The Austin Chronicle

Make Someone Happy – Someone Else, Because Chances Are It’ll Never Be You

By Kimberley Jones, October 15, 2008, 12:49am, Picture in Picture

I think I’ve been fumbling a bit, trying to pinpoint exactly what my problem is with the Marx Brothers and Kaufman combined. I’m not so thick-headed as to not be swayed at least a little by your arguments, and not so humorless as to be unmoved by Groucho’s gift for the gab. He’s funny. I get it. And there’s more going on there than a bit of verbal trickery. And yet—

There’s a Clifford Odets quote I used to have pinned on my wall. Odets was a “man of the people” playwright – not much read these days, but he was the inspiration for the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. The quote (nabbed from a terrific New Yorker profile from a couple years’ back):

“There are contradictory pulls—one to live with tightened discipline, sharp, hard and cold; the other to go hotly and passionately to hell as fast and as fully as possible.”

Order and anarchy. Two contradictory ways of living. I think, Josh, we danced around this idea tonight, when we grabbed a drink at Rio Rita to talk shop. (In typing that, I feel almost like we’ve cheated on you, dear reader. Yup, the fight continues even when you’re not around.)

We’ve both been a little thrown by this month’s topic, for different reasons. It’s too constrained for you, Josh, and too close for me – which makes me confessional, which I hate. You wanted to chuck any ordered approach – easily digested daily topics – for the more freewheeling style we’ve had in Film Fights past, and I wanted the safety net of knowing what I would wake up to. There’s a whole other story there of how we approach the world – something I touched on with my earlier defense of Charlie Kaufman – that he may write characters who sometimes act incautiously, but they are plagued by indecision, second-guessing, and regret. Like I said, he speaks to me.

Right, so back to Odets, and how that world-view reflects upon the Marx Brothers.

To me, it’s anarchy to no end, no effect. Bon mots that exist mostly outside of a plot’s forward motion, the cause and effect that engines every script. They’re not real people to me, just jokesters. Groucho never gets mussed, does he? Is his heart ever on the line? A person can delight in the clever back-and-forth, and all the better if it declares war on the ruling class – but you’re never truly moved by anything he has to say, are you? Outside of the nostalgic recitation of aforementioned bon mot? And it doesn’t really matter what anybody has to say after him. Anybody else in the conversation is only there to service what he has to say.

Order and anarchy. The desire to live “sharp, hard and cold” snagging on the all too human impulse to make a mess of things, because making a mess feels more alive than the alternative. The sweet spot – in real life and in art –is somewhere in the middle. The Marx Brothers are all anarchy, with none of the tempering – or illuminating – effects of what happens when you try to make order of the anarchy. Whereas I think the Charlie Kaufman pictures are all about that tension – between our attempts at making order and at controlling our wildest impulses versus our inevitable givings-in to absolute anarchy. He usually ends up at the muddle in-between – which I count as the more honest place, because that’s where most of us live.

Christ. I propose a new tagline – “Film Fight: It’s Almost Like Psychotherapy.”

With that, I bid you goodnight. And since you scoffed at the idea I might actually have any Jimmy Durante on my iPod…

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