On laughter and realism, or the moral economy of a fat nude man running in slow motion through a shopping mall only to be shot point-blank

Observe and Report, the new Jody Hill film that comes to us under the cheery self-knowing cloak of yet another Seth Rogen comedy, left a bad taste in my mouth. A metallic sort of half-laughter. It is a remarkable film, primarily because it is a singularly nasty piece of work, a bleak slab of delusion and impotence and systemic violence, made worse by the fact that it pulls you into that vicious structure: "oh, I know I shouldn't be laughing at this, but still..."

Its closest spiritual heir is not, as critics have been claiming, a somehow uneasily triumphalized and punctuated with laughter version of Raging Bull or Bad Lieutenant. Rather, it is Craven's Last House on the Left.

Last House on the Left (1972), the opening salvo in the politicized exploitation/exploited politics of the cinema of the long seventies, has a strange effect on viewers. (Beyond the revulsion, requisite temporary misanthropy, and the need to, as the poster urges, "keep repeating it's only a movie... only a movie.") The strange effect is that we remember the experience of the film in a way radically disconnected from how it feels to watch it. It had been several years since I had seen it last and was planning to watch it with my horror cluster as part of a return to the American seventies. And in doing so, I found myself offering warnings to my fellow viewers: it's so hard to watch, you must steel yourself for this, it's one of the grisliest, bleakest things out there... etc. Yet in watching it, what became slowly apparent was the extent of my misremembering. It is actually a terrifyingly funny film, a painful laughter at the ethical paucity, the ineptitude of the police, the inevitability of pain and pathos that nearly approaches Greek tragedy.

What, then, of the fact that it is a brutal, vicious film of rape, torture, and murder? We might think that its nastiness - for it is a black hole of human possibility, affection, and dignity - occurs either in spite of its comedic elements ("sure, there are some laughs, but nothing can deflect the bare fact of suffering we watch") or because those comedic elements jar so badly with the horror spectacle ("one should not be asked to laugh in the midst of all this, that is the ultimate move of bad faith"). Claiming either option, however, misses the point: it is nasty because it is truly funny, because there is not enough of a disjunction between the torture and the slapstick (just as there is little space between the "senseless" violence and the "sensible" revenge-fuelled violence).

In short, the comedy is the horror, the horror the comedy: the fact that at the end of the day, we have laughed, and not in spite of ourselves. We stand in a moment where, indeed, laughter may be nervous, but it is laughter nonetheless.

Observe and Report treads just this line. For it is indeed alarmingly funny: the sudden ecstatic release of the crowd at the fully frontally nude emergence of the long-promised pervert, the epic single day of cocaine and violence, and particularly the misfires of male-bonding that tends to mark all the extended Apatow crew release. And yet...

If the rest of the film doesn't drive the point home, the date rape sequence sure does. Interestingly, in the fantastic red-band for the trailer (which managed to come off as if the film was a bit dark and nihilistic, but still funny at the end), the snippets that show the arc from compulsive binge drinking to the shot above (Brandy passed out on the bed, vomit dribbling from the lips as our "hero", Ronnie, stops fucking her for a moment, at which point she incoherently slurs, "what are you stopping for, motherfucker..." and he recommences raping her) are, in that trailer, hilarious, primarily because they gesture toward what we think will be the inevitable redemptive arc of the film: yes, he's a violent, deluded asshole, but she's a simple party girl who gets him to loosen up and will actually love him, despite all his faults, and he really wants to love and protect her.

This is distinctly not what happens: the night of the date rape, she goes along only for the free booze and the prescription pills she cons out of Ronnie, later she ignores him, and is seen having sex in a car with his archrival. Only at the moment of his "triumph" (i.e. use of total excessive force) does she turn her terrifying made-up visage toward him again in a studied simulacrum of lust (something like the "sneer" that characterizes desire in Lewis's Snooty Baronet). And of course our hero decides to go for the other girl, the quiet Christ-loving one.

