This was originally written for a Film and TV History course at The University of Queensland in Semester 2, 2016
What makes a film a film? With the advent of synchronised sound in the 1920s, theorists, press, and the industry were trying to understand this. Despite the fact that sound was welcomed with a great deal of excitement by the movie going public and industry, praised as a movement of cinema into heightened realism, the reception by scholars and critics was more divided. Critics and journalists concerned themselves with the quality and characteristics of spoken dialogue, putting actors out of work due to their strong accents or lisps, which is satirised with the character of Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen) in Singin in the Rain (Donen & Kelly, 1952). But scholars concerned themselves with the placement of sound within the perception of what film is as an art form, and whether…
The music swells, the camera pans slowly in. The end is near. You definitely know this, it’s not the first time you’ve seen the film. But that doesn’t change how it feels. You can feel it in your chest. It’s that ache, that knowledge that the dream is nearly over. It makes your eyes sting with tears. It lodges itself deep, feeling like the final moments before a sleep induced fantasy dissolves. You’re begging for it not to be over, for the lights to not come up, to not have to return to reality. You savour the last moments, drinking them in with your eyes, hoping to capture everything in your heart to remember it by until the next time you watch it. You know that you’ll never be successful. You’ll never be able to fully get to the bottom of what makes each viewing of this film such a powerful experience, be able to give full weight to the enormity of your love and admiration for it. Where do you start, and where do you end, when a film is such a perfectly constructed and personal experience from top to bottom, so much so you’re convinced you dreamed it? The right words, that ephemeral combination to describe what’s on screen just go, will always be slightly out of reach, something you’ll frustratingly never be able to achieve.
Todd Haynes’s Carol is about things that cannot be described. Sure, society forbids it. There’s a lingering fear in every frame, the presence of facades and restraint, the feeling of a set of eyes upon you. Behind closed doors is where the truth comes out. But language is also inadequate to describe it, trapping you from full expression. What to do when the words that exist, the subcultures and classifications to fit oneself into, cannot accurately describe what is happening, what one feels and thinks, indeed feels alienated from all parts of society?
Life changes irrevocably the moment that one meets another such alien.
In 1950s New York, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) exists on the fringes. Even in a crowded room or a car bustling with youthful energy, she feels alone. Cinematographer Ed Lachman fills the frame with her surroundings, big, bustling, and nearly swallowing her whole with their chaos. She works at a ho-hum department store, a place filled with a strict sense of rules, and a feeling of her life maybe becoming as dull, predictable, and uniform as the Santa hat she is made to wear in her job. She even feels distant from her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy), who is constantly trying to get her to marry him, purely because…well, that’s just how life is meant to go, right? But Therese feels anxious, nothing feels right, nothing fascinates her, and she doesn’t know why. Only her camera, her other set of eyes that shield and allow her to see the world differently, fascinates her. Her boyfriend’s affections make her uncomfortable, she doesn’t want to marry him. She doesn’t want to be dependent on a man, marking time until she gets married and ‘settles down’. She wants to be a photographer, except her disconnection from those around her is so strong that taking photos of them feels like an invasion of privacy. She can’t understand them, so she can’t take photos of them. The actions of everyone else in the world make absolutely no sense to her.
But then, on just another day stuck behind the doll counter at the department store, it all changes. She glimpses another like her, another person who feels so at odds with the world, across a room. The moment is so understated that its simplicity is disarming, its silence speaks volumes about its impact. There is no dialogue, no music. Most Hollywood romances after all have lead audiences to believe that love is of grand gestures, of perfectly contrivances and swelling violins, after all. But here, the chaos of Therese’s surroundings melts away for a second to pause, and you know this is big. They lock eyes, and you can feel something inside Therese slot into place and the ground shift. She’s given this more pause than anything else, considered and made eye contact with it. This other woman may be different and indeed from another world far removed from Therese’s own – in a fur coat and wearing coral coloured nail polish and a hat to match and sporting a confident, commanding voice, she’s a picture of grown-up sophistication, far above Therese in both age and class and experience – but Therese can see right through that. This mysterious woman has indeed just become better at hiding the fact she feels alone. Therese can see through it. For the first time, she understands someone. And for the mysterious woman, who we soon find out is named Carol (Cate Blanchett), we know that she does too.
