New New Hollywood

I went to see the new film Vengeance. It is written by, directed and starring B.J.Novak. I wanted to see it because it is written by, directed and starring B.J.Novak.

B.J.Novak’s biggest role so far was in the US adaptation of The Office. Before then he’d been a stand-up comic, like a lot of the younger cast, and had seen the original BBC version and so was all ready to go with the idea of doing comedy in a slightly different mood for American TV. But I wasn’t bothered so much about any of that until I saw a copy of his short story collection One More Thing.

This is a wonderful work, as good as the best examples of comedians trying to write real books that aren’t compendiums of old stage routines or autobiographical interviews. His stand-up experience shows in a few places. Several stories refer to the types of acts he would have seen on the circuit, for example “Angel Echeverria, Comediante Superpopular”, about a Mexican-American stand-up doing observational material on supermarkets (“You only needed one great bit, and that was all he had. But that was all you needed.”). There is a stylistic influence: we get stories that just exist for one-liners or observations, not even filling a page. There are also longer stories that would work as routines, or as sketches. A lot of the material mines the experiences of college graduates, the world of stoners and social media, but also a little about young parents. Being a Harvard graduate he does of course bring some learning to his performance, but he plays it smartly, with some sly put-downs of callow youths who try to be too clever. The best stories stand comparison with Donald Barthelme’s work, and the collection culminated in a jolly bit of literary satire that nods to Borges.

Vengeance starts almost like an off-cut from One More Thing, with 2 guys in a bar in New York, running through a load of riffs about relationships and on-line dating and how life in Brooklyn kinda sucks and stuff. One of them is Ben Manalowitz, an ambitious young literary gunslinger who is published in New Yorker and looking to widen his brand by getting in to podcasting, talking about the great cultural divides between the Red States and the Blue States and all that. He can give a great performance of sincerity and shows he is aware of the problematic status of the supposely detached, “objective” commentator, and also the promises and pretensions of New Journalism. He probably did a college seminar about all that. Although we don’t get too much detail about his background, it’s quite likely he went to an Ivy like Novak, and studied modern literature and the theories of its problems and prospects. There’s a big fat book with the word SYMBOLS down its spine on the shelf in his bedroom. He is doing well enough to get to appear on panel discussions of the great social and media questions of the day, which seems to be about now and certainly some time after 2018 although there is no mention of the pandemic.

Whilst sleeping with his current hook-up, he gets a call from the brother of a previous passing lady-friend Abilene Shaw, telling him that she died and her funeral is in the next few days (her death was shown in the mysterious pre-New York opening sequence, as a body struggled across the Texan desert near some oil wells). It strikes me now there may be a plot hole here: how would Abilene’s brother have Ben’s number if her smartphone was locked with a code nobody else knew, and we are only able to unlock it near the end of the film? Never mind. Even though he never cared much about the young folk singer who came up to New York to try for a breakthrough in the East Village clubs, and failed and went back home and recorded some tracks he didn’t listen to either, he can now spy the chance to get out in to Real America and maybe score a big story. After a great comic set-piece of his appearance at Abilene’s funeral, struggling to make an impromptu tribute to her, he is on the phone to New York to say that he sees his chance at his own In Cold Blood and non-fiction bestseller and endless talk show and keynote speaker engagements. From now on, we get events in Texas in sequence with the assembly of his digital narrative segments by the team back up North.

The film does a great job of mixing plenty of Office-style comedy-of-embarrassment scenes with some serious and mock-serious moments. The Mexican gangster’s big secrets are that he liked Harry Potter books and he took his niece to an Adele concert; Ben cheers at the wrong moment when someone is talking about Texas, and gets called a patronising jerk when he tries to explain what a writer is. Of course the Texans aren’t as ignorant as he expects them to be, and in fact one of Abilene’s sisters knows the plots of Chekhov’s plays, whilst Ben the literary dude only knows a famous quote by the guy. The big surprise is the local recording studio owner Quentin Sellers, played by Ashton Kutcher, who turns out to be even better at the game of social observation and musing about the great declines and divisions of the different-coloured states.

One off-note in all this is that Ben himself can’t see the obvious ahead of him: the story is going to be more complicated and trickier than he expected, Abilene will turn out not to be who everyone thought she was. That’s how things played out in the film Adaptation, which he surely must know, and he must know that Meryl Streep’s character was also a New Yorker writer fond of broad generality but snared in a specific story of drugs and their secret trading. He must also know the story of Barton Fink, another aspiring New York writer who went out amongst the Common Man and found out he wasn’t who he thought he was, and he didn’t need him as an interpreter. The twists and developments in this plot are comfortably predictable and it’s odd that Ben can’t see them coming. That’s not a problem for the film as a whole because it looks like we’re steering toward a lesson about how smug liberal elites need a lesson… except that they can still break out and pull a surprise of their own. The soft boy gets toughened up but also he comes away with an achievement he can’t brag about.

If Ben sees himself as taking his inspiration from Joan Didion then that’s a terrible reading of Joan. One of her best non-fiction works was about the Central Park 5, and she certainly did not think the different narratives of guilt and innocence were simply co-existing options, but real moral alternatives. Her novels are full of characters losing their way because they try to live up to what they imagine is the Grand Narrative or grain of history of the age they are living in. Vengeance could be a Didion novel about the sad students who didn’t understand their class on Didion very well.

The lost character in this film is the dead singer Abilene Shaw herself. She only appears in video clips, there are no full flashbacks. Although not likely to be a conscious reference, she did remind me of Michelle Shocked, who also started as a protest singer in Texas, went to New York, and had her time as critic’s choice. But since then she got religious and fell in trouble for some comments about what she may or may not think about contentious issues. What’s true, what isn’t, who knows.

Elvis Presley is not mentioned explicitly, but there is an odd moment when Ben is talking to Quentin and the spine of a book about him is in the foreground. So for the banner image I chose the cover of a live album of his last tour in the mid 70s. The poster for this film seems a knowing nod back to the style of 70s film advertising, perhaps trying to make it look like a newly-rediscovered great work of New Hollywood. Joan Didion didn’t think much of that phase and she expressed her scepticism in Slouching Toward Bethlehem. I can’t post any pictures from the film as I couldn’t take any when I was watching it, so instead here’s one of the one-page stories from One More Thing:

I could have chosen the story “Quantum Nonlocality and The Death Of Elvis Presley” but that’s much longer.

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