When Noah Baumbach was young: Revisiting the master of ironic distance's most influential films

As Baumbach's "While We're Young" opens, we look back at "Kicking and Screaming" and "The Squid and the Whale"

Published March 28, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Noah Baumbach in 2005; Jesse Eisenberg in "The Squid and the Whale"    (AP/Jim Cooper)
Noah Baumbach in 2005; Jesse Eisenberg in "The Squid and the Whale" (AP/Jim Cooper)

Through nine full-length features to date, Noah Baumbach has established himself throughout his 20-year career as a keen portrait artist, giving us an assemblage of teens, twenty-somethings, and full-blown “adults” who have in common a hyper-educated and jaundiced view of their world. Who can forget this exchange, from Baumbach’s debut, "Kicking and Screaming"?

Max: I'm too nostalgic. I'll admit it.

Skippy: We graduated four months ago. What can you possibly be nostalgic for?

Max: I'm nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I've begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I'm reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar because I've already looked back on it in my memory... and I didn't have a good time.

And here, in 2010's "Greenberg" (with an impressive, though perhaps underappreciated, performance by Ben Stiller), the title character even out-curmudgeons Max.

Ivan: “Youth is wasted on the young.”

Greenberg: “I’d go further. I’d go, ‘life is wasted on people.’”

Given the acidic and anti-sentimental wit of his protagonists, it might then seem strange (or inaccurate) to speak of “nostalgia,” at least as a subject that gets serious — rather than sardonic — treatment. But a close examination shows that Baumbach’s plots typically hinge on a character’s ability to navigate the past as a vital and residual part of the present; indeed, while Baumbach (through figures like Max and Greenberg) generally laughs at maudlin musings about the past, he consistently points out the arrested development in characters who fail to grapple with (in some cases family) history. Grover (Josh Hamilton), from "Kicking and Screaming," Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), from "The Squid and the Whale," and (if perhaps in a limited way) "Greenberg" all undergo a sort of regression, where they recall both pleasant and unpleasant memories that seem to signal a resolution. Call it “therapy,” as Stephanie Zacharek suggested in her 2005 review of "The Squid and the Whale": While the resolution itself is often muted or only hinted at (both Grover and Walt have their epiphanies just before the credits roll), there is a (sometimes exhausting, traumatic) sense of a working through something painful, or buried.

With "While We’re Young" set to release this week, it seems appropriate to look back at the two films in Baumbach’s oeuvre that are most successful at this sort of regressionist technique: "Kicking and Screaming," which was released 20 years ago, and "The Squid and the Whale," which enjoys its tenth anniversary this year. The main protagonists of each film, Grover and Walt, project a certain level of cultural sophistication. They also seem to experience an epiphany of a sort, where key incidents jolt them into a new view of themselves. However, the important difference for me is that Grover’s epiphany, in contrast to Walt’s, occurs much later in his life, and is all the more remarkable for that. More to the point, Grover is more aware of his literary pretensions, to the level of self-parody, whereas Walt seems barely conscious that he is parroting the ideas of his egotistical father Bernard (Jeff Daniels).

Consider the different uses of space, framing and cinematography in each film: “Kicking,” for example, makes frequent though brief use of a cinematographic style that at first appears to be monochromatic (like other mid-1990s films such as "Natural Born Killers,” "Ed Wood" and "Dead Man") but is closer to the sepia-toned colour of an old photograph. “Squid," on the other hand, is more focused on spatial arrangement, given the numerous scenes of characters facing off with each other (e.g., during tennis or table tennis matches). Both types of technique are used for the purpose of ironic distancing, though “Kicking’s" flashback technique, where the sepia-toned cinematography is employed, has a more powerful impact on the viewer.

Given the primacy in these two films of the (usually ironic) nostalgic look back, I’ll begin with "Squid," the film that is generally viewed as Baumbach’s greatest achievement, and then discuss "Kicking," which has some surprisingly poignant moments, for all of its sardonic barbs.

"The Squid and the Whale"

There are few filmmakers under 50 who manage to establish ironic distance from their self-absorbed characters with such directorial and narrative skill. Zacharek noted this technique in her 2005 review of "Squid," but she felt that the film has the “odd distinction of coming off as both heartfelt and cautiously remote.” While Zacharek intended this as a criticism of the film, I would view it as the film’s greatest strength. Zacharek elaborates: “Sometimes we feel as if we’re looking at a family behind glass — albeit smudgy glass — instead of living with them in the moment.” Maybe, she concluded, “balance is the thing it just has too much of — it’s a sincere, detached picture.”

