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Entries in noah baumbach (2)


In Which Noah Baumbach Is Mistress To Us All



Mistress America
dir. Noah Baumbach
84 minutes

Despite its cliché, I have come to terms with the writer figure, musing over this carnival we call life, in a story: Nick Carraway is nothing if not iconic. In Noah Baumbach's new film Mistress America, the writer is a young woman named Tracy (Lola Kirke) who is starting college at Barnard and finding it lonely. Her mother (Kathryn Erbe) urges Tracy to call Brooke (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of her soon-to-be second husband. Brooke and Tracy meet up in Times Square, where Brooke announces she lives because she incorrectly thought it was the cool place to be when she first stepped off the bus from Jersey.

Brooke is a self-proclaimed autodidact (that’s why she didn’t need to go to college) who works as a SoulCycle instructor who also freelance interior decorates. She has aspirations of opening a restaurant that is also a store and a place to get a haircut. Brooke is also selling "so many things," twittering her mediocre thoughts, and wondering aloud if she should open a cabaret hall called “High Standards” where she sings all the standards. “That’s clever,” Tracy shouts. Brooke speaks breathlessly, enthusiastically. She wears flowing silk blouses and can hold her liquor.

To Tracy, wide-eyed, naïve, and, upon meeting Brooke, beaming, Brooke is a tumbleweed of sophistication, creativity, and energy: “Being around her was like being in New York City,” Tracy narrates, and I eyerolled in my seat. Getting rejected from the literary society, procrastinating her schoolwork, and feeling underwhelmed by college, Tracy spends one night with Brooke and suddenly is rejuvenated and charmed by the glittering world of a thirty-something who “lives as a young woman should,” has a relentless vault of dreams and ideas, and who sees life as an opportunity, not a disappointment.

Of course, not all that glitters is gold (I think Tracy actually says that in voiceover) and the reality that is painfully obvious to the audience when Brooke first ambles down the steps in Times Square sets in for young Tracy: Brooke is actually a huge asshole. She’s self-obsessed, unapologetically cheats on her boyfriend, can’t hold down a steady job, uses her friends before unfeelingly disposing of them, has a history of bullying people in high school, and worst of all, claims she doesn’t need therapy because “there’s nothing she doesn’t know about herself.” Her charm is actually whiny desperation, and she represents not New York City but instead everything that’s wrong with what my mother deems “your generation.”

The twist in Mistress America is what all those twists are with writer-narrators: through the putting down of a story, the writer becomes aware that perhaps she is just as flawed as the character she has constructed. That’s what happens to Tracy, because at Brooke’s urging, she forcefully kisses a young man she meets at college despite his girlfriend’s existence. She also writes an offensive short story about Brooke as a means to enter a literary society, even though it’s a pompous group of jerks who carry briefcases and don Warby Parker frames and who rejected her the first time. I guess, of course, that’s the point: that writing a story that defames someone will get you into the club of people who make it their business to be jerks, and then there you are, also a jerk, but at least your talent is recognized.

Performances were OK. Greta Gerwig is fun to watch in a painful sort of way. Her Brooke is dressed well but also clearly broken inside, exactly what Brooke is supposed to be. She’s clumsy and confident at the same time, making it clear her arrogance is masking insecurity. Lola Kirke's Tracy is also awkward, although she is unable to cover it with any believable amount of bravado. Tracy doesn’t change much in the film, except that she quits the writing society in order to make herself feel better for diatribing Brooke.

A pivotal plot development is that Brooke must make amends with her old friend Mamie Claire (Heather Lind), who according to Brooke stole her fiancé, her idea for hipster flowers on t-shirts at J. Crew and “literally” her cats. It is on this journey to Connecticut, to make peace with Mamie Claire and also ask for money to start the new restaurant, that Tracy really begins to understand Brooke — flaws and all — and casts her for what she is (an asshole) in her short story. The visit ends with Brooke’s former fiancé telling her to just not go through with the restaurant — he’ll pay her not to do it — and then everyone gathering around reading Tracy’s story about Brooke and finding it offensive to women.

In nineteenth-century British novels, characters who don’t belong in British society are shipped off to Australia, or sometimes America or Canada. It’s a trope much like literally everything that happens in Mistress America, and unsurprisingly, Brooke is sent off to California by the end of the film. On Thanksgiving Day, she is packing up the commercial apartment in Times Square she illegally holds as a residence when Tracy comes looking for her to make amends for the mean story she wrote. Brooke forgives her; they tell each other they’re smart, and then they share a meal together and giggle about things. We don’t hear what they talk about because music is playing and it’s supposed to be sentimental and conclusive.

Mistress America has been called “screwball” by many critics — it has fast-paced dialogue and sort of larger than life scenarios — and it does fit that description, although it doesn’t attempt to echo anything of a classic screwball comedy. Instead, it proves that we — or at least people who live in New York — are soulless, cardboard people with an unquenchable and unreachable desire to be unique and notorious. Our only hope is moving to California. It’s best not to write that story.

Julia Clarke is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan.

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In Which The 90s Are Lost For Good

The Last Tantrum


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.

I'm having one of those times where my name sounds really weird to meIt 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.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He twitters here and tumbls here. He last wrote in these pages about the poet Anne Sexton.

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