Monday, November 4, 2019

Noah Baumbach | The Squid and the Whale


amnesia in the cinema palace
by Douglas Messerli

Noah Baumbach (writer and director) The Squid and the Whale / 2005

Strange to say, I saw Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale in 2005, when it was originally released; yet the other day when I watched this film once again, partly in tribute to Noah’s father, Jonathan, who died in March of this year, I perceived that I had recalled only one single incident of it, the very last scene showing the diorama depicting the film’s title at American Museum of Natural History.
      Usually, when I revisit a film, the images immediately help to recall my original perceptions, or at the very least, my emotional reactions to the first experience of the movie. But this time, except for the fact that I had found it a likeable film, if not totally loveable work, was all that I could call forward from the not so distant past. It was as if I were seeing the work for the very first time.
     Perhaps there are a few reasons for the temporary amnesia. My first serious lover was a curator at the American Museum of Natural History and, more importantly, as a long-time distributor of the Fiction Collective (publisher of several of their authors), I had known—I am sorry to say not very favorably—Noah’s father, who is at the very center of this film, Jonathan Baumbach. It is not that I disliked him for I didn’t know him well, and he was one of the few Fiction Collective writers who I never read.
     I knew the works of Fanny Howe, Marianne Hauser, Russell Banks, Curtis White—all of whom I would later publish on my Sun & Moon Press—inside out. I’d read all their contributions, but nothing by Baumbach. Perhaps, I can now assume, it is because he was perhaps too close to being the egocentric writer of his son’s somewhat admiring film. And just maybe I found him a bit too much like me: dismissive of un-adventuresome narratives, prickly about those who did not admire film, art, music, fiction, poetry, dance, theater, and other such activities, and caught up in my own world of creation.
     I have always loved children and have longed wish that may husband Howard and I might have adopted a daughter or son. I have imagined that I might have been a very loving father. Yet perhaps I might have been a father not so very unlike the younger Baumbach’s paternal character, Bernard Berkman (an excellent Jeff Daniels), basically ignoring my imaginary child, while immersing myself in my “more serious” activities.
     The very fact that Bernard (as did Jonathan) writes so many fictions, teaches, and in Noah’s father’s case, regularly reviewed film, suggests he didn’t spend so very many hours in the home with his children on his lap.
      Jonathan was married two times (the first was annulled) before he married Noah’s (in the film named Walt, played by Jesse Eisenberg) and his son Frank’s (Owen Kline) mother, here named Joan (Laura Linney).
     Joan, having clearly long ago fallen out of the love with the dashing younger writer, has herself had several affairs. She, also a writer, has found important journals willing to publish her fictions, and the great commercial publisher Knopf has just accepted her full novel, while her husband’s experimental “metafictions” are rejected again and again.

     The film, accordingly, begins with the always unpleasant occasion when parents have to sit down for a discussion with their children to explain that they are seeking a divorce. Noah, fortunately, a very deft writer—obviously inheriting both his mother’s more straight-forward skills and some of his father’s more experimental techniques—is able to balance the tragedy of the situation with the comical absurdity of it. As they try nicely to explain that they both love the boys, and have determined to share joint custody, it sounds increasing more transactional, as they attempt to even up a 7-day week, by 3 and 3, sharing the final day by alternate weeks, while not at all being able to even imagine how this back-and-forth series of travels might effect their kids, who now, since their father will live across Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in a much run-down home since he can no longer afford the Park Slope’s expensive rents. And they haven’t even contemplated who gets the cat or factored in Frank’s beloved turtles. Bernard purchases a cheap school chair for Frank to use as a desk, without even perceiving that the chair is for a left-handed person. The walls of his new abode are scaling, while he attempts to pretend it is a mirror-image of their other (mother’s) home.
      The jokes move on, except in the author/director’s telling there are always tears behind them. As often happens in such situations, the boys choose sides, Walt eliding with his supposedly “intellectual” father, while Frank simply wants to return to what he perceives as his “cast off” mother.
      But even that doesn’t work very well for them. Although Walt finds a lovely girlfriend, Sophie Greenberg (Halley Feiffer) and even seems to nicely charm her family, he treats her as selfishly has his father has treated his wives. Frank begins to masturbate in the school library, smearing his cum across the library books. Walt sings a lovely song with guitar, "Hey You," at a high school musical contest, which he easily wins—failing to tell them that the piece, which he claims to have written, is actually by Pink Floyd.
     Who can blame them for acting out their anger? At home, Frank’s mother is now bedding down with his tennis teacher, the dorky Ivan (William Baldwin), while Walt’s beloved father is screwing his bad-writing “feminist” student, Lili (Anna Paquin), who has moved into their decrepit house. The children have been betrayed by their parents. As one of Walt’s school-friends tells him “joint custody sucks.” The parents each declare that it is “their time,” as if the feelings of their boys do not matter in the least.
      Sent to a school therapist, Walt jauntily dismisses the therapist’s probing’s until he is asked to remember anything joyful about his mother. Suddenly, he recalls their trips to the American Museum of Natural History with her, and his terror of “The Squid and the Whale,” which he could view only through his fingers covering over his eyes.
      Symbolically, of course, and far, far better written than Bernard’s female student, it represents the already festering fear of the gigantic being swallowing up and devouring the crafty multi-armed other being: the father and the mother. And in that image, Walt realizes that most of his cultural activities were really the result of the multi-tasking squid, rather than the constantly devouring ego of the other.
      I must remind myself and my audience that this film is not an actual picture of that family. It is a fictionalized one, with a great deal of joy shining through the bleaker realities.
     But I do, as a small publisher, understand the whale, particularly when one day in 1990 my small warehouse across from my Wilshire Blvd. office received box after box of another telling of this story, Jonathan Baumbach’s Separate Hours.
      Usually, the Fiction Collective writers, who paid for their own wonderful publications, ordered up 500-1000 copies. Baumbach had ordered 2,000-3,000 copies; and I suddenly knew that if I continued to distribute Fiction Collective titles, I would be living with these boxes for year after year.
      Obviously, I must read some of those books.

Los Angeles, November 11, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2019).

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