A Thousand Ways to be Pissed Off: The Green Hornet

Dear Millicent,

Yesterday I had a kind of attack in the movie theater. It was like all my talk about the protagonist’s diet became real, finding me in a reckoning of blood pressure and sweaty hands. This movie was the straw that broke my hump with its the insistence that nobody but white dudes have full measure in the world.   It was a blindness spiral. I had to become an angry humorless feminist because they so severely reduced everybody except the lucky white male protagonist. This must happen in all kinds of movies, but this was the one for me that did it. I couldn’t see anymore because they couldn’t see, but I had given 11 dollars to be there, and all I got from them was a big fat dose of ire.

We talk a lot here about the rarity of the three dimensional female character in media, but that rarity extends to most groups who aren’t of the privileged white dude variety. The Green Hornet has become the blazing example of how bad of a thud that loss makes.

I get that The Green Hornet is a spoof, and enjoys poking at the rigidity of the super-hero genre.  After the first scene of the movie, I was in, happy to see a script (and a Franco) making fun of the stuff of movie villains, calling out wardrobe, names, and secret hideaways. I thought we were about to watch a smart movie with a lot of action and some 3-D icing on top. It seemed like a nice way to go braindead for the afternoon.

Instead, you get a tour of how great it is to be a privileged white guy. The movie could practically be a manual for how to move around with privilege and power built by race and gender. Seth Rogen, as the Hornet, becomes our very lucky white guy/textbook example of power and privilege. He has inherited his fortune from the empire building of his dad. He parties and likes to ruin things with abandon (there is a distinct joy in smashing plasma TVs in the movie).  He gets a super powerful job because of his family. He has little regard for how his actions affect others. He’s stupid, but it doesn’t matter. He never gets called on any of his trespasses.  The world changes on his time alone–it’s only when he realizes things matter that they actually matter.

Here’s a more of a breakdown of the roles in the movie:

Lucky White Guys:  the hornet, the hornet’s emotionally cold dad, the district attorney. The all wear suits and have huge offices with couches. They have POWER.

The criminals: corner criminals are all black or latino men.  The kingpin is named Chudnofsky and fights with Armenian and Korean kingpins, so all crime is controlled by foreigners.  Sexy assassin types are provided by Asian women who work in a massage and nail parlor. The one white criminal is a sweaty guy who makes crystal meth.

Edward James Olmos belaboredly announces in some rough exposition that he was Rogen’s father’s “most trusted friend for 46 years.” I think he starts as the chauffeur in the early scenes of Rogen’s childhood, but in present day is the savvy news editor who knows what is good for the paper, if only idiot Rogen would listen to him.  We all know he should be the real director of the paper, but Rogen takes that desk after his father’s death, and only gives it over to Olmos at the end as if bestowing a grand gift to a grateful man.  And, we are not supposed to be happy for Olmos, but happy for Rogen in that he has learned something and become a better man.

Kato: His character is from Shanghai, and he provides all of the action in the movie. He knows martial arts, builds machines, appreciates good coffee, and drives his motorcycle really fast.  In one way, it’s great to see an Asian man have a major role in a movie. But he has to be a servant for a man who uses all his ideas and takes credit for his successes. And the amount of jokes relying on the word “little” is ridiculous. He is constantly called “my little sidekick,” or “you are so cute and little,” as Rogen tries to insult/feminize him, or when Rogen is absentmindedly just sounding like an asshole. Plus, there is an amazing Devil Wears Prada moment when Rogen snaps back all of the cozy “we are brothers” friendship shit that he and Kato have been enjoying and reduces Kato back to his proper servant status (he asks him to get a coffee, something, that when he recruited him, he said Kato should never have to do again, ever), all because Kato dared talk to a girl he likes. The movie plays with the idea that the two men are equals, but Rogen’s character only lets that balance exist when it suits him,

Women:  Women in no way exist in this movie. We have: the Asian assassins (who walk around in the movie for about 30 seconds, but with daggers and lace!), the framed picture of the Green Hornet’s dead mother, one female editor who is at a meeting, girls at parties around Rogen, the girl he makes out with in his father’s cars, and Cameron Diaz, who is harassed so intensely throughout the piece that I wanted to slap everybody. Diaz shows up mid movie as a temp. She is all sweetness, even wearing a prim linen dress. Rogen refers to her instantly as “the hottie mctottie” who is quickly hired because of her fineness.  She never blinks at how he talks to her, and graciously takes the job.  During her interview, he asks her age and finds 35 to be ridiculously old.  The only chance her character has is to say that she doesn’t want to talk about it, which is barely respected.  Of course, she turns out to be smart and really good at research, so they rely on her for all facts about what the Hornet should do next.  They both hit on her constantly, fight over her, and she gets fired for the rumor that she slept with one of them.  Then they show up at her door and want refuge, calling her the “mastermind” of their escapades, as if that is some gesture at giving her character some actual value. You could take her out of the movie and nothing about the plot would be altered, and she is treated solely as a prop who wears very short shorts when at home alone. She does utter the words “I will sue you for sexual harrassment,” but it is only after Rogen has verbally harrassed her, fired her for an alleged sexual encounter, tried to walk into her house without invitation, leaned in for a kiss, so it all just seems like the worst.

