Holy shit you guys! It’s been a minute since I’ve had such a bad reaction to a movie. I don’t even like the word triggering and how it’s being trotted out to keep the ignorant blissfully so. But I struggled for reals with mounting anger through Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, while nonetheless still hoping I would find something redeeming about it. When we had the typical post-movie “Well what did you think?” conversation, all I could say was I hated it.
I needed some time to think about why, which I did, with much anger, gesticulations, and to my surprise one or two really big angry tears as the gentleman and I walked back to the car, drove to the grocery store, and made our way home. I knew it had something to do with the five people of color – only one of whom had a speaking roll that she played within the first 10 minutes of the film, after which she was never seen again – who I spent most of my time scanning the screen for and counting. But representational diversity was only just my gateway problem with the movie. I mean, come on, it’s a Woody Allen film. I knew what I was in for.
I’d like to acknowledge here too that my response to the film has everything to do with the fact that I am a relatively young, non-American woman of color, who is also a newly tenured English professor at a predominantly white Midwestern university. The first half of that self-description, in many ways, is why I can only ever smile politely and think, “how quaint” at the end of any Woody Allen film I’ve seen. Much of the culturally embedded specificity is as foreign to me as the films about where I’m from probably are to Woody Allen. In Irrational Man, though, every time I saw the one black dude that was at the table with an Asian woman and six or seven other white students, or the single black couple who were blurry background people in full rooms of in-focus white people, I felt the sometimes discomfiting familiarity of such rooms. My problem with this film, though, is not so much its lack of diversity, but the other thing that counting people of color made me notice: its portrayal of white American academics – not a single non-white one among them; I was looking – who all suffer from the same gross lack of awareness of the privilege that comes from their race, education, and citizenship. It was overdrawn, but also in some places familiar. I knew it well enough to recognize it immediately and it rubbed me the wrong way.
But let me back up for a second to give the context for why I was at this movie, even though I pretty much knew how it would go from the trailer and long ago decided I absolutely did not want to see it. If you are my friend on the social medias, you may have noticed that I have dramatically reduced my engagement with the racial politics du jour, particularly those surrounding police brutality. Sandra Bland’s death in particular was tough and angering. This is not only because I had to check somebody who characterized multiple deaths of African Americans in police custody as isolated incidents not reflective of any larger systemic issues, and not at all an indicator of a significantly flawed justice system. If I need to explain to you why the whole isolated incidents thing is rubbish, this blog is not for you. Click away from this post right now and come back when I have patience for your foolishness, and begin to pray for just that, because right now I am not the one. Jesus has been known to make a way, though.
With a few weeks before I needed to return to the classroom fresh and not angry about racial inequality, wearing a brown face in a predominantly white place, I took the self-care route that thankfully is also being advocated for those of us who live in the bodies that are typically targets for (sometimes fatally violent) marginalization and whose work focuses on countering this marginalization, one hard headed soul at a time. I stopped reading the posts, the articles, the memes, the all of it. I stopped engaging, because my recent drive back to Missouri from Miami, through southern states, terrified me. I stopped engaging because when my husband showed me the stupid video of the KKK member at a confederate rally wearing FUBU sneakers I cried, because I am terrified of those people who will say things like “blacks are taking over our country” but are unable to see that as racism, because too many people are too busy confusing hatred and patriotism. Stupid used to be an annoyance, but today, in this body and in this place, it is more terrifying than anything else that has ever frightened me in almost 36 years of life on this earth.
My self-care regimen, so I would stop crying when I felt hopeless in the face of the adamant ignorance of the #AllLivesMatter crowd, the capacity for deadly violence among the Dylan Roofs of the world, and the daily blurring of the line between the two, meant I decided to pass on seeing Straight Outta Compton too – that and the very troubling casting memo from a while back. There is no doubt that the police brutality and racism shown in that film would be angering and could trigger the tears that are always welling behind my eyes these days. Not only that, I can’t get behind the film’s treatment of women or Ice Cube’s dismissal of the film’s misogyny. I get the stupidity of youth part; everybody does dumb shit when they’re young. But I’m still waiting on the whole, that was so wrong back then and I see that now and I am happy I am a grown ass man who no longer denigrates women, because that shit – even when we perpetrate it as young, stupid youth – is just poor. See, Ice Cube? How hard is that? But anyway, I wasn’t going to see that movie because I needed to not subject myself to those two triggers – racism and misogyny – right before I hit classrooms on a university campus which, alongside many fine students, includes a bro culture like you wouldn’t believe, the excesses that sometimes accompany SEC football, and proud traditions like one fraternity’s Poverty Party.
