The Last Tantrum
by ALEX CARNEVALE
Kicking and Screaming
dir. Noah Baumbach
Life During Wartime
dir. Todd Solondz
The 1990s in America were among the least serious, most frivolous periods in the history of any country, and that includes France pretty much from beginning to end. Whenever we start getting too ahead of ourselves as members of the human race, it is time to view the Noah Baumbach film of the previous decade and wince.
Kicking and Screaming is Baumbach's ode to Whit Stillman and to a lesser extent, Woody Allen. It depicts a set of college graduates disembarking into the most ridiculous and transitory world that has ever existed. If you lived in the world in 1995, you had to actually obtain your knowledge from printed sources. This was the regular and accepted way of acquiring information. Can you even imagine? What could be more inefficient?
There's a finite limit to how many books a person can read, but there's no measured limitation on how much internet a person can absorb. I set a record, long ignored by mainstream sources, by going inside the internet and reading all of it. The whole internet. But this was back when Prodigy was the centerpiece of any existence, and Magic: The Gathering still more essential, especially if you had a white and black deck that was on the wow side of unbeatable.
Kicking and Screaming is mostly composed of memes explained as if they were conversational pitter-patter. I'm not really sure what they were called before they got on the internet, witty things men said in social settings to impress women? Viral content used to get people laid at parties, now it's ruining the lives of those still hopeful about working at Newsweek. Jeff Jarvis doesn't need a woman, he compensates with a lot of play dough and ideas generated in a dynamic classroom environment.
It is strange to watch Kicking and Screaming for all the places where our world is identical to the film's. Although I have been in a lot of writing workshops since I was 11, they never do seem anything but anachronous. It is hilarious to see a bunch of people discussing a short story. Was the telegraph not available? Yes, the times are always threatening to pass us by.
This is a universal feeling, deeply connected with our tendency to romanticize anything that has recently happened. In the case of 1990s, it is hard to mistake how different things were. If you wanted to know what Eric Stoltz looked like, you know, from the front, you had no way of finding out except by way of a costly cross country flight, the purchase of a firearm and the ginger's address. Parker Posey had never met Christopher Guest. Molly McAleer didn't know what a blog was. Anna Paquin had just made her stunning debut in Jane Campion's The Piano and wasn't topless at every opportunity. It was all ahead of us.
All the characters in Kicking and Screaming are writers recently graduated from institutions of higher learning (or as they're sometimes called, "interns"). Christmas vacation is a terror, a reminder of the impositions of the real world. Elliott Gould shows up and tells his son, "I bet if your math scores were higher you could have gotten into Brown." Other people's dreams are your tepid reality. Graduates stroll about their campuses, as if they didn't get the message evident from the diploma they were handed. They don't even know about the recession. They think it's going to be all right.
During this period of American life, there was also a palpable thrill in meeting people, seeing whether or not you were alike, without any of the prologue and epilogue that comes from constant communication. It was like a quieter alien planet where Parker Posey never became any older, she's still your sister and she's too goddamn young to drive.
It is precisely because nostalgia is our brain's first attempt at sense-making that it is so difficult to ignore. The world of Kicking and Screaming no longer exists. It was not very long ago, but it is gone forever. A boy in a dorm room telling some girl "I didn't want to have any attachments at school" could be taken seriously then, but not now. Under fifty percent of signs had signifiers. Whatever these people turned into, at least it wasn't us.
Kicking and Screaming is basically a Jewish Metropolitan, which let's be honest I'm not sure the world needed. Cannes asked Baumbach to cut fifteen minutes from Kicking and Screaming, he refused, and Abe Foxman rightly accused the festival of anti-Semitism. It was pretty big news, I think there was at least a sentence about it in Entertainment Weekly. You couldn't find out any solid information about it, no rumors, or gossip. Life without the internet was like doing wild improv all the time, and also people enjoyed watching others do improv, presumably because they had long hours to kill.
Is this a world we want our children growing up in? Go ahead, write a thank you note to Bill Gates or if you're feeling even more generous, rid the world of Steve Jobs.
It is not a contradiction to say that while the 1990s are basically the Stone Age to us now, they had their moments. Number one is that they were not the world that gave rise to Todd Solondz' long-delayed new film Life During Wartime. The sequel utilizes an entirely new cast reprising the characters from Solondz' best film, 1998's Happiness. Perhaps because of how difficult it was for Solondz to get the film made, Life During Wartime is about seventeen times as angry as the rest of his oeuvre.
Solondz was the Jonathan Swift of American cinema until satire became unequal to the task of describing his revulsion for the rest of humanity. Secretly Noah Baumbauch believes that the happy result of every writing workshop is a super cute love story with a girl who tells interesting pre-Internet anecdotes about her mother loving raisins. It was status quo and completely appropriate to meet someone this way and not end up filing a restraining order. In Solondz' movies, such a storyline inevitably concludes in a large red mark being inserted via computer over images of the writing workshop's professor violating his prized student. (This actually occurred in 2001's Storytelling.)
Life During Wartime doesn't present anyone broke or starving, or getting it in the rear. No, the film focuses on an abrasively disturbing look at the return of a sex offender to his upper class Floridian family and their subsequent efforts to move on with their lives. In Todd's mind, this is good for a laugh. It is our sworn duty to realize he is right.
Life During Wartime is the rare sequel that makes more sense if you have never seen the original. Happiness' numerous plot threads weren't exactly the most essential parts of the overall mood, and replacing the actors with cost-effective replacements results in a series of inside jokes entertaining to those who have followed the director's career since his masterful Welcome to the Dollhouse in 1995.
Solondz' characters are only sieves through which various feelings of his sole protagonist — himself — are strained. Like Baumbach, his characters also talk in an identical, jaunty, inflected upper class non-accent, like they were pronouncing everything for the joy of their audience, hoping to sound as much like the author of their words as possible. As in Kicking and Screaming, the momentum of the film leans almost entirely on the dialogue; both films resemble mannered stage plays with little in the way of action.
All satire eventually becomes realism, but this process usually requires some duration of time. Unfortunately for Todd Solondz, there is no longer a craziness in his head that surpasses what exists in reality. A few years after The Onion made jokes of questionable humor about Gillette manufacturing a five-blade razor, the company did it. This is something like what was happened to our best satirists. Now that we no longer have to parse Entertainment Weekly for gossip, all the jokes have been made, and they require no exaggeration. Crystal Renn now regularly feasts upon living children, eat your heart out Jonathan Swift.
At least Todd Solondz's projections know that life is a low down dirty trick. The existential dread of Kicking and Screaming gives voice to a convincing complaint about the world that surrounds young men and women emerging from the darkness of higher education. Rendered null and void by technology, Kicking and Screaming has turned into a eulogy for a before-times America that is now nothing but a figment of our imagination.
"Shutterbugg" - Big Boi ft. Cutty (mp3)
"Follow Us" - Big Boi ft. Vonnegutt (mp3)
"Turns Me On" - Big Boi ft. Sleepy Brown & Joi (mp3)
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