There was a New York Times piece that Ross Douthat wrote after the Girls finale that argued the show was a critique of liberalism, insofar as it had all these young liberal men and women and all their liberalism got them were unstable messy lives. And it’s no secret that your movies tend to resolve with characters finding happiness in pretty traditional relationships. At heart, are you a traditionalist?
I don’t know about traditionalist, but what I want is for characters to do better. I want people to get it. There’s only so many stories, right? Either someone gets it and learns a lesson or they don’t. The 40-Year-Old Virgin: either he has sex and it’s bad, or he has sex and it’s good, or right before he has sex he gets hit by a truck and it’s sad that he never got to have sex. I know who I am as a storyteller: I want to feel hope about people’s abilities to incrementally learn. This is related to the reason why you don’t see movies and television about Republican and conservative ideas — because Republicans are trying to present themselves as correct, as clean, as Mike Pence-y. Unlike them, I want people who actually evolve. Does it make me a traditionalist if the way they evolve is towards a healthy relationship? Maybe.
Could you write a movie about someone like Mike Pence?
When you see Mike Pence, you think there’s a lot going on inside that guy. At least I do. But the problem is that Mike Pence will not tell you that. Lena [Dunham] will. There’s an openness and an honesty to what she does. She’s saying, I have these values, but I’m also a human being, and I make mistakes, and sometimes I’m crazy and selfish and other times I’m loving and supportive. And that’s why there’s no incredible, hysterically funny show about conservatives, because they’re too concerned about trying to present themselves as correct. They’re all going I’m not neurotic. I’m not a disaster in anyway. They don’t admit how lost they are. There’s something dishonest to me about that; it’s living a lie. So for someone to say that Girls is a critique of liberalism because the characters’ lives might be disasters? No, those characters’ live are disasters because they’re human.
What do I know, but wouldn’t the conservative counterargument be that the traditional values and institutions that they embrace and that someone like Hannah Horvath rejects actually does help them feel less lost?
What you’re talking about is an illusion of stability. It’s a household from the 1950s where the family is in a living hell because the dad’s a secret alcoholic. We’re either going to be honest about what’s going on in our lives or we’re not. To me, what’s interesting is people telling the truth about the fact that they’re a mess. It doesn’t matter who they are. Hillary Clinton’s a mess. Trump is obviously a mess. But I do think Hillary Clinton could probably talk to you about what she struggles with and the mistakes she makes. Can you imagine Donald Trump doing that? Can you imagine him going to a therapist? He might do a better job if he did.
This exchange made me think about the narrative in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and its sequel, How Dante Can Save Your Life. I have revisited those books in the past few weeks because I’m in discussions with a couple of different parties about making a TV dramatic series based on the books (primarily Little Way). Why the interest now, nearly five years after the first book appeared? It seems to me, based on conversations I’ve had, that Hollywood is trying to figure out what’s happening in the country. It was gobsmacked by the Trump election. Hollywood is freaking out, of course, but there are at least some who are trying to understand in a genuine way what is going on, and how it can be explored through drama.
I think Apatow has a decent point here, though he dodges the main point of Douthat’s critique, which is that the messes in those characters’ lives come not in spite of their values, but because of them. From Douthat’s piece:
[T]he striking thing about “Girls” is how the mess it portrayed made a mockery of the official narrative of social liberalism, in which prophylactics and graduate degrees and gender equality are supposed to lead smoothly to health, wealth and high-functioning relationships.
In large ways and small the show deconstructed those assumptions. The characters’ sex lives were not remotely “safe”; they were porn-haunted and self-destructive, a mess of S.T.D. fears and dubiously consensual incidents and sudden marriages and stupid infidelities. (Abortion was sort-of normalized but also linked to narcissism: The only character to actually have an abortion was extraordinarily blasé about it, and then over subsequent episodes revealed as a monster of self-involvement.) Meanwhile the professional world was mostly a series of dead ends and failed experiments, and the idea that sisterhood would conquer all even if relationships with men didn’t work out dissolved as the show continued and its core foursome gradually came apart.
Real adulthood did await for Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, at the show’s conclusion. But the form it took was almost too heavy-handed in its traditionalist definition of a woman’s growing-up: an unplanned pregnancy, a baby, the absolute obligations of motherhood trumping the trivialities of freedom.
Still, Apatow is far from wrong about conservatives and art, including television programming. A common assumption about consciously Christian films is that they are too pat and moralistic, that there has to be a neat, clean, morally unambiguous ending, or it makes Christian conservatives nervous. There’s something to that criticism, and it’s generally true about conservatives today. The thing is, it’s not true about philosophical conservatism, which holds to a tragic sense of life — the sort of thing that makes for good drama.
In 1912, Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno wrote a famous book called The Tragic Sense of Life, the gist of which is that real life, life as human beings live it, can never be governed entirely by reason, or any system designed to bring about perfection. We are mortals, and are haunted by the certainty that we are going to die, and that nothing we do can prevent that from happening. So much of what we do in this life is an effort, one way or the other, to ward off death. Unamuno says that it is our task to search out the truth, even if we know that we can never know it fully in this mortal existence.
Our bent world will not be redeemed by ideological passion: a point cuttingly made by Unamuno in several of his books. It is only by a renewed apprehension of the transcendent, and by a concern for the moral order, that the human race may be kept from suicide. The imaginative writer who aspires to write novels and short stories, with the aim of moving the minds and hearts of the better men and women of this age, may prepare himself for the labor, in some degree, by reading or rereading Don Miguel de Unamuno.
