Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Aristocracy of Taste

A disappointing film, The Aristocrats, and not only for the predictable reason that it was excessively praised in the New York Times: A. O. Scott called it "one of the most original and rigorous pieces of criticism in any medium I have encountered in quite some time."

Perhaps that was a joke? If so, it is not nearly as good as the joke that forms the basis for the film – which is itself not good enough to sustain us for 90 minutes. Criticism is very thin on the ground, but it is desperately needed: The Aristocrats in fact makes almost nothing of the analytical potential of its material.

By now, everyone knows the focus of this documentary, so it is not much of a spoiler to describe it here:
Set-up: A man goes to a talent agent to sell his act; the agent asks him to describe it.

Development (improvised): "It's a family act"; the description is scatalogical and utterly obscene – shitting, pissing, vomiting, incest.

Punch-line: "What do you call yourselves?" "The Aristocrats."
It is a very mediocre joke, and part of the consequent interest is that its success depends massively upon the telling. Jokes and risk: the public invitation of failure. That's a worthwhile theme. But the documentary cannot address it, because it is (understandably) unwilling to criticize any of its comedians. Some tell the joke well; some do it badly. This is the data that the film provides – but from which it is deprived of access by a conviction that its contributors are uniformly great.

Still, the evidence is available to us. What does it suggest? If the film were an argument, it would be a sustained defence of Hutcheson's theory in his Thoughts on Laughter of 1725:
That then which seems generally the cause of laughter, is 'the bringing together of images which have contrary additional ideas, as well as some resemblance to the principal idea: this contrast between ideas of grandeur, dignity, sanctity, perfection, and ideas of meanness, baseness, profanity, seems to be the very spirit of burlesque; and the greatest part of our raillery and jest are founded upon it'.
In the best performances of "The Aristocrats", there is a double incongruity, between the material and the punch-line, and (as George Carlin points out) between the content of the material and its delivery as entertainment or matter of fact. (Bergson's "mechanical encrusted on the living"?) This is "burlesque", not "gross-out" humour, or the comedy of sheer obscenity – which explains the failure of many comics in the film, who mistakenly try to shock.

There is a final incongruity: that of sophisticated observational comedians adopting (but revising) an old-fashioned vaudeville form. This is not material they would use on stage – with the exception of Gilbert Gottfried's remarkable (though not very funny) rendition, shortly after 9/11.

This discrepancy may prompt light-hearted speculation about "the death of the joke" – another issue virtually unexplored by The Aristocrats. The question is addressed more rigorously by Alexei Sayle, in a wise remark about acculturation, historicity and the perspectival character of humour:
Why did music hall die out? Because it was crap!


Anonymous Jonathan said...

Hey Kieran.

I didn't like this movie either, but for different reasons. I think delivering obscenity through a joke that has the comedy establishment's seal of approval is pretty weak and rather cowardly. If you're going to be obscene, you can't worry about the consequences.

Moreover, I disagree that obscenity has to ride on its novelty or shock value. Whereas some artists find it interesting to uncover the beauty in the most seemingly ugly situations, I've recently been into people who find it more exciting to find as much ugliness as possible in obviously ugly situations (targetmonkey was a brilliant example of this; unfortunately, the author's mom made him remove his posts on pain of disownment). It's not about haphazardly throwing out bestiality stuff. To really work, I think it's gotta be somehow connected to things that actually make many of us feel worthless, or at least, that have made us feel worthless. Redemption is no more worthy a subject than corruption and filth.

My 2 cents...


1:34 PM  

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