Shuffling the Indie Pack
Is Juno really worth an essay? One asks the question not because it is a bad film, especially, but rather that it is so completely self-contained there isn’t much to say about it. What it does well is shuffle slightly the indie pack without reshaping the nature of the game. When we think of Elephant, The Brown Bunny or Before Sunset we have an American independent cinema that has little to do necessarily with funding, and a great deal to do with an independence of spirit. Juno aches less with youthful longing than predictability. Yet it has been perceived as fresh. Out of eight critics polled in the discerning Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2008), five gave it four or five stars, while Starlee Kline, writing on the film in an earlier issue of the magazine (Nov/Dec 2007), says “ there’s a trick to this movie, a good one, I haven’t seen before: it grows up before your eyes.” Such responses might be reason enough to take a look at what it is doing: to recognize that it isn’t really a warm film but warmed over.
A good place to start is the scene where Juno’s step-mum gives a nurse a ticking off after she has a dig at teenage pregnancies and the mum tells her to go and get an education. This is the affirmation scene – the scene where the audience gets to have a moment of indignation in relation to a character being wronged – think Matt Damon correcting a history major in Good Will Hunting, after his friend’s been badly treated by the student, or Jake Gyllenhaal finally standing up to his father-in-law over the TV being switched on during a thanksgiving meal in Brokeback Mountain.
This is basically one-upmanship, and we may question its place in indie fare for no better reason than that what script gurus love in Hollywood is central conflict theory. As Raoul Ruiz, a filmmaker intensely interested in dissolving the ’misplaced concreteness’ (an A. N. Whitehead phrase) of Hollywood filmmaking, insists: “I recall the first statement of the theory: a story begins when someone wants something and some else doesn’t want them to have it.” “From that point on,“ Ruiz says, “through various digressions, all the elements of the story are arranged around this central conflict.” (Poetics of Cinema) So preoccupied with such conflicts, Juno provides them even when they aren’t that central, or maybe that is the very indie point. As in so many indie, semi-indie or critically well-received works of pseudo-depth or originality, in films like Good Will Hunting and Brokeback Mountain as well as Erin Brockovich and Million Dollar Baby, the conflicts aren’t really that central. Damon takes on a character who has no other purpose in the film; Gyllenhaal’s father-in-law is very much a supporting player, the lawyer’s assistant Erin takes on in Erin Brockovich has hardly any other role to play in the film except to make a statement that can allow Erin to reel off numerous plaintiff’s names, addresses and telephone numbers, while in Million Dollar Baby it is between the female boxer central character and her layabout mum: a mum so layabout she can hardly rouse herself to become central to the plot.
What is interesting is that where the films might see themselves as escaping from the sort of central conflicts Ruiz talks about that dominate the mainstream, they allow it back in through a kind of unfair contest between central characters and supporting, even cameo characters. At least when there were conflicts between John Wayne, Lee Marvin and James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or between Alan Ladd and Jack Palance in Shane, Marvin and Palance, while unequivocally baddies, were also developed characters. The lawyer in Erin Brockovich, the history major in Good Will Hunting, even the father-in-law in Brokeback Mountain, seem to have almost no purpose beyond this cameo besting. Has indie cinema paradoxically created a sort of screen time David and Goliath, with the leads given Goliath space to express themselves, and the cameo Davids no space at all? While the films might give the impression of an unfair fight with the lead apparently of less significance than the ‘baddie’ in terms of status (think Good Will Hunting), then narratively Will is obviously in control.
Yet as we have suggested, this scene from Juno clearly has neither character in a lead role: it is Juno’s stepmum and a nurse. The former very much a supporting player; the latter no more than a bit part. Is this the affirmation scene at its most irrelevant and the diminishing returns of central conflict? Is this cameo conflict an opportunity to include Hollywood mainstays but not in this instance from the perspective of the lead character? Are indie leads becoming too cool for central conflicts, yet not focused enough to ignore them altogether? Some will say this all to the good; that the key area of conflict lies within Juno – a sort of central conflict that works off the interiorisation closer to European art house than Hollywood. What is interesting though is how quickly this interior conflict is resolved. When pregnant teen Juno (Ellen Page) goes along to the clinic, standing in the car park as she arrives is a fellow student who lectures Juno on her possible actions. The clincher is that her foetus will have fingernails, and it is this that makes her decision for her: she will have the child.
