Regarding My Blog Entry on the Rogen/Franco Parody

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I’m happy to see that yesterday’s blog post on the Rogen/Franco Parody of Kanye West’s “Bound Two” video has prompted some response.   What I’d like to do in this blog entry is address the questions and concerns of some readers regarding the post.

First of all, in my blog entry I acknowledged that this video was a shot-for-shot parody. That’s obvious.  What I wanted to do was to bring in the extra-added element of the fact that Rogen often plays schlemiels (I have written several blogs on this – see here for more); and, given this fact, I wondered how or if this parody could be fit within the context of his other schlemiel-roles.  Is he still playing a schlemiel?  And what kind of schlemiel?

Next, I never said James Franco was not Jewish in my blog entry.   He is.  But I didn’t discuss his Jewishness because I was focusing mainly on Seth Rogen who, as I noted in the blog entry, plays the greater schlemiel.  Indeed, I do see both of them as schlemiels, but Rogen more so than Franco because Rogen embodies passivity (like many a schlemiel).  To be sure, both are a schlemiel-team which is a lot like the husband/wife schlemiel couple that has a precedent in Yiddish Literature.  Indeed, I suggested this parallel in mentioning Mendele Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the IIIrd.    But perhaps I should be more explicit in saying that in that story, as in this video, both characters are schlemiels and both are Jewish (although, in this video, the Jewishness is obviously not central; I’ll return to this below).  Likewise, in Benjamin the IIIrd, one character, named Senderl, is more “feminine” than the other.  To be sure, he is called, in relation to the other schlemiel, Benjamin, a “housewife.”   Senderl is a feminine man-child.  We see this, clearly, at the first part of the Yiddish novel.  Speaking of Senderl, as a replacement for his wife, the narrator notes:

He also had to peel the potatoes and make the noodles, clean and stuff the firsh, carry the firewood to the stove, just like any housewife – and the folks had in fact nicknamed him die Yiddine, “Senderl the Housewife.”  And it was this Senderl the Housewife whom our Benjamin had chosen as confidant.  Why Senderl, of all people, you ask?  Because Benjamin, for some reason or other, had always felt drawn toward him….It’s quite possible, too, that Benjamin took into consideration Senderl’s lack of resistance; Senderl would be bound to agree to his plan and submit to all his wishes. (39)

This passage shows quite clearly that a schlemiel was and can be portrayed as a “woman” of sorts.  It also shows that, in relation to the other schlemiel, the more feminine schlemiel has a “lack of resistance” and is “bound to agree.”  This passivity is played on in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s book.  But, as I noted in yesterday’s blog entry, it doesn’t predominate at the end. The schlemiel is not entirely passive because the schlemiel (here Senderl) or the narrator (on the schlemiel’s behalf) has witty words to save him from total passivity.

Given this situation, I argued that Rogen’s passivity seems to overshadow that of his Yiddish ancestor.  Some people objected to this by saying that this is simply a parody and nothing more.  In addition, they noted that it is not Jewish.

In response, I’d like to point out the following:  1) we are dealing with what Daniel Itzkovitz would call “new schlemiels” and these schlemiels are more or less “empty shells” of the old schlemiel; instead of challenging the “political and philosophical” status quo – which is what the traditional schlemiel, for Wisse and Itzkovitz, did – they are the status quo; 2) how can one exclude the context of Rogen’s entire career (which is entrenched in playing the schlemiel) as if it weren’t relevant (that’s like excluding the context of a writers work when reading one of his works, and that’s inconsistent); and 3) why can’t parody draw on the schlemiel?  In fact don’t we see parodies at work throughout schlemiel fiction, film, and stand-up?  Take Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971) for instance.

Now, regarding these points and rhetorical questions, I’d like to suggest that we are dealing with a “new schlemiel” which – whether Rogen intended this or not – differs from the old schlemiel in Benjamin IIIrd (and a whole tradition of effeminate schlemiels that followed).  Although this schlemiel is an “empty shell” of sorts, it does show a shift, at least in this moment, toward nearly total passivity.  On this note, I’d like to make a suggestion: I’ll grant that Rogen is not simply parodying the video, but if we were to take a closer look, we could see that he is giving a critique of sorts of Kardashian’s passivity in the video. Though she winks and gives sexy looks to Kanye, she is ultimately being ridden.  Perhaps viewers will overlook that, but that will be to the chagrin of many feminists who, for decades, have been making the portrayal of women as passive subjects an issue.

If manliness is no longer an issue in our society – and being a man-child or an effeminate male is accepted – then this video is harmless. If it’s not an issue, than Rogen’s presenting a challenge.

From what I have seen and heard, people just want to read this as a parody of a video. And no one has pointed out this possible gender challenge that has some basis in a Yiddish tradition that Rogen and Franco, most likely, have no knowledge of.  That said, I’m simply noting how their approach to comedy has deeper resonances in the Yiddish and Jewish-American tradition of the schlemiel which often trades with the effeminate male whose dreams (and this video is surreal) don’t mix with reality.

