Sunday, Nasty Sunday

Maybe this is why reality TV so popular: you basically watch those shows to judge and chastise, to feel better than the subjects. And in a way I guess that does approximate the pettiness of everyday life.
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I had a nasty Sunday, and it was my own damn fault. My girlfriend and I were taking a longish drive and we thought it would be fun if I read to her in the car. She'd been curious about Flannery O'Connor, so I brought along a book of her short stories. The one I picked, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, I'd read before, but I didn't remember it so well.

If you're not familiar with the piece, it's about a family road trip gone horribly wrong, kind of a rural "National Lampoon's Vaction" from hell. Anyway, it's written
pretty pitilessly, i.e., you pretty much hate all of the characters from the get-go: the worry-wart grandma, the stoic dad, the bratty kids. So when tragedy strikes, you feel sort of ambivalent and empty.

It's a weird phenomenon, a story--especially a tragic one--without sympathetic characters. John Cheever writes a lot of them, and though I haven't read too many, I'm pretty sure Raymond Carver does too. (What is it about short stories that makes them such a perfect medium to discuss despicable people?)

Some of the press quotes on the back of the O'Connor edition I have sum up her viewpoint pretty well: "...each of [the stories] leaves, as it is meant to do, a nasty taste in the reader's mouth," "Most of the...stories have an underlying cruelty that is handled with the casualness that life itself takes toward human meanness" and "Miss O'Connor's characters are wholeheartedly horrible, and almost better than life."

Those last two notions are interesting--that stories filled with really unlikable people are somehow more genuine, and perhaps more enjoyable, than ones with sympathetic characters.

Anyway, in addition to reading that nasty short story, my girlfriend and I watched a nasty movie yesterday, Robert Altman's 1978 farce, "A Wedding." I've often thought about how cruel Altman's view of humanity seems to be. "The Player," "Short Cuts" (based, incidentally on Raymond Carver stories), "Nashville," "The Long Goodbye," "3 Women" -- all these movies, by one of my favorite directors no less, are filled with vain, immoral, delusional assholes. And his sympathetic characters (think of Elliott Gould in "M*A*S*H" or "California Split") aren't so much good or heroic as aloof.

So, "A Wedding" is indeed a nasty movie. It's also a silly one, basically one of those anything-that-can-possibly-go-wrong-does type of stories: The groom's impregnated the bride's sister, the groom's uncle falls for the bride's mom, the groom's grandma croaks just before the reception begins, the bishop can't remember his lines, etc. By the end of the movie, the mishaps have gotten so extreme that you just feel hollowed out, just completely sick of hanging around with these miserable saps. But you're also laughing in disbelief.

It's just weird, this phenomenon that regular, well-adjusted people (like, uh, me and my girlfriend) would consistently choose to read stories and watch movies where people act like incorrigible assholes. Maybe it's the same impulse that makes reality TV so popular -- you basically watch those shows to judge and chastise, to feel better than the subjects. And in a way I guess that does approximate the pettiness of everyday life.

But if truth in Altman and O'Connor often looks like cruelty, does that mean that reality TV is just as genuine as the work of those artists? Or is it only fictional cruelty that's profound? Who knows why we choose our entertainments? Or why people like O'Connor and Altman--not to mention Neil LaBute, Darren Aronofsky, Todd Solondz and hundreds I'm forgetting--base their art on misanthropy.

Anyway, whatever the explanation, I enjoyed my nasty Sunday. And I'd do it again.

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