Mama Sunshine, Papa Stormcloud
The year onscreen families went nuclear.
By Max Goldberg
In 2005 the term family film could refer to a couple of things. In the vernacular of movie publicity, the words still conjure a wholesome combination of cuddly critters, a bouncy soundtrack, and lessons learned. But there is also the set of films that are about the family rather than for it, and 2005 was busy with this ill-defined genre. From Bee Season to Palindromes, American filmmakers were preoccupied with the ins and outs of being nuclear, and it's no surprise given the fever pitch of last year's election. Square in the bull's-eye of all the talk about "moral" issues like abortion and gay marriage was our unstable sense of the family. There are, of course, the Brokeback Mountains that charge right into the fire, but more often the theme has been approached in less pointedly political terms. Whatever the angle, though, family was a pervasive point of focus in 2005: a binding tie in a long year at the movies.
Of course, 2005 had no shortage of Hollywood films seeking to maintain the status quo (even the bragging boy-men in The Wedding Crashers eventually sought monogamy), but there were several American filmmakers willing to take a nuanced, often painful look at family structures. As different in tone and color as Miranda July's and Jim Jarmusch's directing styles are, both Me and You and Everyone We Know and Broken Flowers draw much of their emotional weight from characters reaching out to discover or repair familial bonds. This narrative thrust translates to a tenderness that warms both July's avant-garde stripes and Jarmusch's cool minimalism. As Bill Murray's aging Casanova revisits old flames in search of a supposed son, and John Hawkes's lonely divorced dad tries to piece together his own existence, we see the muted shock of failing one's family in the characters' pockmarked faces and gaping stares. Hawkes's character sets his own hand on fire (in front of his sons), while Murray's sleeps with an ex-lover (in the room next to her teenage daughter); for both, being estranged from one's family means being estranged from the world, desperate for feeling.
Despite these characters' considerable pain, though, the ache of a failing nuclear family found its fountainhead in Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, an unflinching, harrowing document of familial decay that manages a tremendous degree of humanity despite its striking lack of redemption. Baumbach's association with Wes Anderson is clear in the film's rhythmic, punchy dialogue, but while the depth of Anderson's films can indeed largely be traced to his Salinger-style family portraits, never has he made a film as lean and focused as The Squid and the Whale.
Behind each one of the musings of father Bernard (Jeff Daniels) on "serious" people and the snappy admonishments of mother Joan (Laura Linney), there exists a world of pain, yet it isn't until we see this pain mirrored, distorted, and misunderstood by sons Frank and Walt (Owen Kline and Jesse Eisenberg) that The Squid and the Whale burrows under our skin. As Walt echoes Bernard in instructing the loving Sophie to "stop being so difficult," so young Frank responds to his mother's prominent sex life in a series of confused masturbation exercises. Adolescence is inevitably awkward, but the pangs of Frank and Walt's coming-of-age are more bitter than sweet; faced with the dissolution of their family, the vulnerable boys seek out selfhood by picking a parent and, in the process, are nearly crushed by their predecessors' damaged lives. The sudden ending, so reminiscent of The 400 Blows' freeze finale, pictures Walt as an exhausted and expectant young man thrust into growing up by forces beyond his understanding or control.
Considering The Squid and the Whale weeks after seeing it, it's hard not to see the film as an heir of Kramer vs. Kramer and all those '70s Woody Allen movies made in the shadow of the anxiety surrounding the sexual revolution's fallout (an important, unspoken context for the parents in Baumbach's film). Truth be told, I can only think of one other American film in 2005 so wholly focused on familial dynamics: that frosty wonder, March of the Penguins. The documentary's sustained success can be considered from any number of angles, but it's impossible to underplay the draw of such an impressive affirmation of the nuclear family. Watching those well-suited birds shuffle back and forth out of parental obligation is enough to make the most ornery secularist wonder if the whole thing isn't preordained. The story of March of the Penguins is surely remarkable enough to warrant interest in any era, but the word-of-mouth excitement generated around the film does feel wrapped up with our current hypersensitivity toward all things family, an issue of national identity that transcends left and right. I found myself talking about the documentary with a friend recently, and, as it turns out, we had both seen it with our mothers.
Max Goldberg's nine reasons to go to the movies in 2005 (and one to stay home)
1. Noah Baumbach channels deeply felt screenwriting and performances through his endearing French-new-wave-meets-Wes-Anderson directing style in The Squid and the Whale.
2. The Holy Girl's final shot
3. Miranda July discovers the joy of pathos in Me and You and Everyone We Know.
4. Ditto Jim Jarmusch in Broken Flowers
5. Nicholas Philibert's tender, knowing talk at the Pacific Film Archive
6. Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle challenges the great silent comedies for sheer speed.
7. Ditto the dancing in Rize
8. Wong Kar-wai gets his aesthetic on in 2046.
9. Brokeback Mountain brings the West, the melodrama, and the love.
10. Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home blows the usual Ken Burns PBS documentary out of the water with its razor-sharp editing, remastered soundtrack, and Odyssean narrative.