Chloe Grace Moretz and Keira Knightley in action.
Show Hide image

Introducing the Woman-Child: the continuing death of adulthood in American culture

The cinema of amusing male arrested development has been a familiar subgenre for some time, but recent releases demonstrate that there’s gold to be found in femme floundering.

Early in the equal-opportunity arrested-development comedy Laggies [released in the UK as Say When], three women in their late twenties gather in suburban Seattle for the bridal shower of a fourth. Framed photos convey that the quartet have been friends since childhood. One of them, however, makes it clear that she is not like the others: while the rest of the gang – one of them grandly pregnant – gush and fawn over chaste bridal sex jokes as if Ms. Magazine never changed the world and the winds of feminism had yet to ruffle the Pacific Northwest, Megan Burch (Keira Knightley) wallows in gawky asexuality. Her jokes are as dorky as those of a 13-year-old boy. Knightley slouches in hoodies and an American accent like a skateboard kid, all limbs and scrunchy faces, counting on audiences to forget that the very English, 29-year-old actress now models for posh Chanel perfume ads.

Megan is the laggy under review, a girl who won’t grow up. (The plural, “laggies”, packs more comedy punch, but the title is grammatically incorrect: there is only one exotic late bloomer on display, not the kind of clubhouse full of guy goofballs that characterises so many comedies of male emotional retardation.) And possibly because Laggies is a comedy of female emotional retardation (and girls traditionally mature more quickly than boys, and yada yada), Megan is – on paper at least – further along life’s circuit than an equivalent male dawdler. She has, for example, a graduate degree in psychology. But apparently she hated doing psychology work, or something. So now she does idiotic, only-in-the-movies work as a human billboard advertising the services of her father’s accounting firm.

Megan does have a longtime boyfriend (Mark Webber), a perfectly pleasant, decent fellow with whom she presumably has an adult sexual relationship. But she feels icky about marrying the man, or something. So when he proposes – at the wedding of the aforementioned friend – she panics. She flees. And, dressed in wedding-party wear outside a liquor store, she meets Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz, always sharp), a 16-year-old high school girl hanging out in a local gaggle of kids while trying to score some booze.

Megan is not quite a cliché runaway bride (Julia Roberts got there first), but she is certainly, tediously cliché adjacent as she hikes up her fancy dress to demonstrate her rusty skateboard skills to the admiring mallrats. Something about Annika’s teen behavior, her amalgam of swagger and insecurity, snark and vulnerability, feels like relief and a return to innocence for Megan. The twentysomething gloms onto the teensomething.

I want to unfriend the lot of them.

***

The cinema of amusing male arrested development has been a familiar subgenre (as well as a topic of ardent cultural think pieces) for some time now. The Farrelly brothers torque the humour one way, Adam Sandler another, and Judd Apatow – the current reigning mogul of man-boy buffoonery – yet another. The cinema of funny femme floundering, though, is more unstable creative ground. Lena Dunham is certainly doing a great job of excavation with Girls; screenwriter Diablo Cody together with director Jason Reitman did a brilliant study of the condition in the extraordinary dramatic comedy Young Adult; and the creative genius (as well as box-office success) of Bridesmaids, which also came out in 2011, demonstrated that there’s gold to be found in femme floundering.

But the low-grade witlessness of so many current mainstream romantic comedies – a mediocrity persistent enough these days to have audiences as well as critics complaining – suggests that a good woman-girl is harder to find. (Rom-com queens Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston, and Katherine Heigl have the scars of social-media lashings to prove it.) And in such a semi-arid landscape, with the fertile serio-comic possibilities of female developmental lag still under development, interest is all the livelier in any project that advertises a fresh way of looking (and laughing) at Women Troubles. And if the movie is made by women? All the better.

Laggies should be one of these projects. It is, for starters, directed by Lynn Shelton, the sharp indie filmmaker with a great talent for dramatising ambivalence, her deft touch on display in such sex-perceptive movies as Hump Day, Touchy Feely, and the marvellous, acutely tuned relationship study Your Sister’s Sister. But the script, by Andrea Seigel, is both the screenwriter’s first produced project, and Shelton’s first time directing a movie she did not write herself. And whatever the reason for the misfire, the movie staggers from preposterous middle to dumb end, cancelling any possibility of extracting insight, emotional worth, or earned pleasure along the way.