In the source novel The Price of Salt (republished as Carolin 1990), Patricia Highsmith lets the question of mutuality in the balance until the inevitable, but nonetheless suspense-filled (it is written by the mind behind The Talented Mr Ripley, after all) moment of emotional bank-breaking. Carol remains an object of fantasy through the perspective being firmly kept with Therese. She’s swathed in furs and always just out of reach to Therese, an imagined object of obsession. When the pair seem to be getting closer, there are even moments of outright meanness from Carol to Therese. The older woman is, in a contradictory manner, trying to save Therese from a life of unhappiness by pushing her away, despite both continuing to advance. In the novel, it’s less about the story of the pair falling in love than it is about Therese coming of age and finding herself through a life-changing experience.
That doesn’t mean that Haynes and his screenwriter Phyllis Nagy make Carol and Therese’s relationship develop without complexity or conflict. Their burgeoning relationship is charted with meetings that the conceit of which would be familiar to anyone who has ever been pursing an as yet unrequited infatuation. Their circling of each other, pulled closer and closer together gradually as they fall deeper in love, feels like a gravitational pull, as natural and accidental as their meeting. They meet for lunch in an upmarket restaurant. They steal glances at each other, calculating the other one. Carol watches Therese, asks her if she lives alone and if she wants to marry Richard. She tells Therese that she’s getting divorced, and Therese apologises. With a rock-steady, unaffected look, she tells Therese not to be. Their early relationship finds suspense in these glances, the fact that every movement is a precise, calculated inquisition into the other one and their feelings.
In another scene, as a character watches Sunset Boulevard, he comments that he’s “charting the correlation between what the characters say and how they truly feel”. It is difficult, after all. Society forbids what they both desire, and both are anxious, damaged, and unsure of what they’re doing, unable to describe exactly what is happening and what they feel. Therese sees two New York lesbians in a record shop, dressed in well-tailored pants suits, and looks ambivalent. She asks Richard if he’s ever been in love with a boy, completely unaware of the ramifications of what she’s saying. When he responds in horror that no, of course he hasn’t been, he’s not one ofthose people, she rebuts him. “I don’t mean like that,” she says “Just two people that fall in love with each other out of the blue, say a boy and a boy or something.”
It is indeed an impossible task to summarise the essence of what makes Carol such a fantastic, emotional, spellbinding experience. From an objective perspective, evaluating the craft behind the film, it is flawless. Each element is impossibly well executed, so fascinatingly layered that it begs for thousands and thousands of words of discussion in order to give the skill of the work due credit. Sandy Powell’s costumes and Judy Becker’s sets orient Carol and Therese in the period, a time on the precipice of postwar anxiety and the dawning excitement of the 1950s. Their differences and their anxieties are manifested in the settings – Becker’s department store is the type of lurid, dirty green that makes one feel ill; and Therese’s apartment is sparse, with few possessions.
Powell’s costumes subtly chart Therese’s metamorphosis – she starts the film by wearing a plaid tam o’ shanter that is eventually divested for a black beret along with her girlish coat for more sophisticated clothes. By the time she ends the film wearing a smart jacket and skirt set, undoubtedly influenced by Carol, but nevertheless the first hints of her identity as an adult, the change doesn’t feel abrupt. Ed Lachman’s photography places Carol and Therese at odds with their surroundings at the beginning, keeping the distance between the audience and them. Both Carol and Therese keep their desires firmly in the shadows, hidden from those around them, and Lachman’s camera doesn’t intrude, as distant as those that know them. When Carol and Therese meet and slowly open up to one another, the camera moves closer, indulging in these unguarded moments, and framing them as more dominant against the world.
Blanchett and Mara’s performances are the types that are beyond easy summary, they are more than something that can be contained by a single scene. In the hands of another performer, Therese could have been rendered passive, a shrinking violet relegated to being purely reactionary and the naïve preyed upon in the situation. But Mara, who was nothing less than terrifying and furious in Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the grounding force that prevented Steven Soderbergh’s otherwise wild Side Effects from completely spiraling completely out of control, holds the cards close to her chest. Therese may be out of place in the world (Carol describes her, in a fantastic turn of phrase, as “flung out of space”) and anxious as a result, as well as much younger than Carol, but unsure she is not. She’s more earnest than those around her, but that’s because she refuses to be restrained. In her eyes, there is fire, a clarity in her desire and discovery of herself.
