[6 December 2013]
PopMatters Comics Editor
Here’s what’s hard. Reading Roger Ebert’s review of Silver Linings Playbook, and not getting lost, even just for a moment, in Roger Ebert, not getting lost in the idea that in 2013, we lost a giant. After April of this year, every piece of Roger Ebert’s writing, his intimate curation of film and its processes, becomes a legacy statement. And reading these, even now, even as we march on to our first year without him, it’s hard not to sense that loss.
Silver Linings Playbook, a movie about loss and the reconstruction of self in the face of loss, makes the distance to Roger Ebert seem all the more poignant. It’s absolutely the wrong frame of mind to be in when writing about a MAD parody, and absolutely the wrong frame of mind to be in when writing about the MAD “Oscars,” the 20 Dumbest. But Silver Linings Playbook makes it on the 20 Dumbest as a parody for the Syrian chemical weapons crisis (in at no. 15). And between that, and Miley twerking a queasy and visibly green around the gills Alfred E. Neuman, so does something Roger Ebert has to say in his review.
If you’re so inclined, and if you’re familiar with the podcast, think of it a little like a Dinner Party Download “Icebreaker.” The kind of Icebreaker that goes something like this: Why would Miley Cyrus be twerking on the cover of a MAD that parodies President Obama and Bashir al Assad as Silver Linings Playbook? The answer, in that somewhat non sequitur, intellectually picaresque MAD style, is “the Cavalry,” but also, “Superman.” But the setup for that punchline is far, far more interesting than can be truncated into a soundbite. It’s a setup reached over time, and something to get into in just a bit.
Before we do however, just a smaller comment. You won’t see it immediately, but the Silver Linings Playbook parody is one of the most profound, and one of the most deeply intelligent parodies on this year’s 20 Dumbest (not to take anything away from the others). And it is this parody in particular that is so profound, and so deeply intelligent not because of the artwork or because of the humor, but because of that strange and unlikely marriage between popular culture, and events of geopolitical import. This is pure MAD. And the fact that the actual crisis plays out 51 years, almost to the day, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, only ramps up the volume. In the clearest, cleanest of senses possible, this kind of parody is really what MAD has always been for. And against the backdrop noise all these myriad pops of culture, MAD becomes a clear signal to tune into, and this parody, a signature of the magazine’s ongoing cultural significance. But, even as I’m writing, everything seems to wend its way back to Roger Ebert.
Another hard thing, not at all hard for the same reasons though, has been finding the the right image of Jennifer Lawrence for this piece. There’s a moment where Lawrence inhales just before being announced as the Best Actress for 2012, it’s a moment of penitence, of humility and of hopefulness. Maybe the easiest pictures to come by on the Net are pictures of Lawrence as she stumbles, perhaps over her gown, while ascending the stairs to receive the award, or pics of her making her speech while receiving the award, or pics of her after, at the Academy arranged post-award photo-op session.
Having access to those pics, as much make convincing cultural statements. They say very different things about our expectations of ourselves, and our expectations of culture, popular or otherwise, and none of them entirely as reassuring as they once were, none of them providing the refuges they once did. All the cultural tropes that the various kinds of pics seem to represent, honestly feel exhausted now. The schadenfreude of Lawrence stumbling, the corporate arrangement of life that the post-award photo op represents, the sociopolitical grand narrative of unparalleled achievement represented by the pic of her addressing the audience.
Historically, MAD has always attempted to walk the fine line between these cultural modes. And in making this attempt, opened itself up to another—an attempt not to master the more ostentatious task of imagining a new cultural mode, but simply to critique, humor in a jugular vein, remember?, the longstanding of existing cultural modes. If we just point out the dumb, loudly enough, MAD seems to be saying, well then maybe other people will be given enough space to imagine something new.
It’s in this way that, as satirists, the Editors of MAD among them the illustrious Harvey Kurtzman, Bill Gaines, and Nick Meglin and John Ficarra, have positioned the magazine at a critical cultural junction. The idea of social critique through social parody, through humor in a jugular vein, makes for a kind of society very different than the kinds that can be imagined by top-down oriented Liberal or Conservative detractors. Instead of social systems that work (either welfare or the stock market), imagine waves of noise that once they overlap, become more and more meaningful.
