The Squid and the Whale: P. Slope Parents Who Can’t Parent

Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, from his own screenplay, hits as close to home as a filmmaker can

Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, from his own screenplay, hits as close to home as a filmmaker can get in telling his own family’s story in the guise of an objective film narrative, without any heavenly-father first-person narration to jolly things along. On the whole, Mr. Baumbach avoids many pitfalls in dealing with a class of people—i.e., middle-class academics—almost too easy to caricature. The people I know who profess to have been close to the real-life family on which this film is based tell me that the film is harder on the father, Bernard (Jeff Daniels), than the mother, Joan (Laura Linney). Certainly, Bernard is more often the butt of ridicule (or at least chucklesome amusement) than Joan, with her casual way with extramarital lovers, but the fact is, sluts are never as funny as snobs. Besides, Ms. Linney has built a career on the knowingness that enables her to seem sharper and cleverer than the characters around her. By contrast, Mr. Daniels has specialized in loser roles, not the least of which was the moronic partnership he formed with Jim Carrey in the Farrelly Brothers’ Dumb and Dumber (1994).

As for the “real story” on the marriage, I throw up my hands alongside those of W.H. Auden on the futility of seeking to uncover the secrets of any marriage. As an autobiographical fiction, nonetheless, The Squid and the Whale works very well as a grown-up family entertainment unafraid of all the indelicate details of pubescent indiscretions among children entangled in a supposedly “friendly” divorce. Jesse Eisenberg as dating-age Walt and Owen Kline as just-past-masturbatory-age Frank align themselves very forcefully with either Bernard or Joan, thus adding their own clashing viewpoints to those of their parents.

Mr. Baumbach and his associates are to be commended for shooting their opus in and around Park Slope in Brooklyn rather then in some cheaper Canadian province. Still, since it took me 40 years to escape what I regarded as the intellectually backward provinces of Brooklyn and Queens, in which I had been embedded since birth, for the promised land of the Manhattan intelligentsia, I found it strange for Brooklynites to be chattering about Proust and Godard. Ho, ho, I’m kidding, of course—after all, some of my best friends live in Brooklyn, and they are certifiably well read. Besides, after all my adolescent fantasies about conversations with the Manhattan intelligentsia, I discovered that all they ever wanted to talk about were not profound ideas, but rather the real-estate deals they and their friends had made.

Unfortunately, Mr. Baumbach may have limited the audience for his film by basing his humor on the pomposity of a father who discourages his son from reading a Dickens novel that he deems minor Dickens (as opposed to David Copperfield or Oliver Twist, which he deems major). The real bite in the film—and much more of a universal theme—is the fierce literary rivalry raging between Bernard and Joan, with Joan now seemingly in the ascendant and Bernard fading noticeably. There have been so many failed movies about literary people contributing whopping lines (like Gertrude Stein’s rebuke to a famous writer: “You know, Ernest, the sun also sets”) that Mr. Baumbach can be praised for his negative virtues, such as never making us wince over a cultural reference simply by affixing it firmly to one of his characters, usually Bernard or his admiringly imitative son, Walt.

Some reviewers have criticized the film’s title as being too obscure and pretentious (not to mention murder on the marquee). Yet at least it can be said that the title is illustrated visually and explained psychologically, in a suitably climactic manner, as the conclusion of a coming-of-age ritual. The title is also curiously timely in that the very existence of the legendary giant squid, which lives near the bottom of the world’s oceans, has only recently been verified by underwater cameras. The last time I saw a giant squid onscreen was circa 1942, in Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind, in which deep-sea divers John Wayne and Ray Milland swim afoul of the legendary monster. At the time, more knowing moviegoers than I assured me that there was no such creature as a giant squid. The puny specimen of the species known as the octopus has served as a culinary delicacy for so long that I had almost forgotten there could be a giant squid—and certainly not one locked in mortal combat with a whale in a sculpture on display at the American Museum of Natural History.

