The Transcendence of the Unintentionally Absurd

Reposted from Facebook. Originally published on February 18, 2013.

Due to several requests, I meant to post this final essay for my “Writing About Film” class a couple months ago. Please forgive my tardiness. Some of the subject matter in this essay is a bit pasé now, but that’s not necissarily a bad thing. As Chuck Klosterman points out, “temporality is part of the truth.” The passage of time can (hopefully) help sharpen an arguement about the ephemeral half-lives of pop culture commodities. Now, without further ado, let’s get a little ridiculous.

 

Nicole Westbrook, a 12-year-old brunette, sits on the edge of her bed and sensually thrusts her shoulders back and forth. Her eyes are glazed over and she’s smiling in slow motion, staring longingly into the distance. As the Lynchian steadicam floats aimlessly in space, her autotuned voice softly croons: “I’m wide awake and I should take a step and say thank you, thank you.” A hypnotic slow-mo sequence shows her preparing an entire Thanksgiving meal by herself (she cooks, among other dishes, an immaculate butterball turkey) as she explains in song: “It’s Thanksgiving, we we we we’re gonna have a good time. With the turkey, ay! Mashed potatoes, ay!”

A variety of other pre-teens show up at her front door, smiling vacantly with their own immaculately prepared plates, holding delectable barbequed ribs and canned cranberry sauce. The last person to arrive is a muscular, tattooed, goateed, middle-aged black man sporting a sequined turkey outfit and a broad, mechanical smile. He skips into the house and sits down at the table with the group of kids. As they hold hands to pray Westbrook begins to rap, much to her company’s collective shock: “Yo it’s thankgiving givin’ and I’m tryin’ to be forgivin’. Nothin’ is forbidden, you know we gotta have…. Can’t be hateful, gotta be grateful, mashed potatoes on my table. I got ribs smellin’ up my neightbors cribs.” As her friends eat and jive at the table, Westbrook stands and sings the chorus again into a turkey-leg-substitution for a wireless microphone. The steadicam continues to swing left and right while pushing toward and pulling back from Westbrook with hypnotic ease.

“It’s Thanksgiving,” the newest viral “hit” from independent music producer (and turkeyfied muscleman) Patrice Wilson, has twelve million YouTube hits and nearly universal disdain. Wilson, commonly accused of poisoning the ears of millions through exploiting wealthy, fame-hungry families, is also the producer of Rebecca Black’s infamously despised music video, “Friday.” That beauty was the most-viewed YouTube video of 2011, worldwide.[1]

If these music videos are “terrible,” why do they become enormous hits? There are a number of potential answers to this question. One theory is that people are masochistically fascinated with things they find absurdly disgusting. This fascination has fueled the enduring popularity of “B Pictures” and cheap exploitation flicks, John Waters films, Jackass, and newer TLC stunts like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Hoarding, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and Toddlers In Tiaras. This masochism is often associated with feelings of self-congratulatory irony, superiority, and an implicit desire to reinforce dominant cultural tastes.[2] If we can keep talking about how terrible “It’s Thanksgiving” and “Friday” are, we can reinforce our opinion that bands like Radiohead and Beach House are “amazing.”

I think there is a lot of truth to this argument. When “Friday” and “It’s Thanksgiving” were released, my friends and family watched the videos slack-jawed, laughed, called them atrocious, and moved on with their lives. Feelings of irony and superiority are fleeting, ego-boosting pleasures. “Friday,” once an international phenomenon and the butt of many Late Night jokes (Jimmy Fallon’s rendition with The Roots and Taylor Hicks is a particular standout), has been nearly lost in cyberspace, trashed alongside other mockery-worthy scraps of digital debris (When was the last time you heard someone mention the once-so-hilarious “Numa Numa” or “Star Wars Kid” videos?). As I ‘close-read’ “It’s Thanksgiving” while writing my opening paragraphs only three weeks after it’s original release, both of my roommates ran out of my room and slammed the door behind them in disgust. They had their laugh when they first saw it; the fun was over.

