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CONTEXT & FREEDOM: JUNEBUG AND THE SQUID AND THE WHALE

 

The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005) and Junebug (Phil Morrison, 2005) are two recent and very different American independent features. Their difference is hinted at in their contrasting titles, each of which originates in its film’s narrative: Squid and the Whale a reference to an early childhood memory of one of the lead characters (a diorama of a squid encroaching a whale in the Museum of National History); Junebug the intended name of the baby one character is carrying, but that does not survive its own birth. Both are symbolically and emotionally loaded, but in different directions: Baumbach’s towards the past, something lost in childhood; Morrison’s towards a future childhood already lost. Each in its own way is therefore both bleak and tender, relating to the beginnings of life yet also to what is no longer and what will never be. But tonally, these images contrast: Squid and the Whale is combative, harsh and playful; Junebug is more open, sweet and sad.

What both films have in common above all is their use of family to explore what could be called the burden of context: how our lives and our expressions are facilitated, defined and constrained by our environment and our background: by where, and perhaps even more so who, we come from. In each film, the environments and backgrounds chosen, and the ways in which they are depicted, couldn’t be more different (as the nature of their titles suggest). But their thematic kinship provides for plenty of common ground on which the two works can be looked at: particularly the use of language, physical contact, and artistic expression, the treatment of relationships to nature, time and space, and the different ways the film’s environments are formally presented.

Obviously, the films’ differences go beyond their titles: Squid is set amongst the urban, high-brow literati of 1980s New York; Junebug takes place in the present-day, small-town suburbs of the American South. Squid depicts the divorce of writers Joan (Laura Linney) and Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels), and the impact it has on their teenage sons (the younger siding with the mom, the older with the dad), using this as a pressure cooker with which to examine how children are defined or try to escape definition by their parents. In Junebug, on the other hand, everybody’s grown up; George Johnston (Alessandro Nivola) revisits his family with his new wife after a long absence and, with so much history, questions of who was defined by or escaped definition from whom become less clear-cut. But the contrasting of different cultural backgrounds in Junebug (George’s wife, Madeleine, comes from an English and very international upbringing) reminds us that any attempt to answer these questions must take more into account than just the familial. Perhaps it’s best to begin here by tracing those extra-familial circumstances—in the case of these two films, the very specific social contexts in which they are set.

 


WHERE THE CHARACTERS COME FROM

For a place with such metropolitan surroundings, Squid’s neighbourhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn feels incredibly insular. When his father explains he will be moving into a new house “just across the park”, the response of youngest son, Frank (Owen Kline)—“Is that even Brooklyn?”—gives a sense of just how small this world is. Part of this comes from the film’s child’s-eye perspective: with very few exceptions, the two sons either take part in or overhear every scene, and the film’s bracingly brisk, clipped pace quickly immerses you in the familiar routines of childhood (school, tennis practice, dinner, bed, school, etc)—a routine overwhelmingly (and often literally) driven by one’s parents, with the world at large usually only glimpsed in passing out the car window. But one gets a sense that, for their parents, this world is quite self-contained too. Writer Christian Lorentzen described Park Slope as “a neighborhood where members of the ‘creative class’ move during their breeding years to mate, spawn, and keep housepets.” According to him:

The density of the Slope’s educated, attractive, liberal-minded population translates – for the single person, or the wayward spouse – into a practically limitless array of analogous sexual options within walking distance. … Someone else will always be thirsty too, and chances are he or she is pretty good-looking, attended a respected college [and] holds a really interesting job… (1)

Although Squid’s narrative is too focused to broadly corroborate the kind of liberal ecology Sorentzen describes, it makes sense that Joan and Bernard would be part of such a place. Both accomplished writers and intellectuals, they seem quintessentially atheistic, liberal and un-traditional, and act as one would in a community where such values had become the norm—from both Joan and Bernard’s nonchalance over her affairs during their marriage to Bernard’s repeated suggestions to his older son, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), that “it’s good to play the field at your age,” despite him having a girlfriend. The extent to which such un-judicial liberalism might not be appropriate to the needs and wants of adolescent children is emphasised by the traumatic effect that the divorce has on Frank and Walt, but their parents’ ignorance to this (and the social ecology that supports their ignorance) is summed up in one exchange between Joan and Walt. “Don’t most of your friends already have divorced parents?” she asks, as if its social acceptance negates its psychological impact. “Yeah," Walt replies, "but I don’t.”

If this is a world more or less indifferent to the stable values Frank and Walt are yearning for, it’s one far more attentive to intellectual ones. Books surround the Berkmans, and serve as one of their world’s key social instruments: Walt and his first girlfriend bond over discussions of Fitzgerald and Kafka, and one of Joan and Bernard’s post-divorce battles involve who gets custody of the books. They also serve as indicators of status: one of the key tensions of the couples’ marriage is that Bernard, a once-successful novelist, hasn’t had a book published in years, while Joan’s first one is about to come out—something Bernard attributes as the motivating force for Joan divorcing him. Walt’s bluffing of literary knowledge (he never reads Fitzgerald or Kafka) and his decision to pass off a Pink Floyd song as his own for a school talent competition confirms the idea that what art stands for matters more here than the actual acts of creating or experiencing it. It’s a language of status rather than a language of expression.

But this use of language—as a means of creating and reinforcing an image of oneself, rather than communicating—goes beyond the odd brag of cultural knowledge, or even the social hijacking of art described above, and to see this clearly it’s best to look at Bernard, the most entrenched character in the film’s world and also the strongest influence on the kids. Everything that comes out of his mouth is defined by a few simple premises: words are always either a means of getting what you want (even when he tells his kids “I love you” it’s part of an argument for them to come and stay with them, never said for its own sake); of lamenting and shifting responsibility for your failure to get it (he tells Walt he thinks the reasons for his divorce have “nothing to do with me”); or finally, of reminding, reinforcing and restating who you are, or at least suppose to be (his endless putting forward of opinions on books, for example, or his comments on his own work:“that was Mailer’s favourite of my novels,” etc).

What’s striking about this language system is that, despite its intellectualism, there’s so much it’s incapable of expressing and understanding—namely most emotional and physical experience. Walt learns this the hard way in his dealings with girls, as it becomes clear that knowing what Kafkaesque means isn’t going to help him negotiate the awkwardness of his first sexual experience. But he could have figured this out earlier if he’d looked at all the things his dad was incapable of saying or understanding. Completely lacking emotional intuition, Bernard finds himself relying on stock phrases when sincerity and imagination is required: for example, when writing an inscription in one of his books for Walt the only words he can conjure are “best wishes”. More damningly, Bernard’s limitations are illustrated in his inability to comprehend why his wife is divorcing him. 

The problem is summed up, in a typically literal fashion, in the Pink Floyd song repeated throughout the film, the one Walt steals because he says he felt “like he could have written it”, which asks again and again “can you feel me?”. Bernard isn’t able to, with regards to himself or anybody else, and it’s this deficiency Walt and Frank have to struggle to overcome.

 

In case Squid was about to make one write off liberal, urban society as hopelessly amoral and emotionally crippled and hark for a simpler, more traditional environment, Junebug’s Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is a reminder that such places aren’t really that simple either. During the three day visit Chicago-based George and his art dealer wife, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), make to his hometown, every member of the Johnston family testify to this: from stony but loving mother Peg (Celia Weston) and kind but monosyllabic father Eugene (Scott Wilson) to moody and frustrated little brother Johnny (Ben McKenzie) and his chatty, irrepressibly cheerful pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams).

While the world of Junebug feels much more open and expansive than Squid, it still contains carceral implications—even if it’s more a sense of being trapped in a desert than a library. Disconnections and misunderstandings in the Berkman family are almost always maintained through words, but with the Johnston’s, silence and actual physical space seem to serve the same function. Everyone in Winston-Salem has plenty of space: their houses are big, their roads are wide—they certainly never have to deal with the problem of parking space which plagues Bernard throughout Squid. With all this comes a genuine sense of freedom, and despite its conservative values, one gets a sense that this is a world big enough to do what you want in—if only because there’s enough space to do so while avoiding everybody else, as is suggested by the presence of the eccentric, isolated artist living near the Johnston’s that Madeleine tries to make a deal with. But there’s also something oppressive about this freedom. If the expanse of North Carolina seems to have room enough for limitless possibilities, it’s not exactly fertile ground for them. Along with the “practically limitless array of analogous sexual options”  that Lorentzen describes as part and parcel of intellectual urban life, comes a comparably limitless array of social, imaginative and creative options—something the diffuse nature of a Southern suburban town is incapable of providing. So while strong, communal rituals are in place in Winston-Salem—mass on Sundays, evening church suppers and baby showers are among those we witness—what’s more palpable is all the spaces and longeurs that make up life between these gatherings.