Another curious note: There’s an unusual amount of tennis played in the film. It’s a surefire way of bringing out the worst in the film’s protagonists—and I speak from personal experience. Indeed, I don’t know how my own marriage survived our disastrous experiences in doubles play. Alone, we weren’t bad singles players, and with other partners we made successful doubles teams, but put us together on the same side of the net, and all the strains and fissures of our relationship came speeding to the surface. So when I saw Joan and Bernard engaged in a “friendly” game of family tennis, I knew instinctively that it was only a matter of time before an act of naked aggression took place, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Still, as ridiculous and as obnoxious as Bernard is, I still felt his pain and humiliation when only a few students showed up for an off-campus lecture. I’ve been there, too. Meanwhile, the two children are not idle in acting out against what they perceive as their parents’ selfish behavior. Walt behaves in an ungallant manner toward his first serious girlfriend, Sophie (Halley Feiffer), and is caught in a serious act of musical plagiarism by the school authorities. For his part, Frank is even more badly humiliated by a more intimate act of school indecorum. To their credit, both parents stand up for their children against the institutions against which they’ve transgressed. For once, Bernard and Joan are both snobbish enough and superior enough about their own Ph.D.’s to question the very competence of accusers with lower degrees. It is all very funny and very ridiculous and very human. And I must say that William Baldwin as the tennis pro Ivan (also Joan’s illicit lover) reminds me of every tennis guru I have ever encountered. Anna Paquin as Lili, Bernard’s student and his flirtatious and tantalizing near-conquest, rounds out the letter-perfect cast. The way Ms. Feiffer’s Sophie mixes her lingering last look at Walt with a poignant blend of longing and disappointment sums up the seriocomic beauty of Mr. Baumbach’s achievement.

When I Saw Truman

Bennett Miller’s Capote, from a screenplay by Dan Futterman, has been rightly hailed for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s uncanny reincarnation of the late Truman Capote (1924-1984), author of In Cold Blood (1965) and a few other works—but significantly, none completed after the book I once described flippantly as a literary caper, much to the displeasure of my late friend and benefactor, the late Brendan Gill of The New Yorker, who was apparently Truman’s friend as well as mine. I saw Capote in the flesh, so to speak, only once, in the early 80’s, lying in a bed in Southampton Hospital reading a newspaper with his arms outstretched toward the ceiling. I was circling his room with my wife, also a patient, who was wheeling her I.V. drip around for some much-needed exercise. Once Capote glanced up from his paper to look at us, but we didn’t exchange any words. He was reportedly in the hospital to dry out after one of his recurring alcoholic binges. Now that I think about it, he had only a few more years to live.

Of course, I knew him back then much more vividly as a singularly entertaining television celebrity, and I was favorably disposed toward him not only for his wit and talent, but also for his unusual generosity toward other writers. Still, to put it as mildly as possible, we didn’t travel in the same circles, and I hadn’t really thought about him for a long time when Harvey Weinstein approached me at a screening to sing the praises of Mr. Hoffman’s performance in Capote—which, Mr. Weinstein stressed as if for emphasis, was not one of his movies. I heard similar superlatives from colleagues and other people in the industry. Now that I’ve seen the picture and the performance, I can fully understand the advance buzz, but since I’ve already given this year’s Oscar to several other male performances, Mr. Hoffman will just have to stand in line with everyone else until I make my final end-of-year reconsiderations.

Mr. Hoffman is certainly good enough to win an Oscar, but will he? I am not so sure he will. His vehicle isn’t actually a downer, but it is drenched with guilt, mostly Capote’s, over his exploitation of a brutal murder and especially one of its perpetrators to advance his own career and enrich himself immeasurably. By any standards, Capote’s is an unsympathetic part, particularly when he repeatedly lies to a man on death row to secure the final confessional details that will make his book artistically and commercially viable. In a sense, he is playing God and father confessor with another man’s life.

