Loosening the Snarl

Glenn C. Arbery, Ph.D.

Imagine traffic, if you would. If things ever go smoothly, as they sometimes inexplicably do, it’s because many different wills and impulses are crossing in thousands of ways, unplanned. The city might time a series of lights and open HOV lanes, but no czar of traffic could possibly coordinate the whole thing in the moment, as it happens. It just happens, and you drive along, feeling mildly blessed, not thinking about traffic. But as soon as just one person out of all those tens of thousands, for any reason whatsoever, blocks the sweet flow, everything slows, awareness comes back, and you’re stuck.

There are basically two possible comic figures here: the victim caught in the huge anonymous snarl, and the one who caused the whole thing (barring a serious accident). At the beginning of Office Space, the 1999 comedy that’s become something of a cult classic, Peter Gibbons, the main character, is stuck in traffic on his way to work. He notices that the people in the other lane are streaming past him, so he puts on his blinker, waits, and finally veers into the other lane. Just at that moment, everything in his new lane comes to a halt, and the lane he was just in starts moving. He reacts as one would. It’s the perfect introduction to his life. Everything he does to try to improve his situation leads to something worse. The traffic snarl is the metaphor for a vast, anonymous, absurd, inimical system, run by idiots if anybody at all is in charge, against which he stands no chance. Work, needless to say, is a dead-end job that merely extends the same plight, so it’s no surprise that he decides to do something to rob his company with a computer program that transfers money into his and his friends’ accounts, though on a scale they didn’t anticipate.

The other situation reverses the charges on victimhood. Let’s say that you caused all the delays, and the whole huge snarl now concentrates on you, and you are the unwilling, spotlighted center of a massive, citywide disgruntlement. You have gotten the attention of the anonymous system, but to use a phrase of Donald Cowan’s, you have “discommoded the public” in the process. You’d better have a good reason.

Imagine a comic protagonist in one of these situations, and you’re close to the basic metaphor of comedy. The traffic of desire – and I’m coming to my exit from this analogy – flows along until something gets in its way and comically snarls it. What I want to do tonight, speaking of snarls, is something very foolish: I want to try to talk about comedy as such and use current films to do it. Why this is foolish, especially after Louise Cowan’s beautiful lecture last month, will become increasingly evident as I go along. Specifically, I want to think about what happens in the middle of comedies.

Northrop Frye describes New Comedy, the kind we almost always see now, as usually involving “an erotic intrigue between a young man and a young woman which is blocked by some kind of opposition, usually paternal, and resolved by a twist in the plot which is the comic form of Aristotle’s ‘discovery.'” Frye’s outline allows for all kinds of substitutions. There doesn’t have to be an erotic intrigue, and the opposition doesn’t have to be paternal. But what I’m calling the snarl – some tangle of complications in the middle of a comedy – differs in kind from what happens in tragedy.

The middle of a tragedy has a fatal inevitability to it stemming from the original choice of the hero: Oedipus vows to find and banish the killer of Laios, Macbeth decides to kill Duncan and become king himself, Lear chooses to divide his kingdom and give up the responsibilities of rule before he dies. Unlike comic heroes, figures in tragedy are people of elevated stature in a position to carry out what they decide to do. It’s not that tragedy is aristocratic per se, but that someone needs power to make a truly tragic choice – which is one of the problems with seeing Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman as a tragic figure, just by the way.

What’s different in comedy? Part of what makes the action comic is the choice is either good, or if bad, victimless, or at least relatively harmless as crimes go. Think of the burglars in Home Alone. Here’s a house they’ve cased for weeks. The family’s gone for the holidays. What could go wrong? [Remember the plot?] Or to take a play more in the mold that Northrop Frye describes, Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice wants to woo Portia, but he doesn’t have any money, so he goes to borrow it from his friend Antonio. Antonio happens to be out of cash, so he takes out a loan from Shylock, who hates the Christian Antonio (who has publicly spat on him), and terrible complications ensue. In Machiavelli’s Mandragola, Callimaco desires the beautiful Lucretia, married to old, rich Nicia, who keeps her under lock and key. But the other problem is her own virtue. Callimaco lacks the tragic hero’s power simply to take what he wants – King David summoning Bathsheba, for example. In order to get to her, Callimaco has to work with a trickster named Ligurio who comes up with an elaborate plot involving a deadly fertility drug – Nicia wants an heir, but the first person to sleep with Lucrezia after she takes the drug will die. So it requires the collusion of Lucrezia’s priest and mother to convince Lucrezia, a disguise to get Callimaco in the house as the one who will sleep with Lucrezia and die, and so on.

