Watching Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and Bully at the Little

I headed out to The Little (240 East Ave.) to check out a couple movies. On Mondays, they have been running a $5/movie promotion, and since the George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) is closed, there is no film at the Dryden. Too often I let the Little's schedule slip through my fingers and I miss out on things I wanted to see.

I was tempted to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi as I heard good things about it (and I missed it at the Dryden last month.) But, since I was running a little late, I opted instead to see Jeff, Who Lives at Home and then Bully.

I remembered that Dayna Papaleo gave "Jeff" a lukewarm-positive review in the City Paper so I gave it a shot with relatively low expectations. I found it a bit rough around the edges. As I told a friend later, it tends to really shove hard on suspension of disbelief which did not quite break me out of the movie: my advice is to stick with it and let it flow because there's a multi-layered story going on that's worth examining. I'll also warn that I found Ed Helms acting to be a bit too broad … at least at first: I often suspect that shooting schedules for movies tend to be set up by location, but also loosely in script-order, so his earlier scenes in the film seem like a caricature portrait, but he does improve as the film goes on.

At the surface, the film is about an easily-dismissed stoner, Jeff (Jason Segel) who believes that the underlying nature of the universe is revealed through subtle messages that he believes he is tuning himself to see. Meanwhile, his brother Pat (Ed Helms) leads a much more conventional life, suppressing any belief in a purposeful world by focusing on the minutia of day-to-day life. Jeff lives in their mother Sharon's (Susan Sarandon) basement — who is struggling to find meaning in her own life as a widow, unsatisfied with her sons. Oh, and it's designed as a comedy with a lot of really quite funny moments.

But take away the mechanicals of the plot ("a stoner goes on a wacky adventure struggling to complete a simple task") and what's left is a painting of the way family is inexorably connected; how they are similar in deep, subtle ways that transcend their outwardly tremendous differences. Without giving away too much, I found it unexpectedly tender when Jeff is sitting the basement watching TV listlessly eating an uncooked PopTart.

With just a short break, I stuck around to see Bully. In case you didn't know, it's a documentary about bullying in primary schools in the United States … sort-of. Its candid portrayal of day-to-day school life resonated with me, and made me wonder if I'm repressing some memories of being bullied — I vividly remember moments that echoed Alex's dialog with his mother and with school administrators. I suspect that some part will resonate with everyone.

By my interpretation, in American society, it is considered normal for kids to establish their individuality by saying cruel things to one another. Most form a callous that protects and strengthens from each cruel remark. But some do not, and the cruelty strikes their heart each time. And because it hurts so very much, it's not something they wish to inflict on others, so they never become adept at cruelty. And then their unwillingness to be cruel becomes itself another difference that is attacked, and the pain just builds and builds.

The movie paints the picture of this seemingly unavoidable torture and then finds hope in things that parents and children are doing to turn the tide. But in my gut, I knew the speeches, the discussions, and the rallies would handily be derided by any half-clever fourth-grader — and much to the amusement of jeir peers, continuing to feed the cycle.

In one scene, Alex is talking with his assistant principal, he doesn't believe her actions will help. He cites a previous case where he was bullied by getting stuffed into the seat cushions of the bus and her actions failed to stop the bullying. She has the audacity to bully him to reinforce her belief in the petty authority she holds: she begs the question by asking if that specific circumstance ever happened again, knowing that she'll be able to steamroll poor Alex who doesn't have the skills to call her on her bullshit.

That, and the principal of the same school's reprehensible reaction to Alex's poor parents led me to think of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. A common criticism of the film is that Ferris is an anti-hero because he fails to respect the authority of Principal Ed Rooney who is played to be a petty dictator — and an incompetent one at that. But watching Bully, I can't help but believe Rooney's portrayal may be less of an exaggeration than it seems. As an adult, thinking of the advice given by my own guidance counselors, teachers, principals, and any other "school authority" seems, at best, to be the good-and-bad mix of advice you can get from anybody over the age of 21, and downright buffoonish at worst.

But when I said the film is about bullying "sort of", I meant that there's an undercurrent of hope from people doing things they never thought possible. And in a way, the bullying and attempts to stop bullying seem trite compared to the profound personal changes in the lives of people confronting adversity.

I was talking with a friend the other week and we were commenting on how the lilacs seem more fragrant this year, probably because of the stresses of the weather. She commented that stress makes things beautiful. I thought it wasn't quite right — I've seen people who are stressed and they're not pretty — so I said it's adapting to stress that is beautiful.

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Hundreds of People Watch the Beast Pageant at the Dryden

The Beast Pageant screened at the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) tonight. It took me a while to extricate my thoughts from the various sets I helped build and from the scenes I acted in, but I think I finally have a grip on what great all-around acoustic soloist Jon Moses, and Albert Birney were getting at.

On its surface, The Beast Pageant follows Abe from his lifeless industrialized existence on a journey of reconnection with the natural world. It's all told in fantastical dream language, so time, space, and reality really have no grounding. It just is its own special place.

