Up in the Air (Reitman, 2009)

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 22 January 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

This blog contains spoilers.

Although the protagonist of Up in the Air is a man who flies across America firing people for a living, it is not a movie about losing your job or being unemployed. And although the plot is set in motion by his lifestyle (though probably not his livelihood) being threatened by a new, young recruit who puts forward a case for firing people by videophone, it is not really a movie about new technologies and their alienating effects either. One of the most fascinating things about Up in the Air, in fact, is all of the potential films one can see in it that it refuses to become.

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Shrek Forever After (Mitchell, 2010)

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 2 July 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

This blog contains spoilers.

The Shrek franchise has always riffed on surrounding culture to humorous effect. And like most contemporary franchises, it surrounds itself with merchandise: action figures, duvet covers, video games, clothes. This sort of activity has been around for a long time. However, I discovered this evening another form of diffusion/repurposing that is at least a little newer. There is a particularly memorable ‘turn’ early in the movie, and at what turns out to be a crucial narrative juncture, which involves a young boy, reminiscent of Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, repeatedly demanding that Shrek ‘do the roar’. The repetition, editing pattern and timing of this in the movie make it very funny. And ‘do the roar’, a web search reveals, has, to use an ostensibly vague trio of words which in fact precisely captures the nature of the phenomenon we are faced with, ‘become a thing’. When I google ‘shrek do the roar’ this is what I get: http://tinyurl.com/shrdtr. There is a YouTube video that re-edits the movie to MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’, to great effect. There is a link to a Facebook group page which bears the following description: ‘Welcome to a Facebook Page about The kid from shrek who says “Do the Roar!” Join Facebook to start connecting with The kid from shrek who says Do the Roar!“‘. And, perhaps inevitably, there is an iTunes App: ‘Do The Roar, will allow anyone to annoy Shrek, and cause him to bellow out his enormous Ogre roar. Use Butterpants to help you annoy Shrek,‘ And those are just the first three hits!

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The Road

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 10 August 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

This blog contains spoilers.

Most of last week I was camping in the Lake District, and I managed to read a novel that I’ve been wanting to get around to for a long time.

I spend more time than might be healthy worrying about fuel and food shortages, resource conflict, and social collapse – thinking about all the things that need to keep happening to keep society going, and about how I’d cope if I found myself in the position of Robinson Crusoe, or the ‘castaways’ on Desert Island Discs. Should I be spending time learning how to grow my own food? Build drystone walls? Fashion spectacles for if my eyesight continues to deteriorate?! For this reason, and because I was so gripped by No Country for Old Men, I felt primed for The Road.

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Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016)

This post contains spoilers.

Communication is at once one of the great themes of fiction, and the very stuff of most fiction most of the time. Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer, directed by Denis Villeneuve, and based on a short story by Ted Chiang, is a ‘first contact’ film that holds in check spectacular views of alien spacecraft and scenes of high-tech battle, and instead focuses most of its energies on dramatising the attempts of a group, organised and commanded by the US military but led by two professors (one of linguistics, one of physics), to communicate with a pair of newly-arrived extra-terrestrials. It is very much a film about communication, and one that has been warmly received in many reviews. But its view of communication – and especially of how we might overcome our limited human skills in this regard – seems to me to mainly waver between the peculiar, the limited, and the naive.

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Brief reflections on The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013)

I saw The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013) at Hull Independent Cinema Project last night, and I enjoyed it more than its trailer had led me to believe I might.

The set design, as per the trailer, is indeed meticulous and overbearingly atmospheric; much of its character is captured in José Arroyo’s description of it in his short review as ‘the present… imagined as a dark 19th-century world with 1930s appliances where everyone is lonely’.  (In terms of its look, the film’s closest relative in many ways is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, as Ayoade has acknowledged, but in terms of feel, The Double does not have, or go for, Brazil’s wide streak of mania, opting instead for humorous deadpan.)  Dim, artificial light pervades the film (I don’t remember any scenes in daylight), punctuated by moments of elaborate lighting design, another way in which the film sometimes feels, a bit like its characters, organised to within an inch of lifelessness.  The film’s opening scene thoroughly embodies these qualities.  Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), the film’s protagonist, sits on an underground train, tunnel lights flashing across his face, the rhythmic clacking of the tracks dominating the soundtrack.  A man, whose face we do not see, curtly informs Simon (the film is not afraid to prefigure its central theme as boldly as it introduces its style) ‘You’re in my place.’  A monotone exchange, with long gaps between turns in the ‘conversation’, ensues.  Simon protests, but without conviction.  After a long beat, the close shot on Eisenberg is replaced by a wider one which confirms that, as we probably suspected, the man is demanding that Simon vacate the one seat in the carriage that is occupied.

