This is an article I submitted to Bandoppler magazine (www.bandoppler.com). I wasn't given any guidelines for the length, but the word count seems to be pushing into feature territory, so it might be chopped in half. The site just launched yesterday and they're updating content almost daily, so it could be posted any day. Anyway, here's the full version before the editor unsheathes his sword.
The Squid and the Whale
Directed by Noah Baumbach
“There is one thing you should know well, of this there is no doubt- you cannot get inside again, once you have come out”- from “Dilated To Meet You” by Loudon Wainwright III
The single most frustrating and painful thing for one person to hear from another is “I’m sorry, but...”. Didn’t our mothers teach us that everything after the ‘but’ cancels out the first part? In truth all of us have been on both ends of the exchange, and all of us have been torn about how to move on without doing any more damage. Then there are circumstances in life which in and of themselves seem to have nothing to give but halfway apologies. From the perspective of an adolescent or child old enough to understand the situation, divorce is one of those cases. As eloquently stated by a character in the Noah Baumbach-directed “The Squid and the Whale,” “joint custody blows.” And who is to blame, from a child’s point of view? The break-up of one’s parents is not something that can be explained in a way that will make everything seem right again; if the child is old enough, it is something like the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and a point of no return.
Baumbach’s film plays on that fact brilliantly in his intimate portrayal of a family in crisis. Although the narrative centers around the divorce between Bernard and Joan Berkman (played to perfection by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney), it is not really a film about divorce. It is not about the social causes of divorce, and has no clear socio-political agenda. Neither is it a morality play in any way; all of the characters are flawed but none are made the scapegoat. Most importantly, we should not read too much into Noah Baumbach’s intentions with the film; a select few critics seem unnecessarily bent on viewing it as a letter of hate to his own father. More than any of those things, it is simply a film about growing up and the complexities that entails; most accurately, it is one of the most sensitive coming-of-age stories this generation has yet produced. In one of the first conversations between Joan and Walt after the fateful family conference, she tries to reason with him by asking,, “Don’t most of your friends have divorced parents?” This is the world that the film takes place in- Park Slope, Brooklyn, 1986, rendered in very specific detail- but it is our reality as well.
- “Me and Mom versus you and Dad.”
- An excessively competitive family game of doubles tennis.
These are the first things we hear and see as the title screen appears and disappears in a flash, and already we have been told a great deal about the Berkman family. With apologies to Woody Allen, the “most effective tennis metaphor in an opening scene” of the year award goes to some fish documentary. Younger son Frank sides with Mom, while brother Walt proudly joins their father, who gives some questionable advice regarding his wife’s backhand stroke. When the cataclysmic family conference occurs, these divisions become more pronounced. A teary-eyed Frank complains about his father’s plan to move “across the park”- “Is it even Brooklyn?”. Meanwhile, Walt becomes convinced (certainly through some careful suggestion from his father) that Mom is entirely to blame for the divorce. This is a very normal division along parent lines, even in cases where the parents aren’t separated. Usually depending on personality types, one child will feel a closer bond and understanding with the father, and another will gravitate to the mother.
When all is said and done, this film is about reaching the point in one’s childhood where parents are no longer gods, but human beings like everyone else. This happens with Frank to a degree, but it is mostly Walt’s story. Divorce becomes the catalyst for growth that pushes him into young adulthood in multiple ways. For the majority of the film, Walt believes that his father is right and the rest of the world is wrong about everything: Why can’t his father get his newest novel published? Because the publishing houses don’t appreciate true quality. Should he read Tale of Two Cities for his English class? Hell no- his dad says it’s minor Dickens, and he wouldn’t want to waste his time. By the cryptic final scene of the film, it is clear to the audience that Walt has suddenly seen something in Dad that wasn’t there before, and it will forever change the way he lives his own life. Frank experiences this to a smaller extent when he learns of his mother’s adultery; there is a disturbing and poetic scene where mother and son are looking into a mirror together, and Frank shows a new side of himself . This is one of the most painful processes a child will ever endure, and it has happened to every one of us who idolized our parents when we were younger.
The aforementioned opening sequence tells us something right away that is a key to understanding the arc of the film’s narrative and an ending that seems to come before the story is over. “The Squid and the Whale” is about divisions, about clashing forces- the mother and the father, the intellectual and the “philistine”, the appearance of the things and their true nature, and finally, the squid and the whale. Underlying each of these conflicts and every scene in the film is the battle between cynical detachment and vulnerability. By watching his father, Walt has learned how to hide his feelings and, often, his ignorance behind a reference-heavy jargon that passes for intellectualism. When he starts to dating and becoming conscious of his own sexuality, he looks to his father for advice, who tells him to play the field, and shares that he regrets not being a “free agent” when he was becoming a successful novelist. Furthermore, father encourages son in a kind of condescension towards non-intellectuals (which doesn’t work with Frank, as seen in a humorous ping-pong game). In a wonderful scene, Frank’s tennis instructor Ivan accidentally passes in front of Bernard’s car, which prompts the latter to call Ivan “a bit of a half-wit”, and share a laugh with Walt. Meanwhile, Frank is in the backseat of the car, head cocked sideways to look out the window in wonder at Ivan, whom he admires as a father figure.
