Interview by Natalie Hulla; posted by Dustin Jenkins
NH: How’s it going?
NB: Good, how are you?
NH: I’m good! What are you drinking?
NB: Just a regular, light roast coffee.
NH: No specific preferences?
NB: No, I’m easygoing.
NH: I have to admit, what I’m drinking is decaf because what I was drinking at a meeting prior to this was caffeinated, so I’m kind of cheating a little bit on this interview.
NB: That’s okay. We all have to cheat a little.
NH: So, why don’t you, in a nutshell, tell me a little bit about what you’re working on right now?
NB: Working on a thesis. The topic is masculinity in contemporary film comedy. So I’m looking at, really, the last 20 years of Hollywood comedies and how representations of masculinity have changed. I’m focusing on, like, metrosexual men, and more emasculated figures, and then the subgenres that have emerged from that. So, the bromance is probably the most prevalent comedic subgenre of the last 10 years. And of course, Apatow is probably the most central director, film figure in that canon.
NH: You probably spend a lot of time studying Seth Rogen.
NH: Is that a good thing?
NB: Well, he plays the same character over and over, and if you’ve seen one Seth Rogen film you’ve seen them all, pretty much -- The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Knocked Up, even The Interview and films like that. So, yeah, he’s a character.
NH: He’s an interesting guy. I haven’t seen The Interview yet. I did see that it’s on Netflix, but I haven’t seen the movie at all. Did you see it?
NB: I did see it. I watched it on Christmas Day with my dad because he wanted to see it, too. I think it was more the controversy that he wanted to see, more or less…I think you kinda know what you’re getting into if you’ve seen any of the prior films that Seth Rogen and James Franco made. Pineapple Express, This is The End -- films like that. And after watching it, you think to yourself how ridiculous this amount of controversy is because it’s so satirical. So, you know… It’s an OK movie. It’s not going to be the film that gets an Oscar nomination.
NH: I saw This is The End, and I saw it on opening weekend and it was a completely sold-out theater and it’s a completely different experience when you’re surrounded by people. It just seems funnier and I feel like you tend to like the film a lot more.
NB: Yeah. I taught a class on comedy last semester and it was on just U.S. film comedy, and it was just the silent until now, and I try to emphasize in the first couple of classes that, you know, comedy is just one of those things that gets better when you’re in a secluded space with people, because you laugh at things you wouldn’t catch than if you watched it at home by yourself. If you hear one person laugh, then you hear another person laugh, it makes you think, ‘Why are they laughing?’ and then you laugh yourself. Then you realize, ‘Oh, it is funny,’ and it’s something that you don’t catch. Even silly things like that kind of just add to the spectacle of it, especially the comedy.
NH: Yeah. Is that audience participation part of your research or your thesis at all?
NB: No. Something to consider, though, nevertheless… I just think with genre studies in the last 20 years, it’s kind of been -- like, Rick Altman’s kind of notion of marketing and economic factors factor into how we determine film genres and how film genres are redefined over time. So, the bromance emerged ten years ago and that was because romantic comedies weren’t really doing as well at the box office. So it was an extension of the romantic comedy with the buddy film… And that’s kind of one of my arguments for the bromance, that it’s a modernization of the buddy film. But, you know, genres constantly go through changes, so if one film is doing well, they’re going to make a bunch more of those, and once it starts dying down, we see a decline in it. That’s pretty much genres and subgenres of film, and the change in tides. But economic factors definitely go into that.
NH: Do you think the bromance is on a downward trend or an upward trend?
NB: I think it’s on a downward trend, personally. And it’s kind of funny because the more movies we categorize as bromances are, more or less, trying to overtly be bromances. Like, I Love You, Man -- yeah, we know it’s a bromance. But something like 22 Jump Street -- that’s something that I’m focusing on -- it tries too hard to be a bromance and have those moments where, you know, you see them literally go to couples counseling and you see them going to the spa, and things like that. Which, I mean, it does the same thing, but it’s trying to be too forceful. And I feel like that’s where it’s hitting wall. Like, ‘Okay, we know.’
NH: We get it.
NB: We get it at this point. It’s hitting us in the face at this point. And comedy on television, I feel like that’s where a lot of these images -- especially bromance in How I Met Your Mother, and even Friends -- are an early predecessor in the bromance. Now it’s on Netflix.
NH: Oh, yes, I know!
NB: That’s all I’ve been watching on my down time, just a couple of episodes a night.
NB: It’s funny, we make such a big deal over Friends on Netflix even though it’s been gone for 10 years. It’s like a new show, but it’s 10 seasons at once, even though it’s been there the whole time. I just find it funny.
