Sunday, October 09, 2005

Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming

Noah Baumbach’s 1994 début Kicking and Screaming quickly put me into a skeptical mode—the mannered college types, straight from Whit Stillman, minus the sweetness that Stillman brings to his characters, the witty, too witty dialogue, with its multiple layers of irony; it was all too conspicuously indie—but as the movie moved into its final third, I found myself, to my great surprise, blinking back tears. All along, Baumbach had been working, in his own talky way, to a moment of truth, of post-collegiate life and in the movie’s final moments he hits it, undiluted by irony.

Grover and Jane, in only their second meeting are both intoxicated in a “townie” bar and sharing a moment. As Jane prepares to leave, Grover tells her (apparently she has an appointment with a shrink):
He: I just hope we feel the same way after this moment. After the alcohol wears off. You’ll talk to your shrink; I’ll go back to my friends. I just hope we keep this.
A lovely pregnant pause. And then she: It’s not as dramatic as all that. I mean we’ve got some time. Most of our life, in fact. What do you think if we had a proper love-affair—do you think it’ll last?

This line, in a calculatedly mannered flashback (each flashback starts with a freeze-frame of Jane, since we are obviously viewing her through the prism of Grover’s memory), the fact that the audience knows that Grover and Jane will break up, and be miserable without each other, the perfect pause and the lines themselves weave together perfectly. For me, it was a moment of connection. Later on, Grover decides to join Jane in Prague, in a spur-of-the-moment decision, he has a wild monologue with the ticket-clerk, where he pleads with her to give him a ticket, so that later on he can remember this moment as the time he chose to go to Prague; chose, that is, in full living breathing consciousness, in a spectacular moment of being alive. Josh Hamilton delivers the monologue with his eyes literally shining, his face flushed; when he realizes he doesn’t have his passport and the clerk gently suggests that he could go the next day, Grover makes a bitter face; the moment has passed.

The idea that life is a series of moments, when one is alive is not new and Baumbach’s schematic is a little too structured for my liking. Here, for instance, is Michael Cunningham in The Hours.

Yes, Clarissa thinks, it’s time for the day to be over. We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep—it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning, we hope, more than anything for more.

Through some mysterious alchemy, some strange weave of his dialogue and his actors, Noah Baumbach has given this passage a marvelous cinematic expression.

UPDATE: Matt Feeney has an article up on Slate today about Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming and Mr Jealousy. About Kicking and Screaming, he writes something that's remarkably close to what I wrote--about why the film resonated with me. Here's an extract from his piece:

In a recent interview in New York magazine, Noah Baumbach says that his new film, The Squid and the Whale, represents a mature turn in his filmmaking: "I wanted to make more emotional movies that were less about being clever." This seems to be a gentle cut at his first two efforts, Kicking and Screaming (1995) and Mr. Jealousy (1997). Baumbach, not unlike the characters in his films, is being unfair to himself. Sure, these movies have a talky, sophomoric cleverness, and they take on the themes—post-college paralysis, romantic jealousy—that apply most to people in their late 20s. You can see why Baumbach, now 37, might view them as artifacts of a shallower, sillier stage of life. But, like the openly autobiographical Squid, Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy are acutely, almost unbearably, personal and emotional films.

And then:

Maybe Baumbach thinks it's just him, but the fantasy of the spunky beauty with the darling overbite who sits across from you in your creative writing seminar and vivisects your short stories but then later admits that they show real talent and then falls in love with you is pretty much universal among male English majors. Baumbach makes this familiar, almost fantastic, story resonate with several deft touches. While the film's primary action takes place in the limbo of the year after graduation, the romance is told in flashbacks of the previous year, styled in a way that evokes the wistful quality of romantic memory. They begin in black-and-white freeze frame, then take on color, and then roll into slow motion before coming fully alive. Baumbach deepens these squirmy courtship scenes with perfect music. (For a time, I wished I were a filmmaker just so I could put Freedy Johnston's "The Lucky One" in one of my movies, but then Baumbach beat me to it.) The nicest touch, though, was finding Olivia d'Abo for the role of Jane. D'Abo's had a checkered career, heavy on straight-to-video action movies, but Kicking and Screaming shows her to be an inventive and charming comic actress. If you still don't have a face to put to your creative-writing-seminar fantasy, rent Kicking and Screaming.

Read the whole piece; I am going to rent Mr Jealousy soon, I think.

1 comment:

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