Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Washing Out the Jewishness of "The Squid and the Whale"

One advantage of coming to a film late is that the DVD has extras. In a straight fictional film I just skip these parts – I want to see the finished work, not the rough drafts. In documentaries, though, the extras are often interesting, adding further detail to the reality of the subject, not just to the craft of moviemaking. "The Squid and the Whale" is in between fact and fiction. It is clearly based on the writer/director Noah Baumbach's real life, and the mess made by his parents' divorce. The interesting extra on the DVD is an interview of Baumbach by Philip Lopate.

In the film and in real life, the parents are both writers living in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn in the mid-'80s. They think of themselves as intellectuals and live a somewhat bohemian life – bohemian for married people with kids and a house and cars. The father contrasts what he wants his sons to be with "philistines," which he defines as "people who aren't interested in books and interesting movies." In the film, the parents, Bernard and Joan Beckman, are excellentlyl played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney. As the IMDB review put it, casting Jeff Daniels as the aging, and declining, writer will make many viewers see his character through the lens of Flap Horton, the hapless, adulterous English professor that Daniels played in "Terms of Endearment."

Lopate, though, who knows Noah Baumbach's real father, noted that Jonathan Baumbach said everything in "double inverted commas." He would make the kind of pompous pronouncements that Bernard Beckman says, but at the same time he would have a knowing critical detachment from them. Lopate asks if Noah Baumbach meant to take the "Jewishness" out of the family? In the interview, Baumbach was taken by surprise by this question. It seemed to me that, in the director's mind, the most salient fact about his family was not Jewishness, but intellectuality. He says that all families think of themselves as superior to others. He means that in class terms – as intellectuals and writers, his family is above the normal rules.

I think Lopate reads "Jewishness" as meaning the same thing that Baumbach means by "intellectual." Lopate, a noted writer himself, opens the interview by announcing to the audience that "all writers are bastards." He is certainly not saying that all Jews are bastards. He is suggesting, I think, that secular Jewish intellectuals are really above the rules of normal bourgeois life, but they do so knowing that that superiority is itself a cliché. Played by Daniels and Linney, the parents come off as hapless WASPs, not fully aware of the effect they are having on the children. The movie would feel different if the director had cast toward the ethnic reality behind the movie. I imagine that another layer of meaning would have been added if Baumbach had cast, say, Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, the real parents of Owen Kline, who plays the younger son in the film; or Jennifer Jason Leigh, the director's wife, who played Dorothy Parker [Dorothy Rothschild] so well in "Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle"; or any of the literally dozens of well-known Jewish actors from New York.

As "The Squid and the Whale" itself shows, divorced kids want to keep points of connection with their parents, even if they criticize the divorce itself. I read Noah Baumbach as making this film as a "Brooklyn intellectual," just like his parents, without fully seeing that Brooklyn intellectual is a more specific and distinctive ethnic and class location than he knows.

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