Greenberg (2010): What’s that thing in the pool?

So when my soul mate and I came home from seeing Greenberg, the question came up: what was the thing in the pool? Frankly, is was hard to tell what it was, although it looked a little like a cat or small dog, something like that, drowned. I’m less interested in what it was exactly, and more concerned with what it represents. Water, to Greenberg, is generally to be avoided, and mysterious hairy things in the pool just make it that much less inviting.

There are quite a few references to the pool and water in general in the movie. Most obviously, Greenberg’s one attempt to use the pool is terribly uncomfortable. He barely doggie paddles across the thing, and, just to make the situation worse, a low flying helicopter just happens to be passing overhead at the same time. Knowing Greenberg as we do, this will bother him a lot more than it would bother us – and I would bet it would bother us quite a bit.

The pool is also used by the neighbors while Greenberg’s brother is out of town. They seem like happy people, quite a contrast to Greenberg. In fact, Greenberg avoids ever talking to them until near the end of film when need finally trumps his social awkwardness. It is no accident that the “need” here involves Mahler, the dog, (Greenberg needs someone to give Mahler his medication if Greenberg is going to leave for Australia), but more on this below. The point is his aversion to the pool is so bad, he not only avoids them, but he doesn’t even make it out to the pool at the “party” he throws (with Ivan as the only actually invited guest).

At Greenberg’s birthday dinner, Ivan repeats the old saw, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Greenberg counters, “Life is wasted on people.” Water, more specifically the pool, represents life, and the awkwardness with which Greenberg crosses it, accompanied by that roaring helicopter, is exactly like the awkwardness and pain with which Greenberg goes through his day and his life at this point. He avoids the pool with the same half-baked excuses he avoids Florence. For example, he runs out of her apartment because she doesn’t have anything good to drink and her story was “stupid.” His body language there is very similar to his body language when he tells Ivan he can’t out to the pool right now because he has to prepare the guacamole. We can tell he’s making excuses.

However, it is also with the pool that we see his first small act of responsibility. During a rain storm, concerned the pool might overflow, we see him run outside, cover the partially finished dog house, and set up the hose to drain the pool overflow. He literally has been given a situation where he has practically no responsibilities. His brother has help that comes to clean the pool, take care of the plants, etc. Except for the dog (yes, we’ll get to him), there’s very little he has to do, and even things like shopping (“whisky, ice cream bars”) he can get help from Florence. That his first act of responsibility involves the pool is no accident.

His second, and continuing, act of responsibility, involves Mahler the dog, who gets sick. The great thing about pets is there really isn’t any way to deflect them. Greenberg can’t put off the dog the way he pushes people away, and he can’t put off his responsibility to the dog as his (temporary) owner. Mahler also acts as a connection to Florence. Mahler getting sick involves Florence with Greenberg, no matter where their relationship is at the moment. He can’t drive (another kind of locomotion, like swimming, that he is unable to perform), so he needs her to drive. She cares about the dog, so he needs to keep her informed about his progress.

Eventually, it is Florence who needs his help when she finds herself pregnant and in need of a ride, and a friend, at the abortion clinic. By taking care of Mahler, Greenburg is prepared to take care of Florence. Mahler’s illness is at first a pathway to connecting with Florence; later, we see that is was a practice run for showing he can care about another person.

We need to get back to the thing in the pool. The whole party scene was a bit of a jolt for me. Greenberg has been alone in this house for nearly two months. Occasionally he sees Florence or Ivan, the neighbors swim in the pool, he has his failure of a date with Beth – but by and large, it’s been quiet, with Greenberg alone or in small groups. Beth’s party is the one exception, and Greenberg initially doesn’t want to go, and then tries to skip it again when he sees how big it is. I view Beth’s party as being about Greenberg’s past. Here are his band mates, his old girlfriend, people who haven’t seen him for a decade. It’s a little bit of the life he used to have and could still have if things had gone differently.

Anyway, with all this quiet, when his step-niece and her friend suddenly appear and throw this large college-style party, we’re thrown and so is Greenberg. He keeps looking to Ivan to come and save him, but Ivan is busy trying to save his marriage and the “life he didn’t plan on.”

The sequence of events leading up to the thing in the pool is important. After just trying to duck and cover from the party (and calling Ivan), Greenberg then acts like the adult he is: he stops a kid from giving Mahler wine, and gives Mahler his medicine. (Notice it is Mahler being “in danger” that snaps him out of his miserable “I don’t want to be here” state.) He then begins to try to clean up a little.

