Rebellious Yells

Published on November 11th, 2017

Alex writes about Battle of the Sexes and Brad’s Status.

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To say that I was mildly perturbed while watching Battle of the Sexes is an understatement. This was a movie featuring countless actors I thoroughly enjoy, it was a story about a real life figure I already find interesting, and it was a film written and directed by a pair of filmmakers whose previous work is one of my favourite films of the decade. I was fully in the tank for Battle of the Sexes before the screening ever began. And then characters kept turning almost directly at the camera and shouting the themes of the movie at me. Again, I was more than mildly perturbed.

To say I truly hated Battle of the Sexes would be untrue; Emma Stone is fantastic in it, Steve Carrell is even better, and any moment when Natalie Morales and Howard Cosell were on screen together was fantastic. Fred Armisen turns a simple arm massage into a truly hilarious moment. But this movie just could not stop telling me what to think, and all of my annoyance was compounded by the fact that directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris let me figure the same things out for myself in 2012.

I have written about Dayton & Faris’ previous outing – Ruby Sparks – before on this site, but that was five years ago (and has been scrubbed from the internet because it had a mildly negative effect on my personal life). As a refresher, here is what that movie was about: a male writer creating a woman in his book who then comes to life, and then that man tries to tell that woman what to think as they enter a relationship together. The climax of the movie, featuring the most exciting shots of a typewriter since All the President’s Men, depicts said writer realizing that holding these beliefs is problematic. So, he actively sets out to wipe them from his mind. And if this sounds like a generalization, know that it is; the movie never tells you any of these things, it merely shows them to you and leaves you to sort out the rest.

Written by Zoe Kazan and expertly directed by Dayon & Faris, the movie is funny, engaging, and deeply criticizes the archetype of the male writer (and males in general) as well as the concept of the manic pixie dream girl (and perception of women in general). In short, it is fucking fantastic. I would call it a forgotten classic, but a film has to be remembered to be forgotten, and nobody seemed to want to dedicate the necessary headspace to Ruby Sparks. Perhaps that’s why Dayton & Faris, when finally given a chance to make another film, decided they wanted to yell their points at us. Perhaps this way they could be heard.

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In 2017 came White’s first new works since Enlightened’s cancelation, Beatriz at Dinner and Brad’s Status. (He also has a screenplay credit on The Emoji Movie, which almost makes me curious to see The Emoji Movie.) For Beatriz at Dinner he wrote the script for longtime collaborator Miguel Arteta to direct, and in the case of Brad’s Status, White directed the film himself. Each movie uses elements of Enlightened’s tremendous score, which – combined with the themes of each piece of work – helps the two films and TV show form a sort of awkward trilogy, a trilogy of Mike White’s views on modern adult existence.

Enlightened approaches this in the most interesting way of the trio, as Dern’s Amy Jellicoe goes from somebody on an upper rung of the corporate ladder down to the bottom after having a mental breakdown. The way the show examines mental health issues through the lens of aspiration was (and remains) fascinating. Amy has her life changed so dramatically that she begins to realize that she might have been on the wrong side of the fence, and the show looks at both that transition and the more problematic elements of declaring yourself a person of the people.

Beatriz at Dinner is told from the perspective of somebody who was always on the bottom rung, and somebody who seems to have remained a good person her whole life. Salma Hayek’s Beatriz has no contradictions; she’s just normal and good. She never gives up her beliefs, but the world collectively giving up on those beliefs leads her to give up entirely herself.

Brad’s Status is about somebody on the upper middle rung, as Ben Stiller ponders his own (debatably) lost potential while taking his son on tours of various Boston colleges. Brad’s Status is a movie about the upper part of middling in pretty much every way – Brad is an upper middle class man, his son is in the middle of childhood and adulthood, and the movie itself is more middling than either of White’s previous two works. Its conclusions are simple and expected; the film is the most Hollywood thing White has written since School of Rock. But it is worth noting that it is a Hollywood-ish film made by a deeply (Emoji Movie screenplay credit notwithstanding) non-Hollywood man. Even Mike White’s cameo role in Brad’s Status illustrates this: he plays a successful movie director who went to college with Brad, but since we never see White outside of Brad’s own head, the implication is that there’s more failure and reality in his life than Brad seems able to believe. The idea behind all three movies is that one’s life is never what it seems from the outside, that Mike White’s house in California can’t possibly be that big.

