In Praise of Noah Baumbach's Secret, Highball

by Jonah Wolf

The New Yorker's recent profile of Noah Baumbach -- whose film Frances Ha is currently screening nationwide -- describes the director's progression from '90s comedies of yuppie manners Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy to '00s family tragicomedies The Squid and the Whale and Margot and the Wedding, and includes a curious parenthetical: "(A third film, 'Highball'--shot in six days--was released on video, against Baumbach's wishes.)" In his recent appearance on Marc Maron's WTF Podcast, Baumbach practically denies the film's existence in his description of the run-up to 2005's breakthrough The Squid and the Whale: "I had made two movies, but I wasn't Woody Allen. And I was having trouble not only getting another movie made, but I was having trouble really figuring out what that was."

Highball, supposedly shot with film left over from Mr. Jealousy, came out on DVD in 2000; the director's credit read "Ernie Fusco." When Squid premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, the five-year-old Highball was still Baumbach's most recent release; The A.V. Club's Noel Murray asked him about it.

AVC: Why have you disowned Highball?

NB: It's not obvious? [Laughs.] The truth is, I never "owned" Highball. It really was an experiment, and kind of a foolish experiment, because I didn't think about what the ramifications would be if it didn't work. But it was made with all the best intentions, which was to try and make a movie in six days, and use all the same people from Mr. Jealousy, with all their goodwill, and bring in some more people. And it was a funny script. But it was just too ambitious. We didn't have enough time, we didn't finish it, it didn't look good, it was just a whole... mess. [Laughs.] We couldn't get it done, and I had a falling out with the producer. He abandoned it, and I had no money to finish it, to go back and maybe get two more days or something. Then later, it was put out on DVD without my approval.

AVC: You didn't think about the ramifications? What ramifications?

NB: Just that I feel about as much ownership of Highball as I do the Hi-8 videos I made the summers I was in college. But those aren't out on DVD. [Laughs.] I mean the ramifications like, if Justine Bateman and Rae Dawn Chong are in your movie, someone's going to try to make money. It doesn't matter if you finished it, or even felt like you got a movie out of it.

AVC: Is there also an element of trying to control your filmography, the way a musician tries to control his discography? And then some ex-manager comes along and puts out Live At The Cavern Club?

NB: Right, exactly. Fortunately, there are enough of those in other people's careers I admire, so I can think, "Yeah, okay, this is my Live At The Cavern Club." Highball is my Mr. Arkadin, or one of the many Orson Welles movies that are all a thousand times better than Highball.

Still, I've kept coming back to Highball. The fascination is partly due to its long stay in Netflix Instant (unfortunately over, but you can watch it with Amazon Prime); partly due to its tenuous status as a Christmas movie, that genre that demands annual re-watchings; and partly due to "Everybody Felix," the catchy closing credits song composed by Galaxie 500/Luna singer and Baumbach pal (watch for his cameo in Frances Ha) Dean Wareham, which should really replace the Birthday Song. But Highball really owes its appeal to what Nathan Rabin calls (in the only professional review I could find) "a loose, spontaneous quality that's invigorating." The film demands little of the viewer: you can watch it while folding laundry or doing homework.

The already short 80-minute runtime is subdivided into three sitcom episode-sized acts, each a different party at the Brooklyn apartment of Travis (Chris Reed, who co-wrote the film) and Diane (Lauren Katz). All are filled with Mr. Jealousy castmembers: third co-writer Carlos Jacott as a sociopathic birthday boy; snark king Chris Eigeman as an uptight record store employee; director Peter Bogdanovich as a letch with a thing for impressions; Baumbach's author father Jonathan as the neighbor down the hall. '90s stars Ally Sheedy and Rae Dawn Chong play themselves, and the other characters' fawning over these now-forgotten figures now reads as an unintended extra joke. (So does Eigeman's character's job.) The camera moves quickly from conversation to conversation, so that individual lines -- "Gay as a heart attack;" "I hope you like your beer tastin' good" -- stick out more than set pieces.

There's obvious cult appeal to watching a movie most people don't know about, and whose existence its creator has tried to deny. (See also Louis C.K.'s Pootie Tang, another personal favorite disavowed by its respected director; as he tells Howard Stern [and George Takei?!] here, "I can't look at two minutes of it.") The fact that Highball didn't suit Baumbach's vision means we don't have to watch it for the director's ambitions but can instead enjoy it for what it is: "a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn't anywhere or for anything," to use critic Manny Farber's definition of "termite art." One watches Frances Ha as a self-conscious masterwork, with its deliberate black-and-white photography and shoutouts to French cinema. One watches Highball to have fun.

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