Thursday, 14 July 2011

Chris Lilley, Angry Boys: Uneasy Parody, Subtlety, Reflection

Sometimes we laugh at things we should not. The misfortune of others, badly timed bodily functions, taboo thoughts and words. The line between funny and offensive is never so clear as those around us would claim. In fact a shift in context, a different audience on a different day can change the extent to which something is perceived as funny. Years ago my brother and I were riding alongside a busy road in a rural city in the north of NSW, Australia. I was on a rather dilapidated old thing and he on a new and brilliant mountain back. He turned around to talk to me and ploughed into a parked four wheel drive. He ricocheted off of the vehicle, together with his bike and flew onto the road. Aside from finding this beyond horrifying and funny, for some reason my concern was more for his bike than it was his life. We were poor after all and car-less, so to be plunged into a world of no transport was a fear greater than I was willing to face. I yelled to him “Better get you bike”. And he did just that. But those four words would come to haunt me over the next decade, any poke at his misfortune would result in a verbatim recitation: “Better get your bike”. It was funny and painful all at the same time.

Years later, longboard skating here in Japan, we were first-time zooming down a viaduct hill with just a rail between us, a three foot drop and a semi-permanent parade of cars. Speed wobbles set in at about halfway down, I had to do everything possible to maintain my line and turn my body to rubber so as to wobble with the board and not against it. For to do so would create greater force and I would be bucked. And it took all of my concentration, I could not dare to speak and warn my ill fated brother. My brother, a new skater not aware of this went down hard and fast, his brand new, almost two meter board flying off the path and onto the road. I leapt off of my board, checked he was okay, jumped onto the road and whipped his gargantuan board out of the way just in time as cars rushed down through the dark. From his mouth: “This makes up for the bike”. Vindicated, forgiven at last. Scary as it had been, it was still funny.

Chris Lilley is the creative force, actor and writer behind the ABC/HBO collaboration “Angry Boys”. A mockumentary centred around the lives of several boys in Australia (Juvenile detention centre, surfing legend, country twins), the US (S.Mouse!), and Japan (gay skater). It is examination of what makes boys angry. The delivery is realistic, deadpan and sincere. There is no laugh track, no ironic camera winking and a significant amount of “dangerous” non-PC language. While not always laugh-out-loud, “Angry Boys” does expertly straddle the divide between not-funny and offensive. The sincerity of its articulation coupled with participation of real children somewhat masks its satirical dimension. The satire is always present but I wonder that without an awareness of humour in the Australian would an audience necessarily “get” what is meant to be funny, ironic and scathing. Personally, I like to be made uncomfortable through engagement. I do not mean like in “Jackass” for example where physical extremity is used for “gross out” effect. No, I prefer conceptual discomfort, watching something that makes me laugh, that I resonate with, that speaks truth of my context but also undermines an easy appreciation.


A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald featured a range of opinions from American hip hop artists and critics with regard to the “blackface” character of S.Mouse! (LINK). The consensus among opinions coalesced around two key themes (1) There is an uneasy tension when actors of one ethnicity attempt to play the role of a character from another ethnicity and (2) The version of hip hop being parodied is somewhat over simplistic and even outdated.

(1) “Becoming” an other is risky. No matter how hard we try, how good our performance, evidence that we are not that always remains. This is not to say that somehow identities are fixed and that we only over belong to one culture or ethnic group. It is just not that simple. So, on the mechanical level of becoming other there is the danger that our knowledge of the other is incomplete or based only within the realm of stereotypes. When you place this technical danger into complex cultural situations in which being other and becoming other are informed by histories of colonisation, slavery, unequal power relations and violence things start to get very dangerous.

Chris Lilley’s S.Mouse! character comes not so long after the now infamous “Hey, Hey It’s Saturday” “blackface” performance incident. One does wonder what Lilley was thinking when he created and acted this character. Lilley seems a rather astute observer of culture and expert in translating his observations into the kind of uneasy, “too close to home” satire outlined above. One would think that Lilley is also astute enough to have considered the effects of playing a black youth rapper in this age of global media visibility.

