Sunday, December 2, 2012

if we really need to be saved from irony, this isn't gonna help

I recently offered a qualified defense of an article that was critical of contemporary irony. But today Salon has published a piece that shows just how counterproductive anti-irony pieces can be, how badly they can fail to prosecute their own arguments or even understand what they think they're fighting for. It's also indicative of something that's dogged Salon since its inception, which is the significantly uneven quality of the work it publishes.

Based on very scant evidence, Robert Robi expresses his fear that The Hobbit will be ironic. (The headline, "'The Hobbit' is not a hipster," is a cynical link-baiting trolljob, and certainly not the fault of Robi.) What's made eminently clear by this piece is that Robert Robi has a loose grasp on what irony means. Look at his argument.
There’s a sequence in the most recent trailer for Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” that worries me. It’s at the very end: The dwarves are tentatively emerging from the debris of some colossal battle or other, and one of them says, “Well, that could’ve been worse” — and then a Volkswagen-size goblin carcass crashes down on them.

This is more Chuck Jones than J.R.R. Tolkien, and if there’s more of the same in the coming feature film — whose scope, as we already know, has expanded far beyond that of the original novel — it may not be just Tolkien’s lovely little picaresque adventure that gets swallowed whole, but its plucky, whimsical tone as well, consumed by modern irony.
So if-- if!-- this single named scene from the trailer is indicative of the rest of the movie and trilogy's general ethos, well, The Hobbit is a Kevin Smith movie, or something. Speaking conservatively, we've got a good eight hours of Hobbit movies coming up. Generating a perception of something so long from something so short is, well, stupid. Now I can accept a reading of this moment as dramatic irony, although I wouldn't write it into the dictionary as an example. But please note that this is not irony coming from a character but rather irony coming from the narrator and the audience. The character is not speaking with verbal irony; rather what he says is rendered somewhat ironic by its contrast with the following event. Is that really the kind of corrosive ironizing Rodi is complaining about? He makes explicit reference to how irony is a disease of contemporary times. But this kind of dramatic irony is as old as the ancient Greeks. If dramatic irony bothers you, don't read Shakespeare, or any number of writers from way back when. Dramatic irony's not new, and if it undermined the ability to really connect with a work of art, that damage would have been done long, long ago.

It gets worse.
Peter Jackson triumphed with his earlier “Lord of the Rings” trilogy because that immediacy — that urgency — miraculously came through, being only occasionally undercut by modern ironic moments (as in Legolas and Gimli’s competition to see who can tally up the most kills in any given battle).
If you can express a definition of irony that includes the Orc-killing contest, I'd love to hear it. That part of the movies is lame, and I certainly wish Jackson and Co. had taken it out, but it is not irony. Two characters in a movie have been killing a lot of bad guys. They decide to make a contest of it. They comment on their contest, as one would. What about that is ironic? In what way, at all, are they doing or saying something when they intend the opposite of their stated or surface intent? In what way are their actions or statements thrown into ironic relief by the events that follow? In no way. What's more, this aspect of the movies doesn't even amount to meta, if that's what Rodi is complaining about; for it to be meta, they would have to be commenting on the events in a way that indicates their knowing that they are part of a fiction. If Legolas said to Gimle "this is the part where I turn out to be the real hero!," that would be meta. If Gimle winked towards the camera and said "You knew I'd win!," that would be meta. Commenting to each other on their own in-world behavior and the in-world events that are unfolding around them? Neither ironic nor meta. Just jokey. Characters are going to talk to each other about the action that is happening in the fictional world around them. Why wouldn't they?

What Robi wants to write about, but lacks the vocabulary to express effectively, is in part metatheatrics and in part a vague conception of jokiness. Because what bothers him is ill-defined, he wanders out onto branches that can't hold his weight. He identifies the knowingness and irony he doesn't like as a failure of the modern world, but those dynamics were well-established in the time of Canterbury Tales. He says that what he yearns for is "direct connection," and yet I can think of few movies that establish a deeper direct connection on the emotional plane than Royal Tennenbaums, a movie that would fail every test of "irony" or knowingness Rodi could apply to it. The text available to him fails to provide him with the substance he needs for his critique, so he makes claims based on idiosyncratic reactions and unprovable observations. ("Martin Freeman ... has the eyes of a modern, ironic man." Well that settles it!) And he writes it all in a style he can't pull off. (I died a little inside when I read "this complex cultural gavotte postdates Tolkien by just enough years to make it an uneasy fit for his major works.")

