January 26, 2008

"Margot at the Wedding"

Here's my full review from The American Conservative of the film that was widely expected (before its release) to be an Oscar contender, but was (deservedly) shut out:

Few films have more precisely delineated why younger people loathe their Baby Boomer parents' experiments with sexual liberation than Noah Baumbach's painfully autobiographical comedy about his bohemian intellectual parents' 1980s divorce, "The Squid and the Whale." The adults, both writers, calmly set up a fair-sounding joint custody arrangement that has their two children (and family cat) ceaselessly hauled about Park Slope, a literary neighborhood in Brooklyn, but it turns out to be a logistical and emotional catastrophe.

In "The Squid and the Whale," Jeff Daniels won some long-deserved recognition for his hilarious portrayal of Baumbach's father, a pompous "experimental fiction" author and professor given to dinner table pronouncements such as referring to Kafka as "one of my predecessors."

Despite adoring reviews, most critics missed the 2005 film's point: that the actual villain was Baumbach's adulterous mother. They overlooked its central theme -- the destructiveness of female infidelity -- because it's sexist (and therefore unthinkable) to notice that a wife's cheating is even more destructive for the family than a husband's, for obvious reproductive reasons ... even though countless human cultures have felt that way.

The irony was that Baumbach's bloviating father was equally clueless about his own nature. In theory, he was an artistic genius above all those deadening bourgeois morals like monogamy. In reality, however, he was a mediocre writer but a faithful husband and reasonably diligent provider who deserved better than cuckoldry.

The younger Baumbach's eagerly awaited new movie, "Margot at the Wedding," with Nicole Kidman as a prominent short story writer and unfaithful wife who inflicts her moral and mental breakdown on her adolescent son when she brings him to her estranged sister's second marriage ceremony, makes his prior film brutally clear. To clear up misconceptions about who the guilty party in his parents' divorce was, Baumbach has John Turturro drop by as Kidman's gallant, kind husband, an English professor who tries to save their marriage from her affair with another writer.

Meanwhile, the insidious Margot does her passive-aggressive best to sabotage the upcoming wedding of her aging, pregnant sister (Baumbach's wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh) to an unemployed musician. Jack Black, the usually charismatic star of "School of Rock," does an impression of his typical fan in his role as Leigh's heavy metal-damaged fiancé. Margot liberally displays the IQ elitism of Manhattan liberals, telling her sister that she's too smart for her fiancé, only to be taken aback when her potential brother-in-law mentions that he went to Stuyvesant, the famous science high school that admits only 850 of 28,000 applicants.

Margot's malevolence is both calculated and spontaneous. She indulges the artist's sense of entitlement, the assurance that holding her tongue to be polite would sap her talent. Moreover, Margot likes provoking traumas because she recounts the family's secrets in her New Yorker stories, just as the sometimes self-loathing Baumbach does in his movies.

Sadly, in sharp contrast to "The Squid," "Margot" doesn't really work. Napoleon supposedly said, "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence," but Baumbach now appears to have it in for his audience. While his low-budget last film was cheap-looking but at least visually serviceable, this one is intentionally underexposed to look depressing. All the outdoor scenes appear to be taking place during a partial solar eclipse. Likewise, the plotting and editing are carefully worked out to frustrate viewers' desires for character development and dramatic interest.

Worst of all, although competently acted, "Margot at the Wedding" is just not funny. Baumbach repeatedly sets up scenes so preposterously cruel that the audience is primed to laugh in relief, but he is too angry at his anti-heroine character to finish the jokes. The sympathy that made his depiction of his father amusing and ultimately endearing in "The Squid" is lacking here.

