Monday, March 5, 2018

I Love You Daddy

“…in general, the young have the kindness to conceal the facts from those to whom they would cause pain. Writers who proclaim the facts are thought by the old to be libelling the young, though the young remain unconscious of being libelled.”
- Bertrand Russell, Marriage and Morals

In his 2015 stand-up special, ‘Live at the Comedy Store’, Louis CK has a routine where he speaks about parents dealing with their teenage daughters’ impending sexual awakening.

In that routine, Louis ribs his fellow parents who are overwrought with anxiety at having to deal with the topic. He excepts himself from the predicament by claiming that the answer to ‘what should the parent's role be?’ is‘nothing’: “Not advisory, supportive. Just stay out of it.”

He delivers the lines with his signature style of apparent spontaneity.  It is this specific aspect of his art, along with his stand-apart histrionics that elicit the laugh here, without actually resolving the conflict in the joke’s set-up.

To call Louis CK’s work as observational or absurd, would be inadequate. Of course he observes with an eviscerating keenness that makes the absurdity in the quotidian, apparent. But his usage of absurdity – like the enjoyable segues in his TV serial Louie – are more than just trips for their own sake. Often they posit absurdity as the only feasible response to the world which is ‘solid, all the way through’. Even ‘response’ presumes a certain degree of volition; what Louis CK depicts, is the absurdity that circumstance foists upon us in its natural course, as we spectate our way through it.

In the joke above, Louis, having gotten his laughs, is obliged by the structure of the joke, to take one of two stances: he could co-opt the anxiety and make the routine a self-deprecatory one; or he could mock his fellow parents from without. What is interesting about his choice of going with the latter, is the refusal to engage with the discomfort of having to acknowledge that one’s own child has grown up to be a sexual being.

It is not that comics are obliged to be reasonable. In fact, the unspoken pact is that they are relieved of the burden of reasonability, so they can reach for the insight at the kernel of a laugh. However, usually in the course of such a point-of-view exploration joke such as this, Louis CK either commits to a position or engages with multiple of points of view at some length. He does so while adopting a theatrically elaborate manner of expounding.  Contrary to that, here he completely side-steps the quandary. And that is the engine of the joke.

Does he really think the parent’s role ought to be nothing? Or is it a suggestion to resign to the role which has come to become nothing? Parents can, at best, be glad to have the bliss of ignorance, which the young are kind enough to afford them.

I Love You Daddy is an exploration of the awkwardness that comes to the fore when the parent engages with the question, when all manners of eliding fail.

In the TV serial Louie, Louis CK – a NYC comic who is a divorced father of two girls - plays a NYC comic who is a divorced father of two girls. The last aired season ends when his eldest daughter is entering her teens. The penultimate season had episodes where he catches her smoking pot. But flashbacks of his teen transgression show us why he struggles to summon the strength of hypocrisy, that is needed to be a good parent.

One feels encouraged to read that if Louie were to continue, it would have been incumbent upon him to have to develop the storyline as about the concerned father having to contend with his daughter’s years of tumult – besides other things. But the texture of the show imposes certain bounds on the kind of treatment that would have been possible to give the subject. However, to ignore the subject altogether would have been impossible – given how central parenting is to Louie and Louis.

It is probably to do justice to the theme that it was carved out and explored elaborately in I Love You Daddy.

Perhaps this all a desperate conjecture to attempt to explain the enigmatic question of why Louis walked away from the show, which was highly successful and also provided him with enviable creative control.

ILYD’s Glen Topher (Louis CK) is an exceedingly successful TV show maker.  He seems to enjoy staggering creative allowance: his show is greenlit by the network with nary a word of script written.

He is divorced from his hippie wife- Helen Hunt, in a two scene cameo. The opening scene features a uneasy conversation that devolves to ugly very quickly.  This is quite an interesting exploration of the unease of ex-couples, with the power equations, kind of, turned around from how it was seen in Louie.

Glen is bullied by his supposedly-ex-but-ever-present-girlfriend Maggie -played by Pamela Adlon, who seems to simply continue her role from Louie.

From Kim in Lucky Louie to Pam in Louie to here, the Pamela-Louis CK duo seem to have dexterously realized an archetype of a certain unique kind of intimacy. They are kindred souls joined together not just by a general cynicism and expressive crudeness but also by the specific witness they jointly bear to his vulnerabilities. A running theme is how she not only preemptively understands his insecurities, but also makes short work of his gestures of civility. She keeps him honest and forces him to look at himself and make him see what he doesn’t want to see.  It is as if nobody can know him better and that is precisely why they can’t be together. It is to their credit – as creator and performer – that this doesn’t reduce to the simplistic ‘she is one of the boys’ archetype.

In ILYD, Maggie refuses to conform to Glen’s request to respect boundaries and not interfere with his daughter. She does so with thorough disregard. She is particularly dismissive of the polite language in which the request was couched- as if it were offensive in itself , for its attempt to take the edge off something harsh.

She is the one who calls out his daughter China’s (played by Chloe Grace Moretz) profuse profession of love for her father for what it seems to be: more statement than substance. When China begins to associate with an older man, Maggie relentlessly pushes Glen till he admits his plan to deal with the sticky situation of was to do ‘nothing’ and simply wish things away. She forces him to act.

The film is full of moments authentically depicting how conversations that proceed from real human connection are forsaken for the convenient and courteous talk. The relationships so forged on these superficial conversations, remain dis-comfortingly brittle and are but one ugly conversation away from reducing to their mere transactional undercurrent. ILYD gets one to muse how this is symptomatic of the nature of many relationships where individuals feel the duress of social norms they are not aligned with, but are still obligated to follow.

Glen is met by the charming actress Grace Cullen (Rose Byrne) who is prospecting for the show that he is yet to write. She is shown to be so highly accomplished that Glen and his acquaintance Ralph (Charlie Day) – who is expressive about his primal excitement at the prospect of Grace’s interest in collaboration- are puzzled why she is interested. When Grace enters the room and expresses courteous admiration for his comedic works -Ralph transitions from a Harpo Marxian to a gentlemanly demeanour: a thoroughly unredeeming funny moment – reminiscent of many of Louis CK’s routines.

Grace is obviously pregnant. But beyond answering Glen that she is unmarried she does not say anything more. That leads to one of the best depictions of awkwardness in the film. Glen fills the vacuum by articulating ‘there is no need to know about the father (of the child she is carrying)’ and then as that is an awkward moment to get out of, proceeds to talk about his own marriage, divorce, daughter and so on. In all this, Grace remains self-assured, despite the fact that she is the one seeking something. While Glen – the successful TV show creator, ostensibly in the position to accord favours – is thoroughly inept in the conversation, hurdled further by the pressure of not asking the questions which are normal but will likely be deemed inappropriate. As the film progresses, we see him not asking China the hard questions that a father ought to be asking his adolescent daughter.

The film’s central conceit seem to be how elided questions do not disappear, they only lurk. The big question is the one that hangs on Glen’s idol artist Leslie (John Malkovich). The hushed rumour is that Leslie has molested a child but he there is no secret about the fact that he is known to date women far younger than him. While the former is an unredeemable offence – it is also the one for which there is no proof; much to the relief of the fan Glen, who simply doesn’t want to burden himself with the resultant moral quandary. On the latter, his stance is a bull-headed refusal to let an artist’s personal predilections, problematic as they may be, interfere with one’s regard for his work.

While it is a tired cliché when expressed so in words, the film dwells on what that ‘refusal to engage’ entails, especially when pushed to limits.

In public discourse, child molestation and dating younger but adult women are posed as two very different situations. And any attempt to present the two as separated only by a matter of degree, is resisted as making light of the horror that is the former. However, in lieu of any evidence of transgression, there is strong encouragement to channel any discomfort one may have for the latter into a moral denouncement. Glen feels no discomfort with Leslie until it hits too close to home – when his daughter China starts spending much time with Leslie.

Malkovich’s plays Leslie adroitly, as a man infused with a sense of calm – a calm that disarms and unsettles. It is suggested that his artistry proceeds from this aspect of his persona : making calm conscious choices as opposed to circumstantially convenient choices; and never ever unexamined choices.

