Back to Basics #41
One of the more interesting comments I received on a student evaluation was in my Science Fiction Film course, with the student saying, "I'm glad I took this course; now I understand why my parents find The Simpsons so much funnier than I do."
Homer Simpson floating around in the space shuttle, snarfing up potato chips with schmaltzy music in the background is mildly amusing. <> Homer Simpson in a shot-by-shot parody of the docking sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), complete with Johann Strauss's The Blue Danube waltz is funny. And if you grew up on 2001 as a semi-sacred film "text," then a Simpsons parody of the docking sequence or (more so) Homer as the Star-Child is borderline blasphemous and very, very funny.
Similarly, one might chuckle at Lisa Simpson's conditioning Bart with electric shocks as negative reinforcement for stealing cupcakes. Bart reaching up for cupcakes with frosting and red cherries with stems, desperately trying to overcome his conditioning, exactly like Alex reaching for a pair of perfectly-formed model's breasts in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) — Bart reaching for cupcakes topped with cherries pretty much where the model's nipples are: that cracked me up.
In my Satiric Film course, I showed a Reader's Digest version of the 1979 Monty Python's Life of Brian (and for any studio lawyers reading this blog: I have long since Ceased and Desisted in this exercise, so don't send me threatening letters). The clips got some snickers, but only one student really laughed: the one leftist who'd been to meetings of contemporary versions of, so to speak, "The People's Front of Judea" — and not, definitely not "The Judean People's Front." If you've ever been to an interminable meeting of political radicals, you know how accurate is the satire of radicals in Life of Brian. Python's Brian includes also highly effective satire of imperialists, gullible fanatics, militant optimists, and law-and-order conservatives; and close to the end, Brian gets to the most concentrated, devastating critique I have ever encountered on Liberals: Michael Palin's rosy-cheeked Roman officer (Nissus Wettus) handing out crosses at a mass crucifixion, and trying to make everything nice — while continuing to participate in an atrocity.
Anyway, "The first duty of a critic is to state the obvious," as I was taught in graduate school, and we can pause here with the obvious point that different people will get different jokes in movies depending on which allusions and parodies they get, and whether or not they can relate a comic bit to their own experience, eliciting (or not) "the laughter of recognition."
From this obvious small point, however, critics go on to the larger point that coming from different experiences, different people will see, while watching the same movie, at least slightly different movies. And as we get older and develop new experiences, we will see slightly different movies each viewing.
And similarly with other works of art — and stuff more important than art; but arguments over movies are usually, not always, but usually, nonlethal, and familiar ("Everybody's a critic" — especially movie critics).
So I'll continue on toward larger points with another movie from my Satiric Film course, a film I included as one kind of "limiting case": Animal House, by Harold Ramis et al. (1978), with the et al. including Chris Miller, Dartmouth alum, class of 1962, member of Alpha Delta Phi social fraternity, and author of the series, Tales of the Adelphian Lodge, of which Animal House, set in 1962, is one.
Chris Miller is a satirist and a lot nastier than I am, but we are roughly contemporaries, and his AΔΦ isn't particularly like the fraternity chapter I ended up pledging but is very much like the TΔΦ chapter I walked out of during Rush Week. More to the point, I knew Doug Neidermeyer, the cadet commander of the Faber College ROTC Corps. That is, I knew a "Neidermeyer" still in his larval state: the cadet lieutenant who was my platoon leader my sophomore year of Army ROTC. So I laughed a laugh of recognition with Neidermeyer and laughed a laugh of cruel satisfaction when the "Where Are They Now?" portion of Animal House had Neidermeyer killed by his own troops — fragged — in Vietnam. I had also "wallowed in Watergate" and laughed at the notice of Greg Marmalard's becoming a Nixon White House aide and ending up raped in prison. (I am not as nasty as Chris Miller, but being a nicer person than a satirist still leaves a lot of room for nasty; plus, when the theater lights go down, we can all get pretty amoral.)
For my students most of my teaching career, Animal House was a classic comedy. For my students near the end of my career, by the time one could teach a course in Satiric Film, Animal House was mostly old, politically incorrect, sexist, gross-out farce, and it took a good deal of explaining to my students ca. 2004 how Animal House in 1978 could have been mostly a sexist gross-out farce but also subversive satire.
Two final examples, from outside of classes: The first was my baptism in watching different movies while watching the same movie; the second was my final confirmation in the theory — at least before MetaCritic came along and one can demonstrate the phenomenon a couple times a week.
