Saturday, July 18, 2015

Amy Schumer's Trainwreck - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reflects on Morality and Integrity

Ok, I admit it.  I'm procrastinating.  I should be reading and writing about the American Psychological Association's trainwreck - the ways in which the presidents of our organization and the paid officers colluded with the CIA to support torture - what could be worse than a psychologist who supports human rights abuses - and then covered up what they did for almost ten years - villifying those who were trying to blow the whistle on the organization while they engage in the cover-up and after committing what may have been, at one time, understandable sins.  Yuck.

Instead, the reluctant wife and I went on a double date with the oldest daughter and her boyfriend to see a RomCom - Trainwreck, starring Amy Schumer.  Amy Schumer is a stand up comedienne who has taken on the gender bashing double standard characteristic of sexual promiscuity by making herself the butt of jokes about her drunken, anonymous sex filled apparently boundary-less life while, as all good comedians do, retaining her morally superior position by being the one who is passing judgment on her life, not letting others do that, and by being a likable person despite reporting engaging in behaviors that her audience likely partly thinks are reprehensible, partly are identifying with, and partly are admiring her bravado in articulating.  And, when the audience is a Dad who sits in on what the kids are watching in part to have an opportunity to connect with those kids and in part to monitor what they are dipping their toes into, she evokes a complicated set of emotions as he sees that she is modeling something that the children are identifying with as a potential psychological approach to the world.

So, if I am trying to avoid muck, I am also plopping myself right down into the middle of it with the reluctant daughter and her stable and responsible boyfriend.  And, while there is a fair amount of muck, Schumer and Apatow (the director) manage to construct a traditional RomCom on top of it - tightly tying together truly funny bits and gags, many of them acted by Saturday Night Live alums and current players - people who know how to put together a good sketch, and there are many of them in this film.  The star turns and cameos are also quite good, with Lebron James playing a quite (un)believeable and very likable version of himself as a Downton Abbey watching, penny pinching best friend of her ultimate love interest and saving grace Aaron, played by Bill Hader who does a credible job as the straight man - quite a feat from the guy who played Stefon in the ridiculous and ridiculously funny Saturday Night live weekend update sketches.

And, if you have been following the turns in this piece, you might think that I would have been relieved by the predictable and safe outcome of the movie.  It reassures us that all is right with the world.  The troubled and troubling daughter - the scary adolescent who is experimenting with dangerous stuff but is, at heart, a sweet girl, finds the good dedicated boy (and he's a Doctor!), gets her life in order, and moves to the suburbs.  But I wasn't.  In fact, I found myself feeling deeply disappointed.  Not by the movie as a movie; it is a well crafted and funny - at moments absolutely hilarious - movie, but I was disappointed by the developmental arc that the Amy Schumer character takes in it.

The film opens with childhood version of Amy and her younger sister being told by their father that he and their mother are divorcing.  He is a womanizer who hilariously gets them to side with his need to bed multiple partners and gets them funnily but poignantly to chant, "Monogamy is unrealistic".  This creates a very real and believable foundation for Amy's future life as a woman who is on the make for pretty much anything that walks and who also uses a wide variety of substances - the analyst in me says in an effort to soothe herself - but the viewer does not see her as being in particular pain, just floating along as flotsam or jetsam on a stream of culturally determined and constructed moments at bars, alleys and bedrooms that are oddly recognizable as the kinds of places in which single people of privilege in their twenties might live, living a life that appears fun if vapid and remarkable only in an Instagram way.  It therefore makes sense that she is a writer at a men's magazine that is focused on the inane and ephemeral oddities of urban life - fluff for the bathroom reader - working for a boss who is pushing her harder than she pushes herself.

Amy's younger sister has, in contrast, carved a very typical suburban life out for herself.  Married to a dweeb, with a very dweebie stepson, she becomes pregnant during the course of the movie.  Amy and her sister connect and fight about the care of their father, who is now in a nursing home.  Her sister is concerned about the expense, while Amy is concerned about the quality of his life - so she tries to preserve his cocaine for him so that he can have his pleasure, but despite her efforts, the sister flushes his drugs down the drain.  Meeting the father again, we get a sense of how irascible he continues to be, but also how lovable he is, something that Schumer eloquently captures in her eulogy for him when he dies.  She does not shy away from the difficulties inherent in being his daughter or his friend.  And she enacts a bitter but realistic bit of vengeance on her sister after the funeral when she caustically, meanly and sadistically claims their father for herself - enacting the sense of connection that she feels towards him - and demonstrates in her imitative behavior both in dumping her sister and through her promiscuous behavior which simultaneously lets her be like her father, but also fear being the partner of men, all of whom she feels on some level are like him and by whom she will inevitably be left - so she leaves others before they can leave her, in psychoanalytic vernacular turning passive into active, but leaving her alone and in what would be a superior position in her splendid isolation - were it not for her poignant portrayal of the angst that she feels in that space when her long time boyfriend leaves her when he discovers her consistent cheating on him (The comic displaced homoerotic undertone of this particular relationship is worthy of a blog all unto itself).

