My Thoughts on The Squid and the Whale

I just finished watching The Squid and the Whale, a 2005 film written and directed by Noah Baumbach and produced by Wes Anderson. I really liked Noah Baumbach’s other films Frances Ha and While We’re Young because I really like independent films and these films are independent films. I also really like Wes Anderson’s movies. The only ones I’ve seen by him so far are Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel (The Aquatic Life with Steve Zissou is sitting on my bookshelf, calling my name. Now that I have this time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic I can watch more movies and thus, write more reviews. I haven’t written any reviews for a month, let alone anything at all on this blog, because I was overwhelmed with everything going on in this time in society, and while it’s a lousy excuse for me to not write, I was just trying to figure out how to deal with it all. I forgot until now, when I already feel a beautiful kind of catharsis just by typing these words freely, how awesome writing makes me feel. Even if my writing isn’t worthy of The Atlantic or Rolling Stone (due to my incoherent rambling stream of consciousness), it’s my voice and I have this platform (e.g. blogging) through which I can express my frustrations and all the feelings that come with being a human being during a time of uncertainty.

Anyway. So yes, I finished watching The Squid and the Whale, and I must say it was a really good movie. It came out when I was younger but of course I was too young to see it (it’s rated R for a lot of swearing), but I know it got good reviews, so I decided to watch it since it was a good price to rent online and I was in the mood for a movie. Not going to the theaters is of course just part of what we have to do now in order to survive COVID-19, but like many people, I love a good matinee with popcorn and a Sprite every now and then. I should have used the AMC card my friend gave me three years ago, darn. Hopefully in the distant future, as we still need to social distance to not only keep ourselves well, but most importantly keep the ushers, ticket folks and other people working at the movies healthy, too.

Honestly, watching The Squid and the Whale during this COVID-19 pandemic was really interesting. It may seem like, “It’s just a movie, why bring COVID-19 into this?” But the theme of communication and language in the film is so important, especially how the novel coronavirus and mandated social distancing have forced us to depend on the Internet to work and interact with one another (of course, people still love a good old-fashioned phone call now and then, and we also have tools like FaceTime, Skype, Zoom and WebX to see each other even when we may not be in the same room with one another). The film takes place in Park Slope, Brooklyn in 1986,a time when the only modes of communication were writing letters, calling on the landline and talking face to face. Bernard and Joan Berkman, played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney respectively, are separating after Bernard finds Joan is having an affair with Ivan,Frank’s tennis instructor. This leaves their kids, Walt and Frank, to figure out how to cope with the divorce on their own. Frank, who is younger than Walt, doesn’t have Snapchat, SMS or Instagram to entertain himself and escape from the issue of his parents’ separation, so he drinks his parent’s alcohol and masturbates in private at school. Side note, Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Walt Berkman, is pretty dang cute. I found myself almost blushing through the film because he is so attractive. But again, I find myself digressing.

So yes, Frank doesn’t have all the apps that many of us use everyday (because of course none of these were invented until later), and Walt is figuring out his relationship with Sophie, a girl with whom he bonds over Franz Kafka one day during class. He is also figuring out how to deal with his attraction to Lili, one of his dad’s students (it took me a moment to recognize that Lili is Anna Paquin, and I remembered that this film was made fifteen years ago, so quite a bit of time passed between this film and True Blood). It’s complicated because Lili is also attracted to Bernard. Moreover, Walt, like Frank, is dealing with his parents’ separation. His relationship with Sophie gets worse as he takes his frustration out on her.

I’ve lately been thinking about the topic of communication as it relates to my personal experiences, and this film really made me think about the ways in which people communicated back then and how we communicate now, especially when it comes to the topic of divorce and separation. I personally don’t have expertise in this subject, but I have been reading a lot of reports lately about how the stay at home orders right now are impacting couples who want to file for divorce. Right now, lawyers are backlogged with requests to file divorce, but filing divorce petitions is expensive, and the process of finalizing a divorce is now being done over videoconferencing because the courthouses are closed unless there is an emergency. According to a piece in Bloomberg Businessweek by Sheridan Prasso, in China there have been a lot of domestic violence cases and divorce filings after the government mandated lockdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19, even though the government expected couples to bond more and have kids since they would be stuck at home. The lockdowns made it hard for the women in these marriages to seek help since they would have had to go see someone in person to file the divorce, and

police were so busy enforcing quarantines that they were sometimes unable to respond to emergency calls from battery victims, women experiencing violence were not able to leave, and courts that normally issue orders of protection were closed.

Feng Yuan, co-founder of Equality, Beijing NGO focused on gender-based violence. Source: “China Divorce Spike is a Warning to the Rest of Locked-Down World” by Sheridan Prasso

I’m not saying the characters in the film were in any way privileged for going outside or meeting each other face to face to work out conflict (or in Walt’s case, running out of Mount Sinai Hospital to visit an old relic of his childhood at the Museum of Natural History). That’s how people had to communicate during the day: you couldn’t text someone an apology, you couldn’t tweet something snarky, you couldn’t send a middle-finger emoji to your mom if she said something you didn’t like. You had to call the phone or talk to them in person, so it was hard watching Walt insult Sophie on the street corner and ridicule her for wanting to have sex too soon. Nowadays, if he had a smartphone he probably would have found her on Tinder and if she seemed too much for him, he could just ghost her and ignore her text messages and calls. He wouldn’t have to talk out his frustration with her, and it’s not like they walked away feeling good about their relationship (they break up), but they talked about it. Face to face, tears and awkward silences galore, something that you can’t communicate in a text message or group chat. The movie would have been totally different if the characters used the methods of communication we use today. Many couples use texting to communicate, and while texting is good for communicating short non-intrusive messages when people are busy at work or dropping off kids at school, the way we communicate our words matters, and texting omits 93 percent of the cues for effective communication. I don’t care if you pepper your message with eggplant emojis, cute smiley icons or digital middle fingers. It doesn’t convey everything you are thinking, and so your partner may be keeping something from you and hiding that thing in the text message without honestly talking about it. I honestly cannot envision Joan and Bernard communicating through text. The in person conversations between them, Walt and Frank were already filled with pain, tears and anger; why complicate it through texting? Imagine if Walt talked out his memory of his mother and him sharing this beautiful bond before the divorce, through text with his therapist. At first, Walt doesn’t open up, but since he doesn’t have a phone to peer down at during his therapy session, he has to look the therapist in the eye and be honest with both him and himself. Soon, Walt finds himself recalling a particularly beautiful moment when his mother and him go to the Natural History Museum and see a diorama of a squid and a whale and what that diorama meant for him as a child. It’s hard to be honest in person sometimes, especially when you’re going through what Walt is, but it frees you to a certain extent because you don’t feel you have to bottle up your pain all the time when you talk it out with someone in person or on the phone.

Also, the movie would be just be boring if communication was like that. Through movies, we develop a sense of empathy for the characters and what they are going through when we see their tears, their silent steely expressions. None of that comes through in a text message. I’m not totally against texting, but this has been on my mind for quite some time so what better way to address it than a long blog post rant? I wonder how this movie would have been if it took place during the current lockdown situation…. also, what if Walt lived during YouTube and put his cover of Pink Floyd’s song (which he told people he wrote himself. That lie didn’t last long after the principal found out) on there. Maybe he would have gotten a copyright ID notice. Just a thought.

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