Shouldn’t It Be “And I”?

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015)

There’s a scene towards the end of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl when Greg (Thomas Mann) goes into Rachel Kushner’s (Olivia Vooke) bedroom through the window. This was somewhat of a relief to me, since I was getting worried about Gregg’s use of the front door. Admittedly, it’s necessary that he go via Denise Kushner (Molly Shannon). The teen bedroom is that curious private/public space, the first space a teen owns and yet on sufferance of the parents. (At one point Greg threatens to look through his parents’ things in their bedroom; his father (Nick Offerman) warns him there would be a lot of tampons.) Erika Pearson, discussing the online presence of the typical teen, refers to the glass bedroom:

Inside the bedroom, private conversations and intimate exchanges occur, each with varying awareness of distant friends and strangers moving past transparent walls that separate groups from more deliberate and constructed ‘outside’ displays. The glass bedroom itself is not an entirely private space, nor a true backstage space as Goffman articulated, though it takes on elements of both over the course of its use. It is a bridge that is partially private and public, constructed online through signs and language

In the teen drama the identity is constructed in the actual bedroom (and the high school), although it is not necessarily a sexualised space. Greg here makes a big deal of not falling in love with Rachel, as well as his masturbatory habits. But, like the vampire, he also needs to be invited in.

Rachel has leukaemia. Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) has ordered Greg — awkward, dorky, self-loathing — to go to talk to her and be a friend, whether either rof them like it or not. Both Rachel and Greg are those kind of lovable, wiser-than-their-years, square-pegs-in-round-holes that Kevin Williamson put on the TV map in Dawson’s Creek (and Whedon did in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and are obviously film films because, hey, we are watching a film. Remember cinema is narcissistic (see The Wolfpack) and Gregg not only likes films, he makes his own versions with his “co-worker” Earl (Ronald Cyler II). He likes Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorses, 1976) and Burden of Dreams (Les Blank, 1982) and the works of Powell and Pressburger and the two have made their own versions of forty films. (I hope the DVD will have these on.)

And so Earl and Gregg are persuaded to make a film for Rachel as she is dying — but Greg can’t quite work out how to do so as his present (a carefully cultivated neutrality at school) and future (university) begin to disintegrate.

The bittersweet nature of the film is balanced by a degree of whimsy — I knew I recognised the name of production company Indian Paintbrush and on checking they produced The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014), among others. I assume the animation expertise from some of those films is part of the talent here. It is perhaps shamelessly manipulative of our emotions.

It also offers a commentary on race in America, although I suspect it bodges it. Earl is African American and lives in a poorer part of town (there’s a factory or plant in the back of shot), Greg is WASP and Rachel is Jewish (there’s a minora carefully visible in more or less the first shot of her house). Difference is not shirked, but there is a risk that Earl will become the magical negro that Hollywood loves. He does, however, perceive Rachel as white. I suspect the minor characters are less diverse in their identities.

(It’s only now, a day afterwards, that I’m thinking of Robin Wood’s account of the interracial buddies (and Leslie Fiedler’s version in Love and Death in the American Novel) that I wonder whether the true love story is of me and Earl — with the dying girl as the heteronormative alibi. In their version of Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969) there is a distinctly eroticised shot of Earl.)

Meanwhile the film is stolen by Nick Offerman as Greg’s father, a sociology professor, and by Jon Bernthal as Mr. McCarthy, a history teacher, both of whom are clearly Greg’s male role models and are associated with strange food. Make of that what you will.

Bibliography

  • Hicks, Heather J. (2003) “Hoodoo Economics: White Men’s Work and Black Men’s Magic in Contemporary American Film”, Camera Obscura 18(2): 27-55.
  • Pearson, Erika (2009) “All the World Wide Web’s a stage: The performance of identity in online social networks”, First Monday 14(3): http://firstmonday.org/article/view/2162/2127

Paper Chase

Paper Towns (Jake Schreier, 2015)

I’m pretty sure there are a couple of moments in Philip K. Dick novels – Time Out of Joint? Voices from the Street? – when a character looks at their world and thinks it’s all paper. Or at the very least a stage set. That idea is here in a speech given to Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) in this YA film, looking over Orlando from the top of a skyscraper. She also appears to be a bit of a Dickian anima sprite, there to bring some excitement to the middle-aged protagonist.

Except that the protagonist is here a teen, Quentin or Q (Nat Wolff), best friends forever with fellow geeks or nerds Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), all of whom are prematurely middle-aged. Well, apart from Ben, who is turned on by any woman he knows, including Q’s mother.

Maybe that is also middle aged.

Q and Margo are neighbours, once inseparable, but grown apart through high school, until one night she calls upon him to help her commit nine acts of revenge. I didn’t quite count nine, so perhaps there’s stuff we didn’t see, but it brings Q alive at last. But then Margo vanishes – leaving Q clues to find her with. He has a choice – go to the prom, graduate, go to university, graduate, becomes a doctor, get married, have kids and be happy or find Margo. You can imagine the choice he makes.

I’ve got a copy of The Fault in Our Stars (2012), which has also been filmed and is also written by John Green, but I’ve yet to read it. I should remedy this. This is one of those films that is cleverly structured to undermine your objections to it. Isn’t she a little too idolised? Check. Isn’t it a little too convenient? Check. If he gets the girl, then it’s a rather trivial film with the female as impossible yet winnable love object, with the emphasis on object. If she rejects him, is that any better? And I guess since Galaxy Quest, nerds winning has been a thing – and you could imagine Justin Long of that film and several dozen TV classics in two of the central roles. Actually, its pedigree probably includes The Sure Thing.

Radar’s character occasionally risks stealing the movie with his parents’ collection of Black Santas (an attempt to get into The Guinness Book of World Records) and the moment when he is given a heritage-not-hate t-shirt (a detail that presumably became ultra-satirical since the movie was made).

What makes me resist the film a little, however, is the first person narration. Yes, there are a couple of scenes that Q isn’t in so I quibble a bit at that, but mainly I’ve a sense of being told not shown. In a film such as Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986), there is a distinct age difference between the narrating self and the narrated self – which can bring pathos or irony or nostalgia according to taste – but here I felt I was being instructed. The director or script writer didn’t trust us and that’s a shame.