Tag: Seth Rogen

On Awkwardness – Part I

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Last year I read Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness: An Essay.   I put it on the backburner as something I would write about in the near future because, quite frankly, Schlemiel Theory has been busy with several different philosophers, books, and comedians over the last year. That said, when a friend of mine tagged me in a post on facebook today – about an article written in The New Yorker entitled “The Awkward Age” – I felt I had to, at the very least, read the article and comment on Adam Kotsko’s book, which is referred to in the beginning of the article. While the article is not that interesting, Kotsko’s philosophical, sociological, and historical approach to the phenomena of awkwardness is. His “essay” suggests a few possibilities for schlemiel theory that may or may not be of interest because they tap into philosophical and historical approaches to one of the most notable features of comedy today: awkwardness.

At the outset, the article from The New Yorker cites and makes the following comments on Kotsko’s book:

As the Eskimos were said to have seven words for snow, today’s Americans have a near-infinite vocabulary for gradations of awkwardness—there are some six hundred entries in Urban Dictionary. We have Awktoberfest (awkwardness that seems to last a whole month), Awk and Pshaw (a reference to “shock and awe”), and, perhaps inevitably, Awkschwitz (awkwardness worthy of comparison to the Holocaust). We have a hand signal for awkwardness, and we frame many thoughts and observations with “that awkward moment when…” When did awkwardness become so important to us? And why?

In “Awkwardness: An Essay” (2010), the critic Adam Kotsko dates our age of awkwardness—embodied by “the apparently ontological awkwardness of George W. Bush” and manifested in television shows like “The Office,” “Arrested Development,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—to the early aughts, with a postwar prehistory. (In short, Kotsko writes, the fifties purveyed capitalism into an ideology of “traditional Christian values”; in the sixties, these values were destabilized by the counterculture movement; the ideological vacuum of the seventies led to the paranoia and nihilism, reflected in the metaphysical being of Woody Allen; in the eighties, pure capitalism became its own value system, sustained by opposition to the Soviet Union; and in the nineties nihilism returned, minus the Cold War paranoia, inaugurating the age of irony.

What caused the shift from irony to awkwardness? Interestingly, Kotsko refuses to blame September 11th, connecting the end of irony less with “a culture-wide turn towards earnestness and patriotism” than with irony having “simply exhausted itself.” My feeling, however, is that we can peg the end of irony to September 11th precisely because of the failure of “earnestness and patriotism” that Kotsko describes. We finally had an “evil opponent” again. Terrorists, like Communists, hated “our way of life.” If we neglected our Christmas shopping, Bush said, the terrorists would win. But, this time, the rhetoric didn’t stick. The U.S.S.R. had been a nuclear superpower, with geopolitical aims comparable, if opposed, to those of the U.S. Al Qaeda was nationless, nihilistic, and armed with box cutters. You couldn’t lump it together with North Korea and call it the Axis of Evil—that didn’t make sense.

The problem with this hasty overview and application of his book is that it doesn’t explain the basis of Kotsko’s reading of awkwardness vis-à-vis philosophy and suggests that Kotsko’s book simply historicizes awkwardness. This is incorrect and misleading.

Yes, the “age” we are living in may be awkward, as the author suggests, but she doesn’t understand why and neither does the reader.   To understand how he historicizes awkwardness, we need to first understand the philosophical basis for his project.

Kotsko turns to Martin Heidegger and then Jean-Luc Nancy to explain the philosophical basis of awkwardness.   Regarding Heidegger, Kotsko notes how the “most fundamental mood” that Heidegger “examines in the context of Being and Time is anxiety”(12).   Through this mood, Dasein (being-there, man) has a “special window onto a question that he pairs with that of the meaning of being: namely, the questions of time”(12). When a person “dwells” in a “mood of anxiety” he or she experiences “time” as an “existential urgency”(12).

Besides being interested in anxiety and its relation to time, Kotsko is also interested in Heidegger’s treatment of another mood; namely “boredom”: “Whereas anxiety provides special insight into the question of time, boredom bears specifically on the question of how humanity is related to animal life”(12).   Drawing on Heidegger, Kotsko notes how boredom – like anxiety – brings out what is “truly distinctive about humanity” since it enables us to be “detached” from “an amazing array of stimuli” (or what Heidegger would call the world). This detachment is what Heidegger would call transcendence.

From here, he notes how, for Heidegger sees anxiety as a more “fundamental mood” than boredom because the mood of boredom is still too connected to the world.   While boredom is a “breakdown in our normal relationship to the world…anxiety points toward the ultimate breakdown of death”(14).

Although Kotsko finds the moods of anxiety and boredom to be interesting in terms of understanding our relationship to time and the world (as well as its breakdown), what he wants to find, most of all, is a mood that will tap into what interests Jean-Luc Nancy most: the meaning of relationship as such.   To this end, he asks the question: what mood can this be. And his answer is awkwardness:

Awkwardness clearly fits the general patter of insight through breakdown, but unlike anxiety or boredom, it doesn’t isolate the person who feels awkward – as I have already discusses, it does just the opposite: it spreads. (15)

In other words, Kotsko is interested in how awkwardness is a contagious kind of mood. Other people, in relation, can catch it (as it “spreads”) can become awkward.

Kotsko adds that “awkwardness is a breakdown in our normal experience of social interaction while itself remaining irreducibly social”(15). By doing this, he opens the door to a sociological and historical reading of awkwardness which is really about being unable to act “properly” in an (ab)normal situation that one is caught in. He brings in the sociological register of “norms” to explain:

Awkwardness shows us that humans are fundamentally social, but that they have no built-in norms: the norms that we develop help us to “get by,” with some proving more helpful than others. We might say, then, that awkwardness prompts us to set up social norms in the first place – and what prompts us to transform them. (16)

With a definition like this, how can one say that our post 9/11 age is the most awkward one of all as the writer from The New Yorker suggests? With this philosophical and sociological kind of basis, one can argue that any age that is transitional will be awkward.

However, Kotsko is responsible for the title and theme of The New Yorker article’s periodizing since he focuses on the present and the origins of our awkward time. In fact, he entitles the section, immediately after his philosophical grounding “The origins of our awkward age.”

It should be clear by this point that I believe that we are currently in a state of cultural awkwardness. Contemporary mainstream middle-class social norms are not remotely up to the task of minimizing awkwardness, but at the same time, there seems to be no real possibility of developing a positive alternative….There are many possible reasons that such a condition could have arisen in the first decade of the 21st century….but…I believe we must look to the social upheavals of the 1960s. (17)

What follows is a sociological exercise. Since the 1960s challenged, traditional values the norms changed and America had a hard time adjusting. He discusses changes in terms of civil rights, sexuality, experimentation, and nihilism. Woody Allen, according to Kotsko, emerged as “one of the pioneers of awkwardness” in the 1970s because of this radical social upheaval.   And even though things changed in the 1980s because of the Regan Era (which looked to reestablish tradition and norms and “overcome awkwardness”) the 90s, which marks a fall back into instability, gives us Seinfeld.

But, argues Kotsko, “none of the main characters actually sit and stew in their awkwardness, and I’d propose that that’s because they are all essentially sociopaths. They cause awkwardness in others but don’t truly feel it themselves, because they lack any real investment in the social order – instead they merely attempt to manipulate it”(23).

The only exception to the Seinfeld rule is the schlemiel, George: “His sheer patheticness and vulnerability, his lack of the steady income and social status of Jane or Elaine or the strange self-assurance of Kramer, keep him from being completely detached”(23). In other words, he is awkward because he is not successful in a context where others are.

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Kotsko argues that the “seeds of awkwardness” are planted here. And that it is after 9/11 that the we become an “age of awkwardness.”   In this age, Curb Your Enthusiasm and films by Judd Apatow illustrate how awkward we have become.   There are two ways, according to Kotsko, that we can approach awkwardness. Either it is “individuals” who create awkwardness, as we see in the US version of The Office (25) or it is a social order as we see in Apatow’s films. He finds the second position to be of greater interest to his project:

If the social order itself seems to be producing awkwardness, let people indulge in awkwardness on purpose as a way of letting off steam. This strategy is on full display in several Judd Apatow films: if men are afraid to leave behind the awkward state of overgrown adolescence and get married, then build in a space for them to indulge in their awkwardly adolescent pleasures. (26)

Besides “letting off steam” and remaining awkward, Kotsko sees awkwardness as a strategy to challenge the status quo, on the one hand, or as an opportunity to relate to each other in a way that is not based on any norm whatsoever:

When we resist awkwardness, the social order looks good. When we resist social order, awkwardness looks good. But on those rare occasions when we figure out a way to stop resisting the social order and yet also stop resisting awkwardness and just go with it, something genuinely new and unexpected may happen: we might be able to simply enjoy one another without mediation of any expectations or demands. (26)

Kotsko calls this “the promise of awkwardness”(26) and argues that “for all its admitted perils and difficulties, awkwardness does contain a seed of hope”(26). To be sure, Kotsko, who does much work in Continental Philosophy, is familiar with Karl Marx, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin who all discuss hope and its relation to opposing the status quo. He is no doubt drawing on this trend by claiming that the mood of awkwardness is a “seed of hope” and a “promise.”   It is not merely a term to describe the “age” we are it – as the writer from The New Yorker suggests.

Kotsko spells it out at the end of his first chapter: “More than describing a cultural trend, then, my goal here is ultimately to point toward what we’re all already hoping for”(28). What Kotsko means by this is that the mood of awkwardness – suggested by Apatow films and…in general – is a messianic or utopian kind of mood that anticipates living in a world where “we might be able to simply enjoy one another without mediation of any expectations or demands”(26).

Does Big Bang Theory also project this hope? Is Seth Rogen a messianic figure? If we are to live perpetually in a kind of childhood state, as Apatow’s films suggest, we will be in a perpetual state of awkwardness. And this anticipates, for Kotsko, a messianic state of not living up to an ideal and being an adult.

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The suggestions that Kotsko makes about our age have to do with the collapse of norms that we can maintain by not wanting to return to tradition or anything normative. It’s better to just figure out our-relation-to-each-other as we go along. I find this proposal to be very interesting because it suggests something we see with the schlemiel who is often portrayed as an innocent, naïve, and awkward character. In fact, all of the characters that Kotsko looks at could be called schlemiels.

…to be continued….

Almost Communicating, or What Happens When a Middle-Age Schlemiel Falls in Love With a Korean Girl – Part I

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Over the last decade, we have seen countless films about “middling” or aging schlemiels. Think of Ben Stiller’s roles in Meet the Fockers (2004), Greenberg (2010), or The Heartbreak Kid (2007), Seth Rogen’s Neighbors (2014) or Guilt Trip (2012), or of Judd Apatow’s 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), or This is 40 (2012).  Apatow, more than any filmmaker, has made something of a cottage industry based on middle age schlemiels.

Also think of Sarah Silverman’s latest work for her youtube channel, Jash, where she is constantly looking into what her character, a 40 plus year old woman, goes through as she ages. The task of documenting the aging schlemiel is nothing new, however. One need look no father than the popularization of this in Woody Allen’s films – especially Annie Hall (1977).   

While the filmic exploration of the aging schlemiel is widespread and noticeable – to such an extent that the middling schlemiel is becoming something of an American cultural icon – the literary equivalent is less noticed by the everyday American. To be sure, books like Stern, by Bruce Jay Freedman, Herzog, by Saul Bellow, A New Life, by Bernard Malamud, Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander, and How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti – to name only a handful examples which span over four decades – take the aging schlemiel as their theme.

What’s most interesting about these literary treatments of the middling/aging schlemiel is that they give us an acute sense of how the schlemiel – and we ourselves – are becoming more and more out of sync with the times we are living in. After repeated failure, the schlemiel eagerly tries to carve out a “new life.” But as s/he ages s/he comes to realize that she hasn’t succeeded and that now, with age, things are more difficult than before. This creates a desperate situation and character whose new failures are much worse than before. Yet, with all of this failure and repeated failure, there is a kind of charm that comes through in this or that missed encounter, missed social cue, or belated response. Most charming is the middling schlemiel’s failure to communicate when love is on the table and cultural differences are front-row-center. The conceit of the narrative is to be found in how the middling schlemiel navigates these gaps.

We see an exceptional illustration of this middling schlemiel’s attempt at bridging the gaps between youth and middle age as well as between Korean and Jewish in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.   The fascinating thing is that one gap challenges another in his novel. The middling main character Lenny Abramov – a Russian-American-Jewish son of immigrants – stumbles across Eunice Park, falls in love with her, and does his most to deal with this gap and win her over. But his failures show the desperation of this gesture; nonetheless, she also fails. And the way she fails – with her family’s expectations and her own expectations – transforms her into a character who, though Korean, shares much in common with the schlemiel. Regardless, the communication gap, the age gap, and the cultural gap challenge this commonality and make for a fascinating read on the middling schlemiel which solicits culture, love, and communication as relevant to being (and understanding) a schlemiel.

For now, I just want to touch on the communication gap when they first meet. It becomes the foundation for the ensuing struggle to bridge it. When he leaves with her, after a party that he and she occasion in Rome, Italy, he feels she left with him because she really likes him and that, in some way, he is her hero. In his mind, he has saved her from another middling man – a physically intimidating sculptor – who, aggressively, challenges Lenny when he tries to talk with Eunice, his Korean love interest. He is snubbed by the sculptor but, in the end, he wins a kind of indirect victory when she leaves with him not the sculptor.

Notice the comedic rhetoric that is used to describe his movements in relation to hers. He thinks of himself as a hero, but comes across as an anti-hero:

Eunice Park and I marched ahead. She marched, I hopped, unable to cover up the joy of having escaped the party with her by my side. I wanted Eunice to thank me for saving her from the sculptor and his stench of death. I wanted her to get to know me and then to repudiate all the terrible things he said about my person, my supposed greed, my boundless ambition, my lack of talent…I wanted to tell her that I myself was in danger….all because I had slept with one middle-aged Italian woman. (21)

But telling her wouldn’t matter. Eunice could care less about the situation Lenny was going through.

Feeling young and hip – although he is middling – he tells her of a cool “Nigerian” restaurant in Rome to go to following the party: “I stressed “Nigerian” to underline my openmindedness. Lenny Abramov, friend to all”(21). But this doesn’t get through to her.

She calls him a nerd and throws several three letter abbreviations – hip in youth culture – at him to show the gap between them. And this “hurts” him:

“You’re such a nerd.” She laughed cruelly at me.

“What?” I said. “I’m sorry.” I laughed to, just in case it was a joke, but right away I felt hurt.

“LPT,” she said, “TIMATOV. ROFLAARP, PRGV, Totally PRGV.”

The youth and their abbreviations. I pretended like I knew what she was talking about. “Right,” I said, “IMF. PLO. ESL.”

His abbreviations emerge out of a different era and show what things that were of interest to him, then: ESL (fitting in to American culture), PLO (being a Jew whose Russian parents were very concerned with Israel’s future), and IMF (which shows he may have had interest in activism against globalization, when it first started emerging)

The gap is pronounced and the pain that comes with the missed encounter and communication lag show us the life of a middling schlemiel who desperately tries to overcome what, in fact, may not be possible to overcome. After all, age is existential. So is culture….

Charm…that’s another issue…. Can it bridge the gap?

….to be continued…

 

 

My Vicarious Role in a Journalist’s Missed Encounter With Seth Rogen…in Las Vegas

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About a month ago, I was contacted by Louie Lazar, a journalist who told me that he was given an assignment by Tablet: to determine whether or not Seth Rogen was the future of Jewish comedy. Pondering this question, Lazar came across several article/blog posts I had written on Seth Rogen for this blog. After going through them, he contacted me by way of email and told me he wanted to talk on the phone. Since he was hoping to interview Rogen, who was at a three-day-special-event hosted by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) that had Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and a few other stars in attendance, he told me he would call me from Las Vegas. I was excited to talk to him. I thought to myself, in dream-like fashion, here was an opportune moment.

Anticipating of the phone-call, I spent a few hours thinking about Rogen, what I had written on him, and what I could now say about him. I even posted a query on facebook to gather what people were thinking about Rogen.

When the journalist called, we ended up talking for over an hour about Rogen. One of the things I discussed with him was how Rogen was a “new schlemiel.” He was, as Daniel Itzkovitz might say about Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller, an example of the schlemiel as “everyman.” This, of course, goes against the grain of the older model of the schlemiel who, as Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse argued, looks to challenge the “philosophical and political status quo.” His failure, so to speak, is an “ironic victory.” Rogen, I argued, is the status quo. Meaning: he is not an elitist; rather, he is “one of us.” The journalist agreed and noted that he was a “bro.” He has the body and demeanor of a bro – he likes to smoke pot and party – and that makes him “one of us.” To be sure, the motif of being a “bro” is central to his latest film Neighbors.

Before the conversation ended, Lazar asked me what questions I would ask Rogen if I were to interview him. In a rush of excitement, I gave the journalist several questions. (And even after the conversation ended, I sent him several more.)   After hanging up, I imagined – in schlemiel-like fashion – what answers Rogen would give. In a sense, I felt as if the journalist was a messenger; though him it was “as if” I was meeting Seth Rogen himself (who, just today, was dubbed by TIME magazine to be the “Stoner King of Comedy”). (An interesting side note, the word schlemiel seems to have a bit of Hebrew in it: Shelach (send) m’ (from) el (God) – in other words, he is a holy messenger of sorts or else…exiled from God and redemption; sent away.)

So…one can imagine how I felt when, just today, the journalist emailed me and told me that he published his feature piece on Rogen just yesterday.   I read his essay with great interest hoping to see how the interview worked out. I was so excited. I felt as if my schlemiel-like-dreams were going to come true. However, what I found was the most disappointing thing imaginable; namely, that the journalist wasn’t able to meet Rogen and converse with him. I felt as if, in the end, Lazar and I were the real schlemiels.   He hoped to have an encounter, we both dreamed about it, but in the end…it just didn’t happen.

To be sure, the difference between Rogen and Lazar is that while Lazar sought to find, meet, and interview Rogen, Rogen, as I told him on the phone, doesn’t really act in many films; he just “shows up.” To be sure, Lazar, uses this expression in the title of his piece: “Seth Rogen Exemplifies the Jewish Journey from Chosen People to Just Showing Up.”

Reading the piece, I felt an intimate sense of being duped because I was a part of Lazar’s search. What makes this failure so enjoyable, however, is the fact that it was written in the style of Gozo journalism that I love and have loved since high school. This was appropriate since the journalist, comically modeling himself on Hunter S. Thomson’s journey in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was asked to interview Rogen in….Las Vegas. The subtitle of the piece, “Beer and Loafing in Las Vegas, on the heels of the everyman start of the new stoner man-child comedy” says it all.   He is on the heels of a schlemiel and in following him, he also becomes a schlemiel of sorts. Together with the title, I couldn’t help but think that Lazar was suggesting something that was in the midst of our conversation; namely, that Rogen is a “new schlemiel,” an everyman stoner who just “shows up” in this or that film or talk-show appearance. As I noted, half of Rogen’s comedy is just showing up.

And this is the sense that Lazar communicates in his piece. However, there is a big problem. Even though Rogen “shows up,” the problem, for the journalist, is that he can’t speak to him. I can hear Lazar asking himself, as the article moves on, “But…if he was really like one of us, why can’t I speak to him?”

But there is more to the story. Reading the piece, I couldn’t help but think that Lazar was astounded at how odd the whole scene, along with Rogen’s popularity, was. And this, to my mind, is exceptional: it prompts us to wonder, with him, what all this means. What is the meaning of a comic character’s everydayness when it is presented within a hyper-capitalist milieu of a conference dedicated to stars in Las Vegas?

At the outset, we can hear the juxtaposition in his sarcastic tone:

I’m drinking scotch in the VIP section of the Garden of the Gods, waiting for the God of the Gods, Seth Rogen, Any minute now, he should be walking past the 50-foot-high Corinthian columns flanked by statues of Julius Caesar mounted on war horses and into the private area between the Neptune Pool and Temple Pool, in which I’m standing, comfortably besides a heat lamp.

He, the everyman, is framed as a “God of the Gods.” And this is odd.

Lazar presents himself as a schlemiel in the process. He is, like Rogen, wearing a Grey suit and has stubble. (Grey being the color of mediocrity; the color that is the color of everydayness, showing up, etc.) And like a schlemiel, he “cuts himself shaving.” This motif comes back at the end of the piece when he thinks he will, finally, meet with Rogen.   But his worry is for naught.

One of the things that follows this introduction of sorts is a great sketch of how Rogen came across the everyman. To be sure, Lazar nails it when he points out that:

In 2009, in what they’ve described as their best work, Rogen and Goldberg wrote a Simpson’s episode about an overweight nerd (played by Homer) who becomes a superhero by channeling the powers of other comic book heroes. His name: “Everyman.”

In addition to this, Lazar points out that Rogen recently called himself a schlemiel, that is, a “self-medicated man-child” (he did so in his recent appearance before a U.S. Senate hearing on Alzheimer’s disease, which, to be sure, came right before his Las Vegas appearance!).

Following this, Lazar turns to himself, reflectively, and notes how he believed, against all the odds (Vegas style), that he would get to interview Rogen. But, as I noted above, this is thwarted several times. At one point, he notes how he drank too much and ended up missing Rogen; he was “too late.” While other journalists shout things out, he can’t say anything; he is tongue-tied. On another occasion, he ended up “locking eyes” with Rogen, but “before I could act” Rogen “snapped out of whatever mental state he was in…and walked off.” In other words, Rogen wasn’t really looking at him and, like a schlemiel, Lazar missed yet another possible encounter. He leaves in frustration; but, with the hope of a schlemiel, he is determined to try yet again.

And in a moment when he comes very close, he says that “I felt a surge of hope; here was my shot at redemption.” He blends in with a group of people and waits. But no one comes. It seems like yet another failure.

In one of his last attempts, he meets up with a “hippie” named “John.” The name and his description reminded me of an everyman like the dude. Near the end of the article, he notes how John, out of nowhere, tells him that “I just talked to him inside.” Wondering what he said and desperate for an encounter, Lazar screams out: “What!” When he asks John what they spoke about John, in a casual manner, says, “I dunno, we talked for a few minutes…He’s a great guy. Real normal-like.” Lazar, not satisfied with this simple reply, asks again “What did you talk about?” (After all, Lazar and I discussed so many questions that we were dying to get answers for, but, to no avail.)

The last lines of piece are written to me:

In my research, I’d spoken with a philosopher, Menachem Feuer, who’s written extensively about Rogen and who teaches a Jewish Studies course at York University in Toronto.* His students, a geographically and ethnically diverse mix, “know Rogen and identify with him.” What is that I asked. “It might have to do with him being an ordinary guy, the guy that just shows up,” he said. “He’s just like us.”

What I love about these last lines is that they hit on the central irony of his piece. If Rogen is so much like us, if he’s such an everyman, why can’t I speak with him? To be sure, the juxtapositions that Lazar runs through in his piece show us that he is and is not like us. He is made into a God of sorts, and, as I noted above, TIME calls him the “Stoner King of Comedy.” Lazar found out the hard way.

And so did I. Like Lazar, I imagined that there would be an interview and that all of my questions would be answered. And, in many ways, I felt as if, through Lazar, I would be meeting a god of sorts. I felt as if I too would be redeemed.   This is, without a doubt, the conceit of a schlemiel.   And, like any schlemiel, we end up failing and with dreams that were…just dreams.

The irony is that Rogen also casts himself as a schlemiel. He’s “just like us.” He just shows up. But, in the end, the schlemiel, the traditional one at least, doesn’t just show up. Like Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the IIIrd, he goes on a journey. He does things. And for this, I thank Louie Lazar. I feel as if he has shown me, in a kind of private joke, that he is an old schlemiel while Rogen, the everyman, is a new one.

In many ways, I prefer the old schlemiel to the new one. But now that Rogen’s film has become yet another blockbuster and now that he is the new “stoner king of comedy,” I may have to accept the fact that the new schlemiel is now the God of comedic gods.   And what we are left with today – it seems – is “beer and loafing.”

——————

*I teach several courses at York University, actually.

 

Body Talk: On Seth Rogen’s Comical-Erotic Descriptions of Zac Efron’s Body

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When Seth Rogen recently went on Conan to promote his latest film, Neighbors, Conan’s first comment went right to the relationship of Seth Rogen to Zac Efron’s body: “Your costar Zac Efron, in this film, I…I didn’t know this but apparently…he’s in ridiculous shape.”

In response, Rogen says, shaking his head up and down, as if obsessed with Efron’s body: “Yes..It’s Insane. It’s freakish! The first time I saw him without his shirt on I thought there was something wrong with him…honestly…because he has so many bump sticking out of his body.”

Rogen then compares the “bumps” all over Efron’s body to his own body, which, “like is just one big bump.”   To be sure, Rogen is telling us that his body, in relation to Efron’s body, is the punch line.  

In the next joke about Efron’s body (in relation to his own), Rogen recalls a description he makes in the movie: “It’s like his whole body is an arrow…that points to his dick.” Rogen goes on to talk about how Efron is “without shirt in many scenes.”

(As I pointed out in my last blog entry, this is a key figure for Rogen in the movie. When, at the end of the film, Rogen (Mac) takes off his shirt and joins Efron (Teddy), they become “bros” again after, for much of the movie, being turned against each other. Their topless bodies, radically different from each other, in public are the basis for their renewed friendship. In the end, even though Rogen is a husband and father, he is now a bro.)

Playing on the topless-Efron-figure, Rogen discusses how the Efron would work out between one shot and another. This, for Rogen, is “psychotic.” Rogen points out if he were to work out between sets he would be knocked out for the day.

Rogen tops if all off by saying that every time he looks at Efron’s body he just wants to touch it (as he gestures outward toward the audience). But he adds that he sees his body in a psychotic manner, “as if it were a mirage.” But, in a moment of liberation, he passes from illusion to reality (“coming out of the closet,” so to speak) when he declares, in defiance of public standards, that Efron “is the sexiest mother fucker alive!” Since this is a comic-erotic revelation, which the crowd laughs loudly at, Rogen pulls back and laughs to himself.   In comic shame, Rogen comes back and says, with a shrug, “I’m sorry…he brings it out in me.”   This sets him up for the final joke of the evening on Conan.

Rogen goes for it when he claims that Efron’s body doesn’t just “bring it (the craziest-most-erotic-things) out” of himself; it brings “it” out in everyone. Rogen calls “it” a “sound” that comes out of women’s bodies (without their volition) when they see Efron. Then he moves on to describe how men’s bodies, when they see Efron on screen, also makes this “sound.” The punch line is that this sound, because it is automatic, must come from one’s penis. In other words, the sound people make when they see Efron is a kind of “mouth orgasm.”

What Rogen does here is speak what I call “body talk.” By making his body the foil of Efron’s body he engages in body talk.

While people – Rogen included – metaphorically ejaculate when they see Efron, they do chuckle when they see Rogen. The conceit is that, even though at the end of the film Rogen and Efron become bros-with-their-tops-off, this clip shows us that it is Efron that is the real basis of Rogen’s passion. Even though Rogen is caricaturing his sexual reactions to Efron’s body, the point of the routine is to leave the audience member with a sense that this may really not be a joke. There is, so to speak, a comic suspense of disbelief.

Rogen, it seems, gets very excited when he describes Efron’s body. Efron’s body is “insane,” “psychotic,” and a “mirage” that Rogen wants to touch. Efron is the “sexiest motherfucker in the world.” All of these expletives give the effect of a person who is erotically-and-yet-comically aroused by Efron. And in his comical passion, Rogen insists that men and women in the audience who see Efron on screen (or live) are just as obsessed as he is.   Although we don’t make this “noise” over Efron’s body, Rogen’s insistence that we do is the insistence of a sexual schlemiel. It works like a charm because Rogen’s body – and not Efron’s body – is the punch line. That bodily and erotic difference makes Rogen’s….“body talk.”

But in a different setting, namely an interview with Movie Maniacs, the interviewer asks Rogen and Efron about their “bro moments” in the film and if, in real life, they have these moments.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPK6kWi6eqE]

In response to whether they have anything as “intimate” as the film suggests, Rogen speaks first and says “I don’t think we’ve had anything that intimate.” Efron says they “haven’t hooked up lately.”  And Rogen adds “not since the movie.”  But, in truth, they have no such interest.

Efron compliments Rogen and says (2:24) that he “really defines comedy for our generation in an honest and cool way…and in a way I’d like to do it someday and I’m learning now…Seth is a mentor.”  In these moments, we see that Rogen, in real life, is Efron’s mentor.  And to say that he “really defines comedy for our generation in a cool and honest way” is to give Rogen the greatest honors.

This, it seems, is what is behind all the body talk.  In reality, all of this comical body talk and standing shirtless with Efron is about “defining comedy for the next generation in an honest way.”

But, ultimately, the irony of all this is that really Seth Rogen’s body is “defining comedy for the next generation in an honest way.”  It’s the “other” body (which is closer to “our” bodies), not Efron’s body, which is the punch line that can possibly be said to “define comedy etc.”

I want to underscore the word “possibly” because this is quite a claim to make.  It’s validity would have to be proven on the basis of Rogen’s body talk and its popularity.  Can it really define “comedy for the next generation in an honest way”?

Seth Rogen’s Body – A Few Thoughts on Seth Rogen’s Latest Appearance in “Neighbors”

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In one of the most urgent moments of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007), we see a desperate Ben Stone, played by Seth Rogen, go to his father, played by Harold Ramis, for advice about whether to become a father and have children. Ramis tells Rogen to go for it and that he wants to have grandchildren. At this point, Stone is inspired to be a responsible father. He decides, at this very point, to go from being a schlemiel (man-child) to becoming an adult.   What interests me most about this moment is the fact that Seth Rogen is put face-to-face with Ramis and is given the ok to “bear children.” I cannot but read this as a symbolic moment when the maker of such films as Ghostbusters (1984), Meatballs (1979), Cadyshack (1980), and Animal House (1978), gives the power over to his son. It’s as if we are witnessing Moses giving everything over to Joshua, who will cross the Jordan. Moses will die, while Joshua will carry the tradition on.

We see that Rogen took this to heart in his latest role in the film Neighbors (2014).   But, to be sure, this role is something that was set up by a middle-man; namely, Judd Apatow.

With films like, Super Bad, Knocked up and This is Forty, Judd Apatow has made a decision to address, by way of comedy, the process of moving from being a man-child to an adult with children. In Superbad, a movie written by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen but produced by Apatow, we see the life of two teens in their first sexual experience. There are still schlemiels, but, at the very least, they are successful.

But between Knocked Up and This is Forty (2012), there is a distinct difference: in Knocked Up (2007) Apatow casts Rogen as a schlemiel has decided to have a baby, while in This is Forty Apatow wanted to show us a couple in its forties which, for all intents and purposes, is also dealing with schlemiel-like issues.   In Neighbors(2014) we see that there is a gap between the films which Rogen addresses; that gap has to do with age and experience.

In Neighbors we have a young couple who take us to the next level after Knocked Up but to a level ten or so years before This is Forty.   The running narrative of all this, it seems, is to map out for the viewing public the life of a schlemiel from high school to having a baby, living with the baby (or babies), and attempting (as Marc Maron would say) “normal.”

This is an old/new theme. We see it in many Ramis films, too. But, in this film, we see Ramis and an Apatow type of film conjoined Animal House and This is Forty (and Knocked Up) . The question underlying the plot is: How would the two worlds interact? How will a schlemiel couple, who just had a baby, relate to the younger, single fraternity brothers?

The result of this test was, to my mind, nothing short of being (to pun on the movie by Apatow and Rogen) “super bad.”   But it was bad on too many levels. I didn’t laugh that much and neither did the theater; and when they did there were more like little chuckles. To be sure, something was missing in this film and, on the other hand, something was overdone. The plot, which involved the meeting of two worlds, seemed much too caricatured and the theme and its articulation seemed to miss the mark.

In search of this lack or excess, I found a nasty little review in Salon.com that made no form of apology in its putting the film down. It noted that the film made no mention of the economic crisis and hard times we are going through. What we saw, instead, was affluence that looked to cover up the truth. (In other words, a post-Marxist reading: Neighbors as False Consciousness.)

The final judgment of the reviewer says it all:

Under current economic conditions that are never visible in this movie, Mac and Kelly’s path of happy-family upward mobility is almost as much an illusion as Teddy’s life of all-night, drug-addled ragers. We can long for either, or dare to imagine a mystical, momentary fusion of the two. When the movie’s over, most of us are left with neither one.

While I find this reading to be interesting, I also find it to be a stretch. The “momentary fusion” of the two worlds is not what interests us. Rather, what struck me, while watching the film, was the most interesting thing for the audience; namely, the contrast between Zack Efron’s body and Seth Rogen’s body. To be sure, one of the greatest appeals of Seth Rogen’s character is his slightly overweight body (naked or not naked). We see this in his recent youtube parodies (done with James Franco) where Franco rides Rogen like Kanye West rides Kim Kardashian.