So now we get to why I semi-unwittingly went to see a Woody Allen movie in the first place. I figured, what would possibly be upsetting in a lily white Woody Allen movie? As it turns out I found a whole lot to be upset about. When I saw Joaquin Phoenix in the opening scene I immediately recognized it, was a little wary of being there and, overall, sorry I don’t pay closer attention when my husband suggests we see a movie. The self-absorption of yet another middle-aged white man having an existential crisis that has not a damn thing to do with the price of rice didn’t appeal to me. But there I was nonetheless on the couch at the local art house theater settling in for a movie I had forgotten I didn’t want to see.
I’m a damn good sport though. I saw The Fantastic Four voluntarily and I feel neither here nor there about superhero stuff. So I settled in with my shandy and was prepared to watch and enjoy nonetheless. Quick plot rundown and there will be spoilers, so if Woody Allen is your shit and you plan to see it, then stop reading now and come back after for why it pissed me off. Ok, the rest of you, Abe Lucas, played by Phoenix, is a neurotic, self absorbed, romantically gothic, and attractive-to-everyone-because-he-is-troubled-yet-ridiculously-smart philosophy professor. He moves to Rhode Island to teach summer session at a fancy college with classrooms that only seat twelve. You know, the small rooms that are particularly suited for all those deep and complex and completely extemporized philosophical discussions of Kant, Kierkegaard, et alia that us professor types have all the time, with earnest undergraduate students who have all read and are engaged at a graduate level or above. Those people definitely show up for summer school.
Joaquin as Abe is in the throes of the same existential crisis that he’s been in for his last three roles – with the exception perhaps of Inherent Vice – but really, if you saw his red eyed bumbling mumbling in that one, you’ve already seen what he does in Irrational Man.
As over Joaquin Phoenix as I have been, I was more bored by Emma Stone, who plays Jill the student who is completely taken by Abe and all his gothic philosophical bullshit and spends much of the movie staring up at him doe eyed. Their romance is, as we say in Jamaica, dry like crackaz, and just utterly unmoving – to me at least – and I will accept that my annoyance with the overall boringness of both actors/characters probably does inform my assessment of their on screen chemistry.
The crux of the thing is how to resolve everything once Abe murders a corrupt judge to restore meaning to his life and Jill threatens to rat him out to the cops if he doesn’t turn himself in. To avoid having to give up his whole renewed sense of meaning and vitality and spend the rest of his life in prison if Jill goes to the cops, Abe decides to murder her too by throwing her down an elevator hatch that he’s tampered with. In an unexpected and really quite ridiculous physical skirmish, Abe slips on a flashlight that rolls out of Jill’s dropped purse. Ironically, this is a flashlight he won for her at a carnival. She picked it instead of a Teddy Bear. Yawn. Even when the movie tries to give Jill depth she only ever comes off as trying too gahtdamn hard to do lord knows what next to Joaquin’s crazy. But anyway, he slips on the fateful flashlight and falls to his own death down the shaft. I told you there would be spoilers; it’s your own fault if you continued to read despite my warning. But since you’re still here, you might as well stick around for the moment— ah comin’! –when this prefatory preamble/rant finally gets to why this film was unexpectedly triggering.
So beyond being bored by seeing Joaquin do all that exact shit already in comedies, dramas, and all of the things, and seeing Emma Stone moon-eye-with-barely-parted-lips her way through the entire film, what got me was the film’s utter unconsciousness about its dependence on white American privilege. Now, I have ambivalence about this. I am the lady who argues in most of her work that keeping art beholden to the political imperatives of its time and context is unproductively restraining, not the least because it makes us miss all kinds of important and interesting things about art. This is why despite being disturbed by the film’s tokenism with regard to diversity, I kept paying close attention rather than napping, because there had to be something redeeming about it.
It had to at the very least obliquely be aware of the privilege that it traffics in. But as it turns out, not so much. You see, Irrational Man clearly wants us to see Abe as an asshole, but it goes about making this point while remaining oblivious of the fact that he is surrounded by other people who are entirely unaware of their privilege, and for the most part useless in providing the kind of foil necessary to criticize Abe’s actions. For me the most egregious aspect of Abe’s assholery is the insipid narcissism that is at the core of his existential crisis. He spirals into depression, impotence, and alcoholism because despite his brilliant philosophical treatises and brave volunteerism in Darfur and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he has been unable to change the world enough. So he lost his reason to live, because his volunteerism and smart philosophy papers did not change the world. What the hell is wrong with wanting to change the world through smart academic writing and volunteering, lady?, is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask here. Not a gahtdamn thing is what I’d say, unless your whole reason for wanting to change the world is, like Abe’s, so you can feel better about yourself. Church, we don’t need any more people going into economically depressed places and disaster areas looking to feel better about themselves or searching for a reason to live. Those efforts become dangerous when they are focused on how self can be made better by helping others, rather than just helping others. See what I did there? Everyone, cut that shit out right now.