We see something similar in these videos: Kim and Kanye, on the one hand, and Franco and Rogen, on the other, are both on a journey through open spaces and their dreams (or rather, fantasies)  don’t fit with reality.  We see both traits, quite clearly, in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the Third but in a wholly other, Jewish context.  In America, this kind of narrative, or so it seems, has been generalized and can be had by just about anyone.

The question for me, however, is the same with regards to this schlemiel and that question is: when it comes to the schlemiel, when does passivity become total abjection?  When, in other words, does the schlemiel lose its “freedom” and “dignity?”  Does Rogen mock that freedom or is he just doing parody?  Are his sexy looks sufficient to give the character some agency?

The Schlemiel Does Kardashian and Gets Done by Franco: On Seth Rogen and James Franco’s “Bound 2” Video

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Is Seth Rogen giving the schlemiel a bad name or…another name?  To be sure, I’ve written several blog-entries on Rogen-as-Schlemiel.  Before I saw Rogen and Franco’s parody of Kanye West’s Latest video, I was already on Rogen’s trail.  And, to my understanding, he, along with Judd Apatow and others, were looking to revise the schlemiel character.  Their formula – the same formula used by Woody Allen since Hollywood Ending (2002) and Anything Else (2003) – was to cast the main character as a schlemiel (a half-man) in the beginning of the film, but by the end of the film he would become a man.   This contrasts to Woody Allen’s older formula – which we see in Zelig or Annie Hall, amongst other films – which is to cast a main character who starts and ends the film as a schlemiel.  This formula is actually older than film; to be sure, we find it in Yiddish folklore and throughout Yiddish and Jewish-American fiction.  However, some authors, like Phillip Roth, have decided to leave this character behind in their later novels.  Despite this, the schlemiel lives on in fiction, film, and television.  Even the famous talk-show star, Howard Stern often reminds his audience (which numbers in the millions) that regardless of how successful he is, he is still “half-a-man” (that is, still a schlemiel).

Rogen, it seems, is confused about whether he should cast himself as a half-man becoming a full man – as we see in Knocked Up (2007), Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) or The Green Hornet (2011) – as a half-man becoming a little more of a man – as in Guilt Trip (2012), or as a man who has his share of bad luck – as in Take this Waltz (2011).  Now, with this video, we can add another position: casting himself as a woman (namely, Kim Kardashian).

By casting himself as a woman or gay (both?), Rogen, it seems, is taking the schlemiel into new territory.  And he is disseminating a new image of this character on a wide basis.  After all, the video has seen over 2 million views over the last 24 hours and will likely get more hits over the next day or two.

But is this new ground?

It’s not.  To be sure, the schlemiel has often been cast as an effeminate character.  This goes back to Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Yiddish novel Benjamin the III.  In that novel, written in the mid-19th century, the main character plays a Don Quixote kind of character who models himself on the tales of Benjamin of Tudela who is best known for his travelogue. This book – apparently written in the 12th century – was based on his ten years of travel around the world.   He describes the world to his Spanish compatriots.  But in Sforim’s book, the schlemiels think they will go on a similar journey when, in fact, they don’t even leave the “Pale of Settlement” – an area where Jews were, for over a century, confined.  In the novel Benjamin refers to his make travel partner as his wife and at times trials him like a wife. And his partner goes along with it, too.

Following this novel, we see more and more effeminate portrayals of the schlemiel.  To be sure, this character is often cast as half-a-man and is more sensitive and vulnerable than others.  And although Milton Berl cross-dressed, he always retained his male aspects by way of his speech.   As Ruth Wisse points out, regardless of how vulnerable they are – or even if they cross-dress – schlemiels often win an “ironic victory” over the world and history which excludes them; but they don’t do this by being entirely passive.  They do this by way of speech.   As many a schlemiel joke or story will show you, the schlemiel is a master of words and loves to play with them.   In this, at the very least, there is something redemptive.  A Jews dignity, though trampled on in this or that story, is retained through such verbal humor. And this comic act, so to speak, indirectly speaks truth to power.

What Seth Rogen has done here, however, is to make himself totally passive.  To be sure, he, like Kim Kardashian in the video, doesn’t really say anything.  Kanye or James Franco speak; Kim and Seth are submissive.   And they are both being ridden by a man.  They are both in a Missionary kind of position –even though, for all intents and purposes, it’s on a surreal motorcycle.

In addition to this, I’d say that Rogen is not the first “heavy” schlemiel.  There are many others before him – although many people often associate the schlemiels body with wiry people like Woody Allen, Jack Benny, or Ben Stiller (to name just a few).    Regardless, in comparison to Kim Kardashian’s “perfect” body, we see Rogen’s hairy and heavy body as its anti-thesis. And when Rogen makes sexy faces, we can’t help but snicker.

But the joke is really on Rogen and the schlemiel.  It is not on Kanye and Kim.  And it isn’t even on James Franco.  If anything, the schlemiel may cross-dress or play the half-man in many novels, films, or stand-up routines.  But what a schlemiel won’t do is lose speech, which is the schlemiel’s greatest ally since it keeps total passivity at bay.

