Ennui Film and Epanalepsis
The past several years have given us many movies that confuse the point of ennui. As unadulterated examples of these, think Garden State (Zach Graff, 2004), Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (Danny Leiner, 2004), American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) or I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell, 2004). These are movies that try to cope with boredom, existential dread, and the characters’ questions of whether there is meaning in the modern American life of achievement and acquisition, but that in the end fail to do so. Instead of answering the question “What does anything mean?”, these films propose to resolve the existential dread of their protagonists using a closed figure, an epanalepsis: the stories attempt to resolve ennui merely by demonstrating that the characters become aware of their own ennui.
Instead of answering the motivating question that nags at them, executing an act of passage that carries the consequence of irrevocable spiritual and attitudinal change, the question itself is re-posited as a statement. As the characters in these movies come to grips with what they conclude to be a benignly, or even benevolently, meaningless existence, their own awareness of the question of that meaninglessness is given as the key to finding their peace. At the end of such films, however, nothing has changed. The characters undergo a change in attitude only, an ideological shift in perspective precipitated by a retreat from the big question. Essentially, they simply desist in asking the question as a means to escape its burden rather than confronting the question “What does this mean?” in order to neutralize its burden. The attitude shifts from one of proactive agency and efficacy to one of passive and internal ideology and attitude, from “What do I do?” to “What can you do?”
In short, ennui movies are long-form platitudes, acts of diversion or misdirection, tautologies of echolalia.
As the genre has grown in popularity, the form has matured into one capable of incorporating more subjects under its umbrella. Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007) is one of these new, more effective ennui movies. The viewer is not only subjected to a false approach to the big question of whether there is meaning or legitimacy in prosaic middle-class life and tradition as reduced to routine; in Juno, we find that, additionally, the rite of passage has been completely annihilated. The notions of purity and childhood have been elevated to a canonized, de facto permanence, and the moviegoer is presented with a new set of points on which to focus attention regarding adulthood, sexuality, pregnancy and abortion, other than those political points that have arisen as direct results of the historical interaction of society with these issues.
Opposed Jokes, Fatelessness and Laughable Laughter
The movie identifies itself as an ennui movie with two jokes opposed to each other. Recall the repetition of scenes wherein a character would refer to having sex as a state of “being sexually active” and the bemused reaction that would follow. In one scene, the Lolita character, Leah (Olivia Thirlby), tells Juno (Ellen Page) to keep her voice down when talking about Leah’s sexual escapades because, as she says (paraphrasing), “My mother doesn’t know I’m sexually active, yet.”
Juno responds with a confused and exasperated (and again I paraphrase), “What does that even mean?”
This wink and nod to an ironic awareness of the imposition of an official technical, meaninglessly bureaucratic term for having sex elicits a laugh from the audience because we can admit that it is absurd. It is an empty term. It is too officially real. In Jean Baudrillard’s terms, it doesn’t symbolize anything but official reality, which is no longer based on any real, first degree sites of symbolism. (1)
The invocation of this absurdity is an act of misdirection. The viewer’s attention is called to question the meaninglessness of this sign, to contrast the official notion of being “sexually active” with experiential and consequential notions of having sex. However, we are merely led to the knowledge of the existence of the question, and the viewer is then bade to beat a retreat from the precipice of understanding, going no further to answer any questions that then arise. Encountering the absurd in this fashion substitutes a limited self-knowledge (limited in that it does not allow the final step that would endanger the order behind this absurdity) for a guiding principle or actual knowledge in the form of the answer to the question of why middle class life is dominated by such absurd official intrusions.
In this switch, we see the absurdity of the joke posited as the answer to the very question it prompts: the lesson is that life is ridiculous, simply put, and knowing this means a person is sufficiently enlightened and no further steps or changes need to be taken to understand or improve it. This is in opposition to the notion that modern life is ridiculous and knowledge of that ridiculousness gives the individual the agency, even the mandate to question and change circumstances to alleviate the conceptual lexical hijacking of personal experience.
The joke that opposes this one occurs only once at the beginning of the movie, during the phone call when Juno confides that she is pregnant. She lackadaisically tells her friend that she is going to go to an organization called Women Now to get an abortion because, as she states, “You know, they help women now.”
