Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Laugh Tract

For whom the belly laugh tolls

By Peter Keough

JULY 20, 1998:  It's not true that if you laugh, the world laughs with you; sometimes you laugh alone. Especially at the movies.

That has become increasingly evident to me lately, and never more so than a few weeks ago at the Nantucket Film Festival. It was at a screening for Amy, a small Australian film whose production notes begin thus: "SHE TAUGHT THE WORLD TO SING. . . . Anyone who wants to communicate with Amy has to sing to her." That synopsis in itself was enough to make me stifle guffaws, but I wanted to give the movie a chance. In one scene, a pop singer is tragically electrocuted during a concert at the height of a rainstorm, flames bursting from his chest as the band plays on and his wife and daughter watch, horrified. I lost it. I was alone in this -- well, my companion also tittered, but did she really think it was funny? was she just humoring me? -- and I left the theater sheepishly, my face hidden in the festival program. Amy would later come within a few votes of winning the audience award for best film.

An early warning was the movie Mrs. Dalloway, an adaptation of a Virginia Woolf novel I was very fond of. One character, a shell-shocked veteran, has a flashback to his friend exploding. It was hilarious, I thought, until I read the reverent reviews from my fellow critics. Equally risible, at least to me, was Vanessa Redgrave, in the title role, announcing, "What a day! What a day! For my pah-ty!" I would imitate this repeatedly, even including it in my radio review of the film, to the silent bewilderment of anyone listening.

Now, I'm sure these two films were made by good, decent people -- the director and screenwriter of Amy, a charming husband-and-wife team, were, I realized too late, and to my horror, at the screening at which I disgraced myself -- whose intent was surely not to make people laugh at human suffering. And, to their credit, most viewers refrained from doing so. What was my problem? Was it a sense of superiority that compelled me to guffaw? Could it be that I was jaded, as was once alleged by no less than Bruce Willis, at a press conference for Die Hard II? Or was the horror just too much for me, forcing me to greet the void of insanity and pain with a chuckle of comic relief?

That last possibility seems likely, given an experience early in my career. Years ago, when I was a second-string reviewer for the Chicago Reader, I had my funny bone put on hold for a time; the paper sent me out to every African musical or Hungarian film about suicide or confessional documentary about a parent dying of cancer that came down the pike. At last, I got a shot at a mainstream picture: The Three Amigos. I watched it with the analytical detachment I would normally bring to East German melodramas about war guilt, until I noticed someone laughing continuously, mirthlessly, annoying everybody. Finally, someone told me to shut up.

It would be a long time before I was assigned another mainstream comedy. I was reminded of this discomfiture not long ago when I saw Wag the Dog, which convinced me that what really divides human beings -- far more than class, race, gender, or response to Ulee's Gold -- is the problem of what's funny. I didn't find Wag the Dog funny (except the scene in which Robert De Niro doesn't laugh when Dustin Hoffman says something "funny"), but at this screening a guy behind me laughed incessantly and with booming volume at everything. He was trying to impress his girlfriend, I think. "Aren't I hip? I'm laughing louder than anybody!" If she bought this, they deserve each other.

What it is, then, is a question of irony. All aesthetic theorizing aside, irony is merely the desire to be in on the joke. And as David Denby (now, there's a guy who should loosen up and enjoy a good laugh) suggested a while ago in his New Yorker story on the decline of cinema, irony is what is killing serious filmmaking -- especially funny-serious, or serious-funny, filmmaking. In an effort to convince audiences that they are in on the joke, so-called independent filmmakers all but show up at screenings and grab you by the lapels to drag you into the illusion of ironic superiority.

One of the most annoying techniques is voice-over narration. Most people agreed that the ubiquitous commentary of director Noah Baumbach spoiled whatever wit Mr. Jealousy had going for it, but why is everybody falling all over Christina Ricci's smug, crass, and condescending logorrhea in Don Roos's The Opposite of Sex? Do I need that busty brat to explain to me what foreshadowing is?

Another irritant is cute pop-cultural allusions. This used to be the province of auteurs, but ever since Pulp Fiction hit the big time, the studios have been trying to cash in on it. It was bad enough that Godzilla employed a pair of doofus characters who are bald (and fat) imitations of Siskel and Ebert (and believe me, some grad student is already writing his PhD thesis on this one), but I draw the line at a scene in the even more awful Armageddon in which a tiny dog attacks Godzilla merchandising items. Isn't the joke that, in both cases, people are lining up to pay $7.75 for overlong, overhyped pieces of crap?

Then there is that deadpan thing: "This is so funny, we forgot to laugh." I liked Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco a lot, but I can't help thinking that the arch affectlessness of the line readings is meant as some obscure personal insult. As for David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner, which I found clever and empty and annoying (Rebecca Pidgeon's haircut, admittedly, distracted me), I suspect I could laugh all day at his stuff and he'd still feel superior to me. I never got that feeling with Martin Short.

Okay, so a little egotism is involved, and, admittedly, maybe sometimes I don't get the joke. Maybe Wag the Dog is funny, but I didn't get it, and that threatened to call my validity as a human being into question. At times like these, laughter takes on an existential dimension: I laugh, therefore I am. At least I'm not being laughed at.

But was Oedipus any less of a tragic hero because he was the only one in the world who didn't get it? Hamlet, too, may have made a few ironic wisecracks along the way to the remorseless doom that fate and Mr. Shakes-peare arranged for him, but he remained, nonetheless, in the dark until the end. And I think that both characters will retain their stature long after Ms. Ricci has exhausted her repertoire.

Which brings me, perhaps belatedly, to the paranoia at the heart of this. Maybe none of us is in on the joke. Is the truth out there, a cabal of sinister, inhuman forces plotting our downfall à la The X-Files? I can almost hear their villainous snicker. Are we all (or maybe just me!) mere dupes in some cosmic joke, as in The Truman Show, in which everything and everyone is a figment keeping us ignorant of the fact that life is just a meticulously contrived sham intended for the amusement of other people (or, more frighteningly, of oneself)? Either way, it's a fantasy more reassuring than the prospect of no joke at all. What is the sound of one critic laughing?

Peter Keough is film editor of the Boston Phoenix. He can be reached at pkeough@phx.com.

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