catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 21 :: 2007.11.16 — 2007.11.30


The gift that keeps on giving

The Sunset Limited is a 2006 play by American writer Cormac McCarthy. It features two characters known simply as Black and White. The story deals with basic but essential tensions. Black is an ex-con evangelical. White is an erudite atheist. Their relationship begins when Black saves White from his attempted suicide on the train tracks staring down the Sunset Limited. Their interchange leads to a series of exchanges regarding the significance of suffering as well as what Albert Camus regarded as the most serious of philosophical questions, suicide. The Sunset Limited is perhaps a unique source to draw from when considering good gifts. If one enjoys reading McCarthy’s novels like The Horse Whisperer or No Country for Old Men then good gifts might apply here. However, I draw upon this for one primary reason.

Sometimes the lasting good gifts we receive aren’t the ones we get from our grandmothers, buried beneath the hideous wrapping paper with gigantic bow. Granted, those are included, but there’s something else. There’s a gift that, like cousin Eddie notes in Christmas Vacation, keeps on giving the whole year. The often painful anguish we carry when it comes to certain relationships leaves many of us with what seems like pointless suffering. As much as our holiday movies like Planes, Trains, & Automobiles or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation give us laughs, they also leave us with a lasting sense of familial trouble. They inform us about loss and pain as well as joy. These moments are the real gifts. I know, I know. It seems a bit sadistic at first to imply such a statement. However, over the years I’ve noticed these themes running throughout our holiday movies: the standard conflict among siblings or friends and the reconciliation ending with everyone hunched together over eggnog, singing holiday cheer. There’s one common thread: family.

I realize it’s not all that inviting to go to a depressing holiday movie, one with no happy ending. We don’t like to dwell on these things. We like to set them aside for the holidays. Perhaps this can be a gift in itself. Yet, these relationships that challenge and frustrate us both serve as mirrors into ourselves and inform us that the world, as much as we’d like it to at times, does not revolve around us. The holidays evoke this sense of dichotomy, i.e. giving and receiving. Which is better? The old idiom says giving is better. But how do you give to those you hate or can’t stand to be around? How do you give to those you avoid? I guess we don’t. The reason I’d like to look at this is because it has impacted me over the last few years. I think these moments, as painful as they are, are significant gifts. The question is to whom? One filmmaker who explores well the often troubling dynamics of the family is Noah Baumbach. As Ron Austin, in his gem of a little book called In a New Light, stresses, the importance of art being “used diagnostically in the context of a cultural anthropology” suggests that we can learn a lot from our art about our hearts.

To be in the company of filmmakers who clearly have a signature style is difficult to say the least. You see a movie and you know that’s Woody Allen. Tim Burton. Tony Scott. Wes Anderson. The question is, does Noah Baumbach deserve to be in that category? In time we’ll see. His body of work presents us with a unique talent, a filmmaker with astute instincts. When it comes to a visceral analysis of dysfunctional neurotic literati’s, Noah lays it bare. A follow up to the highly acclaimed The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding feels is inspired by French filmmaker Eric Rohmer. Both directors explore the familiar nuances of eccentric familial characters.

Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her pubescent son Claude (Zane Pais) are en route to the family bundle along the east-coast shoreline. On the surface, she’s heading home for the wedding of her estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who’s engaged to Malcolm (Jack Black), an unattractive dimwit who seems to be going nowhere, at least according to Margot. What at first seems like Margot’s effort to make ammends eventually surfaces as an ulterior motive to rekindle old flames with Dick (Ciaran Hinds), a fellow writer who just happens to be in the neighborhood. Of course her husband Jim (John Turturro) is conveniently absent as she is continually fed up with him, a clear indication of her misanthrope contemptuousness and subversive agendas. Keeping herself bitterly sedated with glasses of white wine and cannabis, Margot chips away at Pauline’s psyche and that of everyone else around her for that matter. And when Pauline confides in her with a secret, it’s Margot who can’t keep from scratching that itch. What the weekend at home reveals is nothing short of a volcano of festering emotions that result in an eruption of sharp dialogue, a pill popping drama of dysfunctional off-kilter humor.

What seems to cripple many directors, the wow-what-a-great-movie follow up of I-expected-a-lot-more let down, is still in deliberation. Baumbach eruditely finds the relational realism of awkward colloquial gems, the kind we flaunt on a consistent basis, and he installs them in his characters in ways that we love to hate. In the heart Baumbach’s world is the recurring pattern of finding ourselves in the midst of hurting those we love most, yet are unable to prevent it. 

Noah Baumbach is clearly establishing himself as a skilled writer and director. The skill of cinematographer Harris Savides and editor Carol Littleton lay down a hearty synergy for Baumbach’s rhythmic and stylistic flair and Kidman, Leigh, and Black give fine performances. With Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach has given us a portrait of “one family with infinite degrees of separation” as bare and insular as the lone tree that adorns their shoreline abode. It examines the ironic inability of the human relationship, specifically family, to communicate beyond self-absorption. Or as Robert Frost noted it, “Families break up when people take hints you don’t intend and miss hints you do intend.” 

Though Margot at the Wedding is not a ‘holiday’ movie specifically, it relates to the theme of difficulty and suffering in relationships that we all deal with. I’m suggesting that these are real gifts. These are opportunities to set ourselves straight, to mend issues within own hearts. They’re opportunities to make things right with those whom we’re not right with, regardless of the stakes. I know this is easier said than done, but nonetheless I hope that this holiday season will provide some of these not-so-easy gifts. Gathered around the table or around the fire with a trendy turtleneck and cup of Joe this holiday season, may we embrace, rather than avoid, the gift that keeps on giving.

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