The middle of a comedy, in other words, is very different from the middle of a tragedy. It consists not of a gathering inevitability but of increasing improvisation and confusion – which, by the way, is what makesHamlet and King Lear so great, since the middle of each more resembles a comic snarl than a tragic descent.

The particular complications of a comedy are the gauge of its importance. The more consequential these complications are – for example, the theological quarrel over usury between Jewish Shylock and Christian Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, not tot mention differing interpretations of law – the more is at stake in loosening the snarl and coming to a comic resolution. Sometimes the conclusion feels less than satisfying. But ideally, at the end, something happens that sets everybody down where they need to be, even if it’s not at all where they thought they were going.

Let’s take a short detour through a couple of Shakespearean examples before turning to current films. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus, the legendary King of Athens, is about to marry Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons whom he has recently conquered. He wants the next several days to be spent in revelry before the wedding:

Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword,
And won thy love, doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph and with reveling.

But no sooner does he announce his plans, than an old man named Egeus (in mythology, Aegeus is the father of Theseus) turns up and demands that Theseus force his daughter Hermia to marry the suitor of his choice, Demetrius, instead of her choice, Lysander, even though Demetrius has been betrothed to Helena. If Hermia does not obey his will, he intends to invoke the ancient law of Athens that allows him to put to death a disobedient child. No sooner does Theseus begin to plan for his own happiness than something blocks him. This is not the comic key he wants, in other words. Exercising his power, however good a king he is, will ruin the festivity, and what results is a snarl. Through no design of his, the four lovers flee the city and spend a night of mistaken identities, switches in love, and absurd confusion in the forest outside the city. Titania and Oberon – the king and queen of the fairies – exert their own control, though without knowing what they’re doing either. Things work out well in comedy when there’s a general exhaustion that makes possible the change, a loosening of tension.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the obstacle to desire comes in two forms. One of them is Demetrius’ disordered and probably imitative love, since he seems to choose Hermia because Lysander loves her. Everything works out because Oberon makes one adjustment: to restore Demetrius’ love for Helena with his potion. But the other obstacle is the threat posed by Egeus, since he embodies a paternal coercion that threatens not just the lovers, but the very nature of political life as Theseus wants to reimagine it, with the free marriage of equals as his model. If any force were involved, the comic resolution would suffer – which is the problem with The Merchant of Venice, by the way.

Shakespeare’s early play, The Comedy of Errors, has one of his highest and most satisfying endings, but what’s at stake does not seem as consequential. It’s based on a Roman comedy by Plautus calledMenaechmi about twin brothers who get separated as young boys. They are both named Menaechmus because the one at home was renamed in honor of the missing one. The Menaechmus from Syracuse, looking for his brother, comes to the city of Epidamnus where everybody – including his brother’s wife and mistress – begins mistaking him for the other, with hilarious consequences. Only at the end do the twins get together, at which point all problems are solved.

Shakespeare takes up this basic plot and complicates it considerably. Not only are Shakespeare’s twins both named Antipholus, but they have twin servants, both named Dromio. In the first scene, the father of the twins, a merchant from Syracuse, is arrested in Ephesus and condemned to death because Ephesus is at war with Syracuse. The Antipholus from Syracuse, though his father does not know it, has also arrived in Ephesus looking for his brother, and of course he gets mistaken for the Antipholus who lives there. Each Antipholus, in turn, gets further confused because the two Dromios can’t tell their masters apart, and their masters can’t tell them apart.

