Why Laughing is Super-bad

by zunguzungu

I watched Double Indemnity over the break, and loved it of course. But I was struck by how embattled the central boy-girl relationship is, in a movie that’s absolutely dripping with heterosexuality: the nakedly homoerotic relationship between Neff and Edward G. Robinson has a way of seizing the film’s center, and there are some very easy Freudian narratives one could plot the film by. But let me back off for a moment, since this will be a long one. First, some plot summary:

Neff is the main character, an insurance salesman who falls for Barbara Stanwyck and conspires with her to make the murder of her husband look like an accident to get the insurance money. EGR is Neff’s older colleague and his investigation of the wife drives the suspense of the film: as he gets closer and closer to unraveling the plot, Neff is metaphorically sitting across the desk from him watching. As far as the crime itself goes, the movie is uninterestingly moralistic: they execute the murder perfectly, but a principle of this universe, apparently, is that murders always fail, so the thing falls apart in ways that Neff could never have prepared for. But the real heart of the film is Neff’s betrayal of EGR: in an early scene, EGR wants Neff to come work with him (in my cut of the movie, it would be “work under”) at a desk job, but he’s a moment too late: Neff has just fallen in lust with BS and has taken the first step towards putting their plan in action (which requires him to still be a salesman). In other words, exactly because he’s taken up with BS, he can’t take up with EGR, and the dilemma embarrasses and pains them both, a tension which the movie retains until the end, when we discover that the film’s first person narration comes from Neff delivering his confession to EGR’s Dictaphone as he bleeds to death. The final scene of the film itself, in fact, is a confrontation between the two men.

Now, despite a variety of “noir” moments (Barbara Stanwyck’s legs as she walks down the stairs, constant drinking, elaborate metaphors for sex, the first person narration, and so forth) the cliché of the film is that Neff lights the cigar of his older co-worker and mentor, who never seems to have a match. What does a cigar represent here? Well, one of the DVD commentary tracks is a film historian who calls attention to interplay between Neff and EGR as the central plot of the movie, and he’s comically determined to establish that its definitely not sexual, no, no, not at all. Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar, though; sometimes–try not to be shocked here–it’s a symbol for male genitalia. I know, I know, but remember I tried to break it to you gently.

It isn‘t just the fact that the entire film is narrated by Neff into EGR’s cylindrical dictaphone, or that EGR tells Neff that he doesn‘t carry matches because they “always explode in his pants,” or even that the last line of the film is Neff telling EGR (“ironically”) that “I love you, too.” It’s that the film goes way out of its way to establish that Barbara Stanwyck (who is smokingly hot) is a cheap floozie that no man in his right mind would care to give even one indemnity to, much less a double. Not only does Billy Wilder give her the worst blonde wig you can imagine (and turn her into the noir cliché of the lying woman who can‘t be trusted), but EGR also delivers the film’s summary judgment on her trampish type: “she probably drinks from the bottle.” If you know what I mean.

The dumb easy reading, I guess, would be that the boys are all repressed homosexuals and Barbara Stanwyck is a harpy whose dangerous femme fatale sex allure (leading to destruction for any man foolish enough, etc) is meant to teach us the dangers of women. And lord knows there’s plenty of evidence to hang your hat on, if that’s the direction you want to go. Is it? I’m not sure it is. What gets proven? What gets discovered? Who, quite frankly, cares?

First of all, who would do such a thing? Who would say: “This is a movie about homoerotic sexual desire and misogyny.” Well, a literary critic might, a lazy one. The critical practice of reading that I’ve just erected as a straw man (and will now set ablaze) is practiced as a kind of secular exegesis, a magic trick where the cultural critic, by virtue of his highly developed powers of analysis, sees to the heart of the text and draws out its truth. This is a movie, we proclaim, that’s really about x, y, and z. I call this the dumb easy reading because it is, because if that’s what you’re looking for, discovering this to be a movie about homoeroticism and misogyny is not only easy but a basically tautological process: you find what you’re looking for because you looked for it.

For example, at one point Neff, all in a tizzy because Barbara Stanwyck asked him to help her kill her husband, goes bowling to settle his nerves. Now picture this for a moment: he goes through one of the absolutely classic noir conversations, in which zingers are flying back and forth like zingers in a noir film. But then it gets too hot, and he bolts, and, to cool down, he goes bowling. I laughed out loud when I saw that, at the serious look on his face as our hardboiled Neff rolls a couple of lines to settle his nerves. But why did I laugh? Could it be because of this? Or this? Or this? I think so. There’s a freaking cottage industry of this kind of stuff. And when you get to lines like “I love you too,” which Neff says mockingly in an early scene and significantly in a later scene, it’s easy to laugh again, nodding knowingly to ourselves. We know what’s really going on between those two old closeted queens. It’s quite a magic trick. And yet, to laugh at Neff requires us to think that somehow he’s not in on the joke, that we see something he doesn’t. That he, for example, takes bowling seriously. Or that he doesn’t realize what the whole “lighting the older man’s phallus-cigarette” represents.

