The Wants of Others

I love many things freely and intensely, but for a little while now, I have not loved anything half as much as I loved the movie The Witch. What this means is that I have been trying to get anyone and everyone to see it with me. This compulsive witch-watching behavior has been going on for a little bit over a month and a half now, and I suspect it will last for at least another three or four weeks; this is how these things work for me.

At some point, I got really excited to see The Witch with a girl. We texted for 3 to 4 days prior and, via text, she said clever and witty things that were both reaffirming and exciting. We scheduled a time and a place to meet up and see The Witch, and when I texted her a couple of hours prior to the event confirming, she didn’t answer.

I felt deeply sad about this, but I also felt stupid in equal measure that I “allowed myself” to feel that sad for so little. I didn’t even want to go see The Witch anymore, which also felt dramatic, like losing your sense of taste, which ended in a sort of opaque and grandiose sense of stupidity; what I assume marriage feels like five years into it. The whole thing felt excessive and emotionally uncalled for, but how do you think about these things in a way to try to control them?

I sat at my desk, paralyzed inside my predictability, suffering from a generational cliché: the one where I am hyper self-conscious of my context, uncomfortable with the intensity of my feelings, and waiting on a text message. I imagined walking into the room and observing myself; this was a variant of a role I could imagine Michael Cera playing 8 or 9 years ago.

In 2007, and through Cera, this had some charming aspects to it. In 2016, these range of feelings felt boring and old. I closed the cycle of self-critical-pity and delusion by smoking weed and over-thinking in non-constructive ways about why it’s easier to see myself as a character in a movie than just a guy with mood swings. How much of our feelings do we borrow from fictional characters and narratives? How many of our afflictions and neuroses are truly originally ours to own? Which ones are societal, generational, gender-based, actually personal and individual? Is there a point in differentiating them? Am I not the perfectly unique snowflake my mama told me I was? Would any of this have mattered if I had gone on the date, or even, simply had gone to see The Witch again? Have you seen Michael Cera in 2016?

Gradually, the discomfort and paranoia eventually unraveled itself into action; thankfully, this is how these things work for me. The urge of having to do something personally drastic and dramatic, like running a marathon or buying a gun, eventually softened and articulated itself into some sort of theoretical next step; a move that would attempt to provide answers, or at least more interesting questions. Because I am lazy, this logical next step also had to be mostly safe and something I could do while very high and preferably while laying down.

Over the next two days I did something I had never done before: I binge-watched television. Looking into series that my friends liked, and that felt, in their words, “true to life”, I saw Master of None and LOVE and tried to feel new, and preferably better, things.

Master of None was charming, easily digestible, and very fast. It did a really good job of having a diverse group of characters without feeling facetious or forceful. I actually really liked the protagonist, Dev, played by the show’s creator Aziz Ansari, and I liked all of his friends too. Each of the 10, half-hour episodes are either about millennial hot-topics (fidelity, how to treat your parents, asking people out on dates, gender roles, etc.) and/or focused on the relationship between Dev, the show’s protagonist, and Rachel, his love interest. Within that, the episodes mostly consisted of Dev being surprised at how hard it is to be a decent person, and then trying, and mostly succeeding, in being a reasonably decent person.

This cycle of acknowledgement-cum-assimilation felt familiar, and it should have, for anyone watching: it makes a whole lot of sense. The idea that empathy and conflict resolution generally require more work than expected seems to be like good over-arching concept for a show to traffic in. It’s an ethos that could have made the show exceedingly boring, demagogic or preachy but because of Dev’s humor and common sense, it didn’t. When things got too close for comfort, Dev joked his way out of it. When things didn’t work out, Dev shrugged his shoulders, literally and figuratively, and moved on. The whole thing felt very reasonable.

Still, and maybe this has something to do with me being a sporadic watcher of television and not really being used to spending this much time with characters on-screen, I felt cheated by Dev and his friends after spending five hours with them, especially because watching them felt so good while I was doing it. Feeling cheated on by people that don’t exist is another very particular, hyperbolic feeling so, you know, why?