The movie is also full of lines like “don’t be a pussy,” “you were penisless,” “girls are annoying, thank goodness there aren’t any here,” “this day is going to be balls” (a good thing), “I like my women with balls,” etc.

As a special companion to all of this, there is also an extreme thread of homophobia throughout. When Kato is introduced as “my man,” both men stumble on explaining that it’s not meant romantically.  This joke comes up often usually ending with the awkward assurance that it wasn’t meant “in that way.”

With every group shit on except the lovable goofy lead, I couldn’t take it anymore. I am fatigued. I know the Green Hornet is supposed to be an asshole. That might be why he manages to insult everybody except the other white men in the movie, and while I’d love to give the script this credit, I can’t do it.  It’s not calling out privilege, it’s celebrating it.  Nothing in the movie calls the Hornet on his assness. When he lashes out at Kato for hitting on Diaz, he lies and said he did it to keep their cover in the office. Kato accepts this as a reason, and though he warns him never to talk to him that way again, he lets the beef go. When the Hornet demands that he run the show, even though this ends up risking tons of lives, it’s fine. Nobody gets mad at him. When he fires Diaz for something she never did and he could never legally fire her for, she simply takes her job back with twice the pay, because he asked nicely and promised never to do it again.  The classic transformation of jerk to mature hero here isn’t even about all of his assholery. It all boils down to the dumb daddy issue that he thought his dad was a bad guy, but he really wasn’t.  The Hornet doesn’t have the epiphany that he mistreats others, he has the narcisstic awakening that his inheritance is something to be proud of, not pissed on.

And with all this, I feel broken. This movie is about white guys for white guys, and is a shining example of how clumsy and singular, and powerful, that frame of reference is. It erases all of us. I told Mr. Carla Fran as we left something that I am sure has been said thousands of times by thousands of people: I just want to see a mainstream big-budget movie that admits I exist.



Funny People: In Which Sandler and Apatow Don’t Make It to the Altar and No One Laughs or Cries. Part I.

Dear CF,

Your reaction to the Funny People movie poster was eerily prescient. You have powers. Be my psychic? Also, I’d like to point out that James Thurber wrote his autobiography, “My Life and Hard Times,” at 40. As a joke. Would that Apatow’s self-awareness ran so deep when he decided to mount a Career Retrospective at 42.

Instead we get Funny People, an effort to weave Apatow and Sandler’s comedy styles into one movie that both moves and amuses. It’s a threnody on love and loss, on dicks and disease, on the stand-up comedy circuit and the growth that fails to happen there. It’s the story of Sandler’s juvenilia and bad movies. It’s a chronicle of Apatow’s hardships before he made it big, a novella on how Power and Money isolate and how humor isolates even more.  It’s the beaten horse of Rogen’s weight loss (the movie wants us to know that he’s thinner, and that it knows that Jonah Hill is the fat version of Rogen because Rogen used to be fat and now he’s not as fat. Hilarity ensues). It’s a limerick on the hotness of Judd’s wife (she is hot) and the cuteness of his kids (they are cute), a villanelle on Eric Bana as Richard Gere, a sestina of movie and television cliches and a sonnet on how cliched movie cliches are (they are very cliche).  It tried to solve all this by plotting three semi-interesting movies, mashing them into one and resolving none of them.

I left the theater feeling befuddled and a little cheated by the poster, which seems, in retrospect, like a malicious exercise in deceit. In unrelated news, I am completing an Online Sexual Harassment Training and Survey. So, in the spirit of surveys and procrastination, I declare the birth of an informalish poll* for what the movie poster should actually have said (SPOILER ALERT):

Funny People:

