Reggie Watts: A Focused/Unfocused “Lord of Dreams”

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One of the things we find in many schlemiels is the character of absent-mindedness.  In her essay on the schlemiel (entitled “The Jew as Pariah”), Hannah Arendt (a Jewish-German thinker from the mid-twentieth century) notes that in the “hidden tradition” (of the Pariah/Schlemiel) the first major modern schlemiel witnessed in the west was the 19th c. German-Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine’s “lord of dreams.”  For Heine, the “lord of dreams” is not just another name for the schlemiel; it is also the name for the modern poet.  The poet’s dreams don’t match with reality because the poet, like the schlemiel, is absent-minded.

But for Arendt the absent mindedness we find in Heine (and his conception of the modern poet) is driven by a desire for freedom which is frustrated by a world that one cannot be truly “free” in.  As Arendt argues, the source of this freedom is connected to “nature” as opposed to “culture.”  In this sense, the schlemiel/pariah differs significantly from the “parvenu” who, in throwing away their “Jewishness” in the name of being a “cultured” member of society also throws away his/her natural sense of freedom and their pariah status.

Although Arendt doesn’t spell it out, one can surmise that the reason Heine is at the beginning of her “hidden tradition” is because his freedom is not protected by the world.  He, like a poet, lives outside the world.  He is, as Arendt says about the schlemiel, “exceptional.”  But, ultimately, for Arendt being exceptional is secondary to being “normal” and free-in-the-world.  (She argues, strangely enough, that it is Kafka who seeks such normality and desires to leave the exceptional status of the “lord of dreams” behind.)  In other words, Heine may have the right “intention” (which is to be free) but this desire doesn’t fit (not yet, at least) with reality.  That comes later.  When Jews are given the opportunity to have their own state or be recognized, politically, as equals.

What’s most interesting about Arendt’s framework for the schlemiel and the “hidden tradition” is that the “lord of dreams” and his “absent-mindedness” have a cause we can understand yet, ultimately, they have a time and place in history and should be left behind.

Today, with comedians like Reggie Watts, we see that “absent mindedness” and the “lord of dreams” remain.  In fact, this kind of comedy is emulated in a time when people are well integrated.  It seems as if Watts’ very popularity is proof that Arendt was wrong. But here’s the catch: Watts isn’t Jewish.  Nonetheless, the character he plays is without a doubt a schlemiel.  The “lord of dreams” need no longer have a basis in a political reality so much as in the image of a cultural niche or world which is “exceptional” and yet “free” from the world while being in the world.

What I find most interesting about Watts is that he plays the exceptional schlemiel and gives us a more “mystical” (dreamy) sense of being aloof than many historical schlemiels.  He is focused and unfocused.

Punning on this theme, I’d say that we see a great display of this focused/unfocused state in his Ford Focus commercial.

In this commercial, we learn from the narrator that Watts, a “lyrical genius,” is “lacking one thing”: a Ford Focus.   Since the narrator is so nice and wants to fill Watt’s “lack” they “let him borrow a Fusion for three months…which he kind of fell in love with.”   In honor of this “gift,” and bursting with poetic love for the car, Watts, a postmodern “lord of dreams,” gives his “impromptu songamonial” about the car.

The images of Watts, his repetitive humming loop, and the little matchbox model of the car spinning (in slow motion) hypnotically touch the viewer of this commercial.  These effects, taken together, look to create a kind of lord-of-dreams affect.  But this is enhanced by the child-like fascination and love Watts has for the matchbox car.

At one point (:29 seconds in), Watts kisses the car, smiles, and laughs at the camera.  We then see imaginary drawn clouds raining on the car.  Watts lovingly looks at the car (like a concerned lover who doesn’t want to see his beloved harmed by rain) and talks about how the car looks when as it responds to the rain.   He then shows that all is well with a smile: he is happy, the car is sheltered from harm.  After smiling, he looks up to indicate that maybe, in his absent mindedness, this is a miracle from Heaven and not a miracle sponsored by the Ford Motor Corporation (which is the ironic twist).

From here, Watts goes on to talk about the “SONY audio edition” of the car.  He gets mystical and dreamy while focusing on the all the details of the sound system.  Then he links to the GPS system which, he notes, one can talk to.  As he points out how the GPS  will get one to where one wants to go, we see an image with detours and turns (suggesting that Watts is a wandering poet but the car will get him to the focused destination while allowing him to be free and, like a schlemiel, wander).

Then, for the last segment, Watts drops slang terms from Hip Hop Culture as he talks about the “cruise control” and “radar.” Drawn waves, illustrating his words, emanate from the car (1:40-1:46).  These waves continue and suggest a mystical absent-mindedness connected to these hidden radar waves.   While we see this, Watts waxes poetic-mystical and foregrounds the schlemiel poet when he says that the “Fusion can be anything you want…if you use your imagination.”

Immediately following this, Watts uses his imagination (coupled, of course, with drawn images edited in for effect) and says that other cars he had driven were “splooshy” and felt like a “covered wagon” while driving the Focus felt like driving a “spaceship.”

