The other night, when I was watching “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” for the twentieth time or so (yes, I’m obsessed with Russell Brand) and it struck me that one component of successful popular culture has involved bringing new levels of sincerity to cultural forms and expressions that were previously used as to mock sincerity, or at least, tried to escape sincerity.
Here’s what I mean: a decade or so ago, it would hard to imagine a failed blow job as a scene designed to express a heartfelt confession. But Jason Segel’s explanation of his failure to get an erection-- “that you broke my heart into a million pieces and so my cock doesn't want to be around you anymore!” is exactly that. A raw cry from the heat about his limp dick. The raw discussions of sexuality in “Superbad” achieve a similar effect. Again, in my childhood (a lot longer than a decade ago), it would be hard to imagine a dialogue around “pounding vag” as an earnest expression of adolescent sexual anxiety, but with Apatow’s insight into contemporary adolescence and actor’s like Hill and Cera able to express their terror through their false bravado, you get it. I’m trying to come with a name for it: Sentimental crude? Eh, not yet.
In any case, in my mind, one of the surprising innovators here, was Douglas Coupland. Whatever his limitations, in Gen X, he took our emerging irony-drenched, hyper-self-conscious culture as his raw material and within this context, created emotionally moving scenes and characters. I’m thinking particularly of the scene in which the wry characters debate the question: has anyone ever gotten famous without making money of it. There is a lot droll dialogue built around the comedy of second-rate celebrity until the end-game retort-- “Anne Frank”--brings the room to a hushed and guilty silence. I was hoping he'd do more with it, but he just kept circling the same territory until the the pop culture setting became the subject, and we've already got plenty of that.
The sadly departed DFW at his best (e.g., “Little Experessionless Animals”) took this thematic to a new level of metafictional art. And I thought he’d do more with it until he got lost pursuing the big questions (more on that later.)
Like the rest of us, I remember all stupid post-9/11 claims that “irony is dead” from people who should know better. As if the entire world was doomed to sincerity for the rest of eternity. As if irony could ever die, for the simple fact it’s not a single thing, or set of terms. It’s a formal approach, a clever critique of the culture's privileged terms. It's capable of incorporating and reframing just about anything: no matter how apparently resistant to satiric treatment. Any statement, any word, always throws off alternative associations and there’s always an ironist around who uses these material to express something new, including irony’s opposite, by ironically commenting on the genre’s conventions.