The opening premise – doltish and grating in its faintly insulting binary of frivolous bridal-shower enthusiasts versus marriage-averse outlier – is nevertheless within range of the identifiable: behold a 28-year-old woman who doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, personally or professionally. Plenty of such Millennials exist – even some, I’ll take your word for it, with parents as spinelessly indulgent as Megan’s father (Jeff Garlin), who is as happy to support his daughter, financially and emotionally, as she is happy to evade fiscal and emotional responsibility. (Mom, in her few brief moments on screen, is less tolerant of the situation, but does nothing to interrupt the father-daughter enabling. Presumably Dad also paid for the graduate degree his princess no longer feels like using.)

But then the movie barrels into territory both preposterous and lazy. And the decline is all the more exasperating for presenting itself as an indie antidote to Hollywood inauthenticity. As Knightley telegraphs Megan’s psychological crisis through a collection of lip bites and gawky-girl physical mannerisms, Laggies sags into a forced, movie-shaped procession of arbitrary behavioral decisions made by characters who – if they had any resemblance to life on planet earth – would know better. Or should be slapped.

There is this, for instance: flustered by her boyfriend’s proposal of marriage (why? she has been with the guy for years), Megan says no, then she says yes, then she skedaddles again, this time hiding out for a week in Annika’s house while attempting to wind back the clock to a simpler age. That’s where she meets Annika’s fortysomething father, Craig (Sam Rockwell), an attorney, raising his daughter alone. (Why? Because Annika’s mother bailed on the family years ago. Why? Because women can’t be trusted to stick around, even for their little daughters.) Craig is amiably sceptical about the strange adult woman sleeping on the floor of his teen daughter’s bedroom. What does she want with Annika? Then he decides, Whatever. Rockwell is one of the finest character actors working today, and he does what he can to make an approximate believable human out of the material he has been handed, but not much can be done. Craig accepts Annika’s creepily overage playmate as a houseguest; Megan licks a peanut butter spoon (the universal symbol of regressive behavior). And at some point, too, Megan sneaks out to do some seriously adult drinking and flirting and snogging with the father while the daughter is sleeping. (Why? Because any red-blooded, attractive man in midlife would be wowed by a woman some two decades younger, wearing his daughter’s T-shirt.)

In one more mark of what I hope is inadvertent glibness, the filmmakers embed casual meanness in the narrative, especially about the reliability of parents. I give this detail away because it is so gratuitous and, in the end, spoils nothing: at the same wedding where she shrinks in horror from commitment, Megan catches sight of her otherwise menschy father liplocked with a woman who is not his wife. Why? Because adulthood equals treachery? Because if a girl can’t even rely on her daddy, how can she possibly believe in marriage? Because everybody needs to learn a lesson by the time the credits roll?

Annika would call such a plot development, minor and ultimately superfluous as it is, lame. So would I. Laggies elbows its way into the lively Millennial conversation about growing up, then flubs the opportunity by having very little smart or funny or honest to say. The disappointment is enough to reduce this grown woman to girlish tears. 

Lisa Schwarzbaum, a former critic at Entertainment Weekly, is a freelance journalist

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

AKG-IMAGES/DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY
Show Hide image

Friedrich Nietzsche, the conqueror with the iron hand

Gavin Jacobson considers the great philosopher’s plan for society as revealed in Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon.

In 1893 Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche returned to her mother’s adopted home town of Naumburg in Germany. She had been living in Paraguay with her husband, Bernhard Förster, a nationalist and anti-Semite who had founded an Aryan colony to begin “the purification and rebirth of the human race”. Elisabeth’s brother, Friedrich Nietzsche, had condemned her husband’s anti-Semitism and her decision to join him in South America. The experiment failed in any case. Blighted by disease, poor harvests and intercommunal strife, the outpost collapsed in two years. Förster committed suicide in 1889. Around this time, Nietzsche began his final descent into madness and Elisabeth came back to take care of him and his legacy.

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872 while he was a professor at the University of Basel, received marginal attention. It wasn’t until the 1890s that his writings gained a wide readership across Europe. Elisabeth soon took control of Nietzsche’s literary estate and, little by little, transformed him into an instrument of her fascist designs. She began to rework his notebooks and to clip, cross out and fabricate quotations, so that, in the public imagination, her brother went from an opponent of German nationalism to a lover of the fatherland, from the author of The Antichrist to a follower of the gospel, and from an anti-anti-Semite to a venomous ­Jew-hater. Before his death in 1900, Nietzsche had asked his sister to ensure that “no priest or anyone else utters falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer defend myself”. He could not have foreseen this betrayal by Elisabeth, as she cast him as the lodestar of National Socialism.

Since the 1950s, scholars have endeavoured to rescue Nietzsche from his asso­ciation with Nazism. Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950) was a formative work in which the German philosopher became a humanist and progenitor of 20th-century existentialism. His thinking was directed not at the triumph of Teutonic supremacy but at reviving, as he wrote in Twilight of the Idols (1889), an “anti-political” high culture.

