Comedy and Tragedy


Nyat Nyat and Boo Hoo. Let us name those iconic twins. He is groaning, she is giggling–flip sides of the same clam. If comedy’s mutable, tragedy’s irrefutable. One forecasts fickle fates. The other portends bitter ends–an artificial beginning vs. an artificial end. It’s not just about the gag, but which way it jabs. Tragedy’s not about death, but the agony of defeat. Storytellers manipulate comedy and tragedy to perform an ongoing autopsy on culture. We talk about comedy and tragedy as different things, but “truth” is the subject, a singular reality that we pry apart for clues.

If I am late on this post, it is because of the philosophical essay “Laughter: On the Meaning of the Comic,” by Henri Bergson. Until I read Bergson’s essay, I was content with a lame explanation that comedy achieves itself through surprise. Now that seems very broad and obvious, not to mention imprecise. Bergson defines comedy as a perceived encroachment of anything inhuman or mechanical imposed on the human.  This sounded not very funny to me when I first heard it, but what I think the philosopher means to say is comedy plays against our common sense.

According to the essayist, any mechanization of man’s words, thoughts, behaviors or appearance is humorous to us. To give some straightforward examples, consider how stuttering, repetition, nervous ticks, outlandish looks, rigidly staged rituals or excessively flamboyant flexibility all become instant capital for the comic. It is Bergson’s keenest notion that laughter is a form of social correction. We laugh to expose and straighten-out the out of step.

Preoccupation is another thing we laugh at. Automatic Man provides endless amusement.  All we need is to see some day-dreamer stub his toe and we go bug eyed, become something of a machine ourselves, a bellows, gasping and snorting, far funnier to look at than the fool himself.  He’s jumping up and down holding his foot. We’re doubled-over shitting bricks.

It is remarkable how laughter is so instantly conspiratorial and connection building. A good laugh flourishes like rhubarb, communes with infectious ease, leaves behind a pleasing after breeze. We owe much to comedy for delivering us from tragedy.

At the same time, good jokes can be funny as well as tragic.  I’ll give it a try.
Compared to losing my Mother, my left macula was nothing. It did not love me unconditionally.

Do you ever have to beat back a grin when a friend confides some personal pain they’re in? Bergson says we are not evil. It’s nothing personal. We trip back into a psychic stronghold to preserve ourselves from harm. If we feel like laughing at another’s bad luck, maybe it is so we can forget our own for an instant.

So, the impulse to laugh is a part of our survival brain. Our ancestors cried for a few hundred millennia before they ever uttered actual words, and they laughed too, for much longer, to express what the spoken word has recently been trying. In fact, language is the direct descendant of laughing and crying.

Laughter urges everyone to remain optimistic about the outcome. It is our nature to hold out for a happy ending. If there was a verbal analog to the bodily spasms and convulsions of laughter, it might sound something like, “there then, let that teach’em a lesson.”

If laughter is corrective then tears are instructive. Depressing movies serve up misfortunes considerably harder than our own to digest and dark dramas puts us in touch with all the common character defects. Whether issuing from the real world or the movie reel, common misery confirms our fellowship in the human race.  Tears shed by us, under the influence of movies, are no less genuine for having been provoked by fantasy. Sad endings are, no doubt, as popular as they are as a direct result.

Most of us have sought out hundreds of movies and continue to keep watching more, comparing different examples to remind ourselves that what is immensely sad is often profoundly life affirming. Perhaps this has to do with an artificial ending. Since reality is open ended, everything could still turn out for the better in our lives. No matter how bad our misfortunes may appear now, surely the credits will roll soon and the lights will come up.

If we pry further, with Bergson’s help, we may discover that tension and release are the fundamental energies that constitute comedy. Odd or not, it would seem the same with tragedy. Aren’t we talking about catharsis here? Would it follow that there is a little bit of tragedy in comedy and vice-versa? We applaud the movie maker who pilots us back and forth, from one shore to the other, in a single story. With close-ups, long shots, speed changes, mechanical effects and juxtaposition, comedy and tragedy help us embrace life’s most perplexing ambiguities.

Federico Fellini who directed some of the funniest, saddest and most perplexing movies of all time, once wrote, “nothing is sadder than laughter, nothing more beautiful, more magnificent, more uplifting and enriching than the terror of deep despair.  I believe that every man, as long as he lives, is a prisoner of this terrible fear within which all prosperity is condemned to founder but which preserves, even in its deepest abyss, that hopeful freedom which makes it possible for him to smile in seemingly hopeless situations.”

