By: Josh Kaufman
I’ll put my cards on the table: I freaking loved Marriage Story. As a child of divorce, who first got into actually liking non-superhero-non-Star-Wars films when watching Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation, who came of age as a film viewer steeped Adam Driver’s mixture of weirdness, goofiness, and darkness in Girls, who has his own complicated family history surrounding moving to and from LA, Marriage Story was set-up to land perfectly right in the left ventricle of my heart as a film viewer. And it did. But after watching Marriage Story, one of my friends complained that the movie was utterly and completely pointless. And while I of course disagree with that thesis, I do have to admit in a lot of ways she is right. In a deep sense, Marriage Story is a movie about pointlessness.
The whole movie starts out with Driver’s Charlie and Johansson’s Nicole failing to work-out their separation through mediation, and then we see two and a half hours of Charlie and Nicole pulling every legal punch, going through countless schemes to win the affection of their child and to position themselves well in court, and spending absurd amount of financial and emotional capital all for no clear reason. In that sense, the film as a whole mirrors Nicole rehearsing with her sister about how to serve Charlie divorce papers or Charlie’s blade-trick: our cast of characters collectively tries to minimize the pain in intrinsically painful situations, but just end up wounding themselves more deeply.
All of this raises an important question: what is so artistically great, emotionally enlightening, or intellectually significant about two-and-half-hours spent watching overly privileged people claw at each other over meaningless sums of money and inflated senses of egos? I want to suggest that quite a lot can be gained, in all three dimensions. And in effect this answer (and with it my love of Marriage Story) revolves around the idea that there is a deep power in making pointlessness perspicuous. Marriage Story in effect renders clear how compassionate people, who care deeply for one another, can be led by carelessness and egocentric thinking into forming a snowball of mutual hate which really has no coherent rationality in its center. Baumbach plays with time, pacing, and perspective to make it painfully clear how pointless it is that Nicole, Charlie, and their son go through the pain that they go through.
This pointlessness does not mean that there’s no explanation for why their divorce is so messy. On the contrary, as the messiness plays out, we see clearly the deep structural issues in their marriage (and even earlier on, in their relationship) that explain the messiness. But in explaining this messiness, without justifying it, Baumbach makes the futility of the mess all the more clear. When we see the messiness of the divorce as the expression of contingent and specific mistakes on the part of generally well-intentioned people, it becomes clear that there is nothing intrinsically tragic or preordained or cathartic about this divorce. It is not a symbol of some essential structure of human relationships, with something big and important hidden in its core, needing to be interpreted, explained, or explored. It’s not as if the film ends with the divorce inspiring Charlie’s or Nicole’s magnum opus or catalyzing something profoundly new and meaningful for Charlie, Nicole, or their son. Rather, as we watch Charlie and his son drive off into LA traffic, Baumbach ends the film allowing us to see that the mess is just a mess. The mess neither needs to be tragic, nor miserable, nor symmetric, nor transformative. It can just be a mess.
In effect what Baumbach does with the problems of human relationships bears a strong affinity with what the later-Wittgenstein does with philosophical problems. As a Wittgensteinian, I often am asked why I want to spend my life doing philosophy if I think at the end of the day most philosophical questions are nonsense and that the main point of philosophy is in making it clear the extent to which these questions are nonsense. And I mostly answer something along these lines: Philosophical problems are real. They just aren’t of the form of questions needing to be answered. Philosophical problems arise when we feel that there’s something essentially lacking in our relationship with fellow human beings, language, thinking, etc. when really this is just a feeling. We have nothing in mind about what’s actually lacking, and in making that clear – that our feeling of dissatisfaction neither has a point, nor even points to any definite lack – we can change our relationship to the feeling and ultimately move past it. That is, once we can see the pointlessness of our problems, we can gain a capacity to move past them.
In a similar way, the first step to understanding and solving certain problems endemic to human relationships is seeing the pointlessness of the problems. I speak from experience—divorces can be grim. And Baumbach in Marriage Story does something important in fully examining the nature of the grimness – in all its complexity and chaos and inner-logic – without it making it look like the grimness leads to some special significance. Rather, we can just see the problem as a problem, as a pointless byproduct of us silly apes doing our best. And I think there is something important, both practically and intellectually, in being able to do this. So I guess I would respond to my friend now like this: Marriage Story is about pointlessness but that sort of is its point.