The Big Sick : Laughing Through the Tears

Big Sick

In my eyes, comedy is always just a few steps away from pain. The things which really makes us laugh, which make the tears stream down our eyes and our bellies hurt and our lungs gasp for air, they’re always things which are only a few lines away from becoming a tragedy. Those hilarious bursts of misfortune, suffered by ourselves or by other people. Those moments of blinding ignorance which lead us into mistakes or faux pas’. Those stories which we tell to our friends years later, still slightly embarrassed. All these things which become “material” for comedians, and almost all of them are very near to veering into sadness.

Naturally then, when a film takes that in stride, in mawkish but honest sincerity, laughing at itself up until the point it needs to cry, it reflects that fact back at you. That things that are funny are sometimes quite sad, and sometimes things which are sad are quite funny.

The Big Sick (2017, Dir. Michael Showalter) is mostly based on a true story, of a Pakistani comedian who falls in love with an American grad student. On his side, he must deal with the potential consequences of revealing this to his traditional Pakistani-Muslim family, who want nothing more than for Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) to marry a traditional Pakistani Muslim girl. On her side however, he must deal with the potential consequences of Emily (Zoe Kazan) falling grievously ill and her parents, with absolutely standout and side-splitting roles played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. All while managing a fledgling comedy career and navigating his compatriots in the stand up circuit of Chicago.

So far, so rom-com, albeit with a cultural twist. The film’s ace however, is the fact that it is a true love story. The reason Kumail’s character name is the same as his real name, is because the events of the film are loosely based on his life experiences. And not only that, but Kumail and the real Emily, Emily V. Gordon (who is renamed Gardner in the film) wrote the script together, a script about their own coming together. What the film becomes then is a recounting of a romance, with I’m sure a few extensive moments of embellishment and lies, to make the truth a little funnier and a little easier to digest. After all writers don’t directly copy reality, they often edit out the bits in between to make a story flow easier.

So you end up with quite a different experience in the film. A film which becomes uniquely more funny in its jokes, due to two things. One, drawing from the well of cultural differences for humour, rather than anger. Ethnicity and racism has become such a contentious issue in many areas of modern life, that it feels so refreshing to witness it in such a down to earth, honest way. Not as an issue to be ripped open and painfully exposed, but as an issue to be acknowledged and joked about. You don’t have to be serious all the time, in fact it’s important to remember to find the humour in things which can cause pain, because that makes them a little easier to bear.

The other thing it draws from is the unique individual experiences we all go through, the characters and personas who inhabit our life who may not be as diverse as our media suggests. I am a white straight male, and while I’ve had a lot of experience of people outside of my sex, gender, ethnicity and more, I still live in a world where a lot of the people I predominately see reflect me in quite a similar way. What the film takes from that then, is that the world feels intimately real, in a very comforting way. Kumail’s friends are mostly stand-up comics, which makes sense in a film about a comedian. His family is quite insular and traditional and proud of their heritage, which I believe is quite common in families with Middle Eastern/Eastern heritages.

People do not always mix in complex diverse rainbows, even in big multicultural cities such as the one I live in. Communities often gather, and while hopefully they don’t consciously self-segregate, they still often find comfort in the familiarity of each other. What The Big Sick does is acknowledge those boundaries, and reflect on them, and how often people stay behind them or cross them. And in The Big Sick, they cross them for love. And the story doesn’t pigeonhole itself into a corner, launching into pointless diatribes about “love is love” and berating arranged marriages. Kumail’s more honest confrontation is to do with him wanting to forge his own path in a world where people are often trying to get him to take a different course.

In real life there are no Hollywood endings. The credits never roll until you close your eyes for the last time, and even then everyone else’s films are still playing. The Big Sick never allows itself to slip into schmaltzy, grotesque cliché’s that make chick-flicks so loved by many and repulsed by others. This isn’t a film which claims everything will be perfect, that relationships are things which are carried away by magic where they lived “happily ever after”. No one is ever happy all the time. But it’s very important to be happy, to find moments where you can be happy, even if things might not work out in the future.

Most importantly, you just gotta laugh at it all, even if you’re crying.

-Alex

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The Big Sick : Laughing Through the Tears

Harold and Maude

harold-and-maude

Dear Reader, today marks the first post not written by this site’s first author. This essay concerns Hal Ashby’s 1971 picture, Harold and Maude, and is written by a dear friend of mine, currently studying a degree in English Literature and Film Studies. I won’t say any more, other than he’s seen far more films than I have and I envy him greatly for it.

-Alex


 

‘If you want to sing out sing out, and if you want to be free be free’

Cat Stevens

Harold and Maude is a name you very well may have heard and know, however why is this? This story of two lovers, one in his early 20s and the other bordering 80 has been a central example of cult cinema since its release in 1971. However what is it that has drawn people to this deeply strange 70s romantic comedy, despite the film not being a great success upon first release?

