Monday, September 28, 2009

Funny People

As I mentioned in my post last night, I went and saw Funny People Sunday. The film by Judd Apatow stars Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen. It was my first experience of a Judd Apatow film and of an Adam Sandler film. According to the write up at IMDb, Apatow's goal was "making a very serious movie with twice as many jokes" as his previous comedy films. Well, if there were twice as many jokes as his previous efforts then they must have been very unfunny indeed and if this was meant as a serious film, a drama of some sort, well it didn't work with me either. As I said in my post on Sunday night, the film made me "feel more like an anthropologist or sociologist on a field trip. I also felt very queer, very alien and very naive all in one hit."

As a gay man, what struck me almost immediately watching this film was the, to me, very over the top aggressively homoerotic language that the male characters use towards each other. And lets face it this is a very homosocially male film. Women don't get that much of a look-in in the story but I'll come back to that.

The film is saturated with male characters - three of whom share an apartment in LA, another one of whom is the Sandler character, a most successful and disgustingly rich comedian who has been diagnosed with a life threatening disease, and a number of other minor characters - and just about all of them are portrayed as relentlessly competitive and describe this mutual rivalry in the most explicitly sexual, homosexual, terms. Not only Eve Sedgwick but also Carol Delaney and a suite of other anthropologists would have a field day with this film.

I kept wondering do straight United States men really talk to each other in this way, do they really describe their interactions in such sexual terms? All the male protagonists were referring to each other as generally fucking each other in the arse, sometimes in the mouth. In one exchange between the characters Ira and Leo, when Leo finds out that Ira had done the dirty on him, Leo says words to the effect of 'shall I put glasses on my ass so it looks like I'm blowing you when you're fucking me?'

Does this film, to all intents and purposes a 'serious' film, portray a reality of heterosexual male interactions in the US? Do straight USan guys usually and explicitly define their interactions as aggressively homosexual? Or maybe it's meant to be LA men or maybe a subset of Hollywood men, comedians and wannabe comedians. But then all the way through the film the dominant representation of sex and sexuality, at least as these characters understand it, is in terms of competition, rivalry, domination, each of the other.

Women in this configuration have little or no role to play. When Sanders' character, George, takes young Ira to his mansion with two women, George's whole intent is to fuck not one but both of these women not for any quality pertaining to the women but to demonstrate to Ira just how much power, how on top George actually is. This same attitude comes across at the local comedy club where Ira and other aspiring comics do stand up ( and which is where Ira and George meet). Before Ira is about to go on, the previous act comes off stage after wowing his audience (in a performance again with amazingly explicit and homoerotic sexual references) and passing Ira says "I fucked them!" as a statement of triumph. Once again, sex as control as domination. He's on top, he's successfully fucked his audience leaving them screaming for more. Implicit in his declaration, too, is "see if you can go better than that!" It's a rivalry thing, which man is on top of everyone.

Of course the man who is on top is George, the filthy rich successful comedian and actor. He lives in a palace by the sea served by a posse of Hispanic servants, with whom he has very little real connection as people. The film highlights this lack of connection in many ways but I'm not certain why. Granted George is a thoroughly atomised and disconnected being but it's not clear whether this is due to class or ethnicity with his staff or even if it really matters in the end. Because the whole gist is that George lives in a household full of people but none of them are on his level, none are his match. He can of course achieve a sort of camaraderie with some of his male gardeners, complimenting them on their work as a sign of their sexual prowess, a prowess almost as good as George's. But for the older and possibly only female staff member, George can barely achieve any sort of connection. She's only a woman and much older and past his sexual interest and so there is no connection possible. He speaks to her as if she might be a piece of furniture.

I kept wondering about these representations of male male interaction and male female interaction. I'm not certain what you'd term it. If this film is meant as an accurate depiction of even one subset of life in the US then perhaps I can see why some of the culture wars, especially around homosexuality, are such a dominant feature of life in the US today. In this film it appears that the dominant cultural perception of sexuality between and amongst men is as a means of aggression, of rivalry, of mastery, of violence against each other. Actually I think such a perception is more widespread than a mere US thing - it clearly animates the Levitical proscriptions of anal sex between men and the accounts of attempted rape and rape in the Sodom and Gibeah stories. In a sense, sex between men is always configured as an act of rape. Love between men is just not possible.

