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).