He really started noticing the camera when he was about three. That is, he'd seen it before, but that's the age when he really started to understand what it meant, and that I was looking at him. I don't know that it was self-consciousness, exactly, though that came too, eventually. But sometimes he didn't want to play along, and so he began to hide himself. He would duck his head down, or sometimes simply close his eyes in protest. Back then, it came with a scowl.
That was when I started asking his permission to take the pictures.
Nowadays, he will agree or disagree to being in a picture. Sometimes he will come along grudgingly, sometimes with enthusiasm. Sometimes not at all. Just before I took this picture, I told him that the light was really nice, and asked him if he would sit up so I could take a picture. He said OK, and closed his eyes. I asked him if he was sure it was OK, and he patiently said yes, so I clicked the shutter.
Shortly afterwards, a mischievous grin stole across his face and he pulled his pants down, shoving his back side toward the lens. "Take a picture of that!" he shouted gleefully.
So I did.
He said it was his favorite picture ever.
There's been a lot of new construction in the neighborhoods where I live and work. The city sets aside certain areas as "wildlife corridors"; the intention is to allow the local fauna some space to hunt, get access to water, breed, and get from one place to another without getting hit by a car. In the ten years that I've lived here, these corridors haven't gotten any narrower, but the edges have gotten a lot more defined as the houses have gotten closer.
Juliette sometimes looks at photos and says that his feet look like mine. His toes haven't quite lost that round, chubby, baby toe-ness, not yet. But his feet are getting longer and narrower.
Last night he decided that he wanted to take a shower—I think he was tired of waiting for his sister to finish her chores. He doesn't do this often yet, but he will. And then this kind of picture—of which I must have hundreds—will get fewer and farther between. The girls will still be taking baths for a while, of course. I suppose that softens the blow a bit, but each child is an individual, and parenting each one is its own story. Having younger kids doesn't really make me miss the oldest's littleness any less.
While We're Young
There’s a moment late in While We’re Young where Ben Stiller’s character, Josh, is in the middle of a moral outrage-fueled rant, and his elder-statesman filmmaker father-in-law (Charles Grodin) says to him something like “It doesn’t have to be one way.” I don’t know if writer-director Noah Baumbach intended for that to be a comment on his film as a whole, but it’s that scene that keeps coming to mind as I’ve been mulling over what I think of the movie.
While We’re Young appears at first glance to be a comedy about Josh’s mid-life crisis. Josh is a mid-career, middle-aged documentarian, frustrated by a decade-long project whose resolution continues to elude him. After meeting their best friends’ new baby, he and his wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts), return home and have nothing to talk about but a series of what feel like familiar rationalizations: “We’re happy not having kids. We’re free. We could go off to Rome tomorrow if we felt like it.” The dissatisfaction, of course, shows right through.
Soon after, a young, aspiring filmmaker named Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) approach Josh after a continuing ed class Josh teaches, telling him that they’re fans and asking for guidance. They strike up a friendship, and Josh and Cornelia quickly become enchanted with and invigorated by the younger couple’s youthful energy and neo-bohemian lifestyle.
There’s a lot of comedy that can be mined from the juxtaposition of the two couples, and the film does. Still, it’s hard to know exactly what Baumbach thinks about it all. The easy laughs mostly come from the foolishness, the trying-too-hard vibe you get from Josh’s trying to ingratiate himself with the new friends who are close to half his age. That plays well into a critical tone that the movie takes toward the preciousness and pretentiousness of millenial hipsterism. They make everything! They’re all about the moment and the art and the authenticity! Isn’t that great! (No, not really.)
On the other hand, it’s not as though Baumbach spares Josh’s (that is, his own) generation much. There’s as much scorn for the disconnected, screen-driven tedium of the aging Gen-Xers as there is for anything else. In one montage we see Josh and Cornelia mostly experiencing their marriage in parallel, never intersecting—one watches YouTube videos while the other plays Two Dots, or one watches TV while the other is absorbed in a Kindle—which contrasts with the easy connection between Darby and Jamie, who spend their evenings entwined in each others’ arms, sprawled on a couch watching a VHS tape together, or playing a vintage board game.
