Saturday, June 5, 2010

Movie reference

There are certain people and media products that seem to be constantly striving to serve people like myself (read: media sponges who take many forms of media that would be deemed ‘low culture’ way too seriously). The writer who best illustrates this point to me is Chuck Klosterman, for music there’s Girl Talk, and for TV now there is Community. These are products that are aware that, while low culture may not necessarily be advancing its art form, acknowledge that these products have value and in turn use it to create their own point. Klosterman does this explicitly, Girl Talk implicitly, but Community does both.

The show centers around a Spanish study group that is composed of a mish mash of character types, all of whom you have seen before countless times in other movies and TV shows. This group attends Greendale Community College, and you know, hijinks ensue. In the study group are the high-strung overachiever Annie, the old racist misogynist idiot Pierce, the dumb athlete Troy, mother of two Shirley, buzz kill atheist Britta, pop culture wizard but often socially awkward Abed, and the leader with the silver tongue, Jeff Winger.

The pilot for this show sets up all of these characters, most of all Jeff, who is described initially by Abed as “Chevy Chase in any one of his movies,” but then Abed corrects himself and says Jeff is “more like Bill Murray in any one of his movies.” The truth is, he’s a mix of both, as he mixes Chase’s wit with Murray’s goofiness, all while being a “textbook narcissist.” Jeff sets up Community as an ensemble comedy with a leader who is a narcissist but still likeable (much like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, Stripes*, etc) with a flair for sarcasm (Chevy Chase in Fletch) and the necessary dash of “fuck you” that each comedians’ characters had when the actor was in his prime.

The rest of the characters are less important to the show’s overall progression (with an exception that I will deal with shortly), as they fill the roles of their aforementioned character types. Britta is there as Jeff’s “will they or won’t they” girl and Pierce is clearly meant to be Jeff in twenty years, but again these characters are mostly there to provide material for Jeff’s character. While each character gets their share of plot lines, it always comes back to Jeff. He will struggle with his feelings for Britta, and he will worry about becoming Pierce, but he will still continue to be the Murray/Chase hybrid that the show requires. As in all of the great ensemble comedy movies that came from the Saturday Night Live tree in the 1970s and 80s, there needs to be a powerful comedic leader, a role that Jeff fills.

Abed is completely aware of all of this, even going so far as to mention it multiple times. What makes Abed one of the most uniquely postmodern characters on television right now (and probably ever) is that he is more or less a viewer of the show that he is actually in. Abed’s main purpose on the show is to point out everything that resembles another piece of popular media, as well as occasionally trying to reenact other media. In the pilot alone, he acknowledges the study group’s resemblance to a John Hughes ensemble and, as mentioned previously, points out Jeff’s Murray and Chase similarities. Abed acknowledges that in modern society, there is little genuine action and emotion, as the bombardment of media products has left us in a hyperreality where we are all both consciously and subconsciously referring to past media products. Think of Abed as a sort of hipster version of Jean Baudrillard, except funnier, easier to digest, and much easier to paraphrase without bastardizing his general idea.

Jeff is definitely the emotional core of the show, but Abed is more representative of what the show actually is. Through its constant references to other pop culture products, Community creates a new whole that is both hilarious and at times even emotionally compelling. The show is a sitcom, and each episode is structured as such: we get a plot set up, and by the end of the episode that plot has a resolution. Community subscribes to the more modern sitcom formula however, in that it is shot in a single camera style (as opposed to in front of a studio audience) and there are lengthier plot lines that are carried through multiple episodes, most notably Jeff and Britta’s relationship that has been developed over the course of the first season.

In keeping with what makes the show great, however, is how it continually pokes fun at the sitcom format itself. Abed discusses the sexual tension between Britta and Jeff, comparing them to Ross and Rachel, and Abed foreshadows the season finale twist that you could often find in a show like Friends. Community not only references other sitcoms, but also learns from these past sitcoms’ mistakes. Like Abed, the producers and writers of Community have seen every major sitcom, and know what to do to avoid making the same mistakes that others have. Any shark jumping moments that have occurred on past sitcoms will not be repeated unless Community is attempting to make a point of it. Should Community last long enough to be able to jump the shark, it will likely do so in a new way.

Reference comedy has grown in popularity in the last 10 years, and I think a lot of this can be attributed to Judd Apatow’s team of comic actors, specifically Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd. Each of these actors’ most famous characters, both in Apatow and others’ films, rely heavily on media references to get laughs. A reference that is funny will get a bigger laugh than a regular joke that is just as funny: the reference joke gets a laugh that comes with a bonus boost of “oh I get it!” whereas the non-reference joke only gets the normal laugh. This feeling of being included in the group that gets the reference joke often bolsters the joke itself, and the audience will likely respond with a bigger laugh because of it. Community recognizes this and uses it to its advantage, much like Apatow-produced films have. If you get the reference jokes on Community, you are a part of a group that acknowledges this brand of humour, and with this feeling of community you subconsciously laugh a little bit harder**. This isn’t necessarily a cheap way to get a laugh, although it can be, it’s just a newer way.

