The semester ended recently, and so yesterday I did something I hadn’t done in a long time: I went to a movie, alone, in the middle of the afternoon. I want to say “I took myself to the movies,” though I realize that doesn’t make literal sense. Which half of my bifurcated self did the taking? Which half allowed itself to be taken?
Maybe it's just that a weekday matinee always feels like an indulgence. Even more so yesterday, when halfway through the previews I turned in my seat and realized I had the theater to myself.
It was a difficult semester, for reasons both personal and pedagogical. The kind of difficult in which even minor tasks—especially minor tasks—seem designed to exhaust. You look around at the things your friends have made—books, scholarly articles, home renovations, tenure, babies—and you think: how the fuck did you manage that?
Anyway, the movie. It was While We’re Young, the new one by Noah Baumbach. I love Noah Baumbach movies—I re-watch Kicking and Screaming every couple years—and I enjoyed this one, too, though it was a little uneven. A few of its plot points felt tacked on, as if the movie couldn’t quite grow comfortable inside its naturalistic, ambling form and decided, at nearly the last minute, it needed a more traditional arc of conflict and resolution. Still, I could listen to Noah Baumbach characters talk to each other for hours. There was a lot of understated humor, and at least three or four great lines. I cried a little at the end.
Though this isn’t meant to be a review, and anyway I cry at movies all the time.
Just before the semester began I drove a friend’s car across the country. I wrote an essay about it, but here’s the executive summary: Somewhere along the way I realized I wasn’t happy. I realized I needed to change some things about my life, though I wasn’t sure which things.
One possibility was my job, and so this semester I found myself doing that job while simultaneously trying to analyze my relationship to it. Does this part of my job make me happy? And what about this part?
It turns out this is a pretty exhausting way to live. I wouldn’t recommend it.
While We’re Young stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a childless couple in their mid-40s who feel as if their lives are stuck in a holding pattern. They befriend a much younger couple, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, which helps, at least in the short term. The younger couple is basically a parody of a certain strain of hipsterdom. Adam Driver wears fedoras and wingtips and he speaks in an affected manner that involves adding the word “see” to nearly everything he says, as if he’s a private dick in a noir film. Amanda Seyfried makes artisanal ice cream. They keep a live chicken in their apartment. At one point, when no one can remember the word “marzipan,” Ben Stiller pulls out his iPhone and Adam Driver shakes his head, leans back into his thrift-store couch. “Let’s just not know,” he says.
It’s not earnestness. It’s a pose meant to resemble earnestness. Which Ben Stiller’s character eventually figures out, though it takes him longer than it should. “It’s like he saw a sincere person once,” he tells his wife, late in the film, “and he’s been imitating him ever since.”
Another thing that happened this semester: my neighbor’s husband died. I still think of him as the husband, and her as the neighbor, because when I first moved in, a few years ago, they were separated and she was living here alone.
He moved back in with her about two years ago. This fall they found out he had cancer. By the time the doctors caught it his odds were already slim, but he went through a round of chemo anyway. The last time I saw him his skin was nearly translucent.
They yelled at each other right up until the end. Sometimes it was hard to tell if they were angry or just loud, though other times it was easier to tell. One day I came home from work and found my neighbor in the hallway. She was sitting at the base of the stairs that go up to my apartment.
“How’s he holding up?” I said. The kind of thing you say when you’re not sure what else to say.
“I wish he’d fucking die already,” she said.
“You don’t mean that,” I said.
She was drinking. A vodka soda, if I had to guess. She was smoking, too. It annoyed me that she’d taken to smoking in the hall, apparently because she deemed it too cold to go outside, but under the circumstances it seemed petty to complain. Also, it was too cold to go outside. “He won’t be happy unless he takes me with him,” she said.
Incidentally, I think Amanda Seyfriend might be a really good actress who just needs some meatier roles. Her role in While We’re Young is semi-meaty. I kept wishing her character had more lines.
Adam Horovitz—the Beastie Boys' Ad Rock—is in the movie, too, though it took me a while to recognize him.
