Arts & Culture
Discussing the 2008 film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist for Nextbook, Stuart Klawans noted a discrepancy between the way the film was advertised and what it actually contains. “The promotional campaign for Nick & Norah mostly wants to sell you … Read More
Discussing the 2008 film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist for Nextbook, Stuart Klawans noted a discrepancy between the way the film was advertised and what it actually contains. “The promotional campaign for Nick & Norah mostly wants to sell you on indie rock, downtown Manhattan glamour, and a couple of actors who are extremely cute, in an approachable way,” he wrote. “Their eventual union, of course, is a foregone conclusion. What you won’t know in advance is the nature of the critical moment.”
He means the scene, set in the recording studio owned by Norah Silverberg’s father, in which she initiates her first sexual encounter with Nick O’Leary by invoking theological doctrine. “That reminds me of this part of Judaism that I really like. It’s called Tikkun Olam. It says that the world is broken into pieces and it’s everybody’s job to find them and put them back together again.” Although the slice on this come-on is treacherous, Nick has no trouble returning serve. “Well maybe we’re the pieces, you know, maybe we’re not supposed to find the pieces, maybe we are the pieces.”
Some commentators on Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist praised its willingness to showcase the heroine’s ethnic identity, even if it tempered the Jewishness of the book on which it was based. Others, like Claire E. Gross, faulted the film for making details that are integral to the original story seem too random. “Norah’s mentions of an upcoming year at Brown seem closer to bragging than worry, her concern that she can’t orgasm is voiced once in passing and then quickly dismissed, and her sudden, stilted explanation of Tikkun Olam. . . is an even greater non sequitur than her Jewish identity itself. Why bother?”
The same might be said for the 2009 picture Adventureland. Although it feels like one of the many coming-of-age stories that focus on the end of high school – director Rob Mottola’s 2007 smash Superbad was a classic of the genre – the protagonist, James Brennan, is actually a recent college graduate who has been forced to take a summer job at a local amusement park rather than travel to Europe like his privileged former classmate. The work is tedious, but brings him into contact with other overqualified “carnies,” including Em Lewin, an attractive young woman who eventually becomes his love interest.
Midway through the film, we learn that Em is Jewish and then get to see her rally to the defense of another Jewish carny who has been dumped because he isn’t Catholic. Like the intellectual foreplay in the recording studio from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, the outburst comes out-of-the-blue, making it seem like shorthand for character development that the film fails to deliver. Again, the question “Why bother?” is hard to suppress.
Certainly, there’s a way in which the Jewishness of major characters in these films reflects a broader trend in contemporary Hollywood, typified by the work of Judd Apatow, that has given us characters who are demonstrably not WASPs, but are also not stereotyped on the basis of their race or religion. One of Nick’s bandmates is both Asian and gay, yet not reducible to either. While his sexual preference plays a role in the film’s plot, it isn’t simply raw material for making the audience laugh.
And yet most of these films are trying hard to do just that, often by deliberately pushing the buttons of those with an investment in appearing “politically correct.” It’s a delicate balancing act, which succeeds more in some areas – the representation of race and religion – than it does in others – the representation of gender. But the shortcomings of this new aesthetic shouldn’t provoke us, to paraphrase a scene from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, to throw our chewing gum out with the toilet bowl full of vomit into which it has been ingloriously expelled.
In other words, there are reasons to bother thinking hard about the representation of collective identity in these pictures and, more specifically, the simultaneously understated yet prominent role they let Jewishness play. First and foremost, the very fact that they can inspire the question “Why bother?” is a clear indication that they represent real progress, however fitfully realized, on the pathway to a world in which we can be judged by the content of our character without having to whitewash our pasts in the process.
Less obviously, the fact that films like Adventureland and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist depict ethnicity in a sidelong fashion while focusing most of their attention on the power of music to bring people together indicates that they might have something profound to tell us about the function of religion today.
Both Nick and James make mixes of their favorite songs that play a role in finding a soulmate they can have sex with. There’s a telling scene in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist in which Norah, after scrolling through Nick’s iPod, enthusiastically exclaims that it’s amazing how much her musical taste overlaps with his. Later, they struggle over who will select the songs for their drive through Manhattan in Nick’s Yugo. James and Em bond over shared musical interests in similar fashion. In both cases, it is made very clear that the couples could never come together without the help of their cultural taste preferences. From this perspective, personal history such as where a person attended school, how much money they have, what religion they were born into etc. all function as potential impediments that only music has the power to transcend.
At the same time, though, Norah and Em assert their Jewishness in ways that actually serve their amorous goals. While the possession of compatible musical taste is the precondition for an intimate relationship, it doesn’t quite seem to be enough on its own. The coupling only comes off with the acknowledgment of differences less mutable than one’s digital music library.
The title Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is interesting in this regard. The majority of the story is devoted to two parallel searches, one for a secret concert by the revered indie band Where’s Fluffy? and the other for Norah’s inebriated friend Caroline. At one point, Caroline calls to say she’s hanging out with Jesus. Because we get to see this “Jesus,” smoking a cigarette and looking bored, while Caroline is making this confusing statement concerning her whereabouts, we are fully prepared to appreciate the irony in the comment Norah makes when the phone call is over: “I need to find Jesus.”
And yet, the theme of redemption is taken seriously enough within the film that these words seem like more than a way to get a cheap laugh. The characters in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Adventureland seek salvation in music because it still holds out the possibility of a transcendence that the constraints of daily life otherwise prohibit. “Infinite playlist,” in other words, is a clever way of naming G-d indirectly. No matter how many songs there are in a person’s library, there will always be something missing, a lack that exchange with others can remedy to a degree — Nick and James make mix tapes that turn their recipients on to new sounds — but never absolutely.
The etymology of the word “religion” clues us in to what’s really going on in these films’ depiction of collective identity. The root lig- – also found in “league” and “ligature” – means “to bind.” Religion is what connects us to each other with bonds that last. In an era in which fundamentalism of all stripes seems bent on severing more links that it enables, music has the potential to serve as religion’s surrogate. But the sharing of songs is what facilitates belief; it isn’t belief itself.
Perhaps the deep structure of rock and roll is inseparable from the Christian tradition out of which it emerged. But Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Adventureland suggest that it may be possible to find one’s religion in the music while remaining a Jew. Indeed, Norah’s invocation of Tikkun Olam reminds us that the impulse to redeem the broken world can motivate action without the figure of the messiah ever becoming flesh.
Significantly, although Nick and Norah spend their night trying to find the secret show that Where’s Fluffy? is supposed to be playing, they depart the concert before it begins, letting us savor the memory of what it feels like to want something that badly, rather than the inevitable disappointment of realizing that the desired end was merely a substitute for an ending that cultural experience can never provide.