There’s no real resolution here. At times in the movie, the millenial life seems warm and adventurous; at others it’s shallow and self-absorbed. Sometimes Gen-X middle age seems to be full of hard-won truths, honesty, perspective, reality; sometimes it’s just cold and disaffected. Even though Josh and Cornelia eventually figure out their own path forward, and head down it with enthusiasm, Baumbach isn’t interested in letting that stand—the very last shot of the movie is a giant question mark.
The thing is, in life there aren’t easy answers, and things don’t have to be one way or the other. So maybe I could laud Baumbach for making a movie that doesn’t aim for safe, pat comfort. Still, stories aren’t life. Art is something that people make, intentionally, for a reason. I tend to want a narrative to come with a point.
Still, I can’t deny that there’s something familiar here. If not in the movie itself, then perhaps in between the lines, in the way it’s put together. Right now I’m rounding the corner into the back half of my thirties, coming to terms with certain realities about my life, and struggling to find my place as an emerging artist. I find myself wanting to grapple with big questions, while at the same time feeling arrogant and hypocritical for assuming I have anything to add to these conversations. This tension between self-aggrandizement and self-loathing seems to be the underlying drive of the whole process of While We’re Young, at least, if I’m reading it right. It feels like the kind of thing I would make, if I were making movies about myself (instead of making photographs and writing essays about myself).
Is a narrative film with a public release the right place to deal with that internal struggle? I don’t know. Maybe you’d find such a movie resonant, insightful. Maybe you’d find it narcissistic. I can’t even make up my own mind at this point, but if nothing else it’s something else for me to chew on while I wrestle with my own questions—and, you know, things don’t have to be one way.
Viewed: 4/25/2015 | Released: 3/27/2015 | Score: B-
"Dinner is just about ready," I say. "It's time to clean up and come inside."
"OK!" she says.
A few minutes later I return. She is stooped over in the middle of lawn, picking up leaves one by one. The yard is still littered with toys.
"Eve, come on," I say. "You can play with the leaves some other time. You have to clean up and come in to dinner now."
"No! I'm not playing!" she insists. "I have to put the leaves in my collection!"
Around the corner, next to the crowd of tricycles and scooters, lies a little pile of yellow and green, fading to brown. She crouches down and places the leaf in her fingers right in the middle.
"Is that your collection?" I ask.
"Yes," she says. She's so proud.
It is October. A cool morning that settled into a pleasantly warm Saturday afternoon, the way an October Saturday does in San Diego. Around the house, the Halloween decorations have begun going up, and the kids are excited. They have only recently finished being excited about a birthday, and soon they will be excited about Christmas. Every season has its presents or candies to look forward to. Sometimes both.
By this time she is three, but on the wall she is still a baby, and her brother is barely done being a toddler.
There above the dining table she is still a baby today, younger than her baby sister. And—for now—she is the same age as the brother that smiles above the spot where she used to eat her cereal. The brother that eats his cereal in the living room these days is, of course, still her senior.
If the shift in tense is confusing, just stop and consider the layers of "now" that are in that kitchen. An October afternoon. A morning in May. An April weekday as I write this. Whenever it is that you read it. Photography is weird.
Dept. of Speculation
In the first half-hour of reading this book I found myself reaching for my phone over and over again. I kept wanting to clip out lines for Twitter or Tumblr, or so that I could put them into the inevitable review I’d write. But I realized I’d be copying the whole damn thing. Every single shimmering, truthful line has my heart gripped in its little serifed fist.
Fucking hell, this book. I type into my phone. I mean, fuck.
I’m thirty pages in and already I know: I will never write anything this good. Never.
Back in January I attended a photography workshop, one evening of which involved the students all showing each other their portfolios. Afterwards, I was chatting with one of the other photographers there, and I mentioned how struck I was by his work.
“I always find it so impressive to see someone conjure up an image, to construct something that didn’t exist before, completely from your imagination,” I said.
“But that’s what all art is,” he responded. “Making something out of nothing.”
“Well, I guess,” I said. “But it can also be taking one thing and turning it into something else, right?”
I asked Juliette the other day if she thought I was observant. She cocked her head and thought a moment. “You can be,” she said finally. “Sometimes you can be kind of oblivious, but you notice a lot of things that I don’t. And I think you’re really good at articulating things in a way that other people don’t think of, but that make you say, ‘Oh yeah, that is what I think.’”
