The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Sunday, June 08, 2003
NOT-QUITE-POPULIST COMEDIES: Bill Cosby once attacked the reigning style of black-oriented sitcoms, arguing that the characters on those shows are all stereotypes and fools. He had a point, but I'm not sure this is a racial issue: Has Cosby watched any sitcoms about white people lately? Black America, Middle America, bohemia, the professional world -- as Richard Nixon might say, we are all cliches now.

In that spirit,
Christopher Lasch, the Bill Cosby of dead populist historians, once complained that the culture industry always seems to approach Middle American characters with contempt. Sometimes, he said, it deploys the kindly condescension of "compassion." Other times it's more directly contemptuous, depicting the professional elite as noble and cultured and inland Americans as ignorant boobs.

On the surface, Waiting for Guffman, Christopher Guest's mock documentary about a small-town play, fits Lasch's second category. The townsfolk of Blane, Missouri, don't just lack talent, sophistication, and the ability to grasp what stands directly in front of their noses. They are convinced that they do possess these qualities, and, laboring under that delusion, they make public fools of themselves. One might accuse the movie of cruelty as well as contempt. It is, Lasch could declare, a mean-spirited invitation to sneer at Missouri's wretched booboisie.

It is also one of the funniest films of the last 10 years, and along with the brilliant This Is Spinal Tap it set the template for Guest's subsequent comedies. However condescending it may be toward its subjects, Waiting for Guffman treats its audience with nothing but respect. Guest and his collaborators understand that many gags are funnier when they are allowed to lurk in the background, and they trust us to spot them there. There are no insulting efforts here to hammer home what's already obvious -- just constantly witty acting, writing, and direction.

And there is something more to this movie, a quality that defies the Laschian critique. Waiting for Guffman is as venomous as a good satire has to be. Yet there is an affection to it -- a sweetness, even -- that is anything but contemptuous. Blane actually seems like a rather nice place to live. The townsfolk enjoy the play as a pleasant diversion, and they don't mind (or even notice) that their neighbors aren't especially talented. When the players aren't rehearsing, they return to their ordinary professions: dentistry, travel-agentry, labor at the local DQ. At no point does the film suggest that these people are bad at their jobs.

In short: As corrosive as this movie is, it respects its characters' lives. It may lampoon them for being small-minded small-town people, but it only attacks them for pretending they aren't.

As the story progresses, an idea overtakes the troupe: the insane notion -- at first funny, soon almost tragic -- that their show will go to Broadway. A theatrical agent named Guffman has promised to attend their performance. He will "discover" them, the players hope, and turn them into stars. When this doesn't happen, they leave town anyway, all but one joining the lowest rungs of the entertainment industry. We see them in the film's closing scenes, a funny but unpleasant sequence that lacks the sweet affection that preceded it. What was charming in Blane becomes grotesque outside it. Our would-be entertainers have left behind their real livelihoods, not to mention the only appreciative audiences they'll ever find, to pursue the dream of celebrity.

You can argue that the filmmakers, successful entertainers all, are merely directing a calculated sneer at any ordinary American who aspires to join them in the limelight. One can find evidence for this in the slogan that adorned Guffman's posters: "There's a reason why some talent never gets discovered." Like so many movie ad campaigns, this is exactly wrong: The small-town players in Waiting for Guffman cannot act, dance, or sing, but none is less talented than, say, David Spade or Carrot Top.

But consider what the filmmakers have accomplished here. It's hard to launch a credible assault on the culture industry from that same industry's commanding heights. Many movies have tried; most, whatever their other qualities, are sanctimonious and hypocritical. (Witness Quiz Show and Natural Born Killers.) The pictures that pull off the trick are those that actively refuse to idealize the people who stand outside the center of media attention, from the would-be Broadway stars of Waiting for Guffman to the would-be bowling champs of Kingpin. Fulminate all you want that these movies are cruel or crude -- at least they're funny, and at least they aren't cliches. In Hollywood, those are substantial accomplishments.

posted by Jesse 3:01 PM
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