Why does Noah Baumbach have a knack for writing failed artists? Because he doesn’t think they’re failures.
“Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a failed musician now making a living as a carpenter in New York”, “Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a struggling dancer, going from apartment to apartment”, “Josh (Ben Stiller) is struggling on the post-production of his documentary film.” These are all excerpts from the summaries of 3 of Noah Baumbach’s films. Suffice to say, he’s drawn to writing failed and struggling artists. Baumbach’s characters are not Pulitzer winners or world-renowned artists. They always have second jobs, as professors or in administration, for example. He’s not interested in artists corrupted by fame, but rather artists tormented by their conflicted desire for it. His depictions of the modern artist is at once realistic and cynical. So true, you wish it weren’t.
But Noah Baumbach isn’t interested in the failure, so much as the fallout. He doesn’t go in depth to explain why his artists never had (or likely, never will have) shining careers. It’s usually pretty self-evident (but not to them of course): they quit before they had a chance to fail, or they just weren’t that good. Baumbach is more interested in how these characters cope with their disappointment about their careers. Do they turn angry and bitter, or accept it and move on?
Ultimately, Baumbach revises what we mean by failure. He treats his characters with the sort of empathy that they don’t treat themselves with. In a recent interview with Indiewire, Baumbach expands his thoughts on why Harold Meyrowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is not a failure: `The truth is that Harold is not a failure. He had a wonderful teaching career, and he made a profound impression on his students. Is ‘Gilded Halfwing’ a great work? I don’t think it matters. Is it depressing that the piece is kept in a warehouse crate, or is it cool that the Whitney wants to keep it? Is Danny a failure because he never became the musician that he potentially could have been, or is he a success because he’s a wonderful father?” Meyrowitz isn’t a sorry loser, he just acts like one. So then, the reason why his characters feel like such failures is that they spend so much time comparing themselves to others. This is why the family is the perfect vehicle for staging his characters sour competitiveness.
In The Squid & The Whale, now seen as a kind of prequel to The Meyrowitz Stories (New and Selected), Jeff Daniels’ character, Bernard Berkman, is basically a younger version of Harold. He’s a once promising author who teaches more than he writes. His soon to be ex-wife is also a writer, who has recently published a short story in notoriously competitive The New Yorker. Bernard expresses his envy and shame at not living up to his potential by denigrating his wife and giving out his “expert” opinion to anyone (but mostly to his two sons) who will listen. He disguises his shame as arrogance, which ultimately costs him his marriage.
At the beginning of the film, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) idealizes his Dad. And as his parents undergo a grueling divorce, he picks his Dad’s side. But by the end of the film, he realizes how it was actually his mother who took care of him growing up, not his father. The Meyrowitz Stories continues on this realization. Harold’s kids all know how emotionally manipulative he is. But they keep taking care of him. They also buy into his feelings of injustice, that he was overlooked by the art establishment and was never given his due diligence. In a climactic scene, while Harold is in the hospital and his children are at his group art show, Matthew (Ben Stiller) has a moment of revelation amid his improvised speech. He says, “Maybe I need to believe my Dad is a genius because I don’t want his life to be worthless. If he isn’t a good artist that means he’s just a prick.” Harold s children have to believe he’s great because then that would somehow excuse all the pain he’s caused them. The tragedy of Baumbach’s films is that his characters do not think they are enough. Success is a tool by which they determine their self-worth. If they’re not the most successful person they know, they are failures.
Although a notable exception is Greta Gerwig’s character in Frances Ha. She might not be a famous modern dancer with a 100$ coffee table book to her name. In fact, she doesn’t even get a spot in her dance company. She has all the makings to be a typical Baumbach loser. But her happy-go-lucky personality keeps her afloat. Of course, she compares herself to other dancer friends, other artists, and her best friend Sophie who works in publishing. But the one dancer friend with whom she stays is thoroughly unlikeable, her artist roommates are all trust-fund kids, and her best friend isn’t an artist. So, Frances has no direct competitors to obsess over. She has no siblings, no younger, more talented rival dancer. By the end of the film, she is working in the office of the dance company, but she has also choreographed her own dance piece. The ending doesn’t feel like a defeat, but a realistic rendering of what so many young artists go through. By accepting that she won’t be the next Martha Graham, she is free to become Frances. Nevermind success.
Related Topics: Noah Baumbach