For this reason, I had a hard time watching this only as parody (which it obviously is) since, in many ways, it seemed to be effacing the schlemiel I have grown to love and even respect.  So, while Kanye and Kim may have found it funny, I don’t.  Because the joke is ultimately on the schlemiel, not them.

Jewish Mothers – Schlemiel Children

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Growing up, I was always surprised by the representations of Jewish mothers I would see in films, TV shows, and books.  I was, in particular, floored when I first read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint when I was an undergrad.  I read my father’s autographed copy of the novel and knew, well before reading it, that it was an important book for another generation (the baby boomers); and I wondered if it would speak to me.  But something about the representation of Portnoy’s mother didn’t resonate.

Perhaps I was surprised by the representation of Portnoy’s mother because I was raised in upstate New York by a mother whose Long Island upbringing didn’t include all of the urban, immigrant, or post-immigrant fears that many Jewish mothers are “supposed” to have.  I did in fact have some very aggressive New Yorkers in my family, but they seemed tame in comparison to Philip Roth’s fictional mother.  Portnoy’s animosity toward his mother and her “guilt trips” is extreme, to say the least.  In this moment, when Portnoy is speaking with his therapist, he let’s loose his animosity:

BECAUSE WE CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE! BECAUSE YOU FUCKING JEWISH MOTHERS ARE TOO MUCH TO BEAR! I have read Freud of Leonardo, Doctor, and pardon the hubris, but my fantasies exactly: this big smothering bird beating frantic wings about my face and mouth so that I cannot even get my breath. What do we want, me and Ronald and Leonardo? To be left alone! If only for half an hour at a time! Stop already hocking us to be good! (121)

Portnoy’s mother is a nag and, for Roth, Portnoy becomes a schlemiel by virtue of his mother’s over-weaning.  As Donald Weber says of the Borsht Belt Comedians, this generation’s comedy did much to blame mother’s for the inability to “fit in.”  For Roth, this was a sexual issue and a social issue that he, in his later novels, looks to overcome.

To be sure, Roth’s later work wants to leave the schlemiel and the nagging mother behind.  But, to my surprise, the nagging Jewish mother stereotype doesn’t die away.  In fact, I noticed that it resurfaced in recent film Guilt Trip (2012) and in Gary Shteyngart’s novel The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.

But in both works, the Jewish mother re-emerges in an odd way.  In Guilt Trip, the mother (played by Barbara Streisand) comes across as the schlemiel.   Her son, played by Seth Rogen, is also a bit aggravated at his mother’s nagging, but he is not by any means a Portnoy.  And while we may be turned off by Portnoy’s nagging mother, we are endeared by the absent-mindedness of Streisand, the schlemiel-mother.

The mother in Shteyngart’s novel is different and, in contrast to Rogen’s character, Vladmir, is without a doubt dwarfed by his mother.  But the difference between them is based on an entirely different premise than in Roth’s novel.  It doesn’t lead Vladmir to become a “sexual schlemiel” like Portnoy; on the contrary, his sexuality is not the issue.  Rather, his economic and social status is the issue.  Vladmir’s mother is an immigrant who has become a raging financial success and she hounds him to climb the socio-economic ladder.

His mother is loud and aggressive, while he is sensitive, weak, and introspective. And the day we first meet her is on Vladmir’s birthday:

“DEAREST VOLODECHKA!” Mother shouted.  “Happy birthday…! Happy new beginning…! Your father and I wish you a brilliant future….! Much success…!  You’re a talented young man…! Economy’s improving….!  We gave you all our love as a child…! Everything you had, to the very last….! (12)

Like Portnoy, Vladmir is frustrated, but I wouldn’t say he is angry: “Vladmir turned down the volume on the headset.  He knew what was coming, and, indeed, seven exclamation marks down the road, Mother broke down and stated wailing God’s name in the possessive”(13).    He listens as his mother goes off on him and actually admires her for her theatrical performance.

However, the narrator notes that this admiration is bitter-sweet; as we learn, Vladmir suffered as a child under his mother’s admonitions to be the best:

Vladmir…suffered under his mother’s accusative wails as B-plus report cards were ceremonially burned in the fireplace; as china was sent flying for chess-club prizes not won; as he once caught her in her study sobbing at three in the morning, cradling a photo of the three-year-old Vladmir playing with a toy abacus, so bright-eyed, so enterprising, so full of hope. (14)

We also learn that she laments that he has “hips of a homosexual” and, later in the novel, we also learn that she finds his walk to be “too Jewish”(45).  In other words, his body (and not just his economic and academic failures) also bears the mark of his failure to integrate.

The phone conversation that ensues against this background outlines the anger that his mother feels because he is not a success.  But, in the end, she notes that he is not a “complete loss”:

His mother made an effort to laugh and told him how insane it would be not to have a birthday barbeque.  “You’re only twenty-fine once,” she said. “And you are not a – How you say? A complete loss”(15). Since he’s not a “homo” and he has a “Jewish girl. Little Challah-Bread” he’s not a complete loss.

Here, the important thing for his mother is that he, at the very least, stay with a Jewish woman.   But he cannot look “too Jewish” or like a homosexual as that would keep him from being accepted and rewarded by society.

