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).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Your Daily Llama

Here's a joke going wrong. An Australian TV anchor, or, as I like to call them, a TV deadweight, is interviewing the Dalai Lama and tells a joke his son told him: So the Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop . . . and says, "Can you make me one with everything?"

The Dalai Lama, pleading for help from his interpreter, waits for the punchline . . . after the anchor has delivered it. The anchor cracks up, acutely aware that the joke has plummeted from the heights of comic nirvana into the material rocks far below, where it fractures into a thousand unblessed coughs of embarrassment.

The bit I really love is when the two men face each other, quite kindly and sweetly, and the Australian anchor says "Do you know I mean?" It's a very human moment because clearly the Dalai Lama has no idea what he means.

Anway, with the professionally self-effacing charm of benign morning television "hosts", the anchor goes on to explain what the joke means, making use of some cringeworthy mime. The Dalai Lama, perhaps sort of guessing the meaning of the joke and certainly understanding the question, then seems to say, "Theoretically impossible."

Theoretically impossible? But not . . . practically impossible?

What does he mean? Does he mean that it is theoretically impossible to be at one with everything or that it is theoretically impossible for the surly, gum-smacking kid behind the counter at your local pizzeria to make you (at) one with everything? Or is that the Dalai Lama finds it theoretically impossible that he would order a pizza that, including everything, would be loaded with pepperoni, beef, sausage and anchovies?

Obviously, hating on the Dalai Lama would be like urinating on the baby Jesus in his manger, murdering the shepherds, buggering their flocks of sheep, and then lying in wait for the Three Kings to steal their gold, frankincense and myrrh; it's not something one does. And surely this good-spirited encounter doesn't deserve to be analysed as anything other than a pleasant encounter rife with misunderstanding resulting from difficulties in translation?

But I think something quite interesting happened: we get to watch the combined failure of the comic and the spiritual, with the resurrection of the former but not the latter.

The failure of comedy can be comic, because failure can be amusing; there is, in comedy, no theoretical impossibility either in content or in practice. A comic narrative may involve the suspension of disbelief but that is, quite precisely, refusing to countenance theoretical impossibility; and because the failure of comedy can be comic, as we see in this example (in varying degrees: the anchor's laughter is one type of laughter at the failure of his comedy, but our laughter at him, and at his laughter, may be another), there is no end to comedy: the final moment, the human teleological last gasp, however dramatic, however pitiable, could still be funny.

But for a theological figure to denounce the theoretical possibility of something is absurd; a day's-worth of oil that can burn for eight days, turning water into wine, being the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of compassion - theoretically impossible! Now, before you use those mad assassin moves you learned during your retreat in Dharamsala and, prior to jabbing your little finger into my lifebutton, I will concede that, of course, the Dalai Lama might be right in saying that it is "theoretically impossible" to be at one with everything, in just the same way that a Christian who believes that God bestowed divine wisdom on George W. Bush could say it is "theoretically impossible" for the Dalai Lama to go to heaven. But this "theoretically impossible" is only a tautology: Here's my theory; whatever is exterior to it is "theoretically impossible". That is not actually a pronouncement on actual theoretical possibility but is an arbitrary reification of arbitrary theological convention. As such, it is an act of theological force, a demonstration of power, not an assessment of what is or is not theoretically possible.

To respond to a joke that some part of it is not "theoretically possible" is to fail to get the joke; in the examples above of what might have been "theoretically impossible", we have at least three potential impossibilities. I'm not daintily lambasting the Dalai Lama for failing to get the joke per se; but I don't want to let him off the hook for what he actually did say just because he is so benign.

To resort to "theoretically impossible" in a comic context is to refuse (or fail) to get the joke, but comedy can spin out of this failure; to resort to "theoretically impossible" in a spiritual context is to apply the conventions of the intellect to the mystery of the spiritual, which is not just putting lipstick on a pig, it's adding pearl earrings and a dress, and then taking the pig to the prom and then being surprised when you don't win "cutest couple".

Monday, June 13, 2011


You may have heard this story? The blog A Gay Girl in Damascus was not written, as one might think probable, by a gay girl in Damascus but, even more probably, by a white 40-year-old American academic in Scotland. Fortunately, it was not the white 40-year-old American academic in Scotland whom I know, although if he were to write his dream blog, I can't help but think "A Gay Girl in Damascus" would be a great title for it.

People have been very critical of the man; perhaps the most important criticism was the following:
Gay activists in Syria have reacted with fury to the revelation of the blogger's true identity and to the suggestion that MacMaster had written it in an attempt to help their cause."There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country," wrote Sami Hamwi, a pseudonym for the Damascus editor of "We have to deal with [more] difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] activism. Add to that that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us."
I haven't bolded or italicised anything here; the powerful points speak for themselves. One finds other journalistic critiques rather tiresome, especially in the United States where, as Glenn Greenwald shows with nosehair-tweezing regularity, journalists protect the anonymity of powerful sources as they disseminate their snide and deceitful opinion without any repercussions or obligation to the truth. The sources are like fat, breathless ninjas who need the protection of their journalist lackeys to assassinate the enemies of the state. In a way, then, not that different from what A Married Guy in Edinburgh did.