NH: Are you studying the masculinity within Friends? When I watch it now, being a total film geek, it’s funny to me to see what cultural ideas they play with and make fun of. You know, Chandler, his character was originally intended to be gay and so he has a lot of ‘gay anxiety,’ or anxiety about appearing gay.
NB: A lot of the early episodes were very much about that. Like, when he doesn’t smoke, he holds the cigarette like this. Or the way he hits on women, it’s coded as homosexual but he’s really heterosexual. A lot of it is gender performance and the performativity aspect of his character. But it’s funny because someone like Ross is someone who’s really similar to that because there are a lot of things that Ross likes that wouldn’t really be considered overtly heterosexual. One episode I remember watching the other day, he likes to take bubble baths and listen to Kenny G -- is that the musician? He likes, you know, mini muffins… It’s a different kind of character. But then we get to Joey who’s this overtly macho Italian guy.
NH: He’s a bro.
NB: He’s really just a womanizer. He’s the opposite end of the spectrum of a guy compared to Chandler or Ross.
NH: Sometimes there are certain instances in episodes, or certain jokes or certain plot lines, that I wonder -- it ended in 2003, I think?
NH: 2004. I often wonder if those plot lines would ever be able to make it to air these days because I feel like, culturally, our relationship with those ideas is completely different.
NB: Well, there’s one episode I watched the other night -- do you remember the whole plot line with Ross and Emily where they meet? Their courtship is being shown and one of the episodes is that he and Emily meet his ex-wife and her lover, and her lover and Emily become friends. And he has this paranoia where he’s like, ‘Oh, is she going to leave me for them?’ It’s kind of like the whole episode seems so backwards even for the ‘90s. Even in the ‘90s we became more progressive and it’s just such an odd episode. That one stuck out to me, like the stuff that he’s worried about -- if she’s going to leave him for another woman.
NH: Well, a segue from How I Met Your Mother and sitcoms into the area that’s maybe a little bit closer to your thesis work, is Jason Segel. He’s a central figure to the bromance genre in the 2000s.
NB: I think he’s underrated!
NH: You think so?
NB: Absolutely, when we think of bromances we always think of James Franco and Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, in that Apatow canon. But Jason Segel -- of course, he was in I Love You, Man, which is quintessential just in the title itself. “I love you, man.” But I think he’s an interesting figure because you look at something like Forgetting Sarah Marshall -- there’s no bromance in it, per se, but at the same time it’s this figure of a fragile man, and alpha males, beta males, which I think also relates to the bromance in a way because it’s like, ‘mark your territory.’ I like Jason Segel.
NH: Yeah, I really enjoyed watching Forgetting Sarah Marshall just because he was -- I mean, I don’t think I like it because he seemed emasculated throughout the film but because it was this no-holds-barred, ‘I’m a man and I’m so torn apart by this break-up.’ And we don’t normally see that. And if we do see that, it’s so exaggerated that it becomes hyperbolic and unrealistic, and, I don’t know, there’s something very humorous and somewhat honest about the comedy in that film that I really enjoy.
NB: And it more or less changes at the beginning, because it’s not the man who breaks up with the woman like we normally see in a romantic comedy, or anything like that. It’s the woman who breaks up with a man. What’s fascinating about that film, and especially at the beginning, is we see his reaction to it, and he’s in his most raw state, because he has a towel on and then he removes the towel and he shows himself to her and then she breaks up with him. And what is the first thing he does? He cries, and she tries to console him and, you know, it changes the roles in a way.
NH: Yeah, she’s like, ‘Do you want to put some clothes on?’
NB: ‘I don’t need clothes,’ I love that line.
NH: Let’s talk about The Social Network. That’s a really interesting film because I think gender is crucial to that entire story.
NB: Yeah. It’s very underscored.
NH: It’s very underscored, and I’ve talked to some non-film folks about this and they think I’m crazy. I’m like, are you kidding? From the very first scene, it’s about Mark Zuckerberg’s relationship with women, and how a very negative, almost hostile, reaction that he has to Rooney Mara’s character just launches him into this vindictive project of blogging about her online, and I feel like there are certain aspects of the Internet that are incredibly masculine and rather misogynistic, and yeah, I thought that that film played with gender and gender performance and gender relations in a really fascinating way. What were your thoughts on it?
NB: Well, I think it’s a misunderstood film in a way because I think it’s a great film and it’s one of my favorite films of the last decade, but it’s interesting that you bring up the opening scene because it’s a breakup scene, and she tells him basically why she’s breaking up with him and it’s because he’s emotionless, he has no reaction to it, he doesn’t really do much. But then after the breakup scene, it inspires him to do Facebook and he posts that negative thing about her. And then at the very end of the film -- and this is where I think it’s really important and people forget this -- what is the last image of the film? What’s the last scene?