There is, indeed, an almost surgical examination of the Berkman family, warts and all; some of the details are so painstaking (a point that Zacharek brings up) that they make us squirm, as when Frank smears his ejaculate on library books and lockers. However, self-examination needs distance, and, for this reason, “nostalgia” gets a refreshing treatment (though the precedent was set in "Kicking," as I’ll show below): looking back to the past does not necessarily have to be nostalgic — nor should it be, since the objective is to return to the present with some new or buried knowledge.

Baumbach’s camera work beautifully demonstrates this journey, as Walt shifts from fervent disciple of his father to reluctant participant to independent thinker.

The opening tennis match sets a tone for the film, though not the tone. Here, we get the most visceral sample of Bernard’s aggressive personality, and find Walt, at the prompting of his father, gloating over his heavy shot that takes advantage of his mother’s “weak backhand.” The journey, then, seems doomed from the outset, though we can at least sympathize with the odds Walt faces. Inevitably, it seems, he swallows everything his father tells him, including witty but ultimately facile reviews of literature, advice to “play the field” when it comes to dating, and poor opinions of Walt’s mother, Joan (Laura Linney). All of his actions, including the cruel treatment of his sweet but apparently overly freckled girlfriend Sophie (Halley Feiffer), are committed with cowardly evasion, exhibited by his weak handshake (according to Sophie’s father) and his generally twitchy and shifty expressions (played up perfectly by Eisenberg).

The climax of this trajectory is Walt’s pathetic plagiarizing of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You,” which, according to Walt in his most arrogant turn, he “could have written.” This he claims during his meeting with the school therapist (in an economic but effective performance by Ken Leung), who challenges him to conjure up an original thought. Walt’s shiftiness is never more apparent, as we watch him squirm and evade the eye of the therapist. But then something magical happens — so subtle as to be missed: a slight smile, a little expression of satisfaction appears on his face as he recounts watching Errol Flynn with this mother and then, on another occasion, listening with rapt attention to her description of the squid and the whale exhibit he was too afraid to view for himself. Moreover, he moves from spitting back the ideas and generalized literary opinions of his father to evocatively recreating in his own words a powerful childhood memory, richer and more meaningful than the notion of this or that literary text being “minor” or “dense” (Bernard’s evaluative words, which become vacuous without context or elaboration).

Herein lies the moment of reversal in which Walt, now aware of his mother’s positive role in his life (and his father’s negative influence), revisits scenes of the recent past (the Chinese restaurant that marked the beginning of the relationship with Sophie) and the more remote past (the exhibit). This regression creates a cognitive dissonance, implied by Walt’s admission to his mother, “I don’t see myself this way” — by which he means vulnerable, unsure of himself. He must now contemplate the distance between the self he projects and the self he actually is. When he next meets his father, who has suffered a mild heart attack, he floats around the edge of the hospital bed, at one point forcefully retrieving his hand from his father’s grip, reinforcing his new resolve as a result of the cognitive dissonance.

"Kicking and Screaming"

Though it is hard to imagine a more powerful epiphany than Walt’s, "Kicking" features an epiphany that just seems very unlikely, particularly given the overwhelming feeling that Grover is set in his detached, sardonic ways. As Joe Coscarelli noted in his survey of “post-grad” films in 2009, in "Kicking," “sarcasm and irony may be the best antidotes for indecision and apprehension.” That may be true for Max, who provides many of the most memorable quotes from the film and, perhaps, from Baumbach’s entire oeuvre. But, though it seems blasphemous to say so, it turns out that Grover’s antidote is a return to the past.

Baumbach enhances the ironic distancing in "Kicking" through cinematographic design (so Director of Photography Steven Bernstein deserves a nod here). Apparently bitter over her winning a fiction prize, Grover resorts to poking fun at his girlfriend Jane (Olivia d’Abo, in one of her best roles to date) for her apparently pretentious wish to study in the Czech Republic: “I know that stop-shaving-your-armpits,-read-"The Unbearable Lightness of Being,"-fall-in-love-with-a-sculptor,-now-I-realize-how-bad-American-coffee-is thing….” But, as it turns out, he himself thinks of her in heavily nostalgic terms, captured by brief but striking cinematographic sequences that resemble the washed out sepia-toned color of old photographs. And these are set apart from the colorized but otherwise vapid scenes in the present. As with "Squid," "Kicking" shows that a retreat to the past can lead to new insight, not necessarily to tepid, sentimental nostalgia.