To Mara, Carol perhaps needs Therese more than Therese needs Carol. It’s a sentiment echoed in Blanchett’s performance, who is able to conjure up the very contradiction at the centre of Carol’s character. Outwardly, she’s icy, a woman driven far into a façade by a need to be protected and accepted by an unforgiving world. No one, however, cares to look into her eyes and see the opposite. If they did, they’d see the façade breaking at the edges. Carol is indeed a warm and loving person, driven to coldness out of necessity, something that Blanchett is able to embody and move between with little more than a shift in her gaze. Like their characters, both performances are able to exist independent of each other. But when you bring them together, when you see them connect to someone else on such a deep level for the first time, able to see past every barrier the other one has put up, their screen chemistry is utterly aching.
But both wouldn’t exist in such a way if it weren’t for the work from Todd Haynes, which also included a substantial amount of collaboration with both Blanchett and Mara. Haynes’s direction is backed by a singular vision, an idea of the world and everything within it that is so clear, so-well considered that the film feels never less than perfectly judged. His direction is controlled with precision and instinct. Along with Phyllis Nagy’s expertly assembled screenplay, which took an intricately detailed and complicated novel and stripped it back to bare necessities, Haynes keeps the emotions simmering under the surface, keeping the film firmly out of melodrama. He lets every word that passes between Carol and Therese (there are few) linger in the silences, savouring it like one remembers a treasured moment with the person they’re in love with.
The thrill isn’t contained in plot beats, hence my reluctance to reveal much more about how the film unfolds. There are few twists and surprises that can be spoiled, and one can probably guess them off the general summary. Rather, the wonder is in the atmosphere, watching the pace with which it unfolds, witnessing the performances, falling under the spell of the world that Haynes and co. have constructed. The moments accumulate, and the passion, that is slowly building, is never able to be released. Every time Carol and Therese find themselves alone, one wonders if this is the moment of release. It isn’t, and the passion continues to swell, squashed by the world that is, out of their control, bad and unkind to them. The anticipation and urgency, the palpable, burning intimacy that is ripe to spill over at any moment, only makes the moments of payoff, where the ever present barriers disappear in a second, only more shattering.
The true thrill of Carol, what indeed makes it an unmatched experience, is beyond one that can be explained in a manner that is objective or analytical, and one that could be again talked about for thousands and thousands of words, only to never be satisfied. Ever since seeing Carol for the first time nearly two months ago, I have tried, to mostly no avail, to do the experience of witnessing it justice. I’ve written thousands of words about it, but none feel like the full truth. No matter how hard I try, I can’t get to the bottom of this film, this beautiful work of art that flawlessly articulates the utterly ephemeral.
It is rare I speak in superlatives about film these days. When I consider it, it feels unnecessary, untrue, over-the-top. Something else will always surely come along after it and enchant me. I’ll find more performances to praise, more direction to admire, more stories to be enthralled by. More films to adore, be affected by, to love and admire. There will always be more, nothing will ever be truly the best or most memorable. But with Carol, I feel compelled to speak in such an over-the-top manner, because this? This experience I have had with this film? This is truly once in a lifetime.
As I watch it again and again (in about three hours, I’ll be seeing it for the sixth time) and sit down to try describe the indescribable, to try capture the magic of this film, I’m convinced that indeed, this is the film I’ve been waiting the first twenty years of my life for. Why, exactly, is beyond objective reason or description, writing about it is a never ending task fraught with failure. Every time I settle into my cinema seat, hear the first longing notes, I am utterly transported to another world. It’s a world of understanding, a world of love, a world that feels straight from the depths of my heart, too familiar to actually exist. I look into Therese’s eyes and see something about myself, something ephemeral. I drink in the surroundings, trying to catch every minute detail, and failing. No matter how many times I see it, I can’t get enough.
