Monday, September 17, 2007

arf arf sigh

"I guess what Judd Apatow is to me, is what Terrence Malick is to David Gordon Green. They're just good friends. And David said to me the other day, 'Guess what Terrence Malick's favourite movie of the last 10 years is?'"
"Zoolander! He knows every word, watches it every week. Which just goes to show, you never can predict these things."
- Seth Rogen, The Guardian, 14th September 2007

...which made me think about the humour in Malick's work. There isn't much, frankly. A little comes in his first two films - its there in the unexpected and distinctive juxtaposition of image and voiceover and the ironies created by that, some of which are blackly funny. Martin Sheen's brilliant performance in "Badlands" (1973) crackles with humour, among other things, and Malick is obviously aware of it. His first film and student project, "Lanton Mills" (1969) is reportedly a comedy, but his two most recent works, "The Thin Red Line" (1998) and "The New World" (2005), seem utterly without any humour, beautiful and profound as they both are.

Which I suppose is not so strange. Just because an artist generally works in a serious register does not disqualify him from a sense of humour. Its the thought of Malick - whose work is so poetic and often ethereal - chuckling at "Zoolander", which I can't really assimilate. "Zoolander" is not a bad film and its got its share of funny moments, and it uses Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson better than most films do, but still, it seems so far from Malick's own work...

...Which may be the point. Stanley Kubrick was a massive fan of Albert Brooks' great "Modern Romance" (1981) and Richard Rush's "Freebie & the Bean" (1974), two films which seem to have absolutely no resemblance to anything in his own body of work (unless you look very hard at the cynical conclusions Brooks draws about relationships, which are echoed in "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999)). But Kubrick explained that he loved most the films which he felt he would have been incapable of making himself, and it is hard to imagine his sensibility brought to bear on either of those films. Just as it is bizarre to imagine a Malick version of "Zoolander", though that is a film I would pay to see.

What it really suggests is the subjectivity of humour. I've had a problem recently discussing comedy, and I think its this level of subjectivity that creates the difficulty for me. I believe it was Roger Ebert who wrote about what makes you laugh and what turns you on as the two most subjective things in life - no two people are the same, and it is impossible to truly explain what you like and why to anybody else. Is this the reason I've written little about comedy here? I watch comedies, obviously, I go to comedy movies, watch comedy TV shows, I used to go to lots of stand up comedy, but its not something I'm keen to examine too closely. I've seen 3 comedies over the last few weeks, but I have no interest in writing about any of them here, much as I enjoyed two of them. Which isn't like me. I tend to analyze the things I like, to try to see what makes them work. Not with comedy. I just like to laugh, and not think too hard about why afterwards.

I had a conversation in work about a year ago that informs this subject and my view of it. Channel 4 had just run their "100 Funniest Comedians" list show, and 4 or 5 of us were discussing it. What quickly became apparent was the ferocity and confidence of opinion. Everybody was sure they were right. Everybody knew that they knew what was funny, and what wasn't. Somehow, if this had been a conversation about drama, these same people wouldn't have been quite so certain, or quite so invested. But comedy brings that out in people. Because everyone wants to think that they have a great sense of humour. Most people even seem to want to think that they're really funny. And most of my colleagues were quite funny. But not about comedy. About comedy they were all so serious, and so sure that Bill Hicks is funnier than Billy Connolly and Lee Evans isn't funny at all and why wasn't Russell Brand lower? And after a while, it just seemed like a vaguely unpleasant, pointless conversation.

I was the same. I saw myself as qualified to have these conversations, too. To tell people with certainty that "The League of Gentlemen" just isn't funny. I've seen Bill Hicks live, and quite a few of the other guys on that list, as if that means anything. But it doesn't. It just means that I know what makes me laugh, just like anyone else. I have a friend who loves to tell me how much better than "Friends" "Seinfeld" was. And he may be right, but I never really liked "Seinfeld" all that much. I know it was funny, but something about the tone bugged me, so I never watched it consistently. Whereas "Friends", for all that it was pink and fluffy and smug and schmaltzy and about unreal people in a universe of wish-fulfillment - it made me laugh. Which is all I ask of any comedy.