Such archness has its pleasures, but they are pleasures of a limited sort.  Likewise, achieving such a tone is an achievement, but again, a limited one.  But then, just as I was turning against the film, it modulated.  Mia Wasikowska’s character, Hannah, the object of Simon’s romantic fixation, becomes the film’s much needed locus of authenticity and tenderness.  Her apartment, which Simon views (much in the style of L B Jefferies in Hitchcock’s Rear Window) via a telescope installed in his own apartment across the courtyard, is noticeably softer and warmer, in its set design and lighting, than anything else in the film.  I am not so much praising the fact of the film’s positioning of a woman as the object of a man’s desiring and often intrusive gaze and as a means of alleviating that man’s sense of the harshness and futility of his existence, but the way in which the film so successfully captures the feel of such predominantly one-way relationships as these (with their combination of deep feeling on the one hand, and repression and stuntedness on the other), and builds this feel into its architecture, using it to offset, and be offset by, the gloomy environs and affectless exchanges that characterise the rest of the film.  The pauses, repetitions and poker-facedness of much of the film’s dialogue gives way to rapid-fire, overlapping, engaged exchanges during some of Simon’s encounters with Hannah (and some with his doppelganger, James).  It would be an exaggeration to describe Simon’s exchanges with Hannah as fully authentic or communicative, but there is at least the sense that both parties are invested in making the effort, and Wasikowska’s performance is, for the most part, in a significantly more ‘authentic’ register than the performances in the rest of the film.  In the moments where Simon observes Hannah, Ayoade finds perfect details or framings to hang these moments on: as Hannah sleeps, her inhaling and exhaling disturbs a few strands of hair hanging in front of her face; whilst Hannah photocopies a document for Simon, the camera’s angle and close framing, combined with Hannah’s posture, emphasises the nape of Hannah’s neck, and its elegance.  There is also a nice moment where Simon returns to his cafe table to discover that Hannah has left, but that she has left behind a note and a coin, instructing him to play a song for her on the jukebox, a moment which Simon embellishes in his head in a well-crafted moment of fantasy.

The things, then, that I admired most about The Double revolved around its (probably) secondary relationship, between Simon and Hannah, rather than the (probably) primary one between Simon and James which more straightforwardly drives the film’s plot and themes (and its marketing).  This also explains why I was most engaged by the film’s middle, rather than its beginning or end.  However, precisely this tension between ‘foreground’ and ‘background’, and the way the two play off each other, was one of the key pleasures I experienced whilst watching the film, and whilst reflecting afterwards on the experience it offers.  Ayoade managed to pack more arresting, eloquent images into this one film than one often sees in a dozen, and he demonstrates a sure hand for combining the elements he works with.  On the strength of The Double, I’ve just ordered Submarine (Ayoade, 2010), and I’m very much looking forward to watching it.

In Your Eyes

I’d been keeping tabs on the progress of In Your Eyes (Brin Hill, 2014) for a while – because it was written by Joss Whedon.  A couple of weeks ago I saw that it would be premiering at Tribeca, but even at that point I could still see no news of a UK release.  Given how tricky it was for someone living in a city without an independent cinema to get to see Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012), I wasn’t optimistic about getting to see In Your Eyes any time soon.  So I was delighted when a friend texted me this lunchtime with the news that the film is available to stream now on Vimeo, for just $5, via http://inyoureyesmovie.com/.  I have now watched it, and it may well be my favourite film that Whedon has written and/or directed (not including Toy Story, for which Whedon gets first screenwriting credit but which clearly remains John Lasseter’s film first and foremost).

The first part of the review below is spoiler-free (aside from discussing the concept that drives the film, which is introduced at a very early stage), then there is a clearly-signalled division before I proceed to discuss the film as a whole, including its ending.

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Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary: Mad About the Boy

This review contains spoilers.

