Seth Rogen’s Body – A Few Thoughts on Seth Rogen’s Latest Appearance in “Neighbors”

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In one of the most urgent moments of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007), we see a desperate Ben Stone, played by Seth Rogen, go to his father, played by Harold Ramis, for advice about whether to become a father and have children. Ramis tells Rogen to go for it and that he wants to have grandchildren. At this point, Stone is inspired to be a responsible father. He decides, at this very point, to go from being a schlemiel (man-child) to becoming an adult.   What interests me most about this moment is the fact that Seth Rogen is put face-to-face with Ramis and is given the ok to “bear children.” I cannot but read this as a symbolic moment when the maker of such films as Ghostbusters (1984), Meatballs (1979), Cadyshack (1980), and Animal House (1978), gives the power over to his son. It’s as if we are witnessing Moses giving everything over to Joshua, who will cross the Jordan. Moses will die, while Joshua will carry the tradition on.

We see that Rogen took this to heart in his latest role in the film Neighbors (2014).   But, to be sure, this role is something that was set up by a middle-man; namely, Judd Apatow.

With films like, Super Bad, Knocked up and This is Forty, Judd Apatow has made a decision to address, by way of comedy, the process of moving from being a man-child to an adult with children. In Superbad, a movie written by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen but produced by Apatow, we see the life of two teens in their first sexual experience. There are still schlemiels, but, at the very least, they are successful.

But between Knocked Up and This is Forty (2012), there is a distinct difference: in Knocked Up (2007) Apatow casts Rogen as a schlemiel has decided to have a baby, while in This is Forty Apatow wanted to show us a couple in its forties which, for all intents and purposes, is also dealing with schlemiel-like issues.   In Neighbors(2014) we see that there is a gap between the films which Rogen addresses; that gap has to do with age and experience.

In Neighbors we have a young couple who take us to the next level after Knocked Up but to a level ten or so years before This is Forty.   The running narrative of all this, it seems, is to map out for the viewing public the life of a schlemiel from high school to having a baby, living with the baby (or babies), and attempting (as Marc Maron would say) “normal.”

This is an old/new theme. We see it in many Ramis films, too. But, in this film, we see Ramis and an Apatow type of film conjoined Animal House and This is Forty (and Knocked Up) . The question underlying the plot is: How would the two worlds interact? How will a schlemiel couple, who just had a baby, relate to the younger, single fraternity brothers?

The result of this test was, to my mind, nothing short of being (to pun on the movie by Apatow and Rogen) “super bad.”   But it was bad on too many levels. I didn’t laugh that much and neither did the theater; and when they did there were more like little chuckles. To be sure, something was missing in this film and, on the other hand, something was overdone. The plot, which involved the meeting of two worlds, seemed much too caricatured and the theme and its articulation seemed to miss the mark.

In search of this lack or excess, I found a nasty little review in Salon.com that made no form of apology in its putting the film down. It noted that the film made no mention of the economic crisis and hard times we are going through. What we saw, instead, was affluence that looked to cover up the truth. (In other words, a post-Marxist reading: Neighbors as False Consciousness.)

The final judgment of the reviewer says it all:

Under current economic conditions that are never visible in this movie, Mac and Kelly’s path of happy-family upward mobility is almost as much an illusion as Teddy’s life of all-night, drug-addled ragers. We can long for either, or dare to imagine a mystical, momentary fusion of the two. When the movie’s over, most of us are left with neither one.

While I find this reading to be interesting, I also find it to be a stretch. The “momentary fusion” of the two worlds is not what interests us. Rather, what struck me, while watching the film, was the most interesting thing for the audience; namely, the contrast between Zack Efron’s body and Seth Rogen’s body. To be sure, one of the greatest appeals of Seth Rogen’s character is his slightly overweight body (naked or not naked). We see this in his recent youtube parodies (done with James Franco) where Franco rides Rogen like Kanye West rides Kim Kardashian.