With all of the referencing and apparent commentary on media-saturated society that Community does, it would be easy to fall into the category of being postmodern just to seem more interesting. Think of those glamour shots in Garden State that do little to serve the story or make anything more than a weak point, or the thrown in references to ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ and other media in 500 Days of Summer: these are examples of mentioning media just to seem cool, and you can find them in just about any media product targeted directly at hipsters (and often this blog – remember my last post, when I referenced Metal Machine Music for a reason that didn’t really further my point? Yep, perfect example). Community, however, rarely falls into that trap, and even the most postmodern episodes make their references in a way that serves the story. The episode everybody talks about is the paintball episode, “Modern Warfare,” and rightfully so. It is the most explicitly postmodern episode of the show so far, and not only does it serve as a tribute to action movies, but it also advances key plot points that have been building throughout the season. By the end of the episode, Jeff has both acted selflessly and had sex with Britta. These actions have been built up all season, and both get a form of resolution in this episode, even while drenched in the metaphorical paint of action movie homage.

For all of the goofing around Community does, it is clear that the crew really care about the level of technical quality of the show. This, again, is never more evident than in the paintball episode, as the action scenes rival anything you can see in a modern action movie. Just about every episode has a sort of thesis that it tries to make a point with (some more obvious than others), and it is typically a slightly different take on a point a traditional sitcom would try to make. One of my favourite ‘characters’ in the show is the Greendale Human Being, the school mascot that is basically a person dressed in a plain bodysuit that covers all of his skin. He symbolizes the thesis of the episode “Football, Feminism and You,” which Jeff says late in the episode, “that not being racist is the new racism.” Other episodes have themes about being raised on television, an episode about whether humans are inherently good or evil, Christianity’s unwillingness to accept others, and more.

The show also gets at a few grander points with its postmodernism. By having everybody in the cast playing a well-defined character type that we have seen before, Community acknowledges that the “types” that have been set out in John Hughes movies, MTV reality shows, preceding sitcoms and other products not only exist, but will continue to be perpetuated both in media products and real life. Most North Americans under the age of 35-40 at this point have grown up with a ton of popular media, and now more than ever, these media products define who we are. We are all, at this point, variations on and combinations of character types, and not only does Community acknowledge this, but it seems to be one of the first mass media products that is okay with it. Community knows that this is how modern people are, and as the show’s other main thesis is to accept people for how they are, it only makes sense that the show encourages us to creatively make references as opposed to being wholly original. Community encourages people to rethink what has been put out as the accepted idea of something: not being racist is the new racism, clich├ęs exist/people are types and that is okay, and there is almost nothing you can do now that hasn’t already been done before on television. No idea is truly original at this point, but how you use past ideas still can be.

*Bill Murray’s character in Stripes is actually named John Winger. Is Jeff’s name just a coincidence? Not a chance.

**This is completely a theory of mine. I have no evidence to back this up.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

This blog isn't dead... but Casper sure is.

Around Halloween of my first year of university, something reminded me of the 1995 live-action Casper movie. I felt compelled to watch the movie again, as I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid, and I bought it that day. The movie itself is actually pretty bad, although I don’t think I was expecting too much. I’m convinced Bill Pullman was drunk for most of the shoot, the script is really uneven, and it features some very bizarre cameos from Dan Aykroyd as his Ghostbuster Ray Stantz to Mel Gibson. Being that this movie was produced by Amblin and Steven Spielberg, I would imagine these cameos were called-in favours. But I digress. What surprised me was not the quality of the movie, Bill Pullman’s drunkenness, nor Clint Eastwood’s appearance, but more how mind-blowingly depressing it was.

The movie focuses on the haunting of Whipstaff Manor, a residence that becomes the property of Carrigan when her husband dies. It’s a really cool, albeit creepy, house and if you aren’t like me and stopped watching kids movies when you turned 12, you may remember it better as the house in the Backstreet Boys’ video “Everybody” (you know, the one where they did their whole Thriller thing with the monsters and stuff). In Casper, however, it happens to be haunted by Stretch, Stinky, Fatso, and Casper as opposed to Nick, Brian, AJ, Kevin and Howie. Bill Pullman is Dr. James Harvey, a ghost psychologist who is hired by Carrigan to rid the house of these spooks, bringing “his loner daughter Kat,” played by Christina Ricci, along for the ride. The matriarch of the Harvey family, Amelia, passed away before the movie has begun, and Dr. Harvey is on a continual search to find her spirit. Okay, I think that’s enough setup.

