The Dialectical Filmmaker: On Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island”

By Jensen SutherAugust 28, 2020

The Dialectical Filmmaker: On Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island”
FILMS LIKE JUDD APATOW’S are well suited to home release. As light comedic fare with numerous close-ups and sitcom dialogue, they are not — at least on the face of it — especially cinematic. It was just as well, then, that Apatow’s new film, The King of Staten Island, was forced to premiere directly on streaming services, its theatrical release a casualty of the ongoing pandemic. On one level, The King of Staten Island is an escapist comedy about growing up and moving out and on seemingly tailor-made for a moment in which everyone is stuck indoors, our futures uncertain. But at a deeper level, Apatow’s films in general and his new movie in particular perform the ideological function of ensuring that we feel “at home” in contemporary social institutions, never leaving the collective couch. In this case, the medium and the message — home distribution and a conventional ideology of the “hearth” — truly do coincide.

Since his directorial debut with 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow has earned acclaim for his earnest comedies of aging, adulthood, and middle-class family life. At the same time, he has occasionally courted controversy for what many have criticized as a socially conservative streak in his films. Nearly all of his films evince a deep anxiety about premarital and casual sex, perhaps most forcefully expressed in the post-nuptial, post-coital musical number that closes Virgin. The constraining force of the marriage bond signifies the ultimate form of freedom — this is the conformist dialectic of Apatow’s cinema. Even the raunchiness of the director’s earliest films was, in the end, in the service of his moralism, provoking us to laugh at what falls outside the good life.

Staten Island follows twentysomething protagonist Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson), a would-be tattoo artist who lives at home with his working mother and college-bound sister, his firefighter father having died in the line of duty when Scott was a young child. In keeping with his practice of writing fictional Bildung arcs for up-and-coming comics (Seth Rogen, Amy Schumer), Apatow based the sickly, Crohn’s-ridden Scott character on Davidson, himself a ubiquitous presence in contemporary mass culture (most notably as an SNL cast member) whose own father died tragically on 9/11. Unable to mourn his father’s death and make something of his life, Scott is a basement-dwelling slacker who spends his days smoking copious amounts of weed with his drug-dealing friends, his nights hooking up in secret with his childhood friend, Kelsey (Bel Powley). The latent tensions in Scott’s world break through the surface after he attempts to tattoo the obviously underage son of local firefighter Ray (Bill Burr), whom Scott’s mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) subsequently begins to date. Scott loses Kelsey because of his unwillingness to commit; is kicked out by Margie because of his pathological hatred of her new boyfriend; and is taken in by his father’s/Ray’s firefighting company in the film’s final act, where they instill in their wayward protégé a sense of responsibility and enable him not just to return home but to look toward starting a family of his own.

The conservatism of Apatow — an outspoken liberal who campaigned for Clinton in 2016 — derives from the almost religious faith he puts in the form-giving power of the modern nuclear family, which represents, in his vision, the ultimate incubator of free individuality. Yet even as a bourgeois fabulist of oddly out-of-touch morality plays, Apatow cannot help but to undermine his own pedagogical intentions. His unusually lengthy, repetitious productions — almost always well over two hours — go on too long for their own good, unraveling the same lessons they are meant to instill. As Marx, Freud, and Stanley Cavell help us to see, Apatow’s most recent effort is a “right Hegelian” fable (a term I will take care to explain) that makes a virtue of a social necessity: the Oedipal family romance.

I’ve pilfered my title from an essay by Theodor Adorno, “The Dialectical Composer,” and there is clearly something perverse about adapting such a heady designation — intended for Arnold Schoenberg, serialist pioneer — for a commercial filmmaker like Judd Apatow. But as is the case with the dialectic, extremes always meet. Apatow’s bourgeois fantasy of an integral family embodies the perspective (or so I would claim) of what the 19th-century Marxist tradition understood as “Right Hegelianism.” After the death of philosopher G. W. F. Hegel in 1831, his followers fell into two groups. On the one hand, there were the Left Hegelians, who for a time included the young Karl Marx. They believed that Hegel’s thought contained crucial resources for developing a new critique of religion and the state as historical expressions of alienated social relations. On the other hand, the Right Hegelians, despite the world-historical changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, continued to abide by Hegel’s own position that the modern family, Adam Smith’s vision of a market economy, and a state led by the Third Estate remained the conditions for human flourishing and freedom.

