The Squid and the Whale

Follows two young boys dealing with their parents’ divorce in Brooklyn in the 1980s.

Dir. Noah Baumbach


Written & Directed by Baumbach, ‘The Squid and the Whale’ is a lovely film. Shot on Super 16mm using mostly handheld cameras it’s a visual treat for film lovers. Moreover, the progressive and folk rock-ish soundtrack establishes a robust substructure that assists the storytelling.

Beyond the aesthetic of using Super 16mm I feel it is something that the film needed. Baumbach deals with very nascent emotions through the course of the movie and the method aids what he is trying to achieve. It gives it a very raw appeal.

The film is to some extent a comic family drama. It features Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels as parents and Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline as their children, all of whom have given stunning performances. Linney and Daniels are both PhD’s of Literature in the film and you can smell it on them. The characters they portray are a beautiful display of emotional chaos and have a demeanor which, mind the generalization, fits such a background. All four characters are written in a manner that you are curious about them, but you simultaneously feel that you know them completely.

I would attribute that to the ‘seemingly’ obvious character sketches. The film, right from the beginning makes us believe that the younger son is just like the mother and that the older son is like the father.

Jeff Daniels’ character seems to be a rather open minded person and his elder son (Eisenberg) seems to agree with his ideas of life and how one should lead it. The mother portrayed wonderfully by Laura Linney seems to be the more conservative and run of the mill parent. This comforts the younger son (Kline) and brings him closer to her.

This analysis is a rather brief and probably dull depiction of these characters, my apologies. The reason I mention it is to establish that this was my initial understanding of the characters. As the film went on and these nascent emotions bloomed I realised that I couldn’t be more wrong in my analysis. I perceived that the parents were stark opposites of what I believed them to be and the children an amalgamation of their parents. The father tried to be the free flowing guy who wasn’t what he believed himself to be whilst the mother, in complete control of her actions, was more open minded. The children ached for their father’s recognition and were driven away from him because of his false sense of being.

But this surprising outcome was just a device used to get to something much more. At the end of the day the film was not about the problems the family finds itself in nor was it about the intra-family relations. It was about the symbolism that comes with it. Baumbach’s writing accomplishes this in a wondrous and subtle manner.

This symbolism is yours to unravel and to take something away from. Personally, the use of literature and music and the associated conversations that the characters partake in is where my interpretation of this symbolism lies.

Now, what does philistine, partly the source of my interpretation, mean? It is an adjective used for a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts. But can one be truly indifferent to culture? Men all over wear human intellectual achievement (culture) either with pride, shame or something in the middle of that spectrum. But they aren’t indifferent to it. Ergo, they aren’t indifferent to culture.

Yet, when one of the leading characters uses this adjective to describe another, we agree with him completely. The reason we do so is because we feel the same way about people. Having a feeling of superiority or inferiority to someone or having a preconceived notion about our own character is a culture of its own. Hence, the culture that philistine refers to is not only restricted to a movie or a book but it refers to all of human nature. And nobody is indifferent to human nature.

Somewhere, every character in the film is looked upon as a philistine. But the real magic happens when they embrace the fact that such a thing doesn’t exist.

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