Growing Up at NYFF: The Films of Noah Baumbach

In 1995, Brooklyn-born filmmaker Noah Baumbach premiered his feature debut, Kicking and Screaming, at the New York Film Festival.  Seventeen years later, Baumbach is set to screen his latest film, Frances Ha, at the 50th NYFF and, despite how far he’s come, there’s a sense of maturation and circularity in regards to this latest project.

With his upcoming film, Baumbach returns to the fertile soil of post-grad life, the crux of Kicking and Screaming, with co-writer/star of the film Greta Gerwig playing "a young woman taking the first shaky, post-Ivy League steps in what will become her real life." One might quickly assume that with Frances Ha, Baumbach is simply treading over previously explored lands. In fact, he’s returning to this tumultuous time of life a much different filmmaker, with an artistic sensibility much changed since Kicking and Screaming. For any NYFF attendees looking to show off their Baumbach knowledge, here are some thoughts on his previous films that have screened here at the festival.


Photo: TRIMARK PICTURES / THE KOBAL COLLECTION / MICHAELS, DARREN

Kicking and Screaming (NYFF '95)
Despite its protagonist, Kicking and Screaming is about stasis in numbers and how group familiarity only further enables such a routinized, stagnant lifestyle. The film’s commitment to this idea is partly charming and somewhat frustrating. Armed with a loquacious script, Baumbach places a high premium on his words; certainly, this is part and parcel to his filmography—the hyper-articulate—and there is maybe no greater example of this tendency than the college student frequently expounding hasty ideas and theories in an effort to mask any sense of naïveté.

The same criticism could be leveled against Baumbach’s film; its wordy superficiality disguises a lacking emotional core. Responsibility is feared by this group—as it is by any post-grad—because to take that on would mean moving on with their lives; it would mean dissolving their clique and opening themselves up to their own personal struggles. Yet the film itself, for better or worse, plays like a college student, with its potential insights unfortunately undercut by a penchant for demonstrating its own cleverness. Fortunately, Baumbach would return to the New York Film Festival ten years later with a film of marked originality and creative progression.


Photo: SAMUEL GOLDWYN FILMS LLC / THE KOBAL COLLECTION

The Squid and the Whale (NYFF '05) 
In 2005, Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale screened at the 43rd New York Film Festival, and its artistic progression from its predecessors is immediately noticeable. Gone is the rather staid, locked-down style of Kicking and Screaming, in favor of handheld camerawork that not only imbues the film with a sense of intimacy but also humbles an artfully written screenplay.

Similar to Baumbach’s debut, The Squid and the Whale is garrulous, but it is also more precise. As verbose as it is, the film offers a balanced concern for the unspoken and vocalized. A succinct example comes in the film’s opening moments when Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) tells his son that A Tale of Two Cities, which he’s reading for school, is "minor Dickens." Instead of letting words overpower the tone of the scene, the camera sits back and allows us to see Joan, Bernard’s wife, exhaustedly looking down at her dinner plate before telling her son he can think for himself.  A coming-of-age story for all ages, The Squid and the Whale is a significant moment in Baumbach’s artistic maturation. From puberty to divorce, the film is deeply embedded in life’s emotional fluctuations and the ensuing frustrated confusion caused.


Photo: PARAMOUNT/VANTAGE / THE KOBAL COLLECTION / REGAN, KEN

Margot at the Wedding (NYFF '07)
Just two years later, Baumbach would return to the NYFF with Margot at the Wedding, which continues an increased concern for the individual over wide-ranging narratives. Its narrowness enhances, in the case of Margot, an increasingly tragicomic, acerbic tone in Baumbach’s work.

Margot is the strongest piece of evidence pointing to Baumbach’s stylistic transformation. It’s certainly his most visually accomplished film; shot with celebrated cinematographer Harris Savides, its dried-out, autumnal tone is closely connected with the film’s cold-heartedness.

Anchored by a great performance from Nicole Kidman (one of this year's NYFF Gala Tribute honorees) in the titular role, the film extends Baumbach’s undertaking of that which is not pleasant, the miscomprehension and resentment of the changes thrust into the face of his characters. Again, as in The Squid and the Whale, these changes are quite literal and physical. After Margot’s son sees her at her most vulnerable, she sits him down and, instead of acknowledging this, doles out a series of criticisms designed to make him to feel as insecure as she is, telling him: "you used to be rounder, more graceful. You’re so stiff now, so blasé. I can’t explain it."

A doctor could explain the physical changes, but Baumbach examines the deeper, less understood frustrations of aging and never living up to expecations—of trying to hold on to any sense of consistency in the face of such inevitable evolution and disappointment. To probe this human concern with unflinching and often polarizing honesty, as Baumbach has in his recent films, is the mark of a fully-formed artist, one that we’ve seen continually grow in each return to the New York Film Festival. Be sure to come see Frances Ha, yet another homecoming screening for Baumbach and the latest chapter in his impressive career!

Noah Baumbach's not the only NYFF Veteran in the 50th Main Slate. Check out the full list here.

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