The film’s first shift into the past presents a stubbornly detached Grover who, after abiding some ridiculously fawning praise during a creative writing seminar (“The prose is like the bastard child of Raymond Carver”), suffers the affront of a hitherto unnoticed Jane: “I've noticed that, uh, the characters in Grover's stories... spend all their time discussing the least important... things.” This, of course, characterizes his actual friends, and, though he scorns them, he talks like them too. It’s brilliant that, when the film has shifted into the present again, another woman, the apparently flaky Kate (Cara Buono), exclaims, in her adorable Bronx accent, “You guys all talk the same.” Neither Kate’s nor Jane’s insights have any impact — at least for the time being.

Another flashback occurs right on the heels of Jane’s answering machine message, “Oh, you’ll never believe how bad American coffee is until you’ve been over here.” An innocuous detail in someone else’s film, the coffee reference is used by Baumbach to effectively counter Grover’s self-assured belief that he was right in not following Jane, just as he was right to mock the clichéd notion of the Czech Republic’s superior brew. He’s wrong on both accounts.

It’s striking that, near the film’s conclusion, Baumbach takes more time to present Grover in the instant before his retreat into the past. It happens right after Skippy, who usually initiates the barroom trivia, expresses his annoyance with such “game-show shit.” The gang has now become fractious with infighting, cheating and general existential malaise. To understand Grover’s reaction here, we might recall Walt’s therapy session, for, like the younger counterpart, Grover visibly undergoes a transformation, though again the moment is subtle. His gaze shifts away from the faces — unfocused, unsure — and then down, reinforcing the growing doubt in his choice to not follow Jane to Prague (“cliché” or not). It’s appropriate, then, that after the end of one friendship — that between Max and Skippy, whose girlfriend Miami (Parker Posey) has cheated on him with Max — Grover should return once more to the beginning of his own relationship with Jane.

The subsequent and final flashbacks in the film reinforce the tonal difference between the scenes in the present and those in the past: With the bar-time trivia and apartment life, it’s all empty chatter, undermining sarcasm, and nihilistic pronouncements; with the past recollections, it’s seemingly innocuous flirtations between Grover and Jane, which nevertheless build something rich and beautiful. The present is a sort of fascination with the demise of culture, the meaninglessness of the “game-show shit,” as Skippy puts it; while the past is about creating, building, flourishing.

We come to understand that Grover is not simply nostalgic; he understands that the past and the present can be bridged. He initially chooses to blow up that bridge time and time again, when he stops the answering machine just before Jane is about to confess something to Grover: “I…” Love you, we might guess; we don’t know this for sure, and Grover continues to stop the tape, maybe worried about what Jane will say. Then he does play the tape, and discovers that she “misses” him.

Grover’s discovery of his own short-sightedness is more powerful than Walt’s because he has, up until almost the film’s final sequence, been entrenched in his sardonic, defensive retreat from the past. While Walt seems to gain the object of his past, Grover has potentially lost this object from his past, Jane. There is a painful poignancy in "Kicking’s" conclusion since, unlike in "Squid," the epiphany can only find a referent in a separate and past image — that contained in the sepia world.

As Coscarelli argues, “The film captures that dangerous moment when floundering can pivot from a funny phase to a state of being. As Max puts it: 'What I used to able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life.’” But Max lacks the follow-through on such insights. We get the sense that Grover might not become a Max, who embraces “nostalgia” only in ironic terms: as a purging mechanism, as the existentialist equivalent of nausea. In contrast, Grover apparently finds sustenance in that retreat, particularly in the corny but genuine confession to the sepia-Jane, “I… wish we were an old couple.” "Kicking and Screaming" appropriately ends in the past, though with the promise that Grover might make the leap (via an airplane trip) to the present, and to Jane. And now, very soon, an older couple — played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts — will, in "While We’re Young," invite us to think once more about when Baumbach was young (and yet so mature for his 25 years).

By Adam Lawrence

Adam Lawrence is a Montreal-based writer. His poetry, articles, and reviews have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines.

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