There’s a scene in one of the later episodes where Dev and his friend stop a public masturbator and get him arrested. As he is being handcuffed by the cops, Dev asks him “why did you do it? Why do you masturbate in public?” to which he gives an earnest, obvious, and largely un-settling answer: “because that is what turns me on. What if what turned you on was illegal?” Without missing a beat, Dev answers: “Alright dude, stop trying to get me to weirdly sympathize with you.” The scene ends and we never hear from the masturbator ever again. This is one of the show’s most interesting/terrifying interactions, but it makes sense that it ends there: the man is a public masturbator, he needs to go to jail. But then, what was his purpose being there in the first place?

Morally fucked-up characters like him populate the show freely; there’s a cheating wife, a criminally “crazy” girl, a racist boss, etc. Its fascinating and kind of unnerving to watch how fast these characters fall: the wife “reforms”, the crazy girl is kicked out of a club, and the boss, in a freak accident, dies.

In the “crazy chick” scenario, Dev’s date gets kicked out of the club for stealing another woman’s leather jacket. Dev pretends not to know her as she claws the security guard’s back, asking for Dev’s help. She was doing off-kilter, weird things all night, culminating in an action that was morally reprehensive and criminal: Dev does nothing, and hangs out at the club after she’s gone. This is perfectly acceptable, and once again, very reasonable of Dev. He is “rewarded”, by fortuitously bumping into Rachel at the bar, which he’ll go on to have a relationship with.

Still – is this what “common sense” should look like? How should we deal with the people we don’t like, that we disagree with, or even the ones we hate and despise? Block them from our newsfeeds; let their bad, impulsive choices whisk them away from our lives, never to deal with them ever again? My first impulse is to say “yes” because that is what seems appropriate. The other option would entail actually dealing with them, which could turn to be exhausting, time-consuming, or just downright stupid. But aren’t those the kinds of gambles that are the most illuminating, that “expand our worldview”, or whatever? More importantly, wouldn’t it be, maybe, just really fun to fight?

Dev is imbued with a little bit too much common sense to care to dig deeper or get into too much trouble that way – or else he’s too busy being selfish or distracted; within reason, charm, and decency. He’s doing fine. He reminds me a lot of myself, and a good amount of my friends, and we’re perfectly decent people, but we’re not particularly great either. Meaningful understanding and redemption, in the world of Master of None seems to be reserved for the charming, conflicted, self-centered millenials, even as they gloat in their self-deprecation and their flaws. Why the hell then, is Dev so likeable and, worse of all, relateable?

Would I, like Dev, be unable (or worse: not want to) forgive the things I don’t understand? Would I, like Dev, only be able to invest my time, devotion and attention to the people I love or am attracted to? Are understanding and redemption only possible as caveats or clauses of said love?

I think about feeding my cat cat-food, but my mom will do it later so I don’t. I sit down on the couch and stop thinking about Master of None almost entirely, and start watching LOVE, the Judd Apatow series, starring Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust.

LOVE was not very charming, and kind of long and long-winded. The show is essentially about the two main characters: Gus, an insecure, nebbish, and mostly boring dude and Mickey, an irresponsible, impulsive, and mostly boring girl, and how they weave in and out of each other’s lives throughout, what seems to be, a month or two.

There is not a lot of grandstanding on any sort of political or societal issue, which was something I dug: the show is very much about these two characters, both separate and together. The “separate” part was also kind of neat; the fact that the show spends so much time with the characters on their own is made particularly interesting, due to the few occasions that Mickey and Gus actually are together, where their energy levels always seem to be off-kilter, despite the fact that they are both visibly trying really hard to want to have a good time with each other. This is endearing and wildly interesting; the paradox of “wanting to have a good time”. I love the idea; but this is something I’d like to see elsewhere, with less boring characters.

Early on in the series, there is an extended gag in which Gus explains to his ex-girlfriend the differences between blu-rays and DVDs. “Blu-Rays have special features and directors’ cuts! You’ll never get it!” This goes on for an unusually long time – and it lingers on to the next scene as Gus has a cathartic moment throwing said Blu-rays out of a moving car, as Mickey drives him around, egging him on, or something of the like.

