Wednesday, February 15, 2006

R. Kelly, Humorist

Because the subject has come up independently with several different friends, allow me now to unpack my argument that R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet is intentional and self-conscious in its use of humor.

In December I received the DVD of parts 1-12 as probably the greatest office Secret Santa gift ever, and I have naturally spent the months since traveling the country showing it to everyone I know. You know the story: R. Kelly's character Sylvester is a married man hiding in the closet of the woman he's just slept with; she turns out to be married to a minister who turns out to be involved in a gay love affair with a man he met through a police officer; the police officer is having an affair with Sylvester's wife even though he is married to a white woman named Bridget; Bridget is having an affair with a midget named Big Man. The story is lurid and violent and the level of quotidian detail Kelly narrates ("She said yes I said no she said yes I said no") is a spectacle in itself. Because the plotline is so tortured and the dialogue is so realistic, Trapped in the Closet is funny and surreal, and also weird in a not-quite-sure-how-to-take-this way.

I now present the following partial list of intentional humor in Trapped in the Closet:

a.) When Sylvester reunites with his wife and they have sex, he complains about a cramp in his leg: "She cries out, 'Oh my goodness, I'm about to climax,' / I said, 'Cool, climax, just let go of my leg'"

b.) "Rosy the nosy neighbor," shows up at their door armed with a spatula

c.) The over-the-top white accent of the cop's wife, Bridget

d.) Bridget's lover is a midget. Also, the midget's hiding in the cabinet parodically reenacts the story's opening scene of Sylvester hiding in the closet.

e.) The midget is named Big Man. When Sylvester asks Big Man how he got that name, the midget gestures to his crotch and answers "Because I'm blessed."

f.) Amid all the commotion, Big Man 1.) craps his pants and 2.) faints, twice.

Now in spite of all this, there is also a sense of seriousness about the whole affair. R. Kelly is an artist who is very much convinced of his own genius and whose R&B songs traffic in cliches and aphorisms and strained metaphors of the most shameless sort. (Also, it would seem that he has a predilection for young girls and freaky sex.) We're used to reading these things--the cliches, not the freaky sex--as the mark of an unsophisticated artist, but it isn't true that cliche and sophistication are mutually exclusive, and here and elsewhere the laughing at/with distinction is harder to parse than it might seem on the surface. Trapped in the Closet winks and emotes, which is all part of the fun.

PS -- Bonus Trapped in the Closet Internet Fun! Chapters 1-5 as acted out by The Sims! This may finally be the key to getting publicprivate into R. Kelly!


haahnster said...

A midget craps his pants...were the Farrelly brothers involved in this?

JM said...

I agree that this is tongue and cheek humor in genral but I still think that 95% of this is R. Kelly being quite serious. On your points I am going to offer my view:

a) I do not feel that R. would be too genorous of a lover so he might just say to a 15 year old--"Bitch get off my leg". I see this quote in the video as possibly being quite realisitic in his life.

b) If this is an attempt at straight-humor than he should be shot as this is piss-poor (Nice wordplay I think).

c) My guess is that this accent is how most white folk sound to R. as this video provides no further evidence nor white folks for comparison sake.

d) I think R. could not figure out another good place to hide someone other than a closet or a cabinet and it would not be that powerful cinematically speaking to have a 6 footer crawl out of a kitchen cabinet. I also think he wanted to save a buck or two and only have to pay half wages to the little guy.

e) My guess here is that "Big Man" is a shout out to his own penis. This would also explain not having a full size actor playing this role as then it would just be too ridiculous.

f) I am going to leave this one alone.

Although I do think this DVD is brilliant beyond reason I have no doubt in my mind that R. Kelly has a slightly less sense of humor than you are giving him credit for. I also think that he wants to see a few Oscar nominations for parts 13-99 in the future.

Dmnkly said...

To be clear, when I stated that Trapped in the Closet is a masterwork of unintentional comedy, I didn't mean to suggest that all of the comedy is unintentional. Much of it clearly is. However, as JM, I'm firmly of the belief that the vast majority of the humor is completely unintentional.

"He looks under the bed ... he looks in the dresser ... he walks up to the closet ... I pull out my beretta."

The best laugh in chapter one by far. You're telling me that's intentional?

Dmnkly said...

And to further clarify, not only do I believe that most of the comedy is unintentional, but the funniest bits, by a longshot, are of the unintentional variety.

Rob said...

I don't get the distinction, or anyway I don't think telling intentional from unintentional is so easy. The whole movie is a festival of pulp campiness, up to and including that beretta. Check the Pulp Fiction pistol standoffs and driving-backgrounds. In this context, where do you draw the line between intentional and unintentional campiness?

More to the point, why bother drawing this line? I totally agree that there's a very enjoyable meta- level on which you're engrossed at what a weirdo R. Kelly is to have made this video and you're, y'know, wowed by the brazenness of his aesthetic. I'm not taking that stuff away! Just suggesting that it's only one part of what makes Trapped in the Closet great.

Different viewers will no doubt experience it differently, but to me that meta- level is definitely of a lesser order than stuff like a.) where the cliffhangers are leading, where the plot is going, b.) how Kelly bends his voice around the dialogue and where the vocals swell, c.) how that dialogue is rendered and so on, stuff to do with characters and story and music. The what-the-hell-am-I-watching factor--while very real!--doesn't subsume all the other good stuff about the video. That's all I'm sayin'.

Dmnkly said...

Well, I agree... all of the items you mention are, indeed, fantastically well-done. And if that's the level at which you find it the most compelling, then I suspect it's a somewhat different experience for you than it is for me. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to take one bit of credit away from Kelly. The thing is positively virtuosic. That said, if it were simply that, I might have watched it through once and called it impressive. But the level of pure ridiculousness it reaches is what makes it compelling for me, not the savvy manner in which it does so. And does it matter whether that ridiculousness is intentional or unintentional, or to what degreee? No, I suppose not. But that doesn't alter my belief that the ridiculousness that I find most compelling is what I believe to be the unintentional variety. The fact that there's a midget is kinda funny, I suppose. But what's REALLY funny is the image it brings to mind of Kelly sitting there and saying to himself, "I know what will make this episode great! We'll put a MIDGET under the sink!!!"

Unintentional and brilliant.

Alison said...

Rob, seriously thanks for spelling out what happens in this song. All I ever got for sure was that he's hiding in a closet and he's having an affair and somehow there's a cop involved. Then again, I've never really gotten into soap operas.

In my opinion, though, this song is the best example of Kelly's tortured metaphors.

Rob said...

Girl you look just like my cars; I wanna wax it

Now that's poetry!