Aside from the hyperbole he lavishes on the movies and Elijah Wood-- those eyes! so sincere!-- Rodi's biggest problem is one that afflicts many who want to leave their own time. He confuses Tolkein's premodern subject matter with a premodern sensibility, complaining that when we listen to Bilbo's dialogue, "We hear modernity." Of course we hear modernity; we live in modernity, and so did Tolkein. His books are profoundly modern. They operate through pastiche, appropriating myth and folklore from a variety of traditions, cobbling them together with no regard for their own internal logic or values. To understand the world as pre or post modern is itself dependent on a modern mindset. To choose one or the other is an act totally foreign to the premodernity Rodi desires. An article like Rodi's asks for a time before modernity while it engages in the kind of self-reference that is itself indicative of modern thinking. You can't escape.

If that's too wooly for you, then let's just talk aesthetics. What Rodi identifies as the strength of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy is in fact its biggest problem. I admire those movies and their creators but they have a ton of problems, and none more obvious than their immense corniness. If ever movies could use an injection of irony, a little acknowledgment that what is going on onscreen is a bit ridiculous, it's this trilogy. Lines like "not lightly do the Leaves of Lothlorien fall!" are so wince-inducing both because they are awful dialogue and because they indicate that the writers take their own material way, way too seriously. Fantasy stories move us because of their ability to invoke ideas or emotions that are relevant in the real world. The mark of poor fantasy or sci fi is when it becomes more interested in the minutia of its own world than in evoking emotions that matter in ours. When nerds freak out because such and such character survived getting poisoned despite clearly failing their saving throw, they are putting the cart before the horse. When LotR sets aside its self-seriousness long enough to convey simple and identifiable human emotions, it can be quite affecting. When it's nattering on about the Shards of Narsil, convinced that we should imbue that empty totem with lots of gravitas, it is ridiculous.

Irony is not some awful pollution of the human condition, it is a part of the human condition, one that arises from the pettiness of chance, the need for resistance, and the human tendency to mistake our traditions for natural law.

Rodi says he is after direct connection, unfettered emotion. I'm with him there. And as with Christy Wampole, I too believe that a kind of reflexive comedic defensiveness has deadened many people to the experience of intense emotions. But to identify that problem in art as a problem of irony is to misidentify the actual villain, which is unearned cynicism, or a lack of conviction, or simple incompetence. You can't ascribe the failures of movies or art to establish the deep connection we crave to irony. Rather they fail because they just aren't good enough. And if The Hobbit succeeds, it will do so because of how well Peter Jackson and his crew transcend the limitations of the material in speaking to non-elven, non-dwarven, non-Orcish adults. And if people are to escape the self-consciousness and defensiveness which prevent them from living emotionally rich lives, they won't get there by fearing irony. They will only get there through fully committing to an emotionally unguarded life. If they do, it will be nobody's business by their own.


Josh said...

Maybe I'm misreading Robi, but it's also weird that he cites the orc-killing contest as part of the case against Jackson, since that was all Tolkien.

Freddie said...


Anonymous said...

Want irony--FD putting his Amazon wishlist on his blog.

Freddie said...

That has come up before. Why is that ironic? I can imagine a few reasons that you might want to think that it's ironic, which are in fact complete non sequiturs based on misrepresentations of my beliefs. But I'm pretty sure that it isn't ironic at all. Or would you care to offer an argument, cowardly, cowardly person?

Anonymous said...

h m, ths jxtpsd, yr crg s dnting, hpstr vrlty nd ll tht. 'm crtn I could prvk yr pcfst ss nt fstfght n bt 2 pbcrwl mns. Psng slf-bsrbd b-tch. nd srsly pn nthr 3000 wrds n Hbbts--w'r ll gggng fr t.

Freddie said...

