Trapped in the Closet Episodes 1-22

One slice is missing, now the story’s gettin’ scary, cos he comes to realise that Bridget is allergic to cherry.

What we have here is a soap opera lasting about an hour and a half, but set to the same tune repeated 22 times.  You’d think that’d be tedious but you’d be wrong.  Because from minute one onward, it’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen/heard in your life.  It’s sort of like Napoleon Dynamite (2004), but gangster and set entirely to music.

Yes, it’s R. Kelly‘s hip-hopera, Trapped in the Closet: Chapters 1-22 (2005-07), which follows the mixed up files of a number of individuals who are, whether they know it or not, all involved in each others’ lives.  We’ve got Chuck (Malik Middleton) who is having an affair with Rufus (Rolando Boyce) who is married to Cathy (LeShay N. Tomlinson) who is having an affair with Sylvester (Kelly) who is married to Gwendolyn (Cat Wilson) who is having a brief affair with policeman James (Michael Kenneth Williams) who is married to Briget (Rebecca Field) who is having an affair with Big Man (Drevon Cooks).  And there’s also Gwendolyn’s brother Twan (Eric Lane) who has trouble keeping his temper.  Oh, and Sylvester’s got a gun.  That features heavily.

He must know that this is hilarious.  In any case, around episode 16, Kelly realized that this stuff was ludicrous and he starts to play into it with physical gags and funny characters.  In short time, he starts to play up the hip-hopra business with spoken word and ramping up some of the serious elements of what I might laughingly call “the plot.”

Actually, and forgive me please, but R. Kelly is almost onto something with this hip-hopera.  Whether he realizes it or no, he falls into a number of the stock devices found in opera.  Repetition of themed music is taken as purely coincidental until he actually starts branching out.  He’s also got a villain (Pimp Luscious), clowns Rosie (LaDonna Tittle) and Randolph (Kelly), and obviously he’s got a complicated love-heptagon among characters that occasionally know each other.

So, on a structural level, he’s almost doing something incredibly clever.  Maybe that’s all on purpose.  If it is, then that’s awesome.  Somebody taking something held pretty seriously (opera) and fit it into your own style in a humorous way but still respecting the history of the medium.  Like an adaptation.

Major props, if you’ll excuse the expression, for the best freakin’ commentary devise I’ve ever seen on a dvd.  He actually films himself watching the movie and, obviously, commenting on it.  He’s got to learn a little something about the difference between commentary and reiterating what’s happening on screen.  I imagine most commentaries are just voice recordings so that they can take breaks, but I prefer his way.

Oh no, he is being serious.  He doesn’t know it’s funny.  He thinks it makes sense and keeps pointing out how everything rhymes.  Oh no.  Yes, it is a cliffhanger, we’re familiar with its function.  I’m not quite sure you know the difference between a cliffhanger and foreshadowing, but that’s fine.

Kelly, man you’re making me so uncomfortable.  I’m feeling an irritating amount of pity right now.  “People do make love when they realize everything is okay.”  Oh man, it hurts to watch this guy talk about this show.  He’s laughing, but I think it’s self-satisfaction rather than laughing at a joke.

That’s it, proof.  It can be done.  Somebody can create something good without meaning to.

Okay, I’ve got to defend that–this being, by any definition “good”–but I think I can.  In Boogie Nights (1997), what Paul Thomas Anderson does so incredibly well is to write dumb people dialogue that’s really funny.  Trapped in the Closet is that kind of funny but even better because its rhymes are so barely-plausible.

Okay, so it’s funny.

It also has some pretty impressive thoughtfulness.  In one episode A meets B and B is smoking.  A goes home and sees his wife C and notices the smell of smoke.  Now, you may think that’s not much, but that’s the kind of detail that I find impressive.  I know Kelly did that on purpose because he marveled at it in the commentary.

Okay, is it on purpose?

I kept going back and forth until I watched the commentary.  Can it be possible that the commentary is a second giant joke?  “You notice, I wanted the dialogue in Trapped in the Closet to be as real as I could make it, you know, within the melodies of it.”  Man, I can’t possibly believe it.  If it is a joke, then R. Kelly is a comic genius.  Genius.

But he isn’t because it isn’t.  Kelly had a series of qualities he wanted.  (1) He wanted everything to go exactly opposite to what “you’d expect.” (2) He wanted the dialogue to be real.  (3) He wanted the rhymes.  (4) He wants make an elaborate, mature work.

As things turn out, every one of these elements builds into a massive joke.  The first thing makes the content comic and because this was put together basically in one draft, so each contrived not-what-you’d-expect sends the tale into zany territory in short order.  The dialogue pushed into these contrived rhymes sounds pretty silly on more than a hundred occasions.  Then, the coup d’grace, what brings this all together into a work of beauty, is the pretense held by all the actors such that their performances are grounded and they don’t start over-acting or beg for the laughs.

What makes all of this work as a comedy is that Kelly has great instincts for story and character.  Through all this commentary, he laboriously talks about the characters’ back-story and the story structure.  He talks laboriously about most things.  But he’s rarely saying something stupid or wrong.  He says it stupidly and inaccurately, but he just knows.

Example.  “I’ll never leave you hangin’.  Something today is going to lead you to something tomorrow.”  What he’s saying is that he uses foreshadowing, isn’t creating tangents, and everything is essential to the story.  That’s lesson one in storytelling–nothing is unimportant, if it isn’t essential, cut it.  There are so many other examples I could quote where he goes on for paragraphs about little details, bit I just couldn’t bring myself to transcribe them.

He’s built this whole series of stories apparently without the benefit of a 7th grade class on story structure.  That’s impressive.  His instincts are so strong that these stories, though the plot and expression are absurd, actually work.  He actually has characters in this series.  “Even Pimp Luscious has a heart.”  Even a character we see for a total of four minutes of screen time has a back-story and the promise of fuller explanation later in the series.  Differentiate that from something J.K. Rowling might have said about Snape or the Malfoys.

So, Kelly clearly doesn’t realize how funny his expression is.  He realizes that he’s dropping the more obvious jokes, like a burp or whatever, but he thinks the cherry allergy (above) is just a good detail.  But in his R&B recitative, what would be a ludicrous contrivance is hilarious in an ironic way.  The whole thing works on this level.  If they were put together as plain video shorts, without music, the whole thing might have rang false and too zany to function.  But Kelly is an alchemist.

It’s astounding.  My mind is blown.

You crazier than some fish with titties.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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One Response to Trapped in the Closet Episodes 1-22

  1. 2manybooks says:

    Can’t wait for the next series. Suggestion to those who have yet to witness this classic: don’t watch the whole thing in one go. Watching a chapter a day is much more fun- better for the “cliffhanger” effect.

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