Andy and Will went on a road trip up the coast with some friends recently, leaving Nate, Agnes and I to fend for ourselves for a few days at home. Nate is not really a huge movie fan so, in contrast to our watching the men’s and the women’s college basketball finals together, he was being a good sport to go out with me to see Greenberg.
As I sat there watching a film at once unpleasant and compelling, I feared that Nate must be hating every frame of it—slow moving, weird, preoccupied with themes of mid-life and modern alienation—yet as the lights came up we sat there and started to talk about it. We talked in the car, we talked over lunch and on through a walk with Agnes, the themes of the film sparking a wide-ranging conversation about everything from social relationships across the lifecycle to psychological speculation about what might be wrong with Greenberg. Thus a film that wasn’t fun or pleasurable, turned out to be good in a way you sort of have to talk about; ironically, a film about an isolated guy trying to do nothing had a way of provoking Nate and me to be closer by figuring out what we thought about it.
The phrase, “hurt people hurt people” is passed along character to character, like a virus attributed to some shrink somewhere, as an explanation for the bad/sad behavior that nets out in loneliness and continual misconnects and disconnects. Greenberg, an obsessive and narcissistic carpenter who seems to suffer severe anxiety and a fairly Aspy sort of mind-blindness proved a challenging character to spend a couple of screen hours with, even with popcorn thrown in. His personal “Good as it Gets” was downright pathetic, and yet Nate and I had to admit that we could both relate to him, to certain aspects of his cluelessness and discomfort at social situations, at least in our most insecure and Shadowy selves.
Nate really liked Florence, the twenty-five year old “nanny-person” trying to have a relationship with the impossible, fifteen-years-her-senior, Greenberg, but Nate eventually concluded that she too must “have issues,” if she would want to be with Greenberg.
Noah Buambach’s direction is artsy and assured, trusting that a modern audience would hang in for a slow-paced and restrained film in an ADD world of twitter-paced freneticism (the fact that the film got a high score on “Rotten Tomatoes” was a big selling point in Nate going in the first place).
Greenberg comically laments that kids don’t get his references (i.e. Duran Duran), yet it’s hard for me to imagine many young film-goers actually getting Baumbach’s references, such as alluding to The Graduate in his use of the pool and Greenberg’s post-nervous-breakdown lostness; and especially in reference to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in a scene where vapid party-goers gather to gaze at some dead beast in the pool, a nod to 60’s masterful art-film alienation… only now Ray Bans, berets and Gauloise have been replaced by ennui LA-style where everything is so casual it practically doesn’t even happen.
If The Graduate’s Ben Braddock is trying to not just join the rat-race, Greenberg is back from the cultural war and not right in his head; while the Graduate luxuriates in the pool Greenberg suffers it, terrified perhaps of the unconscious, the feeling and the collective.
In tone, Greenberg made me think of Cassavettes and a dead-on view of contemporary Los Angeles complete with space for actors to get real, squirmily and agonizingly real, heartbreakingly naked rather than evocatively nude. Nate appreciated how in most movies the whole thing is about building up to sex, whereas Greenberg is “not the 40 year old virgin” and sex just leads to… nothing.
The theme of empty boredom is of general concern to teens everywhere (although they typically go through great pains to conceal this and appear very engaged and busy, endlessly texting “Wassup?” and the like), which is what makes Napoleon Dynamite and his dead-pan lack of enthusiasm a sort of SuperBad Godfather to today’s nerds (which is pretty much my favorite archetype, and pretty much all of us, deep enough below our masks).
Of parenting value, perhaps, is a deepening understanding of our collective alienation, and the potential to build bridges between parents and kids, and between grown-ups and other grown-ups, in the hope that we might heal our collective wounds by re-integrating our inner Greenbergs.
If we are to help kids smoke less pot, drink less alcohol, have less meaningless and empty sex, if we are to encourage them to find their authentic ways and not just push them to get into “good schools” and get “good jobs” (i.e. to recreate our own lives, regardless of how well these are really working, especially at the societal level), if we hope to curb the hyper-insecure ethic of cruel and disdainful exclusion that leads to bullying and widespread feelings of secret misery, it serves for us to more fluidly admit our geekiness and generally concealed feelings that we are somehow inadequate. If we all “out” ourselves as vaguely inadequate, we might all realize that we are also sort of… adequate, and this frees us to hang out, connect and help each other through the hard and lonely times as well as savor the good times.