptuous opinion that could belie a certain underlying respect or appreciation, its insistent focus on the Western in Bangkok, and where reconstructing the night would substitute for chess. But the track is more sordid, more unsettling, and, in its few words more evocative than any of the scenes in the movie, every line is better thought-out, and it is far funnier than The Hangover II. By showing Tyson singing it off-key, the auteurs make a dope of Tyson - it's as if they were embarrassed that twelve seconds of One Night In Bangkok is better than two hours of The Hangover II and so, kamikaze-like, used an ingenuous, gullible Tyson to bring it down.

The alert reader who suggested I address GLBT issues wanted me to do so soon; instead, we've discussed pedophilia, Tyson, and Asians.

We'll get to GLBT issues tomorrow, but I wanted to set the stage: The Hangovers are two cowardly films, pointing or gesturing or feinting towards the darkly taboo but then retreating; as we see manifested in Tyson's tired, flat return, the film is all about pulling its punches, even if the occasional one gets through.

The Hangover, Part One, Part Two: Tyson

In last week's final post, I mentioned that it was not clear to me what The Hangover was targeting in its comedy about pedophilia. Christopher Morris satirises media hysteria and public outrage; The Simpsons is in a twenty-year dialogue with television culture; but The Hangover? Anything? Bueller? Bueller? Sometimes jokes do not have much heft, and that's okay.

One of the more interesting things in The Hangover is Mike Tyson's crucial cameo; in a film that refrains from connecting with the real and the consequential, having somebody play himself is enormously satisfying, an anchor into the world. Apparently, during their renegade night of safe-white-male-terrorism, the wolf-pack stole Mike Tyson's tiger. CCTV footage leads Tyson to the men and he insists they bring the tiger back; eventually they do so, not without some adventure.

Up until the final moment, Tyson is a mesmerising figure. When he first appears, he lashes a punch that knocks out Alan. Violent but sensitive, Tyson peers out in a half-squint as if unsure what is expected of him. He is a figure of athleticism and strange delicacy, a reservoir of brutal power but also etiquette not unlike, perhaps, a house-trained tiger. At least twice he is addressed as “Champ”, an honourary term he occupies without irony or condescension – despite the multitude of scandals, he is one of the greatest boxers in history. When he first appears in the hotel room, he is shadow-drumming along with a Phil Collins song. It would be a mistake to see this only as a joke about a burly black athlete being a fan of the definitively white, 1980s chartbuster. Collins is also a point of reference, consistent precisely with that admixture of violence and sensitivity, contextualising Tyson as a particular modern American archetype, the alienated male whose violences are not entirely unforgiven, whose self-justifications are not entirely unheard: he is bound in the reference to Phil Collins with Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman and Eminem’s Stan.

But then at the end of the film, there’s a joke. One of the wolf-pack has commented apologetically about bad behaviour the night before. Tyson laughs it off, saying that one cannot be held responsible for what one does when drunk. The men around him onscreen laugh. On the one hand, Tyson is being generous: he forgives the debaucheries that these men have committed against him, his property, his tiger, and, indeed, all of Las Vegas. The figure of always-possibly forgiven violence becomes a figure of forgiveness; the Phil Collins reference is not so jarring. On the other hand, the line is still also a reference to Tyson’s own behaviour – and, irrevocably, to the charge of rape for which he went to prison. In a role that rehabilitates Tyson as wiser, self-parodic, and, insistently, as a man who deserves the title Champ, and in a film where Tyson is one of the few intersections with consequence and reality, this last line, which earns the onscreen laughter of the men around him, suggests a glib rehabilitation and easy forgiveness, one in which the easy-to-forgive debaucheries of fictional characters in a mock-up of Las Vegas are blended with something real, something uncertain, but something very dark. And just to make sure we know, the men laugh. This is the internal laughter that runs throughout The Hangover, the laugh track that lets us know what is supposed to be funny and what is not. It also runs throughout The Hangover, Part Two, as we shall see in a week of posts, I kid you not, dedicated to The Hangover oeuvre.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sunday Recommendations

I went with an astute reader to see The Tree of Life, which was basically an Ingmar Bergman-directed nature documentary. Make of that what you will. The astute reader and I decided to cleanse our skulls and our spirits by making it a double-feature; I was rather hoping to see Super 8, but the astute reader dragged me to see X-Men: First Class.

