Category Archives: comedy

Lady Bird (2017)

Greta Gerwig’s debut as writer and director is a modest gynocentric bildungsroman which succeeds on its earnest affections and enjoyable performances. Like virtually every film that occupies the so-called “indie” film market, it aims to portray the unvarnished edges of deep family intimacy as well as the quiet humor of well rendered characters. Gerwig has built a reputation by appearing in Quirky Indie Films like Baghead, Frances Ha and Greenberg. Films which can occasionally come off as platforms for charmless affectation and urbane pretentions. Thankfully, Lady Bird doesn’t devolve into this black hole of solipsistic navel gazing. If anything, Gerwig deserves credit for crafting a taut story filled with brisk, direct dialogue, relatable characters and energetic exchanges. The story hinges on the affectionate but contentious relationship between Saoirse Ronan’s Christine and her mother played by Laurie Metcalf.

Lady Bird charts Christine’s trajectory of growth in her final year at high school as she attempts to carve a path towards college. Her mother Marion is a hard bitten realist who wants to rein in Christine’s tendency towards self-aggrandizement and tamp down her grandiose dreams of an East Coast liberal arts education. Christine is the defiant daughter determined to rise above the rigid confines of her Catholic School upbringing and her lower middle-class home life. So much so that she insists on being called Lady Bird.

The film opens with a very funny quarrel between Marion and Christine in which Christine ejects herself from the car in order to avoid listening to her mother. Essentially, Christine is another headstrong adolescent who is unreceptive to maternal advice. Marion’s ministrations are blunt, but like most caring parents, she’s more than willing to dispense the bitter medicine.

Aside from her tortured relationship to her family, Christine’s journey covers three significant themes: friendship, academic achievement and men. She abandons her best friend in favor of ingratiating herself with one of the cool girls. She falls in love with a guy who turns out to be gay and then ostracizes him from her life. She has a contentious relationship with her Hispanic adoptive brother. She struggles with math and honesty. In other words, there’s nothing that hasn’t been broached on the ABC Family Channel or an episode of Roseanne.

If this seems like fairly standard dramatic fare for a modern coming of age story, you’d be correct. With so little real originality, you’re left to contend with the equally standard progressive editorializing. If you go into a contemporary film knowing it’s a vehicle for leftist commentary, you won’t be exasperated. It’s just a matter of degree, and Lady Bird is relatively modest on the preaching. Relatively. Sure, it gently mocks religious people and pro-life views. It panders to gender warriors and lesbians. It ridicules Ronald Reagan and conservatives. Par for the course. But there are places where it slides in some especially pernicious and deceptive editorial.

A common tactic among progressives is to take something that’s true pertaining to the possibility of danger, and then frame it as a joke, a lie, a conspiracy theory or a byproduct of bigotry. It’s a way of simultaneously reinforcing a smug, all encompassing intellectualism and a cosmopolitan openness to the world that is beyond the reach of narrow minded conservatives. When Christine’s friend Julie questions the possibility of terrorism while attending college in New York, Christine shoots back with the admonition “Don’t be a Republican.” It’s cute and kind of funny, but Julie’s concern is not exactly unfounded. It’s as though the mere consideration of the very real possibility of terrorism is contrary to progressive orthodoxy. It somehow means you’re setting yourself on an inexorable path toward conservatism by conceding that it could happen. It’s just one of many reasons modern progressivism is such a pathetic joke. Ideological conformity takes precedent over the objective reality of escalating terrorism worldwide.

Another moment comes when Christine is attempting to woo brooding artist, Kyle Scheible. Kyle is portrayed as a stereotypical young hard leftist who smokes hand rolled cigarettes, reads Howard Zinn and plays in a band. Timothée Chalamet effectively splits the difference between laconic cool guy, detached douchebag and emotional midget. Christine asks if he has a cell phone, but when he explains his reason for not having one, he says he doesn’t want to be tracked by the government. He then goes full Alex Jones, points to his skull and says “Then they’ll put it in your brain.” Gerwig plays it for laughs and wants you see him as a conspiracy prone naïf, but I think this is a tell. The fact that the NSA is spying through all manners of mobile devices is now widely known. But now, we’re already seeing articles about people willingly taking microchip implants. Gerwig very likely wants you to chuckle at Kyle’s youthful paranoia, but attempting to anaesthetize people to uncomfortable truths with ironic distance is standard practice for progressives.

The biggest crime of progressive agenda building in Lady Bird is the symbolism. Gerwig is presenting Christine as yet another archetype of leftist feminine virtue. At a purely symbolic level, birds represent freedom, the future or messengers of God. Gerwig has even given her lead character the female equivalent of Christ by naming her Christine. Her profile eclipses the blurred out crucifix on the movie poster. It doesn’t get any more explicit than that. Christine has survived her growing pains, heartbreaks and disappointments and now she’s ready to stake her claim to political power, the executive offices of corporate America, the lofty perch of the entertainment industry or the highest echelons of academia. You know. The cushy, prestigious positions that have air conditioning, six figure salaries and no physical labor.