Exhibit One: Franklin J. Schaffner's, director, Francis Ford Coppola, first-listed writer, and George C. Scott, very memorable star: the 1970 movie, Patton. By 1970, I had read and once or twice taught Dwight Macdonald's essay "My Favorite General" — and felt pretty sure the Scott movie had cleaned up Patton, most particularly omitting his anti-Semitism. Still, I saw Patton as a worthy successor to Shakespeare's Henry V in giving a Machiavellian, objective view of a military winner. (If you grew up on Lawrence Olivier's World War II propaganda film Henry V, check out Olivier's cuts from Shakespeare's script and one big addition: the Battle of Agincourt as a romantic visual spectacular. Olivier did a very elegant script-editing job to make Shakespeare's Henry V an unambiguous boy-scout hero.) At the end of Patton, I gathered up my stuff to leave the theater thinking about how beautifully the film had shown the General to be a dangerous whack-job, but situated — destined? — to be the exactly right whack-job to lead the US Third Army against German forces in Europe. After the War, however, Patton was mostly just dangerous, including dangerous to important policies of the United States (although I doubt he was assassinated for his views — however much that would make a hell of a movie).
As I started to walk out of the theater, I heard behind me what sounded like a grandfather telling his grandson how good it was that Hollywood had finally made an old-fashioned patriotic movie about a pure hero: George S. Patton. That Richard Nixon might come to love the movie I had seen didn't surprise me; but that old man and perhaps his grandson had experienced a film very different from the one I saw and heard.
That was in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in 1970. Much later, in 1997, I was in Hamilton, Ohio — "The Heart of It All," USA-wise" — watching Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers and eventually noticed I was the only one in the auditorium laughing. And among the cast, only Neil Patrick Harris made it clear he understood his character was among a group of "fresh-faced fascists" in a "twisted space opera" that isn't "a sendup for the ages," as the USA Today reviewer called it, but certainly a sendup. I was waiting for Harris's young-20's Colonel Carl Jenkins to light a cigarette in a cigarette holder, adjust his monocle, and say "Ve haf vays of makink der Bug Brains talk …."
And we have arrived at serious issues.
I am a staunch member of "the reality-based community" and will stress that Starship Troopers or any other movie — or anything else on the human scale — has real existence, Out There, independent of our perceptions and opinions. Meaning, however, is created in the interaction between a work of art and its audience: which does not mean anything goes and all interpretations are equal but that we have to be careful and responsible in constructing meaning.
We have to watch and listen attentively and speak carefully.
We have to bring background information to the work and be aware of the likelihood of our ignorance of other background.
We have to listen to other people's opinions and understand that we're all likely to miss and to misunderstand aspects of a work.
And we have to think through our experience of the work and the experiences we bring to the work.
Or we can say, "To hell with it; that was fun, but it ain't worth talking about." And then shut up. Or talk about the movie, but admit cheerfully we are, as the picturesque expression has it, talking out of our asses.
The background part (and lack thereof) is what can get scary, that and the values people bring to movies, other art, politics. An American audience should know when we're dealing with Fascism and the fascistic, and Starship Troopers is not exactly subtle. An American audience should catch on to, "Oh, I'm being asked to enjoy a fascistic fantasy. I can do that — but I don't approve of the upshot of the fantasy." And then, having that bit of conflict, think about it.
There's nothing new here. Back around 1600, Elizabethan audiences should have thought, Gee, Shakespeare's Henry V threatens to spit naked infants upon pikes if Henry doesn't get his way with the French city of Harfleur (see 3.3.3-43); how should I feel about that? Henry doesn't as things work out — doesn't kill babies or massacre the people of Harfleur — but he says he would, and if, in the affairs of princes results, as in winning, is all that counts, shouldn't Henry spit a few French infants (etc.) if that's what it takes to win?
All things considered, General George S. Patton is one of the good guys of World War II; but with this guy there are a lot of things to consider. Indeed, should we complain too loudly if it turns out Patton was assassinated shortly after the war? Old "Blood and Guts" was willing to spill a lot of other people's blood to achieve US war aims in his way. If we approve of Patton's philosophy and actions, should we be very upset if his figurative blood was part of the cost of as much peace as was had at the end of World War II?
All things considered with Starship Troopers, even if our enemies are giant Bugs — should we engage in species-cidal war against them if it's just possible some of our people provoked the war? Should species-cide be a war aim, even if our opponents are literal Bugs? And what if, in the real world, we come to see our enemies as "bugs"? Is genocide OK if we are convinced our enemies are vermin?
What we bring to a work of art and "where we're coming from" will greatly influence what we experience in the work and how we experience it. The work, though, isn't passive in all of this: once we've experienced the work, it is a new experience, one we bring to future experiences. To some extent, we shape the film as we watch it; to a lesser extent, it shapes us.
We need to be aware of how this works, or, minimally, at least that it's happening.