“Oil and Smoke: The Carnivalesque Double Consciousness of Key and Peele”
The first thing I do when I teach film comedy is observe that the funniest contemporary films were loathed upon their release. Critics dismissed Airplane! (Jim Abrahams and David Zucker, 1980) and Caddyshack (Harold Ramis, 1980) as sophomoric, not seeming to notice the close and profound connection between the history of comedy and childish scatology, running from Francois Rabelais’ The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1534) through to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953). Indeed, the foolish privileging of tragedy over comedy, both inside academia and out, poisons our ability to appreciate truly great films whose purpose is to make us laugh instead of cry.
I thought about this quite a lot as I sat watching Keanu, a comedic gem from television sketch comedy artists, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. While the film’s advertising hype accurately touts it as hilarious, critics fret over the film’s thin plot. This is the addled response to Airplane! and Caddyshack redux. Harold Ramis’ piece barely held together, filmed by hungry young comedians (Chevy Chase) and elder statesmen (Ted Knight) together, stoned on obscene amounts of pot and cocaine. Yet none of that matters when watching the absolute mastery of Bill Murray as Carl Spackler imagine winning the Masters while mangling flowers with his garden tools, or Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield) observe of his nemesis’ elderly wife: “the last time I saw a mouth like that, it had a hook in it.”
The funniest gag in Keanu revolves around pot-addled Rell (Peele) placing his beloved cat, Keanu onto miniature sets recreating famous movies. Narrative photographer Jeff Wall gone mad, Rell places Keanu in front of a mangled white door and snaps a photograph. He shows his cousin, Clarence (Key) his set replicating the bathroom in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). Clarence admires Rell’s handiwork, commenting on what a financially successful calendar these photographs are going to make. Absurdly, Rell responds that these large format photographs are just for him.
It strikes me that this is the allegorical key to Keanu. The film quotes a masterful 1980 art film, The Shining, but in such a way that emphasizes its artifice, deflecting attention from the film’s more prominent influences, the reviled yet ribald 1980 duo of Airplane! and Caddyshack. Indeed, the central conceit of Keanu is such substitutive artifice. Its very title makes reference to the actor, Keanu Reeves, who voices the cat during a drug-addled vision Clarence has when accidentally smoking the designer crack cocaine around which the film’s plot revolves. Similar to Rell’s photographs, Clarence’s drug vision reveals the cat as one of the players in The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999), Reeves’ most iconic role.
The film develops this comic interrogation of artifice with bravura precision. In the first shot, we see the tiny kitten, Keanu walking in the L.A. River Basin, a concrete monstrosity that is most recognizable now, not as the ecological disaster it truly is, but as the site of Hollywood action movies such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Transformers, and Batman: The Dark Knight Rises. The rest of Keanu is a series of engagements with the diverse geography of Los Angeles. The film begins in a middle-class neighborhood where Clarence lives with his wife and children.
The catalyst of the film occurs when the cat flees a drug deal gone wrong, arrives at the depressed Rell’s doorstep, only to be immediately stolen by another drug dealer, Cheddar (played by the oddly named Method Man). Clarence tags along with Rell as they infiltrate Cheddar’s gang. In an absurdist night reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s comic dream of New York City, After Hours (1985), Clarence and Rell wander through the gamut of Los Angeles’ geography. To find Cheddar, they have to travel from their middle-class neighborhood to a sleazy bar located under a freeway downtown. To prove to Cheddar they are tough gangsters, they accompany his trusted lieutenant, Hi C (Tiffany Haddish) to the Hollywood hills, where they attempt to sell the designer drugs to film star Anna Faris.
However, starting with the very title, preposterously about a kitten and not the film star Keanu Reeves, the film consistently replaces what seems real with narrative artifice. Except for the iconic second unit exterior establishing shots, virtually the entire film was shot in New Orleans, merely made to look like Los Angeles. While we see with our own eyes Hi C shoot and murder Anna Faris and her Hollywood sycophants, it turns out she is really an undercover police officer, and Anna Faris is in the employ of the LAPD on various sting operations, alive and well at the film’s end.
To what end, this trickery? In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. DuBois suggested that African-American people in white supremacist culture exist in a state of double consciousness. Keanu is a film about comic double consciousness. Both bi-racial, Key and Peele have made a film that is never what it seems to be, calling attention to the fact that white and black folks live in very different worlds, not just physically, but representationally.
The film ends with their final gesture in the direction of double consciousness. During the credits, we are told that Peele and Key not only have played Rell and Clarence, but also the supernatural gangster hit men, who absurdly hail from… Allentown. In the credits, these zombie-like ninjas are named Oil and Smoke… Dresden. So wait… Are they from East Germany, or Eastern Pennsylvania? We do not know, nor do we care. What we do know is, in the post-credits teaser for a sequel, Oil and Smoke preposterously come back to life after having been shot dozens of times point blank in the chest. In Keanu 2, not only will Rell and Clarence return, but also Oil and Smoke, indicating that double consciousness is still the order of the day, well over a century after DuBois gave a name to this most American of maladies. Thank Chevy Chase we have great comedians to ridicule such a sorry state of affairs.