If I were to conjecture an answer to this, I would say that Lilley has an obvious aim of deconstructing and critiquing the cultural phenomenon of hip hop with regard to its context of male youth. By exposing S.Mouse! as a selfish, spoiled, out of touch character who himself equally trades on the tropes of gangster hip hop culture, I believe that Lilley is making a simple point: that the apparent criminal/ghetto/gangster reality bought and sold in hip hop is as much cynical pretence and artifice as it is reality. Thus the problem is that the real, unquestionable suffering of a large number of black Americans is routinely packaged into a product (music, fashion, liquor, film etc) eventually consumed not only widely within the US but also globally. Hence the S.Mouse! posters on the bedroom walls of the twins from Dunt, two white boys who could not be further from the reality of African-American poverty, yet identify with its cultural milieu.

Although I am not interested in defending Lilley perse (I do share the critique that his concept of hip hop is deeply dated and shows little nuance, discussed below), it is clear that given his shtick is that as a single actor he plays multiple roles (that in itself if a topic worthy of further investigation), in the context of S.Mouse!, that there was no other existing character he could have played without ethical dilemma. To play a black woman (mother, girlfriend) would invite a storm of controversy even greater than that which has already arisen. To play the father would mean a white man in blackface speaks as an authority to his son, routinely criticising the whole context of hip hop would be equally problematic.

Perhaps the problem is with choosing hip hop as the source context? What I mean is that had he chosen to portray a character within a country music context (Christian country, even), which I feel is ripe for satire, although the issues at stake may differ from what he wants to make as his main point, it could have been viable. That said, he could have easily gone down the Justin Beiber bubblegum pop route for an expose into artifice and image marketing. Yet, neither of these examples have the same cultural currency as hip hop across a broad range of adolescent male cultural contexts. Country music may revel in ignorance and tradition and Beiber-pop may well be merely cynical marketing exercise, but neither speaks to the context of young men growing up in hyper-masculine, violent and self-destructive contexts as does hip hop.

So which is it? Did Lilley have no choice or did he paint himself into a conceptual corner?

(2) I have noticed that when Lilley appears on TV, such as Good News Week, as Chris Lilley he not only appears to lack confidence but seems to be paralysed to the extent that he is unable to transfer his humour to the chaotic context of a live event. This leads me to think two things, one slightly more “out there” than the other.

First, his demeanour suggests that he is a meticulous artist and that his art is deeply calculated. If this is indeed true, then perhaps his art’s greatest strength is its greatest flaw: that it is calculated to be so close to the line between homage and parody that the inevitable audience reaction is ambivalence.

Second, perhaps Chris Lilley, as he appears before the public is another “character”. As I mentioned, he frequently appears nervous and uneasy in a live context, but is this too, shtick? Perhaps it is his take on the longer history of Norman Gunston, Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson type Australian comedy. If this is so then it is a remarkable curiosity, since Lilley’s work is obviously targeted at a savvy younger audience to which I believe have only vaguely experienced said personalities. Maybe, Lilley is swimming against the tide of a retreating comedic era? Who then, is the real Chris Lilley?

Whomever he may be, he is certainly not sufficiently engaged with US hip hop culture. Lilley’s portrayal of hip hop is not only out of date, musically speaking, but also fails to adequately connect itself with the greater history of hip hop satire in the tradition of “Friday”, “Don’t Be A Menace To South Central When You’re Drinking Your Juice In The Hood” and “Fear of a Black Planet”. These works (and a number of others) demonstrate with affection and critique possibilities, contradictions and humour in hip hop as a music and also broadly as a cultural expression cutting across numerous ethnic and youth demographics.

Hip hop culture, predominantly from the US continues to exert enormous cultural power within America and around the world. Even white Australian teenagers from “out the back of buggery” are plugged into this cultural matrix, constructing their worldviews using hip hop as a referent. That this requires comment and critique is obvious, the problem is, however, how to execute such critique within the complex reality of capitalism, cultural expression, cultural colonisation, discrimination, inequality and poverty which are all key elements in the construction of contemporary hip hop. Lilley has tried? Has he failed? It is too early to say. I for one would like to hear his side of the story.

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