In many scenes Rogen’s body is juxtaposed with Efron’s body, his wife’s body, and the fraternity members’ bodies. What does this all mean? Toward the end of the film, Rogen’s character meets up with Efron’s character at an Abercrombe & Finch store. Efron has his shirt off; Rogen takes his off to and says “he’s always wanted to do this.” He jumps around while Efron laughs and is endeared. At this moment, Efron seems to forgive him and he validates this when he says that Rogen’s body makes “everyone feel comfortable.” Because of his body, people will feel comfortable shopping at Abercrombe and Finch.

To be sure, from the beginning of the film until the end of the film, we now know what makes it sell: Seth Rogen’s body, the schlemiel’s body, is the body that guides us. Not Zack Efron’s body and not the bodies at the Fraternity or elsewhere. I make this reading in all seriousness because, to be sure, Rogen doesn’t act in this film so much as throw his body around into different yet (often) charming configurations.

This should be taken together with the fact that Mac-slash-Rogen’s wife, Kelly, played by Rose Byrne, can hang out with him and eat pizza, stoned, in bed after beating the fraternity. In the end, the battle is a bodily one. Rogen, like Jack Black or John Candy, has an interesting bodily presence; however, in contrast to these actors, he doesn’t have to work as hard in making comic gestures. He just has to be himself.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdDJ1_ZUyLs]

The plot is that the schlemiel-couple-with-one-baby win over the fraternity. In Animal House it was John Belushi with the weight; now it’s Rogen. And Rogen, as Mac Radner, has a wife and child. He’s responsible. Things have changed.

There is no question that Rogen has taken on the baton from Ramis and that Apatow has set this up for him. The question is whether this re-casting of Ramis’s work, within a context that Apatow has created, is meaningful. Who are our heroes and role models today? Is Rogen’s naked body, bouncing up and down in front of Abercrombe and Finch a sign of what is to come? For such a popular film, can we say that this is “our” comical form of hope? Are Ramis’s grandchildren…ours or somebody else’s? After all, some babies don’t survive. But with a face and body like Seth Rogen’s – reminding us that we can all just relax, get high, and eat whatever we want, whenever we want, while raising children (!) – how can we say no? After all, it seems as if this film is telling us that, ultimately, Rogen’s bodily antics make the differences between our bodies and masculinities less apparent and meaningful. His bodily presence makes us feel at home with the family, etc.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HjwRWzDBqFY]

And yet isn’t it the comedians who make us feel least at home that are the most meaningful? But…Neighbors seems to be telling us that, in the end, what we want is to have a new norm, a bodily, comic norm that, to be sure, is more in accord with who we are; namely, comfortable with hanging out with the bros, getting high, eating, and having a good time at a party.

(For something else, something different from this, check out the work of up-and-coming comedians like David Heti.  His work ends on an entirely different note.)

A Note on Mothers, Fathers, and Schlemiels in Bruce Jay Friedman’s Fiction

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One thing I have noticed about Bruce Jay Friedman’s fictional experiments with schlemiels is the fact that a person’s parents play an important role in the schlemiel process. But in his fictional scenarios, mothers are not the sole source of this or that person becoming a schlemiel. To be sure, fathers can also play a key role. And this inclusion of the father into the schlemiel process brings to light many things about the schlemiel that we have missed.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0zphkine7C0]

In films like Meet the Fockers (2004) and Guilt Trip (2012) and in novels like Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses, it is the mother that is held responsible, in major part, for the male character’s becoming-a-schlemiel.

I recently pointed out the relationship of the schlemiel to the a wayward mother in Bruce Jay Friedman’s “The Good Time.” In that story, the mother is so into the son having a “good time” that she creates a distance between herself and her child. He ends up withdrawing from her and becoming something of a nebbishy schlemiel who is afraid of the future, hides from the wind, and worries about his eyeglasses (amongst other things). The problem that Friedman locks on to is that the schlemiel emerges out of a gap between the children and parents (and this includes fathers and not just “overbearing” Jewish mothers).

In yesterday’s blog entry on the story “Brazzaville Teen-ager,” I pointed out how Bruce Jay Friedman’s story and Michael Cera’s translation of it into a film short outlined the gap between a father and a son. That gap, as I pointed out, is the basis for the main character’s being a schlemiel.   The son would like to speak to his father in a man-to-man way but he can’t bring himself to do it. Rather, he foolishly relies on a kind of feeling and a prank with his boss to, so to speak, practice being bold.   But it’s all in his mind. He is, as the story suggests via symbolism, stuck between two floors: childhood and manhood.

To be sure, both stories show how latter-day American parents – mothers and fathers – create schlemiels. They also show us that it is the father-son or mother-son relation (to the exclusion of both parents) that marks a fictional-schlemiel-family-scenario. But the fact that Seth Rogen (in Guilt Trip) and Michael Cera (in his Brazzaville Teenager film short) have decided to revive this theme, today, is very telling. After all, Bruce Jay Freedman wrote these two above-mentioned stories for the baby-boomer generation. But Rogen and Cera think that they also speak to our generation. The only reason I can find for this is the fact that they are pitching these films to a generation that feels that it is unable to attain what their parents have attained; but, more importantly, they feel that this generation identifies with being schlemiels who are, so to speak, stuck between floors.

In other words, these films – based mostly on a figure that Bruce Jay Freedman developed nearly forty years ago – speaks to a private family experience that, for many today, is still the source of their deepest frustrations. What I like most about Cera has done, however, is that he, unlike Judd Apatow in Knocked Up, wants to have us focus on this intermediate stage rather than seeing it worked out in the film. He’s more interested in presenting the problem than offering the solution. And this, the famous author Anton Chekhov once claimed, is the purpose of good art.

The problem of the schlemiel, today, situates us between parents and children, on the one hand, and manhood and childhood on the other. What does maturity mean today? Do we put the same value on success as our parents do? Is their an unbridgeable gap between us? And how does the schlemiel help us to pay closer attention to these issues?

Most importantly: Is there a problem or have we “progressed” out of this schlemiel family-issue, today?

Harold Ramis: Comedy and Jewishness, American Style

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After I learned of Harold Ramis’s death, I spent some time on youtube going through clips of his work.   One of the most interesting things I stumbled upon was a talk he gave on Groundhog Day.   Ramis begins and ends his reflection on the film with a Jewish joke.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BkEUpymTanA

At the outset, he recalls a telephone call from one of the producers on the day of the film’s premier in California. He told Ramis that there are picketers at the film’s opening in Santa Monica.  In shock, Ramis asks what they are protesting and the producer tells him: “They aren’t protesting.  They are Hasidic Jews walking around with signs saying are you living the same day over and over again!”  While he cracks the joke, he has a big smirk on his face.

Following this, Ramis points out how a number of groups identified with the film: Buddhists, people in the Yoga community, Christians, and psychologists.   He notes that everyone obviously “projected” something on to the film.  However, he adds that “as a Jew, I kept thinking that people finding so much in this movie” and finding something new in it – every time – has much in common with the reading of the Torah:

The Torah is read every year, start at the same place, in the same day…every Jew reads the same form the same day, in the same cycle.  The Torah doesn’t change, but every year we read it we change.   And every time we read it we read something different.  So, the movie doesn’t change.

The punch line is that he denies the comparison after making it and then plays with it: “I’m not comparing Groundhog Day to the Torah; it’s more entertaining. And the Bible was not a good movie…John Huston’s movie.”  But the take away is that “there is something in it that can help people to reconsider where they are in life and to question their habitual behaviors.”

This analogy – and the joke that conveys it – is telling.  It suggests that Ramis sees the film and the Torah as something that can help us to recognize our mortality and prompt us to change who we are.  And we do this by way of reflecting on the story that we see which he suggests has a timeless element to it.  What lives on and changes – besides ourselves – is the interpretation of the story.  But the point is to make the interpretation.

Reflecting on this, I thought about how, in many ways, Ramis’s films were, for me, like the Torah.  I used to watch them over and over again.  I was especially fascinated with the juxtaposition of Bill Murray (John) to Harold Ramis (Russell Zisky) in Stripes.

Zisky plays the humble and intelligent American Jew while John plays the ironic and bold American rebel.  Zisky and John are both schlemiels.  And this is brought to bear on us by way of the fact that they come from a different America than the soldiers they join.  They are urban and intellectual; they are ironic and this gives them a vantage point.  However, as the film goes on they learn to overcome whatever distance separated them from the others in the platoon.  But this distance, though seemingly large, isn’t big.