These sketches of Vladmir’s Jewish mother show her to be laughable but not to be a person worthy of anger and ridicule.  As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog, Vladmir is treated like a child by Rybokov and here, too, he seems to be in the position of a child. But this childishness is not something today’s readers will find reprehensible; in fact, many may in fact identify with Vladmir’s childishness and his plight.  Unlike his mother who resents it, readers will most likely identify with his innocence.  And, in our bad economy, we can understand his economic failure and his lack of ambition.

Portnoy’s mother “smothers” him and won’t let him be, and as we can see Vladmir’s mother is also overbearing.  However, Vladmir doesn’t resent her, he humors her and loves her.  Both Portnoy and Vladmir are schlemiels, but Portnoy takes his aggression out on his mother (who he blames for his becoming a sexual schlemiel) while Vladmir takes no aggression out on his mother and blames her for nothing.  He is, more or less, a passive schlemiel.  And the innocence of the latter is more endearing of interest to us that the aggression and anger of Portnoy.  Their failures are read differently by both authors.

In many ways, although I never had a mother like Portnoy’s or Vladmir, I can understand how their exaggerations may have some truth.  But of the two, I find that Shteyngart’s approach to Vladmir’s mother is much more to my liking that Roth’s approach to Portnoy’s mother.  Perhaps this has much to do with the fact that I find something admirable in the way the narrator and Vladmir relate to the mother.  They humor her.  This, to my mind, is the best approach.  And, besides, who, after all, should be to blame for being a schlemiel.  While it was a stigma for Roth, for Shteygart being a schlemiel has its advantages.   Being a failure, in other words, has its fringe benefits.

But, for Shteyngart, being a schlemiel, it seems, is more than simply being a failure. For this author, the best traits of the schlemiel can be found in his loving, reflective, and innocent nature.  Much of this difference in attitude has to do, I think, with our differing attitude on what it means to be a man and a success.  Although many people in Shteyngart’s novel want Vladmir to be a man and a success, we don’t.  What matters most to us isn’t his success or his manhood; rather, what matters is the fact that he loves his mother and all those around him no matter how much they may be disappointed with him.

And on this note, I guess I’m lucky.  My Jewish mother, unlike the mother of these fictional Jewish mothers, never gave me any guilt trips.  And even if she did, I think I , like Vladmir, would still love her.

The Transformation of Seth Rogen: From a Schlemiel into a Green Hornet

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Seth Rogen is often cast as a schlemiel in many Hollywood films.  We can see this in films like Knocked Up (2007), Superbad (2007), and Pineapple Express (2008).

But in films like Knocked Up we start seeing the transformation of Rogen’s character.  In that film, Rogen goes from a pot-smoking “lord of dreams” to a responsible father and “partner.”  By the end of the film, we can see a distinct difference between him and his schlemiel friends.  To be sure, Apatow, in this film (and in many others), defines the schlemiel in terms of someone who can’t be a “man” and as a “slacker” or “geek.”  This, unfortunately, reduces the radical potential of this character and makes him into the American “everyman.”

Moreover, it effaces any Jewishness this character may have had for nearly a century.   This act of effacement, according to Daniel Itzkovitz in an essay entitled “They are All Jews,” has been going on for a while.  It evinces a “not-so-subtle shift in U.S. popular culture regarding Jewishness.”  Itzkovtiz takes note of a few films that illustrate this “not-so-subtle shift”:

Independence Day with all the expectations it places on Jewish shoulders is just one example…The Billy Crystal vehicle City Slickers (1991) – a banal formula comedy that re-imagines Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles (1974) with yuppie angst replacing giddy anarchy – was an early touchstone in this process.  Such films’ aggrandizing but flattening out of Jewishness also helps explain why critics seem to read American mass culture’s relationship to Jews in such disparate ways.  (235)

The casting of Seth Rogen gives us an excellent example of this “flattening out of Jewishness.”   As a part of this process, Rogen goes from a character who transforms from a schlemiel into a responsible adult – as in Knocked Up – or from an outright schlemiel – in films such as Pineapple Express or Superbad – to the son of a WASP whose dreams become realities by way of inherited wealth in a film like The Green Hornet (2011).

I was astonished by what I saw in this film because it took Rogen’s already post-schlemiel character of Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) and brought it to an entirely different level.  In Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Rogen plays a character who has a business idea and works it with other odd-balls; but, in comparison to what is shown in Knocked Up (regarding a porn-on-the internet business), this business is actually more solid and tangible than the foolish plan sketched out in Knocked Up.  It is laughable but, ultimately, it is less laughable (as is Rogen).  The greater laugh can be found in the characters Zack and Miri find.   Moreover, in this film, Zack (Rogen) is in a start up kind of business.  He is not wealthy; he is borne out of a slacker ethos.

But in The Green Hornet, we are first introduced to Rogen by way of his character Britt Reid – a playboy; the son of a wealthy newspaper mogul.  We see him at parties with many women fooling around here and there – something we don’t see in his earlier schlemiel films.  And, upon waking with a woman he had ended up with in a party (in his mansion), we learn that he doesn’t own the mansion; he only lives in it.  Nonetheless, he is still a playboy.  And his father is a consummate WASP by the name of James Reid.

