A cursory and non-reductive look at Hail, Caesar! by Joel and Ethan Coen
I’ve been promising for a while that I’m going to be less reductive about movies. So even though I saw Hail, Caesar! last night and have been thinking about it ever since, I won’t try to come up with some belabored explanation of what I think it all means.
After all, trying to assign a “meaning” to everything is insufferably pretentious. It’s the kind of thing that self-important writers do, sitting together flinging high-minded concepts at each other without being able to put them into practice or make them relevant. It’s not actual communication, but just a pretense of superiority to cover up a deep-seated bitterness over the fact that writing is not universally accepted to be the most important thing there is.
It’s all part of the value judgment we tend to put on the labels of “art” vs “entertainment.” As if entertainment is inherently ephemeral, vapid, and valueless. The only way to elevate it to the higher and worthwhile level of “Art” is to put it in service of some important and meaningful statement. By, for instance, inserting ideas into unrelated stories for audiences to decode and pick apart like puzzle boxes, with the goal of “changing minds.” Or having a movie end with a forceful, dramatic monologue that explains to the audience exactly what the whole thing is about.
If it were just self-important ramblings from someone who’d taken too many cinema studies courses, it’d be bad enough. But the problem is that it’s reductive. It’s dismissive of all the wonderful things that movies can do, and it undermines the efforts of the hundreds of people who work to bring those wonderful experiences to audiences.
After all, there’s a ton of artistry that goes into a movie that’s more than just the self-congratulation of screenwriters and attention-grabbing performances by movie stars. There are cinematographers, editors, composers, choreographers, set designers, artistic directors, dancers, and stunt people. And that’s not counting all the people whose work doesn’t make it directly onto the screen, but who are essential to making the entire thing possible.
It’s an attitude that assumes that the movie industry’s days of spectacle and pageantry and displays of raw talent are gone and no longer missed, because the medium “matured.” It assumes an evolution from cheap tricks and stunts into more refined and intelligent stories of beautiful and sophisticated people delivering clever dialogue. It claims that there’s no true artistry in a well-executed farce, or a perfectly choreographed musical number. It ignores the delight of an audience enjoying something together in favor of being able to say I get it.
So I’m going to resist my natural tendency to talk about the Coen brothers as populists. Or to mention their disdain for pretense and self-importance. Or to put anything in the context of their recurring theme of spirituality vs. religion, and the futility of being so focused on the meaning and the answer that we lose sight of the wonder of life and the beauty of experience itself.
Instead, I’ll just talk about what I liked most in Hail, Caesar!, the Coens’ absurd, spectacular farce about the “golden age” of Hollywood.
I loved that they went all-in on reproducing genre after genre of classic movie, not just as casual reference but full-blown production. The result is the best living cinematographer and film composer working with scores of the most talented people in the industry making pitch-perfect recreations of old musical westerns, Gene Kelly-style musicals with elaborate dance numbers, Esther Williams-style “aquamusicals,” pompous sword-and-sandal epics, and high-society melodramas. And then made the references pitch-perfect as well, to Cold War spy dramas, a film noir car chase, and of course, the Singin’ in the Rain-style movie-within-a-movie.
I loved that the Coens returned to their Blood Simple-era mastery of timing, setting up the slow burn “Would that it were so simple” gag that’s shown in the trailer, waiting for a few more scenes before setting up the punchline, then stretching out the delivery of the punchline even more by inserting one of the other funniest scenes in the movie, with Frances McDormand’s film editor.
Every single performance in the movie was perfect, which is especially remarkable considering that they weren’t all in the same genre of movie. Being the straight man in a screwball comedy is a thankless job, but Josh Brolin keeps it grounded. But Alden Ehrenreich is kind of amazing, not just for completely getting the wild changes in tone from scene to scene, but also being able to do an affected accent trying to affect a different accent. And this is the first movie where I’ve liked Channing Tatum.
I loved the recurring gag about not “depicting the godhead” (check the disclaimers in the end credits) while making a movie billed “A Tale of The Christ,” and then not only did they never show the actor playing Jesus, they had an assistant director asking him whether he was principal or supporting cast.
I loved that the high-minded, presumably religious epic On Wings As Eagles was built up with such import and significance and then marvelously deflated. I loved the “No Dames!” musical number that started with a subtle nod to the Gene Kelly performances that seemed just-barely-shy of homoerotic, and then got more and more blatant as the routine got more and more sophisticated.
And I loved that Eddie Mannix’s guilt and loyalty and devotion were depicted as a crisis of faith, and contrasted against the religious leaders who didn’t have the answers; the warmongers who dismissed movies as ephemeral, valueless entertainment; and the biblical epics that depicted sudden, awe-inspiring epiphanies that turned out to be ultimately empty. Mannix didn’t really have any sudden moment of clarity; he just went on helping people who needed help and made movies that reached millions of people and brought joy to their lives.
So no real message, just an astoundingly talented bunch of filmmakers making a silly, funny farce about the “magic” of movies. But maybe I missed the point entirely.
Another note about The Force Awakens, merchandising, and spoiler culture. Contains huge spoilers, obviously.
This post is partly about what an impressive job Disney and Lucasfilm did of keeping details about The Force Awakens secret until its release. So please: if you haven’t yet seen the movie, don’t read it.
While I’m thinking about Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars (if they could bar wars, why don’t they?): one of the things the internet’s decided they just will not stand for is the way that the film is being marketed.
And by “the internet,” I of course mean maybe a couple hundred people who care enough to write blog posts and start a #WheresRey hashtag. Don’t mistake this post for a “I saw this thing on Twitter and am therefore now responding to the cultural zeitgeist,” but instead a comment on an a couple aspects of this movie and its promotional campaign that I thought were interesting.
Why I unabashedly love Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and how much I’ve missed being able to unabashedly love a movie
A cool thing I discovered after seeing The Force Awakens a second time is that I don’t really care about anybody else’s opinion of The Force Awakens.
Really, though, you don’t care about my opinion of it, either. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you need to stop reading this right now. I’m still somewhat amazed by how well Disney & Lucasfilm have managed to keep the movie in everybody’s consciousness for months but still keep so much of it a surprise.
If you have seen it and have some criticisms you feel need to be addressed: eh, can’t help you there. When people talk about Star Wars being a “religion” to Nerds of a Certain Age, it’s intended to be derogatory of course, but there’s some truth to it. It’s more than a series of movies and their associated merchandise; it’s a phenomenon. In my case, it literally transformed my life. So when an experience so thoroughly triggers that feeling of unbridled delight that I haven’t felt in decades, I’m going to be a little dogmatic. Either you love it as much as I do, or you’re mistaken.
But if you did love it and just want to read another fan gushing about it, you’ve come to the right place. Watching it filled me with the kind of naked, uncynical, bean-to-bar exhilaration I haven’t gotten from a movie since seeing Big Trouble in Little China or Ghostbusters for the first time in 1986. For a few hours last Friday, I was transported back to Phipps Plaza in 1980 watching the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back and tearing up at the sheer wonder of it all.
A Long Time Ago
Of course, the down side to being picked up and transported back in time to being a wide-eyed nine-year-old in 1980 is having to get dumped back into the body of a 44-year-old in 2015. It’s alarming how dyspeptic and self-important we’ve all become.
It’s not just the wet blankets. We’ve always had those. For fun, read “The Empire Strikes Out” by David Gerrold from Starlog in 1980 and marvel at how much of it has survived and spread today. Neil deGrasse Tyson is on Twitter pushing buttons as unconvincingly as any of the people operating electronics in Star Wars. (To be fair, Gerrold’s question of how would a giant worm living in an uninhabitable asteroid be able to find food is actually kind of interesting on an academic level. Unlike the crusty old tired complaints about sound in space).
And Gerrold’s whole preamble should sound hauntingly familiar to anyone who’s on the internet in 2015. It’s the words of the martyr who knows what he’s saying won’t be popular among the “fanatics,” but he’s just got to share his complaints about the movie.
I’m not sure that I’ll ever understand the mentality of the “apathetic pan,” the need to inform as many people as possible that you don’t like something that’s popular. Or that it was good but not great. Or that it was fun but you have complaints that you’ll present as a list now. I’m not sure how to react to that, either, other than with a shrug and an Ayn Rand-ian “Oh well, sucks to be you.”
The whole phenomenon of “spoiler free reviews” really made it clear how far we’ve gotten away from engaging and analyzing arts and entertainment, and now just broadcast opinions as widely as possible. Last Wednesday, some kind of review embargo lifted, which meant every site on the internet was scrambling to be the first to post their spoiler-free review of The Force Awakens. It was a torrent of reviews that no one would read for a movie that everyone would see.
And I do mean every site. I’m not sure exactly why I’d want to know what the writers of a technology site or a video game blog thought about the new Star Wars movie, but I could absolutely find out, in written, video, podcast, and roundtable discussion format.
But who was the audience for these things? If anyone was on the fence about seeing the movie, they wouldn’t benefit from a positive review because tickets had sold out weeks earlier. Which also meant that people who’d already bought tickets wanted to know as little about the movie as possible. Which means that the critics couldn’t address anything of real substance about the movie for fear of “spoilers.” It’s talking in vague abstracts about a piece of art for which I have no context. That’s more search-engine optimization than film criticism.
I’m not cynical enough to think that it’s all SEO. A lot of it is genuine enthusiasm, the same reason I’m writing this. But that almost makes it more tragic: the idea of getting excited to see a movie and then rushing home to list all the problems you had with it.
Maybe it’s a side effect of being told for years that the stuff we loved was infantilizing and shallow? So we have to somehow prove that we’re able to appreciate The Muppets on a much deeper level. It’s not enough just to enjoy something; we have to be able to deconstruct it. If we’re not being analytical enough, it shows we lack discernment.
Part of it might be a by-product of Star Wars itself. One of the side effects of Star Wars’s unprecedented popularity was a fascination with how the movies were made. We all learned about blue screens and miniatures and matte paintings, and I doubt I was the only kid who went out and banged a wrench against a telephone pole support cable in an attempt to recreate the blaster sound effects like I saw in the “making of.” But instead of inspiring us all to become movie makers, it seems to have encouraged us all to think like movie reviewers.
Whatever the reason, it’s meant that even people who loved the movie need to qualify it somehow. “It’s not perfect,” or “it’s not as good as the first two,” or “it’s fine for what it is.” Which is kind of a drag, because I wish people could just lose their minds over it like I did.
I’ve already resolved to be less reductive about movies (and other art), trying to identify and compartmentalize the one thing that the entire work means. But it goes deeper than that. I’m realizing that I go into everything like an analyst instead of an audience. I’m devoting around 75% of my brain to the experience, and the other 25% trying to think of interesting things to say about the experience later. It’s like viewing every big event through a smartphone screen instead of being in the moment.
(The rest of this is spoiler-heavy. Please don’t read it if you haven’t yet seen the movie).
What terrible reviews of Trainwreck tell us about the sorry state of pop-progressivism on the Internet
Trainwreck is reasonably (if not spectacularly) funny, and the most surprisingly brave thing about it is that it’s so often sincere, not that it’s so often raunchy. It’s also overlong, oddly paced, too reliant on celebrity cameos, and disappointingly reluctant to go over the top with its gags, especially since we’ve all seen just how amazing both Amy Schumer and Bill Hader can be when they’re free to go full-on bizarre.
What Trainwreck isn’t:
I’m not quite sure how anyone could have misread this movie as badly as they did. When the first reviews came out, a recurring complaint was that all the potential of Schumer’s breakthrough feature film starring vehicle had been Judd Apatow’ed: turned into a raunchy but ultimately conservative spin on a completely conventional movie format.
