Another one of those things that I wrote (in August, apparently) and then didn't post because I'd already posted a lot that week, or something…I thought I'd written about my feelings about Rainbow Rowell's Landline
, but couldn't find it in the "bookery" tag, so I searched my computer and pulled this up.
(I am trying to decide whether I am likely to want to reread Landline
, or whether I should sell it [back] to the bookstore.)
4 August 2014
On Sunday morning, I caught David Edelstein talking about films that were released or available on-demand instead of in the cinema, in case your local cinema was only playing Guardians of the Galaxy
and you didn’t have any (his words) “grownup-friendly” theaters nearby. I probably wouldn’t have thought anything beyond “Well, that was unnecessarily rude; just because you might well want an alternative doesn’t mean that the film isn’t for grownups,” if I hadn’t read Linda Holmes’ review of the film the other day, in which she commented that it’s really the only out-and-out comedy
among the Marvel superhero movies (as opposed to “action movie with quips or occasionally funny moments”). With that in mind, it really stood out that among the “grown-up” movies Edelstein recommended, there wasn’t one real comedy – though there were two whole biting satires of modern life. And one of the movies was Snowpiercer
, so I guess action films are allowed to be for grownups as long as they don’t look like they come from comic books or make people laugh?
Noticing when people are dismissive about comedy is kind of an inadvertent, hair-pulling sort of hobby of mine by this point, but it’s because I still can’t quite get over how often and how casually it happens: the way critics so often behave as though pure, enjoyable comedy is something we’re supposed to leave behind in our toy-boxes when we reach whatever age counts as “adult” these days (though black comedy is still okay – ooh, how subversive!). Linda Holmes (weekly reminder: I love Linda Holmes) had a great line in her Guardians
review about the way that humorlessness masquerades as seriousness, and I think that’s true. Critics often treat films that seek to entertain – as opposed to provoke or discomfit – as morally suspect; they use words like “lull” and “pabulum,” as though reality is one-hundred percent grim and joyless, as though even if that were true, we wouldn’t deserve to dream about anything different. (This is also the way critics talk disapprovingly about adults reading YA novels, though there they often use “readability” alongside entertainment as the thing that is vaguely suspect and something you really should have grown out of wanting by now). It’s the inexplicable opprobrium heaped on the concept of “escapism” – as though every act of reading or watching doesn’t already involve consenting to leave your version of reality for a while and experience someone else’s (so why is it unexceptionable to experience the reality of a middle-class, middle-aged man dreaming of adultery, but problematic and immature to experience the reality of a teenage girl trying to figure out what she’s going to make of what life has handed her?); as though it’s terribly weak and childish to want to be comforted or uplifted or made to laugh – to be reminded
that there can be joy and fun and love in the world.
I figured out why I never really warmed to Neal in Rainbow Rowell’s Landline
, which I really liked a lot of things about: in part, it’s because he basically dismisses his girlfriend-and-then-wife Georgie’s ambitions to write comedy. (On the whole, the problem that I had with Landline
is the problem that I have with the end of Notting Hill
and the Barrymore/Fallon version of Fever Pitch
: the relationship always felt unbalanced to me, and the person who winds up making the big, romantic gesture at the end was not the person who was the most in need of changing his or her ways. I think I was supposed
to feel like Georgie was always putting her career ahead of her family, but I never felt that way: sure, she was rushed and busy, and sure, Neal was the stay-at-home parent, but it wasn’t like Georgie was constantly skipping out on family vacations or anything, and I didn’t appreciate the way Neal acted like she was, or the way he got all passive-aggressive about their relationship. But the dismissiveness probably sealed the deal; he’s essentially on record as saying that the thing that mattered most to the person he loved was worthless...which would have bothered me even if the thing Georgie cared about weren’t comedy.)
Neal and Georgie meet because he’s a cartoonist for the college humor magazine, which Georgie writes for – which is background for this exchange, in which Georgie tells him he could be a cartoonist for a living:
“I couldn’t do this for a living.” He gave the woodchuck he was drawing a cigar. “It’s just messing around – it’s just doodling.”
“So you wouldn’t want to be Matt Groening?”
“With all due respect, no.”
Neal shrugged. “I want to do something real. I want to make a difference.”
“Making people laugh is real.”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “I’ll let you take up that mantle.”
“Do you think that comedy is just messing around, too?”
“Honestly?” he asked.
“Of course, honestly.”
“Then yes.” (pp. 117-8)
To be fair, Georgie challenges him on this point (“You think my dreams are a waste of time? / “I think your dreams would be a waste of my
time”), but it was too late – Neal was one of those
people. You know, the ones who think comedy is pointless, that it doesn’t provide any real value to the world. (The ones who choose the Oscar winners.) It turns out, unsurprisingly, that I believe exactly what Georgie believes: making people laugh is real. Letting people dream is real. Giving people a good time is real. And yes, comedy can often be challenging and subversive – laughing can make you think; it can disarm you so that the truth can creep in – but I dislike defending ‘my’ genre on those terms, because it suggests that comedy is only valuable if it does those things, and I don’t agree. Comedy is a valid mode of looking at the world, full stop. It may not be the whole story – but neither is tragedy, and tragedy never has to defend itself because it left out the humor, the way that comedy is constantly being dismissed and called to heel because it isn’t tragedy.
This is about the time that I start yelling about Much Ado
’s Beatrice and childbirth and dancing stars – yelling that comedy is a choice, a willed orientation toward possibility, not just a naïve inability to see things the way they really are. When Beatrice is told that she must have been born in a merry hour, she replies by acknowledging two equally valid truths: “No, sure, my lord, my mother cried. But then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.” Simply responding with “my mother cried” would still have been a joke, turning the other person’s response inside-out – but it would have been tragedy, even cynicism: everything in life is pain and tears. (“When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools,” says Lear.) But the dancing star, opening your eyes wide enough to see that such a thing existed at the same moment? Not letting the darkness blind you to the presence of the light? That’s comedy.
When I’m feeling particularly grand and earnest, I like to think that maybe comedy makes us a little bit impervious: that if we can find a way to laugh at a thing, it hurts us less, knocks a little of the stuffing out of whatever that thing is. But one of the reasons that it’s so hard to talk about comedy, I think, is that it doesn’t just do that one thing – or have any one single goal in mind, when it comes down to it. Tragedy is easy
, by comparison: it’s actually a far more rigid structure than comedy (even though comedy is the one that gets accused of being “formulaic” or “conventional,” like tragedy doesn’t have a formula); it’s all about catharsis and watching the precipitous fall of the hero or antihero. (“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”) Which isn’t to dismiss the work that it does: after all, if you’re Richard II telling those sad stories, you can derive some comfort from knowing you are “not all alone unhappy” (to mix genres for a second and quote from As You Like It
), and even find strength to bear up under your tragedy. But comedy is buoyant and slippery and protean, and I’m not sure it has a one-size-fits-all reason for being. That’s why comedy benefits from adjectives – romantic, situational, stand-up – because they’re actually separate things that all happen to have the capability to make us laugh. (Tragedy's adjectives tell us where a thing takes place, or the major motor of the plot - domestic tragedy, revenge tragedy - but I don't think they operate by rules that are as different as, say, the sitcom and the romcom, even though these things borrow from each other and get lumped together.)