Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Squid and the Whale. (2005) Noah Baumbach

Slight Flip, No Flop for A&F Nominations.

Ooooh. This FILMSWEEP reaction is gonna be a fun one.

On November 19, 2009, on my favorite film forum I wrote:

I flip flop about this stuff all the time. Been doing it for years. 

The comment was in reference either to certain films that I couldn't stomach, films which I have loathed for one reason or another over the years -- which have now, for whatever reason, grown on me -- or for certain films which at one point I truly loved, which I've now decided, eeeh, that wudn't so great after all. (Duh!)

Here's where it gets sorta fun:

On the same thread, a thread with the title, "Worst Films of the Decade," about a month and exactly twelve posts later I went completely bonkers in regard to my hatred for The Squid and the Whale and anyone who finds value in the film. (My years of friendship with the peeps and crits there have made me a little more casual than I am here on the blog. Come to think of it, just reading the following has already made this particular FILMSWEEP entry a bit more casual. But... Whatevs.)

In that post, I wrote:

The Squid and the Whale is my pick for worst film of the decade according to the standards set here. I hate it with all my being. I hate it like I hate rapini. I hate it like I hate a fraud, which is really what this thing is. And I hate that many of you love it. You people are all screwed up for loving this stench-infested garbage. It is a horrible, horrid, awful film that on the one hand pretends it has something meaningful to say about kids of divorced parents being screwed up, and on the other hand has such farcical ideas as both the dad sleeping with he-and-his-son's roommate, and an almost-pubescent kid who wipes his semen all over public places and drinks beer and hard liquor and not a parent seems to care. Pick one or the other, not all three. I hate the characters, too. There are many reasons to hate this film, but the greatest reason to hate it is that so many of you seem to champion it as an apologetic against divorce -- and a comedic one at that. There's nothing funny in The Squid and the Whale. I loathe every character and every action. I loathe the writing and its cutsie pie "I can get away with this sick sh*t and pretend that is has a point." But there is no point. Oh gee, I guess that final "artsy" shot of the squid and the whale was supposed to make me think. Like I can't think for myself. What a load of crap. And again, gee, let's all talk about it in some pseudo-intellectual coffee house and pretend we're all in the in-crowd, an act that makes us happier when we sleep at night

UGH! :-(*)

I have to admit that in going back and reading what I wrote, I really did make myself laugh. I am a lucky man to be able to rant at the forum sometimes, and still find a friend or two there.

Here's the thing:

In the past few years, I have changed. I have been through divorce, found a path to recovery from alcoholism, dropped a faith, picked up a hope, lost many friends, gained a few new friends and lost some of those too, gained some of the new lost friends back again and hoped for my kids to not have to go through any of the crazy life experiences I've had to deal with.

I have learned that no matter how dark things seem at the moment, you've just gotta hold on for a little bit, and if nothing good comes your way -- go out and make something good for someone else. (It helps a lot more than you might think.)

And I just watched The Squid and the Whale again.

I can honestly flip just a wee bit on this miserable film, because now that I look at it again, I really think it wants me to hate it. I think that's the reason for its very existence. I can't see it any other way. This is a self-involved film about self-involved characters who are constantly irritating each other and (as in the very first scene, a match of a family game of tennis) competing to be the smarter, competing to be the better. The parents here are arrogant (dad in particular an arrogant has-been), and they raise their children to model their ugly displays of unworthy conceit.

Note: I am no longer saying this is not a well-made film. I concede on that end. As a film, it is well-made. I just can't understand its need for creation in the first place. (And yes, I'm looking directly at you, Baumbach, because a few years back I said the same exact thing about another one of your films -- Greenberg.)

I am open to tracking down or being shown interviews of writer/director Baumbach to find out why he creates any of these films or people, these monster movies of the inhuman condition. I love a good horror movie, but -- "Oh, the humanity." Even in a horror film you've got to care about the person first in order to care that (s)he's in danger of being slashed or gutted or whatever! The characters in The Squid and the Whale lack redeeming value, like a family member at Christmas that you just wish wouldn't show up anymore. You can't see anything good in them -- in fact, there might not be anything good there at all.

Seriously, Baumbach? Is that how you see people? Hate to meet you some day at a cocktail party.

In some ways, The Squid and the Whale reminds me of two well-made films from this year that I rather despise as well: Margaret (poor Anna Paquin, who finds herself in both Margaret and The Squid and the Whale -- I swear I have nothing against her personally), and Take This Waltz, which I wrote in detail about Here. These are all films which drag us through the most torturous parts of life, crawling in the muck of our own meanness, showcasing the ease with which we can lash out rather than change -- with the simplicity of a good cry or a moment of profound clarity at the end trying to justify the bile we've just recognized in ourselves.

Look. I like a nice depressing movie sometimes. Check out my profile, there are plenty of them there. But for a depressing film to strike any kind of a chord in me, it needs to offer more than just depression and a good cry as its goal (or a quiet moment of clarity as in The Squid and the Whale). Such a film is no better than the many times in my evangelical upbringing where I got up from a good cry at the altar, only to realize later that the whole thing had been manipulated by music and a "righteous" man on a power trip.

Where is the artistry here? What point does any of this have? Is Baumbach pointing to something in his own life, and if so, how has he not already jumped off a bridge?

I do not connect well with films that only scream about how dreary life is, how good we are at fucking it up.  They leave us empty, we walk out of the experience quite soulless. We've been offered no hope, no brighter future to hang our hat on, no ending to the terminal sadness, no resolution to the inner chaos we can't control.

I will admit today that this film is well made. And if the goal is to hate it, it accomplishes its goal quite well. But I do not understand the desire to paint this picture, and I say that as one who has been through the ringer myself.

Are there people out there who really want to hold onto the darkness forever?

I once went to a party, and I drank too much booze, and I threw up a pile of well-made vomit.

Well made? Sure, why not.

I guess that's a flip for this flop.

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