Against Irony

Posted: January 11, 2010 in Braak, poetics
Tags: ,

Over at io9, not too long ago, there was a discussion about adverbs and their relative merits.  I’m not really going to get into that — I’m generally neutral on the subject of adverbs — but one thing that came up was the line from the beginning of the original Star Trek series:

“…to boldly go where no man has gone before!”

The reasons for its inclusion were obvious.  The conclusion drawn by the author of the post, and by some certain commenters afterwards, was that the quote indicates a kind of cheesiness, a mock-grandeur in its seriousness.  This got me thinking about what it means for something to be cheesy.

I think that when we talk about something as being “cheesy,” we’re talking about something that has aspirations to Seriousness, to Importance, to Grandeur-with-a-Capital-G, and then failing to achieve those aspirations.  We call it cheesy because we’re unmoved by its pretensions–but why are we unmoved?

That “to boldly go…” is meant to be taken seriously, and meant to be spoken seriously, is unquestionably true.  That it would be served by a Shakespearean actor, by a Patrick Stewart or a Lawrence Olivier (whose recitation of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V is enough to make me think that baseball is awesome), is equally true.  But why not that old ham we call Shatner, who was himself a theater actor, and once understudied for Christopher Plummer?

Patrick Stewart, of course, can do a scene like this:

And is it cheesy?  Is it dramatic?  Out of context, in a well-lit room, unmoved by the general drama of the movie, it’s easy to say that it’s cheesy.  When I saw it, when Stewart says “…the line must be drawn here!  This far, no further!” I got chills.

Incidentally, I think, this is what makes David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune so fantastic — not just the vast spaceships that are gilt-lined and baroque (grand in every possible sense), but again Patrick Stewart, who joyfully shouts about the Harkonnen souls he’ll send unshriven from this world without a trace of irony. Lynch’s Dune is space opera –a genre that demands we consider it the way we consider it’s predecessor.

When Wagner wrote his operas, he dreamed of an audience hypnotized — entranced by the power of music and performance and direction.  An audience swept up in the power and still that grandeur of his productions, of the limitless sincerity of Tristan and Isolte.

Sincerity is out of fashion, now.  Enthusiasm, which at its root describes the experience of being possessed by a god, is tacky.  It’s the real reason why we’re generally so dismissive of Twilight fans; not because they like a book we think is bad, but because of their shameless enthusiasm for it.  Their love is a love uncontaminated by ironic distance; a deep movement of the soul that resists any perfectly reasonable criticism we have to level at the quality of the material.  It is love for the sake of love, which makes it a kind of worship.

I’ll admit to being guilty of this distancing as much as anyone.  You’ll never catch me calling anyone — Joss Whedon, J. J. Abrams, Grant Morrison — a “god.”  I don’t believe in gods, and I have little truck with worship — I cannot imagine an enthusiasm for an author’s body of work that doesn’t permit criticism of that body.

But an enthusiasm for a piece of work?  Grant Morrison is a prime example. In Infinite Crisis — in a bit written, I think, by Geoff Johns — Superboy Prime punches the universe so hard that it fractures into several alternate universes.  This is generally derided as ridiculous, but how is it different from Morrison’s Justice League:  One Million, in which future-Superman punches through time?  A sequence that, when I read it, I found utterly awesome?  I’ll criticize Morrison’s work on the whole, but why should this time-punch be any less ridiculous than the reality punch?  Where are my critical faculties there?

Context and quality are the major part, yes.  Out of context, virtually anything can be made to sound stupid.  Written poorly, virtually anything can be made to sound juvenile and embarrassing–and good writing can make even a corny movie and corny delivery moving (it’s no accident that the only stirring part of Independence Day used the retooled cadences and structure of the aforementioned “St. Crispin’s Day” speech).  Within its context, though, there is an aspect of myself that I willingly suspend.  This is not just a suspension of disbelief (something that’s necessary in order to believe that punching through time is a reasonable solution to the problem at all), but an actual suspension of cynicism.  A willingness to accept that there is nothing wrong or shameful about being filled with simple awe at something awesome.

This is not an exhortation to mindlessness, nor is it meant to be some kind of nostalgic yearning for the juvenile apprehension of the world.  Because awe and enthusiasm do seem to be juvenile, the hallmarks of an era in which we didn’t think critically about anything.  Naturally, if you don’t think critically about everything, you should start thinking critically about more things.  But what if you already think critically about everything?  When does the ironic distance that protects you from enthusiastic rhetoric become a stubborn refusal to be moved by anything?  At what point, in other words, does the act of rejecting childish things cross the line from mature to jaded?