It is a statement similar in its absurdity and emptiness to “sexually active”, and we laugh in much the same way we do each time the term “sexually active” is brought up. However, this joke is the ideological loser, for while both lines get a laugh it’s the thought behind “sexually active” that is borne out in the film.
The name of the organization Women Now and its policies are relocated to a laughable space outside of feminist politics, and there is nothing in the film that redeems its position. “Women now” and the right to abortion, along with the political ramifications of that choice, even the world of consequence it inhabits, are stranded outside of the prevailing, consequence-free order depicted in the film without redemption or tenability. In this way, we see a social order depicted in the film that is an entirely invented, independent historical and political point of departure – effectively a departure from time.
How do the events in the film defend the absurd order of the prevailing joke? Implicit in the joke is the acceptance of the absurd social order. When this joke is pitted against its symbolically ideological opposite, the “Women Now” joke, the adoption of fatelessness and the implied prohibition from crossing, through questioning and knowledge, from adolescence into adulthood, is condoned. The choice that the characters in the film have taken – we will live with this absurdity (“sexually active” teens who don’t have to become parents and moronic parents who don’t have to stop being children) and reject that reality (consequence and the authority granted by experience and history) – results in rewards. Juno’s reward is her return to childhood to play guitar on the stoop of her boyfriend’s house in an innocent puppy love after giving birth.
Juno’s stepmother’s reward is her adoption of the dog Weimaraners, the fulfilment of her impotent desire for motherhood, and this in spite of the fact that she had until that point been restricted from having dogs because Juno was allergic to them.
Because it prompts no further action or analysis, the laughter of the “Sexually Active” joke is akin to Milan Kundera’s concept of laughable laughter in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – the semantic hoax that is the imitation of actual laughter, the celebration that is a misdirection that reinforces and exacerbates ignorance instead of questioning it. (2)
Juno is still living at home as before, but she has returned to a childhood more ideal than the childhood she had prior to her pregnancy – in her new childhood, Juno is no longer allergic to dogs, and all vestiges of competition and responsibility have been shaven away – her impaired half sister, Liberty Bell (Sierra Pitkin), appears to be gone.
What would be the circumstances under which we could no longer demonstrate that acceptance of middle-class life as-is is the prevailing value championed by the film? If Mark’s story were given resolution on par with Vanessa and Juno’s, then the thesis that the message of the film is the promotion of the blind acceptance of middle-class banality would no longer hold true. More on this later.
Juno, conducted by sexuality, childbirth and exposure to adult male sexual desire, would appear to pass through the traditional female veil between the worlds of youth and adulthood, but emerges at the other end of the passage yet an adolescent. In fact, instead of emerging as an adult, she becomes an adolescent re-approaching childhood.
Supporting Oppositions: Fatelessness and Female Prerogative, Misdirecting Diversion, Permanent Adolescence, Motherhood
Juno is an orphan who was abandoned by her mother at a young age. That she was left in the care of her father is of little importance to her status as an orphan. She has been effectively adopted by the state. The overarching routines that guide her life are those of her high school and never those imposed by either her father or the stepmother who made a late entrance into her life. Through her loquaciousness, she is shown to the audience to aspire to be an eloquent and reasonable human being and she is frequently depicted at her high-school attending class without complaint. Juno is not a dissident. Lacking an authority figure within the radius of a nuclear family, Juno’s attitude toward society’s institutions is that of a daughter filled with filial piety.
Even Juno’s pregnancy is not by any stretch of the definition a truly dissident act, as Juno’s parents have no rules for her to violate, and she does not violate the rules dictated by state institutions that do govern her time. Recall the scene in which she procures a pass from the office for tardiness due to prenatal care. The disapproving old bureaucrat is powerless to assert her own judgment on Juno’s condition; the timeline of public institutions asserts itself as the dominant force in her development, and this order has not been threatened.
Orienting Juno in this way toward society in the story allows the aforementioned achievement of the perpetual extension of adolescence and the negation of the traditional significance of certain rites of passage, allowing the film’s dénouement return to idyll. The film redefines femininity and neutralizes the importance of understanding the execution of society’s routines by offering rewards for simple commitment to and execution of those routines.
