Sceneplay: The Squid and the Whale

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by Hayley MirekThe Squid and the Whale is about a dysfunctional family going through a divorce, combining comedy, drama and awkwardness into ninety minutes of cinematic delight. The film is mostly centred on the Berkman family’s oldest son Walt, and the last scene focuses on his self-realisation. 

The Squid and the Whale ends with Walt running from his father’s hospital bed through Central Park to the Natural History Museum. As Walt reaches his destination, the squid and the whale that hang in the sea life exhibit, Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle’ begins to play. Out of breath, Walt stares at the exhibit. He doesn’t say anything, but something has changed inside him. He has grown up, or at least reached the point where disillusionment forces him to begin his ascent into adulthood. 

The song ‘Street Hassle’ seems like an odd choice to end the film. It is a ten-minute epic whose lyrics tell of the seedier side of New York life; drug overdoses, crack-heads, pimps, whorehouses, and an explicit depiction of prostitution. Yet the song is a perfect fit for the end of the film, and not only because of the almost triumphant string quartet that opens the song. In between the blush-inducing lyrics are words that speak of loss, hopelessness and disillusionment. As Walt stares out, the music and lyrics seem to reflect what his mind can’t really articulate. Dialogue would be pointless anyway; the viewer understands. 

Throughout the film, Walt sides with his father on every issue and uses every opportunity to tell his mother how much he disapproves of her. Yet, as Walt sits by his father’s hospital bed, it becomes clear that Walt can finally see his father as the highly flawed man that he is. His father has become human, part of Walt’s growing up.

The film could have ended with Walt running to Joan, his mother, and telling her how much he loves her. But this is not that kind of film. Joan knows that Walt loves her; an entente the audience shares. Instead, Walt runs to the squid and the whale; the exhibit that used to terrify him as a child, so much so that he had to cover his eyes while Joan would narrate the scene. At the end, Walt stands in front of the creatures and stares, and then the screen goes dark. 

I was in New York this summer and went to the Natural History museum to see the squid and the whale. I put Lou Reed on my ipod and entered. The whale was there, but the squid had been moved to another wing. The exhibit was nice enough in its way, but it didn’t have the power I felt when Walt stood in front of it. The film transformed the longstanding museum exhibit into something meaningful. While Walt stands in front of it, with Lou Reed playing, the scene transcends into something epic, something life changing.

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