It wasn’t until the very last scenes of Trainwreck that I started to see why some people may have thought their America’s New Feminist Hero had been straitjacketed by a guy who likes to make movies about 40-year-old stoners getting happily married. It’d still be a dense and wrong conclusion, considering the rest of the movie, but it was just a simple misinterpretation that could easily be cleared up by one of my remarkably insightful blog posts.
But not only does Amy explicitly explain what the point of the final scenes were, Hader’s character interrupts her repeatedly to say “Yes, I get the metaphor.” She went out of her way to make sure her message is clear, but it’s still not clear enough for the faux-progressives.
Our Miss Schumer
Take for instance “Judd-ging Amy: The Slut-Shaming Heteronormative Morality of Trainwreck”, which, if the title didn’t already give it away, is written with the tone of someone who doesn’t understand that Los Feliz Daycare is a parody account.
In case you can’t make it past the part where he inexplicably puts “married” in scare quotes, the gist is that writer Peter Knegt and his diverse group of friends felt betrayed. They’re long-time devotees of Schumer’s stand-up routine and Comedy Central series, and for them, this was going to be their big event movie. (“…like I imagine various demographics might approach ‘Star Wars’ or ‘The Dark Knight.'” where “various demographics” is code speak for “straight nerds”). But Judd Apatow took Schumer’s slutty, boozy persona that they all identified with, and turned it into a judgmental and heteronormative morality play that “slut-shamed us and brought Amy Schumer along for the ride.”
It seems to throw the very people Schumer has been vouching for all these years under the bus with an essential moral that excess behavior will only lead to unhappiness and that we best assimilate into societal norms even if it doesn’t feel natural. Why would Amy Schumer — our Amy Schumer — want to express such a notion?
Okay, for starters, she’s not your Amy Schumer.
The basic premise of the entire article is more backwards and offensive than even the most willfully ignorant interpretation of anything in Trainwreck. It says that a successful woman at a huge breakthrough point in her career, who’s got her own television series (not to mention the pull and the sense of loyalty to cast her friends and family along with the people she admires), managed to write, star in, and co-produce a feature film, but simply couldn’t help but get steamrolled by a man who’s powerful in the industry.
Another thing I find “problematic” is the increasingly widespread trend of people so eager to take offense at something they find “problematic” that they forget how fiction works. So they insist that celebrities explain it to them, or else there’s gonna be hell of think pieces about it on Salon. Knegt even acknowledges that Schumer’s slutty, boozy routine is an exaggerated persona. But he ignores that to go on for another page and a half, refusing to acknowledge that stand-up routines are painstakingly written and rehearsed performances, instead of just humorously-delivered affidavits.
For me, the reason this crosses the line from just annoying to downright infuriating is that Schumer has been so deft and clever at handling it without having to explicitly explain it. One of the most subtly brilliant things about her TV series (and which is carried on in Trainwreck) is that all her characters — even the wackiest and even the most offensive — are named Amy. That implies that they’re all, at least to some small degree, aspects of her. Which is huge, because it removes both the defensive distance that comedians usually keep between themselves and their subjects, as well as any sense of judgment.
That’s why my initial take on Schumer’s material years ago was so flat-out wrong: she’s not just a shallow gender-swapped, raunchy shock comic. She didn’t just combine Lisa Lampanelli’s “I can be as raunchy as any man!” schtick with Sarah Silverman’s “I play the part of a clueless white girl to make a larger point” and call it day. The bulk of her material is carefully constructed to talk about multiple things at once, and she almost always includes herself as a target. It’s what elevates much of her material to satire instead of just gags. And it’s probably why Knegt and his friends have always felt that she was representing them instead of judging them.
I Feel Like I Won
As long as I’m draining all the humor out of things by over-explaining them, let me do it with the bit that Knegt quotes (in full) in his article, the one where Amy has to endure a bridal shower with a bunch of “Stepford Wives” from Connecticut.
Schumer adapted this joke into the storyline of Trainwreck with a couple of changes. It’s the changes that Knegt takes issue with, by — surprise — finding them “problematic:”
But the other, much more problematic difference is that it seems Amy doesn’t quite feel like she’s won the game this time. She even feels the need to call up the person whose baby shower it was and apologize.
Considering that he’s a self-professed fan of Schumer’s comedy material, it’s weird that Knegt would only acknowledge the change in wording (with a “fair enough,” as if it were arbitrary), and the addition of a scene afterwards, instead of taking into account how the context, subject matter, timing, and in fact the entire punchline changed. Here’s a few things that he either missed or didn’t acknowledge:
That joke is old, in stand-up terms. If you’ve heard a comedy bit enough times to have it memorized, you can be sure that Schumer’s heard it a thousand times more. And considering that Trainwreck isn’t a “best-of” concert movie, but instead a debut screenplay, you can make one of two conclusions:
The woman who’s co-written three seasons of a comedy series, years of stand-up sets, Comedy Central roasts, and countless smaller routines for hundreds of appearances, was either so in love with that one gag, or so hard up for material, that she just put in as much of the bit as Apatow and Universal would allow.
Amy Schumer’s really smart, and she reworked some of her older material to fit in with a larger message, to make it say something more than it did as part of her stand-up set.
I’m skeptical that even Judd Apatow was saying “Shit, early cuts of our romantic comedy are only 2 hours long. We need some filler material, quick. Amy: do your ‘Connecticut Stepford Wives’ bit!”
Schumer’s raised her own bar for shock value. Changing Amy’s contribution to the game wasn’t just arbitrary. “I let a cab driver finger me” just doesn’t have the same punch after doing a commercial for Finger Blasters with a bunch of teenagers. So there’s probably a reason it was changed.
The stand-up version of the joke is still funny, but kind of mean. At least by Schumer’s standards in 2015. Not undeservedly mean, because she’s making fun of her friend for being ashamed of her younger behavior, and making fun of the arrogant and judgmental women who’d try to shame her. But in that version of the joke, they’re exclusively the targets. The gag is “I really shocked the hell out of those uptight bitches.”
The old joke is still there. You still get to see the shocked expressions on Nikki Glaser and Claudia O’Doherty’s characters. (Which is itself funny, knowing that instead of bringing in the usual suite of blonde actresses hired to play the Stuck-Up Bitch role, they cast a bunch of women comedians). But it doesn’t end there. Schumer’s newer material builds on the assertions of her older stuff, adding more layers and more targets, but without losing what made the original gag work.
The timing of Schumer’s line completely changed. Now it’s more drawn out, into a vulgar (but still pretty funny) story about having to fish out a condom that’d gotten lodged in her cervix. After the “she just said something shocking!” moment, we get to see how she keeps pushing it just for the sake of making everyone uncomfortable. And the person she’s making most uncomfortable is no longer the friend who’s ashamed of her past and worried that Amy’s going to embarrass her. It’s her sister, who’s long been the butt of Amy’s jokes for living a “boring” “normal” life.
Amy’s line is no longer the punchline. Instead, that goes to the character played by Schumer’s friend Bridget Everett, who feels “empowered” enough by Amy’s story that she can admit to getting double-teamed by her husband and another dude. It’s telling, too, that Everett’s story is about a kind of sexual adventurousness, while Amy’s has been changed to be not about casual sex itself, but the tedious and kind of gross aftermath of it. That acknowledges something that wasn’t present in the old version of the joke: some of these women have their own wild-ish stuff going on too, without choosing between the polar opposites of “enjoying life” and “being married.” (It also shows that Schumer isn’t so wrapped up in her breakthrough starring vehicle that she won’t give good lines to her friends).
She doesn’t call her sister to apologize. It’s kind of a pivotal scene in the movie, in fact. Her sister calls her, Amy casually (but sincerely) apologizes, and her sister dismisses it as no big deal. Partly because she just knows that’s the kind of thing Amy does, and she understands where it comes from even if Amy herself doesn’t. But mostly because there’s something much more important to talk about.
What Schumer’s done is keep everything that made the old bit work, and then added a layer of empathy and self-awareness to it. The character of Amy had been so concentrated on saying “fuck anyone who tries to judge me” for so long, that she’d ignored how judgmental she’d become herself.
I think the funniest line in her “Last Fuckable Day” sketch is when Julia Louis-Dreyfus asks her “Are you that girl from the television who talks about her pussy all the time?” Amy looks absolutely elated and replies with a delighted “Yes! Yes! Thank you!”
By complaining that Trainwreck sold them out and is being judgmental of them, Knegt and his friends are saying they’re not interested in actually listening to anything that Schumer wants to say beyond the most superficial level. They just want to feel empowered by hearing her talk about her pussy some more.
But At What Cost?!
Now, if I went off on a tear every time a young writer for a queer blog found something “problematic,” I’d never get anything done. It’s the kind of thing they do, and I understand where it’s coming from even if they themselves don’t. But when I hear basically the same thing coming from a Pulitzer-recognized film critic, I worry that it’s becoming a trend.
What makes Knegt’s article such an easy target is actually part of what’s good about it: it’s completely honest in what it’s trying to say and why it upset him and his friends. And while he does ignore everything Schumer’s trying to say with Trainwreck in favor of how it didn’t meet with what he wanted to and expected to see, at least he does it by comparing it to her older work.
The Taming of Amy Schumer by Stephanie Zacharek is more worrisome because it not only ignores the fairly easy-to-read message of the movie, it compares it to a simplistic, two-dimensional, and frankly antiquated conception of what feminism is supposed to be. (Granted, it’s the Village Voice, so know your audience and all that. But still).
Zacharek gets off to a good start, lamenting how there’s an extra burden on women writers and comedians now that we’re living in the age of the “problematic:”
in the current climate of watchfulness — one in which every joke must be constructed and sealed drum-tight so as not to offend anyone, at any time — it’s not enough for a woman just to be funny. Women comics must also be spokespeople: for feminism, for all women, for anyone who might be perceived as oppressed or marginalized in any way.
Yes! So far, we’re in near-complete agreement. But then the entire rest of the review contradicts or undermines everything in that first paragraph.
Zacharek’s problem with Trainwreck, like Knegt’s, is that she believes the movie is too focused on conservative moralizing. And she too believes that it’s mostly the fault of the same man:
But there’s a much bigger, more insidious problem with Trainwreck: Schumer may be the writer and star, but Judd Apatow is the director, and in the end, you can’t escape the feeling that somehow Schumer’s vision has been wrestled into the template that nearly all of his movies, even the best ones, follow […] Apatow and Schumer probably believe they’ve made a feminist picture, but the reality is something different. This is a conventional movie dressed as a progressive one.
Complaining that the movie isn’t feminist enough while also asserting that Schumer’s will has been beaten into submission by Apatow is a pretty impressive double standard. I can only assume, naturally, that Zacharek’s original vision for the review was wrestled into the standard Village Voice template by some male editor.
(Hopefully, he’s also the one who thought “Don’t be a Hader” was a funny gag. Because if that’s hers, I don’t even know why I’m bothering).
Some of it I’ll assume is just tone-deaf instead of sexist: I’m skeptical that if she were aware of just how much of Amy Schumer’s material has been devoted to ruthlessly excoriating the bullshit, esteem-destroying standards of beauty in the entertainment industry, and how much she’s mocked her own weight gain, “baby fat,” and the men who’d call her “butterface,” Zacharek wouldn’t have described Schumer’s appearance as “like a Campbell’s Soup Kid.”
To illustrate how there’s an unfair added expectation for women in comedy to be funny and smart, Zacharek references another Voice piece about Inside Amy Schumer, and a couple of sketches from the show. But she only references the ones that went super-viral, and the reason that they went super-viral is because in addition to being funny, they were so overtly political that they were easy to interpret.
But the entire premise, that Schumer’s too occupied with being feminist to just let loose and be funny, is completely invalidated by the existence of Cat Park. Anyone who doesn’t think ending a sketch by having a cat looking into a microscope to develop a vaccine to save the world’s children is someone who just doesn’t understand comedy. I said good day, sir.
