Jim Carrey

By Laine, Tarja | CineAction, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Jim Carrey


Laine, Tarja, CineAction


THE KING OF EMBARRASSMENT

Fun houses are sociologically provocative because they are not necessarily funny. Halls of distorting mirrors are methodologically appealing sites for an inquiry into emotional process. What does it take to make the mirrors funny? And what meaning do people take from the experience?

(Katz 1999: 87)

In his study on 'Families and funny mirrors', Jack Katz argues that even though humor is natural to the fun house setting, it is far from inevitable: the fun house visitors must 'work' in order to construct the emotion of joy. [1] Starting from the assumption that emotions are on the one hand a force beyond one's control and, on the other hand, an experience that is personally and idiosyncratically shaped, Katz describes fun house laughter as a three-phase process. First, the experience of the distorted image in the funny mirror has to be shared with someone else. Second, the distorted image must create a dynamic tension between a person as depicted by the mirror and that person's presumptively normal identity. And third, the laughter is often accompanied by certain bodily practices: this marks the shift from 'doing laughter' to a phase of being 'done by' humor. [2]

In this article I will study the star image of Jim Carrey as a kind of distorting mirror image. Like the fun houses, Carrey is sociologically provocative because his comic art is based on shame and embarrassment created by a tension built in social interaction. [3] I will argue that embarrassment is a characteristic feature in Carrey's star vehicles--within and beyond the film frame - and that embarrassment defines both Carrey's uniqueness as a star and his role as a successor of the comedians like Jerry Lewis.

According to Steven Shaviro, comedy most commonly liberates through aggression: the comedian achieves a kind of self-redemption by getting to square her/his account wit her/his tormentors, or simply by violating and overturning social taboos. [4] Carrey's comedy, however, moves away from the liberating, ego-stabling redemption to the production of more corporeal tension that manifests itself in the emotions of shame and embarrassment. Embarrassment functions as a threat to the coherence of the individual subjectivity; and brings it into the social frame of reference, under the gaze and judgement of others. [5]

This embarrassment is also shared, beyond the film frame, by the film audience through a process of identification. As Shaviro points out, this is not unrelated to one's embarrassment at having to defend one's enthusiasm for low-order slapstick comedy, because it implies a sense of being somehow associated with the antihero's idiotic misadventures. [6] I, for instance, have justified my passion for Carrey by creating a 'false pride' (the reverse side of shame) of it, and 'confessing' it before I could be judged for it. Embarrassment in Carrey's films, ten, results in complicated, 'non-traditional' mechanisms of cinematic identification that always has a disturbing, awkward undertone. [7] And whether the spectator can deal with this awkwardness or not, determines whether s/he can take pleasure from Carrey's films or not. To my purposes, therefore, is the second phase in Katz's description of the fun house laughter is the most relevant. In this second phase, the subject perceives a dynamic tension between her/ his mirror image and her/his normal identity. Laughter emerges from a transformation into a positive expression of the potential for a shameful and embarrassing recognition that one has awkwardly failed to maintain an appropriate identity in front of the others. [8] Carrey's star image provides a similar, distorted image of the spectator her/himself, because s/he is invited to identify with and to see her/himself in Carrey on the screen.

The monstrous masculine

Arthur Koestler has argued that humor is in its essence a simultaneous orientation to two or more inconsistent perspectives. …

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