Monday, January 09, 2012

Young Adult: The Least Funny Comedy of 2011

I'm guessing I'm not the only one who saw the trailers for the new film Young Adult (directed by Up In The Air and Thank You For Smoking auteur Jason Reitman, penned by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody) and thought to myself: that looks really funny! I want to see it! I mean, I didn't expect The Hangover-funny or Caddyshack-funny or even Superbad-funny, but still, you know, "ha-ha" funny. I've seen the other films by Reitman and Cody, so I was fully aware that Young Adult wasn't going to make me guffaw. That's just not their style. What I love about them is that their's is a smart but dark humor, intentionally reflective in a way that capitalizes on the kind of recognition that Aristotle praised in tragedy and Hegel drew out of the hard heart of self-righteous self-consciousness. That's a difficult sort of "funny" to capture on film, but it's Reitman and Cody's bread-and-butter. There's just no denying that their films-- especially those, like Young Adult, that are marketed as "comedies"-- are funny, even if uncomfortably, ironically, sometimes pathetically, sometimes sardonically. So, on the basis of what I considered a semi-informed opinion, I went to see the film and expected it to meet my expectations.

You know, sometimes you're wrong, and sometimes you're WRONG. I have to say that I'm cataloging my expectations for Young Adult under the latter.

Just so you know, ALL the conventionally "funny" parts of Young Adult are right there in the trailer. Other than those scenes, this movie is about as funny as Apocalypse Now. (Oh, come on, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning"? Admit it, you had a few bad-faith chuckles in Apocalypse Now. Never get out of the boat.) In fact, if the Vietnam War took place in the psychic space of a late-thirties professional woman instead of on the Indochina Peninsula, and if the warring factions were that woman's pathologically-arrested and self-sabotaging developmental tendencies instead of the Americans and the VietCong-- and also if there was a better soundtrack-- Young Adult pretty much would BE the same film as Apocalypse Now. But maybe I exaggerate...

No, actually, I don't. Young Adult is the LEAST funny comedy I've ever seen. And, weirdly, the fact that it's marketed as a comedy (that "I-don't-think-that-word-means-what-you-think-it-means" dissonance) is exactly what makes Young Adult brilliant. Because I think this really is a brilliant film, I'm throwing out my usual rule about avoiding spoilers in the following. Not that that rule matters much, since the plot isn't the point in this film and, at any rate, you can pretty much glean the whole plot from the trailer.

First, you should be prepared for Young Adult's psychic, emotional and aesthetic assault from the moment you chomp down on your first mouthful of buttery popcorn. Reitman's opening 15 minutes unfold at a snail's pace-- a sedated, clinically depressed, probably hungover snail, that is. It's almost painful to watch. We see the film's protagonist, Mavis Gary (played by Charlize Theron), schlogging through existential minutiae in what appears to be a pharmaceutical haze. Partly because it's boring, partly because it's pathetic, but mostly because it's a little-too-familiar, Reitman's decision to depict the quotidian details of Mavis' life sans sonic salve makes the quietness of those scenes all the more foreboding. Even before the opening credits, Mavis has embarked on an as-yet-unexplained road trip to WhoKnowsWhere and, already, we've been given ample reason to decide that we probably don't want to come along. Despite the fact that the movie's soundtrack, as a whole, constitutes a pretty impressive homage to 90's nostalgia, Young Adult nevertheless feels disturbingly quiet for most of its duration. In fact, there's only one really prominent song in the whole film, Teenage Fanclub's "The Concept," which Mavis plays over and over on a cassette tape in her roadtripping car and which has the unbelievably inappropriate-for-the-film chorus "I didn't want to hurt you oh yeah / I didn't want to hurt you oh yeah."

Fair warning, moviegoers: don't believe that chorus for a second. Mavis Gary (AND Reitman AND Cody) want to hurt you. And they're going to do it.

