Junior: a monument in film making history

Author unknown (commissioned essay)
Concept/brief by Sandy Smith

 

The aim of this essay is to establish that Junior is a direct comment on society, specifically surrounding issues of parenthood and genetic innovation in the mid-1990s. As director and CEO of the American Film Institute Jean Picker states: “Film is an intensely personal experience,” and therefore it is difficult to state specifically if Junior can be termed as a “good” film. Instead, the brief will attempt to establish if Junior fulfils the key criteria that critics often use to determine the successful nature of a film, namely: Plot, Character, Choice of Actors and Visual Appeal. In an attempt to establish this, the semiotic principles of Barthes’ signs and signifiers will be employed within the work. The brief will also address Sartre’s basic views on existentialism.

Junior (Reitman: 1994) centres on the story of two doctors, Alexander Hesse and Larry Arbogast, who are working on a new super-fertility drug, "Expectane", which will reduce the chances of a woman's body rejecting an embryo and thus causing a miscarriage. When the pair request to test the drug on a human, their funding is refused and their project shut down. As a last resort they decide to impregnate Hesse (Arnold Schwarzenegger) with a fertilized embryo, making him pregnant. Although the experiment is intended to be done for the bare minimum in order to ascertain if the drug will work, Hesse becomes attached to the unborn baby and insists on carrying it until birth. Although the film was met with less than critical acclaim on its release – often derided as a “one joke movie” (1994: Time Out) it received three Golden Globe nominations, including Best Actor (Schwarzenegger) and Best Actress (Emma Thompson).

The fact that the film was seen as a “one joke” movie yet received praise for it's acting, is the first indication that perhaps a point was missed in the initial rush to review the film. Indeed, with the benefit of retrospect the piece can now be appreciated in it's full extent. Not only is it a piece that analyses the complex relationships between both men and women, but also the relationship between men and their own masculinity. It also illustrates a world where the two main protagonists are willing to go against the natural order in a bid to attain their ultimate goal. It could be argued that misconstruing the piece therefore, is largely due to the fact that these essential attributes were overlooked and undervalued on the film’s release.

Baudrillard argues that this could be down to the fact that America and American exports and culture are often seen as one-dimensional, and taken at this face value. He claims that when it comes to the largest superpower in the world, not only is America valued as bland and over-commercial, this can be seen as an attribute to aspire to, claiming:

“I want to excentre myself, to become eccentric, but I want to do so in a place that is the centre of the world. And, in this sense, the latest fast-food outlet, the most banal suburb, the blandest of giant American cars or the most insignificant cartoon-strip majorette is more at the centre of the world than any of the cultural manifestations of old Europe.”

(1989: 28)

In this vein, it is likely that Junior as a work was largely undervalued on release for the simple fact that America is often seen, in itself as a “one joke” entity, a country full of what Auge terms to be “non-places” - the blandest homes, gardens and shopping malls centred around a measured and bland lifestyle. He argues: “If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place…” (1995: 77) Junior creates this image particularly well. The laboratories, libraries, offices and even the maternity unit where Hesse hides out are all depicted in a cream, beige and bland setting.

This notion of “non-places” is clearly evident today and has often been evident as some form of extra character in films of the past few years. One of the clearest examples of this technique was Gun Van Sant’s Elephant, which won the Cannes’ Film Festival Palme D’or in 2003.  The film centred on a day in the life of a number of pupils at one middle-America High School which climaxed in tragedy, and managed to create a drawn out and measured banality that added an extra dimension to the piece. It should be noted however that this is a relatively recent addition to film-making, and is often seen as a bold and confident step. In the case of Junior, more than 13 years ago, the banality was depicted without this measured tone, and therefore the overall message of the film was overlooked; that America in itself is a banal creation, and the protagonists within the film are revolting against it to change the world. This is another example of Junior's understated yet highly sophisticated  content, that while not forced upon the viewer is definitely there if one takes the time to look for it.

