Monday, October 22, 2007

The Squid and the Whale


I had a hard time with The Squid and the Whale – at first. It is a very claustrophobic film. It traps us in tight spaces with a very unlikable main character named Bernard played by Jeff Daniels. Bernard and his wife, Joan, are going through an ugly divorce. And their two sons, Walt, the elder, and Frank are having a tough go of it. Walt mirrors his father’s worst qualities while dating – or rather tormenting – his new girlfriend. Frank, about age 12, starts experimenting with alcohol and exhibits some rather disturbing behavior involving masturbation and the spreading of the result on library books and school lockers. You know, a great date night at the movies.

After viewing, I sat back and said, “What did I just watch?” Then I noticed the DVD offered a director commentary, so I gave it a listen. (That’s me, your friendly neighborhood film critic always going the extra mile so you don’t have to.) And aside from the usual anecdotes about how the director raised the money and how Laura Linney, who played Joan, was a Rock of Gibraltar hanging in there for five years waiting for the cameras to start rolling; I was pleased to find the key to the film. It was conceived as a 1960s/1970s style “direct cinema” documentary, a style of filmmaking where a small crew would hang out with a subject and simply observe. The prototype for The Squid and the Whale is probably 1974’s An American Family where the filmmakers set out to record a typical upper middle class household and ended up recording the disintegration of said household.

So, in light of this, let me offer you a few things to keep in mind while watching the film, a film that will certainly prove the most challenging of this series:

Documentarians of this stripe record a subject and then this recording becomes the film. If what they found was an over-the-hill, selfish, destructive, and self-pitying novelist like Bernard; that’s what the film ended up being about. After all, such people do exist, probably in surprising abundance. The filmmakers don’t interfere with their subjects. If Bernard didn’t pluck a few flowers to place on his wife’s pillow on his own, it is out of the question for him to be asked to do so. (I should say that Bernard is so unlikable that he becomes heroically unlikable. He is even funny in a way. Late in the film, after pleading with Joan to give him another chance, she reacts with uncontrollable laughter. I think she sees the humor in him as well.)

Direct cinema camerawork was always marked by its quality of being like a passive observer hanging out in the room, lurking in the corners, trying to catch little snatches of what is going on, forbidden to call attention to itself. And it is always handheld. That’s what we get in The Squid and the Whale. The camera is constantly just a bit shaky, just a bit uncertain of where it should be looking, always observing. We also frequently wonder whether we should even be watching. The territory feels so private, so off-limits. It is the most uncomfortable film to watch in my memory since Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence – another film that director Noah Baumbach acknowledged as an inspiration in his commentary.

Very important to an audience’s enjoyment and comfort level in a film is how both dramatic moments and non-dramatic moments are used. Films will usually give us calm little moments – often called “pillow shots” because they allow us a bit of head comfort – in between scenes of dramatic tension. You know, a shot of a sunset, a shot of grass blowing in a field, that sort of thing. The Squid and the Whale doesn’t allow us this. It is just as cruel as Bernard. Every cut takes us from one bit of conflict straight into the next. No pillow shots. Instead we often get essentially negative pillow shots. A frequent device used is to hear the sounds of the following scene before actually cutting to it. The effect is like having the two dramatic moments bleed into one another. Instead of offering us no time for comfort or reflection, we are offered less than zero time to rest our heads.

“Don’t be difficult.” These words play a significant role in The Squid and the Whale. Their reiteration spoken first by son and then by father gives Walt his crucial insight into his father’s character and leads to the film’s sudden but very fitting denouement. Those words can also be taken as a filmmaker’s tacit warning to himself that what he is attempting here may be good – I think it is really good – but it is certainly Academy Award suicide. How often has the Academy embraced a thoroughly unlikable main character? Jake La Motta from Raging Bull comes to mind, but at least Robert De Niro’s creation was allowed his moments of redemption. Jeff Daniels’s Bernard is offered no chance of gaining audience sympathy. He remains selfish, bitter, destructive, self-destructive, and self-pitying to the end.

And I was very happy about that. Anything else, any sudden turn of character, would have been a cheat. It would have felt like a documentary filmmaker breaking his promise and asking his subject to pick up and play with a kitten. You know, just so he can be at least a tiny little bit sympathetic.

1 comment:

Freckled Nest said...

hey brotha.
i just watched it. read your report during...and it really brought clarity to the intention of the film. and did you find you didn't breathe while watching it? yes, very claustrophobic.
thanks for the insight :)
Leigh-Ann
FreckledNest@gmail.com