In many scenes Rogen’s body is juxtaposed with Efron’s body, his wife’s body, and the fraternity members’ bodies. What does this all mean? Toward the end of the film, Rogen’s character meets up with Efron’s character at an Abercrombe & Finch store. Efron has his shirt off; Rogen takes his off to and says “he’s always wanted to do this.” He jumps around while Efron laughs and is endeared. At this moment, Efron seems to forgive him and he validates this when he says that Rogen’s body makes “everyone feel comfortable.” Because of his body, people will feel comfortable shopping at Abercrombe and Finch.

To be sure, from the beginning of the film until the end of the film, we now know what makes it sell: Seth Rogen’s body, the schlemiel’s body, is the body that guides us. Not Zack Efron’s body and not the bodies at the Fraternity or elsewhere. I make this reading in all seriousness because, to be sure, Rogen doesn’t act in this film so much as throw his body around into different yet (often) charming configurations.

This should be taken together with the fact that Mac-slash-Rogen’s wife, Kelly, played by Rose Byrne, can hang out with him and eat pizza, stoned, in bed after beating the fraternity. In the end, the battle is a bodily one. Rogen, like Jack Black or John Candy, has an interesting bodily presence; however, in contrast to these actors, he doesn’t have to work as hard in making comic gestures. He just has to be himself.

The plot is that the schlemiel-couple-with-one-baby win over the fraternity. In Animal House it was John Belushi with the weight; now it’s Rogen. And Rogen, as Mac Radner, has a wife and child. He’s responsible. Things have changed.

There is no question that Rogen has taken on the baton from Ramis and that Apatow has set this up for him. The question is whether this re-casting of Ramis’s work, within a context that Apatow has created, is meaningful. Who are our heroes and role models today? Is Rogen’s naked body, bouncing up and down in front of Abercrombe and Finch a sign of what is to come? For such a popular film, can we say that this is “our” comical form of hope? Are Ramis’s grandchildren…ours or somebody else’s? After all, some babies don’t survive. But with a face and body like Seth Rogen’s – reminding us that we can all just relax, get high, and eat whatever we want, whenever we want, while raising children (!) – how can we say no? After all, it seems as if this film is telling us that, ultimately, Rogen’s bodily antics make the differences between our bodies and masculinities less apparent and meaningful. His bodily presence makes us feel at home with the family, etc.

And yet isn’t it the comedians who make us feel least at home that are the most meaningful? But…Neighbors seems to be telling us that, in the end, what we want is to have a new norm, a bodily, comic norm that, to be sure, is more in accord with who we are; namely, comfortable with hanging out with the bros, getting high, eating, and having a good time at a party.

(For something else, something different from this, check out the work of up-and-coming comedians like David Heti.  His work ends on an entirely different note.)

Harold Ramis: Comedy and Jewishness, American Style

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After I learned of Harold Ramis’s death, I spent some time on youtube going through clips of his work.   One of the most interesting things I stumbled upon was a talk he gave on Groundhog Day.   Ramis begins and ends his reflection on the film with a Jewish joke.

At the outset, he recalls a telephone call from one of the producers on the day of the film’s premier in California. He told Ramis that there are picketers at the film’s opening in Santa Monica.  In shock, Ramis asks what they are protesting and the producer tells him: “They aren’t protesting.  They are Hasidic Jews walking around with signs saying are you living the same day over and over again!”  While he cracks the joke, he has a big smirk on his face.

Following this, Ramis points out how a number of groups identified with the film: Buddhists, people in the Yoga community, Christians, and psychologists.   He notes that everyone obviously “projected” something on to the film.  However, he adds that “as a Jew, I kept thinking that people finding so much in this movie” and finding something new in it – every time – has much in common with the reading of the Torah:

The Torah is read every year, start at the same place, in the same day…every Jew reads the same form the same day, in the same cycle.  The Torah doesn’t change, but every year we read it we change.   And every time we read it we read something different.  So, the movie doesn’t change.

The punch line is that he denies the comparison after making it and then plays with it: “I’m not comparing Groundhog Day to the Torah; it’s more entertaining. And the Bible was not a good movie…John Huston’s movie.”  But the take away is that “there is something in it that can help people to reconsider where they are in life and to question their habitual behaviors.”

