Sunday, July 8, 2012

What Ennui Hath Wrought, Part One

This is the first part of an ongoing series I'm writing about contemporary comedy films.

I don't know if there's a more widely damned stock character in cinema these days, at least in the parts of the blogosphere that discuss representations of women in movies, than the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. We all know her, right? Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, Natalie Portman in Garden State, Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer, etc. People condemn her so completely that it's amazing that she appears so often. She's held up as an example of everything bad about screenwriting these days: she's shallow, precious and ornamental, and she gives the sense that the writer believes that women basically exist to provide direction and guidance to brooding men. Despite all of this, though, she keeps cropping up, and she keeps cropping up even when she's not supposed to be able to. Even when the writer has obviously tried painstakingly to subvert every aspect of the stock character, as in Kate Winslet's character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, who was created specifically to quash the archetype (and even almost succeeds, in a couple of monologues), in the end she still feels like a Manic Pixie, like the persona is a demon that even the forces of Hollywood can't exorcise no matter how hard they try.

What that says to me is that there's nothing innate in these poor women that's causing them to transform into Manic Pixies; rather, it's probably something about the situations that screenwriting today creates for its characters that stick them with the Manic Pixie label. If character qualities alone aren't enough to form a definition of her, it would probably be more productive to analyze the role she inhabits in the plot . So rather than look at a list of personality traits (zaniness, lack of inhibition, fun dress sense etc.), let's look instead at how she functions and what she represents.

How she functions, I'd argue, is as a source of direction. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, regardless of whether she has blue hair or pink hair, whether she wears vintage sweaters or Doc Martens, is in the movie basically as a catalyst, a plot device to kickstart the main character's inert life. Her personal traits are totally irrelevant to this fact; she could be anything as long as she gets the catalysis done. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a cross between a messiah and a muse: she not only inspires, but she does it at a moment of dire need, when the protagonist is so stuck, professionally, and emotionally, that inspiration is basically interchangeable with salvation. All of which is to say that she can't exist in a movie that doesn't have a directionless protagonist, and that the Enemy in her movies—the force so evil and all-encompassing that only outside salvation can defeat it—is inertia itself. Not just unleaded plebeian inertia, either, but the high-octane moneyed twentysomething variety. Without inertia, she has no in. And the corollary of that is that if the movie is about inertia, she will appear. Any movie about educated twentysomethings that is fundamentally about one man's struggle with inertia, and has a major subplot that is romantic in the conventional sense, will tend to produce Manic Pixie Dream Girls. 

So now we have not only a definition but a way of predicting when a Manic Pixie will show up—and also, we're no longer just talking about this particular character archetype, but rather the whole style of screenwriting that created her—that is, screenwriting obsessed with inertia, awkwardness, and "finding yourself."

This sector of screenwriting is what gave us the careers of Judd Apatow, Noah Baumbach, Michael Cera, Jesse Eisenberg, Lena Dunham, and a lot of others, and it cleaves pretty closely to their general style. It's preoccupied with adolescence, ennui, arrested development, lingering family issues, and the utter inability to cope with the choices provided by privilege. None of this is new to screenwriting or narrative in general, though—John Hughes movies are often about these issues, The Graduate certainly is, and, of course, so are Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Augustine's Confessions. 

What differentiates this new kind of screenwriting is its obsessive focus on the minutiae of the lives of the characters it describes, the premium it places on realism. Movies like Greenberg, Superbad and Tiny Furniture are precise. They resist the standard Hollywood dialog style—nothing is ever glossed over by resorting to standard popcorn-movie diction, characters often speak with likes and whatevers intact, and nothing happens that could not happen in real life. (Notable exceptions like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are careful to present their fantastic elements as realistically as possible—the Lacuna Inc. set is as quotidian a dentist's office.) They reject the high-toned wit of classic comedies like My Man Godfrey, the "one word: plastics" satire of The Graduate, the outrageous sitcom tone of Ferris Bueller's Day Off and even the condescending sneer of Dazed and Confused in favor of a level-headed, sympathetic inspection of their misbegotten heroes exactly as they are. They are invariably about intelligent but listless middle-class people, people who have their heads on straight but are maybe a little selfish, maybe a little numb, and usually very socially inept.

Now, not all of these movies have Manic Pixie Dream Girls. There's none in Superbad, none in Tiny Furniture, none in The Squid and the Whale. But in the solo straight white male twentysomething genre—Greenberg, (500) Days of Summer, Garden State, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—she's inevitable.

These movies, the white-dude-living-alone ones, are also typically the ones that are most concerned with wallowing in carefully observed realist aimlessness. The style—disfluencies in dialog, realism in storyline—is so completely united with the subject matter, it comes to embody the aimlessness and ennui that the movies are about, and transcending that aimlessness is inextricable from transcending the style. So the plots require an instrument like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who wears sun dresses when everyone else is in t-shirts and jeans, who sings songs from children's television when everyone else is talking in monotone, and who does her own social thing when everyone else is trapped on the middle-class twentysomething treadmill. She's the only character who's allowed to break out of the obsessive, precise realism of the movies, just as she's the only character who's allowed to break out of the cynical realist conventions of the plot. Both in style and in subject, she's the one concession the movie makes to real fantasy, and this fantasy is what interrupts the main character's doldrums for long enough that he can learn to love again.

Her slightly outrageous behavior, cloying and precious as it is, is really the most parsimonious way to make the movie work. What's more, she reveals the fact that movies so ideologically fixated on minute realism require the implosion of that very minute realism to function; the type of screenwriting that produces the Manic Pixie Dream Girl produces her to destroy the realist style it's created, which is the only way it can resolve itself. She's a lazy, sexist character archetype, yes, but the movie needs her nonetheless. Rather than critique her in a vacuum, then, it's probably best to critique the environment that creates her, the sterile focus on verisimilitude and aimlessness that necessitates her. Browbeating writers into paranoia isn't going to make her go away; she'll just appear in ever more subtle and devious ways, because she's a consequence of movies about white dudes in their twenties with their own apartments. So shut up about the poor Pixie, O thou bloggers. It's not her fault. Society made her.

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