Di­vorced from the truth

Noah Baum­bach’s evis­cer­a­tion of his own fa­ther in the Squid and the Whale launched his di­rect­ing ca­reer. Twelve years on, and his own mar­riage over, his lat­est film takes a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. In­ter­view by An­drew Billen.

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

Noah Baum­bach is Woody Allen’s artis­tic heir, jok­ing in earnest about the big stuff. Yet it was the di­rec­tor of The Grad­u­ate, Mike Ni­chols, who nailed The Squid and the Whale, when he saw the younger di­rec­tor’s first hit film.

‘‘He reached out to me,’’ Baum­bach says, ‘‘and said, ‘It re­minded me of why I got into movies in the first place. It was for re­venge.’’’

Dressed in a well-cut dark suit and blue-checked shirt, Baum­bach, a still preppy 48, is in a Lon­don ho­tel dis­cussing with me his lat­est and dark­est comedy, The Meyerowitz Sto­ries, which is screen­ing now on Net­flix. Star­ring his pre­vi­ous col­lab­o­ra­tor Ben Stiller, an un­recog­nis­ably nu­anced Adam San­dler and, as it hap­pens, The Grad­u­ate‘s Dustin Hoff­man, The Meyerowitz Sto­ries levers Baum­bach up a league.

For all that, it proves hard to dis­cuss with­out ref­er­ence to the 12-year-old, low-bud­get Squid. As an ob­vi­ous start, both can be read as a roast­ing of a re­ally bad dad. Seen through the eyes of Walt, a teenage boy wit­ness­ing his par­ents’ break-up, Squid was a bla­tant evis­cer­a­tion of Noah’s fa­ther, Jonathan Baum­bach.

In­deed, Jeff Daniels, in play­ing the char­ac­ter Bernard, even wore Jonathan’s cord jacket. The nov­el­ist turned col­lege teacher is char­ac­terised by lofty in­tel­lec­tual snob­bery (‘‘It’s mi­nor Fitzger­ald’’), which leads him to ne­glect his fam­ily in favour of the life of the Bernard mind. Our faith in its qual­ity is un­der­mined by his in­abil­ity to get his later work into print, his rash se­duc­tion of a stu­dent and his vi­cious ri­valry with his younger son at ping pong.

Bernard’s in­creas­ingly suc­cess­ful writer wife, whose af­fairs are the im­me­di­ate ca­sus belli of their di­vorce, is given only a slightly eas­ier ride.

Baum­bach, when I ask, says it took his fa­ther a second view­ing to ‘‘see’’ the por­trayal, but in­sists he is still on good terms with his par­ents, who did in­deed di­vorce when he was in his teens. ‘‘They’re artists. They know what’s fic­tion. I did use au­to­bi­og­ra­phy in a more clear-cut way in it - the jacket - but the movie is also in­vented.’’

Life writes its own ironies. When Baum­bach made Squid he was mar­ried to the ac­tress Jen­nifer Ja­son Leigh. Leigh di­vorced him, how­ever, a few years later, shortly af­ter the birth of their son and af­ter their work on his 2010 movie, Green­berg. It later be­came pub­lic that Baum­bach had be­come at­tached to Greta Ger­wig, the younger ac­tress who starred with Leigh in the film. He now lives with her while shar­ing cus­tody of his son, Rohmer.

The awk­ward­ness of such ar­range­ments was summed up by a line in Squid: ‘‘Joint cus­tody blows.’’

Given those events, I ask if he would have been kinder to the par­ents had he made Squid sub­se­quently.

‘‘The nar­ra­tive of Squid was driven by Walt and his per­spec­tive. I felt at the time I was just go­ing to press down on his sto­ry­line. I think, yes, it is likely if I did it again now . . . I mean, I’m

"The more I do this, the more I kind of see how what I do is a kind of con­ver­sa­tion with my child­hood." Noah Baum­bach

sure I would do some­thing dif­fer­ent. Maybe I would try to make it more even-handed.’’

The test, re­ally, is how you read, to give it its full ti­tle, The Meyerowitz Sto­ries (New and Se­lected). Af­ter a fruit­ful spell in­ves­ti­gat­ing women’s lives in Frances Ha and Mistress Amer­ica, both of them star­ring and cowrit­ten with Ger­wig, Baum­bach is back on par­ents and sib­lings.

Some scenes in Sto­ries seem to be di­rect echoes of Squid: a fa­ther un­able to find a park­ing space, a phys­i­cal fight be­tween broth­ers (now more ridicu­lous given Stiller’s and San­dler’s years), the dad in hos­pi­tal (but this time for some­thing se­ri­ous). The big dif­fer­ence is that Hoff­man’s Harold Meyerowitz, the fa­ther, although as self-oc­cu­pied and re­sent­ful of oth­ers’ suc­cess as Bernard in Squid, is old and ail­ing.

