Saturday, March 27, 2004


I can't imagine writing a line that so infiltrates the nation's consciousness that everyone knows what it means, even if they never read or saw the referent.

I'm talking about when Yossarian the bombardier wants the doctor to excuse him from flying more World War II missions. His defense? They're awful. They kill people. He's terrified. And besides, everyone agrees that he's crazy. The doctor won't do it, though. He can't, because according to Army regulations, anyone who would ask not to fly more missions by definition couldn't be crazy. It's a Catch-22.

“That's some catch," says Yossarian. "It's the best there is," agrees the doctor.

This movie, based on Joseph Heller's 1961 novel, uses the humorous techniques of irony and reductio ad absurdum to demonstrate the foolishness of war. One early scene is a perfect example. Minderbinder is pitching his idea of the trading syndicate, M & M Enterprises, to Colonel Cathcart, explaining how he will trade surplus items on hand with other military units for profit. So rapt are the two in conversation that as they drive away from the airbase down the runway, they completely ignore a plane that flies right past them and crashes and burns on landing. It's ironic because of course we expect these two human beings to react to this certain death with grief and concern; instead they react with the opposite, utter disregard. I found myself -- in this scene and many others -- gasping with disbelief that the characters could act the way they did.

The larger purpose of the humor, though, most certainly involves what Gerald Mast talks about in his discussion of film theory: reductio ad absurdum, in which a social question is magnified and brought to the absurd both for humorous results and of course to raise the larger social question. Here the question is disregard for human life in war. Heller and Mike Nichols, the director, point out this futility of human life by using repetition. The whole M & M Enterprises subplot, I believe, exists to demonstrate just how little human life matters in the face of the machine of war and profit. Several times we hear Minderbinder say, "What's good for M & M Enterprises will be good for the country." Minderbinder creates his business by trading silk, silk that he harvests by stealing the parachutes from all the flyers, who don't find out until they're on a bombing mission that the parachutes are gone and replaced with a single share of M & M Enterprises stock. A little later, when we see Yossarian trying to comfort Snowdon after the airplane has been shot at, Yossarian tries to administer a dose of morphine from the first aid kit only to discover it, too, is gone, replaced by a share of stock. These scenes are so absurd, they're both funny and disturbing.

Of course Heller meant them to be disturbing. What disturbed me still more was trying to predict student reactions to the film when I teach a class. Will they be as disturbed as I was? I fear that they will not. The genesis of dark or black comedy, set sometime in the 1960s, coincided with the horror of the realization that we all could, at any moment, blow ourselves up thousands of times over with nuclear bombs. In my childhood, this scenario was presented as a likelihood. Most theorists I've read, particularly Wes Gehring, assign a cause-effect relationship between the supposed likelihood of a nuclear holocaust and the genesis of dark humor. This kind of humor had to come about because of the mind's perception of a sort of Catch-22. We can't go on living in the face of an almost certain death, but we do. What other choice do we have but to develop a very sick sense of humor?

To many of my students, this stuff is old news, though. The threat of nuclear holocaust has, in theory, passed. I am not sure I believe that, but at least grade school kids aren't prepared for the inevitable death and, at least as I understand it, high school students don't any longer discuss being within the bull's eye that will turn to dust around the Nation's Capital. Things are maybe even more absurd in the face of this crazy terrorism and suicide bombing and the like. Somehow, though, perhaps with the advent of twenty-four hour news/entertainment television, the seriousness of the situation has lost its frightening edge and instead it's taken on a kind of circus atmosphere, replacing what was once horror with a feeling of strange entertainment. The result is that I don't think anyone is horrified anymore, even though the threat exists. Maybe it's impossible to sustain horror for very long at anything, even if the horror persists. I remember the people I knew in Georgia who lived downwind from a paper plant. If you know anything about paper plants, you know that they emit the most noxious smell, sort of like sewage. At the height of summer, it's absolutely the worst. The folks downwind from the plant, though, just got sort of used to it and forgot about it, even in August. One's smell preceptors, it seems, become overloaded and blocked eventually.

So anyway, I fear that my students' horror preceptors are overloaded and blocked and the significance of Catch-22 will sail right past them.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

The Goldrush

Now it may seem like I’m jumping around here, moving from L.A. to a silent film by Charlie Chaplin. That is the very nature of my program at this moment, however fortunate or unfortunate.

For those of you just tuning in, I've just passed the one-year mark and have begun my third semester. I'm taking twelve credits, among which are two courses in preparing for doctoral dissertation research, another in writing a course in dark comedy film for my internship, as well as preparing for a seminar on Dante (I have two peer days to deal with, but I'll worry about those later). So, as this semester starts out, I'm trying to dip my toes in each pool, so to speak, to get the feel of the water. Today it is the internship pool, and the water is fine.

