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Comedy, Absurdism, and Surrealism in Crank 2 Comedy is built upon the destruction of objectification. Every true comedy begins with a beset protagonist, who needs to escape the person, institution, power, or force objectifying him. The objectifier typically forces the protagonist into a situation in which he does not want to be. This could be a relationship, a job, a limitation on personal freedom, anything that in some way restricts the protagonist’s ability to be anything they might conceivably want to be. The protagonist in a comedy strives only to reassert himself as a dignified entity separate from his objectifiers. In comedy, there are generally two ways to escape this objectification: to destroy the objectifying force, or to cross the line it has set and emerge unscathed. In the first, the destruction of the objectifier also blatantly destroys its hold on the protagonist. The second form is slightly more subtle. In transgressing the boundaries set by the objectifier, the protagonist challenges it to demonstrate the consequences of such an act. However, in comedy, the protagonist typically makes it through the punishment alive and well, thus proving the objectifier to be impotent. This transgressive component is at the heart of many comedies, but it also manifests itself in other genres. Crank 2: High Voltage is a representative piece, an action film effectively comprised of a series of transgressions of all laws of practicality, realism, taste, logic, and comfort, among other objectifying forces, followed by the survival of its hero. However, while it includes comedic elements, Crank 2 is decidedly not a comedy. Rather, it effectively blends successful comedic moments and action tropes with another important genre: absurdism. Absurdism as a genre revolves around elements of nonsense and surrealism to depict the nonsensical nature of the universe. Being a film grounded in the depiction of completely surreal events which effectively transgress the rules of reality, Crank 2 is an absurdist work. This combination of the transgressive moment of comedy and the surrealist aspects of absurdism has an interesting effect: Crank 2 is essentially a film that repeats the transgressive moment of comedy over and over, generally in absurdist contexts, effecting laughter through the discomfort inherent in the absurdist transgressive moment, rather than through the traditional release of comedy.
The crucial aspect of the transgressive moment in comedy is not that it leads to relief, but instead that it causes discomfort. Given that, in an average human life, a person is beset by thousands upon thousands of objectifying forces (even down to the gravity that prevents one from flying), the transgression of such a force in a comedy is extremely liberating. We watch a character in a comedy punch his boss and emerge victorious, and we feel liberated by proxy; the freedom gained in this act of transgression, the realization that the objectifying force does not hold absolute power, is transferred to the audience of the comedy. However, in the transgressive moment itself, there is no relief: the moment of transgression is only validated by its resultant victory. Until the moment we see the man who survives fifteen gunshots get up and walk around, we are made uncomfortable by the knowledge that he has transgressed a fundamental law: one cannot expect realistically to sustain such injuries and survive. The boundaries of reality have been crossed, and we expect, in a realistic situation, for harm to come to the protagonist. Our innate understanding of these laws of objectification cause us a stressful discomfort during the moment of transgression, and it is the release of this stress when the protagonist emerges alive The discomfiting aspect of comedy meshes well with absurdism, which, being based in surrealism, is also, by nature, discomfiting. In absurdist art, one is generally faced with images and scenarios depicting things that could not possibly happen in reality, and one of the common reactions to such a scenario is to simply point out it’s ridiculousness. However, if we explore the root of this perception of the absurd as “ridiculous,” we find its cause to be its transgression of the rationality of the real world in which we live. We observe the absurd, the surreal, and think “this is just not meant to be.” This transgression of reality fits into comedy in an intriguing way: while comedy typically functions through a lower-scale transgression (i.e. an employee assaulting his boss. Unlikely, but possible.), the absurd takes the act of transgression and applies it to all of reality, the greatest objectifier of all. It transgresses the rules that bind us in our world of “the real,” thus becoming “surreal,” and making us feel uncomfortable in its “breaking of the rules”. Thus, the discomfiting feature of absurdity is effectively that of comedy, writ large: it transgresses in the same way, but rather than simply breaking societal constraints or other human-level rules, it breaks the rules of our very reality, creating discomfort, but simultaneously The phenomenological distinction between comedy and absurdism is an interesting one that merits some exploration, for the resultant laughter of each is achieved in two very distinct ways. In comedy, the transgressive moment causes us discomfort followed by release and laughter because we identify with the protagonist. We are put on edge by the evil boss, disturbed by the overbearing girlfriend or boyfriend, because they seem to be objectifying us directly, as we are in the shoes, so to speak, of the anti-hero of the film who is being objectified himself. However, it is absolutely crucial to note that, in comedy, the anti-hero is not his own subject: he is an object, being acted on and objectified by various subjects. We feel exploited and limited personally by the limitations these subjects place on the protagonist in the comedy because we feel ourselves as beings in relation to them, as their “others” or objects as opposed to being our own subjects. What we are watching, then, when we watch comedy is the ultimate deobjectification of the “other” that is “I”, in the escape from the oppressive subject.
