This is somewhat confused from being written in several sessions. I was going to put a lot of work into editing and clarifying it, but I’m not sure it will stand up to that, so I’m going to pretend it’s just a thinking-out-loud examination of some related topics without any intended point. Like a low-rent Susan Sontag kind of thing.
Since the, what, 60s we’ve continually been told (men, especially) that we have a choice to make when we hit adulthood, wherever that’s defined, high school graduation or college, between two roles: suit/sweat (a Career, a marriage and kids in the suburbs) or slob (cold pizza for breakfast, partying until dawn, mysterious source of income). Contrast, e.g., Buck and his brother in John Hughes’ gritty documentary on the urban-suburban split, Uncle Buck.
That this choice is available, or presented as available, to everyone is a new development. Previous to (very roughly) the 60s, to reject the standard job+family role was to put yourself in the role of a freak. This isn’t to say that you had to join a circus–there have always been a lot of ways to be a freak–just that you weren’t quite fit for regular society. There were alternate roles to take up, from almost innocuous (e.g. the boyish favorite uncle/brother) to the criminal (e.g. criminals). With, I think one exception–the artist–to be a non-suit is to be seen as worth less, relatively. The limited value that is assigned to these roles seems always to be where it interacts with the folkloric role of the trickster.
The trickster’s utility for society is to poke holes in the pompous and powerful, to ask questions and make observations that no one inside the system can or will; to keep the status quo from becoming a stagnus quo. This is Hawkeye’s function, and gadfly Socrates’, and, I don’t know, Dogbert’s. There are other roles that can serve similar functions, and some overlap between them all (and obviously I’m using a big brush and artifically hard lines here to simplify discussion): child (i.e. “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, any movie where a retarded person teaches us all a lesson about life), magician (prophet/alien/private detective/“magical negro”), elder (big overlap with magician–see most Morgan Freeman roles), foreigner (Crocodile Dundee, Clark Griswold), madman (King Lear, The Fisher King) and probably some others I’m not thinking of, but it is the trickster who is the favorite of comedy and it comedy is the point that I’m hopefully eventually going to get to.
Tricksters may be the root of comedy (or possibly comedy is itself has a sort of trickster role in culture), and they are certainly a large part of it. The humor, or at least the lightness, of the trickster is the chief distinction of that role vs the other outsiders. But a trickster must by definition have a trick, or a joke, and a trick is an anecdote, not a story. For stories with a character confined exclusively to the role of trickster one of two things is nearly always true: either the trickster character is not the main character (usually instead either an antagonist or sidekick) or the story is very short. Tricksters qua tricksters are static; in narrative they serve more as a device rather than a developed character. Tricks alone will get you a series of Bugs Bunny cartoons or the adventures of Till Eulenspiegel, but then you have a collection of jokes, not a narrative.
So how do you start with the pure trickster that is Bürger’s Baron Münchhausen and end up with Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen? How do you give character to your trickster? You denature their trickster character by blending it with another role that allows for a story arc. The laziest way to do this is to have your trickster Come To Realize that laughs aren’t all there is to life and learn to behave (temporarily, somewhat) more respectably (Groundhog Day). (Often, especially in the 80s, this story starts off with a joke that goes wrong, and the joker must take life seriously in order to correct the situation, which is usually accomplished with the same sort of crafty/tricky behavior that started the trouble, now applied in the interests of society–see Wargames or Trading Places.)
The other CTR trickster is the manchild (Billy Madison) who is forced to grow up–not, generally to clean up his messes, but essentially to move to the next space on the game board. While in both types of story the development is prompted by forces outside the character–otherwise you’re generally dealing with either a coming-of-age variant or something French (or Big, which is a really strange take on this story)–in the manchild type it is much more forced. Frequently, too, the love of a good woman is the guiding influence, usually a mother–sex object hybrid who serves as an example of calm adulthood.
(I am talking about movies rather than sitcoms because sitcom manchildren never do come to realize (outside of very special epidsodes). Sitcoms have to balance the single-episode narratives’ demands for change with the inherent demand for stasis that exists when the ideal is to continue the same show with the same characters for as long as possible. The battle between the two frequently results in rancid archetypes of the (often overweight) bumbling manchild husband/boyfriend and the (often oversexed–and what the hell does that imply about our societal narratives of marriage–sensible shrewish wife. See The King of Queens, Married with Children, Honeymooners, Home Improvement, et cetera. Television is cruel to narrative.)
The manchild-to-productive-adult theme is enduringly popular because society likes normalizing. This is why Sabrina is such a successful story: the ne’er-do-well David learns responsibility, and the over-serious Linus loosens up. Sabrina herself is a bit directionless at the end, and (though this is more true of the 1954 than the 1995 version) has very little development herself and is less the main character of the movie than the prod for the Larrabees’ changes, but she does end up with a man to look after her, which is enough to wrap her up as far as society (especially 1954 society) is concerned.
(How, outside of CTR storylines, do you sustain a trickster main character? Mostly by not developing him. You create a plot story rather than a character story. Your trickster is looking for something (Hudson Hawk, half of Fletch), going somewhere (Bean), saving the day (Derek Flint, Indiana Jones), etc. The plot-driven story with a trickster main character is generally the only place outside of comedy you’ll find trickster main characters, frequently watered-down tricksters in the form of wise-cracking men of action a la John McClane (to say that he’s a watered-down trickster does not imply he’s a watered-down character; Die Hard actually has a lot more character depth than most of its fellows).)
Sabrina is a good example of what a terrible choice we’re given, and weighted exactly the way these stories are. Linus is successful and secure, but is ultimately unfulfilled. David has lots of fun, but is unable to finish anything or do any good. Given the options–dissipation or karōshi–it’s hard to fault Hollywood for not coming up with a solution aside from the exchange of one bad situation for another. It’s also not surprising, I suppose, that they’re at a loss for a motivation for the change. Sabrina is interesting in that David and Linus actually trade unpleasant roles, but it’s not exactly a fresh breeze sweeping through this stuffy old dilemma, since it still restricts itself to those two unpleasant roles.
Clearly this isn’t an irresolvable dilemma. One can, conceivably, reject both roles, or blend them, but there’s a dearth of narratives that do either convincingly. Rejection is almost always a temporary state, a sort of lacuna between (man)child and adult, and the more robust hybrid option is extremely underrepresented. About a Boy, As Good As It Gets, and Vanilla Sky all try, but I can’t actually think of any movies that succeed, whose characters are authentic hybrids who can be serious about life but still enjoy it–LA Story maybe? There we’re heading in the opposite direction, mid-life crisis movies that turn Linus into David (David of course turns back into Linus (but with a new wife, job, whatever), because we all know David is not sustainable–just ask American Beauty), but it’s still is the only one of these dialectic narratives I can think of that actually makes it through to aufhebung. Consider the allusions to manchild classic The Jerk throughout, this is possibly something Steve Martin was concerned about himself.
The underrepresentation of adults outside of the traditional suit role is a problem for the same reasons (though not as big a problem) as only showing women as wives & mothers, or (later) only showing them as either unfulfilled corporate drones or wives/mothers. It warps our perception of what it means to be an adult, and keeps us from being as aware of the other choices or sets patterns of thought that don’t take them into account.
Identity, the narrative of self, is not entirely self-constructed. The other narratives we encounter–people and stories–affect our own, and the closer you let a narrative type get to you, the more it will alter your own, whether through echo or opposition. Making your own sandwich doesn’t necessarily mean you get to keep your own teeth if the only thing you have to make it with is HFCS “grape” jelly and Nutella.
Filed by shaun at July 22nd, 2008 under indifferenthonest