Thursday, January 03, 2008

A few more words about "Knocked Up" (2007)

The traditional end-of-the-year "10 Best Lists" got me to thinking about some of the films that I watched. My friend Russell Lucas shares my appreciation for Knocked Up. He gave some responses at a discussion group to comments I had made about the film that got me thinking about the issue of ideology and how it affects my appreciation of what the film is doing.

Don't get me wrong. I agree with my friend that the film isn't primarily a polemic. It has some interesting insights in its description of contemporary life, nevertheless.

I remember one of the more helpful talks from Inter-Varsity days at Mary Washington was when our campus staff worker introduced the idea that how people act can often be a better marker of what they believe than how they would answer a direct question about their beliefs. Actions are at the very least, windows into beliefs that we often keep hidden, even for ourselves.

In applying this idea to "Knocked Up," I think it is worth noting how much of the confusion felt by Ben and Alison over what they want is exacerbated--(I can't bring myself to say "caused")--by the contradictory messages they get from those ready to offer them advice. There is no shortage of people ready to tell them what they believe they should do...but how well do those beliefs coincide with their own actions?

Consider the three people in their circle (a friend of Ben's and Alison's sister and mother) who advise that abortion is the best answer. None of them can actually come out and say the word. Alison's confidants use the euphemism "take care of it." Perhaps this could be chalked up to sensitivity in the presence of a pregnant woman, but Ben's friend is an even odder case. Alison is not around when Ben's friend suggests that they take a course of action that "rhymes with shmooshsmortion."

This is a group of guys that are designing a porn web site, fart on each other's pillows, and generally revel in their adolescent regressive behavior. They are neither politically sensitive nor politically correct, but the very word "abortion" holds some sort of talismanic power over them that makes its utterance a line that can't be crossed.

This hesitation to speak plainly about the topic from characters who consider themselves enlightened (on Alison's side) or liberated (on Ben's) suggests that to some extent both of those exteriors are more moral facades projected to the social world than true convictions or beliefs that control or moderate their behavior.

The contrasting example is Ben's dad (played by Harold Ramis) who counsels him to "deal with it." This advice is a striking contrast to Alison's mom and Ben's friends, yet does it come from a place of personal conviction? When pressed, later in the film, Ben's father owns to his own moral hypocrisy. He reminds Ben that he has been married multiple times and expresses surprise that Ben would come to him for advice based on the model he has been.

Does the fact that he has not exercised much commitment in his own personal relationships with women mean that Ben's father does not believe this is what Ben "should" do ? Of course not. People often fail to live up to their own standards. It does raise the question of where those standards come from and why they persist even in the face of cultural norms and practices that would seem to make it much easier for the characters in the film (and those like them) to shrug off those beliefs than they actually find it to do so.

These sorts of internal conflicts make the film more ideologically ambiguous and, I would argue, more real. Perhaps in the public, political sphere, there are some people who speak in policy statements, but the world I interact with has a lot more people who talk and act and reveal themselves (internal conflicts and all) through personal interactions.

If the film is ideologically ambiguous (or even ideologically indifferent) as to the answer to the question of abortion, it is still, I think, a morally probing and perhaps even subversive film in the way it depicts (I started to write "draws attention to" but it doesn't really spotlight or draw attention to) Ben's and Alison's quandary and the cluelessness they have about how to approach it.

Because the real confusion Ben and Alison have is not about what to do. That is decided fairly early. (Oh, there is some subversive ideology, I suppose, in revealing how doing the "right thing" forces Alison to lie to her employer because society has its own hypocritical ability to provide rewards for what it says it detests and punish those who act in ways it says it finds virtuous.) Really, Ben and Alison are at a lost for how to make a decision. How can one (or two) sensibly and reasonably apply a set of criteria to a decision when there is no anchor or perspective from which to evaluate the criteria?

What the film portrays fairly realistically, I think, is not so much a world without morals but a world without moral instruction. In a world that values pluralism, tolerance, and (above all) personal freedom, instruction on which criteria to use and how to apply it is looked upon as robbing the young of the freedom to choose for themselves. When you add to that a reluctance on the part of the adults to advocate for criteria that they have rejected in their own lives or for criteria that hasn't served them, you get the comedic equivalent of Anton Chigurgh asking of what use is a (personal belief) system if that system brought the person holding it to a point where it fails to address his most basic questions or meet her most basic spiritual and emotional needs.

It is telling that Alison is first hurt by Ben's refusal to read the baby books then heartened by his willingness to do so. What is important is not so much that he enacts any of the suggestions so that he can tell her what to do but that he can provide information to her (like what is a bloody show) that make the mystifying or confusing elements of her process slightly less bewildering. This is the sort of biological or experiential knowledge that one might expect Alison to have received from a parent, but her mother and sister are more interested in expressing doubt and dismay at her partner than helping her process and enact her decision.

Combine the emotional distance of the parents with the inevitable comic disappearance of Alison's carefully chosen gynecologist when she goes into labor, and it begins to crystalize that one of the major themes of the film is abandonment. Indeed one of the central mysteries/questions of the film, one that its critics feel it doesn't answer well, is how these characters are able to grope their way towards some sort of commitment. Would it not be more plausible to have these characters mirror what they have been "taught," if only by example? From whence does the sense of responsibility come from if not consistent moral instruction and example?

Perhaps it comes from a deep well of hurt that makes them cling to the possibility of commitment and responsibility, even in the face of difficult circumstances, extreme odds, and nay-sayers. Perhaps the absence of moral instruction could have been interpreted by the younger generation as indifference to them rather than embarrassment of the elder generation, an indifference that steels their resolve to not be responsible for similar hurt by being the agents of similar abandonment.

I think the reason I appreciated "Knocked Up" more than some more explicitly ideological films (or films that wear their ideology on their sleeve and use their narrative to tell the audience what to believe rather than allow it to witness the realistic results of those who actually do) is that it shows characters struggling to achieve value formation, to figure out what they believe and to begin to see what the implications of those beliefs are. That may be why I find it a hopeful film despite the tentative nature of the resolution. I have more faith in Alison's and Ben's ability to develop values that will help them live their lives than I do in the intrinsic power of any "right" set of values adopted wholesale from someplace else to satisfy them enough to keep them together.

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