A Brief Note on Varieties of Schlemiel Experience: Coen Brothers, Gary Shteyngart, and Judd Apatow

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As far as schlemiel theory goes, I’ve been writing on a variety of the schlemiels this week.  The differences between them are suggestive.  But, more importantly, I’m seeing that I identify more with one variety rather than another.  And the reasons I have for this identification speak most to what I find, today, most important about this character.    I hope that my identification resonates with other people since, to my mind, we now have a rare opportunity to understand how important the schlemiel can be – at this historical  moment -for prompting thought about what it means to be an American.  This thought, as I will argue, engages us in existential questions that are of great urgency.

A few days ago, I wrote a blog post on a trailer that Random House posted on Gary Shteyngart.  The point of the blog entry was to address a reading of the trailer made by Slate.   The author of the article claimed that the trailer failed miserably in attempting to make a gay joke vis-à-vis Shteyngart’s performance as a gay author with two husbands (played by James Franco and Jonathan Franzen).  I felt the repeated characterization of this trailer as the product of “lazy” thinking was a red herring.  Instead of presenting an argument it presents that author’s preference for gay jokes told about a James Franco who, in his mind, authentically attempted to embody gayness in a recent celebrity roast.   This aside, I felt that the real issue was the characterization of Shteyngart as a schlemiel (a “little failure”) in this trailer for his book by the same name.

To this end, I looked at how the trailer – by way of the schlemiel -offers a critique of success and masculinity.  This is what I call the “meaning of failure.”  However, the truth of the matter is that the critique is mild.    I wouldn’t exactly call it the product of “lazy thinking” so much as a similar concession to a market that filmmakers like Judd Apatow have taken full advantage.

To be sure, Judd Apatow’s schlemiels – in films like Forty Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Super Bad – may be failures but they are all, ultimately, commercial successes.  And, in contrast to the schlemiel we see played by Gary Shteyngart, his schlemiels end up, at the end of the film, winning.  Regardless, both varieties of schlemiels in Shteyngart’s tailer and Apatow’s films are charming.  Their failure doesn’t hit home to hard.  It isn’t what I’d call existential.  And, ultimately, there is little we can gain from it save for a kind of snarky, comic titillation.   This brand of schlemiel comedy can be seen in shows like Big Bang Theory and in nearly every Will Farell film.   There is little that can be said about this save for the fact that it simply maintains a status quo and instead of prompting change it creates a new norm in which schlemiels-are-one-of-us.  They may not be the likes of James Franco or Jonathan Franzen – “real men” who seek out “truth” and live out the “erotic” – but they are, like all of us, a little deluded by their hopes.  Nothing too disturbing is at work, here.  No.  In the end, all of this schlemiel comedy is feel-good-comedy.  Americans can laugh a little at their schlemiel-keit and still feel good about their misperceptions.  We can face the day without any anxiety or sadness.

In contrast to these varieties of schlemiel, I was fortunate to have seen the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis this week.  In this film, we see another variety of schlemiel that, to my mind, deserves more elaboration.   As I noted in yesterday’s blog entry, J. Hoberman decided to read the film – and all other Coen Brother’s films – in terms of the schlemiel.   His reading of the schlemiel sees this character as the subject of his own demise since he is blind to the things he does and brings on his own bad luck.  However, as Hoberman also notes, he is also is the subject of bad luck that is not of his own making.   To be sure, one might think he is a shlimazel (the subject of bad luck) since he is hit with so much bad luck (indeed, one of my friends tweeted me that he thought Hoberman was wrong: Llewyn Davis wasn’t a schlemiel, he was a shlimazel.)

The reason I identify more with the Coen Brothers film is because the schlemiel they show us is not of the feel-good type.  Davis’s misperceptions, false-hopes, and failures are not laughable in the same way they are with Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen et al.  Rather, they are painful to watch.  And, as I noted, yesterday, what makes him a schlemiel is not so much his charm or this or that redeeming quality so much as the possibility that, at the end of the film, he may have hope.  But more to the point, he is a schlemiel because he persists – despite the fact that the odds are against him.  But this persistence is permeated with weariness and failure.

The range of identifications we have with Davis is much more complex than any of the feel-good schlemiel films.  To be sure, I left the film thinking about myself: my false hopes, failures, my family, and the America that helped to foster my dreams.  I didn’t leave any Judd Apatow film with these thoughts.  On the contrary, I could go home feeling good about myself.

