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.


Björn said...

Since this is the internet and everything, and the New Yorker doesn't obligingly post itself through my letterbox every week, might you have provided some links, assuming the things you are talking about are readable online, or some generous quotations?

sw said...

Yes, the Gladwell and Denby were just intended to be brief passing references, but I did get a bit carried away? Here's the Denby link:


I can't find the Gladwell letters online, although I won't say I tried really, really hard. I suspect that you might meet me half way on that one?

Björn said...

Thanks! I found the letters myself. (SIGH.) Tragically, the original Gladwell piece is "behind a paywall", as the freetards say, but I'm sure your description of it as a "thought-marshmallow" is devastatingly right.