In this film, not only is the schlemiel effaced but any sign of Jewishness is as well.  (To be sure, Rogen’s characters always had some small hint of Jewishness, but this film leaves no doubt in our minds that this is no longer even on the table.)  And instead of the Jew being the genius-geek-schlemiel who works together with another minority (as we see in Independence Day by way of Jeffrey Goldblum and Will Smith), we see an inversion of the geek, genius position.

Now, an Asian and not a Jewish character plays the “geek.”  But Kato (Jay Chou) isn’t exactly a geek in the sense Goldblum was; in fact, he’s really cool.  He rides a cool motorcycle, invents things like a special espresso machine (that fires up like a jet engine),  bulletproof glass, a hidden liquer cabinet, etc.  He’s a “genius” who Britt Reid (Rogen) takes as his guide.

Now the dreams we bear witness to are not the dreams of a schlemiel and they are not the dreams of a Jeff Goldblum who, in the process of fighting with Will Smith, becomes a man.  Rather, Kato is already a man.  And Rogen, who is already a WASP yet not fully integrated into the task of making wealth (as was his father), takes on Kato as a cool kind of partner (who, in reality, takes the role of a kind of father figure or midwife for Rogen).  Through Kato, Britt becomes a superhero.

And even though we see comic blunder on and off the film, such as in his encounter with Cameron Diaz (Lenore Case) or with many others, this is overshadowed by his comicbook heroism.  And that’s the point.  In the end, he’s no schlemiel or fool; he’s a responsible hero who can fight crime.  He’s not Clark Kent; he’s the Green Hornet.  Nonetheless, the end of the film includes a few comic moments.  But, as I noted, this doesn’t overshoadow or contaminate the heroism so much as make it a little more human and mundane.

This gesture away from the schlemiel toward the hero speaks to what Hannah Arendt said in the “Jew as Pariah” regarding the “failure” of Charlie Chaplin’s Hitlerian schlemiel in his film The Great Dictator (1940).  For Arendt, it failed because people wanted Superman and not Chaplin’s schlemiel.   And, I would add, they wanted the everyday hero.  Here, Rogen isn’t simply a working class hero or a slacker hero.  He’s a hero who comes from wealth.  And what we get is a spotted hero who is a little silly and a lot like us.  The potential of the schlemiel that we see in Yiddish literature or even in I.B. Singer or Saul Bellow is left behind for a character devoid of anything Jewish or anything that challenges what Ruth Wisse – in the first pages of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero – would call the “political and philosophical status quo.”

As a final note to this blog entry, I just want to point that one of Rogen’s most recent films, Guilt Trip (2012) casts him with a very Jewish mother (Barbara Streisand).  But in this film she plays the schlemiel, not he.  In fact, he’s the responsible one.  Regardless, the schlemiel that we see, with all of its little Jewish mannerisms, shows us something flat and ineffectual.  The schlemiel we see is cast as an “older mother” who is full of life but unable to fully navigate herself through modern life.  We – as audience members – are supposed to laugh at her lack of technical expertise and her lack of decorum.

But I find nothing funny here.  In fact, I find it quite sad that, as a Jew, I have to see this kind of representation.  The schlemiel is done a disservice in such silliness and such a condescending reading (although Streisand does her utmost to play the absent-minded one, I found it to be too schmaltzy and even insulting).

That said, I hope to return to this film and others of Rogen.  This blog entry is more or less a sketch of how Rogen has been casted.  And, in many cases, since he writes many of the films he stars in, he casts himself in this way.  Perhaps a more nuanced understanding of the schlemiel would be of great use to him; but, then again, that’s not what sells these days in Hollywood.

Is this the End? Physical Comedy, Style, and the Body

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In a review of This is the End (2013), written and directed (in part) by the often-schlemiel-playing-comedian Seth Rogen, Richard Brody of The New Yorker makes a compelling argument as to the place of physical comedy in this film.  Before addressing the film, he looks into the history and fate of physical comedy, today.

Brody begins by making reference to an article by Max Winter entitled Slapstick Last: Why a Modern Day Harold Lloyd is Unthinkable.  The first words of Winter’s article say it all: “there are no great physical comedians any more.”  However, he makes a distinction: he points out that while physical comedy may be lacking, “physical presence” on stage (with comedians like Louis CK) is not.  Now, today, more people put out something of a “verbal” or cerebral comedy.

The subject of the article, the master of physical comedy, is Harold Lloyd.  He is deemed that king of silent-film slapstick.  His work, unlike the comedians today, says Winter, appeals directly to our bodies and skips over this or that cultural code or popular reference.  Out laughter at his work, says Winter, is “more pure” (that is, bodily) that our laughter today:

The kind of laughing you do during this film, and in fact the laughing you do during most comic films of the silent era, is more pure and often more whole-hearted than the kind of laughing you might do during contemporary comedies. This is because there’s nothing between you and the laugh. Lloyd does a physical stunt, a prank, or a funny face, and you laugh at it: it’s that simple. The humor here is free of pop culture references, or irony, or any of the other triggers we have come to accept as “funny.” It’s almost as if you’re laughing with another part of your brain.

