09 July 2010

Because I watched it on DVD: The Competing Realities of Anchorman

Here we are ladies and gentlemen, six years to the day that one of the greatest comedies of the 21st-Century was released upon theaters and audiences, one of my all-time favourite films, the pinnacle of Human Achievement and Evolution, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004). Like any self-respecting college student when this feat of filmmaking came out, I watched this movie about once a week for four years straight. I watched it until it became cliché to watch it, I watched it until the clichéof watching Anchorman became cliché, clearly, I have no shame.

Now, as I watched this film on repeat the past few weeks I've discovered some very interesting properties. The most significant of which are the many different realities that every character in the film inhabits. This is to say that almost every character in the film has perceptions, beliefs and actions that indicate that they exist in separate realities from each other.

A few weeks ago the New York Times ran this article by Academy-Award Winning Filmmaker Errol Morris which concerned the nature of incompetence. For those of you too lazy to wade through a lengthy, psychology-minded treatise on stupidity, the part of the article that concerns us divides our possible knowledge in Rumsfeldian Terms of "Known Known," "Known Unknown" and "Unknown Unknown." Essentially this simply means that there are things in this world that we know we know, things we know we don't know and there really are things that we don't know we don't know. When attributed to the Iraq War these terms seem ignorant, unprepared and frankly, incompetent. When applied to knowledge and philosophy however, they can be enlightening.

This has to do with Anchorman: The summation of Morris' article is that coinciding with "Unknown Unknowns" those who are incompetent or stupid have little awareness that they are such. Thus we may think of them inhabiting a different reality. Their perceptions, biases and opinions are skewed from an accepted norm (an inarguable array of realities). Akin to the Perception of Art we may argue that those with widely varying interpretations of the world around them inherent inhibit different realities.

The basic premises and themes of Anchorman belay this idea. There are many competing realities on a few different levels both within the world as well as with the audience. Let's start small - the characters. Taken with a grain of salt (that is, accepting the characters and their world for what they are), the character interactions are confounding. It's important to note first of all that there is no real villain in Anchorman. This is pretty innovative. Certainly Wes Mantooth (Vince Vaughn) is an antagonist to Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) but he doesn't actually do anything to really threaten the underlying motivation or even appears in many scenes.

The villain of Anchorman then is likely either Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) who represents the greatest threat to Ron's former way of life, or really, Ron himself. Ron self-destructs and messes up his own life more than anyone else. It's still blurry however, which is funny because even films like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) and Step Brothers (2008) had pretty defined villains. This is the first step of Anchorman's messing with reality. With no true villain, the good characters themselves are allowed to grow and bounce off each other, using their expectations and realities to create conflict rather than an arbitrary outside force (see first shades of brilliance here).

Now, what further complicates things is that there is barely a straight man in this film. In most comedies like this the villain is the straight man (see Dean Wormer in Animal House [1978], Dean Pritchard in Old School [2003], probably some non-Dean characters somewhere). Everyone in this movie is insane. The major competing newscaster villains (uhhh...Luke Wilson, Tim Robbins and Ben Stiller) all have pretty high levels of ridiculousness. People who should be in the straight man position like Ed Harken (Fred Willard) have their own insane moments ("I'll stop by the school a little later, Sister Margaret") which in turn are ignored by every other character. Harken exists in his own reality that serves jokes to the audience and the other characters in the film ignore. This could attest to the large egoism presented by characters in the film, but more likely it speaks to different realities. No one ever asks about Harken's problem children, they are focused on their own conflicts. Their realities are separate. You may think that Garth (Chris Parnell) is a straight man but his "Poop!" screaming denies this fact.