As the film moves towards its conclusion, ambiguous and unconcerned with leaving everything perfectly tied up, my eyes start to sting. I don’t want it to end. I don’t want to return to a world outside of this one. I don’t want to be anywhere except inside this film, where two people, against all odds, find each other, despite all the evil that is fighting to keep them apart. They find their place in the world, and that place, a beautiful one, is with each other. But the music swells. The final frames, a question, a triumphant moment, a longing moment, play before my eyes. The audience doesn’t stir, taking a moment to rouse from the dream as the lights come up. It’s over again, I have to go back to the real world. But at least now, I know I have somewhere to return to.
Xavier Dolan burst onto the scene at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 at the age of 19, flinging adolescent rage-induced barbs at his on screen mother (played by Anne Dorval) in I Killed My Mother, a shallow but assured debut from the multi hyphenate. Six years later, after exploring romance through lush melodrama, and cold blooded thriller, Dolan is back in familial territory with Mommy, an exuberant, foul-mouthed, confronting and messy, yet deeply loving film. Centered around a mother (Diane, played by Anne Dorval), her violent son who has recently been expelled from boarding school (Steve, played by Antione Olivier Pilon), and their mysterious neighbour (Kyla, played by Suzanne Clement), Mommy explores the mother-son relationship again, except, this time, the tables are turned.
Dolan’s turning point both in terms of maturity and style, after the distinctly 60s inspired and Pedro Almodovar influenced films I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats, came in 2012 in the form of Laurence Anyways, a two and a half hour long and decade spanning opus. Laurence expertly handles two hefty topics – personal genesis, and how love is affected by said personal development. There is a handful of scenes in the film that are perfect exemplars of how the film delivers perfect emotional payoff, but perhaps none more so than the third to last, set ten years after Laurence and Fred first meet. A handful of years since they last saw each other, they meet in a bar, both having markedly changed as a result of their turbulent relationship. Laurence tells Fred of her decision to age as a woman, and Fred no longer has the flame coloured hair and bright clothes that were as loud of her exuberant personality. They blend into the black walls of the bar where they meet. The room feels small and oppressive, a painful reminder of the past, that now must be let go. After awkward small talk is made, the darkness gradually encroaching on Laurence and Fred more, Fred escapes from the darkness, and, as a result, the past. Pushing the back door open to the alleyway behind her, the world opens up, brightness and freedom blowing in with a strong gust of wind. The camera looks to the sky as Fred runs down the street, no longer restricted by the chains of the past; bright and limitless.
Across his five film long first chapter of his career, traversing the territory from late adolescence in I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats to adulthood with Laurence Anyways and to a lesser extent, Tom at the Farm, Dolan has continually explored the relationship between space and self. It is an interesting and fitting point to continually return to for a filmmaker, because despite his gradually developing powerful sense of style, he is still mostly defined by his youth.
After all, it’s a time where the world is most closed. One is restricted by commitments and lack of money that restrict wider travel or discovery, where school or university work loads limit time to socialise with others, leading to there being no one to explore and act out towards but oneself and those close to you – mostly your parents. It’s somewhat a necessity, a period that may seem deeply self-centered, but is essential to discover one self before adulthood begins. We put ourselves together, finding the pieces that fit perfectly together, moments of realisation and utter clarity commonly chronicled in Tumblr posts or diary entries as a mess of often self-loathing or passive-aggressive angst wrapped in fantasy and somehow linked to all the things we love most, like in I Killed My Mother.
In Dolan’s early work, this was done much the same way as it is in Laurence Anyways, through boldly coloured settings and a camera positioned like a trained eye, again placing the characters against them, making the rooms feel narrow, and the world boxed in as a result.
In Tom at the Farm, however, Dolan’s experimentation with space expanded beyond purely the location into also the presentation. In his thriller he started to play with aspect ratio, making a widescreen film more widescreen in moments of terror to evoke a suffocating feeling and rising sense of dread.