Noise that becomes more and more meaningful over time, more and more meaningful the more of it there is, is one of the principal strands of the Western that has made the genre so engaging for so very long. And when viewed from that perspective, the early work of Siegel and Shuster, where Superman seemed to read as a kind of a frontman for FDR’s New Deal (Big Government that can be trusted, boys!), isn’t so very different from the idea of the cavalry riding in to the rescue.
Jennifer Lawrence waiting with bated breath, her penitence and her hope ten seconds before, relate exactly to that idea of a structure larger than ourselves, one we can believe in, invest in, one cobbled together from the vast and the vastly different. 75 years on from the character’s debut, and it’s not hard to read Superman’s story into the US Cavalry of the Western—the new guy on the block that’s definitely got something going for himself, but now reaches out to others to incorporate them into a grander vision. It is the almost universal story of a small structure, attempting to apprehend the entirety of the world.
In his review of Silver Linings Playbook Roger Ebert frames the same issue from the point of view of immigration, and our depictions of immigrants in the mainstream media. He writes:
In supporting roles, we meet Danny (Chris Tucker), Pat’s fellow patient at the hospital, and Dr. Cliff Patel (Anupam Kher), his shrink. Danny’s worried that Pat’s off his meds. Dr. Patel plays an increasingly common type in American movies, the Indian immigrant who seems to embody certain stereotypes and then is revealed to be completely assimilated.
Ebert’s words speak to a paradox of globalization, that in a highly connected, highly assimilated world, ideas themselves are no longer as mobile as people. And that consequently, more and more, people find themselves in new places, where old political frameworks no longer make any sense. It’s the kind of G-Zero post-political world that noted traveler and global gourmand Tony Bourdain spoke about in a memorable episode of WTF with Marc Maron—the idea that something beyond our differences must become the starting point for our conversations. And, without ever articulating it in a mission statement, this is exactly what MAD has been about all this years.
So imagine transitional humans, ones who move to be closer to better ideas, ones who reinvent themselves. Michael Keefe’s beautiful, poignant appreciation of Elvis Costello’s self-reinvention speaks directly to this issue with the same kind of penitence and hopefulness of Jennifer Lawrence ten seconds before. Costello’s jettisoning of his punk-infused, pseudo prog rock roots and their slow transformation into a blues-from-the-heartland kind of authenticity lovingly captures the same kind of post-child-star exodus that infuses Miley Cyrus’s current and far more abrasive quest for self. It’s no wonder Ficarra chose to greenlight a cover which parodies her VMA performance. And, despite the comedy, it only reinforces the importance of the Syrian Chemical Weapons Crisis.
It’s well on it’s way to 52 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis now. In October of 1962, two ostensibly equal nuclear powers stood on the precipice of all-out war. Two generations on, and after the two great socioeconomic erosions represented by Iraq and Afghanistan, the geopolitical dynamics of Syria would prove very different. After Vietnam, after Iraq, is there a way to prevent committing troops? And yet, still somehow preserve the Idea of America, the idea that nations should willingly disarm themselves? The surprise ending is that 50-plus years on, it’s Russia who brokers a disarmament deal. But the dumb of antiquated saber-rattling, all that talk about “red line,” is what MAD captures so poignantly. Arguably the price we paid with the Syria debacle was not looking weak in front of the world, but the far greater price of giving in to a dated war logic that might still inform basic lawmaking.
Writing early morning before deadline, up all night after watching the news unfold all afternoon, the greater issue of Africa frames my perspective on this edition of MAD’s 20 Dumbest. The passing of Nelson Mandela, the man who, among other acts like instituting a culture of democracy in formerly racist South Africa, participated in the willing nuclear disarmament of his nation, colors everything this morning. Reading MAD now, Mandela’s passing seems to point to the marked difference between making mistakes as we falter into the future, and making Dumb.