Focusing on the bare bones of the film itself, in terms of plot, Freud argued that: “Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy,” (1900: 31) and indeed, the basic premise of Junior is far from mainstream, as it focused on a largely unheard of phenomena at the time – genetic science. In the film, Dr Hesse is cajoled into making the decision to experiment on himself by Danny de Vito’s character Larry Arbogast. The latter achieves this by reminding Hesse that a number of proven scientists such as Edward Jenner, who tested the smallpox vaccination on himself, met with great success. Here it becomes apparent that the viewer is being treated as an equal in this process, rather than someone to be patronized. It also gives the audience an insight into the inner-psyche of Hesse. He does not react aggressively to the project being stopped, but instead takes a proactive approach. This also alludes to the fact that this could be the way of the future (characterised at the end of the film with Hesse’s suggestion that Arbogast could himself become pregnant) and follows Freud’s theory that: “Civilization began the first time an angry person cast a word instead of a rock.” (1900: 165) The plot is essentially linear, and manages to transcend the boundaries of both comedy (which focuses on traditional, physical, slap-stick) and romance, (through the central relationship between Schwarzenegger’s Hesse and Emma Thompson’s Reddin) but at the same time breaks the traditional comedy mould by alluding to developments in genetic science and fertility medicine.

Jameson argues that: “you no longer have that great North American notion of the ‘lonely rebel’ who challenges society. There aren’t any lonely rebels anymore because they’re all organized in some way or another.” (1990: Marxism Today: 28) However, this does not appear to be the case with the characters in Junior. Despite the fact Hesse’s character clearly relishes organization, when challenged over his habit of wearing the same shoes, socks and shirts to work, he retorts: “I like order” he is essentially the ultimate rebel, in that he has a strong desire to change the face of fertility medicine by taking the chance to experiment on himself. This in itself is not a new concept - the film references Edward Jenner's work as some form of template for Hesse to work to. He is also, essentially, a rebel against our time in that although he is morally “doing the right thing” throughout the film, he is still carrying out a dangerous experiment that, if successful, could change the face of reproduction forever. This is an aspect that appears to have been largely overlooked when critics received the film, and Hesse was instead dismissed as a one-dimensional character centred on Schwarzenegger's physicality.

It is interesting here that the work never addresses the fact that the character could essentially harm himself by carrying out experiments on his own body. Instead, although the idea is regularly mooted as “crazy” by the various characters who are informed of the experiment, it is covered instead as something that “has to be done” and as some sort of duty. It should also be noted here that at no point does the film debase itself from it's intellectual/scientific viewpoint by debating the core issue in terms of going against nature and ergo God, particularly addressed as “wrong” or “immoral” In taking this route, the film further appeals to the intellectualism of the audience by addressing the existentialist theories displayed by Sartre. Although the theory is not addressed by name, the audience is itself unwittingly drawn into its own existential debate.

Indeed, the fact that Hesse’s impregnation goes against “nature” is alluded to only within the comedy aspect of the film, in that the masculine Schwarzenegger takes on feminine traits. This, Sartre argues, is “at the very heart and centre of existentialism, [it] is the absolute character of the free commitment, by which every man realises himself in realising a type of humanity - and its bearing upon the relativity of the cultural pattern which may result from such absolute commitment.” (1989: Kaufman: 65) Indeed, it is this optimism that lies at the heart of the film, the notion that the characters are essentially doing “the right thing,” that underpins the film’s essential message that everyone should have the right to family. As Sartre goes on to argue: “existentialism is optimistic. It is a doctrine of action.” (Ibid: 70)

The optimism ties in largely with the image of America depicted in the film. At the time of the film’s release the world in was far from a happy place – mass genocide was taking place in both Rwanda and Bosnia and the US had chosen to turn a blind eye – and closer to home one of the America’s best-known stars, former footballer turned actor O.J Simpson, had been arrested for the double murder of his wife and her friend, sparking claims that the Los Angeles Police Department were institutionally racist. Despite all this the setting for Junior is continually sunny, continually bright, and there is little sign of conflict in the enclave of the University campus. This is at huge odds with the post 9/11, paranoid country often depicted today. However, as Baudrillard writes: “When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning.” (1988: Poster: 173) This view follows Baudrillard’s theories regarding simulacra and simulation, where he argues that as a whole we can become so “saturated with imagery,” that signs themselves no longer signify something real, but something “hyperreal: the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.” (Ibid: 166) This could be the case with Junior, in that the film is not viewed through the framework of the aforementioned bland, non-place, and is therefore seen now as an exaggerated interpretation of itself; a sunny, clean, happy environment that is wildly distorted from the America not only of the time, but also the America we know today.