The credit for that hurt is due, first and foremost, to scriptwriter Diablo Cody (née Brook Busey). In other interviews, Cody has said of Young Adult's arrested development storyline:
I felt like there were a lot of movies out there about the man-child. It had become a kind of genre unto itself. Everybody thinks the man-child is so funny and cuddly and lovable, but I thought there’s something sinister and disturbing about a woman who’s in the same place... I believe in just having as many representations as possible of women onscreen … good, bad, shitty, whatever. There just needs to be volume.
There's certainly no volume-shortage of the "bad, shitty, whatever" woman here, though precious little of the "good" one. Unlike she did for Juno, Diablo Cody pens absolutely no redemption for the young adult Mavis. Audiences may be able to indulge their desire/need to pull for Mavis even in spite of Mavis' first gross demonstration of self-centered solipsism, maybe also after the second, more reluctantly after the third and fourth... but Cody just doesn't let up. She keeps those demonstrations coming with relentless emotional brutality, like a jock's proper junior high beat-down of the nerd du jour. Cody's Mavis is pathetic, pathological, embarrassing, cringe-worthy. (Even when she's being sympathetic, as she supposedly is in her so-awkward-it-hurts sex scene with her own high-school nerd du jour, the crippled Matt Freehauf, played brilliantly by Patton Oswalt.) It's not that this "bad, shitty, whatever" woman doesn't inspire sympathy (even, for some of us, empathy), it's just that she's what we might call-- to borrow Nietzsche's phrase-- "human, all too human." That is to say, Mavis is profoundly broken, like some badly played, dive-bar-cover-band version of a really great song, the one that physically hurts you to hear. Mavis is needy, she's lonely, she's morally and metaphysically insubstantial, she's painfully and painfully recognizably vulnerable. She fails as a matter of character. She has failed her family, her partners, her friends, her dreams, her potential and, as the story goes, herself... but she's utterly blind to all of these weaknesses. So, she doubles-down on her superficial, ephemeral strengths (good looks, professional semi-accomplishment, fading high school social cachet) whenever her weaknesses are exposed, and the consequence is always-- every time-- that her doubling-down is a bad bet.

Mavis is such a tragically sad and unlikable character that I can't help but think that Reitman and Cody made this movie for her. The whole film feels like an intervention. (And if you've ever watched the television series "Intervention," you know how hard it is to watch such things.) That's a credit to this otherwise painful story, in my estimation, and I want to be the first to thank Cody and Reitman for it, because there are a whole lot of Mavis's out there in the world. They've been mindlessly and recklessly crashing about on the pinball-bumpers of life for a long time without an artist to tell their stories honestly and sympathetically, even if their stories don't inspire much sympathy. So, kudos to Reitman and Cody for giving us a warts-and-all picture of "bad, shitty, whatever" women.

There are a lot of them/us.

Don't see Young Adults if you're looking for a laugh, or a grown-up version of Juno, or a less-depressing relay of Up In The Air. Reitman and Cody are in their sweet spot in this film, which is an uncomfortably un-sweet spot, as it should be. There's nothing comfortable or pretty or, to be honest, sympathetic about being broken like Mavis Gary is broken. And/yet/but, as Derrida was fond of saying, those women are still among us and they need our sympathies. Even when-- nay, especially when-- they're unsympathetic, when they're hard to watch, when they're hard to love or even like, when they're embarrassing. As much as I hate myself for it, I feel for Mavis in Young Adult because, at the end of the day, there is no such thing as a "young adult." You're young or you're an adult.

And never the twain shall meet.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Problem with Forbidden Knowledge

Over on the NewAPPS blog, which is becoming a more and more excellent philosophy blog by the day, Eric Schliesser has authored a provocative (and provocatively brief) post asking whether or not we need a professional code of ethics for philosophers. Schliesser's question was prompted by the recent publication of two books-- one that condones torture and the other that condones the disenfranchisement of ignorant voters (in both cases, Schliesser adds, "with qualifications, of course")-- leading him to wonder whether we philosophers ought to collectively disavow the sorts of arguments about which there is a negative moral consensus. As an example of "arguments that are not treated as worthy of consideration" currently by philosophers-- other than arguments that are obviously trivial-- Schliesser offers those "exploring subtle distinctions that can help illuminate the inherent moral inferiority of some ethnic group." I think we are meant to presume that Schliesser (implicitly) judges arguments that "condone torture" or the "disenfranchisement of ignorant voters" as worthy of the same moral opprobrium with which we currently regard pseudo-scientific and manifestly racist arguments, and I think we are meant to presume that any argument morally equivalent to those would be the target for Schliesser's putative Philosophical Code of Ethics. The problem is, of course, that Schliesser's comparisons are more equivocal than equivalent for many (if not most) philosophers. How do we determine which arguments rise to the level of philosophical "taboos"? Schliesser suggests that "disciplinary moral consensus" is likely a necessary, even if not a sufficient, condition for delegating a certain philosophical topic taboo. But, again, it's evident even to Schliesser that disciplinary moral consensus is very difficult to locate.

Interestingly, the main point of Schliesser's post seems to be to elucidate the sometimes "very pernicious policy consequences" of philosophic activity. He suggests that most philosophers likely wouldn't sign on to a professional code of ethics like that of engineers, which obligates engineers first and foremost to "hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public." Why not? Because the "safety, health and welfare of the public" is not the paramount virtue of philosophic activity. Schliesser writes (my hotlinks added):
Let me offer two (controversial) examples: i) a great deal of philosophic sophistication is regularly deployed in order to clarify the doctrine of double effect. In practice the main function of the principle, however elegant, is to be a rhetorical fig-leaf to let politicians and generals morally off-the-hook for atrocious deeds. ii) Plenty of prominent philosophers are engaged in projects that facilitate the development of causal discovery software to be used in expert systems with the (foreseeable) dual use to fight, say, cancer or annihilate enormous number of innocent people deemed enemy by the government (etc.).