And more than that, the true genius of the series is how it takes an overt statement and then layers more stuff — from a point about feminism to some shamelessly goofy gag — on top. One of my favorites is still Love Tub, which is a parody of The Bachelor that wants to say more than just make the obvious assertion that The Bachelor is backwards, sexist bullshit.
In a lot of ways, it’s another expansion and evolution of the “Stepford Wives of Connecticut:” it’s still indomitable-spirit Amy sticking it to the squares and prudes. But the target is no longer just some concept of boring “heteronormativity;” the target is the corruption of that into a schmaltzy and insincere televised competition for a man’s attention. The guy’s creepy whispered “Congratulations” as he undresses the “winner” is still my favorite part.
Amy’s still doing her slutty-and-boozy-as-I-wanna-be schtick, but it’s even more exaggerated. She still, without question, gets to end the night saying “I think I won,” because she refused to take any of that bullshit seriously. But the coda takes it a step farther: you’re not supposed to watch the end of that sketch and conclude, “Now there’s an independent woman who’s entirely got her shit together.”
Still, for some reason, people went to see a movie called Trainwreck, and they went away feeling betrayed that it wasn’t intended to be aspirational.
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One
Zacharek’s review of Trainwreck is a prescriptive piece of film criticism dressed as a progressive one.
It starts with the assertion that Schumer’s making an argument she’s no longer particularly interested in making, and then criticizes her for doing a lousy job of making that argument. Essentially, Zacharek is faulting Trainwreck for not being about Kim Cattrall’s character in Sex and the City (which began in 1998):
We think we’re getting a movie where a woman gets to enjoy the company of lots of partners, without remorse or shame, the sort of freedom men — some of them, at least — have enjoyed for centuries.
Or in other words, the same assertion that was the basis of Schumer’s stand-up routine for several years.
And this is despite the fact that every piece of promotional material before the movie’s release made it clear what the premise was: what happens when a character like that has lots of remorse- and shame-free sex and then falls in love with a boring, “normal” guy? That had to be in the press kit.
While Knegt sees it as a betrayal that Schumer’s not still doing her earlier, funnier, stuff, Zacharek’s holding up a lighter, yelling “Freebird,” and demanding a repeat of the deepest cuts from Ms. and Cosmopolitan-era feminism. Even after dismissing the idea that women can’t be funny as a “boneheaded dictum,” she goes on to let the counter-argument of that frame the rest of the review. Women can be as funny as men! Women do enjoy sex!
It doesn’t matter that Schumer’s spent her career distilling complex observations about feminism and empowerment into two-minute long comedy routines. Why can’t she keep doing that? We just want to hear the same trivially true assertions repeated over and over again.
What Amy actually wants — Schumer or Townsend, take your pick — is pretty much irrelevant. You want to write a story about a woman whose self-destructive behavior is visibly making her life worse? What are you, some kind of prude? We paid our money to see a successful and empowered career woman (circa 1988) who gets to have it all and can be just as raunchy as any man. But instead of that, you went and wrote something conventional. So arrogant.
Also it’s not funny enough. You should smile more.
What’s especially frustrating in this case is that Trainwreck contains exactly the simple-minded gender-swapped romantic comedy that internet progressives crave. Amy works for a lifestyle magazine! (And it’s a men’s magazine! That’s run by a woman!) Bill Hader’s character is the over-achieving career guy who’s got it all… except love. Not only is he a surgeon who has every single famous athlete as a client, he also does award-winning work for Doctors Without Borders! Vanessa Bayer is Amy’s enabling, perpetually horny, commitment-phobic best friend. LeBron James is Hader’s supportive and nurturing best friend who’ll do anything to keep him from getting hurt.
In the age of feminism-as-meme-and-YouTube-series, that’s supposed to be enough. It doesn’t matter whether or not there’s any acknowledgment of context or whether it’s saying anything of substance: just look at it! Isn’t that something?! Like, subscribe, and retweet.
But the most interesting aspect of the basic premise in Trainwreck is that no one comments on it, ever. It’s just accepted as a given. I’ve been struggling to think of any instance in the entire movie where someone makes any reference to traditional gender roles, or makes any sort of comment that it’s weird how everything is swapped, and I can’t remember a single one. The only thing that comes even close is when Hader tells her he’s slept with three women, and the gag is that she replies “I’ve also slept with three women.”
In other words, Schumer is so uninterested in the argument that women can do everything men can, that she doesn’t even bother making it.
Strong Female Character
There’ve been sketches on Inside Amy Schumer that started with the premise of the gender swap, like the uptight office worker who finally breaks free of his inhibitions at an all-male version of Hooters, or the porn from a lady’s point of view that still turns out to be for men. (Note the pop-up ad for O’Nutters). An underlying message is that the swap is silly, because the context will always be completely different. The double standard is just too deeply ingrained.
Which turns out to be depressingly accurate, since in Trainwreck, Amy gets criticized for not even being able to be a lovable fuck up in the right way:
…her character in Trainwreck is at times so badly behaved — toward a man she supposedly loves — that it’s hard to be on her side. We shouldn’t have to approve of characters’ behavior; in comedy, especially, it’s more fun if we don’t. Still, we have to be mostly sympathetic to Amy for the movie to work, and if I were Aaron, I’d run a mile from her. […] Anyone, man or woman, can be an emotional bully. And in the end, it’s supposed to be a triumph that Amy is won over to the wonders of monogamy.
In the movie’s terms, we know she’ll never miss any of those other guys, because she never had much invested in them anyway. Trainwreck pretends to be frank about sex from a woman’s point of view, yet it refuses to reckon with how ferocious and unmanageable sex really is. A retreat into the safety of couplehood is the only possible future it can imagine, the necessary corrective to sleeping around. In its too-tidy universe, good girls don’t. And bad girls probably shouldn’t, either.
We already know that acceptable behavior in a romantic comedy would be creepy if not outright illegal when applied to real life. But there’s a much older fucked-up but universally accepted aspect of romantic comedies that’s even more insidious and more pernicious: the double standard. When men in romantic comedies (and real life) do stuff that’s callous, insensitive, selfish, or irresponsible, it’s a plot complication. We scramble for justifications: he’s just defensive or insecure. He’s been hurt in the past. It’s the age-old mantra for women everywhere: “I can fix him, I just know it.”
When Amy’s self-destructive behavior causes her to be insensitive or hurts people’s feelings, she becomes completely irredeemable and unsympathetic. Toxic. Avoid at all costs. Character flaws don’t just make her a bad person, but a bad role model for young single women and men everywhere.
Knegt’s article says it’s a “cringe-worthy montage” (and yeah, the montage aspect is pretty cheesy) when Amy tosses out all the booze and pot paraphernalia in her apartment. What he neglects to mention is that this scene comes after Amy gets upset over a break-up, drinks to excess, hooks up with a guy she doesn’t like at all, comes just short of being guilty of statutory rape and assault, and loses her job as a result of it.
In a later scene, she outright tells her sister that she’s not happy, and that she feels like she’s “broken.” The response from Knegt and his friends, apparently: “Sack up! Learn to deal with it, because you’re making the rest of us look bad.” It’s the kind of compassion that says a true friend is the one who holds your hair back when you puke while you’re drinking yourself to death.
And Trainwreck absolutely does “reckon with how ferocious and unmanageable sex really is,” just not in the too-tidy way that Zacharek wants. It says that one of the consequences of sex is that people can get hurt. That’s the entire point of John Cena’s character.
I think Zacharek’s read on the character — “somehow he believes they’re exclusive and is crestfallen to discover his mistake” — is totally at odds with what’s shown in the movie. It’s not “his mistake,” since it’s completely reasonable that he’d have different expectations from their relationship. And it’s not that he “somehow” thought they were more serious, since they’re going out to romantic comedies together. (Incidentally: the movie-within-a-movie was bafflingly pointless). As he says, having to declare that you’re “exclusive” is not something that adults do after high school, since they’re supposed to talk about it with each other and get a mature understanding of what they’re both hoping to get.
Their break-up is not at all ambiguous: she likes having sex with him (even if it is “like fucking an ice sculpture”) but had so little respect for him that it never even occurred to her to consider what he wanted. His last lines are explicit: “Fuck you, Amy. You’re not nice.”
Still, the script puts the blame on Amy but doesn’t condemn her for it. She genuinely doesn’t understand that he could’ve wanted something different, because isn’t this just the way things are for everyone? If you’re not married by your early thirties, it’s because you’re never going to be because you don’t want to be. That’s just the way things work.
(To underscore that — or maybe it’s just a funny recurring gag, but I’m going to run with it anyway — there’s the suggestion that he might be gay and doesn’t even realize it himself. He’s just going through the motions of what he thinks he’s supposed to like and supposed to want).
Another of my favorite sketches from Inside Amy Schumer shows how men and women can have very different expectations after having sex. It’d be easy and simple just to say that the guy’s a dick for taking advantage of her and then immediately forgetting about it. But the sketch careful to exaggerate how much she’s responsible for her own unrealistic expectations. Which says to me that whether she’s playing the apart of the emotional bully or the one being taken advantage of, either way she’s going to be the one who takes the blame.
Ten Things I’m Not Saying About You
This time, Schumer’s getting criticized (albeit indirectly, since remember she’s apparently nothing more than a mouthpiece for Judd Apatow) for saying that “a retreat to the safety of sobriety and monogamy” is The Only Way.
Except of course she’s not saying that at all. The most didactic that Trainwreck gets about monogamy is to say that it’s nothing to be afraid of, and nothing to be dismissive of.
Typically, when a flawed character is criticized for being a negative representation of Everyone Who Ever Lived Who Has Any Recognizable Traits In Common, it’s because there’s a genuine lack of diversity. The character has to bear the weight of representing everyone, because there’s no one else in the story who can.
That’s not the case with Trainwreck at all. Not only are there many types of women, there’s many types of relationships. Tilda Swinton’s character seems to be a fascinatingly bizarre take on Richard Branson, and she’s callous, cruel, and just plain weird, but there’s never even the slightest question whether she’s exactly where she wants to be. Bayer’s lecherous idiot doesn’t just come out of the movie unscathed, she gets awarded with a promotion. I already mentioned that Bridget Everett’s character is happily enjoying married life in the suburbs with her husband and the other guy who double-teams her. Even in Chris Evert’s cameo, she spends the entire time not-at-all subtly hitting on Hader.
And of course, the boring, uptight housewives are now even more boring and awful than they were in Schumer’s stand-up routine: now the scandalous secret is that one of them is sneaking a whole box of Skinny Cow ice cream at night. That’s like a whole ice cream!
As it turns out, people didn’t need to spend so much time worrying about what she was saying about them. On the day that Trainwreck opened, Schumer came right out and said what it was about:
Which, really, is the most offensive thing you could possibly say to some people: this isn’t about you.
At the beginning of the movie, Colin Quinn’s character is lecturing his two daughters about how monogamy is unrealistic. The humor comes from two places: that he’s dismissing monogamy as a fundamental concept when it’s completely obvious he’s just frustrated he can’t fuck around like he wants to, and that the two little girls are repeating what he says word-for-word as if it were a crucial life lesson.
Fast forward to the girls as adults, and we see that one sister has taken the lesson completely to heart and the other has rejected it. One sister is having plenty of remorse-free sex and partying and advancing in her career, while the other has settled down in the suburbs with a dorky guy and a heartbreakingly nerdy stepson. One sister is living exactly the life she wants to lead, while the other is just settling for doing what she thinks she’s supposed to be doing.
Can you see what she did there?
I don’t know how much of the movie autobiographical, just like I don’t know how much of Schumer’s stand-up routine is “true.” Not only is it none of my business, it’s almost completely irrelevant. Unless I need her to explain to me explicitly how much of it is satire so I can determine exactly how much offense I can take.
