Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre, USA, 2014)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

It’s perhaps the effect of the ‘new sincerity’ – its evident conclusion. And that is to be up front about the life selfish – and to feel okay about it.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a Bible bashing anti-abortionist, though I have my reservations about abortion in that I do not believe it should be entered into lightly – and (full disclosure) kind of do consider it to be a form of life ending (because, quite simply, it is). That said, and the disclosure remains full, I reserve this view to myself and cannot and will not impose it upon anyone who chooses otherwise (and it is quite possible that I have no children at this point in my life precisely because of abortions – though if this is the case, I am not aware of it and would be somewhat surprised were it so).

Bringing you up to speed: Obvious Child is about a young woman, Donna, played superbly by Jenny Slate, who, among other things, becomes pregnant after a seeming one-night stand with Max, played equally well by Jake Lacy, and who decides to have an abortion.

Back to the chase: I have seen the photos of aborted fœtuses. They touch me deeply. But if a human is not ready to have a child, then a human is not ready to have a child. Maybe they should ‘become ready’ and simply commit to what they’re doing/what has happened to them. Quite possibly. But I think that Obvious Child works well in bringing us to the point of not judging Donna for her decisions. Instead we have a lot of empathy with her, and like her – not because of her decision, but ‘in spite of’ her decision (it is hard to condemn her, even if we disapprove of her actions). Narrative cinema is perhaps best at this: allowing us to understand other people.

I have 24 minutes to finish writing this blog, since I have to get up very soon to go and shoot my new film, The New Hope, a zero-budget adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. But I have been thinking a lot about Obvious Child since I saw it at the BFI on Thursday 21 August 2014, and feel compelled to write this. I won’t do justice to my thoughts in 24 minutes.

What do I mean by invoking above something called ‘the life selfish’? Hold this thought.

In an interview, director Gillian (pronounced with a hard g, apparently) Robespierre says about the Paul Simon song from which the film takes its name and which features in the film:

It felt perfect, because it had a sort of ambiguity to how people were going to see that title. Is Donna an obvious child? Is it just the song in the movie? It’s one of those things where I hate to overanalyze it, but people seem to love to overanalyze it, and I really like that.

And so here’s my over-analysis. Aside from being a wonderful song that, in moving through three (arguably four) different phases takes on a kind of ‘the continuity of life’ quality, ‘The Obvious Child’ also brings to mind two things. Firstly, in its lyrics regarding how the narrator in the song is ‘accustomed to a smooth ride’ and who then has Sonny, who in turn grows up, the film speaks of class – those who, although not necessarily where they want to be in life, benefit from choice. That is, choice – including choice surrounding abortion – is arguably one that is accorded only to a privileged few (and although in Robespierre’s film there is a financial dimension to the abortion in that it costs US$500, and Donna is not sure where to get that money from, we infer from her parents and friends that this sort of money is not going to be hard for her to find).

[The film sits well with Joe Swanberg’s Marriage Material (USA, 2012), which features a conversation about how having children in fact costs nothing in the USA. And yet a couple decides, without an abortion, that they don’t really want a child. The films make interesting bedfellows.]

The class thing we’ll come back to – because it connects to ‘sincerity’ (and its apparent novelty, such that sincerity is allegedly ‘new’ these days). The second thing that the title ‘obvious child’ brings to mind is its etymology.

Obvious is derived from the Latin preposition ob-, meaning various things, but it is to do with impeding movement and direction (a sense of ‘againstness’ – as in obstruction and obstacle), and from viam, meaning ‘way’ – such that ‘obvious’ means ‘in the way’. In some senses, this ob-servation is in itself ‘obvious’ – but the ‘obvious’, that which is right before our eyes, is also tied to a sense of being in the way. But in the way of what? What does it block us from? Well, it blocks us from the future. But what future is that?

This is going to be precisely my central question. But we still have a word to look at: ‘child’.