This paradoxical environment of spatial freedom and stagnation seems to be one of the determinant factors in how the family both use language and relate physically to one another—and the arrival of Madeleine into the Johnston family highlights this. Peg, who is consistently unimpressed with her new daughter-in-law, complains to her husband at one point that Madeleine “doesn’t know how to do”. When Eugene asks “do what?” she explains (as if it’s obvious), “do right.” This implication that Madeleine has failed to adhere to the social codes of the world she has entered, suggests a more conformist society than the spacious “each-to-his-own”  philosophy evoked at first by the town’s geography—and given the tolerance of the monosyllabic and disengaged behaviour of all three of the Johnston men (a level of distance that would be not only be socially unacceptable in Squid, but would bring that film’s narrative to a halt), one wonders at first what exactly those guys are doing “right” that Madeleine isn’t. But the answer lies in that same spacious geography, since the flip side of “each to his own” is “mind your own business.”

Madeleine’s typical mistake is doing something when nothing would have been fine. Her international, diplomatic-class upbringing (her family lived in Japan, Africa and Washington D.C. before settling in Chicago) and career as an urban art dealer have given her a tactile behavioural language—kissing on both cheeks on first encounter; gently touching one’s arm, or even face, during conversation—that can be used as a sign of affection or to placate any potential conflict. In an urban context, such behaviour usually feels acceptable, if occasionally contrived; but in this world, it qualifies as unearned intimacy. The Johnstons like their space—as Peg’s remark that “nobody touches my kitchen,”  and the hands-off approach taken to Johnny’s moods and George’s disappearances, make clear. The upshot to this is that any gesture of closeness they do make appears unquestionably sincere. When Eugene briefly strokes Johnny’s neck after the eponymous Junebug is stillborn—one of the few gestures Eugene makes towards anybody in the whole movie—it feels inadequate, but no less heartfelt because of it. There are no false touches here; if only because nobody touches unless it’s unbearable not to. They never risk an expression in excess of their sentiment, something which Madeleine is occasionally guilty of (in her casual sign-offs of “I love you” to her assistant back in Chicago, for example).

Madeleine’s parallel outsider in this humble, restrained world is Johnny’s wife, Ashley. While Ashley cheerfully explains that the Johnstons are now “the only family I’ve got”, she’s clearly the odd one out: lively, enthusiastic and almost always bursting with energy and goodwill, Ashley seems at once like the most child-like and most well-adjusted of the Johnston clan—and was clearly born to a different kind of family (most likely a more openly dysfunctional one—her only reference to her background is to having a half-brother who’s no longer around). Her reaction to the wide open space existing around and between this family is to desperately try to fill it—and when Madeleine arrives she pounces on her like a liferaft, or perhaps a potential collaborator.   Charmed from her first inappropriate set of kisses on the cheek, Ashley makes pains to involve her in the family, and even arranges for her to help Johnny with a book report, as if Madeleine’s forwardness and expressivity will somehow rub off on her husband. But Ashley has also evidently learned to negotiate the rules of this space and balance her exuberance with a lipservice to doing “right”: she makes none of the faux-pas her new best friend does.

Ashley is optimistic about the potential for growth and change here—her line to Johnny at one of his most aggressively distant moments, “God loves you just the way you are but he loves you too much to let you stay that way,”  expresses her discontent in tandem with an unshakeable faith—yet the family’s reaction to her stillborn child suggests they’re not going anywhere fast. The night the baby dies, an acute opportunity for them to be at their closest and most supportive of each other, instead sees them at their most distant: leaving Ashley in the hospital to go home and cry (or not cry) in their separate rooms. Only George stays with the girl, and she confides in him that “The scariest thing is Johnny” because “he didn’t say nothing” and she doesn’t “know what he’s thinking”. But, of course, he (and all the other Johnston men) never really say anything and we never know what they’re thinking.

The ultimate problem the film proposes is where to go from here: how can any of these characters be themselves, and be with each other, within this context? In Squid the problem is the corrupted nature of the language they have to use, but in Junebug the problem becomes the lack of any effective language at all. There’s just too much space to fill.

 


WHERE THE FILMS COMES FROM

So far, I’ve deliberately held off dealing with an obvious factor of all of the above: the fact that the communities of Winston-Salem and Park Slope as we’ve discussed them don’t actually exist: they’re Phil Morrison’s (and his writer Anglus MacLachlan’s) Winston-Salem and Noah Baumbach’s Park Slope, and our impression of them has been shaped and formed by the way each director has chosen to present them. Moreover, those creative choices have been formed out of burdensome contexts all of their own, and since our subject here is how we define or escape definition by our environment, it could be revealing to explore to what extent the films themselves, as artistic objects, have fared from this perspective.

