From the Issue: Baumbach on Barnard
Written by Bwog Staff
The December issue will be here soon, hopefully before you all scatter for the holidays. For now, a little teaser while you wait.
Margot at the Wedding
Directed by Noah Baumbach
It’s hard to miss the academic snobbery of Noah Baumbach’s characters in Margot at the Wedding. In his follow-up to The Squid and the Whale, a group of forty-something writers, whose clique centers around the talented and loathsome Margot (Nicole Kidman), drop their intellectual credentials shamelessly. To wit: Margot’s husband and lover studied together at Stanford, and her husband teaches at NYU. Her flaky sister spent time at Bennington. And the neighborhood temptress is headed to Harvard, prompting Margot to muse that plenty of “stupid people” get accepted there. And where did Margot study? She issues an answer in two clipped syllables:
At the screening on the Upper West Side, this line earned gratified chuckles. For the subset of moviegoers who know Columbia, the revelation that Margot went to Barnard grants a new insight into her character. For a moment, we understand Margot’s blithe meanness because we—the sophisticated Manhattan intellectuals that we are—see her traits in ourselves, or at least in some of the English majors who walk among us. She is simultaneously overeducated and ill-equipped for human interaction – it makes perfect sense that she is a creature of an insular school on a small island.
Margot has a number of Manhattanite neuroses; she nags her son incessantly about seemingly insignificant problems while indulging all manner of nervous tics. She has used her commercially successful short stories to reveal closely kept family secrets. She is insecure in her career despite having published several books, and feels inadequate in the shadow of the men in her life—her professor husband and novelist lover. She also betrays her sister with astonishing ease: the two have a relationship anchored in a mutual acknowledgment of their rivalry.
Margot is clearly miserable visiting her family and spending time in nature, referring constantly to her home in “Manhattan,” the site of anecdotes both glamorized and damning. Even the film’s conclusion, as Margot runs to escape on a bus to Vermont, is disheartening. We know that eventually, she’ll need to go back to Manhattan, to return to the pettiness, social circles, and sarcastic jibes that sustain self destructive tendencies. While Columbia students may pity Margot in her failings, we leave the theater for the gated-in campus that can act as a crucible for our own elitism and narcissism.
Margot is a woman from the city, but not of it—she is perpetually reassuring herself of her New Yorker credentials by violently rejecting her own family’s. Sound familiar? It’s easy to imagine Margot in a Columbia English seminar, knitting her brow as she plans out both her literary rise and the ever-so-cosmopolitan ways to spend her post-published weekends. Baumbach’s sketching of the New York-Ivy League intellectual sort is brilliant. Margot is stymied by simple tasks – climbing a tree, playing croquet – and by any expression of genuine emotion.
As it continues, the film transcends mere character study and becomes a cautionary tale for Columbia and Barnard literature majors who are already well on their way to Margot’s neuroses and ennui. How many of the Columbians in the audience of this film have considered writing a roman à clef, or using their families as a caustic punchline rather than a support system? And after the rejection letters come in, how many see Harvard (Yale, really) as the haven of idiots, or at least not true intellectuals like themselves?
Noah Baumbach shows how destructive the twin forces of New York and academia can be: His heroine is a neurasthenic malcontent struggling to relate to the world around her. Her writing is acclaimed but not fulfilling. No one should be shocked to discover that Baumbach’s father earned a Ph.D. at Columbia, and the Baumbach family has been immersed in the New York intellectual scene for decades. Maybe Margot isn’t the only one writing from life.
– Daniel D’Addario
Illustrated by Jenny Lam