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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

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Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

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Life of Mary MacLane

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Entries in greta gerwig (3)


In Which We Would Like To See You Again

Christine's Piety


Lady Bird
dir. Greta Gerwig
93 minutes

Lady Bird is a phenomenon now, but it is still hard to be prepared for this film. We are simply not conditioned by current cinema to notice what it notices: the way an awkward young woman falls back on words like “cool” and “awesome,” not because she is inarticulate, but because she is nervous and confused and in love; or the way she suddenly feels desired when a young man says he’d like to see her again; or the way her voice deepens and grows in confidence when she responds to him.

Or the way when sitting in a group and something astonishing happens, and you hear others reacting, you might immediately look not at the event but at your best friend’s face, to see her reaction. Or the faintly attracted, disinterested way you notice a handsome new boy when you already have a boyfriend. Or how, when stuck in a car with friends who are bad to you, at the very moment you realize it, you muster the nerve to get out by sneaking proud glances at yourself in the rear-view mirror.

This is the stuff of clichés, but there are no clichés in this coming-of-age film. It proceeds in vignettes. What feels clichéd in a single scene is every time redeemed by a detail that would be missed by one who is critical of clichés. The film avoids them not by daring to be different but by daring to be similar. It seeks common ground, that is, between itself and its audience. It trusts its audience to trust it, which is a radical thing to do in a time of inhuman cinema, destructive of the qualities needed for that trust. A pervasive inhumanity can only prepare us for alternating evils: give in to the false pleasures and manipulations of Hollywood, or be made mistrustful and cynical, be made to always be on the lookout for clichés. Those of us who have chosen the second option out of necessity are challenged by this film. Lady Bird rejects this problem and suggests itself as a third way.

It is, then, truly an ambitious film. Its director-writer, Greta Gerwig, positions herself as a wise woman, as a filmmaker that the defiant and radiant Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) could have learned from. A character who renames herself is not the kind of person who would listen to just anybody. Gerwig understands the way Christine smiles at New York City the first time she sees it, emerging out of the stairs from the subway as if she had lived her whole life underground until then. But Gerwig also understands how the excitement of a new home won’t make you happy if you’re running away from an old one.

She understands how Christine might, on one random Sunday away from home, almost inexplicably, walk into a church service and listen to the music. She also understands why she might only watch from the balcony, or not stay for very long, but be moved nonetheless, and walk away with new hope and a little more self-understanding. Gerwig’s religious scenes are like Eric Rohmer's in their almost muted piety and in their full confidence in that quietness. Gerwig knows that piety is a powerful thing and need never be loud. She also knows that piety can be ridiculous, inflamed, or very disagreeable, and that it might especially seem so to someone like Christine.

Lady Bird is a love letter to its characters, and to those watching who might also love its characters, and learn from that love modeled by the director. But love letters sometimes never rise above platitude; they sometimes lack the tension of stinging self-awareness. It can be the mark of both a cynic and a mature man to be skeptical of love letters. The cynic doesn’t want to feel his feelings. The mature man wants to feel them thoughtfully and in proportion. He wants to feel them in a way that leads to a deeper understanding; he wants to leave room for his reason. The immature person might want to obliterate his reason; he might want to feel his feelings too much, or linger in his memories for too long. Lady Bird proceeds in vignettes because we remember our lives in vignettes. One feels that Lady Bird the character is remembering her youth as an adult via Lady Bird the film. This is an accomplishment by the director. It is not a crutch of autobiography, but an invitation to remember with her.

Still, one worries that Christine lingers too long in her memories. Understanding the film as a succession of memories illuminates at the same time as it disturbs us in its overwhelming affection for them. Christine seems to be unusually invested in and attached to her adolescence, or rather, to its very end. The cusp of adulthood is brilliantly remembered and depicted, but perhaps overly loved.

That heightened love has the tendency to hide or impoverish Christine’s inner life, especially its darker moments of guilt or regret. It is conceivable that our decent director does not find “guilt” to be helpful, or has not reflected that reflecting on guilt can change the quality of that guilt, from something that haunts you to something that saves you. One scene shows a young man, guilty of hiding a secret from his unaccepting family, suddenly sob. Guilt, here, is portrayed as something to overcome or escape from, and secrets are shown to be special, inviolable, and at the core of one’s identity.