The first scene of the film shows us this fact. Zisky is an educated man who is teaching “Basic English” to Immigrants.  We can see that the job is meaningful to him, but it is not allowing him to tap into his full potential.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iINyyfDf_xE]

John is also stumped.  Both of them are friends who want, as the Jewish-American writer Bernard Malamud put it, a “new life.”  To be sure, Malamud joined Sholem Aleichem, Mendel Mocher Sforim, and other Yiddish writers whose schlemiels all yearned for a “new life.”  The question, in all of their novels and stories, was whether such a life was possible or what that new life meant.   Moreover, would any of these schlemiels change, fundamentally? Or would they remain schlemiels, still, after the transformation?

When Zisky introduces himself to the platoon in Stripes, he comes across as a pacifist and his words fall flat.  None of the other Americans in the room, even John Candy in front of him, can understand or identify with what he is saying or his pledge that he will put himself on the line when they are in danger.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTwIwfvNJLk]

In contrast to Zisky, the American-Jew, is John.  His talk is that of a ironic, self-important-cool-populist.  The majority of the platoon laughs and smiles when he talks.  Everyone can identify with him.  He ends with an homage to the leader of the platoon.  But the leader sees this all as a lot of talk and, as the film goes out to show, he does all he can do to break John down and make him into a soldier rather than a populist comedian.

As the opening clip shows, the American-Jew and the cool, ironic American are completely different.  They are regarded differently by the platoon.  That changes over time.  But the initial moment gave me a lot to reflect on as a Jew growing up in small town America.  My father and mother were both natives of New York City.  They were oddballs in my small town.  My parents had more in common with Zisky than I did.

For this reason, looking back I can understand why I liked this film so much.  I tried to be more like John than Zisky.  But in the end, I saw that Zisky was also accepted.  But to be accepted, he had to prove that he could put himself on the line for other people in the platoon.  And John also had to change.  But that change was something that came from the leader of the platoon.  The basis for this had to do with making John more humble and respectful.

As a recent Village Voice article points out, this feat of making the American more humble was not realized in films like stripes, however.  It was realized in Groundhog Day.    According to the author of the article, Ramis established himself by making Slob vs. Snob comedies.  While the theme had its power and reflected life in the 80s, it still gave the “white American” slob too much power.  The author suggests that this is displaced in Groundhog Day because Bill Murray plays a character who is radically different from characters like John in Stripes.  Ramis and Murray, according to the author, figured out that Murray – of Stripes and Ghostbusters – is the “asshole of the age”:

At some point, Ramis and Murray and whoever else seem to have figured out that the Bill Murray of Stripes and Ghostbusters (both co-written by and co-starring Ramis) is the asshole of his age, a self-entitled boomer horndog interested in no perspective other than his own, engaged with no aspect of culture he hasn’t decided he already favors.

For this reason, they created a new Murray character in Stripes who, the author points out, now plays a “snob” rather than a “slob.”  The effect of this transformation, is that “he is rightly seen as a privileged dickhead instead of some hypocrisy-exposing hero of the people.”  The new lesson, he claims, is that Murray learns that there is more to the world than himself; the world is something you share with others.

I found this article to be interesting since it reads Groundhog Day, as Ramis suggests, by way of a different time.   It points out that the film has not changed, but we have.  Nonetheless, I wonder how Ramis rather than Murray fits into this reading.  Did his character change?  And what does this all have to do with Jewishness?  And, in all of this, what happened to the schlemiel?

The other day, I blogged on Ramis and pointed out how, in Knocked Up, he played the Jewish father to Seth Rogen.   As I noted, the scene I refer to is the scene of tradition and the idea that the son and father encounter is very Jewish.  The father is happy to have grandchildren.  He is happy to see the future embodied in a grandson.  The encounter, so to speak, shows us Zisky years later.  Unlike Bill Murray, he hasn’t gone through a fundamental transformation.  Ramis, in doing this, shows us that though the Jew may age, his or her humility and priorities remain the same.  Zisky isn’t the “asshole of the age.”  He just wants to help.

I’d like to end this blog post with a clip from the film Walk Hard where Ramis plays a Hasidic Rabbi who, in this scene, visits, Dewey, the main character, in prison.  Dewey is a parody of the American rock star who rises to fame, but ends up in hard times.  In an ironic twist, he speaks to him in Yiddish and Dewey replies in kind.

Here’s the rough translation:

Rabbi: Lean closer, I want to talk to you in mother tongue for the guards should not understand what I’m saying.

Dewey: You must be able to do something. I am not yet 21 years old. My whole life is waiting for me.

Rabbi: I think we need to do a retreat.

Dewey: How can we do that?

Rabbi:  You must go to a rehab

I recently noted that Woody Allen, in Take the Money and Run, briefly plays a Hasidic Rabbi. But that scene emerges out of a joke: it is a “side effect” of a drug he is asked to take in prison.  Here, however, we find something different.  This Rabbi is a wise man who looks to help Dewey to live “a new life” the kind of life that he can live if he goes through rehab, that is, a transformation.

The twist, I think, is that the Rabbi initiates the change; he helps Dewey to change his old habits.  He helps him to look at himself differently and gives him hope.  For me, this is the keynote that Ramis hit at in his talk on Groundhog Day.  It articulates what he thinks of the Torah and what he thought of his greatest film.  The idea is not simply (or only) that the white American guy realizes that he is an asshole and he can share the world with others, as the author of the Village Voice article suggests; it’s also that the this realization or rather transformative thought is scripted by a Jewish filmmaker and screenwriter named Harold Ramis.  He brought his Jewish wisdom to his films and, hopefully, this blog post steps in the direction of better understanding how this was so.  To be sure, Ramis’s own words – which I brought out above – suggest that we do so.

After all, the movie may not change, but we do. But the other side of this is that the movie, if read closely, can also prompt us to see who we are and to change our lives.  Herein lies the wisdom of a good script and a close reading, something Jews have, for centuries, been familiar.  What Ramis has done is to make this structure popular; he has created an offshoot of Jewishness.  And he has done it in an American style.

A Brief Note on Varieties of Schlemiel Experience: Coen Brothers, Gary Shteyngart, and Judd Apatow

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As far as schlemiel theory goes, I’ve been writing on a variety of the schlemiels this week.  The differences between them are suggestive.  But, more importantly, I’m seeing that I identify more with one variety rather than another.  And the reasons I have for this identification speak most to what I find, today, most important about this character.    I hope that my identification resonates with other people since, to my mind, we now have a rare opportunity to understand how important the schlemiel can be – at this historical  moment -for prompting thought about what it means to be an American.  This thought, as I will argue, engages us in existential questions that are of great urgency.

A few days ago, I wrote a blog post on a trailer that Random House posted on Gary Shteyngart.  The point of the blog entry was to address a reading of the trailer made by Slate.   The author of the article claimed that the trailer failed miserably in attempting to make a gay joke vis-à-vis Shteyngart’s performance as a gay author with two husbands (played by James Franco and Jonathan Franzen).  I felt the repeated characterization of this trailer as the product of “lazy” thinking was a red herring.  Instead of presenting an argument it presents that author’s preference for gay jokes told about a James Franco who, in his mind, authentically attempted to embody gayness in a recent celebrity roast.   This aside, I felt that the real issue was the characterization of Shteyngart as a schlemiel (a “little failure”) in this trailer for his book by the same name.

To this end, I looked at how the trailer – by way of the schlemiel -offers a critique of success and masculinity.  This is what I call the “meaning of failure.”  However, the truth of the matter is that the critique is mild.    I wouldn’t exactly call it the product of “lazy thinking” so much as a similar concession to a market that filmmakers like Judd Apatow have taken full advantage.

