Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 27, 2017

Meyerowitz’s Stories: (New and Selected)

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:11 pm

Working my way systematically through the wheelbarrow full of DVD’s received from studio publicists in reverse order of preference, I finally got around to “Meyerowitz’s Stories: (New and Selected)” that was written and directed by Noah Baumbach. Since I despised his 2010 “Greenberg”, I wasn’t expecting much. Suffice it to say that I hated the new one twice as much. For those who want to spend 90 minutes as painful as a trip to the dentist, you can also see the film on Netflix.

In a nutshell, “Meyerowitz’s Stories” is a laughless comedy about Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a snobbish but underachieving elderly sculptor and Bard College retiree, and his three grown children that—paraphrasing Tolstoy—are each unhappy in their own way. Danny (Adam Sandler) is a perennial loser rapidly advancing toward middle age who hopes to crash at his father’s upper west side townhouse until he finds some new dead-end job. His stepbrother Matthew (Ben Stiller) has just arrived in New York from Los Angeles to advise Harold on selling the townhouse and the sculptures warehoused there. Any prospective buyer would have to pay for the artwork even though the market for them is nil. Matthew, a big-time financial adviser to celebrities, is highly successful in conventional terms but a disappointment to Harold who expected him to follow in his footsteps. Finally, there is their sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) who is the least developed as a character. Considering the amount of venom spewed at the two brothers, she gets off easy.

Ultimately, the film is simultaneously an examination of how worshipping the bitch goddess success can cripple people psychically and—ironically—proof of how Noah Baumbach has become successful in mastering exactly that pursuit. Like Lena Dunham’s “Girls”, it is a drama that invites us to laugh contemptuously at its characters even if its creator has both feet in this world. It is the world of trendy restaurants, gallery openings, country homes, expensive colleges, and all the other benefits of “making it”. The dysfunctional, shallow, and grubbing characters in the Meyerowitz klan are not that different from prototypical, educated, middle-class N.Y. Times readers, especially those who rely on the arts and leisure sections to refine their tastes.

Two days ago, when I told a couple of friends from my Bard College years that I loathed the film, they were surprised. Since Baumbach obviously put the grubby characters in the worst possible light, how could I not enjoy seeing them laid low? Since then, I have given that a lot of thought and included a review of “The Squid and the Whale”. That 2005 film is very close to the new one thematically and is drawn, like it, from Baumbach’s own family’s tale of woe.

Born in 1969, Noah Baumbach is the son of novelist/film critic Jonathan Baumbach and former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown. Their bitter separation is the subject of the 2005 “The Squid and the Whale” that starred Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as Bernard and Joan Berkman, a couple of writers modeled on the director/screenwriter’s parents. Their teen-aged son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and his younger brother Frank (Owen Kline) are based on the director and his younger brother Nico, who teaches film at Columbia University. These are people richly endowed in academic capital as Pierre Bourdieu would have put it: “Academic capital is, in fact, the guaranteed product of the combined effects of cultural transmission by the family and cultural transmission by the school (the efficiency of which depends on the amount of cultural capital directly inherited from the family).”

Like Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of an unlikeable Jonathan Baumbach in his 80s in the new film, Jeff Daniels plays the same kind of lout–an intellectual snob and self-regarding twit who has the nerve to describe Franz Kafka as his “predecessor”. The director’s real-life father is a study in how a career in the literary world can be as competitive as the hedge fund business. He was a professor at a number of universities, including Brooklyn College from 1966 until his retirement in 2000. He also wrote film reviews for Film Culture and Partisan Review. When he wasn’t running the MFA program at Brooklyn College or reviewing films, he was writing novels in a distinctly postmodernist style that has been compared to William Gaddis.

After publishing two novels that were likely in the remainder bins after a year or so, he hit a wall with his third that was rejected by 32 different publishers. In “The Squid and the Whale”, you see his character reading a rejection letter. That led Jonathan Baumbach to start a non-profit publishing company called Fiction Collective 2 that was geared to experimental literature and funded in part by the University of Utah, the same school that is a host to the Marxism mailing list.

By normal standards, this would be considered a success but in his son’s screenplay, the father is depicted as a total loser. His wife’s cheating, which led to the separation, humiliates him but less so than her new-found literary success. When the Berkmans meet with the principal of Walt’s school to discuss his psychological problems that have been exacerbated by his parents’ warfare over joint custody arrangements, he is stung to hear her being complimented by the principal for her latest short story in the New Yorker as they depart.