None of this, of course, is meant to suggest that Apatow himself is a reader of Hegel or of 19th-century debates around dialectics. Nevertheless, we can begin to make sense of Apatow’s “family romances” by understanding them as a late capitalist recursion to the outmoded ideal of the bourgeois family as an emancipatory structure, a private enclave beyond the reach of corrupting society. Theorists from Engels to Theodor Adorno, from Wilhelm Reich to Juliet Mitchell, have exploded the myth of the integral family, laying bare its patriarchal form and the authoritarianism of the capitalist state it helps to reproduce. As thinkers like Adorno and Mitchell have shown, while Marx constitutes the ultimate theoretical horizon, enabling us to understand the crisis of society in capitalist modernity, we also need Freud to understand how social contradictions reproduce themselves on the level of the family and the individual psyche. In Apatow’s “right Hegelian” cinema, the family drama masks the social and structural contradictions that underlie the family unit while also, paradoxically, bringing those tensions to speech, allowing them to take shape and appear.

The tension internal to the Carlin family romance first makes itself felt when an anguished Scott decides to help his friends rob a local pharmacy for its cache of opioids. Apatow wants us to read Scott’s decision as a belated expression of adolescent rebellion against the father, obscuring the social necessity of crime under the conditions of broad immiseration. Like the OxyContin habit of the Charlyne Yi character in This Is 40, in Staten Island, pharmaceuticals play the role of the film’s bad conscience, its recognition of the need to address the social forces besetting the family but its own ultimate generic inability to do so. The gunshot that wounds Scott’s friend Oscar — an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence in Apatow’s work — is shocking and at odds with the feel-good tone of the rest of the film, but it also makes palpable the stakes of Scott’s re-formation. By the same token, Scott’s act of rebellion and the subsequent imprisonment of his friends respectively reflect the oppressiveness of a patriarchal familial order and its ultimate inescapability. From the authoritarian prison system to the domineering stepdad, the “law of the father” pervades both the film’s narrative and Scott’s lived historical reality.

Scott’s odyssey from his mother’s basement to the fire station and back is motivated by a need to overcome his arrested development and to progress from man-child to family man, repeating his past with a crucial difference. The film’s running, unintended Freudian joke is that the budding tattoo artist can’t draw well, is artistically inept. (This is mirrored in his sexual impotence, which is noted in the film’s opening moments.) In particular, Scott can’t get the eyes right, as his friend’s tattoo of a beady-eyed Obama attests. Scott’s ineptitude when trying to capture his subjects’ eyes — the “window to the soul” — is a reflection of his corresponding social impotence, his inability to recognize his other and, ultimately, himself through his other’s eyes. Everyone is beady-eyed, including the 44th president, because Scott is suspicious of any relation that puts him at the mercy of another. Scott’s attempt to make a mark on the wider world outside his circle of friends — a tattoo of the Punisher on Ray’s underage son — misfires precisely because Scott lacks the standing to “imprint” himself on the next generation. It is his first, abortive effort, prior to his re-formation, to “form” an impressionable child.

Scott is biologically already a son, his mother’s boyfriend already a father, and for both, natural relations were prematurely disrupted: by the unexpected death of Scott’s dad in the first case and by Ray’s acrimonious divorce in the second. In his pathbreaking study of the Hollywood “remarriage comedy” of the 1930s, Stanley Cavell analyzes how the remarriage of divorced couples in films like Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday unsettle our assumptions about marriage as a primarily legal relation. Rather, in breaking everything, the divorce compels the couple to examine what it would mean for things to work, be whole, and to ask whether they can be genuinely responsive to one another’s demands for acknowledgment and love. Staten Island might be understood in a similar vein, since it works to denature the father-son relation by forcing Ray and Scott to confront what it means to be a father or a son. Fatherhood can no longer just be assumed as a natural fact, and Scott must learn to be Ray’s son, if he is to return to his mother’s good graces. At the same time, Scott can regain his position in the household only by learning to leave it behind, in accord with the Hegelian thought that the function of the family is to dissolve itself, ultimately sending its well-formed, autonomous children out into the civil-social world.

After Ray allows Scott to spend the night on the couch at his fire station, his father’s old company agree to take him in and give him work. A closed location in a long final act has a precedent in Apatow: in Funny People (2009), the bizarre hour-long finale follows a feature-length first two acts and unfolds over an indeterminate time span in the family home of the protagonist’s married ex-girlfriend, a minor character up until that point. In both films, the final big set piece is a representative institution with its own narrative logic, contributing to the two films’ inordinate lengths, which reflect the “bad infinity” — the unclosed loop — of Apatow’s pedagogy. Adam Sandler’s character in Funny People must play house to learn that he is not yet ready to make a home, while Scott in Staten Island becomes the station’s custodian, the keeper of the hearth, so that he can finally strike out on his own, earning respect not only from his father’s old crew but also from Ray himself. Yet the extensiveness of Apatow’s cinematic art betrays the extorted quality of its achieved reconciliations.

