Skip to content

The Destructive Character

The eternal return of culture's alienated oddball white guy

In the fall of 1957, Dissent magazine published Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” the writer’s treatise on white American hipster subculture. The piece, which might be Mailer’s most influential essay, argues that the existential torpor of postwar America bred a particular kind of white person: a man who seeks out violence and destruction in order to experience emotional ecstasy. According to Mailer, it’s in the black slums that this man, the hipster, finds the freedom and danger and sexual degradation he desires. Mailer was called out by James Baldwin and others for his fetishistic attitude toward black sexuality and generally essentialist racist purview. Still, “The White Negro” remains a prescient document of white American counterculture, a textual precursor (of the beats and hippies) that mixes sociology, psychoanalysis, and the self-mythologizing grandeur of New Journalism:

It is on this bleak scene that a phenomenon has appeared: the American existentialist—the hipster, the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war, relatively quick death by the State as l’univers concentrationnaire, or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled (at what damage to the mind and the heart and the liver and the nerves no research foundation for cancer will discover in a hurry), if the fate of twentieth century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.

Isaac and his slur conjure Mailer’s famous archetype: sharply bespectacled in oversized throwback frames, bearded, oblivious to his own destruction.

Janicza Bravo’s new film Lemon comments on the cinematic legacy of “the white negro,” which is to say that the narrative arc of the film, a surreal indie comedy, traces the “journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self” offered by Mailer sixty years ago. As if to telegraph this point, Bravo has her protagonist, Isaac Lachmann (Brett Gelman), a fortysomething working actor and drama teacher, spray paint the words “white nigger” on an ‘80s Benz owned by one of his acting students, Alex (Michael Cera). Isaac’s motives aren’t entirely scrutable; he’s an asshole, sure, and he’s jealous of Alex’s success booking a part, but the audience is given no real rhyme or reason for why he chooses that particularly violent tag. Still, the slur conjures Mailer’s famous formulation, and Isaac’s character is surely a descendant, however mutated, of that author’s hip archetype: sharply bespectacled in oversized throwback frames, dressed in vintage-inspired fabrics, bearded, oblivious to his own destruction. With his increasingly erratic behavior, Isaac divorces himself from his corner of the Los Angeles acting scene, and, despite nominal hangs with his eccentric Jewish family, he’s rootless, especially after his breakup with longtime girlfriend Ramona (Judy Greer).

When the film opens, Isaac and Ramona, who have been together for ten years, are asleep on the couch while an actress on TV (Inger Tudor) delivers a monologue about life in Africa. It’s clear from the couple’s interactions that they’re no longer in love, and it’s evident from their couch-surfing that Isaac is a pompous layabout, routinely brusque and quirky to the degree of being off-putting. He’s a nasty person, both in terms of basic rudeness and personal hygiene: he even shits without wiping. When Ramona grows disgusted with his behavior and dumps him after ten years, he lashes out at her, claiming he only dated her out of pity. Later, he calls the elderly aunt of a woman he’s dating a bitch for not responding to his offer to help (she’s had several strokes and can’t speak all that well). He’s prickly to everyone and emotionally standoffish to his strange but generally warm family, which comprises a murderer’s row of comic talent: Rhea Perlman, Fred Melamed, Martin Starr, David Paymer. After his breakup, Isaac courts Cleo (Nia Long), a makeup artist he met on set, but he screws that up after trying to kidnap her Aunt Lily (Marla Gibbs) at a family cookout.

Nowhere does Isaac’s nastiness play out more than in the scenes at the acting school. Early in the film, while teaching, Isaac—sitting next to another bearded, balding, bespectacled white guy—instructs Tracy (Gillian Jacobs), to whom he is often verbally abusive. “Tracy, what am I going to say?” he asks after her monologue, and you almost feel like he’s talking to the audience. The answer, we guess, is something abrasive, odd, discomfiting. “That I’m bad,” she replies. He waits a beat to add suspense, then, “I didn’t know you had this in you. To be honest, the only thing that kept me from kicking you out of this class was that you look a whole lot like this woman I wanted to spend my life with. Milky skin, wavy hair, New York girl. Absolutely astounding. This is the type of work none of you have come close to.”

 Yet Lemon is the type of work that others have come close to. It looks like a Wes Anderson diorama, and it’s filled with hipster Barbie dolls draped in vintage Memphis Group gear. Nor does the Andersonian aesthetic end with its art direction: the film’s musical cues are twee and comically choral; Bravo’s blocking is beyond self-conscious—in the sense that everyone poses adroitly and with gratuitous manner; the cinematography is perfectly lit, keeping every scene halfway dark; the rule of thirds is strictly obeyed. Beyond fraction there is serious fracture. Its protagonist is a broken man, an effete malcontent who frustrates those who spend just a little bit of time with him. Given this remarkably stylized and overcooked sensibility, it might be hard, in 2017, to see the film’s point, outside of its stylishness and willful alienation. Yet, like whiteness and its opaque hipster, you have to study it to see what’s happening beneath the surface.

It’s important to have some background: the eighty-two-minute Sundance hit, co-written by Bravo and Gellman, is the former’s first feature. Known for short films like Eat and Gregory Go Boom, Bravo has an off-kilter comedic sensibility and striking visual style. Lemon comes off of her impressive showing as director of “Juneteenth,” one of the TV series Atlanta’s standout episodes. “Juneteenth” centers on an outrageous party at the home of a white doctor married to a black woman, who is a mentor to the girlfriend of Atlanta’s main character, played by Donald Glover. The episode’s climax features the doctor performing bad spoken word poetry inspired by Malcolm X in a room adorned with the African masks and the black cultural ephemera of a well-meaning white liberal. Bravo shoots the scene with a distorted, fisheye lens. In Lemon, she takes that approach further: the entire white sensibility is distortion, a peek into the life of a man who sees the world as being in service to him.

