Don Jon and Chloe in the Afternoon: Rare movies that successfully illustrate habitual action

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From the fantasy sequence of Rohmers Chloe in the Afternoon
  • From the fantasy sequence of Rohmer's Chloe in the Afternoon
In Don Jon, his debut feature as writer-director, Joseph Gordon-Levitt ponders one of the oldest questions in movies: How do you convey habitual action on film? Moving images are naturally suited for the present tense, though soon after their invention filmmakers developed ways to speak in past tense: flashbacks, or superimpositions that visualize a character's memories. Alain Resnais innovated a "future conditional" tense for movies in such works as La Guerre est Finie (1966), illustrating what might happen based on characters' speculations. Habitual action is harder to illustrate, since images (moving and otherwise) have a way of proclaiming their individuality. Even if a narrator tells us, "Every Sunday I go to church," the accompanying image only shows us what he does on this particular Sunday.

Don Jon begins with the title character listing his primary obsessions, which include attending church, working out, watching Internet porn, and going clubbing. The rhythmic editing gives a clue as to how reliable his behavior is, suggesting that if one image in this sequence was replaced it would nevertheless conform to the same beat. These moments reminded me of the opening of Eric Rohmer's Chloe in the Afternoon (1972), which also features the main character explaining his regular routine and contains some of the understated filmmaker's jazziest editing. I don't want to imply that these films are particularly similar—though it's worth noting that sexual fantasies also comprise part of the routine in Rohmer's film and that they also go from structuring the hero's daily life to nearly derailing it. But since so few films devote such creative effort to illustrating habitual action, it was one of the only points of reference that came to mind.

Another similarity: both films introduce their protagonists through habitual actions to suggest that they've become complacent about their lifestyles (and that the story we're about to see will show them being shaken from that complacency). In Chloe, the lifestyle in question is bourgeois, monogamous, and structured mainly by familial and professional duties; in Don Jon, the lifestyle is plebeian and generally hedonistic. In both, the underlying question is how conformist attitudes take shape. Gordon-Levitt's film argues that web-surfing habits can routinize our behavior on the whole: consider Jon's Pavlovian response to the sound of his MacBook powering up. The impatient editing of the early dialogue scenes conveys Jon's decimated attention span; the pacing suggests a chronic web surfer's approach to life, parsing any situation for necessary information before flitting to the next bright thing.

I'm glad I didn't review Don Jon. I still haven't disentangled its virtues from its egregious shortcomings, such as the grating Italian-American stereotypes or Gordon-Levitt's tendency to critique romantic-comedy cliches with countercliches. But I admire the film's relatable musings about how the Internet might be changing life for the worse, a subject that most movies (outside of moralizing, one-note art films like Afterschool or Disconnect) are too embarrassed to broach.

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