In Juno’s world of pervasive adolescence, the feminine prerogative is elevated beyond reproach, except when that prerogative is in opposition to the consequence-free redefinition of responsibility and development that Juno personifies. The movie also shows the audience that the only legitimate parenting is motherhood, and that only within a strictly defined space of conduct. In fact, aside from Juno, not one of the other characters in the film (aside from the children in the new family that Juno’s mother has started) is shown to have a father. Even Juno’s baby is born fatherless and Juno’s own father is a broken man-child.
As an example of a feminine prerogative that is not endorsed in the movie, the mother (Darla Vandenbossche) of Juno’s boyfriend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), is the only character in the film persistently opposed to Juno’s conduct, and as such is overtly verbally vilified by a voice-over in Juno’s own voice (though this is not consistent with the rest of the film – this is not a diary film), as well as implicitly castigated by the adolescent Juno’s and Bleeker’s repeated indifference to her attempts to assert authority or express opinions.
Why does Bleeker’s mother disapprove of Juno, and why do Juno and her boyfriend, the representatives of authority on conduct in the film and the only characters with whom the mother is shown having any contact, similarly reject her position? The reason is that the boyfriend’s mother believes in negative consequence. In fact, the boyfriend’s mother believes in the existence and importance of any consequence. This is the antagonism. The female prerogative that must be followed is one that does not heed consequence.
As consistent with traditional folk-tale notions of female sexuality, Bleeker’s mother believes in the cataclysmic changing event of sexuality and its associated passage of a subject from innocence to responsibility. This becoming-aware of responsibility is the instant when the female individual must confront the notion that she is fundamentally not free. She must come to grips with negative male intentions. It is the instant when the individual becomes aware of the breadth and scope of cause and effect, and the limits of real freedom. It is the site of gnosis of the exchange value of events as symbols. It is the event that calls attention to the limitations of choice, opportunity, and time.
The audience is encouraged to identify with the film’s themes of fatelessness and acceptance with key acts of diversion or misdirection. In a very important act of misdirection, the audience is presented with a false confrontation between the pro-life position and the pro-choice position in the scene just outside the abortion clinic. Juno approaches the offices of Women Now and is delayed by her protesting schoolmate, Su-Chin (Valerie Tian). Su-Chin is a Westernised freak and a sacrificial lamb whose appearance and disposal allow the further progress of Juno’s life according to the film’s message of unquestioning adolescence. We see Su-Chin protesting outside the Women Now offices chanting, “All babies want to be borned.”
Su-Chin is a freak because she is more Western than Western. She appears to the audience as the hyper-Westernised vessel of right-wing thought, a container of official jargon devoid of any independent thought or editorial capabilities. She is a character who is beyond Juno and her family and friends. Where Juno appears to make decisions based on her personal desires, Su-Chin is an obvious foreigner who can’t even stop herself from repeatedly making a grammatical error when broadcasting the party line as it has been fed to her. She is a container who has no personality, only a foreign exterior and content that she can dispense.
Playing to the audience’s automatic tendency toward racism, Su-Chin’s character was created for throwing under the bus of ridicule. The genius of it is that the audience is able to ridicule Su-Chin while at the same time believing it identifies with an enlightened, historically informed liberal pro-choice position. The audience’s consent to ridicule the Westernised freak Su-Chin is the secret, collaborative act of violence that creates solidarity and compels or requires the audience to further identify with any choices that Juno then makes. The film does not require the audience to overtly agree with its position, only to act in compliance with its message.
The theatre of Su-Chin’s encounter with Juno is that, far from being confrontational, the actual exchange between the two characters is conciliatory and restricted to the institutionally neutral topic of schoolwork. The encounter is only symbolically confrontational, literally only a sign of confrontation – the sign that Su-Chin is holding.
We think we can judge Su-Chin because we are more enlightened than she is, and it is the audience’s participation in mocking Su-Chin that stands in for an actual narrative occurrence of a meaningful confrontation between her and Juno. There is no actual confrontation here because there does not need to be- Su-Chin’s position already has the upper hand; the audience is allowed to mock her so that we feel that there has been a confrontation, because her position can afford to make the sacrifice, and because it compels the audience to continue to identify with Juno lest we admit to ourselves that we have acted, in mocking Su-Chin, contrary to our liberal, pluralist ideals. That thinking about it a little might make the moviegoer guilty enough to concede leeway to Su-Chin’s pro-life position doesn’t hurt, either.
