The Baumbach Variations
How "The Squid and the Whale" and "The Meyerowitz Stories" revisit and reshape shared themes
Within the confines of an apartment just around the corner from the first house I ever lived in, in a city just outside of the town I grew up in, aged nineteen and no longer a child but not anything like an adult, with a mindset only on the precipice of teetering into something other than the religious worldview I’d been raised in – this is to say, as someone who had not yet done much developing as an individual – I watched Noah Baumbach’s movie The Squid and the Whale.
I adored the film. I found it’s documentary-style use of the handheld camera exhilarating, the dialogue funny and heart-breaking at the same time, and I was totally smitten with the brilliance of both Jeff Daniels’ performance and his character in the film. I thought this neurotic and fascinating writer struggling to gain the recognition his work deserves was a tragic figure of genius.
As I said, I was nineteen – I was an idiot.
Daniels’ character, one Bernard Berkman, novelist in decline, is a tragic figure but not for the reasons I thought back then. He is an arrogant, conceited jerk who spends his every waking moment in the act of writing his own life story, as if he can dictate the present the way he constructs the plots of his novels. His dialogue is essentially a running commentary of his experiences as filtered through his narcissistic ego. Take this moment in conversation with his soon-to-be ex-wife:
“Things are good here. Teaching is going well. And I’m playing the best tennis of my life. Maybe that’s an illusion, but ... it feels that way.”
Bernard falls for the cliché of sleeping with one of the students in his English Literature class, who also happens to be the target of his teenage son’s interest. This son is a self-conscious repeat of everything he believes about his father’s self-professed greatness, which makes him a knock-off version of the manipulative, self-interested bore that his father truly is. On my first viewing of the movie, I was the son too, I suppose, following Bernard like a gullible acolyte.
This was all revealed to me when I watched The Squid and the Whale again recently, after a decade of not watching or really thinking about it. Seeing the movie in such a drastically different way (although, in terms of quality, it still stands up as a gem of a movie) and seeing how off-base my early impression of Bernard was, I saw how different I was as a viewer too.
It did occur to me, on finally understanding what an insufferable narcissist Bernard was, that for me to take him as a model of a Great Writer, I must have been something of an insufferable narcissist too. A line came to mind after that depressing revelation, from a not-great movie that I can’t seem to forget: “This writer that I know once told me ... every five years he realises what an asshole he was five years ago. Every five years like clockwork he goes, ‘Man, I was such an asshole five years ago.’” I like to wonder what I will think, in five years, of myself right now. It helps to instil some humility.
The occasion for my re-watching The Squid and the Whale was that I had finally seen Baumbach’s 2017 movie, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). His rightly lauded masterpiece from last year, Marriage Story, still reverberates through me, echoing like a bell whose lasting ring alters all noises that come later, subtly influencing the pitch and timbre of other sounds. Thanks to the nationwide lockdown against the coronavirus threat, I was faced with another evening absent the company of interesting friends and meaningful conversation, and so I sought out something to entertain and enlighten, preferably in equal measure. The gods of algorithmic fate meant that my watching Marriage Story resulted in Netflix showing me the other Noah Baumbach film in their reserves.
As I laughed, thought, and had one profound moment of catharsis in the film’s climax, The Meyerowitz Stories revealed itself as something more than an ordinary movie. It bears an unusual relationship to The Squid and the Whale. Watching one of these movies having already seen the other, in any order, might leave the viewer with a sense of déjà vu.
In The Meyerowitz Stories, there is a self-obsessed artistic father (Dustin Hoffman as Harold Meyerowitz) who fails to care for his children, sacrificing their wellbeing at the altar of genius. Whether he actually is a genius is not a certainty – as is the case with Bernard Berkman in The Squid and the Whale – and we are given good grounds for doubt. Bernard’s excuse for not having published a novel in some time is that “the publishing world isn’t always receptive to real literary talent”. In other words, “It’s not me, it’s you.” Harold Meyerowitz claims, “I’m doing the best work of my life right now. But that’s just one man’s opinion.” It is an opinion repeatedly not shared by the art world throughout the movie who occasionally reference his earlier work, and most often ignore him for newer artists.
