Noah Baumbach: Presenting Characters that Explore Self-Worth to Become ‘Kind of an Asshole’

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Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 3, edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, 2016

Since 1995, Noah Baumbach has written and directed seven full-length feature films, and has additionally written, or contributed to, the screenplay of others, including Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and the Dreamworks animation Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (2012).

To put Baumach’s work into context, his first film, Kicking and Screaming (1995) was released one year after Whit Stillman’s Barcelona (1994). Alongside Stillman’s own debut, Metropolitan (1990), the films all share the brilliant, talismanic presence of Chris Eigeman, who also stars in Baumbach’s Mr. Jealousy (1997), and Highball (1997). More significantly though, Baumbach’s work also feels like a thematic and stylistic continuation of Stillman’s early films, where urbanite characters drive the narrative through their conversations, usually concerning high-brow subjects such as philosophy or literature, which in turn heavily reflects upon the dynamics of the social group, and the individual characters’ ability or inability to manoeuvre according to their own arbitrary expectations from life. Yet, much like the ‘outsider’ Tom Townsend in Metroplitan, for all of their affectation, Baumbach’s middle-class milieu is differently situated from Stillman’s upper-class characters.

Baumbach’s work is also comparable to the mumblecore film – an American independent sub-genre derived from the influences of Richard Linklater and John Cassavetes, which embraces naturalism, low-budget film-making (often shot in black and white), and conversational characters in the midst of their twenties and thirties, talking about ‘life’. Baumbah’s films intersect with the mumblecore movement in a number of thematic and stylistic ways, but the most obvious manifestation of this is through Francis Ha (2012), which not only resembles the title of mumblecore pioneer Andrew Bujalski’s debut film, Funny Ha Ha (2002), but is shot in black and white, and features (in addition to being co-written with) mumblecore stalwart, Greta Gerwig, who was also in Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010).

Even though he shot Highball in only six days as an experiment in what he could achieve on a non-existent budget, Baumbach’s style is too precisely mapped out to be considered mumblecore; and his films after the TV movie, Thirty (2000), starting with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, arguably lean towards the ‘indiewood’ sector, with a number of Wes Anderson collaborations, and having also drawn in Hollywood actors such as Nicole Kidman and Jack Black for Margot at the Wedding (2007), and Ben Stiller for Greenberg. Yet despite the apparent cultural gap between say, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted and Baumbach’s early trilogy, there are a number of definite features that pervade his work.

In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the eponymous character is asked by his dejected wife, ‘Why’d you have to get us into this [terrible situation]?’ to which Mr Fox replies…


The full 2,300 word version of this essay is published in Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 3, edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, 2016. 

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