The particularity of “Marriage Story”

Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” follows a couple’s divorce and its effects on the relationships around them. Illustration by Sarah Chantres/The Daily Campus

Happy Halloween huskies! On a day filled with chilling ghosts and ghouls, might I draw your attention to by far the spookiest of Halloween scaries: divorce. 

In an article published earlier this year, I explored the topic of nihilism and its relationship to the COVID-19 pandemic. In it, I argued that the historical context of a pandemic contributes to a new, unique form of suffering. I bring this up because what I’ll be discussing today reigns fairly similar to this idea of unique forms of suffering or experiences in general. 

Art derives its meaning largely from the evocation of emotion. Take a painting, for example; the usage of bright reds and oranges may remind the viewer of rage, or perhaps sunlight. The blues and greens employed by Monet give rise to feelings of serenity, nature and peace. When clashed, hues of yellow and purple construct brash conflict – loud and antagonistic, like two siblings arguing over who’s turn it is with the remote. Sculpture, poetry, music and cinema all follow the same maxim; the differences each medium diverges itself with are bound largely by the emotion presented by the creator and experienced by the viewer.  

Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” is no different. The film follows a couple’s divorce and its effects on the relationships around them — their son, parents and friends all affected in their own ways. Yet, the film lacks any particular climax. There is the ongoing conflict of divorce: trials, relocating, yelling at one’s mother for staying in contact with their ex over email — the usual. Characters pick sides and a family slowly crumbles, but there isn’t any real explosion at any point in the plot, and this is just it.  

The film draws upon a very specific type of trauma, and although it utilizes more generalized emotions and situations, it’s difficult to truly appreciate the natural decay of a family without having gone through the process itself. This isn’t to say that, for lack of a better phrase, “those that get it, get it. Those that don’t, don’t.” However, there is some truth to the notion that some art requires certain previous experiences to relate to its presented meaning.  

This may sound fairly elementary; of course those who have gone through divorce will feel more strongly towards a film centered around divorce. Yet, “Marriage Story” feels like a new form of cinema, one which relies on a much more narrow spectrum of experiences than its similarly-depressing counterparts. Its specificity captures an audience that, although smaller in sample size, is much more deeply captivated than that of other films. It even reminded me of a very different medium, too.  

There’s a great video of musician Jacob Collier improvising to the tune of Danny Boy over increasingly more complex emotions. A tablet in front of him would shift through emotions ranging from simple feelings such as happy and sad to more complex emotions, such as betrayed or triumphant, all the way to the most vague and abstract of experiences, like seeing a long lost friend or forgiveness. Musicianship aside as Collier is an infinitely talented individual, the exercise takes the viewer through a variety of moods, while Collier vibrantly tells a story of his experiences through the virtues of the piano.  

“Marriage Story” strikes me as extremely similar to Collier’s playing in the most complex emotional segment. Divorce and its components are difficult to put into words, film or music — though Adele makes a pretty compelling argument with her newest album. The film goes beyond appealing to simple or even complex emotions; rather, it draws upon the abstrusity of divorce, with all of its trials and hardships displayed full frontal. The realness in the lack of any — for lack of a better term — interesting shifts in the plot’s development mirrors the realness that is the case for many divorces. Yes, some marriages go up in flames, but many mimic that of a once-dimly flickering candle that’s been snuffed.  

I guess the only real point I’ve made thus far is that “Marriage Story” is a damn good film that I’d urge anybody to watch, especially if you’ve been at any end of a divorce. And yet, there doesn’t feel like much else to say. The beauty of art is its universality and, by virtue of its absoluteness, ability to be interpreted in many unique ways. “Marriage Story” is no different, and its appeal to an idiosyncrasy known by only so many people distinguishes itself from the rest. Coping and counseling aside, sometimes all one needs is a good two hour slow burn of misery and relived trauma, and that’s okay. Just make sure you aren’t doing that thing where you project your agony onto a mass group of people, like the student body, for example, in the form of, I don’t know, a blog or newspaper column…

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