The Mechanics of the Tectonic Man: Comedy and the "Ludic Function" of A Serious Man and Punch-Drunk Love

By Metz, Walter C. | Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Mechanics of the Tectonic Man: Comedy and the "Ludic Function" of A Serious Man and Punch-Drunk Love


Metz, Walter C., Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood


This essay seeks the intertextual relationship between a seemingly long-since forgotten theoretical tract and contemporary cinema, colliding a book of cultural history, Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1944), and two comedy films - Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002) and A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009).

In the case of A Serious Man - about a hapless university physics professor in 1967 Minnesota - the genre implications of the title intrigue: what makes this man, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) "serious" in an otherwise nihilistic Coen Brothers comedy? As in the films of Stanley Kubrick - from Humbert Humbert (James Mason) played like a pawn by Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) in Lolita (1962) to Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) played like a fiddle by the ghosts at the hotel in The Shining (1980) - if there is a joke, it seems to be on Larry: he is cuckolded by his wife, tormented by his seemingly doomed tenure application at school, ignored by his children, and taunted by his neighbors.

Punch-Drunk Love significantly deviates from the darkly comedic nihilism of the Coens and Kubrick. In the film, a distinctly unfunny Adam Sandler plays Barry Egan, owner of a toilet-plunger concern whose psychological repression almost kills him, until he meets and falls in love with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a friend of his sisters. In a remarkable cinematic feat, Paul Thomas Anderson resolves the crisis of civilization - human beings are selfish, self-destructive animals - which Kubrick, the Coens, and Sigmund Freud (in Civilization and its Discontents and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, for that matter) merely passively invoke as dark comedy. By play-acting violence, instead of re-enacting it, Barry comes to solve the joke. How can we act in a violent, horrible world? We can love each other - is the film's elegant answer.

In an essay about The Shining, Larry W. Caldwell and Samuel J. Umland discuss what they call the film's "play metaphor." They build their argument on the work of Johan Huizinga, who argues that modern man should be called Homo Ludens (Player Man), rather than the commonly accepted Homo Sapiens (Knowing Man), or the then recently proposed Homo Faber (Maker Man), the ironic subtext for almost all Kubrick films (human technology allows mankind to build things far more powerful than they are able to control). In Punch-Drunk Love, what Barry discovers, in a hotel room in Hawaii, is that, through play, the abusive aspects of civilization can be drained away, rendered impotent, allowing for the positive experience of love to overcome them. In this article, I will demonstrate, via Huizinga's book, how different kinds of play allow us to understand A Serious Man, Punch-Drunk Love, and the films of Stanley Kubrick. While A Serious Man and Kubrick films also invoke the violent nature of civilization, they position us merely as the victims of its cruel, insoluble joke, whereas Paul Thomas Anderson's film addresses how the abusive power of the tendentious joke can be diffused, through a love found via play.

In "'Come and Play with Us': The Play Metaphor in Kubrick's Shining," Caldwell and Umland rely on Huizinga to critique the academic praise of Kubrick's horror film. After demonstrating all of the references to play in the film - the murdered twins ask Jack's son Danny to "come and play with us... for ever... and ever... and ever" - they argue for the film's ultimate failure. As Caldwell and Umland state, "Kubrick's manipulation of the play metaphor, together with its adjuncts - stereotyped characters and plot, banal dialogue, allusions to fairy tales and cartoons, as well as his self-reflexivity - suggests that The Shining, as an object to bear 'meaning,' cannot sustain the ponderous social psychology which film scholars have imputed to it" (110-11). They conclude: "We submit that Kubrick's manipulation of the play metaphor in The Shining obviates the film's aesthetic force and therefore undermines any 'serious' intent. …

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