Dancing in the ‘Moonlight’

5/5 Stars

Sometimes there is perfect work. Art that at every level achieves its goals and transcends simple theatre-going pleasure, reaching out to an audience with glowing hands and infecting life. Moonlight (2016, Dir. Barry Jenkins) is conceived, constructed, and executed with such elegance and genius that it envelopes the viewer in an ecstatic blanket of narrative brilliance, altering the way one views the world.

Moonlight stars Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhode as Chiron, a gay black boy enduring his circumstances in three temporally progressive stages. As Chiron matures and mitigates life growing up poor in Miami, he attracts the mentorship of Juan (Mahershala Ali) a wealthy drug dealer, wearily tolerates his addict mother Paula (Naomi Harris), and enjoys friendship with Kevin (played successively by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland).

On the level of performance this film is astounding. Piner, Jerome, and Holland agree with such fluidity and perfection on Chiron’s characterization that the results of his maturity are breathtaking. For that matter, every single performance in Moonlight catapults off the screen in an electric shock of utter brilliance. Mahershala Ali explodes with subtlety as Juan, creating a devastatingly nuanced character within few screen minutes. Naomi Harris shines as Chiron’s drug-addled mother, performing far past the level of stereotype, arriving at a detailed, layered place that simmers before it erupts. André Holland calmly rumbles as adult Kevin, guiding the ship of his character with total control and clarity.

I feel irresponsible picking out certain performances when every actor in this film is perfect.

Visually Moonlight is incomparable. Lens flare dance across the screen as rich colors ooze through the frame. Cinematographer James Laxton delivers a virtuoso performance in framing both mobile and static, as his camera effortlessly glides in soft swirls, and delivers a richness of tone that recalls the brilliance of Robert Elswit in There Will Be Blood (2007). Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon edit the film brilliantly, at times eschewing classical continuity for long takes and jump cuts, and knowingly letting Moonlight’s outrageously talented performers shine through their scenes without oppressive montage rapidity.

For directing, Barry Jenkins deserves triple the praise he currently receives. I cannot possibly overstate how every scene in this film is executed perfectly. It’s shocking and humbling to attempt to imagine the brilliance behind the camera when coaxing and encouraging such powerful moments of subdued vulnerability, when reaching for the simple drama of the eyes, and exploding just that across the screen through the perfection of its execution. Jenkins has entered the echelon of greatness for this film, as it’s a towering feat of honesty, thoughtfulness, craft, skill, and genius.

The subject matter of Moonlight is of course deeply important, as it works through the particulars of an individual lying on an intersection of blackness, queerness, and poverty. The film maintains its transcendence by never devolving into didacticism, and thus refraining from reductive, broad statements on Gay Black Men. Rather, it keeps close to Chiron and Chiron’s deal, a handy trick of art-house cinema that works magically to accomplish the opposite, and broadly speak to a wholly different viewer such as myself.

The end result of a perfect film is difficult to articulate. My experience with Moonlight was overwhelming, it’s images and performances so dazzling and transcendent that I felt clawed at, torn open with tiny tools. I came away from this film with not a buzz but an emanation of pure awe, a feeling of utter astonishment at the level of artfulness projected on the screen. Having previously held Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) as the watermark for unquestionably genius acting, I was continuously euphoric to see Moonlight easily sweep past that standard. Akin to my first viewing of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), Moonlight altered my literal way of seeing the world, turning my visual experience into an extension of the film’s aesthetics, an infection at the hands of a transcendent quality. Moments sting me continually like mosquitoes, the emotionality behind the looks of Juan and adult Chiron flit around my head at a near-annoying pace, flooding me with the pleasure of watching masters at work.

The downfall of a film like Moonlight is the certainty that such cinematic experiences are rare in a lifetime.

 

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‘Nocturnal Animals’ Ambitiously Fails and Insults its Audience

 

2/5 Stars

Nocturnal Animals (2016, Dir. Tom Ford) admirably aspires. It hopes to be a thriller, taught with suspense and surprise. It longs to be a drama, bursting with desperation, doubt, fury, and regret. And it yearns for nuance, as it attempts to weave a complex web of characterization through bold devices and expressionistic choices. The end result, alas, is a flat, bizarre, pretentious slog that collapses under the weight of its heady ideas and does an insulting disservice to its otherwise terrifically talented cast.

