Thursday, September 18, 2008

On The Importance of Being Earnest

Not the Oscar Wilde play but the actual importance of being earnest.

I was thinking about why I find Ed Wood watchable. And then about how I find the blaxploitation flicks of the '70s so entertaining.

And I think it sums up as: earnestness.

Earnestness is the opposite of camp, snark, irony, hipness. It's meaning what you say, without regard for triteness or unintentional humor. It takes a kind of courage to be earnest, and a particularly in this post-modern era of deconstruction and over analysis.

One could, were one so inclined, analyze the national election in terms of earnestness versus camp. You might say the Reps tend to favor earnest candidates suspiciously, while the Dems earnestly favor hip candidates. But I won't say that here.

Earnestness, of course, is no guarantee of quality, as Mr. Wood, Jr., clearly illustrated, along with the dialogue of the '70s flicks about "the Man" and white and black prejudice. But it's almost always entertaining, if not in the way the creators intended.

The original Evil Dead, for example, has many moments of unintended comedy mixed in with some truly scary moments, reflecting Sam Raimi's youth and intensity. By contrast, Spider-Man 2 has a few scary moments that Raimi cribbed directly from his earlier film, and which are almost intense enough to push the movie into R territory.

We see from these two films, that it is possible to maintain earnestness even while raising quality. The second Spiderman movie is probably Raimi's masterpiece, completely committed while technically brilliant.

But very often, earnestness is lost in the perfection of craft. I like Spielberg, and am not inclined to bashing him, but I think since about Saving Private Ryan, he's lost a lot of the earnestness he used to have making popcorn movies. (He even mentions it in reference to Jurassic Park 2. His heart just wasn't in it.)

Earnestness can become strident proselytizing, too. When I consider Plan 9 From Outer Space, with its message of non-nuclear proliferation (or...non-solarinite proliferation), I see a movie that's a movie first, where the message of peril is meant to give some underlying resonance to the story, rather than a story dedicated to pushing that message. And I'd still rather watch it than The Constant Gardener or any of the anti-Iraq movies that have emerged in the past five years, regardless of "quality".

Religious movies can fall into the same trap, of course. But you don't get many religious mainstream movies these days.

I'm not a big Peter Jackson fan, but he kept the snark out of Lord of the Rings. You can't do "epic" without earnestness: Things have to matter, while the whole of being hip, cool and camp is that nothing matters--and very often that nothing is really very good. Or, rather ironically, that "very good" = "very easy". (That's a kind of modern art conceit: You can't write a song in C or make a representational painting like the old masters. That would be too easy.)

Earnestness, like being plainspoken, reveals how we actually feel and think, of course.

This requires a degree of vulnerability.

Which, in turn, is what makes art dangerous to create and even, in a way, to enjoy.


  1. Earnestness is the opposite of camp, snark, irony, hipness. It's meaning what you say, without regard for triteness or unintentional humor. It takes a kind of courage to be earnest, and a particularly in this post-modern era of deconstruction and over analysis.

    I really loved the Tolkien books and the LotR movies when they came out. I used to get so annoyed when people would joke about the homoerotic undertones between Frodo and Sam. Those scenes definitely have an unembarrassed "earnestness" about them, and even though I some of them are cheesey, it's like, give it a rest for two minutes.

  2. Dennis Miller was interviewing Joe Klein from Time magazine the other day. Klein was complaining about Palin and how she helped to reinforce a false nostalgia for Norman Rockwell, small-town America, etc.

    Dennis pointed out that it wasn't false nostalgia. He described how musicals used to be the top box office draw; now it's stuff like "Hostel." If one does long for those days, is it not understandable? Shoot, I wasn't even alive then, but I can appreciate that anyone who was might well miss it.

  3. NOT trying to Palinize your blog, I promise!

  4. Actually, Palin's an interesting example. Of all the candidates we've seen this season, she's in the top, mmm, two of earnest leadership. (I'd say Fred's the other one, and politics is a situation where age and earnestness don't go well.)

    It's less interesting to me the degree to which people will make stuff up about her, and more interesting the degree which she's attacked for being who she is. Those are the particularly telling attacks.

    Being attacked for not aborting Trig, for example. Being attacked for exploiting her appearance at a time when she couldn't exploit her athletic ability--though don't think that she wouldn't have been attacked for exploiting her athletic ability, if she could have. Being attacked for being successful.

    I don't get the connection between "small towns" and "musicals". Post WWII through the '70s saw a decline in urban population--so from the musical's height to its disappearance, we were moving out of the cities.

    Unless it's that so many great musicals take place in small towns. Musicals have always been huge fantasies, and often based in nostalgia.

    And Hostel wasn't really that successful; it was, like most breakout horror hits, very cheap to make. If it costs $5M and makes $50M, that's worth a sequel.

    "Bullshit"'s season finale was on nostalgia. It was kind of a "gimme", but that's okay.

    Now, what it sounds like we might actually be talking about is a matter of taste, and discretion on a social level. I'm all for that. I do miss the days when there was such a thing as "polite company". I'm still sort of surprised when I go into a store and some clerk is casually talking up a blue streak. That seems unprofessional.

    And I'm not earnest enough to suggest that in public. That's a different sort of poor taste.

  5. Re Frodo and Sam:

    Did you see Hot Fuzz?

    I blogged about the male friendship in that movie, which is just remarkable. It is earnestness exemplified.

  6. I don't get the connection between "small towns" and "musicals".

    Oh, I forgot to mention that Dennis Miller's argument--which I agree with to some extent-- is that "small town America" is as much a state of mind as it is a geographical thing. The "earnestness" of so many old movies, esp. musicals sort of exemplify that.

  7. Oh, on that, I concur. I did a paper on the musical in college where I tracked the shift from what you might call the "earnest" musical to what we have now.

    In '65, you had "My Fair Lady", "Mary Poppins" and "Sound of Music", titans in the world of musicals.

    Ten years later, what have you got? Name a musical from '75! The biggest musical from the '70s was Cabaret, which was both seamy and literal, in that the characters sang and danced because they worked in a cabaret.

    The world changed so much in those ten years we couldn't accept extemporaneous singing and dancing. (It's my old arch-nemesis "realism".) And so it would largely remain: Unless a movie was a fantasy or a children's movie, there would have to be a "reason" for any singin' and dancin'.

    Meh. I think I'll blame the boomers for this.

  8. Meh. I think I'll blame the boomers for this.

    Blame the boomers for everything. I do, it's fun! And as a bonus, you get the satisfying feeling that they so richly deserve it. I have my own case of BDS, but mine's "Boomer Derangement Syndrome."


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