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December 24, 2017

Very Annoying Trope of Modern Movies: Inappropriately Silly Jokes Deflating Otherwise Emotional or Dramatic Scenes

This video is worth a watch, especially if you've already found yourself wincing at dumb cringy jokes that sabotage decent scenes.

I wanted a word for this. Turns out, there is one: Bathos. Suddenly sabotaging a sincere (possibly "cheesy") moment of emotion with a self-parodying joke.

This guy makes the great point (which I long believed myself) that this is a cowardly maneuver, a writer afraid to be made fun of for trying something real and powerful (like a big emotion), and so retreats to the safety of "Oh I was just goofin'."

You can't make fun of a guy if he was just goofin'. You can only make fun of someone trying something big and hard -- and failing.

But if he just shows he isn't trying for any silly emotion -- if he distances himself from actual effort to achieve the grand and moving with a dumb joke -- then he's "safe" from that kind of criticism.

It's writing from a defensive crouch, rather than from an assertive, confident posture.

The James Bond movies did this post-Thunderball-- they were so afraid of being "cheesy" they just turned into parodies of James Bond movies, hiding in the safety of "It's all a laugh, isn't it?"

I used to be a huge fan of the late 80s/early 90s action films, starting with First Blood, and then peaking with the great one-two punches of Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.

I saw almost all of them. Usually in the theaters, opening weekend. For crying out loud, I even saw Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man opening night.

It wasn't hard to get tickets or a good seat, if I remember right.

But every genre starts go get tired and burned out, and then they start with the self-spoofing.

It's always a sign of decadence and decay in a genre.

After the height of the late 80s/early 90s action movie boom, pretty much every following movie resorted to self-parody. I remember the exact scene that ended my addiction to action movies: in Bruce Willis' Striking Distance, he and his father (John Mahoney) are in a car chase.

Car chases are supposed to be exciting, but when there are six action movies a year, each featuring at least one car chase, filmmakers can get a little bored of the cliche. (Especially if they can't think of ways to make it new and fresh, like Doug Liman managed in The Bourne Identity.)

And really, why bother trying to think of inventive ways to make it fresh and exciting? Just throw in the jokey-jokes because if the audience is laughing that means they're not bored, right?

So, during the car chase, Bruce Willis and his dad have a conversation about Willis' dating life, as if they're just out for a Sunday drive, just have a perfectly calm chat about women and relationships while showing little sign at all that they're in a car supposedly going about 90 mph through tight turns and congested streets.

Isn't that funny? Car chases are so routine for them they just have light personal conversations about John Mahoney wanting a grandson one day, instead of being excited and terrified at the (alleged, #FakeNews) dangerous situation.

And I said: "Okay, this whole genre is now officially Dumb As Shit and in late-stage decadence. I'm going to start being much, much more selective about which of these assembly-line paycheck action film parodies I waste my time seeing."

They start just writing parody to protect themselves from criticism for a product they obviously do not believe in. They want you to know they don't take this silliness seriously, and this is just a paycheck for them.

The video compares the silly drama-deflating jokes (a lot of them failed jokes) in Doctor Strange to the sincerity in Wonder Woman. He also quotes Patty Jenkins (who, it turns out, is a much more attractive woman than I would have guessed) as saying she's sick and tired of people being so damn afraid of sincerity, sincere emotion, and risking creative humiliation to dare to try for the big dramatic moments, in favor of "winking at the audience" because "it's what kids like."

Wonder Woman did have a fair amount of humor -- but it was during light scenes of little drama or danger. You know, when people actually notice cute things ("Oooh, a baby!").

They don't notice cute or funny things when German shoulders are shooting rifles and flammenwerfers at them.

People don't quip during actual gunfights. It's fucking stupid and I don't know why Hollywood insists on doing this.

If the heroes quip during a gunfight, it tells me they are not at all worried about the outcome of that gunfight. Ergo, I don't care about the gunfight either. So why are we even bothering staging a gunfight in which all the participants are perfectly aware that it's all a big fake goof?

Quips and jokes during action scenes also fail for this reason I figured out recently: No one's funny when they're shouting.

Okay, some very few people can be funny when shouting but only because they're freaking out and it's funny to see people freaking out. (See Gene Wilder.)

But even there, you have to commit to the bit and have them say things that someone who's freaking out could reasonably say. When people are freaking out, they don't say clever things. Someone freaking out is incapable of being witty or having much cognitive function at all. They shout simple, obvious things.

