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The Choice Cut

The Choice Cut

I have always enjoyed  dark or crude comedy. There is a  reach for universality in the scatological and grotesque performances that would otherwise be categorized as “lo-brow” in the rankings of our modern culture. Perhaps not all crude or cheap comedy is valuable to the advancement of critical and engaging cultural development, but it is always inextricable from the culture that ‘finds it funny.’ The aspect of a universal ‘funny’ is best found in these crude comedies - the slapstick of the three stooges and charlie chaplin are perhaps as funny today as the dildo jokes in the Lysistrata, or the drunken romps of shakespeare’s Trinculo.

The cultural sensibilities that dictate how well a joke will perform are mired in implicit nuances that shift between speaker and audience, and while the comedy of a dedicated satire will resonate beyond its maternal culture for the benefit of exposure of injustice or hypocrisy, we must ask ourselves the question: will the world ever tire of dick jokes?  Of raunchy sex and loud farts? Of the pursuit of ‘feeling good,’ winning one over on someone less fortunate, or even someone despicable and easy to hate? The similar tropes of crude comedy from all eras of literature and cultural production allow us to glimpse reflections of ourselves; the ancient world doesn’t seem so ancient when characters in a play pretend to masturbate for laughs.

The film The Package was released on the digital streaming service  ‘Netflix’ on August 10, 2018. It is the story of reunited friends who go off for their final hoorah in the woods over spring break, before going their separate ways. However, an unfortunate injury (as the movie description states) “sets off a race against time to save their friend's most prized possession.”This movie crosses the threshold of comedy that  universally exists as an element of hegemonically masculine culture; an aspect of culture that permeates throughout human history. It is a freudian, gory realization of “penis” comedy that has emerged out of a comedic culture of “cringe.” It is, in essence, the laugh at the character Jeremy’s unfortunate loss of manhood, and his friend’s quest to return and repair his physical wholeness, arching the plot into individual stories of redemption for each of the participants.

This is a story about a kid who accidentally cuts off his penis.

Before continuing with my analysis, I feel compelled to clarify few things. I find myself at odds with the prospect of deconstructing this premise in terms of universal comedy.  As I stated earlier, this style of “penis” comedy has a universal resonance with humanity. This is tricky, as there is not the same universal resonance with “vagina” comedy (if one can even say that there has been a cultivation of comedic genre for the vagina, outside of exclusively female comedians making unironic or non-pejorative comedy about vaginas. While this comedy exists and is currently becoming more accepted, the vagina is and has been a taboo topic for much of human history). Indeed, to suggest universal value in “penis” comedy is to proclimate the essentially misogynist nature of humankind, as comedy is based off of enthymemes (unspoken premises and beliefs concluded from the construction of its rhetoric), and the enthymeme of this particular narrative progression is that:

1. Jeremy, the character who cuts off his penis, being a virgin and being postulated by his friends as having been catfished by an online stranger, is literally cutting of his potency - that the online is not a sexually masculine realm, and therefore by placing his confidence in it is robbing himself of his own manhood.

2. That through male comradery, one can reconstitute one’s manhood; that it is a required ritual, a required space to have in a validated masculinity, and that there is a distinct nobility in this reconstitution of manhood.

While this only scratches the psychiatric surface of analysis-worthy material from this film, and while these particular enthymemes do not necessarily resonate with what I have proposed as being universal (Ie: the internet as being a non-masculin realm for sexual communication and movement) for my general scope of interest, I will leave it at that.

The last name of the unfortunate character who ends up accidentally cutting of his penis is named “Abelar,” something that immediately perked up my ears. In script writing, and especially the organic mandate of exposition in comedy, what is said is essential, otherwise the prose itself risks being too indulgent in the same space as the indulgent comedy that is occurring. When his last name was spoken, it was for a good reason.