But one issue has particularly piqued my interest. He has been calling it a hoax. And it is being treated as a hoax elsewhere. From what I can tell, he had two main purposes in writing the blog: he wanted it to be a writing exercise and he had some political points-of-view.

In terms of the former, I'm sorry to say that my only thought when I read the blog (before the true author was revealed) was "This is pretty mundane, phony-sounding American writing in a tough situation" - let me hasten to add, I didn't think for a minute that the person writing the blog was a middle-aged, married American male; the phoniness was the phoniness of narcissistic bloggers, coy and brash at once. Basically, bad writing. So does that mean Macmaster's a good writer? It all depends upon intent. Are his poems intended to be good poems or bad poems? Either way, then, it's not so much a hoax on this count as an impersonation, and one can judge it on those terms. Judging it a "hoax" already suggests that we should sympathise with the point-of-view of the journalists and government officials who weirdly decided that they would take this ersatz Gay Girl in Damascus seriously; after all, we know how important the plight of the oppressed is to journalists when they're not a good story, and to government officials always.

And in terms of the latter, in terms of the politics, he holds the views, it would seem, of a great many internationalist, middle-aged, married Americans. I don't think that they were worked out in any interesting way, except insofar as the gullible, including myself, thought they were written by a gay woman in Damascus.

The OED defines a hoax as follows:
An act of hoaxing; a humorous or mischievous deception, usually taking the form of a fabrication of something fictitious or erroneous, told in such a manner as to impose upon the credulity of the victim.
That's just it. I always had a sense that a hoax was not merely an attempt to impose upon the credulity of the victims, but that it was "humorous and mischievous". The non-Gay, non-Girl not living in Damascus is not claiming anywhere that this was humorous and mischievous. It's all so straight-faced: his apology, the blog, the media reports. Because, weirdly, he'd get in more trouble if he said it was all just a joke. And yet he calls it a hoax? Of course, the wikipedia definition leaves out anything about humour or the mischievous, but that's because wikipedia is like one of those Crown-of-thorn starfish slowly consuming the coral reef of human knowledge.

Now, if you spend some time looking up the definition of "hoax", you'll find definitions that don't imply playfulness or mischief. There's an ambiguity in the word. It's a form of trickery that can be comic or not. Where does the comedy come from? After all, it seems to me like MacMaster was not perpetrating a hoax, comic or not, but an impersonation, one he started without quite expecting the subsequent consequences. As a lawyer, I can tell you that this can turn out to be quite nasty.

But here is another "hoax":

Apparently, McDonald's - note the Scottish theme to today's blog - did not determine that African-American customers had to pay an additional fee per transaction "due to a recent string of robberies"; and apparently the twitter meme #Seriously McDonalds, through which the hoax was disseminated, has done a terrible injustice to the fast food company. So why do some people, like myself, consider this a good hoax rather than just an impersonation? A good hoax makes the gullibility meaningful. McDonald's is fundamentally racist as part of a shit-food-industry that targets African-Americans and preys upon them as both consumers and employees (a statement I will only defend if anybody asks me to and, if you're a lawyer for McDonald's, you'll know that the statement is itself a hoax on my readers, ha, ha, ha); anyway, the hoax twists this around to suggest that African-Americans prey on McDonald's and so owe a debt to them. It even has a punchline - the phone number at the bottom, according to somebody somewhere on the web, who is probably a lesbian, is the number for Kentucky Fried Chicken!

But - oh Sweet Jesus, I can't go on. I just discovered that apparently another "lesbian blogger"was a man? Are there no lesbian bloggers out there who aren't middle-aged white men? Is it possible . . . that all bloggers are middle-aged white men? Christ, the company I keep.

The Haunting

A recent joke has haunted me, a tiny evil poltergeist rattling the dishes in the cupboards of my mind, creaking across my cerebellum when I'm sure nobody is there.

It is one of Peter Serafinowicz's tweet jokes. You know the ones: he offers up a theme, his tweet-mates tweet him a question hashed with PSQA, he gives the punchline. It's an awesome display of comic virtuosity. One of my favourite twists is when somebody tweets him a familiar one-liner and he responds to it, taking a comic form that is supposed to be self-sustained, where the comedy is based in part on the finality and closure of the line, and then he improves upon it. Someone sent him Steven Wright's "What's another word for the thesaurus?" and Serafinowicz promptly answers: "Anothersaurus." (It has the same deflating quality as the scene in the Simpsons where a Zen monk on a mountaintop asks Bart, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" and Bart says, "This," and then flaps his fingers against his palm - try it, it works; it's the sound of one hand clapping.) Another person offered up the teenage delight of "Is masturbation incest?" to which Serafinowicz responds, "No, masturbation is nicest." A simple switch of letters turns an adolescent joke into a lesson on the pleasure of life.