Compare to the right-wing Westernised freak Su-Chin the over-sexualised, overly liberated freak working at the receptionist’s desk in the Women Now office. In Juno’s encounter with this agent of the pro-choice institution, there is a conflict and a confrontation. Juno, the sexual provocateur whose seduction of her boyfriend kicks the whole story off, is depicted as somehow continuing to find the sex act vulgar when it is clinically amplified and frankly talked about. She is somehow offended by the intrusive frankness of the receptionist, leaving the Women Now office and quietly taking the Su-Chin side.
There are two strong idealized forms of prolonged adolescence opposing each other in the movie. One is Juno’s. The other is that of Jason Bateman’s character, Mark, the husband and adoptive father-to-be of Juno’s baby.
Mark violates both the acceptance of institutional progress (by renouncing his dignified position as a person who passed through high school and college to become a married working adult), and the law of innocence (by attempting to seduce or allow himself to be seduced by Juno). His near-sexual relationship with Juno threatened to overcome Juno’s purity and fateless innocence because it would have introduced consequences to her actions. Among those consequences could be Juno’s having to raise the child herself, then actually passing into motherhood and adulthood, or Juno having to admit culpability in her role as seductress in the break-up of Mark and Vanessa’s marriage.
Obviously, Juno was not forced to raise her own child. Whether she actually retains awareness of her role in the dissolution of the adoptive parents’ marriage, however, is made deliberately murky.
Following the failed seduction scene, Juno returns home brooding and has a conversation with her father. Her encounter with the world of transgressive and transformative adult sexuality has left her, she says, without faith in humanity. However, Juno has not been disillusioned. It is here that her illusions powerfully reassert themselves. Though she claims to have been changed by the encounter, her purity remains inviolate. For all her loquaciousness, Juno remains a simple 16-year-old, an inviolable embodiment of an institutional station in life that defies any intrusions of the unmediated real order of cause, effect and the pursuant actual lack of total freedom.
In this conversation, Juno’s father (J. K. Simmons) does not probe or guide her. He is a figure who has no power except to quickly surmise whether his daughter is acting within a continued adolescent space appropriate to bureaucratic progress through social institutions. He can only determine whether Juno has left these boundaries. His own agency and experience are not legitimate markers of authority in the movie’s hierarchy, so he cannot intrude to ask or demand to know what is really bothering his daughter. In fact, as a broken man-child figure, he ends the conversation by stepping away from his fatherhood role to form the opposite to Mark’s transgressive one: he playfully asserts himself as a potential romantic interest for his daughter. Juno is tacitly endorsing her father’s harmless type of masculinity in opposition to Mark’s nearly-cataclysmic one by not finding his false advance as abominable as she did Mark’s.
Mark is ejected from the film’s reality to his loft downtown, castigated both by Juno and his wife, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), for his decision to continue living an unendorsed form of adolescent life. If his story were shown to have a resolution in the film, we would not be able to say that it is the unquestioning acceptance of a meaningless middle class life that the movie is promoting. However, since he is ejected from the film with a dressing down from Vanessa while she is rewarded for her simple unquestioning drive for motherhood and acceptance of a pre-packaged life (evidenced by the depiction of the cookie-cutter neighbourhood which she has chosen for the couple to live in, the strange whimsical caricature portraits hanging on her wall, and the fact that she is only shown expressing herself socially with her friends in a consumer setting at the shopping mall), it is the laughing passing-over of the absurdity of the “sexually active” joke that here wins the day.
It is not a coincidence that Juno’s mother has been literally exiled from the official reality of the movie to live on a reservation in the desert. From this exile, even her acts of communication from this space outside of official reality are antagonisms. She sends cacti to Juno as gifts, literally painful reminders of the fact that all transformative choices carry the stigma of the irreversible state, and the unacceptable answer to Juno’s question whether becoming “sexually active” was something that could ever be reversed. These painful reminders are the thorns in the side of official reality, the nagging proof behind the suspicion that somewhere, outside the realm of banality, reality still eddies and erodes the best laid plans- that official reality is not total. This awareness of the real boundaries of behaviour is threatening to the imposed boundaries of social order. As has been discussed, Juno’s parents do not press the membranes of choice and risk shocking consequences, they merely attempt to remain pacified while avoiding the confrontations implicit in real authority.