In a particularly choice scene from his movie “Fellini’s Roma,”a blustery working class Italian chows down in the piazza with family and friends. He whistles and teases his pouting wife to come downstairs and join the party. One look at him tells me he’s probably given her a good reason to be pissed off. When she arrives beside him at the table he greets her by holding a plump, ripe olive up to her lips. She opens her mouth to receive it. At the last minute he replaces the olive with his thumb.

Fellini’s deceptively simple bit of staging illustrates how comedy and tragedy are integrally entwined. We can’t stop ourselves before we have to burst out laughing. At the same time we hate him, like she does, for his petty, idiotic power play, for taking advantage of her good nature and for god knows what else. “You silly stupid shit,” he says. “You’re the stupid shit,” she replies. “You’re both stupid shits,” says the little sister. Everyone laughs. It may be more funny to us, or more tragic, depending on the mood we’re in that day and how we perceive the consequences.

While we laugh, or shed tears, our native intelligence identifies the consequences which comprise an opportunity for reform. With one single outburst, mad or merry, we identify the perceived errant individual’s failings and avoid them ourselves. “He is so full of himself, I can hardly wait until he gets what’s coming to him.” “Is she really going to stay with him? “She’ll make herself miserable.”

We thank and congratulate Maestro Fellini for this masterstroke of comedy. If only we had more storytellers like him. He had the commitment to make certain we emerge from his fantasies smarter and more sensitized to reality.
Merry Christmas everyone. Happy New Year and thank you for your business!

Imagination, Rapture, and the Waking Dream

One seemingly petty, little, foolish choice is all it takes for an ideal life to turn into a nightmare.  This seems to be the message as we watch publishing magnate David Aames, played by Tom Cruise, loose his million dollar good looks in a shocking car crash staged by his kamikaze lover..

This act one turning point In Cameron Crowe’s 1997 “Vanilla Sky” is especially resonant to the culture that the character David Aames was created to comment on. He’s a billionaire playboy; handsome, smart, riding high in corporate splendor, and full of himself.  Just prior to the crash, Aames falls head over heels with, and blatantly steals his best friend’s girl, the enchanting Sophia played by Penelope Cruz.  Next morning he is confronted outside Sophia’s apartment by the psychotic former girlfriend Julie, played by Cameron Diaz.  He submits to a joy ride with her that ensnares him in a suicide pact.

As his new fate would have it, Julie dies, David does not.  He survives, but his face is destroyed.  It becomes a scary cross to bear.  Watch in dismay as the charismatic wunderkind reverts to awkward, juvenile social traits he once outgrew

The masterful make-up of Aames post-crash face makes Cruise look alternately tragic, comic, frightful and pathetic, but all in sympathetic measure.  Unable to abide this, Aames adopts a facial prosthetic that makes him look embarrassed, guilty, resentful and maudlin.  Its haunted, plastic pout seems to plead, “how could this be happening to me?”

Good friends try to help Aames with his pride as he slides into identity crisis. An effortlessly hip self-image was Aames’ brand.  The winning smile was his logo. Where did it all suddenly go?  He’s supposed to be the ace of a magazine empire, where cheated images pervade the pages.  How very, very thin are a few layers of skin.

To solve the dilemma of living life with either a deformed or a synthetic face, David Ames has his brain wired to some kind of pre-programmed dream that plays in his head while his body sleeps in cryogenic peace, presumably waiting for a technical breakthrough in reconstructive surgery.

To ensure his dream on ice is nice and hot, Aames contracts with a shady tech company for a digital lover. It is, of course, Sophia, the wise, whimsical dancer he fell in love with before the accident.  If the first crucial turning point was when Aames got in Julie’s car, the next one is his choice to go to sleep and dream of love with Sophia rather than face the problem that stopped him in his tracks.

What is the metaphor in that deep freeze we never get a look at in the center of this movie?  How often lately have we seen our real life corporate and government leaders behave like leading men; on-screen pushing some fantasy romance with the voter/consumer, off-screen praying secret deals and science will make-up their bets.

