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Of Squids and Whales, cont.

June 9, 2006

I was thinking some more about The Squid and the Whale today and realized that my criticism of what I call the family horror film may have been a bit narrow-minded. Must all movies pair joy with pain? Isn’t there a place for filmmakers who want to share their unrelenting dark vision? If ruthless cynicism was good enough for Kafka, Nietzche and El Greco, isn’t it good enough for Todd Solondz? The answer, I realize, is yes.

As hard as I was on Solondz’s Happiness, the movie still sticks with me, for better or worse, seven years after first seeing it. There’s something to be said for that. While I may have been repulsed by his pitch-black vision of humanity, I can’t dispute that at least it was interesting. So this raises the question, what’s my problem with The Squid and the Whale then?

My problem is that while The Squid and the Whale paints a relentlessly negative vision of human nature–all people are either jerks or victims–it doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. After going to extreme lengths to emulate his father (including dumping his girlfriend because his dad says he should have “options”) and alienate his mother, Walt suddenly realizes his father’s a jerk and his mother’s a saint in a single session of psychotherapy. Huh? After witnessing his repeated crimes of clueless arrogance, I’m supposed to buy that a kid who’s almost a pathological liar would let down his guard enough during a counseling session to reassess his view of the world? I ain’t buying it.

It’s a cheat, no different from the forced happy endings of movies in the ’30s and ’40s, but this time it’s not the studios giving the people what they want, it’s a filmmaker giving himself a gift. By making a quick U-turn from cynical satire (a genre that refutes the idea that people can change) to transformative drama, Noah Baumbach wants to trick viewers into thinking he’s more than a one-note dramatist. If you don’t give any hint of potential character transformation throughout the first two-thirds of a movie, don’t expect the audience to buy a transformation in the final third. Unfortunately, quite a few critics got sucked in by Baumbach’s seeming versatility. Just because a filmmaker has one really good visual notion and then doesn’t show it until the end doesn’t make him a great filmmaker. It just makes him a very clever hack.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. bro permalink
    June 12, 2006 8:41 pm

    havent seen squid yet, but weren’t you a big fan of baumbach’s kicking and screaming?

  2. June 12, 2006 8:57 pm

    I am a big fan of Kicking and Screaming, but The Squid and the Whale seems like it was made by a different filmmaker. Kicking and Screaming was episodic, kind of rambling and funnier, more like an early Cameron Crowe film or Clerks, and view human nature as uniformly ugly. One of the things I liked most about Kicking and Screaming, in fact, was that the characters were all so shaded, each with their good and bad traits, and the story never seemed to judge them. Granted, the visuals and cinematography in the movie was blander than stucco but that may have been one of its strengths; the small stories in Kicking and Screaming probably wouldn't have benefited from glorifying visuals (in the same way that the visual romanticization of antisocial depression turns Garden State from a decent little story into a bombastic, emotionally fraudulent mess… with really good music).

    I don't know if Baumbach's take on the human condition has changed, or whether he stumbled by trying to make a big statement, or whether he has become unduly influenced by LaBute or Solondz, but he seems to have changed as a writer and filmmaker. I'll reserve judgment, though, until his next movie. (Unless I feel like calling him a clever hack.)

  3. Brad Glaser permalink
    June 19, 2006 4:50 am

    Let’s see, I’m a fan of Happiness, The Ice Storm and even Garden State. But I have long thought that what I respond to most in art (be it film, music, visual art or literature) is desperation. So, the unrelenting darkness, which seems to not be your favorite, is precisely my cup of tea. This doesn’t make me right. It just makes me deeper, more interesting and better looking than you.

    Some other examples of unrelenting darkness: the later works of Hemingway, much of Goya, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson at their best, and, unitentionally, everything directed by Bogdanovich after “The Last Picture Show,” as it continues to amaze me that one man could know so much about film and yet be so bad at making them. (I must confess here to liking “The Thing Called Love,” but this should not be seen as an endorsement of the film, but rather as a potentially fatal weakness of character on my part.)

    I apologize for my long absence. I will now resume being the real reason everybody reads your reviews.

  4. June 20, 2006 3:35 am

    Interesting. I find I respond to darkness in music–Cash, Nine Inch Nails, Gary Jules’ cover of “Mad World” from the Donnie Darko soundtrack–much more positively than I do to unrelenting pessimism in movies. I think that’s because the job of a good song is to conjure up one particular strong emotion, essentially to alter your mood for four minutes and 25 seconds. Movies, however, should be about much more than atmosphere; with the resources of length, editing, cinematography, voice, music, sound and much more at their disposal, I expect more out of a movie than simply setting a particular mood. I’ll give you Happiness, and even Garden State, but what was redeemable about The Ice Storm?

    BTW, don’t respond. I’m more interested in your thoughts on X-Men, The Sopranos and a the other reviews.

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