April 20, 2009KR BlogKR

A Large Vibrating Egg

April 20th is the birthday of Harold Lloyd, which is reason enough to celebrate. It’s also the date, back in 1977, that Annie Hall opened in theaters. Rather than letting this Monday go up in smoke (or worse: it’s also the birthday of Hitler and the anniversary of the Columbine massacre), I thought we might revisit a few moments from Woody Allen’s near-masterwork. (And Match Point me no Match Points: it’s Manhattan #1, Annie Hall #2.)

Annie Hall,  unknown

W. C. Fields once remarked, “I never saw anything funny that wasn’t terrible. If it causes pain, it’s funny; if it doesn’t, it isn’t.” (Several centuries earlier, Giordano Bruno arrived at a similar conclusion: “In hilaritas, tristis, in tristitia, hilaris.”) Pain and laughter keep close company in Annie Hall, from Alvy Singer’s opening monologue to his casual aside about his grandmother. (“My grammy never gave gifts. She was too busy getting raped by Cossacks.”) This is a movie where anti-Semitism lurks in unlikely places, where sex is described as “a Kafkaesque experience.” “What’s with all these awards?” Alvy asks. “They’re always giving out awards. Best Fascist Dictator: Adolf Hitler.” The unnerving leaps of logic, in large part, create the laughs. James Tate does something similar at the end of his poem “What the City Was Like”: “In the days that followed children were always screaming. / You could set their hair on fire and, sure enough, / they’d start screaming.”

Spinoza, it’s said, laughed out loud “only when watching his favorite spectacle, that of two spiders fighting to the death.” I’d like to think the philosopher would have enjoyed Alvy’s skirmish with a spider “the size of a Buick.” (My favorite moment in the scene: Alvy’s puzzlement over a bar of black soap.) And why is the word “Buick” so dependably funny? Part of the reason must be its specificity. (“Honey, there’s a spider in your bathroom the size of a car” falls flat.) In Bruce McCall’s “Winter Cruises Under Ten Dollars,” a cheapskate traveler is sent zigzagging across a frozen Lake Winnipesaukee “in the snug comfort of a late-model Buick.” Comedians have long discussed the power of the letter “k” (a letter that shows up twice, perhaps not accidentally, in “Lake Winnipesaukee”). In his 2002 New Yorker article “What’s So Funny?,” Tad Friend writes of Wendy Liebman‘s ambition to end a joke with the word “kayak.” My own pet theory about the comic reliability of “Buick” is that it neatly combines the words “beautiful” and “fuck.” (From a 40-plus-year-old GM ad: “’68 Buick. Now we’re talking your language.”) Anyway, by the time the above-mentioned scene ends, Alvy has beaten the Buick-sized spider twice over. “A good laugh,” Nabokov tells us, “is the best pesticide.”

1951-buick-crop

“I, I forgot my mantra.” Has an actor ever nailed his only line in a movie as marvelously as Jeff Goldblum does? I’d always imagined that “Lacey Party Guest” was Goldblum’s first onscreen role, but a quick bit of IMDb research proved otherwise. A couple of years ago I was asked to name the movie character I most identified with, and Goldblum’s partygoer was my answer. And now I’m wondering if there’s a literary equivalent, a work in which a writer successfully goes one-and-done. I’ll nominate a poem from Loren Goodman’s Yale-Prize-winning Famous Americans. It’s called “The Party,” and it reads, in its entirety, “Invite Don Rickles.”

And while we’re inviting Rickles, let’s also invite the First Man and Second Man from the Lacey Party:

First Man: Well, will you take a meeting with him? I’ll take a meeting with you if you’ll take a meeting with Freddy.

Second Man: I took a meeting with Freddy. Freddy took a meeting with Charlie. You take a meeting with him.

First Man: All the good meetings are taken.

OK, on with the day. But first, raise a glass of chocolate milk to the house under the roller coaster. And recharge that vibrating egg.