The Tree Test

Some videos I like, and also a bit about Russian Formalism.

I loved this short by Matt Barats, “Here We Have Idaho.” It’s about a guy returning to his childhood home in Boise (where I AM!) and talking to the camera about his past. Traces of a story emerge—a rift with his family, which doesn’t seem to like or understand him, and exiles him to a trailer in the driveway—but this isn’t the sort of thing you watch for plot. For me it’s comedy ASMR: lush imagery, pleasant music, a narrator saying funny shit in a soothing voice, the occasional flight of formal whimsy. They all bore right to the center of my skull, eroding my defenses bit by bit until the final moment makes me lose it entirely. (You’ll know it when you see it.)

If you like “Here We Have Idaho,” you may also like “Reveries,” a short Barats made with Anthony Oberbeck and director Graham Mason—

—and of course the new Pandemic Episode of Joe Pera Talks With You, which shares “Here We Have Idaho”’s co-editor, Whit Conway. Let’s focus on those two today.

What I admire about these shorts is the way they convey simultaneously a sense of grandeur and a sense of intimacy. They make me feel like something very dramatic is going on, even as all that’s literally happening is an oddball narrator saying oddball stuff about what he’s looking at. It’s a masterful effect, and one I don’t think you see very often in short-form comedy—the creation of stakes by suggestion, by which I mean through formal techniques (in this case filmic) rather than through dialogue and plot. Not that they don’t also contain some degree of narrative tension, but I think it’s fair to say the operating tension in both is formal.

One of my personal theories is that the most interesting things are at least two types of things. Funny and sad. Novel and meeting minutes. Rock and opera. Epic poem and catalogue of ships. Standup set and powerpoint presentation (JOKE ENTRY). Formal tension comes from the friction between these competing identities, and I do mean identities: not mere genre but desire, purpose, personality, memory, all the things that make a work of art wholly of the person or people who made it. A person’s identity is not static; it exists in a state of constant renewal, informed by what they experience. Formal tension is one way art recreates that dynamic feeling of being alive, as opposed to merely describing it.

I am somewhat channeling the Russian Formalists here, who argued that the essence of art is its defamiliarization effect, the way it re-attunes us to the strangeness of what we’re used to. “After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it,” Viktor Shklovsky wrote. “The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it—hence we cannot say anything significant about it.” To say something significant about an object we have to perceive it anew, and to do that we have to look at it from outside its familiar context. Shklovsky cites a Tolstoy story whose narrator, a horse, offers its peculiar perspective on private property. I think often of the sequence in Interstellar when Cooper gives Romilly his relaxation tape: as Romilly starts listening, the scene cuts to an external view of the ship, and we hear the (diegetic) sound of rain and thunder and crickets as the tiny spacecraft floats silently past the frame-filling bulk of Saturn and its rings. Such a tiny context shift—a thunderstorm, in space!—that let me feel like I was hearing rain for the first time again.

Sometimes I catch myself thinking the point (of defamiliarizing objects, of creating art) is to make the ordinary interesting. That’s not right. A while back my friend Sarah, a comedian, and I were talking about a bad standup set, one where the comic had nothing worth saying and no worthwhile way of saying it. Sarah said she can’t stand comedy that’s less interesting than the world. Why watch someone’s bad set when you could just walk around outside and look at trees? I thought that was such an elegant way of thinking. The job isn’t to make ordinary things strange; it’s to reawaken ourselves to how strange they already are. I come back to her question whenever I’m trying to figure out what I think of a work of art. Is it as interesting as a clump of pines trembling in the wind and sun? Does it contain as much complexity, improbability, mystery?

