ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Women in Noah Baumbach’s Films: Gentleness as Strength

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Women in Noah Baumbach’s Films: Gentleness as Strength

nullIn Noah Baumbach’s most recent
film, ‘While We’re Young,’ the smartest person in the room is Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a talented
ice cream maker and the young wife of an ambitious young film director named
Jamie (Adam Driver), who, we find out later on, is also stealing many of her ideas. While the
film on surface is about aging and art, a major subtext of ‘While We’re Young’
has to do with the ways that gender dynamics shape relationships. After all,
even though there is a twenty-year age gap between Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), and Jamie
and Darby, the men in both couples push away the possibility for true
collaboration with their wives.

In A.O. Scott’s review of the film,
he argues that gender is a major blindspot in Baumbach’s films. He comments on
the fact that Baumbach, like many other male film directors, treats ambition
like it’s “…a guy thing. Men make movies. Women make ice cream and babies, or
help the men make the movies.” But where Scott sees a pat dismissal of the
female experience, I think Baumbach is actually doing something more
challenging with his female characters. In a world where we often doubt whether
female characters can still be perceived as “strong” if they long for romance
or babies, Baumbach offers a vision of femininity in which there is power in being
gentle.

Films like ‘The Squid and The Whale’, ‘Greenberg,’ and ‘While We’re Young’ are fascinated with the lives of men who are
often disdainful of their female companions, too self-absorbed to acknowledge
them as having an interior world that is equally as complex as their own. 

In ‘The Squid and The Whale,’ for
example, we see husband Bernard (Jeff Daniels), expressing contempt for his ex-wife’s
burgeoning literary accomplishments as he flounders and fails to write a
successful new novel. The father’s frustration with his wife’s success
manifests as misogynistic instructing of his own son, Walt. He implores him not
settle down too soon, and seems to be unimpressed by the looks and talent of
his son’s girlfriend, who is portrayed as exceptionally warm, smart and kind,
actually reading the books her boyfriend professes to have read.

Likewise, in ‘Greenberg,’ Florence (Greta Gerwig),
the young housekeeper who is trying to figure out life, is portrayed as far
more stable, dependable, smart and interesting than older and supposedly wiser
Roger (Ben Stiller), who suffers from extreme anxiety, and just as extreme narcissism. It is
clear throughout ‘Greenberg’ that Florence could do a lot better than Roger, but
the criticism that Florence is not a developed character, or exists merely to
inspire change in Roger, seems patently unfair. Throughout the film Florence is
portrayed as bright and vivacious, though she is very insecure, and the film
begins and ends by focusing on her perspective, rather than Roger’s.

As a feminist critic I’ve been
taught to be wary of female characters like Florence, young, talented and
beautiful, yet strangely vulnerable, and willing to put up with a lot of male
bad behavior. We’re in an anti manic pixie dream girl moment, perhaps the
backlash from a few years where every female character on screen seemed to have
a bit of manic pixie dream girl magic about her. Initially meant to describe a
particular type of inspirational female character who existed to help a male
narrator along his journey, the term came to mean any female character who was
portrayed as quirky, gentle, and offbeat. 

Even the creator of the term,
Nathan Rabin, would eventually apologize for inadvertently creating the clichéd buzzword.  In his 2014 piece for Salon, he argues that
the term is actually being used to devalue female characters, rather than
criticize the limited roles that women have on screen. The term manic pixie
dream girl is used to criticize a particular kind of girl, one who likes Zooey
Deschanel bangs, and kittens, and quirky, gentle things, like knitting and
xylophones and pretty art.

In short, the term has evolved as a
kind of catch-all to dismiss female artistic potential. Youthful male energy is
cast as exhilarating, creative and powerful, while youthful female energy is presented
as lacking gravitas. (A male ice-cream maker with the kind of talent Darby
exhibits would be presented as a talented businessman, not a burgeoning
housewife, as AO Scott suggests in his review.)

As Eva Wiseman argues in her review
of Miranda July’s latest novel, ‘The First Bad Man,’ female creative talent is often dismissed
with words like quirky, as if liking glitter and kittens is antithetical to
producing work that is serious and substantive.

She says of July’s novel, “Loneliness is not trivial. Death is not cute.
To call stories like this quirky is to admit that you haven’t really listened.
Occasionally a male artist is labelled quirky, but usually because his style is
perceived as feminine. ‘Surreal.’ In fact, male artists who are similar to
July, whose work is unusual and prolific and who divides critics, are likely to
be labelled geniuses. A genius, perhaps, is a male artist whose work is
difficult to define. While with a female artist we have the word right here,
ready. It’s ‘quirky’.”

