Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"From Baggy Pants To I Am Not Really Sure What"

The Golden Globes Awards, a puffed-up pre-Oscars event illustrating the power of hype over seventy-two Foreign Press journalists with dubious credentials (the Foreign Press votes for the awards) was broadcast two days ago.  (I like to write about things after they happen, to uphold my unblemished reputation for unnewsworthiness and irrelevance.  There is no chance I will ever go “viral.”  To the best of my knowledge, I have never even gone “sniffle.”)

Here’s what I’m interested in.  Not who won, or who dressed the invitees.  (Had I been invited, I most likely would have dressed myself.  I know that’s stupid.  They’re talking about where the clothes came from.  Which, in my case, would have been my bedroom closet.  Which is also a little stupid.  I’m gonna move on.)  

Before the Golden Globes presentation, considerable criticism was heaped on the organization’s questionable category distinctions.  For both for movies and TV, the Globes maintain a separate category for dramas and “comedy or musical” productions.  (Because overall, in terms of awards honors if not box office success, comedies and musicals cannot beat out dramas.  It’s perceived as the children competing against the grownups.) 

The problem for the Golden Globes this year is that the category of “comedies” (and “musicals”, although none were nominated; I don’t even know if they made any musicals this year, other than animated musicals, which compete a separate category entirely), the nominees bore little resemblance to a traditional movie comedy.

Check it out:

American Hustle


Inside Llewyn Davis


The Wolf of Wall Street

All respectable achievements.  But hardly Some Like It Hot.

On the basis of this year’s nominees at least, the segregation of the comedy-drama categories looked anachronistic and dumb.  Shakespeare was trotted out to prove that comedy and drama have been mixed together since 1604.  Chekhov was also mentioned, an L.A. Times theater critic observing that both The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, which are substantially dramatic, “derive strength from laughter.”

A short rebuttal before I run out of time for my actual point.  Shakespearean dramas include scenes of “comic relief”, but the venerable playwright was not in the habit of mixing the two together. 

“To be or not to be…he says to himself, though the audience is listening in, but he doesn’t know they’re listening in, so he actually is saying it to himself... and now I do not remember what I was talking about.”

Shakespeare – thankfully – did not do that.  He kept the funny stuff and the heavy stuff separate.

Chekhov wrote for an entirely different culture – terminally depressed Russia – where a scene is considered comedic if they are not talking about suicide.

What we are referring to concerning the best American movies of 2013 is a stylistic tone that is both dramatic and comedic at the same time.  Personally, I do not care about the Golden Globes’ categorizations.  What interests me substantially more is the evolving nature of comedy.

This blog post could be a book.  I mean, the subject matter, not the post itself – that would make a three-page book.  The gist of the matter is this: 

Comedy is intensely culturo-sensitive.  The culture changes, the new writers become suffused in that culture, and the changing nature of comedy is inevitably reflected in their work.

As a consequence of the continuing reassessment of “what’s funny”, the “Tops for their Times” movie writers enjoy flourishing careers, until the inexorable “comedy wheel” turns once again, and they’re out of the business.

Preston Sturges – great, and then, gone.  Billy Wilder – brilliant – then goodbye.  Paul Mazursky – he nailed the late sixties and seventies; subsequent decades – not so much. 

Rob Reiner and Barry Levinson could do no wrong in their era – after that, they could do no right.  James L. Brooks, who won Oscars for his comedies, made two of the most tone-deaf pictures since the millennium.

None of them stopped being funny.  But due to evolving comedic sensibilities, what was defined as “funny” stopped being them.

And now you got new guys.  David O. Russell.  The Coen Brothers.  Spike Jonze, Alexander Payne.  Setting the Golden Globes kerfuffle aside, it is not a mistake that their screenplays are currently classifiable as comedies.  Nor will it be a mistake when writers of future comedies hit the updated comedy “sweet spot”, and drive today’s successes into retirement.    

I will not attempt to provide a comprehensive timeline of “Comedy Through The Ages.”  I shall only suggest, from observation, that, over the decades, what is considered to be and is appreciated as comedy – I am not talking about Kick-Ass and Hangover comedy here – has become consistently darker and more nuanced, much closer to the line separating what makes you laugh from what makes you cringe, all in the service of reproducing more truthfully what today’s top screenwriters see as the bittersweet reality of everyday life.  Add some evocative dialogue and a memorable soundtrack, and you’re off to the races.  

Or something of that nature.

It’s different, is what I’m saying.  It’s almost as if the “outsiders” have won, and now, instead of making movies with the rough edges cut off them so as not to offend the masses, they are tailoring movies specifically for other “outsiders.”  (As long as they keep the budgets down, because “outsiders” remain a fringy minority.) 

I love these new movies.  Even though I could never write one myself.  Regulated by my generationally calibrated, “Ha-ha Button”, I would inevitably deliver a product that by today’s standards would be perceived as “trying too hard to be funny”, a “dead giveaway” distinction between the old comedy and the new. 

As the descendant of a perfectly fine but never a “Member of the Cool Kids Team” nationality, and of a historically beleaguered ethnicity, I root for the outsiders, and I always will.  Even though, from a creative standpoint, I now lack the requisite necessities for playing on their team.

Being a lifelong student of the game, it will be illuminating to see where comedy goes next.  But if the prevailing trajectory continues – and there is no reason to believe that it won’t – the traditional Golden Globes categorization system is going to find itself in bigger and bigger trouble.


Frank said...

When 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' and Andy Samberg won the tv comedy awards I wondered if Rupert Murdoch was engaged in some sneaky foreign bribing.

Canda said...

Very astute. A few observations:

Old comedy had more sentiment, new comedy does not. Old comedy often tried to get you to laugh with it, new comedy often wants you to laugh at it. Jon Stewart is the godfather of new comedy, Bill Cosby the godfather of old comedy (but we still laugh at his routines). Snarkiness is important in the new comedy, recognition in the old comedy.

I agree that Jim Brooks has done two very tone deaf comedies in the new millennium.

However, having said that, people will still come out to see warm, sentimental comedies. They just won't win awards. GOING MY WAY left long ago.