How does the film keep our interest if the conflict that one would think would be at the heart of it quickly evaporates? It does so chiefly in two areas: in one, with the adoptive parents (as she decides to have the child, so Juno also insists she will put it up for adoption, and so finds a yuppie couple desperate for kids). and secondly in Juno’s realization that she loves the father of the embryo.
Though the story is clearly Juno’s, this couple who are going to adopt the child is given just enough narrative space for the viewer to see the marriage might not last. While the wife looks like she has completely adjusted to the large house and the nice lifestyle, husband Mark (Justin Bateman) looks like a man constrained. Formerly a member of a band; now he does advertising jingles that have paid for his sumptuously modern kitchen. As Juno pops round and they listen to Sonic Youth, and he shows her a Herschell Gordon Lewis film, we can see a man who loves the indie and the cultish yet has himself inexorably becomes more mainstream.
In this the film might have had a subject, but Mark’s purpose is to be the doubting father as readily as the tortured artist, and any torture is quickly subsumed into a ‘me’ generation selfishness. When near the end of the film he tells his wife that he doesn’t think he is ready to be a father, this is couched less in the language of inner conflict than the words of someone who hasn’t grown up. He doesn’t say there is more important work he wants to do that won’t be financially rewarding: his general independence is what counts. Earlier when Juno pops round and they hang out together, it looks like he generally takes it easy: when he gets worried that he hasn’t been working, it is because his working wife will reckon he hasn’t been pulling his weight.
This, then, is the first narrative conflict that we’ll come back to later. The second concerns Juno’s feelings towards her occasional lover. Does this young man Bleeker (Michael Cera) not want to take responsibility for his behaviour, or does he not know what he should do? Again, as with Mark, the film is less ambiguous than underdeveloped; as if it hadn’t worked out for itself the inner motivations for the characters. By the end of the film we realize it hasn’t explored character; it has simply resolved narrative.
We can almost talk here of the difference between inner ambiguity and outer ambiguity to help explain the shallowness of Juno’s characters, and this can also return us to two points that we never quite explained at the beginning of this piece in relation to the affirmation scene, and also the scene with the fellow student who convinces Juno not to go ahead with the abortion. In each instance director Jason Reitman seems to be caricaturing or dismissing a minority. In the affirmation scene Juno’s step mum tells their nurse to go and get some Hispanic qualification. In the second, the Chinese girl’s sign is in the wrong tense; and the student’s slogan also.
Where should we stand in relation to these scenes? Are they racist, or are they ‘provocative’, as in Reitman’s earlier Thank You for Smoking, where the director plays with our sense of offence in an early scene utilising a character called Cancer boy – a kid the cynical central character utilises for his own ends as he defends the tobacco advertising industry? In an editorial in Cineaste, the magazine addresses Juno’s attitude to abortion by saying even though Reitman has himself clearly expressed a pro-choice position, nevertheless that position isn’t so clearly expressed in the film. Ditto, no doubt, Reitman will claim the scenes with his Hispanic nurse and Chinese student aren’t racist, but in the context of the film, as with Juno’s decision to have the child, a reactionary strain is evident. In each instance, we have outer ambiguity through a lack of inner ambiguity – due to the film’s inability or refusal to confront character motivation or social contextualization.
Thus the question isn’t one of a conservative aesthetic in relation to abortion or race; it is more a question of under-exploring issues of character and narrative. Whether it is the boyfriend, the husband, the nurse or the student, what is consistent is the sense of a character not explored but summed up. Now, this is obviously part of the film’s aesthetic, evident in one scene where Juno suggests that Jocks are really drawn not to cheerleaders but to students who look grungy, like Juno herself. This leads to a series of shots showing the type of girl the jock actually likes. It is literalised short-hand, but fits easily within the context of the film as it practises short-hand in numerous other ways also.