As I suspect it was for many people, the publication of an unexpected further instalment of Bridget Jones’s Diary (after the first two novels came out not far apart in 1996 and 1999, having been preceded by a newspaper column) was for me a literary event.  I purchased the book as soon as it was released (something I hardly ever do), and started reading it as soon as I had purchased it (even more unheard of: my shelves and my conscious alike sag under the ever-growing weight of unread books, making me feel like Gatsby, telling myself with each new purchase that tomorrow I will be able to run faster, and catch up with all this stuff)!  My original plan was to get through the book within a few days so that I could post a timely review of it on this blog.  Unfortunately, this plan was frustrated partly by a stomach bug working its way through the members of my household, and partly by the various demands of the start of term…  This, with its reference to the plans we enthusiastically make, the always time-consuming and unpredictable and often messy demands of everyday life, and the gap that opens up between these two things, is already taking us deep into Bridget Jones territory.  Indeed, for me, this may be at the heart of the genius of Helen Fielding and her most famous character.  Bridget is a dramatization of how time feels when one has goals, demands, distractions and desires – and the particular ones that modern middle-aged middle class Westerners have: writing deadlines; an inbox that rarely sleeps; a work life and a sex life and a family life; communications devices, social networking profiles, search engines, and fridges full of food that all lure you with their promises of connection or consumption.

I have dipped my toe in the online critical response to the novel now that I have finished it, and I agree with those people (of whom there are a fair few) who point out that there is quite a lot wrong with Mad About the Boy.  It lacks the elegant plotting of the first instalment (and it is not to qualify Fielding’s achievement too greatly to observe that that elegance derives from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which, as most people will know, lends the first Bridget Jones’s Diary not only the name of its male romantic hero but also its overall plot structure).  But I also enjoyed the novel hugely.  Given that I found its pleasures to be many, and miscellaneous, I thought that a good way to approach this review would be to write in a series of bullet points, rather than to try (much as the novel does not appear to!) to do something more neat and well-wrought, and in this way try to give appropriate weight both to the novel’s great successes and to its major flaws.

