Sunday, February 04, 2007

Emotion porn: the male version of chick flicks

The outlines of this story should be familiar. You may be a young man somewhere in your late 20s and early 30s who left home to attain financial and career success in a difficult industry. (In Good Company; Garden State) You don't see your parents often (provided that they're healthy and alive), your childhood friends are far away and your love life is unsatisfying. Doubts crop into your mind and you wonder whether it's all been worth it -- all of the hard work and the disproportionate achievement. Poised to accomplish everything that you wanted, you can't escape the gnawing doubt that you've lost touch with yourself.

Or maybe you're an older man -- a creative type -- going through mid-career anxiety about your work and life (Lost in Translation; Wonder Boys) and a fear that the well has run dry.

Fortunately, help is on the way. You may have a troupe of quirky friends who resurface to remind you of who you really are (Beautiful Girls; Wonder Boys; Grosse Pointe Blank). Alternatively, there may be a freespirited but unattainable girl (Natalie Portman; Scarlett Johansen; Katie Holmes) several years younger than yourself (Garden State, Beautiful Girls, In Good Company, Lost in Translation, Wonder Boys). The two of you flirt and share a mutual attraction, but for whatever reason (marriage; age difference; job complications; conscience) you never consummate, and if you do (In Good Company), the moment will later be fondly recalled as a stepping stone in your path to redemption. But sex wasn't really the point, anyway. Maybe you share some adventures (karaoke, ice skating, literature convention, etc.) but what's critical is that at some point, she utters a truism that will prompt a small moment of clarity and a step in the path to self-actualization.

Or maybe you'll have beers with one of your buddies, who says something that helps you realize that you don't need to worry about impressing the phonies.

Your life comes into focus. At the end of the movie, maybe you have it all figured out. Or maybe the resolution is more ambiguous. The hero may just go back to the same bad habits that were bringing him low, but at least he had a moment of clarity and connectedness. Sometimes that's good enough.

I'm labeling these movies "emotion porn" because I find many of them deeply satisfying and a snapshot of the unattainable ideal. Wonder Boys and Lost in Translation are the class of the group and the most canny about human behavior. They're also not the archetypes. In Good Company and Garden State are the archetypes.

I can't pass over In Good Company when it's on HBO. It's unchallenging and simple. I like that there are no clear bad guys, and that Topher Grace isn't whiny as much as he is bewildered. He can't quite figure out how he ended up where he is. The close of the movie is close to the ideal, with the protagonist having left a miserable job and running on the beach while talking on the phone with his former mentor. Garden State, by contrast, is insufferable. Zach Braff's ennui is over-the-top, and so is Natalie Portman's aspirational quirkiness.

"We are soggy, and quite sensitive."

It always seemed to me like Grosse Pointe Blank was a marginal move that tacked these lessons onto a bad imitation of the violent dark comedies that Jonathan Demme used to make (Something Wild; Married to the Mob) before he made Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia and lost his sense of fun.

What all of these movies have in common is this central thesis about needing to escape prestige and status in order to be happy. A walk through recent comedy history shows that this theme is highly unusual.

The Secret of My Success, broadcasting this month on HBO, is the radical opposite of emotion porn, and a deranged celebration of corporate excess to boot. It's terrible. A small-town boy from Kansas (Michael J. Fox) comes to New York dreaming of climbing to the top of the corporate ladder. He gets a mailroom job and then begins masquerading as an executive. Along the way he fucks his uncle's wife in a poolhouse -- her husband is the CEO, and she offers to give him "a leg up" within the company. He says that no, he'll make it on his own, and then begins a romance with a Harvard MBA played by the zombie-like Helen Slater. After previously refusing his aunt's offer for help, the climax of the movie is made possible only when she introduces him to various Wall Street tycoons who back our hero's tender offer to take over the company. (Hypocrisy No. 1: Although the movie seems to celebrate self-made success, our hero's achievements are possible only through auntfucking and family connections.) And although he aspires to do the right thing by the company, his first act as CEO is to engage in corporate fraud and self-dealing by telling corpse-imitating Helen Slater that they'll take the corporate jet out to Kansas to meet his folks. (Hypocrisy No. 2: A movie calling for corporate responsibility concludes with a violation of law.) As the credits roll, Pat Benatar sings an atrocity called "Sometimes Good Guys Finish First," with the first lines, "s-u-c-c-e-s-s, that is how we spell success."

A corpse-lady confronts Michael J. Fox.