Even Tracy Letts’ appealing and sympathetic turn as Christine’s father, Larry, feels like yet another subtle act of vandalism on the paternal father figure. He is doting and affectionate, but he’s also depressed and unemployed. He’s able to provide a sober counterpoint to Marion’s alpha mother harangues, but it feels like an explicit attempt to portray manhood as broken and ineffectual. The job interview at the end can be read both as a commentary on the declining economic prospects for the aging middle-class white male, but also as a rather blatant and dishonest sop to the pro-immigration plank of the progressive agenda.

Lady Bird is essentially the indie film complement to the more hamfisted preaching of blockbusters like Wonder Woman. It’s quieter and it has just enough emotional depth and universal humanity to salvage it from the bin of agitprop. But just barely. It struck me as very similar to Paul Weitz’ ode to an aging feminist from 2015, Grandma. But is this Best Picture caliber filmmaking? Meh. Not so much. If I wanted to be very cynical, I’d simply call this Hollywood affirmative action. It checks off all the requisite boxes in order pass the Hollywood PC virtue test. If that’s all it takes to earn a Best Picture nod, what a sorry state of affairs that represents. But I’m going to give Greta Gerwig the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to treat this as an earnest attempt to tell a story about a young woman coming to terms with her family and childhood and what she wants to carry into adulthood. And maybe in today’s cinematic landscape, that’s saying quite a bit.

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Social Justice is the Death Knell of Comedy

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It’s a point that’s been made by comedians and cultural commentators alike, but it bears repeating: #SocialJustice is the death knell of comedy. Over the years, the increasing encroachment of political correctness in the pop culture sphere has been assailed by everyone from George Carlin to John Cleese. And rightfully so. To be fair, neo-Marxist, postmodern PC culture is destroying pretty much everything that’s beautiful, ennobling and fun, but the toll it’s exacting on the realms of pop culture and entertainment that I always considered sacrosanct zones of unfettered creativity cannot be gainsaid. Comedy will always be judged based on subjective tastes and preferences, but we can distinguish a few core principles which make comedy funny. Moreover, it’s important to draw these distinctions because the goals of the neo-Marxist Left are completely at odds with making actual comedy.

Comedy is an essential art form because it provides a necessary escape valve from the pressure cooker of daily life. When done well, comedy transforms the deepest miseries and the most forbidden taboos into laughter. It serves as a coping mechanism and as a release.  In order to do this properly, the comedian can only invite the audience to see its own reflection in proportion to the degree that the comedian is doing it for himself.  In other words, the comedian’s jokes are funny because you recognize the truth of the comedian’s experience and empathize with him. This may even include judgments and caricatures that will make people uncomfortable. The job of the comedian is to put thoughts that remain hidden from view of normal discussion on loudspeakers. Generally speaking, the more uncomfortable the confession, the greater the comedy payoff. Even in the case of insult comedians like Don Rickles and Joan Rivers, the insults were funny because at some level, you had that thought yourself. The comedian must have a sufficient level of self-awareness about his own foibles and limitations in addition to being well attuned to the judgments and opinions he holds about others.

Most importantly, comedy is meant to be the province of breaking cultural taboos. Comedy is the art form that’s going to go there if that’s where the laugh is going to be found. Especially if it’s painful or uncomfortable subject matter.  It’s a cliché, but laughter is the best medicine. Of course, comedy is a vast art form and for the sake of concision, I’m not including slapstick, sight gags, and pranks nor do I intend to make this essay an extended exploration of every comedic style. My intention is merely to underscore the psychological mechanics of comedy which make it tick and the ways intersectional social justice completely undermines comedy’s most fundamental building blocks.

Given that comedy requires both emotional honesty and unconstrained access to every realm of life where jokes might be found, this dual mandate puts the entire art form of comedy on a collision course with #SocialJustice. The success of neo-Marxist Left hinges on carving society into groups and placing everyone within the hierarchy of oppression. Subsequently, anything done or said by the privileged group that is perceived to be disparaging of the oppressed groups creates an unacceptable perpetuation of oppression which must be condemned and silenced. Since this now includes pretty much everything that is a product of Western civilization, everything that was once considered funny is now in the crosshairs.

Take Mel Brooks’ 1967 lampoon of the show business industry, The Producers. Anyone with a functioning brain knows that Brooks made a Nazi musical the object of the producers’ quest because it was the epitome of bad taste. That’s the joke. Apparently, it’s not good enough for the pearl clutching moralists of the #SocialJustice Left.  Despite Blazing Saddles being a satire of racism and bigotry, how long before his 1974 classic gets the same puritanical reprimand from the Church Ladies of the Left?

