28 September 2008
There is an inherent didacticism in the existential themes of Mickey One in which large ideas – such as the human condition, questions of God and fate, etc. – are very directly addressed. As Robin Wood notes in his review, it seems these more abstract thoughts and ideas displace the concrete elements of the film – plot, character, setting – so that meaning feels heavy-handed and forced rather than implied. The result is something of a naïve statement rather than an artful exploration. This didactic quality is easy to come off as unpleasant for those viewing (as it seems to have for Mr. Wood) because it starts to feel preachy and maybe even pretentious. While I can certainly agree to a large extent, certain parts of the film leave me to wonder how seriously Penn really takes himself and his message. There is a bit of comic absurdity in the film which I could not help but notice and which really struck me as something significant in conveying Penn’s intentions.
A major question for me is why Penn chose to make Mickey a comedian. I feel it is fitting for the world and situation of the film that the main character is a performer or an artist (if only for that single scene with the black stage and the spotlight), but there are plenty of other possibilities – musician, actor, singer, etc. I believe Penn’s choice in having Mickey be a comedian is reflective of the way in which Penn’s message is to be taken, or maybe even the way in which Penn approaches life’s big questions: with a smile. It seems that the absurdity of life is at times so absurd that it is funny, the only appropriate reaction to which is laughter. Instead of being strictly somber, as Kafka’s The Trial may be taken (especially in Welles’s hands), Penn’s existential dilemma is one that he seems to take less seriously; he may even be laughing at himself.
A few examples of comic absurdity in the film stick out rather obviously, much like the other separate pieces of the film. The first that comes to mind is a sequence in which Mickey cleans up his apartment room in sped-up time, possibly citing the silent film speed of 18 frames-per-second. The camera trick comes out of nowhere and is never repeated in the film – it takes us by surprise and comes off as so unnecessary and unexpected that it warrants a laugh. There is also a scene in which Mickey is trying to escape and sees a chance out of the window where a man with a shirt that reads “TRAMPOLINE INSTRUCTOR” is jumping on a trampoline. This nonsensical mechanism is the way in which Mickey finds his way to escape and get free, possibly an emblematic moment in which Penn is suggesting that the silly thing is that which offers man freedom. This thought could certainly be reinforced by the nameless clown who continues to follow and beckon to Mickey throughout the film and who makes a show out of a mechanical contraption titled “YES.” The show demonstrates a machine that serves no real purpose other than to amuse. The clown happily grins and even after the machine is destroyed by fire, when a sole joint of the machine still functions, the clown still smiles with delight. It seems that the clown and his contraption are a vehicle through which Mickey is able to rediscover the humor and comedy which offer him transcendence from an otherwise miserable existence. When Mickey goes with the clown, the clown does not ride away from the world, but in fact returns Mickey to it, guiding him to a path in which he ultimately finds meaning.
What I am suggesting through pointing out these moments of comedy and their importance in the film is that Penn’s intention in making the film may not have been as didactic or somberly existential as it seems. Penn may not take the film he is presenting to us as seriously as we do. If the way in which Mickey finds transcendence is through a laugh, then maybe we as an audience would appreciate the film more if we lightened up a little? I can’t say for sure, but I think it is certainly possible to find comedy in the absurd and to then derive meaning from that comedy – to me, that’s what watching Woody Allen films are about. That is not to say I think Mickey One is a comedy, but rather that Penn’s approach to the existential dilemma of the absurd is to laugh at it a bit. I feel this is heavily contrasted to a film such as Welles’s The Trial which is just as absurd and densely symbolic and insistent on visual elements as Mickey One is, but which seems to deliver its message with a straight face.