Sunday, September 19, 2010

In Defense of Laughter, pt. 3

The Hangover is probably the most moral film in a decade. Seriously.

From classical times through the High Renaissance, comedies were more scabrous than any R-rated film out there. Niccolò Machiavelli (yes, that Machiavelli!) wrote several comedies in addition to his political treatises. In Mandragola (The Mandrake Root) Machiavelli told the story about a man who yearns to have sex with a woman, Lucrezia. The problem is that she’s highly moral. He succeeds because her husband is a nitwit who wants to have heirs. He convinces the husband that Lucrezia’s “sterility” can be cured if she drinks a draft of the mandrake root. But, he tells the husband, there’s a catch—the first man she sleeps with after taking the draft will be fatally poisoned. Now, if only they could find some man to do the job…

Although it was written in 1518, Mandragola is probably too lurid even for today’s R-rated comedies. And yet, it is a moral work.

Machiavelli was a highly educated man, and he based his comedies on the classical works of Juvenal, Horace, and Thucidides. He also assimilated their justification of comedies. The classical writers posited that comedies were a moral art. How is that possible?

They developed the notion of “the smart reader” (or: watcher) of comedies. Basically, they assumed that their watchers were smarter than any of the characters they put on stage. The watchers would thus recognize the characters’ idiocy, small-mindedness, and vice. Being smart, the watchers would reject the characters’ behaviors. In other words, the playwrights did not need to put a “mouthpiece” on stage commenting on the characters’ immorality. The smart watchers would just know not to behave in a similar manner.

And, freed from having to tell their watchers what to think, the classical and Renaissance writers could push their stories to the very limits. The results were stories that still elicit howls of laughter centuries—even millennia—after they were written.

So as you wheeze with laughter while the characters of The Hangover try to reconstruct their wild night, remember that the film is good for your soul. After all, you wouldn’t want to find Mike Tyson’s tiger in your hotel bathroom too, would you?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

In Defense of Laughter, pt. 2

Don’t panic! Laugh!

In the last entry, I talked about how Western culture associates laughter with pleasure, and hence with sin. So for centuries, the West has expressed some unease with laughter. But there is more to the picture than that.

From an artistic perspective, our culture’s suspicion towards laughter results in a similarly negative assessment of an entire genre, comedy. Notice how infrequently comedies win the “Best Picture” Oscar. Many people accept the idea that comedy is not the vehicle for expressing truths about the human condition; that’s the function of drama. But in reality, comedies can be expressive of deeper truths. By writing this, I don’t mean “comedy-but-with-a-message” movies, where the violins swell while Robin Williams tears up and intones platitudes. No, I mean that really funny comedies, like The Hangover, themselves express a deeper truth.

How is this possible?

To evoke laughter, comedy depends on the build-up of tension, which is released by a surprise. This explains why comedies cannot be rewatched with the same level of amusement—for the surprise to work, it needs to be, well, a surprise. If you know what’s going to happen, it’s not funny. For the same reason, a Cliff’s Notes version of a comedy isn’t the same as the comedy itself; a comedy just can’t be summarized. The point of a comedy, in short, is the moment-to-moment experience of it.

In this way, comedies reflect the way we experience life. We human beings think we can plan out our lives. But in the moment-to-moment experience, sometimes the unexpected happens. Comedies mirror those unexpected turns and twists of life.

Many of the world’s religions actually codify these vagaries of life. Nature religions personify aspects of existence with gods and goddesses. Storms, earthquakes, but also love and eroticism are forces that people need to cope with. Trickster gods are part of the pantheon. They personify life’s surprises that confound human beings and their plans. There is a wisdom here that monotheistic religions cannot express; a single, all-knowing, all-good and all-powerful deity simply would not place obstacles in front of people for sheer amusement. But there are times in life when it sure feels that way.

In ancient Greece, the trickster god was Pan, who amused himself by stymieing people as they went through their lives. Unable to comprehend the god’s humor, the people became increasingly frantic. The Greeks labeled that frenzy as “panic.”

So the deep truth of comedy is this: the next time that the unexpected causes you to revise your plans suddenly, don’t yell or cry or toss a houseplant out the window. Laugh. You’re in the midst of a panic. And you might just see that the joke is really on you.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

In Defense of Laughter, pt. 1

Why is it that movie bad guys always laugh? “The world will be mine… hahaha!”

We can put the question another way: why is it that laughter has become synonymous with evil? As a culture we don’t usually cast sadness and tears as markers of malice. In Dante’s Inferno Satan, the source of all evil, weeps throughout eternity. In real life too tears probably cause more ills than laughter. As anyone with knowledge about domestic violence knows, abusers often tearfully express their remorse, thus sucking the victims back in. And that’s just one example among many. But you’ll rarely see tears as symbolic of evil these days. What is it, then, that causes our cultural suspiciousness of laughter?

Umberto Eco discusses the value of laughter in his novel The Name of the Rose (1980). Set in an Italian monastery in the 1340s, the novel depicts a series of murders that need to be solved by a visiting friar, William of Baskerville. In a key scene, William gets into a debate with Jorge, an elderly monk, about an esoteric topic—whether or not Christ laughed. More broadly, did God sanction laughter, they argue, or did He avoid it and, by extension, expect His followers to do so as well? On the surface, this sounds like the kind of trivial theological debate that echoed throughout medieval halls. But while Eco’s work is fictional, and hence factually inaccurate, it also expresses a deeper truth; it is informed by a keen observation about Western culture.

As Eco knows (he is a renowned scholar of the Middle Ages), there is a long-standing tradition of denigrating laughter in the West. In a nutshell, laughter is symbolic of pleasure, while tears are symbolic of pain. Pleasure and pain, objectively speaking, are merely the brain’s subjective interpretation of nerve impulses. But for millennia, Western Culture has not treated pain and pleasure equally.

Pain is symbolic of Goodness: the Crucifixion of Christ, and the blood of martyrs. Pleasure is evocative of the joys of physicality. Pleasure, therefore, indicates the life of luxury that people should reject if they want to be saintly. Pleasure is sin, in short, and our culture’s suspicion of laughter is part of the West’s broader suspicion of pleasure. These connotations of pleasure and pain are the subtext to Jorge’s debate with William of Baskerville. They also explain that staple of action movies, the laughing evildoer.

So the next time some super-villain laughs while taunting a cape-clad hero, remember that the gesture is merely an arbitrary cultural artifact. He could just as easily be weeping bitter tears as he plots the destruction of all creation!!!