The film does not perhaps have the same cult status as something like Blade Runner or The Rocky Horror Picture Show, both of which have become lauded by either critics or fans. Harold and Maude instead has retained its popularity steadily throughout the decades seemingly just through the strength of the film itself and not through any real dedicated effort by a fan base. This is not to belittle the previously mentioned films, Harold and Maude is just an interesting inclusion to what has now almost become a genre of films in and of itself. Cult cinema is usually rooted in genre, most noticeably horror or sci-fi, for a romantic comedy to occupy the same status is odd. However it does feel apt when it comes to Harold and Maude for it to retain this status as a cult classic. The film as already mentioned has an off kilter subject matter which may deter viewers, however this is to their own detriment.

The film when just taken at a basic plot level shouldn’t work, a boy obsessed with staging his own suicide falls in love with a youthful old woman. It’s just such an unusual way to stage romance. But when seen it is clear that the absurdity in the story gives the film such a lasting effect in the cannon of cult cinema. Much like Wes Anderson, whose clear influence from the film has been noted the offbeat nature of the love stories in his films have only elevated him in this post-modern landscape to great success. If only Hal Ashby in his time had been able to enjoy the same virtues.

The films tone could easily slide into the realm of creepy or even saccharine but this is deftly avoided by Ashby. Upon release Roger Ebert hated the film stating ‘The visual style makes everyone look fresh from the Wax Museum, and all the movie lacks is a lot of day-old gardenias and lilies and roses in the lobby, filling the place with a cloying sweet smell.’ A sentiment which whilst as always incredibly well written I disagree with. While this isn’t the most visually stimulating of films, I feel that this is not what the film is trying to achieve. Harold as a character may be a strange and morbid boy but he is in a way the emotional heart of the film. Despite Maude in her youthfulness and appreciation of life, it is Harold who I felt really grabbed me. Through his indifference to the world you can see why he is like that, with nothing to do and no one to talk to he can only express himself in violence and nihilism. Following the death of his father he has become obsessed with trying to be dead despite wanting to be alive. He is stuck in a distinctly conservative American world, one where everyone around him feels he needs to do more even if that means going to war in Vietnam. Harold’s attitude for life should strike a chord with anyone who’s felt the crushing boredom of not knowing what or why they are doing anything.

Maude as a character embodies almost the complete opposite to Harold, if Harold is darkness Maude is blinding light. Ruth Gordon is such a strongly optimistic portrayal of a woman in old age it is hard to not fall in love with her yourself. After being shown the darkness of Harold’s mind-set, the optimism and light which comes from this old woman with everything to live for and nothing to lose is beautiful. The question of age shouldn’t and doesn’t matter to these two, and in turn it doesn’t matter to the audience.

This all being said I don’t think that this should be heralded as some example of incredible film-making. This is why I feel that perhaps Ebert is a little harsh to the film in saying it makes everyone look like a wax figure. Yes its death obsessed and has a muted visual style but does it really matter in a film like this? It’s more a character study and a rallying cry for the little man than Ebert gives it credit for. By focusing on these two weirdo’s on the outskirts of society Ashby is looking more at character and dialogue than his own auteurship. The acting may not all be brilliant and there is a naivety to it which could easily be grating. I can also say that I don’t love every scene of this film, for example I could have done without the sequence with the policeman which came off a bit too ‘haha look at the narc’ for my taste. This is definitely a case of me being in a different audience to those in the early 70s, it just does seem as subversive any more in the 2010’s. It’s the characters Ashby wants to shed a light on and not his film-making, which is far from boring but also not a visual feast. Direction is not the be all and end all of great films and I feel this film shows that.

Following on from the slightly dated policeman scene, it is obvious that this film is being made in the wake of the 60s hippy dream failing. Despite the optimism that the 60s brought, all that is left now is the conservative aftermath of that. This is why there is so much contempt for any kind of authority. The biggest laughs in the film come from these authority figure like his war loving uncle despite losing an arm. His mother played with brilliant gusto by Vivian Pickles who just seems to reek of societal compliance, has completely shut off her emotions. She cares not for Harold and his antics and instead busies herself with trying to make Harold ‘normal’.

Despite all this morbid subject matter and depressive view on the world itself, the film promotes being different in a really lovely way. The film is without a doubt sweet in nature. For me, it doesn’t trip over into being sickly because of this darkness. The weirdness only helps me understand the place from which these characters are coming from and heightens the emotional impact of the main characters relationship. I fell in love with Harold and Maude, presumably in the same way generations of people have been before me and long may it continue.

-Ed

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Harold and Maude