However, for some reason, I don’t get tired or infuriated with either video. They give me a sense of joy that is undeniable and lasting. When I tell people about “It’s Thanksgiving” in particular, I get the same rush of excitement I feel when talking about Mulholland Drive. I’m sure I feel superior to the video in some sense––it’s not like I’m able to feel a genuine sense of thankfulness for anything except It’s Thanksgiving’s existence while watching it––but the video gives me a glorious vision of film unbound from narrative conventions and the self-seriousness of modern cinema. Why are these pre-teenagers preparing and celebrating Thanksgiving (and every holiday, I must add—I skipped over those equally brilliant holiday montages in my opening) by themselves? Is Nicole Westbrook some sort of orphan who is able to afford an upper-middle class suburban home? How does she know how to cook elaborate dishes? Do her parents really leave her during every holiday? How did these kids get to her house (if this is the same world as “Friday,” it seems that all preteens drive illegally)? Is the frequent use of slow motion indicating that this is her hyper-realistic dream? Why does this middle aged black man celebrate with them? Is he some sort of pedophile or emotionally manipulative child-porn-producing pimp, the son of Jodie Foster’s pimp in Taxi Driver, perhaps?

The film gives us no answers to these questions (or at least, no answers within its bizzaro diegesis) and nor does it need any to be enjoyed. True to the spirit of surrealism, “It’s Thanksgiving” is the cinematic manifestation of the illogical subconscious. It creates a type of dream logic that pushes conventions until they pop, situating us in a realm where the rules of cause-and-effect have minimal sway. However, I believe that videos like “It’s Thanksgiving” accomplish something even more daring and invigorating than traditional surrealism because their absurdity is, as far as we can fairly interpret, unintentional.

That said, some of my favorite films are intentionally surreal works; intentional surrealism is often fascinating and evocative. The first film I ever saw that could be considered “surreal” is David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. It is a flawless work of tone and mood, a noir-tinged examination of two identity-shifting women (Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, delivering raw, brilliant performances) in Hollywood who long for… something. As Roger Ebert puts it in his recent “Great Movies” review, “it floats in an uneasy psychic space, never defining who sinned. The film evokes the feeling of noir guilt while never attaching to anything specific. A neat trick. Pure cinema.”[3] The film is as captivating as it is elusive, a fearless examination of fantasy and desire.

A more recent piece of quality surrealism is Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Unlike Mulholland Dr., everything in that film occurs according to temporal succession, but it captures a linear amalgamation of surreal events. Denis Lavant (giving a brilliant performance demonstrating his remarkable range) plays Mr. Oscar, a man who travels in a limousine to a variety of “appointments” where he plays a variety of roles in a variety of genres. By freely and fantastically playing with the purpose and scope these individual scenes, which are never given a logical purpose, Carax demonstrates how cinema can move you even as it admits its own artifice. You know that Mr. Oscar is acting in his many “appointments,” but the scenarios he acts in are full of tremendous power regardless. Even the final scene, where limousines in a garage talk about the inevitability of their eventual demise, is surprisingly moving. Yes, the limos are as artificial as Mr. Oscar’s performances, but Holy Motors demonstrates the many ways that meaning can manifest itself in absurd, artificial vessels.

However, if there were one critique worth giving intentionally surreal films like Holy Motors, it would be that they occasionally try a little too hard to remind you that they’re eschewing narrative conventions and being absurd. In Holy Motors we are consistently reminded that Oscar’s whole life is an act; even the film’s most bizarre situations break their fourth wall. Sometimes Holy Motors feels less like surrealism than a piece of metafiction contemplating surrealism. It’s like having a dream in which you are continually reminded that you are dreaming. This sort of problem is evident even in early surrealism. For example, Luis Buñel and Salvador Dalí’s 1929 short Un Chien Andalou is a wonderful example of freeform dream logic––except for its overly formal intertitles. Throughout its loosely related sequences the film displays intertitles that are overbearingly absurd and have no relevance to the sequences presented. “Once upon a time,” the film starts, then “Eight Years Later,” then “Around Three in The Morning,” then “Sixteen Years Ago,” and finally “In Spring.” The dream logic of the film is continually interrupted by this formal mockery of narrative convention. With every intertitle you can almost hear Buñel and Dalí obnoxiously laugh at their own mischievousness, dully distracting us from the freeform dream they’re presenting. As Pauline Kael points out, “Nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfill its obvious purpose.”[4] Dalí and Buñel really want to eschew cinematic conventions? We get it. Over and over again, we get it.

