This Spring (On Watching 26 Jesse Eisenberg Films)


Image: Alcove Entertainment

This spring, as I watched the pieces of my life that I thought I understood fall away in quick, stuttering gasps, in the way of your early 20s, when you are learning how to exist in a whole new way – this spring, as I took my first breaths through the most debilitating heartbreak of my life, I started googling famous people with anxiety. I wanted to make myself feel better about the kind of anxiety where you can’t feel your fingertips, and it led me to Jesse Eisenberg. I found the Jesse/Jay Leno interview when Jennifer Lawrence is on the same show, and describes Jesse’s OCD variously as “weird quirks” and “so cool”, before talking for a very long about falling up stairs, wishing she had weird quirks, too. Jesse steadily retreats into himself, arms crossed, legs crossed, as small as possible when he says “You can have all of mine.” Like it’s funny, like maybe he could find a way to make it funny. Like he has to.

It made me think about all the ways we are encouraged to make mental illness palatable. About humour as a coping mechanism, and its limits, and about the way we laugh into the awkward spaces left by the twisting of our hands. Jesse Eisenberg and I, we both fidget relentlessly, hands tapping out patterns, creating shapes, flitting over ourselves, our surroundings, constant patter of still-there, still-there, still-there. And so, desperate to find that echo in the art I consume, I watched every single movie Jesse Eisenberg has ever made. Except for the Woody Allen ones, for obvious reasons. And Camp Hell – title somewhat self-explanatory. Life is too short, guys.

I started with The Social Network, the heavily fictionalised version of the origin of Facebook, but really a film about the failure to speak, of speaking; about the failure of understanding, of comprehension of the other, another, any other outside the whirling dervish of the self. About the way that events unravel between your fingers and if you’d known…what you’d meant is…and if he’d only seen that…It’s a film that takes the breaths between what-ifs, curls them into Sorkin’s dialogue, like if you speak fast enough, smart enough, that will be enough.

It isn’t.

One particularly bleak Saturday I watched Now You See Me three times in a row. It’s a magicians-slash-heist movie, and I mostly watched it because it’s a ridiculous shiny spectacle, and sometimes when you’re sad you just want to see, very clearly, that they spent a Stupid Amount of Money doing Stupid Things. But also for the miracle of seeing steady hands make magic, and of imagining that mine could hide anything. Anything at all.

I’m not going to talk about all of Jesse’s movies, because there are a lot of them, and some of them are Batman movies, and half of them fill me with the lethargic melancholia of adolescence, and I’m too old to be watching The Squid and the Whale and crying when he pretends to have written the Pink Floyd song, because we’ve all believed in art so utterly it felt like it could only be yours, because we’ve all been 15 and alone and heard the song that only you – only you – can understand, can have, can own. I watched Adventureland and Zombieland, movies that, until approximately five months ago, I believed were the same thing, potentially along with Superbad and Wet Hot American Summer. They aren’t the same thing – one of them has zombies in – but they’re both kinda about the fear of being alone, and then the fear of not being alone, and of seizing the fear and making happy endings from the (occasionally blood-sodden) mess around you. I don’t believe in happy endings, but I do believe in clinging onto what you’ve got until the earth spins it away.

“There’s something freeing about watching all your strangeness, all your worst things, be made into art.”

I watched half of The End of the Tour, which focuses on David Lipsky’s relationship with David Foster Wallace, and then I remembered that the professor who had sexually assaulted a friend taught me Foster Wallace, and then I stopped. There are books, and songs, and films, that are betrayed by other people, and which will never be OK again. In Holy Rollers – the true story of Hasidic Jews smuggling drugs into NYC – faith and family fall apart and Jesse’s shoulders shake as he cries on the front stoop, and it feels like Jagged Little Pill (Alanis Morissette) feels, like the gasp for breath when you can’t scream anymore. Holy Rollers sounds like it’s going to be a Judd Apatow/Jonah Hill stoner comedy, but is, in fact, a delicate exploration of the complications and fragmentation of cultural and religious identity, and maybe that’s a marketing error, but I love it, the brash title versus the quietude of the movie, the character’s struggle writ large in the meta-textual publicity machine of it all. And how maybe nobody thought of that at all, they were just so pleased with the pun they let it go ahead anyway.

I watched The Double – based on the bureaucratic identity-obsessed Dostoevsky novella of the same name – second-last (I watched Rio last, and, yes, I did over-identify with an awkward, anxious, indoor-inclined macaw, thank you for asking). It felt like lucid dreaming, which is how Dostoevsky always makes me feel, floating back to the first time I finished Crime and Punishment, 15 years old, midnight, Cornwall in the rain. Yellow light of my torch as I read under the covers, like a cliché. Like a movie. Like the yellow light as the train rattles through Ayoade’s dystopian creation. Jesse plays two doppelgangers in the movie – one brash, confident; one shrinking from the world around him. I watch the film and imagine transfiguring myself. Standing up taller, stilling my restless hands. The two doubles fight to eradicate the other and, in the end, the more reticent double triumphs, in a moment of self-destructive decisiveness. I imagine everything I hate about myself falling into the gaps between the tracks. In killing one, the character becomes both, in the way that we are all both, really. It’s easier to separate yourself into those movie archetypes, into discrete blocks. I’m the kind of person who would watch all of Jesse Eisenberg’s movies. I have an obsessive personality. You know. That kind of person. It’s easier than watching your hands falter, stuttered declensions, a failed taxonomy of the self.

There’s something freeing about watching all your strangeness, all your worst things, be made into art. Jesse’s performances are perennially anxiety-ridden – even in Now You See Me, where his character is hugely arrogant, he’s full of nervous ticks and a desperate need for control. He’s quietly nervy in Holy Rollers. And he’s Oscar-nominated levels of uncomfortable in The Social Network. All the different, weird permutations of the things I can’t control, turned into contained, manageable scenes, with a point, with an arc, with an ending. I don’t always understand my brain, but I understand films. I understand how plot works, and why strange, anxiety-ridden characters do the things they do. And sometimes, what they should do instead. Art is often a reflection of real life, a way of understanding ourselves anew. I needed ‘anew’ this spring. I needed a screen presence that was frenetic, and scared, and made himself into art, again, and again, twisting hands into something new.

And that, I suppose, is why I watched 26 Jesse Eisenberg movies this year. ·

Alfie Coates works in TV and theatre in London, and continues to have far too many thoughts and feelings about space, storytelling, and gender. You can find them on twitter at @beccaccoates

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