In Mommy, however, it’s a matter of both atmosphere and focus. Dolan’s films are exuberant, full of bold colours and sounds, whether his common use of 80s pop music or the orchestral score of Tom at the Farm, the type that characters could get lost in, the audiences focus waning to the background. After swapping primary brights for muddy, rural Quebec in Tom at the Farm, Mommy once again occurs in a suburban household full of bright lights, primary colour painted walls, and 80s pop music. However, this time, character takes the same precedence as it did in Laurence Anyways, bursting off the screen beyond the stylistic elements, and grabbing the audiences attention through its use of 1:1 aspect ratio that expands at moments of freedom, clarity, and almost fantasy; moving beyond the restrictive walls of the house to the wider world.
This type of genesis, where Dolan’s experimentation and forming visual and narrative style, is found all through Mommy. I Killed My Motherwas driven by adolescent rage, quickly escalating emotions that result in an unmatched type of passion, something that made his debut so eye-catching. But I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats were undoubtedly influenced by the time in one’s life where relationships to parents are by viewing them as an antagonist and anger and sadness builds up and dissipates, self-centred and introspective. Like that transformation that his work underwent when making Laurence Anyways, where, for the first time (and definitely not the last) his central character was a middle aged woman, and he relegated his acting role to a second long cameo; Mommy is the flipside of I Killed My Mother, a loving portrait of and centered on the mother figure from the perspective of someone that now identifies more with her than the son.
While its unnecessary framing as speculative fiction results in it lacking the flooring, pitch-perfect final sweep of Laurence Anyways, opting for something more sudden and ambiguous, and a yearning for a character to be slightly more developed, there is no denying that Mommy is a film that expertly encompasses Dolan’s spectacular journey over his four previous films. Placing both Dorval and Clement, actors who have appeared in all of his films except for Tom at the Farm, at the centre along with then 16 year old Pilon, this powerhouse trio run the audience through the full gamut of emotions with explosive chemistry, their remarkable performances reason enough to watch. Dorval and Clement’s characters are the type of Dolan mainstays that are much adored and expertly and lovingly written, a trend starting with Hubert and Nico’s mothers (both played by Dorval) in I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats, respectively; taking full form in Laurence Anyways‘s Fred (played by Clement); and to a lesser extent in Tom at the Farm’s Sara (played by Evelyne Brochu, who originated the role on stage in 2011). Combined with the fluid employment of Dolan’s stylistic flair, from his use of classic Celine Dion tracks to slow motion, Dolan has closed the first chapter of his career before his English language debut The Death and Life of John F. Donovan III with a raw, intense, messy, and emotionally draining; yet compassionate, vibrant, and excellently crafted film.
I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you, New York…New York.
– New York, New York, John Kander and Fred Ebb
In what is a rarity on film, where the aim these days seems to be to pack in as much as possible, the first ten minutes of Shame are nearly silent, beginning with the camera and Brandon being completely still. You’re unsure if he’s even conscious. This pause, time taken to give us a sense of place and time for the rest of the story, introducing the isolation that will be ever present, is crucial to the tone of the next ninety or so minutes that begin with the swish of curtains.
There’s no denying the intimacy that Shame displays. From the very first frame, the audience is thrown straight into Brandon’s personal life, bearing witness to everything from him walking around his apartment and listening to his answering machine to his descention further into his addiction.
However, just because a film is achingly intimate doesn’t mean it’s about intimacy. The idea of connection is foreign to Brandon, as he looks for a quick fix (he can’t even listen to it), moving from one thing to another instead of forging an actual relationship, something that he is unable to do. If he tries to have sex with intimacy or in a relationship, he can’t. His addiction has ruined his whole life basically, rendering him constantly nervous, unable to communicate with people, show emotion, or have someone lie in his bed in a non-sexual way, as even the littlest thing he hasn’t planned sends him over the edge. He doesn’t touch people, he can’t read their emotions or kiss them.
However, it is evident that he cares about one person, and that is his sister, Sissy. From the outset, it’s evident that not all is right with her, you can see a hospital band on her wrist, you can sense that there is something else lurking beneath, that she is uneasy relief. However, it’s easy to see that he feels a real big brother protective instinct towards her, particularly in the New York, New York scene, which marks the first time he shows any outward emotion, instead of being removed from the social connection that is happening around him, just sitting in silence as others converse. This happens again in one of the film’s closing scenes, where, after an incident involving Sissy, Brandon breaks down for the first time in the whole film, showing real anguish and pain. In roles that require an incredible amount from actors (talk about being comfortable in your own body!), Mulligan and Fassbender are just exceptional. Sissy is longing to be loved, and Brandon is occasionally affectionate, but most of the time, due to his addiction being so all-consuming, he neglects helping her in favour of it.