I kept wondering: if I were to get up and walk out, would they stop the movie, or would it go on playing to an empty theater? If I needed to use the restroom, or if I wanted another coffee, could I raise a hand and have them pause it?
One of the movie’s great lines comes maybe thirty or forty minutes in. Ben Stiller's character is enumerating to Adam Driver's character the positive effects their friendship has had on his life. “Before I met you,” he says, “I had only two emotions: wistfulness and disdain.”
The line made me laugh, though I felt something else, too: the shock of recognition.
My friend Steve says we go to movies because we want them to teach us how to live. It’s why romantic comedies are so popular, he says. I don’t know if that’s true, though it might sometimes be true. It’s true that yesterday, while I was walking to the theater, I had a lot on my mind. It's true I was trying to figure some things out. So if the movie had life lessons to offer, I was ready to hear them.
My neighbor’s husband fought in Vietnam, and later he worked as a truck driver, and later still he became a heroin addict and nearly bankrupted them. I learned all this in the first few months after I moved in. Every so often I’d join my neighbor for a drink in the evening. I could tell she liked having someone to talk to.
She’d finally got fed up, she told me, and she’d used her savings to get him his own place. It was only a mile away. She could check up on him every couple days. But she no longer had to worry about him selling their furniture while she was at work. She no longer had to lock up her jewelry.
So I was surprised when she invited him to move back in. Apparently he’d gone to rehab. Another neighbor told me this was a regular pattern. “Don’t worry yourself about it,” she said. “They both know what they’re getting into.”
Last week I read this poem by my friend Gina Myers. It's from a series she’s working on about living in Philadelphia, but it’s not just the physical geography I recognized. Here’s one of the middle stanzas:
of the season
& I wonder
how cold my
will get this
winter / This
I drink coffee
& wear a scarf
& stand in the
I look down
at the litter
at the curb
& feel in love
with the world
I don’t want
to be vulnerable
but here I am
I heard Gina read a few poems from the same series back in the fall, at a bookstore about a mile from my apartment. We weren’t friends yet—we’d met only once, briefly—and so it would be a few months before I told her how much I loved those poems. I’m sure I did a lousy job of it. I was a little drunk. I always feel awkward praising my friends’ work. I worry that I’ll gush, that I’ll make it embarrassing for both of us. Though I only worry about this when the praise is genuine.
When I heard Gina read from her book-in-progress last fall it made me want to get back to my own book-in-progress, which I’d started maybe a year and a half before but which I’d been working on in fits and starts, never fully committing myself to it. I don’t know if our projects are even that similar—mine’s fiction, for one thing, a man writing a winter’s worth of letters to an ex he hasn’t seen in several years—but there was something about the voice in Gina’s poems, the emotional register, that struck a chord.
Despite the difficulty of the past semester—or perhaps because of it—I managed to write a lot of pages, though taken together they’re still kind of a mess: a bunch of letters in search of a narrative arc. One of my summer goals is to shape them into a semi-coherent draft. Yesterday, before heading out to the movies, I spent a couple hours on my deck, in the sun, trying to work up an outline I could believe in.
It’s not a bad life, admittedly. I have to remind myself of that from time to time, especially on the days when it feels, as far as lives go, a little tenuous, a little provisional.
In the movie, Ben Stiller’s character is a documentary filmmaker, though he’s been working on the same documentary for eight years. He’s got hours and hours of footage, but he’s lacking either the vision or the discipline to shape it into a workable story.
At one point he meets with a young venture capitalist, though he has some trouble with the pitch. He rambles for a while: terrorism, the American prison system, money in politics, the war in Afghanistan. The investor is clearly bored. It requires all his willpower not to grab the cell phone that keeps buzzing on his desk. “So, it’s about war?” he says, trying to move things along.
But Ben Stiller shakes his head. War is only a part of it. A small part. Really, he says, it’s about America.
