Thursday, August 9, 2012

What Ennui Hath Wrought, Part Two

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

Last time I wrote that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype was the product of a sector of screenwriting preoccupied with inertia, awkwardness, and the search for identity, typically by wealthy white men in their twenties. If a movie like this has a girl-centric romantic subplot, the girl will inevitably tend to present Manic Pixie symptoms, because in this kind of movie, the style—the dialogue peppered with "realistic" disfluencies, the mean-spirited observational comedy and the pathetic protagonists—is so completely the focus that it strangles the plot and makes it impossible for anything to happen unless a savior appears who can show a way out of both the style and the content that the style has incapacitated. This savior is typically a Manic Pixie.

This is true whether or not she's a prototypic, undisguised iteration of the character like Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown or a self-aware attack on it like Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, whether she's ridiculously exaggerated like Mary Elizabeth Winstead (and everything else) in Scott Pilgrim Versus the World or downplayed to the point of nonexistence like Greta Gerwig in Greenberg. Her presentation might be different, but like a Campbellian hero, her role is the same.

So rather than writing yet another series of screeds against the pixie with a thousand faces, it seems to me that it would be more productive to go to the source and screed against the style of screenwriting instead. That said, what is the style, anyway?

When I say that it's obsessed with inertia, I have something very specific in mind. There's an awful lot of art that concerns itself partly or principally with the aimlessness that arises around adolescence. Romeo and Juliet, for one. So the subject matter isn't what's unique about this style of screenwriting. What's unique, rather, is the way the subject matter is emphasized. To examine that emphasis, let's look at an instructive foil, a movie with a lot of similarity to, say, Garden State and Tiny Furniture.

This is a montage from the middle of The Graduate. Our hero, as you can see, is numbly splitting his time between floating in his pool and carrying on an affair with his parents' friend at a nearby hotel; this montage neatly sums up, in under five minutes, his mindset at the time: he's aimless, hollow, numb and quietly desperate, alienated from his parents and even his lover, whose face we don't see clearly until the last shot. There doesn't seem to be a way out. None of this is really notable on its own; the important thing is that if you stretched this montage out over an hour and a half you would have the makings of 85% of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl film. All that's missing in this montage is the Manic Pixie herself.

Here's a plot:

Benjamin Braddock, a talented but aimless college graduate, has been home from college for a few months now, and doesn't seem interested in anything except the backyard pool and (unbeknownst to his parents) his trysts with the neighbor's wife. But just as he's about to succumb to loneliness and isolation, he meets a girl who's everything he needs—beautiful, lively and just different.

Throw in a few songs by the Shins and you've got a movie.

I'd argue that parts of The Graduate form the prototypic aimless male hero movie: a brooding, handsome loser lies around and mopes, doing his damnedest not to deal with his unexorcised demons. That's the core of Garden State, (500) Days of Summer, and most other movies in this genre.

At best, a Garden State-type movie is the first half of The Graduate. At worst, it's just those four-and-a-half minutes spread thinly over two hours, with a quick beginning and end tacked on. In either case, the movie is almost inevitably a slapdash, lazy, undemanding version of The Graduate, a movie that pretends emotional immobility is the same as subtlety and, bizarrely, that one-dimensional characterizations are the same as complex ones. (I guess the expectation of this last is to be some kind of Iceberg Theory, where the viewer will infer 90% of the screenplay on their own, but unfortunately nobody writing these movies is half the writer Hemingway was, so it inevitably becomes an excuse.)

With this in mind, let's compare The Graduate with Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, a movie that epitomizes the ennui-fueled, arrested-development energy of this genre. In Greenberg, our talented but aimless hero comes home after being away for a long time, where he spends most of his time floating around in a pool until he meets a girl who, we're led to assume, is the "first thing that's made him feel alive in years." Granted, he's in forties and not his twenties and the institution from which he's returning is mental and not academic, but that doesn't diminish its obvious stylistic debt to The Graduate.
Roger Greenberg floats from party to party, much as Ben Braddock does—the incredibly dry irony makes The Graduate's wordplay and physical comedy look Vaudevillian by comparison, but the jokes have the same butts—in the process abortively hooking up with the other house-sitter, a blond girl half his age, whose name, of course, is Florence. He's later reunited with her by a sick dog, and after some messy subplot issues involving his failed rock band and the possibility of a trip to Australia, which we equate with his continued emotional numbness, he decides to stay in California with Florence.

This is The Graduate. It just moves slower and cuts out halfway through.
The second half of the The Graduate, though, is what makes all the difference, and this in the problem: Elaine may be everything Ben needs, but she quickly becomes inaccessible, so he tells his parents he's marrying her, runs to Berkeley, follows her in a way that becomes less endearing every second, destroys his reputation, runs back down to Southern California, crashes her wedding, locks her family in a church, and hops a bus with her—and then the cameras roll on and on and on while the two of them stare up the aisle and slowly realize they have no idea what to do next. They don't even know where the bus is going. But with absolute disregard, it pulls away, and it's too late for them.

We don't get to see any of this in Greenberg. Greenberg is, in its entirety, the prologue to one action—that is, Roger's decision to stay with Florence. This is the only decision in the the movie that Roger doesn't defer or avoid. The decision to go to marry Elaine is the first decision in The Graduate that Ben doesn't defer or avoid, with the exception of his decision to take up with Mrs. Robinson—and he needs a lot of help with the latter—but the movie shows us the consequences of the decision. Ben's decision both signifies that he's taking responsibility for himself and irreversibly affects the plot; Roger's is nothing but an empty gesture. The irony of Greenberg is that it puts the act of taking responsibility for oneself, of choosing to stop deferring and live one's own life, into a context where it has no effect on the lives of any of the characters. Roger ostensibly chooses to start living, finally; in fact, though, all he chooses to do (mercifully!) is end the movie.

For all its extremely realistic content, Greenberg is really a fantasy. I am not going to dance around this: the ending of Greenberg, in which a protagonist who's previously been absolutely immobile is suddenly given a chance at romantic fulfillment and we fade out before we see how that romance ends up, is a happily-ever-after, and Greenberg is a fairy tale. Garden State is also a fairy tale, as is Elizabethtown. Any movie that conceives of growing up, of getting out of arrested development and into adulthood, as a kind of mystical gift that's dropped into the laps of its protagonists, will tend to turn into a fairy tale.

Happily-ever-after is a shallow ending. I won't argue against the deus-ex-machina as it's deployed in Greek tragedy, or even against its use in folklore, which tends to be more about encoded cultural lessons than about plot or character development anyway, but in contemporary indie cinema, which is so completely obsessed with verisimilitude that it looks more and more like this blog every day, it's hard for me to read it as anything more than the worst kind of aesthetic cowardice.

The Graduate has the aesthetic and intellectual maturity to show us what it means to break out of the doldrums suddenly, to find a consuming passion and dedicate yourself completely to it, and how that passion can ruin your life. In contrast, Greenberg and its ilk are like kids who haven't learned how to pick up their own laundry yet. It's like they invent the Pixie to act as a mother, somebody who will pick up their laundry for them and nurse them into adulthood along the way.

The thing is, we know that somewhere along the line, Roger Greenberg and Florence Marr are going to end up on a proverbial bus of their own, staring blankly up the aisle and realizing that it takes more than a magical donation to escape from inertia. We know that because The Graduate has had the courage to tell us the story up to that point. Greenberg doesn't even have the courage to pick up its own laundry.