Friday, August 12, 2011

Learning and laughing

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2009)

It sometimes seems every other movie has some kind of alternative reality take – parallel universes, perceived realities that turn out to be dreams, people revealed as ghosts. But that well is becoming very shallow I think, whereas our more mundane alternative realities – the ones we invent through our misunderstandings and limitations – are infinitely fascinating. That’s in part a gloomy statement – the sad misapprehension of what’s a reasonably attainable and “good” lifestyle, and what’s a reasonable way of structuring the finances on that, just keeps knocking the ground from under people, with no end in sight. But there’s obvious comedy, even if often dark, in how we’re able to convince ourselves of all kinds of dubious notions – on what to wear, how to love, how to express ourselves – that vast category of bumbling human quasi-progress that ends in the bewildered question: What was I thinking?

What Was I Thinking?

As a bit of a space cadet, I’ve racked up plenty of those. For years I complained about my collars being too tight, never thinking of changing up a size until someone pointed it out to me. I’ve spent weeks and months on personal projects of various kinds, which now seem (if I stumble across them at the bottom of the closet or suchlike) as deranged episodes of prolonged possession by some god of banality. Just about every day, since I’m not that smooth or generally talkative, something comes out of my mouth sub optimally, but mostly now I just move on from it. I’ve avoided the bigger traps – like getting married to someone flagrantly unsuitable – but we all know such achievements involve more luck than skill. Actually, what doesn’t? We all have our favourite gurus or role models, people whose upward progress through life seems to us to prove something about our own untapped capacity, but I figure that’s merely focusing on the high end of a chaotic bell curve. A whole bunch of people start the race, many doing much the same thing initially; increments of skill and luck dictate the few who penetrate the winners circle, but if we could run the race all over again, it’d probably all turn out differently. I’m not saying we can’t make a difference in our lives; on the contrary, the harder it gets to engineer our desired outcomes, all the more reason for trying to diagnose what we can influence, for figuring out our own form of sustainable contentment, and then doing it.


That’s a rather roundabout way into Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, but I think the film is really about the joys and perils of the human (especially the male) capacity for talking oneself into just about anything. It’s about two college buddies, suddenly reunited when one of them returns from foreign travels; the other, now married, is more of a white picket fence type (much as he resists that characterization). During a drunken evening, the local amateur art-porn festival - “Humpfest” – comes up in conversation, leading to the notion that no porn could be more artistic than two straight guys having sex for the first time on camera. Once the concept’s out there, it won’t go away, and the film’s marketing doesn’t hide the fact the two buddies make it to a hotel room. What happens then, of course, cannot be revealed here.

It is, no question, a small movie, shot in around ten days on a very low budget, with only a few locations and speaking parts, and an improvisatory style. But it’s also as big a movie as you should possibly need, because it taps one of cinema’s happiest miracles; how there’s always something new to be said about the human comedy. The obvious question in this case is what’s really driving them. Are all straight men secretly bisexual, however deeply hidden? Once committed, do they just keep going mainly out of sheer stubbornness and competitiveness (as a modern variation on bull-headed male power games)? Is this very ambiguity maybe the main thing, providing to otherwise stupid decisions the status of boundary-breaking performance art? When they talk about all of this, are they saying what they mean, or tapping into easy clichés and received notions? Is it even possible for anyone to navigate the difference? Would guys who were less superficially intelligent, less facile in supposedly explaining their motivations and perspectives, ever tie themselves into such a knot?

That last point connects the film with the brilliant Eric Rohmer, who for over forty years has been chronicling the pitfalls and limitations of articulacy, although of course the basic premise isn’t so very Rohmer-like. Humpday is a funny movie too, just in the unforced way in which spirited guys are funny when they flail around, and hey, isn’t it all just a big comedy anyway when you think about it? You roll easily with the premise, and while some elements seem more questionable, the very fact that you engage with it on such a forensic level – without simply saying, well, that would never happen - seals its overall success. And the ending, while appropriately wrapping up the immediate situation, leaves plenty of broader loose ends, because, you know, that’s just the way most things are.

Funny People

Judd Apatow’s Funny People, by contrast, is a big movie, with big stars and all the trimmings. Adam Sandler plays (very well) a big star comedian, not unlike himself except (one supposes) nastier and lonelier, which has him poised for self-reassessment when he’s diagnosed as potentially terminally ill. Seth Rogen plays his assistant, and a motley group stretching from Eminem to James Taylor show up as themselves. So needless to say it’s another inside showbiz movie, as if that wasn’t already the most over-examined milieu in American cinema (Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened, from last year, is an example of a film that’s impeccably made and seemingly quite true to its subject, but which to you and me is basically beyond pointless).

But Apatow demonstrates surprising scope and seriousness of purpose: the film is generally funny because they are, indeed, funny people, but as the old cliché puts it, comedy is hard (it’s dying that’s easy), and there’s a lot of that in the mix. Since I’m throwing out high-flying praise today, it somewhat reminds me of Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy – perhaps the best-ever examination of the discipline’s mechanics. Of course, that’s a very generous comparison for many reasons, not least because Funny People flirts with darker overtones without really embracing them – Scorsese broadened his film into a broader (and quite far-sighted) critique of media-dominated social discourse, whereas there’s no sign Apatow ever reads anything more than the entertainment section. But at least his movie suggests he can learn, maybe big-time.

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