Friday, February 22, 2008

Defending "Juno": It's Not a Documentary

Ah yes, the Oscars are two days away, and the "Juno" backlash is in full swing. Yesterday, my father forwarded me a Chicago Tribune article by Nara Schoenberg:

The trouble with 'Juno'
Birth mothers debate Oscar-nominated movie's view of choices and consequences pregnant teens face

It's a great and timely topic for a newspaper. If I were the editor, I would have proposed the same idea. If I were the reporter, I would have jumped at the chance to write it. If I were the birth mothers interviewed, I likely would have felt the same way they did... that "Juno" is short-sighted at best and dangerous at worst, because it doesn't paint a complete picture of what it's like to give birth and give up your baby for adoption. 

And yet, it's all so horribly, horribly wrong. Because I'm not any of those things. I'm a writer, and this whole lens... this whole angle of criticism against a movie, a play, a book, a song, a painting, anything... this whole idea that a story is bad if it isn't told the way YOU want it to be told, is false, anti-intellectual, anti-artistic and ultimately more dangerous to society than the story in question.

Case in point, the article states the following:

"... But even [birth mother] Dixon is troubled by aspects of the movie, among them: it glosses over the difficulty of meeting prospective adoptive parents, doesn't show an adoption agency providing help and support, and portrays the heroine as wanting to sever all ties with her first-born child."

I don't know any simpler way to refute this line of criticism than to say this: "Juno" is not a documentary about teen pregnancy; it's a story, written by Diablo Cody, about one time in one fictional character's life, acted by Ellen Page, and directed by Jason Reitman. It's not about teen pregnancy; it's about Juno. It's not about the difficulties of social work; it's about Juno. It's not about the severe depression many birth mothers face after giving up their babies; it's about Juno.

And in that "Juno" the movie is about Juno the character, the movie is many other things. It's an unlikely, yet oddly effective, love story. Its main character is compelling because although she thinks she knows everything, she doesn't know everything. And the most disturbing thing she knows is that she doesn't know everything. Which is kind of like living as if you're immortal, even though you know you're mortal. Which creates the irony of living every day as if you don't know that one day you will no longer be living, even though you do know that. Which is called the human condition.

To state it a different way, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" should not prompt victims of bank robbery to criticize the movie's glorification of crime. And William Shakespeare should not face cross-examination for "romanticizing suicide in 'Romeo & Juliet.'"

These are topics for PhD dissertations and newspaper articles, and nothing more.

5 comments:

Vegas Gopher said...

Yeah, along those same lines, I was really disappointed by "Enchanted," because it doesn't deal with the psychological scars left on the little girl when her father's girlfriend leaves the world for fairy tale land at the end.

This is a great topic, Conk. Apparently we've been conditioned to expect that media will totally cater to us and our needs -- from "My Yahoo" to single-song downloads on iTunes, if an idea isn't right up our alley, we want nothing to do with it -- or we want to criticize it and tweak it and change it to meet our needs.

I'm so sick of the Diablo backlash and the Juno backlash that I'm now openly pulling for a clean sweep at the Oscars for Juno. People can't just enjoy a piece of art for what it is. The Diablo haters love to criticize her dialogue as unrealistic ("Teenagers in Minnesota don't really talk like that!"), yet as you point out, on the other side of the coin you have people complaining that the movie doesn't show all the consequences of Juno's decision. So, artistically speaking it's not realistic, but factually speaking it's also not realistic.

But it's fiction. It's art. It's not one of those kids books where you pick your own ending.

It's all too easy (and somewhat condescending) to chalk it up to the haters' creative frustrations, but I have to say, it sounds like that's where most of it comes from. ("I can't write or paint or sell widgets that well, so I'm going to bring her down to my level.") And the "content critics" you mention are in the same category as the people who complained that Hannah Montana wasn't wearing a seatbelt that I blogged about. They're one-trick ponies and look for any opportunity to flog their issues.

Sigh. Pass the popcorn and enjoy the show on Sunday. At least I won't have to stay up until midnight to see the end. And we've got Jon Stewart, so that's always a plus.

Marc Conklin said...

"Not being realistic" and "not ringing true" are radically different things. No dialogue in a movie is "realistic." Nobody talks like people in movies, ever. Except in some Woody Allen movies, but that's what annoys people. Everything is a representation and a distillation, because you don't have any time to waste. Something can be totally unrealistic, and yet still ring true. And something can be totally realistic, but ring false.

Ted said...

I love how it is Hollywood's responsibility, and not the people in her life, to help a young mother cope with the realities of the tough decisions she is going to face. I think the follow post to this is the top 100 indisputable truths that I have learned from Hollywood.

Anonymous said...

Go for it Ted...can't wait to read 'em.

Mike said...

I think this is worthy of a longer post on the general "problem" audiences are having with fiction v. reality. This appears in the recent post of Creative Screenwriting's online mag:

The XX Factor: Nancy Oliver
BY AMY DAWES

For her first screenplay, Lars and the Real Girl, writer Nancy Oliver had a tough pitch ahead of her. How did she pitch a premise like that? "I'd tell people, 'It's about a guy who falls in love with a sex doll, but it's not really like that.' And they would go, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,'" she says.

Since the movie's release, says Oliver, "I've read a lot about what an outrageous premise it is, but it didn't seem that way in my head. I didn't approach it that way." When people actually see it, she says, some of them "really go for it, and other people spew venom. They say that would never happen, and that town (a wintry hamlet where Lars' eccentricities are eventually accepted) doesn't exist. I never anticipated that people would take it so literally."