What I suspect, though, is that the finale of the movie is framed like a totally conventional romantic comedy sell-out moment, specifically as a pointed “fuck you” to anyone who’d dismiss it for being a conventional romantic comedy sell-out moment.
Throughout the movie, she’d mocked the men she was sleeping with, mocked her nephew, mocked her brother-in-law, mocked her sister for being boring, mocked her job for being beneath her, mocked herself for falling in love and becoming such a cliche, and mocked cheerleaders and sports in general as being stupid and pointless. In the end, she puts on the cheerleading uniform, does a cheerleading routine to a song she hates, and — as befits an empowered 90s woman — makes a run for the basket. The entire time, Hader’s character is telling her that she doesn’t have to do this, but she keeps doing it anyway. Of course she doesn’t have to do it, but she wants to.
And then, when she’s breathlessly trying to explain what it all means while he’s saying “Yeah, I get the metaphor,” is the first time since I Know Where I’m Going that I almost teared up at the end of a romantic comedy. Partly because Hader’s a good actor even when he is playing it totally straight, and the look on his face was one overwhelmed by sincere appreciation. But mostly because I was genuinely happy to see her be truly fearless and risk looking stupid to get what she wanted.
This Is What You Think Is Hot?
I said earlier that it’s disappointing that the sketches from Inside Amy Schumer that go viral are always the ones that are overt in their message, when there’s so much even better material that works on multiple levels. An exception to that is the one that went viral at the beginning of this season: Milk Milk Lemonade.
In the grand tradition of funny stuff that boring people like me love to write think pieces about to over-analyze: it’s a parody of Anaconda that wants to say more than just “Anaconda is kind of silly.” It suggests that women having the freedom to objectify themselves is a pretty shitty substitute for actual empowerment.
When Anaconda came out, everybody was stumbling over themselves to use terms like “sex positive” and “positive body image” and “owning your own sexuality,” trying desperately to put a progressive spin on a video in which a bunch of women writhe around in the jungle celebrating each other’s loaf pinchers before presenting them to Drake. Putting the whole thing over a sample from a 20-year-old novelty song was apparently supposed to be an example of “taking it back.” Inside Amy Schumer’s version responds, “Nah, I don’t want it. I’m good.”
Something that’s not mentioned in Schumer’s video (for that matter, I’m only assuming it’s parodying Anaconda in the first place): I’m going to call bullshit on any claims that Anaconda is positive or empowered when it spends so much time saying “fuck the skinny bitches.”
And that’s why I think “Milk Milk Lemonade” is kind of brilliant, and ultimately why misinterpretations of a romantic comedy I liked but didn’t love were enough to set me off on a few thousand words of rambling commentary. The video makes a pointed commentary, but it’s not particularly interested in condemning or even really judging anybody. More than anything else, it feels like Schumer wanted to dress up with her friends and have fun.
It’s gloriously, unapologetically juvenile. If it makes a statement about women owning their own bodies, it does so the same way a six year old makes a statement about owning a cookie by licking it before anyone else can — ha ha I ruined it for you! It treats the whole thing as completely silly, because it is silly. “My sense of self-worth isn’t dependent on whether or not a guy is turned on by my ass.”
But also: hey, if it’s your thing, knock yourself out. No need to get defensive because it doesn’t affect her. She’ll just be over here dancing with Amber Rose and Method Man because they seem cool.
To me, it shows just how much the culture of “engagement,” retweets, trending topics, and think pieces have helped corrupt every progressive “social justice” ideal into a defensive version of “fuck the normals!” (And how that’s always rationalized with some “they attacked us first!” justification like the inexcusably insipid “always punch up!”) The goal of self-actualization has been de-emphasized in favor of just swapping one version of conformity with a different one. Inclusivity has given way to word-policing. The word “heteronormative” has been so casually tossed around as a pejorative that people now act as if “hetero” is the toxic part of it.
And every time some pinhead pipes up with an antiquated opinion, people stumble over themselves to correct it, or to at least show they are vehemently opposed to it. Not because it actually advances anything, but because it’s easier. At some point, we each have to decide how much of our lives we’re going to waste reacting to other people’s opinions of us. Otherwise we’re going to just keep having the same stupid arguments every 5 years until we’re all lying in our cryo-feeding tubes croaking “People can be whatever they choose to be!”
Amy Schumer gets to make her voice heard and waggle her ass in tight skirts. She gets to mock anyone who’d judge her for her looks and make fun of her looks for a ton of comedy material. She gets to write at length about cunnilingus and about a girl winning the heart of her One True Love. And she gets to do it without demeaning or mocking anyone who doesn’t deserve it, because they’re simply not a threat to her.
Some people may call it selling out, but I’m like, “Really? Because I feel like she’s won.”
Inside Out reminds us that we can’t be happy all of the time, an idea that angered, disgusted and frightened me.
It’s taken the better part of 24 hours and three drafts of a blog post, but I finally have to begrudgingly concede that I liked Inside Out.
That’s not a review of the movie, since this isn’t a review. It’s just an unfocused — and completely personal — attempt to sort through the aftermath of the movie.
(And it doesn’t make any attempt to avoid spoilers, so it’s probably best to avoid this if you haven’t seen it).
If I were writing a movie review, I’d just cut-and-paste the review by Dana Stevens on Slate, because I agree with it completely, from the non-hyperbolic “astonishing” all the way to that killer of a closing sentence:
As Inside Out is aware to a degree that’s rare in kids’ movies, growing up is both a grand triumph and an irreversible tragedy.
The only part I’d take issue with is the suggestion that it’s a “kids’ movie,” even if it’s just used for contrast. Maybe that’d help put a little emotional distance between me and a movie, but lumping it in with “kids’ movies,” even in passing, just seems oblivious to what Pixar’s been doing for decades. They’ve built a well-deserved reputation by insisting on making deeply personal movies that try to focus on themes that are completely universal.
And Inside Out takes that one “irreversible tragedy” that is completely universal and submerges us in an extended metaphor that forces us to confront it head-on. Like the reconditioning scene in A Clockwork Orange, but instead of violence, it’s the loss of childhood.
The Toy Story 3 Scale
When early reviews of the movie started to pop up, I made an only half-joking request that reviewers include an indication of how likely it would reduce us to heaving sobs. Crying in a Pixar movie is all but inevitable — I found myself tearing up at the storyboards for Brave — but I wanted to avoid something like Up‘s completely unfair sucker punch. I suggested a scale from Finding Nemo (bittersweet sniffling) to the finale of Toy Story 3 (complete emotional breakdown).
As it turns out, Inside Out affected me like the end of Toy Story 3, stretched out to feature length. It was too potent. It just left me feeling drained, exhausted, and pretty miserable for the next day.
It didn’t even feel like a cathartic “let it all out” venting, because there wasn’t a devastating but optimistic thanks for the adventure, or even the implied promise of new adventures with a new child and ongoing specials on ABC Family. It’s not that I think Inside Out was poorly structured or manipulative, but just the opposite. The “problem” is that I think it insists on being honest. The actual tear-jerking moments felt earned because they were an inevitable and integral part of the story. Which means that an uplifting “here’s how everything turned out great forever” would’ve felt artificial, too.
So instead, I interpreted it as a celebration of sadness as necessary and inevitable. Which may be true, and surprisingly mature, and exactly what I’ve been asking for as an alternative to what usually tries to substitute for a profound statement in “family movies.” But instead of a promise of adventure, the promise is… life as a relatively well-adjusted adult. I’ve seen how that turns out, more or less, and it’s not that great. There’s even the gag about the looming specter of puberty and the repeated question of “what could go wrong?” that seem — if not dark, exactly, then a little sardonic and defeatist.
“You’re going to be sad. A lot. It’s part of growing up.” It’s entirely possible that it’s just because my own headquarters functions better when Anger and Sadness are kept in check by the happy sprite of Wellbutrin, but I left the movie wishing it had been a more explicit, obvious, and artificial celebration of the grand triumph than an acknowledgement of the irreversible tragedy. That it’d let me keep on enjoying my already ridiculously overextended arrested development, instead of reminding me that “Growing up means that joy and optimism need to learn their place.”
Don’t Spoil Titanic For Me
Instead, they introduced (among other things) the character of Bing Bong, and as soon as it was clear that he was Riley’s imaginary friend, we all knew exactly what was going to happen. Because I’m sitting in the audience, realizing that it’s not just nostalgia for toys that I’ve put away or happy memories from childhood, but I can’t even remember the name of my imaginary friend. It played out less like an abstraction of a growing child’s mind and more like a primary colored version of Final Destination.
There’s more subtle foreshadowing throughout. When we first get a glimpse into the headquarters of Riley’s mom and dad, it’s played for gags but has an undercurrent I felt like a slow-motion punch to the gut as all the implications sunk in. Dad’s mind is run like a submarine in war, dominated by Anger keeping a tight check on any outbursts of emotion. And while the movie is still in the process of answering the question “what is the purpose of having Sadness?” we see inside Mom’s head, where the emotions are sitting around like the hosts of The View, pining over a long-lost potential romantic adventure, and we have to notice that Sadness is clearly in charge of the show.
“Here’s what you have to look forward to, kids! Now let’s get back to the action and find out what could possibly be in store for this little girl’s brightly colored imaginary friend!”
As it turns out, there’s a good bit more to it than that. Using colorful abstractions to tell the story doesn’t just make it universal beyond the experiences of one little girl, but it also allows the movie to make some pretty profound observations without stating them explicitly. So I’m going to do exactly what I’ve resolved not to do, which is to be reductive about the “message” of the movie. Simply because it took me a while to parse through everything I think it says and think it implies.
I also just want to call out some of the decisions that make Inside Out astonishing, since the movie doesn’t draw that much attention to them.
On the technical side, Pixar has progressed to the point where I’m too much of a layman to even identify what’s remarkable. It seems like every feature has required at least one big technical breakthrough, but usually they exploit the hell out of it — if not showing off, then at least making sure they got their money’s worth. So if they’re going to set a movie underwater, you’re going to get a lot of sequences that just show how beautiful the ocean is. Or if they’re going to simulate every hair on Sully’s body, you’re going to see it in close-up. I wouldn’t have noticed the natural lighting effects developed for Monsters University if they hadn’t been pointed out to me, but it makes perfect sense for a story that’s set over the course of a year.
With Inside Out, I initially had a minor mental criticism that Pixar’s gone all-in on its House Style for human characters — they’re fine, but ultimately inoffensive at best, too cartoonish to be realistic but not cartoonish enough to be interesting. I quickly realized that that criticism is missing the point when the “stars” of a movie are toys, fish, bugs, robots, and emotions. In Inside Out, the emotions need to be expressive (obviously), but the humans need to be universal enough that every human in the audience can project herself onto them.
And with the emotions, the character design goes all-in on modernism. That’s possibly not the “correct” term, but it’s referring to the style from the 50s that was more graphic and abstract. So you get the character of Fear, who should only be able to work in two dimensions, and yet he coexists with the others with no obvious cheats. And then we get a sequence that drives the idea home, where the characters are rendered in more and more abstract forms until they’re reduced to a single line.
It’s even more apparent with Joy, who looks like someone took a piece of concept art done in pastels or crayons and said, “We want this, exactly, to be the main character in a feature-length piece of 3D animation.” I can remember only a couple of scenes where the camera’s allowed to linger on them up close, to show off the effect. But much like the animated paintings in Ratatouille, it takes what is steadfastly a static, two-dimensional art style and gives it depth and movement. It insists that the rough speckles aren’t just an artifact of Joy’s concept art, but an integral part of the character.