NH: He sends her a request.
NB: He sends her a friend request, so the whole time it’s really not about the technology or the development of Facebook. It’s this lonely guy who basically cannot move on from a breakup and he wants to, you know, be with her. Or else why would he send her a friend request? It’s so underscored and no one ever talks about that final moment of the film when he sends her a friend request.
NH: Then there’s that awesome scene that the two of them have, where she bumps into him at the restaurant, and she’s like, ‘You write your snide bullshit from a dark room because that’s what the angry do nowadays!’ Oh, my god, it was so good. And then he immediately walks away and is like, ‘We need to expand.’ So, it’s so clear that that’s the driving force.
NB: But we don’t think about it in that way. I think we think, ‘Oh, it’s a Facebook movie,’ because that’s how it was advertised when it came out. It was, more or less, ‘the Facebook movie.’
NH: Yeah, yeah.
NB: I think people forget to look at the gender dynamics. It’s very crucial to that story.
NH: My brother thought I was crazy.
NB: Yeah, you’re not crazy.
NH: Thank you. I appreciate that.
NB: If you are, then I am, too.
NH: We’ll just live in film land with the other crazy people who read between the lines and all the subtext.
NB: How many floors would we need?
NH: Can we talk about Fight Club? Since we’re on the topic of masculinity.
NB: Well, the first rule of Fight Club is that we can’t talk about it.
NH: We can’t talk about it, that’s true.
NB: I know.
NH: Also the second rule, so we’re breaking two rules here.
NB: It’s funny because Fight Club was the launch for my own thesis because it’s such a crisis of masculinity that was a ‘90s phenomenon of scholarship and film. Fight Club is like the quintessential crisis film.
NB: And it’s not a comedy, so I’m not really focused on it, but it’s good launching pad to think about how this crisis shaped American cinema, especially from a post-Millennium perspective. The three, few films that we always look to with this crisis of masculinity are Fight Club, American Beauty and American Psycho. Those are the three films that scholars have talked about the absolute most and have focused on… It’s interesting how all three present different forces of masculinity. Fight Club, it’s violence. With American Beauty, it’s essentially going back to a teenage childhood because he never really had a childhood, and American Psycho, it takes place in the ‘80s, right?
NB: Wall Street, right? It’s this notion of, ‘I’m so mad and I just want to retaliate against it.’ But the thing that I think marks all three of these films is -- and this is what I think is prevalent and it’s one of my chapters -- is this notion of how labor shapes these characters, because all three of the characters -- or four, if you’re counting the two characters in Fight Club -- it’s this notion against labor or against their jobs.
NH: ‘You are not your job.’
NB: And the only comedy in that time, in the 1999, 2000 period that’s just as important is Office Space. In Office Space, it’s retaliation against their boss. The more I watch Office Space, the more I think it’s interesting, because you know the famous scene with the printer?
NH: Oh, yeah.
NB: They’re in the wide, open field and they just beat the shit out of that printer.
NH: And Michael Bolton -- they have to hold him back because he’s so angry!
NB: The printer is a metaphor for their boss, and it’s in slow motion --
NH: And then there’s the music.
NB: What song is it?
NH: I’m not sure. It’s rap music.
NB: Yeah, I knew it was rap or hip hop, but it’s just so funny. I think that film is forgotten because it’s this whole notion that it’s funny and it’s underscored.
NH: People don’t necessarily think about it too hard.
NB: Yeah, unlike the quote-unquote, ‘serious films.’ But I think it’s an equally important film in terms of how labor affects the male subjects, and I think that’s definitely something that’s been prevalent in American cinema over the last 20 years. With a lot of these characters it’s this notion of, ‘I’ve gotta fight against my boss.’ Remember that movie Horrible Bosses? That’s a film that I think is a modern take on Office Space. Of course, they take it to the next level because it’s more darkly comedic, because they literally plan to kill their bosses. It’s just funny how the film is kind of like Office Space in a way. This notion of, ‘I hate my boss,’ is prevalent in both films. I didn’t see the most recent sequel. I don’t know how it looks -- how would they get away with it again?
NH: Ehh… I didn’t care to see it or make any plans to go see it. I mean, at that point you know the sequel is just trying to play off the financial success of the film.
NB: Yeah, it’s an unnecessary sequel.
NH: The story tends to suffer a little bit.
NB: Yeah… And that’s part of genre, too, in a way. Especially comedy. If it works, let’s keep making it until people get tired of it. Something like Horrible Bosses, it’s ridiculous to think there could even be a sequel to that film. How are you going to get away with attempted murders -- again?
NH: They become serial killers.
NB: It’s like Office Space. How does that even make sense?
