14 February 2011

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

This film led to a long discussion about what holding auditions for actors is like, watching monologue after monologue, each one well-written, clever, and slightly overacted in that certain way: the actor wants you to know he or she gets it, that it's more than just words to them. Most monologues involve one character telling a single story to a captive, silent audience -- theater and film have concocted an endless number of excuses for this simple setup -- and basically, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men plays out as an endless stream of these. Part of that is inherent to the idea of interviews, naturally, and I suppose writer-director-actor John Krasinski had to choose between downplaying that and embracing it, and he clearly went with his theater and acting roots and embraced it. At times it becomes exhausting, but I wonder how much of that is just my own personal reaction after so many times sitting in an empty room behind a table and watching dude after dude after dude of roughly the same type and look deliver variations on the same two or three monologues directly to me. Not everybody's held auditions, so for some people this experience would be novel, or at least not flashback-inducing.

As to the content of the film, I haven't read this DFW novel collection of short stories so I can't say how much of it comes from that versus how much of it is the filmmaker's choice, but there is an episodic quality to the events in Sarah's life (the speechmaking guy, the neighbor at the closed door, the student obsessed with the positive-transformative side of rape, and so on), and I couldn't help but wish they were a little more connected somehow, or interwoven more than episodic. Mostly I wanted to see this applied to the subplot involving Daniel, the rape-obsessed thesis student, whose circular back-and-forth with Sarah was believable and interesting and aggravating (all at once), but in the end I felt that the beats of his story lost a lot of their impact by being piled on top of each other like they were.

Like the climactic speech of a good play, Krasinski's monologue at the end leaves a lot to mull over, specifically in the choices of the writers/director, and while it was a little offputting it wasn't displeasing, and it tied in nicely to the themes building throughout. If I follow the nonlinear storytelling properly, it was Sarah's breakup with Krasinski (sorry, I didn't catch the character's name) that directly led her to go to Professor Timothy Hutton and change the direction of her research into (briefly) interviewing (hideous) men. Withholding until this point what she was researching (feminism, and specifically what impact its advent has had on male culture) worked for me, in the way that a narrative shouldn't spell out its thesis until after it's already made it, if at all -- unlike a term paper or dissertation.

What didn't work for me in this reading, however, is something that speaks to what Professor Hutton said early on in the film, with regards to Nanook of the North: (I'm paraphrasing, but) "I know, it's kind of dry and uninteresting, but try and pay attention to the documenter, not the documented, and always remember to ask the big question: why?" At its heart, this isn't a story about the many ways many men react to a newly feminist world; this is the story of one woman and why she is pursuing this line of reasoning in the first place. And as Brief Interviews lays out for us, Sarah is pursuing this as a direct reaction to an awkwardly soul-baring speech by an ex-love confounded by his own fear of connection and suspicious of his role in the power dynamic of seduction.

Krasinski's confession that he never loved Sarah because he'd never known love hurts her, but her academic training kicks in like a (probably very common, judging from Krasinski's comments) defense mechanism, and instead of fighting back or taking a stand, she listens, she absorbs, and she quietly judges. She remains deadpan and stoic even after he's gone, furious and pitying that she cannot speak up or reach out (or even lash out). Her only reaction that we see -- again, if I've got the chronology right, and I think I do -- is to go to her professor and say, "You know, I'm tired of reading about feminism and women; that's been well-documented. I just realized men are a wreck because of this whole 'movement' thing, and there's a lot of rich, unmined territory there. I'd like to investigate that instead." It is hard to fault Krasinski for wandering astray, hooking up with what he thought was a pathetic floozy. It's just as hard to fault him for chasing an ephemeral moment of intensity upon hearing a story that embarrassed him out of his safety zones. (It's easy to fault him for having this pseudo-epiphany about connections with other humans so late in life, but there seems to be a recurring theme of just how emotionally stunted all these academics and intellectuals are anyway.)

Another thought: Daniel's speech about the empowerment and enlightenment that can only come after the most grievous acts of degradation and trauma has a clever reverse-parallel* in the point of her thesis. The opposite of degradation and trauma -- I guess you could make a case, the "opposite" of rape -- is liberation and equalization -- specifically in this case, the feminist movement. As such, the thesis that "empowerment and enlightenment can come from rape" can be reversed as "disempowerment and ignorance can come from feminism." Don't get me wrong, I'm not endorsing anything so glib in the slightest, but as a dramatic theme for a story, it's strong enough to string a lot of scenes on, and the clever head-to-tails contrast of these ideas is nice, though again that just reinforces my desire to see more done with the Daniel character and his incendiary philosophy.

Overall, the movie's interesting, and it's fun to watch a lot of these actors try overhard in a way that works (i.e., is neither hammy nor corny, nor any other food-based adjective I can think of), wrestling with a lot of quasi-provocative speeches and breathing life into a lot of wooden scenes. The ideas are strong and the film isn't a wreck, but it's not quite a success either, obviously for those same reasons. (It makes me wish I'd read the book, but who are we kidding? My to-read list is wildly disproportionate to my pace of books-per-year these days.) Glad I saw it. Not in love.

* Is that a thing, "reverse-parallel?" It should be. (I had to ask. Anyway, it wouldn't do to blog about a film based on David Foster Wallace without at least one footnote.)

1 comment:

-m said...

I love DFW, and I cannot recommend this book. I kind of hated it. Actually, I hated the Interviews with Hideous Men part. The other stories were okay. I avoided the movie because I couldn't fathom wanting to watch what I thought was so pointless in print...