Thursday, September 23, 2010

Without Cynicism

My mordant sense of humor has gotten me in trouble yet again. A couple of week ago the  town in which I live unveiled its new Welcome Center, built entirely by volunteer labor. Confident that the event would present ample opportunity for mischief, I took Claire’s video camera, and recorded little interviews with the artist who’d done the mural on the back of the building, and an admiring friend of the artist, and a local woman who seemed, for reasons not clear to me (the failure may well have been my own!), to have soup on her mind. Without getting up to shoot them from the front, I recorded little snippets of local dignitaries celebrating the wonder of the new Welcome Center. I put theremin music on the soundtrack because the use of wildly inappropriate music has always amused me hugely; when my best theatre company, the enlarged Spandex Amazons, debuted in San Francisco in July 1995, I played Christmas music as the audience came in.

With tongue slightly in cheek, I entitled the resulting little video The Unveiling of the Beacon Welcome Center. My doing so, it seems to me, was very much in the same spirit as my friend painting straight-sided ovals in the exact center of familiar (or, in the case of his mural, unfamiliar) images and calling it art. But then I posted a link to my video on a site on which locals discuss things, and what a tempest in a teapot ensued! One woman denounced me for my cynicism. One guy said the volunteers' stalwart efforts deserved a far better tribute than my video — as though I'd kept anyone else from making his or her own little movie! Another guy said the whole thing reminded him of the dark days of a mysterious, maybe apocryphal, local provocateuse who was forever letting the air out of our more self-congratulatory locals’ balloons. When the guy said he’d hate to see a return to people being allowed to express views that upset others, I rubbed my hands together in glee and emphatically agreed that it was imperative that dissenting viewpoints be suppressed, lest anyone’s feathers be ruffled. Yes, I was being sarcastic.

The question before us now is whether my little film was cynical. I don’t buy that it was. I think all those volunteers working on the Welcome Center was a terrific thing. I have myself been working without pay on behalf of the restoration of the big local theater. But I am constitutionally unable to resist the temptation to satirize even mild pomposity. Self-righteousness and earnestness unleavened by a bit of humor, of the sort so much in evidence in my little corner of the Hudson Valley, invariably make me yearn for a whoopee cushion, or to be able to fart resonantly on cue.

I’m honestly not so sure I mind being accused of a bit of healthy cynicism every now and again. In the words of one of my favorite American writers, the late Frederick Exley, “Without cynicism, there is no wit.” In the words of Dorothy Parker, “If you don’t have something nice to say about someone, sit next to me.” If I were to watch my little video with an outsider’s eyes, I like to imagine I would be amused by the filmmaker’s having missed the whole point of the festivities. Honestly, though, it pokes no fun whatever at the brave men and women who gave their time and labor to make the Welcome Center a reality.

Could I be trying, in some twisted, neurotic way, to spare myself hurt by always staking out a position of ironic detachment? Well, not exactly spare myself hurt, but be more in control of it; I’ll do something to make you think ill of me, but that will be less painful than your thinking ill of me, which I presume you’d do, without provocation. Don’t imagine it hasn’t occurred to me.

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