This is not the case in absurdist works. In absurdism, the viewer identifies with the protagonist as well, but this protagonist is a subject, as nothing but the protagonist in an absurdist situation can be a subject. The subject is thus not bothered personally by an overbearing boss or annoyed by an obnoxious co-worker, but is instead literally overwhelmed by the surrounding absurdity, to the point that it is impossible to even conceive of transgressing any boundaries, because there are none. Everything outside of the subject in absurdism is wildly, completely surreal and other; an other that is endless, meaningless, and impossible to comprehend. There is no transgression available, as the only boundary is that between the subject and the absurdity of existence. So, because the subject cannot transgress, cannot interact with his absurd surroundings, he is forced out of subjecthood, into a situation of being effectively nothing. The only way to achieve release in the absurd is to accept it for what it is. As Albert Camus, father of modern absurdism, says of the quintessential absurd anti-hero, Sisyphus, upon realizing the absurdity of his fate: “he knows himself to be the master of his daysnce he makes this realization, one would imagine that Sysiphus feels himself able to, denied of his ability to act on anything outside of himself, go completely berserk. He might even laugh.
What, then, to say about the laughter caused by Crank 2, which, although often encouraged by comedic aspects, is largely brought on by the sheer impossible absurdity of the events that take place? While most comedies do make use of absurdism to some extent, it is rare to find a movie that bills itself as a comedic action movie, but which really operates more in the 1 Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin OʼBrien. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955), 123.
realm of absurdism than any other genre. A brief plot outline: Chev Chelios (Jason Statham), hitman extraordinaire, wakes up after falling thousands of feet from a helicopter to his supposed death at the end of Crank to find that someone has taken his extraordinarily strong heart and replaced it with an electric one. He then proceeds to follow his doctor’s advice and electrically shock himself whenever possible, all the while chasing the thieving Chinese Triads who have, quite literally, stolen his heart. The need to keep the electric heart charged is the movie’s plot: we watch Chev use jumper cables on his tongue and nipple, lick the electrical contacts on a walkie- talkie, use a dog’s shock collar on his own neck, grab high-voltage power lines with his bare hands, and perhaps most absurdly (in a string of obvious absurdities), have vigorous, friction- generating sex with his girlfriend, on a horse racetrack, during a race, and to the rapturous cheers of the audience. This moment is a perfect summation of the surrealism of the film: the scene violates our conceptions of decency, of reality, of logic. We would never expect people to actually have multi-position sexual intercourse on a racetrack, with the danger of being trampled by horses. The audience’s uproariously pleased reaction is so contrary to what we feel our own would be that we can’t understand it, and thus it adds discomfort to an already incredibly The rest of the film is filled with extreme, grotesque violence: gun battles abound, blood spatters everywhere, a stripper’s breast implants leak silicone, a man is forced to slice off his own nipples, and another man’s head is blown off by a ricocheting bullet (incidentally while he is in therapy dealing with the trauma of being terrorized by Chelios in the first Crank). Despite the gratuitous violence and incredibly over-the-top self-inflicted pain, the viewer finds themselves laughing almost continually throughout the movie. This is due, not to the resolution of the transgressive moments that populate the film, but rather to the discomfort inflicted upon the viewer by the incredible absurdity of it all. Cameo appearances by various genre stars fill the movie, lending it some of its absurdity: David Carradine as Triad boss Poon Dong, country singer Dwight Yoakam as Dr. Miles, Napoleon Dynamite’s Efren Ramirez as Venus, a gay stripper with “full-body Tourette’s”, Corey Haim as a strip club manager, Geri Halliwell (aka Ginger Spice) as young Chev’s mother, and Ron Jeremy as himself on strike (Note: since it’s release in April 2009, both Carradine and Haim