Monthly Archives: May 2011

RIP, Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington died on Wednesday at age 94.

She was the last important surrealist artist still living.  Originally from England, she was already a great admirer of the surrealists when she met Max Ernst in 1937 and he brought her to Paris.  They lived together for two years, during which she wrote several short stories, which he illustrated.  Despite or because of her refusal to play the Surrealist role of female muse, it proved an artistically fruitful relationship; her Portrait of Max Ernst (1939) shows him as a guide through an icy wilderness.

But the Nazi occupation of France brought disaster.  Ernst was arrested by the Gestapo.  He managed to escape to New York, but in the meantime, Carrington’s life was completely shattered.  She fled and ended up suffering a mental breakdown in Spain, where she was institutionalized and given experimental seizure-inducing drugs.  Upon release, she rejoined many of the Surrealists in New York, including Ernst, now in the company of art collector Peggy Guggenheim.  She finally settled in Mexico, already home to her friend and fellow surrealist Remedios Varo.  Mexico’s rich pre-Columbian mythology became her source of inspiration and she remained there, mostly painting but also sculpting and writing, for the rest of her life.

Carrington’s work is immensely important to me personally.  She was the only living artist that I really wanted to meet.  I love her refusal to take crap from anyone, especially men.  I’ve talked Jordan’s endlessly indulgent ear off explaining her artistic merits.  She inspires me.  I was writing a short story about her and Max Ernst (pictured here in 1937 with fellow surrealists E.L.T. Mesens and Paul Eluard) when I heard about her death.

Surrealism’s connections to the hermetic tradition appeal to me; as a chemist,  I’m slightly disappointed that alchemy as science has been replaced with something more productive but far less picturesque, and thus I find alchemy as a spiritual and psychological journey to be immensely appealing.  Carrington’s work is rife with hermetic imagery.  In Mexico, she began painting with egg tempera, which involves both the egg (the alchemical vessel of creation) and a creation process very like cooking (an art both alchemical and feminine, as in Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen, 1975).  Symbols from Celtic and Mexican mythology proliferate in mystical landscapes, like Labyrinth (1991).

Animals fill her work.  A white horse (as in her portrait of Ernst) represents her spiritual self; a hyena represents her sexual self.  Mythical creatures are often seen as the province of children and immature artists, but Carrington used them liberally and powerfully (pictured is Who Art Thou White Face?, 1959).  Inspired by her and by Ernst’s animal identity, Loplop the superior of birds, I represent myself as the mythical chimaera.

Finally, her work is beautiful.  She displays technical mastery over her media and meticulous attention to detail, creating works that appeal equally to the art enthusiast and the layperson.  I hope that she will live on and be remembered through the wonderful images she created.

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Images found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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Oddity of the Week

Here’s the route I took to LACMA today.  Yes, that was the most direct route through the labyrinthine road and lane closures.

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Substitute Humor

Comedy is fun, but most comedy movies and TV shows are not.  Indeed, comedies as a genre seem to miss the mark more often than other genres.  Why is this?  Is it because humor is subjective?  Yes, but I also think that a lot of comedies simply fail in concept: They don’t understand what a comedy is.  There’s no excuse for this, because setting a side the finer points of literary criticism, a comedy is simply something with jokes.  Unfortunately, comedies often try to pass things off as jokes that simply aren’t, hence the failure.

The infamous cinematic excrement produced by Seltzer and Friedberg are the most obvious examples.  Their movies can pass without producing a single recognizable joke.  But there are actually a great number of joke substitutes of various types, including the following.

Offensiveness

It’s true: Humor can be offensive.  That’s the nature of pushing social boundaries.  It does not, however, follow that offensiveness is inherently funny.  You still have to make a joke.

Examples: The Sarah Silverman Program is the ideal example of humor-by-offensiveness missing out on the humor part.  Jokes on her show build up ponderously with poor payoffs, and sometimes protracted scenes take place where there is no apparent joke at all.  Contrast with the excellent Community, where jokes are often piled on each other in a quick repartee, including throwaway jokes that the viewer doesn’t necessarily catch.

Stephen Colbert’s performance at the 2007 White House Correspondents’ Dinner is an interesting case.  While the circumstances are priceless, his jokes are not actually very funny.  All the humor derives from his insulting the administration to its face.

Gross-Outs

I’m getting the obvious stuff out of the way immediately.  No one over the age of thirteen should find poop (or whatever bodily function or gross situation it happens to be) funny, and yet here it is, popping up with clock-like regularity in every bad comedy ever made.  It can serve as a litmus test: Once there’s a gross-out joke, you know the movie or TV show you’re watching is going to suck.

Examples:  Every movie that has ever made a poop joke.  I refuse to link to one.

Destruction

Destruction is perhaps the purest example of something else being used as a stand-in for a real joke.  Breaking things isn’t particularly funny and there’s no reason it should be, but slapstick has trained us to read it as a joke.  Unlike gross-outs, destruction sequences can appear in legitimately good comedies, but they’ll always be the weakest scene, the part where the writers couldn’t think of any real jokes to use.

Examples:  Listen to the commentary of The Naked Gun and you’ll hear the director say “It’s just destruction anyway; it’s not that funny” during the requisite scene.

Fourth Wall Breaking

The line between comedy and farce can be drawn with surprising accuracy by the absence or presence of fourth-wall-breaking jokes.  The fourth wall is broken any time the movie or TV show makes a nod to the fact that it is a movie or TV show by, for instance, intentionally showing part of the set, having the director step in, or having a character make a comment like “This isn’t in the script!”  I am not picking on farce here; zany, nonsensical humor has its place.  But breaking the fourth wall is rarely funny.  The audience knows that it’s a movie and probably doesn’t find the fact inherently humorous.

