Culture

Spy and A Pigeon: A Sketchy Comic and a Sketch Artist

Why Melissa McCarthy is not a humane caricature.

A poster for Melissa McCarthy’s Spy depicts her as a gold-plated figure holding a gun as if ready to shoot. It looks like an inexact Goldfinger spoof, but more accurately parodies Jeff Koons’s 1988 gilded porcelain statue Michael Jackson and Bubbles, which commemorates the pop star posing with his pet chimpanzee. Hollywood idolizes McCarthy similarly — she’s marketed as both star and animal in one, a dangerous effigy.

This spy-movie spoof, written and directed by Paul Feig (of the abominable Bridesmaids and The Heat), is full of mock narrative clichés, the most redundant being McCarthy herself. Playing a CIA analyst sent out to do field work, she is subjected to demeaning jokes that, along with Tourette’s-like fits of profanity, have become McCarthy’s schtick. McCarthy and Feig specialize in fake feminism; they’re rich and confident enough to ridicule female obesity and pretend their ridicule is progressive. In fact, it is tiresome. And their absurd license is less entertaining than Whoopi Goldberg’s Reagan-era spy comedy Jumpin’ Jack Flash. At least Goldberg’s socially Other heroine had a romantic inner life.

Spy sells fat-broad antics to make McCarthy an icon for an era of fame-whore shamelessness. No plus-size male movie comic was ever so self-deprecating. Koons acknowledged that “Michael Jackson is the modern Apollo” to explain how his kitsch icon engaged pop-cultural mythology. McCarthy is a sign of film comedy in decline. In Feig’s vulgar terms, her image doesn’t suggest gilded porcelain but a porcelain commode.

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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Don’t be put off by the peculiarity of Darren Aronofsky and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu “presenting” Swedish director Roy Andersson’s new movie. As the title A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence suggests, Andersson has a nervy poetic wit. His oddball films about human eccentricity (Songs from the Second Floor; You, the Living) show imagination beyond anything Aronofsky or Iñárritu has done. In fact, Aronofsky’s heavy-handed metaphors in Noah and Black Swan and Iñárritu’s over-scaled plotting in Birdman and Babel serve as helpful contrasts to Andersson’s economical, emotionally piercing style. He gets their endorsement, but they are in desperate need of his artistry.

Andersson’s view of the human condition mixes together gnomic misadventures of people in an unnamed Scandinavian city. His visual style suggests interlocking comic-book panels, spare but strikingly composed. Unlike Aronofsky’s and Iñárritu’s fancy excess, where technological busyness covers habitual cynicism, Andersson’s simplicity brings meaningful action and striking ideas into every concentrated frame. The narrative of A Pigeon is coherent though not exactly linear: A pair of novelties salesmen face a business crisis; a female dance instructor makes a play for a male student; and a monarch from an earlier time inflicts his megalomania upon the modern populace. History impinges on the contemporary world to address our moral state and spiritual anomie.

It’s funny that Aronofsky and Iñárritu appreciate Andersson’s levity, since their own humorless films are weighed down by “deep thought.” Even these clowns countersigning the philosophical Andersson’s ruminations must sense the singular crisis of contemporary film culture: We are mired in pessimism and mindlessness at movies that appeal to the sophomoric conceit of “smartness.” That’s what turned Black Swan and Birdman fatuous.

Don’t misconstrue Andersson’s satire as snark — the derisive view of others that makes one feel superior. Andersson’s pathos is genuine — based on what can be sharply painful in human experience. A Pigeon, subtitled “The final part of a trilogy about being a human being,” begins with a prologue in which characters visit a museum as if commemorating man’s fateful curiosity, then condenses its concept in “Three Encounters with Death.” These blackout sketches (centered on a wine bottle, a handbag, and a cafeteria buffet) recall Jacques Tati’s distanced compositions but use a simplified palette recalling the painter George Tooker. Yet Andersson is the opposite of an absurdist; he charts life’s substance by observing people who are mean, people who regret, those seeking love, those who suffer, and those who — through simple commitment to routine — just keep going.

That sales duo (“We’re in the entertainment business. We want to help people have fun.”) suggests a Vladimir & Estragon team, yet Andersson populates/animates Beckett’s absurdist universe realistically, cinematically. His oddest scenes contain paradoxes, as when modern morose saloon patrons are contrasted with a flashback (the same space in 1943) in which customers serenade a limping barmaid to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

#related#Each dogged sketch is a battle hymn to the same comic desperation seen in Frank Tashlin’s antic comedies, like The Man from the Diners’ Club, only here with a slower metabolism. In relating human experience through comic art, Andersson shows audacity, not absurdity, as in his rotund, groping female flamenco teacher — no Melissa McCarthy virago but an homage to Mike Leigh’s masterpiece, Happy-Go-Lucky.

What looks like solemnity in Andersson is a source of mirth — the beige-green imagery could almost be a parody of David Fincher’s monochrome, but Andersson mocks today’s nihilism. Aronofsky’s and Iñárritu’s films accept absurdism as a dystopian creed — it dulls their “realism” and makes their flourishes banal, thus diminishing their artsiness while winning undeserved Oscar gold.

Unlike his trendsetter patrons, Andersson masters caricature. He presents sorrow and sensitivity without snideness or preening and sometimes with oracular vision. The most extraordinary skit in A Pigeon, titled “Homo Sapiens,” shows a monkey strapped and tortured in a science experiment. A miniature King Kong animatronic, it screeches, then Andersson cuts to a dog barking at chained black slaves who are being whipped by soldiers, then marched into a large, rotating Victorian-era metal drum labeled “Boliden,” which is set afire — a world-weary Jules Vernish Monty Python image. This madness (recalling a 1998 environmental disaster caused by Sweden’s Boliden mining company) is worthy of Mark Twain’s infamous satire King Leopold’s Soliloquy. Not just an indictment of imperialism, it is the most compelling example of visual rhetoric in pop culture this century. I want Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Jeff Koons to see this. Aronofsky, Iñárritu, and Steve McQueen could learn from it, too.

The way Andersson’s caricatures get to the heart of human history, unencumbered by trite and trendy film conventions, should galvanize an art form too busy gold-plating its own decline.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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