Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The View from the Tank: Waiting for Guffman (1996)

I’m a bit more than ten years late on this one, but I finally saw Waiting for Guffman tonight. It’s definitely funny, but I felt a bit uneasy, sitting in my place in Los Angeles, enjoying this film about rubes in some small town in Missouri.

Is it the prerogative of smart people to mock dumb people?

I guess this was one of the questions raised by critics of Borat. It’s pretty easy – and predictable – for people in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco to sit and laugh at depictions of rubes in the Heartland. While I found Guffman worlds funnier than the puerile and monotonous Borat, I found that Guffman had a similar heartless quality. All of the characters are losers. They are losers because of where they live. They are losers because they are dumb and poorly educated. They are losers because they didn’t make it in New York and had to flee to some small town in Missouri. (Implied message: you, viewer, sitting and enjoying this film in Los Feliz or the West Village, are a winner.)

The rube character says “ironical” instead of “ironic” and we snicker in the Castro or Brooklyn.* Never mind that Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy have written this stuff in the pseudo-documentary: we eat it up because it is what we expect, it caters to our prejudices. It makes us feel smart and superior to watch and laugh at the provincial morons: we went to Wesleyan and UPenn and Vassar; the rubes in the movie took taxidermy correspondence courses.

It’s sad, though, and predictable. (I feel like this post is also predictable, but I’ll leave that point for a different critic.) Sure, people in New York or Boston are probably, on average, more cultured and better educated than the general population of a small town in Missouri. What’s the point in a movie that revels in this? What’s the point in a send-up of small-town community theater? The Netflix movie description said something about “a hilarious satire that shows why some talent never gets discovered – for good reason.” That really does capture the spirit of the movie, and it’s just simple, self-satisfied, smug meanness.

Erroll Morris set some of his early documentaries outside major urban centers, in rural California and Florida, for example. In Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, Morris documents the silly and somewhat pathetic lives of some of the people that live in these Heartland-like places, but he never seems to want to portray them in the meanest and harshest possible light, as Sasha Cohen does in Borat, or Guest does with his fictional Missouri characters in Guffman. Morris allows the individuals he tapes enough time to reveal themselves as full human characters, with flashes of moving insight or individuality, among all the rest of the expected rural “idiocy”.

Guffman is a funny movie, sure. I loved the acting, and the “Life on Mars is Boring” bit is hilarious. But, after laughing so much during the movie – and perhaps precisely because I did find myself enjoying the movie so much – I didn’t like the taste in my mouth. I really wish we could see more movies sending up the pretentious, self-satisfied, self-regarding, self-absorbed, “progressive”, insecure, hipsters who eat up movies like Guffman, Borat, The Life Aquatic, Kill Bill, etc. I wish someone would document our desperate attempts to efface our indelible suburban white bread roots and values (no matter the color of the skin under the Patagonia or Carhart), our upper middle-class yearnings and insecurities, our reflexive and unthinking racial and cultural condescension, our belief in the centrality of our own values, our reliance on various social safety nets, our profound conventionality, and our vicious need to feel superior to others.

I recognize that I may have completely missed something: someone explain it to me if I have.

* Although, my Webster's allows "ironical" as an alternative to "ironic". Wonder if Guest and Levy had looked it up. Doubt it.


Jose said...

It's the prerogative of people to mock people. Smart people tend to get their mockery made into poems, movies, laws, novels, etc. Dumb people get their jabs in otherwise.

Anonymous said...

We must laugh at ourselves. I think the thing about a movie like Guffman is that we see slight mirrors of bits of ourselves in the idiotic, compulsive and overwrought characters of that movie. Sure we are "more sophisticated" but these are basically cartoon characters that blow up our most foolish qualities whether we live in Missouri or Paris.

Cartoons should be enjoyed as such.

Thats why I allow myself to like Michael Bay.
Thats why I can't wait to go see Rocky 6.

ivanomartin said...

I love how LA always aspires to be "elitist," and categorizes itself with NY and SF. It was my experience that LA had a weirdly midwestern feel, full of bland, mainstream tastes and attitudes. Frankly, I think you'd find more progressive art/music/culture in Pittsburgh or Providence. To quote "Double Indemnity": "they say all native Californians come from Iowa."


Octopus Grigori said...

Jose: I guess dumb people get their jabs in otherwise. Maybe by voting Republican against their interest?

Toddy: I sort of agree. I guess I don't think Guest and Levy intended the characters in Guffman to so much mirror urban types, rather than to serve up the goofiest caricature of hicks -- cartoons, as you say.

ivanomarti: Well, I guess I perpetuated that misguided aspiration. But you're right that no one is from L.A. -- everyone here's from Iowa, Connecticut, or Oaxaca. And there you go again, you elitist rehabilitated New Yorker, dissing the Midwest. (Doesn't it seem like everyone in New York is from Vermont, Maryland, or Jersey?)

julia said...

" I really wish we could see more movies sending up the pretentious, self-satisfied, self-regarding, self-absorbed, “progressive”, insecure, hipsters who eat up movies like Guffman, Borat, The Life Aquatic, Kill Bill, etc."

Yes! That would be great.
I agree completely with your feelings about Guffman.
It is frightening to talk to the elitist intellectual coasters and realize how few of them have ever been to the middle of the country.
Growing up on Long Island, I was taught that southerners were slow-thinking racists, and then there was the rest of the country, and California.
When I got into grad school in Iowa, the first thing I did was open an atlas.

I prefre Best in Show to Guffman - check it out.

Octopus Grigori said...

Thanks, Julia. I like "Best in Show" a lot as well. Growing up in Connecticut, I think I was steeped in about as much Northeastern preppy elitism and snobbery as the human body can tolerate: I've been working for years to detox myself. Living in L.A., where good teeth and nice legs are more important than one's familiarity with French critical theory, helps a little.