  1. A show about a dying guy. Who gets better!!!!
  2. How he found love—and lost it because he inexplicably becomes an uncaring douche when her kid sings a song from CATS. (Yeah, yeah, you didn’t see that coming because he saved her film reel and her jeans and let her dog eat peanut butter off his face and played with the kids. But he checked his phone. He is a jerk and has learned nothing from his brush with the Kind of Cancer that Makes You Tired After a Game of Basketball Or a Brisk Swim.)
  3. How a nice dull man who recently lost weight meets a slightly older and funnier man. No one changes much—but there are twelve standup scenes in which you see them not change much. Also: penises.
  4. An existential look at life, death and unmeaning—not Sandler’s (he’s just a clever decoy) but the ghosts of sometime comedians, their shows and careers. Andy Dick will depress you. Paul Reiser will make you weep. By the time Norm Macdonald shows up you’ll be shotgunning beers. Watch them be dicks to each other and get upstaged by Eminem.
  5. Friendship Is: writing jokes for the dim dude you hired to write jokes for you, after he ruined your shot at your true love by blabbing inappropriate things to her children.
  6. Friendship Is: having inconclusive fights with your roommates who sell out to work on a bad TV show and sleep with the girl you sorta like. But you were an asshole too, and that’s life or something. Also, a slightly older dude in your line of work tells you these are the best years of your life, and not to lose touch with these guys who you kinda hate. So. You know. The end.
  7. ONE-TIME ROOMMATES, LIFETIME RIVALS: The FINAL SHOWDOWN between deposed comedy king Adam Sandler and bromance czar Judd Apatow (played by Rogen) to determine (here’s your twist) Who Gets to Be the Main Character in the Serious Movie?

*Turns out the options, in an unconscious tribute to the film, got way too long (TWSS). So I can’t create a formal poll. However, my vote, with explanations, sequins, and penises, is here.**
**Or, er, will be shortly.



My So-Called Freak: Angela Chase, Lindsay Weir, Voiceover and Voiceunder

Hullo darlin’,

Were the Funny People poster-people fabrics, Leslie Mann would be cotton, Sandler pleats and Rogen polyester: shiny and smooth even where we want and expect wrinkles. (That shot of him is a bit cetaceous, no? Like he’s looking forward to spinning a multi-colored ball on the tip of his nose to make it all better?) I blame Photoshop. It’s an odd photo if only for the lighting contrast: Sandler is all dramatic shadows and hard edges, Mann is properly shaded and then there’s Rogen as cuddly dolphin, Rogen as slippery seal. I like that this disturbs you.

I’ve been meaning to bend your ear with some thoughts on Freaks and Geeks, launcher of James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segal, and My So-Called Life, its big sister. It’s hard to talk about the one show without the other, and I’m generalizing from your annoyance at the assumption that we’ll be delighted by emotional displays from conventionally unemotional characters (the “it’s amazing when guys like us cry” effect) to the all-important question of how these shows deploy smiles—specifically, the power of a smile withheld.

Both protagonists (female, in this case) get a lot of mileage out of the withheld smile, but they work it quite differently, and I think the switch from angst to irony says a lot about how American coming-of-age stories have evolved in the five years separating the Freaks from the So-Calleds.

My So-Called Life (MSCL from here on in) was novel in that it took a fifteen-year old’s life seriously. There was nothing “so-called” about it really; the show paid its characters an unprecedented kind of respect. It didn’t regard them with the comfortable hindsight of The Wonder Years, the format of which pitted every plot against the foregone conclusion of Kevin Arnold’s successful adulthood. MSCL wasn’t a drama the way, say Party of Five (or Dawson’s Creek) was a drama. It didn’t depend on extraordinary or tragic circumstances and insisted on age-specific realism. The characters weren’t wise or precociously sage; they were just high school kids with the flaws and virtues that appertain thereto. It took the messy world that gets produced at that humble scale seriously. (I mean “seriously” seriously; humor is part of this show, but it isn’t the main feature.)

Freaks and Geeks (heretofore known as F&G) is a tighter and funnier show.  That’s its triumph and its limitation. It’s smooth, episodic, and self-contained. It doesn’t go for the emotional jugular the way My So-Called Life does. Instead it insists, crucially, on distance. It doesn’t manipulate us into the protagonist’s point of view—in fact, it persistently abstains from that (pretty typical) narrative effort. It engages with other characters’ emotional universes much more intimately than it ever does with Lindsay’s own, at least until the last episode, the notable exception, when we see Lindsay express a positive desire for the first time and fall into her cortex while listening to the Grateful Dead.

F&G earns the punch (and heightens the awkwardness) of that scene where Lindsay dances around her room, moved for the first time by music and not by the social structures surrounding it, by withholding her consciousness from us during the bulk of the season. It’s weird to see her this unguarded. It’s actually uncomfortable. This character has kept us at arm’s length for so long that there’s voyeurism and discomfort in watching her be goofy, moved, awkward as she dances around her room, army-jacket free.

