The Inspiring Pessimism of Noah Baumbach

In one of the later scenes from his feature film debut Kicking and Screaming,  Noah Baumbach uses a hazy flashback to recast a new light on Jane (Olivia d’Abo) and Grover’s (Josh Hamilton) relationship. Gazes bounce between them as they’re locked in a flirty conversation – one of their first. The song playing in the background is Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Braver Newer World,” the lyrics “It’s a braver, newer world you’ve found / Rolling round and round and round” float from the jukebox, curling around them.

Whatever hope is folded into these lyrics is curdled by the context. We know that Grover and Jane’s relationship will continue to come round and round and round, and each will circle the other well past their relationship’s natural conclusion. In many ways Baumbach’s films position themselves around loss, forcing his characters to encircle it, staring in. He has earned considerable attention for his surly, jagged brand of pessimism, one which demands his characters admit their pain but are never relieved from it.

When reviewing Kicking and Screaming, Roger Ebert described Baumbach’s skill in filtering a “distillation of reality – elevating aimless brainy small-talk into a statement.” Like a spinning top ferociously hitting every corner of an elegantly furnished room, there is a frantic immovability that governs Baumbach’s films. Despite opportunity and wealth, his characters are trapped, locking one another in a series of tighter and tighter corners with their developing existentialism. Or as Frances (Greta Gerwig) admits in Frances Ha, “I have trouble leaving places.”

The sadness which reverberates throughout Baumbach’s filmography is rooted in an unwavering fear of what is to come. Characters show no sign of changing unless it is reverting to who they were, contorting to avoid the increasingly elaborate pattern of the future. White Noise, his most recent film, deals with this directly, cracking open the shiny veneer of the 1980s American family to reveal an organism infected, possessed by a sense of impending doom. Babette (Greta Gerwig) will go to absurd lengths to be assuaged of her fear of death, shrouding her doubts in an impenetrable cheeriness to avoid the gaze of her family.

After Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) tells her brothers about their fathers’ friend sexually assaulting her as a teenager in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), her brothers haphazardly take to the friend’s car, swinging sticks and crutches with the self-righteous fervour of two middle-aged men. “You guys will never understand what it’s like to be me in this family,” she responds – defeated rather than angry. They pile into the car to visit their father’s art installation at Bard College, where an honest attempt to move forward is met with childish abandon, and any attempt to disentangle one another sees them drawn back to their father, the centre of their familial web, with no time to trace the poisonous threads that ricochet out.

Baumbach structures his films around the belief that the future is untrustworthy, gruesome, and imposing, the image of the whale eating the squid that confronts Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) in The Squid and the Whale. The idea of being fatally haunted by your mistakes, of “rolling round and round and round” in your history of doubts until you are consumed from within, is not just embodied in that film. In an inverse of Frances’ famous dance down the road, she is later seen, sitting staunch and still, at a table on a Parisian Street. The joyful recklessness of her earlier jaunt has calcified into something sullen and lost. She picks up the phone to Sophie’s (Mickey Sumner) call with the eagerness of someone clinging to a lifeline, desperate to make sense of how this shift has rerouted her.

Despite the severity of these worries, these films still manage to stay afloat. Baumbach’s films feel hopeful not in spite of impending tragedy, but because of it. He crafts characters that can’t help but seek one another out, betraying their acerbic worldviews to feel kinship, to feel relieved, if only momentarily. In Kicking and Screaming, Max (Chris Eigeman) is callous, dismissive of the future  – and yet he is still won over by the unsparing optimism of Kate (Cara Buono). In Marriage Story, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) have ruthlessly torn the other apart in court and in conversation, but she still races over after noticing his shoelace is untied in the final scene. As Baumbach explained to The Guardian, “I feel like the job of the last part of the movie is to say: it’s all true, and none of it’s true. These are just people trying their best.” There is something decidedly hopeful in knowing the worst is to come and still choosing to seek comfort in others equally gripped by fear.

In his essay entitled ‘Utopia of the Beautiful End,’ Will Franks reframes the inevitability of death as something that can be hopeful, something we should embrace as best we can. “Walk in the forest and see the mould and the mushrooms on the “dead” leaves, and know that decay and life are one and the same. The undivided cosmic process continues, freely-flowing, like water.” Perhaps this is why Baumbach frames Frances’ loving, honest conversation with her parents in the forest, or why Jean tells her brothers about her lasting pain in a gathering of trees outside the hospital. Death and life spurring the other on while we wander through, trying to make sense of our connections before time runs out.

Baumbach switches the twisted roots and overlapping trunks of the forest for the gleaming displays and polished produce of the supermarket in White Noise. Both settings are shadowed by kinds of death, following the demands of a lifecycle, ruled by spoken and unspoken expiration dates. Both places that invite people to remain anonymous, pockets of mystery bound by an internal logic. Jack (Adam Driver) and Babette’s family are obsessed with the supermarket and how it manages to fold everyone in seamlessly, intimate habits laid out for strangers, colourful arrangements that belie secret preferences. After they decide to accept that death is inevitable, something to be understood rather than distracted from, they pour into the supermarket for a dance sequence. Every character dreamily wanders past one another, rhythmically recreating a shopping trip as the credits roll – “freely-flowing, like water.”

In The Squid and the Whale, Walt wins the school talent competition after claiming to have written Pink Floyd’s ‘Hey You’. His parents sit separately, fractured across the auditorium. Walt is eventually found out and forced to return the prize money, but he never really apologises to his family, and they never really apologise to him, for everything else. It’s unclear whether Baumbach thinks they should. The damage is already done, the repercussions are set; perhaps there is nothing left to do but shuffle between the parents’ homes and eat their father’s food even when it isn’t very good. Or as the song says: “Would you help me carry the stone? / Open your heart, I’m coming home.”

Baumbach’s films offer us loving ways of accepting death, whether that be individual or collective. In either case, his work suggests that we can not avoid one another, that no matter how intimately we draw our boundaries our problems will spread to passers-by. The camera may follow the girl dancing down the street, but Baumbach is still interested in the pedestrians who are haplessly dodging her.

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