Later in her article, Wiseman goes
on to suggest that the use of manic pixie dream girls in films contributes to
invalidating the importance of female creativity. In reality, I think it’s the
disdain for femininity that leads us to assume that delicate female characters
are unworthy of respect or recognition. The female characters in Baumbach’s
films may often be dealing with men who have the potential to lash out and be
abusive, but that doesn’t mean they are shrinking violets.  At the end of ‘The Squid and The Whale,’ a son
who idealizes his father learns to see their divorce from the perspective of
his mother. At the end of ‘Greenberg,’ Florence listens to a rambling message
from Roger. At the start of the movie she pleaded with traffic, “Are you going
to let me in?” In the end, she is the one who gets to answer that question.
Will she continue to date Roger? Will she let him go? Florence’s becoming aware
of her own power is just as important in the film as Roger coming to terms with
his being an abusive jerk a lot of the time.

A look at Noah Baumbach’s women
would be incomplete without a consideration of the brilliant and beautiful
film, ‘Frances Ha,’ a film that is first and foremost about female friendship. In
it, two young women, Frances and Sophie, grow together and apart from each
other, as they each struggle to make it, both professionally and personally, in
New York. In one of the most moving and memorable moments in the movie, Frances
drunkenly describes what she wants out of a relationship to a few acquaintances
she has just met at a dinner party:

“It’s that thing when
you’re with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and
you know it… but it’s a party… and you’re both talking to other people, and
you’re laughing and shining… and you look across the room and catch each
other’s eyes… but—but not because you’re possessive, or it’s precisely
sexual… but because… that is your person in this life. And it’s funny and
sad, but only because this life will end, and it’s this secret world that
exists right there in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about. It’s
sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us, but we
don’t have the ability to perceive them. That’s—That’s what I want out of a
relationship. Or just life, I guess.”

Towards the very end
of the film, Baumbach presents a scene at a party celebrating Frances’
choreography for a modern dance show, where we see Frances and Sophie lock
eyes. “That’s Sophie. She’s my best friend.” While a show like ‘Girls’ often
paints girliness as vapid or cruel (we spend a lot of time waiting for Hannah
and her friends to grow up and stop being girls, after all), ‘Frances Ha’ insists
on a vision of female friendship that is imperfect, but also genuinely tender.

There were echoes of
this kind of gentle warmth in another one of my favorite films about women’s
lives and relationships, ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ (another film about women
directed by a man) where the young lovers meet again, years later at an art
show. At a time when many feel skeptical about the ability of male artists to
effectively convey the female experience, I remain heartened by the idea that
the creation of interesting, complex characters is not limited by one’s
experience of gender. At a time where “strong female characters” are still
often thought of in regards to the “warrior” archetype (the Ripleys and
Furiosas of the screen), it’s refreshing to see a portrayal of femininity that
doesn’t need to be pumped up or loud or physically powerful. It just needs to
be genuinely human.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
contests
. She is currently writing her first book.

FAST CLIPS: How Arcade Fire’s Music Videos Show the Essence of Greta Gerwig and Andrew Garfield

FAST CLIPS: How Arcade Fire’s Music Videos Show the Essence of Greta Gerwig and Andrew Garfield

If you’re immune to Greta Gerwig’s charms, or skeptical of Andrew Garfield’s talent, or not sold on Arcade Fire, the band’s recent music videos might help you out a little. There’s only so much a music video can do, of course. It has a limited life span–limited by the length of the track it’s built around. If it strays too far from the song, it risks being derided as "weird" or "gratuitous." Indeed, either of these adjectives could be directed at the two videos the band put out in the last year or so, the former (for "Afterlife") featuring Greta Gerwig capering, post-breakup, through a forest, under the dreamlike direction of Spike Jonze, and the latter (For "We Exist") featuring Andrew Garfield, in drag, directed with a strong sense of narrative by David Wilson. But why do that? Neither piece calls out for censure—and in fact, both seem the result of careful thought. 

What’s this evaluation based on? Well, these two videos, at least, have a similar structure, one which works well for the story being told in each case. They begin in stark, dramatic situations–in the case of "Afterlife," a tearful conversation, a goodbye in a tastefully lit room; in the case of "We Exist," a man dressing up in drag and going out to a rough-ish bar–and build the drama outwards, both ending up on an actual stage, during an actual musical performance. (Which, to their credit, both videos present to us without Bruce-Springsteen-ing it too much, or going too hammy.) The former video was filmed live, at the 2013 YouTube Music Awards, as if to underscore a point. And what is that point? There’s one point, and then there’s another–which both pieces share. The most obvious message is one which this particular kind of film has been sending since the mid-1980s, which is that, simply put, freedom and triumph are both possible within the purview of fictional narratives, and possibly within life itself. This notion of cheaply-bought happiness, conveyed within the confines of a 5-minute song, provide a buoyance that is easily digested, like a package of energy-boosting supplements you might buy at a bodega. These two videos, though, torque this narrative, or rather, this idea just slightly.

