Commodified Lives


Private Life

(versão em portugues aqui)

Two movies I’ve recently seen on Netflix that could have the same name (Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life), and share the same setting (New York’s intellectual elite, though the former is set mostly in Los Angeles), and most of the same themes even though they focus on almost opposite aspects of their characters’ lives (divorce, a late attempt to conceive a child).That said, I had very opposite reactions to them.

Jenkins’s movie premiered last year at Sundance when it was acquired by Netflix and it was languishing unseen on my watchlist for more than year. Baumbach’s has been circulating at fall festivals and arrived on the streaming service earlier this month.I feel guilty about taking so long to see Private Life since I like Jenkins’s other two movies (she makes one every ten years or so).My friend Eduardo Valente often jokes about how scared he is about the speed with which we watch the Netflix movies, but I always get the impression that this has a lot to do with the blackhole that is the service’s watchlist, if you don’t watch soon, the movie dies unseen over there.A triumph for the economy of now.I mention that too because the commodification of private lives runs through both films as much as through streaming logic.

In Private Life, we have a theater director (Paul Giamatti) and a writer (Kathryn Hahn) looking to have a child after the age of 40. Over two years of trying, their personal and professional life is virtually on hold because of it (the film is very good at suggesting that nothing else in the world exists for both of them), nothing works no matter how many hormone injections she takes and the adoption attempts are not much more successful and ultimately they choose to purchase the eggs from his non-biological niece for an artificial insemination.In. Marriage Story, we have a theater director (Adam Driver) and an actress (Scarlett Johansson) in divorce proceedings (she wants to spend more time in her native Los Angeles, he hates California with the passion of a Woody Allen character) whose only big question is how best to organize their child custody, but which goes from friendly to inhuman after she decides to hire a lawyer to handle the case.

Both films are at their heart about the same issue: an intimate and private event mediated by a commercial industry (reproductive medicine in Private Life, divorce law in Marriage Story) and how this involvement exacerbates the cruel relationships of power among them.They are also both about legacy and transference, but this is much more developed in Jenkins’ film, which helps it to arrive at a more human face.

Marriage Story as already noted in much of its press coverage is a semi-autobiographical film with Baumbach’s experiences in his divorce with Jennifer Jason Leigh as a starting point (so when Driver complains about agreeing to direct a couple of bad plays to pay lawyers, the filmmaker refers to have written Madagascar 3 to cover legal bills and so on).The film finds its most effective moments precisely when it focuses on the lawyers.There’s a comical legal thriller on the edges of Marriage Story, and both Laura Dern and Ray Liotta are great at schewing scenes like the two legal cyborgs.The sequence in which Liotta twists Johansson’s career to suggest that Driver deserves part of her salary on a new TV series is a highlight.

Baumbach allows Dern’s character several points in her speeches (such as when she points out that the notion of participative father is very recent), but looks suspiciously at her aggressiveness especially when contrasted with Alan Alda’s veteran lawyer who Driver hires at first (“You are the first person in this process who treats me like a human being.”).The perceptive viewer can sense that the husband’s talk about a friendly arrangement is also a speech about power, that behind the desire to resolve things in an intimate manner, is also the certainty that as in the early relationship, his word and desire will always have a greater weight.  His wife would probably never be able to move permanently to California without involving lawyers, but in the overall structure of the film the legal dehumanization of the process is the weightier matter, things started to go wrong the day Johansson entered Dern’s office, one is never allowed to forget.For all the apparent desire for balance in Marriage Story, the moments in which it tries to recognize the wife’s point of view are never fully convincing, the artist’s effort to sell himself as a sensitive man who acknowledges his own mistakes far too transparent for that. While watching the movie, I often wondered if it would be more evenly balanced if the lawyers switched sides and if Baumbach wasn’t poking fun at himself by making every biographical change reflect well on his side.Anyway, it’s hard to resist the impression that Marriage Story’s main target audience is divorced dads like him.