Should we be more willing to hold each other responsible for the foreseeable public impact of our words or shared standards?
So, in the case of the principle of double effect, Schliesser rightly notes that the products of philosophic activity quite often provide excuses for morally objectionable acts. In the second case, Schliesser worries that too many philosophers are willing to under-emphasize or overlook problems endemic to causal discovery algorithms-- e.g., the problem of ignorance and the problem of inconsistency-- in effect providing philosophical sanction for the development of systems that are predictably antithetical to the "safety, health and welfare of the public" (even if the "double effect" of those systems is positive). He asks: should we be more willing to hold each other responsible for the foreseeable public impact of our words or shared standards?

I can't imagine that many philosophers would answer "no" to Schliesser's question. That general agreement notwithstanding, I also can't imagine that many philosophers would agree to the formulation of a Professional Code of Ethics of the sort that Schliesser seems to want, either. As he notes, there are several categories of arguments that professional philosophers might have a collective professional interest in disavowing. To make things clearer, let's say they're of three general sorts:
  • Untrue Arguments, which may or may not also be morally objectionable. For example, "some ethnic groups are inherently inferior."
  • Trivial Arguments, which are not morally objectionable, but rather which tend to (in Schliesser's words) "diminish the beauty or elegance or worthiness of an argument."
  • Arguments with Foreseeably Negative Policy Implications. I imagine that arguments that "condone" torture in exceptional circumstances, like the infamous "ticking time-bomb" scenario, would be examples of this sort.
Obviously, there are already more general practices and rules of Academia in place (like graduate training and peer-review) that safeguard against philosophers engaging in manifestly untrue arguments or poorly executed ones. So, a Professional Code of Ethics wouldn't be needed for those. It's the third category that's Schliesser's real concern here, and for good reason. Unfortunately, I just don't think there's an Ethical Code that could do what he wants it to do.

Let me say that I am completely sympathetic with Schliesser's concerns. I think he lays them out well, and I think his examples (in the comments section, which is expanding even as I write this) of philosophic activity with deeply problematic policy implications are spot-on. Here's my issue: what would the putative Philosophers' Ethical Code forbid? Let's return to the general principles of the Engineering Ethics Code for a moment. They are as follows:
  1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.
  2. Engineers shall perform services only in areas of their competence.
  3. Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  4. Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, and shall avoid conflicts of interest.
  5. Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others.
  6. Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession and shall act with zero-tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption.
  7. Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers, and shall provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision.
Principles 2-7 could easily be adopted by professional Philosophers (with the possible exception of 4 which doesn't have much purchase for client-less philosophers). In fact, they would likely be adopted without much objection, as I'm guessing they're already accepted as general practice. But adopting any or all of those first seven principles wouldn't assuage Schliesser's concerns. It's some variation on the engineers' First Principle that we need for that. Presuming, as I think we must, that there are many good reasons to pursue philosophical arguments that do not serve the safety, health and welfare of the public, we have two options for those arguments: either (1) keep them "secret" from the public, or (2) trust "the public" to do with them what they will.

I'm not sure what could possibly serve as the First Principle for a Professional Philosopher's Code of Ethics that wouldn't amount to something like declaring "forbidden knowledge." Many years ago, I attended a lecture by my (at that time) dissertation advisor, John D. Caputo, where he was asked to answer the question: is there such a thing as "forbidden" knowledge? Jack answered "no"-- not because there aren't some questions that, if pursued to their philosophical ends, produce knowledge that has foreseeably pernicious consequences for the public, but rather because the pursuit of knowledge per se can't be forbidden. If we can ask a question, Caputo speculated, we will pursue it to its end. In fact, we're already engaged in the pursuit of its end. (See the first sentence of Aristotle's Metaphysics.) I don't think Caputo's point was to say that "anything goes" in philosophical speculation-- a position he, and many other deconstructionists, are often wrongly credited with holding-- but only to say that the fact of the matter is that if we can think it (even as a question, as a possibility), "it" already is in the realm of that for which we are, and ought to be, held intellectually (and, I would add, professionally) responsible. "Forbidding" certain questions, or certain arguments, or certain conclusions, only serves to resign those matters to the realm of the Secret, which poses a far more pernicious danger to the public than bad arguments do, because it removes them from the public space where we hold each other accountable for our arguments and their consequences.

For that reason, I think Schliesser's question-- should we be more willing to hold each other responsible for the foreseeable public impact of our words or shared standards?-- is the MOST important question. But it can only be asked because professional philosophers don't have an ethical code that forbids any particular question from being asked and answered, however incompletely, imperfectly or, in some cases, dangerously.

UPDATE 1/5/12:
Schliesser's essay has generated several other critical responses. See Mohan Mathhen's here and here. Joshua Miller's (excellent) criticism is here. Schleisser's rejoinders are here and here.