It's that darned poltergeist again. So, let's bring it into the light. Here's the joke:
RT @AndyD1893: #PSQA What comes after death?? A pervert.
This may be the best joke. Ever. Linger with it for a moment before going on.

Immediately, I see three interpretations, three ways of getting the joke:

1) In the tragic mode of comedy. Some poor self-asphyxiator dies, and then ejaculates.
2) In the sick mode. A person murders somebody and then jacks off.
3) In the metaphysical mode. A death-obsessed pervert stalks the figure of death, quite possibly ejaculating onto the annoyed figure of the Grim Reaper, whose cloak now looks as if a flock of birds has crapped down it.

Obviously, there are different readings of "pervert" here. In the tragic mode, the pervert is not much more perverted than your average Tory backbencher; in the sick mode, the pervert is more perverted than your average Tory backbencher; in the metaphysical mode, the figure of identification is really Death itself, limping along with its scythe, trying to do its business while some creep follows it around wanking on it.

Schadenfreude is the key to the tragic mode here: there is a moment in which you relate to the pervert before the pervert's hubris causes his fall; you take some pleasure in the notion that he cannot enjoy himself as his final pleasure shudders through his corpse, and you stand in judgement, just as you stand in judgement of the morally virtuous politician caught with a noose around his neck, his trousers around his ankles. Alienation is the key to the sick mode: you are alienated from judgement as you countenance the horror, allowing the pervert his pleasure without repudiation, without damnation; your link to the pervert is not one of identification except insofar as through the joke you share a contempt for judgement itself. In the metaphysical mode, you are operating at a much more sympathetic register but switching allegiances: incongruity is the key here, as the incongruity in the conjured image reflects the incongruity of sympathising with death.

So, a non-comic answer to the question "What comes after death?" would be "Judgement", or perhaps a psychospatial proxy for judgement, "Heaven" or "Hell". Serafinowicz pounces on this and puts a figure, the pervert, where we would put an act (of judgment), but that figure is, of course, acting in relation to that act - by ejaculating. It's perverse; but then, judgement is perverse. And that's the point.

By the way, I checked in on Brett Easton Ellis's tweets, which are admirably cross-eyed with petulance and enthusiasm: anyway, it's clear he reads this blog because his recent subjects have included Weiner, 70s movies, and Tracey Morgan. Glad to know he's a fan.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Say It Ain't So?

I am upset and annoyed and fundamentally frustrated about the news that the comedian Tracey Morgan made crudely homophobic jokes/statements on June 3rd at a Nashville stand-up gig. Why am I so upset, annoyed and fundamentally frustrated? Because the news didn't come out until late Friday afternoon! That's the one time in the week I don't blog! It's when I get to sit back and, like a grown-up Huckleberry Finn with a straw in his mouth and his toes dangling in the Mississippi, I muse. I reminisce over the past week, hearkening back to some of the highlights. Hotness Delusion Syndrome. Berlusconi. Weiner. Smurfs. Cabbies. (There's got to be a theme there, right?) But no, my free time has been disrupted by essential privatemattersandpublicthings material.

So, Tracey Morgan "apologizes for a homophobic rant".

Here's the apology.

Friday morning, Morgan did issue an apology. The actor and comedian said in a statement to CNN, “I want to apologize to my fans and the gay & lesbian community for my choice of words at my recent stand-up act in Nashville. I’m not a hateful person and don’t condone any kind of violence against others. While I am an equal opportunity jokester, and my friends know what is in my heart, even in a comedy club this clearly went too far and was not funny in any context.”

Some of this sound familiar? Do you remember the Republican Party official who said she wasn't being racist because the racist intent wasn't in her heart? Jimmy Carr contrasting his personal life to his role as comedian in his apology? I can't remember whether I've written about the "equal opportunity" excuse on this blog or on some bathroom wall somewhere, but I know I've written about it before. Morgan's comment is basically post-joke apology boilerplate, but there are three odd little things about it. First, one can't help but notice that he seems to imply that his fans and the gay and lesbian community are two distinct entities. The second thing one can't help but notice is that he does not construct his "equal opportunity" and "you know what's in my heart" excuses as complete statements, but as caveats to the concession itself. They become part of the confession, as an appeal for mitigation rather than exculpation. It's an interesting little twist, because those two excuses are usually meant to deny responsibility for the joke; he is taking responsibility for what he said. The third thing one notices is that he is not using the comic context as an excuse; he even doubles-down, evoking not only the comic context but also the comedy club, and saying that in neither the metaphysical space nor the physical space were his comments funny.