Other scenes recommend the notion that privacy, secrecy, and safety make up the sanctuary where one can become who one is. The family bathroom, door locked, is the only place Christine can be her true self. The film obscures the interplay between public and private in which one contemplates, in private, what one has done and said in public, and what one will or will not do in the future. Thoughtful, public action implies private thinking. Otherwise solitude is self-absorption.

It is a mark of Lady Bird’s realism that this complaint may be read as description. Unbearable family life destroys the dynamic between public and private. When the family-authority cannot maintain its power without belittlement or manipulation (not unlike how Hollywood works), then the private becomes a shelter from that authority. One escapes from the public to the private. The private becomes a place to contemplate, not reality, but fantasy. This is why teenagers like Christine might decorate their bedrooms. It is healthy for young people to fantasize or decorate their future selves. But they should imagine becoming someone they could admire and respect after hard work and experience. Christine wants to become someone now, without sweat and without failure. Early in the film, she admires a favorite song because it was “written in 10 minutes.”

We shouldn’t expect Christine to grow up immediately. But we should expect it, hypothetically, in five or ten years, if we are to expect adulthood from the film itself. Lady Bird sometimes seems to assume that identity comes easily, that conflict can be solved by sentiment or a phone call, or even that watching TV news is political engagement. Christine follows the American wars overseas, but she never talks about them, just as she never really talks about who she wants to be outside of the near future. The gist of her voiced introspection is that she wishes her house had a dedicated “TV room.” It is perhaps the saddest remark in the film, full of hope yet on the verge of stasis.

Bobby Vogel is a contributor to This Recording. This is his first appearance in these pages. He is a writer living in Texas. You can find more of his writing here and here. You can e-mail him at bobbyvogelfilm@gmail.com.


In Which Noah Baumbach Is Mistress To Us All



Mistress America
dir. Noah Baumbach
84 minutes

Despite its cliché, I have come to terms with the writer figure, musing over this carnival we call life, in a story: Nick Carraway is nothing if not iconic. In Noah Baumbach's new film Mistress America, the writer is a young woman named Tracy (Lola Kirke) who is starting college at Barnard and finding it lonely. Her mother (Kathryn Erbe) urges Tracy to call Brooke (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of her soon-to-be second husband. Brooke and Tracy meet up in Times Square, where Brooke announces she lives because she incorrectly thought it was the cool place to be when she first stepped off the bus from Jersey.

Brooke is a self-proclaimed autodidact (that’s why she didn’t need to go to college) who works as a SoulCycle instructor who also freelance interior decorates. She has aspirations of opening a restaurant that is also a store and a place to get a haircut. Brooke is also selling "so many things," twittering her mediocre thoughts, and wondering aloud if she should open a cabaret hall called “High Standards” where she sings all the standards. “That’s clever,” Tracy shouts. Brooke speaks breathlessly, enthusiastically. She wears flowing silk blouses and can hold her liquor.

To Tracy, wide-eyed, naïve, and, upon meeting Brooke, beaming, Brooke is a tumbleweed of sophistication, creativity, and energy: “Being around her was like being in New York City,” Tracy narrates, and I eyerolled in my seat. Getting rejected from the literary society, procrastinating her schoolwork, and feeling underwhelmed by college, Tracy spends one night with Brooke and suddenly is rejuvenated and charmed by the glittering world of a thirty-something who “lives as a young woman should,” has a relentless vault of dreams and ideas, and who sees life as an opportunity, not a disappointment.

Of course, not all that glitters is gold (I think Tracy actually says that in voiceover) and the reality that is painfully obvious to the audience when Brooke first ambles down the steps in Times Square sets in for young Tracy: Brooke is actually a huge asshole. She’s self-obsessed, unapologetically cheats on her boyfriend, can’t hold down a steady job, uses her friends before unfeelingly disposing of them, has a history of bullying people in high school, and worst of all, claims she doesn’t need therapy because “there’s nothing she doesn’t know about herself.” Her charm is actually whiny desperation, and she represents not New York City but instead everything that’s wrong with what my mother deems “your generation.”

