Friday, November 9, 2012

I Am So Sick of Your Hip, Ironic Detachment I Could Just Puke on Your Zappos Penny Loafers

I just watched the much-touted indy flick “The Comedy”, a 2012 Sundance Grand Jury Award nominee and brainchild of Tim Heidecker of “Tim and Eric” fame. And I want my eight bucks back.

Look, I didn’t want to go here, but believe it or not, I somehow managed to cobble together enough grants, scholarships, and waitressing tips way back in the day to actually afford college. And I squandered a lot of that time in college studying film theory. In fact, although I could never quite make the leap into full film-fuckdom myself, I hung out with a lot of film fucks. I operated  a Bolex. I watched and exhaustively studied an endless array of indie films and awful experimental films. I was directly involved in the making of awful experimental films, including one that featured a giant papier-mâché ear that gave birth. (Don’t ask.) 

I’ve since lost all taste and now just unthinkingly swallow whatever blockbuster fare Hollywood deigns to cram down my throat, but I still retain a vestigial tail of film snobbery that occasionally twitches to life when tempted with some indie morsel labeled as “subversive” or “edgy.” All of this just to say that I’m not a dumb twit who Just Doesn’t Get Anything That’s Not, Like, Totally  Mainstream, Man. I get it, I get it. Believe me, I wish I didn’t. Once you’ve filmed someone on an 8-millimeter Bolex smeared in fake afterbirth emerging from a pink, felt-covered ear--well, there’s no going back.

So I was all excited to watch the “The Comedy” when I heard Tim Heidecker talking about it on Marc Maron’s podcast. It was getting great reviews, with blurbs such as, “An unconventional, unapologetic comedy that's unbelievably entertaining” and “…deserves tremendous respect for its clarity of vision”. What it actually deserves is it what it got from me—a cold stare and a crisp snapping shut of my tablet when the torturous ninety minutes of this sickening nonsense finally ended. 

"The Comedy" follows a wealthy heir-to-be, 30-something hipster named Swanson who is apparently so detached from his own humanity that he finds it perfectly acceptable to stagger drunkenly around Brooklyn antagonizing day nurses, gardeners, cab drivers, and high-as-a-kite liberal hippie chicks who agree to sleep with him even though he’s appalling on every level. In a competent director’s hands, this kind of character would be intriguing, but in this film, he’s just an unrepentant, uncaring, cynical, spoiled ass who never changes and who offers nothing to the viewer or to the (non) story. In fact, in one scene, he actually detaches completely as his one-night stand suffers a severe seizure, while he lies there staring at her, blank and dead-eyed. And I think that’s the point at which I just turned. His indifference to her suffering and her need for medical attention was so revolting and offensive to me that I truly felt heartsick. 

But even sadder, I don’t think that Tim Heidicker or the director, Rick Alverson, were actually in on the joke or going for that effect in viewers. I think that they’re a part of this new-wave, hipster group of comics who think that as long there is “no learning, no hugging”, all is well in art. There is no need to actually create characters who have the capacity to change, to heal, or to offer something redemptive to the world—and if they do, they are sent up as fodder for contempt or mockery. And this isn’t just happening in the occasional indie flick—it’s endemic. It seems to be the Hip New Thing in prevailing comedies—this idea that somehow being a complete waste of skin is funny!! It’s hilarious! Look how horrendous everyone is! Look at how we courageously demand nothing of our characters! Look at how morally inept and un-redeemable they all are! Isn’t it, like so subversive us to ask nothing of ourselves? Isn’t it great how there’s no plot and no narrative and we’re just, like, totally mind-fucking the audience with our total assholery? Aren’t death, old-people-caretaking, and Hitler jokes like, so underground? Cue ironic, hipster yuk-yuks here. 

Maybe I’m old. Maybe years upon years of working in multiple situations where I actually have to deal with real suffering, in real, non-hipster, non-ironically-dressed, yet miraculously, still somehow deserving people has permanently shifted my perspective. Maybe being someone who regularly copes with the odd paradox of being both a born healer and a born artist is beginning to wear on me, because I’m met with suspicion from healers for being an artist, and contempt from artists when I admit I’m a healer. But either way, to borrow a quote from Adam Carolla, I’ve had an impacted assfull of these jerks who think that putting out work that demands nothing from us but chortling, contemptuous, derisive detachment is adding anything to the world. 

No matter how intelligent, ironic detachment is just that. It’s easy. It asks nothing of us. It provides us sanctuary for our own horrid behavior, and it implies that by asking for more, we are stupid people, that we are somehow “pandering” by wanting something that truly speaks to our hearts. It requires no risk, no stakes, no emotional self-examination, and no pain. It’s empty. And yet it’s exalted among hipsters as the New Ideal, the pinnacle of funny, and if you are stupid enough to long for more, well you just don’t “get it” and you are “one of them," “chattel”,  the deserving target of their superior contempt. 

I don’t care about you anymore, Indie Hipster Cynic. I have sick, suffering, non-ironically fanny-pack wearing people to help, who aren’t ironically ugly, and who don’t have trust funds to back them up. Please take your tiresome detachment elsewhere. I have work to do on this planet, and your faux-antique fedora is blocking my view. 

--Kristen McHenry


Frankly Curious said...

This is a really good article and it brings up a number of issues that are close to my heart.

