Surly Thursday - The Ashes of Irony, or why David Denby can Suck It

A while back, before Christmas, I listened to Terry O'Reilly on CBC interviewing Christy Wampole about her New York Times essay called How to Live Without Irony. Something about what she was saying really struck a chord with me, because, as I've mentioned, I do have certain deeply entrenched smartass tendencies which I realize are a form of irony. I realize this because I took a seminar on irony for one full semester in grad school (and at the end of it I STILL wasn't entirely sure I had a firm grasp on the concept). I had a male friend in university who once observed that when we were talking or writing letters to each other, whenever I found myself getting into deep emotional waters I had a habit of employing some kind of technique to puncture the airiness of the moment and bring it back to earth, sometimes with a resounding thud. I thought about it, and responded that maybe it was because I lived in a residence where the overwhelming majority of people were science and engineering students - it was more than  your life was worth to go around being poetic or profound.

Was that it? I remember when I was a child or even a young teenager feeling excruciatingly sensitive, frequently peeled raw by the world and other people. Maybe I would have started using irony defensively no matter where or with whom I lived in university. And I absolutely do get that it's a defensive move - as Wampole says, "(irony) signals a deep aversion to risk". If you never express or display anything with complete honesty, you're shielded to some extent from the scorn of anyone who might take issue with your thoughts or feelings. You give yourself the automatic safety of a fallback position - "I didn't mean it. I didn't give you access to what I REALLY thought. I was joking." It's maybe a little dangerous, though, to get out of the habit of saying anything serious. Saying what we really think and letting people fling their arrows as they may would be a sad thing to lose.

Over the Christmas holidays I took Eve and my mom to see Les Misérables. I've seen the stage play three times and loved it and I wasn't sure how I would feel about the movie, but my mom asked me to take her since my dad hates watching movies in the theatre, and I knew Eve would be into seeing anything musical.

I loved the movie. The music that I loved from the play was there, and the camera being directly on the actors as they sang gave the experience an immediacy that I hadn't had watching from the second balcony. I don't remember ever crying at the play, just feeling giddy and breathless with admiration. In the movie? I bawled. I flung great sheets of tears off my cheeks. I had to bite my lip to prevent myself from sobbing audibly. The funny part was that I could see how another person watching would find the extreme close-ups on singing actors cheesy. I found it heart-wrenching and transporting.

On Facebook, Nan drew my attention to this review of the movie by David Denby in the New Yorker. Wow, did David Denby ever not like the movie. That's cool. Different strokes for different folks, right? Oh wait, but David Denby thinks that if you did, by chance, like the movie, love it even, that you are in desperate need of help, that you are tasteless and troubled and in need of a guiding hand. He critiques the movie in a way that is meant to show us poor cretins the light. I agree with one commenter that his review is 'pompous, snarky and mean', but I also think it's kind of dumb. I get really annoyed by movie reviewers who don't review movies based on their own merits - what they are clearly trying to do, and whether or not they succeed. The Ottawa Citizen has one reviewer who has actually criticized kids' movies for being juvenile. "Those talking cars are just creepy". WTF? Yes, movie reviewers are basically paid to judge, but could you judge in a halfway intelligent manner?

"Didn't any of my neighbours notice how absurdly gloomy and dolorous the story was?", David Denby asks. Well, it was about the 1832 rebellion. And a bunch of grindingly poor and oppressed people. Which, you know, actually existed in real life. Were you under the impression you were supposed to be at a screening of H.M.S. Pinafore? Maybe read your ticket more carefully next time.

"Russell Crowe as Javert, his implacable pursuer, stands on parapets overlooking all of Paris and dolefully sings of his duty to the law. Then he does it again. Everything is repeated, emphasized, doubled, as if to congratulate us on emotions we’ve already had". Well, no. See, the first time he does it he is supremely confident in his incorruptible faith. The second time he does it he is racked by an ultimately fatal doubt. It's a thematic repetition that I think is actually quite clever, but even if you don't agree, it's hard to see how you would argue that both scenes are meant to elicit the same emotion.

Fantine is "a pure victim who never asserts herself". Dude, she was a woman in 1830s France who had a baby out of wedlock and then loses her job. How, precisely, would you suggest she assert herself? She does what she can to support her child, selling the only thing she has left - her own body. I call unfair (and douchey) assertion on your part, David Denby.

"The story doesn't connect to our world". No, not remotely. There are no groups of people living in substandard conditions, hoping by protest to change the government in our world. Very astute.

"Every emotion in the movie is elemental. There’s no normal range, no offhand or incidental moments—it’s all injustice, love, heartbreak, cruelty, self-sacrifice, nobility, baseness". Well, David Denby, it's a musical, not Seinfeld. Ever seen an opera? Big, sweeping emotions are kind of what this genre tends to deal with.

I had a friend who went to the movie (because her daughter wanted to see it, in all fairness, obviating my being able to say "pro tip - if you don't like uplifting or depressing songs, maybe avoid musicals in future".) She hated it. Knowing this, I admitted that I loved it, that it made me cry. She called me sappy. Honestly, it hurt my feelings a tiny bit, but she was just expressing an honest opinion. You don't like the movie? Fine. You don't like the movie David Denby-style? You can suck it - it's not my problem you're too tone-deaf to hear the people sing.