Writer/Director Tom Ford’s sophomore foray into cinema (based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan) stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams as two former lovers who reestablish contact under mysterious circumstances. Susan Morrow (Adams), an art gallery owner, receives a package from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal): a novel titled Nocturnal Animals written by Sheffield. As Susan reads the novel, we’re treated to a cinematic representation of its story, also starring Gyllenhaal as Tony Hastings. In the novel, Tony runs into an aggressive group of motorists while on a road trip with his wife and daughter, resulting in a crime that requires the help of Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). As Susan reads the novel we’re given quick glimpses of her present-day life, her career and her marriage to Hutton Morrow (Arnie Hammer), and of her past life, falling in and out of love with Edward.

As a piece of writing, Nocturnal Animals falls flat on the screen. Its dialogue vague and uninteresting, it hopes to leave room for performance to color in characterizational gaps, but instead leaves its stars appearing unskilled and silly as they deliver stilted declarations and awkward personal exchanges. The film’s particular disinterest with emotional characterization comes to the fore in Tony’s interaction with his wife and daughter. While little time is spent on the quirks or subtleties of Tony’s family, Nocturnal Animals belabors and draws out the behavior of their main villainous captor, a kind of top-heavy narrative strategy that replaces potential tension with bizarre pseudo-comedy (one need only look to Psycho (1960) to see the importance of getting to know a character before they’re taken away).

While Adams and Gyllenhaal are unsurprising casting choices in a work of this pedigree, their performances feel constrained by the strangely written types they’re shackled with. Adams does her best as a largely stone-faced, internally struggling woman with little physicalized emotion than far-away gazes and brushes of the hair, and Gyllenhaal flounders as he makes due with a beta, sensitive, female-coded type male who also happens to be tall, handsome, and muscular. Shannon does far and away the best job with his part, brimming with barely surfacing rage and madness-hinting menace—essentially the prototypical Shannon role.

A Single Man’s (2009) brilliance is kept in mind through Ford’s repetition of formal techniques in Animals (saturated colors, jump cuts, and quick expressionistic flashbacks), but the moves feel out of place in a story so rooted in genre. His ability to piece together a tense scene is inconsistent and sloppy, and he sometimes miscalculates increased tension with increased length, dragging out sequences to an unpleasant degree.

Ideologically Nocturnal Animals has little value. One can sense it clawing at some sort of statement on class, with it’s poor, rural characters all maintaining a version of lawlessness and madness, and its lavishly wealthy characters seeming aloof and distant. Aesthetically, the film is bananas for the rich and can’t much stand the poor. The ultra-wealthy sip iced coffees and thoughtfully contemplate themselves in their luxurious homes, while the rural impoverished literally shit outside and resort to violence to solve their problems. It’s the lower class that sends Tony on his emotional topspin and encourages him to develop a version of masculinity, revealing Ford to be a trader of stereotype, picking freely from notions of “virile, savage poor folk” and “emotional, fey, artistic men.”

Perhaps the film’s most egregious fault is its rare feat of being simultaneously condescending and dumb, beating its audience over the head with graphic matches and tell-don’t-show dialogue that encourage obvious connections with little thought beyond what lies on the screen.

Nocturnal Animals represents a missed opportunity, a violation to what could otherwise be fruitful material; the novel-as-relationship-metaphor is a potentially potent device that in other hands could yield profundity. In his mark-missing, Ford’s directorial inexperience shows, and while it’s clear he’s intent on becoming an auteur, it’s unclear whether he’s consistently capable of recognizing and harnessing his skillset.

 

 

‘La La Land’ isn’t a Good Musical, but it’s Pretty Damn Charming

3/5 Stars

La La Land (2016)  is a fun, heartwarming, and at times visually stunning musical, with fine performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Writer/Director Damien Chazelle flaunts his film chops as he overtly references many of Hollywood’s greatest musical hits, but misses the mark as his work pales in comparison to the history he taps into.

