A Weekend of Fucking Nazis: Eddie Izzard, Stoker, Community

I. Cosmology

Recently, Benjamin Van Loon resurrected a thorny old idea – cosmology – to describe the stronger, darker force than animates Sam Lipsyte’s ephemeral and satirical jests. The thorniness of the issue we owe, in part, to the postmodern conceit that everything is art, everyone is an artist, and in part to an older idea that a stable cosmology underwrites each artistic career. When the idea goes wrong, cosmological thinking forces a work into a frame, mutilating it, and ignores the idea that artists change their minds about things. Or, worse, it magnifies a weak work by artificially supplementing it with a philosophical backstory. But still we keep cosmology around, because – when it goes right – it can be our way out of the labyrinth. Think, for example, of the cosmological maps of Pynchon or Bolaño.

And, of course, some artists unwittingly – Freudians would say unconsciously – map out a cosmos of anxiety and fear. It is plausible that Nicholas Sparks has no idea just how much femininity mystifies – and thus appalls – him. In his world, women are haplessly disordered, destroying men’s lives with their inevitable inconstancy. Maybe he just thinks, “That’s what chicks dig” (Hollywood, at least, seems to agree).

II. Eddie Izzard’s Work in Progress

eddieizzard-mdn

For better or worse, it was in a cosmological mood that I went to see Eddie Izzard’s Work in Progress, a beta-testing session for his upcoming European tour (he opens the show in French – Francophones laugh, Anglophones laugh nervously). Except for a red-and-blue manicure, Izzard performed his set without his usual cross-dressing bombast, but the show was stylistically familiar. His jokes are a tricky mix of associative improvisation and meticulously work-shopped material, designed to appear – here’s the tricky part – exactly like associative improv. One benefit to the work-in-progress nature of Work in Progress was Izzard’s heightened transparency about which jokes were which.

Izzard’s scripted material – that which has survived the acid-test of audience response and the artist’s own revisions – featured “classic” material. That is, one-man-show reenactments of historical low-points juxtaposed with contemporary dialogue, names, and iPods. Izzard’s most consistent point is that human history is essentially one long pointless slaughter, largely for the sake of religion. But he’s not quite Christopher Hitchens in a dress. Izzard’s worldview is tragically Manichean, the power-mad few running roughshod over the hapless and ignorant masses, but it’s defused into a comic acceptance that back then people were a bit daft. The implication is “oh, well, we know better now” – Izzard, like Jon Stewart, frequently points out that “we don’t drink the water we shit in anymore.” We’re not there yet, of course, and Izzard calls out the Tea Party, and by extension the Republican party, as “fucking Nazis.” That’s fucking metaphorical Nazis, for those sensitive to the term’s overuse, the cosmological forces of evil. It’s a frightening idea but – and here we laugh, and drink our drinks – their grip is ever-weakening.

The forces of good, however silly, self-satisfied, stoned and disorganized, will in the end triumph.

So, dress or no, it’s the same old Izzard. His progressive optimism – people are shitty, but they’re improving; they’re a “work in progress” – finds a secular humanist hope, without turning to religion (or even government). It’s loveable, and you leave an Eddie Izzard show feeling energized, smart and alive, and you’d happily share a cab or a drink with anyone at the show. There are no Nazis in the audience, only good people (including Al Franken, our own Aristotelian comedian-king, who held court after the show).

III. Park Chan-wook’s Stoker

Later that weekend, as if to undo all this progressive good cheer, I went to see Park’s Stoker, a film marked most strongly by the transplantation of Park’s style – his cosmology, if you will – from Korean soil to America. In the past, Park has made some astonishingly controlled pieces about lust and violence (and lust for violence). In these films the dark forces of humanity – in Western film we’d call them the Id, the devil, sin – are restrained in some measure. An orientalist might call it honor, a Freudian the Super-Ego, but more generally speaking, we could call it a counter-force. In America – especially the American South – we’ve long come to see that counter-force as an artifice. Ethics, morality, decorum: these are the veils we throw over human nature. As soon a moral man walks on screen, we start calculating how long the façade will last.

stoker - the piano

In Stoker, the story – resembling very much Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt – begins with the moral man already undone and dead; the audience witnesses the terse funeral of Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney), attended by his emotionally crippled wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and his disaffected daughter India (Mia Wasikowska, playing the first act like a slightly unhinged Darlene Connor). At the wake, Richard’s brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) arrives – sans mourning clothes – from what we’re told are his frequent travels abroad. Park, making beautiful use of the Stoker’s colonial house, loads the first act – in which Charlie moves in, toeing the line between caretaking and lovemaking with Evelyn – with creeping dread, as well as his signature dose of incestuous overtones. The pseudo-Oedipal triangle leans, at first, towards Charlie and Evelyn but that, of course, would a mild taboo for Park to break. As the film progresses into the second act, Park has already dispatched with the “is-he-or-isn’t he” game. Charlie is a brutal killer, dispatching first the family housekeeper and then a suspicious aunt.

This spoils very little, for fans of Park. Men very rarely triumph over their evil urges and the films often culminate with Grand Guignol demonstrations on how this patriarchal inheritance ultimately punishes wives and, more so, daughters. And so in Stoker the question becomes: will India’s growing attraction to her Uncle survive the revelation of his psychosis?