In the first, Gerwig’s heroine swoops from deep sadness (convincingly brought off, for such an all-too-often comic actress) into profound relief. She does, in the course of the action, a lot of cheesy dance moves–but only cheesy if you were born after 1990. For anyone born slightly earlier than that, the fist pumping has a nostalgic twang to it–recalling everything from Saturday Night Fever to Dr. Pepper commercials. The sudden burst of happiness, too, is just abruptly timed enough to smack of looniness–indeed, the type of looniness we all carry within us, and which can be unleashed at vulnerable moments, the kind of energy we don’t see coming. The earmark sprinting cascades of sound that Arcade Fire issues add to the mix with aplomb, making the whole thing less of a breakup story than a hero saga, complete with a treacherous journey through sharply photographed dark woods. And Gerwig herself communicates less a sense of youngster awkwardness than unbridled aggression here–which may lie more at the heart of her comedy than a desire to be funny: the difference between expressing your anger or happiness and turning it into a verbal or physical pratfall.

There’s more than one would think at the heart of the "We Exist" video, as well, at least in terms of the shapes it takes. There’s something internecine about Andrew Garfield, always, despite the roles he plays–his aggression is always tempered by a slightly more sensitive, vulnerable undercurrent, which runs at full force through this short clip. We begin with a scene that’s one part Midnight Cowboy, one part Girls Don’t Cry, one part American Gigolo, as Garfield puts on dress, wig, fake bra, and make-up to head out to what looks to be a dive bar in a tiny town, in the middle of the heartland, where nonconformity is wholly absent. As one might suspect, Garfield’s naif gets into a fight after a false dance or two with a couple of rowdies, and then the scene becomes surreal, as we watch a group of rowdies, by turns, dancing in skirts and fighting with Garfield. There’s a happy ending here–Garfield escapes and joins the band on the stage, as in the earlier piece. Once again, Hollywood writ small: truth to one’s self wins out, despite adversity, being outnumbered, and being wildly out of place–all showcasing Garfield’s ability. One can only hope that at some point this actor decides to try Greek tragedy: his vision of performance is that huge, and that personal. At a longer length, the scenario played out here would be unbelievable: here, it comes across as a burst of soft-hued optimism, dramatized against lush farmland and shadowy, believably grungy interiors, a small film, if you’re willing to give it the label.  

Oh, what to do with the music video? For people who came of age in the 1980s, when cable television was a mark of privilege (or something you could only watch by swiveling your TV antenna in a hyper-sensitive manner), music videos had a near-mystical charm to them, somewhat like the earliest films, which presented mini-narratives, or half-narratives, in easily watchable form. They were dynamic, too–a way to assess a cultural zeitgeist rapidly and without too much intellectual effort. Chances could be taken, as well–I remember watching a gorgeous video for Tom Waits’s "In the Neighborhood" (from Swordfishtrombones), showing him leading a parade of side-show freaks down a suburban street, and marveling at its subtlety. This was the crucial ah-ha moment that most music videos want you to take away: you thought the song was about this, but it could just as easily be about this. These two videos are fairly straightforward in their approach, as befits Arcade Fire, who have achieved a supremely marketable mix of sincerity and hipness; in so being, they add substantially to a medium that, like ivy, continues to grow up the walls of the edifice of music, beautifying it as it creates its own undeniable kind of beauty.        

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

Breaking the Silence, Sort Of: Whit Stillman’s DAMSELS IN DISTRESS

Breaking the Silence, Sort Of: Whit Stillman’s DAMSELS IN DISTRESS

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Wherefore art thou, O Whit Stillman? Though never exactly a blur in motion, the minor auteur managed to generate three hyper-stylized, hyper-talky meditations on manners, morality and money throughout the ‘90s—the last of which, Last Days of Disco, proved his best known and arguably finest. After that, rumors about him licking his wounds in Europe swirled for years, though little was definitively known about his goings-on. Now, after a nearly decade-and-a-half gap in his curriculum vitae, Damsels in Distress marks his first venture back into cinema. And lo! what an odd re-entry it is.