And yet, and yet, this is noir, isn’t it? After all, one thing this film demonstrates in absolute spades is that Neff is a polished practitioner of irony and sexual innuendo. The first scene between Neff and Barbara Stanwyck is one of the classic noir set pieces and you can actually see the innuendo steaming up the camera lens (they had to hose down the actors between takes, and probably put ice packs down the actors’ pants). So the idea that Neff doesn’t know what he’s saying or lacks self-consciousness about his own innuendo seems somewhat implausible on the face of it.

I guess my point is that the kind of rabbit out of the hat (guess what! It’s all about sex!) reading of noir is only interesting if you didn’t already know that, and anyone who didn’t already know that has to be pretty dull. But we actually have not so much trouble imagining exactly that, because we’re all ready to think that anyone who enjoys bowling is some kind of dullard, and we’re particularly willing to imagine that, back in the old days before sex and the Beatles were invented, whitebread Americans neither had nor understood complexity in personal relationships.

Let me switch gears for a moment. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went to Columbia University and declared that there were no homosexuals in his country, he was mocked and laughed at by Americans who knew better, the Daily Show and the Onion being pretty prominent examples. It’s this laughter that I’m interested in. An appropriate response, it seems to me, would be to point out that Ahmadinejad claims were both preposterous and tragic, that not only are there absolutely gay people in Iran, but that their lives are undoubtedly much worse because of the kind of sentiments displayed by their president (and, presumably, the translation of those sentiments into oppressive law). Not that I know the least thing about it, but the gravity of the situation would seem to make this an appropriate response. Instead, the response by most Americans–also not knowing the least thing about Iran–was to laugh at him.

I think that laughing at Ahmadinejad and laughing at this kind of humor are not only related, they’re exactly the same. We laugh at people who lack our sophistication in how the modern world works, a world in which things like homosexuality exist. But homosexuality has always existed, or rather same gender sexual relations have always existed, in some form, and when we laugh at the ignorance of someone like Ahmadinejad (or Neff for not realizing how much he’s gaying it up), we presume a lack of sophistication that, because we’ve presumed it, we have no difficulty perceiving. Thus, I easily interpellate Neff into the litany of clueless fifties whitebread American caricatures that William H. Macey satirizes in Pleasantville, while the easily demonstrable fact that Neff is not clueless about sex gets easily ignored. And the fact that Ahmadinejad , a successful politician in a very complex and sophisticated political sphere, is however unprincipled and vicious, certainly not unsophisticated as we would like to imagine he is. But that gets easily washed away by a certain kind of prejudice, by our expectation that anyone in the axis of evil must be a thoughtless fanatic rube.

After all, while Ahmadinejad is often called a dictator by Americans, he’s not, in a very basic sense, where the buck stops in Iran: without going into subterranean political waters I don’t myself know that much about, I think it’s fairly well understood that Ahmadinejad is significantly less powerful than the theological power structure originally put into place by the Iranian revolution. In other words, the things he says when he’s on tour in the United States don’t necessarily link up with the things he himself believes in, because he‘s not in the position of making whatever he thinks into law. Because he is not, in that sense, free, the question of what he himself thinks and believes, in other words, is totally irrelevant: as a secular-seeming figurehead for an ostensibly theocratic government, the things he says have everything to do with the ways that Iran’s delicately balanced political edifice manages to rhetorically reconcile religious conservatism with secular nationalism. My point is just that whatever he says in a speech in NY, he probably says for purely political reasons: for example, the claim that there are no homosexuals in Iran seems to me to be much more likely a way of rhetorically performing the kind of balancing act that he, as national politician is always trying to negotiate with the more openly theocratic elements of Iran’s revolutionary government. In other words, without trying to make something praiseworthy out of his claim that there are no gays in Iran (and I’m definitely not doing that), I think its remarkable how quickly we leap to laughing at those who we deem to be less sophisticated than we are. And how wrong we often are. We think of Ahmadinejad as a clueless rube, when he is, in fact, much more likely to be a sophisticated politician saying the kinds of things he needs to say to keep his various constituencies happy. We can attack him on ethical and moral grounds, perhaps, but to laugh at him is to tread out onto very shaky ground.

Perhaps more importantly, what we mean by homosexuality in the West, the kinds of sexual practices that have become mainstream because they’ve been defined as different ways to be normal, are only a very small part of the incredible variety of ways that human beings have, in history, defined themselves sexually, and, in that sense, what we “know” about sexuality is a pretty limited subset of it. In American society, after all, being gay has become normal, but being transgender has not, not really. And yet, there have always been transgender practices in what the west might wrongly call “pre-modern” societies (see this for example), something the West generally has trouble dealing with. Urban sophisticates, like me, love to feel more urbane and sophisticated than people like Neff and Ahmadinejad, but it strikes me as a kind of Borat syndrome: it’s hard to tell whether he’s funny because we’re laughing at the people who are laughing at him, or whether we’re laughing with the people he‘s laughing at. Do we laugh at the antics of those minstrelly Uzbekki hicks because American rubes believe in the steretypes he’s trafficking in, or just because hicks are themselves funny? Why is that extended naked-sodomy-innuendo fight scene in Borat funny anyway? Are we programmed to laugh when we see funny looking naked men or do we laugh because they don’t perceive all the over-the-top innuendo? Because they don’t know how to be properly homophobic like a good Westerner and put their pants on before slugging it out?

