Friday, December 21, 2012

"Thoughts About Seeing 'This Is Forty'"

There is no shame in being shallow.

If that’s what you are.

I mean, some deep thinker pretends to be shallow so they can fit in? – that’s questionable, that’s “You can do better.”  Adding, if you’re feeling avuncular – or whatever the female equivalent of avuncular is – aunt-ular – “…Young Man!”, or “Young Woman!

Pressure ‘em to live up to their potential.  Kids love that.

You use what you’ve got.  “What you’ve got” being a specific amalgam of genetic and cultural components.  You are born with certain tools and capacities, your culture shapes them in accordance with its priorities – “We like it when you’re funny”; “We are indifferent to your ability to throw a harpoon” – and off you go.

Say, in our culture today, you want to write and direct movies, but you are, not at the lowest end of the ladder, actually considerably more near the top, but still demonstrably and disputably…


Is there any law against doing that?  None that I know of.  Our culture has no problem allowing people to write and direct movies when they’re shallow, no designated official with a clipboard standing authoritarially at the studio gate, saying, “Judging from you previous efforts, which we accepted because we had lower standards back then…and because we were desperate for ‘Youth Market’ product, we have determined that you are lacking the suffici0ent depth and understanding necessary to make a movie.  Come back when you know something worth telling people, and we’ll give you a camera.” 

Such prejudicial proscriptions are nowhere to be seen, and I shall briefly explain why.

Will I get an argument if I assert that we live in a shallow cultural environment?  Can we label this assertion, as they say in Law & Order, “stipulated”?, meaning mutually agreed upon, precluding the necessity for further litigation?

Thank you.

Moving on then to the logical consequence of this agreement, which is the following:  When people – our example in this case being moviemakers – offer up shallow insights in a shallow culture, is the next thing to say not immediately


What the heck do you expect!?!

“I come from a time where people are too impatient to type out entire words when they text each other.  But when I communicate, I miraculously escape my historical context and express myself with the wisdom and understanding of Charles Dickens!”

That is not going to happen!

Okay, so Judd Apatow, superficial to the degree that he is unmistakably “A Man Of His Time”, makes This Is 40, and it’s messy – a loose-limbed recipe of post-embarrassment sex jokes, psychobabble, spontaneous improvisations of sibling warfare, struggles to connect with aging parents, a couple that continually alternates between fighting and making up – committing, not for me but for others, the unpardonable sin of delivering a movie that is arbitrary, inconclusive and relatively – because there are considerably more egregious examples –


There are no startling insights into character and motivation, no reverberating resolutions.  I’m not talking about cathartic “Aha!” moments.  Veteran therapists admit they almost never get any in their business.  And they’re trying for them. 

I am talking about those rare instances where you’re watching the people on the screen, and their exposed humanity rings a resonating bell.

“It’s all behavior!” some might complain, and actually do, within earshot.  “Apatow’s confusing people ‘doing things’ with penetrating understanding.”

That’s right.  The people on the screen are just “doing things.”  And they don’t understand them.  They try.  At one point near the end, the couple turning forty locked in a fitfully happy marriage, concludes that the whole thing is their parents’– specifically, their fathers’ – fault.    

To their monumental relief, they agree that they have finally found the elusive “Source of the  Nile” – the generating principle of their corrosive bickering:

We don’t hate each other.  We hate them!”

Sorry, not even close.

And, to me at least, it’s hilarious that they hug and make up because they actually believer they have found “The Answer.”

Closer to the heart of the matter – we learn from a “Q & A” after the screening that we went to – is a line in a scene that was deleted from the movie, where they’re at couple’s therapy, and one of them says, “Sometimes, I think we are ‘this close’ to saying the thing we could say so we’d never fight again, but we never get there.”  Apatow edited that scene out, he explained, because that, to him was the subtext of the movie, and he did not need it spelled out. 

I worked with Judd Apatow on The Larry Sanders Show.  When he rose to prominence, I imagined offering my services as an experienced “story structure”, as I generally found his movies to be deficient in “narrative momentum”, and I believed I could help.

After watching This Is 40, I realized that what I know how to do would be of little value to him.  Judd Apatow has his own way.  It’s sloppier, but, in its hodgepodge assembly of seemingly random comedy bits and accumulated behaviors, satisfying.  And even – if you define the term differently than it is generally defined – cohesive. 

A mosaic, rather than a portrait.

Let these observations not be confused with me letting a guy off the hook – “If it’s funny, nothing else matters.”  It is not that at all.  Judd Apatow tells his story utilizing an idiosyncratic structure, and, though it is not my “Structure of Choice” – it’s free-form arrangement contrasting the classic storytelling format I grew up with – he gets there. 

Proof that it works?  An audience in great numbers, their sensory apparatus in sync with his true-to-life-feeling “M.O.” lining up for tickets.

It may, in fact, be shallow.  But if you deliver your project as truthfully as you can, your shallowness uninhibtedly resonating with “the times”, and you get laughs along the way…

Sorry, folks.

But that’s a good movie.

And by the way, apparently not that deep myself

I liked it too. 


GRayR said...

Nice one today Earl,
I particularly liked the paragraph consisting of one sentence. The one beginning -
"Okay, so Judd Apatow, . . . "
I don't think an Einstein of English could diagram that sentence. No shallow there.

As an Engineer my writing skills . . . kinda suck. I just throw periods, and commas, about with abandon; and I do like to show off with a semi-colon now and then.
We won't talk about spelling.

Thanks again for the great morning read.

Histirex 2929 said...

What happened to the Lewis buh-buh-buh-Black follow-up?

Mac said...

I can imagine I'd like it. I don't see how you could hate Judd Apatow films, but I don't see how you could love them either. They're neither shallow enough to be full-on funny, or deep enough to be insightful - they're always three stars out of five. "The 40 Year Old Virgin" came closest to being totally funny without trying to be meaningful.
I can honestly look at my old Steve Martin/Woody Allen/Peter Sellers etc films and say I love them like old friends. I can look at Judd Apatow films and say I liked them - they passed the time enjoyably (usually to much time but hey...) but I've no desire to watch them again.