It seems like a confident decision that could’ve been sacrificed in the name of convenience. The movie’s full of confident decisions that could’ve been sacrificed in the name of “accessibility.” Most obviously, it’s a movie driven by female characters. It’s worth pointing out, even though it’s a shame that it’s worth pointing out, and even though it goes so far into the realm of universally accessible story that it makes the entire question seem irrelevant. Maybe its success will finally put the stupid “debate” — which is itself a modern invention, as a simple scan of centuries of female protagonists would illustrate — to rest.
What interests me a lot more is that there’s no villain. It’s especially astonishing considering that both Up and Frozen were brilliant movies that also took on more subtle and sophisticated themes than usual, and yet each one still suffered from a third act that required a Disney Villain to pop up and cause conflict. Again, maybe it’s optimistic, but I’d hope that the success of Inside Out will finally convince people that you can have a story based entirely on emotional conflict and it’s still completely accessible.
Sunny-Side Up, or, Happy Together
Which gets back to the last confident decision I’ll mention, which is the one that took me a while to get. Because it’s a question that’s asked at the beginning of the movie but isn’t explicitly answered. (At least explicitly enough that I picked up on it).
I read a review of Inside Out that made the minor complaint that the beginning of the movie, where Joy introduces herself and the other characters, was regretfully necessary exposition in an otherwise subtly-told story. But I don’t think it was just exposition. I think it was setting up the central conflict that Joy (and the audience) would spend the rest of the movie — and in my case, the weekend after — trying to figure out.
When Fear, Disgust, and Anger are introduced, we get an illustration of what they do and why they’re there to protect Riley in one way or another. In fact, that assertion that they’re not just manifestations of personality, but deeply invested in making sure she’s okay, is one of the subtle ways that Inside Out makes the complaint “this idea’s been done before!” seem laughably irrelevant. Tasha Robinson’s review on The Dissolve lists more examples of films and TV series that started from the same concept, but in comparison, they feel like gags riffing on a premise instead of a genuine attempt to explore all the deeper implications of a premise.
But instead of just an introduction to the “rules” of how all this stuff works, it asks the movie’s important question: why is Sadness there? For as much as I talk about Pixar being universal instead of just for kids, and how it tackles some mature and sophisticated themes, it could seem like “Why do we feel sad?” is an insipidly childish question. But it’s clearly one we struggle with as adults. Anyone who’s tried to figure out what’s “normal” vs what’s a breakdown in brain chemistry has had to ask it. Anyone who’s been frustrated to be told “stop trying to fix things, I just want to feel sad,” has had to ask it. If you use Facebook, you likely see people struggling with it every day, with self-actualization aphorisms like “Today I Choose Happiness.” How is sadness productive? What practical purpose does it serve?
On the surface, Inside Out seems to suggest an acceptance more than an answer. “Being grown-up is complex, yo.” The age of “pure” emotions doesn’t last long, and our memories are really tinged with a bunch of different emotions. Sadness is just there, and being an adult means learning how to deal with it. At best, it seemed to say, sadness made the joyful memories stronger. The explicit “moral” seemed to be that you can’t suppress it and contain it. You can’t expect to be happy all the time.
That was the part that hit hard with me, because it seemed to be reaching directly into my subconscious and calling me out. Cripes! They’re onto me! They know that I feel like I’m constantly trying to stay content and optimistic and put a positive spin on things when I’d rather just lie on a couch and moan.
And just like the jackasses who call me a “grouch” or “curmudgeon,” or tell me to “smile more” (as if I were a woman in corporate management or running for office!), they’re calling me a charlatan! They’re saying I’m doing a lousy job of it, and they can see right through me.
And if that weren’t bad enough, they’re saying it’s a futile effort in the first place! I just came here to see some bullshit about believing in my dreams; I didn’t come to see a Disney/Pixar movie whose uplifting message was “You are fated to a life of sadness so Deal With It.”
(Ever since I heard multiple men say that The Little Mermaid was exactly what they needed to deal with coming out in the 90s, I’ve made it a point not to under-interpret family movies or resist taking them too personally).
But then: movie studios don’t stay profitable with an audience of one. And if I were the only person feeling like that, then they wouldn’t have made a movie about it. Maybe the message is that everybody feels the same way, that they’re struggling to stay happy and keep sadness tightly controlled and prevented from leaking out. And it’s not necessarily that I’m doing a bad job of it, but that people can recognize it because they do it themselves.
Which brings back to mind the scene where Sadness helps the imaginary friend* get back on his feet by being able to relate to him, while Joy doesn’t know what to do. [*It’s hard to insist that these are adult, sophisticated concepts that it’s perfectly normal for a 44-year-old not to grasp immediately while talking about Sadness and Bing Bong]. Or the scene where Joy figures it all out, where the revelation isn’t simply that happy memories have an element of sadness to them, but that sadness has a purpose, too. It was sadness that brought the family together and turned the memory into a happy one.
Or the finale, which isn’t the scene showing Riley at hockey practice with all her personality islands back in place. It’s the one just before that, where Angry Dad and Sad Mom tell Riley that they’re sad too. Maybe I would’ve picked up on it faster if they’d included a sequence in which Sadness begins sparkling and magically transforms into Empathy.
But of course they didn’t, and of course the movie is a billion times better for not making it completely explicit. And the peek inside Mom’s mind magically transforms from quietly defeatist foreshadowing of a life dominated by sadness, to one where they’re all cooperating and sharing a happy memory together.
Trying to resist my natural impulse to overthink Mad Max: Fury Road
One of the many great things about Mad Max: Fury Road is that it defies attempts to explain it. So this is less of my usual “here’s a report to tell the internet how well I understood that thing I just saw,” and more just, “Did you guys just see that?!”
I happened to see it on the same night the series finale of Mad Men aired, and the juxtaposition is kind of interesting. A few years ago, I watched the pilot of Mad Men and dismissed it as an overly simplistic, almost Disney-fied codification of a period piece. Now, I realize that was unfair. (And if it’s any consolation to fans of the series: I’ve spent the last 5 years consistently seeing the search terms for this blog come up as “Mad Men sucks” or “Mad Men is overrated,” and every time I want to reply with a, “No wait I didn’t mean that I just meant…” that will forever fall on deaf ears). I’m still not that interested in it, but I’m no longer arrogant enough to dismiss it. I’ll just acknowledge it was a social phenomenon that completely passed me by, and that’s fine.
But seeing all the analyses of and thinkpieces about Mad Men, like this one from The A.V. Club, is downright jarring the morning after seeing Fury Road. While watching the movie, I felt like it had been beamed in fully-formed from another planet, one that was colonized by Cirque du Soleil, Smash-Up Derby promoters, and Burning Man organizers, who were left to interbreed and develop their own culture over thousands of years. It may be more accurate to say that it’s like a product from another time, bounced off a satellite from a time long ago, back before all the people had their own shows, and all the shows had their own recap blogs.
Turning Your Brain Off
Fury Road is completely, unapologetically, visual. Every time my brain tried to take over and ask: What does that mean? Who is that child? Is she from the first movie? Did I even see the first movie? What does this represent?, the movie would respond with, Shut up and look at this tractor trailer with a wall of amplifiers and a union suit-wearing bandit on bungee cords with an electric guitar that shoots flames. Also, there are drummers on the back. Also, the truck will explode.
(Like just about everything on Badass Digest/Birth.Movies.Death., I agree 100% with the premise of that post, then frustratingly disagree with where it goes from there. It’s not just that an origin story for this guy is unnecessary; explaining why it’s unnecessary with belabored analogies to Boba Fett is unnecessary. I shouldn’t even be writing this post).
I’ve already seen complaints about the movie that say it’s nothing more than an extended car chase sequence. Which is accurate, but I believe it also completely misses the point. It takes two hours of footage packed impossibly dense with unforgettable images, and then dismisses it because those images aren’t a vehicle (no pun intended) for something else.
I feel like we’ve been trained over the past couple of decades to believe that the opposite of cerebral is stupid. It’s the Transformers mentality: the people who enjoy those movies tend to justify it by saying that “you turn your brain off.” My response has always been that you shouldn’t need to turn your brain off; a well-made action sequence can still deliver symbolism and meaning and convey all sorts of “higher” concepts.
Fury Road felt like George Miller scoffing at me and saying, “Screw that, poindexter.” That whole attitude of “thinking man’s action movies” feels like a relic of the era of The Matrix: where you can’t just have tentacle ships and bullet time effects and thousands of suit-wearing agents engaged in kung fu battles and a badass slicing a semi truck with a samurai sword. It’s got to have a layer of simple-minded “philosophy” and Alice in Wonderland allusions slathered all over it for it to be worthwhile. So that a bunch of guys on the internet can say that they understood the deeper meaning and then make references to red pills and blue pills.
After ravaging the cinematic environment with that, an ecological disaster like Sucker Punch seems depressingly inevitable. I can’t really fault the basic intention: it recognizes that there’s some visual language of What 12 Year Old Boys Think is Rad that we all need to see. But it tries to stretch shallow ideas into epic spectacle that just shows how derivative all the imagery is, and worse, it tries to couch it in a completely bullshit travesty of gender commentary that’s so clumsily handled it’s offensive.
Not All War Boys
Fury Road appreciates the inherent value of a moving image. And it appreciates that because it invented so many of them. If anyone says the phrase “post-apocalyptic wasteland,” the image that pops into your head is, undoubtedly, from Mad Max or The Road Warrior.
I mentioned wasting time at the beginning of the movie trying to figure everything out. Because the “story” begins in media res, I was wondering whether I needed to have seen the other movies for context. I honestly can’t say whether I’ve seen the other three movies in their entirety; I know I’ve seen parts of them, but couldn’t tell you more than the basics.
Lone guy in a leather jacket driving through the desert in a modified sports car. Bandits killed his wife and child. Hot-rod and motorcycle-driving bandits chasing a tanker truck. Skulls. Communities of outlaws and warlords built with rusted metal and old car parts. Explosions. A guy totally getting his fingers cut off by a spinning boomerang blade thing.
A few minutes in, Fury Road reassured me: yeah, you got it. That’s all you need to know, because those unforgettable images are the whole point. Now watch, as we add dozens more, like an impossibly apocalyptic sandstorm. A “blood bag” strapped to the front of a car, chained to its driver. Four beautiful women appearing like a mirage in the desert, washing themselves with a hose. A white-haired warlord with a death mask, staring intently from behind the wheel of a car in pursuit.
The movie refuses to explain or give context for much of anything, not just because it’s unnecessary, but because it’d undermine their power as raw images. In fact, some of the most unforgettable images are only given a glimpse, a few seconds of screen time and a reaction shot from Max.
With all of that going on, this article in Vice describing the movie as “the feminist action flick we’ve been waiting for” seems misguided. Not that any of it is wrong. Just that pointing it out seems as facile as, for example, being able to identify what a tree is.
Early reports made me expect an action movie with an undercurrent of feminism. Fury Road doesn’t have undercurrents. It’s explicitly written on the wall: “Who killed the world?” and it’s not at all ambiguous. All these men did, and it’s only the women who have any chance of rebuilding it. And actually, by treating it as so explicit, the message is a lot more powerful than it would’ve been as a coded manifesto. There’s nothing to decipher, no nuance, no gray area that leaves room for differences in opinion: this is what happens when you treat people as commodities. Stop acting like it’s at all complicated.
THIS. All the things.
My favorite character in the movie — and with so much vivid imagery it’s kind of tough to choose — is The People Eater: an old white guy standing out of the sunroof of a car looking over a ledger, wearing a three-piece suit that has holes cut out for his nipple clamps. This is not a movie that aspires to subtlety.
So I ended up not analyzing it, but experiencing it. Cringing, covering my eyes, getting excited, staring in wonder, or laughing out loud. It’s a throwback to a time when I just enjoyed movies, instead of feeling like I had to understand them, because there was going to be a quiz later.
