Friday, December 10, 2004

About Schmidt: The surplus of meaning

There's an interesting point in About Schmidt that is quite telling; Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is eating dinner with the family of his daughter's fiance. Everyone is greedily wolfing down their food at dinner, and the camera informs us that the corporeality, the embodied-ness, of the gorging is disgusting. After stuffing himself, the father of the groom stands and makes a speech; he drones on and on about how special the occasion is, until, finally, his ex-wife and the mother of the groom Roberta (Kathy Bates) abruptly cuts in: "Larry, shut the fuck up."

The interesting thing is that this interjection comes as a relief. In most cautionary tales of suburbia (eg, American Beauty), this moment would be a warning shot. At that moment in the narrative, we'd become tense and suddenly understand the hollowness of the suburban dream. In this film, however, the standard suburban narrative is inverted and stood on its head: instead of tensing up, we laugh. Why?

The thing about suburban cautionary tales is that they're premised on the fundamental emptiness of the signifier. We know that in American Beauty or The Confessions the white picket fence is supposed to tell us that the family within is perfectly happy and secure; the dramatic effect derives from our discovery that this symbol is empty, pure image and no content. Despite its intended meaning, the white picket fence is an empty signifier. It signifies nothing(ness).

Flashforward to the next scene: Warren is trying to tell his daughter something that he realized in a dream, but he gets hung up on the minutiae of his dream. Instead of cutting to the chase of the dream, he gets stuck expositing all of the infinite details and their meaning. As against the standard tale of suburbia-gone-awry, his problem isn't a lack of meaning, but an impossible surplus of meaning. There's so much meaning that the gist of things gets entangled and lost in its profusion of import.

I've got a lot more textual support for that thesis (it's friday night after a day of studying, I'm drinking wine, and I'm taking notes to prove a thesis - this is why no one will watch movies with me), but there's no point in drawing evidentiary matters out, especially in this format.

At any rate, the interesting thing about the film is that it stands as the perverse inversion of the typical suburb film. This emphasis on surplusage (at times hilarious: witness the marriage montage) is what makes the film. This is probably twice too pretentious and too clever by half, but there are two nifty little twists on the theme of surplus: the first is the scene I mentioned to begin with. The theme of surplusage focuses our attention on corporeality. In Sartre's Nausea, the world is so full of meaning that it becomes disgusting. Just as in gnosticism, the body becomes this sick thing, oozing its own fetid embodiment. For Zizek, also (following Freud and Lacan), the hyper-semantic is something nauseating, too embodied for itself. Hence the thematic coherence of how we see the dinner scene as, well, gross.

The second is the premise. We have a guy in a world in which too much conceptual space is taken up; every character is a plenary of essence. All of the conceptual space is filled up with this surplus of meaning, yet what's the engine of the plot? A man navigating space in his RV. Clever, that.

See, I should totally have a public access show.