  • At the level of plot structure Fielding is certainly more than a little shaky, but her sharp eye for details and her gift for prose that is descriptive and humorous is hard to beat.  There are countless examples of acute distillations of bits and pieces of lifestyle that other popular media texts offer as things to aspire to and emulate (one example I enjoyed is Bridget’s desire to have a ‘mixy-matchy “capsule wardrobe” so that getting dressed becomes a calm joy instead of hysterical scramble.’  There is also the phenomenology of everyday frustrating activities.  I could identify with this one, for example: ‘Managed to get Mabel […] into the car, leaning over in the traditional body-wrenching movement […], fastening the seat belt by waddling my hand in the mess between the seat back and booster seat.’
  • One can also marvel at and savour the poetic terseness and expert tonal modulations of individual sentences.  Simply by dropping articles, pronouns, and so on, Fielding has created a mode of speech that is instantly recognisable as Bridget’s, helping us to enter her mental universe.  On the subject of modulation: the comic effect in the following sentences derives from the way in which a familiar complaint about technology gradually becomes more and more hyperbolic and baroque: ‘Why does turning on a TV set these days require three remotes with ninety buttons?  Why?  Suspect designed by thirteen-year-old technogeeks, competing with each other from sordid bedrooms, leaving everyone else thinking they’re the only person in the world who doesn’t understand what the buttons are for, thus wreaking psychological damage on a massive, global scale.’  (Just one more example in this vein – Bridget’s flights of fancy when extrapolating the consequences of her actions are also marvellous rapid accumulations of evocative and humorous details: ‘If I shrivel and become bitter, then what use will that be to the children?  They will become child-centric, demanding King Babies: and I a negative, rasping old fool, lunging at sherry [that clause is especially good], roaring “WHY DON’T YOU DO ANYTHING FOR MEEEEEEEEE?”‘)
  • This gift for the thumbnail sketch is also put to use in moments where Bridget remembers her life before Mark is killed, and some of the difficult moments of her widowhood.  For example: ‘Did not want it to end up like last year, with me trying to stop my heart from breaking into pieces at doing Santa without Mark and sobbing behind the kitchen counter, whilst Mum and Una squabbled over lumps in the gravy and commented on my parenting and housekeeping, as if, rather than inviting them for Christmas, I had called them in as Systems Analysts.’  The book reduced me to tears (albeit only briefly) on more than one occasion.
  • Bridget remains as vivid as ever, but many of the other characters are unsatisfying.  Of the recurring ones, it is Daniel Cleaver who is most disappointing, as he has been reduced to a one-note sexaholic.  Of the new characters, it is the ones at ‘Greenlight Productions’ who are least well-realised.  It is in the passages where Bridget attends meetings at Greenlight where Fielding’s grasp on her material feels least assured.  As one person whose review I read pointed out, correctly, the subplot involving Bridget’s screenplay is almost entirely redundant.
  • This lack of cohesion even extends to the two main male characters.  These are ‘Roxster’, the 30 year old whom Bridget spends most of the novel with, and Mr Wallaker, who watches Bridget with Darcy-like loving chastisement from a distance for most of the novel before revealing his warmth and love for Bridget towards the end.  It is hard when reading not to view characters and events through the lens of Pride and Prejudice.  In the first Bridget Jones, Daniel was the Wickham character, and Mark Darcy was, of course, Mr Darcy.  And this schema is partially repeated in the new novel.  Like Wickham, Roxster is the more immediately charming, but ultimately the more unsuitable.  Like Darcy, Mr Wallaker is stand-offish but ultimately utterly noble, and a red hot lover to boot.  One effect of the second-guessing that the echoes of Bridget Jones’s Diary and, in turn, Pride and Prejudice encourage is that we are likely to spend most of the novel waiting for Roxster to turn out to be a louse.  In the end, this does not happen.  Bridget and Roxster part amicably, without blame on either side.  (Eventually the age gap of twenty years between them is the deciding factor, which raises a whole other set of issues that I won’t try to address here.)  There are some instances where the pre-judgment of the Wickham character or equivalent is used in a principled and interesting fashion – Lost in Austen being the best example I can think of – but here I wasn’t sure how I felt, or how I was meant to feel, about Roxster.
  • Bringing together these two issues of lack of cohesion and slightly misfiring Pride and Prejudice echoes: in Pride and Prejudice and in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Wickham and Darcy/Cleaver and Darcy hold deep yet concealed grudges against one another, which propel the story along for most of its duration.  In Mad About the Boy, the same is not true of Roxster and Mr Wallaker, which further contributes to the novel’s episodic feel.
  • I wasn’t quite satisfied with the Wallaker character either.  This is the one aspect of the novel that I would say was both over-done (he’s so like Darcy that we can see the end coming) and under-done (Roxster is too present and too good for too long, I would suggest, for us to be completely satisfied by his replacement).  Having said that, the (again, not-subtle) comparisons with Daniel Craig in Skyfall and Russell Crowe in Gladiator did deliver me to the correct model of masculine desirability very efficiently, and made me wonder if the same trick could be pulled off with Daniel Craig in a film adaptation as was pulled off with Colin Firth in the first Bridget Jones movie.

I will end here, despite feeling that I haven’t quite done justice to the novel or to my experience of it.  The above strikes me as more negative than positive, whereas my experience of reading Mad About the Boy was definitely more positive than negative.  Which is to say that getting public acts of criticism to match up with the moment-by-moment, private experience of reading is difficult.  The things that are easiest to talk and write about afterwards (the overall shape of the plot, the depth of characterisation) are the things that this novel does least well.  The things that are hardest to capture after the fact, in critical prose, are the things that it frequently excels at.  Perhaps, then, that is why I liked it as much as I did.

Pride and Prejudice on stage

Last week I went on a rare trip to the theatre, to see a production of Pride and Prejudice at Hull Truck Theatre.  It had a high concept selling point: this particular take on Austen’s novel retained twenty one characters, but they were all played by only two performers, one female (Joannah Tincey) and one male (Nick Underwood).  (The play was directed by Abigail Anderson.)

