Thursday, September 3, 2015

Why Noah Baumbach is the Great American Director of Contemporary Life

Noah Baumbach
It wasn't long ago where I could say that I didn't like the work of director Noah Baumbach. It wasn't a vitriolic hatred. It was one of those apathetic things in which his work just didn't seem appealing. Of course, he had made The Squid and The Whale: a film that is still one of the rawest and truest looks into a divorce. But what else really was there? Greenberg felt like it was a retread to the navel gazing indie movement that Joe Swanberg perfected and most people hated. In fact, he was arguably better on script duties, hitting a home run with his second collaboration with Wes Anderson called Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is still one of the best animated films in recent years. In a way, there was something in that experience that got me to care. You see, it was a film that helped me to understand the appeal of Baumbach. In fact, I may even go as far as to think that he is one of my favorite working American directors now.

Even if there's not enough truth, I do feel that Anderson and Baumbach are cut from similar cloths. Both were directors who made stories about families and the various dynamics. The only difference is that Anderson went more cartoonish than Baumbach starting oddly enough with their first collaboration: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Yes, The Royal Tennenbaums had traces of what would become Anderson's definitive style, but it was with the Bill Murray-lead comedy that unveiled more abstract, artistic assets. It would continue to grow until last year's superb The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is probably his most realized and assured work to date. Before I continue, I do want to admit that yes, I do think that Anderson is one of the few remaining American visual auteurs currently working with his oh-so-specific style and Alexandre Desplat scores. In that case, Baumbach is not as good.

Yet to stay on The Life Aquatic, I do think that it reflected two minds meshing together. There was Anderson the artist and Baumbach the humanist. While most will remember that film for its visual flair and alteration on the "Moby Dick" mythology, there is something to the characteristics. Herman Melville's original story is driven by obsession and ignoring loved ones. Considering that this is the same man who wrote and directed The Squid and The Whale, it makes total sense that he would put more emphasis on family. This becomes more prevalent in Fantastic Mr. Fox, where there's several intertwining familial conflicts that run throughout. One could again put credit to Anderson, but considering that his later films went to focus on puppy love (Moonrise Kingdom) and a neo-war/career commentary (The Grand Budapest Hotel), I don't know that Anderson was as concerned about family at that point.

So, what am I getting at? I personally think that Baumbach is better. Yes, Anderson came out more assured. Almost every one of his films have a concrete structure. Meanwhile, Baumbach is more sketchy, even disowning one of his films. I cannot claim to love handful of his films. I, for one, found Greenberg to be too reliant on the meandering navel gazing that I don't like in indie films. Yet I feel that there was something in working with Anderson that helped both realize their creative potential. Where Anderson went more cartoonish and isolating, Baumbach went more personal, looking at stories that were more reflective of contemporary lives. Even if he remained true to the indie aesthetic, he would begin challenging it in manners that were necessary in 2013 with the release of Frances Ha.

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha
We have always known who was in Anderson's troupe. In a sense, that is partially why Baumbach likely took awhile to seem appealing. His aesthetic wasn't defined nor did he have collaborators that understood his style. Returning from Greenberg, Greta Gerwig co-wrote the script and starred in the lead role. The black and white film follows female friendship as both women meander through life, trying to understand their existence. The aesthetic, from visual to audio, are reminiscent of the French New Wave collective that came to popularity in the 60's. Maybe one could complain that Baumbach doesn't have a composer, choosing to borrow compositions from Jean Valentin and Georges Delerue. The one niche here is that the music cues also lead to an understanding of tonal shift, as pop music indicates shifts from fantasy to the realized self, most notably with David Bowie's "Modern Love" (even then, a reference to a Leos Carax film).

But there is something assured about the film and something that a Baumbach-directed film hasn't really felt since The Squid and The Whale. It is easy to get wrapped up in how twee the music and visual cues are, but that is to miss the deeper points. There's a deeper psychology to Frances Ha that ties into how we use music to depict our own scenarios. The various shots of the film are indicative of the romanticism that Francois Truffaut would bring to his work. This is an assured film that may clock in at less than 90 minutes, but packs wit into each moment. It helps that Gerwig is insatiable and knows how to bring nuance to every last line she reads. She understands what to tell and show. We sense the longing without it distracting from the central story.

