Liberating Frankness, Enlightening Irreverence

The liberating power of irreverent “black comedy”: breaking false idols, mocking prevailing hypocrisies, and calling forth a massive revolt against mass delusion and folly–through laughter.  It was, of course, in the Sixties, just when people were beginning to “raise their consciousness” — that various forms of spirited and subversive humor appeared on the scene.  Things were a-changing: Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, “second wave” feminism, and a new (guiltless) candor about sex.  But even more fundamentally, a new egalitarian ethos, poised to sweep away the entrenched authoritarian institutions still to be found in patriarchy at home and war-making abroad.

There was a bracing climate of good-humored frankness in the air–most conspicuously, in the circles of high-spirited, rebellious youth.  Good-humored, because young people almost everywhere felt energized and hopeful by the new honesty and intimate communication.  In startling contrast to our own sadly deluded time–plagued as it is by misguided righteousness and hidden, festering resentments–it was a more optimistic age, in which small-minded bigots and petty dictators of everyday life could hopefully simply be laughed off the stage of a “new-world-in-progress.”

At its most liberating, such invigorating satire delightfully mocked ALL sacred cows, hypocrisies, bigotries, and narrow-minded provincialisms.  Destroy all conventional stupidities and petty tyrannies–with an overwhelming upswell of liberating laughter.  Think of Kubrick and Southern’s Dr. Strangelove (1964).  Sixty years on, it remains a devastatingly funny, darkly incisive exposure of “madness in high places” — the Pentagon’s “crackpot realism,” which sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote so trenchantly about.  (A few years later, President Nixon would order his generals in Vietnam to “kill anything that moves.”)  If anything, the bumbling, priapic Gen. Buck Turgidson, brilliantly portrayed by George C. Scott, still exhibits a modicum of sanity–unlike those generals we’ve seen in Iraq who “do not do body-counts.”

Think also of the pathbreaking TV satire of the Seventies, All in the Family.  “Let’s not pretend that offensive racism doesn’t exist,” creator Norman Lear seemed to be urging, “let’s bring it out in the open for all to hear and see, thereby revealing it for all its pathetic ignorance.”  Let the uneducated, small-minded “Archie Bunkers” of America say their say–in an appropriately comic, buffoonish format, of course–and maybe, just maybe, their laughable ignorance will consign their kind to the dustbin of history.  (Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have turned out that way: “Archie Bunker” just waited until he could get his very own Fox network!).

That reminds me of my favorite example of what I’m talking about: the movie No Way to Treat a Lady (1968), a delicious mock-thriller in which both the serial killer and the detective have debilitating “mother-complexes.”  For under-50 readers, the allusion to the Freudian Oedipus complex may seem quite distant and unfamiliar.  But in the Sixties, expanding horizons of liberation included overcoming (socio-political) repressions and indoctrinations.  Freudianism–and overcoming “repressed sex” — were once again all the rage.  Sexual maladjustment was frankly confronted as a possible source of innumerable psycho-social pathologies.  Recall that in Dr. Strangelove, the paranoid Gen. Jack D. Ripper evidently practices–when he is not impotent–coitus reservatus.  He is obsessively fearful of any threat to his “precious bodily fluids.”  And, of course, the movie itself climaxes in a kind of final “cosmic orgasm.”

Christopher Gill, played with true comic genius by Rod Steiger, is a mother-smothered actor who still worships at the shrine of his domineering actress-mama, long-dead but immortalized in the “Amanda Gill Theater” which he manages.  In one droll scene among many, Gill recalls his elderly(!) mother performing as Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play.  Gill, you see, suffers from “paranoid mother-hate” — so much so that he just can’t stop strangling various old ladies.  Meanwhile, the mother-shackled, hapless detective Mo Brummel, played with appropriate nebbishness by George Segal, is on the case.  Of course, there are possibly “offensive” stereotypes here–the domineering “Jewish mother” and her hapless, thirty-something son.  But it is all done in such a playful spirit of drollery–making fun of the stereotypes, as well as of the Freudian mumbo-jumbo that one must take with more than a grain of good-natured irony.

Significantly, quite unlike misogynistic slasher movies which began with Hitchcock’s disturbing Psycho (1960), all this is presented in a good-natured, un-serious fashion.  Both Gill and Brummel have the same problem–they just deal with it in different ways!  And, unlike Hitchcock’s sickening serial-killer movie Frenzy (1972), the strangulations in No Way to Treat a Lady are brief and off-screen.  Using a lipstick, the effeminate Gill invariably draws a pair of alluring red lips on the foreheads of his victims–the luscious red lips also evident in the portrait of his late, lamented Mother.  Gill, as a failed actor, thus attains the ultimate revenge: not only does he kill a series of mother-surrogates, but demonstrates his under-appreciated acting genius in the process!

In one encounter, Gill adopts the costume of an emigre German plumber who has come to “pound on the pipes.”  (“You are from Frankfurt?  I am from Frankfurt!”).  After eating the Frau’s generously offered “google-hoops,” he completes the business-at-hand.  In another, he is a gay hairdresser, who arrives at a cat-lady’s apartment, explaining that she “signed a coupon at the drugstore” and has “won a wig.”  Steiger, complete with his own (Boris Johnson?) style of wig (and an effetely lisping voice), wishes to proceed to his business–only to be constantly interrupted by the naughty doings of the woman’s innumerable cats!  And, just when he might be able to complete the “wig-fitting,” a sister arrives and immediately smells trouble.  Gill, much exasperated that both the cats and the sister have diverted him from his business, is then chased out by the yelling sister: “You fag [redubbed “phony”]!  Gill’s departing repartee is deliriously droll: “That doesn’t make you a bad person!”

Can you see what I’m driving at?  It was a time of liberating, growing awareness–with an impatient eagerness to throw off the hidden prejudices, outmoded conventions, and above all, hypocrisies that crippled people’s capacities for real engagement and bold, life-affirming transformations in their lives.  An opening for human growth had appeared, in which good-natured frankness and easy-going irreverence could help people to overcome their crippling inhibitions, stifling conformities, and irrational prejudices.

Unfortunately, these days hypocrisy once again reigns supreme–but in strangely new forms.  Common-sense wisdom might tell us that if you prohibit “offensive speech,” it doesn’t just wither away.  It festers in secret–where it then builds on real or imagined grievances. Our everyday experience might also tell us that if you try to force someone to agree with you, he will stubbornly resist–defiantly insisting on his “right to an opinion” (which he might otherwise have soon re-examined on his own).  But these days, menacing “white supremacists” and their ilk have instead defiantly withdrawn into an algorthmically-amplified, Internet bunker of their fellow paranoids, thereby mutually reinforcing their delusions about  “endangered liberty.”  And, in the meantime, stockpiling more assault weapons–and waiting for another hate-mongering demagogue like Trump.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.