Removing the Barb of Irony from the Heart
“Since my earliest childhood a barb of sorrow has lodged in my heart. As long as it stays I am ironic — if it is pulled out I shall die.”
That’s a quote from Soren Kierkegaard, one I think about from time to time, especially as it relates to artists. How serious should an artist be? How serious can they afford to be? Is irony always a smokescreen to conceal real emotion, or is it sometimes employed, as an aftereffect, to take the edge off real emotion? If one’s not careful, hard-won emotion evoked in the audience can quickly deteriorate to sentimentality, melodrama.
I was watching some Simpsons DVD commentary a little while back (yes, to quote Bukowski, some lives are meant to be wasted.) On the commentary track a writer said that the staff always made it a point to follow every strong emotional moment in the show with something that undercut it. Watch enough of The Simpsons, especially those seasons in the halcyon days between the third and eighth year, and you’ll see this technique constantly employed. It’s so obvious on second and third viewings that you wonder how you missed it the first time. But then, that’s how magic works.
Remember Lisa on Ice, when Bart and Lisa are pitted against each other in the hockey rink, on rival teams? Bart is a goalie while Lisa is discovering a heretofore-untapped kind of bloodlust coursing through her veins, turning her into a reckless enforcer with a wicked slapshot.
The episode comes to a climax with Lisa’s team facing Bart’s, and Homer egging on both, stoking their unhealthy competition until it becomes toxic.
Finally, with the score tied, Lisa is given a penalty shot against Bart.
Homer is baying for blood from the stands along with all the other fans, while Marge is doing her trademark disconcerted groan and clutching Maggie to her breasts.
Bart and Lisa, rather than breaking the tie, flash back to fond memories of their early childhood together, eating ice cream, playing pranks on Homer. Then they throw down their sticks and go to embrace each other in the center of the ring.
It’s a sweet moment. But then it’s followed by a massive brawl in the stands. As usual when Springfield devolves into a mob, Hans Moleman gets the worst of it while the ornery types like Snake and Willie thrive in the melee.
Does this final scene work?
Sure, though not quite as well as the one where Rod and Bart are playing miniature golf and Bart coaxes Rod into calling it a draw. That episode ends with Homer and Flanders in their wives’ Sunday dresses, mowing their lawns while the entire neighborhood looks on, laughing and pointing.
Still, there’s a principle at work here, first spotted by that writer on the commentary track, that I’ve been mulling over for some time.
It makes me think of David Lynch, and the film critic Roger Ebert’s relationship to the surrealist auteur’s work.
Don’t ask me how I hopped from The Simpsons to David Lynch. That’s just how my mind works, in wild improvisational leapfrogs, from one subject to an only tentatively related tangent.
I remember reading Ebert’s review of Wild at Heart, Lynch’s adaptation of the hardboiled road novel by noir writer Barry Gifford. Wild at Heart wasn’t a massive hit, but it did alright at the box office and with most critics. It also boasted a killer soundtrack featuring Chris Isaac’s haunting croon, and showed genuine chemistry between its leads, Nic Cage and Laura Dern.
The film won the Palm D’Or at Cannes, which pissed Ebert off to no end, as he thought Cyrano de Bergerac should have won. In the beginning of his review Ebert at least had the decency to admit that his problem with Lynch was his problem, some kind of inbuilt bias. He allowed that something in him resisted Lynch, that he saw the man’s talent, but sensed Lynch was hiding behind a façade, playing a shell game. Ebert claimed Lynch would make a good movie again, something that fulfilled the promise of the groundbreaking Eraserhead. But first Lynch had to stop playing games and say what was really on his mind.
Was Lynch playing a game, not really speaking the truth of his heart (as corny as that sounds), but rather defending that well-placed barb that kept him insulated?
Facing one’s emotions in their art is terrifying. It involves trying to see oneself as they really are, not as they wish they were, or wish the world to see them. James Jones used to say that there wasn’t much separating the serial flasher from the writer, that they were driven pretty much by the same impulse. Author Damon Knight once said that the sign of the amateur writer, just starting out, is to create a main character who is flawless, in complete control of themselves and their environment. There’s a tendency toward wish fulfillment, and fantasy that has nothing to do with genuine imagination.