This analogy – and the joke that conveys it – is telling.  It suggests that Ramis sees the film and the Torah as something that can help us to recognize our mortality and prompt us to change who we are.  And we do this by way of reflecting on the story that we see which he suggests has a timeless element to it.  What lives on and changes – besides ourselves – is the interpretation of the story.  But the point is to make the interpretation.

Reflecting on this, I thought about how, in many ways, Ramis’s films were, for me, like the Torah.  I used to watch them over and over again.  I was especially fascinated with the juxtaposition of Bill Murray (John) to Harold Ramis (Russell Zisky) in Stripes.

Zisky plays the humble and intelligent American Jew while John plays the ironic and bold American rebel.  Zisky and John are both schlemiels.  And this is brought to bear on us by way of the fact that they come from a different America than the soldiers they join.  They are urban and intellectual; they are ironic and this gives them a vantage point.  However, as the film goes on they learn to overcome whatever distance separated them from the others in the platoon.  But this distance, though seemingly large, isn’t big.

The first scene of the film shows us this fact. Zisky is an educated man who is teaching “Basic English” to Immigrants.  We can see that the job is meaningful to him, but it is not allowing him to tap into his full potential.

John is also stumped.  Both of them are friends who want, as the Jewish-American writer Bernard Malamud put it, a “new life.”  To be sure, Malamud joined Sholem Aleichem, Mendel Mocher Sforim, and other Yiddish writers whose schlemiels all yearned for a “new life.”  The question, in all of their novels and stories, was whether such a life was possible or what that new life meant.   Moreover, would any of these schlemiels change, fundamentally? Or would they remain schlemiels, still, after the transformation?

When Zisky introduces himself to the platoon in Stripes, he comes across as a pacifist and his words fall flat.  None of the other Americans in the room, even John Candy in front of him, can understand or identify with what he is saying or his pledge that he will put himself on the line when they are in danger.

In contrast to Zisky, the American-Jew, is John.  His talk is that of a ironic, self-important-cool-populist.  The majority of the platoon laughs and smiles when he talks.  Everyone can identify with him.  He ends with an homage to the leader of the platoon.  But the leader sees this all as a lot of talk and, as the film goes out to show, he does all he can do to break John down and make him into a soldier rather than a populist comedian.

As the opening clip shows, the American-Jew and the cool, ironic American are completely different.  They are regarded differently by the platoon.  That changes over time.  But the initial moment gave me a lot to reflect on as a Jew growing up in small town America.  My father and mother were both natives of New York City.  They were oddballs in my small town.  My parents had more in common with Zisky than I did.

For this reason, looking back I can understand why I liked this film so much.  I tried to be more like John than Zisky.  But in the end, I saw that Zisky was also accepted.  But to be accepted, he had to prove that he could put himself on the line for other people in the platoon.  And John also had to change.  But that change was something that came from the leader of the platoon.  The basis for this had to do with making John more humble and respectful.

As a recent Village Voice article points out, this feat of making the American more humble was not realized in films like stripes, however.  It was realized in Groundhog Day.    According to the author of the article, Ramis established himself by making Slob vs. Snob comedies.  While the theme had its power and reflected life in the 80s, it still gave the “white American” slob too much power.  The author suggests that this is displaced in Groundhog Day because Bill Murray plays a character who is radically different from characters like John in Stripes.  Ramis and Murray, according to the author, figured out that Murray – of Stripes and Ghostbusters – is the “asshole of the age”:

At some point, Ramis and Murray and whoever else seem to have figured out that the Bill Murray of Stripes and Ghostbusters (both co-written by and co-starring Ramis) is the asshole of his age, a self-entitled boomer horndog interested in no perspective other than his own, engaged with no aspect of culture he hasn’t decided he already favors.

For this reason, they created a new Murray character in Stripes who, the author points out, now plays a “snob” rather than a “slob.”  The effect of this transformation, is that “he is rightly seen as a privileged dickhead instead of some hypocrisy-exposing hero of the people.”  The new lesson, he claims, is that Murray learns that there is more to the world than himself; the world is something you share with others.

