Friday, January 31, 2020

Marriage Stories: The Coupling of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig

It’s well known among film buffs that Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig are a couple. They’re also the parents of a baby boy, born last March, just after she completed filming of Little Women. No indication, though, that these two golden Hollywood folks (both of whom are up for 2020 Best Screenplay Oscars), have wedding plans. In much of today’s America (as in many nations around the world) the stigma of bearing a child out of wedlock has rapidly disappeared. Little Harold is not likely to face social stigma for being what used to be called a bastard. Today the term has a far different, far more metaphoric, connotation, referring to a person’s character rather than his or her parentage. It’s all indicative of how much the matrimonial state itself has evolved over the course of our lifetimes.

Both Baumbach and Gerwig are Oscar nominees for writing (though not, alas, for directing) major films that look at marriage with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Baumbach, who was previously responsible for 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, seems to have taken much to heart his own parents’ divorce when he was an adolescent. That film focuses on the impact of the parents’ split on 16-year-old Walt, who starts acting out at school when his mother and father take on new romantic partners. Baumbach has never hidden the fact that the details of the story match in many way his own family experience.

Though Baumbach’s Marriage Story seems further away from autobiography, it too explores the price that is paid by the entire family once parents separate, even when they mean their split to be amicable. The film begins by acknowledging the psychic cost to all concerned, then plunges us into the additional pain inflicted once attorneys get involved. It’s not a pretty picture, even despite the best of intentions. The American legal system, in fact, seems almost designed to make everything worse. One saving grace: time may not heal all wounds, but it does help those most intimately affected move on and learn to live in new ways

Then there’s Gerwig’s take on Little Women. Louisa May Alcott’s famous nineteenth-century novel for girls of course endorses conventional values, including the blessings of matrimony. The novel is surprisingly frank in recognizing that girls without money—and this describes Alcott’s semi-autobiographical March sisters—must needs consider being on the lookout for wealthy suitors. Alcott’s book hardly endorses this point of view, but makes it clear that Meg (the pretty eldest sister who marries for love) sometimes suffers over what she cannot afford. Then there’s Jo. Everyone who’s read the novel knows that Jo, having spurned the charming Laurie as a husband, finally finds romantic happiness with a kind of Germanic deus ex machina: a kind, jolly German professor who encourages her literary talents and allows her to live a married life that’s slightly outside the realm of convention. Jo of course is Alcott’s own alter ego, but Alcott herself never married. Instead she devoted her adult life to her writing career and to fulfilling the needs of her extended family.

Gerwig’s version of Little Women encourages us to see the close relationship of Jo March to her creator. Without distorting the original story, she reminds us of how dedicated Jo is to the notion of career over matrimony. So how does she reconcile her clearly feminist perspective with the ending Alcott herself wrote? It seems wrong to spoil the film by going into detail, but Gerwig’s Jo (while doing what needs to be done) ultimately remains true to her independent self.

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