Besides the side characters, all of the four major parts of the Channel 4 News Team exhibit very distinct and specific realities. There are these moments like Champ Kind's (David Koechner) love confession to Ron that seem to be on the verge of threatening the reality of the group at large but everyone is able to shrug it off pretty easily. Every character is like this.Brick Tamland is certainly the biggest culprit, truly existing in his own world where all his friends keep his company yet mostly overlook his severe retardation. They accept his dumbness on some level but moreover treat him with equal respect as they would in their own realities rather than accepting the pain of his twisted one. I mean, Brick killed a guy! His murder is not mentioned again for the entirety of the film, it really serves only as a joke and then that reality is done with. Anchorman moves at such a quick pace that any significant drags on reality are quickly dealt with and we move on. This includes many fights, hair insults and time lapses that are quickly implemented and then slid under the door.

The nature of Ron Burgundy and Brian Fantana is interesting. When examining them we start to get into the main theme of the film. At the news station and in the world in general they exist in a male-dominated reality. The basis of the film involves female intrusion into this male-centric existence. In Ron and Company's Reality, women have a very specific place and any movement is considered a big enough threat to cause fainting, anger and tantrums ("I DON'T KNOW WHAT WE'RE YELLING ABOUT" - this is a huge point - Brick serves as a meta-parody of his own situation, his continual non sequitur commentary exists as a means for the writers to comment on the stupidity of the situations contained within the shared reality of Anchorman). This female vs. male reality exists mostly subconsciously in the factual world but working with that understanding of Anchorman great increases its impact.

There are many many scenes in the film that fulfill this point. When viewed with the lens of competing realities ignoring eachother, Anchorman as a whole becomes a much more interesting film. Whether it's Ron's unawareness of "When in Rome," the use of "Fuck" ("I WOULD NEVER FUCKIN' SAY THAT!") or Brick wanting to drink milk with Ron on the street, there is little to indicate that any character accepts or understands another character's reality, much less even has comprehension that they exist. Thus the "Unknown Unknown."

There are rare moments where this is untrue. Ron and Veronica's sex scene demonstrates a deep connection between the two characters (namely, that both would equally fantasise about such a Pleasuretown). Of course, their own grips on reality come into question with the mere fact that they express their love in this fashion rather than the accepted way. The mutual love of Suit Purchases also shows a good connection between the Fab Four.

There are also many elements of the film that plays with the audience's reality. While the Narrator is never named explicitly in the theatrical or DVD versions, in deleted scenes he is revealed to be either an old anchorman (Bill Kurtis) or Ron's son who developed an early baritone voice. Yeah, Ron's son. Watch it. It's weird. Either way, it makes a transition between omniscient narrator to actual dude which messes with audience expectation.

Pushing this a bit further, we can even examine the names of the characters. They all have that ridiculous edge that harkens (pun intended) to an age when our greatest newsfolk and humans had names like "Wes Mantooth" and "Brian Fantana." It helps further the illusion of the period. This isn't a reproduction of the Seventies. This is a reproduction of how a few people remember the Seventies. It's our collective consciousness. There's not even trends or popular music featured diagetically like in Starsky & Hutch (2004). This is a 70s film through its subject matter, fashion, names and Soundtrack. It's certainly a different reality than factual Seventies Reality. Ron's Scotch Chugging pre-Air seems more reminiscent now of a Mad Men culture rather than his time period. Part of Anchorman's theme, of course, though, is that Ron is a bit out of the times, even for an outdated time. His personal reality doesn't even line up with the fake reality conceived within the context of the film. This is crazy.

In addition we must also address Wake Up, Ron Burgundy (2004), the companion piece to Anchorman, strung together from deleted footage that did not test well with initial audiences. It presents an entirely alternate story that the same characters take part in, truly proving how flighty their realities are. Wake Up, Ron Burgundy may compete against Anchorman just as its internal characters compete against each other for for recognition and acceptance of their realities. This is all mildly interesting stuff and watching both films gives a great impression of all the people who almost don't seem to realise that they're in films with any other character. It's as if while each character is integral to the story, they individually do not realise this and exist only to service their own realities.

Overthinking it? I hope so. Happy viewing, dear readers.

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