To be sure, Judd Apatow’s schlemiels – in films like Forty Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Super Bad – may be failures but they are all, ultimately, commercial successes.  And, in contrast to the schlemiel we see played by Gary Shteyngart, his schlemiels end up, at the end of the film, winning.  Regardless, both varieties of schlemiels in Shteyngart’s tailer and Apatow’s films are charming.  Their failure doesn’t hit home to hard.  It isn’t what I’d call existential.  And, ultimately, there is little we can gain from it save for a kind of snarky, comic titillation.   This brand of schlemiel comedy can be seen in shows like Big Bang Theory and in nearly every Will Farell film.   There is little that can be said about this save for the fact that it simply maintains a status quo and instead of prompting change it creates a new norm in which schlemiels-are-one-of-us.  They may not be the likes of James Franco or Jonathan Franzen – “real men” who seek out “truth” and live out the “erotic” – but they are, like all of us, a little deluded by their hopes.  Nothing too disturbing is at work, here.  No.  In the end, all of this schlemiel comedy is feel-good-comedy.  Americans can laugh a little at their schlemiel-keit and still feel good about their misperceptions.  We can face the day without any anxiety or sadness.

In contrast to these varieties of schlemiel, I was fortunate to have seen the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis this week.  In this film, we see another variety of schlemiel that, to my mind, deserves more elaboration.   As I noted in yesterday’s blog entry, J. Hoberman decided to read the film – and all other Coen Brother’s films – in terms of the schlemiel.   His reading of the schlemiel sees this character as the subject of his own demise since he is blind to the things he does and brings on his own bad luck.  However, as Hoberman also notes, he is also is the subject of bad luck that is not of his own making.   To be sure, one might think he is a shlimazel (the subject of bad luck) since he is hit with so much bad luck (indeed, one of my friends tweeted me that he thought Hoberman was wrong: Llewyn Davis wasn’t a schlemiel, he was a shlimazel.)

The reason I identify more with the Coen Brothers film is because the schlemiel they show us is not of the feel-good type.  Davis’s misperceptions, false-hopes, and failures are not laughable in the same way they are with Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen et al.  Rather, they are painful to watch.  And, as I noted, yesterday, what makes him a schlemiel is not so much his charm or this or that redeeming quality so much as the possibility that, at the end of the film, he may have hope.  But more to the point, he is a schlemiel because he persists – despite the fact that the odds are against him.  But this persistence is permeated with weariness and failure.

The range of identifications we have with Davis is much more complex than any of the feel-good schlemiel films.  To be sure, I left the film thinking about myself: my false hopes, failures, my family, and the America that helped to foster my dreams.  I didn’t leave any Judd Apatow film with these thoughts.  On the contrary, I could go home feeling good about myself.

One of the great insights I left the film with was that we need to look into what is outside Llewyn Davis (outside the schlemiel) so as to understand what is inside him.  The Coen Brothers cast him in relation to failed artists, his decaying family, outsiders, and a long-journey from New York City to Chicago and back again.  His schlemiel character is defined against this outside which exudes hopelessness, hardness, and decay.  His false hopes, in many ways, are a response to this outside.  They protect him from being destroyed by this outside.  However, this protection is thinned out as the film goes on.

The more weary he grows, the more he realizes that the hopes he had set up for himself were out of tune with what was possible.  However, we see that it is not simply his fault.  The fact that he actually does make an album shows us that his hopes were nurtured by an industry.  But, as we see, this industry could care less about him.  And when he arrives in Chicago this hits home.  To be sure, his long journey there reminds me of what happens to the main character of James Joyce’s classic story “Araby”: the time the character has to wait before arriving at his destination wears away at his passion so much so that when he arrives he realizes that he was running on false hope.

To be sure, during the trip to and back from Chicago Llewyn shows us a schlemiel who realizes that he has failed on many levels. But the twist is that, though this is the case, he still goes on hoping and being a schlemiel (albeit with reduced hopes).

J. Hoberman, in his review of the film, thinks that this film has resonance with Bruce Jay Friedman’s novel, Stern.  But, after seeing the film,  I think the better reference is to Bernard Malamud.  Ruth Wisse points out that Malamud’s schlemiel’s also fail but they go through an existential process of coming to terms with these failures.  Yet, like this film, they still remain schlemiels.

Wisse tells us that Malamud’s “interest” in the schlemiel has “not been sociologically determined.   Alone among American writers he has fixed on the Jews as representative man – and on the schlemiel as the representative Jew.  His Jewish Everyman is an isolated, displaced loner, American in Italy, Eastern in the West, German refugee in America, bird among bipeds”(110).  And there is a challenge to the status quo in his work:  “Malamud sees the schlemiel condition as the clearest alternative to the still-dominant religion of success”(111).   But the alternative is based on becoming cognizant of one’s failure and delusions: “The character courageous enough to accept his ignomity without being crushed by it is the true hero of Malamud’s opus, while the man playing the Western hero without admitting to his real identity – Jewish, fearful, suffering, loving, un-heroic – is the absolute loser”(111).

Wisse’s final distinction can be applied to the Coen Brother’s Llewyn Davis.  Everything he touches “turns to shit,” he is a good musician, but he is not the hero of folk music.  By the end of the film he “admits” to this.  And we see this in the scene where, after leaving the venue where Bob Dylan is playing (for the first time), he is beat up by the husband of a woman-musician he lashed out at when he – for a moment – threw all his dreams away.

Sitting on the sidewalk and watching the cab drive away, with Dylan playing in the background, Davis, for the first time in the film, smiles.  And by doing so, he accepts his “real identity” as a ‘fearful and suffering man” who has no right to take away the dreams of others.

I want to add to this by pointing out that this, in contrast to the possibility of becoming successful with Bob Dylan, is what makes him a schlemiel.  He is a schlemiel because he fails, grows bitter, and accepts it.  At this moment, what is outside Llweyn Davis goes inside.   Still, it is up to us to decide whether or not all of his bad luck is redeemed by the possibility of Dylan.

To be sure, this decision is based on our historical situation and the place of hope and cynicism in our society, today.  The brief moment at the end of the film may, for us, be outweighed by the rest of the film and, in that case, Davis may come across as yet another American casualty.   On the other hand, this brief moment may come across as a moment of hope. This all depends on how we see ourselves in history.  Malamud, it seems, finds the power of freedom – the power to accept one’s bad luck – as the definitive moment.   And this, it seems, would be in defiance of history.  On the other hand, what might matter most is how we, and not the characters, in this historical moment, have to say about hope and cynicism.

Regardless of how you look at it, the fact of the matter is that this variety of the schlemiel – as opposed to the other varieties I have mentioned above – prompts these questions.  To be sure, we need more schlemiels of the Coen Brothers and Bernard Malamud type today.  These other schlemiels simply make us feel good about ourselves; in contrast, their schlemiels prompt us to think, become anxious about who we are, and to seriously address the meaning of hope and cynicism in America. The “land of dreams” gives birth to schlemiels, but it also destroys them and enables them to destroy themselves.  It also gives them an opportunity to ask questions about existence that, in other countries, are simply not possible.

Regarding My Blog Entry on the Rogen/Franco Parody

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I’m happy to see that yesterday’s blog post on the Rogen/Franco Parody of Kanye West’s “Bound Two” video has prompted some response.   What I’d like to do in this blog entry is address the questions and concerns of some readers regarding the post.

First of all, in my blog entry I acknowledged that this video was a shot-for-shot parody. That’s obvious.  What I wanted to do was to bring in the extra-added element of the fact that Rogen often plays schlemiels (I have written several blogs on this – see here for more); and, given this fact, I wondered how or if this parody could be fit within the context of his other schlemiel-roles.  Is he still playing a schlemiel?  And what kind of schlemiel?

Next, I never said James Franco was not Jewish in my blog entry.   He is.  But I didn’t discuss his Jewishness because I was focusing mainly on Seth Rogen who, as I noted in the blog entry, plays the greater schlemiel.  Indeed, I do see both of them as schlemiels, but Rogen more so than Franco because Rogen embodies passivity (like many a schlemiel).  To be sure, both are a schlemiel-team which is a lot like the husband/wife schlemiel couple that has a precedent in Yiddish Literature.  Indeed, I suggested this parallel in mentioning Mendele Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the IIIrd.    But perhaps I should be more explicit in saying that in that story, as in this video, both characters are schlemiels and both are Jewish (although, in this video, the Jewishness is obviously not central; I’ll return to this below).  Likewise, in Benjamin the IIIrd, one character, named Senderl, is more “feminine” than the other.  To be sure, he is called, in relation to the other schlemiel, Benjamin, a “housewife.”   Senderl is a feminine man-child.  We see this, clearly, at the first part of the Yiddish novel.  Speaking of Senderl, as a replacement for his wife, the narrator notes:

He also had to peel the potatoes and make the noodles, clean and stuff the firsh, carry the firewood to the stove, just like any housewife – and the folks had in fact nicknamed him die Yiddine, “Senderl the Housewife.”  And it was this Senderl the Housewife whom our Benjamin had chosen as confidant.  Why Senderl, of all people, you ask?  Because Benjamin, for some reason or other, had always felt drawn toward him….It’s quite possible, too, that Benjamin took into consideration Senderl’s lack of resistance; Senderl would be bound to agree to his plan and submit to all his wishes. (39)

This passage shows quite clearly that a schlemiel was and can be portrayed as a “woman” of sorts.  It also shows that, in relation to the other schlemiel, the more feminine schlemiel has a “lack of resistance” and is “bound to agree.”  This passivity is played on in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s book.  But, as I noted in yesterday’s blog entry, it doesn’t predominate at the end. The schlemiel is not entirely passive because the schlemiel (here Senderl) or the narrator (on the schlemiel’s behalf) has witty words to save him from total passivity.