“…to boldly go where no man has gone before!” isn’t mock-grandeur at all.  It’s honest-to-god, real, authentic grandeur.  It’s the genuine product of Gene Roddenberry’s own soul, filled up with hope and awe and pouring out towards us in all sincerity.

Like the suspension of disbelief, the suspension of irony is a thing that we do, consciously or subconsciously, when we engage with a piece of art.  In both cases, talented writers or directors or performers can take us most of the way there; moving us so thoroughly that we forget that we have a disbelief to suspend.  But in some cases, the suspension of irony is a willing act upon our part as members of the audience, an act in which we permit ourselves to be moved by things that, out of context would seem otherwise to be wholly ridiculous.

  1. deb says:

    One of the reasons the “St. Crispin’s” moment in Independence Day is so stirring, I think, is that it was a deliberate departure from the movie’s otherwise tongue-in-cheekiness (Will Smith’s “Welcome to Earth” moment, e.g.). Borrowing from the greatest “locker room speech” EVER was a pretty good idea — and didn’t seem out of place, either.

    Oh. And Patrick Stewart IS a god.

  2. I think modern American viewers suspect that there’s an inherent threat in feeling awe. To be emotionally affected by art is to admit weakness, in a sense, and weakness is not something we’re in a mood to tolerate. There’s more social cachet to be gained (especially if you’re a guy) in ridiculing the emotional climax of a film, than in admitting you got a little teared up over it. The harder a 15-year-old boy in a pack of friends has to work to squelch his tears at the first five minute of ‘Up,’ for instance, the more likely he is to emerge into the parking lot saying, “That was gay.”

  3. braak says:

    The issue of masculinity is a big part of it, I’ll agree. It’s part of why you see Twihards doing this kind of thing, and they’re all teenaged girls — it’s okay for teenaged girls to be teary-eyed and shrieky and fainting, because that’s how we expect girls to be in America these days.

  4. I’d cry too, if I were a girl and all my peers embraced a movie that offers a choice of paramours who are either emotionally distant (Edward) or wife-beaters (Jacob).

  5. braak says:

    Those are the only two kinds of feelings that women can understand, Jefferson.

  6. Jeff Holland says:

    …We’re gonna get in trouble for that, I just know it.

  7. V.I.P. Referee says:

    The “Ahab” reference she brings up in the scene, hits me square in the thrill place: Patrick Stewart was my “dream” Captain Ahab. Amazing. Actors like Patrick Stewart alleviate the need for strong production quality.

    James McAvoy is another that blows me away. You mentioned the original “Dune” film by Lynch. In the cheesy (!), made-for-T.V. sequel, “Children of Dune”, Mr. McAvoy plays “Letro Atreides II” and he’s just fantastic in it. His delivery and grace onscreen is electric, compelling, hypnotic. There’s this sensual consumption of his being, this projection of experience that goes beyond the freelance stylization of human emotion, in something like method acting; he scruffs-up (but doesn’t rip apart) the idealized with a consistant humanity, making his characters seem both fascinating for their role in the story and for their quirky beauty–a human beauty, a flawed, messy, abstract form. The short version: He makes characters come alive. As does Olivier. And Stewart. Which makes me re-think a conversation we all had a while ago about performances we’d need to sustain us, while stranded on a desert island. Could I handle a lifetime without being able to see Olivier’s “Heathcliff” ever again? My “Countdown to Madness” clock would’ve jumped ahead by ten years.

    Context is important, as you’ve mentioned, as is role agreement and value assignment; something loses its cheesiness factor when it’s given credibility, legitimacy by a large enough group and of people who are respected for other reasons. Reference the rise of geek-chic and techie admiration, as people outside this once, isolated group of basement tinkerers and programmers, began to realize the power that technical knowledge and innovation brings. These guys/gals created amazing things that completely changed our view of humanity and how we live. The public criticized these renaissance thinkers and doers, before collectively accepting the significance of their work. The masses made it legitimate. This is why a pack of 250 lb. Euro-dudes, who arrive at a December show in Germany, shirtless and giving out “I’ll cut you” stares, suddenly makes David Hasselhoff seem more badass. Or how you’ll never look at Pokemon the same way again, after seeing cartoon characters on bomber planes and in public health ads. Context abnd value assignment.

    ‘Cause what is “cheesiness”, really? A shorthand of “cheesecake”, which was pin-up art and pop-art designed to approach human desire and need, with a profound sense of humor. Pictures that made people laugh at sex or the need to eat and shelter themselves. People often snark at those topics that hit closest to home (think: “Office Space”, “The Office”, “Dilbert”). They’re more willing to suspend such cynicism when it comes to the vast and great unknown, since it’s so overwhelmingly outside ourselves.

