I’m the type who will spend forty-five minutes laboring over the choice of what movie to watch. And then usually the choice is between films that you have to really work to appreciate.
Tonight, I found myself feeling like watching something. And forty-five minutes, later I found myself on the porch having finally chosen The Squid and the Whale, a movie from 2005 about a family struggling to make sense of themselves in the aftermath of a failed marriage. I found the whole thing absolutely wonderful.
The thing I’ll remember from The Squid and the Whale is that being intellectual just for the sake of being intellectual is about the dumbest waste of time. In the story, both parents are writers with PhDs is literature. And the father (Jeff Daniels) is a complete snob about it. He scoffs at people who are “not an intellectual,” and he crowns himself the authority on all matters, literary and otherwise. He wallows in pathetic self-righteousness, all the while blaming those around him for his various misfortunes. He’s Michael Scott with a graduate degree and a scruffy beard. The antithesis.
There are two sons, one who worships his dad; and one who favors his mom. While Walt the older son is trying to sound smart about books he’s never read and taking credit for songs he couldn’t write, Frank the younger son declares himself a “philistine,” one who isn’t concerned with good books or films at all. He is able to see the shallowness of his father and doesn’t even try to impress him. Walt defends his father (almost) to the very end, denying his own personhood in an effort to become like his idol.
While Frank numbs his pain, Walt is forced step out from behind his father and look the world in the eye. It’s a story about a dysfunctional family – about living in New York – about tennis – about dating girls when you’re not ready for commitment. It’s about pride. It’s about what happens when we define ourselves by the wrong things, when our identity is tied to our eloquence. I had to think of the end of Peter Pan (the book) where Hook is finally defeated, yet he is content to lose the fight as long as he can point out what his opponent did wrong.
[Hook] had one last triumph…As he stood on the bulwark looking over his shoulder at Peter gliding through the air, he invited him with a gesture to use his foot. It made Peter kick instead of stab. At last Hook had got the boon for which he craved. “Bad form,” he cried jeeringly, and went content to the crocodile. Thus perished James Hook.
It’s a story about a slippery woman who is unfaithful. It’s about a clumsy man who completely fills every space he enters. It’s a story about a squid and a whale – and I think it’s one worth hearing.