Monday 5 July 2010

Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, USA, 2010)

The first standard critical response to an encounter with Roger Greenberg is that he is ‘unlikable.’ This seems to indicate that an audience can’t identify with him. However, against this, what if we were to make the assertion that it is not that the audience can’t identify with him, but rather, the tendency is to resist identification? This question, of course, hits right at the heart of Hollywood. Isn’t identification supposed to be effortless? Aren’t the conditions for identification the work of the filmmaker, not the audience? Shouldn’t identification be an invisible process, allowing an easy coupling of character-spectator, creating a seamless integration of the audience into the film so actions can be experienced as a reasonable response to the situation (no matter how unreasonable the actions, no matter how unreasonable the situations)?

What if we were to allow ourselves, make an effort to identify with Roger Greenberg? What would we find? That we too, if we peel back the layers, are a little, a lot, like him? What exactly are those layers? For Noah Baumbach the answer is clear, the things that keep us ‘sane’ are, in no particular order: marriage, a nice house (preferably with a pool), a decent car, money coming in, a great job, family, children, friends. In short ‘to embrace the life you never expected’ when you were young. We need stuff and activity: the habitual keeps us sane, keeps us reasonable. Take this away, you are Greenberg.

Roger can’t see this. Florence Marr, however, can. Two crucial moments in the movie – playing with repetition and difference – centre on Florence. Twice, she is filmed in extreme close-up, predominately in profile, driving her car. The first time she mutters ‘let me in, let me in’ as she attempts to change lanes. This happens. However, later in the film the event repeats. ‘Let me in, let me in’. But the other driver won’t let her in. By the time of this second jump-cut sequence she has met Greenberg, and he just won’t let her in. She sees this. Florence operates within the film as a way to experience Roger Greenberg. If she can see something in him, why can’t the spectator?

However, Florence is not simply a cinematic trick to identification with Roger. Baumbach makes it clear this is as much a film about Florence, as it Greenberg. Or rather, she too is a Greenberg (just like us), she has a certain Greenbergness… she is awkward, does not have a house with a pool, has no real family, a few friends, yes, but she is younger… she is at the point in her life when she could either become a Greenberg or something else… the age difference, as we will see, is very important…

The two moments of Florence in extreme close-up in her car are crucial not only in orientating an approach towards Greenberg identification, but also in exploring the second critical response to the film, that it ‘has no plot.’ In his typology of the cinema, Gilles Deleuze describes a kind of film that focuses on affect. Rather than juxtaposing situations and characters then allowing those characters to act to resolve or reveal the situation (plot driven action-images), affection-images explore the feelings and emotions of characters. These films concentrate upon the face. Faces are expressive of intensive affects. Firstly, through what Deleuze calls qualities, reflecting the world in the face. Secondly, through powers, the movements of the face that communicate changes in emotion. In this way the reflecting face is orientated toward the world, while the intensive face is orientated towards the thoughts of a character. This is what Deleuze calls the icon and ‘every icon has these two poles…’ (C1:97).

In an affection-image film it is not simply that faces are shot in close-up, but that the close-up becomes the methodology of the film. The affection-image is ‘primarily a way of treating the medium shot and the full shot as close-ups’ (C1:107). In the close-up spatio-temporal co-ordinates becomes less important, the face expresses, bodies express, language express intensives forces. Determined situations are not necessary, worlds do not need to be described in order to be resolved or revealed through character actions. In short, it is not a plot that that affection-image film describes, but rather the feelings and emotions of people.

At the party held by Greenberg’s young step sister, Roger, as usual, feels distanced. The distance here is accentuated by age difference (he is early 40s, everyone else – as is Florence – early 20s). But someone offers him some coke and for the first time we see him open up. He begins to act… it is as if for this brief moment we have left the domain of affect for the domain of action… he leaps and jumps around the house, he puts forward his viewpoint with humour and engages others, rather than standing while others are sitting, he is in amongst them… sexy young women are interested in him, get close to him, and he does not flinch… he can banter with the guys, exchange violence-orientated dialogue. He can phone Florence and articulate his love for her… In other words, cocaine makes Greenberg active…

If Baumbach’s film proposes that sanity is the drowning of the self in habitual activity, then in turn habitual activity is aligned with drugs. And so, if the end of the film leaves it unclear if Roger and Florence can get it together, surely the signs are not promising… as it is clear that if drugs are not the answer for Baumbach then by extension neither is habitual activity. Florence can only experience Greenberg opening his heart via the recorded message on the answerphone from the night before.

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