Similarities such as these, and others that go to the level of plot and structure in both movies, had me thinking that perhaps The Meyerowitz Stories was intended to take up the story of The Squid and the Whale, a few decades on. Perhaps, I thought, the subtitle for the second film – (New and Selected) – indicated that the first film was a set of older stories. Tallying up the differences in the details, however, made me see that The Meyerowitz Stories is not a sequel – the facts of the character’s lives, names, and occupations don’t allow for that – and it’s not a rehash – as we’ll see, there are key differences here – but we might think of the two movies as alternate realities with a shared anchor. They are each singular renditions of the same thematic exploration. It’s as if two explorers were sent out from the same base camp to explore the same territory, but one went north and the other south. As a result, I have decided to refer to this duet as The Baumbach Variations.
Tolstoy’s happy families may well be identical in their happiness, but who would know? Who has ever encountered one of these mythical, perfectly blissful families? The counterpoising second clause, however, that for each unhappy family there is a unique manner of misery, is attested to with extensive evidence. The genius of Baumbach’s “variation” style of revisiting near identical premises is to show the various ways different people, subject to different family dynamics and personality quirks, react to the same situation.
Both the Meyerowitz family and the Berkman family are surviving the perpetual fallout of living with an egotistical artist-father; both families are emotionally starved, suffering a famine of patriarchal nurturing; both movies have a son facing their father’s hospitalisation and mortality, which leads them to make a crucial choice in a climactic moment; but the Meyerowitz and Berkman families show us different paths through this shared terrain.
The Squid and the Whale features the pubescent children of Bernard. We see how the eldest, Walt, is deeply invested in propping up claims of greatness in his father, because it is attached to his own sense of self; if his father is brilliant and he mimics him, then he will be brilliant too. The later Meyerowitz Stories has the adult children of Harold half-heartedly perpetuating the narrative of their father being brilliant simply because the alternative (though it would not wound their own egos, as it would for Walt) reveals something of their father they are not ready to face: “If he wasn’t a great artist,” one of Harold’s sons confesses, “that means he was just a prick.”
These long-suffering sons are both given an overdue opportunity to come up against their respective fathers and make a decisive choice – to continue trailing the father, seeking scraps of encouragement and love, or to finally go their own way. At the end of The Squid and the Whale, Bernard insists on his son staying at the hospital to help him recover from an illness. The son seems until the final moment as if he will obey the command, but then he makes a break for it. He flees the hospital and runs through the city, until he arrives at the display that we learned earlier in the film scared him so much as a child that he could never look directly at it. His story finishes here with him gazing at the massive display of a giant squid locked in battle with a sperm whale.
I’m not convinced the son here has turned away from his father. I think as soon as he is done with this cathartic visit to the museum, he goes right back to Bernard’s side. For a start, he is still a minor and under his father’s custody; then there is the fact that on running away from the hospital, he does not go to his mother’s to reconcile with her and displace his father, nor does he seek to make amends to the girlfriend he treated so horribly, and nor does he straight tell Bernard to his face, “No, I won’t stay here with you, I have my own life to live.” So I don’t think his leaving the hospital means he has left the poisonous relationship with his father behind. However, having faced the marine wrestling match that he could not face before, he is better equipped to see his father as the broken man he is, and that ability to see clearly may well lead to his eventual escape from the paternal grip. For now, the movie shows us only that the son is perhaps getting ready for this eventual emancipation.
The Meyerowitz Stories, on the other hand, culminates with a resolution far more decisive, the kind that seems as if it has come too late, as if the now middle-aged son has been desperately waiting years for this, but it may well only be possible now, after this duration of suffering. His father, Harold, makes the same demand of his son that Bernard made of his: Stay with the father to tend to him and wait on his needs, in a way the father never did for his own children.
I don’t want to rob anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet of the full impact of the moment, or dilute its power through familiarity by writing precisely what is said, so suffice it to say that Harold’s son does not stand for this, he does leave, and if he ever returns it is under totally different circumstances, a drastically improved familial context. This is a moment the young son in The Squid and the Whale was not yet capable of having, so it is right that Baumbach revisits the moment – virtually identical to that of his earlier movie – to see what happens with a different son at a different point in his life.
Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody describes The Meyerowitz Stories as both “a remake of and a sequel to ... The Squid and the Whale”, comparing Baumbach’s two films to Hitchcock’s 1956 rendition of his 1934 movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much. While I think seeing The Meyerowitz Stories as a remake or sequel is reductive and limiting, I think Brody elucidates an important distinction between the two films. Brody frames this through Hitchcock’s response to François Truffaut’s assertion that his second film was superior to the first: “Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.”
There is also something of a difference – an increase, I would argue – in quality between Baumbach’s two films. There is an extended tracking shot in the middle of The Meyerowitz Stories, for instance, which begins on the inside of a restaurant window that three characters are walking past outside, follows them as they walk through the door, pans across the length of the interior, and circles the three men as they take their seats, a piece of cinematic choreography that inebriates the eye and the mind. This shot alone brings me back to this film for repeat viewings. While the urgency of the handheld camera is inspired in The Squid and the Whale, it can get tiring, and doesn’t compare in any of its scenes to that one tracking shot from the later movie. Richard Brody, again in his New Yorker piece, finds the perfect way to describe the limitations, overcome by Baumbach’s later films, that The Squid and the Whale suffers from:
“The Squid and the Whale was a formidable literary achievement brought to the screen by a director who was delivering his script in images rather than expanding it with them.”
Reading this, I discover what I have been grasping at in my thinking and subsequent writing on Baumbach’s movies: It is the idea of expansion. The expansion I am thinking of is contingent on taking both movies together, as different dimensions on a single plane. The second movie expands on the first as much as the first expands on the second.
A sequel builds on what we saw before; a remake nullifies what came before and asks us to take this new thing as primary; a variation, however, allows us to take each movie on its own terms and to view it in the larger context of how it interacts with the other movie.
Noah Baumbach is not the first to find they have more to say on a given theme or conceit, and to revisit it with a standalone work. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels all deal to different degrees with memory, and the first two (A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World) have always felt to me like the same scene viewed at two different times of day, or a single landmark approached from opposing angles.
I think too of Wes Anderson, and his preoccupations that recur in all of his movies, and yet do so to different degrees and are placed at varying distances from the central theme of each film. Like in the movies of Baumbach (with whom Anderson has collaborated on The Squid and the Whale and many other films), fathers turn up again and again. Childhood, naivety, nostalgia, stories-within-stories, books, rectilinearity, and countless other ideas are re-used to frame new themes and re-appropriated to have new things revealed about them.
In my own writing, I am finding ideas that won’t leave me alone, that recur sometimes on the surface as the subject of an essay, and other times, frequently, forming the foundation on which new structures are built, the pool of ideas and opinions in which I swim. Even this essay’s interest in returning to the past and breaking new ground out of recycled philosophical bedrock is a variation on that idea explored in at least half a dozen essays over the last year.
The special spin Noah Baumbach brings to this, the flourish on this notion of revisiting a theme or moment from the past, is giving us the characters of Bernard Berkman and Harold Meyerowitz to demonstrate the tragedy of those who refuse to see the past in a new light. Both men, in the sunsets of careers and of lives, are infatuated with their own sunrise; they obsess over old achievements and accolades bestowed on the men they used to be. But they do so only to reinforce the illusion that they remain the same today, that nothing important has changed. The people in their lives who grow and show the promise of fulfilment and happiness are those characters who re-evaluate their life stories, examine them from different angles, in different lights, and learn something new as a result.
Danny, one of the Meyerowitz sons and a patently terrific dad to his daughter, has refused to repeat his father’s mistakes and, in learning his lesson from this shared past, grants himself the power to actually prevent such a repetition. Danny is a stand-in for the dynamic between the films: He is neither a sequel to or remake of his father. Instead, he is a variation.
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• The Squid and the Whale, dir. Noah Baumbach (2005)
• The Meyerowitz Stories, dir. Noah Baumbach (2017)
• Happy. Thank You. More. Please., dir. Josh Radnor (2010)
• Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1877)
• A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro (1982)
• An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro (1986)