What makes it so clever is that the obstacle all along is the very thing Antipholus of Syracuse is looking for: his twin. By the end, it’s a great snarl whose only solution seems to be to lock everybody up. Just as the plot reaches its point of maximum confusion and exhaustion, both sets of twins end up in the same place at the same time. Once the source of all the mistakes comes to light in this discovery, it’s simply a matter of sorting out who made which mistake when. Not only do the twins find each other, but their father recovers his lost wife, their mother, now the abbess of the convent in Ephesus. The Duke removes the death sentence, and all relations marvelously right themselves. It’s the perfect comic plot in the sense that what causes the snarl is also its solution. It’s the kind of ending, that Shakespeare returns to only in his late romances and even so, it might be the one least clouded by troubling omissions from its happiness.

Why does the play’s central complication or snarl involve twins? Shakespeare had twins of his own, Hamnet and Judith, so maybe it’s an extended comic meditation on a phenomenon close to home, one that he takes up again in Twelfth Night. But he also seems to draw on Renaissance neo-Platonism. In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes explains that the original human beings were split in two to keep them from becoming too powerful. “The desire of one another … is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man. Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half.” The Comedy of Errors is about putting halves back together, finding the missing part of one’s identity, and getting re-integrated into a whole, though it’s more about fraternal and filial love, though, than erotic love. What’s at stake here has to do with perennial things, maybe, but it’s hard to feel the same comic urgency in the complications as in The Merchant of Venice or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

How exactly the theme of twins played into its moment – which is a very different thing from its age- is hard to say, if I can digress for a minute. Topical jokes, the kinds of things on Leno or Letterman or in political cartoons, run through everything from Aristophanes to Shakespeare to Judd Apatow’s bawdyKnocked Up earlier this year. One scene in Knocked Up, for example, has the host of a show called E Newscomplaining to the production assistant Alison (Katherine Heigl) about Jessica Simpson being late for her interview. He wants to know whether she’s camera-ready or whether he’ll have to wait. Alison doesn’t know.

“What are we going to interview her about?” he asks.

ALISON: “Nothing personal.”

“No personal questions,” he says.

ALISON: “No personal questions. Don’t ask her about her sisterand her nose job. [Alison adds another forbidden topic aboutJessica Simpson’s anatomy and her father.]

“No plastic surgery questions, no personal questions,” repeats the interviewer. “Right, we’ll talk about the Middle East – and maybe an exit strategy? That’s a good pitch. Should I ask her about Korea? Maybe have her point it out to us on a globe?”

What’s funniest about it has already begun to fade a little since the movie was made. That beauty contestant from South Carolina in the YouTube clip has already edged out Jessica Simpson in general cluelessness. (My youngest daughter can pretty much repeat her whole speech.) The dialogue won’t even register in 10 years. Imagine trying to reconstruct the context of this exchange 400 years from now – not to make any great claims for Knocked Up – and you see how hard it is to understand Aristophanes’ jokes from 5th century B.C. Athens, or Shakespeare’s from 1594.

The best comedy survives the loss of some of its jokes because of what happens in the middle, the nature of its snarl. It captures the particular obsession or madness of the age, and to the extent that those obsessions are recurring ones, the comedy stays fresh, like Molière’s Tartuffe, first performed in the 1660s, or It Happened One Night and The Thin Man from 1934, produced in the heart of the Depression. What I want to do now, finally, is think about some current films and what their snarls might show us about our own obsessions and obstacles.

Lars and the Real Girl, still playing at the Inwood, I think, is about a painfully withdrawn young man named Lars Lindstrom who lives in the garage of his dead parents’ home in a small Minnesota town. His brother Gus lives in the house with his pregnant wife Karin, who worries about Lars all the time. He’s so shy, she can’t even get him to come to dinner.