Hopefully, "Margot" will be a brief lapse for Baumbach. Worrisomely, though, it's part of an annoying trend toward clever and quirky but unfunny films by high IQ auteurs like Wes Anderson, whose "The Royal Tenenbaums" managed to extract barely any laughs from a cast featuring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray. Indeed, Baumbach collaborated on the script for Anderson's 2004 bomb "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." "Margot" resembles a cross between Anderson's ostensibly comic but humorless movies and the seemingly somber yet ridiculous films like Todd Field's "Little Children." The common denominator appears to be young filmmakers who take their own intelligence a little too seriously.

Rated R for sexual content and language.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

29 comments:

fifi said...

"They overlooked its central theme -- the destructiveness of female infidelity -- because it's sexist (and therefore unthinkable) to notice that a wife's cheating is even more destructive for the family than a husband's, for obvious reproductive reasons ... even though countless human cultures have felt that way."

At first glance, this statement is hard for a woman to accept because its corollary is that it's not so bad for the man to be unfaithful. But I get your meaning (grudgingly). I think it's more that a mother who cheats goes counter to nature. She should be more concerned with maintaining a stable environment for her children than sexual gratification. In essence, she's committing two acts of betrayal at once. A man's love for his children usually isn't questioned when he's unfaithful.

This is also why it's much harder to be sympathetic towards Britney Spears than it is Lindsay Lohan.

Anonymous said...

"They overlooked its central theme -- the destructiveness of female infidelity -- because it's sexist (and therefore unthinkable) to notice that a wife's cheating is even more destructive for the family than a husband's, for obvious reproductive reasons ... even though countless human cultures have felt that way."


I have seen the squid and whale how anyone can get this from that movie is way beyond me. The movie seems to cast more equal blame, perhaps even loaded towards the father.

Your misinterpretation of this film makes me seriously doubt all your other opinions.

David said...

Let's talk about Britany and Lindsay now. Not.

Barack Nobama said...

"A man's love for his children usually isn't questioned when he's unfaithful."

This ludicrous observation is disproved by a tour of any black ghetto.

Hoosier Comrade said...

While I suppose the proposition that female infidelity is more destructive than male infidelity is sexist, I believe it's ultimately rooted in an understanding that women are innately more inclined to behave more maturely in this circumstance.

If anything, it's an example of the soft bigotry of low expectations for male fidelity. Conversely, it's considered more destructive and shameful when a male fails to financial suppport his family. There you have a "SBOLE" for women in the job market.

mrs. anonymous said...

I think you're wrong about The Squid and the Whale - not as horrifically wrong as Roger Ebert was, though.

The mother isn't the villain; no one is. No one has any moral responsibility, and the film is a demonstration of the dehumanization that follows when moral responsibility is replaced by self-actualization. The two most vulnerable characters, the child and the old man, degenerate into subhuman behavior nearly immediately. The two more vigorous characters, the attractive mature woman and the young man, do better or worse at jockeying for a position in a world where dominance and confidence are now all.

The film is brilliant because it fails to make easy AND PERFECTLY TRUE moral judgements like "female adultery is worse than male adultery." The key to understanding the film is that by the ethos of the modern world, which we all accept and live by to some extent, the mother acts rightly. It would have been simple for the film to depict the mother as selfish and destructive, but instead, the *father* is depicted as the selfish destructive monster. This might not be immediately clear to a man, but to a woman raising children, it's obvious that the father's behavior towards his wife will devour her as an independent, working person, probably result in her bitter resentment of the children, and she has no recourse. The adultery is secondary - again something that is probably more difficult for a man to understand. She isn't leaving the marriage to sleep around - she's sleeping around so she can gain the confidence to leave the marriage.

All of this is true and none of it matters to the child. This is depicted with unbelievable brilliance in the scene where he returns to his mother's house after his father fails to care for his illness, and the mother gives him the speech about needing her own space. If the filmmaker had wanted us to hate and blame her, he would have never made her sound so reasonable and pleasant in this scene, nor would be have contrasted that with the father's abysmal failure to parent and rapid sinking into dirty old manhood. She does sound reasonable and pleasant though, because she is expressing a reasonable and pleasant idea - just one that happens to be completely mistaken.

