Back to Metroland's Home Page!
 Columns & Opinions
   The Simple Life
   Looking Up
   Myth America
 News & Features
   What a Week
   Loose Ends
   This Week's Review
   The Dining Guide
 Cinema & Video
   Weekly Reviews
   The Movie Schedule
   Listen Here
   Art Murmur
   Night & Day
   Event Listings
   View Classified Ads
   Place a Classified Ad
   Online Personals
   Place A Print Ad
 About Metroland
   Where We Are
   Who We Are
   What We Do
   Work For Us
   Place An Ad

The Big Nothing

In the words of Paul Newman, “Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.”

If you’re not familiar with the movie Cool Hand Luke, you should know that when Newman speaks this line, he’s raking in the winnings during a work-camp poker game—winnings earned with an air of invulnerability and not so much as a pair of twos. This remarkably unsubtle movie has an almost scriptural appeal to a certain type of cantankerous young man (young women, impressed though they may be with young Newman’s aesthetic allure, are for the most part immune to the charms of Cool Hand Luke). It’s an Angry Young Man flick, through and through, which holds up the incorrigible, recidivist scofflaw lead character as an existential hero. It’s a compendium of anti-authoritarian attitudes and slogans—one of my favorites being Luke’s response to praise for the cunning planning of his most recent failed escape: “I never planned anything in my life.”

I love this movie and Luke’s reckless, totally improvised, literally pointless rebellion against rules, against decorum, against expectations, against society, against God, against structure. It’s rebellion by default—Luke’s is an instinctual, agenda-less rebellion—and it gets me right where I live (yes, Freud, a state of extended adolescence).

Another of my favorite going-against-the-grain moments recalled from TV was a stand-up segment featuring the consistently unfunny comedian Colin Quinn, which I watched a little over a decade ago. Quinn began his routine by nervously admitting that there had been some miscommunication and that he had come prepared to do about five minutes of material—the producers had given him more than twice that time to fill. He looked like he was in shock, like a traffic-accident victim.

Quinn roamed around the stage shrugging—a broad, terrified grin frozen across his face—trying desperately to extemporize something, anything, funny. At one point, he seemed to give up completely and just sat at the stage’s edge and began a conversation, apropos of absolutely nothing, with one of the audience members.

It was excruciating and beautiful—and funny as hell.

My roommate of the time and I watched, slack-jawed and goggle-eyed, trying to get a handle on whether we were watching the death rattle of a career—the show-biz equivalent of Faces of Death—or the most brilliant bit of bullshit we’d ever seen. We couldn’t figure out whether we were being had by Ken Ober’s one-time Remote Control sidekick.

“If he’s doing this on purpose, he’s a freaking genius,” I said.

“Yeah,” my friend said with similarly awed appreciation. “But, hey, what is he if he’s not?”

Good question. Everything else we know about Quinn suggests that he is not a genius: So, he was a boob, I guess, an underprepared doofus who couldn’t be bothered to read the fine print and had to wing it, to gut it out, to bluff. Thing is, Quinn’s never been funnier—before or since, to my knowledge. Something about the sheer terror of being out there with nothing at all—out there empty, as it were—left him open to inspiration, and with not so much as a pair of twos, he killed.

But, as Daffy Duck says, “Yeah, but whaddya do for an encore?” Quinn couldn’t very well establish himself as the Terrified Comic, that’d suck the mystery right out of it. And, what’s more, audiences would give up on it pretty quickly. (If this were not so, Andy Kaufman would have been as big as his screensake, Jim Carrey.)

Not too many people, performers or audience, want full-time uncertainty. Not in their lives, not in their entertainments: too much risk; not enough quality control. We don’t want to be asked to make it up as we go along; and we don’t want to be taxed to interpret something that falls outside the prescribed and familiar bounds. We want scripts. We want rules. We want codes of conduct. We want three acts, with intermission. We want the inverted pyramid. We want to get what we paid for.

You see this everywhere: the armor-plating of gimmick, the safety of predictable shtick. From the popularity of chain restaurants, to the obsession shared by both Hollywood and Broadway for ancient hits (a Dukes of Hazzard movie? A musical version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels? Have people stopped writing new stuff altogether?), to the surprisingly long-lived “New Dylanism” of the recording industry. This is not to mention the politicians, journalists, Op-Ed and humor-column writers flogging the same dead horses in the same soundbites and cutesy clichéd formats—in franchise we trust.

And frighteningly enough, the appetite for this stuff seems to be not so much a taste, which would be harmless enough, but a preference reflective of a mindset: More of the same, please. We would rather feed the monkey of mediocrity than face something new on our own, unaccompanied by received opinion. And we contort to avoid the “What the fuck?” moments, and lose sight of the fact that those are the necessary springboards to the “Eureka!” moments.

Admittedly, the eurekas can be few and far between, and there’s some security in planning and routine: Quinn got his act together and, despite the cancellation of his most recent show, is still a pretty well-employed, if uninspired, comedian.

On the other hand, the heroic Luke ends up shot through the throat. (Sorry for the spoiler; but, c’mon, slowpokes, the movie’s 38 years old.) Yuck. Nobody—not the most dedicated improviser, not the most existentially angsty, perpetual teen—hopes for that.

Even so, faced with the prospect of an encroaching and ongoing martyrdom to convention, routine or inherited prejudice—a kind of death in life—it seems nothing can still be a pretty cool hand.

—John Rodat

Send A Letter to Our Editor
Back Home
Copyright © 2002 Lou Communications, Inc., 419 Madison Ave., Albany, NY 12210. All rights reserved.