The key moment in the story arc occurs when Walt is forced to make a visit to the school psychiatrist. He begins the encounter with his usual brand of half-baked pretentiousness: When asked to recall a pleasant memory in his life, Walt responds, “Isn’t that kind of a stock question for a shrink?”, to which the doctor responds “Yes. That’s basically how this works.” Walt has been too busy absorbing his father’s own egoism and bitterness with the world to realize the value of things taken for granted. Then comes his great moment of self-discovery, Archimedes’ “Eureka!” for the over-confident: He recalls a childhood memory with his mother, when they snuck away to watch the original “Robin Hood”. That memory triggers another, the times his mother used to take him to the Natural History Museum, where he would be terrified by the monument of the squid and the whale locked in battle. After being questioned by the shrink, Walt realizes that his father was not present during those moments. In the scenes immediately following this visit, it is clear that Walt looks at his father differently, with new doubts and a clearer head. Lying on a hospital bed, Bernard tells him, “you used to be very emotional when you were younger.” And in the final series of images, we realize that Walt has regained a wide-eyed wonder for life and the emotional vulnerability to cry in front of his father. In a day in which nothing is new and American culture goes to the movies to laugh at people who are stupider, crazier, more inept than they are, it is refreshing to see a film where the director asks us to be uncomfortable in our laughter and to sympathize with a character who grows by admitting weakness.
Comparisons to Wes Anderson are not entirely unfounded. Anderson was a producer for the film, and his films also embrace a childlike perspective. On the other hand, this feels like a more adult treatment of family division than the self-consciously twee “The Royal Tenenbaums”, which is a wonderful film for different reasons. It is worth mentioning that Randall Poster, the music supervisor on Anderson’s films, worked on “The Squid and the Whale”. There are some similarities in the way music is used, but in this film it is slightly more esoteric and subtly weaved through scenes. Baumbach and Poster mine the British folk movement of the late 60s for various stages of melancholy and earthy beauty. Four songs by the great Bert Jansch are featured, including “Courting Blues” during the sequence immediately after the children are informed of the separation. Elsewhere, lost classics like Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s “Heart Like A Wheel”, Loudon Wainwright III’s “Lullaby” and “The Swimming Song”, and the Feelies’ “Let Go” immerse us in a world of painful realities. The final masterstroke of the soundtrack is the final scene where Walt painfully comes to terms with himself, as Lou Reed’s epic “Street Hassle” propels him along. It’s a stunning sequence which tugs at just the right strings emotionally if one been along for the journey Walt has just taken.
What ultimately makes this such a special, alive film is the way that everything just “feels right”. Realism means many things to many people; “The Bicycle Thief” is realistic, the CGI effects in Episode III aren’t, and according to Harry Knowles, the grasshopper bondage scene in some new Korean film is the most realistic thing he’s ever seen(!). It’s a tricky term that’s best left elsewhere, but the organic, true-to-life quality of every scene in “The Squid and the Whale” is what makes it such an exciting film, and what reassures me that personal, intelligent auteur cinema is still alive in the US. There is always some independent American filmmaker wanting to claim the title of John Cassavetes’ heir, and this film is one of the few cases where the master’s talent for “small moments” is equalled. There is no better way to celebrate its merits than to conclude with a few of these small moments that live and breathe of their own accord:
- In the opening tennis game, Bernard purposely hits the ball at his wife’s weak spot, and ends up hurting her by putting it too close. The two of them walk to one side of the net and start arguing loudly, while the two sons stand on the other side of the net, staring at a world they don’t yet understand.
- A few scenes later, Frank sees his father arranging a makeshift bed on the couch and asks what the matter is. Dad says something about sleeping out there because his back is hurting, to which Frank responds with a disarming mix of naivete and book-knowledge, “Isn’t the couch worse than the bed... for backs?”
- Frank, a turtle lover, asks his mom if they’ll ever get to visit the Galapagos. She says that her and Ivan will take him to see real turtles on Saturday, which briefly causes his face to light up, until he remembers: “Saturday is Dad’s day.”
- Bernard’s few flashes of vulnerability, such as when he learns that his father has talked to his wife, which brings him to approach her about trying to make the marriage work. Daniels does such a good job of maintaining the cold, unaffected persona that it is startling and moving to see him start to break down.
- The way that Frank looks at Ivan in every scene they are together. So few words are exchanged between the two of them, and yet they seem to share a tight bond of love and understanding. When his father rants that none of the men Joan has been seeing are interesting, Frank responds that he thinks Ivan is “very interesting”.
- Finally, the many scenes where the awkwardness of adolescence is fully captured. Among these are Frank’s first brushes with sexuality, his writhing on the floor after trying too much of his mother’s alcohol, Walt’s first conversation with Sophie, and a wrestling match between the brothers that ends with expletives.