Making matters worse is the ever shifting standards of #SocialJustice piety. The nature of intersectional social justice is to constantly move the goalposts of oppression in order to find the group believed to be the most aggrieved. The Kids in the Hall perfectly ridiculed the PC culture Oppression Olympics in 1992, but with the exception of South Park, you won’t find a single mainstream comedy show touch this stuff today. Back in the 90’s, Julia Sweeney managed to get a lot of mileage from her gender ambiguous SNL character, Pat. The comedy came from watching the confused reactions of everyone who wasn’t sure about Pat’s gender. It would be a perfect character to revive today given the white hot controversies over transgender bathrooms and military service, but I have little confidence that SNL would move beyond the self imposed confines of their ideological bubble.

All of which brings us to the core of the problem. Intersectional social justice is a microcosm of the moral relativism, situational ethics, and absence of principle that’s emblematic the Left. The Left has so badly corrupted and destroyed the idea of individual liberty and equality before the law that the only way one can express moral virtue is by circumscribing what you think and what you say to the realm of politics. It encourages people to be overly self-conscious and to self-censor. Needless to say, this is a recipe for totalitarianism. Intersectional social justice is breeding a police state mentality in which people are actively looking for WrongThink and stoking the thirst for retribution and punishment. It’s even more pernicious than if it was a top down legislation because people are freely adopting the mindset as a mark of moral virtue.

Unfunny partisan stooge, Trevor Noah, recently appeared on The View to make the following pronouncement about jokes he and his comedy peers made in the past.

“There were things we shouldn’t have been saying”

Unbelievable! A so-called “liberal” comedian delineating boundaries around what can be proper subjects for humor and calling it “progress”. Even Joy Behar concedes the constraints PC culture has imposed on today’s comedians. Lenny Bruce is surely turning in his grave.

The most odious and detestable pearl clutching SJW to rise to semi-prominence is the painfully irritating Dylan Marron. A sanctimonious prig who affects an utterly repellent pretense of cheeky irreverence and edgy contrarianism, Marron looks at older films and judges them through the lens of intersectional social justice. And SURPRISE! He finds them #PROBLEMATIC. Just like his feminist analogue, Anita Sarkeesian, Marron is one of the Left’s new self-appointed Culture Cops.

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The Left would argue that protesting offense is itself an exercise of free speech. It’s an argument to which I would respond by offering that you just not attend the performance and allow those who want to consume the comedy to enjoy it without being hectored by obnoxious scolds. It’s one thing to protest a comedian or a film screening, but if you are actively trying to prevent others from exercising their right through riots or threats, then you can’t really call that “free speech”. That’s the behavior of a complete totalitarian. Trevor Noah and the media dittoheads within the progressive echo chamber laughably argue that these arbitrary constraints on topics are improving comedy. How about you stop trying to define what’s acceptable in comedy and just allow the art form to progress organically? But we all know that’s not how the intersectional social justice game is played. It’s a one-sided particularist argument and if you’re on the side of oppression, you get the muzzle.
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If you go back through the past 50 years of television and cinematic comedy alone, there’s nothing that passes the #SocialJustice litmus test. Whether it’s Monty Python, Mel Brooks, Cheech and Chong, Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy or Airplane!, today’s #SocialJustice activists will find nothing redeeming in the comedy tradition.

Comedy can’t take one ideological position nor can it cordon off select people or topics as subjects of potential ridicule while exempting others. When it does that it stops being comedy and metastasizes into propaganda. The traditional comedy television axis of late night talk, Comedy Central and SNL has become a dull and monolithic bastion of partisan talking points and smug condescension. The Amy Schumers and Sarah Silvermans are lionized as torchbearers of new school PC comedy, but shrill anti-Trump diatribes and vagina jokes will only get you so far. If anything, the quasi-McCarthyist, anti-Trump hysteria that has gripped the Left for well over a year deserves to be viciously ridiculed.  As do the idiotic straw men that are constantly being built and recycled by the media lackeys.

The Left’s de facto speech cops in Silicon Valley aren’t helping by throttling conservatives, classical liberals and libertarians on social media. The nascent shitlord community on YouTube has been kneecapped by the Google Gestapo and are seeing their videos flagged for demonetization and sequestered from trending algorithms. Facebook’s Politburo has been equally aggressive in policing meme pages that deviate from leftist orthodoxy.  Milo Yiannopolous and Sargon of Akkad are the latest people who’ve been disappeared by the Twitter Stasi. Comedy needs to be wrested from the deadening chokehold of the Puritans, scolds, and killjoys of Left. Progressives affect a pretense of being anti-authoritarian while simultaneously ignoring the vast institutional power they possess. You can’t claim a monopoly on pushing the envelope when your ideas already pervade every corner of culture. The real heroes of comedy today are the meme warriors and YouTube shitlords who dare to commit blasphemy against the Imams of #SocialJustice. The best comedy always comes from people who push back against the prudes, scolds and the killjoys. So fear not, shitlords. Kekistan will rise again. 

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