Sneak Preview: "The Squid and the Whale"—Trashing Bourgeois Narcisissm

by scrumtrelescent
September 28, 2005 4:12 AM
16 Comments
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Apparently Yuppies haven't been skewered enough on film, because Noah Baumbach feels compelled to do so in The Squid and the Whale. Baumbach, who already shares the dubious distinction of co-writing The Life Aquatic, also is now guilty of openly stealing from his partner Wes Anderson. Squid feels like vérité Tenenbaums lite, mining the same terrain sans similar visual élan—and populated with folks who are even more vacuous and disagreable. Jeff Daniels is Bernard, a morass of Brooklyn upper-middle-class, faux-intelligentsia bourgeois liberalism, trapped in a viciously defended cul-de-sac of his own self-righteous language. Coping (badly, mind you) with the public's waning interest in his novels, he adopts a wearily predictable obsession with reading the "right books" and seeing "interesting films"—while disdaining those who don't as "Philistines." His wife Joan (Laura Linney) is an up-and-coming author; a barely registered screen presence whose worst offences are surreptitiously screwing said "Philistines" and becoming more critically acclaimed than her hubby. And then the parents pass on their neuroses to their sons. The elder spews Dad's haughty middle-brow wisdom at school to pick up naive chicks while the younger copes with his parents' separation and abandonment—first figurative, then literal—by chugging cans of beer, or by jerking off at school and spreading his spooge on lockers and library books. Ugh. Sometimes the jokes write themselves.

At Squid's NYFF press conference, Baumbach confessed to a high degree of autobiographical detail. He lived in the same Park Slope neighbourhood, experienced a similarly messy divorce, even played tennis in the very same arena. So you'd be forgiven for expecting his characters to be a mite sympathetic. The kids, maybe: they absorb their parents' anxieties by osmosis and can't help themselves. But Bernard is positively hateful. I'm supposed to care about a guy who is more in love with books and inflicting emotional damage on his ex ("I feel banished" is but one memorable line spat at Joan as she kicks Bernard out of her house) than his kids? I can take him as farce, but if that's the case, making a straw man out of a despairing failed author facing a mid-life crisis is facile for a director-screenwriter of such obvious intelligence and verbal dexterity.

My vitriol was tempered today by Eshman, who said (and correct me if I'm wrong), there was a certain comfort in watching The Squid and the Whale, because he's old enough to have remembered that era of the mid-80s, and all its ambient artefacts—clothing, trinkets, and especially the soundtrack. And maybe I'm about 6 years too young to share the same feeling, which is one reason why it doesn't speak to me. But warm and fuzzy nostalgia is a neither a necessary nor sufficient condition to proclaim a film "great."

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16 Comments

  • filmenthusiast2000 | September 29, 2005 4:06 AMReply

    Never has an HTML-inserted train wreck picture felt so very ,very necessary.

  • Werebiginjapan | September 29, 2005 1:20 AMReply

    I'm not saying that divorce is an invalid subject, but that Baumbach treats its destabilizing influences in a way that is too schematic. And as for Dad, the Allen comparison is apt, but what I'm trying to get at is where laughter and sympathy are directed. With Allen (particularly in the best stuff), there's a mote of self-loathing that makes his dithering strangely compelling. With Bernard, I'm trying to understand why there's a lot sympathy out there for him. Allen is lovably (and interestingly) flawed; with so many negative traits, Bernard is not.

  • eshman | September 28, 2005 12:59 PMReply

    Because, like, the family was broken before the divorce happened (fucking up the kids), and then divorce further fucks them and everything else up. Is Divorce an invalid topic for a film? Is Appealing-ness necessary for connecting to a character? Is the Woody Allen character in all of his best films not as flawed and self-destructive (and pretentious) as this one?

  • Werebiginjapan | September 28, 2005 12:37 PMReply

    (The above should finish off: as well. Different circumstance, but containing the same characters who to me feel made fun of, not celebrated for all their flaws.) And one more point--the kids are already fucked-up before their parents split each other; why does Divorce renting a kid's psyche all of the sudden become interesting again?

  • Werebiginjapan | September 28, 2005 12:32 PMReply

    As the original poster, I feel compelled to respond. I'm in honestly a little miffed at all the talk that sentimentalizes the Dad's behaviour. There's imperfect, there's deeply flawed, and then there's a character accreting so many flaws as to be parodic (and to my mind uninteresting). Which is why it's not reductive no wrong-headed: there is nothing to like about Jeff Daniels' character, because he's a respository of the worst bourgeois-liberal blah blah blah. Why is this appealing? Why do people jizz all over Napoleon Dynamite?