It’s easy to dismiss Lemon as yet another “weird-for-weird’s sake micro indie,” as the A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky described it, one borne out of “the same frothy mixture of Adult Swim anti-comedy, vintage lens fetishism, and male pattern baldness.” And yet many of its writing and editing choices suggest the film is a satire of itself. For example, structural and interpersonal patriarchy is evident not only in Isaac’s obnoxiousness, but also from the way conversations with women are routinely ended prematurely. On separate occasions, women in the film are cut off by both Isaac and Joi McMillan’s editing, which implies that patriarchy extends to the film itself. What point might Bravo trying to be make about how indie films disregard women? Isaac’s precisely angled posing becomes just that: posing. His frozen movements become a testament to his rigid worldview.

This narcissism reaches a peak in the scene with the car vandalism. The defacement, which happens at night, is discovered the next day by the student, Alex, on his way to Isaac’s for dinner, though he doesn’t suspect his teacher. When Alex comes over, the two eat a meal—boxed macaroni and cheese. After the dinner, Isaac tries to assault Alex by kissing him and then locking him in a bear hug. Alex, disgusted, lashes out: “I knew you were crazy. I thought it was good crazy. I liked it. I liked it a lot. I thought it was fun. Now I know you’re bad crazy. You’re unstable. You should talk to someone about where you’re at.” Is Alex’s spiel a dog whistle about white male privilege, or a Pavlovian bell about weird aggro-intellectualism and lonesome life that’s supposed to induce an automatic laugh?

Isaac, who doesn’t seem to be a good actor based on his terrible auditions, routinely books gigs in commercials for pharmaceutical cures for chronic illnesses like hepatitis. And here we have another subtle commentary: he’s mediocre and associated with disease. His latest job is helmed by photographer Simone (Megan Mullally). When Isaac fails to pose in a way that she wants, Simone stops production and walks over to him. She says, “I think you’re thinking too much about how you see your own face, when you need to be thinking about what other people see when they look at your face. Not what you see when you see your face. What we see, not what you see.” Simone’s knowingly redundant dialogue is not only comedic, it offers a prescription for men who can’t get out from under their own narcissism. The line becomes a status update for the larger milieu that Lemon is picked from.

You could argue that Lemon thinks too much about its own face, its style over its substance, but it does so in service of its critique of white male narcissism. To this effect, Lemon is a parody of the alienated white guy hipster indie films that have been a feature of American cinema since the mid-’90s. But why stop there? You can go back as far as Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” to find a fictional model of the oddball white guy, an adrift iconoclast perfectly encapsulated in Bartleby’s classic line: “I prefer not to.” Yet, for their part, the alternative cinema antiheroes made in his image do not prefer not to. Instead, they do the most. They’re obnoxious, angry, self-involved. This subgenre hit a stride with Anderson films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, and it was elaborated by Garden State and Napoleon Dynamite, not to mention Zach Galifianakis’s prominence in the late aughts. It all peaked with the hip anti-comedies made famous by Adult Swim, namely Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job and Brett Gelman’s own Adult Swim special, “Dinner in America,” which likewise riffed on this theme. And Rick Alverson’s The Comedy (2013) and The Entertainment (2015) are perhaps high points of the form.

This curiously inept and alienated character is a fictional precursor to our isolated and aggressively loserish national figures.

We were supposed to be done with this genre and its ilk of ill-mannered, pseudo-intellectual man-boys. I mean, for goodness sake, Eric Wareheim, staple of Third Wave Hipster Bro Cinema, is now playing Aziz Ansari’s “big buddy” on Master of None. But like many ballyhooed “last gasps” prophesied after the 2016 election, the trend has yet to really conclude. In fact, the weirdo white antihero is becoming more and more observable as a distinct character outside of pop culture and in our national conversations; you might argue that the curiously odd ineptitude of this alienated character is a fictional precursor to the isolated and aggressively loserish national figures we find ourselves beholden to in the daily news. Just like whiteness itself, many of these films seem to be unaware of the fact that they’re replicating a particular kind of ideal: the persistent remaking and remodeling of this genre suggests that there’s an investment in this particular character—and not all of the stories are sendups, like Lemon.

The irony, of course, is that these sort of effete, sensitive protagonists who belong to this subgenre are on the surface not at all like the blustering, aggressively conservative politicians who have come to dominate American conversations. But might the archetype, like many things in culture, have slowly absorbed itself into the conservative mind? In his pursuit, at all costs, of destruction (of the Republican Party, women’s reproductive rights, civil liberties, American political system as we know it, the U.S.’s diplomatic relationships, environmental policy, etc.), the aggro politician exhibits a fearful symmetry with the hipster antihero. Tellingly, the genre might experience another resurgence at the close of 2017—just as the country is reckoning with the dangerous archetype in real life—with the return of Curb Your Enthusiasm(Jeff Garlin, who plays Isaac’s agent, has a similar role on Curb.)

We’ve heard a lot about “the last gasp of a dying white supremacy,” from talking heads on TV, and I don’t know what to make of the prediction. As for cinema: I’m not sure this trope will ever end, so long as most of the working writers and directors are straight white men. That it took a black woman to direct and co-write such a story is telling. Lemon may be sour, but what isn’t right now?