• The other day I assured a twentysomething friend of mine that once upon a time, art museums sought to raise the public to their level, rather than lowering themselves to the public’s level. She looked pityingly at me and said, “How can you be so naïve? Everything’s all about money.”
• We are never so funny to others as when we are least funny to ourselves. This seeming paradox is the piston that drives the engine of comedy. In the greatest of all comedies–the Shakespearean tales of romantic reconciliation and their operatic counterparts, Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte–a pompous man’s thick carapace of earnestness is penetrated by humiliation. All at once, the unwitting butt of the joke realizes that he, too, partakes of the human condition, and is thereby made whole. It is in these transformative moments that the moral force of comedy is most evident, for it reminds us that we are not gods, merely men.
That’s one way to be funny. Another is to show us serious people who not only don’t realize how funny they are but never acquire any insight into their condition, wrapped as they are in their own bulletproof dignity. This sheer obliviousness is what makes them funny to us, but it also tempts us to feel superior to them, and that is a dangerous business, an invitation to vanity.
It is also the reason why women as a group tend to squirm at pure farce, which is a peculiarly hopeless kind of comedy, one in which the dignified boob learns nothing from his elaborately prepared Calvary of embarrassment. Instead, he is utterly vanquished by the other characters–and by the audience. Most men naturally think in such triumphalist terms, but my impression is that most women don’t. They want the victim (if he is a man) to learn from his misfortune, and be the better for it.
• Is there a more purely carefree record than Billie Holiday’s Miss Brown to You? The emotions that musicians express through their art are radically ambiguous and almost never readily reduced to verbal paraphrase, but if Holiday, Cozy Cole, Roy Eldridge, Benny Goodman, John Kirby, John Trueheart, Ben Webster, and Teddy Wilson weren’t having the time of their lives when they cut that 78 side in 1935, then I’m deaf. Just listen to the way Holiday sings “Don’t you all git too familiar!” and see if it doesn’t make you smile.
• Wallace Stevens once wrote a poem called “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself.” That’s how I like my movies. I don’t like sequels, remakes, homages, paraphrases, or ironic commentaries, least of all when they exude the stale smell of postmodernism, which is to art what theme parks are to county fairs.