Tuesday, February 15, 2011
While watching Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, I experienced a kind of cognitive dissonance. The movie succeeds in being totally un-pleasurable. As I became more emotionally discomfited by the interactions on screen, I could feel my body slumping lower and lower into the futon. At the same time, the movie is riveting, because it is really good-- thought-provoking, clever, unpredictable-- a handful of other descriptors that any film should aspire to be. Finally, Greta Gerwig is a vision. She creates an uncannily natural performance. Because she doesn't appear to be performing at all, her scenes are the most uncomfortable, because we feel like we are watching something we really shouldn't be. She appears unrehearsed, awkward in her own skin, someone from whom we would avert our eyes in real life. That being said, the entire movie consists of interactions from which we would probably avert our eyes in real life.
Baumbach's signature move is to present totally abominable people as his protagonists. The set up of the ensuing plot, then, is to watch these protagonists induce all kinds of painful experiences on the people who are unfortunate enough to be associated with them. This set up is not without virtue, though. Maybe the truth is that whenever a character makes me uncomfortable, it's because I recognize pieces of myself in him. While Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is the combination of our worst complexes and behaviors with the volume turned up, we can still identify with him. Everyone, once in a while, sees glaring flaws in others while refusing to confront their own. Everyone has a fear of self-examination, fearing what they might turn up in their analysis. in this, Roger is sort of an everyman. Greenberg presents the unlikely, and painful pairing of a lonely, aging, and emotionally defunct Roger with gentle, whimsical, Florence (Gerwig). The two meet when Greenberg returns home to house-sit for his brother, who happens to be employing Florence as his personal assistant.
The vast sprawl of Los Angeles provides the setting for this tableau of emotional isolation. The movie opens on Florence, who is driving around by herself running errands--an image that is consistently repeated throughout the film. While serving as a necessary plot development device, Greenberg's inability to drive also becomes symbolic of his inability to connect in general. Meanwhile, the recurring images of Florence alone in her car reinforce the metaphor of Los Angeles as a vast chasm, where connection is made near-impossible through the sprawling distance of a routine freeway commute. For Greenberg, the lack of car also signifies his infantalism and dependencies.
While Florence is piecing her life in between the errands of others, Greenberg is at home, dwarfed by the emptiness of an enormous L.A. mansion. In an image reminiscent of film viewership, Greenberg is introduced through a phone call, the camera resting on the back of his head as he looks out of the window at a family in his backyard. This sort of reiterates the idea that despite his abrasiveness, he is someone with whom we are meant to identify; he is a mirror of the audience.
Rather than confronting his own issues (of which he clearly has many), Roger Greenberg writes letters of complaint to large corporations such as Starbucks, an act that ensures that direct confrontation can be avoided. In addition, throughout the movie, much of the communication is achieved through telephones. The most vital connection implied in the film occurs when Greenberg leaves an affectionate and rambling message on Florence's phone, which she is about to listen to when the film closes.
Greenberg is raw and uncomfortable, but out of it comes a thoughtful treatise on modern relationships.
Photo source the second