Given this situation, I argued that Rogen’s passivity seems to overshadow that of his Yiddish ancestor.  Some people objected to this by saying that this is simply a parody and nothing more.  In addition, they noted that it is not Jewish.

In response, I’d like to point out the following:  1) we are dealing with what Daniel Itzkovitz would call “new schlemiels” and these schlemiels are more or less “empty shells” of the old schlemiel; instead of challenging the “political and philosophical” status quo – which is what the traditional schlemiel, for Wisse and Itzkovitz, did – they are the status quo; 2) how can one exclude the context of Rogen’s entire career (which is entrenched in playing the schlemiel) as if it weren’t relevant (that’s like excluding the context of a writers work when reading one of his works, and that’s inconsistent); and 3) why can’t parody draw on the schlemiel?  In fact don’t we see parodies at work throughout schlemiel fiction, film, and stand-up?  Take Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971) for instance.

Now, regarding these points and rhetorical questions, I’d like to suggest that we are dealing with a “new schlemiel” which – whether Rogen intended this or not – differs from the old schlemiel in Benjamin IIIrd (and a whole tradition of effeminate schlemiels that followed).  Although this schlemiel is an “empty shell” of sorts, it does show a shift, at least in this moment, toward nearly total passivity.  On this note, I’d like to make a suggestion: I’ll grant that Rogen is not simply parodying the video, but if we were to take a closer look, we could see that he is giving a critique of sorts of Kardashian’s passivity in the video. Though she winks and gives sexy looks to Kanye, she is ultimately being ridden.  Perhaps viewers will overlook that, but that will be to the chagrin of many feminists who, for decades, have been making the portrayal of women as passive subjects an issue.

If manliness is no longer an issue in our society – and being a man-child or an effeminate male is accepted – then this video is harmless. If it’s not an issue, than Rogen’s presenting a challenge.

From what I have seen and heard, people just want to read this as a parody of a video. And no one has pointed out this possible gender challenge that has some basis in a Yiddish tradition that Rogen and Franco, most likely, have no knowledge of.  That said, I’m simply noting how their approach to comedy has deeper resonances in the Yiddish and Jewish-American tradition of the schlemiel which often trades with the effeminate male whose dreams (and this video is surreal) don’t mix with reality.

We see something similar in these videos: Kim and Kanye, on the one hand, and Franco and Rogen, on the other, are both on a journey through open spaces and their dreams (or rather, fantasies)  don’t fit with reality.  We see both traits, quite clearly, in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the Third but in a wholly other, Jewish context.  In America, this kind of narrative, or so it seems, has been generalized and can be had by just about anyone.

The question for me, however, is the same with regards to this schlemiel and that question is: when it comes to the schlemiel, when does passivity become total abjection?  When, in other words, does the schlemiel lose its “freedom” and “dignity?”  Does Rogen mock that freedom or is he just doing parody?  Are his sexy looks sufficient to give the character some agency?

The Schlemiel Does Kardashian and Gets Done by Franco: On Seth Rogen and James Franco’s “Bound 2” Video

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Is Seth Rogen giving the schlemiel a bad name or…another name?  To be sure, I’ve written several blog-entries on Rogen-as-Schlemiel.  Before I saw Rogen and Franco’s parody of Kanye West’s Latest video, I was already on Rogen’s trail.  And, to my understanding, he, along with Judd Apatow and others, were looking to revise the schlemiel character.  Their formula – the same formula used by Woody Allen since Hollywood Ending (2002) and Anything Else (2003) – was to cast the main character as a schlemiel (a half-man) in the beginning of the film, but by the end of the film he would become a man.   This contrasts to Woody Allen’s older formula – which we see in Zelig or Annie Hall, amongst other films – which is to cast a main character who starts and ends the film as a schlemiel.  This formula is actually older than film; to be sure, we find it in Yiddish folklore and throughout Yiddish and Jewish-American fiction.  However, some authors, like Phillip Roth, have decided to leave this character behind in their later novels.  Despite this, the schlemiel lives on in fiction, film, and television.  Even the famous talk-show star, Howard Stern often reminds his audience (which numbers in the millions) that regardless of how successful he is, he is still “half-a-man” (that is, still a schlemiel).

Rogen, it seems, is confused about whether he should cast himself as a half-man becoming a full man – as we see in Knocked Up (2007), Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) or The Green Hornet (2011) – as a half-man becoming a little more of a man – as in Guilt Trip (2012), or as a man who has his share of bad luck – as in Take this Waltz (2011).  Now, with this video, we can add another position: casting himself as a woman (namely, Kim Kardashian).

By casting himself as a woman or gay (both?), Rogen, it seems, is taking the schlemiel into new territory.  And he is disseminating a new image of this character on a wide basis.  After all, the video has seen over 2 million views over the last 24 hours and will likely get more hits over the next day or two.

But is this new ground?

It’s not.  To be sure, the schlemiel has often been cast as an effeminate character.  This goes back to Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Yiddish novel Benjamin the III.  In that novel, written in the mid-19th century, the main character plays a Don Quixote kind of character who models himself on the tales of Benjamin of Tudela who is best known for his travelogue. This book – apparently written in the 12th century – was based on his ten years of travel around the world.   He describes the world to his Spanish compatriots.  But in Sforim’s book, the schlemiels think they will go on a similar journey when, in fact, they don’t even leave the “Pale of Settlement” – an area where Jews were, for over a century, confined.  In the novel Benjamin refers to his make travel partner as his wife and at times trials him like a wife. And his partner goes along with it, too.

Following this novel, we see more and more effeminate portrayals of the schlemiel.  To be sure, this character is often cast as half-a-man and is more sensitive and vulnerable than others.  And although Milton Berl cross-dressed, he always retained his male aspects by way of his speech.   As Ruth Wisse points out, regardless of how vulnerable they are – or even if they cross-dress – schlemiels often win an “ironic victory” over the world and history which excludes them; but they don’t do this by being entirely passive.  They do this by way of speech.   As many a schlemiel joke or story will show you, the schlemiel is a master of words and loves to play with them.   In this, at the very least, there is something redemptive.  A Jews dignity, though trampled on in this or that story, is retained through such verbal humor. And this comic act, so to speak, indirectly speaks truth to power.

What Seth Rogen has done here, however, is to make himself totally passive.  To be sure, he, like Kim Kardashian in the video, doesn’t really say anything.  Kanye or James Franco speak; Kim and Seth are submissive.   And they are both being ridden by a man.  They are both in a Missionary kind of position –even though, for all intents and purposes, it’s on a surreal motorcycle.

In addition to this, I’d say that Rogen is not the first “heavy” schlemiel.  There are many others before him – although many people often associate the schlemiels body with wiry people like Woody Allen, Jack Benny, or Ben Stiller (to name just a few).    Regardless, in comparison to Kim Kardashian’s “perfect” body, we see Rogen’s hairy and heavy body as its anti-thesis. And when Rogen makes sexy faces, we can’t help but snicker.

But the joke is really on Rogen and the schlemiel.  It is not on Kanye and Kim.  And it isn’t even on James Franco.  If anything, the schlemiel may cross-dress or play the half-man in many novels, films, or stand-up routines.  But what a schlemiel won’t do is lose speech, which is the schlemiel’s greatest ally since it keeps total passivity at bay.

For this reason, I had a hard time watching this only as parody (which it obviously is) since, in many ways, it seemed to be effacing the schlemiel I have grown to love and even respect.  So, while Kanye and Kim may have found it funny, I don’t.  Because the joke is ultimately on the schlemiel, not them.