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?

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