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The release, last year, of Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale brought the filmmaker popular acclaim and an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay. Critics adored the semi-autobiographical story about two divorced writers and their precocious sons.
For me, however, the film's real significance was the attention it drew to Baumbach's earliest work. Last week the Criterion Collection released a DVD of Baumbach's first film, Kicking and Screaming, which among some of my friends has near biblical status.
Kicking and Screaming, released in 1995, follows four recent college graduates as they try to navigate life outside the academy. Confusion and inactivity abound, as the foursome discover that their fancy degrees have qualified them for little in the professional world. Grover, Max, Otis and Skippy are drowning in upper-middle-class ennui. Or as Max puts it, "What I used to be able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life."
From a cinematic point of view, Kicking and Screaming is hardly remarkable, but the passion it inspires among its cult audience is not unwarranted. The movie is perfectly calibrated for nostalgia production. For one, it's about friendship, first loves gained and lost. Secondly, it's about people in their early 20s, a memorable, emotionally intense time when youthful premonitions about life's opportunities collide with the onset of adult anxieties. For Baumbach's protagonists, the future is limitless, but for the first time, the prospect of real failure is, too.
The characters in Jeffrey Lewis's wonderful novel Meritocracy (Other Press, 2004) are in a similar predicament.
Meritocracy is set during the summer of 1966 as a group of recent Yale graduates gather for one last powwow - a weekend in Maine - before setting off for the real world. But it's the 1960s, and the real world is haunted by the war in Vietnam. Only one of them, Harry Nolan, is actually going off to fight, but the others have made choices with draft deferments in mind. Harry could have gotten a deferment, too, of course. He's the son of a senator. But Harry also has political aspirations and army service is important for his future campaigns.
Meritocracy is about the cultivation of what Lewis calls a "leadership class." Harry and his friends - Cord, Teddy, Adam Bloch, Louie - are fictional contemporaries of the politicians running America today. Meritocracy is a short novel, published by a small press, but what makes it "big" - and what makes it great - is its historical perspective and reach.
George W. Bush is two classes behind the characters at Yale (he makes a couple of cameos). John Kerry is in their class. Their contemporaries at Harvard are Al Gore and Bill Weld. Louie narrates the story from the present, looking back, and he comments on the careers of these notable politicians.
Meritocracy is about a weekend with friends, but it's also about who rises to the top and how. It's about privilege, so it makes sense that it's told from the perspective of the character that doesn't fit this mold: Louie, the scholarship kid, the Jew. In fact, Adam Bloch is also Jewish, and these two outsiders have a rivalry of sorts. Each one reminds the other of their social deficiencies.
But Meritocracy, the first volume of a quartet planned by Lewis (the second volume, The Conference of the Birds was published last year), is ultimately Harry's story. Louie worships Harry, and he's in love with Harry's wife Sascha. But he's not quite jealous. Louie's hopes for the future - his own and America's - are wrapped up in his friend's boundless potential.
By the end of the novel, Louie's fears, disappointments and sorrows are also symbolized by Harry Nolan. Louie looks back nostalgically, but while Meritocracy is a reminiscence about what was, it's ultimately a tragic story about what could have been and what wasn't.