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The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

Aaron Bros Sidebar

At Sold-out Screening, Married Professors Talk “May December”

Laughter and love were up for discussion at a screening of “May December” co-hosted by Night Owls and Doc Films on Saturday, January 15.
side+profile+of+red+theater+chairs
The plush red chairs in Doc Films’s Max Palevsky Theater.

On Saturday, January 13, hundreds of people flooded into the Max Palevsky Theater in Ida Noyes for the latest event co-sponsored by Doc Films and the philosophy club Night Owls: a viewing and discussion of the film May December (2023), hosted by married philosophy professors Agnes Callard and Arnold Brooks. The tension was palpable in the room, maybe because of the taboo subject matter of the film, maybe because it was the first Night Owls hosted by the married professors since Callard’s blockbuster profile in The New Yorker. Either way, the room was packed.

May December, directed by Todd Haynes, follows actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) preparing for her fictional portrayal of the tabloid fixture Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), who was caught raping her thirteen-year-old employee Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) in the stock room of a pet shop in Georgia. Gracie was sentenced to prison and gave birth to Joe’s children while serving her sentence. At the end of her sentence, she and Joe were married. Now, as they prepare to send their children to college, the couple seems to have overcome their rocky beginning. However, the introduction of Elizabeth throws a wrench into their lives. As Elizabeth studies Gracie’s actions and learns more about the couple’s past, she becomes oddly titillated by the experience of becoming someone else—as the marriage she scrutinizes starts to unravel.The crowd at Night Owls was almost constantly laughing, even at lines that Haynes probably intended to be serious. Mundane moments like Moore’s “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs” were often punctuated by the film’s harsh and booming main theme, composed by Michel Legrand, which made the film feel darkly comic. The emotional core of the film was Melton’s performance, which held up against the laughter. It certainly must have been a challenge for Melton, large and hulking, to create the visual impression that he has never grown out of his 13-year-old self, frozen at the age he was abused. But he does so convincingly. Portman, consummate actress, shines in the moments that the film becomes self-referential; Moore disquiets as the sociopathic Gracie.

After an intermission of cookies and pizza, Callard and Brooks began the discussion. Callard posed the questions, “Why is this movie so dark, and what is this film the answer to?” Brooks posited that perhaps this film tries to answer the question: which will triumph, the universal or the particular? There are grand questions (the universal) that Gracie and Joe have about the trauma that defined their family, and how they can possibly justify their lives in the shadow of this “shocking, illegal thing.” But there is also the particular. In one of the film’s final scenes, Joe releases a butterfly into the air as his daughter comes down the stairs in her graduation dress. This scene temporarily blurs the tragedy and violence at the heart of Joe’s marriage, Brooks argued. In that moment, nothing else mattered.

Callard’s interest in the film lay in Elizabeth’s rejection of the moral condemnation Gracie faces in the media. Throughout the film, Elizabeth promises Gracie and her family that she is interested in telling a nuanced, human story, not a crude and moralizing one. “Elizabeth is like, ‘I’m much more sophisticated.’ There’s something savage about that. There’s something savage about the non-moralistic response,” Callard said. According to Callard, Elizabeth’s sinister nature stems from her   detached analysis of the moral gray areas of Gracie’s character. Brooks added, “You really wouldn’t want a friend who responded to you that way. This kind of impassive, purely interpretive, almost scientific approach to a personality wouldn’t be what you want in the person close to you.”

Brooks and Callard also examined the cause of the audience’s frequent laughter. Brooks commented, “It’s interesting watching this movie with you guys because you laugh more readily, and you find stuff funny that I didn’t find funny upon first watch.” Callard posited a potential explanation: “My feeling was with this group, there was a nervous tension in the room the whole time, and that nervous tension was needing to release itself in the form of laughter so you would repeatedly find things funny that were not that funny.” She then clarified, “This is not a funny movie.”

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    Alasdair Eck / Jan 27, 2024 at 7:18 pm

    Very good work. Next, you can analyze the fall of the Second French Empire after the Franco-Prussian War.

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