Friday, December 13, 2019

The Squid and the Whale

Director Noah Baumbach

The director surrounded by his cast at Sundance, 2005

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE                A-                   
USA  (88 mi)  2005  d:  Noah Baumbach

Joint custody blows

Hilarious, angry, and devastating all at the same time, an emotionally anguishing film, showing us a well-educated upper middle class Brooklyn family in deterioration, as the liberal-minded, openly progressive parents one day announce to their two close-knit sons that they are separating.  What follows is a walking nightmare for all participants, but especially devastating to the two boys, who are divided up like leftover helpings for dinner, mom’s night or dad’s night, with rules that they must strictly adhere to that make little or no sense.  Jeff Daniels plays Bernard, one of the most despicable characters seen onscreen short of a cold-blooded killer, a smug, overbearing know-it-all father who uses knowledge as an absolute, who was a successful writer at one time but now toils in obscurity as a literary professor, blaming everyone for his troubles but himself.  He’s a terrible judge of character, however, especially within his own family, as no one else’s opinion counts except his own, and he’s constantly defining the world around him with set-in-stone judgments and conclusions, including his own wife and children, confining them to a world that exists only in the narcissistic arrogance of his own mind, displaying little self-awareness, resorting to self-pity when he doesn’t get his way, reduced to his standard comeback, “Don’t be difficult.” As a result, the older son is a carbon copy, an opinionated copycat who blames his mom for their separation, simply because his dad does, and refuses to have anything to do with her.  Laura Linney as Joan is also a writer, but is constantly denigrated as second rate by dad, so when she breaks from the nest, it’s her writing that gets recognized, and with her newborn freedom, she literally blooms, like the lilies of the field, much to her husband and older 16-year old son (Jesse Eisenberg) Walt’s outright hatred and jealousy.  The younger 12-year old son Frank (Owen Kline) is more in tune with the softer nature of his mom, but as we watch his world unravel, it veers into painfully unfamiliar territory.  As time passes, everyone’s shortcomings become more evident, allowing emotional positions to shift.  What is amazing here is how much the children resemble their parents, where at times it’s downright creepy.    

Billy Baldwin, Anna Paquin and Halley Feiffer are all excellent in side roles, while the acting overall is superb.  Having the look of cinéma vérité, grainy, shot on Super 16mm with a handheld camera, this is one of the better written and edited films out there, as there is no wasted motion whatsoever, every scene flows so perfectly into the next, which is significant as the exquisite pacing increases the dramatic power by keeping everything so compact and concise.  What is said, and how it is said, is simultaneously humorous and brutal, like a variation on Mike Nichols’ Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), where words so skillfully utilized become weapons.  The film never dwells or lingers, and always adds the grace notes of wit and humor, but the cumulative effect reveals a slow deterioration of the kid’s personalities, with moments that feel like a descent into madness.  The accompanying music sounds dated, feeling like the epitome of indie light, much of it humorous references from other films, yet always in synch with the material, which is surprisingly original, brutally honest, and openly revelatory, revealing the intricate personal details of unraveling relationships from a divorce, where the safety net has been pulled out from under them, leaving them in a no man’s land of unfamiliar territory.  This is a people behaving badly film, displaying some of the more egregious behavior, yet the underlying circumstances of clashing forces are carefully scrutinized, particularly the effects on the children, often overlooked, yet here it becomes the central focus.  The film was written with them in mind, as Baumbach is a product of a mid 80’s divorce between two literary parents (novelist Jonathan Baumbach and former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown), where the personal details of this film speak like a confessional, weirdly bizarre yet so absurdly devastating, where the distance of time allows for a humorous perspective, which may be the director’s saving grace, as otherwise he’d be consumed by the depths of the horror and grief, as it’s a very male-centric film, where so much of the film is viewed through the lens of a wounded and self-absorbed male psyche, where the arrogance and outright delusions of the father are passed onto his sons, so representative of what today would be described as toxic male behavior. 

Much of the film revolves around the idea of privilege, almost exclusively white privilege, which allows you to get away with almost anything, as rich kids are overly pampered and nothing is ever their fault, where they’re given a longer leash than others in similar circumstances, as wealth offers an unspoken protection.  Using his father’s condescending literary opinions as gospel, Walt blindly mimics his every word, disparaging anyone else’s views, exactly as his father does, where all that matters to him is the ultimate judgement, speaking authoritatively, which he utters without even reading the material.  He actually manages to appear intellectual on the surface, yet has no underlying foundation.  This culminates with Walt winning a school talent contest with what he claims is an original song, except it was written by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Pink Floyd - Hey You (Official Video) YouTube (4:34), part of the best-selling album of 1980, The Wall, a rock opera selling over 30 million copies (and the best-selling concept double album ever), ending up having to return the prize money, offering the absurd explanation that he “could have written it,” which speaks to the entitlement these kids feel.  However, this also leads to a mandatory therapy session that is remarkable in its understated impact, as it literally opens a new door of self-realization, suddenly questioning for the first time the impact of hero worshipping his father.  Frank, on the other hand, is left alone so often that he routinely raids the liquor cabinet, drinking beer, uttering the profanity of a sailor on shore leave, while also developing abnormal sexual habits that are beyond disturbing, accentuated by the music of Tangerine Dream, Tangerine Dream Love on a real train original - YouTube (5:12), which comes into play when his father inexplicably leaves him alone for three days (with his mother on a trip out of town), never bothering to pick him up, as scheduled.  One of the greatest strengths of the film is the depiction of the parents, whose separate lives are so meticulously organized, right down to who gets the cat on what night, so their neglectful behavior, particularly when it comes to Frank, just seems so improbable.  It does not seem very likely that such well-educated parents, clueless and self-centered as they are, whose interest in their children borders on the obsessive, would allow that to happen, yet it’s a clear indication of falling through the cracks, where the hideousness of this act can’t be overstated.  The spiraling aftereffects of their marital breakup are starkly accurate, unsparing and brutally depicted, at worst sad and psychologically horrific, where it takes the poetry and painful anguish of consummate New Yorker Lou Reed, Lou Reed - Street Hassle (complete music video) - YouTube (11:00), to turn these catastrophic events into an anthem for our times. 

Sundance Directing Award 
American dramatic: Noah Baumbach, “The Squid and the Whale”

Sundance Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award 
American dramatic: Noah Baumbach, “The Squid and the Whale”

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