So, what else do we know?

Apparently, Morgan has a history of being homophobic? (Doesn't history have a history of being homophobic?) According to Margaret Hartman, he's been saying being gay is a choice for years, which, I don't know? Is that echoed in his own apology when he talks about his "choice of words"? Truth Wins Out, an excellent organisation, has posted a demand that Morgan respond to allegations of an anti-Gay tirade and, in a move that will somehow definitely be included in an as-yet-unwritten 30 Rock episode, demands that Tina Fey also respond to these allegations. And will I go to hell for saying the entire Truth Wins Out press release sounds like it was written by one of the finickier characters in a Tony Kushner play?

Oh dear. Greetings from Hell! Anyway, so what did Morgan say? I don't know! What is described by Truth Wins Out is very unappealing, but general descriptions of a great many comic routines would be very unappealing. One of the interesting things is this:
Eyewitness Kevin Rogers, who attended with his partner and a friend, gives a firsthand account which describes how Morgan’s entire demeanor changed as he allegedly claimed that being gay is a choice, that homosexuality is something that kids learn from the media, and that gay youth victims of bullying are simply “whining.” Furthermore, he allegedly said that if his son was gay and “whined” about being a bullying victim, he would kill him, using words that will not be repeated here. Morgan is also said to have called upon President Obama to “man up” and stop speaking out for LGBT kids

Did you notice the line about his demeanour? We're being told something here. You know what it is, right? Comic performances are all about voice, characterisation, and tone: they steer us into a division, a split between the person on stage and the persona on stage, introducing an ambiguity that can itself be subsequently crafted and directed and steered with all the genius and invention of Picasso holding a paintbrush or Joyce squinting at his typewriter. The implication here is that Morgan's demeanour changed because the two became one, the persona became the person, like someone who was in a trance awakening back into his own body; and so what he subsequently said was not part of a persona, but Morgan's own opinions.

And as for the things he said? It doesn't sound pleasant (although some part of me definitely thinks there is ample comic potential in telling Obama to "man up" and stop speaking out for LGBT kids - it could be ironic; it could be parodic; it could be misguided; it could, in fact, be the type of complete perversion of thought that we so love in Tracey Jordan, Tracey Morgan's 30 Rock alter-ego). There's one thing we can be fairly sure of: if Grizz and Dot-Com were there, they'd have been shaking their heads sadly.

Asking Cabbies

L Magazine, a freebie dispensed from orange plastic bins on busy intersections in New York City, runs a feature called "Ask a Cabbie", in which one of their writers flags down a few cabs, takes a ride, and asks the drivers a question. It's usually worth reading.

Recently, there was one entitled "Your Favorite NYC Movie". Ndugu from Mozambique goes for Spider-Man; Steven from Bed-Stuy gives props to Do The Right Thing.

Tom from Brooklyn is a man after my own heart:
Dog Day Afternoon. That's one of my favorite movies. [Shame about Lumet.] Yeah it was. Real shame. A lot of his were great. Network, Serpico. I love his crime movies. He's one of the great New York filmmakers.
Tom from Brooklyn not only chose the best non-Coppola, non-Scorsese, non-Altman, non-Allen film of the 1970s, but he clearly knows his shit.

However, the answer I really love comes from Samir, originally from Nepal.
I love movies, but American movies are usually garbage. Sorry. I like kung-fu movies or Bollywood. But there are some good American ones. The first one that comes to mind is Taxi Driver, but that's probably because I'm a taxi driver. Sometimes I do the "You talkin' to me" speech with customers, but I don't think they get it because I drive a taxi. Everyone says that speech.
Do you really think "they don't get it" because he's driving a taxi? Can you imagine the horror his passengers must feel when they look up and see his eyes staring at them in the rear view mirror and then he says, "You talkin' to me? Are you talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talking to? Well I'm the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you're talking to?"

If I hailed Samir and he did his routine, I have the feeling I'd throw a $20 into the front seat and say, "You can let me off here. I'll walk the next forty blocks. Please don't kill me . . . I'm not scum. Here's another $20. Keep the change."

By the way, according to wikipedia, the repository of all contemporary knowledge, the famous mirror-scene lines were inspired by . . . Bruce Springsteen?

In his 2009 memoir, saxophonist Clarence Clemons said De Niro explained the line's origins when Clemons coached De Niro to play the saxophone for the movie New York, New York. Clemons says De Niro had seen Bruce Springsteen say it onstage at a concert as fans were screaming his name, and decided to make the line his own.

The most horrific lines of modernity's devout nihilism and what has become the primal scene of urban alienation and dissociation have their origin in the champion of post-war humanism and his wry, loving communion with his audience. It doesn't get much better than that.