Stone and Gosling respectively star as Mia and Sebastian, two struggling artists with dreams of Los Angeles success—Sebastian wants to own a Jazz Club, and Mia wants to be a movie star. The two cross paths after a delightful musical number set in the middle of LA traffic, and the film takes its time in predictably nudging its two stars closer and closer together. They fall in love, work towards their dreams, and along the way we’re peppered with quick musical numbers and gorgeous visuals, all variously invested in ‘movie magic.’

The film’s main issue stems from the check it writes the audience at its beginning. “Another Day of Sun,” the first number, is a strong signal from Chazelle that this movie won’t mess around. He pulls out all the film nerd stops: anamorphic lenses, long takes, and creative camera moves that smell strongly of early Paul Thomas Anderson, and hint at a reverence for Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick. In short, the opening tells you this is going to be a kick-ass musical.

Yet on the basis of genre-defining characteristics, namely singing and dancing, the movie falls short. Stone and Gosling do a perfectly fine and charismatic job of sustaining a compelling relationship, yet their charms can’t overcome the fact that the musical numbers meant to carry their characters’ emotions are unsatisfying and unmemorable. The singing is mediocre (incongruous with the rest of the film whether intentional or not, Gosling’s vocals in particular stick out in a bad way), the dancing is cute, though flat and uninteresting, and the songwriting is bland and forgettable. Still the film colorfully glides along, as references to Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and the work of Busby Berkley fly by, thorns in the side of those who recall the glorious spectacle of dance and song those films carry. La La Land is so preoccupied with sparking the memory of cinephiles that it forgets to take care of itself on the basics of movie musicals.

Chazelle attempts to make up for this lack with big, bold, extraverted camera moves. With wild abandon he plunges his camera under water, whips it too and fro, spins it furiously, and vaults it high. Interesting, to be sure, and a signifier of technical skill—yet flashy and fluffy, with little thoughtful alliance between form and content. Though the pleasure of spectacle has value in and of itself, such a strategy can only carry a film so far, and when unbuoyed by musical performances to match, the distance carried is middlingly short.

The film further faults on an ideological level, eschewing the implied-by-omission “messiness” of jazz’s ties to black history for a “clean” (so clean it’s sparkling white) version of jazz more fitting for the film’s narrative purpose: bringing together two beautiful Caucasian people. In this way La La Land blithely supports the ideological trash heap that is Hollywood filmmaking, while including just enough side characters of color to barely quell the tide of racial criticism.

That’s not to say this film is without merit—Stone and Gosling deliver perfectly fine performances (carrying a script that leaves one yearning for the verbal edge of Chazelle’s previous work) amid an extravaganza of visuals that will likely force a smile on your face. Tonally the film is pitched perfectly to please anyone, and its awareness of romantic cheese saves it from devolving into a cloying, overbearing emotional mess. Certain sequences will leave you breathless, one involving a planetarium comes to mind, and doubtless you will fall in love with La La Land’s leads as much as their characters do for each other.

However, as far as musicals go, this is a weak offering. Chazelle is quite good at incorporating (shoehorning?) images and themes from Hollywood Golden Age classics in his own work, yet he struggles when attempting to adopt their musical brilliance and choreographical prowess. Ryan Gosling can twirl around as many streetlamps as he’d like, he cannot help but remind that others have done it far better.

It’s a Bit Personal

The thing no one told me, or more likely the thing no one anticipated, was that living in such a densely populated place like Chicago amplifies every social phenomenon one normally experiences in public, simply because there are so many people you see everyday. Outlier abnormalities become daily, hourly occurrences.

And I turned a lot of heads in the city, because, whether I like it or not, my face attracts attention. One by one, each out of the deluge of bodies wandering oppositely in front of me would turn, look at me, linger for two full seconds (longer than you think), and then quickly dart their eyes back down as I walked past.

And I can lie to myself and make up excuses for how a table of six at an outdoor restaurant would halt conversation as I walk past, or why the old man cleaning the entrance to his Gyro restaurant lingers a little longer on me when I wait at my bus stop, like I don’t know what’s going on in their heads or it’s probably not about you, people don’t really care, but when faced with overwhelming evidence these illogical, emotion based excuses whither away and die quickly.

It’s the result of Sturge-Weber syndrome, a neurological disorder apparent in one out of 50,000 new born babies, with symptoms including seizures, mental impairment, and, you guessed it, a Port Wine Stain birthmark on the face, originating in one of the eyes and spreading outwards across the cheek.