The scene was so contrived, it seemed brave in a really fucked up way: how did the show have so much confidence in this trite, boring bit? Why did its creators truly think this tired routine about blu-rays vs. DVDs was worth my time? I considered the show’s context and thought about the alleged free “creative reign” of producing original content for Netflix, where filmmakers talk about having freedom to create outside of confines of the weekly serial, which I’m sure, are plenty. Making television for Netflix, I’ve heard filmmakers say, is liberating because you get to spend time with your characters and get to re-structure the serial nature of television, treating seasons like “one long movie.”

Following this logic; I started considering that perhaps the negative feelings I was feeling towards Mickey and Gus were actually deliberate, a sort of subtle high-concept statement on boredom itself, how boredom is a central element of loneliness, how boring people relate, go about their lives, etc. How navigating boredom, both our own and others, is a real part of adult inter-personal relationships, love, etc. Unfortunately, by that point I was bored, and remained mostly bored for the entirety of the show.

The first season culminates in a finale that is both a bookend and a cliffhanger: Gus and Mickey kiss after a long, awkward fight, in the gas station where they first met. It gives you nothing, or close to nothing to feel or consider, at that point in their relationship. After 10 hours of LOVE, I could only interpret the moment as a massive “fuck you” to an invested audience, or even worse than a “fuck you”, a shoulder shrug, followed by a coy and uncertain “see you later!” wave.

What is going to happen to Mickey and Gus? Who knows? Who cares? Why did I care? What was I doing spending so much time watching these fictional people run into each other and shrug their shoulders? Why was this not helping me? Should it be the job of televised fiction to help?

For all of my critical thoughts of Dev and Mickey and Gus, a lot of what they did rang true. It’s an unsettling prospect that these characters, marked by their lack of conviction, hit so close to home. But was it because I saw myself in them, or was it because I simply had seen them before in other movies, books, TV shows? Or both?

If that was the case, was this actually a larger problem; a bane of wide-audience relationship narratives, that are so markedly populated by archetypes and tropes? Can mainstream, televised, relationship comedies ever exist outside of these tropes, or do we just have to strive to find the originality from within them? More importantly, are these archetypal characters valuable in both artistic and commercial senses, because they are, truly, very much like us and thus profitable/marketable? Or is it the other way around?

More-over: Are these our defining characteristics as a “dating generation” – this maximalist, hyper-aware confusion? Should we expect to get by simply by shoulder shrugging through our twenties and, as these shows suggest, through our 30s as well? Is this what the ghost of Michael Cera looks like, the stuttering and bumbling transmogrified into twitter-sharp, but meandering, logorrhea? What about our actual decisions? When are we going to account for anything, make choices? Will we ever have to?

All these questions really bummed me out and confused me, so I went out to see The Witch and, almost immediately, felt better.

My favorite thing about the Witch is that very early on in the movie, and without much fanfare, you actually see it. Eschewing the psychological mind-games of recent horror films, the witch is absolutely real, and none of the characters in the world try to disprove its existence. The witch is a bad thing that exists and acts without rhyme or reason; it doesn’t really matter who or what you are when facing the witch: the witch simply is, it moves inexplicably, and it’s bigger than you. As a thing of over-whelming and mysterious power, the witch is also infinitely intriguing and alluring and, at times, sexy.

Removing the witch, killing it, or stealing its power is out of the question; the best we can do against it is arm themselves with our facts and superstitions (or faith, if you’re one of those); lock our doors, douse ourselves in holy water; and hope for the best. These are far from guarantees against it, but it is forceful, meaningful, desperate and absolutely necessary behavior based on what we think we know, which, as it turns out, is always close to nothing. This was deeply moving to me.

Two days later, I watch The Witch again and text the same girl something about it and she says “cool. Tell me more.” I wrote her a long text about why the movie is so great, to which she didn’t reply. For a second I feel unbelievably stupid – but then I go back and ask the girl if she wants to watch The Witch some other time. When she inevitably doesn’t answer, I ask someone else, and then I ask someone else, and then I ask someone else and then I ask someone else and then I ask someone else and see The Witch a few other times, sometimes by myself, and sometimes with other people.

Tadeu Bijos is a writer and film-maker currently living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Follow him on twitter @jtbijos.