So let’s say Irrational Man feels the same way I do about the narcissism of volunteerism and the self-seriousness of academics and really wants us to see Abe for the sorry human being that he is. I would be more convinced by this argument if there weren’t other such characters all over the film. I mean, all I needed was one voiceover – maybe Jill’s when she wasn’t being boring – saying something like, “you know, this whole I’m-so-smart-but-can’t-save-the-world thing seems to be more about your brain and your efforts than it is about anyone else.” But nope, she was too busy being enchanted by said brain and efforts. Sure, she took the moral high ground and insisted that he leave town or she would turn him in, but that was only because murder is the horrific thing It is. It’s also important to note that she’s horrified by the murder but not so much by the character flaws or sense of privilege that lead up to it. There’s a kind of willed blindness here that she shares with other characters.
Let’s take Rita, played by Parker Posey, who I hate to do this to, because she was the only watchable one in the whole thing if you ask me. Rita is a chemistry professor who was also having an affair with Abe. I say chemistry prof because it’s her key to the poisonous chemicals room that Abe lifts, so he can get the poison to kill the judge. Rita wants to divorce her husband and move to Spain to start a new life. Towards the end, after Jill threatens to turn him in, Abe entertains taking Rita with him when he leaves for Europe to escape further suspicion. Rita, even though she suspects Abe is the killer, is all like, I’d go with him anyway. Nuttn nuh wrong wid dat. Who cares if he killed a dude for reasons? Sexy romantic middle-aged European escape and wot not. Except of course for the perfect ease of the fantasy that through my eyes was conspicuously devoid of any concerns for border crossing. Ask one of those folks who are braving the treacherous waters off North Africa to make the nine mile trip to Europe – many of whom don’t actually make it – about the sheer simple pleasure of a new start in Europe. Ask one of the millions who made it to Europe from war torn countries but exist in refugee limbo because no country wants to grant them amnesty. I’m sorry, but even as a thoroughly documented immigrant, I did not get the fantasy, not least because people who should know better dreamt it up.
So here’s the crux of the problem, which has to do with how hard this movie has to work—and is willing to work—to gin up a sense of existential crisis in a world where too many people live that shit on the daily. Recently, I saw an outraged post on Urban Cusp about the human rights violation that is the taking of DNA swabs on arrest for FBI archiving and identification purposes; many of the ensuing comments also expressed the outrage with the word “unconstitutional” featuring prominently.
The criminalizing effect of such practices was the essence of the outrage. I have broken no laws, why are you taking my DNA? That particular outrage, expressed by an American woman, belies one of the many privileges of un-criminalized American citizenship. Today, immigrants, African Americans, and others are actively criminalized in subtle and not so subtle ways – like the arrest of activists at Black Lives Matter Protests. Since 9/11, I have been finger printed and photographed at the make shift precincts that are called Border Control in American airports every time I arrive from a different country. Every. Single. Time. More times than I can count. Before I got my green card, my biometrics were once again taken for the various criminal justice databases all over the country. What this has made clear to me is that as an immigrant, I do not have the luxury of a presumption of innocence. I understand the outrage at feeling like a criminal when one is subjected to practices associated with those who break the law. It’s how I have felt on every single entry into the US since 9/11. I have broken no law beyond being a woman of color who migrated to America. I bring all this up because I do not have the privilege of not being criminalized at American borders. This is why Abe and Rita’s European escape plan got under my skin. Really, they should know better.
I’d like to think that academics in a movie would have more awareness about the world and those beyond the mostly white halls of a college just outside of Providence, Rhode Island. Maybe that is too much to ask of Woody Allen. But at this current moment in history it seems in some ways easier to know these things than it has been, and by extension much harder to maintain the kind of fantasy of a world where people choose their own existential crises that Irrational Man wants us to buy. If you’re me at least.
Meanwhile, I guess I need to go see Straight Outta Compton after all. You know, to balance all the shitty chi.