Lloyd’s physical comedy uses the whole body, not just the head or face.  His slapstick relied on bodily gesture:

From his neck up, Lloyd could be a modern comic, with an ever-changing set of expressions that could be seen on TV or in a film today; from his neck down, he belongs to an earlier era, when people waved their legs around, made silly gestures, punched each other in the forehead, and swung their arms wide when they walked. His facial expressions transform this story from a rags-to-riches tale cum love story cum fable of the foibles of industry into a travelogue of a journey through a psychological minefield. In one scene, he’s nervous about knocking on a general manager’s office door; the way he expresses his agitation, with his arched cheekbones, his twitching mouth, and his jumping eyebrows, shows every stage of his thought process, from start to finish. Here, as elsewhere, he caps off his facial gyrations with slapstick: marching up to the door, starting to knock, stopping, starting, stopping, and so on.

Winter’s articulation of how the comedy of the lower body (in one of Lloyd’s scenes) contrasts with the comedy of the upper body (namely his face) brings out a comic/horrific tension that so much of today’s comic does by more intellectual and less physical means.

His swinging legs and arms seem to be telling you to laugh, while his face reminds you just enough of what your own expression might be in such a situation to make you… well… scared. 

Commenting on Winter’s article and physical comedy, Brody argues that today a return to physical comedy would be impossible since today’s American audiences are, in contrast to audiences of the earlier 20th century, morally appalled by the presence of physical danger in comedy.  In his words, “physical comedy…has been moralized out of existence”:

Here goes: a new Harold Lloyd is unthinkable because physical comedy depends on the proximity and possibility of death, which no longer seems acceptable to viewers who are completely aware of the prevalence of stunt doubles and digital effects, and who are repelled by the idea that a performer would actually face death for what is, after all, only a movie. In other words, physical comedy—the kind that made silent comedies famous—has been moralized out of existence.

Brody cites Mel Brooks and Jerry Lewis to point out the proximity of their comedy to physical suffering and possible damage.  Lewis, says Brody, built his career as a comedian on his falls, trips, and physical acrobatics.

In contrast to them, Brody lists the great “anti-physical” comedians; namely, “Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, and Woody Allen.”  He calls the “great comic cowards” who did all they could to avoid physical comedy.  They are rooted in “stand up” comedy rather than “fall down”(slapstick) comedy.   Nonetheless, Brody adds, with a bit of astonishment, that today, in films like This is the End, physical comedy seems to be making a comeback.

The film, argues Brody, may be filled with lots of slapstick and fall down comedy, but “it’s almost completely unfunny.”  And the physical comedy we see, apparently, is not even done by them.  It is done by stunt doubles.

This isn’t funny because Hollywood has made changes that apparently reflect an audience’s changed “endurance” of suffering:

The world has changed; just as classic-era Hollywood, with its unchallenged prejudices on matters of ethnicity and gender, reflected the dominant presumptions and exclusions of the time, so the endurance of suffering during a rough-and-tumble period when many more Americans did physically hard and dangerous work found its reflection in a comedy of danger.

And This is the End, for Brody is a “superb example of how comedy and comic violence have become subordinated to a conspicuous ethical order.”

What I like most about Winter and Brody’s reflections is the fact that they both point out how the meaning of the body in comedy has altered considerably.  Brody suggests that it has, in fact, been censored for “moral” reasons.  Nonetheless, he doesn’t think a return to physical comedy is possible or necessary.   Winter suggests that we pay more attention to what happened in early physical comedy; namely, a laughter that was “more pure” because it appealed directly to the body.  This, I would argue, could form the basis of a more nuanced ethical argument on behalf of physical comedy that could challenge the new attitude toward physical comedy that Brody makes reference.

To this end, I’d like to end this blog entry with a suggestion.  Roland Barthes’ reading of style in his book Writing Degree Zero suggests that we think of style (and here I would suggest comic style) in terms of the body.  For Barthes, the “imagery, delivery, and vocabulary” of style “spring from the body and the past of the writer and gradually become the reflexes of his art.”   For this reason, style has something “crude” about it since it is the “product of thrust, not an intention”; its “frame of reference is biological or biographical, not historical.”  Moreover, style is a challenge to society: “indifferent to society and transparent to it, a closed personal process, it is in no way the product of choice or of a reflection…it is the decorative voice of hidden, secret flesh.”

Style is a “germinative phenomenon, the transmutation of a humour” and has a “carnal structure.”

All of these reflections on style bring us back to a reflection of the body.  Based on them, one can argue that what appeals most to people who have enjoyed physical comedy in the past was its style. The style of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd is not simply rooted in their routines; it actually gives us a deeper sense of their “hidden, secret flesh.”  Barthes sees the mystery of the body – in all its opacity – in style and I suggest we see such style in bodily comedy.