The problem was that, in stripping away the layers of external disfigurement that had built up and set over the years, Kaufmann and others denied Nietzsche an interest in politics. The task that Hugo Drochon sets himself is to reinsert some political content into Nietzsche and show that he had a systematic political theory. The result is a superb case of deep intellectual renewal and the most important book to have been written about him in the past few years.

Drochon’s study takes place against the backdrop of 19th-century Europe, as that is where Nietzsche’s account of politics – the fate of democracy, the role of the state and international relations – is best understood. Nietzsche’s sane life coincided with the main political events of his time. He served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, witnessed German unification and experienced at first hand the traits of a modern democratic order: party competition, secret ballots, voting and the influence of mass media. He also lived through Britain’s and Russia’s “great game” for control over central Asia. He went mad in the year Bismarck tended his resignation to Wilhelm II.

Drochon traces Nietzsche’s “intelligible account of modern society” in response to these events. Inspired by the Greeks – especially Plato and his mission to legislate a new state and train the men to do it – Nietzsche wanted to establish a healthy culture in which philosophy and great art could be produced. He was certain that slavery was necessary for this (a view that led to his eventual split with Wagner). The “cruel-sounding truth”, he admitted, was that “slavery belongs to the essence of culture”, as the artistic class, “a small number of Olympian men”, is released from the drudgery of daily existence to focus on producing art.

His disagreement with Wagner over the role of slavery led Nietzsche to describe the genesis and decay of the state. He saw clearly, like Hobbes, that the state of nature was “the war of all against all”. But whereas Hobbes imagined the state arising through a contract, Nietzsche saw it originating from a “conqueror with the iron hand”, who “suddenly, violently and bloodily” takes control of a people and forces it into a hierarchical society. Nietzsche then plotted its evolution, from a space within which culture flourished to the modern Kulturstaat, in which culture was appropriated for its own sake. If the state’s birth was violent, its decay was slow and was linked to Nietz­sche’s notorious phrase about the death of God: given that the Christian God was no longer a self-evident foundation of morality upon which societies could support themselves, the state faced dissolution.

Tracing with great forensic skill the minutiae of Nietzsche’s arguments across multiple sources, Drochon never loses the overall narrative thread (an occupational hazard of studying the history of political thought). Nor does he shy away from his subject’s unsavoury views. If Nietzsche’s remarks on slavery were harsh enough, his thinking on eugenics, or his physiologically inflected theories about democracy (which he regarded as the victory of a slave morality – associated with the “dark-skinned and especially dark-haired man” – over a master morality of the “Aryan conquering race”) sound even more repellent. Without wishing to justify these ideas, Drochon reminds us that theories of racial classification were prevalent and acceptable modes of inquiry in the 19th century. It would have been strange if Nietzsche had not drawn on them.

His darker side notwithstanding, many of Nietzsche’s insights speak to our politics now. He foresaw the privatisation of the state, in which “private companies” (Privatgesellschaften) would assume the business of the state, including those activities that are the “most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of the government” – that is, “protecting the private person from the private person”. He showed how democracies gave birth to aristocracies and could become hostage to a “herd morality”, majoritarianism and misarchism: “the democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate”. He explored the question of wage labour and the increasing hostility between workers and employers and predicted the erosion of trust in
public institutions.

Nietzsche also described how statesmen revive the kind of pathologies that are corrupting European and American societies at the moment: nationalism, racism, intellectual parochialism and political insularity. He knew what he was talking about: Bismarck’s power politics, a tribute to blood (war) and iron (technology), was a “petty politics” that divided nations and peoples. Nietzsche’s “great politics”, by contrast, imagined the unification of Europe led by a cultural elite, the class he termed “good Europeans”, bred by intermixing Prussian military officers and Jewish financiers. Continental union would not only constitute a geopolitical counterweight to Britain and Russia. Good Europeans would, as Drochon writes, create “a new trans-European culture, which itself is specially called on to lead a world culture”.

So, this book has come at the right time. In the light of Britain’s vote for Brexit, which threatens to take us back to a petty politics of nationalism and continental division, Nietzsche’s writings are more significant than ever. Those of us who desire a more integrated and peaceful union with our neighbours cling despairingly – and with receding hope – to his dream that, in spite of “the morbid estrangement which the nationality craze has induced and still induces among the peoples of Europe, owing also to the short-sighted and hasty-handed politicians . . . Europe wishes to be one”.

Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon is published by Princeton University Press, 224pp, £34.95

Gavin Jacobson is a writer and book critic

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt