Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Marriage of Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson

My cinematic education is sort of stunted; there are a lot of movies that I simply haven’t seen. And so sometimes, to broaden my horizon of movies from the 90s and 2000s, I pick a director or writer and add that person’s stuff to my Netflix queue. This is how I have come to watch most of the Noah Baumbach that I have. And at this point, I think I’ve seen every movie he’s written that managed to work its way outside the indie community. This to say: I think I’ve seen more than half the movies he has made that were watched by more than twenty people, including:

  • 1995’s Kicking and Screaming. Follows a quartet of recent college grads as they navigate life outside academia. Much dialogue, not so much action.
  • 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Bill Murray, in a role that makes up part of his 21st-century comic renaissance, plays an oceanographer in the twilight of his career and possibly his life.
  • 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. A family of only semi-functional intellectuals copes with the dissolution of the parents’ marriage.
  • 2007’s Margot at the Wedding. Nicole Kidman’s Margot arrives at her childhood home for her sister’s wedding. Familial angst ensues.
Now, Baumbach wrote a couple of other screenplays around 1997, movies I haven’t seen. But I’m wondering if watching them would confirm my suspicion that Life Aquatic (which I adored, by the way) represents a definitive shift in Noah Baumbach’s career. Life Aquatic is the first movie he made with Wes Anderson, and both the movies that followed have a distinctly Andersonian flavor. Kicking and Screaming and Margot at the Wedding have similar structures—they’re both carried along primarily by pastiches of placid conversation—but completely different aesthetics. Margot at the Wedding looks decidedly indie; Kicking and Screaming looks exactly like Reality Bites.

And maybe this is just a symptom of what might be called virulent Wes Andersonification. This guy argues that everything from films (lots and lots of films) to TV to commercials to your dog’s activities at the park are starting to look like they came straight from Wes Anderson’s brain. You know what I mean: it’s a quirkiness, a sense of ironic detachment, a twee moment appliquéd on top of a dark and dramatic storyline. The titles are set in block letters, and I think there’s even an Andersonian color palette, one with a lot of retro browns and pale blues and pink and orange. Juno had it, and Napoleon Dynamite had it.

Also, cloudiness. Cloudy skies are important to Wes Anderson. It was even cloudy in that commercial he made for American Express.

The question is, are Noah Baumbach movies better under the Wes Anderson school of filmmaking—do his subject matter and worldview lend themselves better to those 90s rom-coms that wanted to be more, or to the quirky comedies of the late 2000s? It’s hard to say. Maybe we ought to just call it six in one. Kicking and Screaming wouldn’t have made measurably more sense if visually treated like Juno. And I’m pretty sure I would not have enjoyed Life Aquatic as much under a different director (or with a different score).

So maybe Noah Baumbach is writing movies to fit a certain cinematic zeitgeist. And maybe another director will become as popular as quickly as Wes Anderson, and all movies—Baumbach’s included—will start to look like that guy’s. (Or girl’s.)

I guess any actor, director, or screenwriter’s body of work is going to be a series of hits and misses. That’s what’s fun about following one artist for a while: you get to trace their development—and anticipate what they might do next.

No comments: