I'm not a great fan of irony.
Don't get me wrong; in storytelling I enjoy irony immensely. A nice ironic twist, like those at the conclusion of many a classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode, is wonderful. Use of irony as a narrative device is time-honored and rightfully respectable.
"Time Enough at Last" - THE TWILIGHT ZONE
I speak of irony as a lifestyle.
It would seem to me that a great many individuals, companies and organizations in today's society specialize in the practice of irony as everyday activity. People are cautioned not to take things too seriously, serious commentary and news is delivered with a surreptitious wink to the audience, self-referential material makes its way into the most mundane of circumstances. It's as though people are determined not to take too much of the world seriously, or treat existence as a huge joke waiting for a well-delivered punchline.
In some circumstances that's completely understandable. Sometimes the day-to-day crisis, both international and local, that fill modern living can become too overwhelming if taken at face value. Often one is tempted to levy the doom-&-gloom with some incisive gallows humor. But overdoing it can lead to its own complications: if everything is to be taken with a laugh, how can we ever get anything serious resolved?
Very often I find irony used as a defense mechanism; people are so concerned about how others will react to public tastes and opinions that everything is couched in a self-mocking manner. And again, not taking oneself too seriously is a good thing. But when everything is mocked, and nothing is taken seriously, things become trivial. And frankly, many of my likes and concerns are often far from trivial, at least from my perspective.
Let's take a few modest examples.
In music, it's popular to remake an older song, say by the group ABBA from the 1970s, with a hint of sarcastic veneer, as if to say, “Yes, this music is terrible, but it's rather catchy, and we enjoy it, so we're playing it even though we know it's not that good,” almost as if the musicians are afraid to genuinely enjoy something for fear of being called out on it by others.
But Marshall Crenshaw, an excellent musician, has balked at this kind of self-referential satire. He genuinely plays songs he enjoys, and some ABBA tunes are in his repertoire, without a hint of irony in their performances. His stance is, “Good music is good music, no matter where it comes from,” and he (rather courageously in this age) simply plays what he wishes without regard to other people's opinions.
THE DARK CRYSTAL
Many street and alternate performers have begun using puppetry as their chosen art form. It is, after all, and old and respectable style of performance art. Yet some in the alternate scene do so almost by winking at the audience and broadly playing up the fact that puppets are often used badly to entertain children. “We know this isn't a serious form of art, so we're just being silly with it, above it as it were, and don't expect you to take us seriously. We're just having fun.”
But the late Jim Henson never thought that, and his creation of the Muppets have not only become iconic, world-recognized characters (Kermit the Frog would find himself right at home in the streets of London, Toronto, Sydney or Beijing) but he created some breathtaking adult entertainment with the films DARK CRYSTAL, LABRYNTH and the television specials THE STORYTELLER. He saw puppetry as simply another art form, not lesser than any beside it, and those who follow in his footsteps are similarly committed to their art.
Recently I was fortunate to see a local performance of the Blue Man Group. These are entertainers that originally began as street performers; for those unfamiliar with them, the wear dark blue makeup and never speak, and their performances range from creating rhythmic music on various unusual devices to surrealistic mime. One might ask who the audience would be for this type of entertainment (and often people would probably categorize it as fit for children), but the Blue Men's answer is that this family-friendly theater is for anybody who might enjoy it. They simply present what they do and let whoever enjoys it be welcome to it. (And having witnessed their show with a very enthusiastic following, many eagerly flock to their style of amusement, with no self-consciousness at all.)
I have also come under this type of scrutiny in my performances. Many don't understand why I do what I do, appearing on stage in my spectral attire and telling ghostly tales. Much of the storytelling community has reacted with a range of opinions from puzzled to curious to openly hostile. What am I doing?, they ask. Is it Theater? Performance Art? Something entirely new? It certainly doesn't seem to be traditional storytelling; what is it?
My answer, as with the Blue Man group, is that it is what I do. If you enjoy it, wonderful. If not, you're free to move along. But I take what I do quite seriously (although I try very hard not to take myself so) because I respect my audiences and believe that I owe them the best entertainment I can possibly provide, with no excuses or irony. I want those that follow me to have the best time possible and enjoy their money's worth each time I take the stage, and I delighted that so many have accepted that invitation.