You can usually tell when an artist doesn’t think the world is all that interesting, or doesn’t recognize what’s truly interesting about it. The work is incurious, uninspired, takes easy routes to easy destinations. In comedy the pressure to get laughs becomes a pressure to filter experience into pre-made shapes—setup, reversal; “you know this thing? It’s like that other thing”—which can replace the hard work of interrogating experience. (You have to look at things if you want to see them.) So you end up with a lot of jokes about things everybody thinks and nobody’s afraid to say—

I used to black out four or five nights a week. I’ve cut back. Now my phone is my main addiction. Everybody goes, “Hey, phone addiction—better than alcohol.” I don’t know. Same side effects. Both dangerous while driving, both what I go to when I’m nervous at a party, and both have helped us all sleep with very regrettable people. Right? The phone is just the new booze. Both are fun, but if you do it too long, it just becomes depressing. You know, you drink too much, you’re like, “I hate myself.” You look at your phone too long you’re like, “Ah, even Jeff found love? God!” (Mark Normand)

or what seems like insightful social commentary, if you have no idea what you’re talking about—

Why don’t we update some of these terms that we use in the tech world, like “e-mail”? Why is the world “mail” even in “e-mail”? Is there any similarity between e-mail and whatever the hell is going on in the Postal Service? One of them operates on a digital, fiber-optic, hyper-speed network. The other is this dazed and confused, distant branch of the Cub Scouts out there, just bumbling around the streets in embarrassing shorts and jackets with meaningless patches and victory medals. Driving four miles an hour, 20 feet at a time, on the wrong side of a mentally handicapped Jeep. They always have this emotional, financial meltdown every three and half years that their business model from 1630 isn’t working anymore. “How are we going to catch up?” (Jerry Seinfeld)

or bold truth-telling that doesn’t make a lick of sense—

Cubism is important. You know, it really is. It was a real game-changer. Picasso freed us from slavery, people. He really did. He freed us from the slavery of having to reproduce believable three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface. Three-point perspective, that illusion that gives us the idea of a single stable world view, a single perspective? Picasso said, “No! Run free! You can have all perspectives. That’s what we need. From above, from below, inside out, the sides. All the perspectives at once!” Thank you, Picasso. What a guy. What a hero. Thank you. But tell me, any of those perspectives a woman’s? No. Well, I’m not fucking interested. You just put a kaleidoscope filter on your cock. You’re still painting flesh vases for your dick flowers. (Hannah Gadsby, who definitely has interesting things to say, but this in my opinion was an exception that proved the rule.)

or the wisdom of the ruling class, poorly disguised as iconoclasm—

But, you see, what I didn’t realize at the time and what Kevin had to learn the hard way is we were breaking an unwritten and unspoken rule of show business. And if I say it, you’ll know that I’m telling you the truth. The rule is that no matter what you do in your artistic expression, you are never, ever, allowed to upset… the alphabet people. You know who I mean. Those people that took 20% of the alphabet for themselves. I’d say the letters, but I don’t want to conjure their anger. Ah, it’s too late now. I’m talking about them L’s and them B’s and them G’s and the T’s.

People would be surprised. I have friends of all kinds of letters. Everybody loves me and I love everybody. I got friends who are L’s. I got friends who are B’s. And I got friends who are G’s. But the T’s hate my fuckin’ guts. And I don’t blame ’em. It’s not their fault. It’s mine. I can’t stop telling jokes about these n—s. I don’t want to write these jokes, but I just can’t stop! (Dave Chappelle, who goes on to perform a lengthy act-out that ends in an argument that “this idea that a person can be born in the wrong body” is akin to him thinking he’s Chinese.)

—and the horizonless wasteland of paint-by-numbers sitcoms, movies, and sketches that envision their characters as joke delivery machines instead of rich, complex, contradictory human beings. And their jokes are often very funny! Even The Wrong Missy wrung a few chuckles out of me. But the nature of machines is that they are programmed to execute a function over and over and over again. This makes them replaceable, forgettable. Inessential. They cannot reveal anything new about reality because they cannot sincerely examine reality, which follows no program.

Which brings me back to the videos above. Aren’t they so interesting, so strange? Aren’t they filled with such love of life, so much attentiveness toward the world’s beauty and darkness? I love the dream sequence in “Here We Have Idaho,” the rumination on straight lines and mortality in “Relaxing Old Footage With Joe Pera.” I love the feeling of possibility as their formal vocabularies expand before my eyes. I love the feeling of being transported, of trusting that wherever they take me is worth going. But most of all I just love feeling. It’s easy to forget how. I need a reminder now and then, something to jog me out of my old ways of seeing. And then there they are again—the trees. What on earth are those?