Anyone still with me? Man, being unironic seems to occasion a lot of words. The next thing that happened was that I saw, in a retweet, (if I had been following this dude, I wouldn't be now), someone saying something to the effect of 'is Zadie Smith actually crying out for our help?' about this essay in the New York Review of Books (man, what is with New York and the discursive politics of irony?).

I read the essay. I thought it was quite lovely. I went back to Twitter and followed the discussion a little further. Someone else agreed with the first man, and said they refused to believe the essay was written without irony.

What do you think? Do we need an irony intervention? Do we need to go on an irony fast? And by saying 'we', am I still being defensive? Do I need a 'thirty days to an irony-free you' program?

I don't know. But I'm thinking about it. Unironically.


Hannah said…
It kills me to say this, because I loves me some irony / snark / what have you - but yes, I think we all need to take a vacation from it. An awful lot of people can't tell the difference between criticism written in a funny way, and out-and-out assholish superiority-complex bullying.

I'm going to Les Mis tonight. I fully expect that I will enjoy it. And I don't think that makes me a culturally-dead twit with no appreciation for the finer things.

Hannah said…
And what I meant to say before I hit 'publish' - this is a bloody brilliant post, and I love you. Wish someone could make David Denby first read it, and then cram it right up his hipster holier-than-thou ass.
Cynthia said…
In grade 9 french class I learned a phrase that stuck with me..."a chacun son gout". To each his/her own. There are lots of things I like that others don't. There are lots of things I do that other's disapprove of or think I'm crazy or don't understand why I do it. These people don't tend to stick around in my life. If we all do/like/say the same things, then wouldn't the world be a boring place?
Nicole said…
I love the stage adaptation of Les Mis and I feel that I am going to love this movie - IT HAS RUSSELL CROWE AND HUGH JACKMAN IN IT, FOR CHRIST'S SAKE. How will I not love?

Hipsters, hey? What can you do?
collette said…
sappy: I'm going with MW dictionary option 3a. overly sweet or sentimental, and definitely not option 3b. lack of sense . Nothing wrong with sentimental, nothing at all, some of my closest friends are sentimental. Although, perhaps some fool who calls a great friend sappy without thinking it through, may qualify for definition 3b.
Kim said…
absurdly gloomy and dolorous

He went to see a movie called LES MISERABLES. What did he want, a kickline? I'd love to know what kind of movie he actually likes, considering that eliciting emotion is kind of what a successful movie is supposed to do.

I am hardly irony-free but I had a wonderful time at Les Mis. I'm sure even most of the people who found it cheesy don't think it's a sign of the fall of modern civilization. (I save this for reality TV.) The real bombast here is the over-the-top vitriol in his review for a work that didn't even come close to meriting it. Suck it, Denby.
Amy said…
I started reading the Denby thing and stopped immediately. I cried, I mouthed the words because I couldn't help myself and I nearly jumped out of my seat to applaud after One Day More.

When I saw it the second time, the day after the first time, I cried even more.
clara said…
Oh...Mr Denby. I know it feels so good! to hate something and you are SO CLEVER WITH WORDS but geez. Have an opinion, defend it, move on.

Wrath Of Mom said…
I'm so glad you wrote about Denby. I don't live close to a movie theatre so I won't be seeing Les Miserables -- but after I read that article I wanted to go just so I could write a rebuttal post and tell off Denby for his mean-spirited, pointless, smug article. Do you think that Denby was expecting Les Mis to be a musical more in the vein of Glee or A Knight's Tale?

In my mind there is no greater insult than being called 'naive.' I can be hopeful and enthusiastic and joyful but I am NEVER naive. I am pragmatic and can see the humour in anything. If someone wants to call me 'ironic' they are welcome to do so. They're wrong, mind you. But that's fine.
StephLove said…
We might be going to see this movie next weekend. I'm not familiar with the musical, but I read the book last winter/spring and I'm glad I did, even though it was a slog in places. In others it was really compelling. Partly I want to see if it gets edited to film the way I'd do it.

I think a step back from irony can be a good and healthy thing but I wouldn't make it permanent. You'd lose a part of yourself that's also real. (Where I'd like to see a complete ban on it is in kids' movies when the snarkiness is just there for the adults. That drives me crazy. If it's a kids' movie, make it for the kids.)
Amber Strocel said…
So many things, but I'll start with Les Miz. I have seen the stage play twice, and I basically have the soundtrack memorized. I was sad when they took out whole verses of my favourite songs, but on the whole I thought it was really well done. I even enjoyed the close-ups for the most part, although the first one with Jean Valjean wasn't great for me because it was a little too dark. But the way it allowed the actors to convey emotion was remarkable.

On irony, I read the initial essay in the Times, and it annoyed me. I'm sure that sometimes it's misused, but suggesting that the 90s were somehow so much more principled and sincere was a bit rich. It sort of descended into 'look at these kids today, we were so much better' grumbling. So I say, do what works for you.
Patti said…
Yep. What you said. We use irony like a shield. We should use it less, but I'm afraid if I dropped it completely, I'd be limp and maudlin.

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