It’s this eye that will develop glaucoma later in life.

I got the glaucoma, but lucked out by missing the seizures and the handicaps — a rare occurrence, it turns out, in these cases (Type 2 of the illness if you’d like to get technical). I’m an oddity within my pool of 1/50,000 — 6,378 US citizens or 148,000 humans (seems like an elite group when you put it that way).

Probably the strangest symptom of my lovely affliction is that the skin with the birthmark grows thicker over time, attaining an unpredictable level of lumpiness and misshapenness over the next few years.

And I can feel it happening.

It comes on in waves, this warm, slightly tingling sensation in my face, like a wet slice of rubber being pushed up against my cheek. It started in middle school, where this sensation would wash over my face and amplify, and I assumed it was purely psychological, like a fucked up spidey sense warning me that I was being too self conscious. But reading up on my illness, on a whim, so perfectly described what this feeling actually was that it sent chills down my spine. This was the feeling of my face growing thicker, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve run across 50,000 people yet. Seems like a lot to wade through.

Because of my little pigmentary misfortune, throughout my childhood I was subject to battery of laser treatments, a brutish and antiquated method of lessening one’s facial imperfections via the magic of a high powered laser, penetrating the skin and killing off the indicted blood vessels, leaving behind a trail of horribly burned flesh. The treatment takes fifteen minutes, the healing process takes three weeks.

Three weeks of incredible pain, wherein I can’t much move my face or stomach the company of others. To keep my Harvey Dent mask pristine during this time I must lather it with petroleum jelly at all hours of the day, a thick goopy mess that leaves my face feeling festered and marinated, making me want to tear my skin off and just be fucking normal. I look purple and swollen and grossly shiny, so I won’t ever leave the house. Showering becomes awkward. Eating becomes a re-education. For three weeks I live in near total isolation, going mad with depression and anxiety and self hatred.

It’s remarkable how quickly you abandon notions of self when you’re forced to sit alone in a pool of pain and disgust.

These treatments started as a baby, and they continued at a yearly frequency or higher until high school, where I took longer breaks but pushed through a handful more procedures. And I grew weary. The pain was too much, and the isolation was horrifying. The results I got were meager, only to be later trampled upon when the birthmark, in a cruel twist of fate, re-darkened.

So I decided to stop. This annual agony was too much to handle.

There’s a special type of rage reserved for when your doctor, an experienced and highly paid medical professional, lies to your face and assures you that this one will be the last one, that the life long nightmare after this will be over, that you will be normal once you push through to the end.

My face is pocked with scars, most notably in areas where facial hair won’t grow, as a result of a fruitless, expensive venture filled with pain and angst. I spent so much time in hospitals as a child I’m now emotionally triggered by the smell. Seeing E.T. for the first time gave me an anxiety attack because the hospital sequence was scarily accurate, down to the specific beeps of monitoring machines and the loud jumble of surgeon voices. This moment scared me away from all movies for a few subsequent years, out of a deep fear that something similar would horrify me in such a peculiarly visceral way.

It can be disturbing, sometimes, to spend time thinking about my illness. It’s discomforting knowing that I’ve had this my whole life, and I can’t know what life is like without it. From the moment I was born to now, all my social experience has been filtered through the lens of looking different, and I’d be naive to assume that the whole time I wasn’t being treated differently by those around me. It’s discomforting to assume that likely all my personality is formed around dealing with this abnormality, my tendency to try to dominate through intellect and humor, to push myself towards leadership roles, to be the guy who’s “comfortable” and “mature” and “seems old for his age” and “totally isn’t at all affected by this thing on his face and in fact is so smart and mature now it seems totally irrelevant.”

The clearer the linkage between my face and these traits grows, a defense mechanism only a handful of layers deep, the more they make me uncomfortable. I start to see how such a ground to build a personality on is shaky and tiring and unsustainable, a seeming effort to place the comfort of others over the comfort of myself, like a social magician frantically throwing glitter and smoke bombs to distract from the thing no one really likes talking about, to cover up and overcompensate for the fact that I look different.

