Apr 13, 2006

What's Self Serving?

It's not the same as a self-service cafeteria, in case you are confused. The other day, my fellow movieclub colleagues and I had an interesting discussion about what defines something self-serving. This arose because we all went to see Michel Gondry's Dave Chappelle's Block Party at BAM. We all really enjoyed the movie. It was charming, spirited, funny and touching and it gave you a strong sense of the talent and variety of hip-hop artists, of pride in the hip-hop culture, of place. Also, it showcased Dave Chappelle at his sweetest. We then went to dinner to a South African restaurant where we had to scream to be heard. The music, although great, was too loud, as is the custom everywhere in NY.
So one of us asked the question: why is it that this movie doesn't feel self-serving? But because the rest of us were temporarily deaf, we thought she said that the movie was self-serving and we heartily disagreed with her. As you can imagine, this was not one of our more successful debates.
Still, the question lingered. What makes something self-serving? How do you define it?
I can tell you it's like that famous definition of porn, I know it when I see it. If we take the Chappelle movie as an example, Dave Chappelle decides to throw a block party in Bed-Stuy and invite his very famous rapper friends. It's a free concert and he's doing it, convincingly, because he likes to and he can. The concert scenes are interspersed with scenes of Bed-Stuy neighbors before the concert, of Dave Chappelle traveling to Ohio to invite a black college marching band and some white people and other black people to his concert. The movie is spontaneous, breezy, funny and at no time does one feel that Chappelle is doing this to aggrandize himself. He has a self-deprecating streak that avoids that. You don't feel he's a hero to the community, you just feel he, for whatever reasons, enjoys doing this. Not self-serving.
So as an example of self-serving, I thought of that horrid film Life is Beautiful, by Roberto Benigni, where he marshalls the idea of being a clown in a concentration camp in the Holocaust to spew forth some vile, empty bullshit about hope and love and god knows what other utter nonsense. To me, it is not that the Holocaust is off limits as a venue for comedy. It's tough, but maybe someone will come along that will make it a veritable barrel of laughs. I can think of Mel Brooks' movie The Producers and Chaplin's The Great Dictator. But the difference is that both movies make fun of the villains, instead of using the victims as a forum for their own shtick. Life is Beautiful (for starters the title makes me gag) is so calculated to tug at your heart strings, so forced in it's making some sort of saint out of its protagonist, so blatant in its exploitation of maudlin human sentiment, so enamored of Benigni's comic-redemptive qualities, so utterly fake and insincere, that on top of making me want to retch, it seems to me a perfect example of self-serving. One of us argued that it worked for a lot of people. Well, A Million Little Pieces also worked for a lot of people and that didn't make it good. People fall for the corny bullshit. That doesn't mean it's true.
There's an episode of Curb your Enthusiasm that features a screaming match between a Holocaust survivor and a survivor of the show Survivor that is freakish and subversive and uncomfortably hilarious. Truly pushing boundaries, which is what Larry David does best, but not self-serving. Another good example of using comedy in touchy contexts is my new boyfriend Martin McDonagh's, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, where he skewers the IRA. Again, he makes a broader, powerful, intelligent point about the absurdity of religion-based sectarian violence. I can't articulate how smart and ironic and knowing and shocking it is. How well structured and incisive and bitterly funny and uncomfortable. It is certainly not something pat that appears to have fallen out of a Hallmark card because my new boyfriend wants to be loved by mankind. It is fueled by true outrage, not by some sort of needy childish innocence. Beware of childish innocence in anybody over the age 14.
Is this blog self-serving? You tell me.

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