Vivid and satisfying though it is, Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical family memoir The Squid and the Whale leaves you yearning to know more about Mom (Laura Linney). Veteran Voice readers will better understand the character as having been inspired by Georgia Brown, Baumbach’s mother and one of the paper’s regularly contributing film critics from the late ’80s through the mid ’90s.
Set in 1986, Squid ends just as Brown’s alter ego Joan Berkman is beginning to realize her dream of becoming a successful writer. A fact-based sequel, should one arrive, would find Mom penning a high-profile piece for American Film on the making of another semi-autobiographical movie about divorce—the Nora Ephron–authored Heartburn, whose pie-in-the-face climax happened to be shot in the kitchen of Brown’s Park Slope brownstone after location scouts had gone door to door on behalf of director Mike Nichols. In the article, an incisive and hilarious work of principled curtain peeling, published over the strong objections of director, screenwriter, and studio (those were the days . . . ), Brown quotes her then 15-year-old son marveling, “I made eye contact with Mike Nichols.” As often in Squid, the younger son delivers the punchline: “He was wearing shades.”
Brown the film critic often included her two precocious kids as characters in her extraordinarily personal reviews; there’s a sense in which The Squid and the Whale is the eldest son’s way of returning the favor. My own debt to Brown, whom I met briefly in the summer of ’89 when I was an intern at the Voice, stems from her infinitely creative and, I dare say, political use of the first person, which naturally seemed radical to a budding critic weaned on the royal “we” of Pauline Kael. “I hesitate to say Kael doesn’t speak to me, but it’s true,” Brown wrote in a Voice review of Kael’s For Keeps, an epic anthology that, for me, has nothing on the Brown book I created from Xeroxes and gave to a colleague as a way of dealing with the news that the most underrated and inimitable of great film critics had broken her self-described “addiction” to journalism and retired from the field.
“Picture, you outsiders you, the annual voting meeting of the New York Film Critics Circle,” begins my Brown volume as well as her “Bite the Ballot,” another transgressively revealing piece that earned the author a loud
chorus of boos—a prize, you might say—at the group’s awards banquet at Sardi’s. Brown had dared to break the Circle by speculating, with ample evidence, that some mixture of unconscious racism and blind deference to Kael’s wishes had played a part in the group’s preference for, uh, Enemies, A Love Story over Do the Right Thing, among other curious choices uncannily predicted in Kael’s New Yorker reviews. ( Enemies may be all but forgotten after 15 years, but the “Paulettes” still haven’t healed from “Bite the Ballot.”)
Come to think of it, Do the Right Thing would make a reasonable name for any Brown collection—not because the tastes she expressed were politically “correct” (she found Indecent Proposal irresistible, for example), but because saying the relevant things that critics in comfier berths had tacitly agreed not to say was, for Brown, both a compulsion and a calling. In other words: She distinguished herself as a critic simply by acting as a journalist. And yet the style of her work was equally rare: colloquial but probing, rhythmically precise but tonally ethereal, applicable to everything from Nichols’s Regarding Henry (“Let’s hear it for brain damage”) to Chungking Express (“a Jules and Jim for our anonymous time”), from her fascination with Siskel & Ebert (“Anticipation of Gene’s revenge, I suppose, is what keeps this soap opera going”) to her dismay upon discovering that a New York Film Festival screening of Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik, to which she had arrived very early, was only half full. (“In the so-called capital of the art world, who attends to the art of cinema?” she was compelled to wonder.)
Among other, more ineffable things, Brown’s work was about living with movies the way others live with people—or, perhaps, with addictions. Now based nine months a year in a rural Italian town where screenings are scarce, Brown, in her sixties, isn’t, for the most part, living with movies. But a casually e-mailed rave of Samaritan Girl by Kim Ki-duk, with whom another critics’ clique wouldn’t stoop to grapple, encapsulates the moral and philosophical dimension of her critical personality, which is one we (better to say I?) need more than ever: “It’s the kind of movie I respond to: a spiritual journey, touching on the mysteries of human existence in the world. It’s about love, not its comforts and convenience, but its terrors and its inconvenience. It’s deeply psychological and doesn’t spell out any of the psychology because it knows humans are far too rich and strange for synopsis.”