On the whole, this approach worked very well, and created some interesting effects.  The performers often shifted quite rapidly between different characters, sometimes even stepping aside and continuing a conversation with the character/space they had just vacated.  They distinguished between their different roles partly through broad performances (which is a treatment that, as anyone who is reasonably familiar with Pride and Prejudice will know, several characters in the novel lend themselves quite readily to: Mrs Bennet, Lydia, Sir William Lucas, and perhaps most of all, Mr Collins), and partly through the judicious use of props: Mrs Bennet punctuated almost every phrase with the wave of a handkerchief; Mr Bennet was usually chewing on a pipe (and often slamming shut a book); Caroline Bingley brandished a fan; Mr Collins wore a black clergyman’s cap.  A shade more subtly, both performers were very adept at using carriage and posture to transform themselves from confident or overbearing characters to meek ones and back again. (Tincey’s sketch of Charlotte Lucas, hiding herself behind a pair of spectacles and nervously self-effacing mannerisms, was particularly vivid.)  Underwood did not play all the men and Tincey did not play all the women.  I was pleased to have confirmed my intuition that to see Bingley played by a woman would feel appropriate.  There was only one character whom the two performers took turns playing: Lady Catherine De Bourgh.

For me, one of the most interesting features of the production was the way that the novel’s narration was incorporated.  In the screen versions of Pride and Prejudice, if any of Austen’s words besides the direct speech of the characters are retained, they will tend to be put into characters’ mouths.  The novel’s famous first line, for example (‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’) has sometimes been given to Elizabeth.  It is not a line one would wish to lose, but transferring it to a character is not without its costs.  As John Caughie so acutely puts it (in a passage I also found useful when I was thinking over one of my very favourite adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Lost in Austen), when the source of the novel’s opening observation is changed in this way,

It assigns to Lizzie a knowledge of her social and historical situation, a knowledge which in the novel is shared between author and reader over the heads of the characters. A Lizzie who has the wit to know escapes at least some of the ironies of prejudice. In adaptation, characters become knowing and textual irony, the discourse of the narrator, becomes Elizabeth Bennet’s arch knowingness. The ironic trope of an embryonic modernism regresses historically into the wit of an earlier classicism.

In the theatre production, the performers would often deliver lines from the novel’s narration whilst they were ‘between characters’, as it were – or perhaps one should say, standing partly inside and partly outside them (between sympathy and detachment, perhaps).  They spoke in the voice of a particular character, and used her or his mannerisms, but the audience understood, I take it, that it was not actually that character talking.  This is a very good and interesting way of approximating indirect free style, that literary technique Austen used so masterfully.  It is a style that ventriloquises characters, often taking their choices of vocabulary and so on, and turning these things against them for (in Pride and Prejudice especially) satirical effect.  It dances on the threshold of characters’ understandings of their lives and the people in them, speaking in voices which partly fit their perspectives but do not emanate from their consciousnesses.

The relationship that this production established between characters and audience, then, brought out interestingly some features of Pride and Prejudice that are often lost in translation – principally, the distance that stems from Austen’s irony and from the fact that as well as being populated by some rounded and psychologically satisfactory characters, the novel also features a cast of types, sketched vividly and in broad (and this word again, masterful) strokes.

As one might expect, the aesthetic cost that this incurs, if it be considered to be one, is that within such an overall tone it is harder to make intimate and deeply emotional moments for characters work as such for the audience.  When watching the production I was certainly impressed with its modulations of pace.  Scenes between Elizabeth and Darcy were given a good amount of room to breathe.  Nevertheless, my emotional engagement with this Lizzie and Darcy remained some distance from that which I feel when experiencing other versions, including the source text.

I wouldn’t want to end on a negative or ungrateful note though.  It is not possible for any text to deliver all potentially valuable aesthetic effects simultaneously, since many of these effects are mutually exclusive.  (This said, one measure of a truly great artist is her or his ability to range across and move between effects with greater facility than most mortals.)  This production made me see new things in a well-loved novel, created some novel effects, seemed to know what it wanted to do, and did those things very well.

All rocket launchers, no emotional resonance

(Next day update.  The below was written immediately after watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time.  Tonight I re-watched the episode, and warmed to it a little.  My understanding of the plot and the purpose of each scene certainly benefited from a second screening.  I still maintain that the agents feel like discrete plot functions – and somewhat lacklustre ones at that – rather than interacting characters, which is unusual for a Whedon pilot.  Usually, he deftly establishes not only a plot but a world and a set of relationships, as I suggest below.  ‘We’re not exactly a team’, Coulson tells its newest member at the end of the first episode, and he is about right.  However, perhaps as the series proceeds, we will see the ensemble knit together…)