But that’s neither here nor there, and, returning to the question about Lynch, I have to admit stalemate, say I understand where Ebert’s coming from but can’t quite concur. And there’s something Laura Dern said during an interview about Wild at Heart, something that makes me doubt Ebert’s take. “Most modern love stories are basically just ‘I turn you on, you turn me on, and fuck you.’ But there’s a sweetness to David and the relationship between Sailer and Lulu.”
That sweetness is found in a lot of Lynch’s other works, fused so tightly to the darkness that it tends to get overlooked.
To be fair, the fear of being perceived as melodramatic was not just a theoretical pitfall for Lynch. For a lot of his fans and his tougher detractors like Ebert, The Elephant Man is a maudlin and manipulative misfire. It’s not quite I Am Sam (John Hurt goes neither full nor half retard), but it is an unabashed tearjerker.
Maybe Lynch feared emotion for practical reasons, as a matter of a bad experience, for the same reason he didn’t like to talk about Dune. Or knew directing Return of the Jedi wasn’t for him when George Lucas—who hadn’t quite yet devolved into a total whore—showed him some concept art for a bunch of little spear-throwing furries called Ewoks.
The Coen Brothers have seemed to have undergone a similar transformation from smirking irony to something much more profound and vulnerable. I loved Raising Arizona as a kid, but again, as an adult and reading Ebert’s review, I see where he was coming from. It’s a funny movie, but it’s glib and somewhat condescending to its characters.
And watching Miller’s Crossing, I felt (but could not yet articulate) what bugged Ebert about the movie. You hear the characters speak, and rather than seeing them as people, you think of the writers and admire their skill with the dialogue. It’s too self-conscious, and obsessed with its own prowess to the point of being smarmy.
It's facile and mechanical, even beneath all the rousing and melancholy bagpipe dirges and a truly inspired performance by John Turturro as a wormy slimeball with a genius for self-preservation. But Bernie Bernbaum is still just a cipher, a trope, despite Turturro’s gameness and willingness to go way over the top. “The Schmatta Kid,” ends up less a tragicomic, loathsome weasel than an antisemitic caricature through which the Coens work out their deep-seated self-loathing.
It wasn’t until Fargo that the figurative ice cracked (ironic, that their warmest and most human film to date took place in such a cold locale.) No Country for Old Men proved that this leap into the unknown, barb-free world was not a one-off, that the Coens, like Lynch, had finally ceased fucking around.
I know what you’re going to say:
That they did The Big Lebowski between Fargo and No Country. But Lebowski, while lighter in tone, is still all heart, a smarmless (sic) soul-bearing by two unrepentant stoner savants. The glibness and facileness really belong now to the characters rather than the directors. And the eyes of the directors—while gimlet—are much more forgiving than mocking of the foibles. They sees the Vietnam-obsessed, petty Walter Sobchak and his nebbish jinx of a schlub sidekick Donny as oddly noble, worthy not just of sport but admiration. If only for their enduring friendship in the spite of their calamitous chemistry that sees them constantly pitted against each other.
And this time the humor is meant to reveal rather than conceal. You watch The Big Lebowski and its beauty is in the complexity of what appears to be offhand, in the infinite regress to something truly Zen. It’s shaggy dogs all the way down, man. From the overlong yarn itself to the convoluted kidnapping plot, to Jeff Bridges with his tattered bathrobe and blonde locks like the floppy ears of a golden retriever.
You can of course do this little exercise with as many artists as you want, trying to arrive at an answer to the question I posed about when to use irony and when to abstain.
But the truth is that there is no exact answer, and, as usual, my questions are rhetorical, because art isn’t quite a science. It involves craftsmanship and analysis, sure, but it also involves something that cannot be intellectualized by even the most cerebral and reflective of artists. Even Kubrick—supposedly the coldest and most clinical of master auteurs—told Tom Cruise the following when Cruise asked him what he wanted: “I want the magic.”