19 June 2010

Observe and Report

Warning: this is long, rambling, and poorly-written.

Observe and Report was a movie released last year, written and directed by Jody Hill and starring Seth Rogan. It was an under-appreciated - and possibly accidental - masterpiece. I'll tell you about it in a minute; I will actually spoil it if you haven't seen it, so stop reading if that's the case. But first:

For a long time, I have felt that what I call the "narrative fallacy" is a major problem of today's media-soaked world. The way we act towards events and the way we position ourselves, right down to our most fundamental moral beliefs, derive in large part from the role in which we put ourselves. Are we the goofy guy lifting spirits, or the hero who does the right thing, or the misunderstood loner, or the "bitch" who is fearless and loyal... and so on.

What's more, we often help other people create these roles and follow their scripts. As described in dramaturgical theory:
Before an interaction with another, an individual typically prepares a role, or impression, that he or she wants to make on the other. These roles are subject to what is in theater termed "breaking character." Inopportune intrusions may occur, in which a backstage performance is interrupted by someone not meant to see it. In addition, there are examples of how the audience for any personal performance plays a part in determining the course it takes: how typically we ignore many performance flaws out of tact, such as if someone trips or spits as they speak.
This is frequently a good thing. When someone sees their ex-girlfriend and decides it's time to leave the party because they "have to work in the morning," then we will typically and compassionately overlook the flaw in their presentation. Like most social structures, this is a nicety developed to make daily interactions smoother.

But it's gotten out of control in the modern world, where storytelling has penetrated us so wholly and so effectively. And it's causing problems, from small ones in daily life to big ones.

People have recognized a variety of the growing disease in the past. Mark Twain despised Sir Walter Scott's medieval epic Ivanhoe, blaming the Civil War in no small part on the way Scott's prose had "enchanted" the Southern mind with a narrative of nobility:
Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. ...
 But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner-- or Southron, according to Sir Walter's starchier way of phrasing it-- would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.
Twain further satirized Scott's writings with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; this novel has a practical modern man discovering all of the grim stupidity of the past age. Twain takes a particular pleasure in exploding the myth of a narrative which made his contemporary Southerners eager to take the role of knight-protector or dashing rogue. They loved this role and the trappings it lent their self-image, handed to them by the inspiring and well-written tales of Scott. Not only did it lead to innumerable petty confrontations between self-styled noblemen, but it also arguably was indeed a major factor in the Civil War.

In our day, the effects are less bellicose but more pervasive. Now we do not have a race of men laboring under a false idea of their own nobility - and of the absurd idea that "nobility" is worth anything when it comes from blood and not sweat - but instead we have a race that enacts every little thing like it is a passion play. They want to be a character from television or a movie, and so they cloak themselves in a fake posture to act out their pretense.

Have you ever been to a party where there's someone tragically drunk? They are swarmed with helpful people very obviously caring for them and being "good guys." And then walk twenty feet and you'll find someone suffering out of the spotlight, ignored. Absent a show, few care. It's the show that makes them the "good guy." The virtue of the act is lost.  And it's in the hum-drum minor goodness that we can really find virtue.

The same thing goes for keeping the peace. Speak to any police officer, and you shortly find out that being a cop is not a glamorous position. You put your life on the line, but more often it's risk from a dirty needle in someone's pocket and not a crazed killer. Simply put, there's precious little glory. And that's a good thing: glory means nothing if it's common, and is only found in danger that is better avoided. But that's not dramatic or interesting, and so you will always find young men quick to leap in to save a girl's honor - or indeed to scrabble up some excuse so they can appear to do so. It isn't until later in the night that they make a sneering joke about the same girl and her loose legs.

And so we come to Observe and Report, a movie that takes the narrative fallacy and turns it on its head. You should see it before you read this, since I'm going to spoil it now by summarizing it.

Ronnie is a security guard at the mall. He's in love with a haughty cosmetics girl, while a kind young food court worker pines for him. His dream is to stop some crime and maybe even be a cop someday. His mother is an alcoholic, falling apart. Ronnie himself is not too bright, but he is fearless and loyal.

It is the perfect set-up for your average movie. We know how it will happen: Ronnie will struggle and probably be fired, only to suddenly save the day. Maybe he will be become a cop, or maybe he'll instead realize that he actually likes being a guard. He'll realize he actually likes the humble nice girl instead of the haughty one. His mother will be redeemed.

An actual crime (a flasher) allows Ronnie a chance to save the day with an investigation, and we can see what will drive this story of redemption. It's only a question of how it will play out. Who will the criminal be? Will they have a dramatic confrontation, or will the confrontation be with the real police officer who gets in Ronnie's face?

As a side note: you can actually see that sort of movie, too. Paul Blart, Mall Cop was made almost at the same time. If you want the standard story, see it.

The actual movie tilts the whole thing just askew. It's been done before, of course - that sort of "almost a hero" thing is not infrequent in dark comedies. But in Observe and Report, and contrary to what one might expect of the writer/director (whose previous efforts are not up to par), the tone is pitch-perfect.

Firstly: a lot of the expected things happen, but they happen wrong.

Ronnie loses his job, but at the end of the movie sees his chance to get the flasher. He has his climactic voiceover:
In these dark times, people need something to believe in. I believe that good will win through in the end. It's only a matter of time until the clouds part and the sun shines... I'm gonna start that again. It's only a matter of time until the clouds part and the sun shines down. They'll be here soon and my mission will be complete. I will leave a mark so big that it will be felt for years to come... ...and history will remember my name. There's no turning back. I must stand fast in my resolve. The world has no use for another scared man. Right now, the world needs a fucking hero.
Then as the flasher attacks, he steps in front of the criminal just as he is attacking the cosmetologist... and shoots the flasher, intending to murder him! Everything has gone terribly wrong and the manager is yelling, "Oh my God, what did you do!?" and now you know Ronnie is going to jail and his life is over, blood pooling on the floor and horror on everyone's face and-

Ah, but the bad guy isn't dead, only wounded. It's all okay. Ronnie can have his job back.

The farce, of course, is that the heroic underdog did something insane and unpardonable, except that it's all okay because the bad guy is only shot, not killed. It's exactly like so many other movies. In fact, it's exactly like the terrible Paul Blart, Mall Cop except that Observe and Report is distinguished by that moment of terrible hesitation. Paul Blart uses all kinds of insane dangerous things while fighting bad guys in the mall, but they're all only injured, so it's okay. Observe and Report drives into our guts the realization that all of these insane heroics hinge on the risk of permanent damage, and it's a very thin and almost arbitrary line that swings between "hero" and "killer."

Or take the romance. Ronnie does become disillusioned with the cosmetologist, but only after he date-rapes her. And in their final confrontation at his moment of victory - the time when his words should be ringingly triumphant and righteous, he says:
If anyone needs a girl to have sex with you, and then fuck your enemy, then go to Brandi! Because she's the girl that does that!
It's awkward and lame and perfectly written.  Instead of the golden moment of vengeance, it is instead exactly what such a moment really is: extremely petty.

This sort of brilliant reversal happens all throughout the movie.  But an interesting thing is that I kind of doubt it was entirely intentional.  I looked at some of the other offerings of Jody Hill, and they seem generally unimaginative and puerile.  So this film is almost a kind of miracle.

All in all, a great illustration of one of the biggest problems in our world today.  See it if you haven't, and see it again if you have.

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