Part of me hopes that Baumbach never gets a full time composer for his stable. One of the most interesting things about him is the juxtaposition of classical scores and contemporary music. Anderson used them at points, but never with as much ambition. The same could be applied to the following film While We're Young in which hip hop music was used to depict Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller's slow delusional decline into wanting youth. Meanwhile, the younger Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver love the older, obscure pop music. Much like Frances Ha was a depiction of fantasy and reality, While We're Young is about aging gracefully. In a way, it's a depiction of the entire lifespan of humanity and how we misconstrue our desires to be what we are and how procrastination is one of the eternal evils. 

Left to right: Lola Kirke and Gerwig in Mistress America
Of course, Baumbach has always had these richer themes in his work. They just have felt more like those familiar, bland indies that I keep mentioning. In fact, I don't know that he really had a specific style before Greenberg. It could just be that he has worked with a lot of cast members in the subsequent years since. I think he also just has a better sense of what he wants to achieve in film. What he wants is to find something more grounded in his characters. Basically, The Squid and The Whale in a comedic format. As a result, he's made some of the most profound studies of female friendship, midlife crises, and false projections (Mistress America) within his collective group of filmmakers. He knows that he doesn't need to get deeply emotional. He just needs to hit the right nerves.

What's more astounding is that in 2015, he has released two films that reflect his growth and why he may finally be among the best after 20 years in the game. While We're Young may be a little uneven, but it still packs complexity into the humor and makes you care. You understand that these are real people, even if hipsters aren't your ideal roommate. At some point, you're likely to feel like each of these characters. You're likely to fall into that pitfall of self-indulgence and notice your failures. Even then, the jokes have a certain wisdom to them that makes even the most awkward moments click. 

But here's the thing that likely puts Baumbach ahead of Anderson: I feel that he has a more innovative collaborator in Gerwig. Even if you just take Frances Ha on face value as a quirky comedy, you'll notice that it works surprisingly well in capturing the sadness in between those moments of glee. With Mistress America, it does feel that Baumbach has finally found his niche. Maybe the soundtrack is more singular, choosing to focus on retro songs to indicate its characters' lack of mental presence. Yet it's the film that more than any of his other work indicates that what Baumbach is best at is drawing that line between drama and comedy while reinventing the screwball comedy. Maybe While We're Young doesn't strike you as such, but what is present is the life necessary to make long drives and conversations into art.

There are more direct parallels between his 2015 films than before. In both cases, there are extended scenes in which characters are on a road trip out of New York to a distant destination. We're immersed in the conversations, where various tics come to life. In While We're Young, it's how obnoxious the younger characters are for liking something inherently annoying. In Mistress America, it is the disconcerting nature of everyone's various relationships and career goals. Where these would be enough to fill a scene, each character is given their own quirk, which plays out comically. Sometimes this means saying a phrase. Others is just a stare. Baumbach, possibly even more than Anderson, understands humans enough to know that even the background characters need to have something to do.

Left to right: Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts in While We're Young
I am not sure that I have made a persuasive case for why Noah Baumbach is among my favorite working directors. I am sure that my reviews for his last three movies will provide you with more substance. However, I do think that there is something that will be indicative of its era when time has moved on. Maybe we'll love Anderson more because of his aesthetic. Yet I think that Baumbach's work is able to transcend that, reflect what is going on in the moment by understanding just how uncertain life is. His characters are real and create a portrait of New York that feels like an updated, more metropolitan look at how Woody Allen depicted the state back in the 70's with Manhattan and Annie Hall. Maybe Baumbach is more pseudo-intellectual and stylistically different, but I think that it is why he will continue to resonate.

Also, the topics depicted in the film travel beyond the basic premises that most indies go for. Even in his lesser work, he has an understanding for characters. He knows that music indicates mindset, and sometimes that doesn't mean hiring composers. Sometimes it means borrowing David Bowie songs to explain our happiness. Much like how Allen used Gerswhin, Baumbach uses Constantin and Delerue to express a deeper romance that is timeless. While I don't feel that this all just happened in the past few years for the director, I do think that it has come to be realized more effectively. He's always been good, but I think now he's found out how to be great. Part of it is in his collaborations and part of it is in his music player.

So when I say that Anderson and Baumbach are cut from the same cloth, I don't mean that as an insult. You likely couldn't even tell nowadays that it was ever true. Still, there's vague similarities in their initial approach to drama and comedy. Before there was ever aesthetic, there was that initial passion to tell stories about how we react to each other. I think that one went broader and one went more personal. Both are very good, but maybe for the time being, Baumbach shows more promise of making films that appeal to the human condition. His work is more honest and provocative without relying on tropes or gimmicks. I can only hope he continues to do something impressive that innovates and gives a richer and deeper understanding of who we are as a society.

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