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World Wide Angle | June 2016
Sexy Vulgar-Modernist Song

A feminist TV comedy series that sets out to disprove the horrendous Bechdel Test immediately wins my heart. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (which began last year), Rachel Bloom has stated that, for her and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna, the evolving friendship between her character Rebecca and workmate Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) is the "real love story" nestled inside the narrative — even though (contrary to the utopian strictures of the B-Test) the only thing they ever talk about is a man; i.e., how Rebecca is going to steal her gormless ex-teenage love-object Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III) away from the vacuous and possessive Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz) in the Californian suburb of West Covina.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend maintains a level of energy and inventiveness which is rare indeed for TV of any kind or format. Bloom is an intriguing species of musical 'performance artist' who made her cult fame, beginning in 2010, through a customised YouTube channel — and she is savvy enough to keep providing, via this source, 'uncut', even more ribald versions of the songs presented, in all their break-out, fantasy-island glory, in each episode of the show.
Bloom is very evidently part of a post-Glee popular culture — in that her main stylistic reference points are 'musical theatre' and music video, and almost never classic cinema (save for one Astaire-Rogers pastiche in black-and-white, and a delicious Nouvelle Vague/Bonjour Tristesse hat-tip titled "Sexy French Depression"). But there is a strong sense that, knowingly or not on her part, Bloom connects with a very particular slice of multi-media culture, hugely important in film history, that has trouble gaining respectability still today.
There is a style of hyper-energetic, parodic mimicry that J. Hoberman once identified as "vulgar modernism" (and that more cautious American scholars later watered down, with a little snobbery, to "vernacular modernism"). When Bloom and a line of bandaged ladies present "Sexy Getting-Ready Song" — an ode to women's physical self-punishment in the name of looking good for men — the dominant line of gender-political satire is shadowed by a crazy, excessive doodling, filling every split-second of the music and the rapid montage: the chorus line whispers responses to the main lyric, surreal phrases interpolate meta-commentary ("body-rolls are really hard"), cut-aways show us, in dead silence, "how the guys get ready" (by napping on the sofa).
In cinema, this manner is associated with the great Frank Tashlin, before, during and after his collaboration with Jerry Lewis; and, anterior to that, Warner Bros cartoons. But this zany, outrageous pop culture was cemented by Mad magazine in the early 1950s. (Indelible 1960s childhood memory of a Mad comic strip: a woman guerrilla-spy is unmasked, and proves herself by riddling all nearby bodies with multiple machine-gun bullet holes.)
Whereas Mad magazine, and much that followed in its wake, is certifiably 'male nerd' humour — one reason it is not taken seriously by contemporary highbrows — vulgar modernism awaited its rendezvous with several special female performers to truly hit the stratosphere. By the time of Julie Brown ("The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun") in the '80s, and subsequently Molly Shannon as Catholic schoolgirl Mary Katherine Gallagher on Saturday Night Live (movie spin-off: the sublime Superstar, 1999), an almost David Lynch-like pattern forms: wicked nostalgia for the teenage schoolyards of past decades (Crazy Ex begins with a flashback to Summer Camp), love for trashy sci fi/fantasy forms (Brown and Jeff Goldblum in Earth Girls are Easy, 1988), and a mucky delight in all bodily odours and excretions related to sexual desire and anxiety (Mary Katherine's armpits...).
Both John Waters (whose Hairspray star Ricki Lake pops up as a singing 'dream ghost' on Crazy Ex) and David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer in its film and TV versions) spin personal variations, pitched at vacillating levels of queerness, on this richly worked pattern. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, soon to enter its second season of production, has — as the English language says — really 'nailed it', for now.

Adrian Martin


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