Walking and Talking
|Photo by Max S. Gerber|
Near the end of writer-director Noah Baumbachs debut feature, Kicking and Screaming, theres a scene in which Grover (Josh Hamilton), a terminally indecisive, recently graduated English major in an unspecified East Coast college town, bounds up to an airline ticket counter and demands to be put on the next flight to Prague, where his ex-girlfriend, Jane (Olivia DAbo), is studying for a year. I have to go, he pleads. I know that when I review this whole episode in my head, Im not going to know what I did or why I did it. But itll make a good story of my young adult life: the time I chose to go to Prague. Its a setup for one of those grandly romantic airport finales youve seen in a thousand movies, save for one sticky detail. Grover realizes he doesnt have his passport people in grandly romantic airport finales arent supposed to need passports, are they? to which the ticket agent sympathetically replies, You can always go tomorrow. Would that it were so easy.
Baumbach was 25 years old when he wrote and directed that scene, looking back on his college years from the wide end of the telescope. When I saw the movie in the fall of 1995, I was still a student at USC, for whom the world of post-collegiate responsibility seemed like a distant galaxy. Yet, in spite of that gap, as I watched Grovers destiny play out on the screen, Baumbachs film felt truthful and lived-in to me in a way that the raft of other so-called Generation X movies with their masturbatory, were-doomed-to-be-less-successful-than-our-parents musings didnt. Unlike them, it had something meaningful to say about what it was to be young and unmoored at the tail end of the 20th century. And I took comfort in Grovers conviction that one solitary, impulsive gesture might alter the entire course of a life. Writing about the film in the pages of our campus newspaper, I (somewhat grandly) pronounced, You dont have to be twentysomething in order to understand [the movies] sense of confused hesitation. We all constantly reconcile our wistful longings with the harsh realities of life... as we are brought, kicking and screaming, into the real world whatever that may be. Pulling that yellowed volume down from a bookshelf as I began to write this article, I noticed that the review was printed directly opposite an advertisement for, of all things, the study-abroad program at the American University of Paris.
In the years since, as Baumbach continued to make films and I continued to write about them, I watched the progression of his career with interest, no matter how rare the opportunities. Baumbachs second feature, Mr. Jealousy (1997), was a modestly diverting romantic comedy, very much under the sign of Woody Allen, about a neurotic New York schoolteacher (Eric Stoltz) so paranoid about his girlfriends ex-boyfriends that he ends up joining the group-therapy session of a renowned psychiatrist (a preSopranos Peter Bogdanovich) just to spy on one of them. Then, with most of the same cast and crew many of them already holdovers from Kicking Baumbach embarked on Highball, an improvisational romp shot over six days immediately following the wrap of Mr. Jealousy. The movie was never properly finished; Baumbach had a falling out with the producer and, by the time Highball emerged on video, hed replaced his name with a pseudonym. After that, nothing. Not a peep from Baumbach for the better part of the next decade.
The honest answer is that I really wanted to make a movie very badly, Baumbach says in retrospect. I did a book adaptation. I wrote a pilot that got shot but didnt get picked up. There were a lot of possibilities. But when I look back on it now, in a way it was good that none of those things happened, because I think they all kind of got me here.
Here is The Squid and the Whale, Baumbachs wry, beautifully observed account of two brothers coming of age as their parents marriage crumbles around them. Premiering in the dramatic competition of the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, it won awards for best screenplay and best director, signaling a welcome end to its creators long artistic drought and prompting Baumbach to remark that he felt like hed finally made his first real movie. When I ask Baumbach to elaborate on that, he says, Its one of those things thats true its an honest answer yet in some ways, I dont know what it means. But I stick with it because its an honest answer. I think its just a representation of who I am now versus who I was when I was 25 or 28.
On a sunny Friday afternoon in late September, Baumbach and I are walking down Broadway, just after the official New York Film Festival press screening of The Squid and the Whale. Its the start of a busy few days for the filmmaker that will include two appearances at the concurrent New Yorker festival on Saturday, an onstage interview about the film, and on Sunday, a reading of one of Baumbachs contributions to the magazines Shouts & Murmurs section, about a dog who thinks hes Tom Cruise. Baumbach says hes been practicing his adrenalized bark at home with his longtime girlfriend and, as of Labor Day, wife actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Then, on Monday night, Squid will have its gala NYFF screening before a crowd that includes lots of old friends and Baumbachs parents, author Jonathan Baumbach (The Return of Service, Babble) and former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown. Their divorce, when Noah was 14, served as a starting point for the script. But while he shot his third authorized feature on the very streets where he grew up, and even dressed star Jeff Daniels in items borrowed from his fathers wardrobe, Baumbach is quick to downplay the idea that the film is an exact historical record of his youth. When I talk about this being in some ways my most personal movie, Im really thinking less of the subject matter than the aesthetic the way its written, the way its shot, the way its acted, the way its art-directed, everything, he says as we sit down for lunch at a nearby restaurant. I feel like it represents me the whole thing is me in a way and Im not thinking, Oh, thats my father, my mother, me, my brother. Im not looking at it that way. Obviously, writing about material that was close to me was part of it, but at the same time I felt like Id written the best script that Id ever written, Id raised the bar for myself, and now I had to make this movie. I got a little scared. I didnt want to fuck it up.