This type of depressing self analysis turns on and off over the course of years, and when it’s on life moves like jelly. I become painfully aware of all the little social things that could be because of the birthmark, but in all likelihood aren’t. It’s a strange headspace that I have to fight to keep myself sane, the constantly running thought process of did she look down just then because it’s so hard to look at me, did he pull away eye contact too quickly because of me, are they not talking to me because of my face, etc. in an anguishing list of narcissism and self absorption.

There’s a mind fuck aspect to all this, in that I can’t know for sure whether my birthmark has any effect on social situations at all. A good scientist would have a control measurement, some other sample to compare their results against, yet unfortunately I know not a world where my facial pigment is symmetrical. The social cues I’ve read from others my whole life is all I know, so my experience could be vastly different or inconsequentially askew, and I can’t know.

Still, I’d be a fool to overlook moments like a stroll along Albert with friends when a drunk guy sitting on the curb shouts Woah bro, are you okay? as I walk past, a moment I instantly read as ignore, or else it’ll become a thing and I dutifully follow, not interrupting my flow of conversation as though I didn’t even notice.

I’ve been playing around with the idea of makeup lately, an internal debate that’s more frustrating than I feel it should be. I consider myself a “gender aware person” or whatever the fuck cis straight white blowhards call privilege awareness, so I feel it shouldn’t be a problem to at least imagine a world where I wear makeup most days — roughly half of all humans seem not to mind. Yet I can’t get over these weird hurdles, like the cost and the time commitment and the judgement of others — all nonsense when one considers the possibility of living a life free of these doubts. It’s all likely to do with internalized misogyny and fear of change, something I should probably get over if I want to be a functioning adult.

Yet despite my narcissistic pouts, I can’t ignore the fact that I’m leading an awesome life. I’ve had a successful micro-run as a classical musician, I’ve traveled the world, I’ve gone on dates and had romantic relationships, I have now far more friends than I ever imagined for myself when I sat alone in my room wearing the clothes of a high school freshman, I get to perform with a kick ass improv team, my film work has already found homes at film festivals, I’m making moves to follow my dreams, and people seem to like me. And no one has ever told me I couldn’t do something because of my face. Never. Not once.

So then an identity crisis emerges: Is this part of my face a part of me, or is it a nuisance to be ignored and cast aside? If to wish for a different face is to wish to be a different person, is that something I really want or need? Who am I to say I’ve ever really been impeded at any moment of my life? I’ve done amazing things and been lucky enough to have incredible opportunities and befriended so many wonderful people, and for all I know it’s because of my birthmark, in some strange way.

Like I said before, I have no control group, so I quite literally can’t know.

I suspect, however, that as I move along in the adult world it will start to become more of an issue. As I move to Chicago to pursue improv comedy and try to make myself in the image of a comedic stage actor, it’d be foolish to say such a thing wouldn’t be a hurdle. Though my aspirations lie on the side of writing and directing, simply trying to get on a Harold team as I am may invite negative, albeit perhaps more unconscious than conscious, judgement from the gatekeepers and keymasters of that world.

The counterpoint being an aggressive call to arms, an alpha declaration that I will work so hard and become so skilled that the issue will be forced, and I’ll transcend my external appearance. And sometimes I feel like that could really work, that I have a deep enough well of ambition and motivation to see that directive through.

But when I look at my heroes, and then literally look at them, I can’t help but feel disheartened. I’ve never read or heard of anyone in my field who’s done the same thing, and maybe it’s more than a numbers thing. Maybe it’s just not something that in this line of work anyone could transcend.

Then you’ll be the first! cries the last drop of testosterone in my body.

I don’t know.

Maybe my pride is making things unnecessarily difficult. Maybe the seductive power of people feeling too awkward to point out the obvious when I reveal my ambitions is misleading me. Maybe I’ve had a lot of dumb luck that I take too much for granted to even see. Maybe I’m just an idiotic self-absorbed kid who thinks he can get away with anything without at least considering the advances of modern cosmetic technology. Maybe it’s not that big a deal and I should get over it. Maybe I could just wear makeup for shows and auditions and it’s really not that much of a thing.

Maybe I think too much.

On Confronting the Horde

I don’t like large groups of people. They scare me.

I wonder if this fear comes from some vestigial, lizardly part of my brain that stays stuck, frozen in amber, in the time where lion attacks where a daily concern and that one neighboring tribe that looks funny may slit our throats and steal our resources in the middle of the night.