What a movie! OMG. I haven't had this much fun in a cinema since I bumped into Betty Zambrowski in the back row of Tumbler's Revenge in 1988 and after the credits she took me out and taught me to fly in her Chevy '73. It was that awesome. The script and the cast were brilliant, but, really, no, this was almost entirely James McAvoy's film, and that's even taking into consideration Michael Fassbender's brilliant performance.

Do you remember another prequel - this time Ewan MacGregor (a fine, fine actor) doing his Alec Guinness impression as the young Obi Wan Kenobi? You know, in those Star Wars prekills? MacGregor's performance was kinda funny as a parody, kinda clever as an impersonation, but it was all a bit "I'm doing a young Alec Guinness"? In all fairness, it was the closest anybody came to acting in those films. But anyway, James McAvoy's young Xavier is not only an utterly brilliant performance in and of itself, as magnetically charming as Max Eisenhardt is charmingly magnetic, but without hamming it up in any way, and with a thick bush of hair on his head, his young Xavier is destined to become Patrick Stewart. It's astonishing.

But maybe . . . there's something that lingers in Michael Fassbender's performance after the film, a desperate intensity or, to use a word that is far too common, something haunted. The film leaks charisma like someone on an operating table during a zombie apocalypse leaks blood. The film drips romance the way the flowers on John Hughes' grave drips dew. But it's also the best Holocaust film ever! (I don't consider Inglourious Basterds a "Holocaust film" per se).

Those of you who think that anything that appeals to the thwarted inner teenager still festering over his complexion or worrying about what her friends think deep down inside your grown-up self is necessarily annoying should probably avoid this film as avidly as I've avoided commas; but otherwise, this film is an official, trademarked Sunday Recommendation.

And here are some other odd destinations. They all have a certain teenage appeal, and they're slightly strange or disconcerting journeys but when you get to the end, you feel as though you were in the right place all along:

Speaking of odd destinations with a certain teenage appeal that were right all along: RIP the Big Man, Clarence Clemons.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Hangover Part One, Part One: Pedophilia

I was at dinner with a friend at a fancy restaurant in London, enjoying a plate of fresh local asparagus, when a propos of very little, I said, "God, I hate pedophiles." My friend immediately pounced. "What? You hate people who like children? Because that's what 'pedophilia' means, from the Greek roots, 'pedo', 'child', and 'philia', 'likes'. So you hate parents who like their children, or teachers who like their pupils? You're such a dick!" What could I say? My friends are all pedos.

It led us to reminisce about the great pedophilia jokes. There is, I think, one great modern moment in comedy about pedophilia. It is, of course, Christopher Morris' extended riff on the media and paedophilia, Paedogeddon.

Another minor moment in the comedy of pedophilia can be found in The Simpsons movie - a film that I ought to re-watch because I certainly felt at the time that it met the two challenges facing it: will it be funny? and will it translate a television show to the big-screen? (The latter question was particularly important because, above all other things, The Simpsons is a show by, for, and about the television). Anyway, do you remember the more or less conventional sequence where Bart skateboards through Springfield without any trousers on, and full nudity is prevented by conveniently placed objects between his body and the screen? And then suddenly he goes underneath something and we get to see Bart in below-the-waist frontal nudity? It was a nice double-gag: we thought we were supposed to enjoy the reference to Austin Powers, and instead, we were shocked by a gag that blasted through Austin Powers' parody of coy cinematic conventions for intimating but disguising nudity, a gag that was no doubt considered for prosecution - and something I don't even think South Park has done?