This is something that makes Shame so extraordinary – for a film about sex addiction, there is not much of a focus on sex. In fact, there aren’t as many sex scenes as you’d anticipate, and if there are, they are incredibly uncomfortable, showing that these are not acts of pleasure, rather they show a desperation, loneliness, a cry for help, simply going through the motions. Sex addiction is something that is mocked too often, instead of being rightfully respected as a serious problem people face that needs help, a gap that Steve McQueen fills, asking the audience to treat it like any other addiction that is depicted in films like Requiem for a Dream. McQueen shows just how easy it is to hide addiction without any suspicion, even behind glass offices and large windows, and how easy people turn a blind eye to cries for help, brushing the person off as a ‘private guy’. It shows how his mind works, how he ‘imagines’ people during the day, and how the girl on the train is appealing to him – she is wearing purple in contrast to the monotonous grey, blue, black, and gaunt, vacant people he sees all around him, promising pleasure. In addition to this, Shame depicts just how much Brandon tries to stop – he throws everything out, purging his life of all material reminders of it – but his mind is unable to, that no matter how hard he tries or hates it, the stopwatch that acts like a heartbeat over the film will urge him to continue, finding more and more dangerous methods of satisfaction, unless someone comes and pulls him out of the ocean he’s drowning in.
This atmosphere is created by an incredibly unintrusive camera, which remains stationary or tracks characters down the street for incredibly long takes, even positioned behind them at times (that overhead shot in the bathroom. Wow). They never interact with the camera, resulting in the feeling of incredibly naturalism, that nothing is being overstated, rather we are just looking into the fish tank (ha) that is Brandon’s life. The ability to hold onto a moment is one of its biggest strengths. For the entire five or so minutes of the now infamous New York, New York scene, the entire film stops, a single take (bar a few shots of Fassbender) close up of Carey Mulligan, who doesn’t once look directly into the camera, rather gazing slightly to the left, further creating the feeling that no camera is present.
Of course, with the talent involved, a film of this caliber is almost natural. Photographed in icy blues and greys, Shame is an observant, knockout piece of mood and emotion, which understands the power of “not saying something”, whether that is observing a meeting from the outside, omitting dialogue in favour of music from a ‘big’ scene, or setting a one take run through an almost tranquil New York City to classical music. This is not a New York often committed to film, one where if it was not said to be the city, the audience wouldn’t know at all. Gone are the bright lights, neon sigs and crowds of people; instead there are bare apartments and an overtone of blue the accompanies every time Brandon is alone, showing just how isolated he truly is.
Like the repetitive phone call and train ride that is returned to many time in the first ten minutes, Shame is about an unbreakable cycle. This is the type of film where there’s no resolution, rather there is only a neverending cycle that, by the end of the film, feels even more hopeless.
This is probably too personal, too rambling and self-indulgent to be published on the Internet masquerading as a film review, but here goes nothing.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to the library to borrow Tiny, Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed’s compendium of letters from her time as online agony aunt Sugar. I was in need of some wisdom that only the empathetic but bullshit-free Strayed can give. I opened it to a page, and as luck would have it, sensing my doubts, it was a letter called ‘Write Like a Motherf*****’. It’s one of the most well-known of the letters Strayed wrote, a Google search will yield stores that sell coffee mugs with that title, the finale line of the letter, printed on them. In the original letter, Elissa, a “woman of 26, a writer who can’t write”, speaks of being “mentally immobile” and “sick with panic that I cannot override my limitations…to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness”, of fears of inadequacy, failure and wasting life on something she might not have in her.
Cheryl, responds with empathy, but also hardened perspective, as always. She empathises with Elissa, but serves her the hard truth. She says:
I sat like that too. Thinking of only one thing. One thing that was actually two things pressed together, like the back-to-back quotes on my chalkboard: how much I missed my mother and how the only way I could bear to live without her was to write a book. My book…The one I felt pulsing in my chest like a second heart, formless and unimaginable until my mother died, and there it was, the plot revealed, the story I couldn’t live without telling. My debut.