This expertly tailored film scenario proceeds with Aames attaining what he never could in real life, true love.  Achieving increasingly lucid states, he tries to take over the fantasy and make it real.  It only brings more pain as Aames mistakes Sophia for Julie and his embrace tightens like a chain around her in bed, not loving but smothering her to death instead.  It’s a dreadful scene to watch and lands the masked Aames into a shadowy prison cell where he pleads his case to a corduroy shrink with perfect pitch played by Kurt Russell.

This dose of therapy enables Aames to open a connection with the corporation that provides his dreams and confirm that the memory of Sophia’s murder is complete artifice. It’s just a technical glitch in the program caused by Aames efforts to gain control of the illusion.

The mask eventually becomes a burden greater than the flaw he is trying to conceal, and it does come off eventually, but not without a piece of his hide. The mask has no power of it’s own.  It is a simple law of nature that a hiding place becomes a prison, the consequences of putting off an appointment with destiny.  To attempt to live above, or be immune to, or cheat one’s way through always ends up working against you.

With the assistance of a tech support angel our hero eventually thaws out 130 years later. He can feel the weight of his real problems again and the consequences of going to sleep. Forsaking his privileged mindset he’s grateful to leave the fantasy behind for “real life.”

Why did I like this story? Most of us are just as prone to this same character defect.  I learned a lot from watching an ego, a mask and a shattered face all try to occupy the same space.

In what ways am I sleepwalking in some illusion?  We all seem to keep having to learn the same lesson about this. What else could explain how unbalanced our world feels? And how long will we let business and government leaders play make-believe with the future?  Eventually they have to come out from behind their masks of company and committee and face the consequences too.  Because, as this film makes so abundantly clear, we’re just putting off the inevitable.

Arab Spring

Last month I wrote about an Italian film that was a huge international success. This month I choose one by another Italian that I admire. This film was considered a total disaster critically and financially.  It’s about American youth in the 60’s in rebellion against the establishment.  At the time, Michaelangelo Antonioni’s ninth film was one of the worst money losers in history.   Since then, “Zebriski Point” has been almost universally put down.

The worst part of “Zabrisiki” is its performances, but I think I have seen acting like this one other time, when it was being praised.  It was in a performance of  “Iphigenia at Aulis” by Euripides; a play that portrays a father ritually sacrificing his daughter to the gods to boost his standing in the Trojan War.  Those in the audience who were gushing over the performances were aware the acting technique was antique, but it gave us a pleasure, similar to hearing music played on period instruments.

When I first watched it, I thought Antonioni was sacrificing the darling daughter of America, namely consumerism, to the gods of youth and beauty whom the Greeks called Aphrodite and Adonis. Likewise, I thought Antonioni’s decision to make the actor’s performance seem wooden was a classy homage to the Greek origins of western drama.

I have since read that Antonioni gambled on his lead actors, choosing pretty looking revolutionaries that were amateur actors and he found them very difficult to work with, especially the boy.

Before reading much about it though, I thought Antonioni was also poking fun at American porn films from that time period.

By the 1960’s adult films had evolved from crude roll playing in one reel stag movies, into feature scenarios with badly acted narratives quickly leading to expertly conducted sex scenes.  Those brightly lit, fuzzy-edged frames were later labeled “soft-core” after hard-core went mainstream.

The big orgy at “Zebriski Point” was a feast for Antonioni’s detractors.  Again, I found the choreography so campy, and put-on that it was a turn off instead of a turn on. Which is exactly what I would expect from Antonioni. He regularly plays against expectations in his films, so I didn’t question it. I presumed it had sprung from the filmmaker’s genius and I laughed with him and enjoyed myself.  My laughter turned to awe while the cinematography at the end of the scene made the episode seem, by turns, sublime and transcendental.

In my untutored state, I thought the decision to make the final “Point” of his movie with multi-camera documentary footage of the demolition of an opulent resort home reason enough to make his feature in the first place. It might help you to understand that the story begins in a crowded room where American university students are plotting a revolution.

Symbolically, this finale could be read as Antonioni strapping consumerist society to a bomb and detonating it.  He was in America for the first time, shooting in legendary California, the movie Mecca of the world. Here was a deep-thinking outsider making the authorities nervous with his portrayal of alienated American youth.  I read that the Feds grew so paranoid and suspicious they tried to run the production into the ground. Would the critics rescue him?  Nope.

As a consequence, many people will never see this superbly controlled and photographed event, invented in the late sixties before big explosions in movies had come into vogue. You used to have to watch a two-hour, playfully stylish, and mythical love tragedy to get to these closing fireworks. This scene can be watched as a stand-alone event now. It lasts about five minutes.  Watch it full-screen, if possible. Tell me what you think the director had in mind.

