The Squid and the Whale
With excruciating honesty, The Squid and the Whale chronicles the experiences of two young brothers growing up in 1980s Park Slope, Brooklyn, as they navigate the jagged contours of the divorce of their parents, both writers. The acclaimed third feature by Noah Baumbach marked a critical development for the filmmaker as he turned toward an increasingly personal style—a move that garnered him an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay. Shot in Super 16 mm and featuring a quartet of nuanced, understated performances from Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, and Owen Kline, this comic and poignant drama, peppered with autobiographical elements, deftly captures the heartache and confusion of a fracturing family.
The Criterion Collection presents Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration scanned from the 16mm original A/B negative, and is presented on a dual-layer disc.
The film was actually released previously on the format by Mill Creek Entertainment, who paired it with the film Running with Scissors. That release can be found for under $5 (I got it for $4.50 I believe) and at that price it’s probably worth it. Of course, that release was barebones and used an older master that was encoded rather lousily, making it look only marginally better than the previous Sony DVD, but for what worked out to $2.25 a film, I don’t know if one can really complain.
Thankfully Criterion has come in to work their magic and save the film from the bargain bin wastelands, giving the film a complete makeover. Right off the improvements over that old Blu-ray are obvious. The film is grainy and the Mill Creek Blu-ray didn’t handle that well. On that disc it came off as noise and was rendered poorly, looking blocky and patchy. It’s far cleaner, tighter, and natural here, and the image is all the more film-like because of it. Definition is sharper, fine object detail is excellent, textures look strong, and depth is much better.
Colours also look really good, with better saturation levels in comparison to the Mill Creek: the blues at the end are far more vibrant here. Browns, reds, and flesh tones also look far better and more natural. Black levels are improved upon as well, much deeper and richer, where the Mill Creek looks off in brightness and/or contrast, the image looking lighter and the blacks looking grayer. What I did notice, though, is that because of this some details show up better in the darker scenes of the Mill Creek Blu-ray, and this is most notable in the final shot of the film where you can make out more details around the squid and whale display that are not all that noticeable in the Criterion presentation. Of course, the blacks levels are off so the shot still doesn’t look right, whereas the shot looks better on the Criterion with the deeper blacks.
The clean-up job has also been thorough because I don’t recall a blemish appearing. Yes, this release is certainly more costly than the Mill Creek release, but it does look so much better and would be well worth it for fans.
The 5.1 surround track is presented in DTS-HD MA. The film’s soundtrack is not overly active but it’s effective. Dialogue sticks primarily to the fronts and sounds clear and crisp, and ambient noise (like traffic in the streets, or the echoes in a school gymnasium or an indoor tennis court) and music move around through the other speakers, with the lower frequency getting some subtle use. There is also no distortion, damage, or noise.
Again it’s not an overly showy track but it’s effective and suits the film well enough.
The Mill Creek Blu-ray did not contain any special features (it was just paired with the film Running with Scissors) but the original Sony DVD did contain a few features. Fans may be disappointed that none of the big features have been carried over (only the behind-the-scenes featurette gets carried over) but Criterion does replace what was there.
There is a 28-minute interview with director Noah Baumbach, which sort of replaces the “audio commentary” on the original DVD (it was more along the lines of a video essay than an actual commentary track since it didn’t play over the film) but has the advantage of Baumbach now having over 10 years distance from the film. When making the film it allowed him to reflect back to that time period of his life as depicted in the film, but now the film itself represents that period of his life and he can see now how it has set his path since then. He also shares stories about the development of the script and casting, and the difficulties in getting the film made, as well as the technical aspects in getting the look of the film right. It’s admittedly shorter than the “commentary” on the DVD but I actually found this more interesting and rewarding based on my memory of the DVD’s feature.
There are then a couple of cast interviews, with the first, Revisiting “The Squid and the Whale,” featuring Laura Linney, Owen Kline, and Jesse Eisenberg, and the second being an entire feature devoted to a new discussion with Jeff Daniels. I was a little disappointed with the group segment as it feels too short at 20-minutes, but the three talk about the experience of working on the film and their characters, Eisenberg mentioning how he tried to copy Baumbach’s speech patterns for his character. Kline’s contribution is the most interesting since he had no real interest in getting into acting (and it appears he still doesn’t), and he had the least amount experience as everyone else.
In his interview, Daniels recalls having to fight to get this role after Baumbach was considering someone else, and the impact it has had on his career since, helping him get roles now that he probably wouldn’t have managed to get beforehand. He also talks about meeting Baumbach’s father (Daniels even wears Baumbach’s father’s actual clothes in the film) and what it was like working with Anna Paquin in a very different context after being father/daughter in Fly Away Home. It’s only 8-minutes but a very good discussion with the actor.
Criterion then includes about 20-minutes’ worth of audition footage, the first between Eisenberg and Kline doing their one argument/fight bit. The other four segments are between Eisenberg and Halley Feiffer, and I don’t believe the last segment between them is actually in the film. The audio is a bit poor and I had a hard time hearing but it’s interesting to watch them work out the scenes, plus the bits in the film are a little different here.
Finishing off the new interviews we next get a 14-minute discussion between Baumbach and Luna members (and composers for the film) David Wareham and Britta Phillips, who all talk about the film’s score—which was influenced heavily by Midnight Cowboy—and the song choices for the film, particularly the use of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as the song that Eisenberg’s character would steal for his own. The same behind-the-scenes featurette from the DVD follows. Running 9-minutes it features interviews with Linney, Daniels, as well as William Baldwin, who is disappointingly missing from the new features. The disc then closes with two theatrical trailers, which don’t seem to know how to capture the film (the second one also looks to be a standard-definition upscale).
A really nice addition to the release is the booklet, which features an excellent essay by Kent Jones, stressing what Baumbach was able to get out of his young actors and how the film has changed for him over the years. But the strongest part is a reprint of an interview from a 2005 edition of BOOM magazine between author Jonathan Lethem and Noah Baumbach. This interview turns into just a general conversation about New York in the 80s and their childhood and how it reflects in their work. It’s free and loose and rather fun, and Baumbach comments at the end how he wishes all interviews were like this.
As mentioned a couple of items don’t get carried over from the Sony DVD. The commentary was actually a general discussion by Baumbach that played over still photos, and there was an interview between Philip Lopate and Baumbach recorded in 2005. I think the new features make up for the lack of the “commentary” (and again I like the 10-years’ worth of reflection) and the interview in the booklet actually covers some of the same material in the Lopate/Baumbach conversation, so I don’t think anything is really missing. Though I would have liked some other academic features outside Jones’ essay I rather enjoyed going through the features. It’s a solid little special edition.
Criterion gives Baumbach’s film new life with a fresh looking transfer and a new round of excellent, reflective supplements. It easily tops the sub-par Mill Creek Blu-ray and fans of the film will surely want to pick this up.