  • filmenthusiast2000 | September 28, 2005 9:22 AMReply

    Indeed robbiefreeling, hooray for FUCK YOU!

  • clarencecarter | September 28, 2005 9:09 AMReply

    Who wants to start the thread on the new Bujalski? That'll be a shit/jizz-storm the likes of which this blog has never seen.

  • robbiefreeling | September 28, 2005 9:01 AMReply

    Interesting that such an admittedly gentle little film has provoked so much angry discourse. Hooray for cinema and its polarizing attributes!

  • eshman | September 28, 2005 8:16 AMReply

    3...3.

    Right, I'm sure this will only play to those New York audiences that have great affection for irascible life-wrecking fathers and thirtysomethings that jizzed into Burger King glasses with that particular Park Slope-priviledged abandon. Nothing here for flyover country, except for like, I don't know, anger and sadness and confusion, which no one really knows or cares anything about except for us...3.

  • clarencecarter | September 28, 2005 8:02 AMReply

    Well, I'm 27, don't remember the 80s all the well (or fondly), still jizz an awful lot, had an average two-parent upbringing with mostly literate parents and haven't seen 'Squid' yet. That said, it's awesome. And minor.

  • robbiefreeling | September 28, 2005 7:50 AMReply

    Minor only in that it really has an audience of about 3.

  • filmenthusiast2000 | September 28, 2005 7:39 AMReply

    We could quibble for a good long while on the definition of a minor film, but let's not go revamping A.O. Scott's 'Sideways' backlash just yet... Or ever, actually.

  • robbiefreeling | September 28, 2005 7:11 AMReply

    Didn't want to have to get "personal" but it is Baumbach's "gently autobiographical" tale after all...

    I certainly never meant to be self-aggrandizing or to imply that my upbringing was model...my dad's bemusement hid a shitload of repression and unhappiness that's all spilled out over the past 10 years and the fact that he read only Motor Trend proves that he's nearly illiterate and had a number of undisclosed learning disabilities. Just trying to prove that reaction to this film will be completely based on subjective experience. Which to me means that Baumbach didn't engage me enough to believe that I should be watching this story. There's nothing overtly wrong with the film-- it's remarkably restrained and reservedly shot, in fact--it's just that it remains particularly hermetic. And ultimately there's nothing wrong with a minor film. But let's call a spade a spade.

  • eshman | September 28, 2005 6:53 AMReply

    West Anderson. Who's that guy?

  • robbiefreeling | September 28, 2005 4:57 AMReply

    I was left relatively cold as well, as I am with most films about churlish intellectual dads passing their bad social traits and judgments onto their kids. I don't agree that the film is honoring the Bernard character (and Daniels is good in the role, nice and self-righteous and withered), though, as much as just falling into the easy Tenenbaum trap of trying to redeem an adorable curmudgeon. The more irascible he becomes the more we appluad; abusive? even better.

    Oddly, there's nothing more crowdpleasing it seems than witnessing horribly selfish middle-aged men passing bad values onto their priveleged kids...this shit really PLAYS in New York. Could be my own personal experience (my Dad read only Motor Trend and spent most of his life with a bemused smile plastered on his face, and was very forthcoming with the hugs and kisses) but Bernard wore me out after five minutes of screen time.

    And forget about the fact that that little kid (who I think was pretty unwatchable as as far as young actors go) was cumming all over the school library (I mean...come on) what 10-12 year old spooges that much in the first place?

  • eshman | September 28, 2005 4:38 AMReply

    Nor should it ever be. My positive feeling after seeing S&W was perhaps influenced by an affinity with its milieu, but I wouldn't call it warm and fuzzy, and considering this is puberty we're talking about, I wouldn't call it nostalgia. I'd call it understanding and remembering what a Lou Reed song can mean to a sixteen year old, and recalling which lies of intellectual pretention are the most self-exposing. Each character is exposed where and when it most hurts, but mostly gently, and not uncomplicatedly (though the complications are a bit too schematic). We saw the same film, Werebig, but I felt something else. If it's due to my own strange (though probably terribly banal) coming of age, it wouldn't be the first time.