When everybody’s social media first exploded with reactions to the movie, most of them were of the format “Max Max: Fury Road is a thing that exists.” I’d thought it was just the standard internet cliche, like “Well, that happened.” After seeing it, I think it’s really just the best response. The novelty of a movie that’s not a mashup or reboot or reimagining, just 100% its own thing that exists in a pure and almost entirely unadulterated state, free of context and inspiration from anything other than itself. A platonic state of Mad Maxism.
From the right-out-of-the-early-80s title screen forward, it asserts itself as a product of another time. A time when someone could ask me what I thought of a movie, and I could just respond with, “It’s got a grotesque old white man in the sunroof of a car looking over a ledger, wearing a three-piece suit that has holes cut out for his nipple clamps.”
I don’t agree. I didn’t love it as much as The Avengers, or Iron Man, or even Captain America, and it was largely because it had to strain under the weight of decades of movies, television series, and comic book. But not Marvel’s. The ghosts of franchises and formulas past were from Firefly, Serenity, Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
If you were to have described to me all the stuff that appears in Age of Ultron, the part I would’ve expected to be the most insufferable would be “Ultron is an advanced artificial intelligence that talks like Xander Harris.”
In practice, though: yeah, not so much. It’s not particularly overdone, and in the end comes across not as “Self-aware supervillain as the writer’s self-effacing defense mechanism” but “this was an AI created by Robert Downey Jr.’s version of Tony Stark.” Sure, he does a comment about revealing his super-villainous plan — itself a bit of self-awareness at least as old as Watchmen, to the point that that’s become even more of a cliche. But it’s incidental to its scene, and ends up feeling more like another reminder of Tony Stark’s responsibility in the whole thing.
It’s also a constant reminder that Joss Whedon is speaking through all of these characters. And it was kind of hard to “turn him off.” Related: I either never knew that James Spader was the voice of Ultron, or I forgot. I thought it sounded like Ty Burrell, so I spent the entire movie picturing him whenever Ultron came on screen.
But I like Joss Whedon, a lot, so what’s the problem? The problem is when all the tics and mannerisms are so familiar that they threaten to overpower everything else.
Towards the climax (reminder that this is a pretty big spoiler, in case “towards the climax” wasn’t enough of a clue), there’s a “ha we have masterfully played off of your expectations” moment. Hawkeye has spent the entire movie with the Grim Reaper looming over his shoulder: he’s injured early on, he questions his value to the team, he has an idyllic visit with his family and a heart-to-heart with his wife, he says both that he’s made his final addition to his peaceful farmhouse and makes plans for one more as soon as this mission is over. He even says out loud that he doesn’t know who’ll be coming back alive.
But then no! It’s Quicksilver who heroically sacrifices himself, much like, say, a leaf on the wind. And he calls back to his rival Hawkeye’s earlier dialogue with the line “Bet you didn’t see that one coming.”
Except those of us who’ve spent the last couple of decades watching Joss Whedon’s stuff respond with a Whedon-esque “Actually, yeah, we kinda did.” It’s not even just a precedent from Serenity (and Dr. Horrible, and Buffy, and Angel); it was in the first Avengers movie! Agent Coulson is still practically standing right there, and they’re trying to act like Killing Someone In Act 3 still has any element of surprise or weight to it.
Even more frustrating is when it’s not just all the old familiar tics and mannerisms and favorite cliches, but the entire sensibility that threatens to overwhelm everything else.
One of the reasons the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” has been so successful is that they’ve been unafraid to let directors bring their own sensibilities to each character. So Iron Man feels like a romantic comedy with robot suits, Thor feels a little bit like a modern take on a Shakespearean tragedy, and Captain America feels like The Rocketeer with a bigger budget and better CG. (I guess DC has done the same, more or less, but it requires you to like Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan’s sensibilities). It was a great fit for Avengers, as well: it had to be epic and packed full of stuff, so it was important to get somebody who could have huge, effects- and action-heavy sequences and keep it character-focused and have lots of good-looking people being flippant and charming to keep the whole thing from collapsing under its own weight.
Age of Ultron is also packed full of stuff, but somehow, none of it feels all that important. Which is a drag, because I think it made the right decisions going in:
It doesn’t pretend that the Avengers are anything other than a superhero team. All the “can these misfits work together?” drama was covered in the last movie, so this one starts right away with a big, complicated fight sequence in which it was clear to everyone that the Avengers were going to win. There’s even dialogue to that effect: one of the bad guys asks whether they can withstand the attack, and a henchman simply replies, “It’s the Avengers.”
Knowing that “will they win?” isn’t a valid question, the story puts all of the weight onto character conflict. The reason Scarlet Witch is a threat isn’t because she can overpower them, but that she could cause them all to collapse under their own personal baggage.
Even with that, the story knows exactly how far it can take the question of whether they’ll all turn on each other — because we know that even if they do, they’ll work around it by the end — and uses it as an impediment instead of a major crisis. The major crisis instead becomes completely character-driven: they have to deal with the left-over “psychic residue” of the Scarlet Witch’s attacks.
And that doesn’t take the form of self-doubt (because again: we’ve already seen them effortlessly taking down bad guys), but questioning what they want. Much more interesting than the question “can I win this fight?” is the question “do I really want to keep fighting?”
That cleverly side-steps the whole question of “why is Hawkeye even on this team?” The movie still asks that question outright, and answers it, but the implied answer is even stronger: Hawkeye’s the only one of them who has a “normal” life available to him, which is ostensibly what they’re all fighting for.
And that most obviously drives the whole romantic subplot between Black Widow and Bruce Banner, which is handled surprisingly maturely for a “comic book movie.” But it also drives the main plot, which is justifying the creation of Ultron: it states outright that the whole reason for the Avengers to exist is to create a world in which the Avengers don’t need to exist.
There’s a party scene that’s presented as if it’s meant to be aspirational: a bunch of clever, beautiful people having fun in a penthouse overlooking Manhattan. The recurring theme — from Rhodey Rhodes’s story about tossing a tank to the various attempt to pick up Thor’s hammer — is how much better these guys have it than “normal people.” The entire rest of the story seems to be questioning that scene: what are they doing, exactly, and why are they doing it? I liked the detail of ending the movie with Avengers Headquarters in a more nondescript, ground-level building outside of Manhattan.
“Who would win in a fight?” is a staple of superhero comic books, so we get the huge, destructive showdown between Hulk and Iron Man punching each other through buildings. But it’s framed to be both gratuitous and important to the theme: when the heroes are flying around smashing things, they’re making things worse for the civilians they’re trying to protect.
Which ties in yet again with Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver’s story, and puts almost all the emphasis of the climactic fight scene on their efforts to save people, instead of just beating the bad guy. (Which is itself kind of an interesting flip on the fight scene in the first Avengers; the destructive fall-out from that was the basis of a lot of follow-up stories, Daredevil in particular. Here they seem to have actually learned something from the experience). The question isn’t presented as “will they win?” but instead, “how many people will be hurt or killed when they win?”
In theory, it all fits together elegantly, giving the entire movie a nice solid through-line. It’s packed full of characters and sub-plots and franchise set-ups, and nothing feels out of place.
In practice, though, it just kind of drains the urgency out of the whole thing. I kept feeling as if the movie was making assumptions about what I should consider important. Ultron’s plan was never quite clear to me — extinction events and meteors kept getting mentioned, but they just seemed like metaphors — so I could never gauge how dangerous I was supposed to believe he was. I started to wonder whether my lack of a Marvel upbringing was working against me. Would I just “get” how he’s the baddest and most unstoppable of bad guys if I’d read the comics? After all, the Avengers seem to have no problem defeating infinite numbers of robots, vibranium/adamantium enhanced or not.
(I’ve read The Infinity Gauntlet but I still can’t for the life of me understand why people are so excited about even the smallest reference to it. “Is it like their equivalent to Crisis on Infinite Earths?“)
Normally, I’ve got a love/hate relationship with self-awareness in movies and books: it’s not just that I appreciate it when a writer respects my intelligence; I really do believe that it can trigger a kind of connection between the artist and the audience that’s impossible to get from something that’s completely earnest, no matter how honest it is. It’s an acknowledgement of the artificiality of fiction, and an implicit understanding that both the artist and the audience have at least one thing in common: we all know how this works.
But I started to wonder if the self-awareness in Age of Ultron had gone a bit too far into the realm of over-thinking it. It wasn’t arch, or really any other flavor of ironic detachment that you get when an artist feels that he’s better than the material he’s working with. Instead, it just felt kind of weary. The ending felt almost confessional, as if everyone involved would be happier just riding off with Tony Stark and getting out of the Gigantic Multi-feature Franchise business.
Maybe the over-inflated threats, villainous monologues, and crises of self-doubt that get resolved just in time for act 3 are in comic book stories because they need to be there. Maybe they’re not just lazy fallbacks that we’ve seen too many times already; maybe their familiarity is part of the appeal, why we keep going back for superhero stories in the first place.
I’ve said before that I was always more a DC guy than a Marvel guy. What’s been great about all the (good) Marvel adaptations is that you get a real sense of how excited people are about these characters. It’s as if they’re sharing their childhoods with us. That enthusiasm was in the first Avengers movie. Age of Ultron is still good, but it feels like they got all that enthusiasm out of their system. Which is a bizarre thing to say about a movie in which the Hulk and a witch fight legions of robots on a floating city, but there you have it.
Snowpiercer is the kind of weird semi-indie movie I’d thought had long gone extinct.
Snowpiercer is a modest-budget semi-indie post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie based on a French comic book from the 80s, and boy does it ever feel like it. I’d been seeing people raving about it on Twitter and Facebook, saying things like “drop everything you’re doing and go see it now.” While it’s not that good, it’s still interesting and kind of a marvel that it even exists.
It could be because I knew a little bit of its history going in, but I kept thinking throughout that it felt like a comic book movie. Not a super-hero movie — Chris Evans is here to show off his range and his commitment to interesting projects, not to show off his chest — but an “indie” comic book movie. It’s more concerned with imagery than with world-building, and more interested in legibility than in subtlety. The premise is about as direct an allegory of classism as you can make. The characters are broad — but still interesting — archetypes. The world is literally constrained, with each train of the car a “closed ecosystem” representing a single idea. Most scenes have just enough dialogue to fit into word bubbles. And the plotting and pacing are the kind you get when artists are rejecting Hollywood and trying to come up with their own conventions — with mixed success.
And maybe it’s only because I now know it’s based on a French comic book, but I kept thinking it felt like European independent movies from the 80s and 90s. It seems like Hollywood action movies filtered through a dream, where the tone’s all over the place, the pacing’s unsettlingly unpredictable, and Hollywood stars appear out of nowhere, for no good reason other than that they wanted to be in something interesting for a change.
Overall, I liked it but didn’t love it, but I’m still glad it exists. Especially as a counter to the standard action movie template, and I think that’s a big part of why it’s been getting so much positive buzz: people love it for not being Transformers, or even Captain America (which was actually good!)
The most intriguing thing about the movie, to me (and the only thing that made it worth a blog post), is the way the tone is deliberately all over the place. I think Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton both gave excellent performances, even though it didn’t seem like they’d belong in the same movie. Swinton was an over-the-top caricature, while Evans was playing it completely straight, particularly impressive considering that his most dramatic and emotional scene was a lurid monologue about cannibalism. Kang-ho Song*’s performance was entirely in Korean, but even without that, his seemed to be a performance from a more lighthearted, less high-concept action movie. With less competent — or even less confident — actors, it would’ve felt disjointed, as if they’d not bothered to talk to each other before filming. But it mostly works here, and it’s fascinating to see camp and deadpan work together without canceling each other out.