The irony is, of course, that George, on learning that he might only have a few months to live, embarks on a classic male male romance when he sweeps up Ira, the hapless 'loser' [1] wannabe comedian, into his life. Probably the closest we come to any sort of intimacy in this film is when George insists on Ira sitting by his bed to talk with him as he goes to sleep. He can do so because he has hired Ira and so as his employer has full rights over him anyway (again a very ancient pattern especially for male householders). And so in some strange fumbling way a kind of intimacy is grasped at.

Intimacy is the one thing lacking in this film. None of the characters live in any sort of intimate relationship. Given too that all of the characters are meant to be straight, the portrait of heterosexuality that emerges is especially disturbing. Most of George's encounters with women are predatory. There is the great love of his life, Laura, but in their whole interaction they might as well be aliens from different worlds. Laura is married and a mother and while they might for a while revive old romanticisms, it is clear that the expectations are totally different. Furthermore, there is Clark, Laura's husband. Again there is a rivalry between men, this time as to who will provide the household for Laura and her children, whose life will Laura adorn. Intimacy is not really a part of the equation here not to mention any sort of relationship, erotic or otherwise, of respect between men and women.

The most curious aspect of the film's sexual world was the sub-plot of sex as consumption as befits late capitalist society. In this configuration women and men, have some kind of parity. [2]. The young aspiring comedian, Daisy, represents this world along with Ira's flatmate, Mark, who is curiously the softest of all the male characters in the film (although still extremely competitive and predatory). Ira is angry to discover that Mark and Daisy have had sex even though Ira had wanted to go an a date with Daisy. Mark had warned Ira that he only had a set time limit after which Mark would make his move on Daisy. George's demands mean that Ira never gets to have that date and then discovers that Mark and Daisy have had sex. However, in an interesting twist Daisy asserts her own right as a sexual consumer, against Ira's hurt, to decide to have sex with Mark. So in this case it's not a matter of Mark configured as predator on Daisy but a mutual act of consumption. It might well be the case that Ira and Mark are playing keeping up with the Joneses in their desire for Daisy but Daisy also sees Mark as a worthwhile object of consumption she must have too. So a kind of male-female mutuality occurs and female agency to boot.

However the film ends with Ira now the up and coming star and so he gets his girl, Daisy. It's almost like the stock happy ending. But is this mutual consumption or is Daisy now swept away with Ira's new found topness, he having now been imbued with George's aura? For George and Ira have also changed their roles with each other. George now writes material for Ira, not because he has to but because he wants to. Their relationship has advanced to a stage of the old homo-erotic ideal of love between older and younger that the whole film, at the same time, so vigorously disavows. In the homo-erotic ideal, the older and younger achieve a kind of parity, the older helping and supporting the younger so that the younger can blossom. Something of that happens here. But there is no real eros between Ira and George unless Ira's rebellion against George and subsequent sacking takes the place of erotic union. So once again male relationships are configured as struggle, rivalry and domination. The only real chance for intimacy between men is in conflict and struggle. As for intimacy between men and women, well, in this world it just doesn't exist at all, except by a process of capitalist mutual consumption. No wonder Irigaray argues that heterosexuality does not exist, has yet to be developed.

I've said that many aspects of the film's depiction of male male relationships and male interactions with women can apply across the board to a range of cultures and eras but I still wonder whether the explicitness of such things as the homo-aggressive-erotic are a feature of aspects of US society and thus account for the especially charged nature of socio-cultural debates concerning homosexuality and gender in that country. I'm open to be guided by USan folks on that point.

But I think the film does expose some of the contradictions and failures of what I might term heteronormativity in deference to Irigaray. If I could have been able to care for these people then I might have felt sadness for them. Instead I felt like a complete outsider, utterly disengaged, which left me with a more inchoate and disturbed sadness, not for anyone in particular, perhaps for all of us who have to deal with this very twisted and destructive heteronormative order.

[1] I regard 'loser' as an especially pernicious capitlaist derogatory term.

[2] I think in late capitalsim the implicit monogendered framework has shifted from the older model of (male) householder to a somewhat more inclusive one of consumer. It draws on the older (male) householder model but is somewhat more inclusive in that women and others can be counted as consumers and can thus play as well ,on a relatively equal basis, so long as they maintain their status as consumers.

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