Doctors are also insensitive robots in Private Life and the film is very blunt about how the reproductive industry is paradoxically dehumanizing.For starters, by reducing women to hormone receptors and egg providers.Yet, Private Life has a more immediate approach, the horrors of the process are not externalized via third parties, but exposed in the behavior of its main couple.The fateful decision here is to seek help from his niece (in contrast to Marriage Story, here is the human decision that reveals one’s faults and limits).Much of Private Life takes place in the couple’s apartment, and Jenkins is quite adept at establishing the intimacy of the place and helps it look credible as the environment of a successful couple in a medium that doesn’t pay that well (it’s big without being huge, looks relative older, the furniture always fits, this is rarer than one thinks).Which makes it a precise environment for its little power games.

A good deal of the action comes down to Giamatti and Hahn dealing with his niece at the place.She is an aspiring writer who comes to spend a season with them (college is on hold), venerates her uncles (“you are my intellectual parents”) and regards helping them as a duty for people she loves, Jenkins draws quite a bit from the seductive contrast for the girl between them and her affluent parents.Much of Private Life is resolved in everyday pressures and pettiness.As fits a movie about having a child, it’s a movie about responsibility.The young woman is the deposit of hopes for parenthood, but she is also a surrogate daughter in a space of absence.As well noted by the German programmer Lukas Foerster is a movie about a economy of lack.Everything is missing and somehow replaced.An inhuman process that inevitably leads to objectifying and abusing even those one wishes well (the symbolical daughter, each other’s partner), how one can avoid this when one is carried through with this market logic?

The Private Life climatic relationship discussion scene benefits from this immediate approach.When Giamatti recognizes the very cruelty of his relief about things going wrong, it only reinforces his cruel position the way honesty in couple fights often does.Hahn is especially adept at representing her exhaustion throughout the film and Jenkins has a good eye for each other’s power positions in the process.He might be right when he points out that they have become machines overtaken by the situation, but at that specific moment only registers as a pathetic man complaining about his lack of sex.That the whole sequence is intimate and quiet and taken by the eyes of the two actors is a good contrast to the big Marriage Story discussion scene that has been around the web a lot in recent weeks.There it is a privileged moment, the rawness of which separates it from the softer tone of the rest of the film, the only moment when the cruelty of divorce is not outsourced to the legal environment.It’s a well-written moment as the Private Life scene, but Baumbach’s direction is off the mark, clashing too much with the rest of the film, and turning the moment into an “actor scene” in a bad way, the violent feelings becoming meaty subject matter for Driver and Johansson performances and not powerful by itself. It goes down easier. We are far away, for example, from the brutal resentment of Maurice Pialat’s couple films, the ugliness here is a frame around their reality, good people who for a moment slip into a bad place, but nothing that makes identification uncomfortable.

That Marriage Story arrives on this precipice, and then comes back and reconciles feelings in an epilogue that indicates that relationships simply reconfigure themselves without making much effort to heal wounds only reinforces that feeling.By contrast, Giamatti shifting the side of the table to be closer to his wife in the final scene of Private Life sounds more honest, both intimate and reflective of a couple who wants to pass the image of a united front despite their differences.

I have a very ambivalent relationship with Noah Baumbach’s movies. He is a filmmaker who has a natural talent for putting together individual scenes, but whose personality of an arrivist American intellectual upper class always puts me at a distance (if there’s a big case of silver spoon filmmaking on American cinema this decade than his previous The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), I haven’t seen it).These are movies that suggest that people who don’t read The New Yorker are socially inferior.Their best moments are when its observations about character moments cut across this surface. Marriage Story has one such scene when Driver’s sister-in-law needs to give him his legal notice, one that belongs to actress Merrit Weaver with her nervousness at the discomfort of being put in such situation.It’s the best and most honest scene in the movie. Suddenly actual messy behavior cuts through its respectable barriers.

One clear advantage of Private Life is that legacy anxiety is subtext in Marriage Story, but text here.The child does exist, but it is an abstraction in the later film, at most a hindrance and occasional scene prop, to the point that it is comical to see those two people fighting over it.There is only a desired child and the constant presence of the niece who serves as a surrogate daughter in Private Life, but this desire for continuity takes over every action.We are what we leave behind and those we somehow affect.Legacy as responsibility and not property.In this way, Jenkins and her film find at least some human forms of escape in the midst of its brutal scenario.

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