And of course there is the theme of pedophilia in The Hangover. You might remember the scene where Zach Galifianakis, as Alan, has the baby "Carlos" simulate masturbation. And just to make sure the stunned and amused audience knows what he's doing, we get to see it twice. Remember, we've already been told: Alan isn't allowed within two hundred feet of schools . . . or Chuck E. Cheese. And remember, when they're driving to Vegas and Alan is leaning out of the car screaming "Road Trip" and attracting the attention of the car in the next lane, it's not, as one would expect, a car filled with buxom blondes, but rather we see in the back seat a small fair-haired girl. That she gives him the finger should not make us any less uneasy with the undercurrents here.

In any case, this is all somewhat interesting. If Morris has an agenda and if his satire is targeted with all the lip-curling intensity of a monomaniacal assassin coiling to administer the death-blow, if the Simpsons is one-upping Austin Powers (by showing that a gag about prurience is itself prurient) - and both claims could be developed and expanded and added-to - what is the minimum we could say about the pedophilia in The Hangover?

Well, it's kinda funny? I suppose we could say that there is comedy to be had in something that manages to appear to be both fundamentally harmless and shocking. The eruption of the harmless shock is a fairly common comic trick. And comedy is very effective at eking out elaborate forms of harmless shock, all the more impressive because the overlap between the categories of the harmless and the shocking would seem, intuitively, to be fairly meagre.

We could look more closely at the character of Alan who is more cuddly than creepy, more alienated than alienating, while recognising that just because he is more cuddly or more alienated does not mean he is not creepy or alienated. The fact that we're being told that a potential pedophile is the most sympathetic figure in the film and the one put in charge of the baby has a certain subversive frisson. But going back to the scene where Alan has the baby simulate masturbation: he's at a table with Bradley Cooper's Phil. We get one shot of Phil in the middle of this skit and he's laughing it off. But look closely at the laugh: it's a carefully crafted laugh that allows a very mild disapproval and some benign condescension while signalling easy enjoyment of the joke, which in turn effectively communicates to the audience: don't worry, this is really safe, we're only talking about a guy doing something inappropriate, not a pedophile doing . . . that.

For my next post, we're going to come back to the internal laughter in The Hangover. But for today, I just want to point something very obvious out: the comedy is operating here as a performance that is divorced from the real. Hence the "harmlessness". It is not always the case that the performance is so easily divorced. There are times when we are not so sure whether what we are seeing is a performance or real. I can think of two examples from recent memory: Dr Thraft and a certain Amazon book review, which has been deemed more helpful than any other review of Go the Fuck to Sleep (and has also been deemed less helpful than any other review).

My suspicion is that The Hangover, for all its purported wildness, makes a lot more promises than it keeps. The scene when the characters wake up amidst chaos, reminiscent of course of Stoppard's After Magritte, and must reconstruct what happened leaves certain details unaccounted for, certain visual promises unfulfilled. The provenance of the tiger may be explained, but not some of the other details that the camera allows us or invites us to pick up. In the same way, the film makes certain promises about deranged and dangerous comedy that it never keeps: we think we're going to be dealing with something really taboo, but, don't worry, we're not even really going there, we'll be smoothing the edges and making sure you don't get too uncomfortable (we'll also come back to this "you") - we'll make sure you know that however shocking it is, it's also harmless. The Hangover is a bit like Las Vegas itself: you want to think the city promises you everything, and while it's quite easy to have a good time there, you won't get all your money back, and when you think about it, when you think really hard about it, you realise that you can see the city watching you as it holds out some small replica of a promise-delivered and you take that replica and convince yourself that the promise has been fulfilled. Didn't nobody tell you the house always wins?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

I am Spartacus

This morning, I could not help but notice that the number one "most helpful" negative review of the number one bestseller on Amazon was written by none other than yours truly.

