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The Squid and the Whale
by Chris Dashiell

Noah Baumbach has made a film based on his own parents' divorce with the odd title of The Squid and the Whale. The pain that kids feel when their parents split up, the petty power struggles in which children become like pawns in an emotional war game--this hardly seems like fit material for comedy. But The Squid and the Whale doesn't play for cheap laughs. It maintains a style of realistic observation that exposes the characters' most embarrassing weaknesses without trivializing them, and it's a ruthlessly funny, sad, moving, and insightful comedy indeed.

The Berkmans live in Brooklyn 's Park Slope neighborhood in the 1980s. Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is a college professor and novelist who has failed to achieve the success he thinks he deserves. Joan (Laura Linney) is also a writer, but her talent is on the ascendant while her husband's declines. They have two sons: 16-year-old Walter (the marvelous Jesse Eisenberg) tries to emulate his father's tastes and attitudes without the benefit of actual book knowledge, and younger brother Frank (Owen Kline) is bonded more strongly with Mom. When the parents divorce, they take the boys on alternate days, and each of them acts out painful feelings in different ways.

Baumbach's genius here is to portray the confusion of a divorced family through the most mundane and absurd details, and this seems both amusing and true to life. When the parents announce that they're separating, and young Frank starts to cry, Walter wants to know what they're going to do with the cat. In the midst of major life changes, the desire to not lose one's parking space is a recurring theme. I cringed as the movie reminded me of some of the awful things that parents say to their kids. Baumbach understands how adults mistakenly try to get their needs met through their children--this almost universal flaw becomes more transparent (and hilarious) in the case of upscale academics like the Berkmans, who find an intellectual justification for every ethical screw-up.

The picture also excels at depicting the humiliating experiences of adolescence. Walter sabotages his relationship with a very nice girlfriend (Halley Feiffer) whose self-doubt resembles his own, thinking she's not "good enough" compared to the sexually confident college student (Anna Paquin) who actually has her eye on Dad. Walter's sexual awkwardness is matched by his self-deception: he performs Pink Floyd's "Hey You" at a school talent show, claiming that he wrote the song, in a desperate bid to be an artist like his parents--oblivious to the possibility of being found out.

All the performances here are wonderful, but Jeff Daniels is truly the standout here. He's spent his career mostly in supporting roles--"regular guy" type characters. Here he gets to sink his teeth into a really juicy part, and it's his best work ever. Bernard is an arrogant, pretentious, self-pitying, insensitive fool who doesn't have a clue how to be a father, and yet Daniels makes the character likable and even decent in his own way. We can recognize something familiar in this ridiculous man, and feel both angry and impatient with him while experiencing (through Daniels' magic) his folly from the inside.

The Squid and the Whale is named after a diorama at the Museum of Natural History that ends up having symbolic significance for the older son, Walter. The movie uses symbols that way--the humor here is extremely dry, cutting like a knife. In fact, the movie covers some disturbing territory, especially with the younger son Frank's acting out, and it manages to do so with seriousness and respect. That which is deeply funny tends to hurt quite a bit too, because it reveals a side of things we normally try not to look at. This is personal filmmaking at its best.

Nowadays, with the ready availability of movies on video and DVD, it's easy to take film culture for granted. But during the first fifty years of cinema history, there was very little awareness of film as an art form. Once a movie stopped playing in the regular theaters, it usually wouldn't play anywhere again. Most of the time, it was simply tossed into the garbage. Ninety percent of all silent films were lost in this way, and revivals were almost unheard of.

There was one man, more than any other, who changed all that. His name was Henri Langlois, and he founded the Cinematheque Francaise, which combined the elements of a theater, film archive, and movie club, and ended up influencing an entire generation of filmmakers and filmgoers. A new documentary explores Langlois' life and legacy: Henri Langlois, Phantom of the Cinematheque, directed by Jacques Richard.

Langlois started collecting silent movies in the 1930s, and showed them in a small cinema in Paris. Soon he developed a passion for saving anything he could, buying whatever negatives and prints he could find, or if necessary salvaging them from the trash and restoring them. During the German occupation, he found a thousand different ways to hide his precious Soviet and American films from the Nazis, who wanted to destroy them. After the war he went into high gear, with constant screenings of films from all over the world, often programmed according to directors or themes. This was the only chance for film lovers to see all these movies, so they mobbed the Cinematheque, and movie mania was born. His audiences ate and breathed movies, feverishly absorbing and discussing Griffith , Chaplin, Eisenstein, Ford, Hitchcock, and all the other directors and styles. A group of young enthusiasts that included Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Eric Rohmer learned their craft at the Cinematheque, going on to make movies of their own in the late 1950s and into the 60s, in the movement that came to be known as the French New Wave.

Richard's film gives you a good idea of what it felt like in those heady days, when people would spend an entire day watching four or five movies in a row at the Cinematheque. Langlois himself was a bigger-than-life presence, both physically and intellectually. The bear-like man with his shaggy head of hair, the ever-present cigarette, and a non-stop stream of talk, was always there encouraging and supporting the film buffs. He was uncompromising in his dedication to greatness in art, and in opposition to the mediocrity of commercial filmmaking. His meager funding made it impossible for him to restore all the films he owned, and in 1968 the French Ministry of Culture, claiming to be alarmed by his unorganized methods, tried to pull a coup and replace him. The film buffs took to the streets and demonstrated; actors and directors all over the world announced they would boycott the Cinematheque until its founder was rehired; and finally the Ministry caved in and Langlois returned. But the ordeal took a lot out of him. He spent the remaining years of his life creating the beautiful Langlois Film Museum in Paris (tragically dismantled after a fire in '97) before dying in 1977 at the age of 62.

The film is chock full of interviews, along with plenty of footage of Langlois himself, and clips from the thousands of great films that he saved. Although it overstays its welcome by about twenty minutes (the section on the museum needs cutting) Henri Langlois, Phantom of the Cinematheque is a fascinating glimpse into a kind of cinematic golden age. This is especially a movie for die-hard movie lovers. Watching it helped remind me of the wonder and devotion that got me started in film writing.


©2006 Chris Dashiell

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