Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Mais, ceci n'est pas une abortion movie!

Ann Hornaday, writing in the Washington Post this past Sunday, revisits the very strange argument made in the days immediately following the releases of Knocked Up (which I have seen), and Waitress (which I have not--I plan to, but I'm still a little too bummed out at Adrienne Shelley's death)--namely, that neither movie adequately presents abortion as a possible or plausible or potential outcome of getting, well...knocked up. I found this argument inane then and I find it even moreso now.

Part of the problem comes right out in Hornaday's headline (which was probably crafted by an editor, not Hornaday, but that's beside the point): "Pregnant With Meaning? Alas We Were Expecting More." Who's the "we," Ann? You and the mouse in your pocket? Speaking only for myself, going in to see Knocked Up, it did not even occur to me for a minute that I'd be seeing a movie in which the characters wrestled with abortion. I pretty much expected a movie in which the characters wrestled with pregnancy. And that's largely what I got, so...where's the problem, exactly?

Hornaday sez:

"But at their hearts, both deal -- or, rather, choose not to deal -- with a subject that dare not speak its name: abortion. Both films are predicated on unplanned pregnancies and both confect, through all manner of narrative conceits and messy logic, reasons for their female protagonists to carry their unwanted babies to term (and, in the case of "Knocked Up," wind up with so the wrong guy)."

I think Hornaday is having about as much luck finding the "heart" of the movie as President Bush has in his echocardiograms of Vladimir Putin. Why on earth is Judd Apatow naturally obligated to address the issue of abortion? He wrote a movie about two people who decide to have a baby. That's the story. If you have Kat Heigl and Seth Rogen's characters decide to abort the pregnancy, then the movie ends up being about twenty minutes long and not very funny. I'm not saying that you can't make a good movie about two people who decide to have an abortion, but that's another movie entirely.

Abortion, in fact, is briefly addressed in Knocked Up, and it's decided that it will not be an outcome of the character's choices, and the film moves on from there. What further ado is remotely necessary? Yes: in a comprehensive overview of the entirety of human gestation, abortion is a topic. But Knocked Up is not a comprehensive overview of a subject. It is a story, and, as such, requires a certain economy. Think about it: the infield fly rule is a subtopic in the game of baseball--is Bull Durham a failed movie because it fails to adequately address it?

The problem with many critics, is that they frequently go looking to find their particular hangups in everything. On this regard, Hornaday quotes Jennifer Merin, film critic, and the extent to which she misses the point is downright laughable:

"I think it's shocking that the subject of abortion as a choice has been so eliminated from the discussion," says New York Press film writer Jennifer Merin, who is also president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. "It's not even on the table." The omission, she adds, "undermines anyone's claim that Hollywood has a liberal agenda."
Oh, my! That's complete codswallop! Knocked Up hardly betrays the pro-choice cause, and one will find themselves on really tenuous ground if promoting abortion rights requires the artist to treat every depicted pregnancy with an abundance of skepticism. But, really: why must Apatow bend over backwards to "include" ANYTHING not germane to the story he's telling "in the discussion?" Why must all manner of sidebars be placed "on the table?" To make Jennifer Merin feel better?

This all reminds me of a discussion section I sat through in my Shakespeare survey class. We were reading Measure for Measure, and our TA kept promoting the discussion we'd be having on the play as a "chance to address this 'problem play' of Shakespeare's." Naturally, I was looking forward to finding out just what the goddamned problem was. I assumed that maybe we'd have a discussion of genre: the development of tragicomedy (Measure For Measure is not a "pure" comedy) in English playwriting. As it turns out, my TA's problem had nothing at all to do with genre: it had to do with the ending of the play. Her contention (some background, delivered hamhandedly: in the play, a Duke takes leave of his office and disguises himself in order to make a broad point about morality. In pursuit of his lesson, the Duke manipulates many of the other characters, including an innocent nun named Isabel) was that it was incredibly "problematic" for Shakespeare to have ended the play with the Duke and Isabel getting married, after he had put her through a harrowing emotional wringer (he nearly gets her deflowered and makes her believe until the last minute that her brother had been executed).

Well, after hearing that this was the problem, I had this conversation with the TA:

DCeiver: I'm sorry. I'm confused. You're saying the problem with this play is that Isabel marries the Duke?

TA: That's right.

DCeiver: OK. Where exactly does that happen?

TA: Well, the play ends before they get married.

DCeiver: Well, a better way to put it is that they do not, in fact get married, in the play.

TA: Yes. Not literally. But the marriage is something that's going to happen.

DCeiver: Sorry. I disagree. There's not a shred of textual evidence that you're right.

