On the Mundanity of Spooge

The Squid and the Whale

“If you skate upon thin ice, /
You’d be wise if you looked twice /
Before you made another single move.”

— Bob Dorough, “Figure Eight”

I love William Baldwin in The Squid and the Whale, in part because he’s clearly a refugee from a Wes Anderson movie. In his 1980s tennis-pro garb and with his un-self-conscious aloofness, he looks like a Richie Tenenbaum wannabe. Is it any accident that his chief romantic rival in The Squid and the Whale shares the literary-impostor credentials of one Eli Cash? (If Wes Anderson, Richie Tenenbaum, and Eli Cash references elude you, The Squid and the Whale is likely to do the same.)

Baldwin is in a Wes Anderson picture, in a way. The whimsical filmmaker produced this movie scripted and directed by Noah Baumbach, his Life Aquatic screenwriting partner. And the filmmakers tend toward certain affectations, from costume design begging to be noticed to dry, arch dialogue to effectively fey soundtracks.

Yet Baldwin’s Anderson-ness doesn’t make him out-of-place in another man’s movie. On the contrary, it serves as an important reminder that you, the audience, are not watching a Wes Anderson movie. It’s kind of like that philosophical question about whether we could recognize good without the contrast of evil.

Although obviously Andersonian (Rushmore-ic?), The Squid and the Whale is not a movie that Wes Anderson could have pulled off. Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film is too raw, naked, painful, and real. It fuses The Royal Tenenbaums and Ordinary People at a genetic level that Seth Brundle would appreciate. Although it acts like a comedy, the movie’s familiarity and truth will be as funny to many people as a slap in the face.

And Baldwin serves as a regular counterpoint to the four main characters; he lives on Planet Anderson (as genuine as Candyland) while something approaching a real family falls apart. Anderson puts his characters on thick, solid ice — an implicit promise that nothing too traumatic will befall them in these gentle comedies. Baumbach offers no such assurance. When you see Baldwin, you remember: Things might end genuinely badly for these people.

Consider, for example, Baumbach’s perfect use of the Schoolhouse Rock song “Figure Eight.” For those of us who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, the song probably sparks memories of Saturday mornings in front of the television. But we now bring adult baggage to it, and out of the context of its crude animation and educational purpose, we notice how sad and rueful the music sounds, and how much emotional weight singer Blossom Dearie gives to multiplication. And then there’s that incongruous lyric of this essay’s epigraph, a heartfelt warning that feels drawn from experience.

I’m overemphasizing the point, but fundamentally Baumbach’s movie is both more grounded and more daring than Anderson seems capable of. As outré as Wes’ movies are, they’re also pretty damned tame in critical ways. Transgression in the world of Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic is timid, child-like in the sense that something more dangerous or disgusting doesn’t even enter the mind. As malicious as it might be to unleash a swarm of bees on your enemy, for instance, there’s something charming and pure about it, youthfully inventive and innocent.

In The Squid and the Whale, the violations of social codes are more petty, mundane, and ugly, stripped of romantic notions and whimsy. A barely pubescent kid wipes his spooge on library books and lockers, and drinks heavily. His older brother claims a Pink Floyd song as his own, desperate to gain his father’s approval. If Anderson’s characters are hopelessly clever, Baumbach’s are closer to hopeless.

Bernard and Joan Berkman are writers headed in different directions. Bernard (Jeff Daniels) was once a luminary but now can’t get anybody to pick up his latest book. Joan is on the rise, with a story about to be published in The New Yorker. (Baumbach’s parents are novelist Jonathan Baumbach and critic Georgia Brown.)

When the Berkmans separate, they make the grave mistake of trying to parent their two children (the high-school-age Walt and the on-the-cusp-of-puberty Frank) logically: “Don’t most of your friends already have divorced parents?” one of them asks.

Joan cheated on Bernard, but in Baumbach’s gorgeously observant script, she’s treated more favorably. She might have been unfaithful, but she had the self-respect to acknowledge and remedy her unhappiness and her needs. Her lecherous husband lusted after students but claims he never acted on his horniness, and Baumbach seems to fault him for that; if Bernard didn’t stick his dick in anybody else, it was an act of posturing rather than morality or decency.

What’s most curious is how The Squid and the Whale — ostensibly about an impending divorce and its effect on two children — ends up devoting most of its energy to cutting down the father. Linney is fine in the movie, but Baumbach has little interest in condemning the character of his mother. She takes up with Baldwin’s tennis pro and seems not to notice her younger son’s drinking, but the film doesn’t blame her for her shortcomings. The kids, of course, fuck up plenty as their family disintegrates, but that’s to be expected and forgiven.

Daniels, largely because of his character’s outsize nature, dominates the movie as Bernard, even though Baumbach is fairly egalitarian in handing out screen time to the four primary characters. Bernard’s biggest sin is his pomposity, and it’s a grand, dubious, and needy form of self-regard. When he says, “It’s Mailer’s favorite of my books,” those six words contain worlds of self-importance and insecurity.

Yet something subtler and more interesting is going on. The movie’s title and its sudden, clipped ending frame the movie as the journey of the elder son. He gravitates toward and lionizes his father, hilariously aping his highfalutin pronouncements. (Walt: “It’s very Kafkaesque.” Girl: “’Cause it’s written by Franz Kafka.”)

It’s a natural tendency to relate to one parent over another, of course, but Walt finally sees that his devotion to his father has unfairly come at the expense of his mother; critical memories are even warped in Dad’s favor.

The Squid and the Whale ultimately acts as a correction — not a smear against the father but a slow recognition of his abundant faults. In that awkward, adolescent way, the movie is a pained but loving apology from Baumbach to his mother.

Leave a comment

Close