The screenwriter and director, Joon-Ho Bong*, also made The Host, which also seemed to veer wildly in tone between black comedy, camp, family comedy, and horror movie. It’d be easy to speculate that that’s just his style. And I’m still not 100% sure that it works; The Host was another movie that I wanted to like much more than I actually did.
But it’s interesting to see the attempt. Especially now that we’re seeing more and more long-form storytelling in television series. It’s meant that television is getting gradually better, but also that the rules are getting more ingrained. Even as the quality goes up, there’s less room to experiment.
Battlestar Galactica‘s final season was a complete disaster, but there was also something perversely thrilling about it — once everything had gone off the rails, you had the sense that for the first time, anything was possible. At any other point in the series, a scene threatening to blow Colonel Tigh out of an airlock would’ve been another example of “fake TV tension:” it still would’ve worked because these guys have had so much experience crafting television, they know how to make a tense moment fit in the overall arc of an episode, but you’d still know in the back of your mind what the real stakes were. But by the end of the series, after everything had gone horribly wrong, there was genuine tension. This would be bad, but they’re just crazy enough to do it.
Until the end of Snowpiercer, I got the same sense of exhilarated confusion: this isn’t playing by quite the same rules as a normal movie, so there’s really no predicting what they’re about to do. By the end, it settles into almost complete familiarity, but for a while, it’s just off-putting enough to be engaging.
*Apologies if I’ve got the surname/given name order mixed up for Korean names; IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes are inconsistent about which comes first.
Pixar sequels and another installment of “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Multinational Entertainment Conglomerate”
Everybody knows that sequels are always worse than the originals.
Except, of course, in the multitude of cases where they’re better (in order of universally regarded as superior, to this one writer’s opinion, which also happens to be objective fact): The Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, X2: X-Men United, The Dark Knight, Toy Story 2, Aliens, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, Monsters University.
The reason I’m mentioning all of those (two of them Pixar sequels) is because of the announcement of upcoming sequels to The Incredibles and the Cars series. From what I saw, there was a wave of excitement — Incredibles 2 — followed by a backlash of Emperor’s new clothes — Cars 3. I saw several people say roughly the same thing: Why is everyone celebrating more creatively bankrupt cash grabs? If Pixar had remained semi-independent and hadn’t been bought by Disney, they’d still be focusing on original titles instead of churning out franchises.
I’ve been guilty of the mindset that “of course original content is always better, and there’s always an element of creative bankruptcy when sequels or licensed properties are involved.” But now I believe that that’s superficial. Having an adamant “no sequels” policy is at best being overly precious about The Muse, at worst extremely arrogant. Not to mention ignoring the fact that actual geniuses are capable of making something amazing even from a faithful adaptation.
(I should probably point out that my entire career in video games has been essentially that of a professional fan fiction writer. Sequels, spiritual sequels, or video game adaptations, all working with other people’s stuff. So I’ve put quite a bit of thought over the years into the topic of “original IP” vs. licensed content and sequels).
It’s understandable that people would be skeptical, considering that Disney spent several years making uninspired direct-to-video sequels of classic movies. And calling them “uninspired” isn’t a criticism of them in the same way it would be with a real movie, since at no point in the process were they intended to be creative works.
Of course it’s different when you’re talking about real feature releases. On that front, it seems to me that Pixar is just staying the course: sequels to Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Cars 2 have been announced, and so have two original projects. People are cautiously optimistic about Finding Dory, somewhat excited about The Incredibles 2, and calling Cars 3 an unsurprising cash-grab.
But look at the Cars movies. They are:
The worst Pixar movies. (In my opinion. And of course, “worst Pixar movie” still means that they’re technically flawless, have striking concept work, and several clever moments, but are ultimately just “entertainment” instead of instant classics).
The most profitable Pixar movies, by a wide margin.
By all accounts the result (at least the first one) of a very personal, passion project by John Lasseter.
Which suggests to me, as an outsider, a less superficial and more realistic idea of how Pixar works. Any time a studio or production company is presented as a haven for tortured artists to get the resources they need to bring their artistic visions to reality, that’s probably bullshit, coming either from marketing or self-promotion or cynically idealistic fans. What’s a lot more likely is that like any creative business, you get the most success by being able to balance creativity, accessibility, and profitability.
My Singular Artistic Vision would’ve said that casting Larry the Cable Guy as a wacky sidekick in a Pixar movie was the epitome of the cynical marketing-driven cash grab. As it turned out, though, he’s a really good voice actor for animation, and he helped make a genuinely memorable character. Which shouldn’t be that surprising considering that his entire public persona is a fictional character, but still completely counter-intuitive when conventional wisdom said it should’ve been a disaster on the scale of casting Jeff Foxworthy. It still hurts me down to my soul to hear “Git R Done!” in a movie, or anywhere really, but give credit where it’s due.
I used to believe that LucasArts had the perfect can’t-fail business model: have the titles based on a ludicrously successful license which make your money and fund your original, creative titles that build your brand as an independent studio. In retrospect, though, that doesn’t make sense. Instead of being so precious about originality, why not apply creativity and imagination to titles that won’t be mediocre selling critical darlings? The balance got completely out of whack at that company, resulting in 100 variations of the Hoth battle or the Death Star trench run, but something like 1313 seemed to be the right idea. It just came too late to be realized.
Ultimately, if you’re arguing in favor of the creative process, then you have to acknowledge that creativity can come from anywhere.
It’s possible that this really is the beginning of the end for Pixar, their days of cranking out one classic film after another are over, and now that they’re wholly owned by Disney, they’re doomed to start cranking out movies like Planes. I’m extremely skeptical, after seeing not just the talent still at the studio, but seeing Wreck-it Ralph and Frozen. Anything’s possible. But if it does happen, then it won’t be just by virtue of putting out sequels.
For my part, I’m optimistic about Incredibles 2. The first is a movie I’ve always wanted to love but couldn’t. The art direction is amazing, every single environmental design is taken directly from the Book Of Stuff Chuck Likes, and the scene where drones chase Dash around the island is, without exaggeration, one of the best scenes in any movie ever made. If I can get all that without the creepy, didactic, bizarrely defensive, Objectivist message, then that’d be perfect.
Among many other observations, she synopsizes Burn After Reading brilliantly. That movie has frustrated me ever since I saw it, since it seemed to be a perfect example of exactly the kind of cynicism and nihilism that they’ve always mocked. Robinson’s essay finally makes it fit in with everything else (the answer’s in the title).
“The Coen Brothers as Moralists and Populists” is one of my favorite topics. I’ve got a tendency to treat works of art as puzzle boxes anyway, where each one has a single correct solution if you just apply enough thought to it. The Coens pack so much pointed but seemingly nonsensical stuff into their movies — including scenes that implicitly say this means something very important while explicitly telling you this is meaningless — that it becomes impossible to resist and impossible to escape. You just end up looking foolish even trying to figure it all out; you realize it’s less a puzzle box than a Chinese finger trap.
It’s even more tempting when you see so many of the movies being interpreted to say something that’s the exact opposite of what they’re really trying to say. It’s like being given a complex treasure map decades in the making, and seeing everyone else digging in the wrong place. And then when you’ve finally found the treasure, somebody’s there to beat you to death and throw your body into a wood chipper. Isn’t that always the way?
Robinson concludes that there’s a consistent Old Testament-slash-Hays Code-style moralizing across the Coen Brothers’ entire body of work. A list of rules, Five Commandments, that determine whether characters are rewarded and punished — with the scales weighted impossibly in favor of being punished — and while there’s hope for sympathy, there’s almost no hope for redemption.
I think much of that is ingenious, but that the truth goes one step further. (Notice how I didn’t say something like “I’m not sure I agree with you 100% on your police work there.” Every day, I’m getting less and less twee). It’s important to stress that there’s a moral center to the Coen Brothers’ movies, since there’s a tendency to dismiss them as arch, cynical, or defeatist. But I think the bigger picture is actually a rejection of the Old Testament notion of a list of rules that can be followed, violated, or subverted.
The overall philosophy — assuming one exists! — is more like Taoism or Zen Buddhism. (Or at least, my cursory and almost definitely over-simplistic outsider’s understanding of those). With this interpretation, the sacred texts are Fargo and A Serious Man, and the closest they have to a kind of spiritual ideal is The Dude.
A Man of Constant Sorrow
Robinson’s essay concludes with “a world of strict moral reckoning or laughable anarchy,” where horrible things happen to good people, virtue is seldom rewarded, redemption is near-impossible, fate delivers punishments that far exceed the severity of the transgression, and the rules are different for comedies and dramas.
If there’s a consistent four-word synopsis of Coen Brothers movies, it’s: “Everything goes horribly wrong.” If you’re allowed to expand on it, it seems like the complete version is “Everything goes horribly wrong, because of something you did.” It seems like story after story is just another case of people getting punished for their sins, other people’s sins, or just having the bad luck of being a character in a Coen Brothers movie.
Looking at it as Good vs. Evil, crime and punishment, makes it seem as if the whole thing is chaotic, capricious, and vindictive. There’s a role-playing game called Fiasco that’s heavily influenced by the Coens’ movies, and the consistent idea among all the different game settings and rule sets is that things are go very badly for all the characters involved. Players roll dice to determine just how badly.
And it seems like the odds are against the Forces of Good. The movies are full-to-bursting with liars, thieves, adulterers, kidnappers, and murderers. A few even have actual, physical manifestations of Evil — Leonard Smalls, Anton Chigurh, and probably John Goodman’s character in Barton Fink. With all of these villains, the only character who comes close to being an actual hero is Marge Gunderson.
But even there, she’s more of an observer than a champion of justice. She does capture the villain, but the genius of that scene is that it’s not presented as a victory of Good over Evil. Instead, it’s an example of what happens when Good confronts Evil and is simply unable to comprehend it. She tells him that she can’t understand why anyone would do the things that he’s done, and especially on such a beautiful day. Crucial to understanding that scene — and the whole movie, I’d say — is recognizing that Marge isn’t at all stupid or naive.
I still think of No Country For Old Men as Humorless Fargo, and there’s a corresponding scene at the end of that movie in which Kelly Macdonald’s character finally comes face to face with Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh. The “sin” that’s instigated the whole story has already been punished, but he’s still there to kill her. Her reaction isn’t so much one of fear, but of grief: she’d known this was inevitable, but she still can’t understand why.
You could even say that there’s a similar scene in Raising Arizona, when H.I. has to fight Leonard Smalls. The key difference is that he is actually pretty stupid and naive, but the overall tone is the same: this doesn’t make sense. It’s not like it was the other prison escapees, who were bound to betray him sooner or later. This guy literally came out of nowhere, and he’s almost literally unstoppable. It’s only at the last minute that H.I. notices that they share a tattoo and have at least one thing in common, so he can have a bit of empathy.
Good and Evil aren’t opposing forces; Good is the absence of Evil (and vice-versa). Evil — pure evil, as opposed to just self-interest — is such an alien and foreign concept that Good can’t even comprehend it.
Taken together, it makes the whole “canon” seem less Old Testament and more Lovecraft. Evil is omnipresent and almost omnipotent, and it’s our fate to go as long as we can without succumbing to it completely.
You’d think that after the Coens went out of their way to show their self-important nihilists as a trio of tights-wearing clowns, it’d be clear what they think of allegations that they’re cynical or defeatist. “Misanthropic” is the absolute worst word you could use to describe their stories; even at their most dark and dour, the movies are ultimately a celebration of people.
