Film, Music, News & Commentary

Rundle on Time, consciousness, history and a Ben Stiller movie

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Just about the most thrilling, and batty, thing you’ll ever read is a multi-volume work called  History: Fiction or Science? by a collective headed by a Russian mathematician who argue that most of history did not exist.

The ancient world, the founding of the Christian era, they’re a product of some forgery in the early ‘Middle’ Ages, and a lot of refraction more recently, whereby figures become split, mythologised etc. Jesus is actually Charlemagne, Plato lived round 1100, everything is much more squeezed. You scoff at it on first read, and then go, well ‘Hell, how do we know?’ History is self-grounding, and if the ground itself is a fabrication, what actually happened? Sadly, dendochronology refutes much of it, but it’s a wild ride while it lasts.

Same is true of While We’re Young, the new Noah Baumbach film, which I don’t propose to review in detail, as this has been ably done by Daily Review‘s film critic Luke Buckmaster, but rather to point up a few things that are going on in the movie that serve as some sort of focus and refraction for contemporary dilemmas about time, culture, and the shift currently underway.

While We’re Young looks like a Judd Apatow movie and stars Ben Stiller as Josh and Naomi Watts as married couple Josh and Cornelia in overlit scenes reflecting on life in a pop cultural manner — and that’s clearly what the marketing department wants viewers to think. Once got, they’re in a movie with a quadruple-level time structure, as Josh, a Gen X filmmaker whose stalled documentary features hours of footage of a very old mitteleuropean philosopher,  Josh and Cornelia befriend a hipster couple in their mid-20s, Jamie and Darby.

Stiller can’t get his doc finished, not helped by the fact that his dad-in-law is a doco maker too, a jerk Haskell Wexler type, in no doubt as to who he is and what he wants to do.

Jamie is also a filmmaker, but only in the way that everyone can be now, making quirky bits with smartphones, uploading etc. The core plot line — Jamie is a conniving climber who befriended Josh to get to his father-in-law, and faked an apparent random series of events to make his own doco look more like a stumbled-upon scandal — is uniteresting of itself, and even wearisome.

But what makes the film disturbing is its use of objects, from board games to cassettes, tablets to phones, to portray reality as one of intersecting periods. It describes the brevity of our moment at the centre of things, and makes clear the uncanny nature of the way we intersect with each other across age gaps, which is across epochs.

The first level argument of While We’re Young is that things have gone to hell; Josh is stalled because he has integrity, but can’t progress because he lacks the purpose his dad-in-law had. But he has more of such than Jamie, who has no content whatsoever. The digital revolution is to blame; there is so much video/film out there now, at all times, that actually making a video doesn’t mean anything, is not a clarified act in the world.

Fair enough, but Jamie and Darby don’t live in the digital world; they’re hipsters, whose life is one long act of reclamation: urban beach parties, board game nights, kitsch and retro all mashed up, most of it — manual typewriters! — with the aim of forestalling digital immediacy and totality.

Josh and Cornelia meanwhile, are too far gone for that. In their mid-40s, they were in their 20s when they got an email account, their 30s when they streamed a movie. For them it still counts as easy, and helpful, access to a culture which is out there. Baumbach is good at getting the sense that while the men create a friendship, they are living in two different frames. Jamie is in the lake of time that is one’s 20s, when the outer edges are not yet observed, and things  — frivolous, stupid things — can come into being by being fully engaged with.

Thus does culture come into being. Josh, by contrast has death and failure bearing down on him. He is in a lather of angst, against which nothing can stand. What is sought out in the world is most convenient; objects, their particularity simply recede to a zero point. He notes that he has only two emotions left, ‘wistful and disdainful’. He has a meltdown when he finds Jamie has named his band — of course there’s a band, but not a serious one — after a ’70s breakfast cereal commercial that entranced Josh as a child, but which Jamie saw on that vast gully trap, Youtube. This gives Josh to understand — though he does not say it —  that everything will be demythologised in our lives, that youth is simply life encased in myth — and when that goes all that remains is the objects themselves which, in our era, are a series of grey-black devices, on which we look at things elsewhere.

While We’re Young is smart enough to know that the myth of the Fall is universal — but knowing that does not ensure that one will not Fall after all. The strong implication is that the coming of the digital era has made meaning impossible, since there is no scarcity of access to any image. But at the same time the film cannot believe it is not simply, being old. It will not take a stand, but it communicates strongly that things were real once, and ceased to be quite recently. This is shown up by the use of ‘Great Society’ era doco footage — a poor black urban family in B&W- —  at an endpoint in the film when where Cornelia’s dad (played by Charles Grodin) receives a lifetime achevement award. Simpler days, and in simplicity, the world could be itself, disclose.

The film is good at deploying pop culture minutiae —  a cassette of Bat Out of Hell on the dashboard — to give a sense of how lost we think ourselves to be, when in fact there is no place to be found. Ultimately, it points out, we have invested our cultural meaning in ephemera, felt with intense keenness by the young who know that what records our time on this earth is a series of popular culture references that no-one understands.

Ages, lives, the lives we lead are mediated by 40 year old snack foods, Cracked magazine, a Beta copy of BJ and the Bear (BJ was a truckie; the Bear was a chimp).

If there’s an ethic in While We’re Young it’s that things matter — what people loved, thought and did. But such things are forever slipping from our grasp, and, grounded in ephemera, so is time itself. We cannot get control of our lives until we tame this autonomous project of culture. It’s a tall order, and demanding of a remaking of history, a challenge to the objects.

It won’t be read that way of course, but deep down everyone knows that a society which has already provisioned the authorised response, has already given up a freedom of experience. Time is in the objects, their advertising, the works. And time thus measured is always melancholy, suggesting that the world is only on loan to you, and is going to be revoked at any minute. While We’re Young shows that process in excruciating depth. One wonders how anyone could not see that the objects are stealing our time and our being, and that we may have been subject to mythologies that will dissolve behind us as we look away.

Read Luke Buckmaster’s review of While We’re Young

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