Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Puffy Chair, Human Frailty and the Foolish Belief That We Are All the Same

I tend to praise good movies at the expense of lesser ones. It is not so much that I must build a hierarchy; I just find that comparing and contrasting works that are ostensibly similar, whether in terms of subject matter or style, helps me to pinpoint with greater clarity the achievements of the better film. In part this is a reaction against the film I view as the lesser work, because often I find myself thinking about a mediocre film, “such-and-such thinks this film is gritty and real; this film isn’t gritty and real; it’s trite and clichéd.” My naïve reaction is that if said critic had seen the better film, he or she would recognize it as such and stop saying such glowing things about the lesser film. So part of the point of comparison and contrast is to expose superficiality. For instance, if I say that The Puffy Chair shows us things about ourselves that we would rather not see, another critic may accurately point out that Todd Solondz film, Happiness, does this too. So I would want to contrast the two films in greater detail, because I find the work of the Duplass brothers more insightful, more meaningful, more honest and ultimately better, than the films of Solondz. I use Happiness as a point of reference because it seems to fail at showing exactly the things The Puffy Chair illuminates.
(I apologize for the extra exposition. It is just that comparing an object you think is mediocre with one you think is brilliant is frowned upon in academia, so I feel like I need to explain myself on this matter, and it possibly leads to over-explanation.)

The Duplass brothers shine an embarrassing fluorescent light on the things about human personality beneath the façade of normality. Instead they give us the unconscious banality of our own real lives. Take the baby-talk, for instance. The movie begins with the couple, Josh and Emily talking to each other in this way, and it is more uncomfortable, because it is so familiar than any of the darkness that comes from the shock effects of Solondz and the like (Sam Mendes, Paul Thomas Anderson, Paul Haggis, etc.). This is the kind of thing we, and I am speaking of a cultural, “we,” here, do not want to see. We want to see the deep, disturbing secrets that other people are hiding from us, especially if those secrets are violent or sexual – all the better if they are both! We do not, under any circumstances, want to be shown ourselves, and to be reminded of how superficial and trite we are on a daily basis in front of the people we love.

To achieve that honesty requires great acting, and The Puffy Chair succeeds as far as the actors take it. For whatever reason, the “dark” directors are always given credit for the great performances turned in by their actors. But the characters in their films act nothing at all like real people. They are one-dimensional caricatures of human frailty; they are grotesques and not multi-layered personalities. Consider that a movie like Happiness has to have scenes like the one where the dumpy, uncomfortable protagonist finds his way to the apartment of his dumpy, uncomfortable neighbor where she admits to him that after being raped by the maintenance man, she killed him and cut his body up. Why do we need to imagine such outrageous, inhuman things in order to make humanity interesting? The Puffy Chair shows that regular people fighting about regular stuff can be just as interesting, more interesting, in fact, because it proximity to reality might mean that one actually learns from it.

I take it as unequivocal proof of the truth in the performances that I had to reassure my wife that the Josh was just a boyfriend as Emily was a girlfriend. She kept telling me that she didn’t want to identify with her. Exactly. I don’t want to identify with him either, but that doesn’t make him any less real. Not liking him doesn’t prevent me from seeing myself in about 95% of the things he does. I have asked my wife a hundred times, “Do we have to talk about this now? I’m trying to sleep now.” It is easier to think you learned something from a movie when you feel superior to it. The reality is that if you leave a movie confident and reassured, you probably didn’t learn a thing.

I want to say that great art should shatter you, but it should do something else too, and that something else is what I think is missing from The Puffy Chair. The acting and story-line, let us say the spirit of the film reminds me of Cassavetes or Mike Leigh. What those two do that the Duplass brother do not, is show us some positive humanity. Josh in terrible to Emily and Emily is terrible to Josh. Though there is a fleeting tender moment between them at Rhett and Amber’s wedding, it is quickly sullied. In a general way, it feels like there is too much pressure on that moment, not within the context of the narrative, but too much aesthetic pressure as if the fact that they have a relationship at all hinges on Josh’s performance of that song. Let me be clear. This aspect of the film troubles me. I am still turning it over. It does not hurt the work; it does not ruin the work. It could be that they are trying to show me something I don’t want to see so I am resisting with my demands to see a little happiness.

Bonus Polemic
In the distance I hear an angry mob of white college girls who just read their first Gilligan essay. In a chorus they accuse me of propagating more straight-white-male bullshit. The only truth in this movie is that it shows you how the straight white male filmmakers think about women and relationships. It doesn’t tell us anything about women. It doesn’t mean anything to people of color or gay people.

(Never mind that many my accusers, who are so weary of hearing what sensitive white boys have to say, what break their cervixes to spread their legs for Conor Oberst. And I like his music too, I’m just saying: be aware that you have a double-standard.)

I can only tell you what I saw in the movie. My assumption is that people of all races and sexual preferences have the same kind of problems as the couple in this movie. If they have different problems, then let a gay filmmaker or a black filmmaker or a female filmmaker make a movie that shows me this. White college girls, is that so much to ask? It’s just that when I see a good movie by someone who is supposedly not me, I am struck by how the movie is about me. Su Friedrich’s Rules of the Road is about me. It’s not about lesbians; it’s about couples and how their love fades and turns into all kinds of other terrible, painful feelings.