SPidge Tales

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Squids and Whales--movie review

“Who told you that you were naked?” God asked. “Did you eat the fruit that I told you not to eat?” The man answered, “The woman you put here with me gave me the fruit, and I ate it.” The Lord God asked the woman, “Why did you do this?” She replied, “The snake tricked me into eating it.” Genesis 3:11-13

“It’s not my fault—the cry we’ve made every day since Cain was born. Down somewhere in the heart, there’s always an awareness of just how wrong the world is, how fallen and broken and incomplete. This is the guilty knowledge, the failure of innocence, against which we snarl and fight: It’s just the way things are; it’s not my fault. What would genuine innocence look like, if it ever came into the world? I know the answer I am called to believe: like a child born in a cattle shed. But to understand why that is an answer, to see it clearly, we are also compelled to know our guilt for the world, to feel it all the way to the bottom.” Joseph Bottom, First Things Online Blog, December 20, 2005.

When things go wrong, when our world does not make sense, we tend to blame others, self-righteously denying the possibility that we are at fault, or we cower into a ball and soak in our own bile of self-pity. We witness the exacerbation of these reactions in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. This autobiographical fiction is the story of a broken family in 1986 Brooklyn. Jeff Daniels is Bernard Berkman, the self proclaimed heir to the writing style of Kafka, who in reality is a Brooklyn College literature professor who has not been able to get a novel published in some time. Laura Linney is his wife, Joan Berkman, with a burgeoning writing career of her own that has riled the jealousy of Bernard. Jesse Eisenberg plays their 16 year old son Walt, and Owen Cline plays 12 year old Frank.

Bernard and Joan announce to the boys that they are separating, and the boys will rotate every night living with mom or dad. Joan has had a series of affairs, leaving every possible hint for Bernard, save jumping in the sack with one of her beaus in front of him. There is no other way to describe Bernard than to call him what he is, a pretentious asshole. He blames the divroce entirely on Joan, failing to see his condescending nature as in anyway responsible for the situation. Walt gravitates toward his father, trying to emulate him and win his affection, placing the blame on his mother. Owen sees through his father, sympathizing with Joan, however is not without serious problems of his own.

Normally, we categorize characters as either too arrogant or full or self pity, or, to full of shit or drowning in their own shit. Despite the despicability of his character, we can still sympathize with Bernard because, in his own way, he manages to be both. His deconstructionist dismissal of, say, Tale of Two Cities as “minor Dickens”, or his categorization of Billy Baldwin’s tennis instructer character Ivan (I think every movie should have at least one Baldwin in it; and I also think that Alec Baldwin should be permanent SNL host—please taste my Svetty Balls--but that is another column altogether) as a “Philistine” uninterested in “cultured” books and movies is arrogant and condescending. Yet, we can also sense self pity in his recognition that he is not adequate enough to win his wife’s love. I think that is true of all of us, at times. We think of ourselves as superior to the men that the woman who rejects us goes for instead—the “why the hell is she with that schmuck?” line of thought. At the same time, we also wallow in sorrow at being not good enough, and reflect on our own flaws.

Walt, in trying to emulate his father, tragically succeeds. He dumps his first love for no reason other than a desire to "do better", whatever that means. He plays off Pink Floyd’s lyrics as his own in a fear of not being adequate. He even falls for the same women as his dad, Bernard’s student Lili, who has moved in with him.

The tragic figure in all of this, I think, is neither Bernard, Walt, nor Joan, but Frank. Divorced parents sharing parenting responsibilities in this movie appears sort of like what happens when parents decide to raise a child in both religions. He ends up with nothing. Lack of supervision plus witnessing his parents's problems leads Frank to seek refuge in alcohol and in finding new places (often in school) to experiment with himself sexually and leave the residue (yes, I am writing in euphemisms so that this does not get edited out of Amazon. I prefer direct language). In a way Frank’s actions are tragicomic (and this may be stretching it) since Frank is played by Owen Cline, son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates (she of Fast Times at Ridgemont High fame, whose famous topless scene is actually a fantasy sequence in the head of Judge Reinhold, while performing the same action in the bathroom that Frank performs, well, everywhere in The Squid and the Whale).

If anyone comes out a hero in this film, and I use the term “hero” lightly, it is Joan. She is not the best mother, and she certainly was not the best wife. She at least is willing to admit that she has done wrong. She wants to change to be a better mother for her children. She is willing to take her part of the blame, while Bernard continues to believe “It’s not my fault…”


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