The fact that the makers of both films were brought up in the communities they depict is worth considering. Morrison and MacLachlan, director and writer of Junebug, both grew up in Winston-Salem (2) and several of the characters, most particularly Ashley, were based on people they knew (3). The parallels are more stark for Park Slope-bred Baumbach: Squid is based directly on his own family and his own adolescent experience, and uses his friends’ houses, his own childhood relics and even some of his parents’ clothes in its mise-en-scene (4). In a way, then, these films are very much of the same world as their characters—but they are also made by people who have left these worlds, experienced other ones and gained a certain critical perspective on their origins. (Morrison and Baumbach are both in their late thirties—the former has an established career as a TV and music video director and Squid is Baumbach’s fourth feature. Neither still live in the communities of their youth.)

After years of struggle to raise financing, both films were made on very tight budgets but with an effective free reign creatively, so the question of how shaped each film was by the commercial context of American cinema isn’t really applicable, apart from the degree to which they were defined by how much money they could raise. However, this isn’t to imply that each film is purely original or individual: both directors have admitted specific cinematic influences (5) (6) and even if they hadn’t, the films themselves clearly draw on certain narrative archetypes and stylistic traditions. But since all these choices and influences are delineated by the authors rather than the market, they can tell us something about those authors’ relationship to the worlds they depict—worlds which, given their autobiographical roots, may in fact be active stylistic influences in themselves.

On a basic level, both employ age-old narrative structures in which to frame their worlds: in the case of Squid, the coming-of-age story; in Junebug, the man-returning-to-town story. While the films bear little resemblance to some of the more archetypal versions of these stories (say, Stand by Me or Some Came Running), the employment of these particular tropes even as a minimal structural device reflects an impulse to treat each subject in a particular way. So while, in the previous section, I may have, for the sake of clarity, treated Winston-Salem and Park Slope as distinct but analogous social worlds, now’s the time to admit that the formal presentation of these worlds presents assistance and obstruction to such an analysis in varying, and unequal, ways.

 

In these terms, Squid has perhaps the most helpful form for our purposes. Baumbach’s choice to stage the Berkman’s divorce as their sons lurch through adolescence serves to emphasise, and dramatise, the formative psychological effect one’s family can have; and the framing of this within a coming-of-age tale—the film’s central arc being Walt’s gradual maturation and rejection of his father’s influence—articulates the possibility of surmounting these limitations. What ultimately makes Squid formidably analysable in sociological and psychological terms is that Baumbach’s is an extremely causal world. Scene after scene reinforce the idea that what we do has consequences, and more specifically, what parents do has consequences for their children. This is made most explicit in the relationship between Walt and Bernard, as we see line after line of Bernard’s self-concerned chatter recycled, sometimes word for word, by his son—but it’s implicit in the film’s structure as a whole, with the film’s urgent and to-the-point pace (there are no longeurs, no narratively irrelevant moments) making the chains of action and consequence even more palpable.

Yet Squid isn’t exactly a perfect fit either, since the film’s narrow, family-centred focus mean that any conclusions one draws about the film’s wider social context, including my own in the previous section, are the product of surmise more than inference. The dominance of Bernard within the film also problematises broader readings; as has probably already become evident, when one talks about the world of Squid, one finds oneself mostly talking about Walt and Frank’s dad. Considering this, Baumbach may arguably be more interested in the impact of Bernard’s specific pathology on those around him—but if so it suggests its own wilful, and not entirely apt, imposition on the film’s material. Walt’s initial imitation of his father and dismissal of his mother, and the trouble that causes, arguably suggests that the problem is less a lack of volitional independence than a slanted dependence on his father’s values; it’s not independence from influence he needs but more feminine influence. One result of this gendered perspective is that Joan becomes one of the more positive characters in the film. Yet this impression seems more the result of underwriting than accurate characterisation: Joan may never spout any of the intellectual snobbery Bernard does, but she’s never given the chance; not one of her lines throughout the entire film is intellectual in nature. Given that, via Bernard and Walt, this use of language is so highly placed and problematised in this world, Joan’s lack of verbiage inevitably lets her off the hook to an extent—despite many of her actions being just as self-concerned and negligent as her ex’s. The gendered line of reading effectively obscures the degree to which all the characters are complicit in the intellectualised world of Park Slope.

However, Junebug puts up more fundamental resistance to this line of explanation. Beyond a basic linearity, Morrisson doesn’t have much time for cause and effect, and the use of the man-returns-to-town structure reflects this. While coming of age is all about growing up, reaching maturity and leaving one’s home, returning to town is about going back to the place where all these things occurred, long after the fact. This is often used to deal with similar issues that Baumbach uses the coming-of-age story for: a revisitation of one’s roots in an attempt to trace their evolution, who did what to whom, etc—and given the directly autobiographical nature of Squid, one could infer that the making of the film for Baumbach was perhaps his own “return to town”—but Morrison instead exploits the material implications of a story that takes place after one has grown up; a story, in a way, occurring long after the real story has ended.

Junebug’s narrative, in broad terms, is simple: George and Madeleine visit his family for three days because Madeleine is trying to sign an artist in the area. They hang out, Madeleine gets her artist, their sister-in-law’s baby is stillborn…and they leave. Within this time, we learn plenty about these characters as they are now, but almost nothing about their past. Apart from the occasional throwaway line, any and all backstory is ellided, effectively prohibiting us from developing any kind of psychological narrative about how these characters were formed. Likewise, the film’s narrow timeframe (three days as opposed to the several months charted in Squid) negates the need for a distinct plot throughline, since the film’s coherent and self-contained structure (they arrive, they stay a while, they go) suffices for that. This structure also facilitates a rejection of traditional character development; as we will look at in the next section, characters in Junebug don’t so much change as gradually reveal more of what was already there.

 

The discrepancies between Morrison’s and Baumbach’s treatment of their subjects can be attributed, at least in part, to the need for each to counterbalance the different dynamics, and weaknesses, of their two worlds. One might say that Squid’s is a world essentially defined by language (and verbal expression) while Junebug’s is defined by space (and expression through space). In order to critically engage with the limits of such worlds, each director is drawn to different means.

For all their intellect, the Berkmans aren’t the most rational bunch, perhaps because their intelligence seems to be more artistic than logical in its foundation—hence the precision of Bernard’s literary opinions (A Tale of Two Cities is “minor Dickens”) and the vagueness of his social opinions (“people can be very stupid”), or his dim belief that his divorce had “very little to do with me”. Speech is dominant in Squid, but as outlined earlier, it’s main function isn’t expression: lines like “don’t be difficult”, one of Bernard’s catchphrases, don’t really do much except deflect conflict: it’s dialogue as disengagement  (and often almost a form of doublespeak since what Bernard calls “difficult” is really just an honest exchange of views). In contrast, Baumbach’s use of filmic language is defiantly transparent. While Bernard (and as a result his children) has a fundamentally acausal worldview, never seeing connections between what he does and what other people do, Baumbach’s use of narrative serves to comprehensively undermine this: making links, implying causes and dramatising consequences while the characters remain oblivious. It’s fitting, consequently, that the turning point in Walt’s development takes place outside of the disconnected world of his family and Park Slope, when a high school councillor’s admittedly “stock question” about a happy childhood memory evokes a sense of continuity and history in him that he’s been avoiding.

Junebug calls for different solutions to different problems. As mentioned earlier, Baumbach’s verbally-propelled narrative would not only be an inappropriate approach to Junebug’s world; it simply wouldn’t be able to function.  In Park Slope, Baumbach is able to dramatise the far-reaching impact one off-hand admission can have—for example: Bernard mentions Joan’s affairs to Walt; Walt confronts Joan about it; Joan tells Frank about more affairs, including one with the father of Walt’s schoolfriend; Frank passes this on to Walt; Walt tells his schoolfriend. In Junebug, the lines of communication are never consistent enough for such information to travel even half as far (that is if anyone actually talked about it in the first place). But Morrisson is also interested in drawing links between his characters despite their lack of communication, and his principle means of doing this is spatial: through intercutting the actions of different characters at the same time, most often in different rooms in the Johnston house. Likewise, the structure of scenes—which tend to average around ten minutes and almost all involve several of the characters, with one going and another arriving at different points, dramatises the nature of their relationships in spatial rather than narrative terms (something the pace and structure of Squid could never allow for). As much as the characters try to retreat into their “own” space, Morrison’s style reminds us that that space is inescapably shared.

But more than simply reflecting their environments, these different styles also represent a different set of concerns for Morrison and Baumbach: the latter has returned directly to his childhood; the former has returned to where his childhood took place. One approach is psychological and archaeological in its implications (an exploration of how things are formed); the other is immanent and material (an exploration of how things are here and now). But both are essentially personal choices, and neither approach can be said to be uniquely fitting to the environments depicted—and so this is where we reach the point where it becomes neither possible nor productive to separate what is a product of context from what is individual sensibility. The nature of the cinematic influences on each work demonstrate this quite acutely, since however indebted their works may be in some respects (for example, Morrison admits his film’s structure and use of intercutting were inspired by Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger [1990]), these can’t be said to be more than personaldebts, not something cogently attributable to external circumstances.

Indeed, in assessing the ultimate underlying question here—to what extent can we escape or overcome the contexts we’ve emerged from?—the existence of these films in and of themselves embody quite persuasive arguments for individual agency. The fact that guys from Park Slope and Winston-Salem were able to make films whose formal properties subvert the principles of those communities, suggests some kind of hard-won freedom from one’s roots. At least to a point.

 


WHERE THEY GO

What does it mean to really escape or exceed the constraints of one’s context? One might say it means finding alternative ways to express things that the rules of that context do not accommodate, or are incapable of accommodating.

Both of the Berkman sons are faced with this predicament, but while structurally Squid is a coming-of-age movie, its dramatisation of that “coming” never denies its awkwardness or partiality. The younger brother, Frank, is the first to try to set himself apart, defiantly identifying himself as a phillistine once he ascertains his father’s disdain for the word. But his attempts, while bold, are also hopelessly juvenile: if his later actions, like masturbating in school and smearing his semen on various surfaces, seem self-consciously and gratuitously transgressive, it’s because they are. In looking for ways to express his energies outside of the stagnant, verbal-intellectual world he’s grown up in, Frank can find only the primitive. Walt’s belated attempts at differentiation are more muted, but similarly inadequate: for instance dunking his head in a local pond, a bizarrely tame stab at experiencing something visceral.

Yet Walt’s ultimate rejection is different in tenor, and I would argue, signifies the “point” alluded to a moment ago beyond which contextual freedom isn’t possible; the degree to which, in other words, the film’s director is still a Baumbach (or a Berkman) no matter how hard he tries to just be Noah. After Bernard suffers a heart attack, Walt visits his father in hospital and tells him he’s going to stay with his mother for a while. Finding his father incapable of really understanding what he’s saying, Walt leaves. In the film’s final sequence, he visits the Squid and the Whale diorama he remembered from his childhood. Literally apt an ending as this is, as a cathartic moment for Walt it seems strangely abstract.

From a traditional narrative point of view, one would have expected Walt’s transformation from idolising his father to rejecting him to be parallelled with a rekindled connection to his mother—something that the Squid and the Whale memory, which is much more about good times spent with his mother than it is about marine life, seemed to anticipate. (That connection seems about to happen in an earlier scene, where Walt reminds Joan of another shared memory, watching Robin Hood on TV, but the moment is interrupted by Bernard.) Baumbach has said he doesn’t know the precise significance of the Squid and the Whale image (7)—but the image itself is less important than the maternal childhood memory that it is clearly a stand-in for, and the choice to have Walt connect to this symbol, rather than to his mother, or indeed through social contact with anyone.  Walt’s revelation is internal, imaginative and solitary, and the possibility of putting it into practice socially isn’t addressed. So given that the absence of physical and social forms of intelligence was one of the biggest problems inherited by Walt, one wonders if this solitary end point posits much of an escape from his family background at all.

If before, I said it was impossible to say what was Baumbach and what was Noah, so to speak, here it becomes hard to tell what is Berkman and what is Baumbach: does the symbolic ending suggest Walt’s inability to escape or Noah’s? For all its attempts to hold the Berkmans and their intellectualism accountable—and Baumbach has said that this film was much less intellectual and more emotional than his previous films, and that this was his “rebellion” against his upbringing—the film is no stranger to clever, literary devices: certainly Frank’s smearing his own semen on books in the school library (a crude but pointed desecration of his parent’s lifestyles) betrays a sensibility for visual metaphor. It makes sense, then, that his parents actually liked the movie: as Baumbach explained, “they’re writers too.” (8) One critic, J. Hoberman, who knew the Baumbachs, wrote that

I don't necessarily recognize Baumbach's actual family in  The Squid and the Whale but I do recognize the artist's ruthlessness—and the degree to which he's been true to their aesthetic family values. (9)

Apparently, some parental influences are harder to shake than others.

 

If the nature of each film’s world called for different formal methods, they also call for different methods of elusion by the film’s characters. Two of the most striking moments in Squid, when Joan bursts into laughter at Bernard’s suggestion they get back together, and when Walt bursts into tears in front of his father in hospital, are so effective because they figure ruptures in that film’s world, expressions of energy and feeling that the characters’ language is incapable of channelling. While not exactly the most exuberant context, such paroxysms wouldn’t have the same effect in Junebug. When George comforts Ashley in hospital after she loses her baby, the scene’s most touching aspect isn’t that Ashley cries—since while this may come as a relief after her relentless cheeriness, it’s hardly surprising—but the degree to which she manages to articulate her feelings.

