Over at Dennis Cozzalio's site, a debate broke out recently over Juno, which DC had nominated for Worst Film of the Year honors and in his post included the following choice words:
"For Juno....pregnancy boils down to yet another accessory, an emblem of the character’s ultimate outsider status which the film uses as a weapon (in a particularly nasty scene in which Juno and her stepmother shout down a radiologist for asking sensible questions about her pregnancy) as much as for instant sympathy."
I found myself nodding along in "Amen, brother" fashion while I read this, perhaps because I had singled out the same scene in my review. Soon after, however, in Cozzalio's comments section, Simon Crowe begged to differ:
"The fact that you consider the moralistic and inappropriate questions of the ultrasound tech to be reasonable are a clear tip that your judgment of Juno is out of whack. There's no context in which that character's behavior wasn't out of line, but I'm guessing her views echo your personal beliefs. "
Cozzalio in turn replied that Crowe could "substitute 'sensible'....for 'reasonable,' or maybe you could just say 'concerned,' which is what I think the ultrasound technician shows in the scene, unsolicited, inappropriate or not." But for me, it was in his subsequent observation that the discussion took a more interesting turn:
"[T]he fact that the characters respond to her inquiry the way they do seemed quite in line with a long tradition of scoring points off of the supposed insensitivity of peripheral characters in order to validate the point of view of characters who are clearly far more justified (emphasis added), at least in the movie's mind."
Not only did this explain in more concise terms why I hated that scene -- and Juno in general -- but it got me thinking about the difference between movies with an inclusive point of view and movies with what one could call an exclusivist perspective. The distinction is tricky, of course: I'm not necessarily talking about a "populist" sensibility like Spielberg's or James L. Brooks's as opposed to the more divisive appeal of a worldview like that of Kubrick or the Coens. What I mean is a sense that in a world of a particular film there is an acknowledgement, however tacit, that all the characters have lives beyond what we see in the frame.
This, too, can be difficult to evaluate. Spielberg, of course, received a heaping of criticism for his depiction of Arabs in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and while a lot of it was probably accurate, I must confess that I still laugh when Indy shoots the swordsman in the marketplace. (My only defense, immaturity aside, is that I think I'm laughing at the undermining of audience expectations of a big action movie fight scene, not at who the character is or what he represents.) Of course criticism of Spielberg went the other way with Munich, which some saw as applying too much moral equivalency to the methods of Islamists with those of certain Western governments. I still struggle with the themes of that film; but I also remain haunted by the humane portrayal of the assassins' targets, especially the man who kindly talks with Eric Bana on the hotel veranda moments before he's blown to smithereens.
Less controversially but no less pointedly, the Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (whose style I have not been alone in comparing to the young Spielberg) employs minor characters in profound ways in The Host. For the first third of the movie, we see the action through the family of a girl -- namely the girl's father (played by Song Kang-ho) -- abducted by a creature terrorizing Seoul. Suddenly, in a scene under a bridge, the perspective shifts for a few minutes from the family to a pair of new characters, a father and son, looking for food in the area. Although one of them is eventually killed by the monster, they're not used as fodder. At the end of the movie, Joon-ho makes his intentions clear, implying that the lives of these seemingly unimportant characters have as much value as the ones who occupy most of the screen.
A cursory viewing of most movies shows just how radical a notion this is. I mentioned Brooks earlier because it was in Terms of Endearment -- one of the first "grown-up" films I remember seeing as a kid -- that he featured a scene in a supermarket where Debra Winger is unable to pay for her groceries. A nasty checkout girl rolls her eyes and bellows into the store mike: "Can I have the register key? She doesn't have enough money!" As Winger eliminates items to purchase, to the anger and embarrassment of her boys, the checkout girl continues in this fashion until John Lithgow, behind Winger in line, steps up and offers to pay for the groceries. He then says something to the effect of, "You're a very rude young woman. I know the owner of this store and I don't believe he would want you treating your customers so badly." When the girl replies that she doesn't think she was treating Winger badly, Lithgow retorts, "Then you must be from New York."
When I was younger I laughed at this scene more than I do now. It's a nifty gotcha moment, exquisitely timed, but today I see Brooks as pandering to the audience in the same way that Cozzalio accuses Reitman and Cody of doing in the scene in Juno with the ultrasound woman: Who hasn't been humiliated at one time or another in a grocery store line, or felt degraded by hospital personnel? It's easy to score points at the expense of supporting characters meant to personify environments that we the audience see as hostile or indifferent; it's far more daring and satisfying to depict these characters as separate from, or even victims of, the same system.
Say what you will about Judd Apatow (he's too crass, he's actually conservative, he doesn't get women), I can't give into the backlash for the simple reason that his universe is so expansive. Consider the scene in Knocked Up where Leslie Mann launches into a tirade against the bouncer denying her entry into a nightclub. In any other movie, she would have stormed off in a huff and that would have been the end of it. Here, though, the bouncer takes her aside and has a quiet monologue (brilliantly delivered by Craig Robinson) that not only gives this minor character the last word but delves into issues of gender, age and social class. And compare the aformentioned scene in Juno with the one in Knocked Up where an Asian physician (the excellent Ken Jeong) has an argument with Katherine Heigl while she's in labor. Seth Rogen asks him to step outside the delivery room, and rather than tell him off Rogen tries reasoning with him until the doctor calms down and reenters the delivery room with a new perspective. He comes across not as the butt of a joke, but as something hardly ever seen in movies: a human being who's just having a bad day.