|I guess this post wouldn't be complete without one of these...|
So what has inspired this post? The immediate inspiration is the trailer for the new indy film American Milkshake, which I had hoped would be good, but looks pretty painful. (I'm actually not going to link to it, but it will be easy to find.) It's about this white kid who wants to be Black and manages to scrape by and just makes his high school basketball team (the last roster spot). He hopes this will make him cool, but he is still just a dorky bench-warmer. He comes across as pretty clueless, and much of what he says in the trailer crosses the line into cringe-inducing territory. At about the same level of sophistication as "Accidental Racist." And there is just too much cluelessness (or faux cluelessness) for me to enjoy. (Kind of a weak remake of White Men Can't Jump for Millennials without the frisson that comes from learning that Woody Harrelson is actually a ringer, though his vertical leap is indeed weak.)
In general, I don't like watching TV or movies about totally clueless characters. I don't find them interesting and I don't like laughing at people acting stupidly; consequently, I don't like a lot of mass culture, though what I really dislike are badly written shows where characters act clueless for 20-odd minutes, then more or less come to their senses for the finale. I think smart people with large blind spots are much more intriguing, since we all have some blind spots. Also, once you move outside your immediate circle of friends and acquaintances, it isn't that hard to find someone who takes offense (real or feigned) about almost anything (and who may or may not accept your excuse that you meant well). Thankfully the ranks of the professional grudge-bearers seem confined to internet chat boards, but in our increasingly polarized society, it really is easy to cause offense the second that one starts talking about politics or religion. I'm well aware that I have cast my lot with the secularists and no longer worry overmuch about offending deeply religious types, to give only one example.
There's no question that I have a lower tolerance for cringe-worthy material than others. I really was turned off by the UK and US versions of The Office. I would refuse to interact with David Brent in any meaningful way -- and I would simply cut dead Hyacinth Bucket (from Keeping Up Appearances). So I would have to be written out of such shows quite quickly. Just a few weeks ago, I watched Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce, and while much of it was quite funny or at least droll, the main couple are such a horrible pair that I can't understand why their friends don't simply forbid them from coming round (school ties notwithstanding). I suppose that really is a large part of British comedy (and occasionally US comedy) that overbearing, awful characters run roughshod over others, who really ought to tell them to piss off. I only had one friend who was remotely like that, and I have phased him out of my life, so I don't have that much interest in seeing this replicated ad nauseam in television and movies. I honestly think it would be more interesting if at least 25% of the people they ran into told them off good, rather than always letting these difficult characters be tolerated or even coddled. (I'd say precisely for this reason One Foot in the Grave is actually a far more compelling Britcom than Keeping Up Appearances.)
As I said, I really prefer characters who are generally together but clueless about certain social cues (certainly not everything) or who have specific blind spots. Or -- and this is a relatively productive vein that doesn't seem to be well-tapped -- that function perfectly well in their own environment but don't have a clue when running up against people from different backgrounds. I mean obviously the fish-out-of-water thing has been done, but what hasn't been done nearly as much is someone from the dominant culture really getting to know someone from another culture (in the melting pot/mixing bowl of either the U.S. or Canada) and then running up against their ignorance of other cultures. There's nothing that says they actually would know these things, and they can certainly get by without knowing these things, but as they try to get to know others from other backgrounds, then they will probably find themselves tripped up.
To give a concrete example, from my play Corporate Codes of Conduct, the white manager starts talking to the new Chinese programmer. She is actually second generation and fairly assimilated, but has "inherited" a very deep dislike of Japan and Japanese people. This is actually a quite well-known attitude, but it wasn't something that the manager had ever troubled himself to even think about. It doesn't mean he is racist or even that he thinks all Asians are alike and should get along, but it was simply well-outside his WASP frame of reference. He does show a capacity to learn from others once this is pointed out -- and the programmer has her own blind spots as well.
I suppose I am not being entirely consistent* in my second play Dharma Donuts, which does raise the stakes a little. There is a character that comes across as a bit more cringe-worthy and even a bit of a jerk, but I want to see if I can redeem him (somewhat) for the viewers, i.e. how can a person walk back from a bad first impression and perhaps even get the viewer to root for him. That is basically what they are trying to do in The Office (though certainly moreso in the U.S. version). But those guys are just so unbelievably clueless across the board, whereas my character is a bit too irreverent and a bit too full of himself. A bit too sure that people (of all cultures) would like him once they know and understand him. (Or that, like Blackadder, he can always talk himself out of a corner. I used to share this delusion.) But he is not stupid nor even tone deaf in all situations. Still, it's definitely a thin line -- and perhaps I have crossed it by writing a character that I probably wouldn't want to watch if anyone else had written him. Well, definitely something to consider during rewrites...
Speaking of that, I have one more long post to complete tomorrow. After that, I am finally feeling the time is right to turn my creative juices back to working on these plays and my novel about Toronto. So in the near future I may be a little slower to post than in the immediate past, but I will try to do some shorter update posts from time to time.
P.S. While it does pain me a bit to recall it now, I think my personal worst cringe-worthy moment was when I was an assistant with a color guard team from a Newark school (I was a very inexperienced teacher at the time who had been conned into donating my time to tutor the girls on field trips). There had been a lot of turmoil and various things going on, and I gave them some pep talk about how, even though to get the same score they would have to outperform all the other suburban teams (who had all these breaks they never got), that we still believed in them. I have mercifully blanked a lot of my speech out, but it definitely could have come straight from the script of Bring It On, with me being more or less in the role of the token white assistant/mascot to this inner city team. In my defense, I really did mean well... And this occurred a couple of years before Bring It On came out, so I wasn't a plagiarist, accidental or not. But wow, it did feel like art was imitating my life in that case when that movie hit the big screen.
* Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself... (lifted from Whitman).