I watched Charlie Chaplin's 1925 silent film this weekend. It's a classic that I know I had to have seen at one time or another because parts of it seemed familiar. Maybe it was in the History of Film undergraduate course I took. The odd thing about those movies that become cultural icons is that one has
heard and read so much about them that it is impossible to know whether or not one's familiarity is genuine. Do I remember the scene where he shovels
snow, or did I just read in a few places about the fact that it was funny?

I know that I must have seen parts of Chaplin films as a kid because, the depressed little soul that I was never much saw the humor in him. I gathered early on that he never gets the girl, or he always gets sort of less of her than he wants. In The Goldrush, he falls in love with Georgia, a dancehall girl who seems not to take him seriously. He invites her and her girlfriends over to his house (in one of the numerous subplots) and falls for her; later he invites all of them for dinner on New Year's Eve, an invitation they accept but with obviously no intention of coming. Meanwhile, the little tramp works very hard to earn the money to buy a nice dinner and presents for each woman. Of course they don't show up, and there's this lovely dream sequence where he falls asleep at the dinner table, dreaming of how happy he will be when they get there. It's so painfully sad, the kind of thing that would have made it impossible for me to watch as a kid. As luck would have it in this one, the little tramp gets rich and does end up with Georgia, who by this time has apologized and proves her love miraculously before she learns he is a millionaire.

The little tramp is not so lucky in The Circus, a 1929 silent film I saw a few weeks ago. I TIVOed it from some late-night showing somewhere. In that one, which is far more political, he's in love with the exploitative circus-owner's daughter, but she loves the trapeze artist, so he sadly sees that the two get together happily while her father takes advantage of him. It has some slapstick moments, but it really is a melancholy film that leaves one wistful.

Anyway, back to the The Goldrush (sorry to ramble so). It's an interesting film for a number of reasons. For one thing, at the time, films were much shorter. The impression in the industry was that the general audience couldn't sit still for a long film, but at 69 minutes, I think this one was long for its time. Chaplin segmented the story, then, probably in response to fears that the attention of the audience would wane. So there's a beginning section where Chaplin scales the mountainside, followed by a bear. Those slapstick moments are followed by his time in the snowstorm in the cabin with the big bully, Black Larsen, where they get so hungry, they cook and eat Chaplin's boot, and Larsen begins to hallucinate that Chaplin is a giant chicken. It's quite funny.

Big Jim McKay, meanwhile, has been sent off to try to find food, but he is knocked unconscious and loses his memory. He gets to town, wherever that is, and all he can remember is that he discovered gold someplace out there, where ever it was that he left his cabin. Finally, he encounters the little tramp in town, and the little tramp can lead him to the cabin. The get to the cabin and sleep there overnight, while a terrible snowstorm blows so hard that it blows the house nearly off a cliff. Only the smallest of ropes that has become wedged between two boulders is keeping the house from falling off the cliff. There's a hilarious slapstick scene after the two wake up, where they walk to opposite ends of the house, Big Jim and the Little Tramp, doing a balancing act, while the house teeters in the balance. It's enough to make this jaded humor reviewer gufffaw out loud. Anyway, indeed the two find and share their fortune here, which is how they become millionaires.

By today's standards, The Goldrush is entirely too segmented and disjointed to make much sense, but it evidently made a lot of sense to the early Twentieth-Century audience. Saying this reminds me of what has often been said about the original film audiences who ran away at the sight of a locomotive coming towards them on screen; humor could be and was unsophisticated at the time. They didn't have to have the intricacy in the jokes or even the sight gags that they do in even today's most unsophisticated comedies. The audience was just so much less experienced, so much less jaded. If setting is a factor of place and time, then maybe a consideration of regionalism should add the consideration of the era as well as a sort of unavoidable, package element of the setting. The Philadelphia of the 1950s was not the same place as the Philadelphia of the 1980s.

Monday, March 15, 2004

No wonder they call it La-la land!

I can’t believe anyone wants to leave Hollywood EVER. Every day is more exquisitely beautiful than the last; the ocean is an impossibly aquamarine color and the air smells like hyacinths everywhere. We spent last week in Hollywood, California, a series of perfect days, of crazy cultural differences and kooky sights. On the first day, for example, we went walking on Melrose Avenue, off to the left from La Cienega (I never did learn where the accent was – it seemed to me like it should be over that final e, but the natives seemed to accent the first e for some reason). On this street are designer stores like Dolce & Gabbana and Fred Segal and others, but then further down, it becomes rougher, more goth…more piercings. Down there the crowds were nuts, like furious currents of people who moved at such a pace that it felt like we might be trampled if we stopped even for a second to eye a pair of boots or a t-shirt. It was more crowded even than NYC or certain parts of DC, strange, really. I’m not sure how one could possibly stop and look in such a crowd. The point seemed to be just to move, just to keep our place in the crowd, rather than really to shop or take in any sights. I wondered how the stores stay in business. Anyway, it was in this throng that we saw this guy, a white guy probably a little younger than me, who was holding a sign in magic marker written on cardboard, “KICK ME IN THE ASS $1.” I blame the crowd, then, for our not being able to stop and pay him a buck at least to take his picture. I didn’t really want to kick him, though I would have liked to see someone else do it. Margie observed that he would have to call it quits by about eight or so every night, since by the time people stopped drinking, things would almost certainly get out of hand. I was pretty sure he was a performance artist who was testing those limits. But who knows?