However, the party is too big, too loud, too difficult to clean up. He is not up to being the adult to this many – he can barely do it one-on-one. So he joins the party, as out of place as he is. Most interesting is his interaction with the kid with drugs who I believe is named Rich (if I’m wrong, no bigee – let’s just call him Rich). Rich provides the coke and so on, and it is with Rich that Greenberg argues about which music to play.

A short detour: notice the many references to music. The elephant in the room with Greenberg is the contract he torpedoed for his band, Magic Marker, and the repercussions of that on his, and his band mates, lives, especially Ivan. We’ll come back to that elephant, but I want to point out some of these references to music. When Ivan comes over, he sits on the speaker (which is what a guitarist in a band rehearsal might do), and Greenberg has to ask him to not sit there. Greenberg makes a mix CD for Florence, one of the only nice gestures he makes – the only gift he gives her besides the hilariously inappropriate hamburger. She is listening to that CD when she’s trying to get drunk the night before the abortion. At least I think she’s listening to that CD, because Greenberg’s musical tastes are in the past (Duran, Duran is his perfect music to have coke to), and she’s listening to Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey, which seems a lot more him than her. Of course, Florence also sings, and Greenberg’s attendance at that performance is one his other nice gestures to her. And getting back to the party, when Duran, Duran is replaced by a couple of other partygoers, and Greenberg objects, he ends up getting punched. This is certainly also a symbolic punch by the younger generation as they reject “his” music.

Returning to Rich and his friends: Greenberg says he’s scared of the confidence these young people at the party have, a confidence about life he so clearly lacks now. He later points out to Florence that she, at 25, is much more fearless than he felt at 27, which is when the contract dispute occurred. Is this the real reason this movie has to be about an older man and a younger woman? It’s not a typical November-June relationship, that’s for sure. In those movies, the younger woman makes him feel young again, but this doesn’t feel like it’s about making him feel younger so much as making him feel something for somebody. Her generation is fearless because of how they were raised (so Greenberg claims) so this isn’t about recapturing his youth; he never felt invincible like he thinks they do.

Anyway, this bit about confidence - he says this to all of them, but Rich is the leader of this little scene. And so it is Rich who has the confidence to scoop the mysterious animal out of the pool. We’ve just seen Greenberg yet again “save” Mahler (this time from pizza), but he still hasn’t dealt with the pool – he’s around the edges of it, keeping it from overflowing, give a pool party for a few others, but he has not dealt with the object in the middle of his pool/life. He has still not dealt with his role in the botched record deal and what that has done for everyone. He has not moved on to the “life he didn’t plan.” So Rich scoops out the animal and tries to scare everyone with it. Because no matter who we are, most of us don’t have the confidence Rich has – the confidence Greenberg say scares him – and we all flinch when confronted with the unnamed thing in the middle of our pool.

Right after this scene, Ivan arrives, and Greenberg finally talks about the contract snafu: sure he would do it differently if he could it over again, how could know there wouldn’t be another offer, etc. At the heart of it, he didn’t know he had the power to change so many people lives. I think he wants to make amends, but only knows one way: to go back. His therapist says he lives too much in the past, and there are many signs of that. Just like when he tries to rekindle things with Beth, he imagines that Ivan can leave his wife and return to the guitar and they can start over again. He is so oblivious to reality, he’s never even acknowledged Ivan’s son Victor, as Ivan bitterly tells him before leaving.

By finally saying this to Ivan, by articulating this idea which has no connection with the real world, Greenberg frees himself from it. As long as he and Ivan don’t talk about it, as they do when they meet up earlier in the film, he can keep it safe and allow it to control him. But (given enough drugs) Greenberg finally admits, out loud, that what he wants is to go back, restart the band, try again, as if the intervening ten years hadn’t happened. This then is the real reason he avoids the pool and the friendly neighbors, the real reason he walks out on the waiters singing “Happy Birthday,” and the real reason he tries to torpedo his relationship with Florence. All to keep from admitting that time has gone by and he cannot get back the life he planned on.

Having confronted the “thing” in his pool, he is able to move on with his life. His sweet phone message to Florence logically follows this moment. However, there is one more test. When he decides to go off to Australia with no notice the next morning, it’s to prove he can embrace life now and move forward. This is what people do, he says aloud to himself in the car. This is normal, right? Of course it isn’t, and fortunately he snaps out of his flight from responsibility and from Florence and from the pain that comes with relationships. What sets this off is the mention of water again – he has to tell the girls not only doesn’t he snorkel, but he doesn’t really like water. We can see him coming up short, realizing how insane this is to go off so suddenly, and with these two girls half his age, to someplace he doesn’t want to be. In the end, he embraces his love for, and responsibility to, Florence. He still can’t drive, but he can be in control of where he goes, and so he leaves the car and dives back into the pool called life.

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Copyright © 2013, David Heuser
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