by Brittany Ashley
We’ve all seen the already ingrained-in-internet-culture fight scene from his newest film, Marriage Story (2019) & we’ve all seen the wild debates about its innovativeness. Before this film, however, I was not very familiar with director/screenwriter Noah Baumbach until a boy that I liked told me he was one of his favorites and I finally decided it was time to join film twitter. In my subsequent devouring of Baumbach’s oeuvre, a certain aspect of every film I watched stood out as particularly inspiring. In every film, subtle and consistent is his uncanny capability for creative dialogue that still sounds just right. You don’t know these people, you typically get very little context for their lives or, if given, it’s spread out thin over the hours. But the moment they step on screen, they matter to you and they’re real. Because they speak like they’re real.
In the opening scene of my favorite Baumbach creation, While We’re Young ( 2015), once you watch past the inspiring geometrics of the A24 intro and the choice Henrik Ibsen quote, you witness a forgetting. An everyday lapse of “oh I should know this and I don’t, how silly!” just random enough to be worrying. Like, “what else have I forgotten that I’ve forgotten to remember?” In this instance, the main couple of the film attempt to coo a baby back to sleep by reciting the “Three Little Pigs” nursery rhyme, but can’t seem to remember the meat of the story. Moments like these, failures of life mostly deemed insignificant in the overarching plots of movies, are highlighted and openly discussed in each of Baumbach’s films. No plot or character or twist is too grandiose for you to forget that each of these people is of your own species. Even the coolest people are not without their disgustingly grounded reality checks. A few more minutes into the film, this couple, made up of a documentary filmmaker and a film producer/creative, tries to convince themselves that yes, “a month is still in the realm of spontaneity.” Only a lone soul or two could say they’ve never wanted to be a free spirit, jumping on a plane to Europe or booking a Greyhound to New York City for a spur of the moment soul searching respite. And here these definition-of-cool folks are, living right along with us when we realize that this is simply not possible, contrary to popular cinematic belief.
Returning for a moment to the dearly beloved Marriage Story, which snuck away the heart of many a twitter user and meme account, the film’s biggest draw-in is its promise to depict a real circumstance lived by real people. And that takes real dialogue. In real life, people don’t always come up with witty one-liners or say what they mean the first time or use the correct words to say the right thing. And in Marriage Story, a great example of this realistic back and forth (aside from the revered fight scene) comes halfway through the movie as the pair negotiates Halloween.
It’s confusing and messy and talking over one another and still trying to listen. It’s boring and asking for details instead of saying “let’s meet up” and walking away without having made any clear plans. Baumbach doesn’t shy away from beautifying his daily dialogue, and I certainly can’t think on my feet in such rhythmic and cutting ways, but the familiarity is in what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. Either way, Baumbach splits his characters’ relationships open and lets us see all the inside parts that make up a complex human interaction, the bits we can latch onto and say “I do that!” as well as the bits that seem scary and unknown.
As good as Baumbach is at spreading out crumpled relationships in ways that, for example, allow us unmarried folk to relate to a nasty divorce, he’s also a mastermind at filtering a relationship through an immature lens. In The Squid and the Whale (2005), Baumbach also displays a nasty divorce. Squid, however, is seemingly more interested in the behavior of the children of this divorce than the parents affecting such behavior. As such, he plays a touchy balancing game of showing the audience the honest, gritty reality of the parents and their mistakes while maintaining the lenses through which the children see their mother and father as well. Take, for example, the father, Bernard, an altogether horrible man of academia. His youngest son sees right through him, or at least sees no interesting aspects in him, but his eldest son idolizes him and molds himself to be just like his father. Somehow, Baumbach juggles the gross reality of Bernard with the wonderful indifference of his youngest son and the rose-colored glasses of his eldest, making all three viewpoints easily accessible to us in the audience. And primarily, in my opinion, he does this through that very same skill with dialogue. Take the opening scene, for example. The very first line is “Mom and me versus you and dad” uttered by the youngest child, Frank. A simple phrase given that they are mid-tennis match, but one that sets up dynamics for the rest of the film as well as the intense “us vs them” mentality of most of the characters. Next, Bernard declares Frank’s shot to be “long” and Frank stands up for his shot, setting up another theme throughout the film of Frank being confident in his differences from his father. Joan, their mother agrees, “It did look good,” consistently disagreeing with her husband while also being the kinder and more peacemaking of the two. The oldest son, Walt, sticks with his father, “Frank, it was out” while his father declares again, “It’s my call. It was out.” The final say in the matter, and he feels very much entitled to it. The debate ends there, but Bernard’s next words are key. “If you can, try and hit it at your mother’s backhand,” he tells Walt, “It’s pretty weak.” This is not a fun, family game for Bernard, and therefore it isn’t for Walt either. It’s a chance to show the family that Bernard is the most powerful, most talented, and most brilliant member of the four. All this characterization in less than a minute of the movie!! All based on dialogue. A king of words, Baumbach, truly.
Although there’s an entire list of films not discussed here, the trend continues in every piece of Baumbach’s I’ve witnessed. I may have started watching his movies to talk to the boy I liked, but I kept watching because I was fascinated by the use of language to establish connections between me and an assortment of strangers on screen. Home, I think, should feel familiar and known, whether that be good or bad. Baumbach portrays a variety of homes in his work, from the splintering examples in MarriageStory and Squid, to the solid and curious example fromWhileWe’reYoung to the solo adventures of Frances in Frances Ha ( 2012), another great film featuring/created with Greta Gerwig. But he also makes sure to connect even the most estranged of homes back to some innate part of our human experience so that we can feel seen in places we have never existed. We all recognize the frightening entitlement etched in every line given to Bernard in Squid as well as the rising hopelessness evident in Charlie’s repeated attempts to maintain normalcy in Marriage Story. We feel at home, no matter what home is being portrayed in front of us because Baumbach pieces his words together with such grace that we can all recognize our own voices in them.
I’m not the only person to have noticed this talent of his, nor am I the most qualified to discuss it, but Baumbach creates for a common audience and therefore I think his work is inviting analysis by those who feel underqualified or speechless. Another win for Mr. Baumbach.