On Laughing at Weird Movies

Last night, I went to a screening of Paul Schrader’s 1982 Cat People, at the bar around the street (yes, that kind of thing very occasionally happens in Tampa). I went hoping to stoke my imagination for some plotting on a script I’ve just started working on. I showed up about ten minutes in, and almost immediately, I noticed people were laughing at the movie, which it seemed most of the audience saw as ridiculous and silly.

This is an occasionally silly movie. But (and I hate to pull rank here, but it’s quicker) it’s directed by the same guy who helped write both Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. David Bowie did the soundtrack, and it co-stars Malcolm McDowell, who deserves a ton of respect. There’s not much reason to give this movie the Ed Wood treatment right off the bat. Even if it’s not their best work, these are some of the greats, working together on a movie it’s impossible they didn’t care about, at least a little bit.

Ultimately I ended up feeling pretty annoyed at (they really messed up my viewing experience) but mostly sorry for the schmoes who mistook the movie for, say, Krull. It seemed like a sadly dated sentiment: I thought ironic pleasure died back in ’98, that we had moved on to actually spending our time on things we enjoyed, stopped leveraging condescension as a means of validation.

But there’s something more specific than that here. The reason it’s maybe a little easier for Cat People to trigger people’s laughter is that it’s weird. The premise is pure fantasy, and on top of that it’s played as a melodrama. The early eighties were a weird enough time for film – Michael Mann’s otherworldly cop dramas are a clear influence on Schrader, along with Italian horror – but this is a film about people who uncontrollably turn into panthers when they have sex.

But that otherworldly premise isn’t deployed for the sake of weirdness itself. It’s part of a real artistic statement. Schrader is trying – admittedly, not always successfully – to access some uncomfortable parts of real human existence. It’s a vastly lesser film, but Cat People could be compared to Zulawski’s Possession, which also has a prima facie silly premise – sex with demonic aliens – but turns it into a straight-up headfucking nightmare, one that makes you think hard if you let it. I wonder if this audience would have laughed at Possession.

I would guess yes. Because laughter is above all a defense mechanism, and some people will laugh harder the more raw and real shit gets. It’s a refusal to meet a work on its own terms and open up to the experience. Last night, the best example of this for me was the laughter that accompanied every sex scene in Cat People. Whatever else you can say about the film, it’s successful at being very, very sexy. Laughing at that implies that sexiness itself is silly, maybe just a form of crass commercial manipulation, rather than a real aspect of human existence that deserves exploring (okay, realistically, it’s both).  But you know who laughs derisively at sex scenes in films? Nervous teenage boys, afraid of their feelings.

I had to write this quick defense because, as much as I knew they were wrong and boorish, sitting in that room full of chuckleheads made me feel lonely. A real appreciation for work that goes to the edge of normality is, of course, rare – not everyone is able or willing to really open up their head, to take the risk of traveling somewhere different and challenging.

But the dangers of derision ultimately apply to ALL art. Nothing is perfect, and those who don’t want to feel anything can always find an excuse not to – an imperfection, an overreach. And, yes, yes, I do understand that having a laugh with a beer in your hand is also somewhat of an easier proposition than spending two hours deep in contemplation. But for god’s sake, people, grow up.

Your condescension is costing you dearly.

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