This narrative is ultimately false in that Ronnie and Brandy actually deserve one another: not, obviously, that she "deserved" the rape, but within the narrative logic of the film, they are the perfect obscene couple made for one another. Equally deluded, equally petty and manipulative, and perhaps equally dangerous. Equally ciphers for a nasty brewing storm of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc, etc. And a kind of misplaced sadism in which if they do function as the object of the will of a big Other (as the super-egoic figure of the Law), we should be quite worried. For the Law is always historical (the prohibitions and strictures of a precise material juncture), and these two (and the rest of those who populate the film) may just be the perfect instrumental extensions of the Law of our moment.

More simply, what might it mean to think of this film as capturing something of the present moment? As not just a dark take on a particular lineage of the figurative castration of male agency and the delusions that arise? After watching it, I made the point (an unsurprising one for anyone that knows my tendencies) that we should read this film as the truth of all the other Apatow buddie comedies, as the perversion that's been there from the start, shoved to the side until one film bears the brunt of it in an explosion of nasty sentiment, class antagonism, sexism beyond the standard "women are from Venus, men are from Mars" that marks their films and the teddy bear gentleness of the male protagonists. However, my friend Erik made a far more important point via inverting what I said: what is in fact more disturbing might be to think of those films as the truth of this one. Not merely in the sense that this film is marked by, and sneaks under the radar under the sign of, those comedies, but rather that it comes across to us as another one of those films, in which what frustrates our desire to place it and be done with it is perhaps this ultimate reconcilability: of what should be an uncaged beast of antagonism and impoverished neoliberal brutishness here with the minor plot twists and reconciliations of the new wave of post-teen sex comedies.

What disturbs us, then, isn't the bad fit of this film with those, but its rather seamless fit. And as such, while those films were indeed comedies, this film is not. It is, at the end of the day, a realist film. My rather oblique point and destination in arguing all this is that we need to stop forcing a wedge between realism and laughter and assuming that realist means gritty and quotidian. What we need now is a better sense of the real divide to be drawn, between the realism effect and affective realism, between what we've inherited as the "look" of realism and what actually nails down and pins, like a shaking butterfly of the present, the feel of our historical moment.

These comments come in the wake of what I imagine will be a continuing trend toward the critical valorization of what A.O. Scott calls "Neo-Neo Realism". This is well-worth reading, if only as a symptomatic register of an emergent trendline, as the more dour of the Scott-Dargis pair offers a rather sharp glance back at the realist impulse that seems to be quietly resurgent in recent films of bleakly-scraping-by (Wendy and Lucy and Man Push Cart being the stars of this sky). To be sure, we might ask the degree to which films like this have been consistently made; the difference now seems to be a broad grasping for films that seem premonitions or registrations of the economic "downturn" (read: "depression").

The heart of this vogue seems to be a hankering for the "realism effect," for what looks like films taking a hard glance at hard times. I retain enormous love and attention for earlier films that achieve this in all its sun-drenched dusty edge (Pasolini's Mamma Roma still stands as haunting as desperate today as it has been for 47 years, or if it was more so then, I have difficulty fathoming that). But we need to ask ourselves: why do we tend to think that realism cannot be funny, that it must be dour and hard-up, quotidian and "objective"? Why does realism have to look so "real"?

Because when we insist that it should, we lose a necessary optic onto a long uneven history of films (let alone art, literature, etc) that have registered the affective experience of labor and struggle under and against capitalism. To think briefly of the figure looming largest over this debate, Lukács, we might ask why realism looks like naturalism with a better selection mechanism. And further, if we take him on his word that the vital work of realism is that of modelling, of drawing from the storm and swarm of historical data the "typical" figure of that conjuncture, then might there in fact be periods in which fidelity to critical materialist analysis requires us to register that the figure is one of comedy, not tragedy, of the riotous laughter in the face of the absurd arrangements of matter and money in a world order gone mad?

For what are À Nous la Liberté and Modern Times if not the great realist documents of their monuments, of the experience of Taylorization and emergent Fordist, of what it might feel like to become a cog in the bureaucratic and literal machine, an agentless being pulled between political movements, social climbing, factory discipline, and the rhythms running a world that has no place for the fuck-ups and particularities of those who make it up?