I found this article to be interesting since it reads Groundhog Day, as Ramis suggests, by way of a different time.   It points out that the film has not changed, but we have.  Nonetheless, I wonder how Ramis rather than Murray fits into this reading.  Did his character change?  And what does this all have to do with Jewishness?  And, in all of this, what happened to the schlemiel?

The other day, I blogged on Ramis and pointed out how, in Knocked Up, he played the Jewish father to Seth Rogen.   As I noted, the scene I refer to is the scene of tradition and the idea that the son and father encounter is very Jewish.  The father is happy to have grandchildren.  He is happy to see the future embodied in a grandson.  The encounter, so to speak, shows us Zisky years later.  Unlike Bill Murray, he hasn’t gone through a fundamental transformation.  Ramis, in doing this, shows us that though the Jew may age, his or her humility and priorities remain the same.  Zisky isn’t the “asshole of the age.”  He just wants to help.

I’d like to end this blog post with a clip from the film Walk Hard where Ramis plays a Hasidic Rabbi who, in this scene, visits, Dewey, the main character, in prison.  Dewey is a parody of the American rock star who rises to fame, but ends up in hard times.  In an ironic twist, he speaks to him in Yiddish and Dewey replies in kind.

Here’s the rough translation:

Rabbi: Lean closer, I want to talk to you in mother tongue for the guards should not understand what I’m saying.

Dewey: You must be able to do something. I am not yet 21 years old. My whole life is waiting for me.

Rabbi: I think we need to do a retreat.

Dewey: How can we do that?

Rabbi:  You must go to a rehab

I recently noted that Woody Allen, in Take the Money and Run, briefly plays a Hasidic Rabbi. But that scene emerges out of a joke: it is a “side effect” of a drug he is asked to take in prison.  Here, however, we find something different.  This Rabbi is a wise man who looks to help Dewey to live “a new life” the kind of life that he can live if he goes through rehab, that is, a transformation.

The twist, I think, is that the Rabbi initiates the change; he helps Dewey to change his old habits.  He helps him to look at himself differently and gives him hope.  For me, this is the keynote that Ramis hit at in his talk on Groundhog Day.  It articulates what he thinks of the Torah and what he thought of his greatest film.  The idea is not simply (or only) that the white American guy realizes that he is an asshole and he can share the world with others, as the author of the Village Voice article suggests; it’s also that the this realization or rather transformative thought is scripted by a Jewish filmmaker and screenwriter named Harold Ramis.  He brought his Jewish wisdom to his films and, hopefully, this blog post steps in the direction of better understanding how this was so.  To be sure, Ramis’s own words – which I brought out above – suggest that we do so.

After all, the movie may not change, but we do. But the other side of this is that the movie, if read closely, can also prompt us to see who we are and to change our lives.  Herein lies the wisdom of a good script and a close reading, something Jews have, for centuries, been familiar.  What Ramis has done is to make this structure popular; he has created an offshoot of Jewishness.  And he has done it in an American style.

Wit and an Odd Kind of Charm, or Groucho Plus Harpo: Harold Ramis and The Schlemiel

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I grew up watching – and loving – many Harold Ramis films.  I recorded them on my VCR from this or that HBO showing or bought the video tapes.  Watching them, I felt as if he was hitting on something deep about being an American in the 80s and 90s.  And because I was pre-pubescent when I first saw his films, I felt as if the odd romances in films like Stripes, Ghosbusters, or Caddyshack taught me about what kinds of love, friendship, or kindness worked or didn’t work.  But, in the end, what I learned about love by way of Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, or Ramis himself was that it was a comical affair.  If it worked, it worked in an odd way.

All of his best characters are clumsy, charming, and witty.  For someone who – like millions of Americans – learned about the “birds and the bees” from TV and film, rather than his parents, they gave me an image of the kind of American male I could be: a comic male who was at once awkward, bold, and witty.