    Sci-Fi related pieces of work, nomatter how many ways they could classify as cheesy, allow for a great suspension of belief because space and time is so damned amazing without any creative embellishment. The immensity of it, the mystery of a something so outside the human scale of time and size, the weirdness of what we’ve actually found to exist, these concepts allow for awe in even the most world-worn human being. Some things are just, undoubtedly, awesome. Like deep space and Patrick Stewart. Put them together and you can’t go wrong.

  8. Lord Wackadoo says:

    I think my biggest problem with the phrase, “To boldly go where no man has gone before” is that it contains a split infinitive. I always found it hard to take things seriously after that. That might be why I always liked Deep Space 9 the best.

  9. V.I.P. Referee says:

    “Cause what is “cheesiness”, really? A shorthand of “cheesecake”, which was pin-up art and pop-art designed to approach human desire and need, with a profound sense of humor. Pictures that made people laugh at sex or the need to eat and shelter themselves. People often snark at those topics that hit closest to home (think: “Office Space”, “The Office”, “Dilbert”). They’re more willing to suspend such cynicism when it comes to the vast and great unknown, since it’s so overwhelmingly outside ourselves.”

    Let me clean that up for context: “Twilight”, vampire stories, femme fatale stories, zombie stories (rotting people), alien stories–these all tap-into the deep human fear of someone or something being capable of using our biology and humanity against us. To regain a bit of our power over such fears, some people prefer to laugh at them, by way of cynicism and ironic dissection. Cheesecake and cheesiness is “in” on the laugh with us, not attempting to flaunt its power over us–like in advertising or pornography–but with an “look how funny our basic needs really are!” tongue-in-cheek nod.


    Delivery is everything. Poor word/phrase structure can be forgiven, if its accepted as a sort of artistic prompt or lazy shorthand; film has the clear advantage in this sort of situation, since a concept can be communicated on film in ways that aren’t dependent upon the written word.

  10. V.I.P. Referee says:

    So why can something like “Star Trek” sometimes evade cheesiness? The awesomeness of deep space and space-time, trancends our humanity. It’s hard to humanly relate to dark matter or seeing the light of an object in your present time, that’s been dead for more years than you could conceptualize. We’re left to either embrace this stuff with awe or crumble under the weight of its intensity.

  11. braak says:

    @Lord Wackadoo: I’ve always found the rule against split infinitives to be unnecessarily restrictive. What is the point of a rule like that? What confusion does it avoid? Ultimately, the iambic value of “to boldly go” far outweighs the arbitrarily accurate grammar of “to go boldly”.

  12. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Wait: “There are only two kinds of feelings a woman can understand…”

    What?! Eh? Who’s offering himself up to be sacrificed for Science? A little demonstration of traveling through a Black Hole, perhaps?

  13. braak says:

    Listen, VIP: I only know what I can learn from television.

  14. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Fair enough. You’ve successfully evaded a session in the Evil Science Lair.

    This time.

  15. Saramoira says:

    Chris, you try that argument with me and I’ll smack you. With the nearest television.

  16. V.I.P. Referee says:

    See? Some mistakes punish themselves. With a little help from people who launch stuff at you.

  17. braak says:

    I am not afraid of you and your violent feminine ways, Saramoira.

  18. Irony is considered sophisticated. It’s a mixture of feelings like a misture of flavors, requiring a cultivated palate. I wonder if it comes from being in a time that values winning over vulnerability.

  19. Jesse LaJeunesse says:

    This is a great article, Chris. Very insightful and well written, and for me at least more poignant coming from you, who always struck me as possessing highly distinctive intensity to your particular brand of ironic distance. That being said, I definitely remember time when you were just willing to drop it and gush (for deliberate lack of a better word) over something. It was usually Wolverine.

    I think this is part of why I love great comedic genre parodies that are also wonderful movies in and of themselves. Kung Fu Hustle comes to mind, but I’m sure you can think of others. For me, stepping into it with my irony in hand, and being pulled by the story or the execution through the irony and out the other side INTO the awe makes that unabashed feeling of love so much easier to achieve.

  20. braak says:

    Galaxy Quest is, for me, the perfect example of that. It’s a testament to the ability of the writers that the movie can be hilarious all the way through, and then the second they need you to take it seriously, you’re right there taking it seriously as Alan Rickman in his messed-up makeup fucks those guys up, and Tim Allen (TIM. ALLEN.) blows the shit out of that alien spaceship.

  21. Jesse LaJeunesse says:

    Yeah, Galaxy Quest is a fantastic example. And I think part of the reason you are so completely able to take it seriously is that the movie as a whole does not demand to be taken seriously. Leaving your pretense-o-meter at the door leaves you much more open to reacting like a little kid or an unironic fan without feeling stupid about it.

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