Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
By J.M. Coetzee
Mystery Team (2009)
Nothing grows up on this salty lake-floor, which in places buckles and pushes up in jagged crystalline hexagons a foot wide. There are dangers too: crossing an unusually smooth patch the front horse suddenly plunges through the crust and sinks chest-deep in foul green slime, the man who leads it standing a moment dumbstruck on thin air before he too splashes in. We struggle to haul them out, the salt crust splintering under the hooves of the flailing horse, the hole widening a brackish stench everywhere. We have not left the lake behind, we now realize: it stretches beneath us here, sometimes under a cover many feet deep, sometimes under a mere parchment of brittle salt. How long since the sun last shone on these dead waters? We light a fire on firmer ground to warm the shivering man and dry his clothes. He shakes his head. “I always heard, beware of the green patches, but I never saw this happen before,” he says. He is our guide, the one man among us who has travelled east of the lake.
– Waiting for the Barbarians
Coetzee’s novel takes place mostly at a town on the edge of the Empire, and, at some points, in the Frontier beyond. The places have no further names; Coetzee describes the lake these characters ride past, the deserts and mountains beyond, and where they are in relation to each other, but without any map. They’re designated as what they are.
The area beyond the town is occupied primarily by “the barbarians,” the enemy of the Empire. The narrator, and the people he meets in the story, all have similar generic titles: “the man,” “the girl,” “the young boy,” etc. He is simply “the magistrate,” if one had to refer to him, denoting his job as the administrator of the town. There is a bureaucrat or two with a name, but other than that, nothing.
This quality to the narrative sets the story apart from “our” world – our time and our history, any place on the Earth that we can point to with certainty. The parallels to imperialism are clear, all of the characters act in a recognizably realistic fashion, no aspect of the story is implausible. But it is not of a part with us, and his novel not possible to slot, even with some imagination, into our reality.
One aspect of this is to make familiar things strange: Coetzee forces us to look at various human phenomena without some of our usual reference points. This is an act he engages in again and again, beginning from the first pages, where the magistrate observes a man with “discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire,” and remarks that he’s never seen anything like it.
Coetzee’s refusal to name anything, and more importantly his eschewing of any clear details on the Empire, or the barbarians, or the history of the interactions between them, is also a decision not to world-build. He removes the reference points of our history and our political map, and then replaces them with the barest essentials of what is necessary to tell the story he intends to tell. In this sense he is up to something like fantasy, but the accruing of detail is very unlike most imaginative fiction and literature, where naming and populating and classifying are vital activities. Coetzee doesn’t want to take us to another world as an end in itself.
A key consequence of this on the reading experience is clear in the above passage. In another work, where the guide was named Joe, we would know exactly who fell in the water from the beginning. Instead, the identity of the man seeps away from us completely, until we are hit with the “guide” at the end. The event is important first for its action, second for its atmosphere, last of all for a specific “who” to whom it happened. That last part remains important, as it demonstrates that even the guide is in over his head, but he’s a cold human being first and foremost. His identity has illustrative value, but doesn’t serve as the initial reference point. This kind of generic description allows for a presentation of events that highlights aspects in different ways than if we encountered characters with more fixed identities, and allows Coetzee a freedom of description that doesn’t have to come to rest so quickly on discrete, specific things. It’s more roundabout to posit a world where someone wouldn’t recognize sunglasses, and to describe them in a curious fashion, but you certainly get a different effect than reading “sunglasses” and moving on.
Because it’s a novel, all of this is in service to what Coetzee wants to tackle, things like history, imperialism, human affairs, all the stuff of literature. Yet the bleached world that you read, on its own, isn’t so much subordinate to these larger aspirations as it is insufficient to realize them. The events, the characters, the world of the story, are so stripped down that they aren’t capable themselves of containing meaning. It’s the existence of the work, the sense of the space and intention behind it, that stands there, always, as the statement. The reader is always conscious of Coetzee engaging in this elaborate staging, and this sense is as vital as what you’re actually reading. While a sense of intention registers for most works, you rarely encounter the authorial hand so explicitly.
The text is an exercise, and the novel, what you hold in your hands, is the actual artwork, even though it only has four more words.
Jason: Ah, cinnamon sticks!
Charlie: Ah, Chinese checkers!
Duncan: FUCK! … Yeah, that’s right. I’ve been saying “fuck”. Going in the backyard and trying it out. It’s pretty great.
– Mystery Team
Derrick Comedy swear plenty in their sketches, and they’re plenty good at making it fucking hilarious. In Mystery Team, however, that’s not something the characters would do; and to their immense credit, the group is restrained and committed enough to follow that through. Even this late-in-the-game exception has its own, miniature backstory, which feels perfectly authentic.
That kind of fanatical commitment to the premise was a huge part of the appeal in Derrick Comedy’s sketches, which established their reputation. Almost all of the group’s work has the basic starting point that someone or something is absurd. Most of what they riff off in the sketches is the slow reveal of how far that absurdity is prepared to go, which is usually pretty damn far, and how accommodating the world winds up being.
There’s various levels of focus to this. In something like “WQED” or “Bro Rape,” the sketch posits an absurd state of affairs and follows it through to the end with complete loyalty. In sketches like “Daughters” or “Girls Are Not To Be Trusted,” that’s still the case, but the focus becomes more on one individual with a decidedly weird personal history and an attitude to match. And in something like “Opposite Day” or “Spelling Bee,” there’s some containment of the absurdity, as a normal bystander encounters some supreme weirdness that’s taken things over.