The confusion of Tati in Mon Oncle, perhaps the most gently vicious attack on the attack of bourgeois design on the scale and motions of the human body, his bumbling Monsieur Hulot navigating between the dog-philosophy of the run-down suburbs where he lives to the kitchen where if not all that is solid melts into air, then at least all that should not bounce does indeed.

And finally, Office Space, one of the all-time great films about work and probably the best American realist film of the 90's (which deserves far, far more space than I'll give it here, and my next post on this issue will deal with the question of periodizing the gap between it and Observe and Report, for it is telling in Office Space that if you want out of your office job, it isn't difficult to get into construction and building homes, an option certainly off the table now). An out and out comedy, it is deadly serious in recognizing that the real world occupied by these type of characters is either a comedy or a black pit of Kafka negotiations, of swimming frantically in a whirlpool, going nowhere beneath softly buzzing fluorescent lights. Registering in advance Virno's notion that in a contemporary moment of economic logic, the virtuoso and the joke become not the misfits in a rationalized, Weberian world of capitalist accumulation but rather the exemplary skills of that organization of thought and labor.

Giehse said of Brecht that his "genius was to mix humor in the great trageides - not always, but as a contrast". This should be revised to think this alternate lineage: the accidental genius of these films of affective realism is to recognize that there are periods and spheres of history in which humor is in the great tragedies, not as a contrast, but as a constant. The realist principle in certain moments, ours perhaps more than ever, might indeed not be tragic, but comic. And that's the unsettling thing.


gpatrick said...

Terrific work! Is there a difference, though, between affective realism and realism that models social totality (which I am not quite clear if you are aligning that with realism effect)? Perhaps there is something different - but no less "realist" - in a work that captures a moment's mood or resonance than in one that, to use another variation, provides a cognitive map.

Furthermore, what is the difference in terms of political utility and/or ideological critique between the form you theorize here and traditional forms of realism as conceived by Marxism? The latter, in my estimation, presents a populist narrative that affords conceptualization of the the world-system. What does affective realism do, and given your discussion with your friend, can this affective form facilitate any revolutionary thought if it risks collapsing back into the Apatow fold?

In some way, these are issues I am working on myself, as I have been thinking lately about works in which realism, or, rather a realist impulse, emerges in unorthodox spaces. Look forward to hearing your thoughts.

emphryio said...

I liked Office Space but it is, you know, a sellout. Starts out as relevant critique of modern society and then goes off into fantasy (irrelevancy). Any meaningful message, anything that might look like a suggestion we all ought to actually do something is successfully removed. And thus it conformed enough to keep Mike Judge with a job and people felt more or less uplifted.

All you need is love (all you can turn to is love) and one of those high paying construction jobs that unskilled office workers can easily get.

Of course everything is a 'sellout'. There is no such thing as not conforming to some extent.

socialism and/or barbarism said...

gpatrick: thanks for the questions, sorry to be slow on this. Not to cop out of an answer here, but I'll try to wrestle with them properly when I write the follow-up to this.

Although to gesture toward an answer (and to respond to emphryio): indeed, the model seen in Office Space (which I quite agree is a sell-out, to put it lightly: the fact that there is a high-paying construction job ready when one wants to quit the cubicular rat race) and, in a different register, Observe and Report lacks any sense of the work of modeling, via the "typical", that Lukács sees as the task and role in totality-grasping realism. That said, I'm perhaps equally wary of "a populist narrative that affords conceptualization of the world-system": this seems to me far too likely to fall into a sort of pseudo-totality which rather than sharpening the focus of antagonism to certain points of practical intervention, may establish a flattened vision of the world lacking more particular nodes of struggle. More on this later, I hope.

Lastly, I would say that I don't think this affective form itself necessarily risks collapsing back into the Apatow fold. I think there is a historically distinct version of it that we are seeing now taking such a manifestation, but I would argue that the form could also very well capture something like the affect of revolutionary pathos.