I guess my point in all this is that there seems to be a real continuity in the ways I’ve been trained to respond to the sexual ignorance of hicks, the ways I’ve learned to laugh at people’s own ignorance of what they themselves are doing as a way of illustrating that I, as urbane sophisticate, do understand what they‘re doing. How foolish of Neff to not realize that a cigar represents EGR’s penis! How foolish of MA to not realize that there are gay people in Iran! How foolish of Borat not to realize that his played-for-laughs naked fight scene is almost exactly as violently homoerotic as the first sex scene in Brokeback Mountain! The obvious next step (which we nevertheless don’t take) is to recognize that, obviously, Neff has a PhD in sexual innuendo, and that if it’s easy to believe Ahmadinejad’s statement is ignorant, that’s only because I am myself completely ignorant about what kind of politics of culture they’ve got going on in Tehran, and, finally, that the whole naked fight scene in Borat is a kind of sophisticated Uzbek-face minstrel show, that we laugh at because we love to believe in the worst caricatures of third-world hicks. We have, in short, bamboozled ourselves into believing that we understand something which is, in reality, vastly more complicated than the juvenile ways we tend to try to categorize (straight, gay, or bi, with nothing in between).

But it’s less clear what to do next. So I turn next to Superbad, just because, the film that has controversially been called “the Citizen Kane of our generation, nay, of all generations.” And I wonder if there might be an answer to the question I was trying to pose in this post: given that the movie’s initial narrative is the tired old American Pie “gotta get laid!” coming of age story, I’m thinking now that it ultimately uses this swaggering Shaftian masculinity as a foil for what the movie is really about: the homosocial relationship between the two protagonists, who are also (openly) the film’s two screenwriters.

They, like Neff and EGR, announce their love to each other (as they lay down in a kind of sleeping bag for two), and while part of the joke of those scenes is that at that moment they are too drunk to be properly homophobic about what they’re saying (and will, in the morning, be–as they should be–well creeped out about it), that moment is central to what the film is about. The necessity of their parting is pretty well established from the beginning (they’ll go to different colleges in the fall), so, just like Double Indemnity, the ostensible plot about getting laid with a hot girl is cover for an underlying plot about the tensions and sorrows of this parting. Thus the film’s final moments are the two boys, having reconciled with each other, almost effortlessly getting the two girls they’ve been chasing the whole film, even though, as they couple off, the camera catches them straining for a last look at their best friend as they leave each other behind. Both films, in other words, are surprisingly canny about thinking how heterosocial and homosocial relationships are interwoven in real society, the tensions between, and the social forces that shape and determine how our protagonists will make the choices they make. And just like Neff, in delivering his monologue to the dictaphone in classic noir style is suddenly interrupted by EGR and finds that the ending he is trying to write isn’t a script that he can stick to (he can’t for example, run off to Mexico as he plans), I wonder if Superbad isn’t sort of about the way the juvenile masculinity of the blaxploitation style man falls apart in practice, how even the boys who want to adhere to the dictates of that kind of masculinity discover that they are giving up too much, that it isn‘t really all about sex after all. In Superbad, for example, the Jonah Hill character is the most invested in planning out exactly how the two are going to score with the girls by getting them drunk (in writing a kind of Shaft script for their hetero- conquests, because he can’t imagine any other way of getting the girl or staying “together” with his friend), but the moment when he suddenly discovers that his script isn’t going to play out that way is priceless: she doesn‘t drink and she‘s actually interested in him for other reasons than he expected, so he gets the girl (and stays with his friend) only by giving up the blaxploitation narrative. As reality doesn’t conform, he starts crying, and the film absolutely turns on this moment of crisis: from here, the two boys reconcile and then, the next day, consummate their relationships with their chosen girls in a powerfully non-sexual way (in the case of the John Cera character, by actually erasing the memory of their fooling around).

This is the kind of moment that the Apatow movies are remarkably deft in employing, by the way, and it makes me wonder what Double Indemnity would be like if Neff cried in it (EGR comes close, though). But more than that, I wonder if we risk missing the point if we only laugh at a movie like Superbad; after all, it is funny, but I think it’s absolutely less focused on getting laughs than, for example, The Forty-Year Old Virgin. And while that film is a more successful comedy, I’m wondering if maybe Superbad isn’t a bit more ambitious and interesting exactly because it resists being just a marriage comedy: laughter isn’t the movie’s ultimate goal, but a means of negotiating (as its protagonists do) between love for a man and love for a woman.