Outstreched arm

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Like calamari with chocolate

The Squid and The Whale is a good movie. Very well acted, confidently shot, pleasantly paced. That said, I still can't get into the Wes Anderson/Noah Baumbach milieu; there's a limit to my intake of self-involved, therapy-needing, poorly communicating characters, of weakly epiphanic scenes set to crescendoing emo, of miniatures that are supposedly funny because we all hate remembering that they happened to us at some embarrassing point. I don't passionately dislike these devices, but I always feel this need to explain my dissatisfaction with them for two reasons: one, these movies are very popular among my friends, and two, I think that they're flawed on a subtle level.

A digresison: Frances McDormand was reportedly unsure about the Coens' attitude toward the simple folk of Minnesota in Fargo - were they ridiculing them? No, the Coens said; they are jealous of the common people's effortless ease. It's possible that Anderson and Baumach feel the same way. But then why do they portray painfully unhappy heroes? It's not bad art, but it gets to be unwatchable. Maybe it's the fact that the characters' "urbannui" seems to be their own damn fault, not an inescapable condition of humanity? (A common theme in other self-destructive, ponderous characters back to Merchant of Venice's Antonio and later.)

At times it appears that the attitude in, say, The Squid and The Whale is what McDormand was afraid of: ridicule of human imperfection. Why doesn't anyone succeed, triumph, enjoy? The sole purpose (in the narrative) of Joan's literary success seems to be a mocking of Bernard's failure in the same field. For all of Ivan-the-tennis-instructor's unaffected smoothness, he's a joke character, isn't he? All the comic moments are based on shame and discomfort - why so cynical, Noah? Why so caustic, Wes?

The movie is apparently at least partly autobiographical. This is its theoretical strength, but in reality my own emotional conclusion is that mild family upsets may not translate into great art the way poverty, war, and clinical mental problems do; they translate into something close to the eye-rollable kvetchiness of Woody Allen at his most annoying.

Added later: Ok, I'm being quite kvetchy myself. There are some genuinely amusing and meaningful scenes in The Squid: when Walt is busted for plagiarizing a Pink Floyd song, his faux-confident response to his shrink is priceless: "I felt like I could have written it, so the fact that I didn't was really just a technicality." The shrink's "I see..." attitude is a moment of normalcy Baumbach and Anderson could really milk more instead of insisiting on what Kevin Murhpy called "aggressive quirkiness."

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