Life Is Wasted On People: Loneliness, Sincerity And Noah Baumbach

With his newest film Mistress America out in cinemas now, Adam Howard takes a look at the work of Noah Baumbach

In Mistress America, the newest comedy by Noah Baumbach and his second this year, freshman Tracy writes a short story about her soon-to-be-stepsister, Brooke, in order to get into an elite literary society at her college. She is infatuated with her new big sister from the moment she meets her, drawn to her extroversion and the way she doesn’t care what others think of her, but she also sees straight through her, to the oblivious, doomed-to-failure and terminally insecure person beneath, pegging her as a woman who “sees the world in all its accuracy, but cannot see herself.” But in observing her muse, she develops a horribly self-serving relationship with her: she follows Brooke on a mission to secure an investment for her dream restaurant startup, rubbernecking on the proceedings that she knows are doomed to crash and burn, and she never once questions the effect of her story on its subject if she were to read it.

Tracy is the latest in a long line of creative sociopaths to crop up in Noah Baumbach’s films. Right from his debut, the talky 90s indie Kicking And Screaming, he’s populated his stories with writers, filmmakers, and musicians, all of whom are intensely perceptive about the world around them but unable to process their own emotions, or the effect they might have on others. The writer-graduates of Kicking And Screaming still kick around their college campus, afraid to embark upon their real lives and unable to see the meaningful relationships right in front of them. In Mr. Jealousy, Eric Stoltz’s writer lies his way into group therapy to spy on his girlfriend’s ex (also a self-indulgent writer) with no concept of how untrusting he’s being. As Baumbach’s writing developed he became even more scathing: both The Squid And The Whale and Margot At The Wedding feature monstrous writers at their centre whose toxic narcissism wreaks havoc on their young children’s psyches.

Its these characters that come to mind when many think of Noah Baumbach’s movies: the selfish egotists. The main criticism against him is that his characters are almost exclusively white, wealthy, middle-class New Yorkers, their complexes and neuroses so unimportant in the grand scheme of things as to render them unworthy of the celluloid that has been wasted on them. In short, Baumbach makes movies about the proverbial White People Problems, and why should we care? But the issues his characters face don’t only befall the privileged. Emotional insecurity, creative atrophy, the inability to express one’s feelings, the inability to follow through on one’s own aspirations, these are still symptoms of contemporary living for many, and Baumbach’s ability to engage with them honestly and critically, without shying away or dismissing them as unimportant, makes him something of an anomaly. Most writers would be content to render them irredeemable symptoms of a selfish age, but there’s a certain fearlessness in the balance that Baumbach finds between painful satire and loving portrait, the blurred line that he finds between sympathy and disgust for his characters.

And it does seem to hinge on them always being writers. By virtue of their natural tendency to observe, his characters are constantly searching for a capital-T truth that eludes them, only to be later confronted with it in their own fiction. In Mr. Jealousy, Lester Grimm is so busy masquerading as someone else in order to infiltrate his love rival’s therapy group that he doesn’t realise that he’s developed a meaningful friendship with him disguised as someone else – by inventing a fiction through which to live, he learns more about himself than he ever would have otherwise. These gaps between truth and fiction crop up again and again in Baumbach’s writing. It’s not so much that he values fiction over truth, its more that he understands that there are different kinds of truth. There’s the truth that is routed in fact, the kind that is supposed to fill newspapers and courtrooms, and there’s what feels true. His early films were filled with characters on the hunt for that black-and-white truth, but as he’s grown older and a new generation has come up behind him he seems to have developed a clearer understanding of how one can honour the other, that emotional honesty is just as valuable as cold hard fact.

This shift began with The Squid And The Whale in 2005, after a directorial hiatus where he honed his writing skills with his oft-collaborator Wes Anderson. Before that, his movies were indie charmers similar in tone to Whit Stillman and Hal Hartley, populated by a specific kind of sports-jacket-and-tie wearing 90s hipster exemplified best by the likes of Eric Stoltz and Chris Eigeman. There’s much to admire in those early comedies, but Squid… marked a dramatic growth in sophistication. With a newfound critical distance – he had always felt very closely aligned to his pre-Squid characters – and a clearer visual aesthetic, he completely burst the bubble that his former, affectionate pseudo-intellectuals lived in.

Bernard Berkman, played by Jeff Daniels, is his clearest vision of the kind of toxicity that this kind of empty intellectualism can generate. In middle age he has seen his creative ambitions curdle into raging pretension and unforgivable misogyny, alienating his wife when she becomes more successful than himself and driving his youngest son to sexual deviancy at an early age. His only ally is his eldest son Walt, but Walt doesn’t go unscathed either: his father’s opinions on art and literature are so dominating that Walt mistakes them for his own, failing to develop his own critical eye in lieu of his dad’s and eroding his own self-image in lieu of one his father would approve of. When he gets caught attempting to pass off Pink Floyd’s ‘Hey You’ as his own at a talent competition, his excuse is that he “felt [he] could’ve written it, so the fact that it was already written was kind of a technicality”. That’s a feeling that many can relate to – hearing a song or reading something that resonates so clearly that it feels like it’s one’s own – but his deception in claiming it as his own is an arrogance that he’s learned from a father who cannot separate his own image of himself as a “voice of a generation” from his reality as a vulnerable, flawed human being.