The film culminates in two crucial scenes. Maligned by his entire family, Scott’s perverse fantasy of a restaurant-cum-tattoo-parlor articulates his desire throughout the film to remain in a primordial, pre-Oedipal state prior to the split between nature (where we eat) and culture (where we create). In a late montage sequence, Ray assumes the mantle of fatherhood, sacrificing his own back to enable Scott to practice his craft and to overcome his infantile dream. The montage is doubly important because — in the sort of Apatowian gesture that contributes to the unusual length of his films — it repeats with a difference the scene of Scott’s false start, his attempt to tattoo Ray’s son Harold. It is important that Ray can’t see Scott’s design (an image of the Carlin family, now including Ray), must trust Scott to do what he is supposed to, and that it’s Margie who, when the tattoo is finally revealed, confers legitimacy on her son’s effort. In recognizing Margie’s recognition of Scott, Ray in effect recognizes Scott himself, who completes the circle in ascribing a symbolic power to the masculine body of the fatherly surrogate Ray. In Freudian fashion, Scott overcomes his emasculation through the efficacious use of his “tool,” resolving his Oedipal complex by giving up the literal phallus (in blessing his mother’s union with Ray) and by identifying with the symbolic one (the father’s dominant position in the family and society).

In the film’s final scene, which serves as something of a coda, Scott surprises an estranged Kelsey at the Staten Island Ferry, to accompany her to her civil service exam in Manhattan. They reconcile and kiss on the ferry, and just before she walks into the exam, she tells Scott to “maybe do something cultural. Like, broaden your horizons.” The final shot finds Scott emerging from between the columns of the municipal building and looking toward downtown, as the camera pans vertically to reveal the skyscrapers to the south. It is an ingenious shot, which draws the curtain just when Scott embraces his masculine role and enters the “symbolic” domain, the cultural sphere signified by the thought of the Met or MoMA elicited by Kelsey’s imperative. This concluding series of images recalls the Aristotelian thought that our mutual dependence means that we can’t thrive beyond the bounds of the polis. As a good Bildung narrative, the film takes us only as far as the moment of Scott’s actual assimilation. He has left Staten Island for the city, which has loomed large over the film, gets the girl, and braces himself for his new life — his true life — as a member of the metropolis. And finally, there are those skyscrapers: like the derrick at the end of Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (but, crucially, without Sirk’s ironic self-knowing), this is a final phallic image, marking Scott’s transition from nature to culture, from man-child to family man.

The “right Hegelianism” of Apatow lies in his justification of the nuclear family as a force of emancipation in the face of the various social threats cataloged in his films: an infantile and empty “hook-up” culture, a life of drug abuse and crime, and so on. The power and draw of his vision derive from the bourgeois faith he unfalteringly places in the family as, in Adorno’s words, “the nurturing germ-cell of uncompromising pursuit” of a just society made up of mature individuals. But who are the fathers in Apatow’s movies? Was Scott’s father a “hero” or a drug-addled thrill-seeker? Is Ray a gambling addict and disaffected father, who only bonds with his girlfriend’s son once she stops believing his lies? Who is Margie marrying, and who is Scott destined to become? Meanwhile, Kelsey’s pledge to “make Staten Island great,” the “next Brooklyn,” stands in tension with her repeated defense of the borough as “already great” — an expression of the social contradiction of gentrification intrinsic to the modern metropolis, the site of Scott’s supposed reconciliation with society.

Apatow uses our collective immaturity against us, blackmailing us into a marriage with marriage itself. But the form of the family on which his films bet everything is not invulnerable to but fundamentally contaminated by the same social forces it is supposed to resist. As Cavell showed, in the Hollywood remarriage comedies of the 1930s, “all [genuine, authentic] marriage is remarriage,” a mutual recognition and re-affirmation of what love and intimacy actually require. Apatow’s films, by contrast, are not new entries in the same genre but perhaps expressions of its late capitalist fate. Like the married couple in This Is 40 who renew their vows at the end of the film by agreeing to simply return to how things were, the prospective union of Ray and Margie suggests an inversion of Cavell’s formula: that all remarriage — doomed to repeat the past — is simply marriage again.


LARB Contributor

Jensen Suther is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Yale. Through a novel synthesis of Hegel and Marx, his first book project — Spirit Disfigured — argues that the modernist novel expresses the historical crisis of the idea of a free, self-determining subjectivity at the heart of modern thought and politics. His work has appeared in a range of academic and popular publications, including b2o: an online journal, Modernism/modernity, The Review of Metaphysics, Mediations, New Centennial Review, Radical Philosophy, and Telos.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!