Nostalgic and numb / Kicking & Screaming (1995)
“Despite my best efforts to do nothing, things happen.”
So the other day a friend asked for some coming-of-age recommendations, and instantly I told her to watch Noah Baumbach’s Kicking & Screaming (1995). I don’t know if she watched it, and if she did, she probably didn’t like it. I seem to be the only one I know that loves this film as much as I do, and I completely understand how people can think it’s dull, annoying, or downright insufferable. After I saw it for the first time, I wasn’t even sure what I liked so much about it. Then came this year.
I finished my bachelor’s degree (in History) last summer, and very instinctively I had decided to take some time off after. I guess you call it a gap year, however much that just reminds me of backpacking through Thailand, finding yourself somewhere along the way. It is a gap year though. It seemed to make sense to me that by September next year, I’d have decided on what I was going to do then: a master’s degree probably, or otherwise commit myself to a job of sorts. The year in between I’d spend working at the record store for three or four days a week, putting more work into the music website I had started earlier that year, doing things I hadn’t had time to do before, and travelling, of course. It was going to be good. Smooth sailing.
It wasn’t really. “Eight hours ago I was Max Belmont; English major, college senior. Now I am Max Belmont who does nothing,” says Max Belmont, gloomily, at the graduation party that kicks of Kicking & Screaming. It’s one of the many, many quotes in this film that I thought were funny the first time, and that felt painfully relatable the second and third time I watched it, both of them this ‘gap year’. Pretty much all the characters are recently graduated college students with no immediate goal or purpose in life. They’ve closed a chapter, but from that point onwards, there’s no clear path for them to follow. So instead of diving straight in, they come to a standstill. They are all sad, pretentious pieces of shit, which, again, was really funny to me before. Now, I feel like I might be a sad, pretentious piece of shit, just like them.
“I wish we were going to war,” says Max at some point. If only someone told him what to do now. He’s an English major, so what is he going to do? I mean, if he’d studied Medicine, it’d be a little more obvious, but now?
All of these characters have run out of vigour and inspiration. The film’s main character, Grover, is a writer with great potential, but only in the flashbacks that show him still in class. Now, he just tells people he’s writing a novel, but really he isn’t. All of them just sit around and revel in some sort of twisted nostalgia. “I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now.” They look back at the place they’ve (only sort of) left behind with resentment, but they never seem to really be able to let go of that past either. It’s all the comfort they have, because to them, there is no future.
When his girlfriend Jane, the only graduate who actually seems to be going places, tells Grover that she’s moving to Prague after the summer to study writing, he ridicules her decision, saying she’s only postponing her “emotional paralysis”, the state Grover and his friends have apparently semi-consciously leapt into from the get-go.
And the emotional paralysis is real. I don’t think I’ve ever felt without future, and for the most part, my life this gap year has not been as excruciatingly dull, but when Max says he caught himself writing ‘go to bed’ and ‘wake up’ in his datebook “as if they were two different events” — well, I felt that. This quarantine situation especially has shown how easy it is let your mind go numb and to refrain entirely from thinking about the future. Life for these guys becomes an endless sequence of ‘groundhog days’, and just like in that particular film, it seems like putting an end to that sequence would require an act of magic.
It doesn’t though. And in the end, Kicking & Screaming might not be as depressing as I’m probably making it sound. Sure, most of these characters might still end up like Chet, a sad, pretentious piece of shit who was never actually able to stop himself from standing still. But I like to believe that even for a pessimist like Max Belmont, doing nothing, however tempting, eventually becomes unbearable. Otis’ departure to Milwaukee, Max’ job application, and Grover’s attempt at a trip to Prague — maybe none of it is going to work out, but at least it’s proof that they do now believe in a future for themselves, that they’re not really just a bunch of elderly people sitting around in a bar all day, because there is nothing left for them to do.
There’s an ambiguous nature to Kicking & Screaming. It’s mostly talking, so it might all just be empty words. Or it might not. When Grover is told he “can always go [to Prague] tomorrow”, it’s both hopeful and depressing. He definitely can, and he might, but it’s not a given that he will.
It’s a coming-of-age like I’ve never seen it before, and I probably shouldn’t go around telling people it is. It doesn’t show a linear process. It hardly shows any character development at all. I mean, it might as well be a full stop, but I know it’s really not, and I hope sooner rather than later, I’ll overcome my own numbness and present-day nostalgia and actually buy myself that ticket to Prague.
(PS. I don’t know if this made any sense. I’ll gladly pay you 50 cents if it didn’t.)