What if digital age folk are getting smarter, not dumber?

What if the corporate orgy of greed that stains human history was worth it just for putting a few vital tools in the hands of the masses?

Here is proof that the political stage is not being managed by a secret cadre of money-grubbing fascists. If such a group existed, they would never have given us all these cameras. It’s their downfall because the camera equals freedom. It’s development is revolutionary to the evolution of humanity. I’m not even talking about the content of the image in the camera yet. Just use a camera and feel your mind’s eye snap open. The mere act of using it frees you from linear time.

Examine now, what the content in the camera is capable of doing for accelerating evolution. Unlimited cameras in the hands of the masses become a tool for comprehending the deep range of human potential in our global village. I’m talking about information that no one can get a head start on. We’re all looking at ourselves in the multidimensional global mirror now and the image is in a state of continuous development.

Why only talk about the commercial potential of this phenomenon? While government and environment go bankrupt from rapid technological and population growth, the neurological and spiritual dimensions of humankind are experiencing exploding growth. Never has the individual been so free to make so many connections guided by personal choice. The opportunities for the free and fast exchange of knowledge among individuals is highly encouraging to our evolutionary advancement. We need to use this to bring the environment and economy along for this rennaissance. The more connections the better. How much more do we need for these connections to grow into the ultimate connection? Until they outnumber the disconnections

While this new phenomenon is happening to us our understanding is growing so fast that no one can tell us what it all means, or where we are going. It will continue taking us there at the speed of light for the next many generations. This event is historically equal in significance to the evolutionary milestone of when our early predecessor first recognized himself in a pool of water. He finally quit thrashing the thing and realized, “the face in the pond is my reflection.”

At the movies, while we look outward at our reflection, we gaze inward with imagination, to fill in the implied off screen context. The data our imagination chooses to supply is our individual reaction to what is shown onscreen. Our reaction is filtered through our experience.  A filmmaker must master his lenses and we, the audience, are his last filter. If we see a baseball player crouching with a bat, a catcher and umpire lined up behind him, the filmmaker must make sure our imagination fills in the ball field with all the players in place and a pitch racing toward home plate.

A movie is a spool of time, literally. Its a rolled up miniature record of exactly what action was taking place in front of a lens in a certain light and speed at a particular place and time. By the time we see it, the action is consigned to the past. When we talk about going to the movie, we refer to the place where the past is rewound and waiting in the future. When we get there, since it will be the first time we’ve watched it, it will belong to our present.

Let’s watch a motion picture of a particular period in the past, a famous event in history, one that we all know about, or not. For instance, Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor,” an international success. We follow the life of the last emperor of China from privileged birth, to child king, to his overthrow, exile, and repatriation in Mau’s revolutionary republic. The past present and future of these unique characters unroll for us in all their complexity and irony. The story brings the past into high relief, the last emperor’s past as well as our own. Where are you and I off screen, in that historical movie? The audience watching the film, in this case, become representatives of the emperor’s future.  The dynasty to come.

Our brains are having such a great time with all this time travel. Lately they’ve figured out a way to become even more involved.  Where movies were once the viewpoints of writers, filmmakers, actors and producers, now they are the frontier of common folk. We may just be watching a home movie of someone’s dog saying “ I love you” on You Tube, but whether we are conscious of it or not, our brain goes to work with that lens to delve deeper into big issues. The direction of the lens, the size and shape of its field of view, the sharpness, distance of its focus, the quality of light it refracts, all impact the story but our brain can make use of any lens,  professional or amateur.

Anything that can be made with a camera supplies part of the bigger picture for the brain. Films illuminate the most important keys to our survival. They connect us with knowledge we need to bring along with us into the future.

Big Screens and the Teen Scene

In my youth I watched a lot of important films at the drive-in. Prior to moving out of my parent’s house, it was the preferred hangout after dark. When I started going there it didn’t really matter what was on screen as long as it had sex. Ideally, I would watch a little and practice behind my windshield at the same time.

Though motivations have changed for me, my drive-in days remain a sacred movie-watching experience. I can still recall the warm breeze, fryer grease, a girlfriend in my arms, and the erotic magnet of the car’s backseat.

