I Defy You, Ira Glass
By Josh Rosenblatt,
5:23PM, Thu. Oct. 16, 2008
Well, that makes two of us who think I have a dumb philosophy on life. But I've been on this planet 32 years now, and it's all I've managed to come up with, so I think I'll stick with it until something better (and even more displeasing to you) comes along. Then I'll have two philosophies on life I can choose from depending on which better serves my purposes under any given circumstance. In the words of the immortal Groucho Marx (who, I don't know if I've mentioned yet, I'm a great fan of): "These are my principles; if you don't like them, I have others."
Here's the great thing about movies. Try as we might to write off our affection for them as simply matters of aesthetic whim or tonal affection or adrenal response, when it comes right down to it, the films we love are the films that speak to us on a fundamental, philosophical level. Whether they introduce us to new ways of looking at the world or simply back up the ways we've already stumbled upon, the movies that move us are the movies that provide us the greatest understanding of ourselves. Either the selves we are or the selves we want to be. And, of course, what we want to be says as much about who we are as who we are does. Or not. Who am I to say?
The same goes for books, plays, songs, poems, paintings, and radio shows. For example, This American Life, with its clever, self-deprecating little tales of white, middle-class foibles and monotone nostalgia, drives me nuts. All those hushed voices and ironic asides, all that self-effacing charm and opinion-free observation, all that asexualized sweetness, all that liberal delicacy and self-conscious quirkiness - makes me wanna holler. The older I get, the less patience I'm able to muster for the quiet desperation of the charmingly insecure chattering classes. What's wrong with being grabbed by the throat, or grabbing others by the throat? With giving voice to the devils inside rather than trying to miniaturize them with literary allusion and dispassion disguised as ironic post-modern affectation? With shouting our opinions to the sky? With grabbing our measly little socially acceptable worries and insecurities and shaking them around until they grow into enormous untamable beasts. At least then they'll provide us with some energy, some fuel, something of substance that we can use. Climbing into the ring and jabbing at our regrets and disappointments for 15 rounds strikes me as a self-destructive waste of time. They're tiny little demons, but they'll eventually eat you alive with imperceptible bites. You won't even realize you're dead until you wake up one day to find yourself writing your own precious little obituary for McSweeney's.
This is what I think of when I watch movies by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach (The Squid & the Whale) and David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls) - those screenwriters of infinite melancholy. It's not that their movies are bad (some of them are great, actually), but staying too long in their presence makes the world feel small to me. As small as my mind, to be exact. They make me believe that the mental facility where I've stored my collected slights, disappointments, defeats, miseries, childhood traumas, and adult rejections is actually the world entire. And I may be arrogant, but I'm not arrogant enough to believe my mind is the world. Not yet, anyway.
Wilson, Baumbach, and Green are caught in a cycle of perpetual mopiness, constantly returning ... returning ... returning ... to mine their childhoods and their nostalgia and their old dreams for cinematic gold. And, as a consequence, the heroes in their movies are on quests that take them not to distant lands or into real danger or out on any real limbs but only to the boundaries of their own heads. It's narcissism without the fun, solipsism without the deviance, psychotherapy without the sex.
It's the New American Wave: Commiseration Filmmaking! The triumph of quirk, nostalgia, self-doubt, deadpan, delicate framing and delicate emotions, of life lived at a safe distance, of shame and self-loathing.
Me, I'll take the New Latin American Wave: City of God, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Amorres Perros. Like the Italians in the late Sixties and early Seventies (I'm thinking The Good, The Bad, & the Ugly; I'm thinking Burn! [Even the trailer for Burn! is a kick in the teeth]), this new vanguard of Latin American artists is making movies that practically explode off the screen; their colors can't be contained. They're loud and brash and boisterous and violent and sexual and overwrought and half-baked and exploitative and huge and fantastic. They're movies of energy, movies of life. Which doesn't mean they're not sad or depressing, that they don't plumb the depths of human insecurity, disenchantment, and self-sabotage. It's just that they do it in such a way that celebrates those depths as part and parcel of the whole show. What else are we humans if not beasts cursed with self-awareness struggling for some kind of meaning, creating entire civilizations, entire artistic movements, entire philosophical movements, entire universes of action to try to make for ourselves a little sense out of what is essentially senseless?
(And since you mentioned Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh once said the reason he wanted to make a movie about Gilbert and Sullivan is that he was fascinated by the idea of so much intellectual, artistic, and physical effort going into the creation of absolute nonsense.)
You tell me that recognizing and accepting our weaknesses and flaws isn't enough, that we have to work to right them and improve them. I don't think you're wrong. I just think that in the meantime, while we're vying against ourselves and trying to turn ourselves into better versions of ourselves, we should be celebrating the versions of ourselves that we are. It's the choice between two roads: one of melancholic detachment, the other of boisterous immersion.
Both roads, by the way, end at the same place.