Academic Writing

Friday, October 12, 2012

Frances Ha

Frances Ha is the newest Noah Baumbach vehicle which just wrapped its run at the New York Film Festival and will get a wide release this Spring.  Starring virtual unknowns, this film is about Frances (Greta Gerwig, the co-writer of the film as well), a 27 year old woman living in New York and trying to make it as an adult.  A dancer, she is trying to succeed in a business known for its expiration date where being older and more experienced is a hindrance rather than a selling point.  Her friends all seem to be on the fast paths to success – even Sophie (Mickey Summer) her best friend and roommate seems to be able to move on from her while Frances does all she can to hold on to her youth.

After the screening at the NYFF, both Gerwig and Baumbach were in attendance to discuss their work.  When asked about the inspiration for the film and her character, Gerwig mentioned one phrase that she kept thinking about as writing this role.  She referred to "The Death Rattle of Youth" - the awareness that your youth is passing you by and in some ways, this is analogous to feeling like you're losing a friend.  It’s a real fear in our culture, always but now seemingly more than ever, and there's no real word (or place) for that in our culture. 

While in New York and interacting with her peers, Frances is all over the place – emotionally, professionally and otherwise, she can’t seem to get her shit together (to use an oft used phrase among millennials)  Yet, when back in the bosom of her family she transforms into a completely different person.  She goes home to Sacramento for the holidays and while there she totally has her shit together:  she is a productive member of her family, is good to her parents and attends church dutifully.  The subtext of this is a comment on life in New York City – New York is the city of dreamers where young people come in droves to live out their greatest fantasies, both professional and social.  Yet, in this narrative, those who attempt to achieve full maturity can only do so once they’ve left the island of Manhattan.  Sophie leaves with her boyfriend to Japan, Abby (another college friend) lives in Paris.  Frances even tries escaping to in Paris but that doesn't help.  When she fails at capturing the maturity that another has in Paris she realizes that she needs to forge her own path and decides to escape to someplace that is safe for her – she goes back to college.  Spending the summer as a dance instructor for kids on campus she has returned to her womb and expects for things to be the same.  This encounter makes it painfully clear that she has in fact changed, and now she has to acknowledge is.  New York City, adults are living together in this highly intense and highly stimulating environment their joint suspended adolescence is perpetuated and seems to be a major contributing factor to this inability to grow up.  The only way for the characters to realize that is to get distance from it.

There's one scene towards the beginning of the film where Frances is frolicking through the streets of New York.  Looking at her it might seem that she is carefree and loving her youthfulness.  However upon further inspection, she is anything but. This scene caught my eye as I found it to be one of the saddest in the film – the imagery is so directly juxtaposed to the actual emotions behind it.  Frances is anything but carefree.  She wants to be enjoying herself but her surroundings do not allow her to. While watching this I couldn’t but help to think of my grandmother. She and her sisters also lived in New York, exploring what the big city had to offer.  They attended college in NY, explored acting careers here and looked for love here.  Yet by the time any of them were Frances' age they were all married and had finished having their children. They had their careers in place and ha settle comfortably into suburbia with their families.  A lot has changed in two generations and 60 years, but interestingly the underlying goals have not.  Everyone wants to "find themselves" and pursue happiness.  The disconnect seems to lie in the manner in which the generations go about looking for it and the ages in which it seems to happen.

One manifestation of her refusal to grow up is Frances’ perpetual reference to things that happened when she was in college and friends from her college years – this was a time where she was forging the relationships that would come to define so much of her and now those relationships are fading and moving on to new ones.  If she clings to it she can avoid the reality that she’s not evolving and doesn’t have to face her inevitable reality.  She even leaves her boyfriend simply because he wanted to move in with her.  She was not interested in taking this next step so without the slightest of arguments, she walks out.  In another attempt to protect herself she also claims that she is simply, undate-able.  Whenever she does something quirky or weird she announces, “Undate-able!” no matter how awkward the setting.  Is that true or is she protecting herself from having people move on from her?  

Other than Sophie, the only other person Frances seems to be able to trust is Benji, a new roommate who seems to be trapped in this suspended adolescence with her – they even joke about being undatable together.  He’s a writer, yet we never see him writing.  He talks about his projects – one in particular is a script for Gremlins 3.  He’s another example of someone clearly attempt to recapture and connect back to his childhood. 

This film is shot entirely in black and white.  Interestingly it was shot in digital black and white so even though visually it harkens back to a bygone era, the new technology with which it was shot adds a layer of modernity to the historical aesthetic.  This medium gives it a certain timelessness while also acting as an homage to its cinematic predecessors. The presence of technology within the narrative will root it in an era but aesthetically it will always be grounded in a sort of timeless ether as well.

Frances desperately looks for someone or something to complete her.  The ending of the film leaves the audience wanting more.  Eventually (SPOILER ALERT:) she does start getting things together and she is on the path to becoming a grown up.  She doesn’t have to abandon herself and her dreams to do so.  Yet, the final scene which makes it clear that she’s finally gotten her shit together is jarringly contrasted to the previous one where she had no plan.  The audience had gone on this wild ride with her watching her struggle and try to work things out and it was frustrating that everything suddenly was wrapped up in a nice bow with no explanation of how she got there.

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