This little bit of narcissistic despair, it’s not quite right. That is, I do write things like this. Some of these short paragraphs feel so familiar, intimate. Like a line from a poem that I haven’t quite thought of yet, but was maybe just around the bend. The difference is that everything I write, every picture I make, they come from life. If I have any talent or skill, it’s in awareness and analysis, not imagination. I can notice a detail and pluck it out and show it to you, and on a good day, maybe I can do that in such a way that you’ll see something new. But making something that wasn’t there before, that’s something that has always eluded me. It does not elude Jenny Offill.
How could somebody imagine this? I could write lines like these, but I could never invent them. There is too much detail, too much truth in the detail. How could you know a life, the little bits of a life, the emotions and nonsense and asides. The little in-between moments where we all really live. How could you know something fictional so specifically? I can’t understand it.
I have this theory that you can break down most writers and photographers into two groups, based on how they work: builders and explorers. (Why just writers and photographers? Well, that’s all I know how to do. Maybe it works for painters and sculptors and musicians, too. I don’t know. Or maybe photography and writing have a particular something in common that other art forms don’t. I don’t know that either.)
Builders are the ones who construct new worlds. The studio photographer. The novelist. The compositor. The poet (sometimes). They start with an idea, see it in their heads, and then bring the elements together until the desired result has been realized.
Explorers often don’t set out to make something specific. They go out into the world to see what’s there, whether it’s to a far-off land or just down the hall. The landscape photographer. The street photographer. The essayist. The raconteur. What goes into the work is what was there, perhaps with some embellishment, some creative editing, but it all starts from a lived experience.
And, of course, most people will fall somewhere between. Ideas often come from life, and life often needs some scaffolding before it becomes art. It’s probably not even a spectrum, but rather a volume, a space with axes going off in all directions. (What’s the origin point, I wonder? The basis? Where is that? What does it even mean? Probably nothing; let’s not extend the metaphor further than it can go.)
I’m an explorer. Is Jenny Offill a builder? I don’t know what her process is, but Dept. of Speculation is presented as a novel, as fiction. So, let’s call her a builder. And if we call her that, maybe we’re going to have to call her a genius, too. A motherfucking savant.
Why have I spent so much time talking about my silly little taxonomy? I don’t know. Perhaps it is just that impressive art is all the more impressive to me when it’s something I can’t do.
There are, of course, explorations that have moved me, changed me, found a back room in my mind and stayed there, popping out to say hello to my conscious brain from time to time. Judith Fox’s I Still Do. Bits of Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. It’s not just the builders who have a claim to my admiration.
Dept. of Speculation is the story of a marriage, from the breathless, youthful sweetness of its beginnings through a jagged crisis and beyond. But in some ways it’s hardly even a narrative—certainly it’s not a conventional one. Rather, it reads like an extended prose poem, a series of vignettes and asides and emotions. Offill doesn’t come right out and say what happened, like a novelist “should.” She relates the plot by showing you the way each thing affects her narrator, her responses to the events, the things before and after. Things get slippery; the perspective shifts from “I” to “she,” and tenses slide around from now to then. Bits of famous authors’ poetry and historical factoids pepper the pages, and it’s up to you to infer their relevance.
It’s not straightforward, but neither is it a slog. It never feels like work. It took me perhaps four hours to read through the slim volume, and I never wanted to put it down or take a break. How do you do that? Make a book that’s both obscure and accessible? I don’t know, but apparently Jenny Offill does.
Have I gushed enough? Weighed this “review” down enough with my tangents and navel-gazing? Just go read this book. It’s really something.
The boy took one look at the new floors and started to cry. "I think I'm going to throw up!" he said. I always thought that my sentimentality and resistance to change had to do with the fact that we moved so many times when I was a child, but he's the same way—perhaps even more so.
The girl took a few steps in, turned her head to take it all in, and with a sunny smile declared, "I like them!" Though, it was not immediately obvious whether she actually liked them or was just saying the opposite of what her brother said.
The baby hasn't given an opinion yet, nor do I expect her to. By the time she's able to say anything, she will have long since forgotten that there was ever carpet in the living room—if, indeed, she hasn't already. Her knees slip a bit more when she tries to crawl in her pajamas, but she takes it all in stride, like everything. Onward and upward, that's her motto.