Examples: Both Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights break the fourth wall, and in neither case does it feel like anything but filler.  An even better example is the “Candlejack” sketch from Freakazoid.  In the middle of a reasonably well-paced sketch, Freakazoid pops out of the set to thank the crew.  Is this funny?  No.  Are kids going to find this funny?  Definitely no.  Hopefully it made the crew happy, because otherwise this scene serves no purpose whatsoever.

Sex References

You may be surprised to see this on the list, since I previously defended sex jokes.  But there’s a key distinction: Jokes about sex are fine, but sexual references are not jokes.  Often they are just thrown in to carry a scene with no real humor value.  The result may be mildly funny, but it will also feel lazy and hackneyed.  Comedy without innuendo is forced to be more inventive and consequently funnier.

Examples: I find it striking how much funnier most episodes of the Muppets were than their concurrent episodes of classic Saturday Night Live.  Partly SNL has aged poorly because of its culture references, but mostly it’s because the constant barrage of sex references just feels weary after a while.  For instance, their Muppets parody segment “The Land of Gorch,” now hard to find, often fell flat because the Muppets were already funny, so the only parody there was to do was to make them swear and talk about sex.

The Muppets, with their all-ages audience, faced a greater challenge in writing jokes that were appropriate for everyone, and they constantly rose to it.  None of their guests embodied the show’s spirit of innocent fun as well as John Denver, as seen in this sketch where Miss Piggy reduces him to tears of laughter.

Christopher Guest’s largely-unscripted films are another elucidating example.  Best in Show features a lot of sexual humor, and the overall feel is that the actors just threw in a sex joke whenever they weren’t sure where to go with an improv bit.  A Mighty Wind doesn’t include nearly as much innuendo, and it feels much more confident.

Historical In-Jokes

A historical in-joke is when, in a historical piece, something happens that is only funny because the viewer knows what is later going to happen.  Most commonly, someone will say “This will never catch on!” when presented with something that would later become commonplace; it’s also common for someone to egregiously over- or underestimate what technology will be like in the present day.  Unlike the other entries on this list, the historical in-joke is legitimately joke, but what a hackneyed one!  There is nothing creative about it.  Most of the time it isn’t even historically accurate.  Nevertheless, it gets trotted out with a sense of obligation in practically every historical comedy, usually with no adornment.

Examples: By far the worst example is, of all things, The Passion of the Christ.  The longest flashback in the entire film, longer than the Last Supper, is a scene of Jesus making a table and chairs and Mary saying “This will never catch on.”  All I can say is, why?

In contrast, special credit must go to Look Around You.  If you like dry British humor and aren’t already familiar with it, go acquaint yourself immediately.  Its conceit is one of those dull kids’ science shows from the 70s, but it has the secondary conceit, which initially took me in, of being a parody show from the 70s.  Would you guess that it was actually made in 2002?  Probably not, because it avoided the obvious historical jokes.  And, from that first bit of faulty BASIC code, it’s brilliant.

Culture References

Is anything so insipid as a pop-culture reference?  We have a sadly Pavlovian response to anything that we recognize.  This results in the endless parade of sequels, remakes, and movie adaptations cashing in on our love of the familiar, and also in the equally endless references to popular culture.  Mentioning a celebrity or current event is not a joke, and we shouldn’t respond to it like one.

Examples:  Too many to mention, but Dreamworks’ contender for “worst movie ever,” Shark Tale, is particularly shameless.  Look how many they cram into the trailer alone.

Parental Bonuses

Okay, so any movie a kid sees a parent will have to sit through, too, so smart filmmakers make kids’ movies that also appeal to adults.  Unfortunately, the most common tactic is just to throw in a joke that kids won’t get.  The problem?  It’s virtually always one of the types I’ve mentioned above, usually a pop-culture reference or an oblique innuendo.  Good kids’ media comes up with jokes that everyone gets, rather than alternating stupid stuff for kids with stupid stuff for adults.

Examples: While well-regarded, Animaniacs and its 1990s Warner Brothers brethren suffer from this.  It’s difficult to find a single full episode that doesn’t mention something, or more often someone, that kids won’t get.  For that matter, young adults in the 90s wouldn’t have recognized many of the caricatures.  Were they really expecting 10-year-olds to recognize The Agony and the Ecstasy?

Awkwardness

And here it is.  This one might be just me, but it’s also the inspiration for this entire list.  Awkwardness.  It isn’t a staple of farces or bad comedies—it can be found in highly acclaimed movies and TV shows.  In fact, it’s rarely absent.  Other people find this stuff funny, I suppose, but for me, awkwardness in film feels just like awkwardness in real life: I just want it to be over.

Examples:  Everywhere, but The Office takes the cake as a show where awkwardness is the main motive force and the source of virtually all the attempted humor.  This show does not deserve its audience or reputation.

You’ll notice that this list didn’t mention puns, the most deprecated of joke types.  This is for two reasons: First, whether it’s good or not, a pun is at least a recognizable joke.  Second, the hackneyed nature of so many puns is not inherent to puns, but due to their overuse.  A really original pun, like the one at the end of this Scott Pilgrim clip, can still be a slam dunk.

Lest you think my assessment is too harsh, I’m not saying that no good comedy can feature any of these elements.  No show or movie is going to feature start-to-finish brilliant, unique humor.  But they are not jokes and should be recognized for the filler they are.

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So You Want Kitty Pictures

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