This “relentless march” is the problem you inevitably face when you begin making intentionally surreal films. As you decide that you’re creating an absurd film, you immediately begin to make conscious decisions about how absurd your film should be. And the irony here is that the more conscious your filmmaking becomes, the less absurd it can be. When you try to consciously recreate the experience of the subconscious, you’re not actually opening yourself up your subconscious. You’re recounting an impression of the subconscious, sure, but it’s not the real deal. Trying to consciously recreate the subconscious is like trying to turn sand back into rocks; it’s too late. You can’t undo the transformation that’s taken place.[5]

This is why unintentional absurdity is so exciting. When “It’s Thanksgiving,” made to be a sweet and pointless cash grab, unintentionally turns into an brilliantly absurd short, we know that the video’s absurdity just happened somehow. A similar gem is “Johnny Football Song,” a YouTube video showing a cleavagey 50-something woman seduce the camera to a tinny karaoke track of 1963’s “Johnny Angel.” She rewrote the lyrics in honor of Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M quarterback and recent recipient of the Heisman Trophy. The mise-en-scène is framed by garish maroon Texas A&M attire. As she smiles sensuously, sways bizarrely, and sings her banal rewrite, the unintentional sexual provocation of the scene is completely unnerving. The top comments acknowledge this: “It’s like I’m watching an episode of Twin Peaks!” one top commenter says. “The surreal quality of the video is certainly entertaining,” says another. Yet the beauty of this video is that it doesn’t even know it’s like Twin Peaks. It simply is. “Johnny Football Song” reveals the subconscious liberated from narrative pressure and liberated from the pressure of intentional surrealism. The video attests to the fact that life itself is absurd, whether we know it or not.

Perhaps the best cinematic example of this type of unintentional absurdity exists in the 2001 cult classic The Room. The Room was produced by, directed by, and starring Tommy Wiseau, a greasy, wrinkly, black-haired European man who won’t reveal where he’s from or how he acquired five million dollars in order to finance the film. The entire production of The Room was fraught with difficulties. Actors dropped like flies and were haphazardly replaced. Simply making the script legible was a challenge. Wiseau had very little technical cinematic expertise and, unable to decide between the two formats, decided to shoot every scene on film and digital cameras strapped together. The ending result was a disaster, critically decimated. However, soon after its humdrum release The Room grew to have immensely popular midnight showings in Los Angeles and deemed the “Citizen Kane of bad movies.” By 2012, Wiseau is constantly touring with the film, attending Q&As at screenings around the world.

I have seen The Room multiple times, in and out of theaters, and it is one of my favorite films because it is so unintentionally absurd. Wiseau wanted to make a melodrama in the style of Tennessee Williams and James Dean, not a surreal film. It tells the “heart-wrenching” story of Johnny (played by Tommy Wiseau), perfectly kind and hopelessly devoted to his fiancé, Lisa. They are about to get married, but Lisa is unapologetically evil. She decides that Johnny’s “not enough” for her and seduces Johnny’s strong and beardy best friend, Mark. A surplus of excessive sex scenes and predictable drama ensue.

While the plot is laughably predictable, The Room is far from a conventional melodrama. Much of the film is extraordinarily bizarre. For example, its characters’ favorite hobby is throwing a football to each other from very short distances. In one remarkable scene a group of men in tuxedos decide to toss a football in the street and a minor character falls violently on the asphalt. We don’t see him get up. When the character appears again (at least, we must assume it’s the same character), another actor is playing his role. Lisa’s mother, Claudette (equally demonic), passively breaks the news that she has breast cancer to Lisa. Lisa’s reply is extraordinarily trite: “You’ll be fine, mom” she didactically says. The cancer is never brought up again.

