The Culture Crush
Society Is Everybody's Business
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The Weekly

THE WEEKLY

Ongoing examinations of our culture and the back and forth between the expressions of the mainstream and the movements and ideas that stand to counter them. But more than a trip through the cultural continuum, it is a weekly conversation between generations, industries, and schools of thought. We ask you to join us in posing questions about our society— and about ourselves.

ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE

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Human nature has a huge performative aspect to it, we perform our identities and personas. This idea is nothing new. When Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage” he was referring to life as a stage play in which we all perform. If Shakespeare was alive today, it’s a safe bet that instead he’d prolifically declare, “All the world’s an Insta-feed.” This got us thinking about the movie EdTV. The film is a satirical comedy about an average person signing up to have his entire life aired live as a television show.

While it had an all-star cast, it was a box office flop. One possible reason for its failure might be because when it was filmed in 1999, reality TV was still limited and the idea of watching a normal, everyday person go about his life for entertainment seemed absurd. The thought that anyone would care to see what the guy they sat next to in high school Spanish class ate for dinner was too unbelievable for that day and age. As we all struggle to keep up with the Kardashians, it seems quaint to think back on that time. But before the current age of reality TV shows and before social media, those who were originally best at projecting an altered version of themselves were comedians. 

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In his essay, The Role Of A Lifetime, Harry Waksberg uses Judd Apatow’s documentary on comedian Garry Shandling, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, to explore this phenomenon. Both Shandling, and Andy Kaufman before him, took on caricatured, amplified, and ruder versions of themselves when doing interviews and talk shows, often going by their own names. They were playing bits that, to the audience, seemed like their authentic personalities. Quickly, this talk show version of celebrities became the norm as the lines between public and private personas blurred. Read more here. Since comedy relies so heavily on human experience, the virtues and vices of humanity can both come out. That’s why when comedians like Garry Shandling, and more currently, Louis C.K., used fictionalized renditions of their lives they felt safe enough to follow plot lines of the good, the bad, and the sexual misconduct. The veil of “fiction” and the public’s perception of their “personas” protected them from their misogynistic hypocrisies.
 
This reminded us of our talk with Judah Freidlander. He talked about the idea that comedians sometimes use humor to project and at the same time, deflect, from who they really are. Judah says, “many times comedians use that freedom of speech banner to mask their own bigotry, whether it is racism or sexism.” There is a fine line between projections and reality, and it is becoming murkier in our current age of visibility. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “we are what we pretend to be.” Of course, this sentiment caused us to reflect on our current predicament, which brings us back to social media. Now that we all have an “audience” of “followers,” it can feel like we’re all playing talk show versions of ourselves. Are we traveling the world in order to see it, or just to Instagram it? If we don’t geo-tag ourselves when we go to a museum, how will people know how cultured we are? If you make an Instagram post in the woods and no one is around to like it, does it make a sound? To tweet or not to tweet, maybe that is the question?

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When we were talking about Garry Shandling and the meta levels of actors appearing on tv as unrealistic versions of themselves, we started listing great examples of films where this had occurred. The magnificent Wings of Desire immediately came to mind. A 1987 romantic modernist fantasy filmed entirely in Berlin, the film follows two angels who observe the lives and listen to the thoughts of citizens of Berlin while remaining unseen. That is until the actor Peter Falk, who plays himself as a fallen angel in the film, appears and convinces one of the angels to himself become human. To us, the strangest part of the movie isn’t the invisible angels, but that the man infamously known as Detective Columbo was even in this film, let alone as himself.

It turns out that director Wim Wenders wanted a recognizable actor to play the role. Falk was cast after filming had already started and described it as “one of the craziest things I’ve ever been a part of.” They never wrote a script for his character and used his personal idiosyncrasies as part of the film, such as his doodling and indecisiveness about what hat to wear. Keeping these details of Falk’s genuine personality made the movie that much better and more believable – it actually was Peter Falk being Peter Falk. Making us wonder, is he a fallen angel? A genius? Or both? We’re going with the latter.

debra scherer