Thursday, May 24, 2012

An epic seriousness fail from Fred (of Portlandia fame)

Watch this video from Fred of Portlandia and see if you like the idea or not:

Comedy and seriousness can certainly coexist. This is part of why I love Nabakov, and part of why Rules of the Game is one of the great works of art (hi Evan!). There are crucial moments in each of those where the comedy and the drama reinforce each other endlessly, in a positive feedback loop, and create staggering emotional effects. But it's also worth noting that comedy and seriousness can be further broken down, and when you look at the different types, you find much more complicated dynamics between them.

For instance, seriousness can be broken down into POMP (i.e. the seriousness of politics, outrage, and theory), HIGH DRAMA (i.e. the seriousness of opera, epic poetry, etc), and REALISM (i.e. the seriousness of documentary, cynicism, etc). Likewise, comedy can be broken into any number of sub-forms... if Aristotle had really written a second volume of the Poetics devoted to comedy (as hypothesized in The Name of the Rose), it would have broken that shit down for us, and I'd have something to cite. As it is, I'll only bother commenting on one particular type of humor: SARCASM.

SARCASM, as a type of humor, doesn't seem to coexist with seriousness very well. Or, at least, it doesn't in this video... there such an intense ironic framework that it cannibalizes the seriousness, breaking down the concept right after the premise. Of course, this is further reinforced by the alleged "rules" of seriousness, which have a smarmy meta-serious tone to them.

I actually have a great love for seriousness. This should be obvious from this post itself, which is just as intolerant of levity as sarcasm is of seriousness. So it rather pains me that in the pop-cultural sphere, irony has become such a powerful force. It's a self-defense mechanism, a knee-jerk response, a permanent filter of perception, and a totalizing framework. Though there are some VERY SERIOUS ARTISTS (I'm well aware), and I understand how lots of people might find them pretentious and annoying, it seems like there's very little space left at the amateur level to experiment with real gravity and seriousness in art. It falls directly into the paper-shredder of judgment and gets laughed out of the cultural record. Just listen to random conversations at art museums, especially during tourism season, to see this in action.

Anyway, to beef up this post a little, I'll include a thing I wrote a while back, and never published, because it's painfully incomplete (it was originally written as a sort of meditation on why I dislike Entourage and Gossip Girl, despite their being fairly intelligent and well-acted).


I can relate to characters in fiction in two ways -- as caricatures (comedy), or as characters (drama). For the first type, I see their actions as absurdist, non-sequitors, as having no consequences except those of the scene, the immediate scenario, my immediate reaction, etc. For the second type, I form a moral understanding of their behavior. I evaluate their choices as either good or bad, and I anticipate a certain outcome. If they're well-intentioned, relatable, etc., I hope it works out well for them. If they're assholes, antagonistic, etc., I hope they get redeemed or punished in some way. I also try to understand their evolution, their "narrative arc," and when they change, I feel it's a serious change to the dynamic of the world they're a part of.

I'm happy laughing at the clowns, the caricatures. Laughing at them distances me from them. That kind of character is the kind you find in traditional cartoons (The Boss in Dilbert, all the characters in It's Always Sunny, Hagar the Horrible, etc). I feel no need to relate them to real world cause-and-effect or consequences. The second type of character is the type you encounter in anything dramatic, and in a certain way, I judge them... or, you might say, I evaluate their actions. I try to make sense of them and their world. If I don't like that kind of show, it's because I can't make sense of the world it takes place in. This often happens in shows where ill-intentioned characters are rewarded, or the virtue of selfishness or malice is implied. I just don't fit into those worlds, so I don't like those shows. Gossip Girl and Entourage are good examples.

Do I never like shows if I don't agree with the moral alignments of the protagonists? Not quite... the fact is, I just don't like these shows because their moral universe is so different from mine. Maybe the shows frustrate me because they don't validate my own values.

I don't like Entourage because it's all about a frat-boy universe. Even moreso than Friday Night Lights, which is more a family and social community universe. I don't like it because it's all about a flock of men, being the kind of man I was aggressively socialized not to be -- the shit-talking, alpha male, sexually aggressive, massively heteronormative male -- the kind of universe where I would get shit on, and would have to walk away out of shame and frustration. This is a world that I was socialized to reject, and apparently this instinct carries over, even to watching TV shows.

I don't like Gossip Girl because it's about a high school universe I was taught to resist and stay out of, a universe I was taught was unrewarding, even contemptible. The high school universe of cliques and social climbing and talking about people behind their backs and being part of a Machiavellian social battleground. The kind of place where high drama is the order of the day, where you see your immediate social relationships as the most important thing in the universe (I was always taught to try to enjoy myself, but look to the future, be focused on college and on making choices and being independent blah blah blah).

Is it true that aesthetic judgments are so often just our own projections and perceptions of ourselves, displaced onto the things we're critiquing? If so, is that okay?

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