It may be the case that Jerry Lewis’ style of physical comedy has been, to some extent, displaced by Woody Allen’s style of comedy; but, still, it is not entirely cerebral.  This is not the “end” of physical comedy so much as one kind of “physicality.”

We still see a body on stage “standing up” (rather than “falling down”) before us.  We see this, as Winter notes, in Louis CK’s bearish body pacing the stage and, I would add, in his comic style and delivery. The comic body remains.

To be sure, in the film, This is the End (2013), Seth Rogen’s physical gestures and styles convey his comical, bodily way of being.  The question we need to ask is what kind of bodily secrets Rogen conveys as opposed to what kind of secrets Sasha Baron Cohen or Charlie Chaplin.  How do we contrast their styles if, as Barthes says, they come from an opaque place? Are we given, so to speak, “flashes” of (bodily) wisdom when we watch their differing comic styles? Can we use Barthes, so to speak, to better understand how we bear witness to the mystery of physical comedy?  Is there an ethical relation to the body that Barthes was trying to uncover by way of his reading of style?  And would it be worth our while to pursue what Winters alludes to when he says that the laughter of physical comedy was “more pure?”  Was Barthes also seeking for this “purity,” which touched on the origins of not just comedy in particular but also style in general?

Kafka’s Bachelorhood, his “First Sorrow,” and the Circus

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Judd Apatow has a penchant for portraying male-schlemiel bachelors and their struggle with dating and marriage. We see this in films like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up.  The schlemiel aspect of these characters can be found in the fact that they have a hard time leaving their adolescence for adulthood.  They are, as Adam Kotsko says in his book Awkwardness….“awkward.”   For Kotsko, this awkwardness discloses the social-fact that male norms are faltering.  In the wake of this faltering, Apatow’s characters appear “awkward” since, quite simply, they don’t know what role they should play with the opposite sex.  What they are good at, however, is hanging out with their friends or acting like teens (when they are, in fact, adults).  Kotsko’s reading of Apatow’s characters is a social reading of the awkwardness that comes with post 9/11 bachelorhood.  However, schlemiel bachelorhood can be read in other ways.

In Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, Heinz Politzer argues that Kafka saw a deep link between being a bachelor and being an artist: “The paradoxicality of Kafka’s narrative work can be traced to these basic contradictions in the nature of their central figure, the bachelor”(46).  For Politzer, the “vortex” of the Kafka narrative is the bachelor: “to become a writer he had to remain a bachelor.  Eventually bachelorhood was identical for him with a life spent in continuous contemplation of life’s paradoxical nature”(46).   Kafka’s characters are “comic” and “tragic” in their attempts to “solve” the paradox of life.  And this task, says Politzer, is where they “derive their unjustified claims and their innate dignity.”   In effect, Politzer argues that only a bachelor, for Kafka, can “testify” to the “enigma” of life.

Politzer ends his chapter, entitled “Juvenilia: The Artist as Bachelor” with a diary entry from Kafka on January 19, 1922.  In this entry, Kafka contrasts the happiness of a family to his own “feeling”:

The infinite, deep, warm, saving happiness of sitting beside the cradle of one’s child opposite its mother.

There is in it something of this feeling: matters no longer rest with you unless you wish it so.  In contrast, the feeling of those who have no children: it perpetually rests with you, whether you will or not, every moment to the end, every nerve-racking moment, it perpetually rests with you, and without result.  Sisyphus was a bachelor.

The artist, in Politzer’s view, is a bachelor.  Unlike a married person, Kafka is able to “testify” to the enigma of life.  But, more importantly for us, Politzer sees the comic and tragic aspect of Kafka’s work in his attempt to “solve” this paradox.  For Politzer, this is impossible.   But what exactly is this paradox?

What I would like to suggest is that the paradox Kafka is addressing has to do with his relationship with the other.  This other can be God, the sexual other, tradition, and himself.  In addressing the paradox of the other, Kafka measures the movement from adolescence to adulthood.   And this movement, which is never completed, is the movement of the schlemiel bachelor.   To be sure, this movement has mystical resonance for Kafka because, in everything he writes about (in his notebooks, diaries, and fiction) there is a always the question of how it relates to the truth.  And he often ponders whether the mystical state requires a movement from the child to the adult or from humility to assertiveness.

For Kafka, the problem with such meditations was not to get caught up in psychology.  He wanted, for this reason, to make a distinction between what he called “mirror-writing” and reading/interpretation.  He associated psychology with reading/interpreting “mirror-writing.”

In his Fourth Octavio Notebook, Kafka states it explicitly:

Psychology is the reading of mirror-writing, which means that it is laborious, and as regards the always concrete result, it is richly informative; but nothing has happened.

As we can see, Kafka enjoys such reading/interpretation; but he is more interested in mirror-writing.  However, one informs the other.  Writing is connected more to feeling, experience, and the event while reading is connected to “information.”

Through writing, he records his struggle with the truth, God, and the world.  He records his movement from and back to bachelorhood.