In every case, the characters, and the sketch team, are absolutely committed to who they are and what they’re doing. Mystery Team is essentially a movie-length long working out of this same kind of premise. Somehow a group of eighteen year-olds has made it through high school focusing on solving crimes around the neighborhood involving elementary schoolers. The result is the Boxcar Children by way of The Jerk and Step Brothers, or, as the group themselves put it, “G-rated characters in an R-rated world.” This is actually a quite clever concept, and the way it melds and refashions the group’s own tendencies into movie-length paths is nimble, to say the least.
The major difference in a feature, of course, is that everyone has long since decided that movies need some kind of resolution with an emotional component. And in a comedy, we’re looking for something happy. The ending we get, however, neatly tracks with the tension in their comedy; it’s basically a binary switch, with the absurd team facing up to some real bad stuff, gutting it through, and winding up on the other side as real, normal people.
There’s a curious effect to all this, however, which is that Mystery Team doesn’t ever feel like a “real” movie. Part of that is, of course, the lack of resources that the team had. Shot for under $100,000, you probably aren’t going to get to do much beyond the confines of what you could achieve in a sketch.
Yet it’s an aspirational component, as well. Slacker and Clerks, two examples of ultra-low-budget comedies that aren’t fucking around when it comes to being films, don’t feel at any way discordant with the rhythms of something with more money behind it. They also recognizably take place within the “real” world, and could, and did, veer into drama. Nothing about the emotional interactions or “real world” setting of Mystery Team really functions that way; at a minimum, this is the real world skewed on a comedic axis, not comedy found in realism. The way the film handles actual emotional events, like, say, the double homicide of someone’s parents, is simply as a space where the funny is currently not occurring, rather than the world itself going about its business.
It’s also ultimately to the film’s detriment, as well, since the high concept can’t sustain the energy throughout. The film sags at times under the weight of its own rules, especially because it takes away much of the talents of two of the three main creative voices of the group, DC Pierson, and Dominic Dierkes, who are fully trapped within their characters. The group is too disciplined to cheat and veer off into letting these guys loose, which is admirable but in many ways self-defeating.
Beyond those self-imposed limitations, however, is the much clearer sense that this is a much better version of your typical demo reel. The group’s sketches were and are much-beloved, but as The A.V. Club nicely points out, the leap from sketch to full-length movie can be tricky. And that peril is really the heart of what’s going on here, so the pluses and minuses of the story and the jokes are mostly immaterial. The only stakes are whether this is functions as a movie in a way that honors the talents of the creators. And it does: it certainly coheres as a film, it’s recognizably a movie, and it’s funny enough.
Derrick Comedy thus fulfill a career purpose while threading a particularly difficult needle. Read that interview and you can see they understood this: this was a challenge, and their success, what’s really being accomplished by the film, is the overcoming of that, not anything that the characters actually contend with in the film. In a weird way, too, this forgives the movie most of its flaws. Nearly all the people who encounter this film will know Derrick Comedy previously, and be rooting for them. After all, they’ve made a movie, and it’s pretty good!
For the filmmakers themselves, then, even if they really did have an affection for these characters, this is all a proof of concept. The movie, its release, the theater seat, the DVD case or the rental; that’s what’s been accomplished. And you can enjoy the surface, too, while you’re at it.
Duncan: Sorry I’m late, everybody. My science teacher says my thesis needs to prove something… but I think listing all the dinosaurs proves there was a lot of dinosaurs.
– Mystery Team
It’s a curious thing, when the subjective experience of taking in the work in question becomes so focused on what’s behind it. There’s a real difference to the distance and removal from events; what’s foregrounded is so clearly artificial and so not the larger purpose of what the makers are attempting to accomplish. The characters’ existence as people within fictional worlds registers less clearly than the sense that they are objects, or puppets on strings. Allegory has this quality, too, of being itself but not itself, or as the novel puts it, “a configuration in which events are not themselves but stand for other things.” Yet only the first part of that phrase really applies to these two works. Their components aren’t equivalent to something else, rather, the contents are equivalent to each other, all equally and perfectly arbitrary.
There are trade-offs here, real ones, to heightening the sense of abstraction. You lose access to things that would otherwise be readily at hand. You have to take roundabout paths to avoid falling in to the “real world.” You must spend time in exposition, in some minimal amount of world-building. All this work of paring down and simplification takes time, time that the stories could often put to better use.
Yet while it’s tangential, in its way, tangents do hit the circle, and those intersections—the moments when the good and the right and the true within this particular intersect with what is good and right and true everywhere—make quite an impact. That’s there many times over in the novel, in the moments when the sound drops out and the world falls away and Coetzee stabs you out of nowhere with something very, very perceptive. And while Coetzee, in good postmodern fashion, makes every effort to obscure and complicate and otherwise negate the perspective that his lead holds, it’s impossible to come away from his work without feeling more strongly how vexing a project empire is for all involved and all affected.
In the film there’s fewer opportunities for this, but it does manage to make perhaps the most oft-reiterated comedic moral—tell the girl how you feel!—ring with a sense of heart far out of proportion to the film’s achievements in other areas. And the absurd aspects of the characters makes the sincerity more apparent; if you can’t really laugh it off, if it’s mostly true for them, you can be sure it’s damn true in our world. The few things Mystery Team can tell us are pretty much inarguable, but there’s no harm there, for the presentation makes them new.
For all that, these works aren’t really about anything other than their own existence—they’re projects, where we know and are always conscious of the contents as surface, as something presented that serves another end. But that consciousness, that heightened artificiality, makes the moments when the surface becomes transparent all the more revelatory. And like glass, that clear surface can send off the occasional reflection, and remind you that fake things can create real feeling.