When he is introduced to Leslie, Glen gushes and stutters and ends up making small talk, that present him not just as merely starstruck, but as someone does not make active choices – either as an artist or as a person.

Glen is shown making a series of self-serving convenient choices. He is quite aware of the privileges visited upon him. When Grace mentions something as simple and relaxing as  ‘(sic)how pleasant the beach is’, Glen cannot but observe that it is wealth that has even afforded them the simple pleasure of a de-peopled beach. She seems a little taken aback by his sudden statement of the obvious. Stating that is one is aware of the tokens that legitimize access to enjoyment of pleasures, is contextually relevant in this moment. It does not detract from the pleasure but it acknowledges that awareness. To read it as foreboding the ugly eventual conversation at the end of their relationship is unnecessary, because Glen is just making an off the cuff remark here. 

During the course of the film China and Glen gradually trade positions about Leslie's questionable relationship with young women. She starts from a position of disgust. But her disgust isn't authentic. It seems to be a simplistic reflection of what is popular opinion. It stands nary a chance against Leslie's charm. Glen's initial willingness to look-the-other-way dissipates as China gets close to Glen.

They spend time with each other, they see each other, they hang-out, are they dating, are they intimate? All manners of euphemisms are employed by Glen when even thinking about their situation. And in a final confrontation with Leslie when he has to ask the question in the most blunt manner. China's explodes in the highest embarrassment a child can have for her parent.The viewer who empathizes with the parent is singed by the guilt of having doubted the cherub. This lasts only so far as we see soon get to experience the hypocrisy of the child.

 The scene where she meets Leslie plays out not as a condescending judgement - but as a gentle depiction of the child's emotional vulnerability.  He is distant not by affectation but by his sheer depth of personality. She tries to tide over the awkwardness by conversing about her youthful experiences - only to cringe-ingly realize as she speaks, how superficial and childish she is.

The chasm between them is only now apparent, the impossibility of their pairing is suddenly all too clear. The the wordless departure is so well realized in the scene that the finality needs no elucidation.

It is Grace who points out the absurdity of the societal consensus that a child is suddenly invested with sexual agency when she turns a certain age. She draws from her personal experience to get Glen to engage with the complexity of the issue. In his stout refusal to engage with the question, he pronounces judgement on Grace's own experience - much to her annoyance.

While Maggie calls out Glen for being 'too cool' a father, Grace calls him out for not equipping his daughter with the emotional tools to make her choices.

The absurdity of social strictures is something China is acutely aware of. However her way of mocking the absurdity of strictures is by yielding to it. But how different is Glen? He would prefer to wring his hands long enough till China turns eighteen- then he no longer needs to make the decision. But he will of course mask it as, he will no longer be able to make a decision. He would rather worry than solve. He would rather it be the problem of the ultimate alma-pater: society.

And all this is perhaps because his fatherhood attempts now are a late overcompensation. In the film, this assessment of Glen, comes from a brat of a daughter who is already emotionally vulnerable - so we are to discount it. But it is also suggested that such an assessment may not be entirely baseless.  The selfishness with which art is wrought, eventually seeks its pound of flesh.


Louis CK is more than an admirer of Woody Allen. His casting, the performances he secures, his depiction of clumsiness and despair as the native human condition, all have a discernible Woody imprint, much as he makes it his own. Apparently there is quite some similarity in working style - control and collaboration (per Susan E.Morse)

Heck, he has even been using a cousin of the font Woody is famously wedded to.

The Woody tribute in ILYD is even more than content and stylistic choices. It is about rather existential conundrum of the Artist. However it is made light of from within - through an unrelenting self-deprecation.
The lush score and B/W cinematography reminiscent of Manhattan was meant for big screen. In his email introducing the trailer Louis CK had mentioned:
I really hope that you will come to see this movie in a theater.  I made it to be seen on the big screen.
Louie cinematographer Paul Koestner has done a splendid job here too. Given his work in the starkly different Louie and Horace and Pete, this should be no surprise. Considering the overall finish achieved here, it is quite surprising he started from a place of much diffidence. There are many moments that are rather direct homage to Manhattan in particular and Woody Allen in general - the walk in Central Park scene - Husbands and Wives to Frank-Dobell in Anything Else and so on. There is even an abrupt scenario cut in ILYD,  to enable a homage to Mahnattan's  cloudburst in the park in the pre-planetarium scene. Here a grand birthday scene is abruptly cut by rain and the plot proceeds to the next scene. Explanation forsaken for effect.

