January 12, 2006

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

written and directed by Noah Baumbach

I thought it was really excellent, the best new movie I’d seen in the theater in a long time.

Something that I always admire about Wes Anderson’s troubled output is that way he has of pushing his characters through a plotted script, with clear, story-progressing events in every scene, and yet keeping the focus on silly superficial details. The overall effect is of slightly bewildered characters who are trying to contend with the fact that they’re caught up in some kind of drama but can only seem to think directly in terms of the frivolous quirky stuff around them. The problem for Wes Anderson is that his movies have been increasingly fetishistic about the frivolous quirky stuff, to the point where it no longer seems justified by the fact that life is full of such stuff; the effect is of a diorama world entirely unlike life, into which this stuff has been placed, and it all becomes as bewildering to the characters as the drama was. In The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, the characters seemed gamely bewildered in relationship to everything about their world, including themselves. Bill Murray was playing a character who always seemed to be on the verge of saying “Hello, I’m [quote marks] Steve Zissou.” Which, I would say, takes the device of bewilderment in the face of the details a bit too far.*

Anyway, so The Squid and the Whale took that sort of approach but took it seriously, and the effect was, I thought, tremendously successful. The progression of events, which was perfectly clear, registered as a kind of dark, steady undercurrent to the actual goings-on, which were all about the eccentricities and petty details. The writing and (especially) the acting were attuned to the eccentric surface life of things in the smartest possible way; I never felt that I was being offered smugly calculated “quirkiness” or, alternately, that I was watching a formulaically “realistic” gloss on something fundamentally simplistic (as in, say, a pseudo-improvised Woody Allen scene with lots of hemming and hawing “because that’s the way people really talk”). By taking seriously this idea that was, it seemed to me, at least latent in Rushmore – that the absurd surface of life is our only interface with (and protection against) the despair that lies underneath it – Noah Baumbach found the ideal device for portraying the coming-of-age struggle that the Noah Baumbach stand-in teenager goes through.** Namely, the pain of facing the fact that one’s parents are fallible and that one is therefore all alone. Kids, even as they hunger to understand what’s really going on with themselves and everyone else, would still much rather believe that their problems have to do with ping-pong, just as audiences, even as they hunger to recognize themselves in drama, would rather believe that their movies are about quirky people doing funny stuff. By not overselling the comic detail-work but still letting it be the life of the movie, The Squid and the Whale allowed a certain desperate and queasy feeling to seep in that I recognized well but hadn’t felt with such force in a movie before.

On the commentary track on the DVD of You Can Count On Me (2000), Kenneth Lonergan says something about how people always say that characters should change and develop, but that actually people in real life don’t change very much, and that if someone really changes in some small way, that’s a big thing, and that he tried to make his movie be about that scale of change. I really admire that movie and that goal, and I think back to that comment often, regarding other movies (and books, etc.). I know someone who complained that the final sequence of The Squid and the Whale came on too suddenly and didn’t seem to suit the movie. I can see ways that it might have seemed a little artificial, from a technical perspective, and while I was watching it, I was preoccupied by stupid thoughts like, “Oh, so it’s one of these things where the music rises up and he has a moment. Is he going to end on that? Will that be the last shot? I’ll bet this will be the end. Or will they show something else? Is this the last shot? No, I bet this is the last shot!” That sort of thing is probably my own fault, but could equally be blamed on the movie’s pulling out a “gesture” for the finale rather than remaining with the more naturalistic scene that precedes it. In any case, it was a gesture that I liked and one that delivered the only possible resolution to a movie like this: one of the characters has changed, internally, in some small way. It’s left up to us to imagine just what that way is, but we have a good idea. Doing it as a lyrical “moment” was actually deserved, because that’s no doubt what the change feels like for this character.

I guess that’s what I enjoyed so much about the movie – it was a movie about fairly unpleasant people that got laughs out of their unpleasantness, and yet we were drawn into empathy for them because movie was to the audience what the world was to the characters.

On a whim, I thought I’d try to find the name of the artist responsible for the “artist’s conception” diorama for which the movie is named, but all I could find was this page. The museum does, however, have a little article and gallery about diorama arts, which is more than I can say for the rest of the internet. For shame, internet! Does nobody care about dioramas anymore?

Hopefully this movie will give a boost to diorama appreciation, and the names of Francis Lee Jaques and James Perry Wilson and Rudolph Zallinger will finally get the recognition they deserve. Okay, so I’m joking, but hey, why not?

* Although I think I was more willing than most people to give The Life Aquatic credit for being a sincere shot at portraying the peculiar paralyzed post-adolescent pseudo-adulthood that Wes Anderson must be experiencing along with everyone else I know. I just think Wes is too deep into it to say anything about it without it getting muddled.

** I know, I sound silly saying that this idea comes from Rushmore when of course it’s a basic idea in all comedy back to Shakespeare and before. I just mean that the specific aesthetic-cinematic execution of that idea in The Squid and the Whale seemed to be of a piece with Rushmore as opposed to, say, with Twelfth Night. Also, Noah Baumbach co-wrote The Life Aquatic and Wes Anderson was a producer on The Squid and the Whale. So this comparison is, um, reasonable.

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