These days irony has worked its way deeply into Horror. There's always been a potential for cheesiness and mockery, from the threadbare laboratories filled with pulsing electrical leftovers to the teen movie monster craze (with everything from werewolves to blobs) to the giant insect spectaculars with photographically enlarged Entomological specimens climbing over grainy pictures of national monuments. There's a great deal of affection for these bargain basement offerings, but few would consider them serious examples of the genre.
There have been witty and well-made films that poke gentle fun at the ideas presented while still offering well-created scares; perhaps the best of these were the Bob Hope vehicles THE CAT & THE CANARY and the splendid GHOST BREAKERS, which managed to raise genuine shivers as well as laughter. I consider them superior even to the wonderful ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, long considered the archetype of the Horror/Comedy, and a film that also offers fright along with its humor. But these aren't really what I'm referring to.
Perhaps the height of self-referential irony came during the 1980s with the TV series MOONLIGHTING , starring Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd. As detectives investigating various mysteries, the characters would break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience, referencing many pop-culture templates from film noir to Motown to Dr. Seuss. They would often literally wink at the audience as if to say, “Don't take this seriously; it's only a show.”
It was often quite witty and entertaining, but after a time grew wearisome. If the characters weren't concerned about the dangers they were supposedly facing during their episodes, why should the audience be? Too often great tension and danger was dissipated by the need to make another joke and prove how clever they were being at self-referencing themselves.
But the show was a hit at the time, and imitators followed closely. Mel Brooks, who years before had done the same sorts of things with his parodies BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, now amped up the irony factor with SPACEBALLS, referencing everything in SF film and literature, whether the jokes really clung to the story or not. The effect was often scattershot and more miss than hit, compared to his brilliant work in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, which holds together as an elegant piece of narrative complimented by the humor.
During this time Steven Spielberg was producing several movies with other directors, and although many of his own are recognized as classics ( RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL), often his other works showed the same slipshod sense of self-congratulations as MOONLIGHTING. In films such as GREMLINS we are treated to numerous in-jokes to vintage SF and Fantasy. A local movie theater marquee reads a double feature of A BOY'S LIFE and WATCH THE SKIES, which were the working titles of E.T. and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND; a billboard advertises Agar's Exterminating Service, a nod to actor John Agar who starred in the film TARANTULA; an old woman clomps down the street, a stern expression on her face and lilting music behind her, and we're reminded of Margaret Hamilton's bike-ride opening THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Initially it seems amusing, but after a while it overwhelms and gets in the way of the story, and again, it seems as though no one is taking the story or its contained threat seriously; they're all busy having too good a time among themselves. In that case, why should we?
Perhaps the height of the ironic came with the SCREAM movie series. Again, an initially clever idea – slasher movie characters who are all too aware of the basic stereotypical slasher movie plot – wears out its welcome very quickly with its listing of Horror movie “rules” (Never say, “I'll be right back!”; never have sex or do drugs; never assume the killer is dead) and references to better films (Drew Barrymore's cameo recalling Janet Leigh in PSYCHO and Angie Dickinson in DRESSED TO KILL) left a bad taste in the mouths of many fans, which only grew with each installment. The surprise success of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which came out shortly afterwards, was not a surprise to many. Here was a film that took itself and its subject matter very seriously, almost extremely so, and built its scares on that sense of earnestness. I believe most audiences had by that time been thoroughly SCREAMed out.
But what's wrong with having fun, Carpathian? I hear some of you ask. What's wrong with acknowledging that there is some silliness in much of what we love and admire, even in its most elegant (such as the torrent of blood that overflows the elevator in THE SHINING)? What's wrong with fans recognizing that there are templates and archetypes in the genre, and playing with those tropes?
Well…nothing really. A little self-referentiality is expected with the rich history our field proffers. We only need look at Stephen King's classic “'Salem's Lot”, which consciously plays with many of the archetypes established by Bram Stoker's “Dracula”. And no one is opposed to fun, certainly not Yours Truly.
But understand: the men and women who forged those archetypes in the first place, the best of all that we admire, took their work very seriously, even when they were having fun.