It’s a laugh line, but it’s also a little heartbreaking. One suspects there really is a good movie in there somewhere, and it probably is about America, though it seems increasingly unlikely he’ll find it.
Yesterday, before trying to work up an outline for the book-in-letters, as an experiment I took out a sheet of paper and at the top wrote out this question: What is this thing about, anyway?
The answers I came up with weren’t that satisfying. I’m no good at elevator pitches, even when I’m only pitching myself. Though there was this one line I liked, as something to work toward. I could pin it up over my desk, if I were the sort of person who pinned things up over his desk.
The slow encroachment of loneliness upon a life.
When my neighbor’s husband died I thought about going to the funeral, but I didn’t. I thought about bringing her food, but I didn’t do that, either. Instead I went about my life, and I added “guilt” to the list of reasons this semester was a difficult one.
Now that the weather’s nicer, I’ll sometimes join her on the stoop for a late-afternoon drink. We talk about the neighborhood. She gets wistful about her husband. She asks about my love life. She wants to know what happened to the woman who was coming around in the fall, though I’ve explained about that before.
“The loneliness,” she said one afternoon, and I sat there waiting and waiting for her to complete the thought.
Yesterday afternoon, on my walk to the theater, I stopped by a coffee shop in my old neighborhood. I thought about the summer, six or seven years ago, when I went to that coffee shop nearly every day. A different life. Though in that one, too, I was writing, pages and pages that would come to nothing, or at least to nothing I can link to here and encourage you to buy.
But without those words I wouldn’t be writing these words. And without these words I wouldn’t write whatever words will come next. Which is another thing I have to remind myself of every so often.
Man, that was a lonely summer. Though it was a loneliness I’d created for myself. At the time I thought of it not as loneliness but as solitude.
Jenny Lewis’s album Acid Tongue came out somewhere in that period, and I remember listening to it for a while on a loop. “To be lonely is a habit,” Lewis sings, “like smoking or taking drugs / and I’ve quit them both, but man was it rough.”
The slow encroachment of loneliness upon your life. But also the strange comfort of it. A little house you build for yourself. By the time it starts to feel like a prison you've forgotten it was meant in the first place to be a shelter.
While We’re Young raises the question, but I don’t think it ever answers it: Is Ben Stiller’s character a good filmmaker who is just forever in his own way? Or has he reached the limits of his potential and can’t bring himself to admit it?
And which of those fates would be worse? Or are they, for all practical purposes, the same fate?
Actually, let’s hope fate is the wrong word. We can always change, can’t we? The movie’s ending suggests that’s true, though I suppose movies are always selling us on the possibility of personal transformation. Maybe that’s the reason we keep going to them.
In the penultimate scene, the one that made me cry a little, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts share a bottle of Jim Beam on a curb and have one of those but-what-does-it-all-mean conversations, the kind that couples are always having in the penultimate scenes of movies, or at least in a certain kind of movie.
Ben Stiller’s character is having some realizations. One of which is that he’s been so up his own ass with this movie that he’s failed to properly appreciate his wife. A realization all of us can nod along to, because for the last hour and a half we’ve watched her on the screen: funny, smart, beautiful, charming.
Trying to explain it now, I realize the moment sounds familiar to the point of cliché, and maybe it is. Like those cheesy quotes your friends share on their Facebook walls about the importance of gratitude, how you should be thankful, every day, for all the good things in your life. I roll my eyes at those quotes, too, but that doesn’t make them any less true. And it’s a truth I need to get whacked over the head with every so often, because it’s one I too easily forget.
You wake up one day and realize you’re tired of being unhappy. That’s step one. For step two you decide to treat your life like an elimination diet, the kind you might employ to locate the source of your digestive troubles. Eliminate X: how do you feel now? Eliminate Y: and how about now?
But happiness is more complicated than digestion. And if you eliminate the wrong things, adding them back will require more work than re-introducing dairy, or gluten. Especially if some of those things aren’t things at all, but people.
And who gave you this stupid idea in the first place, that the way to change your life is by subtraction, rather than addition?