Following this, we see a series of edited absent-minded references to the cars features. The segment ends with Reggie making a hypnotic statement: “watch it roll…watch it spin.”  We see a spinning matchbox car with a flag with the hashtag #backatyou.

And the last image we see is an image that expresses Watts’ crush on the car: Reggie + Fusion in a drawn heart.

The subject of the ad is clear, focused: it is Watts’ exceptional, absent-minded love for the car.  To be sure, his love is focused and unfocused.  This ambiguity makes for a new “lord of dreams.”  And instead of it being based on natural freedom which searches for a world, as Arendt claimed with Heine, we have a freedom that is based on the flights of the imagination, hip-hop culture, mysticism, capitalism, and much else.  As we can see, Watts can be absent-minded and still be guided through the world by his Ford Focus.   It will shelter him from danger.

Arendt would be aghast at a “lord of dreams” who was encouraged to dream not about political freedom so much as the Ford Focus.  With such affluence and so much normality, it seems that comedians like Reggie Watts insist on being eccentric.  Being the exceptional schlemiel is, for Watts, to be  rhythmic, hip, spaced-out, and highly ironic.

Reggie’s schlemiel-like performance in this piece does not serve as a way of “challenging the status quo” so much as creating and marketing a comic-mystical absent-minded sensibility.  This can be used to sell products, as we see in this commercial.  But this is a general trend and as the people who made this video well-understand, there is a large market out there for absent-mindedness and wacky, ironic eccentricity.  In other words, there is a large market for these new types of schlemiels.

The “Lord of Dreams” didn’t die, as Arendt argues at the end of her essay, when Superman displaced Charlie Chaplin.  The schlemiel lived on and it lives on through Watts and many others.  The question is what this means for her thesis about the schlemiel and what she envisioned for Jews in America.

As we can see from Watts, the schlemiel lives on and it is no longer tied to the fate of Jews (as Arendt envisioned) as to capitalism and a large niche culture of Americans who, in this instance, may or may not buy the Ford Focus as a result of the musings of this “lord of dreams.”   It all hinges on how they are affected by the “lyrical genius’s…impromptu songamonial.”  The Focus could be the vehicle they need to become a more focused/unfocused late-capitalist, mystical schlemiel – like Reggie Watts.

A Note on Reggie Watts @ TED Talks

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Reggie Watts shows us how right Marshall McLuhan was when he said that the “medium is the message.”  But with Reggie I would revise McLuhan to say that the “medium is the message(s).” Or, alternatively, we can also say that Reggie Watts is the message. He’s a signal of sorts, sometimes its coded and mystical; sometimes it’s cultural; but the signal we get, regardless of what he does, is always comic, rhythmic, and musical.

What makes Watts so fascinating, however, is that, like a radio switching from channel to channel (to use an “old school” metaphor) or a person scanning through their texts or facebook feeds, Watts moves from language to language and medium to medium.  Yet he gives us enough time to check out each medium or language before he moves on to the next.  But what makes his routine comic is not just found in how he works with each medium or voice, but also in how he moves from voice to voice with such rapidity and skill.

Reggie’s comic greatness is also written into his body and history.  He is a hybridic character with an unkempt retro-afro.  His mother is French and his father is American.  And since his father was in the military, he moved from place to place before he ended up in Great Falls, Montana.

In a way, Reggie seems to be linking these places, identities, and bodies.  He is seeking for a child-like relationship between them, one that plays at maturity.  In his work, I find an interesting take on what I looked at in yesterday’s blog entry; namely, what Gombrowicz calls “difficult childhood.”  Gombrowicz points out how a good artist will necessarily exhaust maturity and will be thrown into a “difficult childhood” while, at the same time, being, a grown person.  But while Gombrowicz returns to childhood in order to ruin his “Polish Childhood,” Watts returns in order to play on it.

In this clip from TED Talks, Watts inhabits a “difficult childhood” but in a way that seems to be lacking the anxious edge of Gombrowicz’s “difficult childhood.”  Watts does this by way of switching languages, melodies, and rhythms.  The affect of this is to play on the “seriousness” of TED talks.  Yet, at the same time, while playing on it, it does seem as if he is “serious.”  This is what we get from the audience.  They don’t laugh at him when he gets serious.  But at a certain point they do.  Like Andy Kaufman (Watts received the “Andy Kaufman Award” in 2006), he is able to hold the audience in an ambiguous space between laughter and seriousness.

Watts’s form of comedy is working on many levels and, as I mentioned above, he moves between one mode and another in a comic manner so as to create an unusual relatonship that we would never have surmised.  But, in the midst of all this, there is a mark of humility, charm, and absent-mindedness that makes one think of the schlemiel.   But he is not a traditional schlemiel; he is a schlemiel for a new age, an age that has been raised on the internet, hip-hop, and youtube.   But he is not for everyone.  His appeal is to a more narrow audience which appreciates all of this and, at the same time, likes to think deeply about the “meaning of it all.”

Reggie Watts is a comical mystic of the information age.

I would like to return to Watts’ work in future entries.  He is one of the most interesting and innovative comedians out there and watching him is not only entertaining but meaningful and thought provoking.  Playing on McLuhan, I’d say Watts is the message(s).