By Professor Daniel Barnes
Every couple of months, Mike and I will be challenging each other to create a fake syllabus for a nonexistent university-level film course. It begins with one of us proposing a general course subject to the other person, who then has to define the parameters, title, thesis, main topics, and films for that imaginary course.
For our first installment, Dub challenged me to create a course on “films about overgrown adolescents that don’t involve Judd Apatow”. Although Apatow got his start on TV in the early 1990’s, his first film credits were on a couple of long-forgotten mid-1990’s comedies (Heavyweights and Celtic Pride), so I used 1996 as a cut-off date for the pre-Apatow era.
With those parameters, this is the syllabus that I created:
“That’s what I love about these high school girls…I get older, they stay the same age.”
-Woodhouse (Matthew McConaughey), Dazed and Confused
Do the high school girls stay the same age, or does Woodhouse? He has not moved or changed at all since his high school days, and even continues to pursue the same sort of girl. However, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused offers a rich array of female characters, and unlike Woodhouse, most of them will transcend their teenage identity and indeed, get older.
Almost every current comedy in the Judd Apatow era – a run that began in earnest with 2004’s Anchorman and his 2005 directorial debut, The 40 Year-Old Virgin – features some version of the Apatow man-child. Seth Rogen, Michael Cera, Paul Rudd, and Will Ferrell (among others) have based their movie careers on playing a version of this character – petulant and horny on the Ferrell/Rogen end of the scale, doe-eyed and drippy on the Cera/Rudd side. Apatow was also a friend of and early collaborative influence on the current Lord of the Movie Man-Children, Adam Sandler.
The 21st century man-child genre is fecund enough to have already split into several sub-genres (stoner comedies, raunchy rom-coms, parodies, dramedies, etc.), and Apatow’s influence is felt even in films he doesn’t write, direct, or produce. Part of this is a reflection of the current culture, which sees young people postponing the self-responsibility of adulthood for greater and greater lengths of time. But there is a long legacy of movie man-children and other assorted overgrown adolescents that predates Apatow, extending from Peter Pan to 1980’s body-switch comedies, and going all the way back to the protozoic beginnings of the cinema.
This intensive eight-week course will explore that pre-Apatow history of movie man- (and woman-)children. There will be one film viewed in class each week, with a brief intro and a post-film discussion. There will also be one film that you will have to view outside of class each week. All of these films are available to rent on Netflix.
PART I. THEMES
*Week 1: Gender and sexual politics (In class: The Major and the Minor; Outside of class: Sylvia Scarlett)
Food for thought: In The Major and the Minor, Ginger Rogers dresses as a young girl to ride the train for a cheaper fare, and also receives a more gallant treatment from men and boys that masks a somewhat boggled sexual desire. In Sylvia Scarlett (and other 30’s films like Queen Christina), the female protagonist has more rights and freedoms as a fake boy than she would as a real adult woman, and may be more desirable as well.
*Week 2: Mommy issues (Inside class: Marty; Outside class: Psycho)
Food for thought: Marty screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky has a long history of portraying women as screeching harridans; Alfred Hitchcock’s complicated interplay with his female characters (and the lead actresses that played them) is legendary. How do the personal histories and cinematic tendencies of Chayefsky and Hitchcock inform these iconic portraits of henpecked mama’s boys?
PART II. ARCHETYPES
*Week 3: The comedic man-child (In class: shorts and selections from silent-era comedians [Harry Langdon; Joe E. Lewis; Fatty Arbuckle; etc.]; Out of class: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure)
Food for thought: The overgrown man-child was an early staple of silent comedies, and the pie-faced simpletons played by the likes of Fatty Arbuckle and Harry Langdon (seen below in 1927’s Three’s a Crowd) made them huge stars. Although Pee-Wee Herman is hardly a silent figure, his style of comedy does owe more to the character-driven comedians of the silent and early sound era of film than to anything else that was happening in the 1980’s.
*Week 4: The spoiled rotten rich kid (Inside class: The Navigator; Outside class: A New Leaf)
Food for thought: The lead characters in The Navigator and A New Leaf come from extraordinary privilege, and they both display ingrained selfishness and a crudely formed sexual identity. How does an underdeveloped personality inform an underdeveloped sense of empathy (and sexuality), and vice versa?
*Week 5: The overgrown party boy (Inside class: National Lampoon’s Animal House; Outside class: Swingers)
Food for thought: The baby is Trent! Get it?! The baby is Trent!
PART III. GENRE
*Week 6: 1980’s body-switch comedies (In class: Vice Versa; Outside class: Like Father, Like Son)
Food for thought: Four of these films were released roughly within one calendar year of each other – Big, Vice Versa, 18 Again!, and Like Father, Like Son. It seems to have been a reflection of the mind-state of 1960’s hippies turned 1980’s yuppies. These people used to perceived themselves as radicals, and now they were entrenched in the system, and terrified that their lives were more reflective of their materialistic parents than a younger generation they can barely comprehend.
*Week 7: 1990’s slackers movies (Inside class: Reality Bites; Outside class: Clerks)
Food for thought: If Bluto was the original seventh-year college senior, then his children grew up to be the thrift store chic slackers of the 1990’s. The heroes of Clerks bemoan their lives of minimum wage servitude, but they show no desire to escape it, and instead focus on making their purgatory tolerable. In Reality Bites, the love triangle that Winona Ryder’s character has with ambitious producer Ben Stiller and slacker God Ethan Hawke mirrors a larger struggle between integrity and selling out. How do these films equate success with corruption, and how does that perception feed into the slacker worldview?
PART IV. AUTEUR
*Week 8: Jerry Lewis (Inside class: The Ladies Man; Outside class: The Errand Boy)
Food for thought: Although he was a fairly prolific film star in the 1950’s and 60’s, Jerry Lewis’ best work is in the movies that he directed himself. These films explored his iconic character of a hyperbolic man-boy with an expanded visual palette and a more daring narrative digressions. The Ladies Man mostly takes place on a dollhouse-like set, and features a heartbroken Lewis exploding into paroxysms of sexual confusion when his boarding house is overrun by beautiful women.
This clip from The Errand Boy, a sketch film in which Lewis’ movie studio gofer wreaks havoc in a variety of settings, is based on one of his most famous nightclub bits. It was originally developed by a pre-fame Lewis when he was just goofing around to records in his bedroom. How much of the Jerry Lewis “persona” is derived from that perspective of a boy living inside of the playroom of his own head?