Saturday, 22 March 2008

It's funny I tell you: Watching Bitter Films: Animated Shorts by Don Hertzfeldt

The difference between what we expect and what we get
is either disappointment or a definition of humour.

Genres work on expectations. If you see a romantic comedy, the bloke and the sheila better get together in the end or you'll ask for your money back. Imagine any Jane Austen novel where Darcy goes off and sulks forever and Elizabeth remains a conceited self-important, self-absorbed middle class Daddy's girl all her life. That girl with the big teeth, what's her name, Julia Roberts, would be out of a job and Colin Firth would have to kill himself. The heartbreak is not real and we know it's not real. The rejection and humiliation is for our titillation and vicarious enjoyment. We're pleased that it's not us and live in the happy, if illusory, certitude that somehow we're just like the heroine/hero, even though even our family admits we're not intelligent, good looking or about to become rich. The world, however, seems ordered and right.

Speaking of ordered and right: what does it say about a culture when most of its entertainment is about murder and law enforcement? There are whole programs about catching sexual deviants (Law and Order: SVU). Does this strike you as odd? It is possible to watch nothing but football and murder for hours and days on end and in one of them the same team wins all the time. The odd show where the crims are the heroes are a big surprise, but even then there's a moral dimension. And what about that darkly comic movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels for example. The complex plot unfolds in a very satisfying 'good guys' prosper 'bad guys' fail sort of way (though 'good and bad and very relative here). What does our insistence that the blokes in the white hats win say about our anxiety about keeping things ordered and right?

Even the biggest show on the planet, The Simpsons, embodies moral rectitude. From Chaucer to Mr H.Simpson via The Honeymooners and The Flintstones, there's a message there. Think about it. Every time Homer Simpson does something which scandalously threatens the right and the true, it never works out. He's always back to where he started. Not with the ruinous consequences such behaviour would invoke in our worlds, but back to zero for him. Most episodes invoke movies of the 30s40s50s (why does he give those Rousing Speeches? Don't you watch late night black and white television? Anything made by Rank? Why the dance routines? Homer lives in a post-modern world.) Homer's biggest sin, (Sloth) gets him into more trouble than it's worth. Homer even goes to church.

We're relieved we're not him, though mostly we are: yellow with 2.5 children and a secret wish to escape our responsibilities and to lie on the sofa in our underwear.

What about the phenomenon of Mr Hertzfeldt's simple cartoons? What secret do they nod to?

For the individual, it's clarity. Our wish for things to be simple and clear and for moral complexity to be straightened out and simplified to the point where we can act truthfully. Hertzfeldt laughs at us and we laugh too. We expect the expected.

Buster Keaton's cunning simpleton evades disaster, unlikely odds, winning out and winning the girl, evoking our sympathy and sometimes anxious dismay until the end when the baddies are defeated and he comes out all right. When he's caught in a cyclone and the walls fall, he's the one left standing in the open doorway as the wall falls flat around him, He's blithely unharmed. The audience laughs as one. It's all too much, any normal person would have been killed. When there's a coiled rope on the deck of a boat he walks over it several times, and the joke becomes that he hasn't tripped up on it.

When Hertzfeldt's baby falls down the stairs, tripping over the small pun of the title ('First Steps') it's funny because it's appalling (poor baby!) and not real. When there is an impossibly huge set of steps, the like of which humanity has never seen in brick or stone, the joke becomes a meta-joke: we get it that he's sending up the trick he's just this moment pulled on us. When there is blood in excess, it is much less than any night of any week of television or the horrible realities of thousands of the real bloodied collateral damage perpetrated in our names just over the horizon. All the red scribble of Don Hertzfeldt doesn't come within spitting distance of this. But he makes us laugh. Why was that? Because 1. he steps over a loine and breaks a taboo (that anus talk) 2. he shows improbable gushing of blood 3. then he takes the improbably gushing illogically far too far (see the too many steps, above).