However it is not that the stylistic choices are crudely mimicked to create a tribute.  As Koestner says in that otherwise technical interview:
Being something of an intuitive filmmaker, Louis traditionally has little to say to me about stylistic choices beforehand. In this case, however, he advised me to watch a batch of older films, with a particular emphasis on some of Hitchcock’s works.
As far as the content goes, the most obvious Woody tribute - if you can call it that - is the depiction of a risque relationship between an older man and a 17 year old. The relationship here itself is objectively less risque, but far more contentious in the context of the times.

In Manhattan, Isaac (Woody Allen) keeps urging Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) to move on to a more age-appropriate relationship. He is caught up in the maelstrom of  attraction while acutely being aware of the need to do the right thing for Tracy. He is always resisting emotional entanglement much to the distraught Tracy. The film ends with his emotional devastation as she does 'grow up' and give him a word or two on maturity. We- the audience- are fully privy to the fact that Isaac's intense appeal to Tracy to not leave him, owes much to other avenues being shut on him. That selfishness and genuineness of emotion don't fall in conveniently separate boxes is a trope Woody revisits time and again.

Carved on the southern facade of the St.Louis Museum of Art,
A line from a Matthew Arnold poem: Art Still Has Truth, Seek Refuge There

ILYD's biting assessment of Woody is what it means to be able to pour all of your personality into your work. Glen's art seems to have been built on the smouldering ruins of his life. But such art itself is not something he indulges in thoughtfully - like Leslie does. But even that bit of flourish, which presumably earned the trust of the studio and had artists falling over themselves to work with him,is fading.

In Deconstructing Harry, Woody plays Harry Block, a writer who cannot function in life but only in art. One of the terrific exchanges in the film goes:
"l'm no good at life"
"No, but you write well."
"That's different. I can manipulate characters and plots"
"You create your own universe, nicer than the world we have"
"I can't function in this world.l'm a failure at life."
"l don't know. l think you bring pleasure to a lot of people"
"But even that's drying up. For the last few months...I've been unable to come up with a meaningful idea"
"Make peace with your demons...and your block will pass"
"It sounds so trite...but I just want to be happy"
"To be alive is to be happy.Take it from me"

This mirrors a conversation between Glen and his producer Paula (played with thundering aplomb by Edie Falco) as he reassures him. Despite having suffered through his caprices for long, she reinforces that the one certain path for survival - if not salvation - is the persistent mining of their competence. It is perfectly okay to not to be excellent.

It is in this regard that ILYD strikes one as a very personal film by Louis CK.
'Personal' is an odd word to use about a man whose oeuvre has been substantially autofictional.
(The only thing I can write about is myself and my own self - Charlie Kaufman, Adaptation)
 However, ILYD is particularly striking as a musing on the inescapable desolation that his choices shall lead to.

Many times, as soon as he delivers a wince-inducing insight, Woody Allen deftly takes the edge off and lets the scene move on. The overall effect is one of a fragile and uneasy balance, that you marvel as it plays out in real time, but are invited to unpack later.Deconstructing Harry is an exemplar work of this style.

Allen himself has mentioned in many interviews how work keeps him going. But at the same time it is not a consuming passion for him. Just a hugely preferable way of making a living. It is seductive but misleading to infer a simplistic parallel with Harry Block. Allen has, to much public furore, built a family, to whom he famously repairs each evening, even at the stake of imperfect filmmaking.

ILYD seems a take this particular Woody theme - the tradeoff between life and art. And it is a rich tribute insofar as it shows the true artist holding his own, contrasted against the hack who has to contend with his competence and seek refuge in art. But not in the Art of others but in the process of creating his.

And also face the unease of rapprochement and build back the relationships, because there is only so much refuge possible in art, even for the greatest of artists.

"for me, it was between the two towers going down....I had to do it. Otherwise they was a strange time for all of us.

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