I have an unfortunate tendency to obsess on a short list of unproductive questions, so I’d like to give a big thank-you to Matt, Peter, Ross and Steven Pinker for kicking off my latest bout of “are human beings just machines incapable of transcendence?” angst.
Here is a great hammer-and-nails example of the human tendency to see everything through a somewhat self-centered prism: has anyone else noticed that the entire corpus of Will Ferrell’s work seems to center on exactly this dilemma?
In fact many modern “thoughtful” comedies share this perspective. Groundhog Day is the story of a self-centered pig’s journey to escape the prison created by his appetites. Interestingly, the one obvious small-town institution missing from his journey is a church, and it seems plain to me that the movie is a metaphor for Buddhist enlightenment. Knocked Up is an analogous transformation of a slacker to other-centeredness. (This is why, incidentally, I don’t think the movie is tanked by poor writing and worse acting on the part of the female lead. She is for us – though absolutely not for the character of the male lead – an object in his transformation.)
What’s interesting about both of these examples is that, like Jane Austen’s novels, the movie ends on the wedding day (of course, being modern Hollywood, there is usually no wedding day, but I think you get my drift). What’s left ambiguous is whether each of these characters has transcended a machine-like human nature and become spiritual and moral in a truly non-self-serving sense, or whether they have merely proceeded to a higher-level understanding of their machine nature wherein they achieve better alignment between their behavior and the behavior which maximizes their biochemical well-being. That is, have they simply moved from unenlightened to enlightened self-interest? What’s left unexplored is the subject of the nineteenth century novel: what happens after the wedding? Because what each of these characters would discover is that real relationships, especially those with kids, will make demands that are, in practice if not in theory, very difficult to sustain in the face of corrosive nihilism.
It seems to me that this specific version of the dilemma – how can I maintain a stable domestic order if there is no higher purpose to my life than satisfying appetites? – is the core of Will Ferrell’s comedy.
Consider his latest magnum opus: Talladega Nights. The whole point of the movie is that Ricky Bobby follows the example of his father in walking away from any responsibility. The scene in Applebee’s is the crux of the movie. His father, seeing the family coming together, picks a fight with the waitress in order to get thrown out. On the street, the son confronts his father, and in the most significant exchange of the movie asks him what he should do, and the father responds: “Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?” Eventually, Ferrell’s character reconstructs a domestic life (after defeating a French existentialist driver who reads L’Etranger).
What is Wedding Crashers but a description of the defiling the tradition of the wedding to pick up girls? The Will Ferrell character is shown as the epitome of this attitude, as he screams at his mother for meatloaf and moves to picking up girls at funerals. Eventually one character escapes. His character in Blades of Glory makes the same journey. Ditto Old School. My take is that Stranger Than Fiction has a very similar theme, but I never go to movies that are anything more sophisticated than cop buddy films. I have no idea if Elf fits this mold, but there are some things I won’t do even for a blog post.