Wednesday, March 2, 2011

New and Old...

Well, as you may have guessed, I failed in my quest to see every theatrical release of 2010. Failed is a strong word; quit is a lot more accurate... and fair. There was a night when I was faced with the decision to drive some one hundred miles or so to see the second(!) Tyler Perry film of the year, and I really just couldn't bring myself to do it. There was a little bit more going on, which I might explain in a future post, but that was what made me seriously think about quitting the endeavor. If you've ever seen one of his films, or a Meet the Browns clip on TBS, I trust you understand my decision. More on that later, and maybe a continuation of this blog in some form, but for now, I was just rereading an old essay that I wrote in college, and thought I'd put it up here.

I did this for a Comedy in Film class that I took as a second-semester senior. It was taught by an incredibly laid-back professor whose lectures were casual and anecdotal, and often a little bit vulgar, which matched my style of written argumentation at that time. Unfortunately the TA that graded our papers was really dull, and wanted a more academic writing style, which bored me. So when our third paper on the semester was assigned: "Write about two films that are not included in the syllabus that should be," I wanted to make writing it interesting, if only for me. For some reason this is the challenge that I set for myself. I realize now that it is a bit flawed, and the central idea is somewhat dorm-room stoner fodder, but I still appreciate it. Here it is, as I turned it in...

Anybody who watches television is probably somewhat familiar with the Windows Mojave Experiment: a group of people was asked to rate their satisfaction with Windows Vista, and then asked to use a new operating system codenamed "Mojave" (which was actually Vista) and then asked to rate their satisfaction of the "new" system. 94% of the respondents rated the "new operating system" higher than they initially rated it under the name Vista, with the average pre-demo score for Vista being 4.4 out of 10 and the post-demo score for "Mojave" being 8.5 out of 10 (“Mojave”). Though probably not the most scientific experiment, it does show how preconceived notions can dominate one's perception of something, be it a computer program, an exotic food or even a film.

Film theorist Thomas Schatz describes "film genre" as "a sort of tacit 'contract' between filmmakers and audience" and is probably the most common form of preconceived notion for viewers of films (Schatz 178). It is hinted at in almost every trailer and is branded right onto the package of most DVDs: "THRILLER;" "DRAMA;" "COMEDY..." Video rental stores are divided in respect to genre and so when people go to rent a film they are constantly aware of what they are about to watch and probably even decide what to rent based on how such classifications correspond to what kind of mood they are in at the moment. The problem is that genre classifications can be unreliable. Everyone perceives a film differently; it is possible that I have a different sense of humor than the majority of audiences and so if I rent a film classified as a comedy I may find it unfunny and it could be torture for me to watch. This film could possibly be a brilliant thriller, but because I watch it looking for comedy, I will fail to be entertained and therefore unfairly disregard an otherwise great film completely.

With that in mind I feel that Trading Places and Schindler's List are two of the most misunderstood films of the past thirty years. Both examine race relations and both are kept down by erroneous genre classifications. Putting them into dialogue with each other, we get two conflicting perceptions of how to regard racism.

There is an idea that comedy is tragedy plus distance, and this is the fundamental concept in Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg's comic masterpiece of the unexpected, about a group of Jews that are taken from their comfortable homes and thrown into a completely different setting in which they face situations so bizarre you almost don't believe what is unfolding before you. We are later told that it is based on true events and are left with proof that reality is indeed stranger than fiction! Though the real life story is tragic, the film was made some fifty years later and thus we get our distance. We are also given a selective presentation of the events, which give us people who banded together to undermine and dodge the forces of oppression with the help of an unlikely hero, an archetypical character in most comedies (i.e. Deuce Bigalow in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, Corky Romano in Corky Romano).

Throughout most of the film we are shown the attempt of a political party, led by a wacky mad scientist-type, to eradicate a group of people based on their race. We see this in boring black-and-white, a worn-out method of presentation which had been outdated for more than thirty years upon the film's release, but in the end Spielberg wows us with his masterstroke: we see the real-life survivors in the present saying goodbye to Schindler in a color sequence. This is no accident; recognizing the tendency of people to dwell on the past, Spielberg knew that black-and-white would evoke that past, and by showing the goodbye sequence in color he jolts the viewer into hisview, which is that nostalgia is for the birds. With this juxtaposition of color in the present after so much b+w in the past, it is basically saying that, "that stuff was a long time ago, so get over it already! We have!" and one almost imagines that all the survivors went out for a beer afterward and had a laugh.

Trading Places on the other hand, takes the opposite view. In this scathing critique of conditions in contemporary America, racism is no laughing matter. I can understand why it could be misunderstood as a comedy, but in reality it simply toys with the audience and in the end it is a brilliant indictment of the viewer's own tendency toward racism. The film sets us up with the same comedic archetypes as Schindler, but then tears them down. The Dukes, two rich white men, make a bet to see if they can turn a poor criminal into a successful businessman and a successful businessman into a poor common criminal, thus we get the displacement of people from their comfortable situations and the rise of the unlikely hero. Only here we see that the "comfortable" situation of a black man is poverty, homelessness and jail, whereas a white man is a successful, rich stock broker with a large and lavish mansion in the middle of the city. The black man is immediately recognized by the audience as the "unlikely hero," but the film points out our own discriminatory ways as we come to see that the "unlikeliness" of the black man being a hero is completely unsubstantiated by the film, but is an assumption constructed purely by the audience based on skin color, for this man is possibly the smartest, most "likely" heroic character in the entire film.

In direct opposition to Schindler's insistence that people should stop worrying about racism and leave the painful memories in the past, Trading Places says, "It's still happening!" In one scene toward the end, even after Eddie Murphy's Billy Ray Valentine proves his extreme competence to the Dukes, they refuse to even entertain the idea of letting him stay at the company: "Do you really believe that I would have a nigger run our family business?" one says to the other, to which the other replies, "Of course not... neither would I." Herein lies the genius of the film: everyone in the film experiences a change in attitude toward race and circumstance, except for the people that matter the most, which is those in power. People in power have the ability and the means to control public perception, as the Dukes do in the film. If they choose to marginalize a certain group of people based on something completely superficial, then the public will follow, because they will never be given the chance to see the marginalized group in an honest light. When this film opens we see Billy Ray rolling around on a skateboard pretending to be a Vietnam amputee to inspire sympathy from wealthy people and we can assume that this man has never been given a fair chance to succeed. Once he is simply given the chance, he proves to be very intelligent and successful.

Film theorist Christian Metz argues that our experience in watching a film is shaped by our knowledge prior to entering the theater and that it is simply our perceptions of what is happening that give the images any meaning to us. He says that "The spectator identifies with himself, with himself as the pure act of perception..." (Metz 823); in other words the same film is perceived differently by me than it is by any other person, because my knowledge of and past experiences related to what is shown are completely different from everyone else's. Thus we come upon the problem of interpretation: a hundred people could watch the same film and each come away with a different interpretation, none of which would be less valid than any other. If I see a red convertible in a film I might associate it with a bad memory and be put off by the image, whereas someone else may have a memory of impressing girls in a red convertible and be therefore excited by the image. Likewise, if one watched Schindler's List unaware of the Holocaust, would he be more or less likely to perceive it as a drama, as the marketing suggests, or would he be more open to the comedic archetypes on display throughout the film?

What happens when a genre label is attached to a film is that it leads people to the same interpretation instead of letting people experience it individually. This is possibly what happened with Schindler; the studio probably saw it and figured that the comedy would be lost on people because of the negative connotations it raises with the Holocaust, and the studio assumed that people would take it as drama and therefore marketed it as one. People that went to rent a movie, in the mood for a drama, found the film in the (in)appropriate section and watched it as a drama, not being open to the comedy infused within. I'm sure something similar happened with Trading Places.

Though one is a comedy and the other a drama, I still feel that these would be an excellent inclusion to the syllabus, given the unique circumstances of their perception. Two differing views of racism: one makes people laugh, the other makes people cry. Watching these films together leads us to ask the most obvious, fundamental question: What is comedy? There is no concrete definition for what comedy is; the Wikipedia entry states that comedy is "any humorous discourse generally intended to amuse" (“Comedy”). Likewise, most attempted definitions use "humor" to define comedy, which prompts the question: What is humor? If we follow this string of definitions we can never truly get an objective definition of what comedy really is. Therefore I suppose my analysis of these two films could be called into question; perhaps Schindler really is a drama and maybe Trading Places is indeed a comedy. There is no truly objective way of proving either position; both of these films provide us with two differing examinations of racism, a topic which I would guess very few, if any people would find funny, and yet one of them is regarded as one of the greatest examples of comedy in all of film, while the other is taken very seriously.

In Biology, scientists classify different life forms, grouping those with similar traits together under one heading. Likewise in Cinema, people classify different films based on similar traits. Thus we get the comedy genre, which is simply a set of conventions that are commonly used in films that make people laugh. When one watches a comedy, he expects to see some of these conventions played out in the film. The problem is that everybody does not always agree on these classifications. The tomato is classified by scientists as a fruit due to the fact that it is developed from the ovary in the base of the flower, and contains the seeds of the plant; however tomatoes are generally considered vegetables due to their common culinary usage in savory dishes, as opposed to the use of fruits in sweet dishes (“Tomato”). Technically, neither view is incorrect. Like the tomato, films can also defy their classification, or be misunderstood as comedies or dramas, just as the tomato can be misunderstood as either fruit or vegetable. The difference is that people do not eat a tomato with the classification in mind; they simply enjoy the dish for what it is without expectation, whereas people watching a film are constantly burdened with expectations of what it should or should not be.

What is comedy? I guess it's something that makes you laugh. Are Schindler's List and Trading Places comedies? Only if your perception of them makes you laugh.

No comments:

Post a Comment