By our world's rules, she is not responsible for her husband; she is responsible for herself. The film shows the price of the application of this piece of modern wisdom. The old man ends up alone in the hospital; the child is reduced to obscene self-gratification. To care for either of them would require her complete self-denial, and can you come up with a good reason she should? With a husband like that? The modern world has no context for self-sacrifice; that's why almost all American women who practice historically normal levels of devotion to home and family also practice extreme forms of religion.

rast said...

because it's sexist (and therefore unthinkable) to notice that a wife's cheating is even more destructive for the family than a husband's, for obvious reproductive reasons ... even though countless human cultures have felt that way.

This is why I read this blog: you casually mention things that are true, that are important, and that nobody else discusses.

BTW, as was mentioned in the comments section of another post, you should really dig up test scores for the current crop of presidential candiates.

Anonymous said...

Steve, if these filmmakers are high IQ in reality they'd accomplish entertainment. That these films are mostly just tragically hip signposts of status, would imply that like most hipsters the filmmakers are not very smart.

Odd too that the review of both Margot and Squid and the Whale placed the "blame" on the husband characters rather than the female characters -- more PC labeling female infidelity "a plus" ala Dianne Lane's movies "A Walk on the Moon" and "Infidelity." Female infidelity = "liberation." Etc. And that kids don't matter or can raise themselves.

Baumbach though just doesn't seem that smart. If he was smart he'd make movies people would want to see for entertainment rather than social status.

Anonymous said...

Anything that drives the breadwinner and stable emotional support from children is to be deplored. Serial infidelity almost guarantees the father leaving and although the state can take most of his money it doesn't replace the support. Also it sabotages the father's next attempt to create a family as he cannot focus his whole attention and support on his new children that he actually gets to see and interact with.

RobertHume said...

Assuming that the child stays with the mother, it means that children of different men are being raised by one mother. So the children cannot unite in bonding to one man.

And the older child is forced to be disloyal to his/her father by accepting a strange man into the house, even as a visitor.

And the father feels even more unwelcome in his children's house.

mrs. anonymous said...

Everyone is missing that the father in The Squid and the Whale is objectively awful (he fails to care for his son with a fever, he moves a promiscuous unstable young woman into his household, he confronts death with a pathetic quote from a French movie, just to mention a few things) while the mother is presented somewhat sympathetically. Again, that's the genius of the film - what from her perspective would have been a conventional feminist narrative of liberation, in which she is totally justified, is something very very different from the children's perspective, without changing any of the facts.

Steve Sailer said...

Right, the father in Squid and Whale is totally incompetent at being a single parent. But, he didn't, actually, ever want to be a single parent. He got forced into a role he's awful at because his wife left him for a tennis instructor. Of course, his combination of male ego and progressive social and moral views won't let him admit this -- it would sound like the cultural conservatives are right.

michael farris said...

"a wife's cheating is even more destructive for the family than a husband's"

It does take two. Even granting your premise (for the sake of argument only), unless husbands are cheating with each other, the total level of social destruction (roughly) evens out since often enough a husband's infidelity will involve some other husband's wife.

The alternate case (husband's cheating with usually younger single women) is no less destructive since it makes too many (esp younger) women unavailable (or poor marriage prospects) for their age peers.

Anonymous said...

Mrs. Anon's point, that the mother is justified in pursuing her own self-interests at the expense of her children, is the feminist ideology and occurs over and over again: Walk on the Moon, Squid and the Whale, pretty much any feminist movie.

Which is the flaw of the feminist ideology. Acting like an adult means putting the vulnerable: children and old people, first. Over self-actualization. Including taking care of your sick kid over "needing your space." Letting kids raise themselves results in feral children who become feral adults.

Feminism = eternal girlhood and rejection of any adult responsibility.

Michael said...

