Last week I went to the Castro Theatre for the first time since before the before to catch a tribute to Jenny Slate, as part of the SF Film Festival, which included a conversation with Slate before and after a screening of her new movie, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.

You likely recall the viral video. In making a feature-length version (which took 7 years), Slate and collaborator Dean Fleischer-Camp found a narrative where Marcel’s community of shells has been lost and he’s alone with his grandmother, Nana Connie.[1] And in talking about how they made a funny 3-minute video into a funny 90-minute film, Slate made it clear that the work they did was very serious. ‘I mean, it’s funny,’ she assured us, ‘but the only way that could work is if we stayed very serious to the characters’ lives.’

This is Del Closean Truth in Comedy improv 101, I know, but it bears repeating, and reminds me of a moment in a TV special on the AFI’s Top 100 Films of all time, where Dustin Hoffman talks about why he wanted to be in Tootsie, and in doing his best to talk about wanting to honor and get to know interesting women, he chokes up and says, ‘That was never a comedy for me.’

And then reminded me also of this line from an interview with the writer Elizabeth McCracken:

I can’t say that I have any religious belief, but to the extent to which I believe there is redemption in the world of sadness, it is through black humor. In the worst moments of my life, there is always a joke to be made, and that’s a deep comfort to me. It’s not putting off sad feelings; it’s part of sad things.

I share her faith. I really want you to go see this movie, so I’ll say little about it that’ll spoil the magic. But there’s a moment halfway through where Nana Connie is trying to get Marcel to say yes to what he’s been saying no to. ‘But what if everything changes?’ he asks, in tears. ‘Again?’

‘It will,’ Nana Connie says.

And Marcel sighs an exact sigh I’ve made dozens of times in my life, times when I don’t want to have to do it, even though I know I should. Most of my life the only status quo I’ve claimed to like is this one, but in my 40s I’m suddenly aware how quickly I’ll act (or refuse to) just to uphold whatever status quo I’ve achieved in this part of my life.

It’s a confusion of comfort for happiness, this habit. It privileges equilibrium over thriving. That I was moved to tears in a scene where two shells with googly eyes stop-motion waddled next to each other on a windowsill is just one reason why you should go see the movie.

Afterward, somebody in the audience asked Slate how she’s able to be so vulnerable in her work, and allow me to paraphrase her response:

I don’t feel vulnerable when I’m working. And I say this as someone who feels vulnerable all the time as a person just living my life in the world. But when I’m working I’m guided by something else. It’s like those cooking shows where the chefs have an enormous pantry full of everything and I’m like, Why don’t you just cook oatmeal? Like, how are you not so overwhelmed? And for me that’s creating: there’s always so much you can do or make, so for me it’s about appetite. It’s asking, what makes me feel hungry as a maker and what can I make that will satisfy that hunger?

Slate said she’s looking for projects that let her do more than the outlandish characters she’s made gems out of so far in her career. Her metaphor here was a panther on a leash. I want for her something like what comic actors Bob Odenkirk and Bryan Cranston got from the Gilliganverse. And I want for me some of the same, if on a slightly smaller scale.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Voiced, perfectly, by Isabella Rossellini.