Perhaps at this point the reader might say: isn’t Juno a comedy; isn’t it a film that will sacrifice its characters to the immediate joke over the slow-burn exploration? Yet Juno, like American Beauty, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Ghost World, are all films that play it down the middle – so a good joke sometimes replaces an acute observation, evident for example when Juno’s father says he’s going to punch out Juno’s boyfriend. Obviously, we don’t take this very seriously, and the father plays it wonderfully well for droll humour over searching frustration. This is no bad thing in itself, but is this straight comedy or drama with jokes in it? If our expectations lean towards the comedic we may share New York Time Out’s claim that it goes maudlin near the end: that its sassy, funny heroine becomes sentimental and damages the film’s tone. Alternatively we can see it as a drama with funny moments rather than a comedy punctuated by seriousness. Yet here again we hit ambiguity and, as we’ve suggested inner and outer ambiguity in relation to character, so we can also propose generic ambiguity, where the film doesn’t know to which genre it belongs.
This isn’t to insist that all films should be generically one thing or another (and we can ignore Tarkovsky’s cruel claim that genre is a tomb), but it is to ask a film what sort of tone does it want to offer – in which climate does it expect to fit – taking into account Gerald Mast’s keen observation in Comedy and the Movies of a comic climate in relation to comedy, and what sort of actions can take place within that tonal expectation.
From this point of view, Juno is a film with a climatic inconsistency common in contemporary film where drama segues into comedy, as we can see in the other dramas mentioned like American Beauty and The Man Who Wasn’t There. If the other film we invoked, Ghost World, indicates the comedic by virtue chiefly of its comic strip roots manifested in a comic book colour scheme, is Juno loosely in the same category? As Juno opens in comic book style with Juno rotoscoping into the opening credits, so the film would seem to play up the comic strip irony.
But has the ironic in some ways killed both comedy and drama by welding the two together to the detriment of either, and is this why the film is so ambiguously indeterminate in tone? After all, Gilberto Perez astutely observed in The Material Ghost that a certain tone, a certain refusal to take things at face value and to suggest sincerity, is hardly radical now: “scepticism and cynicism are practically the official philosophy of late capitalism.” It fits neatly into the post-modern consciousness that allows for bad faith with a smile. Has Juno taken the problem of that ease into account; has for that matter Juno taken into account the notion of the film’s climate both in the sociological sense and the Mast notion – what climate does Juno want to be in in both senses of the term? Have the filmmakers even asked themselves these questions, or is Juno just going with the cultural flow and with the casual idea that genre now knows no boundaries?
At the beginning of this essay we asked whether Juno was worth writing about at all. The answer is in the affirmative of course by virtue of the very essay we have in front of us, but also because the film, if we think of Perez and Mast’s comments, is a useful way into contemporary American cinema. In a couple of other essays, on ‘Cool Nihilism’ and also the ‘Blaseists’, we proposed that in the former characters could be nihilistic whilst arriving at the socially conservative, and in the latter the film’s image structure never dwelt upon a detail, but merely used the detail for instant summation.
In this sense Juno could fall into both categories: its cool nihilistic heroine finds meaning in the birth of the child and in the realization that she loves the father of it – no matter if she holds to her promise and gives the baby away to the childless mother. Thus both conflicts are resolved. Juno gets to acknowledge her feelings towards Bleeker; gets to hold to her promise and give the baby away. And in the image structure the film quickly sums a character up almost as though they’re characters in The Simpsons. There is little sense of the possibilities in the pro-filmic: in the exploration of a face, a space, a town.