Official reality cannot abide Juno’s mother’s choice to relocate to a reservation outside of strictly governed adolescent society of diversions. It is this, not her abandonment of Juno that transforms her into an antagonistic character and requires that she never return.
Subversion of the Message: Achievement of Awareness
Where is the point located in this film where the moviegoer can reclaim the message underpinning the story? Recall Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1974). This movie, based on the director’s fond memories of growing up in Rimini in fascist Italy, depicts the simple, hapless villagers living out their very human lives amid the rarely overtly depicted constraints of totalitarian fascism. The scene in Amarcord most important to consider when analysing Juno is the parade. Il Duce’s fascist troops march through Rimini to fanfare and tumult, overtly demonstrating that, contrary to events shown earlier in the film where it would appear that only a few individuals were being selected for interrogation by the police as to their political leanings, or by the clergy as to their masturbation habits, every villager was living under the constraints of an oppressive military régime.
Since we have shown that Juno’s life, as a ward of the state, is moderated by an institutional schedule, and her personal life is interpreted and interrogated through technocratic jargon like those Rimini villagers facing the overly curious priest’s questions in the confession booth or the military police’s ideological questions while in detention, we can draw a parallel between her life and the individual lives of those villagers in Amarcord. Each time the high-school cross-country runners in Juno’s Minnesota town run through the frame, the image of Mussolini’s parading fascist army is evoked, tying her world to the world of Rimini’s general wartime oppression.
Even more significant, the runners, these symbolic soldiers, are the embodiment of speed. They remind the audience and the residents of Juno’s world of the presence of institutional solidarity in their lives through the symbolic visibility of their uniforms and their routinised group action and, as runners, signify blind, accelerating progress through the currently existing institutional social model. It is this blind, accelerating progress that requires the characters to step away from the big “Why are we here?” and “What are we supposed to make of this meaninglessness?” questions as they are called attention to so that it may continue its unabated influence on the characters’ lives. If these questions were to be seriously posed, or worse, answered, the existing social order would cease to exist. (3)
We can reclaim the message of Juno here, then, as a clandestine call to awareness of the stultifying and over-arching order standing in the way of individual development into realized adults in contemporary American society. It must be interpreted as a veiled call to awareness that this banality is not a natural state, but one that is enforced. It cannot be a coincidence that Juno’s semi-retarded stepsister, her semi-retarded half-sister with a breathing disorder requiring medication that no one is responsible enough to be counted on to administer to her, is named Liberty Bell. Like the half-sister, liberty and the real pursuit of happiness in official the film’s reality are infused with a weak spark of life, its ostensible guardians rather opting to tinker with machinery or pine to play-parent dogs rather than actually fulfil the nurturing roles with which they have been charged- opting not to test the borders of real freedom, but to instead choose a comfortable artificial fatelessness. Where is Liberty Bell in the ending scenes when we see Juno’s stepmother finally on the lawn with her puppies, her dreams of an impotent, virtual motherhood fulfilled? She is nowhere to be found- real responsibility has been sidestepped, and development into a position where one can make effectual decisions has been reversed for all parties back into a fantastic childhood state.
In the official world that Juno inhabits, everything is a harmless diversion – sex is a harmless diversion from boredom and love, and love is a diversion from the knowledge that we are not free, from the memory of the results of our actions, from the awareness necessary to approach the question Why or to take action to alter the course of any detail of one’s life. Juno is suspended at the point of transformation into an adult, a boyish girl proceeding through official life as in a chrysalis, timeless and lifeless. To open the chrysalis onto consequence would change not only Juno, but also her world.
- Jean Baudrillard, translated by Chris Turner, The Intelligence of Evil or The Lucidity Pact (New York: Berg, 2005), pp. 17-24.
- Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994), pp. 61-2.
- Paul Virilio, translated by Julie Rose, Open Sky (New York: Verso, 2008), pp. 22-34.