These characters, to be sure, bear aspects of the schlemiel.  Like Woody Allen, they are what David Biale – in his book Eros and the Jews – would call “sexual schlemiels.”  However, they are different: they are more charming and popular than Allen’s characters.  To be sure, Allen’s schlemiels are appealing to a more sophisticated audience while Ramis’s appeal to a more common and simple element.  In many ways, he has done more than many comedy writers in the 1980s and 90s to popularize the sexual schlemiel for a different generation (not a baby boomer generation that was more acclimated to the likes of Woody Allen and Phillip Roth).

I recently found an interesting quote by Ramis which explains the schlemiel he was looking for and the schlemiel he found in the mirror. His comic-self-image drew on the Marx Brothers but it was translated into a different comedy, one for a different time:

In my heart, I felt I was a combination of Groucho and Harpo Marx, of Groucho using his wit as a weapon against the upper classes, and of Harpo’s antic charm and the fact that he was oddly sexy — he grabs women, pulls their skirts off, and gets away with it.

As this admission suggests, Ramis saw himself in terms of both Marx Brothers.  He saw the wit of Groucho as a manifestation of the popular-will to battle against the elites (“upper classes”). The other side of Harold Ramis was his desire to be “oddly sexy.” Taken together, we have a sexual schlemiel and a schlemiel that challenges the elites.   And this is not just how Ramis painted his characters; this is how he saw himself as a comic and as a human being.

In other words, he saw himself as a living schlemiel whose actions had a social effect that could appeal to the people and perhaps even change society.  His characterization of himself has an interesting resonance with Hannah Arendt’s characterization of Charlie Chaplin (in her essay “The Jew as Pariah”) whose charm and wit appealed to immigrants and, in her words, challenged the status quo.

Harold’s wit and charm will be missed.  The legacy he left for us can be felt in this scene where he comforts Seth Rogen in Knocked Up.  Unlike the WASP mother, Ramis plays a character who is happy to have a grandchild.  His affirmation is an affirmation of life and this, as anyone who has seen the film knows, inspires Rogen to become a father.  However, the twist is that Rogen goes from being a schlemiel to being a dad.  And the only thing that remains of the schlemiel is kindness.

But that’s not the take-away.  Ramis goes against the grain in this piece because –  in explaining what is worse than having a child – he tells us something that we should be keen to; namely, that it’s worse to have a parent with alzheimers than to have a child out of wedlock.

In other words, the worst thing that can happen to us is that someone we love should forget who we are.

What Ramis has done through his charming and witty characters is to create a memory that is at once personal and American: the memory of all his schlemiels evinces both.  And even though these schlemiels may be born, so to speak, out of wedlock, they are redeemed by the reader.  This is a lesson Sholem Aleichem taught to his readers in his last novel, Motl: The Cantor’s Son.

In that novel an orphan-schlemiel – who is absent minded and who doesn’t understand death or suffering because he is distracted by life – lives on in the memory of the reading public.

Like the reading public’s memory of Motl, Ramis’s schlemiels live on in the memory of those who enjoyed and laughed at his charming and witty characters.

Thanks for reminding us of how dear the schlemiel is and how its legacy should be carried on!  You will be missed by millions of people who enjoyed your films; many, like me, who looked to them for a kind of “parental guidance” about sexuality that I couldn’t find in my home.  

Seth Rogen gets his parental guidance in this clip from Ramis, a schlemiel and a father of a schlemiel, whose advice gives Rogen hope.
 
For Ramis, the key ingredient of being a schlemiel is to be witty and “oddly sexual” but also to be a father and make your own father happy.  In other words, to give the parents “nachas” (Joy in Yiddish and Hebrew) is Ramis’s last Jewish word to Seth Rogen. It also the last word on the schlemiel.

As the schlemiel and son of a schlemiel, his job is to remember the schlemiel father through being a father…and raising a son….which, after all, emerges out of an accident: over someone getting “knocked up.”  Ramis’s encouragement of Rogen teaches us that Something good can come out of something accidental and potentially bad; and that, for Ramos, is the ultimate meaning of comedy. It is Ramis’s message to Seth Rogen and the next generation of schlemiels. It is his “parental guidance.”