The twist in Mistress America is what all those twists are with writer-narrators: through the putting down of a story, the writer becomes aware that perhaps she is just as flawed as the character she has constructed. That’s what happens to Tracy, because at Brooke’s urging, she forcefully kisses a young man she meets at college despite his girlfriend’s existence. She also writes an offensive short story about Brooke as a means to enter a literary society, even though it’s a pompous group of jerks who carry briefcases and don Warby Parker frames and who rejected her the first time. I guess, of course, that’s the point: that writing a story that defames someone will get you into the club of people who make it their business to be jerks, and then there you are, also a jerk, but at least your talent is recognized.

Performances were OK. Greta Gerwig is fun to watch in a painful sort of way. Her Brooke is dressed well but also clearly broken inside, exactly what Brooke is supposed to be. She’s clumsy and confident at the same time, making it clear her arrogance is masking insecurity. Lola Kirke's Tracy is also awkward, although she is unable to cover it with any believable amount of bravado. Tracy doesn’t change much in the film, except that she quits the writing society in order to make herself feel better for diatribing Brooke.

A pivotal plot development is that Brooke must make amends with her old friend Mamie Claire (Heather Lind), who according to Brooke stole her fiancé, her idea for hipster flowers on t-shirts at J. Crew and “literally” her cats. It is on this journey to Connecticut, to make peace with Mamie Claire and also ask for money to start the new restaurant, that Tracy really begins to understand Brooke — flaws and all — and casts her for what she is (an asshole) in her short story. The visit ends with Brooke’s former fiancé telling her to just not go through with the restaurant — he’ll pay her not to do it — and then everyone gathering around reading Tracy’s story about Brooke and finding it offensive to women.

In nineteenth-century British novels, characters who don’t belong in British society are shipped off to Australia, or sometimes America or Canada. It’s a trope much like literally everything that happens in Mistress America, and unsurprisingly, Brooke is sent off to California by the end of the film. On Thanksgiving Day, she is packing up the commercial apartment in Times Square she illegally holds as a residence when Tracy comes looking for her to make amends for the mean story she wrote. Brooke forgives her; they tell each other they’re smart, and then they share a meal together and giggle about things. We don’t hear what they talk about because music is playing and it’s supposed to be sentimental and conclusive.

Mistress America has been called “screwball” by many critics — it has fast-paced dialogue and sort of larger than life scenarios — and it does fit that description, although it doesn’t attempt to echo anything of a classic screwball comedy. Instead, it proves that we — or at least people who live in New York — are soulless, cardboard people with an unquenchable and unreachable desire to be unique and notorious. Our only hope is moving to California. It’s best not to write that story.

Julia Clarke is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan.

"Levitation" - Beach House (mp3)


In Which Whit Stillman Is Overly Familiar

Marbled Wonderland


Damsels in Distress
dir. Whit Stillman
97 minutes

People like to give Whit Stillman a hard time for making movies about rich people who only care about themselves, but really he makes movies about rich people who care a lot about bad dancing. Metropolitan, Last Days of Disco and Barcelona all promote terrible dancing in public as a therapeutic pastime. Damsels in Distress — Stillman’s first feature in more than a decade — is also his first to elevate the bad dancing/therapy dichotomy to a cure for all life’s social ills. I, for one, came away convinced.

Damsel’s heroine Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) dreams of “changing the course of human history” by inventing an international dance craze. In off hours she tries to reform the Roman Letter Clubs (Stillman’s version of frats) of Seven Oaks College by showing up at their parties and waving her arms around. She’s a junior, I think, but she doesn’t ever talk about summer internships or studying abroad. She’s sacrificed a four-year education for loftier ambitions, like the prevention of suicide in the student body’s depressive population through tap.

With her normal-person body, gargantuan smile and eyebrows that don’t match her hair, Gerwig’s Violet is hard not to love. She’s the least movie-star-pretty girl in her posse of ladies, which means, of course, she is the leader. Her sidekicks, Rose and Heather glitter like they got lost on the way to a Gossip Girl shoot but they turn up mostly to protect Violet’s ego, along with the free donut box at the suicide prevention center where she volunteers.

Part of the reason we love Violet is that she fails and fails again. Nobody shows up for the premiere of her international dance craze, and in spite of her best efforts, students keep jumping off buildings. Still, she never so much as doubts herself and for this, she deserves a spot among the Katniss Everdeens and Lisbeth Salanders of the season, if not a throne in movie heaven next to Tracy Flick.

