Friday, April 2, 2010

Lost Promise

I’m approaching my mid-40’s, and the conversations I’ve had lately with my contemporaries have been laced with disappointment. Many of my friends aren’t as content with their relative place in life as they used to be, even just a year ago. I was headed that way too, but I became self-employed recently and I’m happy with how it’s going, so I feel relatively in control of things. Except that our beautiful and brave dog died – he had cancer - so nothing feels as it should.


Ben Stiller’s character in Greenberg is about that same age: a carpenter by trade, although he tells people he’s doing nothing now. Years ago he was in a Los Angeles band, and was responsible for screwing up a possible big break, for which the others have never really forgiven him. Recovering from a mental breakdown, he returns to LA after years in New York, staying in his brother’s house while the family’s away in Vietnam, reestablishing some old connections and making one big new one, with Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s personal assistant. He also takes care of the family dog, who promptly gets sick (based on the recent experiences I mentioned, I particularly connected with the moment when he receives a three thousand dollar vet bill).

Greenberg is molded from insecurity. From the opening shot of a hazy LA landscape, followed by various scenes where it just trails Florence around, searching her face in close-up for self-consciously long intervals, you feel director Noah Baumbach’s desire to transcend his raw materials; the film’s sense of itchiness in its own skin is a good funnel for Roger Greenberg’s prickly anxiety. It generates some great scenes, like a rather excruciating (and all the more convincing for that) initial sexual encounter. But a lot of the time, Greenberg feels as if it’s channeling Greenberg’s dyspeptic inertia – it starts off in various directions, but doesn’t really seem to care about getting anywhere. And, therefore, it never really does get anywhere – only to a very conventional, tentatively optimistic arrival point, marginally spiced up with an unexpectedly abrupt final shot…except that it’s unexpected in just about the way you expect.

Noah Baumbach

Part of the problem with the social circle I mentioned is that, frankly, none of us have had a real breakthrough idea in ten years. I don’t mean we’re uncreative or stagnant, but at best we’re only creative and progressive in the same way as so many other people, so there’s no money or glory in that. I mean, differentiating yourself, to the extent that anyone else in the world cares and actually opens up their wallets to you because of something you have to offer, is really tough. It’s easy for thinkers to say the new economy depends on small-scale innovation, but how many of those guys actually make their own living that way?

I increasingly look at movie directors now and think to myself, well, it’s the same thing, they don’t really have any more ideas. That’s what shaped my reaction to Martin Scorsese’s recent Shutter Island. If you really took it as the work of a so-called leading American filmmaker, it was plain ridiculous, but then I think to myself, well, just because Scorsese has this immense facility with the tools of cinema, it doesn’t mean he actually knows anything important. Maybe he did in the 70’s, but that’s what I’m saying, we all used to be better. So then I think, let the old guy enjoy his luck and indulge himself. Those of us who expect something from cinema, we’ll look elsewhere.

Baumbach is much younger than Scorsese, but I don’t really think he knows much either. The humour pieces he sometimes writes for The New Yorker, they’re just flimsy. The Squid And The Whale was a pleasant surprise a few years ago, but this is what I wrote here (because, as you can see, I’m not easily swayed by the latest fad): “It’s a most distinctive and subtly weighty work, but with the feeling of a one-off, although I hope I’m wrong.”

His follow-up Margot At The Wedding felt like a film he’d thought rather than felt his way into. Rex Reed called it “92 minutes of screaming, pouting, weeping and vomiting in an ugly home-movie style that could set movies back decades.” I said: “it seems to me there’s significant artistry and wit in how Baumbach’s dialogue consistently pirouettes and swerves and rears up: a movie where everything is dysfunctional (even nature looks like a flop here, said another critic) should count as some kind of achievement, no?” See, I’m no Greenberg, I’m always looking for the bright side.

The new film is a simpler and relatively calmer creation. The move to LA brings mixed benefits – Baumbach seems stimulated by the environment, but it’s already perhaps the most over-explored milieu in the history of civilization. Truly, who should care about these people in their high-end houses and – much as they claim otherwise – their relative abundance of life choices? The most interesting component by far is Gerwig’s character. A. O. Scott in The New York Times brought out the contrast like this: “It isn’t that she is any simpler or less thoughtful than he is, but rather that they don’t share the same cultural references and expectations. Disappointment — with love, with professional ambition, with the world as a whole — is an experience they share, but while Roger fights against it, Florence seems to accept it as a kind of birthright. He dwells angrily inside a cocoon of anxiety and frustrated egoism, while she takes shelter in a makeshift, modest nest: a few friends, an O.K. apartment, a job she doesn’t hate, an occasional gig singing at a mostly empty nightclub.”

Arnaud Desplechin

That’s exactly right, and at times, Greenberg seems like one of the few wide-release films that’s actually anthropologically instructive about the evolution of social expectations in this new economy. But the film’s not ultimately about Florence of course, and Roger’s own traits and life challenges are much more mundane. You get the sense Baumbach, perhaps largely through serendipity, was on the verge of opening up something new and bracing, but the limitations of his original conception held him back.

For me, the contemporary master remains the Frenchman Arnaud Desplechin, who in films like A Christmas Tale and Kings And Queen seems uniquely able to reventilate familiar family dynamics without ever seeming merely arbitrary or opportunistic. Of course, although his reputation is growing, Desplechin remains known only to a tiny minority of people who watch movies. Even genius, you see, doesn’t necessarily guarantee you that much. I really hope – beyond whatever darkness is necessary to power his art – that he’s happy and fulfilled, but maybe for someone who turns fifty this year, it’s too much to hope for.

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