Fun review, fun conversation here. And I say that though I haven't seen either movie and don't plan to. I'm just guessing, but they seem like examples of a tendency in movies that displeases me -- the way some young filmmakers are making films the autobiographical and/or literary way that some kids in previous generations wrote precious first novels. Whether they're talented or not I really don't care. I've looked at enough Columbia Writing School fiction for five lifetimes. When I want fine-grained, refined, carefully-observed personal and family pain (and I do, if occaisonally), I'll go to a French movie. At least they usually liven such stories up with some daring and well-photographed sex.

mrs. anonymous said...

I don't think we saw the same movie. He's incompetent as a *parent*, demonstrated beyond any reasonable standard by the incident with the fever. And who cares if you don't want to be a single parent - what if your spouse gets sick or dies? You suck it up, or you're a bad parent.

The other thing you're missing is that she leaves with plenty of time to start a new family. Turn it around - instead of focussing on how destructive her adultery is to her family unit, focus on how destructive the father's behavior is to the only family unit he is ever going to have.

fifi said...

"Which is the flaw of the feminist ideology. Acting like an adult means putting the vulnerable: children and old people, first. Over self-actualization."

Another aspect of feminism is that you pretty much have to make yourself act and think like a man i.e. a tendency to focus on task to the point of forgetting your surroundings, ambition first, family second, ability to turn off emotions until a more convenient time. I'm not trying to insult men by saying this but the traits that make the genders different are generally the traits that make a woman a good nurturer.

I've met a few women who I think were intensely competitive & career oriented by nature but the goal of the feminist movement was to transform all of us into Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Sontag. We were supposed to abhor the whole idea of giving birth and chafe at being forced to stay home caring for children and the elderly. Lucky for us Betty Friedan came along to revive the idea of having the government assume responsibility for children and the elderly (although I guess she didn't think about which sex would get most of these jobs).

Anyway, I don't mind movies like Margot at the Wedding with their gritty realism. The younger generation looking at these people won't want to be like them. Either don't have a family or prepare to make sacrifices on their behalf.

Rohan Swee said...

fifi: A man's love for his children usually isn't questioned when he's unfaithful.

You must not know many children of unfaithful husbands.

Whatever the larger scale social damage relative to maternal infidelity, anecdotal observation suggests that paternal infidelity has serious negative effects on the children. If mom is a decent character, the children tend to despise dad (despite the best efforts of mom to protect the kids from knowledge of dad's misbehavior and maintain their respect for their father). If mom takes up the put-upon weakling/martyr role, the sons tend to develop a contemptuous attitude toward women, and the daughters have problems developing relationships with men - they tend to be insecure, mistrustful, and allow themselves to be treated shabbily, not having any sense that they deserve any better. Just my observations of peers and children of peers over many decades.

Michael Farris: "It does take two. Even granting your premise (for the sake of argument only), unless husbands are cheating with each other, the total level of social destruction (roughly) evens out since often enough a husband's infidelity will involve some other husband's wife.

The alternate case (husband's cheating with usually younger single women) is no less destructive since it makes too many (esp younger) women unavailable (or poor marriage prospects) for their age peers.
"

Well, you can maintain a "designated whore class" whose members exist outside of, and are excluded from, the larger structure of stable family life. (Either a tiny class of well-paid, successful courtesans or the much larger class of low-status women.) If men restrict their adulteries to these they don't damage the familial stability in "respectable" society. (Though in the latter case the poverty and illegitimacy probably won't have a pretty effect on the whole society in the long run.) Absent that, yeah, it's hard to see how male infidelity doesn't damage families.

Mark said...

There is little hope for conservatism when a conservative uses the term " sexual liberation" for what traditionalist call "sexual license".

Bill said...

Another aspect of feminism is that you pretty much have to make yourself act and think like a man i.e. a tendency to focus on task to the point of forgetting your surroundings, ambition first, family second, ability to turn off emotions until a more convenient time.

-fifi


Putting ambition before family pretty guarantees you won't have a family these days. That goes for men as well as women. I've made big sacrifices to be a father and husband, and I make little ones every day.

