Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I've never been crazy about negativity including in films. But since my brain surgery, I have an even stronger aversion to the darkness that so many critics and academics and "intellectuals" seem to thrive on and celebrate.

I've written about this before (but finding the post and linking to it is too difficult for me right now, though I address it in the BOOKWORM radio interview there's a link to toward the top right of this blog page), that one of the best examples is the critical treatment of William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Misogynist Burroughs, who shot his wife between the eyes in an attempt to shoot a cocktail glass off her head (the way I heard it) and glorified cynicism and elitism and all kids of negativity, was adored by critics and academics and supposed avant-gardists while Kerouac with very few exceptions until very recently was dismissed as some kind of sentimental primitive, even though he had an enormously bigger impact on writing in general let alone on the course of cultural history, and had a much deeper and more realistic (i.e. unsentimental) perspective on so many more aspects of social and political and intellectual and spiritual life in mid-20th Century, so much so that a lot of his perceptions are only now being recognized for their impact and accuracy.

But the point of this post is to say that since my brain surgery and the changes it has caused, some of which are receding, but many of which are not, I feel that my distaste for cynicism and violence, especially in popular culture, has increased to the point of my finding it hard to dig it at all. This has manifested itself most obviously in the films I've been watching in recent days (that I've been sent on DVDs by studios courting voters for the various awards to come in the new year).

FUNNY PEOPLE and BROTHERS are perfect examples of this. There are scenes in FUNNY PEOPLE that are funny, and some that are even poignant or "deep"—but overall, the film came across to me as highly cynical in a way that seemed to be touting an idea of "realism" that equates soullessness and joylessness with seriousness. A total bummer as they used to say in the '60s when there was more joy in the midst of a pointless war for which civilians were being drafted and killed in numbers that dwarf those of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, and when on top of that there was the Civil Rights struggle (which produced its own casualties) and much more that made reality less than happy, and yet there was plenty of joy to go around.

In FUNNY PEOPLE, the premise seems to be, yes it's true comedians are really tortured souls who laugh to keep from crying. A point we've seen made before and sometimes illustrated with a story and characters that evokes sympathy and understanding and maybe even some kind of enlightenment. But in this flick which has tons of comics playing roles small and large, but hinges on Adam Sandler's star turn, the FUNNY PEOPLE of the title can't help revealing themselves as just petty envious small-minded self-centered jerks. It's a pity, because the movie is filled with talented comic actors who have given us some of the funniest moments in recent movie history, but in what seems to be an attempt to expose all that as phony and pointless (except for a few caveats here and there and the very last scene) FUNNY PEOPLE makes a point of the pointlessness of it all.

BROTHERS has a much more noble goal, it would seem, and a much more successfully "serious" pedigree, as it's directed by Jim Sheriden and stars a select ensemble cast that includes some terrific performances. Toby MaGuire has already won a Golden Globe nomination for a performance I found too robotic and un-nuanced for my taste (I would have nominated Jake Gyllenhaal who plays his brother in the film and manages to hit almost every note in any great actor's repertoire), and though at first I resisted Natalie Portman's acting as less than impressive, she won me over in the course of the movie, and Sam Sheperd pulls off one of his most memorable screen appearances in years.

But in the end, the violence and dysfunction of the characters and their world (and the underlying "reality" of so much of the pointless violence of the Afghan War and by extension most if not all wars), as well as the tension that creates, made me want to turn the movie off go see a comedy, like what was popular in the '30s that those Great Depression era audiences flocked to—musical comedies and romantic comedies and Hollywood formula boy meets-girl-or more often girl-meets-prince stories that made it seem easy or likely or at least possible to imagine a world where every one lived like the "swells" in "swanky" joints surrounded by nothing but beauty and luxury.

I won't go that far, and of course there were many movies from the 30s that emphasized the tragic aspects of that period (GRAPES OF WRATH) or the proletarian struggles to overcome the tragic whether successfully or not (PUBLIC ENEMY), but at least in this stage of my recovery, I'll take the more fun movie fare like IT'S COMPLICATED, or at least the less melodramatic less operatic approach to the possibly tragic aspect of these times, ala UP IN THE AIR, over the more obviously heavier fare like FUNNY PEOPLE and BROTHERS.

Maybe it's time to watch SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS again.

PS: As you can probably tell, my writing/typing is continuing to improve. Been working on it in "occupational therapy"—but my stamina in terms of writing is still pretty shortlived. Reading however is returning to close to normal, YEAH!, to the point of my picking up some poetry yesterday and reading a few pages. But no matter where I am in my progress, I continue to feel completely accepting of where I am and am grateful for exactly that.


-K- said...

It's always time to watch SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS.

And its always time to watch HOLIDAY and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS too.

RJ Eskow said...

Oh, wait -- I don't know "K" (the guy from Kafka's Metamorphosis, perhaps). But I had just typed the sentence below when I saw her/his comment:

"It's ALWAYS time to watch Sullivan's Travels again."

And, Lal, this kind of response to art and culture is one of the reasons I love ya, pal.