On Poetry and Culture Shock

The language of American movie-goers

Some time ago, I went to see The Motorcycle Diaries at Cornell’s cinema. It is a movie that looks foreign, oh yes, it is filmed in Spanish and all that, but it is produced by Robert Redford, and it follows a typically American comedy structure: humour in an episodic plot with a tragic moment two thirds into the movie, the ending rising up in mood, hopeful and sentimental. A bit of love, a bit of adventure. Nothing new. But it was an educational experience to see this movie in a movie theatre surrounded by a very homogeneous crowd of Cornell students. Very young, racially diverse, and I assume that politically they were all on the lefty side of things: hey, this is hippy Ithaca and they had come to watch a biography of Che Guevara.

It is a comedy, sure, but I didn’t find it as funny as the audience did. During the first hour, they were laughing all the time. Hhmm, this is not funny. I mean, yes, it is a good comedy, but it’s not spectacular. The problem was that these kids and I were not watching the same movie. These kids have learnt the codes of American cinema much better than I have, and when they see anything else, it’s like when I read in French: it is a foreign language and you interpret it through a filter. And the American cinema premise they were using was that anyone who does not look like Gwyneth Paltrow or her brother is laughable, and the characters of this movie look definitely un-gwyneth-like.

Let’s see. We are slowly overcoming the black comedian stereotype. There is the fat comic character, or even the woman who is not fat but plays fat roles. There is the invisibility of women who look older than 30. Very simply, the code says that the function of characters that aren’t white, thin, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class and intelligent but not too intelligent is to give comic relief to the real protagonists (hey, Dickens worked on the same premise and here I am making a living out of his novels). I don’t think this necessarily shows racism or sexism from the audience or the producers. My problem is not with the Hollywood code; what I would hate is to wake up one morning and discover that the cinema of other parts of the world, including of course Spain, is happily exploiting the “different is laughable” rule. I'm afraid it is on its way.

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