03 February 2007

The Squid and the Whale

People have been recommending this movie to me for awhile. Well, as it turns out, I hated it. Ok, well, maybe hated is too strong a word, but yeah, definitely didn't like it. And I didn't think it was particularly good, either.

It struck me as being very similar to Me, You, and Everyone We Know but where that movie succeeded, this one failed. Whereas that film depicted somewhat deviant sexual behaviors in a way that brought out their tenderness, this one seems to be trying to find humor in them, and instead shows them as depressing and somewhat sordid. Why is this? Because of the characters. The movie is people by unbelievably self-absorbed characters that it's very difficult to have any sympathy for. And the narrative seems designed to systematically rob them of dignity. But while I felt that I was meant to pity and love them when they were brought low, I just felt repulsed.

The biggest similarity between the two movies is the device of having a young boy encountering the world of graphic sex. But the reason that this worked in Me, You and Everyone We Know was because of the naivete with which the child approached the material - a naivete that is totally missing from The Squid and the Whale. Both films also treat the development of adolescent sexuality, and again, in totally different ways. Compare the two scenes where a teenage boy is getting head for the first time - both have a certain awkwardness, but whereas in the one, its charming, in the other, it's off-putting. Furthermore, whereas in me Me, You and Everyone We Know one values the sort of moral objectivity of the film-makers, their refusal to pass judgement, here, it's rather appalling. A young boy sitting around pounding whiskey and jerking off is just straight-up messed up and not right. It's not funny, or touching. It's just fucked up.

There is a way in which the movie does a tremendous job of portraying these people as well-meaning jerks. For instance, when the mother is talking to her older son and describing a past love affair, and he calls her out for telling her things he doesn't want to hear, she says "It's a bad habit of mine". This casual selfishness is breathtaking, and highlights, I think, the ethical responsibility of parenthood in a really interesting way. That being a parent, you don't just get to "be yourself". You play a key role in the growth and development of another human being, and that entails a peculiar kind of self-sacrifice. The movie sheds some interesting light of this issue, but in the process, you lose all sympathy for the parents. I was particularly appalled, probably, because both parents have Ph.Ds in literature. Their cold, analytical perspective on the world, and the resulting moral lack in terms of relationships with others, perhaps struck a bit too close to home for me.

Another thing that the movie did really well, I thought, was to illuminate the casual sexism in the family dynamic. This was really, really well done. The way that the mother, and her work, were repeatedly marginalized, and the off-handed misogyny of the father, and the way it reappears in the son, were terrifyingly well done, and definitely the best thing about the movie.

Ultimately, though, the movie was painfully cliche and formulaic. I was particularly exasperated by the father's heart attack - it was such a clumsy plot device. You could see it coming from a mile away. The minute the cat ran out the door, I thought, here it comes, the final blow to his fragile virility. Ugh. And then, of course, the son returning to the museum. Come on. It was obviously necessary to bring the narrative full-circle, and that's exactly the way it was handled - as a necessary process of tying up the plot. In a successful story, you are suprised and pleased by how neatly it fits together, rather than experiencing the moments of closure as a necessary burden.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the way it provides an occasion to think about honesty and care in human interactions. What it illustrates, for me, is the way in which care for others sometimes involves silence. Unfortunately the movie bludgeons the point so heavy handedly that it's easy to miss the more subtle aspects of it.

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