What follows is astounding and almost mind-blowingly unsubtle, given the gorgeously paced – and visually imaginative – figurations of the first act. For thirty minutes, Park does Hitchcock beautifully: the suggestive transitions, the whisper-quiet shots, the lingering gazes. Then he gets down to business, leaving Hitchcock’s cosmos for his own. Meaning, what, exactly? Meaning leaving Hitchcock’s world – in which the only true power was voyeurism, the pleasure of the filmmaker, essentially – for a darker and more visceral world. In Park’s cosmology, though it is as predatory and paranoid as Hitchcock’s, there is agency besides stalking and scopophilia.

Stoker is, in part, about Charlie and the way he manages his crippling mental illness. Matthew Goode’s performance gives us a broken person made whole , and tenfold stronger, by surrendering to his own dark urges. He casts a fascist spell on India and Evelyn – and perhaps the audience, too – in the suggestion that his austere poise, his commanding sexual presence, can be had by donning the armor of solipsism. Stoker suggests that the panicky schisms of human nature – the plight of the “good guy” – can be sutured by embracing violent sociopathy.

stoker - family

But the film’s real interest is in the female form of this dark power, in the way that India fuses violence and sexuality, whereas Charlie – and many fascist films –  simply substitute violence for sexuality. But something else sets this film apart, too. In Stoker, there is no façade of right behavior – no morality, no ethics, no counter-force. India, quoting her father, suggests that it is sometimes necessary to “do something bad in order to keep from doing something worse.” She, like Charlie, has apparently inherited a quasi-genetic death-drive, but this suggestion – a kind of Freudian management of her urges – is ultimately an empty gesture. By the end of the film, nothing stands in the way of the dark force.

When the lights come up after this film, you’re exhilarated. If you’re lucky enough to see the film with a good audience, you won’t be shamed out of admitting the film’s most potent effect: as with fascist propaganda or architecture, you are awed into admiration. Later, of course, you may recoil – protest, reassert your humanism, deny having liked the film or having seen it at all. Reviewers – the Village Voice, the noble Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, and elsewhere – lament that this is an empty, inhuman film. And there is, to be fair, something otherworldly about it, not the least of which is Park’s strange pseudo-anachronisms (characters have cell-phones, but Charlie drives a classic 60’s Jaguar and India’s schoolmates are appointed in retro-greaser chic). This is not realism – though it is real enough, perhaps too real for many to stomach – and, to some extent, that helps us appreciate what Park is after.

Eddie Izzard proposes that “we” – the good guys – are a silly lot who, if we’d only wise up, could triumph over the forces of evil, the fascists, the “fucking Nazis.” Park offers no such hope. In his cosmos, the fucking Nazis have already won – they are the only ones who ever win – and our only options are to submit to predation or to become a more elegant predator. Near the film’s end, realizing that she has lost both her daughter and Charlie’s affections, Evelyn ponders why people bother having children at all. She abandons the progressive homily that, though one generation may fail, the next may succeed. She cannot herself muster the violence necessary to assert or protect herself, and curses India the only way she knows how.

From her debased position, she lashes out, “personally, I cannot wait to watch the world tear you apart.”

Cold comfort for the good guys: the bad guys, too, are destined for the pit.

IV. Community

After Izzard’s performance, I went out – with my wife, sister and a friend – to get a bite to eat and then to our local bar where we drank heavily, feeling at one with the world, forgiving the drunken trespasses of our fellow bar patrons (including one delusion and drunken 22-year old who tried to hit on my sister without the full faculties of speech or reason).

After Park’s film, I wanted to go home and cleanse my palate. So we caught up on that week’s episode of NBC’s Community, which – after losing its show runner Dan Harmon – struggled back onto the air after a five month delay (this week the Thanksgiving special aired). The episode featured a group of krafty German students who annex the gang’s beloved study room, paralleling the teaching of Malcolm McDowell’s history teacher, who assigns the task of considering “history from the perspective of the vanquished.” The “moral” of the episode came when, during a series of flashbacks, the gang came to realize that German’s lernensraum was not rightfully theirs to take back, that they themselves had selfishly taken the study room for themselves. “We were the Nazis,” is the dutiful punch-line.

evil abed

The episode concludes with the mandatory humanistic gesture – the gang refinishes and repairs other study rooms – and things return to the status quo. But Community is not quite Eddie Izzard, in part because Izzard references real history and Joel McHale reference pop-cultural versions of history. The cosmology of Community is not about “good guys” and “Nazis” at all, it is precisely about the terrifying void of relativism. Knowing or understanding the self or others is impossible.

The superficial comedy of Community – and it’s good comedy, as comedy goes – comes from its endlessly self-entangling cultural reference. As we learn from the show’s philosophical avatar – Abed (the masterful Danny Pudi), the world is completely intelligible provided it conforms to the plots and tropes of pop-culture. When life imitates art, when people behave as they’re supposed to in film and television, everything is illuminated. This is not to say everything is beautiful; Abed Nadir’s name comes from the Arabic for “loving or worshipping” and “the lowest point” or “downward direction,” that is, loving us at our lowest. But when people deviate from the script, or look within where there is no script, we see the subbasement beneath the nadir of pop culture. It’s an abyss. The show touches, or at least draws near, to this abyss at least once an episode, but always retreats to the relative safety of group relationships, to the group-authored narrative of existence, an external scaffold holding up the shattered exoskeleton of the self. In other words, community, or Community’s cosmology.

The show wound down. My wife and I chuckled at the stinger – Abed and Troy’s radio show – and then went to bed. I tried to shake off the dread, the dark thought: evil isn’t at the gate, it’s already inside. I thought about my wife, my friends and family, the good folks at Anobium. I thought: perhaps it’s best not to approach everything in a cosmological mood.

It’s certainly best not to say anything about my dreams that night.

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