Walt was the first of a new generation of characters in Baumbach’s work, one that, as it’s grown up, he has focused on more and more. After the detailed character studies of The Squid And The Whale and Margot At The Wedding, there’s another marked shift in tone and tenor in Baumbach’s work, heralded by the first appearance of his most influential collaborator, Greta Gerwig. When compared to the films he’s made with her, his earlier efforts appear coiled tight both aesthetically and structurally: Gerwig brings with her a looseness,which gives Baumbach’s ideas room to breathe. Greenberg has a novelistic quality to its structure and an affected artlessness to its style – borrowed from the mumblecore scene where Gerwig got started – that feel a world away from the rigid dollhouses of The Squid And The Whale or the heavily narrated storybook quality of Mr Jealousy. Frances Ha is even lighter in tone; a breezy but still sharply observed ode to female friendship and French cinema.

But more important than opening up his style, Gerwig provided a response to the narcissistic writer character that had dominated Baumbach’s stories. Where Baumbach’s characters are all unable to express themselves, Gerwig’s express themselves too much, leaving themselves startlingly vulnerable. Florence of Greenberg, Frances of Frances Ha, and Brooke of Mistress America aren’t writers or filmmakers, they’re not in their heads but in their bodies: singers, dancers, and socialites, unafraid of how they’re construed by others and unobsessed by their potential authenticity. Where Baumbach’s characters lack self-awareness because they hide behind layers of artifice, Gerwig’s lack it because they’re too busy experiencing the world to think about their place within it. Where his characters think, Gerwig’s just be.The difference is a generational one. Baumbach is a Generation X’er, defined by their ironic detachment. Gerwig grew up around ten years later and is much more emotionally attuned, her generation defined by its hyperbolic sincerity. Frances Halloway has no idea how to behave around others unlike her, finding it easier to hide in the worlds she creates with her friends where she has no responsibility and can express herself freely and without barriers. The film’s central conflict arises when her best friend attempts to leave that world for a more adult one.

And though Gerwig’s influence informs all his films since Greenberg, the one that perhaps best illustrates this generational gap is the only one where she’s gone uncredited behind or in front of the camera, his earlier release this year, While We’re Young. Its one of his least successful films, reliant as it is on caricature, but its interesting in that it draws a clear line between generations in terms of their relationship with truth and authenticity. In it, Ben Stiller’s Josh and Adam Driver’s Jamie are both filmmakers, but where Josh has spent ten years making a comprehensive, dull documentary about the Second World War, Jamie fabricates the minor details of his documentary to create better narrative. When Josh finds out he expects everyone to be outraged at this gross distortion of The Truth, but no one really seems to mind – it makes more sense to all involved that the film be emotionally honest and direct that factually rigorous.

In light of this, Walt’s mistaking Pink Floyd’s work for his own seems less like deception and more a young man who is scared and lonely trying to express himself without the tools to do it himself. Really, that’s all his characters: everyone from the manipulative, vindictive Margot to the bitter Greenberg to the flighty, free-spirited Frances, is scared: of loneliness, of failure, of not being able to communicate their inner worlds to those around them. They hang on to ideas of themselves that they left behind years ago or refuse to move on because it’s easier and safer to remain in the past, where they understand everything and there’s no risk. This, Baumbach argues, is the pitfall of The Modern World: we exist in a time where we understand everything around us keenly, but don’t understand our place within it.

Mistress America makes this painfully clear. In it, Baumbach’s traditional older male writer is replaced by a younger female one, and she doesn’t get off easily. The film is at its core a farce, its second half set almost entirely in one house where a rag-tag group of tenuously linked characters eventually turn on Tracy’s manuscript, picking apart its treatment of women, its use of metaphor, and the extent that it mines her supposed-friend’s life for material. Suddenly, things have come full circle, Greta Gerwig’s generation are entering their early 30s and another group is coming up behind them, one as acutely perceptive of that group’s flaws as they are, but far more critical of them. The observers are being observed, and they aren’t happy about it. Tracy is enamoured of Brooke, but also sees her pronouncements for the hot air they are – her ambitions of opening a restaurant/hair salon/community centre that Tracy can see straight away is never going to work out.

But she still asks to be a waitress anyway. What Mistress America ends up being is a critique within a critique, but neither of those critiques are particularly scathing, understanding as they are that whilst the dreamworld Brooke lives in may be a delusion, it’s a happy one. Her ambitions may not be realistic, but they are sincere, and to Baumbach and Gerwig, that’s just as valuable. With Brooke and Tracy, they may have found an answer to the loneliness that has pervaded Baumbach’s characters for his whole career: give up on the search for that capital-T truth, and honour how you feel. Such self-help sentiment would never be swallowed by the cynical graduates of Kicking And Screaming or the pretentious academics of Squid… or Margot…. But they’re in the past. If there’s one thing that Baumbach has proved time and again it’s that he’s interested in the Right Now, always ready to look at how new people deal with the same old sadness.

Mistress America is out in cinemas now

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