What follows is a very personal response to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which felt to me like a very impersonal programme).  In composing this blog I’ve repeatedly drafted then deleted a list of my Whedon-based activities over the past three years – drafted because it seemed necessary to give an idea of my massive investment in Whedon’s output; deleted because it felt like I was listing credentials and sounded like I was gearing up to whine about being betrayed.  I’ll just say that I’ve seen most of the stuff that Whedon has had a major hand in since 1992, and I’ve explored every televisual corner of the Whedonverse, much of it in a lot of detail (partly because I’ve been teaching it for three years).  On the other hand, whilst I have of course seen Avengers Assemble, I haven’t seen Iron Man, Captain America, etcetera, and have limited interest in – though certainly no hostility towards – Marvel superheros.

What I have to say against Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is, I recognise, a version of an argument, or rather a series of arguments (about budgets and spectacle and characterisation and so on), that have been made many times before, and often with the person making the argument perhaps not being justified in demanding of a given text the thing it is deemed to lack.  It is, nevertheless, the argument I want to make, the one that I think is right and called for, and I will make it as carefully as possible.

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Big cities, early adulthood, friends, cinema, and Frances Ha

Every once in a while there comes along an enchanted occasion where one’s experience of a film dovetails so serendipitously with the circumstances of seeing it (where one is and how one is feeling at that precise time) that not only are receptiveness and susceptibility heightened, but it becomes difficult to do justice to that experience without also talking about those personal circumstances.

This weekend, I saw the beautiful Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012) whilst down in London visiting friends whom I no longer see as much as I would like, and (for the most part) as much as I saw them when I was working towards a PhD in film studies five to eight years ago.  So I came to the film after a day spent taking tube journeys across London to meet people (people who sparkle!), chat to them, wander around with them, have drinks with them, and exchange or share pieces of culture (I have returned home with a bag full of books and DVDs, and a notebook full of things to explore).  My day was like stepping into that part of my past where I was surrounded by a wealth of friends with a huge thirst for culture and a desire to talk about it that was as constant and as natural as breathing.  So when the evening came, although I didn’t yet know it, I had been primed for Frances Ha.

Frances, played by Greta Gerwig, is a single white female in her mid to late twenties, living in New York and insecurely employed as a dancer.  She splits up with her boyfriend near the start of the film (at the point where he has laid down a deposit on a pair of cats and is asking her to move in with him).  She lives in three different apartments over the film’s duration: first with her friend Sophie, then with two guys she meets at a party who happen to have a room going spare, and finally, alone.  She also takes flights to visit her parents in Sacramento and to go to Paris for the weekend, and spends time in the dormitory of her old school while she works there for a brief spell.

When reviewers (or one’s friends!) try to give a sense of Frances Ha to those who haven’t seen it, Lena Dunham’s excellent television series Girls (HBO, 2012-) will often come up.  The two projects have overlapping personnel and ostensibly similar subject matter.  But in terms of sensibility, they are very different.  Girls is a lot about sex, and is brilliantly raw, with a great deal of palpable pain and anxiety.  Frances Ha has a very different orientation towards sex (we get the sense that it happens, but we don’t see much of it, and sexual tension neither drives the narrative nor is it a strong presence in many of the scenes), and a different pervading tone.  Perhaps surprisingly, given Baumbach’s earlier work (of the films he directed I have only seen The Squid and The Whale, but Greenberg is now on its way…), no character is persistently satirised.  We are also not given characters who keenly feel that the world is not recognising their worth.  Frances does suffer repeated professional rejections across the course of the film, and we see and share her pain, but it is not the pain of a person who sees themself as an undiscovered genius.

The film is not edgy, but it is precise.  An illuminating and in-depth profile of Baumbach and Gerwig in The New Yorker (one of those pieces of culture shared with me by a friend) reveals Baumbach as a writer-director who ‘expects actors to say the lines he wrote for them, and to say them again and again’.  (A little later in the same piece: ‘Gerwig now finds it unnerving to do just five or so takes for another director: “I don’t know that we’ve actually thought about it enough.”‘)  It is also revealed that a lot of post-production work was undertaken on the film’s black and white digital cinematography (with the help of Pascal Dangin, ‘a retoucher known as the “photo whisperer”‘).  Apparently, an early draft of the film split it into five largely autonomous episodes in Frances’s life.  To an extent, that structure remains, but the film is also given a thread, if not exactly a plot, by Frances’s relationship with Sophie.