The Secret of My Success
is another movie that I almost never skip. I've Tivo'd it at least twice. Creatively and morally, it misfires on every level. Fox's character is supposed to be plucky and lovable, but mostly he comes off as an arrogant asshole who demeans people in meetings. If I had to work with this guy, I would try to destroy him with every fiber of my being.

Now, The Secret of My Success is the perfect foil for the emotion porn classics, but a lot of legitimately good 1980s comedies have the same philosophy. Risky Business is about making a buck, getting laid and getting into Princeton. Working Girl (easily the best chick flick ever made and the smarter cousin of The Secret of My Success) celebrates mergers and acquisitions and getting the corner office. Revenge of the Nerds is about getting laid and getting revenge, and ultimately getting ahead of slicker football guys. The canon of John Hughes classics (and Weird Science in particular) celebrates higher social status as the ultimate life goal. As emotion porn reflects the self-help era, the best comedies of the '80s celebrate ladder-climbing. (Big is a notable exception.)

If you go back a little earlier -- to Animal House and Caddyshack -- the key ideal wasn't the tangible successes of the 80s or the inner satisfaction of the 90s and 00s, but the counterculture-infused idea that anarchy equals liberation. (The Witches of Eastwick, which was made in 1987 straddles a line between chick flick and flat-out awesomeness, has a similar view of the world.) In this respect, they all owe a huge debt to the great Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup. These were movies about upending class distinctions and assigned social roles -- celebrations of extreme self-expression and the joy of chaos.

And while I'm being an amateur comedy genealogist, it bears noting that emotion porn generally but Lost in Translation and Wonder Boys in particular are more cheerful reworkings of Woody Allen's Manhattan: dissatisfied man gains insight from failed romances with one much younger woman and one quirky, freespirited woman. In the last scene, Mariel Hemingway plays a kid who knows more about life and sympathy than the middle-aged protagonist. He thought that he was an exploiter, but really, he was the student.

Separate and apart from emotion porn's underlying philosophy that money and tangible success are not particularly good things is its underlying queasiness with sex. If it happens at all, it's part of a responsible relationship on the road to enlightenment. Compare Lost in Translation to the idiotic 1984 movie Blame it On Rio (an older man in a foreign city with a much younger woman) or In Good Company (gentle, slightly guilty sex) to The Secret of My Success (auntfucking, zombiehelenslaterfucking, wackiness).

Typical sex scene, circa 2003.

Even outright sex comedies like Wedding Crashers, American Pie and The 40-Year Old Virgin are more about lessons in love than having fun and getting laid.

If Animal House were made today, Eric Stratton really would have been in love with Fawn Liebowitz. Shelly Dubinsky would come along to teach him about life, and his quirky but lovable fraternity brothers would realize that they shouldn't worry about getting kicked off campus, since life is about more than college degrees and the success that could come with it.

Now Idiocracy comes along with an even higher moral purpose. If emotion porn is about quiet self-fulfillment, Idiocracy manages to be hilarious while imploring people to be altruistic and intelligent.

In conclusion, 1.) we're all pussies, 2.) money and success are bad, 3.) emotion porn gives us false hope that someday we'll wise up and reject it, 4.) chaste flirtation > sex, and 5.) it is high time for someone talented to film an anarchic and guilt-free sex comedy.

8 comments:

Flop said...

This is a highly ambitious _ and ultimately successful _ post.

That said, I'll remember it for introducing "auntfucking" to the lexicon. Time to update the CSB urban dictionary.

CrimeNotes said...

I previously used the word "auntfucking" in a post about the ridiculousness TSoMS. In fact, we are already the No. 1 google hit for "auntfucking.

Crunk Raconteur said...

I suggest an edit. To wit, I think this needs an "auntfucking" label.

"Labels: Movies, Zombies, Auntfucking"

Passion of the Weiss said...

this is one of the smartest things I've read on the Internet in a long time. It now has given me a more tightly focused purpose in life. Thank you.

crimenotes said...

Jeff -- occasionally, a person writes something with an ideal reader in mind. For this one, you were the ideal reader.

Rap Jack Bauer said...

This was simply marvelous. I too happened to catch "Secret of my Success" on HBO the other day and wondered why Michael J. had no problem banging his aunt but then didn't want a corporate reach around from her. This was the 80s--people were doing anything to advance in the era of slick-haired greed. He already committed mild incest; the least he could do was making a couple million in return.

Great post.

Flop said...

Whereas now, during Gilded Age II: Electric Bugaloo, no one is taking desperate measures in the name of ambition and greed.

crimenotes said...

Thanks very much, Jack. I appreciate it.