What is reality, and how could film attempt to capture the nuance that characterizes our everyday lives, especially when subjectivities are taken into account. Since its infancy, film has worked to capture reality from moment to moment, and this has been achieved through a variety of methods. Film and media is where we learn how to interpret our friends, enemies, families, and ourselves. It makes sense that to learn about and further look into ourselves and others, different media would raise questions and explore ideas in different ways. Some filmmakers speak regarding reality and the human condition through fantastical narratives that explore political, religious and philosophical ideas; others take a more grounded approach of putting a camera against reality and dwelling in the small ambiguous moments that leave more questions than answers. Both propose many thoughtful answers regarding existence and purpose, and do so in ways that capitalize on different cinematographic techniques. Noah Baumbach is a filmmaker that throughout his entire career—instead of diving into the fantastical and the stylized—has focused on what he knows, creating stories that are deeply personal and vulnerable. His films look as if they could take place on the street by you or me, letting his meditative dialogue and tangible characters drive whatever semblance of a narrative there is forward and bringing the viewer in. The central binding element of all of his films that brings people coming back is the emotional authenticity, making all the characters feel genuine.
The Characteristics of Baumbach’s Films
Baumbach is not original in this tradition of crafting stories that are centered on one’s reality. The tradition goes far back into mainstream art, most notably seen in the French Revolution where artists sought to bring focus back to the common man and revolutionary politics, subjects that had not been traditionally represented in mainstream art. The movement—known as realism—was predicated on rejecting romantic ideals that had been tied to the medium, showcasing objects and people without distortion or interpretation. Reality was able to be captured in unflinching detail, and sordid details of politics and social issues could be called into attention. This tradition is able to create very revolutionary media that serve almost as exposés of glaring societal faults, but it also allows for more inscrutable ideas to be fully fleshed out—or an attempt can be made at least. Specifically in regards to filmmaking, there are no strict rules to creating a piece of realist film. There are general tendencies though, like stories focused on marginalized people and very little stylization or creative representations of the real. These characteristics exist, but as filmmaking evolved, so did the way stories were told. Rather than feel restricted by the term realist, filmmakers made films that were poetic, romanticized, stylized, while still being incredibly real. Every film could arguably be contented as being “realist” in that they reveal aspects of the human condition, but the aspect I like to focus on is when a story is consolidated solely around a character or group of characters experiencing significant change. I would classify many films as being realist examinations of the unique complications that come with being human, but for many this is the sole focus. There exists a wide spectrum of films today that tell realist stories in poetic and stylized ways, but one filmmaker who is working today that still takes an incredibly grounded approach to storytelling is Noah Baumbach.
Baumbach stays true to his roots of upper-class living in New York City, but in his film that do not stray far from this perspective, the commonalities of the human condition—purpose, self, relationships—can shine even brighter. Baumbach achieves emotional authenticity through a combination of heartfelt performances and carefully crafted production design that truly replicates if not holds a mirror directly to the world we are living in. Most of his films are easily recognized by two characteristics: the New York setting, and characters struggling with aimlessness and the trying bonds of family and friendship. These films greatly encourage viewers to bring their personal experiences into the film’s world, and in turn, they may see the world differently. The viewer feels valued by not only the other characters in the stories but by Baumbach himself. Many of the characters and the setting are given such care, shown as fully fleshed out and noteworthy, lending to the idea that viewer’s themselves may be seen if such detail is being captured for fictional figures.
What Makes Baumbach’s Films
Baumbach’s first film to gain a lot of attention is The Squid and the Whale (2005). This is deservedly so as the film chronicles a family confronting a long overdue divorce. The parents’ marriage has already been tested by cheating from both sides and a deeply unhappy and emotionally absent father, and instead of divorce being inevitable in the minds of the two children, they were shocked and feel as if it came out of nowhere. The viewer gets to see the kids unpack and learn to understand who their parents are, both tender and bitter, and discover themselves along the way. The film is semi-autobiographical, with much of the setting and events coming directly from Baumbach’s own experience watching his own parents’ divorce. The film itself is very no-nonsense, with little stylization aside from some sequences dramatized such as the 12-year-old son Frank being left alone for days, and 16-year-old Walt’s trip to the Natural History Museum. The viewer does not have their hand held by the film. Rather, we are left in the dark as much as the children are, emulating the experience of having your world turned upside down by your parents—the two people supposed to serve as a model for love and care—who are now harsh critics of one another. The father in The Squid and the Whale is also unlikable, but what makes the film so special is that his position in the story is “real” and the familial dynamics he brings are fully fleshed out with intricate production design. Majority of the film is in both the old family apartment and the dad’s new apartment across the park, and the glaring differences between the two is a major source of evolution for the characters. The two kids cannot run away from what is happening when they are constantly shuffling between what they know and the dispassionate attempts from their father to dislike their mother. Subsequently, the characters are forced to reckon with the way they have been perceiving these relationships in a way where they are completely vulnerable for the audience. This openness is a major contributor as to why Baumbach’s films feel so emotionally authentic and why audiences are motivated to empathize and similarly reflect on their own relationships.
