I know a few Roger Greenbergs. Like Ben Stiller’s titular character in Greenberg, they are rarely pleasant to be around. They’re the failed artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians who refuse to accept the death of a dream; pushing 40, no wife, no kids, no career. Just terminal narcissism, misanthropy, bitterness, self-loathing, and opinions.
Opinions on everything.
Stiller’s Greenberg expresses his snarky dissatisfaction with Corporate America through letter writing. “Dear Starbucks”, “Dear American Airlines”, “Dear New York Times.”
Like a college student who’s just discovered Pitchfork, he’s pre-occupied with the perceived superiority of his mundane cultural tastes. (In one especially poignant sequence, Greenberg finds himself snorting coke at a party of 20somethings and taking control of the stereo, insisting that Duran Duran is perfect “coke music.”) He romanticizes his lack of ambition and direction (“I’m really trying to do nothing right now”) by framing his stagnation as an existential search. When his best friend bemoans that “youth is wasted on the young”, Greenberg counters with “life is wasted on people.” He routinely, viciously cuts down those around him, especially the girl he most likes.
In short, he’s a Gen-X casualty, one of Kevin Smith’s slackers who refused to settle down and grow up after his lottery ticket (a band on the cusp of success) failed to pay off. Now, he has nothing but his opinions.
In my lesser moments, I fear turning into Greenberg.
I had one of these moments at the Circle last week while watching Greenberg. I’m completely engrossed in the film, still debating in my head whether or not I can appreciate a movie that asks me to feel extended sympathy for such a repulsive character, when a middle-aged woman saunters into the theater with two young boys. The three of them plop down in the row in front of me, interrupting a particularly quiet moment in the film to settle into their seats, noisily laughing, talking, cracking open candy bars, paying no mind to the poor young couple sitting just two seats away. For a moment, everything stops. The movie is no longer important; priority one becomes processing the interruption and deciding what to do about it. A series of looks are exchanged; deep, hinting sighs are exhaled, first out of contempt, but, ultimately, in resignation. No one is going to upset the status quo by telling the woman she’s out of line.
Greenberg wouldn’t stand for this.
My eyes turn back to the screen. A woman has just had an abortion and Greenberg stands over her hospital bed, trying to convince her that she is strong enough to be discharged. Not because he cares, but because he’s bored and wants to go home.
I’ve temporarily lost my connection to the film. In my head, Greenberg is writing another letter.
Dear Lady with the Two Kids,
Walking into my film halfway through with your snot-nosed cackling spawn is the least intelligent thing anyone’s done since that time the music industry ignored the looming threat of the internet. Make no mistake, the subsequent blow dealt by the advent of file-sharing software pales in comparison to what I refrained from doing when I looked over and saw you hobble in at the 68 minute mark.
Who do you think you are? It’s my life you’re interrupting, and, for that, nothing short of a public flogging is acceptable as punishment. Since officially sanctioned flagellation went out with the Emancipation Proclamation, I am writing you this letter with the hope that you will process my verbal flogging in much the same way you would a physical one—that is, through tears of humiliation and regret. I’m sure the poor couple next to you will be grateful.
For a moment, I’m amused by my own cleverness. I look over at the lady with the two kids. She’s all smiles as she half-heartedly tries to keep her children in order. She seems nice. The kids don’t know any better. My anger wanes, curiosity takes over. What circumstances led to this woman bringing her small children to such an adult film? And why are they content to watch the latter half of a movie that holds no appeal other than the story itself, which only works when told from beginning to end?
I no longer want to tell the lady off, but I do want to ask her how she ended up here. Is there a way to ask this without being rude? I doubt it. Maybe that will be her punishment—I’ll politely ask her a question that I sincerely want to know the answer to, she’ll think I’m inferring something that I’m not, she’ll become extremely uncomfortable, maybe apologize, and the point will have been made. I’ll have said my peace, learned a little about a stranger, and left the theater with my conscience in tact.
As the credits roll, I debate with myself. I stand up. I approach the lady. As she wrangles her kids out of the aisle so I can pass, she smiles at me apologetically. I pause, smile back and, finally, walk on.