A messed-up pattern

I  used to think I was normal.  But when you see the same pattern over and over in several films you start to wonder.  Every comedy seems to be using the same template.

I saw it in Bridesmaids.  I saw it in Young Adult.  We were watching people going through some sort of crisis, messed up, unable to function.  In Silver Linings Playbook there were profoundly troubled adults of both genders.  I realize now that this was a plot-line that had been used for both males and females.  The Hangover series take us to roughly the same places.

Friday I watched Girl Most Likely, Kristen Wiig playing an over-the-top neurotic, as we wonder whether she’ll get her life together by the end of the roughly 90 minute film.  Tonight it was Frances Ha.  Where Girl Most Likely features recognizable actors such as Matt Dillon and Annette Bening, Frances Ha is populated with unknowns.  Girl Most Likely and Frances Ha have in common that their plots seem destined for a downward spiral, until each protagonist finds redemption in the most unexpected ways. The title belies the fact that Girl Most Likely follows an unlikely trajectory.  Frances Ha sometimes resembles a documentary, with its film noir look and painfully genuine dialogue.

The boundaries of “comedy” continue to expand, as our ideas of what the genre can include multiply. Surely we felt that something good was eventually going to happen to these characters even though they go to some very dark places along the way.

Both films speak to me because they concern the travails of artists (although they could just as well be humanities/ arts grads) in a world that seems more interested in people according to fiscal rather than human assets.  By coincidence this was the week of the COC’s Ensemble Gala, a time to recall just how difficult it is to make it in the opera business.  A very few will continue to make a living singing, while others become teachers or at least stagger on with the help of a dayjob. There’s a special poignancy to such films because of course many of us in the audience had our own moment when we decided we had to opt for a day-job to pay our rent, and couldn’t cut it any longer 100% from the avails of our creative work.

Even the much darker Blue Jasmine follows largely the same plot –that is, a protagonist’s journey into mental disorder—without the same easy ending.

And as I look at my own sense of who I am, calibrating “normal” according to what I see around me, I have to wonder.  Am I the odd one, when Rob Ford’s excesses –his drugs, his alcohol and his stories—appear to be normal behaviour?  I could measure the nature of “normal” more easily had I seen those films in a theatre, rather than at home.  Do people laugh with recognition & identification at the wacky behaviour in these movies, or is it merely derision?

I loved the moments in each film –thinking especially of Girl Most Likely and Frances Ha – where I couldn’t see a pathway to redemption.  The curious thing with each of these films is that the old pattern –of a plotline logically connecting character growth—is now a liability.  I don’t think we foresee a happy ending so much as take it on faith; and then the story very generously hands us something gentler than what we would have expected.  I suspect it’s a lot like what people are living through nowadays in their 20s and 30s. Life is crap, and then when you’ve compromised –taken a day-job or maybe stopped aiming so high—things improve after all.  This kind of arbitrary plot-line is more real precisely because it’s not something you can extrapolate from what came before.

I’ll have to watch them both again, when I know how they’re going to end.

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4 Responses to A messed-up pattern

  1. Hi Leslie,

    Great post. My perspective: I’m an opera singer but I also studied improv at Second City here in Toronto. I found it to be the most useful and liberating approach to acting for singers I’ve encountered (a subject for another conversation…).

    Re: the changing face of comedy. A lot (most?) of today’s comedians and comedy writers have come up through Second City or a similar improv school. Your observation that the “boundaries” of comedy are expanding is spot on. And I think it’s because contemporary improv training, which saw its beginnings in the 1970s, teaches a very specific form of comedy that now permeates the industry and colours most of today’s comedy writing. One of the first rules of improv (after “saying yes” to whatever is offered), is to NOT try to be funny, but to tell the truth. My first improv teacher would always say, comedy=tragedy+truth. Substitute truth with forgiveness, recognition, or understanding, and you start to get an idea of what turns tragedy into comedy in improv.

    Today’s comedies reveal the funny, sad, recognizable truths about everyday human experience. They teach us to be easier on ourselves, they show us that our struggles are everyone’s struggles. And that’s what gets explored in the best improv. Audiences will snicker at a gag, but they’ll laugh harder when they recognize something that resonates with honesty, something that goes deep enough to truthfully mirror their own setbacks, struggles and flaws. Most people don’t experience grand arcs of character development in their day-to-day. And today’s comedies reflect that. They offer up moments of subtle epiphanies, the kind that slowly lead a character to new understandings.

    You mentioned in your post that the film scenes you loved were those where you couldn’t see a pathway to redemption. Again, this points to the improv tradition: good improvisers never play the end of the scene. They never know where they’ll end up. Planning ahead, even by a few seconds, usually leads to disaster in improv. When players focus on the present moment only, audiences get to enjoy their failures as they experience them, as well as their wins. Like the movies you describe, improv is most engaging when there’s no obvious way out. When the players just “explore and heighten” a scene. When they allow themselves to trust their fellow players, trust the moment, trust their impulse to lead them. Improv only works when it’s honest, and honesty can be harsh, confusing, and frightening. Therein lies the appeal of today’s comedy and perhaps explains the pattern you’re seeing in movies.

    • barczablog says:

      Woo hoo! thanks for this thoughtful reply, Jamie. Hmm, very interesting, thanks for sharing about the Second City method. I have my own history –a totally different one– working with a modern commedia dell’arte master from eastern european, Sasha Lukac, who also teaches at York U, and who has directed a couple of things i wrote/composed, and let me write music for a couple of his projects. One brings one’s history to the theatre, which is another way of saying that one works from personal truth. One thing I’ve come to believe (and which i say to the annoyance of some of my friends): that there’s no such thing as a bad joke, just the wrong (or right) time. In other words, we can’t really know what is funny or not funny in any absolute sense. I’ve seen material that dies for one group suddenly come to life for another. Isn’t it fascinating how movies that fail to work on the big screen develop cult followings on a smaller screen?

      And i leave you with a question that may make you laugh or cry. WHY is opera never funny anymore? oh sure, we make amazing productions of operas written up to the time of Rossini in, say the 1820s or so. Since then? it’s all so deadly serious. Opera seems to flip-flip that way. In the early years all opera was serious. Then comedy hit its stride in the 18th century, when Mozart & others mocked serious opera. Ever since (1820)? Opera is mostly serious again. As I contemplate Rufus Wainwright’s project with the COC (not meant to be a comedy, but also, possibly a revolutionary work in the making) I wonder if opera needs another injection of whatever it was in the 18th century….(?)

  2. I think that to be a good comedy writer for the stage, you have to have experience *doing* comedy. Either in improv, stand-up, sketch, or writing behind the scenes. And maybe the creators of comedy and opera don’t work together all that much because they simply live in different worlds.

    In comedy, timing is everything, and it’s tough to master. Just look how long it took me to respond to this post. Developing a comedic style takes a while, especially when collaborating with other people. And it’s really tough to write something funny by committee. Comedy in opera is hard because writers have a myriad of forces to contend with. Singers, orchestra, director, conductor, artistic director, general manager and board members are all competing to ruin funny moments on stage.

    Also, comedy tends to be topical. Operas take years to make it to production and what may be funny in 2013 will seem dated five years from now. For example, today’s clown-du-jour, Rob Ford, may be a distant memory in 2017. Well, we can all hope for a miracle. That’s what Christmas is all about after all.

    Having said all that, I think opera singers are pretty funny people. You have to be to scream at a room of people for a living. As you know I’ve been documenting their unique ways in a video blog of my own. Here’s the latest entry featuring the always engaging Gregory Dahl.

    Cheers,

    Jamie

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