One of the most unfair things about this world is that other people seldom act the way we want them to, and that can make life just plain difficult. If they could only see what you see, grasp the facts of the situations the way you can, surely - surely - a positive outcome for all could be reached. But most of the time, other people just don’t seem to get it. Are they all just fucking jerks, or is something else going on?
Gradually, it seems, the American independent filmmaker is emerging from a solipsistic cocoon and making movies that deal honestly with what I like to call “the problem of other people.” That problem is essentially that a part of everyone who is not you will remain forever inaccessible and in reserve, no matter how hard you try to break down the barriers. An inability to work around this fact results in neuroses, which often have debilitating, but quite possibly entertaining for the rest of us, symptoms.
I myself happen to take it for granted that you, dear reader, are an autonomous individual capable of some, to be sure, spectacularly wrong-headed opinions but ones that are probably based on the available facts as you see them. I’m willing to give you that doubt, not because I am particularly magnanimous but because all evidence seems to indicate that there is, not, in fact, a cosmic conspiracy to frustrate my ambitions, with various government officials, family members and even, at times, “inanimate” objects acting in concert.
The (giant) Squid and the Whale engage in a deep sea combat that until very, very recently (after the production of this film) had not been witnessed by human beings. Yet it was more or less taken for granted by biologists and animal death match enthusiasts that this combat did take place, although we couldn’t really see it. Despite our best cogito-ing, phenomenological bracketing and what not, a bulletproof proof of the autonomy of the “other” is not forthcoming. Heck, half the time the so-called experts even have trouble proving that they themselves exist, much the less the rest of us.
What to do, what to do? Well, one way to tackle the problem is to interpret the actions of all and sundry as accidental or on-purposeful attempts to make your life difficult. And indeed, in addition to praising his favorite texts as “very dense and interesting,” Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) is inclined to plead for his family members to “stop being difficult,” whenever he doesn’t get his way.
Another way to tackle the problem is to retreat so far inside yourself that you become incredibly alienated. The younger brother acts how I would imagine a shell-shocked Danny Torrance from The Shining would, chugging beers and marking his territory at school in squirm inducing ways.
At one point, the older brother, when confronted with his limitations, says to his mom that he “doesn’t see himself that way,” and indeed, being alienated from other people also leads to self-alienation.
Noah Baumbach is unflinching in detailing how that sometimes relationships, be it with a family member or potential love interest can be based largely on projection. In this year’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, Miranda July deals with similar themes but seems to posit a solution that everyone has similar doubts and insecurities, and therefore it is not necessary to be afraid of intimacy. Baumbach’s film shows that this solution is, while appealing, ultimately facile, and that other people are really capable of inflicting terrible damage on you, without you ever being able to explain why, except with empty words like “difficult.”
To be continued in a review of Talk to Her(2002).