The overused saying goes write what you know, and White seems to know what it’s like to feel insecure about one’s status, just as Dayton & Faris seem to feel society’s treatment of women is problematic. In the case of Dayton & Faris, they are still talking about the same thing in louder ways. In Mike White’s case, he is talking about the same thing in continually nuanced ways; Brad’s Status and Beatriz at Dinner are both about a lot of the same themes Enlightened was, but they’re all slightly different takes on the same idea. These are seasoned professionals and seasoned people existing in the world, and the worlds they create on film will continue to represent who they have become as they’ve aged. It has been a slow build for all of them – White never directed anything until 2007, Dayton & Faris first got a shot at a movie in 2006 after a full decade and a half of music video success – but they succeeded in a world that is borderline impossible to succeed in, and they will keep using that success to tell us what they think about the world as a whole. Sometimes their work will succeed more than others, but they will continue to try, because this is who they are now.

“At some point, you are who you are.” This is my recollection of something my accountant told me a handful of years ago, something that I think about from time to time, and have found myself thinking about even more over the past couple of years as its truth has become more and more self-evident. There is a stasis that develops in an adult existence, one that encourages you to find a comfort zone and remain within it. You simply get too tired to keep trying new, adventurous shit.

Earlier this week, James and I recorded a podcast about Richard Linklater’s duo of films Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some. The crux of the conversation hinged on whether or not we felt Linklater’s continued desire to return to a fictionalized version of his youth is problematic, and I think we settled on somewhere around 60/40 toward it being mildly problematic. But these are also the adult Linklater’s preoccupations – the effect time has on a person – so going back and trying his hardest to demythologize his own youth almost seems noble. The end of Everybody Wants Some features a professor writing FRONTIERS ARE WHERE YOU FIND THEM on the whiteboard, and our lead promptly falls asleep. The idea is, like in all things, you can’t truly learn anything until you figure it out for yourself, no matter how hard an authourity figure tries to teach it to you.

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This is an awkward transition, because I just typed “authourity figure” and am about to start talking about Eminem. But this is how it goes.

I wrote everything you read above over a week ago, perhaps as much as a week and a half ago. This is the part where you could previously find a section about Eminem’s anti-Trump verse at the BET Hip-Hop Awards cypher, a verse I did not appreciate (despite holding a deep appreciation of Eminem). The crux of the point was that when one yells their points at others, nobody really listens. Those on the opposing side will yell their own opposing opinions louder, while those who agree with the speaker merely get to add one more voice to their echo chamber. (This explains Keith Olbermann’s appreciation of the verse.) It was a piece of art that was meant to further a point, but nothing in it was artful. It was unwanted slam poetry at a terrible open mic.

But then the fervor over the verse went away, as things do, because I had to do the job I actually get paid to do before I could put the finishing touches on this essay. It was just another tweet from a person famous enough to keep an opinion in the online conversation for a couple days, but it doesn’t really matter. Eminem’s surely forthcoming album will surely disappoint all who have claimed him as a bastion of hope when his first proper single turns out to be 80% fart sound effects.

Battle of the Sexes is Eminem’s Trump verse. It is Dayton & Faris picking a point they believe in, telling it and retelling it every third scene, with but a few chuckles to space out the idiocy. Whether or not I agree with the thesis is immaterial; the construction of it is faulty from moment one. This is why White’s work in the 2010s resonates with me. Even when the end product isn’t fantastic – Brad’s Status in this case – the willingness to subtly dole out his thoughts on modernity always is. But in each case, be it Eminem’s verse, or White’s television show/movies, or Dayton & Faris’ movies, the piece of culture came and went without a blip. Both sides of the nuance debate have been swiftly disposed of, drowned in a sea of unflinching disagreement and apathy.

One has to believe certain changes in the world can be corrected, that this sound and fury will signify something. But I find that hard to believe. More often than not, you are who you are.

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