Drunken master

I was introduced today to the music of The Strokes. As I watched their artful creation of a sound that looked accidental but clearly wasn’t, I realized I was seeing an example of an entire aesthetic. There are artists who put tremendous effort into making their work seem haphazard, while exercising so much control that the “accidental” results are invariably bravura and astonishing.

Jackie Chan is famous for this in the martial arts, through his various portrayals over the years of a “Drunken master” — a martial artist who careens around as though drunk, while somehow landing every throw and kick with deadly precision.

But the idea of the drunken master spans many genres in the arts. One that comes to mind is Gracie Allen from the old Burns and Allen show. On the surface she seemed daffy to the point of near insanity, and yet everything she “accidentally” said hit home with wondrous precision. Other examples are the aphorisms of Yogi Berra, the ingeniously sly “dumb blonde” performances of Judy Holliday, and most of the film performances of Peter Sellers.

It could be argued that the half-crazed Harlequin characters in American sitcoms are all drunken masters, from Ed Norton to Jim Ignatowski to Phoebe Buffay to Cosmo Kramer, as well as dozens of others. While their ostensibly saner friends struggle to find their mooring, these blissful agents of randomness always manage to effortlessly stumble upon the deeper truths that elude others.

In some way the drunken master is that ideal self we all secretly hope we have somewhere within us — the childlike part of us that bypasses mere reason to make direct contact with the sublime.

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