But dig deeper, and there's a layer about the beauty of human beings. Moses even used the phrase "it's an anti-aibrushing movie" in the question-and-answer. And by that, he means that the movie defies the media-generated images of the human form. All of us who acted as part of the natural world were nude (unless fully covered in costume). And the point is we're just regular people. We didn't spend 6 months prior to the film with a personal trainer to ensure our bodies were picture-perfect; rather we were all just people from around town who live normal lives.

This was the most consistently shocking element. You'll note that neither the D&C article nor the one in City Newspaper made mention of the near-constant nudity on screen. And it's because they can't unless they also subtly condemn it. So the authors of those pieces, finding a work they genuinely liked, opted instead to simply omit that fact.

To me this is a terrible precedent. It's not as if anyone in the U.S. does not see themselves naked at least once a day. Yet through the media's constant condemnation of the human body, we are taught to loathe the sight of it. And through that we loathe ourselves. And, oddly enough, we strive to buy products to give us satisfaction — so the media will approve of our appearance.

And so that theme runs through The Beast Pageant as well. The giant machine in Abe's apartment is an entertainment system (in addition to personal companion, and provider of all his physical needs.) The machine resists Abe's attempt to escape — much as the media machine resists the existence of The Beast Pageant.

But somehow, I think The Beast Pageant is going to win, one way or another.

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The Bothersome Man at the Dryden

I'm not referring to someone who was bothersome, that's actually the name of the movie: Den brysomme mannen (The Bothersome Man). Ali and I got a chance to see it at the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.)

It was a remarkable film. It documents the purgatory-like existence of a man after he tries to kill himself. Basically he's brought by bus to this city, given a decent job and a decent apartment. At first he's complacent, but he finds it irritating that everything is "72° pleasant" all the time. None of the food has any flavor or smell. He meets a woman who seems nice but is just as interested in him as she is in decorating the house. When he tells her he met someone else and wants to break up, she suggests that it wait until Saturday because they're having guests over.

The people of the town cannot understand why he is unhappy — after all, everything is pleasant. It very strongly rang true for me and I empathized with the protagonist Andreas [well, maybe he's the antagonist … no, perhaps just a pestisnist]. It seems a lot of people believe that complacency and safety are the pinnacle of human existence. Safety and comfort are good and fine, but continuing to grow and to achieve is much more important to me. And the way to do that is to increase interaction with other people — especially those that are bothersome to you.

I believe that I get and deserve a huge amount of control only of that inside my mind. When I encounter a situation that makes me feel that outside influence has that control then I want to understand why. It may be a situation that is dangerous — a manipulation that is destructive — but in my experience, it is more likely a situation that is a stimulus for growth.

I guess in a way, I feel that all growth comes from irritation and adapting to that irritation. Once you grow enough you no longer experience that irritation — even when the conditions present a similar scenario (i.e. if you had not grown, you would continue to experience irritation).  A physical example might be that of learning to play guitar: as you learn, your fingers get irritated from the strings, but after a while, your fingers develop callouses. The strings did not change and you did not avoid the irritation — and now you have grown the ability to deal with that irritation.

I remember years ago when I was living on Burkhard Place and people would come to visit the neighbors and use their car horn as a doorbell. It irritated me to no end because I had no way to stop them from doing that. There were vengeful acts I devised, but none could teach the world. I fantasized that I'd go outside and ask them to stop, then play out the sarcastic scenario that they would say, "my goodness! I thought that when I pushed this button that only my friend would hear — I am deeply sorry and won't do it again."

But in the end, I was awakened one morning at 3 a.m. and tossed and turned in bed until it finally hit me: it's just a noise. I can reassign all sorts of noises in the world and some — while pervasive (like the noise of the wind) or loud (like birds chirping) — I had already set up in my mind to be ignored. I learned that I could reassign the sound of cars honking on the street to just another noise. It was remarkable: I actually did it. And while I can still be annoyed by it, I no longer get impotently irate at people who do it.

Now, an alternative would be to move far away from people and their cars with horns. But there is a tremendous sacrifice in that — that one isolates themselves from the rest of humanity. And having selective interactions with people — especially with the behavioral pattern of always going away if it is irritating — suppresses personal growth.

And as populations increase and energy stops being so darn cheap, the necessity to interact in close proximity is a necessity. One way to do that is to impose the serenity of suburban life onto individuals — externally manipulating them to ensure they conform to the lowest common denominator. Another is to teach people to adapt and to grow — or rather, to rekindle and foster the capacity in all of us to do so.

Unfortunately, there seems to be tremendous pressure for the former. And this pressure leads to a milquetoast gray society. It does not foster a great civilization, but an impotent one. And as for the United States, there is a promise of opportunity — but that promise cannot be upheld simultaneously with a promise of serenity.  So as a conservative, I favor the tradition of opportunity that I was taught.

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