June 18, 2019

Prickly Fathers, Rebellious Sons

Prickly relationships between fathers and sons, messy divorces and radical personal awakenings. All are subjects tackled by two searing, semiautobiographical films by Jewish directors now playing in Los Angeles. Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” and Ira Sachs’ “Forty Shades of Blue” both won top prizes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — and both are generating Oscar buzz. They also have another thing in common: Each film reflects the current cultural obsession with the unflinching family memoir.

Baumbach and Sachs, both in their 30s, live blocks from each other in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Manhattan. But The Journal caught up with them last week in Los Angeles as they peddled their films to the press. In separate interviews, the directors described how psychotherapy spurred these highly personal, if fictionalized works. They also talked about their real fathers, and how Judaism influences their world view.

The title of Baumbach’s blistering, darkly comic film, “The Squid and the Whale,” alludes to “The Clash of the Titans” diorama at Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History. But it also becomes a metaphor for the battle between a confused Jewish teenager and his hypercritical, intellectual father, played by Jeff Daniels. Initially, the fictional Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) acts as his father’s disciple, parroting dad’s imperious dismissals of books such as “This Side of Paradise” as “minor’ Fitzgerald.” But after his parents’ divorce, traumatic events sour Walt’s father-worship, allowing the boy to become his own person.

The characters are inspired by Baumbach’s life with his father (and mother), both lauded writers, in Brooklyn in the 1980s. Although his mother is Protestant, young Noah identified as Jewish because he felt a connection to the People of the Book. Family discussions abounded about “major” and “minor” Dickens, metafiction and why one should not bother to read Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

“On the one hand, it was incredibly valuable — and very Jewish — to be introduced to so many classics,” the 35-year-old director said in the lobby of the Le Mondrian hotel. “But on the other, I was rejecting a lot of books I hadn’t even read, like the character of Walt in the movie. I dismissed ‘On the Road,’ as juvenile, when in fact I was a juvenile and probably should have had the experience of reading it.

“I was running around and pretending I was some brilliant person,” he added. “But I wasn’t doing well in school because I wasn’t doing the work. It can be intimidating when you’re assigned to read a classic and you know it’s good for you but [difficult]. You feel like, ‘What’s wrong with me,’ and you bag off of it.”

When his parents divorced, suddenly the family he had viewed as superior collapsed, and he worried the neighbors would discover the Baumbachs weren’t so great.

Young Noah survived and grew up to collaborate with director Wes Anderson and to make three films — including 1995’s art house success, “Kicking and Screaming” — while still in his 20s. Yet he remained dissatisfied with these clever comedies of manners, because he felt he was “writing from the outside in.” It was only psychotherapy and the maturity of reaching age 30 that allowed him to confront rawer subjects.

His thoughts turned to his adolescence, and he initially toyed with writing about two brothers in their 30s who deal retroactively with their parents’ divorce. Then by chance, he saw Louis Malle’s “Murmur of the Heart,” which inspired him to focus on the children’s point of view.

“I went directly to that time in my life and told the story from there,” he said. “By starting from a very real place I was able to fictionalize in a much more effective way.”

Wearing longish, styled hair and a chic suit, Baumbach looks nothing like the scruffy Brooklynites in his film. He speaks softly except when describing the reviews that say “Squid” lambastes his real father, who was keenly aware of the movie project.

“I feel protected by the film because it is a fiction, an artistic achievement,” he said. “If I really was intending to eviscerate my father, I would feel much more vulnerable.”

Even so, actor Daniels noted similarities between Baumbach’s father and his character during a visit to the writer’s Brooklyn home.

“It was his enjoyment of finding a word and using it to describe something that only he would say,” Daniels told The Journal. “He would use terms like, ‘fillet’ of the neighborhood, or how his beard was looking ‘a little feral.’ And then there would be a little flash of the eyes, looking at the person he just said that to, wondering if they’re as impressed with what he just did as he was.”

Actor Eisenberg was more starry-eyed when Baumbach senior visited the set, responding as his character would have to Daniels’ character.

“I felt reverential because I had read one of his books and I had really liked it,” he said.

Baumbach, meanwhile, insists that his father loves the film — and that there is no squid and whale fight here. He said his dad is proud of his achievements. And so is the director.

“I have learned the value of an emotional approach to filmmaking,” he said.

The film “Forty Shades of Blue” arises emotionally out of the 1968 split-up of Ira Sachs’ parents and its aftermath. At age 5, Ira began accompanying his father on his bachelor outings in a Cadillac convertible in the environs of Memphis, Tenn. Sachs senior, a real estate mogul, “was a man about town, and he had lots of women in his life,” the 39-year-old director recalled. Young Ira spent many evenings at bars and parties or riding in the back of the Cadillac with one of his father’s much-younger girlfriends.

“Initially I felt antagonism for these women, because they were so different from me in terms of culture, education and class,” the director said. “But once I got to know them, I saw that they had their own innate intelligence, just a different set of economic possibilities. For many of these women, being with a charismatic, wealthy older man offered financial security, and access to clout and power. I also sensed a repressed anger because there was so much at stake for these women. And I became more sympathetic to the notion of how class effects character.”

The concept eventually led to “Blue,” about a sleek Muscovite (Dina Korzun) who appears to be the vapid trophy girlfriend of a hot-tempered Memphis music producer (Rip Torn). The intimate drama follows the character as she awakens to her own needs, prompted by her affair with her lover’s prodigal son.

“My character is a woman who has illusions and wrong ideas about life, and this love story gives her a reason to wake up and start to ask questions,” actress Korzun said.

On a recent Friday at the Chateau Marmont hotel, the affable Sachs, who was dressed like a preppie, looked around the opulent lobby and noted only white faces in sight. He went on to trace his obsession with character and class not only to the backseat of his father’s Cadillac, but to his Reform temple in Memphis. The synagogue emphasized social action over ritual and empathy for society’s outcasts and have-nots. While he was one of the “haves,” Sachs identified because he, too, felt marginalized as a Southern Jew.

“I was popular at my all-boys prep school, but I knew I’d have pennies thrown at me if I walked down a certain hall,” he said. Sachs was also gay and closeted at the time.

Growing up, he strongly identified with a radical Jewish tradition that was based on social dissent. He served as a labor activist at Yale and, after graduation, began making films about people on society’s margins. His acclaimed 1997 movie, “The Delta,” for example, revolved around a half-black, half-Vietnamese gay man in Memphis.

Sachs describes himself as an “utterly Jewish artist,” not only because of his economic perspective but also because of his devotion to “the Jewish discipline” of psychoanalysis: “My film explores, ‘What do you lose in the choices you make and how can you regain what is lost through self-understanding?'”

Nine intensive years on the couch also helped him resolve issues with Sachs senior (bachelor outings included), who now lives in Park City, Utah.

“My father was not volatile like Rip Torn’s character, but he had a similar strength and position and created a shadow I needed to emerge from,” Sachs said.

While his analysis may have helped him create exquisitely nuanced protagonists, some psychiatrists at a New York Psychoanalytic Institute screening were more interested in the director.

“They pointed out,” Sachs said, “that the structure of the story is mythologically Oedipal.”

“Squid and the Whale” opens Friday; “Forty Shades of Blue” is now in theaters.