In terms of how the characters are displayed throughout the piece, selection of the actors is key. Indeed, in terms of genre, much of the base comedy appeal in the film relies on physical differences between the actors themselves. For example, many scenes between the towering, bulky, Schwarzenegger and the comparatively diminutive De Vito are shown in long shots to emphasise the huge physical difference and in turn emotional approaches between the two (Hesse is portrayed as shy and a little awkward, whereas Arbogast is brash and bolshy. This is also displayed to great effect when the pair are attempting to promote Expectaine to the US Food and Drug Administration Committee). Also particularly apparent here is the masculine Schwarzenegger displayed within a feminine context. The actor himself is one of the most masculine figures in film and is known for his roles (Commando: 1985, Predator: 1987) in which he exploits this label. Conversely, on a more subliminal level, some of this appeal lies within the fact that the muscular actor – a former Mr. Universe whose first acting role was dubbed over with an American voice (2004: www.bbc.co.uk) – is ultimately the most intelligent character in the piece.

Yet in Junior Schwarzenegger takes on a female part which, while at times used for slapstick effect, arguably has a lot of praise for women and is therefore not strictly a comedic role. Having said this however, the film does flash back to Schwarzenegger’s more traditional comedy roles, (encapsulated in his previous partnership with DeVito and Reitman in Twins: 1988) particularly in the scene where Hesse is in full female guise and is rushed to hospital from the maternity home. When screaming in both pain and fear his face is contorted to the more recognisable role of masculine action man. Yet this is exaggerated to a comedic level,  mimicking his standard role within films while letting the viewer in on the joke.

This may again largely be due to the fact that the film was not viewed within it's full context on its release. Had it been critically received and analysed within the context of a scientific, pioneering framework which focuses on rebellion subtexts and conflicts of masculinity, the film may well have been seen as a carefully crafted artwork, as opposed to a one joke movie.

The film also defies the conventional by casting Emma Thompson - a comedic actor by trade who began her career as a member of the esteemed Cambridge Footlights - as main female role and love interest Diane Reddin. At a time when women were depicted as unintelligent bimbos in blockbusters such as The Mask, (1994: Russell) or as scheming molls in works like Pulp Fiction, (1994: Tarantino) Reddin is the definition of a highly intelligent female character who is equally clumsy, scatty, and disorganized at every turn. Yet she is also seen as an object of desire by the main protagonist, and indeed scripted to be the only desirable female. This, in turn, correlates with another of the key issues within the film – relationships between men and women. Jameson writes that: “what is tiresome about [sexism] is the yuppie mimicry of the various traditional North American forms of male or patriarchal behaviour.” (1990: 24: Science Fiction Studies) and it is clear here that Junior goes against that mimicry to a point. Men are depicted as the ones who desperately want children, Hesse becomes increasingly attached to “my baby”, and Arbogast is reunited with his wife when she becomes pregnant, even though it is to another man.

In terms of visual appeal, while the film is not necessarily “science fiction” in genre, a number of signs and signifiers imply a different dimension of meaning and nod towards the futuristic by way of genetic science. The contemporary, mundane look of the sets jars against the numerous needles and oversized apparatus used to imply the scientific. As Jameson writes, the film-maker can: “turn on the central issue of foretelling the future, a topic which also has two poles or extremes: the historical one, of how this has been done, and the contemporary or ‘future-shock’ version of how we do it now.” (1990: Science Fiction Studies: 17)  The drug itself, which Hesse must continually take, is ingested from a small test-tube like vial, filled with blue liquid. The unnatural appearance, and the constant use of the phrase “drug,” connotes that it is indeed unnatural and in some way futuristic and science-based. It should also be noted that when the doctor chooses to take the drug and take the pregnancy to full-term, the sunny Californian setting turns into a dark and rainy setting reminiscent of Hammer horror. This, in turn is set within a wholly suburban and rather mundane setting in that the houses, laboratories and libraries are displayed as being rather generic. This happy, cosy, suburban setting jars slightly against the science-fiction signifiers, but ultimately boosts the film to give it an extra dimension and lift it from its more generic counterparts.