It often looks as if Tommy is copulating with Lisa’s belly button. The same belly-button sex scene is shown twice. Characters inexplicably make chicken noises on more than one occasion.  All of the artwork in Johnny and Lisa’s apartment depicts spoons. Scenes go in and out of focus. Johnny and Lisa mix scotch and vodka; Tommy ends up drunk wearing a necktie like a headband. An unnerving kidult named Denny shows up from time to do nothing but creep on Lisa. Lines of dialogue dissolve into non-sequiturs; Johnny chuckles a deranged giggle at inappropriate moments. Unnecessary tracking shots of the Golden Gate Bridge break up scenes. Random characters show up to have sex in the apartment without purpose or exposition. This list could go on and on.[6]

These unintentionally absurd moments are what make The Room such an endearing experience. While it is almost impossible not to feel superior to the film’s poor writing and acting, if you want to ironically watch poor cinematic craft you don’t have to go further than Netflix. As Pauline Kael points out, “movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.”[7] Cinematic trash is commonplace.

By contrast, The Room is so endearing because it manifests a surreal, artistic vitality that wasn’t even intended to exist. While audiences openly mock the film at midnight showings, they laugh with delight at its originality and uniqueness even more often. Kristen Bell told Entertainment Weekly: “There is a magic about that film that is indescribable.”[8] And she’s right. Through the structure of a poorly made melodrama, The Room demonstrates more daring and surreal ingenuity than most “serious” Hollywood films ever will. After seeing it in the theater for the first time, I realized––with a mix of shock and giddy delight––that Tommy Wiseau’s unintentional absurdity had given me a transcendent experience. Gasping and laughing and throwing plastic spoons at the screen and yelling zingers with my friends in the safety of the darkened theater, I felt an old rush: I felt like a silly kid “playing pretend” again. We weren’t superior to Wiseau. We weren’t mocking Wiseau. No, Wiseau was leading us on a rampant, random dance through the goofy wilderness of the human psyche. We were free.

The current zeitgeist insists that even the most lackluster film must treat itself like a “serious” artistic statement. This is partially Christopher Nolan’s fault for demonstrating that a Batman film could pull off taking itself seriously. Yet now every routine genre film must be treated like the important work of a great auteur. For example, the newest trailer for Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel makes it look almost like a shot-for-shot remake of The Passion of the Christ. The film may be top-notch, sure. Or it may be pretentious and mediocre. Regardless, this impulse for seriousness generally smothers the impulse for surrealism and unintentional ridiculousness. This sort of seriousness takes an emotional toll on Mr. Oscar in Holy Motors and it takes a toll on us as well. It hammers a film’s rough, zany edges blunt and dull. Fortunately, due to the democratization of filmmaking technology, we still have amateurs and innocents willing to put their videos on YouTube and make independent films. There are still idealists willing to naively manifest the zaniness of the human subconscious on camera in order to giddily, surreally break down tropes and social norms without pretense, irony, or even intention.

Because of them, I’m wide awake. And I should take a step and say, “Thank you, thank you.”



[1] Since the video was taken offline for a period, its exact view count isn’t readily available. The “most viewed” title also excludes videos from major music labels. Source: http://youtube-global.blogspot.com/2011/12/what-were-we-watching-this-year-lets.html

[2] One of the most recent, illuminating, and controversial incarnations of this point of view is explored in Christy Wampole’s New York Times opinion piece: “How To Live Without Irony” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/how-to-live-without-irony/

[3] Ebert, Roger. “Mulholland Dr: Great Movies Review.” RogerEbert.com. N.p., 11 Nov. 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2012. <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20121111/REVIEWS08/121119998>.

[4] Kael, Pauline. “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Library of America, 2006. N. pag. 341. Print.

[5] As a caveat, I should note that some of my favorite intentionally surreal filmmakers do various exercises in an effort to harness purely subconscious energy. David Lynch, for example, is a longtime advocate of spirituality and transcendental meditation. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, use improvisational tactics in their comedic shorts. I am not a psychologist, but their work seems to demonstrate that these sorts of tactics can help harness subconscious energy to impressive (if varying) degrees, helping them skirt the trap I mention in this paragraph.

[6] Much has been written about the absurd elements of The Room. This piece at The AV Club is particularly good: http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-room,25723/

[7] Kael, Pauline. “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” Pg. 356.

[8] Collis, Clark. “The Crazy Cult of ‘The Room'” EW.com. Entertainment Weekly, 12 Dec. 2008. Web. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20246031,00.html>.

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