Aaron then waltzes into this picture as the subject of a magazine assignment.  He is too good be true.  Knee surgeon to the stars, he is naive and wears his heart on his sleeve - and is decidedly unsexy by the standards of the magazine Amy works for.  His parents were high achieving and demanding - or perhaps he has internalized their standards as his own through osmosis - he's not quite sure.  But he begins placing implicit demands on Amy almost immediately and only across time do they become explicit.  The primary demand is that she relate to him as a normal person would - not as the wounded bird that she normally uses as her dominant interactional lead with men.  This is strange to Amy.  His game is no game.  He simply wants to be with her - not with her contrived persona, but with something or someone more essential than that.  Despite our not having seen much evidence of her being, for instance, considerate of others, he perceives or assumes many positive qualities in her, and this creates a crisis for her.  She finds herself, against her will, being drawn to him.  And, in the process, being drawn to a better version of herself than she believes is sustainable.

Of course she fails to live up to the standard that he sets for her - and of course she can't or won't apologize for that, even though she is manifestly in the wrong.  And so, of course, girl loses boy.  And hits an even deeper bottom.  Then the girl - almost Rocky style - works to remake herself and we are in RomComVille with the typical denouement, including, along the way, reconciling with her sister.    And this remaking of Amy is where I was disappointed.  As I tried to articulate my disappointment to myself, I realized how internally inconsistent that disappointment is.  How many times in these blogs have I been the champion for love as a means to conquer difficulties?  How often do I propose that we are malleable and can overcome difficulties?  Aren't I the person who is dismayed by my children's predilection to revel in the muck on TV and hopeful that they will emerge from this, in spite of what they are being fed and choosing to seek out as entertainment, to lead high quality - not necessarily suburban - but certainly moral lives?  Don't I want to believe that Amy can meet the right - almost virginal man and let go of her wanton ways?

Yes, a part of me is rooting for this Hollywood ending.  But the analytic part notes that things are not this easy.  Not only that, but naively seeing Amy through Aaron's eyes is not enough to transform her - on some level nothing is.  We are in the midst of purging people from the American Psychological Association as a means of "cleaning house".  When we do this, the press releases emphasize the wonderful contributions these people have made to the organization over their long and distinguished careers.  Presumably because of the confidential nature of personnel processes, the facts of their involvement in the shameful actions of the organization are not mentioned.  But the implication is clear.  But they are neither pure Saints they are painted in their career summaries nor are they the Sinners we know are being run out of town on a rail.  They are complicated people - people whose wishes to promote the organization may have proven to be a tragic drive - one that has already besmirched that organization, and one that may cause tremendous damage to it, even destroy it.

Trainwreck is a romantic comedy, but I think it divorces itself from the tragic component that underlies every comedy.  It doesn't acknowledge that Aaron is drawn to Amy not in spite of her peccadilloes,  but because of them.  In their very first interaction, Amy is coyly all over the place on her relationship to sports, while we know she despises professional sports and athletes and those who admire them.  Aaron catches her in lies - and is charmed by her style of lying.  He likes that she is complicated and savvy and naive and all that she is.  He ultimately is frustrated that she does not use who she is to connect with others and to bring them together in a positive way.  The denouement enacts her willingness to transform herself into a person who helps bring others together so they can be happy - not to drive them apart.  The irony is that this is what Amy Schumer, the stand-up comedienne, does with her humor - she draws people together to reflect on the vagaries of living through exposing the vagaries of her own life.  As uncomfortable as it is for me to see my kids watching this, and as connected with superficial cultural components as her comedy is, there is also something very real and gritty about it.  She is a real person and, should my kids end up being as real as her comic persona is, I will be proud to call myself their parent, even if I am as uncomfortable with the content of their lives as I am with the self reported content of Amy Schumer's.  Unfortunately, the story book ending of this movie, for me, left open the question of whether that Amy Schumer - the person with integrity - one who knows both the good and the bad, not to mention tons of ugly - would survive the schmaltz to be the kind of partner a naive guy like Aaron needs to navigate the world.  Perhaps I should become, like Aaron, more trusting of human nature to assert itself.  

The paragraph above is the conclusion of this blog, but I can't leave without a shout out to one scene in particular.  When Amy has left Aaron, Lebron engages Aaron in an intervention with the intent of getting him to take her back.  The intervention is narrated by Marv Albert, who calls the intervention the same way he does a basketball game.  And, just as he does when calling those games, he is not at all shy about making psychological interpretations of the actions of the players.  This is just a marvelous spoof, not so much to me on interventions, as on the process of psychotherapy.  What could be more fun (and worse) than to have your internal game called by a sports announcer?  And this is in miniature also portrayal of the position of the modern comedian - a person who commentates their internal and external worlds, tying them together into a coherent understandable narrative, very much as we do in the psychoanalytic hour, bringing meaning to our lives and using humor to get enough distance from them that we can see them in a realistic if not always complimentary light.

Finally, I did get to writing about psychoanalytic pecadilloes that I was procrastinating about at the beginning of this blog- three posts worth.  The first is here and will link you with the other two.

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