We all know people who claw through life cheerfully deluded, but oftentimes when these people show up in movies, they have penises. Violet has floral silk dresses and a Kate Spade full of good intentions. In the same way Young Adult gave us a female lead who, over the course of a two-hour film, didn’t learn anything or change, Stillman gives us Violet Wister and her all-consuming dedication to beautiful things that don’t matter.

If the whole set-up sounds twee, know that on screen Violet’s perspective comes off as darkly nihilistic. She wants to live in imaginary universe free of aggression, hostility, stupid nicknames, body odor, porn, politics, history or the Internet — a marbled, antiseptic female wonderland where perfume and a pastel dress code are strictly enforced. “In some ways, it is distinctly Whit Stillman,” Gerwig said in an interview, “but in other ways, it’s totally — it’s like an alien made it. But in a good, interesting way.”

Opposite Violet, we get Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a new student at Seven Oaks with baby deer eyes and a teensy-tiny head. We know right away Lily is trouble because she doesn’t wear dresses and she refuses Violet’s offer of a makeover. At first Stillman tries to pit Lily and Violet against each other but Violet doesn’t stand for negativity. Lily calls Violet arrogant and Violet thanks her for her “chastisement”. Lily calls Violet nosy and Violet vows to improve herself. Lily calls Violet crazy and Violet agrees. Lily calls Violet’s boyfriend Frank, “a moron,” and Violet tells her she’s being “a bit harsh.”

Over the course of Damsels, nothing changes, nobody yells at anyone, and nobody makes any decisions. In the end, the whole cast dances and then dances some more. Also, a frat boy who can’t name his colors sees a rainbow. I left the theater thinking, “Nothing as amazing as watching that movie is going to happen to me all year.” (Also: “Why isn’t Adam Brody in more things?”)

Seeing Greta Gerwig in Stillman’s shiny snow-globe of a universe is off-putting. So is watching her recite his blueblood-inflected dialogue. Gerwig got her start in grimy no-budget festival movies like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends. (In Hannah she plays the trumpet naked in a bathtub with Kent Osborne and in Nights she has actual sex with Joe Swanberg on the floor.) Neither feature required her to memorize lines or finish sentences. Her presence in this film, at first, feels like a calculated wink to moviegoers who knew who Gerwig was before Greenberg. Probably, it is. Supporting actors include Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development, Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation, Caitlin Fitzgerald and Hugo Becker of Gossip Girl, Zach Schwartz from The Office and Brody who will never need his credits listed. A consulting producer is Alicia Van Couvering who also produced Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture and Nobody Walks. Dunham was supposed to be in Damsels as was Chris Eigeman, but they both dropped out to do the Girls pilot.

Casting these actors helps Stillman prove he’s still hip in all his premeditated unhipness. It also meant he didn’t have to pay anybody movie star asking prices. Thanks to Damsels’ small budget, Stillman doesn’t need to pander to anybody to make his money back. He can include his weirdo P.G. Wodehouse dialogue and not cater to anybody’s narrative expectations but his own.

Untrammeled freedom isn’t always a good thing though, and parts of Damsels are genuinely bad. One of the damsels can’t act at all, and only one of the frat boys can. Some lines landed on the audience not so much with a thud as with the nervous through-the-nose exhale people reserve for New Yorker cartoons, or unfunny friends whose feelings they don’t want to hurt. “What was that?” asked the woman behind me as the credits rolled. “Whose idea was that movie?”

She probably wasn’t the only person who felt that way. One major critique I imagined coming out in reviews is that it’s tone-deaf to politics. The world the Damsels live in looks more like the Clueless era than this modern age of scrambling economics majors and unemployed law school graduates. But just because an agenda isn’t timely doesn’t mean it’s not relevant. What people who rail against the film’s superficial materialism are missing is that a major theme of Damsels is the decline of decadence. Adam Brody writes a paper on the topic and Violet and her posse attend a drunken frat boy bacchanal.

Perched on top of a rock situated high above the brawling mass of oafs, animals, spilled beer and toilet paper, Violet muses, “This is what happens when decadence infiltrates a society from within… such a society is destined to be overrun. Maybe that’s a good thing.” For all her oblivious insanity, you’d be hard pressed to argue she’s not making a valid point.

Sarah LaBrie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Jennifer Egan. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"At the Table of the Styx" - Will Stratton (mp3)

"If You Wait Long Enough" - Will Stratton (mp3)

The latest album from Will Stratton, Post-Empire, was released on February 12th.