Then one day he tells her that he wants to bring his new girlfriend to dinner, which is a major breakthrough on several fronts. They’re delighted until they see who she is: a life-sized, anatomically correct sex doll – he’s heard about these from somebody at work – whom Lars seats at the table and treats with goofy courtesy. He says that the airline lost Bianca’s clothes. He wants to know if she can borrow some of Karin’s and stay in their spare bedroom, because obviously, she can’t stay with Lars – they’re not married. Karin’s instinct is to play along and get him to the doctor (Patricia Clarkson), who is both a physician and a therapist. The doctor not only calms down Gus about his insane brother but also gets the whole town involved in a conspiracy to allow Lars this harmless madness. Lars takes Bianca to a party, for example, where the other women talk to her and admire her hair. In the weeks that follow, they set up stylist appointments for her and take her shopping.

The snarl in the plot isn’t simply that he falls in love with a sex doll, then. The town makes everything easy for him in that respect. Despite how provocatively Bianca sits there with her parted lips, Lars sees his idea of a lady. He refuses in advance to reduce Bianca to a purely compliant love object, even though that’s her whole reason for being. In other words, whatever is wrong with him, its symptoms don’t show up as an addiction to pornography, which we’ve come to expect of movie loners, including serial killers. Quite the opposite. Lars is a gentleman, the kind of “well-meaning loser” that Louise Cowan identifies with purgatorial comedy. He’s a Don Quixote who makes a sex doll into his Dulcinea.

As the film unfolds, we recognize that Lars has never come to terms with the fact that his mother died giving birth to him, his father withdrew into silence and misery, and his brother Gus stayed away from home during Lars’ childhood. Karin’s pregnancy now threatens him because he fears she might die as well, so Bianca provides a complicated compensation. All this, mind you, is extraneous to what’s enjoyable about the film, but the point is that there’s something for him to work out. The obstacle is Lars himself – more to the point, Lars’ psyche. The irony is that as everyone else accepts Bianca, she becomes increasingly independent of him. When she gets elected to the local school board, that’s it for Lars. He starts to argue with her, much to everyone’s distress. He complains bitterly that she’s not paying enough attention to him. Meanwhile, the disease the doctor has been treating her for (while she actually talks with Lars) begins to worsen. Meanwhile, the “real girl” of the title, Margo (Kelli Garner), begins to make inroads into Lars’ affection. He’s honorable about it, devoted to Bianca, but you can see that he’s beginning to be torn. Of course, Bianca’s disease is terminal. After all, it consists of not being alive to begin with. But if you see this movie, it might be the only time in your life you find yourself crying over the death of a doll.

So what do the complications in the middle of Lars and the Real Girl tell us about our obsessions? Maybe not much by itself, but if we put it next to two other recent ones – Little Miss Sunshine and Knocked Up -we start to see a theme about images emerging in all of them, especially pornographic ones, false ones. For example, in Little Miss Sunshine, the outrageous, cocaine-snorting grandfather played by Alan Arkin has an addiction to porn, which leads to some very funny moments. In Knocked Up, a guy named Ben Stone and his friends – a collection of slackers – have as their general ambition, none too urgent, to create a website that directs guys to the sexy parts in conventional movies. They claim rieghteously that it’s not porn, as they spend all their time scanning through movies for the naked actresses.

These comedies don’t moralize about pornography, but they finds the impulse pretty laughable – but more importantly, they locate it inside a larger, more general obsession with images. Jean Baudrillard once used the impossibly pretentious-sounding phrase, “the precession of the simulacrum,” to describe the way that imitations actually precede what they are imitations of in a culture like ours. It’s possible to see the whole courtship of Lars and the sex doll as the precession of the simulacrum: the doll precedes the real girl – and in his case, that’s okay, because otherwise, he would never work anything out.

But that’s not the kind of case Baudrillard has in mind. He’s thinking about images preceding real life. Everything is already written on, like a book full of underlining and marginalia; by the time you get to it, everything has been pre-experienced. You never have a chance at naïve discovery or wonder. Suppose, for example, that all intimacy is preceded by pornography, as it seems to be for Ben and his friends in Knocked Up. In other words, the snarl that we’re likely to get into in contemporary comedies is one that involves a complicated immersion in images. In the Neil Labute film Nurse Betty, a waitress believes so strongly in the doctor in her favorite soap opera that she drives to California and doesn’t just meet him, but treats the actor as if he’s the real character and eventually ends up on the show itself.