Sometimes I think the older generation thought that shouldn't be necessary; i.e. "follow your dreams," and then when kids, spouses, etc. get in the way your first obligation is to yourself.

One thing I've noticed is that although younger men and women don't pay much lip-service to feminism, they live according to a lot of its principles. Young fathers change diapers, cook, go shopping, and most of their wives work. Most of us need two incomes to live comfortably.

A former boss - a baby-boomer - once sneered at me for "babysitting," suggesting I was pathetic for watching the kids when my wife was working. He had recently married a mail-order bride and expressed pride that he wouldn't have to help take care of his children.

I see a lot of that attitude from older men, yet for the most part these guys didn't have much success with their own families. I'm not sure feminism is to blame for this.

If you look at older European-American culture, an involved father was important for the survival and success of children. One of Ben Franklin's biggest regrets was not having his young son inoculated and then seeing the boy die of smallpox. Nathaniel Hawthorne fawned over his daughter. Men were more likely to be literate than their wives, and unless they were very wealthy it often fell to them to teach their children.

The 1950s/60s lifestyle that so many view as an ideal was in fact a huge deviation from the norm.

mrs. anonymous said...

Mrs. Anon's point, that the mother is justified in pursuing her own self-interests at the expense of her children, is the feminist ideology and occurs over and over again: Walk on the Moon, Squid and the Whale, pretty much any feminist movie.

That's NOT my point, and it's a point that is completely subverted by the movie, which is why it's a good movie. The movie makes absolutely clear how destructive the mother's behavior is by showing it through the eyes of the children. But what's so brilliant is that she isn't a monster; she's a normal woman acting in a way that is totally approved by her culture. And if anyone reading this knew a woman in the same circumstances, you would advise that woman to leave her useless jealous slob of a husband - and even more important, if anyone reading this knew a woman who was being dragged down by, yet refusing to leave such a man, you wouldn't be able to stay friends with her. You wouldn't be able to handle the bitterness and the waste of human potential. Our culture has no context for self-sacrifice, none at all.

Anonymous said...

Mrs. Anon I guess I don't get it. Her kid comes to her with a fever and asking for care and her response is "I need my space?"

That to me is a monster. Putting her own selfish needs for sex with her new squeeze (younger, better looking, and sexier) over her own kid. Who is likely to turn out to be a person with extremely negative views on women given his up-close demonstration.

The kid is sick. His father won't take care of him. His mother leaves him to fend for himself because she wants "me time." Both are bad, but the mother is worse because a mother is SUPPOSED to be the primary caretaker. Basic biology.

Of course women sacrifice for their children, and don't get to be ultra-cool hipsters banging everything that moves. That's part of the deal. And why feminists want to dump kids out to raise themselves -- and why feminism usual equals feral, dangerous kids becoming feral, dangerous adults.

mrs. anonymous said...

Watch the movie again. She doesn't know he has a fever when he shows up. All she knows that he's there. If she were a better mother, she'd have realized that something was seriously awry, but she's just a regular person - that is, in fact, a point on the continuum between "wonderful parent" and "selfish monster." Regular people make mistakes, and she made one - but you really don't see the difference between making a mistake and sending a child with a fever out to buy his own aspirin?

I have to reiterate AGAIN that neither I *nor the movie* approves of her behavior; what I'm trying to get across is that her behavior is normal for our culture, while the father's is extremely awful even for our extremely awful culture.

You can call her a monster, but there's no social censure for her choices, and moreover - and this is a point that no one has yet wanted to discuss - there is extreme social censure for self-sacrifice. Again, there is a continuum between being a traditional good mother and an "ultra-cool hipster banging everything that moves;" it's not a binary opposition. Both poles are unacceptable for women; an acceptable life for a woman in our culture is to both raise children and be a self-actualized person, professionally and sexually. This is usually impossible, but it doesn't stop people from expecting it.