Mr. Poe certainly took his tales of madness and the macabre seriously, even when he used a streak of jet-black humor as an ingredient. (My favorite, when Fortunado asks Montresor whether he's a Mason and knows the secret signs; Montresor answers in the affirmative and produces a cement trowel from his cloak…and in a very short time Montresor will prove that he is indeed a true mason…) His elegant tales come out in almost mathematical perfection, and European audiences recognized his literary achievements before his American contemporaries.
Mr. Lovecraft took his cosmic menaces and ancient gods extremely seriously, so much so that humor rarely enters the picture. This doesn't mean his work is without wit, simply that he was completely in earnest about presenting his philosophies and themes as forcefully as possible, in an attempt to convey the vastness of the universe, and mankind's insignificance in the eternal equation.
"The Colour Out of Space" by H. P. Lovecraft -
Illustration by Virgil Finlay
Mr. Stoker took his regaling of the vampire mythos seriously, so much so that his creation Count Dracula is one of the most recognizable figures in literature, and much of what we accept of the vampire and gothic conventions can be traced to his novel. Shirley Jackson took her horrors seriously (although she apparently took herself far less so; see her memoir “Life among the Savages”) and “The Haunting of Hill House” and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” are hailed of modern masterpieces of mainstream fiction as well as the Dark Fantastic.
In fact, numerous authors have explored Horror and supernatural themes without any self-consciousness, taking their genre work as seriously as any other. Hawthorne was as devoted to “Rappaccini's Daughter” as he was to “The Scarlet Letter”, Dickens made no apologies for “The Signalman” or “A Christmas Carol” any more than he would for “Great Expectations”, and Shakespeare was more than comfortable creating the wonders of “The Tempest” and “Macbeth” as he was detailing the emotional trials of “Romeo and Juliet” and the histories of “Richard III” and “Henry IV”.
And readers, from their contemporaries to the present, responded. One need only recall the images blazed into the subconscious – Dracula scuttling down the side of the castle wall like a great bat, the Red Death moving from room to room and claiming all the revelers, the Gardner farm under attack from the meteor in the well spilling its foulness out upon the land – to understand that these individuals weren't fooling around.
This wasn't just an attempt to earn a dollar until some more literary idea came to them; this was serious work to these authors. It was their passion, and it inspired it in kind in the fans, many of whom took it as their own passion and became authors themselves. Stephen King, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Anne Rice, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, and countless others reacted to the idea that the Dark Fantastic could be as vital and serious as any other type of tale, that it wasn't merely shadow-puppetry and cheap pulp fiction, and approached their own stories with gravity and sincerity.
(Robert Bloch is an interesting case; quite a few of his short stories were indeed trifles, humorous tales meant to raise a smile as much as a shriek, parodying archetypes that had become quite common. In his own way much of this work predates SCREAM 's sense of self-awareness. But he would also create, in his most serious moods, works of power and intensity. No one who ever visited the Bates Motel reading “Psycho” could doubt that Mr. Bloch wasn't fooling around here either.)
These authors, like the two worms fighting inside the rotting corpse, were in dead earnest. I should apologize for that – but see how an ill-placed quip can dissipate the macabre mood? Horror can be the most fragile of genres, like Humor; one misstep, one carefully wrought device out of place so that the premise stumbles slightly, and the effect striven for collapses like so much paper mache in a rainstorm.
Understand that I have no objection to irony per se. But to commit your art to arch amusement, to disdain sincerity and constantly be winking at the audience begs the questions of why we should support someone whose seems to have contempt for the others practicing their craft? The Cryptkeeper and the Old Witch of EC Comics' used to say the irony was good for the body, and perhaps they were correct, but to pursue the metaphor, too much can cause a vitamin deficiency of the intellect.
Or, to quote Joseph Stephano, screenwriter of PSYCHO and creator of THE OUTER LIMITS television series:
“There must be no apology, no smirk; each drama, no matter how wordless or timeless, must be spoken with all the seriousness and sincerity and suspension-of-disbelief that a caring and intelligent parent employs in the spinning of a magic-wonderful tale to a child at bedtime. Humor and wit are honorable; the tongue in the cheek is most often condescending and gratuitous. When the tongue is in the cheek it is almost impossible to speak in anything but a garbled, foolish fashion.”
"Soldier" - THE OUTER LIMITS