F&G‘s restricted access to the protagonist feels like a reaction to My So-Called Life, which gives us Angela Chase’s eyes and ears and voice and precious little else. Angela’s smile is withheld just as stubbornly as Lindsay’s, but we’re flooded with the whys and hows of her blankness, sullenness, despondency, and flashes of joy. The voiceovers, after all, are the strongest structuring element of the show. Angela Chase’s inner monologue is bitter and acerbic and funny, but above all, it’s young. Whatever critical distance we get from Angela is external to the show itself, which refuses to acknowledge that it’s smarter and older than its characters. It’s nostalgic only in that it insistently inhabits its mistakes: Angela’s is a wrongheaded and rebellious and evolving perspective with which we can’t help but sympathize. We’ve been there.

Freaks and Geeks might be the Ultimate Anti-Voiceover. It’s a bit like Seth Rogen in the Funny People photo. It’s terrifically smooth, so smooth that we might wonder about the missing wrinkles. In this show, Things Resolve. Even if individual characters have meltdowns the show preserves an equanimity—impassivity, even. It strikes a curious tone, an affect of uninvolved spectatorship that maybe reflects something true about high school, something important about the ethos of eat-or-be-eaten and the value of invisibility. Ultimately, though, the show is a careful choreography of balanced equations. (It’s no coincidence that Lindsay is a mathlete.)

I think the main difference between the two shows comes down to opposite philosophies with respect to language and its role in narrating adolescence. F&G (like Lindsey) is a little too cool, or a little too sophisticated, to say the things Angela thinks out loud. Take Angela’s account of sex:

I couldn’t stop thinking about, the like, fact of it. That people had sex. That they just, had it. That sex was this thing people had. Like a rash, or a—a Rottweiler. Everything started to seem pornographic or something.”

In F&G this same theme is explored when Sam, Neal and Bill are first exposed (heh) to porn. They sit through the movie in an agony of disgust and attraction. When Cindy Sanders comes up to them the next day at school, the boys (Sam especially) are clearly thinking what Angela thought five years before them.

You talk about showing, not telling, and this is maybe what F&G does best: it shows, but it absolutely refuses to tell. This show is never about language; it ignores words and books in a way that few other brainy shows do. Confessions are deeply embarrassing; Nick’s song to Lindsay is a punchline.The show is interested in making the characters’ storylines substantial but the central problems, the real problems, must be left unarticulated. Nothing ever gets explained or exposed—not because introspection is unimportant to the show, but because it must remain internal. Dialogue is dilatory, tangential, revealing only because of what’s left unsaid. Language is almost entirely beside the point. The show’s poignant moments are usually wordless: the moment of Daniel Desario’s (whose name even sounds like Jordan Catalano) appearance at Kim’s doorstep with his hair still in “punker’s” horns, the moment Neal sits down and starts laughing at his ventriloquist’s dummy after finally talking about his dad’s affair. The finale is typical in this regard: the reveal of Lindsay’s new direction is 100% language-free.

Compare this to Angela Chase, whose lesser moments include lines like “School is a battlefield…for your heart,” and who at her best has lines like these:

It had become the focus of everything. It was all I could feel, all I could think of it. It blotted out all the rest of my face, the rest of my life. Like, the zit had become the truth about me.

or this one:

People always say how you should be yourself. Like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster or something. Like you can know what it is even. But every so often I’ll have, like, a moment, when just being myself in my life, right where I am, is like, enough.

Angela’s overarticulated (and sincere, because unwitnessed) angst makes Lindsay Weir’s circumspection possible. Lindsay can be as cool as she is not just because the set of problems she’s working through has been mapped out for us, but also because the show spares us the miserable microscope that forces us to share in the purely biological embarrassments of zits and blushes. Lindsay’s embarrassments—the cheesy unicorn poster she puts up for her party, for example—don’t faze her. Her concerns are (in the main) philosophical, disembodied. She’s Angela Chase without the abject and blurty self-consciousness that characterizes MSCL’s whole aesthetic project; Angela Chase minus biology.

In the show’s opening credits, Lindsay smiles for the school camera. It’s a stunning smile, gorgeous and spontaneous and sincere and startling because we never see it during the show itself, and because it seems strange, out of context. All the other characters (Kim excepted, and it’s an important exception) either smile or don’t smile too, in a way that really cleverly encapsulates—in a nutshell—their social personae. Sam looks around nervously, Neal smiles smarmily, Daniel poses looking confused and dark until the shot is taken, then smiles, satisfied at his performance.Bill does the opposite: his sweet smile for the camera collapses into a morass of self-consciousness and dopey despair.

This, I think, is where the two shows converge: smiles in F&G and MSCL mean exactly the same thing: they’re victories that give huge satisfaction to the viewer because in both cases they manage to interrupt the established pattern. In MSCL, the protagonist’s smile alleviates the angst. In F&G, the protagonist’s smile alleviates the distance. My question to you, then, is this: aren’t Lindsay and Angela the female equivalents of the “it’s amazing when guys like us cry”? Something to the effect of, “It’s amazing when girls like us smile?”