It’s not that this series of vignettes about a year at Seven Oaks University, a fictional liberal arts college, is terrible. Nor does it mark much of a departure in form or function for Stillman, who’s always liked to focus on old-fogeyish young people. It’s just that, despite its many clever bits and terrific cast, including mumblecore siren Greta Gerwig, this film sounds a wan echo of Stillman’s earlier work. Intentionally or not, he has fashioned here an auto-valentine to his already-established tropes (a murky mentor and her ingénue; the watered-down Kool-Aid of an elite subculture; the questionable merits of nostalgia; the healing power of dance), and it comes with less certitude and many more protestations than does his previous work.

Take the film’s opening minutes, in which 50s-style elevator music swells while big-co-ed-on-campus Violet (Gerwig), flanked by her lackeys Heather and Rose (all three clad in floral prints, lest we not get the flowergirl motif), approaches transfer student Lily (Crazy Stupid Love’s rubbery faced Analeigh Tipton).  “You were unhappy at your old school,” Violet says. “Would you prefer our guidance or to sink or swim on your own?” Predictably, Lily opts for the former, and she preens and then bristles under their tutelage as she stumbles through the university’s rarified ecosystem of body-odor-afflicted education majors, aggressively moronic fraternity brothers, tap-dancing depressives, anal-sex-fixated foreign grad students, and, yes, damsels in distress.

Like all of Stillman’s characters, the girls and boys of this world speak in a halting schoolmarm-ese (no contractions, no cussing, no colloquialisms) that betrays the vehemence of their fastidiously parsed paragraphs. On topics ranging from the acceptable plural of doofus (doofi? doofuses?) to the human tendency to seek those cooler than ourselves, Violet and her peers deliver speeches and aphorisms with strangely ineffective hand gestures and a minimum of flair. Says eighth-year ed student Fred (Adam Brody, whose apparent nose job reinforces his blank, tabula rasa demeanor): “I do romanticize the past. It’s gone, so we may as well romanticize it.” Says Lily: “We value idiosyncrasies and uniqueness but really such people are pains in the asses.”

As you watch, you get the sense that Stillman has been chomping at the bit for years to serve up these unique, idiosyncratic, pain-in-the-ass gems, and so he wishes them as unadulterated as possible.  To that end, these kids are oddly indistinguishable, although each bears one branding characteristic. Rose is haughty (and black! With this film, Stillman has finally broken his racial barrier); Heather is cheerily dimwitted; Lily is a reluctant ingénue; and Violet, who, as Stillman’s most overt stand-in, is also most fully fleshed out, prevails as an earnestly flawed Jane Austen-style heroine. Say what you will about Stillman, he does know his Austen.

The girls’ stances and passions, if they have them, seem to spring from nowhere and just as quickly evaporate, while their many beaus prove interchangeable—liars or dolts, all of them. Even such marginal characters as campus policemen and waitresses utter Whitticisms in the writer-director’s patented cadences. Obviously cats like David Mamet feature a similar homogeneity in tone, but Mamet Stillman is not. And I don’t even like Mamet.

The problem is that since all these kids are so blank, only Stillman, as the narrative voice, is in on his many jokes (“I fled to a Hotel 4, even more economical than a Hotel 6,” states Violet flatly in an account of post-breakup despair.) It’s a pat-himself-on-the-back device that quickly rings hollow: Characters as cogs.  The fact that, as a technician, he doesn’t produce much to write home about here doesn’t help. Pastel and bracingly bright, the film often resembles a Lifetime TV movie—sun-splashed is the name of the game—and its pacing is as ungainly and stiff-legged as these young people’s gaits. (Sharp editing proved a saving grace in his earlier trifecta.)

Near the end, Damsels abruptly transforms into a paean to Fred Astaire, complete with a few inexpert ensemble musical dance numbers. At that point, not uncharmed, I threw up my hands. Just like the paper-thin storylines of Astaire’s movies always functioned as mere filler between his dance numbers, plot and character are apparently mere conduits for Stillman’s signature shouts and murmurs. Lest this connection not be fully drawn, one morose Seven Oaks student even insists upon being referred to as Freak Astaire. Fuck subtext, Stillman seems to be saying. Whit Disney world is my oyster, and herein lie my pearls.

As I left the screening, I described myself to a colleague as feeling “vexed.” “Now you’re talking like the movie,” he replied drily and, indeed (even in the paragraphs above), I’ve fallen prey to its sticky vernacular. Despite myself, I have to admit that I’ll probably be happily charmed by this world for years to come—albeit most likely, and most preferably, in 15-minute snatches on 2 AM cable. Just the gems, ma’am.

Lisa Rosman writes the indieWire film blog New Deal Sally and has reviewed film for Marie Claire, Time Out New York, Salon.com, LA Weekly, Us Weekly, Premiere and Flavorpill.com, where she was film editor for five years. She has also commentated for the Oxygen Channel, TNT, the IFC and NY1. You can follow Lisa on twitter here.