Let me guess: you wanted to be a blogger, and nobody cared, so it didn't work out, and so you got bitter about it, and you can deal with it when it's the well-connected pros, but it just drives you wild when somebody who isn't a pro and doesn't have a large audience gets any attention at all. Even though my audience is small-- actually, especially because it's small.

I bet that's it. (That's always it.)

Anonymous said...

Or you're a nauseating d-- you're just a big je-- well I just think--

OK, it's true. I had a blog and I couldn't get anyone to read it. Alright? Are you happy now? I'm crying in my dimly lit and lonely apartment.

Freddie said...

It's alright. Let it all out. This is a safe space.

matt said...

I don't usually indulge in this sort of negativity, but this is a safe place: I am so sick of Tolkien and being told it is in any way seriously interesting or important. It's like what Homer was for the ancients, or Shakespeare for the moderns, Tolkien is for us-- an endlessly rich treasure of the imagination with all sorts of morally indispensable insights. It's a fancy kid's book! Grow up and read some real books!
Again, sorry.

Freddie said...

Oh, trust me-- that sentiment is quite welcome here! I have affection for Tolkien, but it's qualified, and unfortunately criticism of Tolkien invites a lot of nerd rage.

ovaut said...


Chip said...

I happened to be reading an article on the Book of Kells, the illuminated manuscript, and one o f the recurring comments was how filled the manuscripts are with sly puns and in jokes- subtle digs at the Pope, intended to produce a knowing chuckle from a fellow Irish cleric.
Maybe not "irony" as we know it, but not the wide-eyed sincereity that Salon would have us think.

Paul Sherrard said...

Tolkien "profoundly modern"? Nah. I agree that his antecedents aren't Homer or Spenser; they're William Morris and E.R. Eddison, who are Pre-Raphaelite or Edwardian or whatever but really in no way "modern." What he did was somewhat fashionable back when Morris et al were doing it but completely eccentric by the mid-20th Century, at which point Tolkien sticks out like a sore thumb in just the way truly anachronistic writers tend to do.

I'd also deny that his work is essentially pastiche, like Tarantino's. The pastiche artist appropriates consciously and calculatedly. Tolkien was telling a long story to his kids and, becoming enamoured of the plot and its offshoots, trying to variously spin them out and follow them the way a stroyteller does, drew on the medieval texts that were his area of expertise. It's the difference between someone who makes a collage out of magazine photos on the one hand, and on the other, someone who makes a papier mache sculpture which may include the exact same photos, but which appropriates them for its own structural purpose.

I think the internal evidence is overwhelming that Tolkien's main concern was with imagining and rendering a world that felt "real," in the way that Dickens' London felt "real" (not as Joyce's Dublin felt "real"), and to tell stories about it. The feeling you get from work like this differs profoundly from the feeling you get from Kill Bill.

One more before my nerd rage is spent: I don't see the point of singling Tolkien out for appropriating & distorting myths in the era of teen heartthrob vampires. It's not as bad as nailing him for implicit racism while in the same breath praising Lovecraft, but it does seem like misplaced criticism.

Paul Sherrard said...

Oh yeah, also: I'm definitely NOT saying Tolkien is "seriously important" or that he is a Homer for our age. It's hard to imagine anything more absurd. (Who says that, by the way? I haven't heard of anyone except the rabble praising Tolkien in any terms---let alone those terms---since the early 60s.)

Tolkien was doing something kind of weird and silly. Some of us feel he was doing it really, really well, but there's no reason to take it seriously.

Benjamin said...

If anything, these Hobbit movies need to be more lighthearted than the ads are making them out to be. The book's stakes are drastically lower than in LOTR. Blowing it up into three movies to tie it into the first series' continuity, and grafting onto its whimsy an unnecessary gravitas, sounds like a terrible mistake.

Anonymous said...

Dear Freddie, I tried to order something from your Wish List, but there doesn't appear to be an address provided. Or it's possible I don't know how to order from these lists--haven't ever done before. Cheers.

reflectionephemeral said...

A discussion of irony vs. ideas with which it's often confused, like self-reference, is here, in a discussion on David Foster Wallace.