(Shit, I forgot to mention that when the kids at Kat’s new school get wind of her living at Whipstaff, they decide the school Halloween dance should take place there. Oh, gosh, I wonder if that little tidbit will come into play later in this post. Hmmm… And yes, I’m aware that I’m lazily plugging this information in at the last second and attempting to pass this paragraph off as creatively postmodern [hence the brackets, and then also these inner brackets]. Maybe I'll italicize this too, to further the illusion of creativity.)

Casper first terrifies Kat, but once Kat realizes Casper isn’t a threat, they become pals. He doesn’t have much of a memory of his life as a human, but before too long Kat finds some artifacts from Casper’s life, and it all begins to come back to him. It turns out Casper died because after finally getting the sled he wanted so badly, he went tobogganing with it all day and came down with pneumonia that soon killed him, which in turn drove his father insane trying to resurrect his son. Casper recounts this story in a monologue, and it dawned on me that this is a 12-year-old kid explaining to us how he died. And if that wasn’t sad enough, Casper has since gone through the afterlife without any friends, and merely functioning as a slave to the other Whipstaff ghosts. This isn’t depressing at all, you say? Well just wait, because there’s more.

Kat goes through some fairly trying things throughout the movie as well. For one, her mom died, so that sucks, but by the end of the movie, her dad has also died! It’s okay though, because pops gets brought back to life through the Lazarus machine that Casper’s dad built in what can only be described as his “batshit insane period” (not too different from Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” period, I would imagine). Casper was about to regain his humanity through the use of this machine, but since there was only enough fuel for one reanimation, Casper thought it best to let Kat have her dad back. Don’t worry though, Casper will be rewarded for his selflessness.

As the school Halloween dance at Whipstaff begins, Casper gets a visit from the spirit of Kat’s mom. She grants him the ability to be human so that he may go to the dance (for some reason that is never explained, she can do this - perhaps birthing a cranium the size of Christina Ricci’s earns you Super Ghost status), and it is referred to as a ghost version of Cinderella. Since Casper is only 12 years old, however, Amelia is only letting him be human until the clock strikes 10, as opposed to midnight in the fairy tale. Apparently, reanimating her husband and ensuring that their daughter does not become an orphan is not enough for Casper to be allowed to stay up past his bedtime. For all of the positive things people say about Amelia throughout the movie, she kind of seems like a bitch. Again, digressing.

Casper, now human, comes down the stairs to the main hall and finds Kat. They dance together until Kat realizes that they are floating, which leads her to kiss Casper. But then, the clock strikes 10, Casper turns back into a ghost, and everybody else at the party is scared shitless and runs home. Way to fuck up a perfectly good dance, Casper.

I should also point out what Dr. Harvey is doing during the dance: after Amelia visits Casper, she goes to see her husband. They talk for a couple of minutes before she has to make her exit… without even saying hello to her daughter. Not only does that strike me as rude, but it also seems really mean. Dr. Harvey never even thinks that he should yell down the stairs, “hey, Kat! Come up here and say hi to your dead mom! She stopped by for a visit!”

So Casper turns back into a ghost, the party clears out, and then Dr. Harvey joins Casper and Kat for a (no joke) Little Richard sing along to end the movie! Awww man, what a pleasant little film! I’m not massively depressed at all! Just think about the conversations that will be occurring after the sing along is over: “Oh, by the way Kat, the spirit of your mom came by to say hello. I assumed you didn’t want to see her though.” And what about the awkwardness between Kat and Casper after that kiss? They had one kiss as humans, and now Casper’s back to being a ghost, so I assume that’s the end of that romance. I realize 12 year old romance is not something to get up in arms about, but I hope Dr. Harvey is a normal psychologist too so that his daughter doesn’t go completely nuts, a la Casper’s dad. There’s a reason there was never a real sequel to this movie: Kat probably went crazy within a week of the movie ending.

I loved this movie as a kid, and while I don’t remember watching it very many times, every time I watch it now I still remember everything that happens. I can even hum the incredibly depressing piano theme music to the movie from memory. I’m starting to suspect that this one movie has greatly shaped my choices of media products, and life in general, for reasons I have explained above. I remember thinking that the movie was more depressing than most other movies I watched at that age, and looking back on it now, it definitely is. As a child I can remember being pretty fascinated with death, and that is not something that has let up as I’ve aged (although I feel that’s a pretty common thing). My favourite television show is Six Feet Under, and the majority of my favourite movies do not end particularly happily. Casper might have been a kids movie that was bad and depressing, but at least it wasn’t completely hiding us from death. The line people seem to remember from this movie is when Casper asks Kat, “Can I keep you?” The movie shows us that Casper can’t really keep Kat, much like we can’t really keep anything. The people at Amblin Entertainment seemed to feel that this was a lesson we should be learning at a young age.