In Little Miss Sunshine, Olive Hoover – the little girl – derives her sense of herself entirely from watching beauty contests on television, rewinding them on the VCR and miming the winner’s gestures, when she obviously has no chance of ever winning a beauty contest herself. When Olive finds out that she will be in the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine contest because one of the regional winners had to drop out, what is her family supposed to do? Tell this plane, plump child that’s she setting herself up for humiliation? Rather than do that, they all pile into the family’s old Volkswagen bus and head to California, so the complication of the plot involves sustaining her illusion while each of them loses his own. Her father annoys everybody by trying to make a success of himself by selling a book about his steps to success, and he finds out on the way his deal has fallen through. Olive’s Nietzsche-loving brother, who hates his family and won’t talk, finds out on the way to California that he’s colorblind and can’t be a pilot. For his part, the grandfather dies – not that they’re going to let that stop them.Everything escalates until they rush into this pageant where Olive performs the dance her grandfather taught her – it turns out to be a stripper’s bump-and-grind that she performs with untroubled innocence. It perfectly deconstructs the whole event with its grotesquely made-up little girls, obscenely precocious (speaking of simulacra), and loosens the snarl.

I avoided seeing Knocked Up until recently, because I thought it would be in the same vein as Clerks II, which I hated. True enough, it’s outrageous; it’s embarrassing in the sense that you don’t want to see it with anybody you respect, you don’t want your kids to see it, and you don’t want anybody respectable to know you’ve seen it, present company excepted. It’s the kind of contemporary film that has a basic sophomoric level of gross humor, shot through with bad language, with nothing out of bounds; the dialogue is full of explicit references to every possible body part or sexual act. But the movie also illustrates an odd principle of contemporary comedy: the more essentially conservative it is, the more outrageous the humor has to be – which was also the case with Aristophanes, by the way. Knocked Up, as you might have inferred, deals with an unexpected pregnancy, and let me put it this way: let the culture wars rage as they will, comedy loves babies. To be more specific, it loves fertility, the whole, urgent bodily messiness of baby-having from beginning to end, and it especially loves babies as major comic life-snarlers. What’s more, in a movie about having a baby you haven’t planned, the middle of the film corresponds exactly to the body in question, which gets increasingly unwieldy and embarrassing.

Basically, slacker Ben Stone – a very homely guy – meets beautiful production assistant Alison (Katherine Heigl) on the night she’s out celebrating with her sister because of her promotion to an on-the-air spot onE News. They drink too much, etc., and two months later, having long before ruled Ben out as somebody she’s interested in, she discovers she’s pregnant, and reluctantly calls him up with the news. What happens over the course of the pregnancy – and it’s not entirely predictable – makes the film worth seeing. The same is true of Adrienne Shelly’s film, Waitress, in which a pie-making waitress named Jenna (Keri Russell) finds out that she’s pregnant by her husband Earl and has an affair with her doctor that coincides with her pregancy. Seeing Earl in action, by the way, makes this transgression entirely forgivable.

Something about the baby in contemporary comedy also addresses the contemporary question about images. Childbirth loosens the snarl by bringing everything to a Dionysian pitch; anticipating it brings a natural reason to bear, a seriousness, inextricable from the way that the snarl in comedy exerts its complication as life. The same thing would be just as true in ancient Greece, and the response is laughter.

In the last scene of Knocked Up, Ben and Alison are taking their new baby home from the hospital. We see them talking and laughing, Ben really full of himself, and then he says something about driving so slowly. The camera pans back, and we see their car from the outside going very slowly down the only open lane of a highway. Behind them, backed up for miles, is all that frustrated traffic. In more ways than one, we’re back where we started.

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