From the Issue: Baumbach on Barnard

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The December issue will be here soon, hopefully before you all scatter for the holidays. For now, a little teaser while you wait.

margotMargot at the Wedding

Directed by Noah Baumbach

93 minutes

Now playing  

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

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  1. hmm

    this review seems to commit the error of looking at the entire film through a academic lens, which is perhaps unavoidable, given the status of the writer. the preview, at least, didn't present the film as an academic satire at all. a satire of "intellectuals"? perhaps. in any case, the writer's conflation of literature, awkwardness, and academia (to say nothing of his conflation of barnard and columbia!) is problematic.

  2. English Major

    Thanks for making me feel like shit on a Friday.

  3. hmm  

    dan d'addario is describing columbia to a t. barnard? not so much.

  4. Query  

    What was the Columbia/Barnard dynamic, before 1983? And what is it now? It's hard to see past snobbish comments made by CC students.

    • double legacy

      my parents went to cc and barnard respectively, graduating in 1972. My mother is still ragging on my father for terribly arrogant comments he made about how much smarter Columbia men were than barnard women. As far as I can tell pre-coed columbia, CC and Barnard were far more on par, whereas now there is a clear disparity in academic credentials for those accepted at one or the other.

  5. i think  

    this piece is well-written. and true.

  6. Anonymous  

    jeez, would you guys stop ragging on Barnard.

    now, how about those Bennington sluts?

  7. Alex A  

    Every single article that mentions Barnard really has to rag on how much stupider we are than you Columbia geniuses?
    Take a class with Vandenburg here. Just try to get an A. Or better yet, take our whole set of Organic Chemistry, where we cover more complex reactions than you do, overall. Then look how much we get curved in comparison to you (I'll give you a hint, it's a paltry B- next to your A-, and we still have most students getting A-s or above).
    Intellectual inferiors, indeed.
    See how far your superiority complex gets you in the future. My assumption is it won't lead to many friendships.

    • umm  

      Then look how much we get curved in comparison to you (I'll give you a hint, it's a paltry B- next to your A-, and we still have most students getting A-s or above).

      ---- This makes no sense. If most students are getting A-'s or above then it isn't curved to a B-. If you are trying to say that Barnard students take up the top of the curve while Columbia students get the lower grades( which by the way is NOT what you are saying) then I'm guessing your proof is just anecdotal. I'm not saying Barnard students are not as smart as Columbia students at all. I'm just saying try to be coherent and logical when you are making a point.

    • whoa!!  

      Columbia Orgo is curved to an A???

      Fucking sweet!! I always thought it was B+ or B.

    • curve

      Just a simple point. If most people are getting above an A-, then the classes are curved to an A-, not a B-.

  8. question  

    Assume (it's possible) that you could get into Yale or Harvard (or Princeton, Stanford, MIT), but none of those schools seems like a place you'd want to spend four years?

    Is there fucking anywhere you can go that you wouldn't be surrounded by people who wanted to go to those schools and project that onto the whole fucking campus? Clearly Columbia is out, and I guess the rest of that Ivy League. Maybe Georgetown, Duke, and some shit in California?

    I just wish that everyone who had a Harvard or Yale wish had done a little more to get their dumb asses into those schools rather than coming here to constantly bitch about it.

    • definitely not  

      gtown or duke. They are crawling with ivy rejects trying to convince themselves their schools are better academically(definitely not) and socially(maybe so) than ivies. I'd say small liberal arts schools for anything except sciences.

  9. self-answer  

    I guess the real option is just to go to a state school and take the hardest classes there. Fucking should have done that.

  10. This drawing  

    is gorgeous.

  11. as a barnard student  

    I don't see how this article should have brought on such Barnard defensiveness on Bwog. Girls, save it for the really stupid stuff. I haven't seen the movie, but from this review, it sounds like it kind of hits the mark. I'm not saying that this is an accurate portrayal of ALL Barnard students, but I think it captures a certain sub-set that applies at both Barnard and Columbia.

  12. sorry dan  

    didn't feel this way when i watched the film. but i did love the barnard joke. it's definitely not safe to say it's satire of intellectuals; perhaps better to call it a satire of pseudointellectual wannabes (see jack black's character) or just really confused, empty and fucked up parents. it was more about family than anything else, which sounds cliche but with baumbach definitely isn't.

    • Zach

      Yeah? I feel like Jack Black's dude (man, I love movies where nobody remembers the characters' names) gets off pretty easy, actually. He seems to be the one guy Baumbach doesn't rip to shreds, and he spends the whole movie acting fairly humble, and never really claims to be anything he isn't.

      Maybe I have bad role models.

  13. lol  

    This article reveals so much about its author. Let's just do a little pronoun substitution and see how it sounds:

    "For a moment, I understand Margot's blithe meanness because I—the sophisticated Manhattan intellectual that I am—see her traits in myself, or at least in some of the English majors [me] who walk among us."

    "While Columbia students may pity Margot in her failings, I leave the theater for the gated-in campus that can act as a crucible for my own elitism and narcissism."

    "As it continues, the film transcends mere character study and becomes a cautionary tale for Columbia and Barnard literature majors [like me] who are already well on their way to Margot's neuroses and ennui."

    Speak for yourself! Don't use the fucking royal 'we'.

  14. oh...

    I didn't realize this point was already made.

  15. barnard women  

    can take as many Columbia classes as they want, so what's the point in talking about whose classes are harder/who gets curved more?

    It's a mixed bag: there are some really smart people over there and there are some really dumb girls summer camp types.

  16. this article  

    was great!

  17. jack black  

    is reduced to underagepussygrubbing piece of shit who is only given a bit of credit BECAUSE he isn't a successful "intellectual." though we might kind of despise margot, we sympathize with her awkward position of not wanting to read his work. but i referred to him merely to point out that he has no job and contributes essentially nothing in academic circles. he's a free spirit - maybe - but that doesn't mean he isn't like margot: at least a little bit repulsive.

    what i didn't like about this review was that it kind of ignores the redemptive qualities, which might also be the most gimmicky part of the movie. what is the point of making a movie that simply says intellectuals suck at being humans? what's worse is that this reviewer posits columbia students into that category which is frankly absurd.

  18. i know  

    where dan learned the word "neurasthenic."

    just saying.

  19. a Barnard girl  

    "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."

    A small island that happens to be MANHATTAN. It's not exactly remote. And in my experience, most Barnard girls have totally mediocre minds, but they sure do love to socialize. So I don't really see the connection you're making here.

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