There’s so much to say about the place, about the way it looks. They say that when the Santa Ana winds are blowing, people act strange. I was always intrigued by that, that a certain wind might change one’s mind, an ill wind would blow no good. Indeed the winds did blow when we were there. I would think that the landscape alone might create a certain mindset, that great stretch of flat faced with the wall of mountains. Just the Hollywood hills, harrowing hills really, full of hairpin turns, roads with fatal turns. Everything about it is exclusive, temporary. Those houses built against gravity on the hills reminded me of the news stories one always hears of late spring in California when whole houses wash down cliffs. I have always thought those home owners foolish—why build a house on shifting sands, right? But then the sight of those hills made me think if I had a few million to spare, I would simply have to have one of those tile-roofed plaster villas with the manicured lawns and the exotic trees and the tennis court that juts out over a cliff, a horrific precipice looming over another exquisite paradise of a house below it. The very fact that it could wash away tomorrow makes it all the more appealing, really, because it’s so disposable, so wasteful. And the very road up there tempts fate. It is the kind of road that poor people can’t afford to live on. There would be too many late night deaths. This is the kind of road that no one drives home on tired. As I drove around on a glorious Sunday morning, I thought that the people who live here must have a driver who brings them home late after a play. Or if they drive themselves, they must not be so tired or distracted. These are not shopgirls who drive home drunk after a happy hour. That is one way the landscape can be exclusive. The very turns in the road can add up, like the sounds of a cash register at each spin of the steering wheel, where danger compounds interest in the bank account.

One funny cultural observation about L.A.: We met up with Margie’s old college friend there, who said over dinner that she thought East Coast people were just too intellectual for her, too intent on proving how smart they were. She had a degree in something called spiritual psychology but could never tell me what that was. The best example of the California intellectual aesthetic, though, was on the morning news, when the anchor commented to the woman doing the weather, “Well, this weather sure is like spring. Is it spring, yet, Debbie?” Then Debbie just stands there and says, “Uh…..” She finally said she just wasn’t sure yet. We just cracked up. Never, not even after a commercial, did they ever bother to cut in with the fact about March 20th. We kept saying that, had it been Washington, D.C., meteorologist Bob Ryan would surely have known it off the top of his head, and even more so after the next commercial he would have been back with the precise nanosecond that it would turn spring. In California, the attitude was sort of like, look man, tomorrow is going to be just as beautiful as today; why are you getting so excited? The speed and purpose of thought, I gather, are a factor of culture.

I didn’t expect to like the place so much, actually. While we were there we saw the taping of a sitcom with Andy Dick in it, Less Than Perfect—The show was forgettable, really, for the sitcom itself, but the interesting part for me was to see the rewrites of the jokes that went over badly on the audience (I might have suggested more rewrites, but they didn’t ask me). What you don’t know about sitcoms is how long they take or how many people they employ. For one, a comedian is hired to serve as the M.C., who narrates the activity onstage and keep the audience “fluffed.” Also, there’s a DJ, who plays music at top decibel when the comedian seems to be tired. Further, the taping of a thirty-minute show takes about five hours. At LEAST. According to the comedian, some perfectionistic shows (like Friends) take as much as ten hours. We got sick of it after about three hours and left. The problem was that the comedian kept saying that prizes were in store for the audience members who screamed and clapped and laughed the loudest. To my mind, it began to seem like a clapping monkey thing. I really, really wanted to hang out with Andy Dick, because I’m a big fan, but there was a big tour group of girls from Bryn Mawr, who were completely obnoxious, and also completely fantasy-land material for all the stage guys, including Andy Dick, so gigglng and screaming for this nearly 40 year-old lummox was futile.

We also saw a Steve Martin adaptation of a German play, The Underpants, which was entertaining, though sort of pre-production, and, to my mind, in need of much more adaptation. I wonder whether the mainstream audience would appreciate it more than I did; I am not often fond of the standard period piece. Somehow the jokes based on old morals just don’t send me giggling and holding my sides all over the place. This was no exception. On the other hand, the actors were very good. The cast was Dan Castallenta, who does the voice of Homer Simpson, among a good many other things. The blind guy from Curb Your Enthusiasm was there as well as Jeff Garlin’s wife from the same show. It was very funny and fun to see those actors In particular, the wife from Curb Your Enthusiasm played a completely different character, so different I didn’t even remember it was her until I saw The Apprentice later on.

Most of the rest of the trip was just driving around and exploring. I kept joking that I was a native; I could find my way around L.A. as though I had lived there before. It was positively uncanny, like I had lived in L.A. in another life and I knew just what to do. One thing is for sure, traveling across the country to L.A. is like going to another country. It is just far enough and strange enough to foreign, like another planet.