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    knocked up and adulthood

    One of the unexpected pleasures of getting older (I was born in 1972) is seeing the emergence of more and more feature films that are made by people roughly my own age, and which can thus draw on a bank of cultural experiences and references that feel intimately familiar to me. I'm thinking of this specifically because I saw Knocked Up last night, directed by Judd Apatow (b. 1967), but I had similar reactions of pleasure and comfort upon seeing the aptly-titled Me and You and Everyone We Know by Miranda July (b. 1974), Clerks by Kevin Smith (b. 1970), and even Swingers by Doug Liman (b. 1965).

    In a less realistic, more absurdist vein, we could also mention Wet Hot American Summer by David Wain (b. 1969), Anchorman by Adam McKay (b. 1968), and Shaun of the Dead by Edgar Wright (b. 1974). But I want to stick with realism for a minute. Because if you're in your thirties, as many of these directors are, and if you're attempting to make films that are faithful to a reality recognizable as our own, one of the things your characters are going to need to be seen grappling with are the questions of Getting Older, Being an Adult, and What That Means. Knocked Up indeed raises these questions, and unlike less thoughtful romantic comedies targeted roughly to the same audience (Wedding Crashers, let's say), it has points to make about the hard aspects of those questions that are incisive and seem drawn from actual lived experience, which is why it ultimately felt like something of a disappointment that the film ultimately closes in such a readily-available, genre-determined, unambiguous way.

    Which is not to say that the chosen ending isn't heartwarming and uplifting, etc. It is—that's why it's the ending the genre demands. It feels good to see the bungling slacker clean up his act a bit, get his life together, and start playing straight (see also: Shaun of the Dead, High Fidelity). The option to play it straight (if you're in a position where you have such an option) is always very seductive; seeing the narrative played out in these films make it seem even more so. It's seductive, yes, but the seductiveness hides a certain grinding progression towards joylessness: note that the Slacker Who Cleans Up is a slightly more palatable version of similar "grownups" like the Activist Who Finally Got Realistic or the Artist Who Started To Do His Art Only On Weekends As A Hobby.

    But we do, in fact, live in a world where there are adult activists, and there are adult artists, and there are adult bohemians, and there are ways to be one of these people and to simultaneously be a responsible, non-pathetic adult. Anything that tells you otherwise is a part of the pulsating IT-brain from A Wrinkle In Time. Knocked Up, ultimately, is smart enough to realize that there's something crushing about the traditional narrative (witness the beaten happiness of the "successful" couple in the film, Pete and Diane, sympathetically and complexly played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) but it never manages to visualize an alternative. Apatow's previous film, The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, does a bit better: although it also tells a version of the Outsider Becomes Normal story, it also firmly makes the point that outsider-ness has its own value, and the relationship that comprises the film's happy ending remains non-traditional (albeit in a non-threatening way).

    It's not easy to visualize the kinds of alternatives I'm asking for (although these xkcd cartoons are a good start: one, two). Living the alternative is even harder. But the rewards have the potential to be great.

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    Tuesday, July 10, 2007
    12:10 PM


    Heh - I may be living one of those alternative lives you talk about. I think a lot of us in academia put up with the soul-crushing aspects because of the "intangible" benefits that include no cubicle and no set work hours, among other things. BTW, the xkcd cartoon Grownup is hanging in my office right now, and I use it to remind my students that it's up to them to shape what adult life means for their generation.

    - Nancy
    I may be living one of those alternative lives you talk about.

    Do you mean explicitly because of your decision to work in academia? Or because of the "alternative" elements to your partnership? Or... all of the above?
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