Thursday, December 13, 2007

Just Bitching

As a Freaks and Geeks loyalist, I have an unfettered love for Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen. But my love does not keep me from noticing crap when I smell it. I consider Trent Reznor to be a musical genius on several levels, but With Teeth sounded like a derivative, second-tier Gravity Kills album, itself a derivative, second-tier Nine Inch Nails band. On the other hand, the scales have yet to fall from my eyes with regards to Apatow and Co. The pantheon of creators behind the resurgence of rated-R, hyper-intelligent ironicomedy is a robust size, including not only Apatow and Ben Stiller, but Wes Anderson and Will Ferrell. The genealogical map of good comedy these days reads like a six-degrees of Bacon exercise: Judd and Ben created the ill-fated Ben Stiller Show--now do I go to Janeane Garofalo, who was in Wet Hot American Summer, to get to former State members David Wain and Michael Ian Black/Showalter, creators of Stella, or do I go to Bob Odenkirk, who created Mr. Show with David Cross, to get to Jack Black, who guested on Mr. Show before Bob and David produced the original HBO episodes of Tenacious D? Or do I go from Judd to Steve Carrell to Stephen Colbert, who co-created the amazing Strangers With Candy with Amy Sedaris? Or perhaps, to get really cute, Judd to Paul Feig, creator of Freaks and Geeks, to Jay Chandrasekhar (by virtue of them both directing a number of episodes of Arrested Development, which stars both the aforementioned David Cross and Jeffery Tambor, who starred in The Larry Sanders Show, which Judd was showrunner for towards the end), who is a member of Broken Lizard, the group that brought us Supertroopers...?

So I read
Knocked Up made time for men to explore their choices on-screen in almost existential ways; they ask themselves whom they want to be, they joke around, they assume the right to experiment. Women, by contrast, are entirely concerned with pragmatic issues.
She has a point. Both gender sets, Rogen and Paul Rudd and Heigl and Leslie Mann, spend most of the movie wrestling with the new couple's future. The difference is that the male set spends it by reflecting on the loss of freedom and the female set by reflecting on how the men lose their freedom. Or, at least that's the frame O'Rourke puts on the movie. I'm not so sure the split is as simple as that.

Autonomy being the distinctive province of Men is an old issue, which Charlotte Perkins Gilman put in visual relief in her Women and Economics by conceptualizing the roles of men and women as centered, and evolving out of, the hunter versus gatherer roles: women tended the hearth, the inside circle of the home, while men went out, circumscribing and protecting the inner circle. In the beginning, this wasn't a big deal: both were preoccupied full-time with survival and the area, the square footage in this metaphor, of each sex's role was roughly the same. But as civilization moved forward, the Man's circle, being on the outside, was able to expand, while the Woman's circle, being circumscribed on the inside, stayed the same.

It's a useful conceptualization, and it is exactly what is at issue in O'Rourke's reading of the movie. In this reading, Rogen and Rudd face the loss of time for Romantic, poetic self-creation, the ability to create a unique self, an inner self. Heigl and Mann face the pragmatic future of trying to create a family that is safe and supplied, a future in which they also have to wrangle-in their husbands to make sure they are not so self-involved. What is interesting, and what I think O'Rourke misses, is the frankness that Apatow brings to this portrayal of the struggle: there is a power ratio here that hasn't always been portrayed in the past. Women being masters of responsibility is a new thematic in our consciousness, though it is old in practice. In the Middle Ages, the Lady of a manor was largely responsible for its functioning, while the Nobleman was out doing whatever he wanted, but it hasn't been until recently that anybody's been talking about it (partially, no doubt, because what counted as "somebody talking about it" hasn't included women). This is a shift in representation, a shift in the web with which we clothe ourselves.

O'Rourke thinks, though, that Apatow is forwarding a critique that is "muddied by its own joyful enactment of male high jinks, and the corresponding absence of anything similar on the part of the women." I struggle to think of the movie as a critique, but the movie, like all of the comedy I mentioned at the outset, is saturated in irony. What I think O'Rourke is missing is that comedy begins with boundaries--without boundaries there is nothing to break, and thus no comedy. George Carlin understood that, and Dave Chappelle came to understand this dilemma: how do we make fun of stereotypes without implicitly reinforcing them?

It takes great skill to do so, one that O'Rourke finds missing. O'Rourke thinks that Mann's plaintive, "Don't you think I might want some time to myself?" to Rudd falls flat, whereas I think it is the point on which all of this revolves. The rise of the slacker, the irresponsible soul-searcher, is the concurrent rise of the responsible adult--we can't represent the one without the other. O'Rourke identifies the slacker as this generation's representation of the Romantic poet, which I think is right. But what the movie identifies is Emerson's central, irresolvable tension, that between public and private, between other-motivation and self-motivation.

Rorty saw quite clearly that irony requires something to be ironic about. We can't have soul-searching and self-creation without a stable center to come home to. The problem is that the gender relation is balanced against women in the self-creation department: men get to create themselves, while women get to create others. This is what set's up the movie: we need somebody to create more people. Somebody has to be at home to create the children. Being responsible is not bad. In fact, being responsible is the obvious good that irresponsibility flies in the face of. The movie is premised on women being in the morally superior position. It sets women as understanding the balance needed between other- and self-centered action. It is men who need the education, who need to grow up.

I think Apatow has always been quite successful in balancing and not resolving the tensions and problems he sets up. Rather than a parable, Apatow sets a problematic. There is no moral at the end of the story that tells us, "Men need to grow up, women need to loosen up." It has that as its premise. Using it as a staging point for the movie, rather than the end point, Apatow is able to portray the tensions. Women would be able to loosen up if they were given the chance, but men would need to take on some responsibility. What is shown is that these are starting points, culturally inherited positions on a map of roles, and that life is about negotiating them.

In a Time article on Rogen and Apatow, Rogen said that he and Apatow occasionally get asked whether there isn't a socially conservative background to their movies: a forty-year-old virgin, an accidental pregnancy-turn-marriage. Rogen replied that if the characters hadn't kept the baby, it would've been a pretty short movie. I think that's the proper attitude towards the comedy of the constellation surrounding Apatow, Ferrell, and Anderson. There's a premise: its not an endorsement, but the setup. Jokes require straight-men, but the irony this generation of comedians wield is directed at themselves: the straight-men are almost always the morally superior personages (take Zoolander). And what the best of these comedies do is set ironies that bring about illuminations, not in their opposite direction, but in a different, unexpected direction, ironies that bounce back and forth against each other for the duration of the movie.

That and high jinks. They are also about just saying really funny shit.

1 comment:

  1. Uh-huh. And what do you think Rorty would have had to say about 'Police Academy'? (ba-dum-dum). No, but seriously, good to see you posting again.

    I didn't particularly like Knocked Up and I'm not sure I remember it well enough (or cared about it enough) to really comment on O'Rourke's accusations.

    But damn if I can't wait to see what your review of "No Country for Old Men" looks like.


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