To be fair, it’s easy to see why that interpretation doesn’t always come through. I make it a point to avoid reading interviews with the Coens themselves (to “preserve the mystique,” as Llewyn Davis would say), but in the few quotes I’ve seen, they tend to give curt dismissals. There’s one passed around where Joel Coen describes O Brother, Where Art Thou? as the “Lawrence of Arabia of hayseed movies.” The re-release of Blood Simple includes a introduction by noted film preservationist Mortimer Young in which he describes the film as ushering in the age of independent cinema, and commentary track from important film historian and artistic director Kenneth Loring.
If you tend to be a self-important person, and you’re confronted with filmmakers habitually and ruthlessly mocking the self-important, then you’re likely to interpret that as hostility, if not outright misanthropy. None of these characters have any hope of success, and they’re all too stupid or arrogant to realize it. Let us all despair over the cruelty of our existence and laugh and mock the folly of anyone who strives to achieve more. Also, let’s make fun of their silly accents.
Now, I do believe that there’s a recurring theme of characters swept up by Fate (or Evil) and impotently struggling to get free of it. And I do think that it’s fruitless to try to parse the characters into “good guys” and “bad guys.” But it’s absolutely possible to discern the characters who are sympathetic vs. the ones who aren’t. A critic who finds the characters consistently “irritating” is revealing more about himself than about the filmmakers; there’s an inescapable sense that the Coens love some of these characters, even as they’re poking fun at them. Even the ones they don’t love, they still find fascinating.
One of the characters they love the most doesn’t fit the good guy/bad guy ideal at all. He’s a stoner, a drop-out, and he might actually be kind of stupid. For filmmakers who love banter, he’s not that good at it. He doesn’t really accomplish much, but then he doesn’t really aspire to much. And yet he’s one character you’re unequivocally, undeniably supposed to love.
The Life of the Mind
The sympathetic characters aren’t always the protagonists, either. The only part of Robinson’s essay that I disagree with completely is her take on Barton Fink:
Barton Fink starts Barton Fink by queasily deciding to sell out his considerable talent for Hollywood money, and spends the rest of his film suffering the horror-movie consequences.
The theme of the tension between art and commerce runs throughout Barton Fink. But the story is absolutely not punishing Barton Fink for being a sell-out. Just the opposite, in fact: it’s showing the consequences of his arrogance. Fink is acutely aware of his own “considerable talent,” and he’s convinced of his own importance. He talks about “the common man” as a curiosity to be studied, and yet he appoints himself as the Voice of the common man.
Knowing that Barton Fink was written during a period of writer’s block while developing Miller’s Crossing, it’s a bit easier to interpret: the Coens do identify with Barton Fink, but it’s not a lament of the tragic plight of the serious artist. They’re making fun of themselves for having their heads too far up their own asses.
The same idea runs throughout Inside Llewyn Davis, and again, Llewyn Davis isn’t a hero. He sings folk music, ostensibly the music of the “common man,” but he’s horrible with people. He’s disdainful of the music and yet completely convinced of his own superior talent and artistic integrity.
(One of my favorite things about that movie, that I forgot to mention right after I saw it, is its confidence in showing its main character’s arrogance. They don’t need to undermine his talent; he is a genuinely good performer, but that doesn’t excuse his being an asshole. But they also don’t feel the need to play it up, showing wide-eyed reaction shots from an audience or a “hey, he’s actually really good!” from a skeptical agent. It’s easy to underestimate how ballsy it is to have an entire scene where your actor — who’s playing a character that’s been established as an unreliable, irresponsible jerk — is just singing an entire song with an acoustic guitar in front of a man who remains completely stone-faced).
I don’t think it’s an accident that the thing that finally gets Llewyn Davis beaten up — the point at which the movie says, “Okay, that’s enough” — is when he starts heckling the “hayseed” on stage. In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Fargo, and Raising Arizona, the Coens are having fun with their “simple” characters and their accents and their music, but it’s not at those characters’ expense. And it’s not just that they’re not mocking the characters; they have no patience for the people who do.
Burn After Watching
Once all of that is taken together, a consistent theme begins to emerge, and it doesn’t seem quite as capricious or vindictive. Even though the movies are overwhelmingly about crime and criminals, the crimes are more often than not just instigating events. In any case, those aren’t the sins being punished. The true sins in this universe are hubris, vanity, selfishness, self-importance, prejudice, arrogance, pretentiousness, and over-confidence. Essentially, anything that makes a character think that he’s special or better than anyone else.
The most common sin in the Coens’ movies is a person thinking that he can beat the system. H.I. and Ed McDunnough believe that the rules don’t apply to them (and besides, they got more than they can handle). Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing is always giving everybody the high hat, always desperate to keep his cool and stay in control, convinced he’s got the whole system figured out, and he knows all the angles. Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There has a normal (albeit pretty miserable) life, but he grows to see his quietness not as a virtue but a weakness. He finds himself better suited to a pulp detective or noir story in a men’s magazine; he doesn’t regret anything he’s done, but he did regret being a barber.
Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are all instigated by con artists, grifters, and manipulators. Everett McGill is vain and sees himself as a smooth talker, but everybody can tell that he’s not “bona fide.” (And O Brother is the Coens making fun of themselves as much as any of the characters; putting themselves in the role of the directors making a film about average people and being pretentious enough to base it on The Odyssey).
It’s probably a mistake to read too much into The Hudsucker Proxy or Blood Simple, since neither’s meant to be taken seriously. But they still fit, more or less. Sidney J. Mussburger thinks he can beat the system by manipulating a naive incompetent who instead turns out to have some brilliantly simple ideas. And Blood Simple shows what happens when really, really, crushingly stupid people try to take part in clandestine affairs and double-crosses.
And Mattie Ross in True Grit was a fascinating character long before the Coens got hold of her, and you can see why the story would be such an appealing project for them. On top of the wonderful language and the bizarre-but-grounded characters, there’s a perfect kind of conviction to the character and her story. She is always absolutely, 100% convinced that there is a code of proper behavior, perfectly and unquestionably covered by the Presbyterian faith, and she is always in the right. If you want to apply the sin-and-punishment idea to it, you could assume that the snake bite is punishment for her pride. But there’s never any sense of selfishness in her motivations; there’s simply what’s right.
What’s frustrated me for years is that Burn After Reading didn’t seem to quite fit. It’s got the usual components: a bunch of charming idiots, arrogant villains (John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton’s characters), and a series of increasingly horrible events that end in senseless death, destruction, and tragedy.
But there’s no sense of justice to it. Our charmingly moronic protagonists are motivated by vanity or pride, and they all think they’ve beaten the system. It results in two “nice guys” being murdered, and only one of the villains put into a coma for his arrogance. And not only do our protagonists escape punishment for all this mayhem, they’re actually rewarded for it. Our “Greek chorus” wraps up the story by saying outright that none of it makes any sense. At the time, I wrote it off as a bit of psychic residue resulting from having to work on No Country for Old Men, the bleak cynicism of that story lingering after production, encouraging them to get it out of their systems with a farce.
That’s why I think Robinson’s interpretation is perfect:
The film ends with a couple of baffled CIA officers debating what they’ve learned from the whole debacle, and concluding that none of it is particularly meaningful or useful. They arbitrarily decide to grant one selfish and small-minded character exactly what she most wants, so they can sweep all the movie’s events under the rug and ignore them—and it comes across as a referendum from the Coens, revealing the lack of a point or a center in a story where the villains are rewarded and the best people (relatively speaking) are punished.
In other words, it’s not an exercise in cynicism, but a rejection of it. This is what you get when you try to assemble all the components, but have no moral center to it. It doesn’t end up being arch or cold; it just doesn’t make any sense at all. It doesn’t mean anything. And now that we’ve seen it, let’s all pretend it never happened.
Receive With Simplicity Everything That Happens To You
I agree with Robinson that A Serious Man is the most straightforward explanation of the philosophy of the Coens’ movies, but I don’t quite agree with her conclusion. She points out that Larry Gopnik “endures the trials of Job” and all of his attempts to make sense of it or understand it go unsatisfied.
…he questions what godliness means, and tries to make the right choices, particularly regarding a student attempting to bribe him for a better grade. Events around him suggest the world is a chaotic, unjust, random place, or at least a place with no clear answers, as the fables at the beginning and middle of the film emphasize. But the second he crosses the line, when he stops his ethical struggle and decides to accept the bribe, the consequences are instantaneous…
Where I disagree is with the idea that the answers exist in the first place:
He seeks answers in his Jewish faith, which has no answers for him except an exacting “Obey the rules.” It’s no surprise when he doesn’t, given what he’s been through, but the film’s final shot makes it clear that those rules are ironbound, regardless of excuses.
But I think that the message of the entire film is that looking for “rules” is folly. In a sense, it’s a film about Jews that rejects the whole idea of an Old Testament God.
The key scene is the point at which Larry decides to accept the bribe. And on some level, the ending is a final “damned if you don’t, damned if you do” gag, a last bit of sardonic humor. But if that were the entire point, then it could’ve been told with a short film, or one of the parables in the larger story. Instead, the entire story up to that point has been one example after another of people trying to come up with a way to codify morality, to get an explanation in the form of cause and effect. Every bad thing that happens is the result of some transgression we’ve committed. If we can only figure out what the rules are, we can avoid all the tsuris.
But even if we hadn’t already seen every other Coen Brothers movie, we’ve seen plenty of evidence that Larry hasn’t done anything to deserve all the trials he’s going through. Sometimes horrible stuff happens to good people. Believing that we can follow a list of rules is believing that we have some control over it. It’s a kind of hubris, even: imposing an ironclad contract on God, when He’d prefer to play it by ear and take each of us on a case-by-case basis.
When Larry decides to fix the grade, the significance isn’t that he broke a rule and brought down a probable cancer diagnosis and a definite tornado. The significance is that he decided that because the “rules” were impossible to discern, that none of it mattered.
He knows that it’s wrong, or else there would be no moral quandary. But why is it a quandary? Because he’ll be punished if he goes through with it? Or because he simply knows that it’s wrong? The movie suggests that we’re trying to codify right vs wrong, to express it as punishment or reward. But moral behavior is its own reward. If we’re not evil — and most of us aren’t — then we have an innate sense of right vs. wrong.
Therefore, the thing that defines our character isn’t what we do to cause or avoid hardship. It’s how we react to hardship. Struggling to somehow beat the system or circumvent it in your own favor will always end in failure. (And often take down the innocents surrounding you. RIP, Donny). But following the proverb presented at the beginning of A Serious Man — “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you” — really can’t fail, because it sees simplicity as its own reward.
At the end of Fargo, Marge Gunderson goes from capturing a murderer and closing a case of kidnapping and multiple homicides, to lying in bed with her husband talking about stamps. And the man who instigated the whole “adventure” is dragged out of a window in his underwear, wailing pathetically. It’s pretty clear which is the preferred ending, and it has nothing to do with excitement, and everything to do with accepting and appreciating a peaceful (if not perfect) life.
Suddenly, The Dude transforms from unambitious loser to Zen Master. While everyone else schemes and plots, or rages, or plays the angles, or despairs, or struggles to win a game they can’t possibly win, The Dude abides. He’s got more explicit rules about what name he goes by than about right vs. wrong. Whatever integrity he has is innate instead of prescribed. He’s not a hero, because he’s almost completely reactionary.
And he doesn’t want a fortune, or a mistress, or an adventure (although he ends up with two out of three, more or less); he just wants a rug that ties the room together, and the opportunity to bowl with his friends. He’s eternally in the moment. Instead of constantly striving for more, he appreciates what he has. Another word for “lack of ambition” is “contentment.”
With all that, if I were trying to come up with a single summation of the morality across the Coen Brothers’ movies, it’d be this: “Yes, we’re all doomed to an existence in which the answers are unknowable, where we’ll experience both great beauty and horrible tragedy, where there’s no rhyme or reason to how much of each we’ll receive, and where any attempt to take control over our own fate is ultimately futile. But you don’t have to be an asshole about it.”