have died, making the experience of watching the film now that much more surreal). The experience of witnessing such a diverse, bizarrely assembled cast only serves to heighten the sense of discomfort: these people are not meant to be in this movie, just like a man is not meant to shock himself with a dog collar. David Carradine, formerly-respectable kung fu star is not meant to play a Chinese mob boss, especially one by the vulgar name of Poon Dong. Dwight Yoakam isn’t even supposed to be in movies at all, let alone as a crooked doctor who spends his time slapping his buxom secretary on the bottom. This absurdist sense of what is “not meant to” happen is the driving force of the discomfort caused by Crank 2. When Chev and his nemesis, Johnny Vang, suddenly turn into giant, papier-machè- headed, Godzilla-esque versions of themselves and have a clumsy fist fight, the only possible response in the context of the movie is, rather than to cry out in disbelief that an action movie would indulge in such absurdity, to laugh uproariously at the fact that such a thing was simply not meant to happen. Even the movie’s promotional tagline exemplifies its absurdist feel: “He was dead. . . But he got better”. Evident in this statement is everything that makes Crank 2 the epitome of “absurd”: There is no real-life boundary less transgressible than death, and this movie transgresses it, in its tagline.
It only takes a cursory reading of Martin Esslin’s “The Theatre of the Absurd”, in which he coins the term, to realize that Crank 2 is following in the tradition of Beckett, Ionesco, and Adamov, the kings of absurdist theater. Esslin describes their works as “a veritable barrage of wildly irrational, often non-sensical goings-on that seem to go counter to all accepted standards of stage convention” All we must do is replace the phrase “stage convention” with “film convention” (or even “all convetion”), and we have a decent description of the experience of watching Crank 2. Esslin again seems to be describing this very film when he writes, “[a]bove all, everything that happens seems to be beyond rational motivation, happening at random or through the demented caprice of an unaccountable idiot fate” This is the same sense one gets while watching Crank 2: Nothing in its world is rational, nothing Chelios does is motivated by anything other than the sense of solitary fate in the face of the absurdity of the world outside Given these obvious parallels between the Theatre of the Absurd and Crank 2, it would be appropriate to describe absurdist theatre and its surrealist and existentialist roots in more depth. The concept of absurdism as a philosophy was originated by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, but truly fathered by French thinker Albert Camus. Camus rejected the “existentialist” label of his contemporaries and colleagues such as Jean-Paul Sartre, in favor of his own philosophy of Absurdism. In his seminal essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Camus outlined the absurd nature of mankind’s eternal search for meaning in a universe that contains none, using the ancient Greek myth of a man condemned to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity as an allegory 2 Martin Esslin, “The Theatre of the Absurd.” The Tulane Drama Review 4.4 (1960): 3 for human existence It is this concept of the absurd that Martin Esslin was thinking of when he coined the term “theatre of the absurd”. Despite these apparent roots in existentialist and absurdist philosophy, absurdist dramatists generally denied any connection (they even denied being any sort of concerted movement or group). Eugene Ionesco, one of the most famous absurdist playwrights feuded with Sartre, writing his play Rhinoceros as a protest against existentialism, and Sartre in particular. The play ends with one man left on Earth, desperately trying not to turn into a rhinoceros, an ending Sartre criticized for not having any explicit reason for the resistance, other than the fact that “he is there.”This dispute, according to Ionesco scholar Rosette C. Lamont, marks one of the most important differences between existentialist
philosophy and absurdist theater: existentialism offers some sort of way out of the absurdity, some solution, while absurdist theater seems to assert that there is none. The theater of the absurd, however, was obviously influenced by Camus’ philosophy of absurdism, which itself found its origin in the existentialist movement.