The only outright comedy I've written about here so far has been "Idiocracy". But what was interesting about that film wasn't the humour, but the subtext and the circumstances of the release. I didn't have all that much to say about the actual comedy itself - some of it made me laugh, some didn't. The only comedy in my top 10 list last year was "Borat", and the little I wrote about it is all about how much it made me laugh. Because that has to be the barometer for any comedy, surely? Yes, "Borat" and "Idiocracy" might have had other things going on beneath the surface, but that surface, for both films, was all about making an audience laugh.

I don't really have a concrete point here. I once emailed a friend telling him that "I don't do comedies". Which was a joke, but one containing an element of truth. Few comedies live up to my expectations, is the problem. They make me laugh out loud a handful of times, and thats not enough for me. I want my sides to hurt, my face to ache. That doesn't happen enough. So if "Zoolander" does that for Terrence Malick, then he's right to watch it every week. Because its a rare and precious thing.



Blogger Monsterwork said...

I think I've watched this clip twenty times in the last two weeks and laughed the same standard each time. But I fully anticipate others thinking it's utterly shit.

7:48 pm  
Blogger jamesinbrasil said...

I'm a huge fan of comedy (especially on TV) and it always bugs that it isn't given artform status. It's a real gift to construct a comedy, as difficult as writing a truly involving drama. I read the autobiography of Bert Lahr (the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz), and remember his description of the office of a vaudeville writer. They had this contraption, a cross between a washing line and Rolodex. They would go through their scripts word by word checking every word against its synonyms to see if they could find an alternative. They didn't do this to look for jokes, but to create the right rhythm for comedy. It's the people who can do this in their heads who have a real gift.

So I agree, that its very difficult for us to agree on what is funny, but how is that different from other aspects of taste? What is scary, what is violent, what is nice, what is good, what is bad?

But you are right about one thing, if comedy doesn't make you laugh, even in a internal, dark, twisted part of your mind, then what's the point?

And after season 1, Friends became really mawkish. Whereas Seinfeld, never 'jumped the shark'. So make that two friends who love to tell you that Seinfeld's better...

8:12 pm  
Blogger Ross said...

Subjectivity. You can't deny the result- the laughter. You can analyse the authenticity of a dramatic performance, the composition of a photography or fim shot, the melodic resonance of a piece of music, but you can't say something isn't funny outright if it makes people laugh.
I used to frequent a Peter Cook & Chris Morris fan forum (Cook'd and Bomb'd) where a load of highly knowledgeable comedy fans argue about comedy old and new, and it's hard.
We can all agree that Jim Davidson's shit, but he's obviously funny to some people. How can that be? Is there another way of measuring it, than people laughing?

The GIJoe dub clips are hilarious, and I laughed more just now than when I showed that same clip to a blank-faced Siobhan a couple of days ago.
I remember pissing ourselves watching the Aristocrats at the cinema, but I couldn't sit through it with her as it lost its life. But does that mean it's not funny?
She adored Nighty Night, but for me it did little more than raise the corners of my mouth.

I think that 'scary' and 'violent' are distinct in that they progress along gradations, unlike comedy.
I might find the shootouts in Beverley Hills Cop 2 pedestrian, whilst others would slam it as a corrupting influence on the young, but whichever view you have of it, it is violent.
The same with horror, as a scary scene is scary whether you find it so or not - you are just not scared by it, but you recognise that the potential is there, even though you yourself find it lacking.

But comedy, if something isn't funny, it isn't funny. Things can of course be quite funny, a little chucklesome and so on, but if it's not funny there is nothing there, no common ground

At least that's my opinion.

Jokes with your friends tend to funnier as you're sharing something. If the measure of comedy is laughter, then Friends beats Seinfeld due to more people laughing, but many would disagree - Seinfeld's funnier. Why? It's cleverer, more refined, aimed at a more particular audience than the shotgun free-for-all of Friends humour, and like your friends, you find the humour that is more special to you, the humour of seinfeld which feels more tailored to you, funnier.

In this way, the Gi Joe clips get me and monsterwork like a gag between friends. If our friends made comedy clips, they would dub 80s cartoons with non-sequiters too. "Ooooooooh"

9:08 pm  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I always thought that my sense of humour was linked strongly to stuff I was exposed to as a kid. My Mum used to push Monty Python and early Steve Martin school friends were into Bottom and the Fast Show. I got into stand-up (and Bill Hicks) in college as I assume everyone does.

