08 April 2006

Memoirs and Memories

The night before last I went to see The Squid And The Whale, which just opened here (I believe it was out last year in the States). It's very good, or at least I thought so, but it left with me at least one strange reaction. Actually, two, the first coming when I arrived just as the film was about to start and discovered a) that ticket prices had gone up again, this time to £9 ($15.75 US); b) that my membership card, which should have given me a discount, had expired; c) that to renew it would cost £15, whereas the original only cost £1; and d) that my last resort, a loyalty voucher which should have given me one free admission, was only valid if, you guessed it, I had a current membership.

Come to think of it, the reaction to this series of revelations was not strange at all; it was, as you'd expect, a teeth-grinding, tongue-sucking, eye-rolling expression of exasperation and rage, swiftly tempered by a characteristically English sigh of resignation and a mumbled apology as I handed over my £9.

Luckily, I enjoyed the film enough that I didn't mind too much about the £9, though I probably would have enjoyed it more if I'd seen it at the £6 matinee bargain rate, or more still if I'd seen it at the £4.50 super-duper early bird (before 2 pm) bargain rate. Never mind, though; the thing that most bemused me about the film was how writer-director Noah Baumbach managed to get so much mileage out of not much more than his parents getting divorced.

Not to trivialise what kids go through when parents get divorced. I imagine it can be quite awful, though imagine is all I can do, since divorce was very uncommon when I was growing up, especially among Catholics. But nowadays, when divorce is almost more common than parents staying together, it's hard to understand how young Baumbach's trauma was any more noteworthy than that of millions of other kids.

The cynic in me could of course observe that those millions of other kids don't have two parents who, divorced or not, were both well-connected in the publishing and media worlds and could afford to send little Noah for an expensive education at Vassar. But regardless of what advantages he may have had, there's no denying that Baumbach has made an engrossing, keenly observed study of the mores and (often nonexistent) morals of the middle-class intelligentsia inhabiting pre-gentrification Brooklyn in the mid-1980s.

The fact that it's Brooklyn rather than Manhattan is key; this sets it distinctly apart from Woody Allen's milieu. His quasi-boho literati are far more self-assured and far less troubled by mundane concerns than Baumbach's angry dad, who, literary career failing and income dropping, takes the kids to a restaurant and advises them, "The portions are big here, you only need to order half." What he can't offer them in material security, he tries to replace with arrogance, regularly disdaining other, apparently more successful people, as "philistines" who "don't appreciate books and films." That one resonated with me; I often heard a Detroit version of it when I was growing up, with postal clerk dad trying to convince me that we were actually better off (or at least better than) our auto worker neighbours, even though they all had new cars and televisions while we had to make do with $150 junkers that left trails of blue smoke up and down the street and a dumpstered TV hooked up to an old bedspring in the attic which served as an antenna.

"But the other kids all laugh at us and yell 'Get a horse' when our car breaks down, and their TVs get all four channels and we only get two, and even then somebody always has to stand up in the attic moving the bedspring around to get a good picture," I would point out with annoying tenacity and self-righteousness of a 9 year-old.

"Yes, that may be true," Dad would argue back just as tenaciously, and, if possible, even more self-righteously, "but we go to museums and concerts and we have books in our house, while most of the neighbours wouldn't know which end of a book you're supposed to open."

I wasn't that keen on classical music concerts, which the Detroit Symphony Orchestra used to put on for free on Belle Isle, and most of our books were, if the truth be told, Reader's Digest condensed editions. But I did love to read, and I mostly enjoyed the museums (also free in those days), so being told that we were intellectually and morally superior to the neighbours staved off my inquiries and demands for a while. At least until I was 10 or 11, by which point I didn't give a damn anymore about who was more intellectual, I just wanted a classy new car. They didn't end up getting one, and even then it wasn't classy, unless a Dodge Dart fits your specs in that department), until after I'd left home. Not surprisingly, by that time, I was more poverty-stricken and anti-bourgie than even my parents had been, and I probably rang them up and complained that shouldn't be wasting money on decadent status symbols like new cars when the old '59 Chevy wagon had at least a couple good years left in it (this would have been the late 60s/early 70s).

Anyway, I digress, as per usual. My main point was that Baumbach seems to have done a very good job out at spinning a good story out of not a whole lot of material, and I enjoyed it very much. Even if I was a little jealous, or so you might infer, judging from the way I seem to have tried to do the same thing in the previous few paragraphs. Coming soon, perhaps: a major, feature-length film about Little Larry's childhood angst over having to ride in a secondhand car and watch a thirdhand TV. In the meantime, watch The Squid and the Whale if you haven't already. Those people are much better-looking and more interesting than our family anyway.

1 comment:

deckin said...


I wrote you a while back about Oakland, violence, etc. Anyway, I know this is probably bad form, but I've decided to do a blog myself; so if anyone out there is interested in a sane perspective on Oakland politics, you can go to Common Sense Oakland and help prevent an idiotic and unthinking identity politics cum neo-Marxist takeover.