Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 03 October 2005
Source Samuel Goldwyn Films/Sony Pictures Entertainment 35mm print
Features: The 43rd New York Film Festival
She refers to a phenomenon of moviegoing which I have called certification. Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
For the better part of the last five years I have lived in the neighborhood of Brooklyn known as Park Slope, a leafy, liberal enclave a twenty-minute subway ride from Manhattan, notable for its abundance of specialty food stores and picturesque brownstone row-houses, and its dearth of parking spaces. And in this time, I’ve become increasingly aware of the neighborhood’s particular relationship to the world of film. Not only are Turturro and Buscemi “neighbors” of mine (in the sense that I occasionally spot them from afar and swoon at the fact that they exist in the flesh), but also I have had the surreal and slightly disquieting experience of watching my neighborhood on the screen itself. Two summers ago, Park Slope was the site of the DeVito’s Duplex; this summer, it doubled as a beatific and unscarred section of Boston in War of the Worlds. The most peculiar of these tiny certifications (to borrow Percy’s terminology) was watching The Royal Tenenbaums in a theater on the very avenue where Danny Glover was supposed to have lived and where Gene Hackman hitched a ride on the back of a garbage truck.
Noah Baumbach’s new film, The Squid and the Whale, is quite provincially a Park Slope film. And while this is unlikely to mean much to the average viewer, the film nonetheless indulges in occasional winks and nods about that particular breed of intellectual Brooklynite who writes for The New Yorker, expounds about “interesting books and films and stuff,” and has great difficulty finding a place to park. The Squid and the Whale revels in the specificity of its setting, lovingly cataloguing local subway stops and long, verdant blocks, but it does so with a distinct ambivalence. In charting the effects of a divorce on the two adolescent sons of literary parents, Baumbach revisits the time, place, and events of his young adulthood in a manner that is at once sentimental and a little sneering.
The film opens almost immediately with an announcement of divorce. In the book-lined parlor of their brownstone, Bernard Berkman, the professorial patriarch, and his frustrated wife, Joan, lay out a set of terms to their sons outlining the schedules for both child- and cat-custody. As the boys try to grapple with the reality of their parents’ separation, new allegiances are formed, with Frank (the younger son) gravitating toward his mother, and Walt (the high-school senior) reaffirming his idolization of his father. But Bernard (played here by a hirsute and award-ready Jeff Daniels) is not what his son would have him be. Pretentious in the extreme (he describes Kafka as “one of my predecessors”), Bernard is also chintzy, self-absorbed, and always ready with an authoritative viewpoint on literature or human nature. So paranoid is he about his declining profile as an author of fiction, it is little wonder that he denigrates Joan’s budding career as a writer. And while shamelessly revealing Joan’s affairs to Walt, Bernard defensively opines, “I think it has very little to do with me.” Meanwhile, both Walt and Frank lock into their own downward spirals; the former with a painfully awkward foray into teen romance, the latter with an excess of alcohol and public masturbation.
The one character whose trauma is not fully detailed is Joan, played with conviction by Laura Linney. Joan is motherly, insular, confused, and indignant all at once as she tries to be both candid with her sons and protective of her individuality. We mostly understand her character through her furtive interactions with Bernard and her incipient relationship with a tennis pro (played by Billy Baldwin of all people), and while this may seem like a waste of a good actress, it nonetheless seems justified. The film is focalized almost entirely through Walt, so it is his relationship with his father that concerns most of the film. But as Walt’s own attempts at sexuality flounder, he comes to better recognize a similar weakness in his parents, the woeful desperation they have been driven to by loneliness and failure, and the anxious reaching out for companionship that attends their separation.
Like Bernard, the image that Baumbach ultimately creates of the Brooklyn of his youth is both charming and exasperating. It is a world of total insularity, with each character retreating further into himself in an attempt to preserve what he can of a rapidly fading past. Emphasizing this, the film is a constant succession of very short scenes, few more than five minutes in length. Similarly, the film’s mise-en-scene resists the impulse to fetishize the 1980s. Walt sports a CB jacket and listens to his Walkman through big, fuzzy headphones, but almost every detail outside of the Berkman’s household (the cars, the subway, the redesigned Museum of Natural History) is noticeably contemporary with our own time. Whether this is the director’s intention or the constraint of a limited budget, this subtle disjunction is in keeping with a film about trying to hold onto a moment in your life that is rapidly slipping away from you.