Here’s what the Online Etymology Dictionary says about the origins of the term ‘child’ (forgive me if it is inaccurate):

Old English cild “fetus, infant, unborn or newly born person,” from Proto-Germanic *kiltham (cognates: Gothic kilþei “womb,” inkilþo “pregnant;” Danishkuld “children of the same marriage;” Old Swedish kulder “litter;” Old English cildhama “womb,” lit. “child-home”); no certain cognates outside Germanic. “App[arently] originally always used in relation to the mother as the ‘fruit of the womb'” [Buck]. Also in late Old English, “a youth of gentle birth” (archaic, usually written childe). In 16c.-17c. especially “girl child.”

So in effect, we have, as Robespierre herself ob-serves, both a sense in which the fœtus is ‘in the way’ (‘child’ as ‘pregnant woman’). But maybe Donna is also ‘in the way’, being a ‘girl child’ rather than perhaps a ‘woman’.

This is not a criticism of Donna along the lines of ‘ooh, she should grow up and stop being a child and become a woman.’ But it is about the territory that the film explores.

I’ve got about three minutes left, so now having done my set-up, I type for my life.

How can a child be ‘in the way’? Well, literally, when a woman is pregnant a child emerges on the road/way of life. But we think about things being ‘in the way’ as an ob-stacle a lot of the time, and it’s that sense of the term that I want to run with. What world is this where a child is ‘in the way’? A strange one, but it is one about futures.

We look at our lives and we all (perhaps as a result of the media – but that is not the topic today) project forwards to a hypothetical life that we wish to lead. We live so much of our lives now in the future: where we want to go. As a result, we do not particularly live in the present. Paradoxically, by trying to write in advance our futures, we also (try to) deny the futurity of the future: our lives are not uncertain (the future has ‘futurity’ because it is ‘open’, or unknown), but instead our lives are already written (we know what will happen if those ambitions are realised).

(Maybe a potential child feels to many people as precisely a ‘writing’ of the future, such that we would be chained to parenthood and not able to pursue anymore our ambitions, but I query this. Kids or not, you can still lead your own life – but maybe this is a man talking, because motherhood arguably is completely different from fatherhood and does entail more of a sacrifice of one’s open future. In this sense, maybe Donna is completely justified in the abortion since she has ambitions to pursue.)

But I think that this is the strange sensation that the film captures so well: that we are all unsure about the life that we are leading. Are we in the right place? Are we with the right person? And we do not decide a lot of the time (‘we’ being, here, a middle class human likely from the ‘global north’), because we dither over what it is that we are supposed to do; what is ‘best’ for us, drowning in our ignorance because how (the fuck) can anyone know what is their future? But we struggle with the present, because we are worried that what is ‘in our way’ is going to stop us from realising future ambitions (in Donna’s case, being a successful comedian, hopefully at some point – it would seem – on the television and/or in the movies).

This is a terrible anxiety – because we do not know if our futures are going to be the ones ‘we wanted’. In short, choice is a privilege, but it is also an unbearably light (light in the sense of being something only certain people can afford) privilege, almost intolerable. And while Donna makes a decision, and while we admire for her decision, that sense of ‘am I making the right decision?’ pervades the film in an unspoken fashion.

This is the life selfish: deciding what is ‘right’ for oneself. Robespierre makes a film that, while funny, arresting and charming (and the comedy of the film, the fact that the film is a comedy, merits some analysis, too, in that comedy is a com-munal experience that allows us to be ‘beside ourselves’ with laughter – i.e. looking at ourselves as if from the outside), explores this in the most serious terms possible – by making this about the life of an obvious child.

Is one right to think for oneself? We can never know, we just have to decide. And while choice is surely a privilege for those who have a ‘smooth ride’ – those who have choice still must choose. Having chosen, we can always stand by people’s choices. But the film captures that moment when one is stuck, struggling, tormented: projecting into the future, such that what is glaringly before us (a child!) seems ‘in the way’.

I’m still thinking about this film – but wanted to get this down. I am permanently worried that I make the wrong choices, that I just ‘drift’ and if only I’d done x or y then maybe I’d be closer to ‘where I want to be’ (because somehow the life I have is always not quite the one I want, it is ‘obvious’ – right before me, but also somehow in the way, blocking me from the life I feel that I somehow want, perhaps even ought, to be leading).

Maybe others have similar feelings – that is why I’ve tried to write this down (hastily, for which apologies). If no one else does have such feelings, then at least this posting can function as something like therapy for myself.

Now – The New Hope awaits…


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