Yet it is through utilising the elements that we’ve described in cool nihilism and blaseism that the film’s ambiguities become apparent. When we suggested the characters – like the father and the stepmother for example – are like figures out of The Simpsons, we do so not flippantly; more that The Simpsons has no pro-filmic dimension: it is animated, and thus possesses no, for want of a better term, meta-referentiality. It has nothing beyond the drawing. However, how much more do the actors have beyond the filming? The actors bring not just their faces, ageing, a little tired, but also a back catalogue. This is not the back catalogue of a star, of course, but it is closer to that what we’ll call the ‘sub-thespian’, a sort of audience sub-consciousness in relation to the actor. Here the general viewer will have a vague recollection of the actor’s face (wasn’t Alison Janney, the stepmum here, also the mother in American Beauty?), but with little of the conscious recognition reserved for the star. Certainly Janney has become well-known for her TV work, but she remains very much a supporting player in film, and film viewers will hardly credit her with the status of a Julia Roberts or a Michelle Pfeiffer. She remains not so much a star as a face – a person with a body of work we might immediately be able to locate, aware that she has been around for years.
This is one of the joys of cinema, but in anti-pro-filmic style, and in a potentially anti-pro-filmic era (the digital age), is it going to disappear? It is as though in its opening credit sequence Juno wants to predicate the animated over the pro-filmic (is rotoscoping the halfway house?) so that the very history the actors bring to their roles in terms of the weight of time they possess as human beings, and the history they bring to the roles as ‘sub-thespians’, becomes irrelevant next to the synthetic demands. Obviously, though, we should be careful not to confuse two things here: the former might prove irrelevant to the future of cinema, but the latter could still prove decidedly relevant. The actors’ career becomes a bit like that of an animated character in Walt Disney; a weightless, timeless entity. They become synthespians suspended in time, as we have a synthespian equivalent of Brad Pitt, George Clooney or Johnny Depp agelessly passing from one role to the next. Yet how much of our interest in the star is because of the human catalogue of feeling, gesture, emotional history and simply lived experience (however artificial and pampered that lived experience may have become) is part of watching actors in films? Will we not be in danger of losing layers of meaning that we absorb without consciously thinking of them, and does a film like Juno offer something close to the synthespian by seeming to block off some of these layers?
From this perspective, it would seem Juno is part of the process of moving cinema towards the anti-pro-filmic. This is the by-product of a digital and CGI driven cinema and yet could be more insidious than either. When Stephen Prince addresses in an essay called ‘True Lies’, in Film Quarterly, the difference between the invisibly and visibly generated computer images, we may also think of the aesthetically limiting, as if filmmakers desired the computer-generated even in the celluloid age. While Prince wonders what happens when we can no longer epistemologically make safe guesses in relation to the real and the unreal nature of the image, are there films that even without the use of CGI want to undermine the real? Thus when we mention the sub-thespian it is to try and salvage an element of the pro-filmic and to show how films like Juno cannot quite repress the thereness of the actor who has spent years on the planet rather than days in the computer. Yet a certain approach to character, a certain short-hand approach to the image making, can repress the actors’ reality and compress it into the filmmakers’ immediate needs to the detriment of the actor’s ontological presence.
One of the joys of independent cinema in the past – in Shadows, in Wanda, in even Jarmusch and Linklater’s work (in Strangers in Paradise and Down by Law, in Slackers and Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) – is the filmmaker’s joy in discovering the world as it is, no matter the inevitable mediation of film, actors, story etc. Has much recent ‘indie wood’ cinema done the opposite? Have Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Reitman and others suggested the world isn’t to be filmed, but ironically transformed?
Where is Juno set, one may ask, or is it just any old environment that brings out Juno’s disaffected cool rather than a vivid location? Compare it to Linklater’s use of Austin, Texas in Slacker and it is the difference between an environment captured and a character looking on. Certainly Juno stays resolutely close to its central heroine where Slacker drifts from character to character, but that’s no excuse for its milieu-minimalism –for its disregard for place evident for example in Mark and his wife’s suburban house being less part of an area; more an easily located audience prejudice: the suburban sell-out.
So what we’ve tried to explore here is Juno’s relative unimportance but within a wider significance. We’ve looked at how it generates ambiguity despite its assertive image structure, and how the sub-thespian can’t quite be squeezed into this assertive method. From a certain point of view the film is an impressive achievement – and ostensibly looks thoroughly like a ‘winner’. But if we step aside from its immediate success for a moment, and take a jaundiced perspective, the film doesn’t appear quite so healthy. Its success can look a lot like part of cinema’s defeat.