When, in L'Armour, the girls rejects our simple though confident hero, he remains unaccountably uncowed (think Keaton, think Chaplin, Marx Bros, Three Stooges, Dumb and Dumber) and optimistic in just the way we we hope we could be and tell our children to be. It's stupid. He should give up. He's had his heart ripped out and been beaten around the head with it. That, surely, was hint enough that he should give up. Or if not then, perhaps when he was cut in two, lengthways, with a chainsaw. But no, he reappears, whole, optimistic and even judgemental (he bypasses the overweight girl. We'd expected that he would approach her and she would be all right because…oops, in expecting the expected a vile little prejudice is revealed.) Only after several lifetimes of unlikely and excessive damage, does he finally work out what you are supposed to do to win the girl. He could have written a paper about it (others have) but by eschewing earnestness Hertzfeldt has been succinctly eloquent about gender relationships and got a laugh out of it. It's the men who laughed in recognition – while the women quietly exempted themselves from such sins. We do not lie around on the sofa in our underwear and we do not chop blokes up with chainsaws, tempting though that is.

When there is overweening inanity (My spoon is too big), the four million episodes of Sesame Street come rushing back, the comfortable wholesomeness exposed as slight. We laugh this time with embarrassed recognition that we accepted them as worthy and that we had suppressed our suspicion that they were actually silly. The innocent earnestness of the child character's face, the unlikely stupidity of the enterprise, even the awkward entry of the straight-talking and irrelevant banana, the pause for the punch line that doesn't come, make us laugh because we expected a development and it wasn't there.

When Bugs Bunny picks up the black circle that represents a hole and puts it under his arm and runs away with it, puts it down again and disappears down the hole, we laugh because we're operating in two contradictory states at once: one where we have accepted the fake as real (black circle equals hole) and one where we understand completely that it's a drawing and false. When the cartoonist's hand comes in and picks up the Hertzfeldt's rabbit by the ears in Genre and the ears are ripped off, and bleed, three conventions are being violated: the real hand is seen directly manipulating the creation (rabbit) and the rabbit's (non-existent) weight has internally consistent (though excessive) consequences (a reality is enforced though it was just revealed as illusory, and then immediately violated again). The blood is the third violation. We expect the expected: vile and excessive assaults in cartoons are neither lethal nor bloody.

Our first jokes are just like this. The terror of the parent disappearing behind the blanket in Peek a Boo only to magically reappear again from nowhere instantly is a wonder. Perception (what we see/don't see) gives way to anxiety which is replaced with relief. Something strange, worrying and improbable in the disappearance of the parent, is resolved. There has been a Trick. Do it again! When Uncle Jimmy pretends to take off his thumb, the joke is not the fear of mutilation which momentarily arises but the realisation that this is a Good Trick. We laugh because we know we've been duped, and everything is really, all right. We like it. Because we're in on the joke the gap between apparent reality and what subsequently seems true is not a disappointment after all.

What happens if the funny is not funny? Fart jokes, racist jokes. Why aren't they funny? Racist jokes are not funny because we can't suspend any disbelief there. We know the consequences: the very meanness that kills people. We've got to be careful. They've Gone Too Far. Jokes that could have serious consequences cease to be funny. Fart jokes, however, are funny to some people. The same way that bums and bottoms are hilarious to nine year old boys but less so when you are older: by the time we're 49 we've got used to having bums and bottoms and it seems a bit normal and unremarkable.

Have you ever tried to explain an elephant joke to anyone? I have. Me: Why do elephants paint their toenails many different colours? Them: I don't know, why? Me: So they can hide in Smarties boxes. Them: Elephants are too big to fit into Smarties boxes. Me: I know. Them: So how's that funny? Me: That's the joke, that they're too big, so painting their nails would be futile and no help at all disguising them. Them: So why say they should hide in Smarties boxes? Me: Look! Over there! {Exits, stage right. Sound of rapid footsteps, off}. There comes a point where you have to admit that if it isn't funny to them, it isn't funny to them.

Even so, I've got to tell you, Don Hertzfeldt is funny. What about when the people with the silly hats beat up the guy with the normal hat! Hilarious.

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