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting on the upper level of the 12:40 (last) Chicago train to Aurora, on this blessedly final day of Lollapalooza.
For the uninitiated, Lollapalooza is a massive conference of cloned fourteen year-old girls and their strangely muscular boyfriends.

I assume they talk about clone and muscle things.

This large group of bodies crowds the many forms of public transportation available in Chicago, the most notable of which (i.e. affecting me) is their usage of the Metra trains inward and outward bound from the city. My once quiet, peaceful, contemplative train rides are now congested with CamelBaks and some discussion on what “dabbing” is and how best to coordinate some group “dabbing” among residents within the car.

The journey outward from Union Station, to Lisle where I’m living, for the past four days has been a complete fucking nightmare.

The boarding procedure seems to have been rewritten to: everyone crowd as much as they can around the track entrance a full thirty minutes before boarding, start some chants and odd misogynist/homophobic outbursts (a popular conversation piece among the clones and their minions), and bum rush the train as soon as its doors open, screaming and flailing as though the train will leave in the next thirty seconds rather than it’s scheduled time.

I am a body in a sea of bodies, and were it not for my odd rage issues and willingness to be aggressive among the commoners, my 5’5″ frame would likely perish in the proceedings. I jostle and scurry, plotting a weaving course while also following whoever is brave enough to run on the very outskirts of the crowd and clear a path for me, keeping my hands in front of me like an over-the-whole-thing boxer, brushing against the occasional shoulder-high tricep and praying that this one slight bump against a clone won’t upset her Anglerfish tumor.

I remember the advice of that one talkative Uber driver, a self-proclaimed Michigander, who had buckets and buckets of suggestions on how to avoid this city’s nasty habit of “chewing you up and swallowing you whole.”

Granted, he was referring to the South Side in layers of middle-class fear and coded racism, citing most vividly the way gangs would approach blocked traffic on the Gold Coast and just “knock people out in their cars and take their wallets right there,” an image that will never leave me in a way that makes me want to retch and shake this man’s hand with gratitude.

But the one most useful nugget he gifted me was to “walk with your head up, look straight ahead, do nothing to draw attention, and you should be fine,” concluding with the catchy aphorism “there are lots of pretty girls here so you’ll enjoy yourself,” a statement so lacking in censorship that I can’t help but smile, despite my college-implanted heteronormativity alarms ringing at a painful frequency.

So I do just that. I keep my head up and walk with purpose, putting on that solemn and slightly perturbed face that I’ve been perfecting my whole life, lab-grown to deflect any type of public interaction in a way that says: I’m a serious man with serious man things and no I’m not twelve so don’t mess with me, punks.

And every time I survive. Yet still this fear lingers, this distrust of the horde, this strange, nagging sensation that this tan dude in the Captain America tank top will rip my headphones out from my ears, and that when I inevitably punch him out the gasps of surprise and arousal will be audible for miles. 

While this fantasy make me smile, a minor leakage in the testosterone pack that I assumed was sealed pretty tightly by this point, it’s also a bizarre reminder that I am just an animal, and that no matter how much I do battle with Pynchon or jam out to Grainger or commit fully with my heart and fucking soul to being a silent tree-to-end-all-trees in that one campground scene, I’m still a meat robot that needs calories and has base survival mechanisms.

It makes me feel like a walking organ sack, a bag of liquid instinctively responding to stimuli, like a single cell flexing one of two muscles on the side most hit with sunlight in the primordial ooze, and all of a sudden my decision to favor khakis over jeans to appear more sophisticated seems foolish in the grand scheme of things.

Celebrating Impermanence: On Improvised Theatre

“We’re going to fuck around on stage for you.”

Thus spoke Susan Messing, before launching into a tenderly woven tapestry of scenes with her that-night stage partner Tara DeFrancisco. Their work blended themes on gender politics, rape culture, male repression, ageism, and personal boundaries while deftly connecting scenes to scenes in a stage dance that addressed the audience directly and folded in the spectator with their visible enjoyment.

And it occurred to me midway through the work, as my mind was undergoing ritualistic sacrifice, that Messing was, indeed, just fucking around. This is her version of fucking around.