Ashley, for all her openness, tends to be as silent as the others when it comes to addressing her own problems, and her intimations in this scene figure an awareness of those problems that is both focused and nuanced, since she sees beyond her immediate grief to the deeper issue that her husband is incapable of being there for her during this time. Such ruptures are even more impressive, if less accomplished, in the case of other characters. When Johnny confides in Madeleine that “things haven’t been easy around here lately”, he can barely elaborate even a few more lines on the matter, yet the effort of self-expression is still palpable. Also, Eugene’s aside to Madeleine in explanation of Peg’s brisk manner—“That’s just her way; she’s not like that inside; she hides herself…like most”—betrays an extroardinary depth of insight from a character who barely opens his mouth.

But the most fascinating character from the perspective of escaping one’s context is George. Had this been a traditional man-returns-to-town story, George would naturally have been the film’s protagonist. However as it plays out, George recedes into the background as soon as they arrive, and remains enigmatic and distant throughout, right into the scene where he comforts Ashley at her bedside (he does so while barely speaking). George’s effective absence from most of the film makes it hard to draw too many detailed conclusions about him—but the fact that he has physically escaped from the world he grew out of, obviously makes his behaviour upon returning significant for our purposes. What’s most striking about George is how in keeping his behaviour is with the world of Winston-Salem, tempered though it must be by years of urban living. George is no black sheep, and his tendency to retreat is (unlike the actions of his ever-present wife) never commented upon or criticised by anyone—Peg even reassures him at the end of his trip that “there’s not a damn thing wrong with you”—in fact, as mentioned earlier, it’s remarkably similar in many ways to how his brother and father act.

What distinguishes George’s behaviour is that he also has the experience of functioning in an extremely urban environment, something it’s hard to imagine the rest of his family coping with, particularly his brother. As a result, his aloofness is more polished: while Johnny seems immature and anti-social, George seems enigmatic; Johnny has to push people away while George is able to slip out unnoticed. One could say this style of George’s is less an escape from his upbringing than it is a harnessing of it: George has made it work for him. Near the start of the film, Madeleine, mesmerised, asks him “where did you come from?”—suggesting that the sense of enigma George gives off is part of his attraction. It’s no surprise, then, that Johnny is so hostile to his brother throughout his visit; while he’s weighed down by his context, unable to express himself and paralysed by frustration, George has found a way to let the weight carry him. He may be just as inexpressive, but his is a charming inexpressivity, and one which everyone else can make of what they want. Hence George is able to sit with Ashley in hospital, and she is able to lament that “Johnny didn’t say nothing” without being bothered that George has barely said anything himself (according to Amy Adams, a line in the script for this scene said, “Ashley mistakes George’s silence for wisdom.”) (10)

But there’s also an implication here that George is far from satisfied with the limitations he has inherited, no matter how charmingly he has refashioned them. This is suggested not just by his aloofness during the trip, but also the fact that he hasn’t been home in three years, didn’t have the family at the wedding, and clearly hasn’t told Madeleine much about them or his upbringing. The way in which George is such a ghostly, absent presence in the film only suggests more potently that there is something of him we’re missing, something that not even the film, let alone George himself, is capable of showing to us—most of the time, anyway.

Junebug suggests no easy way out of these limitations—but in both its formal and performative elements, as we’ll look at in conclusion, it does suggest their potential.

 

Junebug’s acausal structure, and short timeframe, allows for none of the linear growth or character development evident (at least for Walt) in Squid; hence its rupturous moments emerge and dissolve haphazardly rather than as the end result of something. However the film seems more positive in its conclusions than the latter, since while Squid posits its escape via rejection and symbolic reconnection, the only potentially liberating routes provided in Junebug involve other people. In fact, for all the diverse formal properties that differentiate these two films, probably the most significant contrast one can draw is that Squid is about a family of single people and Junebug is about a family of couples. The implications of this are far-ranging: while the Berkmans are always walking away from each other (Walt stops going to Joan’s house, Frank tries to run away from Bernard’s, Joan and Bernard both leave them alone for a weekend, Walt walks away from Bernard in hospital, etc), the Johnstons, despite all their efforts, are never able to get that far—for a start, each character shares a bed with another every night. Contextual escape is never an entirely plausible or desirable goal since the very institution of marriage is a contextual constraint to which one commits oneself unreservedly. (While in Park Slope, divorcing is as possible and acceptable as other forms of walking away, in Winston-Salem, as remote as the couples may get from each other, there is no sign of them ever actually separating.)

What all this effectively means is that in Junebug, contexts are worked with, not escaped from, and characters succeed or fail in these terms. They must express themselves within these confines because there is no alternative. Consequently, the root of Johnny’s immaturity is his refusal to deal with the hand he’s been dealt, and the brilliance of Ashley is her ability to uniquely be herself while still skillfully navigating and “doing right” by her “only family”. Ashley is the film’s most fully realised embodiment of this quality, but several characters have moments of individuation and expression that manage to be both unique to them and deeply rooted in their surrounding environment as well. When Johnny attempts to tape a documentary on meercats (Ashley’s favourite animal) off television, this seemingly mundane act becomes an unlikely window into his rarely expressed feelings for her. While Bernard Berkman can’t even imbue something as ritually potent as signing his novel for his son with genuine paternal sentiment, this young confused North Carolinian manages to put all his love for his wife into a video cassette recorder.

