Film: What Matters Most

The Squid and the Whale's cultural guideposts

Dec 21, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Walt Berkman delivers his infamous rendition of Pink Floyd's "Hey You."

The Squid and the Whale is more than just a movie. It's a way of life. Or, perhaps more aptly, it serves as a guidepost to what mattered culturally in the life of a close-knit but divorcing family of Brooklyn intellectuals circa mid-1980s.

As such, it's a pretty good indication of what matters culturally to New Yorkers who believe taste is as important a part of their lives as, say, income or politics. And given New York's importance in setting our nation's cultural agenda, it's a good indication of what matters to anyone who aspires to contemporary arts literacy.

The hyper-literate family in question consists of Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels), a blocked and thickly bearded novelist who has become a mordantly unhappy college teacher; his adulterous wife Joan (Laura Linney), who's emerging from his shadow as a major writer in her own right; and two confused but intelligent sons, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and his younger brother, Frank (Owen Kline). The film's strange title derives from an exhibit at the city's American Museum of Natural History that scared Walt as a child.

Actually, that's the family in question on screen. The real family in question belongs to the film's writer/director Noah Baumbach, since this film has definite autobiographical elements. His father, Jonathan Baumbach, is a novelist and film writer; his mother, Georgia Brown, was a Village Voice film critic.

For the Berkman family, the 1980s were the best of times and the worst of times. Father, a bitter pessimist but a devoted parent, informs Walt that A Tale of Two Cities, unlike David Copperfield, is minor Dickens. High school, Bernard curses, insists on teaching the "minor novels by all the major writers."

Bernard takes special pride in his first edition of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and is happy that Mailer apparently thinks highly of his own work. He's also proud to have attended a party at the home of the late writer/editor George Plimpton.

Walt already has picked up his father's attitude without having actually done the homework. When a girl named Sophie (Halley Feiffer) asks if he's read F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, he dismisses it as "minor Fitzgerald." Instead, he encourages her to read Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis — not that he has. She surprises him by doing so and liking it, and he tells her that it's very "Kafkaesque."

"Yes, it's written by Franz Kafka. It would have to be," she replies, a bit confused by his revealed ignorance.

The Squid and the Whale also serves as a useful primer on classic film — especially French New Wave. When the Berkmans separate and Bernard rents his own home in Brooklyn, he puts up posters of Jean Eustache's 1973 milestone, The Mother and the Whore. There's also a French poster of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. In a more sentimental mood, Bernard sweetly recalls how Joan once got into Jean-Luc Godard's À Bout à Souffle (Breathless) at Manhattan's Thalia art cinema for a children's price because she was pregnant with Walt.

In a discussion with Frank, he defines the meaning of the word "Philistine" as "a guy who doesn't care about books or films." When a defiantly rebellious Frank states that he's a Philistine, Bernard challenges him.

"You liked Wild Child," dad says, a reference to Francois Truffaut's 1970 film about a doctor who patiently tries to civilize a "wolf boy" found by villagers.

In Bernard's view, there's always room for art movies. When Walt and Sophie are about to go on a date to see Short Circuit, the 1986 PG-rated movie about a wayward robot starring Ally Sheedy and Steve Guttenberg, Bernard invites himself along. And then he changes their plans. "Blue Velvet is supposed to be interesting," he says. The next scene shows the three watching the famously shocking Blue Velvet scene in which a nude Isabella Rossellini pleads for help from Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan.

The Squid and the Whale also has some points to make about music. Walt tries to impress his parents and teachers by performing Pink Floyd's "Hey You" on acoustic guitar at an assembly. He claims it as his own, which his parents — not Pink Floyd fans — believe. But he gets called into the school counselor's office about his act of plagiarism.

"I felt I could have (written it), so the fact it was already written was a technicality," he argues.

That doesn't hold much sway, but a sexually precocious college student in Bernard's writing class (Anna Paquin) commiserates. "Don't worry. I used to hand in Lou Reed's lyrics in poetry class and call them my own."

And it's "Street Hassle" by Reed, New York's Rock & Roll poet laureate, which plays on the film's soundtrack when Walt returns to the natural history museum to face that squid and whale. ©