The film nar­rates the re­turn of Harold’s two sons, the un­em­ployed Danny (San­dler), the suc­cess­ful money man Matthew (Stiller) and their dam­aged sis­ter, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), to his er­ratic or­bit. The emo­tion­ally cor­rect vale­dic­tory for a par­ent, a doc­tor tells them, goes thus: ‘‘I love you; for­give me; I for­give you; thank you; good­bye.’’ It proves a hard litany.

Baum­bach says the Ger­wig films were per­sonal too – they were partly love let­ters to her – but viewed life from a dif­fer­ent and specif­i­cally ‘‘woman’s per­spec­tive’’. I sug­gest also they freed him to ad­dress his child­hood from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives.

‘‘That’s how I feel,’’ he says. ‘‘The more I do this, the more I kind of see how what I do is a kind of con­ver­sa­tion with my child­hood.’’

To tell the story from dif­fer­ent an­gles, the film is di­vided into five chap­ters – although it is no­table that Harold does not get his. As with Daniels’s Bernard, how­ever, Hoff­man’s Harold dom­i­nates.

Hoff­man, 80, did not ini­tially want to play the role, reck­on­ing he had played dy­ing quite of­ten enough – ever since Mid­night Cow­boy, in fact – but was per­suaded to do so by his son Ja­cob. He and Baum­bach met reg­u­larly be­fore the shoot to dis­cuss the project ‘‘and their lives’’. This, he says, helped to defuse the thought on day one: ‘‘Can you imag­ine what your 17-yearold self would have said?’’

Harold re­sem­bles Jonathan Baum­bach in sev­eral ways. The most ob­vi­ous is that each has mar­ried four times, a mat­ter of ev­i­dent fas­ci­na­tion for the 84-year-old Jonathan, whose lat­est work is called The Pav­il­ion of For­mer Wives.

Harold’s pro­fes­sional de­tails are lifted, how­ever, from Jonathan’s fa­ther, Harold Baum­bach, who died in 2002, aged 98.

Whereas the fic­tional Harold is a ne­glected sculp­tor, the real Harold was a ne­glected ab­stract pain­ter, a con­tem­po­rary of Mark Rothko and Mil­ton Avery. His New York Times obit­u­ary noted that he in­sisted on ‘‘go­ing his own way’’ and was ‘‘al­ler­gic to fashio

‘‘I never wit­nessed it,’’ his grand­son says, ‘‘but if peo­ple said the wrong thing about a paint­ing of his in a gallery, he would just re­move it and say, ‘You can’t look at it.’ ‘‘

In the movie, Harold’s rev­er­ence for art op­presses his sons, who judge them­selves fail­ures for not hav­ing be­come suc­cess­ful artists.

‘‘Art was the fam­ily re­li­gion,’’ Baum­bach says of his fa­ther’s child­hood. Given that Noah is who he is and that his younger brother, Nico, teaches film the­ory at Columbia Univer­sity in New York, it seems likely that the faith pre­vailed unto their up­bring­ing. Their mother, Ge­or­gia Brown, is also a writer, some­time film critic on The Vil­lage Voice.

I tell him that crit­ics think he is re­sis­tant to tragedy. He wants names, but says: ‘‘Maybe I’m just in­tim­i­dated by the idea of say­ing, ‘I’m about to write a se­ri­ous movie about se­ri­ous is­sues.’ Maybe I have to think of it that way to kind of fool my­self. What­ever it is, I al­ways think of them as funny and as a re­sult there is a kind of ten­sion be­tween the comedy and drama.’’

Sto­ries may be seen as de­bate about fail­ure and suc­cess. He says he has known both. Af­ter his first films, but be­fore Squid, there was fi­nan­cial un­cer­tainty and a ‘‘pe­riod of real search­ing’’. He cred­its ther­apy for al­low­ing him to make Squid.

In re­cent years, of course, mainly he has known suc­cess. He is happy when I say that he is our gen­er­a­tion’s Woody Allen.

‘‘You know, he was from Brook­lyn and Jewish. We came from sim­i­lar places cul­tur­ally. But also in his New York movies, Manhattan and An­nie Hall, there was such a fan­tasy of what your adult life could be if you left Brook­lyn and went to Manhattan.’’ Those big apart­ments? ‘‘And dat­ing Diane Keaton. It worked both as ‘this feels so real to me’ and also ‘what a great fan­tasy’ – which is kind of what movies should be.’’

And now, ac­cord­ing to The New Yorker, Baum­bach does live in a ‘‘never-end­ing’’ apart­ment in Manhattan.

‘‘But I didn’t get to date Diane Keaton.’’ Ger­wig, I should add, whose di­rec­to­rial de­but, Lady Bird ,is at­tract­ing even bet­ter re­views than Sto­ries, is not in the room. – The Times


Greta Ger­wig and Noah Baum­bach have worked to­gether on movies in­clud­ing Frances Ha and Mistress Amer­ica.

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