Just in case we miss the point, Mr. Miller and Mr. Futterman have presented Capote’s research assistant, Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), as the writer’s walking and speaking conscience. Mr. Hoffman doesn’t stint on his character’s inner and outer anguish, but that doesn’t make the audience’s awareness of a spiritual crime being committed any easier to endure. I just don’t think that Academy voters this year are predisposed to get too depressed. My own feeling is that I don’t wish to penalize Mr. Miller and his associates for delving so deeply into the moral uncertainties of Truman Capote as a writer and as a human being. Nor do I agree that Mr. Hoffman’s virtuosity has blotted out the other members of the cast, as many of my colleagues have suggested. In addition to the always excellent Ms. Keener, Clifton Collins Jr. (as the pivotal Perry Smith), Mark Pellegrino (as Perry’s more stoical fellow perv, Dick Hickock), Chris Cooper (as chief investigator Alvin Dewey), Bruce Greenwood (as Capote’s lover, Jack Dunphy), Bob Balaban (as Capote’s editor, William Shawn) and Amy Ryan are all haunting witnesses to the traumatic life-and-death cycle that eventually engulfs the author and his two cold-blooded killer-subjects, who emerge as all-too-human beings until their lives are snuffed out by the hangman’s noose. Yet this is not a film against capital punishment, and it never pretends to be. And it is not about any writer or all writers, but one particular writer, who in some convoluted way sold his soul to the devil for a spectacular advance in his career. As a curious sidelight to Capote’s morality tale, Harper Lee is shown publishing the successful To Kill a Mockingbird—and if memory serves me correctly, that was the only book she ever wrote. It is just one more of the many mysteries to be found in the treacherous seas of literary creation.

Certainly, I have no desire to use this review to pass any sanctimonious judgment on Capote; I still have in my mind the image of him lying in a hospital bed reading his newspaper. What I shall never understand is what impulse led him to pursue his professional destiny in a Kansas backwater on the basis of a newspaper clipping about a then-unsolved murder. At what point in his life did he perceive the Manichean duality of American life that he describes so brilliantly in the opening chapters of In Cold Blood? Could it have been a moral duality in his own soul that he perceived at the same time? This subtext is brought to the surface by the character of Capote himself, when he declares his feeling that he and Smith could have been brought up in the same house, but that he walked out the front door and Smith walked out the back. Such a degree of empathy is enough to drive any artist insane.

Georgie Bourgie

Michael Haneke’s Caché, from his own screenplay, continues his run of sadistic cinematic exercises, which also includes The Piano Teacher, Code Unknown and Funny Games. I use the term “sadistic” advisedly—and negatively—because the work of this Austrian director filming in France makes my skin crawl. But that’s just me; many of my most esteemed colleagues find his films amusing and entertaining. Caché in French means “hidden,” but it can serve as a pun on “cachet,” the Franco-Anglo term for bourgeois trendiness. Mr. Haneke’s world bears a slight resemblance to the sophisticated bourgeois worlds I have been traversing in this column with The Squid and the Whale and Capote, but more so in the realm of bourgeois guilt—though here it’s more politically pointed in the direction of the oppressed Third World.

Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) are a cultured, upper-middle-class couple with an incipiently rebellious teenage son, Pierre (Daniel Duval). They dine regularly with publishers, writers and television executives, and Georges hosts a popular literary-interview television show—which makes him a very visible (and very vulnerable) television celebrity.

Hence, when packets of mysterious videotapes begin arriving at their doorstep with some regularity, Georges and Anne at first suspect a practical joker, perhaps among Pierre’s friends at school. The tapes seem innocuous enough, mostly static shots of the façade of their house. But when the tapes are supplemented with child-like drawings of a child bleeding profusely from his mouth, and then with seemingly unthreatening phone calls, Georges and Anne immediately fear for Pierre’s safety and call in the police—though there is nothing that they can do until some overt act of violence is committed.

As the mysterious tapes keep coming, Georges begins to suspect that he knows the identity of the sender, but he refuses to confide his suspicions to Anne. There are two genuinely shocking scenes in the movie that I don’t wish to give away, but too much of the plot’s machinery turns out to be a metaphorical mechanism by which to pin the tail of colonial guilt on Georges and the rest of us smug bourgeois donkeys. Caché is one guilt trip too many for me, particularly when it all seems to hinge on a lie told by a 6-year-old child to solidify his place in the family. See it for yourself and enjoy suffering the pangs of a hitherto complacent conscience. It was nonetheless revelatory to see the great Annie Girardot again as Georges’ mother, who always seems to know more about what’s going on than she chooses to tell. The Squid and the Whale: P. Slope Parents Who Can’t Parent