Perhaps the most culturally significant aspect of the work however is the simple fact that all the characters involved become nuclear families at the end of the film. Although he takes on the mother role by carrying the baby, the character of Hesse also becomes embroiled in portraying a father figure, noted when he becomes emotional at seeing an advertisement on TV depicting a father giving his daughter away on her wedding day. Hesse may have found problems coming to terms with essentially both the maternal and paternal feelings towards the child, but he quickly reverts to the fatherly role, saying to the new baby “Daddy loves you,” and when handing her to Reddin “Here’s your Mommy.”

In experiencing both pregnancy and fatherhood Hesse’s character is displayed as the ultimate father figure. Promoted to a Western audience, where the notion of nuclear family is rapidly deteriorating, this perhaps displays another key moment of optimism. The final shot is of both Arbogast, reunited with his ex-wife and her child, and Hesse and a now pregnant Reddin, celebrating both of their children’s birthdays on the beach. It is an idyll of happy family life, and pushes the fact that the children of the two unlikely couples will  be loved and cared for. With the figures showing an estimated 21.7 million children in the US are part of a single parent family, and only 24% of the population made up of married couples with children, (www.parentswithoutpartners.org) and up to 1.9 million lone parents in the UK (www.oneparentfamilies.org) it could be argued that Junior is making the ultimate social statement by suggesting that extreme measures are sometimes the best way to hold up the traditional notion of family.

In making this kind of effective comment on society, and by transcending a number of genres – from comedy, to romance, to science-fiction, to ultimately a family film - this study would conclude that Junior is lifted from being a simple piece of film-making to a delicately crafted piece of social commentary. By doing so, the film in essence becomes an artwork in it's own right. Critically, the piece also fulfils the original criterion displayed in the introduction by fleshing out rounded characters in unexpected moulds, (for example the intelligent doctor with a body-builder’s physique) by supplying an thought-provoking and boundary-pushing plot, and by displaying different facets to the film through use of signs and signifiers.

In conclusion, this brief would argue that the film is indeed a pioneering work, but has not been termed as such for the simple reason that the piece has not been viewed in the correct context. Instead, the brief argues that Junior is not a “one joke movie”, but is instead a film that, at the time of release, was pioneering new film-making ideals by addressing elements of non-places and banality, without falling into the trap of making the film itself a banal non-entity. This, coupled with the social commentary the film provides on a subject that applies significantly to almost every viewer in some manner or another, makes Junior not only a monumental work, but one which could be termed as one of the greatest films of all time.

 


Bibliography

 

Books

Auge, M. 1995, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity Trans. John Howe, London: Verso

Barthes, R. 1977, “Elements of Sociology”, New York: Hill & Wang

Poster, M. (ed), 1988, “Selected Writings”, Stanford: Stanford University

Kaufman, W. (ed) 1989, “Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre”, USA: Meridian Publishing Company

Freud, S. 1911, “The Interpretation of Dreams: 3rd edition”, USA: Plain Label Books

 

Articles

Jameson, F. “Critical Agendas”, Science Fiction Studies, No 50, Volume 17, March 1990

Jameson, F. "Clinging to the Wreckage: A Conversation with Stuart Hall", Marxism Today, September 1990

No author, “ Junior film review,” Time Out Magazine, Issue 13, July 1994

 

Websites

 

BBC Profile: Arnold Schwarzenegger

www.parentswithoutpartners.org

www.oneparentfamilies.org

www.imdb.com

www.afi.com

 

Films

 

Commando (1985: Mark Lester)

Predator (1987: John McTiernan)

Twins (1988: Ivan Reitman)

Junior (1994: Ivan Reitman)

The Mask (1994: Chuck Russell)

Pulp Fiction (1994: Quentin Tarantino)

Elephant (2003: Gus Van Sant)

 

 


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