This brought to mind ideas of mastery, of what it’s like to own an artform so fully that one can’t help but be compelled to express in a fluidly transcendent manner.

A hallmark of improvisation is its impermanence. Like shuffling a deck of cards, no work is the same as any previous. The improvisor churns out pieces with unprecedented productivity, a mode of operation lacking any intent in holding onto what happened last.

Having attended classes at iO Chicago for just two weeks, one cannot help but be imbued with this culture of impermanence already. Geniuses, working tirelessly at the form in a manner unmirrored in places across the world, speak to novices such as I with an alien willingness, as though we are equals.

The real mind fuck being that, in a world such as this, we in a strange way are equals. It seems as though something about the philosophy of improvisation, the essence of it, allows for an open-armedness that requires acclimation for an introvert gremlin such as myself. Liz Allen grants me the time of day like Devil’s Daughter sits me down for dinner like Dave Pasquesi’s presence in the same room doesn’t ignite some spontaneous combustion.

Writing on the work varies most in seriousness, with gurus such as Del Close, Charna Halpern, Matt Besser, Mick Napier, and TJ Jagadowski expressing with differing tenor on whether the improviser is the ultimate artist or a goof having a good time.

“You payed 300 dollars to make shit up for a few hours a week,” a local friend reminds me. “Have fun and don’t be too serious.”

“If this isn’t a source of joy for you, don’t waste your time. I fucking hate my day job and I wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t give me happiness,” advises a ten-year veteran.

Seeing TJ and Dave live, a towering act of creation that begs analysis and deep thought wrapped in a casing of Seinfeldian wit, ends with a beta announcement that “We do this every week, come back if you want to see something like it.”

“Come back if you want to see something like it.” Oh, you mean that spontaneous performance of earth-shattering skill?

Throw it away. Throw it away.

We’re fucking around.

As a student of Film, I cannot help but compare these attitudes to those of the masters I’ve spent years studying. Bergman fell into deep depression between productions, never able to sustain a healthy human relationship. Tati bankrupted himself to create his magnum opus, a work of tireless choreography and unparalleled construction. Kubrick placed the value of his work above the safety and comfort of his collaborators, spending two years of his life filming his last work at a snail’s pace.

TJ and Dave? “Come back if you’d like to see something like this.” And they leave.

We’re just fucking around.

Sergei Eisenstein believed his work could overthrow governments and unlock the revolutionary potential in the lower classes. Hans Richter proclaimed that film could uniquely unlock hidden rhythmic biology within the human, and reacquaint us with some ancient emotional truth.

In a medium as young as improvisation, TJ and Dave are not off-base analogs. 

Throw it away. We’re fucking around.

One wonders whether this attitude is a product of the work itself, whether it is a quality inherent in improvisation that lends itself to this type of wholly unpretentious presentation.

Then one strolls into the massive white walls of mall-Second City, plastered with giant murals of the Gods they worship like Akroyd and Murray and Ramis, amid a crowd of working blue-collars and shiny young yuppies, and one can’t help but take note.

“Each show is different,” an instructor warns. “TJ and Dave exist on one side of a wide spectrum.”

One then remembers the strange classism involved in feeling pleasure, the constant note that at iO you don’t have to be funny, the Second City mechanics behind explaining exactly what’s happening on stage to avoid any potential confusion, and thoughts get muddled. 

One wonders where the pretension truly lies, in the obscure brilliance of a theater trained duo or in the reliable enjoyment of the clear and concise short form game.

Throw it away. Throw it away.

We’re just fucking around.

Donald Trump and the Decay of American Political Humor

In the field of American political humor, there lies a rich history of commentators and hosts singing the praises of inept politicians and their unending gifts to the comedy landscape. Whether it be Jon Stewart thanking his lucky stars for the existence of the Bush administration, Stephen Colbert remarking deftly upon John McCain, or Bill Maher viciously attacking Mitt Romney, topical comedians have a dependency upon the gaffes and goofs of those in power. When a sex scandal arises, they’re there to make puns. When a lie emerges, they’re there to exploit evidence. When an inconsistency reveals itself, they’re there to patiently walk through the paces of how and why this position illuminates poor character.

