I’ve bitched and moaned before about the tendency so many of us have to romanticize the past. This is countered by the tendency others have to see the present through rose-tinted glasses. One of my favorite websites posted an article not too long ago about whether or not we are living in a cultural golden age. Without even bothering to read it, I have my answer: No. Some stuff is good, other stuff is bad, and it will all come out in the wash. This differs from every other cultural era in that it doesn’t. People are so obsessed with what will be remembered decades from now that they forget that in order for something to be great, it must first be good. What are my favorite movies of the past decade or so? The first ones that come to mind are Children of Men, Ratatouille, Grizzly Man, City of God, and The Squid and the Whale. If pressed, I might also throw in The Lives of Others, Sideways, and (a sentimental favorite) About a Boy. All of those movies were critically acclaimed, even the last one. Okay, so I’m pretentious. But that doesn’t mean I’m not discerning.
I still don’t understand the love for There Will Be Blood. Most of the enthusiasm for that movie seems based on its “intensity”. While I won’t deny that it has that going for it, I fail to see how that makes it a masterpiece. Essentially, it’s a two-and-a-half hour, virtually plotless film in which we watch a nearly-inhuman monster become completely inhuman. Sounds like a grand old time at the movies. Both Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis, despite being immensely talented, sometimes rub me the wrong way. Anderson makes movies that are staggering in their ambition, yet fail to cohere as solid works. Day-Lewis is often great and sometimes even brilliant, but has anyone ever seen him smile? I hear people gush about his methods as often as they gush about his acting. No, I don’t see why I’m supposed to be impressed that he built a house for himself out of 17th-century tools to prepare for the role of a Puritan and confined himself to a wheelchair to get inside the mind of a paraplegic. I liked him in both of those movies, but that’s about it. Movies don’t have to go down easy, but they still have to come together. I’ve accepted that most people have already anointed both There Will Be Blood and its central performance as landmarks in cinematic history. Count me out. If my food had that many rough edges, I’d spit it out.
Daniel Day-Lewis is one of those people who could benefit from a little self-awareness. Self-awareness is very “in” right now, and though I wouldn’t advocate it for everyone, some people could use a little bit more. Comedy is good at reminding us of that. The best comedians are all people who subjected both themselves and society to ruthless scrutiny so that, in the words of one of my favorites, we can all learn, evolve, and get the fuck off this planet. It’s exactly the sort of thing that Carlos Mencia sucked at. I’ve seen shitty comedians before, but none have ever made me want to put my foot through my TV screen like he did. He is the undisputed master of comedy so desperate to shock and offend that never actually, you know, makes any relevant points or induces any laughter. Jeff Dunham is lame—racist even—but somehow, he strikes me as ultimately harmless. Larry the Cable Guy plays off of the prejudices and anti-intellectualism of his audience to the point that he becomes, as David Cross so memorably pointed out, dangerous and hypocritical. But Carlos Mencia—God, how I hate him. The tagline for his show was, “He’s speaking his mind. We’re hiring extra lawyers.” You. Wish.
I have some news for guys like Carlos Mencia, people who recycle ethnic and racial stereotypes because they think that that somehow amounts to being pointed: If you want to push your audience’s buttons, you have to first make them respect you. I used to write and perform sketch comedy. I still remember the palpable feeling of awkwardness in the room as my group performed a scene in which I played August Strindberg, the famously misogynistic Scandinavian playwright. I’m pretty sure that everyone recognized it as satire, but the jokes (which I won’t repeat here) were so extreme that people weren’t entirely sure how seriously they should take the scene. After we performed it, I told everyone who brought it up that it was not my idea, that another member of my group (a girl, incidentally) had proposed it, and that the most offensive lines hadn’t even been my idea. That didn’t matter. They still looked at me funny. I guess I’m just a convincing misogynist.
In my days in sketch comedy, I worked to merge the lowbrow with the highbrow, making admittedly sick jokes about topics that were, considering the medium, fairly intellectual. I had a good time. The audience, as far as I can tell, had a good time. It’s fun to look back and think about which scenes still make me laugh, which ones seemed great at the time but don’t seem quite so special anymore, and which ones were never that good to begin with. Even though comedy is usually mired in what is culturally and socially relevant at the time, sometimes it transcends the era that produced it. The funniest movie parodies are ones that, like Airplane!, didn’t depend on the viewer having seen another movie to appreciate it. They spoofed clichés and tropes that were so deeply ingrained in the culture that any culturally-savvy person could appreciate them. Someday, I hope to write something that funny. Until I do, I am still only a student. I don’t hide behind labels to defend myself against charges of going too far like Mencia, who is half-Mexican but changed his name from Ned Holness when going into comedy so that he could make racial jokes about Hispanics with impunity. No, I write what I write, and target who I want to target. They’re welcome to shoot back.