Saturday, April 04, 2015

Immaturity is hard to get into proper perspective

So, I was reading Giles Fraser's Guardian Easter column about Christianity being "a religion for losers" (you know, the first shall be last, etc; a not very controversial point, I would have thought, but it did bring out the Guardian atheists in droves - surely there is no paper on the planet with a more devoted atheistic readership), which led me to look at his earlier piece contemplating virtual reality paedophelia, in which he shares this:
And I have blown away my fair share of baddies in Call of Duty (cathartic relaxation for a vicar sick of having to be professionally nice).
Amusing.  You have to wonder a bit about what "cathartic" experiences celibate Catholic priests find over the internet, but let's not go there today.*

Back to the story.  I then read this opinion piece about the death of "bromance" films - inspired by the Will Ferrell film "Get Hard," which does sound genuinely terrible and retrograde.   And that led me back to a long, long piece by movie critic AO Scott in the New York Times last year.  I think I started reading it then, but didn't finish it. 

Scott's piece, entitled The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,  covers a lot of territory, noting that the big hits of TV drama over the last decade (none of which I have watched at length, incidentally, but who can avoid reading about them?) - The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad - are about male competence coming undone - the death of patriarchy, really.  Seems a valid enough point.

The next paragraph is key:
 This slow unwinding has been the work of generations. For the most part, it has been understood — rightly in my view, and this is not really an argument I want to have right now — as a narrative of progress. A society that was exclusive and repressive is now freer and more open. But there may be other less unequivocally happy consequences. It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.
Now, this is where it gets tricky.  As Scott writes:
In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.
Meanwhile, television has made it very clear that we are at a frontier. Not only have shows like “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men” heralded the end of male authority; we’ve also witnessed the erosion of traditional adulthood in any form, at least as it used to be portrayed in the formerly tried-and-true genres of the urban cop show, the living-room or workplace sitcom and the prime-time soap opera. Instead, we are now in the age of “Girls,” “Broad City,” “Masters of Sex” (a prehistory of the end of patriarchy)
Hmmm.  Let me start by noting that there can be both emotionally and intellectually quite mature "juvenile visions of the world", and terribly immature ones.   The suitability of a movie for a family audience says nothing about those qualities.  As for animation, the cultural example of Japan shows that there is nothing to be ashamed of in adults liking stories told in a graphic form, either on the page or animated.   And animation has reached levels of high art that pleases people of all ages.   Sure, you're not going to get too many adult angsty ones, but still, they represent a relatively small amount of movie output, and their general quality now is something to be celebrated, really.

The problem with the comic book superhero franchises, though, is the sameness of their themes, as well as the boring repetition of the computer generated action style which drains them of true thrills.  I'm also one of those people for whom their odd position between realism and  science fiction (what are they - sort of "fantasy science" science fiction?) usually makes them problematic at a plausibility level.   Still, there can be witty and engaging examples of the genre; but overall, yeah, they do have a "maturity" problem.

Surely the main example of the death of adulthood is the "arrested development" film, particularly the gross out ones with adult male protagonists.

To play devil's advocate, I suppose one could argue that Jerry Lewis built most of his career on the same theme 60 years ago; but his characters were usually  innocently naive of the ways of the world.   The modern version is, as the Guardian writers note, usually a promiscuous, slacker slob.

And while Scott notes the shows and movies about independent, sexually adventurous young women, he doesn't seem to quite mark them down as hard as he does the male equivalent,  even though he does acknowledge that they have their similarities:
The real issue, in any case, was never the ability of women to get a laugh but rather their right to be as honest as men.

And also to be as rebellious, as obnoxious and as childish. Why should boys be the only ones with the right to revolt? Not that the new girls are exactly Thelma and Louise. Just as the men passed through the stage of sincere rebellion to arrive at a stage of infantile refusal, so, too, have the women progressed by means of regression. After all, traditional adulthood was always the rawest deal for them.
But stepping back a bit, what is it that marks immaturity anyway?   It's clear that mere age is no guarantee of responsible adult behaviour in terms of sexual fidelity and child raising, at least.  Wisdom and respect for others can come with age, but it can be missing completely.

Scott does seem to approve of another writer's analysis that it often comes down to something that American literature tends to avoid: the adult theme of courtship and marriage.  And he then makes a point:
In the old, classic comedies of the studio era — the screwbally roller coasters of marriage and remarriage, with their dizzying verbiage and sly innuendo — adulthood was a fact. It was inconvertible and burdensome but also full of opportunity. You could drink, smoke, flirt and spend money. The trick was to balance the fulfillment of your wants with the carrying out of your duties.

The desire of the modern comic protagonist, meanwhile, is to wallow in his own immaturity, plumbing its depths and reveling in its pleasures. 
 It seems to me to be a reasonable argument - but why has protracted adolescence become such a "thing" in the West, at least?

