Friday, August 20, 2010

Life is wasted on Noah Baumbach

[On Greenberg with a bit about Edge of Darkness at the end.]

Is that post title similar enough to White's "retroactive abortion" comment to get me banned from future Baumbach screenings?

I hope not.  (not that I'd ever get invited to such a screening in the first place!)

One of the best lines in the film is the titular character Greenberg's quip that "they say youth is wasted on the young.  I'd go further.  I say life is wasted on people."  That line is great, but it's Stiller's delivery that marks it as a moment of clarity in communication on the part of a person instead of coming off as the attention-grabbing showmanship of a smug screenwriter.  Baumbach does fall into this showy screenwriter trap at times (I'm looking at you party scene!).  Even so, Stiller consistently saves the script by making it real.  

Ben Stiller is always great and he's great here.  His best performance to date may be his cameo as the Academy Award Na'vi, but his performance in Mystery Men is my favorite.

I do declare that Greta Gerwig is someone to keep track of in the future.  Jason, watching Baghead was actually great preparation for Greenberg.   I hope Gerwig can get future roles that go beyond the limitations of these two roles in which she basically plays variations on the same character, the hip young object of desire (the characters are just different enough, but it's interesting to think of her character in Greenberg as the sequel to her character in Baghead).

Looking at her IMDB page doesn't have me too confident about her future, but greatness is still the most plausible possibility.

Gerwig's face is a gross landscape of innocence and experience, an icon of moral and aesthetic possibilities; demanding the obsessively exacting explorations of a Griffith with a Gish or a Godard working with a Karina.  I applaud Baumbach for holding the camera on Gerwig's close-up profile for some relatively long shots.  Maybe Baumbach will adopt her as his muse, but it seems not to be.  IMDB suggests plenty of upcoming work for the lass, but, as of yet, no auteur smitten enough with her to make her immortal.

Despite my enthusiastic praise for the performances above, I had an initially strong reaction against Greenberg.  Still, it's the only film I've seen in a week and I can't stop thinking about it.

If I don't like it, then I at least respect it. 

Greenberg is essentially a character study.  An anti-Inception.  

[Tangent:  Have you guys read the Bordwell/Thompson Inception post?  Inception is praised as a formal experiment in the limits of exposition as structure. ]

Here's the plot of Greenberg:
Greenberg comes to Los Angeles to house-sit for his brother while his brother's family is on a business/vacation trip to Vietnam.  While in LA, Greenberg takes care of a dog, meets up with old friends, and begins an affair with his brother's family's personal assistant.  Other events occur as a result of these three basic situations, with a youth party thrown in for good measure.

So, what's my problem?  Greenberg the film features Greenberg the character. Greenberg the character is frustratingly self-centered and unlikable.

"So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods." -John Calvin

The problem with Greenberg the character is that he doesn't know and can't know who he really is because he never looks beyond himself and his own needs.  He doesn't take the time to look to others, let alone look "beyond the earth."  Life is wasted on Greenberg.

I could enjoy this as a character study of the damned, but I think that Florence (the Gerwig character) is our audience surrogate and we're made to feel about Greenberg the same way that she does, always giving one more chance, always resulting in our own hurt.  It's not that we love Greenberg in spite of his flaws.  It's that we pretend that he's really a better person than he's given us any right to expect him to be.  He acts like a jerk all of the time, but he has a pure heart.  Bullocks.

There's the tiniest glimmer of hope for Greenberg at the end, but it's situated in the midst of an horrifically unexamined act of destroying life.

The following is a minor spoiler - the film's muted climax is an abortion.  The way in which this all is handled is matter-of-fact, with a twinge of mostly unspoken sadness (which looking back on this now I'm not sure if I'm bringing this emotion to the film where it's not present).  This portion of the film reminds me of In Search of a Midnight Kiss, which ends in a similar situation, but handles the material much differently.

Greenberg is all too eager to help with the abortion (the baby is not his) as a way of supporting his would-be lover.  There is such a clear reflection here of Greenberg's philosophy that I have to wonder if Baumbach was conscious of it when he had this action fulfill Greenberg's words: life is wasted on people.

I'm rambling a bit.  In summary, I still don't know what I think about Greenberg.  It's either among the best films of the year or it falls in the bottomless mud pit of so much stylized rich white privileged complaining, beginning to comprehend their despair and depravity, but unable to do anything about it.

At the very least, Greenberg made me want to listen to TMBG's Youth Culture Killed My Dog.


Since writing the above I've seen Edge of Darkness.  Brandon, you're too reserved in praising Martin Campbell's efforts in this film.  Maybe I liked the film so much more than you did because I did feel the emotional impact of the daughter's death.  I might be able to agree with you about the postcard-perfect memories if they weren't used to such a consistently ghostly purpose.  The final shot [SPOILER!] of the father and daughter walking away together is both honestly moving and completely earned.  This is about as far removed from Inception's pseudo-familial evocations as we can get.  Maybe I'm just a cranky contrarian, but I'd argue that Edge of Darkness is better than almost anything else 2010 has given us so far.  I may need to watch it again to be sure.

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