Go the Fuck to Sleep, by Adam Mansbach and illustrated by Ricardo Cortés, is a children's book of sweet rhymes and lovingly-painted images of calming scenes of animals, babies, and landscapes; with reassuring references to lambs and the pangolins of Madagascar, the narrator implores his or her child to go the fuck to sleep.

The cats nestle close to their kittens,
The lambs have laid down with the sheep.
You're cozy and warm in bed, my dear.
Please go the fuck to sleep.

You can find my review here. I suggest that you read it before going on. And the comments. The comments are very good.

As anybody knows, parenting is not a perpetual state of amiable bliss and blossoming pride, but a constant struggle with frustration, despair, rage, panic, resentment, and resignation, interspersed with moments of hope that are dashed like your favourite bowl flung from an infant's fingers because there wasn't enough apple sauce in it. Go the Fuck to Sleep captures this parental state of being in all its desperation and yet it retains the smile, the humour that actually makes the desperation worthwhile. Now, as one person wryly notes, there is a great deal of pleasure to be had in those people who take my review of Go the Fuck to Sleep seriously, and particularly the ones who get hot and bothered and counsel me on parenting, call me an "idiot" and a "moron" (two epithets that come up with ego-deflating frequency), threaten to call Child Protective Services, and, best of all, are horrified that I apparently kept reading the book to a child night after night even though it "made him cry".

So far, at least two people have made the point that I gave the book one star, thus lowering the book's average star rating on amazon (one of the people makes the point in a sympathetic way, and one of them rather more angrily, although this latter person had made an earlier comment and then deleted it when cottoning on to the fact that the review was a joke, and so was justifying his or her anger at being "punked" with some righteousness on behalf of the aggrieved authors). Do I have any regrets about giving the book one star? After all, if I were to write a book, the first person who gave it one star, whatever the reason, even if complaining that amazon sent it to the wrong address, would send me into a spiral of despair that would end up with me guzzling $2 cartons of wine and muttering over and over "they didn't like it, they didn't like it" until I was finally run over by one of those street-cleaning vehicles that sprays water and dirt and old plastic bottles onto the sidewalk. The answer is: not really. As I posted in the comments section, I knew this book would get many positive reviews (parents are having more orgasms over this book than they are with each other); plus, I pointed out to myself, what authors could object to the fact that the most popular, most widely-read, most highly-rated negative review is actually a joke based on their book with nothing negative to say about the book, and is in fact a parodic caricature of those who don't get the book? I like to think that when my as-yet-incomplete masterpiece hits, the most popular, most widely-read, most highly-rated negative review will give my book one star "only because it's too short and I was gagging for more, more, more". But those are the quasi-righteous reasons. The other two reasons were less moral in nature. Nobody reads two and three star reviews other than the authors of the book. And, the most important reason of all: the tone of outrage and victimisation, hyperbolic and hurt, had to begin at the beginning, with a single star. It was the comic set-up. And, let's face it, you can't make a sticky, wet comic omlette without breaking an egg.

Really, who can complain about a funny negative review for a funny book? Unfortunately, it turns out that the authors of Go the Fuck to Sleep did not, as so many of us thought, intend their book to be funny; they were deadly serious when they wrote and illustrated it. Word on the street is that they are seething at the ironic-hipster-parents who "love" their book because it's so "funny" and they are not taking too kindly to "amusing" reviews on amazon. Given that they met in Riker's for a plethora of knife- and horse-related charges, those of us who have in any way crossed them are getting very antsy. So if for some reason over the next five years I stop blogging, please alert the police immediately and let them know that they might have reason to look into this incident, and should the police find a bloodied stroller in one of the authors' backyards, they should know they've got the murder weapon. In the meantime, I'm asking all of my readers to recall the famous scene in Spartacus: if you're asked about the authorship of the review, please stand up and say, "It is I who did it! I am Spartacus!" (Unfortunately, the authors will know it is me because, like Spartacus in the movie, I'll be the only one not saying I did it).