The first phase of the film shows Frances and Sophie sharing their secret world.  They rent an apartment together; they fall asleep on each other’s beds; they share jokes, language and rituals.  Then (after Frances has refused to move in with her boyfriend because she wants to see out – and probably renew – her lease with Sophie), Sophie moves in with her boyfriend, gets engaged to him, and even moves to Japan.  This gives us the fall-out phase of the film and the relationship.  Frances gets angry with Sophie for failing to honour their former intimacy (in a brilliant phrase I can’t quite remember, she accuses her of acting like the two of them just got bagels together for lunch one time), gets sad when she hears from others about what Sophie is up to with others (this is presented less as possessiveness and more as the sense of missing out on moment of time that ought to have been shared), and embarrasses herself (or at least, makes us feel embarrassed), by trying to recreate that intimacy with an unwilling other (she tries to initiate her new friend in the ways of playfighting, and pushes her in the face; it does not go down well).

The film first demonstrates dramatically, and then articulates through dialogue, the way in which the friendships between people who possess independence but not yet responsibilities or security are sustained by deep, near-continuous rituals of intimacy, and that when these rituals come to an end, this can be difficult to deal with, at least at first.  Towards the end of a dinner party scene in which Frances’s estrangement from Sophie and gloomy work prospects have caused her to act foolishly (but also, if the film has had its desired effect by this point, endearingly), there is a luminous long take in which Frances talks about the nature of such relationships.  The moment she chooses as indicative is when two people are at a party, talking to other people, but then look across the room at one another, and share an understanding that does not require and in fact surpasses language.

Ian Parker, in his New Yorker profile, gets it right when he observes:

That late-twenties moment is still vivid to Baumbach, and part of the charm of “Frances Ha” has to do with the way it combines, in one character, a partial self-portrait of two writers [Baumbach and Gerwig], from two generations. If “Girls” describes the life of a certain kind of mid-twenties New Yorker, “Frances Ha” overlays that experience with memory, and the result is as romantic as a forgotten pop song that, years later, revives a place and a mood.

One pop song that the film uses repeatedly, and especially brilliantly, is Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’.  (When I sat down to write this blog, I thought of opening it with a couple of lines from Springsteen’s ‘Bobby Jean’: ‘Now we went walking in the rain talking about the pain that from the world we hid/Now there ain’t nobody nowhere nohow gonna ever understand me the way you did.)  Another source of the film’s music is Les 400 Coups (François Truffaut, 1959).  Even before part of that score kicks in, brilliantly, as Frances is running through New York in search of an ATM, I was thinking that the French New Wave felt like a truer tonal point of reference for the film than either Mumblecore or Woody Allen (comparisons have been drawn with Manhattan, a film I probably ought to revisit).  The New Wave in general, and Truffaut in particular.  There is a similar romance, nostalgia, eye for the poetic and/in the everyday, retrospect, combination of looseness and precision, at work.  (It would be interesting to sustainedly ‘compare and contrast’ Les 400 Coups and Frances Ha; two things that might be especially interesting to think through would be the mobility and the ages of each protagonist.)

Wittgenstein once said,

In teaching you philosophy I’m like a guide showing you how to find your way round London.  I have to take you through the city from north to south, from east to west, from Euston to the embankment and from Piccadilly to the Marble Arch.  After I have taken you many journeys through the city [sic], in all sorts of directions, we shall have passed through any given street a number of times – each time traversing the street as part of a different journey.  At the end of this you will know London; you will be able to find your way about like a born Londoner.

It’s a quote I never tire of returning to, and I sometimes put it before students as a way of thinking about approaching criticism.  You have to go on many ‘journeys’ through a film, and ideally not all of those journeys will be signposted by other people’s interpretations or by a given theoretical position.  The thing that strikes me about the quote as I write now is the act of embarking on journeys in company; the relationship between journeys and friendship.  The things that people do together are part of what friendship is, and memories of visiting a city will often be memories of doing certain things at certain times with certain people.  Likewise with films.  Of course, Frances Ha unfolded before me, in a ‘linear’ way, one might say, but my ways into, ways around, and subsequent journeys back through it are shaped by where I was in my life and who was with me (in person, or in memory) when I saw it.