Criterion Sunday 349: Kicking and Screaming (1995)

There was a story recently in the New York Times that sparked off a lot of online discourse about the Criterion Collection, specifically about its blind spot for African-American filmmakers, and the next morning I found myself watching Noah Baumbach’s debut film, which seems to exemplify something of the collection’s fixation on white American filmmakers. To stick with the discourse for just a moment, I think the sensible response is not to valorise the Criterion Collection as the ultimate arbiter of tastemaking, but for whatever reason it has de facto become that — and as someone who is literally invested in the collection (as my watching of their films has also been accompanied by acquisition of the physical media), I can only hope that they do diversify their titles, while acknowledging that other labels have much better records on historically interesting releases by Black filmmakers (Milestone and Kino Lorber being two examples of distributors some of whose titles I own). Just looking at 90s indie films, there have been plenty of titles by Black directors that are easily the equal of this one, for example Love Jones, or indeed much of the output of that film’s stars during the decade (several of them were in Dead Presidents, which even had a Criterion laserdisc release, I believe).

I was younger than the characters are when I first saw Kicking and Screaming, and revisiting it again now in the light of everything I’ve seen since, 25 years after its first release, it has become aggravating to me. The actors are all fine; instead the weakness seems to be the script, which attempts a sort of witty insouciance that it just doesn’t perhaps have the experience to achieve (Baumbach would go on to make films which I’ve liked very much, so it’s not that I don’t like his work). The presence of Chris Eigeman only underlines this, given his role in Metropolitan five years earlier (and not very far back in the Criterion Collection), which did this stuff a lot better and with more genuine wit and humour. Of course, perhaps part of the problem is that “this stuff” as I’m calling it is the spiritual succession to Woody Allen and his neurotic stories of WASPy New York types — but that’s not even a genre that is necessarily bad, just quite well covered already. Certainly these mopey graduates trying to make their way in the world feels as limited as their social spheres. I do remember much of my post-film discussion in 1996 or so was about the flashback structure (because all these filmmaking tricks were still new to me then), and Olivia d’Abo’s character Jane is probably the most interesting of everyone, so it’s a pity she gets short shrift to the tedious Grover (Josh Hamilton). Let’s just say there were a lot of things that Baumbach would go on to refine in subsequent decades, but this still very much feels like juvenilia.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Noah Baumbach; Writers Baumbach and Oliver Berkman; Cinematographer Steven Bernstein; Starring Josh Hamilton, Chris Eigeman, Olivia d’Abo, Parker Posey, Eric Stoltz; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, early-1996 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Friday 21 August 2020).

Her Smell (2018)

Another late entry for possible inclusion on my ‘best-of-year’ lists, as I try to catch up with things I’d missed (in this case, largely because it was dumped straight to VOD platforms at some point this year without any festival or cinema screenings in the UK), is also surely a contender for worst title of the year. It’s the latest from Alex Ross Perry, the auteur behind the self-loathing men of Listen Up Philip (2014) and the Bergmanesque chamber drama Queen of Earth (2015), both also starring Elisabeth Moss in key roles. It deals with a certain brand of self-destructive rock star behaviour (seen also this year in Vox Lux, and a few years ago in Beyond the Lights), and channels a kind of 90s energy that suggests to me that it is, subtly, a period piece (I don’t think it anywhere makes it clear when it’s set, but I’m assuming in the 2000s). Anyway, it looks fab and it’s a lot funnier than you might expect. I’d have loved to have seen it on a big screen.


A messy psychodrama such as Alex Ross Perry now has form for making, but I think this may be my favourite of his. It’s certainly got a rawness to it, perhaps only sharpened by flirting with the danger that is inherent in trying to cinematically recreate music of the past (in this case sort of pseudo-Hole 90s woman-led rock music) in a way that doesn’t come across as embarrassingly off-key. For the most part, Moss and Perry pull it off rather well, but this is a story that focuses on Moss’s Becky Something as performer, pulled apart by the industry (personified by Eric Stoltz’s indie label boss; nice to see him on-screen for the second time after so many years), the demands of fame and performance, just barely holding it together. Becky’s problems run much deeper than drinking and drugs, of course, but those are catalysts to some epic disintegration in the first half of the film, which leads into reflective scenes towards the end. Still, even when it all seems to come together (beautifully, climactically so), it’s still always kinda falling apart, but in a way that feels earned by the ensemble. The title sits somewhat weirdly, but the loving recreation of 1990s and 2000s album art in the end credits is wondrous.

Her Smell film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alex Ross Perry; Cinematographer Sean Price Williams; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Agyness Deyn, Eric Stoltz, Dan Stevens, Gayle Rankin, Virginia Madsen; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 30 December 2019.