Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tropic Thunder saved my thesis

No, not really, but sort of. After reading my last blog post, a friend expressed concern that I had sunk DEEP into the world of thesis, and could probably use a break. Tuesday night, we went to see a late-night show of Tropic Thunder, which I had heard from different sources was, "Amazing!" and, "Awful! Awful Awful! I hate it so much!"

If you choose to see it, I recommend finding someone to tell you they hate it first. That worked for me. I neither loved nor hated it, but I'm glad I saw it, and I can say without equivocation that the end credits are rockstar.

I'm not sure it speaks well or ill of the movie that I couldn't stop thinking in thesis-speak while watching it. Lots of "isms" -- post-modernism, post-post-modernism, hyper-realism, performatism. On the one hand, it suggests that, good or bad, the movie's keyed into a cultural moment. On the other hand, some of that time I spent thinking in isms was probably time I was meant to spend, you know, laughing.

Not that comedy can't make you think -- but I'm not convinced all the thoughts it sent bouncing around my thesis-addled brain were intended.

So here are some of those thoughts (and, yes, they do contain mild SPOILERS):

Hyper-realism -- that's the fake Christmas tree that looks more authentic and iconic than a real one, the housing development so polished and filtered that it represents "home" more convincingly than it behaves as one, the map so detailed that it ceases to become a map and becomes the landscape itself. Push post-modernism over a cliff and you get a reality so mediated, with so many layers, that there's no source. You can never know what's real. Maybe the real has ceased to exist and been replaced by signs. This movie plays on that -- a fictional movie that contains a true movie about the making of a movie based on a true story that turned out to be fake.

There are thoughts that a new sincerity's going to replace post-modernism, is replacing it already, something that allows for an awareness of representation while putting aside the irony that goes with it. This movie makes you long for that, but it doesn't offer it at all -- although maybe a little in that the audience is very much in on the joke (I'm thinking of Tom Cruise dancing). In that moment what's funny is the reality of this ridiculous, iconic actor being in this movie doing this dance. The representation's still there, but that's not what we're responding to.

I also appreciate the consistency in the movie of choosing the most offensive things for these fake actors to perform, although I agree with those who say it doesn't always work. But think about the Vietnam movie -- I love Vietnam movies. I love the music. I love the nostalgia they invoke for a time I didn't even live. And in the opening sequence of Tropic Thunder when they're shooting a gory, ridiculous, obligatory battle sequence for the fake Vietnam movie, those same iconic songs are playing, and I couldn't help but feel foolish for being manipulated by them -- not only by having been manipulated by them in other Vietnam movies, but in the moment of watching this fake one.

At some point I was thinking Nick Nolte's character represented the Real -- here's this embattled, wrecked veteran to reveal the jerk nature, not only of these actors, but of me, the girl in the audience who enjoys watching movies about terrible, terrible things she will never really comprehend. And I'm kind of on his side. I'm looking forward to seeing him get the better of the jerks -- it's going to be cathartic. But Nick Nolte's not Real. He's a jerk, just like the rest of us.

And when we seen the scene reenacted, in what's supposedly the characters' reality, it's not at all sincere -- just another ridiculous layer. It can't be sincere. We've been jerked around too much -- we're in on the joke to the point where it's not even a joke but a sad bit of irony. I don't find this enjoyable, but I don't think it's without interest.

This movie succeeds and fails in a single place -- this absurd layering that is at first ridiculous and eventually tiresome and a little sad.

And no, my thesis isn't about Tropic Thunder, although I think I could write one. Watching it and thinking about it declouded my brain. That night I read some articles from Audacious Kids: Coming of Age in America's Classic Children's Books by Jerry Griswold. I had trouble falling asleep because my brain was structuring my thesis, and when I woke up (early and full of energy), I wrangled my paper's opening into some kind of order. I wrote my thesis statement for the first time, and was much relieved.

You may be relieved too, if you've read this far, that the thesis monster sucking on my brain shows signs of submitting. I promise to cut out the "ism" speak soon as it does.

Currently reading: that Audacious Kids book

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