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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

"Marriage Sory" is not a good movie

[Spoiler alerts: I reveal key plot details in "Marriage Story."]

"A Marriage Story," starring Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson, documents the divorce process a couple and their son go through. The husband is an up and coming New York theater director. The wife is an actor who may like to direct.

I did not like "A Marriage Story," but I'm not sure why. I enjoyed it while watching it. But the movie as a whole left me with mixed feelings, and not in the way that a movie about divorce is supposed to leave me with mixed feelings. I felt that the movie wanted me to like and care about the main characters but that the main characters were unlikable, even on the movie's terms. Johansson and Driver each has legitimate grievances against their spouse and the way their marriage has played out. Maybe those grievances are even divorce-worthy.

But the characters don't seem to care about anything other than themselves. They don't seem to care about their son. The films creators don't seem to care about their son, either. He's a prop in a "children are the real victims of divorce" sermon, but even that sermon, as true as it is, falls flat. We don't see either the father or mother make any decisions for the interests of their son. Instead, they pursue their own interests and by the end their son seems to be adequately happy with the new way of doing things. We don't know why or how, we just know, to paraphrase the summary Netflix gives us, they're now a family coming together after it has fallen apart.

There's also a ridiculous scene where Driver's character sings what is probably a movie or theatre classic. (The--mostly fawning--reviews of the film I've read so far say that it's a Sondheim song.) It comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere. Its function seems to be to tell us that Driver's character is suffering emotional pain. As the old adage goes, the film should show, not tell, us that type of thing.

One success of the film is Alan Alda's character. He plays the husband's first lawyer. As a lawyer, he is appropriately expensive (requiring a $10,000 retainer), but he has his client's interest at heart and realizes that going for the jugular in the divorce proceeding doesn't serve his client or his client's son very well. Alda further realizes that divorce laws, as inconvenient as they are for Adam Driver's character, were designed to help women who's exes skip out on child support.

That's a commentary on the upper-class bias in the film. That bias goes over the heads of the characters and maybe even the heads of the show's creators. One challenge the film faces is to make the audience care about people who in real life would look down on them, with jokes and tsk-tsk's about culturally insensitive philistines or inhabitants of flyover country who "probably voted for Trump anyway." (My words, not theirs.) No matter how well-done the film, that challenge would be there regardless. I'm not sure it's even possible to overcome that challenge completely. But the film, with the exception of Alda's observation, doesn't seem to try, and the film's creators don't seem to even acknowledge it's a challenge.

Should you see it? Well, if you have Netflix anyway, it's probably worth spending the two hours or so to see if you agree with me. But I wouldn't recommend going out of your way.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The bro dudes and those women

(Originally written for Hitcoffee circa July 2016)

Nice guys like to think they're peculiarly disadvantaged when it comes to love, sex, and dating. And they're none too fond of the competition, either. But Nice guys aren't as nice as they think.
I used to think I was a nice guy. I was wrong. I used to think my only shortcoming was social awkwardness. I was wrong again.

My first mistake was not realizing how off-putting "mere" social awkwardness can be. The evidence was right before me. I knew people even more socially awkward than me, and I didn't like to be around them. If they were socially awkward enough, I might talk about them behind their back, or make fun of them, or not hang out with them. Awkwardness is unfair and difficult to shed. As the song says, "nobody wants to know you now and nobody wants to show you how." But I was just as guilty of acting against others' awkwardness as my dating interests were to mine. Why should I have expected more of them than I did of myself?

My second mistake was not realizing I had greater problems than social awkwardness. To be sure, I said and claimed to believe (and probably on some level did believe) all the right things. I believed it's wrong to objectify women, that gender discrimination is real, that sexual harassment happens, and that in most environments women disproportionately fear for their safety more than men do. All of that, I said/claimed to believe/(probably believed) ought to enter into the equation when it comes to such things as love, sex, and dating.

But in practice I objectified women without realizing--or more honestly, without admitting to myself--that I was doing it. More important, I also had and have anger issues and control issues. I won't go into them here. My point is that those qualities were potentially creepy and definitely not "nice." On the one hand, they can be chalked off to youth and inexperience. But on the other hand I had work to do and as long as I believed I was a nice guy that wasn't going to happen.

At the same time that the work wasn't happening because I still thought I was a nice guy, one convenient foil for my frustrations was the "bro dude," although I'm not sure I've ever used that exact term and probably didn't even encountered it until about a year ago. The bro dude is a jerk. He's crass, rude, and a bit of a slob....but women love him. He comes out ahead but doesn't deserve it while the nice guy finishes last.

But just as I was mistaken about myself, I was mistaken about "bro dudes," too.
My definition of "bro dude" was too broad. Pretty much anyone I didn't like and who had a girlfriend qualified. And "anyone I didn't like" often meant "anyone I perceived as competition."
Bro dudes weren't as boorish as I believed them to be. They evidently had something to offer the women who dated them. While women, like all people, sometimes make poor relationship choices, it's wrong to assume women aren't capable of living their own lives and making their own choices.

That assumption is inherent in anti-bro-dude'ism.

And boorishness isn't all bad. Maybe some of the behaviors I called boorish were just ways to be oneself and maybe some ways of me being myself seem boorish to others. What's more: Some behaviors I used to think were boorish were probably just the guy being willing to be honest with his emotions.

As an aside but not really an aside, boorishness--and being a "bro dude"--is often mistaken for stupidity. The "they're stupid" trope by itself is best kept at a distance. Nice guys love to imagine themselves as smart, but delicate flowers that need and deserve special treatment because of their alleged intelligence. They rarely stop to admit they may not be as smart, talented, or sensitive as they think they are. They even more rarely stop to think about the implications behind giving more intelligent people special treatment. There's an important sense in which "smart people should be given more respect (because they're smart)" is equivalent to "strong people should be given more respect (because they're strong)."

I guess my moral is "if you feel you're being especially oppressed because of how good you are, maybe you're not either oppressed or good." "Bro dudes" aren't to blame. They might not even really be "bro dudes."

Now, my parting caveats and CYA concessions.

I've overgeneralized. I admit it.

Yes, there probably really are guys who have a lot to offer and aren't as appreciated as they should be. There are definitely guys who are too controlling of their partners, and some are even more than just "too controlling." More likely, most men fall between those extremes, having something to offer but also having a full range of weaknesses and faults.

And yes, I still believe it's wrong to objectify women, that gender discrimination is real, that sexual harassment happens, and that in most environments women disproportionately fear for their safety more than men do. And I still believe all of that needs to be taken into account when it comes to love, sex, and dating.

And yes, I'm a straight, white, cisgender, upper-middle class, American....you get the picture.
Finally, I don't want to deny anyone's feelings of loneliness or awkwardness. It's legitimate to feel sad or distressed or frustrated. I think it's also understandable that such feelings sometimes translate into categorical bitterness against entire groups of people. And while we must draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable ways of expressing those feelings, it is usually be a good thing to withhold judgment and listen first.

Sunday, November 24, 2019