“Running with Scissors” and “The Squid and the Whale” have very similar set-ups and not that dissimilar outcomes but they are radically different. I think the diff is in tone, style, point of view, and all the other things that are really tough to teach kids. These movies are a little too racy to use in high school which is kind of a shame, because that’s the age level of the actual concerns: how to survive adults, esp. your parents, esp. a certain kind of father in a particular kind of modern society.
“Running with Scissors” is frank about insanity. (Maybe obsessive.) The true patriarch in this script is a quack shrink who displaces the mother by taking the boy protagonist into his circus of a household. It’s adapted from a semi-alleged autobiography (it was and then after a lawsuit it wasn’t), a contender in the big memoir carnival that in this case depends on crayoned outrageousness to mock pop psychology. Not that it’s much of a challenge, but the Three Stooges scenarios last too long and don’t carry enough edge to do the job. Leaving up a Christmas tree for months and looking for signs of messages from God in one’s bowel movements are both too banal to be funny. But then, this whole genre of hyper-comedy is one that I despise. I took the book back to the library after a couple of chapters.
“The Squid and the Whale” is quite different. This is what one might call “subconscious” memoir. Helpfully, there is an interview on the DVD and the interviewer is Philip Lopate, a wise arbiter and practitioner of memoir. He knows Baumbach’s family, who are also literati in Manhattan/Brooklyn. Good thing, because Noah Baumbach is almost totally incoherent in the interview. But the men agree that this movie is so many layers of reworking away from the original family that it would be useless to think one could get facts from it. This time the father is the crux of the conflict, whether squid or whale. Can’t win, can’t let go. (The reference is to a huge suspended diorama in the local natural history museum. In Montana the two combatants would be a grizzly and a cougar. Among the French Animaliers, they would be antelope and tiger. In the human context they are man and wife, or perhaps father and son.)
The movie itself is far from incoherent nor is it grim, though it’s unhappy. Scenes are very short, snapshots. People are unique but not unreal. It’s a little odd that Alec Baldwin, who plays the alcohol-stunned and soon-dropped father in “Running with Scissors,” and William Baldwin, who plays the tennis pro hunk who comforts the mom in “Squid and Whale,” are brothers. I assume just coincidence. Particularly “Squid and Whale” is an Indie low-budget pic made by a circle of high-powered people who all know each other, most of them based in that location. It’s odd that I know some second/third-circle people: Baumbach’s now ex-wife is the daughter of a good friend of one of my good friends and so on. I’m a little outside the insiders because of my undergrad degree at Northwestern where the acting program was stellar, more Broadway-based than Hollywood.
The culture depicted in this film is one that I know from the academic world but also as a UU minister. It is not much exaggerated. Men like this, narcissistic to the very edge of psychosis, abound in those environs -- either because they migrate there or because they are created by the context. Lopate remarks that all writers are monsters to some degree: abusers and neglecters who legitimize themselves by claiming to be brilliant. The trouble with brilliance as a writer is that it is capriciously defined by shifting culture and has little connection to financial success.
When the feminists come in, the smart-alec culture cynics go out. (How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one, and that’s not funny.) This is clear in both movies, though the feminism in “Running with Scissors” is deranged. Both movies agree that female intellectual wives are dowdy, dressing almost like Mormon wives, but at least Baumbach lets his “mom” have a lover. Knowing Laura Linney, we guess he’s a happy one. Anyone who gets close to the Annette Benning version or the Jill Clayburgh version is doomed. All three roles depend heavily on the “aura” of the actress. Watching Clayburgh is almost unbearable when we remember her in “An Unmarried Woman,” joyfully struggling with a huge painting as she negotiates the windy streets of Manhattan. It’s a little alarming to see these beautiful women looking so haggard.
Of course, breaking up with Alan Bates is QUITE a different matter than losing interest in Jeff Daniels, who has played these roles so much that some of us despise him on sight. I hope that’s not his true nature showing through.
The real value of “The Squid and the Whale” is in watching the two sons trying to cope, one just ending adolescence and the other just beginning. The older tries hard to wear the shell of intellectual judgment while sneaking out enough for girls to try to mother him through sex. The younger is still at the liquid level: swilling booze and smearing semen -- the magical power of the forbidden substance. He can still accept actual mothering, but his mother is pulling away, feeling that her job is done and now it’s time for her own life again. The older son interprets this as wanton betrayal, becoming the little puritan as he condemns her affairs. I would have liked to have known more about the role of the family cat.
The core problem addressed in these movies is filtered through the people who made them. “Running with Scissors” is accessible to rural high school culture because it is outrageous but I don’t know what they get out it of beyond the idea that other people are all nuts. I’m not sure they don’t think it’s more real than it is. But maybe I’m the one who underestimates how loony it can get “out there.” To pick up on much of “The Squid and the Whale” you need to know the city and the university. When those types show up around here -- and they do try to take refuge in what they imagine is a “lesser” and therefore more safe place -- they don’t stay long.
I wonder whether the Valier library has an Philip Lopate books. Probably not.