In an entry dated February 23rd, in his Fourth Octavio Notebook, Kafka realizes that the world “seduces” him into thinking that marriage is a “representative of life” with which “you are meant to come to terms.”  He is not certain if he should do so since it may distract him from God, tradition, and truth.  However, he realizes that there is some truth in this seduction:

For only in this way can this world seduce us, and it is in keeping with this truth. The worst thing, however, is that after the seduction has been successful we forget the guarantee and thus actually the Good has lured us into Evil, the woman’s glance into her bed.

This glance would take him out of his gaze, which we discussed in the last blog.  As I noted there, the gaze is the “third thing” which notes otherness.  Kafka wonders what will happen if he exchanges the gaze for the glance.  Will it remove him from his relationship to God?  Will it take him from his adolescence?  Will marriage make him lose his schlemieldom?

Kafka’s short story, “The First Sorrow,” opens up these questions by way of posing a figure.

In the story, the main character is a trapeze artist whose home is the circus.  Through the story, we learn that the artist is a bachelor and does his own act.   He lives and breathes the circus and has mastered the game of being a trapeze artist.  And “nothing disturbed his seclusion.”

However, there is a problem.  The trapeze artist could have lived his entire life alone and practicing his art “had it not been for the inevitable journeys from place to place, which he found extremely trying.”

Within the space of the circus, the artist is fine.  It is only when the artist must travel from one place to another in the world that he becomes unsettled.  While traveling the artist becomes “unhappy.”  And his manager does all he can to make life easier for him.  But “despite so many journeys having been successfully arranged by the manager, each new one embarrassed him again, for the journeys, apart from everything else, got on the nerves of the artist a great deal.”

But on one of the journeys, the trapeze artist, “biting his lip,” asked the manager for a second trapeze artist.  And his feelings shift: “At that the trapeze artist suddenly burst into tears.”  In response, the manager goes to him and comforts him as if the trapeze artist were a child.  He climbed up into his seat “and caressed him, cheek to cheek, so that his own face was bedabbled by the trapeze artist’s tears.”

The manager assures the trapeze artist that he will find another trapeze artist immediately and “succeeded in reassuring the trapeze artist, little by little, and was able to go back to his corner.  But he himself was far form assured, with deep uneasiness he kept glancing secretly at the trapeze artist over the top of his book.”

Politzer gives a cursory reading of this story and states, simply, that the irony is that the “first sorrow” is that of the manager and not the acrobat.  This insight makes sense insofar as the manager worries that the trapeze artist’s existence may be threatened by these changes.

But, in the end, it is the face of the trapeze artist that changes. With the manager, we gaze at the change that has taken place with the trapeze artist: “And indeed the manager believed he could see, during the apparently peaceful sleep which had succeeded the fit of tears, the first furrows of care engraving themselves upon the trapeze artist’s smooth childlike forehead.”

It is this last detail which is most important.  The furrows of care on the “trapeze artist’s smooth childlike forehead” indicate that the artist may still be a child but, at the very least, now he cares.  His face changes.  And this is the truth that interests Kafka.  It is the risk of marriage, the risk of a relationship that interests him.

However, what makes this story so interesting is that he wants another trapeze artist to join him.  In Kafka’s real life, the seduction marks the possibility of losing his art. Here, we can see that Kafka envisions a relationship within the context of art.

He wants the trapeze artist to retain his childlike face.  He wants to be a schlemiel in a relationship.  But this is not without its misgivings; after all, it is the “first sorrow.”  This oddly resonates with Apatow’s characters who also take their chances and enter relationships.  The question, however, is whether, in taking these risks, they remain childlike and what this implies.

In Knocked Up, for instance, Seth Rogen becomes a responsible individual who leaves his adolescence behind for being a father.   Adam Kotsko, in his reading of this film, thinks that this rejoinder compromises the awkwardness which discloses a historical-social rupture of the roles of men and women.  In contrast to Apatow, Kotsko would like to retain the awkwardness of Rogen’s man-child character for the purposes of putting social norms into question.   To be sure, Kotsko thinks that this is a “fairy tale” solution.  For this reason, we can imagine Kotsko would prefer that Rogen remain a schlemiel.

We seem to have something else going on with Kafka.  Although Kafka clearly feels unprepared by his tradition to confront marriage, what seems to be at stake, for Kafka, is not a social otherness so much as an otherness that is wrapped up with Kafka’s art.  And that otherness includes God, himself, and tradition.  For Kafka, these overshadowed the social which he sees, as we saw above, as “seductive.”

Perhaps we can say that Apatow’s schlemiels are social schlemiels while Kafka’s are religious.  The difference is telling and shows us how the schlemiel’s childishness can be read in such differing ways.  Regardless, for Kafka as for Apatow, every schlemiel must dwell in the space between childhood and maturity.  Once they leave one for the other, they are no longer schlemiels and, as Politzer might say, they will no longer be artists (let alone bachelors).

Given this claim, Politzer, Kafka, and Kotsko seem to be saying that ruptures and paradoxes are best fit for people or characters who are caught in this or that extenuating circumstance or social position.  What does this imply?  Must we learn from bachelor schlemiels what we, who live “normal” lives, cannot?  Are bachelor schlemiels in a better position to understand otherness than we are?  And instead of going back to school, should we go back to the circus?