The other key component of the theater of the absurd, and Crank 2, is Surrealism. Surrealism, unlike absurdist theater, was definitely a concerted movement. Written by André Breton in 1924, the first Manifesto of Surrealism contained Breton’s definitions of the movement, in both dictionary- and encyclopedia-format. The dictionary version defines Surrealism as “[p]ure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express. . . the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, 4 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. 5 Jean-Paul Sartre, “Beyond Bourgeois Theatre”, The Tulane Drama Review 5.3 (1961): 6.
6 Rosette C. Lamont, Ionescoʼs Imperatives: the politics of culture. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 67, 145.
outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupati The encyclopedia version adds that Surrealism “tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and substitute itself for them These definitions are a decent starting point when it comes to understanding Surrealist art, which was embodied in painting, film, literature, and various other formats by artists such as Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel, and Man Ray. They are also useful in terms of Crank 2, a film that is very familiar with terms such as “the absence of all control,” “automatism,” and “ruin,” not to mention that the phrase “outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation” effectively means “tasteless,” an apt descriptor for Crank 2. Following Dadaists, Surrealists had much more of a mission, seeking a return to pure, oneiric imaginative forms, to find, in the words of Gaston Criel, “man projected into the reality of his dream.”any absurdist dramatists employed surrealist moments and techniques in their works, and the connection between the theater of the absurd and Surrealism was much more acknowledged by those involved than the connection with existentialism. The impact of Surrealism upon the theater of the absurd, and by extension on In an email interview with Brian Taylor, half of Neveldine/Taylor, the team the wrote, directed and shot Crank 2, I asked about the connection between his work and absurdism. Mr. Taylor replied that in reality, he never intended any sort of link to absurdism, but rather wrote the script simply in the interest of being as entertaining as possible. He asserted that any direct answer to my question would “ring a bit false” at this point, due to the fact that, when writing the script “over the course of a few days”, absurdism did not factor much into his thoughts. Rather, 7 André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969) 26. 9 Gaston Criel, “Surrealism”, Books Abroad 26.2 (1952): 133.
he says that the “one directive” of the screen-writing process was to not “bore the writer”. I have to wonder, though, what about Crank 2 Mr. Taylor finds entertaining. If it is not the absurdism of it all, it is hard to imagine what exactly entertained him in the writing process, or what he thought would entertain the audience. Also, given the “automatic” nature of Surrealist work, the attempt to draw directly from dreams without any adherence to logic or structure, it would seem that Mr. Taylor and Mr. Neveldine are true Surrealists, writing “automatically” in caffeine-fueled sprees. In fact, Mr. Taylor said himself that “there was not a lot of deconstruction and analysis involved” in the writing of the film. “It was more like automatic writing.” Every modern comedy includes several absurdist moments, several surreal, not-meant-to- be moments. But very few can claim to follow in the tradition established by Breton and Ionesco, the tradition of absurdist transgression of the laws of logic and reality. Crank 2 is a film entirely composed of these transgressive moments from which, individually, we are never allowed comedic release. For every single transgression is followed immediately by another, even greater than the previous. Our laughter, for the most part, is not caused by any sort of release, but rather by the build-up of nervous tension. Not until the end of the film are we allowed a truly comedic laugh, when we watch Chev Chelios, covered head-to-toe in bandages, burned half to death, open his eyes. Andre Breton, in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism, wrote that “the simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.” Crank 2 does just that, and more.
10 Brian Taylor, e-mail message to the author, May 1, 2010.
Breton, Andre. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Translated by Richard Seaver and Helen. R. Lane. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969.
Brian Taylor, e-mail message to author, May 1, 2010.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien. New Criel, Gaston. “Surrealism.” Books Abroad 26, no. 2 (1952): 133-136.
Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.” The Tulane Drama Review 4, no. 4 (1960): 3-15.
Lamont, Rosette C. Ionesco’s Imperatives: the politics of culture. Ann Arbor: University of Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Beyond Bourgeois Theatre.” The Tulane Drama Review 5, no. 3 (1961). 6.


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