Monday, January 14, 2008

Kerri Russell in Waitress

On Female Humor and Film

First off, I just want to give a little GO FUCK YOURSELF shout-out to Christopher Hitchens and Judd Apatow.

I've been watching a ridiculous amount of pregnancy-centric films lately. From Juno to Waitress, to--and this is what's gotten me all riled up--Knocked Up. In this post I'd like to use the recent "unwanted pregnancy" genre of film as a litmus test to see if, as Christopher Hitchens claims, women just aren't funny.

Everyone in the world (except for a handful of well-read, moderate feminists with kick-ass senses of humor) has told me Knocked Up was a really funny, really smart commentary on female/male relationships.

But I found Knocked Up, much like Superbad and the 40 Year Old Virgin, to be incredibly amateurish, with their half-baked plot lines and scatological junior high sensibilities. Apatow's like writer/director Noah Baumbach's illegitimate, retarded half-brother, basically. And boy, I'm sure he praises the day that idiots like the Farrelly Brothers paved the way with their base level of potty humor, nicely packaged in the romcom category and ready to be vomited up to the masses.

But unlike fleeting moments in Farrelly flicks, Apatow's films are wholeheartedly remiss of any charm, or even actors who are capable of memorizing lines. And unlike Baumbach's work, they delve into the complicated world of hetero relationships without an ounce of understanding of the female psyche. Even Knocked Up star Katherine Heigl didn't like Apatow's portrayal of women and found it sexist.

So while the rest of the world sings Apatow's praises, does this make mean I lack a sense of humor? Am I at odds with the comedic zeitgeist?

Oh pray tell, Mr. Hitchens, what's wrong with me?

I mean, I must be lacking a sense of wit--who wouldn't find barfing, derogatory use of the word vagina, women leaking menstrual blood, women who are overly hormonal due to the LIFE-GIVING PROCESS, men calling each other gay, 30-something men who like to play video games and make fart jokes just HILARIOUS?!

And who wouldn't think a story about a gorgeous blond bombshell with a high profile career who pursues a 23 year-old jobless, porn-obsessed stoner who is fat, humorless, intellectually-devoid, hairy and painfully unattractive and doesn't wear contraception and could have given her AIDS isn't incredibly funny?

I'm sorry, but I became incredibly depressed after watching Knocked Up the other day. Film critic Joe Queenan, writing for the Guardian, explains why a film like this can make a girl like me so sad:
The new genre of romantic comedies are not really upbeat, coming-of-age motion pictures about young male schmucks who are saved by the love of a good woman, but heart-rendering tragedies about beautiful young women who are doomed to spend the rest of their lives with juvenile, not especially good-looking dorks...Denby [of the New York Times] and a host of critics may have found Knocked Up "raucously funny"; I think women need to start their own film industry: this one isn't working.
The other point that Knocked Up seems to make is that women, even the ones who work in television, exist for no other reason than to help men grow up, if necessary by having babies. As Denby notes, this is an idea that has been kicking around since the early Renaissance, when Dante Alighieri frantically sought salvation through the ministrations of his beloved Beatrice: men need women to inspire them to the loftiest creative and moral heights; otherwise they will fail miserably. But unlike Rogen, at least Dante had a job.

...Along the way, there are a lot of jokes about bodily functions, a lot of dialogue that is explicitly contemptuous of women, and a lot of profanity. This is a film for teenage boys who dream of growing up to be teenage men.
Fortunately, I was delighted and uplifted to watch two films recently (Juno and Waitress), which astutely and hilariously portray women in instances of unwanted pregnancy who, for one reason or another, decide to bypass the abortion option (I don't take particular issue, like many other women, with the fact that abortion was not completely considered by the main characters in these films. If it was, it would cut away from the humor and turn off many viewers. And I'm sure it's scary for a filmmaker to be labeled pro-life or pro-choice).

Not only are these female-centric films deeply funny to watch, but you don't feel guilty by the laughter. There's just too much heart involved. And both Juno and Waitress were written by women, an anomaly in Hollywood to be sure.

Unlike the crap that so many male misogynist filmmakers try to pass off as comedy, female humor comes from the heart; it's more complex, and does not need to degrade the world of bodily functions, female body parts, our mothers, or cliched film references.

Watch these two films and compare them to the trash Apatow's been slinging. That's all I ask. Also, watch this music video/preview from Juno, it's just so good.


gjg said...

Christopher Hitchens is a weird character. It seems to me that he's actually not that good at making reasoned arguments, but just has such a talent for rhetoric and a humorous argumentative style that he manages to sound coherent. It's kind of enjoyable (to me at least) when he uses it to deflate people's ridiculous pro-religion arguments, but when he gets into gender and sexism it's a pretty thinly veiled reiteration of all our culture's gender stereotypes, with no real point or convincing evidence.

Anyway, I thought that both Knocked Up and Superbad were funny, but I would hardly call them smart or insightful. I'm not sure why movies full of juvenile humor are suddenly getting a more respectful treatment - I mean, certainly, there were a few tender and genuinely moving moments in each movie, but the bulk of it is solidly "guy" humor of a pretty typical tenor.

Lately I've been watching some classic older romantic comedies like Some Like It Hot, Bringing Up Baby, and Funny Girl, and I think if you adjust your expectations a little for the social conventions of the time, these films actually present female characters in a much more progressive role, and place men and women on much more equal footing in terms of wit and humor. I don't know what's happened to Hollywood's sense of comedy, but it's definitely disappointing.

amityb said...

I completely agree about Hitchens. I enjoy it when he riles up the Religious Right, but other than that, I think he's a crackpot.

I guess juvenilia is really selling well in the film industry these days, and while I can accept it, I don't have to like the way women are represented. The idea that millions of people around the world are willfully looking at women and the act of childbirth through the eyes of a prepubescent boy and laughing it up is kinda frightening to me.

And you are right, Some Like It Hot, etc are quite progressive in comparison. And that really says something about Apatow and co.