Monday, January 20, 2003

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Enjoy Humor

I attended a dinner party this weekend with the ostensible purpose of watching the Godfather DVD my brother had scored for Christmas. Somehow, after many cocktails of various incarnations, the subject of funny movies came up. I mentioned that I thought Dumb and Dumber was one of the most brilliant and yes, one of the funniest movies ever made.

I was met with comments like "It was okay" or "That was one of the stupidest movies I've ever seen". Finding it hard to fathom how someone couldn't laugh out loud at a minimum of 25 times during the film, I inquired what they thought a good "funny" movie was.

Someone mentioned Dr. Strangelove.

Funny? Really? Yes, I was told, this was a laugh out loud affair. With character names like Buck Turgidson, Jack D. Ripper, Bat Guano and General Faceman I now see their point. What they explained to me was that this was a brilliant satire of the entire military industrial complex. They explained that there was this thing called the Cold War, where the US had, as Jimmy Carter referred to it, an "Irrational fear of communism". Well this movie poked a giant hole in that! Yes, they went on, it showed how crazy this whole arms race was and how we were all doomed to a world of nuclear annihilation. Or, as Roger Ebert put it:

...a film that pulled the rug out from under the Cold War by arguing that if a "nuclear deterrent" destroys all life on Earth, it is hard to say exactly what it has deterred.

I guess Roger Ebert (and just about everyone else who loves this movie) thought the cold war was simply a conceit, an invention by those in power to enrich their brothers on the industrial side of the complex. It seems having an understanding such as this is important if you think this movie funny.

Apparently, you also have to understand subtle humor as one long-winded reviewer tells us:

Kubrick's picture has so many targets that it's difficult to know where to begin. Certainly, the "balance of power" nuclear deterrent policy gets the most obvious jabs (although ardent supporters may not see this -- Dr. Strangelove's attacks are subtle enough that it's possible for an unsophisticated viewer to miss the point). Parodying the "missile gap" at the heart of the arms race, we are given the "doomsday gap" and the "mine shaft gap."

What about the humor gap? From all the glowing praise I have read (and from my own bored viewing of this film as well) this movie is all about subtext and sneer. Nothing is actually funny for funny's sake--it's funny because smart people understand that "those in charge are the craziest ones of all and they are holding the fate of everyone else in their weak hands" to quote another reviewer.

Satire is never going to be as funny as plain, old fashioned humor, (the site of Jim Carey and Jeff Daniels on the frozen minibike for example in Dumb and Dumber) because the viewer has much more work to do than to just laugh at the absurdity of something. With satire they have to proclaim "Yes, I see what you are doing there! I am with you! No, this isn't over my head. Bat Guano, isn't that bat shit? And the guy is supposed to be a man of respect? My laughing is the only way I know to socially signify that I'm with you".

No, the audience probably doesn't LAUGH as much, but there seems to be a deep sense of self-satisfaction concomitant with liking this movie. By proclaiming your undying love for Strange, you are telling the world that you aint one of them NASCAR-watchin', Bud Light chuggin', country music listenin' people who think things is just funny--you're in on the joke!

In the film, when General Jack D. Ripper (God help us) becomes convinced that the Soviets are poisoning the "purity and essence of our natural fluids" there's nothing inherently funny at work. But the subtext, ah the subtext is where the laughs are to be found since the US government told so many lies about the evils of communism during the cold war this deftly concludes why there really was no danger at all.

To say that Strange is held in high regard by just about everyone is an incredible understatement. cites it as the number one movie of All Time and Rotten Tomatoes, a site with a collection of reviews, gives it an overall 9.7 out of 10, and it routinely makes the Top Ten lists of movie critics.

The only review I could find that even remotely suggested that this might not be the Crowning Achievement of Film was from the original review of the movie that ran in the New York Times in 1964:

...On the other hand, I am troubled by the feeling, which runs all through the film, of discredit and even contempt for our whole defense establishment, up to and even including the hypothetical Commander in Chief.

But when virtually everybody turns up stupid or insane--or, what is worse, psychopathic--I want to know what this picture proves. The President, played by Peter Sellers with a shiny bald head, is a dolt, whining and unavailing with the nation in a life-or-death spot. But worse yet, his technical expert, Dr. Strangelove, whom Mr. Sellers also plays, is a devious and noxious ex- German whose mechanical arm insists on making the Nazi salute.

The ultimate touch of ghoulish humor is when we see the bomb actually going off, dropped on some point in Russia, and a jazzy sound track comes in with a cheerful melodic rendition of "We'll Meet Again Some Sunny Day." Somehow, to me, it isn't funny. It is malefic and sick.

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