Baumbach’s previous film Kicking and Screaming (1995) employed much of the same aesthetics and creative choices like a minimalist use of formalist techniques, but the subject matter, the ennui of four college graduates, was much less appealing and relatable to critics and audiences alike. The film has seen more favorable attention in recent years as a part of Baumbach’s canon, but the characters’ polarizing personalities make it hard to digest. More of Baumbach’s recent works examine similar feelings of aimlessness, but the characters are much easier to connect with, allowing viewers to join them in endless pondering with the hope of finding meaning together instead of being a passive recipient to any answers. There are no deceptions in the images that Baumbach brings to life in that viewers can clearly understand what his films are about from the beginning. With a Baumbach film you are not going to find twists, deceptions, a hero’s journey, or major conflict, you are going to find something authentic and grounded. As a result, the viewer can invest themselves in what is happening on the screen without worrying they are going to be lied to. They are taken into the film and can see all aspects immediately and come to their own conclusions, living through what is happening on the screen as if it were their own life. For some it can be jarring as the films are reflecting Baumbach’s upbringing, white upper-middle class living, but the emotional trials and feelings of isolation or apathy are realized enough that ostensibly any viewer can relate to it.
Baumbach’s 2012 film Frances Ha is the perfect encapsulation of this idea. My first time watching the film, I was unable to get very far into it as I was still in high school and couldn’t connect with it as well. I was also taken aback by the frankness of the characters’ dialogue. Watching it just a couple of years later when I started college, I resonated more with the struggles of listlessness as I was unsure of who I was and where I was going. Frances’ character, played by the fantastic Greta Gerwig, was also incredibly endearing in her unapologetic idiosyncrasies. When I rewatch this film today I am still entranced by the genuine way she brings Frances to light. It makes perfect sense when you consider that Gerwig co-wrote the film with Baumbach. The film presents a “slice of life,” without manipulating the rules that ground our reality. Throughout the film, Frances, much like the viewer, finds her way forward without a clear directive or imperative pushing her. She puts one foot in front of the other and moves from one scene to the next because that is what life necessitates. Frances Ha reflects that, much like our own lives and reality, there is no clear plotline and narrative. We live in a world full of loosely constructed moments, but we can still somehow find ourselves and find a way to be content in it.
How the Films Reflect Baumbach
The Squid and the Whale reflected a moment in Baumbach’s childhood and Frances Ha reflected a moment in Gerwig’s life, and 2019’s Marriage Story seems to follow the significant divorce and family issues of Baumbach’s own life. Baumbach and actress Jennifer Jason Leigh were married from 2005 to 2013, and from 2010 to 2013 they were embroiled in divorce proceedings. The two also had a son, and it is this personal confrontation with the way divorce extends just beyond their relationship that informed Marriage Story. Baumbach stated in an interview that “This movie is not autobiographical; it’s personal, and there’s a true distinction in that.” The film cuts into the gravity of divorce when you still care fondly for the person and what you have created, but differing hopes for the future stand in the way. Marriage Story is not the story of Baumbach’s divorce and the contention over his role in his son’s future, but rather it is a collage of the many feelings and ideas that take place in an event such as this. Later in the same interview, he says that there are “things that happen to me emotionally that are going to be translated in some way into this story.” The film transports audiences into the world by filling it with such great detail that it can be almost indistinguishable from reality, but this is what realism does. It is an “-ism,” meaning that it evokes a state of quality of being “real,” but nothing captured through a camera lens, edited with other “real moments” and screened for audiences can ever be “real.” Despite this, it is real for Baumbach, and for any viewer watching the film, it is “real” for a transient moment in time. The emotion, inspiration, and connection are real.