The Squid and the Whale doesnt look or feel like any movie Baumbach has made before the rhythms are looser, the textures are rougher, the emotions are rawer but its of a piece with his earlier work in its uncommon sensitivity to the ways in which people try to make relationships work, often for worse rather than better. Set in Brooklyn in the mid-1980s, the film canvasses several months in the lives of the Berkman family novelist Bernard (Daniels), aspiring writer Joan (Laura Linney) and their two sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline) beginning with a decidedly unfriendly game of family tennis and culminating in an achingly soulful moment (set to the sawing string arrangements of Lou Reeds Street Hassle) when 16-year-old Walt comes to put away childhood fears, and notions of his parents as perfect people. In between, Squid performs an autopsy on that failed social experiment known as joint custody, and peers deeply into those grievous wounds unwittingly inflicted on children by parents who think from their heads before their hearts. The result may be the most acutely honest onscreen bust-up of an American family since Alan Parkers sadly forgotten Shoot the Moon (1982) and I speak as one whose own parents marriage was imploding in just these same years. Before the films ultra-compact 80 minutes are up, all of the Berkmans will behave both heroically and reprehensibly. There will be no forced moments of redemption or reconciliation. And then, at the height of our emotional involvement, Baumbach will cut us loose entirely.
I want to leave things a mystery, Baumbach says. The hope is that all these characters continue living in some way. You know, I was watching a movie the other day, and at the end, I was so aware that it was the last shot in the movie, and I was like, What a bummer! I like not to know. I like to be left surprised.
That affection for open endings made The Squid and the Whale a difficult movie to get off the ground, as did Baumbachs steadfast refusal to pass judgment on his characters, and his uncommonly candid depiction of burgeoning adolescent sexuality in all its comic, awkward and embarrassing permutations.
I had financiers say, Were interested in this, but we dont like the masturbation scene. I had them ask, Wheres Bernards redemption? But now when people see the movie, if they respond to it, they respond to it 10 times more because of those things. They feel theyre true. If Bernard had made some sudden shift at the end, which I never considered, what an amazing cheat that would have been! And what would have been the point, except to make things more like a movie? But I do have affection for all of the characters, Bernard included. A friend of mine who I showed an early version of the movie to said that it felt like a love letter to a bunch of people who arent always so lovable, and I liked that. I thought, Good.
Fortunately, Baumbach found an adventurous producer in the form of Rushmore director Wes Anderson, who befriended Baumbach shortly after moving to New York from Texas and eventually sought him out as a collaborator on the screenplay for last years The Life Aquatic. Wes was really helpful to me in that way of constantly pushing me to make it better, Baumbach says. It helped that he knew me and he could say, What about that story you once told me? I think it was fun for him in much the same way The Life Aquatic was fun for me, to be involved in the kind of movie you really like to see but wouldnt necessarily make yourself.
In one of The Squid and the Whales most memorable scenes, Walt performs Pink Floyds Hey You in a high-school talent competition, claiming it as original work and nearly gets away with it. (Youll win, and if you dont win, theres something wrong with them, which is probably the case, comments Bernard approvingly after a living-room run-through.) Its a painfully funny moment thats a literal expression of something plagiarism that has long been a pressing concern for Baumbach, whose characters are forever copying others behaviors, slipping into assumed identities or, at the very least, desperately trying to be something other than themselves. Its there in Grovers urge to take that flight to Prague, believing not only that he might patch things up with his ex, but perchance become a whole new person in the process; in Mr. Jealousys pompous bad-boy writer Dashiell Frank, who dreams of Hemingway-esque rabble-rousing and smokes the same brand of cigarettes as Beckett; in Highballs competitive co-workers who cant stop dressing alike; and in The Squid and the Whales Bernard, who measures his own worth as a writer by what other famous writers think of his work.
When you put it like that, I think that its true, Baumbach says. Im thinking about Chris Eigemans character in Kicking and Screaming talking about reminiscing things before theyve happened. Theres this sort of hyper self-consciousness that can be crippling. And if I were to take this to the meta-meta level, I would say that Mr. Jealousy, as a movie, is me imitating the kind of movie I think I should be making rather than making the movie thats really true to me. I mean, I like things in that movie I dont want to condemn it. But even if I made Kicking and Screaming today, I mean it in a good way when I say that I dont think I would make it the same way. Whats nice about that movie is that it has all the first-movie stuff both in its favor and against it, and in a way I would never want to change that.
So Noah Baumbach is 35 now. He is married. And he has gone from movies about Gen-X anomie to one that depicts a midlife crisis. Does that mean, I ask him, that hes officially all grown up?
No, he replies. But I feel like a filmmaker. Im excited about making movies in a way that I havent been. I feel more present, which is nice. Its not true of every part of my life.
By the way, I say as we part, did Grover ever make it to Europe?
I havent a clue.
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