Because I could be smuggled into the drive-in inside the trunk of a car, outdoor cinema allowed me to take in restricted dramas like “Midnight Cowboy,” “Carnal Knowledge,” and “The Godfather” long before I was of age. My eyes, which had seen only fourteen, fifteen, sixteen summers, cherished those films as opportunities to scout adulthood. I also recall plenty of nights filled with juvenile laughs watching silly flicks like “The Pink Panther” “Blazing Saddles,” and “Up in Smoke.”

My hometown did not offer teenagers much to do, so we often took in the same picture three nights in a row. We learned, from years of watching every movie that came through town, that there was occasionally something besides fleeting amusement to be found. Some movies worked like intricate puzzles that came clear only after repeated viewings, stimulating deep discussions among friends and heated encounters with lovers.

The drive-in was a place to party and make-out with girls, for sure, but it was also an informal study group, as close to film school as I could hope for. Watching lots of movies broadened my understanding of, not only sex, but of the larger world, and gave me an enduring appreciation for the actors and artists that create them.

So why didn’t we just stay home and watch a TV movie? Because they were riddled with commercials, and cable TV was not what it is today. Back then, films with adult themes had to be censored before going out over the airwaves. Besides, TV sets belonged to our parents’ generation. It is because they stayed at home watching them at night that we were free to go out, unsupervised, in search of hipper scenes and bigger screens.

Drive-ins captivated us by capitalizing on size. Movie stars were framed by the night sky with real stars and airplanes for a backdrop. Those gigantic onscreen images initiated our culture into the joys of super-sized entertainment. As soon as you’ve seen the gorgeous, young Faye Dunaway in forty-foot tall close-ups, in “Bonnie and Clyde,” or these days, even Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada,” for that matter, you’re hooked for life.

We watch movies on the small screen now more than ever, but nearly everyone still likes to sit in a crowd of strangers and take in a good story, preferably on a screen so huge that you have to look up at the characters as if they were gods.

It comes as no surprise that the first IMAX films debuted in the 1970’s, the same time in which drive-ins were closing en masse. However, though the standard IMAX screen is 30% larger, IMAX will remain forever inferior to the drive-in. You can’t smuggle much beer in there, nor can you sneak your friends in inside a trunk.

Storytelling, and particularly popular film, in this modern era, have done their best to warn us of the shapes of things to come.

Thirty years ago, the China Syndrome (1979) and Silkwood (1983), both Academy award nominated films, educated us on one of the most urgent issues currently threatening human survival. It took a mere two and a half weeks for the events in “The China Syndrome” to come to pass in the near meltdown of Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, but we did not stand up then like we should have. Now, toxic nuclear byproducts have fouled the ocean and even come blowing to your hometown a result of negligence and corruption by the energy companies and the governments whom we have invested with the responsibility to watch over them.

Motion pictures engaged the debate on the nuclear agenda with a vote of no confidence, but we seem to have ignored them.  They cautioned us not to trust nuclear industry “experts” whose careers depend on strong demand for their electricity and bombs.  Soothing statements on the nightly news are calculated to make us feel at ease living in a toilet. Both films point a huge, blinking red arrow up at those energy giants who are currently squatting over us, excreting their dung and assuring us that this is what’s best for everyone.

Pay no more attention to their experts.  The unfolding of recent events in Japan are playing out precisely as predicted by filmmakers.  Both implicitly and explicitly, those filmmakers were inviting us to assume personal responsibility to prevent this.  There must be a limit to the crap we will take.  It is well within our power to stop them.

The massage is clear. We have denied the power of movies to instruct us. Will we finally learn by listening to the people of Fukushima, and surrounding prefectures, recently forced to abandon their dreams, livelihoods and property to escape nuclear chaos?  They are the real nuclear experts.

If nuclear power provides 20% of this country’s energy needs, we could rid ourselves of it instantly by voluntarily reducing our energy consumption by an equal percentage.  If that seems impossible, maybe you’ve been watching too much nightly news. You could begin immediately reducing your energy needs by turning it off.

Good people formerly living in and around Fukushima are now adrift as a consequence of trusting the nightly news and denying the truth in the movies.  The Japanese are also presently consuming a great deal less energy then they were before this nightmare overwhelmed them. Why wait until we are forced from our homes by a similar disaster before we undertake drastic reduction? Unless we do, the change we are all bound for is what they’re all waking up to now in Fukushima. With foresight and determination we might still preserve here at home, what they have lost there forever.