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Films are supposed to be relatable.
Ok, ok, not really. Declaring a piece of art “not relatable” and using that flimsy framework as grounds for its dismissal is a modern conceit driven by self-absorbed narcissists who insist that all the art they consume must be a reflection of themselves, or rather how they see themselves, and as a consequence denies them the nourishing power of great drama that hails from a less solipsistic period (see Exhibit A, Ira Glass, “Shakespeare Sucks”).
But I digress…
For the sake of argument, lets say films are supposed to be relatable.
Fine, but what if it a film is more than relatable? What if it feels like the filmmaker has actually crawled into your psyche, dug out your Id, and is projecting light through your subconscious and onto a screen?
That would suck.
If you’ve ever experienced anything like it, then you can “relate” to my experience with the films of Noah Baumbach.
Let’s start here –
The Squid and The Whale
Jeff Daniels. What a guy. A dude so decent he lives in Michigan to protect his family from the corrupting influences of the film industry…or maybe he just wants to be closer to the Detroit Tigers.
So The Squid and The Whale is an anomaly, for it finds Daniels playing a selfish, self-centered (pardon my Okie) prick of an English professor who punishes those he deems as less intelligent in an effort to disguise his own repressed insecurities about never becoming a great novelist.
From Dumb and Dumber, to Smart, but Meaner.
Confession – Jeff Daniels’ character hits way too close to home.
Becoming Jeff Daniels in this movie is as frightening to me as becoming Johnny Depp in Nightmare On Elm Street. Maybe more. Being a bitter man who blames others for why his life didn’t turn out the way he wanted… *Shudder*. And even worse, his spoiled insistence on putting his own needs above all others, even if it screws up the lives of those he “loves” (or should love, his wife and kids).
This film made me very uncomfortable, not because I saw myself in Jeff Daniels’ character, but because I could one day see myself in Jeff Daniels’ character. Like staring into a crystal ball, and seeing a bitter, bearded dickhead staring back, this is not the man I ever want to become. It poked a needle into a proverbial nerve.
Oh well, just one film, no big deal. Surely lightning wouldn’t strike twice, right?
Ben Stiller, the man who irritated me through Zoolander and Dodgeball, was now playing a irritable man himself. Much like Jeff Daniels in Squid, Ben Stiller plays a cranky jerk who refuses to confront the reality that his life isn’t what he planned it would be. Only instead of being a failed novelist/mildly successful professor, Stiller is a failed musician/not-so-successful carpenter.
I’m noticing a pattern here.
Squid and Greenberg were each about stunningly immature middle aged men, and I saw each as motion picture prophecies of my feared future self. However, Baumbach hasn’t just made films about 40-somethings.
Unlike the characters in Squid and Greenberg, the titular Frances Ha (played by Greta Gerwig) is sweet and delightful. OK, cool, that’s definitely not me.
However, like those characters, she is adrift and oblivious – armed with more aimless ambition than natural talent in her pursuit of becoming a dancer in NYC. The viewer worries Frances may one day become bitter like Jeff Daniels and Ben Stiller in their respective films. But for now she’s just so darn perky and hopeful and happy that she doesn’t notice her ship is sinking. Actually, not sinking, because it never really left the harbor.
Frances should be familiar to anyone who pursues a creative endeavor. She is what we worry we are. Though Frances never really reflects on her haphazard existence, we, the viewers, question ourselves because of watching her: “Am I as good as I think I am – or do I suck?”, “Should I live in a far distant land to pursue fame and fortune – or am I better off being at home where I am happy?” I’m sure you’ve asked yourself these questions dear reader. I certainly have.
“Get over yourself Hunter!” you’re probably screaming at your computer. “Noah Baumbach is not making movies about you!”
Fair enough. His movies work because so many of us can relate to them. Me taking it personally would be silly.
My reason and better judgment want to agree with you.
But then I saw this…
Kicking and Screaming
LOOK AT JOSH HAMILTON! THAT’S WHAT I LOOK LIKE!!!!!
OK, this is where it gets creepy. This movie came out in 1995 – a time when I was still shoving Play Doh up my nose – and yet Noah Baumbach had the prescience to not only predict my personality and put it into his characters – he actually knew what I would look like!
Again, look at Josh Hamilton!!!!!!
“Hunter, the internet is filled with ‘People Who Look Like Celebrities‘ click-bait articles.” You’re probably saying, followed by “Your buffoonishness is baffling!”
Fine, fine, you may have a Cousin Myrtle who looks like Jonah Hill, or a Pomeranian that bears a striking resemblance to Angelina Jolie. But those are random occurrences. This is a guy whose movies articulate my deepest, darkest dreads, and whose first film has a character who looks just like me!
This is not a coincidence – it’s a conspiracy.
There’s only one thing left for me to do.
An Open Letter To Noah Baumbach:
Dear Mr. Baumbach,
Your films are usually very good, and you’re one of the few contemporary directors whose pictures I will pencil in just because I trust you.
So good on you.
However, you need to get out of my head. It’s scary. See above – you made Josh Hamilton look like me. Well, the future me, which is actually even scarier.
Sure, a more mature filmgoer might thank you for producing insightful work that serves as a warning to us all of what not to be.
Or for making films that are deeply personal to you, but with themes that happen to resonate with me as well.
Or for reminding us that life doesn’t always go according to script, and being an adult means learning to adjust and grow.
Like I said, a more mature filmgoer might say that – but this is me we’re talking about here.
I’m like your characters – a man-child who would rather just blame you for what is clearly a undiagnosed case of acute paranoia.
Please get out of my head. It’s weird.
Hunter Howe Cates
DO YOU “RELATE” TO THIS ARTICLE? MORE IMPORTANTLY, DO YOU LOOK LIKE A CELEBRITY, OR KNOW SOMEONE WHO DOES?