I was told from early on that comedians like Chubby Brown and Jim Davidson were rascist and vulgar and not to be trusted. So I pretty much avoided them. As a result I haven't actually sat through a Davidson show. I doubt I ever will.

This is the first subject I've heard you talk about with much're normally so certain if something is good or bad...worthy of merit or scorn. It's unsettling kinda.

The GI Joe stuff is gold. In my opinion. Seinfeld or Friends? I can take or leave either.

11:37 pm  
Blogger David N said...

I think you are pretty much spot on, Ross. Drama and violence and horror all have other facets beyond their most immediate and obvious goals : horror might mainly want to scare you, but it can also be funny, and elements of style and technique are appreciable without being scared. I can't remember the last time a film actually frightened me, but I admire the mechanics of plenty of horror scenes. Whereas if a joke doesn't make me laugh, I don't/can't admire the mechanics of its construction. Comedy should really work at a gut level - you laugh without thinking about it, its a spontaneous reaction.

GI Joe made me laugh.

12:12 am  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

I think it's a strange subjectivity. As I said in my own blog there are jokes for me that improve on repetition, that never diminish - Give 'im the stick. DON'T GIVE 'IM THE STICK is sure to be one.
But what I find more curious is how funny can be dictated by the audience I share it with. I wasn't overly impressed with King of the Hill when it first came around, until a friend came over and we watched the episode where the son has to smoke an entire box of cigarettes as punishment for smoking one. I think then we watched it through each others eyes and knew what notes worked and how the other was going to react. It's infectious. It might be why Aristocrats worked so well for us both the first time around Capuchin.
I've died watching Spike Milligan say 'What are we going to do now?' when I've sat down with my dad, and had a high opinion of Operation Good Guys from nights I sat in and watched it with my brother. But sadly both can be quite awkward and unfunny when I watch with my flatmate, as I watch through her eyes and see the shortcomings, less so Spike, but I know I'd be in tears if I was with my Dad.
I've always liked Jasper Carrott. I've never really wanted any of my peers to sit in on that and spoil it. I like the structures he uses, the familar way he talks, the final joke being a punchline that harks back to the very start of his routine. But I know as soon as I'm caught watching him with the Bill Hicks generation the bubble will burst.
Funny is fickle.

9:16 pm  
Blogger David N said...

The mention of Bill Hicks makes me feel a bit sick now, because I associate him with hipsters etc and have overheard one too many people-quoting-him-at-tedious-length conversations.

On the other hand, one of my favourite jokes ever is Jasper Carrott (and will now seem utterly unfunny, but what the hell):

Hes talking about listening to a late night radio show about philosophy and the old chestnut comes up : if a tree falls in a wood and theres nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? The kind of question that people lie awake all night thinking about.

His philosophical question in reply, the one that he lies awake all night thinking about, made me cry laughing as a kid : if you unscrew you bellybutton, will your bum fall off?

Bill Hicks could never tell that joke.

12:02 am  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I went to see Jasper Carrot and Phil Cool at the Sunderland Empire when I was a kid, they were doing a double tour thing. It was brilliant.

I saw Hugh Dennis and Steve Punt there doing a similar thing about two weeks later.

I only went for 'milky milky' really. That and History Today were what made the Mary Whitehouse Experience essential viewing for me. Happy days.

12:13 am  
Blogger jamesinbrasil said...

Nicely explained chaps, I take your points although I do think it's possible in some situations to appreciate the construction of comedy, in word play, puns, or narrative for example. But it's not as satisfying, for sure. I also think that most people react to the other aspects I described in a gut instinct way, I don't think they analyse the construction in the way that we do. They just feel scared or repulsed or whatever, without breaking it down. It seems to me to be a physical reaction, just like laughter.

2:12 am  
Blogger David N said...

I once saw Phil Cool do an impression of Rory Bremner. Though it may actually have been Rory Bremner, doing an impression of Phil Cool. Either way, it was very good. But the "meta"-ness of it is terrifying. Impressionists are a weird brand of comedian, anyway. Its almost as if they're cheating.

Phil Cool always made my face hurt because his always looked as if it should...

1:46 am  

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