Given that the rich have been always been able to be afford to be lazy party boys or girls - hello, Prodigal Son - the general rise in societal wealth might have something to do with it.  Effective and easy to use contraception and safe abortion makes protracted relationships with low risk of  responsibility inducing pregnancy much more common.  The increase in life expectancy probably also encourages people to have little sense of urgency as to forming what the participants consider a permanent relationship.   (My mother, born in 1923, used to say that as a child, she thought she would have lived a long life if she reached 50, or 60, tops.  Getting married at 19 made sense if war or disease always meant a short life was on the cards.)

One should also remember that fulfilling the responsibility of being a spouse and parent is hardly a conclusive sign of general moral worth - the Goebbels had cute looking kids, but it didn't end well.  (Joseph was having a Hitler accommodated affair from 1938, too.)

And it's not as if societies haven't previously fretted about the psychic corruption of its young men.  The book I've been reading about Hitler's World War 1 experience makes it very clear that there was a widespread view that a good war was just what was needed to get the German soul back on track, so to speak.  A military doctor is quoted as explaining:
"[War is] the only means by which we, as a nation, can be saved from physical and psychological lethargy and emasculation which are relentlessly threatening." 
 Or as a historian wrote:
Intellectuals, artists, and students, most notably the rebellious sons of Germany's educated middle class, valorised war as the repudiation of a bourgeois society that they condemned as decadent and overly materialistic; thousands of young men eagerly enlisted and zealously rushed off to the front, romanticising the danger and "vitality" of combat.
We now know the country may have been better served if the young men had been too busy on, well, whatever the equivalent was of staying indoors all day on Playstation in their parents' lounge, to bother enlisting.  In today's terms, who couldn't wish that there were more Islamic youths engaged in  illicit love affairs, rather than getting over their ennui by blowing themselves up in Syria in  expectation of the sensual pleasures in the afterlife.

The other thing is that, although I don't go to them, I take it that there is some sense of improvement in the male slacker by the end of these movies.  Even so, presenting them as loveable clowns for the first two acts probably makes any moral quite missable.

Perhaps that is the whole problem - making so many comedies about people who are commitment shy in love and self indulgent in everything gives them a quasi-endorsement.   It doesn't matter if the writer says that it's not intended - it happens anyway.  Writers can always claim they are reflecting society, not creating it, but if we're honest we all know it's really a hall of mirrors with two way influence. 

Despite all the reservations I've indicated, the coarseness of modern comedy, and the frequent themes in it and drama of neutral engagement with people who, in previous decades, would  have been called very morally dislikeable characters, is a matter of regret.   But it is so hard to talk about this without sounding like you're pining for something like the Hays Code for movie content.

No, I think we'd just all like to see more movies with responsible and basically moral characters who take life, sex and relationships seriously, and are that way from the start.

* I have to interrupt this narrative to once again complain about the messy way the likes of The Guardian and Slate now organise themselves.   Whereas it used to be clear that regular, professional journalists wrote opinion pieces in the opinion section, and Comment is Free seemed to be for anyone who wanted an occasional go at opinion (and was often more interesting for it), the Guardian on line just seems to jumble everything up together, although I still sometimes find myself in a Comment is Free section without knowing how I got there.  Searching for that as a section does not seem to work.   Even finding an opinion piece once can be rather hard to find again the same day.  And did Slate have the same web designers?   I take it this is all to do with a squillion readers now using their mobile phones  who can only scroll down through large lists of stories, and hate having to do one or two extra clicks that allow for a proper, logical branching of sections.   But jeez it annoys me, even when I am using my 7 inch tablet. 


TimT said...

You almost had me Steve, but I think by the time you conclude I find myself disagreeing.

Narrative art forms in general - stories, novels, plays, film - are about the getting of wisdom; they are not about the wisdom already being got.

The simplest plot device has always been to take a young character, plonk them in the world, and watch them get along. More complicated versions of the same plot see the character change in order to accommodate their changed circumstances. The best examples - Fieldings' Tom Jones, many of the novels of Dickens - really give you a sense of a full conversion of character, in the Christian sense - where the character first becomes worldly wise and then gains a deeper wisdom, a kind ethical intuition based on their past mistakes (and the good example of others).

The same basic model is still followed in movies. It *could* be the case that with a decline in Christianity has seen a decline in the more satisfying conversion narratives - ie, the sort that Dickens and Fielding could write - but the basic idea, that of a naive person put into the world and changing because of that experience - remains the same.

Steve said...

Yeah, I know that's true, Tim; and it's part of what makes this a tricky topic.

It's also hard for me to know what's really going on in these "arrested development" movies that AO Scott is complaining about - because I don't go to see them and don't really know to what extent any of the characters change by the end. I take it that in some of them (the Hangover movies, for example?) there is no change at all. It seems they are made just for the scatological humour to be found in men (and women) behaving badly.

And of course, not every movie has to feel like a lesson in ethics and maturity gained. But still, I'm not comfortable with the lack of any concern about "messaging" within Hollywood these days...