Dreck and Resurrection

These are not characters: they are excuses for doing something — Philip Rieff, The Crisis of the Officer Class

On the occasion of Good Friday, a story about the new Seth Rogen flick.

Kudos to Manohla Dargis for issuing what appears to be the only cultured reaction to Observe and Report — controlled, but quite active, contempt:

During an ensuing date, Brandi gobbles pills, guzzles tequila and even sputters puke, prompting Ronnie to kiss her square on the messy mouth. What follows next should have been the shock of the movie: a cut to Ronnie having vigorous sex with Brandi who, from her closed eyes, slack body and the vomit trailing from her mouth to her pillow, appears to have passed out. But before the words “date rape” can form in your head, she rouses herself long enough to command Ronnie to keep going.

Comedy is often cruel, of course, but before 1968, the year the movie rating system was instituted, directors couldn’t squeeze laughs from the suggestion of date rape, as Mr. Hill tries to do here. Like action and horror filmmakers, comedy directors now push hard against social norms with characters who deploy expletives, bodily fluids and increasing brutality. Mr. Hill has upped the ante in this extreme comedy scene not only by creating a working-class, bipolar bully who lives with his alcoholic mother, but also by asking us to laugh at this pathetic soul — and his miserably constrained life — as well as at the violence he wreaks. The dolts in “Dumb and Dumber” had hearts of gold. Ronnie has a gun.

Correction — Ronnie is a gun. Godard’s dictum, of which Peter is fond of reminding us, that all a film needs is a girl and a gun is deconstructed, on Rieff’s reading, by Godard’s own film Breathless:

Patricia: I’m writing a novel.
Michel: You?
Patricia: Why not me? What are you doing?
Michel: I’m taking off your shirt.
Patricia: Not now, Michel.
Michel: You’re such a drag. What good is that?
Patricia: Do you know William Faulkner?
Michel: No, who’s that? Some guy you slept with?
Patricia: No, my dear.
Michel: Then to hell with him, take off your shirt.

[…] Patricia is no fertility or renewal symbol. She is there. What else is there to do? She represents nothing. […] Michel does not misrecognize Patricia as anything, neither goddess nor whore. Nor is the conversation at cross-purposes. She is doing her culture thing, which is no more nor less anti-cultural than his. […] He is hunting in the manner dictated by the opportunity. […] Both are productions, but it is Marxist rubbish to call them commodities. They are nothings, not even lies, because there is no truth in them.

This ‘sex’ scene in Breathless is ‘f***ing’ poetry next to Ronnie and Brandi Make an Anti-Porno, the artistic genius of which is supposed to be the extreme-ization of comedy into anti-comedy. At such depths, the joke is on the viewer, whose laugh is liquidated and dies without dignity on his or her lips. A girl in Brandi’s condition is no longer a girl, and a boy in Ronnie’s no longer a boy. They execute an ex-joke about an ex-girl and an ex-boy.

Yet the nihilism in this scene, we tell ourselves, must be safely contained by its fiction. The same scene, lived out in real life, would be funnier and sadder, but not more horrible, because it would not, and could not, be exactly the same. It would not be a scene at all: in place of these anti-characters would be, in the decisive, preemptive blow against nihilism, real people. (Any such scene with real characters would itself, by necessity, be far different.) Sure enough, no depth of lived-out nothingness can destroy the reality of our lives.

Yet even fictive nothingness can badly degrade it. The nihilist scene is hardly strong enough to make our lives mere scenes, but our life is strong enough by far to make even fictive nothingness part of reality. We can run from a real reaction to Ronnie and Brandi’s sex scene, but we can’t hide, though the guilt we can’t help but feel at our observant complicity in Ronnie and Brandi’s dehumanization be repackaged as mere ‘awkwardness’. How easier Rogen and Faris themselves have it, as officially accredited actors! The only shelter the audience can seek, ceasing to be a real audience, is in merely acting like one.

Or it can fight back, as Dargis and Rieff have done, against such coerced self-fictionalization. (If pop culture can bring those two together, perhaps things have gotten so bad that we really are going to save ourselves.) To laugh at Ronnie — and, make no mistake, as really intended, at Brandi — is to partake of a not-so-cleverly veiled contempt for real human beings on account of what makes them really human. Dargis is right that scolds wrongly repress how cruel comedy is at heart. But Dargis is also right that when comedy savagely date rapes what’s most unfunny about the human condition, the result, no matter how you spin it, is not a romantic encounter. And, ultimately, the ‘losing’ survivor of such a violation is far less corrupted by it than the ‘winning’ violator. In spite of it all, if not more nobility, Brandi has far more dignity and humanity than Ronnie, not less. Where dreck abounds, miraculously, grace superabounds.