However, as much as these comedians rely on the guffawes of those in office, they rely equally so on a rational baseline through which to filter these observations. In the same way that sketch comedy so often relies on a dichotomy between straight man and character, a methodology tried and true in effectively revealing the specific absurdity or silliness of any given comedic premise, political comedians must remain latched to the teat of a firm, grounded political reality. When Jon Stewart lambasts Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, he does so through the eyes of Barack Obama’s counter example. When Seth Meyers deflates policy specifics within the Republican party, he leverages the liberal counterpoint to solidify his premise. When Stephen Colbert, in a move safely qualified as the Holy Grail of political comedy, eviscerates George Bush at a White House Correspondents Dinner, he does so through the voice of a character that elaborates and extends Bush’s performance to an extreme that exists not in reasonable policy (a brilliant move effectively turning Bush himself into the straight man).

In all cases, there is some sort of other to base the comedic target against. This person is ridiculous because they’re unlike this person.

So now we arrive at Donald Trump. A man so ridiculous he defies description. A man so inconsistent he’ll shift position within the same breath. A man so patently hateful he has numerous media ties and endorsements to white supremacist groups.

Oh, and he’s also a three-time alleged rapist and serial Chapter 11 artist.

He’s a balloon waiting to be popped as political comedians lick their teeth and wipe away excess saliva. They prayed to his continuance within the race, to extend their time with him as much as possible. He is the high octane fuel of comedy.

But is the work on him funny? Do the fact-checks land? Do the impressions hold true? Is the ranting and raving worth anything?

I don’t think so. I’ve never laughed once at any comedic observation made about Trump, and I believe this is the case because he’s so outlandish and so successful, that he’s shifted America’s political reality away from anything resembling a reasonable baseline.

Notice how Jimmy Fallon’s impression seems to fall flat? Wonder why, despite all Trevor Noah’s squirming, you’re left only nodding your head? Curious how anyone so inflammatory and unreal could be so unfunny?

Unreal is the key word. Donald Tump defies being joked about, because he is the living embodiment of a joke. No impression can extend his rationale to an absurd degree a la Colbert, as he is already at peak absurdity. It’s likely your brilliant riff has already come out of his mouth. The man has actually directly incited violence. He has actually engaged in bigoted behavior. He has actually said anything and everything you can think of.

To pull a Colbert and push his policy to the absurd is ineffective, because doing so requires a logical leap too far to land anywhere meaningful. Good luck satirizing someone who actually called Mexicans rapists and announced, to gleeful cheers, that he can become any politician he wants and requires no knowledge or forethought when making strong decisions.

You can’t cartoonize a cartoon. He is the punchline.

Want to compare him to a reasonable electorate? Fat chance, given his insane popularity and bullet-proof emotional attraction. Most Trump supporters in all sincerety care little for the promises he makes or the lies he holds high. They just like him.

Remember when I pointed out his three rape accusations? One of them involves a 13-year old. This is public information.

He has torn apart the fabric of American reason, leaving comedians little to draw upon when pointing out his flaws. While Saturday Night Live may do their best to break new ground with the joke that Trump supporters are white-supremacists, the premise falls flat when the absurd reality is prove true. White-supremacists have, for a while now, been open and frank with their rabid support of Donald Trump. Oh, well wouldn’t it be funny if he tried to maneuver around disavowing their support? Well he did. He actually did. Publicly. Everyone has seen this.

Comedians may scramble for some semblance of reason to compare against Donald Trump, but all they can grab are parallel movements of white-supremacy, misleading conversations surrounding social justice, and rampant falsehoods across the board.

The sad truth is that the new base-reality Donald Trump has created actually diminishes his absurdity. He’s cartoonized the whole of American politics, leaving him a perfectly natural creature within an enclosure of his own design. Any attempt at satire or comedic observation only fuels this truth, and contributes to an electorate entirely desensitized to ridiculousness.

And I don’t think it’s funny. I think it’s sad.

We live in world where a black man wearing a hoodie is a crime punishable by death. Where people in a position of privilege feel it’s their place to explain to oppressed people how to properly handle their oppression. Where leftists applaud the influence of Bernie Sanders, as though moving the Democratic Party further left is a more helpful division than the rightwards move for Republicans.

I think Donald Trump will be our next President.

And it’s not funny.