Saturday, February 14, 2009

Screwball Economics

Take my global economy, please ... !

What a joke, yes?

But who's laughing now?

Steve Martin for one. Martin, whose memoir, Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, Professor VJ reviewed in 2008, is now playing a bumbling Inspector Clouseau in the filmic shadow of the brilliant Peter Sellers. In promoting the new Pink Panther film as a hybrid of both screwball comedy and serious comedy, Martin readily admits that he hopes the commercial film will serve as escapist entertainment in times of uncharted economic terror. But Martin was not always so straightforward in his commercial sales pitches. He used to end his comedy act by saying:
"Well, we've had a good time tonight, considering we're all going to die some day."
What a downer, Man. Why make us think of death when we would much rather go out and buy a new (Kindle, Flip, H2 Zoom, MacBook Pro, etc.).

At least Peter Sellers took all that was inevitable and invested it in the production of Terry Southern's masterpiece The Magic Christian:
Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) an eccentric billionaire, together with his newly adopted heir (formerly a homeless derelict), Youngman Grand (Ringo Starr), start playing elaborate practical jokes on people. A big spender, Grand doesn't mind handing out large sums of money to various people, bribing them to fulfill his whims, or shocking them by bringing down what they hold dear. Their misadventures are designed as a display of father Grand to his adoptive charge that "everyone has their price" - it just depends on the amount one is prepared to pay. They start from rather minor spoofs, like bribing a traffic warden (Spike Milligan) to take back a parking ticket and eat it (who, delighted from the large bribe, eats its plastic cover too) and proceed with increasingly elaborate stunts involving higher social strata and wider audiences. As a father-son conversation reveals, Grand sees his plots as "educational" ("Well, you know, Youngman, sometimes it's not enough merely to teach. One has to punish as well.").

At Sotheby's art auction house, it is proudly claimed that an original Rembrandt portrait might fetch £10,000, yet to director Mr. Dougdale's (John Cleese) astonishment, Grand makes a final offer of £30,000 for it ('Thirty - thousand - pounds? Shit! I beg your pardon, I do beg your pardon!') and having bought it, proceeds, in front of a deeply shocked Dougdale, to cut with his scissors the portrait's nose from the canvas. In a classy restaurant he makes a loud show of wild gluttony, Grand being the restaurant's most prominent customer. In the annual Boat Race sports event, he bribes the Oxford team (where Graham Chapman plays a member of the rowing team) and makes them ram purposely the Cambridge boat, to win a screamingly unjust victory. In a traditional pheasant hunt he uses an anti-aircraft gun to down the bird.

Towards the end of the film, Guy Grand fills up a huge vat with urine, blood and animal excrement and adds to it thousands of bank notes. Attracting a crowd of onlookers by announcing "Free money!", Grand successfully entices the city workers to recover the cash. The sequence concludes with many members of the crowd submerging themselves, in order to retrieve money that had sunk beneath the surface, as the song "Something In The Air" by Thunderclap Newman, is heard by the movie's audience.
With the possible exception of Southern's Blue Movie, The Magic Christian is his most audacious work of satirical prose. It's a book for our uncertain times. Besides, where is our sense of humor? These may be bad times, but at least they're our bad times. Just think, one day you'll be able to tell your grandchildren -- who will be living with you so you can whittle the hours away playing "Suck the Stone" -- all of your economic war stories about how you were there when democracy gave way to the collapse of the global financial sector after the rise and fall of King George's raging "oil"garchy, you know, way back then when there was still oil to garchy.

Is it not totally surreal to witness the catastrophe in (not so) slow motion? "No telling what will save the day or if anything really can," someone writes in an email to me. That someone has a PhD in economics and believes in the mid-six figures. Keeps saying that nothing can stimulate him. That he suffers from an inability to imagine the usefulness of any kind of supplement. "Maybe what we need," I console him, "is some artificial dissemination." Same idea, different spin on the language.

The language, it ends up, is what's going to get us out of this mess, if we ever do get out of it. You might say that how one deals with the crash depends partly on how well they embody language as they become "ludic mediums" at the core of their physiological being. True, we may not be able to laugh our way to the bank, but let's give credit where credit is due, to ourselves and our remixological reserves. There's gold in them thar mines ...

What we need is The Flummoxed Citizen's Altered Language and Comic Relief Act. In an ideal world, this program would not only stimulate the economy but create a new kind of social revolution. It would be available everywhere, all the time, nestled in the far reaches of every person's deepest, darkest interior thoughts, ready for spur-of-the-moment exploitation and eventual commodification. Yes, I'm talking about selling our souls as the next phase of social revolution to get this economy back on track! Some will say "But we have already sold our souls!" but they are totally mistaken. Fossil fuels may be on the wane, but the dinosaur visions of those born standing up, are still inmixing like never before. I'm talking deep reserves.

As Henri Bergson once wrote in Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic:
There may be something artificial in making a special category for the comic in words, since most of the varieties of the comic that we have examined so far were produced through the medium of language. We must make a distinction, however, between the comic EXPRESSED and the comic CREATED by language. The former could, if necessary, be translated from one language into another, though at the cost of losing the greater portion of its significance when introduced into a fresh society different in manners, in literature, and above all in association of ideas. But it is generally impossible to translate the latter. It owes its entire being to the structure of the sentence or to the choice of the words. It does not set forth, by means of language, special cases of absentmindedness in man or in events. It lays stress on lapses of attention in language itself. In this case, it is language itself that becomes comic.
Which reminds me: a funny thing happened on the way to language ...

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