For the redoubtable Unamuno skillfully and honestly concerns himself with ultimate questions. That is why his writings continue to be so seriously discussed and widely read.
So, if Apatow is right about conservatives, the problem is not that they are conservatives, but that they are ideologues who demand certainty where it cannot be achieved. Flannery O’Connor once wrote: “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.” The popular conservative mind is governed by a sentimental view of life.
The liberal mind suffers from this too. It is “conservative” in this sense: preferring comforting lies to messy reality. The show Girls may have been an exception (I don’t know; I didn’t watch it). The point is, few of us are immune to this phenomenon. The best artists are those who seek truth, who seek to know the reality of things, and to reconcile with reality, no matter which of their ideals it challenges. The Trump election made a mockery of the comforting truths that both mainstream liberals and mainstream conservatives told themselves about America. I think many who voted for Trump are also self-deceived about the state of the country. Things are not what we thought they were. We are living in a less stable reality than most of us assumed.
This new interest in the Little Way narrative has caused me to revisit it in light of the Trump election. There is nothing political in the book, or in How Dante. But it is the story of a conservative American family struggling to come to terms with death — specifically, with the looming specter of Ruthie’s death in her early 40s, and then with its aftermath.
The main reason I returned to Starhill after Ruthie’s death was because what happened to her — a healthy woman struck down in the prime of her life by lung cancer — revealed to me how precarious my own position was. As I wrote in Little Way, I realized that if I received a diagnosis like Ruthie’s, my wife and kids and I wouldn’t have nearly the social support that she had, because we had not lived as she and her family had done: in one place, cultivating roots. I had a more monetarily successful career, doing the things that people of my class are supposed to do (move around for career success), but I had left myself vulnerable in ways that were hidden to me by the wealth and outward stability of our society.
The truth was, what happened to Ruthie could happen to me, or any one of us. And I wasn’t prepared. All the good medical insurance in the world won’t be enough if you find yourself where Ruthie was. There is no substitute for community.
What I discovered was that Ruthie and my family there were living out a double tragedy. Not only was Ruthie, the golden girl, dying painfully, but so was their way of seeing the world. I came to see that my sister and my late father, who were exactly alike, held me in a certain disdain because I moved away. They took that as a failure on my part to love as I ought to have done (because if I had, I never would have moved away from the family). They reckoned that my successes in the world had to have come from some sort of dodgy manipulation, because I had not Done The Right Thing. To them, I ought to have failed in the world, because I valued my own desires over the family. That I didn’t fail, that I prospered outside of their value system, was a bone in their throat.
Because they were proper Southerners, they kept this disdain concealed, mostly, for the sake of maintaining the façade of normalcy. They were very, very concerned about presenting themselves as correct, to use Apatow’s phrase, and — this is key — presenting themselves to themselves as correct. They had to believe that justice would be done, that Ruthie would survive, and that if they just powered through, by force of will, all would be well. Ruthie’s revelation on the night before her sudden death — that in 19 months of living with Stage 4 cancer, she and her husband had never talked about the possibility that she might die — shows the power of belief and denial.
She did not live. And we did not recover. Not really.
But I lived through a double tragedy too: not only the death of my sister, but the death of my illusion that there was a home to return to. I wanted to believe in the ideal that they lived by too. There was so much good in it, and so much of it was really real. All the community goodness I wrote about in the book — it was true. Is true. What I did not know until I returned was that it was not going to be possible for me to be received into what remained of my family, because of the vision of family, and place, and of the order of all things, that guided them. Having to face this, especially with my dad — and learn to love anyway — was the hardest challenge of my life. I don’t think I acquitted myself well. But here we are today, not because we are bad people, but because we are messy, and because we are human.
In Trumpian terms, I think my family’s story is the story of conservatives — not political conservatives, but small-town temperamental conservatives — struggling to make sense of our lives when the things we have long thought were stable are shown not to be so. Broadly speaking, Ruthie’s world was #MAGA — the conviction that if we just hold tight to the old ways, we can gut this thing out, and everything will be fine. My world was the belief that the old order is gone, but that we can draw what’s valuable out of it and construct something new and enduring and good, though I have no real idea what that will look like. The tragedy is that the moral vision of the past that the family believed was necessary to keep it together ensured that the family would not stay together, largely because it could not accommodate messy human reality.
I would suggest to Apatow that my family’s story shows that conservatives can and do live within the messy reality he’s talking about, and that we can tell those stories about ourselves. It’s hard, though. We get so defensive, in part because liberals tend to tear down our institutions without offering anything better to replace them with. I would challenge Apatow and other Hollywood liberals to recognize (as I think Apatow does in his better work) that liberals are also tragic — that liberalism in practice has occasioned a lot of suffering, despite its good intentions. On Douthat’s account, that’s what Girls was able to do.
Look: The traditional family is good. Church is good. Community is good. Tradition is good. Despite what a lot of liberals say, all of these things are good, and are Goods — but as Dante teaches, even the good things can become bad when they are pursued as absolute goals. How to hold on to these good things in a world of constant change that challenges them at every turn — that is the material of good drama. There are no formulas for achieving this goal, because as Unamuno says, all our attempts to control life will fail because of the human condition. It is less urgent that we come up with answers now than that we learn how to think about our condition clearly.
Anyway, I hope to have some good news for you soon about this potential project. Going back to the Apatow interview, do you think he has a good point about conservative moviemaking? Why or why not?