One of the many, many flaws of Ghostbuster Girlz (hashtag #NotMyGhostbusters) was that overly long action scene at the end. They just couldn't commit to pure action and terror -- because it's a comedy. They gotta keep on makin' the bad jokes.

But instead of just having a short action/terror scene as in the real Ghostbusters and then comedy around those short bursts of action, the Ghostbuster Girlz had an action sequence that went on for about 20 minutes. Maybe 25? Maybe 30?

They got the "jokes" in by having people (especially Melissa McCarthy) yell dumb jokes over all the noise.

These two emotional states just don't work together. If you're yelling, you're either excited or terrified. Either way, the executive functions of your brain are greatly reduced in function.

And if your executive functions are all but turned off, you can't quip and make silly jokes. It wouldn't even occur to you to try to do so.

So none of these SHOUTED jokes were funny. All they did was sabotage whatever potential drama, terror, and excitement that could have maybe been eked out of action adventure ghostbusting.

The jokes aren't funny because there's no reality to them, and we know no one ever SHOUTS a quip. And then we can't invest any concern in the action because the stupid jokes are telling us this is all just a goof.

Compare to the more grounded, realistic (and hence funny) joke in the real Ghostbusters, when Egon says something like, "I'm sorry, but I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought."

Which is... a humorous line, but it's actually the kind of thing someone would be feeling (even if it's not really plausible that someone feeling that level of terror could so precisely articulate that feeling as he's feeling it.)

I think people instinctively know this, even if they haven't actually thought this through. As Mr. Plinkett says, maybe you didn't notice -- but your brain did. Even if you can't quite say why none of quip/zap "action" "comedy" of Ghostbuster Girlz works, your brain is subconsciously telling you: this is all completely false and fake.

The jokes demolish the dramatic potential of danger, and the danger demolishes any chance these jokes could land. The jokes and the action cancel each other out completely, leaving behind nothing but a lot of stupid noise and fakey-fake "action."

Trying to do both of these things at once causes both to fail catastrophically and results in the viewer being bored as hell. The movie is not accomplishing anything during these wasted minutes, except spending a lot of money to bad effect.

Going back to James Bond: In the early ones, yes, he would quip, but he would quip after the action and danger had passed.

He didn't quip before shooting the SPECTER agent on the beach in Thunderball. When he realized their was an agent with a gun about to kill him, he was serious and deadly in purpose.

It was only after he'd killed the guy with a speargun that he could recover his wits enough to say, "I think he got the point."

Similarly, he quipped "Shocking, positively shocking" after he killed the thug by electrocuting him in a tub in Goldfinger.

He didn't shout "Get ready for an electrifying time, buster!" while he was grappling with the thug.

Even there, yeah, there's a bit of exaggeration in how quickly someone can go from fight-or-flight panic reflex to full executive function and capacity for joking. But 1, that was the character they were selling -- someone who almost immediately returned to a state of calm after taking care of business, and 2, even if these two things happened too closely together to be fully realistic, the action happened, and we got the dramatic payoff from that, and then the joke happened, and we got the payoff from that.

They weren't done simultaneously so that the action and joke ruined each other.

That crap started happening in Diamonds Are Forever and then the Moore films. Alas -- because I like the Moore films. But that's where Bond movies became parodies of old Bond movies, and chase scenes would be interrupted by a pigeon doing a double-take, and a major villain (and an interesting one, to boot) would be killed by sticking a compressed air canister all the way into his stomach (somehow) and blowing him up and exploding him like a helium balloon.

Why not just leave this entire sequence out and just put up a title card that reads:

THE VILLAIN DIED SOMEHOW
WE JUST DON'T CARE ANY MORE

This really did bother me in Doctor Strange. I wanted to like the movie. I was interested in seeing mystical visions and alternative planes of existence.

But even at the end -- even defeating the big bad interdimensional villain Dormamu -- they subverted it with jokeyness.

No risk, no reward. If you're not going to bet all of your creative chips on a big dramatic scene actually working and having an impact on the audience -- if you're going to hedge your bet by putting half of your chips on it not working, by using a joke to indicate you're not even really trying -- they there is no payoff. The two bets cancel each other out.

Commit to the bit, fellas. Play to win or don't bother playing at all.


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posted by Ace at 05:38 PM

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