As Noah Baumbach’s father, Jeff Daniels is a class-A prick. He shacks up with his 20-year old writing student and even gives signals to Walt, the stand-in for Noah Baumbach, that it is okay if he wants to fuck her. You have to wonder if this was autobiographical or fiction. In either case, it makes the father look like someone who transgressed professional ethics. At one point, he confides in Walt about a writing assignment the student turned in that supposedly was really about her vagina. Did Jonathan Baumbach ever have such a conversation with his son about his female students? Or is this just character assassination that helps to bind the audience psychologically with the director? Oddly enough, the parents accepted being savaged in the film because it obviously put them in the limelight. This was exactly the same strategy followed by Lena Dunham in her film “Tiny Furniture” that opened the doors to HBO producing “Girls”. Unlike Noah Baumbach, Dunham cast her own mother in the clearly autobiographical film

It is not that surprising that Baumbach’s parents embrace a film that is so sadistic. In the same way that they have prospered in the accumulation of academic capital, their son’s celebrity is a feather in their cap. Nominated for the best original screenplay, “The Squid and the Whale” must have made the author’s parents proud. The conclusion to the New Yorker review supports that conclusion:

The plot hinges on Walt’s rediscovery of his love for her [the mom]; Baumbach, in the end, holds out the possibility that Walt, at least, will see his parents as neither gods nor monsters but as screwed-up, very foolish adults. The movie is proof that Walt grew into a man.

Whatever ambivalence Baumbach had toward his father has almost completely evaporated in “The Meyerowitz Stories”. Harold Meyerowitz is a grotesque figure, almost constantly talking about how great he is even if it is abundantly clear that he is a minor figure in the art world (but major enough to buy a townhouse). When he goes to an opening at the MOMA for an old friend named L.J. Shapiro (Judd Hirsch), he is shocked to discover that he has not been invited to the private showing. When he reminds the young woman at the reception desk that he is Harold Meyerowitz, she—like most of the world—has no idea who he is. At the last minute, Shapiro spots him from afar and ushers him in to catch up on old times. Unlike Meyerowitz, he is a mensch and more interested in how he is doing than bragging about his own success.

Later in the film, Meyerowitz has his own retrospective at Bard College. The contrast could not be sharper. Bard College is not MOMA. It is a holding a commemorative show for a professor emeritus that will certainly not be covered by the NY Times. Consider the equation: the good-hearted Shapiro and the top-drawer MOMA on one side and on the other Meyerowitz the insufferable egotistical loser and Bard College. For Noah Baumbach, the ultimate sin is being second rate but pretending that you are first-rate. For those of us who hate elitism of any sort, the director’s agenda is just as rancid as those he is ridiculing.

There’s a good reason why court jesters targeted the king. Humor is always best served by punching upwards like Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain did. Although I had a visceral dislike for the father figure in both “The Squid and the Whale” and “The Meyerowitz Stories”, my real animus was fixed on the author of the screenplays who exploited his father’s obvious deficiencies to make NY Times writers and readers feel superior.

It reminded me very much of another autobiographical work that was lionized in the NY Times, a book written by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, the son of a long-time Socialist Workers Party member. Titled “When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood”, it makes his parents look as uncaring and as grotesque as Noah Baumbach’s. There’s a scene in this memoir where the father takes the son out to dinner and is appalled when his father orders chardonnay at a restaurant, only to discover that it is a white rather than a red wine. Even worse, he makes a scene at the restaurant until they exchange it for a red. During the entire dinner, the father pontificates about world politics, as he is prone to do. For Saïd, he is “a socialist missionary among proletarian savages, and all intercourse presents itself as an opportunity for conversion.” After relating his annoyance over being forced to endure his father’s rhetoric for an hour, Saïd offers up the perfect coda for a miserable evening: “Then my father spills the red wine down his shirt.” What could be worse than a Marxist with a wine-stained shirt?

The NY Times found the memoir “amazingly even-handed and even somewhat nostalgic about his blasted childhood.” One wonders how long it will take for Hollywood to buy the rights to “When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood” for a film treatment by Noah Baumbach. A match made in hell.


1 Comment »

  1. An excellent post. The review of Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture”, linked here, is worthwhile as well.

    “Born in 1969, Noam Baumbach is the son of novelist/film critic Jonathan Baumbach and former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown.”

    As you suggest, this seems to be the career path for accessing the financial capital required to make movies. There is a insular sterility here that makes their creations uninspiring. The likelihood of such people producing a Fassbinder, an Oshima, a Kurosawa, a John Sayles, a Jia Zhangke, strikes me as unlikely.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 28, 2017 @ 12:03 am

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