[The TA then reads the two passages in which the Duke proposes marriage.]

DCeiver: Yeah. I'm not completely stupid. Obviously he proposes. Your problem is that there's no assent on the part of Isabel. She doesn't have a line after the Duke makes his initial proposal. There's not even a stage direction that indicates Isabel assents to his proposal in any way.

TA: Well, so what. The problem is that Shakespeare even considers the possibility of them getting married.

DCeiver: I'm sorry, but you're wrong. Shakespeare doesn't consider any possibilities. Shakespeare has a character proposing marriage, and very pointedly refuses to answer the proposal.

TA: Yes, but in our minds, as readers, it remains a possibility. And that's a problem.

DCeiver: That's only a problem because it's in your mind. This is a play. This is a text that is going to be staged. This is a question that the staging will answer, not the text. There's nothing esoteric about this, it is a fact. And the problem you are having is that you cannot conceive of the possibility of Isabel giving the answer you deem appropriate. But I saw this play produced less than a year ago, and in the production I saw, the character of Isabel shunned the Duke's proposal.

TA: That's all well and good, but we're evaluating this play as a work of literature.

DCeiver: And, what? I'm supposed to pretend that this piece of literature isn't a play? Your contention that this ending is a problem exists only in your mind. So we're not discussing this play as a piece of literature at all. We're discussing your reaction to this play. And I'm telling you, your reaction has got nothing to do with anything.

As you might have surmised, my English TA's tended to hate me.

But that's the problem with Hornaday's contention: the "problem" she has with these movies isn't really a problem with the movie. It's her problem, and she's just performing a bit of intellectual decoupage, slapping her own hangups overtop of a story that was never designed to address them, because it was too busy addressing what the author wanted addressed. Hornaday really needs to have some more realistic expectations. Sadly, I think at the root of it, is that Hornaday just thinks abortion is the better alternative than ending up with a guy who's not, let's say, aesthetically pleasing. Had Clive Owen been cast in Rogen's role, I promise you, none of the people who have criticized this movie for not addressing the subject of abortion would have said word one about it.

At bottom, then, am I suggesting that Hornaday's problem is that she's simply very shallow?

Oh, indeed I am.


Anonymous said...

There's just one thing I want to say - GO SEE WAITRESS :) you won't regret it - it's such a wonderful movie in every respect

snappy mackerel said...

Because if it's a hot, unemployed total stranger, women would LEAP to bear their children. C'mon.

I've heard your argument in several places ("But if they seriously considered abortion, there'd be no movie!") and it misses the point entirely. Because that IS the point--the entire movie is rendered wholly unbelievable for that reason. And that's hard to get past.

"Waitress" does allude to abortion and I found it totally believable that Keri Russell's character would choose (I'm paraphasing) "not to punish the child for what her father had done." The character was desperate for an environment of kindness and love and having her kid was a way to achieve it. But "Knocked Up"? I just don't buy it.

The Deceiver said...

Yeah...I'm going to have to stand by my argument. Apatow could only have written the story he set out to write, for better or for worse, problems with anyone's ability to suspend disbelief (and, really, come on: Camaros that turn into robots? Stranger things have happened in the movies) respected. To follow Hornaday's guidelines would have betrayed authorial intent.

And, really, I think it's just sad that abortion becomes a significantly desired outcome solely because the coupling becomes implausible--that someone like Kat Heigl shouldn't end up with someone like Seth Rogen. I mean, that is what has directly fueled the "what about abortion" angle. "What does she see in him? She should abort that child." That's just incredibly depressing and cynical, and it really goes a long way to debase the significant need to retain reproductive freedoms.

the Fiery Sword said...

There is a possibility, and I don't mean to veer into science fiction here, that Heigl's character is just not predisposed to thoughts of aborting children, even her own. Her failure to wear a t-shirt proclaiming that fact notwithstanding, such people do exist, sometimes even outside the world of fiction.

divine ms k said...

Damn, I wish you'd been in the sections for my English classes. Far fewer of my fellow classmates would have slept through them.

I can't speak to "Knocked Up" because I haven't seen it yet. But honestly, I thought the only thing truly clever or appealing about "Waitress" was the soundtrack (love the Emile Millar version of "No One Is to Blame"), and the names of the pies.

I found her point as to why she wouldn't consider abortion depressing. Real people do not choose to have abortions out of spite.

And I found the doctor character completely unsympathetic. I kept waiting to hear his sad story about how his wife was an evil bitch who never understood him and only married him because he was a successful doctor... but it never came.

Instead, when we finally do meet the wife, she's this perfectly nice woman. Making him just another jackass with a waitress fetish. Boo.