THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (Noah Baumbach, USA, 2005, 9)
“Our little boy is four years old and quite a little man
So we spell out the words we don’t want him to understand …
Watch him smile, he thinks it Christmas or his 5th Birthday
And he thinks C-U-S-T-O-D-Y spells fun or play”
— Tammy Wynette, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”
The very first scene in “The Squid and the Whale” is a family tennis match, father Bernard (Jeff Daniels), mother Joan (Laura Linney), high-school-age son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and a younger son on the cusp of puberty Frank (Owen Kline). And there’s something “off” — Dad is telling his partner to hit the ball as hard as he can, right at Mom. Now this is, in fact, the central unchivalric strategy in mixed doubles — the women’s game is slower and softer. But hypercompetitive Dad doesn’t understand the difference between a family occasion and Centre Court at Wimbledon, and acts all puzzled when mom walks off the court in disgust. He sleeps on the couch that night.
But though the subtext here is as poisonous as an Ingmar Bergman marital quarrel, the sequence is typical of how “The Squid and the Whale” operates — it’s not a harrowing Bergman-like movie at all, instead coming in the form of a muted comedy of manners set in the world of Manhattan’s Smart Set, where the typical marriage involves two parents with literary ambitions, million-dollar brownstones, private academies. And divorce. A gentile Woody Allen World, in other words.
It comes as no surprise when, very early on, the parents call their sons down for The Talk (this is the scene we see on the film’s poster). They will be getting a divorce. Dad will be moving out. They’ve agreed to joint custody. But, they assure the children, they still love them and nothing will be different for them. And if you believe that … These kids know how to spell. And what words mean.
The rest of the movie deals with the fallout from this explosion (the film’s tagline at the Internet Movie Database is “Joint Custody Blows”). It’s familiar to all sociologists who study the divorce culture, but which a great work of art can make you see and feel, both in the particular details of the Manhattan Smart Set physical plant and its more universal psychological territory. (I saw “The Squid and the Whale” with a red-state critic friend about my age whose parents divorced in the 80s, and he said it was like watching his teenage life.) It’s all there — new couplings for the parents, the headaches of switching homes every other day, weird and perverse forms of acting out by the boys, contentiousness over custody time and what the children do around the other parent, and (this was the most impressive part) the way the sons drift toward one parent or the other and wind up de facto “divorcing” each other, as if the sins of the parents are passed on. In one telling scene, Dad plays ping-pong with Frank, who has more-or-less sided with Mom. And Dad repeats the same attitude he had in the opening tennis match, as if it’s all that’s happened is water off rocks to him.
I’d never seen anything previous by writer-director Noah Baumbach, but this film had the feel of one of Whit Stillman’s upper-class New York comedies — scaldingly truthful, precisely observed, more wryly amusing than gut-busting, and with characters so self-absorbed they don’t know they’re funny. The script is filled with gems of dialog and just-so details that create this Manhattan divorce culture of clueless pretension. The characters’ behavior throughout is hyper — hyperaggressive, hyperarticulate, hypertalkative, hypersensitive, even hyper-passive-aggressive (if that makes any sense).
All evidence from what we see of his housekeeping to the contrary, Dad insists that he did in fact do his fair share of kitchen work — “I made burgers that time you had pneumonia.” On the wall of the elder son’s new room (and nothing is made of it in the shots it’s seen) is a movie poster for the 70s French classic “The Mother and the Whore” — I nearly laughed myself silly (practically alone among the huge Toronto Film Festival audience), not just at the obvious title and the less-obvious milieu similarities between the movies, but at the “just-so-ness” of a teen in this world having a 3 1/2-hour French art film poster on his otherwise-empty wall, like a boy in Minnesota might cram his with hockey posters. Baumbach also shows the way people have to pretend to knowledge they don’t have and can never profess ignorance — I’ll forever treasure a discussion of “Metamorphosis” in which a potential girlfriend asks Walt about Kafka’s use of something-or-other and Walt vaguely says, “it was very Kafkaesque.” And it comes out rather bluntly that one factor in the divorce was jealousy surrounding the parents’ literary fortunes — dad’s falling, and mom’s rising after years in his shadow.
The film is very specifically set in the 1980s and every detail feels right to this person born in 1966, only without overloading the film with arch cuteness like Baumbach’s producer and collaborator Wes Anderson does. The grainy film stock and slightly recessive color gives “The Squid and the Whale” the look of a 20-year-old film print, like we’re voyeuristically looking at someone’s 1980s-made home movies (which we may be; Daniels’ character is reportedly based on Baumbach’s father and Walt is obviously an authorial surrogate). A seduction is scored to Bryan Adams’ “Run to You” (perfect) and one poignant scene is scored to Schoolhouse Rock’s “Figure 8” (almost brought tears to my eyes, especially when it went on for far longer than I expected).
There is not a weak performance in the film. Who could have believed that Jeff Daniels, who made a successful comedy a la Farrelly Brothers (“Dumb and Dumber”), could be just as good in this sort of comedy — creating a man for whom being right is everything and the only thing, a man so clueless and self-absorbed as to argue “sampling”-like points of intellectual property law with the principal when his son is caught red-handed in an act of musical plagiarism. Laura Linney is a kind of postmodern Earth Mother — the casting says it all. She just exudes the role, never seeming to “act” around the hyperarticulate males surrounding her. Jesse Eisenberg (experienced in playing this milieu from “Roger Dodger” a couple of years ago) plays the elder brother, and you can almost see him, both Eisenberg and the character, grow up into one of the characters Baumbach regular Chris Eigeman plays in Stillman’s movies. And why he gravitates to his father (while hating him) and blames the mother. And miracle of miracles, we actually get a strong performance from one of The Lesser Baldwins (William) as Ivan, the club tennis pro. Playing a dumb, goofy studboy was obviously within his range.
EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (Liev Schreiber, USA/Ukraine, 2005, 4)
The key to what’s wrong is that awkward title, which sounds like it was written by someone for whom English is a second language (“things get clarified” or “everything becomes clear” are closer to idiomatic English). And, like someone speaking a second language, the strange mix of disparate tones and subject matter ILLUMINATED maintains always keeps everything just a little “off,” like in a David Lynch movie or NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (I speak as someone who is not a Lynch fan, THE STRAIGHT STORY aside, and who liked NAPOLEON some, but never joined the cult). Maybe those of us who criticize the solemnity of Holocaust movies like THE PIANIST, myself included, should think of this movie next time we want to hoot at such things.
The story is straightforward enough — young American Jew (Elijah Wood) travels to Ukraine, inspired by a deathbed conversation, to learn about his family’s WW2 past. He meets up with two incompetent tour guides and they spent much of ILLUMINATED on the road trying to find a village that doesn’t seem to exist (three guesses why … only people ignorant of 20th century history and who have never seen a movie get to guess though). But everything about the style and details are just too … “too.” Arch, Inconsistent. Off-putting. The contrast between Wood’s perfectly black, straight hair and his perfect pallid and smooth complexion is just too … too. Wood’s enormous ubernerd glasses are too … too.
The two Ukrainian tour guides, a grandfather-grandson team, are the too-est of the too. The grandson (Eugene Hutz), with his malaprop-filled accented English and love for famous Negroes like Michael Jackson (really — that’s the tone of this movie), is like a cross between Ali G and one of Sacha Baron Cohen’s other characters, Kazakh newsman Borat. The grandfather (Boris Leskin) only speaks Ukrainian throughout, is obviously contemptuous of the zhid in the car’s back seat and is supposedly blind, but manages to drive the car with the help of his seeing-eye bitch Sammy Davis Junior Jr. (is this getting annoying yet?).
Schreiber has much more of an eye than we might expect of the actor-turned-director, and he shoots ILLUMINATED like a mildly surreal fairy tale — the final destination is in the middle of a field of brilliant sunflowers that stretch uniformly for an impossible distance, but in the center is a splash of white bedsheets drying on the line. Schreiber varies and makes use of film stocks, splashes of color amid a generally drained-out pallette, and overexposure in light. I’d like to see what else Schreiber can do as a director.
This sniggering tone and hyper-real style is not my favorite even in the Indiewood coming-of-age emo comedies where it originated. But what is it doing in THIS movie, about a search for Holocaust victims and survivors? I was more … stupefied and alienated and distanced than exactly offended — how dare they desecrate the memory of Auschwitz etc. Except for when the time comes for The Big Revelatory Memory Speech, in Ukrainian. And now … Hutz suddenly and miraculously acquires the ability to translate into English that sounds like English. Revealing that what went before was a Slavic Minstrel Show.
Just be glad that Harvey Weinstein wasn’t in the biz around 1980. Otherwise look at what he’d have done to THE SHINING.
THE SHINING was actually one of the few films from that era that I recall seeing in a theater (the cinephilia bug bit in the late-1980s … prior to that I rarely went to movies.) I saw THE SHINING, at the Galaxy on I-35 and Austin Highway, with my parents and sister and was so queasily scared by it (not terrified exactly … I remember the feeling), that I asked to be excused at the moment I could no longer bear the tension … when Scatman Crothers arrives at the Overlook Hotel. While my parents and sister watched the rest of the movie, I went to the game room to play Space Invaders.
But really, is it much more risible than this (indisputably real) trailer for NOBODY KNOWS or the poster you see here with its blinding white light and greeting-card-like soft focus or the happy-giddy kid on the DVD box. (By the way, NOBODY KNOWS is now out on disc. You really should see it.) Now obviously, I take second-place to nobody in my love for NOBODY KNOWS. And Lord knows, I’m not an idealist — I accept that distributors have to make money and I pity the fool who had to sell Kore-eda’s movie. “Saddest movie I’ve ever seen” is accurate, but not exactly a recommendation to many. But jeez-louise … just viewing that trailer again right there, I actually laughed out loud at “about to embark on the journey of a lifetime.” Somebody deciding to go to NOBODY KNOWS based on that trailer would be in for a nasty shock
What these trailers prove irrefutably that a movie is not “what,” but “how.” This knowledge was obviously Old Hat who know about the Kuleshov Experiment and can name the actor Kuleshov used (Mozhukin, thank you very much). And this is why I pay little attention to trailers (they’re made to sell the movie, without regard to accurately reflecting the film) and no heed whatsoever to those who react to a movie, either in praise or denunciation, based on its subject matter (Christian groups regrettably too present among them). Individuals have their sweet spots obviously (I love boxing movies, for example), but subject matter is at best neutral and I’d probably say ultimately of no importance as it can be manipulated by editing, juxtaposition, scoring and plotting. A genius can make something out of nothing. A hack director or the wrong actors can mess up a brilliant script or story.
I think I’ll go lie down for a while …
You are ‘French’. In the nineteenth century, it
was the international language of diplomacy.
It is a ‘beautiful’ language, meaning that it
is really just a low-fidelity copy of Latin.
You know the importance of communicating
‘diplomatically’, which for you means both
being polite and friendly when necessary and
using sophisticated, vicious sarcasm when
appropriate. Your life is guided by either
existentialism or nihilism, depending on the
weather. You have a certain appreciation for
the finer things in life, which is a diplomatic
way of saying that you are a disgusting
hedonist. Your problem is that French has been
obsolete for a long time.