The name “Abelar” from the movie is phonetically pronounced the same as a medieval priest named “Abelard”. This is of note, as the medieval Abelard is remembered by his punishment of castration from the act of adultery. Of the twelve extant manuscripts from the 12th century, the correspondence between him and his former lover Héloise are considered foundational texts of the french medieval canon. The chaste lamentation of Héloise over her immoral behavior in having an affair with a priest, and his consequent mutilation is, in itself, not very funny. However the canon of extant medieval manuscripts are not devoid of humour. The fabliau genre, coming into popularity in northern france in the 13th century, were transcriptions of older, orally composed stories that used stock characters and formulaic plotlines, and are, even by modern standards, incredibly raunchy. The formula of the fabliau typically involve a cuckold, an oblivious husband, and the husband ending up beaten, bloody, and none the wiser. The expectations that we have for films like The Package; the expected level of crudeness and critical engagement with the plotline, are on a similar level to what the medieval audience expected when reading the fabliaux, recognizing the stock characters and the role they were to play in the story. In a similar fashion, the fact that I went into the watching of this film knowing what the premise was due to my having watched its advertisement, and the expectations that that blooper-esque knowledge imparted could be paralleled to the world of stock-driven character roles of the fabliaux. Comedy must be recognizable, and while uniqueness is not an essentially hindering aspect of character construction in comedy, characters are typically derivative for the eased intent of communicating their relative psychological, emotional, and motivational understanding without impeding the comedy itself. Therefore, in what would have been produced in a primarily oral culture (in terms of how cultural content is mostly produced and distributed), the recognition of stock characters is understood through our exposure to the culture of bloopers and “sneak previews” found in a digital space.

The subject of digital discourse is present in this movie, but is not necessarily critiqued; only integrated seamlessly into the agencies of the stock characters. It was released on a digital streaming platform, so it is a prerequisite of the medium itself in which it is being consumed as having an online presence. The characters are all impeded in their communication by their digital interactions with others as well. For example, the character Sean sends an angry text message at his love interest’s ex-boyfriend at a critical moment from her phone without her knowing, thus being depicted as an immature medium of communication. Or, when the friends are all in their car driving to the woods for the first time, Donnie, Sean’s friend, sends lewd snapchats from the backseat to him, encouraging him to say something to his love interest who is driving the car from the seat beside him. Along with the aforementioned catfishing of Jeremy, digital media being used as a platform for sexual advancement is depicted as being emasculating and inappropriate.

This same struggle with shifting modes of orality is present in the extant medieval manuscripts we have of the fabliaux; the transition between an oral composition from a primarily oral culture and a written medium is difficult. The age of texts is associated with elegance, wisdom, and, with the ties of nationality, a form of aristocracy. However, when one reads these very old manuscripts, one can’t help but imagine the concoction of a drunken bar patron rowdying up his village crew for coarse laughter. The majority of fabliaux are not immediately concerned with literary elevation or satire, but are unavoidably depicting and critiquing the culture in which they were produced. It is in this way that we must critique The Package, a comedy that is at once juvenile and subversive, for what is not being said; for what is being taken for granted or implied as a cultural belief.

While I believe that the premise of a mutilated penis is comedy that could be enjoyed essentially by most cultures of history, if it were to be reproduced in any other culture or epoch it would represent different values. We must ask ourselves then: If the premise is essential, and not a unique product of a culture, then does it transmit an implicit belief held by all of humanity? Does this constitute essential morality: an aspect of anthropomorphic psychology or human instinct? Or is this conclusion just a perversion of the ideology of digital culture?

In any case, the comedic premise is scatological, and the fascination that we have with our own bodies is an inborn condition. As we see the stock of comedy proliferate online, we can conclude that the online as a medium of communication is becoming more familiar. It is now many of our primary sources for comedy. “Crude” comedy is a refuge for when we don’t understand something, but can imagine how it feels to experience. Unintended cultural critiques and implicit ideologies seep through this framework, infallibly producing unaired knowledge in retrospect. We crave satire as comedic consumers, but the reality is that we cannot escape satire; its self-reflexivity is taken for granted in such a suspended online medium. All comedy can now be watched and rewatched, and is assumed by our post-modern filters of consumption to be self-aware of its own ontology, and to some extent, self-aware of its own depictions of culture and hypocrisy.

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