Monthly Archives: December 2019

Marriage Story

I was prompted to see the movie after reading a long thread of mostly negative reactions on Facebook. Many of the comments faulted Noah Baumbach for writing about his own experience because it was the experience of a straight white male raised with financial and cultural advantages. The gist of the remarks was: We’re tired of your world, we’ve heard enough from your side of things, stop looking at yourself, use your imagination and do something else but whatever you do don’t write about experience that isn’t yours, either. Don’t be a narcissist on one hand. Don’t be an appropriator on the other. Just, shut up and go away.

I don’t believe these are fair or useful ways to speak to artists about their work. These are not the right categories to go after people with.

I didn’t enjoy the film, and I don’t think it’s good. It felt false from beginning to end and like a piece of self-congratulation on the part of the director/writer for giving the female character her due. He doesn’t. Her position is witless and makes no sense within the terms of the breakup and as a result makes everything she says about feeling pushed around and used sound like a sudden tantrum, a spurt of #MeToo juice directed at her husband, who hasn’t really done anything. Baumbach allows that the husband has had a small, meaningless affair with a member of his company, but in a screaming fight justifies this by saying the male character and his wife didn’t have sex for a year.

There is a giant, missing elephant in the picture: in reality Baumbach started a relationship with Greta Gerwig while he was still married to Jennifer Jason Leigh. To the degree that the wife character, played by Scarlett Johansson, represents Leigh’s plight, she would have had reason to leave New York and return to LA because her husband was no longer with her. Without this provocation, the husband character, played by Adam Driver, looks like a man who woke up one day to find his wife and son missing. We’re supposed to feel sympathy for him throughout: poor guy has an irrational wife who suddenly dissents about everything he thought she liked; poor guy has to negotiate a divorce with shark lawyers in California; poor guy has to jeopardize his great chance at a Broadway production (Broadway??? is good??? to an avant-garde director??? with a Macarthur????) in order to visit his son across the country. Poor guy has to hear the rhetoric of the dominated woman who has not been coerced into anything, and we are supposed to understand why he is rolling his eyes. The movie is saying: What do women want? What do women want? They’re so mysterious and confusing. I thought you liked that. You mean all those years you were faking it? Poor guy.

The story is the husband’s and what kind of story is it? It’s a victim story. He is the one who is done to. Victim stories don’t work unless the person begins to wonder how they came to be so easily beguiled, what was in it for them to believe situation A was really situation B? The Driver character asks none of these questions. Even if he did, they aren’t relevant to why the marriage came apart. It came apart because the man fell in love with someone else. These things happen. It’s not a crime. The question is: In what ways has anything happened to you you can channel into your art so it is rich with complexity and has a chance of moving people because complexity is what moves us, complexity and contradictions that can’t be resolved.

Everyone’s art

I met a woman at a party on the west side of the river. She was reading my Facebook posts and messaged me to say her husband was a contractor. This is a way the world is better. Everyone’s art is an expression of personality. I am a scrounger. I get on whatever plane is leaving the airport. I make meals from whatever’s in the fridge. Arizona was always an airport lounge to me. The house in Hudson is where you go to from the airport. People on Facebook are beating up white male filmmakers and white male writers for focusing on the inner and outer lives of male characters just like them. These men are being asked by people on Facebook to make art a different way. To make art that would interest the people who are unhappy. You can’t ask artists to do this. Art is not a takeout menu. You can’t order the hamburger with a salad instead of the fries. The only thing you can do is recognize in any moment whether you are moved by something you encounter and opened to the world. These men have lived their entire lives betting on the understanding that everyone was interested in them. Everyone was was not interested in them, but only now, during the last three years—and you know why this is—is everyone saying to these men, “Your way of working and thinking about what is cause and what is effect makes no impression on me. I don’t believe you. I’m not moved by you, and you take up too much space.” On our road is a farm with sheep, and each day as we approach the farm, we wonder whether the sheep will be standing or sitting in the snow, inside their enclosure or wandering about their pens. Richard’s interest in the workings of the house have become my interest. It’s like discovering unseen rooms in him—secret basements where pipes and wires crawl across the ceilings. I can’t tell if I am recovering from my back injury at the same speed I would have when young, or if my body is taking longer, or if the injury was so horrendous I should be happy I could right myself like a turtle and scuttle off at all. In Arizona, I would lie on our bed and look at the pictures arranged on the opposite wall. They were mounted like postage stamps in an album, and I never tired of looking at the different color mats or the images inside the frames. I never know why I am chosing an image, but I always know what image to choose. Now the pictures from the bedroom are spread around the new house, and I remember the beauty of their former composition and all the fruit I would pick off the trees as I walked. I thought Richard would forget his life in Arizona after we left, and he has, just as I have forgotten my former lives that in retrospect seem a little like stage sets. Things happened in these spaces, but it no longer matters because the world is entirely changed, and I am entirely changed. Our house will be a place no one has ever seen before.