Additionally, I think a major piece the men are missing is that the tennis instructor is not really that desirable. He's a tool, someone she can be superior to and control. It's not about the sex; it's about her constructing a life. She doesn't leave her husband to bang the tennis instructor; she uses the tennis instructor to gain the confidence to leave her husband.

Anonymous said...

I fail to see how banging someone else gives "confidence" to leave her husband. Being able to earn her own way, care for her children herself (though she abandons them), being able to pursue her own career would give confidence. Screwing someone else? That's like saying Bill "gained confidence" by screwing everything that moved but his wife.

The sex was just more selfishness (echoed by the husband to be sure). The mother didn't mother. The father didn't father. And each wanted to be sure they wouldn't pick up the slack for the other so their kid would come first.

It's anti-Darwinian -- putting temporary pleasures, sex with a tennis instructor, "space" or idiotic posturing ahead of their children's welfare practically ensuring bad outcomes for them reproduction-wise.

I'd take issue that current culture approves of the mother sending her sick kid out for aspirin because she's unwilling to mother and pursuing her own selfish pleasures at the expense of her kid. There is a culture war going on, between feminists and traditionalists.

Feminists: women must pursue their pleasures, let the kids raise themselves.

Traditionalists: kids have to come first and if need be, women have to sacrifice.

In the Black Urban community the ethos is women pursue the hardest guy around, Gangsta #1, and have kids with different fathers depending on the hardest hard boy being around or not. That's bleeding over to the lower class white community (predictably). Kids raise themselves. Sort of the feminist ideal.

Guys like Cosby struggle against that, often to no avail.

Bill said...

You can call her a monster, but there's no social censure for her choices, and moreover - and this is a point that no one has yet wanted to discuss - there is extreme social censure for self-sacrifice.

-mrs. anon


I discussed it in reference to the treatment I got from my (former) boss for watching my kids while my wife was working.

There's no doubt there's censure for sacrifices one makes for family. At a trade get-together I attended recently a woman laid into me for not bringing my wife, and then suggested I was a lousy husband for not taking her out. I was tempted to ask the woman whether she'd like to stay at my place and watch the kids so I could do so.

Both poles are unacceptable for women; an acceptable life for a woman in our culture is to both raise children and be a self-actualized person, professionally and sexually. This is usually impossible, but it doesn't stop people from expecting it.

Nor does it stop people from expecting husbands to accommodate and provide for the impossible. But has there ever been a much better culture? Sometimes, the only thing you can do is just let the rest of the world be damned. That's one of the big, overlooked benefits of having a family -- it doesn't matter as much what people on the outside think.

Atlantic said...

I fail to see how banging someone else gives "confidence" to leave her husband. Being able to earn her own way, care for her children herself (though she abandons them), being able to pursue her own career would give confidence. Screwing someone else? That's like saying Bill "gained confidence" by screwing everything that moved but his wife.

Oddly enough, men and women typically have different ways of dealing with such things. Whether or not most women admit it, we usually want to be attached to a man in some way, and we find it much easier to break up a relationship if there is someone new already waiting in the wings. Not moral for married women, but natural.

Walter Sobchak said...

I'm pretty sure Daniels was unfaithful at several points throughout the marriage, although I admit I haven't seen the film since it was in theaters.

Also, I like how according to some commenters Baumbach has a low IQ because he doesn't spend his time making Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. This is why libertarians shouldn't comment on art.

green mamba said...

Moving away from the discussion about marital fidelity for a moment, I just wanted to commend Steve on his description of the films of Wes Anderson was "clever and quirky but unfunny". Having just been disappointed by "The Darjeeling Limited", I must say the description fits perfectly.

Anonymous said...

Atlantic, Daniels actually says at one point that he could have been unfaithful but wasn't. I still think the mother comes off much more sympathetic than the father in the film, but she is the unfaithful one, not him. However, the film seems to imply that the wife almost had to become unfaithful because the husband was so insufferable.