Monday, February 6, 2017

Freud, Descartes, and Movies

            Before class let out last Tuesday, I ended my class discussion with a question about the (dubious) art of watching bad movies for enjoyment, and how it fit in to the different humor theories we’re beginning to discuss. Sometimes I think I enjoy watching quote-unquote bad movies more than I do good ones. I’ve been to my fair share of midnight Rocky Horror screenings, watch Tommy Wiseau’s infamous The Room (also brought up in class) on a monthly basis with my roommates, and spend every holiday season laughing at the incomparably cliché and saccharine Hallmark original Christmas movies. (It’s truly astounding just how many ways they can rework the same plot—not to mention the channel’s bizarre grudge against real estate developers.) Over this past summer, a girl I barely spoke to in high school texted me for bad movie recommendations; I felt as though I had achieved eternal peace.
            My favorite television channel is Comet, a relatively new one that plays mostly reruns of The Outer Limits and Stargate Atlantis during the week, and all my favorite 1980's b-list horror movies back-to-back on Saturday nights. But this past Sunday (in honor of the Superbowl), they played a Mystery Science Theater 3000 marathon—something extraordinarily timely, taking into account last Tuesday’s class. For the unaware, the basic plot of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is (through handwavey science) a handful of characters are held captive (in space) and forced to watch terrible movies, but spend the time making snarky commentary, with occasional interludes with the “plot” of the episode. I grew up watching Mystery Science Theater on movie nights with my parents and uncles, so watching them now is equal part childhood nostalgia and part enjoyment of the jokes.
            There was a particularly unbearable one on called Robot Holocaust—imagine Star Wars, but the characters are running around in underwear, have some serious 80's hair, and all sound like they’re partially overdubbed. I never quite understood what the plot was, but I gathered that the scrappy band of rebels and their high-voiced robot sidekick had to break into a castle, where the villain (a vaguely Russian-accented woman in robes, who was a worse actress than myself in my high school production of Our Town) had someone’s father captive. There were some bizarre male-dominating gender dynamics thrown in as well. Halfway through the movie was when I started to think about why I thought it was so funny. I was watching the marathon alone, and I realized that if it wasn’t for the running commentary the basic MST3K layout provided, Robot Holocaust would’ve been totally unwatchable; if had aired in its original, non-MST3K form, I would’ve shut it off the second the rebels were attacked by sock puppets masquerading as worms.

the screencap doesn't do their hair enough justice
Consequently, I realized that bad movies are pretty much only fun when you’re watching then with other people. People shout the dialogue along at midnight screenings of cult classics; my friends and I make a night out of pointing out consistency errors and bad special effects in Sci-Fy originals; the Hallmark channel has to be watched with my mom. Part of the enjoyment, I feel, comes from having other people there. It could be a certain aspect of we’re in this together, or even personal validation when your own jokes are laughed at. I think there’s also a sense of being amused at other people’s reactions, however. I laugh at Mystery Science Theater because the characters are making witty jokes about the movie they’re watching (and I’m watching them watch), or at Hallmark movies because my mom was able to predict an entire chunk of dialogue. I even listened to a podcast with a similar idea; two friends watched Grown Ups 2 together once a week, every week, for an entire year, and then reviewed it differently after each viewing (thus the podcast). I wasn’t watching the movie with them, but gaining joy at their reactions to it. (Plato and Hobbes may shine through in their superiority theory here—that movie is truly awful, as I learned when a friend and I eventually watched it, and I had a little comfort in that I didn’t have to watch it for an entire year, but they did.)
We talked about humor in regard to superiority and contradiction, but I think that Descartes and Freud have the most relevance to my minute revelation. First, there is Descartes’s idea of the relationship between humor and scorn. Descartes, similar to Hobbes, primarily thought that humor (and laughter) was rooted in scorn. To Descartes, scorn comes from seeing a fault in someone (or something) we think deserves it, and thus, we “have hatred for this [fault], we have joy in seeing it in him who is deserving of it; and when that comes upon us unexpectedly, the surprise of wonder is the cause of our bursting into laughter” (24). This, essentially, tackles the first part of what I called the dubious art of bad movie watching. You are watching, primarily, not for the plot, but for the things wrong with the plot. Bad movies typically have bad plots, and we laugh when it becomes glaringly obvious just how bad it is; in short, the fact that it’s bad makes us feel it deserves our ridicule.

Then, there is the second aspect: laughing at the remarks of others. Descartes discusses this as well, in relation to his concept of humor and scorn: “and it is not wrong to laugh when we hear the jests of another; these jests may even be such that it would be difficult not to laugh at them” (25). He then proceeds to basically say don’t laugh at your own jokes. That is to say—following Descartes’s line of thinking, other’s scornful remarks at something’s expense are usually funny, and it is better to laugh at then than at your own. (Or, watch a bad movie with friends than alone in your living room.) Freud discusses the act of making jokes as well, though in typical Freud fashion, his theory of humor is more rooted in the repressed subconscious than in Descartes’s scorn. My understanding of bad movies is indeed still applicable, though, in one of Freud’s theories of the way the humor process works: “one person may himself adopt a humorous attitude, while a second person acts a spectator, and derives enjoyment from the attitude of the first” (112). To Freud, we find joy in and laugh at the amusement of others. In the context of my idea, I find humor in laughing at the reactions, scornful or otherwise, of others to bad movies, whether it’s as small as a movie night with friends or TV show like Mystery Science Theater. I’m an amused “spectator” to these reactions—and I think it’s a lot of fun.

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