Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Drillbit Taylor and Jeanine Basinger

I really enjoy Dana Stevens’ movie reviews on Slate. She manages to reference old classics (like Preston Sturges films) in meaningful ways without sounding pretentious, nor alienating the large portion of her readership that presumably has no knowledge of Sturges’ work.

Today, in her review of Drillbit Taylor, she completely contradicted the ‘thesis’ of Jeanine Basinger’s comedy class: she said the topics Drillbit Taylor chose for humor were inappropriate, and that they were treated with too much levity. Jeanine would have fallen over.

Jeanine opened her first class with a comedy about Nazis and this introduction to the film:

“Hitler is not funny! Hitler killed millions of people! He is NOT FUNNY!”

After seeing To Be or Not to Be, and subsequent comedies featuring the Nazis and various war atrocities, she would put us in the seat of the filmmaker, asking us, “How do we make Hitler funny?”

For Jeanine, comedy was about taking serious, unfunny subjects, and creating margins of safety for the viewer where humor could be inserted and make these grave, unsuitable topics into comedy. The examples are infinite: a cheating spouse turns into a million screwball comedies, nuclear annihilation becomes Dr. Strangelove, teenage pregnancy becomes Juno, a war hero imposter becomes Hail, the Conquering Hero!. Compare this to Dana Stevens’ next comment about Drillbit Taylor:

“Homeless Army vet, living alone in tent, conspires to deceive and steal from children. This is a comedy?”

Of course.

The rest of Stevens’ negative commentary proves that, for her, the margins of safety were not set at a level where she felt comfortable laughing at the ‘marginalized social status that passed for a character quirk’. She indicts Apatow’s films for letting the characters go to the edge and back without getting hurt enough: “The seriousness of his characters' mistakes often seems to exceed the penance they pay.” She says these films invite her specific criticism by billing themselves as moral fables.

I can’t speak to this specific film, since I haven’t seen it (and probably won’t until it reruns on TBS a few years from now) but I do think she has something with the (frustrating) open-endedness of some comedy films—the omission of abortion as a subject of humor in Knocked Up, for example. I love dead baby jokes as much as the next guy; these were left out. Wisely, I think, yet Apatow also received criticism for not making a stand on this subject.

Omission has a long history in comedy. Lubitsch was the “director of closed doors,” the complicit audience giggling over what they assumed happened next. The Sturges film Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1940), in which a girl gets drunk, married, and knocked up in one night, similarly dances around a touchy subject—not about abortion, but about her unwed state. She doesn’t know who her husband is, and must go through a whole set of screwball setups to engineer another marriage to make sure her babies (septuplets) don’t bear the bastard stain. Her character never actually meditates on how horrid this possibility would be, instead getting all caught up on how to get a real husband (the original husband there as a margin of safety for the prurient 1940 censors and audience).

I admire Apatow’s films for their freshness: the aw-shucks, apologetic adherence to moral values in Forty-Year Old Virgin and Superbad is a welcome pendulum swing away from the graphic humor of American Pie. I’m sure this iteration of the genre will eventually tire and lead to a new wave of gross-out comedies. I hope I get a few more 40-Year Old Virgins and Knocked Ups before this wave is over.

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