One of the great insights I left the film with was that we need to look into what is outside Llewyn Davis (outside the schlemiel) so as to understand what is inside him.  The Coen Brothers cast him in relation to failed artists, his decaying family, outsiders, and a long-journey from New York City to Chicago and back again.  His schlemiel character is defined against this outside which exudes hopelessness, hardness, and decay.  His false hopes, in many ways, are a response to this outside.  They protect him from being destroyed by this outside.  However, this protection is thinned out as the film goes on.

The more weary he grows, the more he realizes that the hopes he had set up for himself were out of tune with what was possible.  However, we see that it is not simply his fault.  The fact that he actually does make an album shows us that his hopes were nurtured by an industry.  But, as we see, this industry could care less about him.  And when he arrives in Chicago this hits home.  To be sure, his long journey there reminds me of what happens to the main character of James Joyce’s classic story “Araby”: the time the character has to wait before arriving at his destination wears away at his passion so much so that when he arrives he realizes that he was running on false hope.

To be sure, during the trip to and back from Chicago Llewyn shows us a schlemiel who realizes that he has failed on many levels. But the twist is that, though this is the case, he still goes on hoping and being a schlemiel (albeit with reduced hopes).

J. Hoberman, in his review of the film, thinks that this film has resonance with Bruce Jay Friedman’s novel, Stern.  But, after seeing the film,  I think the better reference is to Bernard Malamud.  Ruth Wisse points out that Malamud’s schlemiel’s also fail but they go through an existential process of coming to terms with these failures.  Yet, like this film, they still remain schlemiels.

Wisse tells us that Malamud’s “interest” in the schlemiel has “not been sociologically determined.   Alone among American writers he has fixed on the Jews as representative man – and on the schlemiel as the representative Jew.  His Jewish Everyman is an isolated, displaced loner, American in Italy, Eastern in the West, German refugee in America, bird among bipeds”(110).  And there is a challenge to the status quo in his work:  “Malamud sees the schlemiel condition as the clearest alternative to the still-dominant religion of success”(111).   But the alternative is based on becoming cognizant of one’s failure and delusions: “The character courageous enough to accept his ignomity without being crushed by it is the true hero of Malamud’s opus, while the man playing the Western hero without admitting to his real identity – Jewish, fearful, suffering, loving, un-heroic – is the absolute loser”(111).

Wisse’s final distinction can be applied to the Coen Brother’s Llewyn Davis.  Everything he touches “turns to shit,” he is a good musician, but he is not the hero of folk music.  By the end of the film he “admits” to this.  And we see this in the scene where, after leaving the venue where Bob Dylan is playing (for the first time), he is beat up by the husband of a woman-musician he lashed out at when he – for a moment – threw all his dreams away.

Sitting on the sidewalk and watching the cab drive away, with Dylan playing in the background, Davis, for the first time in the film, smiles.  And by doing so, he accepts his “real identity” as a ‘fearful and suffering man” who has no right to take away the dreams of others.

I want to add to this by pointing out that this, in contrast to the possibility of becoming successful with Bob Dylan, is what makes him a schlemiel.  He is a schlemiel because he fails, grows bitter, and accepts it.  At this moment, what is outside Llweyn Davis goes inside.   Still, it is up to us to decide whether or not all of his bad luck is redeemed by the possibility of Dylan.

To be sure, this decision is based on our historical situation and the place of hope and cynicism in our society, today.  The brief moment at the end of the film may, for us, be outweighed by the rest of the film and, in that case, Davis may come across as yet another American casualty.   On the other hand, this brief moment may come across as a moment of hope. This all depends on how we see ourselves in history.  Malamud, it seems, finds the power of freedom – the power to accept one’s bad luck – as the definitive moment.   And this, it seems, would be in defiance of history.  On the other hand, what might matter most is how we, and not the characters, in this historical moment, have to say about hope and cynicism.

Regardless of how you look at it, the fact of the matter is that this variety of the schlemiel – as opposed to the other varieties I have mentioned above – prompts these questions.  To be sure, we need more schlemiels of the Coen Brothers and Bernard Malamud type today.  These other schlemiels simply make us feel good about ourselves; in contrast, their schlemiels prompt us to think, become anxious about who we are, and to seriously address the meaning of hope and cynicism in America. The “land of dreams” gives birth to schlemiels, but it also destroys them and enables them to destroy themselves.  It also gives them an opportunity to ask questions about existence that, in other countries, are simply not possible.

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