I think that comedy ought to be at base sentimental. This is because the narrative is usually harsh. I think a film like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would be a lot less enjoyable if the theme weren't basically positive.

I don't believe most characters in modern fiction. I'll often be reading a novel and think, "No one would act that way!" (This is particularly true of men writing female characters.) Both of my novels are basically murder mysteries and in both cases the murders turn out to be more or less accidents. At least, that's how the culprits see them. I don't write about psychopaths, so characters have to be able to justify their actions. I know that sometimes real people plot to murder their spouses, but I don't think these people have much to teach me about life.

Similarly, I wrote a character who I really wanted to kill himself. But I just couldn't get there. Eventually, we both had a break through and he landed in a better place.

As a consumer of art, I have to care about the characters. If I don't, I can't care about the art work. This reminds me of something I especially hate in films: killing characters for the sake of the plot. I love my characters. I only kill them if I can open up a whole hidden world. I guess this all just says that I care about character more than I do plot. The plot works for the characters not the other way around.

This doesn't mean I want simple "nice" characters. Quite the opposite really. I thought that Kingpin was a far superior film to Something About Mary because of the morally grey principle characters. But if the Woody Harrelson character had been a jerk, it wouldn't have worked at all.

As a creator of any kind of art, I struggle with the problem of letting the audience inside me. It is easy to pretend that you don't really care about anything. Look at Christopher Guest and his films. It is clear that this man wants to put on musicals and do ventriloquism and probably card tricks too. But he can't bring himself to do it. So he makes fun of these things. Watch Waiting for Guffman and see if you don't think it is by a man who desperately wants to produce a Broadway musical. It's pathetic. And I think we are better of scoffing at people who try to hide their souls rather than the honest people who awkwardly bear theirs.

Kristen McHenry said...

Frank, I agree with you that "comedy ought to be at base sentimental" for a number of reasons, including the one you stated. But it just seems like more and more, comedies and "alt" sitcoms are moving in this direction of just having completely irredeemable characters doing stupid, mean, cruel things over and over again in this sort of existential feedback loop that never goes anywhere. I feel like it's getting old and should be played out by now, but more and more such works are cropping up everywhere. It's as though writers completely lost their ability to create real characters with a growth arc--or somehow that's now considered passe. I dislike watching 90 minutes of someone acting like an asshole. I'm not saying a character has to be "likeable"--I'm just saying they do need to show some sign of life, some potential for change or growth or something. If there had been even one sliver of humanity of the main character of "The Comedy", I wouldn't have been so disgusted. I just don't see anything "subversive" about creating a total dick wastrel of a character and foisting him onto an audience for an hour and a half.

Frankly Curious said...

I think we are in total agreement. Of course, there were always these kinds of things. When I was a kid, I hated the 3 Stooges. I just didn't get it (I still don't); they just seemed to be people being mean to each other.

I think what you've noted may be part of a broader trend. For example, the show 24 really bothers me. When did we become the torturers? It used to be that torture was something that defined the bad guys. Perhaps it is that we've looked closely at the world and discovered that the villain is us.

But that doesn't mean we need to glorify it in our art.

Lúthien Merilin said...

I found this article searching if there are any others out there who are tired of the ubiquitous chronic irony and cynicism. I don't think that it's just the contemporary hipster who displays this: I can't remember a world without it, though it's surely stronger now than before. Born in the 1960's, I can at least remember reading / seeing things that were *not* meant ironically - though there always seemed to be someone (in the audience, at school, ...) quietly sniggering about "so much un-coolness".

That ironic snigger never made any sense to me. Not when I was in primary school (where I first noticed it), and not today. The attitude of the 'ironic sniggerers' suggested that they considered themselves more worldly, street-wise, cool, mature (as Douglas Adams would say "a hoopy frood") as if they viewed the whole business from a wider, detached perspective. Which was, of course, never explained, for this would render their perspective vulnerable as a potential target for irony from a (maybe yet undiscovered) class of meta-froods - or über-hipsters.
Therefore, this perspective should only be suggested, but never made concrete.

I've tried to ignore or avoid these people as well as I could. I still could work my way around it in art school, though it took a switch to another school to avoid getting mired down in the ironic wasteland that had developed on the first one. But the area of visual arts is now so thick with irony (Damien Hirst, just to name one) that it often feels as if everyone is infected with some kind of mental virus. This virus paralyses their capacity to express any thought, idea or emotion that comes from within, that's truly felt and in earnest.
What comes out is no longer the ironic smirk that's supposed to suggest superiority, but (as you write) chortling, contemptuous, derisive detachment.

My feeling about it has slowly changed from puzzlement, via being pissed-off, to outright disgust and sadness. It's being tempered only by the realization that most of the people who display this attitude are simply following what they think is - indeed, "hip" or "cool".

It's a very mixed feeling when I see movies that were made before the dictatorship of irony took hold or somehow escaped its rule (and they are even made today); or when I look at paintings made in earnest; or even listen to music that does not bow before this Ironic Crown. I think that's because I can see and hear what people are capable of in the sense of truly connecting to one another and the world. It's magnificent and indeed, healing.
And yet, because Irony dictates it, they do the exact opposite. Maybe they think they're the heroes of transgressive avant-garde?

But how numb does one have to be to be blind to the unbridgeable gap between rebellion against stifling oppression and being a terminal jerk?
And the one that worries me: how much difference is there between that terminal jerk and a pretended psychopath?