Posts Tagged ‘Judd Apatow’

‘Funny People’ = socially conservative?

August 10, 2009

Today I was hoping to post a link to the review of Funny People that I wrote for the Daily Cardinal last week but, after a brief return this weekend, the DC’s website has slipped back into an apparent coma. I do apologize, though it actually may be for the better, in the sense that my review will become public property only after many if not most have already seen the film; after all, criticism is just as much about intervening in and transforming the pre-existent discussion surrounding a work of art as it is about telling the public whether or not they ought to bother with said work of art. OK, rationalization: check.

But in the meantime, NY Times columnist and self-identified conservative Ross Douthat has picked up my slack, sort-of-kind-of reviewing Funny People in his column today. Douthat loves the film because of its effectiveness as a morality play, and I agree that the moralism of Funny People is one of the film’s most salient elements. However, Douthat reads the film’s moralism as agreeing with the values of contemporary social conservatism (‘‘This time, doing the right thing has significant costs — but you have to do it anyway. This time, doing the wrong things for too long has significant consequences — and you have to live with them. It’s the first Apatow film in which love doesn’t conquer all. And it’s the first Apatow film in which you get punished for your sins.”). He extends this argument to include Apatow’s first two films, Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, claiming that the former film is essentially pro-life and the latter is essentially pro-… virginity?

What Douthat doesn’t seem to care about is whether the films themselves actually substantiate his arguments that they’re pro-life, pro-abstinence, and so on. Sure, Steve Carell ends up getting with Catherine Keener by the end of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but only after a series of absurdly unpleasant experiences, none of which would be desirable to anyone, even someone who owns an extensive action figure collection. Sure, Katherine Heigl is rewarded by the end of Knocked Up for her decision to keep the baby, but her relatively sexually liberated lifestyle is antithetical to the conservative values that it’s supposedly vindicating. The stories told in Apatow’s films must be characterized as inherently secular; like it or not, religiosity is a key component of contemporary conservative morality. Furthermore, Douthat’s argument seems to posit ‘guilt’ and ‘responsibility’ as uniquely conservative feelings, which is a slick rhetorical move on his part, yet it’s also a totally ridiculous notion.

But why play ‘interpretation wars’ when we can simply follow the money? Apatow has consistently contributed to Democratic causes, including the campaigns of a certain socialist/Kenyan/racist/president, a phony war hero, and Howard Dean, among others. Obviously this doesn’t mean that Apatow isn’t a conservative at heart, but any attempt to construct him as one of our era’s great conservative artists amounts to a house of cards. The tricky thing about connecting a work of art to the left or to the right, unless the work has some explicit ideological affiliation (like Brecht, for example), is that it’s usually either the opposite or none of the above.

Dialectical Apatow

August 5, 2009

So I’m reading this week’s issue of The Onion, and in the AV Club there’s an interview with Funny People writer/director Judd Apatow. My review of Funny People will be up on the Daily Cardinal’s website shortly, but until then, I think that what Apatow says in this interview illuminates some of contradictions at the heart of his work.

Throughout the interview Apatow presents himself as an artist rather than as a manager of talent. He explains that while making a film he’s very mindful of how test audiences respond to the work-in-progress: “And if they tell me I hate it, I try to figure out what I’ve done wrong. But every time out, the audience wants me to go deeper […] they don’t want these movies to be shallow. So they really urge me to tell them a complicated story, and then when I do so, they’re thrilled.” Here we have Apatow the artist who creates not for some ideal audience, but rather for an audience that actually participates in the development of the film through their responses to test screenings. Sounds great and democratic, right?

Later, in recounting a story about eating lunch with Warren Zevon, Apatow says that he’s been very influenced by Zevon’s attitude about artistic production: “I told him about a screenplay I wrote, and I was telling him how I was waiting for the notes to come in from the sudio, and I said ‘Hopefully they’ll like it.’ He said, ‘Why do you care if they like it? Why would you listen to their notes?’ Because he came at everything as an artist, it wasn’t about what anyone else thought. He was the person who was toughest [on Zevon’s own work], and it actually shamed me into really being much tougher about my work, and not making concessions.” Here we have Apatow the artist who is less than comfortable bending over backward to please corporate strawmen. But don’t these studio suits stand to profit from listening to the opinions of the test audiences who Apatow is looking to please? I don’t mean to seem critical for the sake of being critical, but I think the dialectic going on here is really intriguing. Apatow basically constructs himself as an artist who doesn’t care what others think of his work, except for the times when he does. Suits = bad, layman test audience = good; ‘absolutely no concessions’ is married to ‘sure, I’ll take your thoughts into consideration’.

Finally, Apatow concludes the interview with this remarkable nugget: “I like to make movies the way people made movies in the ‘70s, where they lived and died with these stories, and cared about them, and went to war for them, and they all said something they wanted to say. And I do think there’s a way to do that while making thoughtful comedies. You can do that and it doesn’t have to be about the Communist Revolution.” Interesting that Apatow would bring up Marx, because Class is actually at the center of some of my own thoughts about Funny People, as y’all will see soon enough. The rest of the interview is available here.