George is given a characteristically more elegant opportunity to reveal himself: at a church supper the family attend, he’s coaxed into singing an old Christian hymn. The song’s lyrics—“ye who are weary come home/calling all sinners, come home”—suggest an almost reluctant return to one’s roots, and the scene does find George, in a way, fulfilling yet another external idea of who he is and where he’s come from. The song is obviously neck-deep in tradition, and totally embedded in the context of Winston-Salem—and yet it seems too carefully and beautifully sung to be just an obligatory performance.  Rather, it manages to both fulfill its wider social function and serve as a conduit for connection between George and his family (with the exception of Johnny, everyone appears enrapt in the performance) and, I would argue, express something of George’s rarely glimpsed emotional life. This amounts to a brief harmony of context and freedom, and probably the most idealistic moment in either of the two films.

Given the way in which Junebug is structured, however, such moments are essentially anomalous: they emerge out of the opportunities presented in a particular scene, and disappear when those opportunities fall away. In interviews, Morrison has objected to descriptions of the Johnston family as dysfunctional, arguing instead that the film is “about how they manage to function”. (11) With that in mind, the film’s present-tense focus can be seen as providing the frame for a study of that functioning: of how the characters make the most of the context, and the selves, which they have at their disposal. Rather than dramatise a chain of cause-and-effect and who-did-what-to-who as Baumbach does, Morrison dramatises the fundamental (and problematic) act of being in a space with other people. This purposefully ahistorical view means that when we talk about the characters we are almost always talking about how they behave towards each other, not what they think or what they’ve done previously. Put this way, such a perspective may sound inadequately narrow, but the Johnston family as depicted are not past-less; on the contrary, the very space of their household feels weighted with their shared histories. What the film’s selective focus serves to prioritise is the tackling of this weight in present-tense terms only. Freedom happens right here and now or not at all.

This brings us back to a difference expressed in each film’s titles: The Squid and the Whale is about the power of the past; Junebug is about the potential inherent in the present, a potential no less present even if, as is the case with the tragic Junebug, it remains unfulfilled (although remember that Johnny’s last line in the film to Ashley is “maybe we can try again”…) And while Baumbach may plead ignorance to the significance of his aquatic title image, it’s hard not to read into the implications of two incompatible creatures engaged in a violent and desperate struggle/embrace for survival. On the other hand, there is no relational dynamic expressed in a name like Junebug; it’s up for grabs. It’s this openness, this sense of possibility—compromised, temporary, partial but usable—that seems to distinguish Morrison’s film.

While both of the films looked at here contain depths of insight, Junebug is the one that offers the more substantial, and practical, philosophy for dealing with the contextual constraints in our own lives.


ENDNOTES

  1. Christian Lorentzen, “To Wed and to Fail” in N+1 Magazine, http://www.nplusonemag.com/baumbach.html
  2. Phil Morrison interviewed by Michael Koresky, “Sighs and Whispers” on Indiewire.com, http://www.indiewire.com/people/people_050805phil.html
  3. Amy Adams interviewed by Wendy Ide on Junebug DVD
  4. Noah Baumbach interviewed by Erica Abeel, “Making the Personal Universal” on Indiewire.com, http://www.indiewire.com/people/2005/10/jonathan_baumba.html
  5. Noah Baumbach interviewed by Noel Murray, http://www.avclub.com/content/node/42407
  6. Phil Morrison in an e-mail to Ray Carney, http://people.bu.edu/rcarney/aboutrc/letters33.shtml#phil
  7. Noah Baumbach, “The Squid and the Whale” (director’s notes), http://www.landmarktheatres.com/mn/squidandwhale.html
  8. Noah Baumbach interviewed by M. Faust, “My Brother Didn’t Do Those Things” in Artvoice Magazine, http://artvoice.com/issues/v4n48/my_brother_didnt_do_those_things
  9. J. Hoberman, “Killer Whale” in Village Voice, September 27th 2005, http://www.villagevoice.com/film/0539,hoberman1,68224,20.html
  10. Amy Adams interviewed by Wendy Ide on Junebug DVD
  11. Phil Morrison interviewed by Michael Koresky, “Sighs and Whispers” on Indiewire.com, http://www.indiewire.com/people/people_050805phil.html

 

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