NH: It goes straight to video.
NB: Straight to video. It’s like the American Pie movies.
NH: Oh, god, can we talk about that?
NB: Of course!
NH: Masculinity in American Pie?
NH: I feel that we need to talk about this because in my formative years, my friends and I would sneak American Pie, because we were -- oh, god, how old were we? I think we were in middle school when those started to come out. So, yeah, we’d have to sneak them into our rooms to watch them.
NB: Well, yeah, it was like pornography in a way.
NH: It totally was! And little did we know that these films were so rooted in masculinity. My girlfriends and I would talk about it like, ‘Oh, my god -- the pie!’
NB: And it works within the comedy elements, too, because it takes place in high school, there’s a constant notion of sex on their minds, and how to lose their virginity.
NH: It’s five main characters, right? It’s Jason Biggs, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Sean William Scott, Chris Klein, and Thomas Ian Nichols.
NB: Wow, you really know all of them.
NH: I know, right?
NH: I studied IMDb in my adolescence…
NB: You should get a PhD in it.
NH: They should just offer me a free IMDb Pro account. Anyway… Do you think the way that that’s organized is intentional, as commentaries on different aspects of masculinity, or at least different ways teenage boys approach sex?
NB: See, I haven’t seen the movie in a while, so I would have to revisit it. But from what I remember, it’s this notion that virginity is this totally terrible thing.
NH: Especially as a man.
NB: Yeah, as long as you get -- no offense -- ‘laid’ --
NH: None taken.
NB: -- then you’re a man. And this is something that’s always in teen sex comedy, like John Hughes. You have to have sex to be a man, or else it’s like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ Now that I’m thinking about it, isn’t there a scene with Jason Biggs’s character… something with the computer?
NB: I can’t remember, really.
NH: Okay, I believe he is…
NB: Filming himself?
NH: I don’t know why he’s filming himself, but it’s when Shannon Elizabeth’s character comes over to study, or something like that. I forget why he’s filming himself but he accidentally leaves -- or, no, I think he intentionally leaves it on with the intention of sending it to his friends? Like, him having sex for the first time. And he completely botches the entire pursuit, and it becomes this embarrassing thing. So rather than send it to just his friends, he accidentally sends it to his entire school and everybody watches it, and everyone can see this disastrous moment.
NB: Everyone sees it in all of its glory.
NH: Yeah, he completely screws up the entire thing.
NB: He’s so focused on the sex aspect that he totally neglects that, ‘Maybe this won’t be sent out to everybody.’
NH: Well, it’s interesting that it plays on this fear of not having privacy about this as a teenager. You know, ‘What would happen if everyone found out about this? I can only tell my friends this. Or, I can’t tell anybody that this happened.’ And what happens instead? His biggest fear becomes realized where not only his friends see it and not only does it happen in front of this girl that he’s trying to impress, but the entire school witnesses his utter failure at becoming a man.
NB: I think [The 40-Year-Old Virgin] is a very fascinating film in so many different aspects, and I think it’s one of those films where the labor is important because of where they work -- it’s like a Best Buy or Circuit City, it’s all repetition. Kind of like Office Space. But it’s just a different form of labor. That’s what one of my chapters focuses on. Office Space is in an office, obviously, but in something like Punch Drunk Love, it’s repetition as well. You really don’t see labor, per se, in that way but it’s in this abandoned warehouse. And he’s wearing a suit, and if you notice throughout the film, his sisters and other characters are like, ‘Why are you wearing a suit? This is over-dressed, even for you.’ And in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it’s retail and retail is just a repetitive of a labor, if not, more than Office Space.
NH: How does labor function within the paradigm of masculinity in cinema?
NB: It’s this notion of retaliation of male angst. The notion of, like, men being tired of being told what to do by another man, or a higher thinker, and basically, they’re trying to fight against their boss because they feel like they’re put down so much, and they can’t express themselves. A lot of these men, they bottle up their emotions, so that’s why in Office Space, they take it out on the printer and not the boss himself in any confrontation. And even in Punch Drunk Love, remember the scene where he punches the screen door because the sisters make fun of him? And basically, he takes it out, not on the sisters -- and of course, that would be terrible if he did.
NH: Oh, yeah. That’d be a crime.
NB: Right, it would be terrible. And he takes it out on an object and I think it’s an interesting parallel. But I think, you know, labor is really underscored in those films.
NH: Yeah, I think that’s a very fascinating aspect of masculinity and I do have to say, I’ve learned a little bit more about masculinity during this chat. I tend to go towards femininity in films.
NH: I hope you enjoyed your coffee!
NB: I’m glad I came, it was a very nice coffee talk.
NH: Yeah, we got to geek out a little bit.