She speaks of feeling inadequate, a failure for not living up to her young promise of being able to meet her self-set age deadline for having written a novel. But, she says, that was not wasted time. She writes:
I thought a lot of the same things about myself that you do, Elissa Bassist. That I was lazy and lame. That even though I had the story in me, I didn’t have it in me to see it to fruition, to actually get it out of my body and onto the page, to write, as you say, with “intelligence and heart and lengthiness.” But I’d finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked. And so at last, I got to serious work on the book.
When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person.
However, all of this, a deeply emotive answer that surely speaks to anyone who’s ever felt they’ve hit some kind of creative wall, came to head here, something that I’ve been thinking and thinking about how to accomplish ever since:
I’d finally been able to give it because I’d let go of all the grandiose ideas I’d once had about myself and my writing—so talented! so young! I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely no-where-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.
The past year has not been easy. I haven’t felt good about this for a year, maybe more. When I’m able to write something, I feel dissatisfied. I’ve sat at the computer feeling immobile, incompetent, an imposter at what I do. That some person that I don’t even remember told me I was good once, and I took it too far. Blame it on being stuck in a degree for a year and a half that I hated and felt powerless to get out of, blame it on anxiety, even blame it on being a ‘smart kid’ and never being equipped with what to do when things don’t go as planned, when their brain just can’t do what they want it to. It’s easy to blame, but it’s not anything’s fault. My brain simply changed for reasons I don’t know why. The page stays blank, the hours tick by, the sinking feeling in my stomach gets heavier. It’s like the words were sucked from me or in a confusing mess, the once endless screeds just bursting to get onto the page fully formed vanished or impossible to untangle.
It’s an admission I’ve been avoiding viciously, because of how ashamed I am of it, how frustrated I am with myself, feeling like a fraud in the company of so many talented people. It’s embarrassing, and makes me feel stupid for thinking that I ever thought I had a chance in this dog-eat-dog industry. There are thousands better than me, thousands more committed people who can write screeds and screeds of insight at the drop of a hat, full of wit and style, while I keep staring at a blank screen. I tell myself its because they’re older with more life experience, but then I rebut myself with “but if you can’t do it now, when can you?”. Passion is no longer enough to get me through. Everything I write feels inadequate. How in the world am I going to compete with them for the precious few jobs, when I’ve been stuck in a funk while my early 20s, time to find success, trickle away?
Lola Kirke as Tracy.
The past year or so has been a culmination of anxieties that bring me to tonight, sitting in a foyer of a cinema and then at home feeling like I should delete this ramble and start again, feeling utterly emptied out by Mistress America (a surprise, I haven’t been this passionate or affected by a film for most of this year), like someone took my fears and made a film of them, because I sure as hell saw them divided into the two characters of Tracy and Brooke.
Tracy (played with innocence and intelligence, with great comic timing to boot by the fast-rising star Lola Kirke) is passionate about writing. A newly-arrived freshman in college, she’s an outsider from high school who’s become an outsider in New York, feeling like everyone except her has been handed the book on how to fit in and be successful.
Sam Levy’s photography is colourful, but like Frances Ha, hides a loneliness in its wide shots. Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’s electronic soundtrack that harks back to the 80s feels exciting, but also empty. Early on, during a phone call to her mother, she says “you know the feeling of being a party when you don’t know anybody? College is like that, the whole time” (oh, does it ever). Holding onto the grandiose ideas of her being a writer, she unsuccessfully applies for the literary society. Then, she meets Brooke.
Brooke (played extremely energetically by Greta Gerwig, who is starting to become a ghost of old Hollywood comics like Carole Lombard) is a person whose energy is initially dizzying, and everyone seems to love(in the later part of the film you wonder if she was just an apparition, a comment on the countless films where young, white men find inspiration from tragic relationships with idealised women). She possesses the confidence that only a high-school popular kid can (turns out, she was). In one night, she sings with a band, and goes to multiple parties. The next day, she talks of her plans for a home-style restaurant and meets with investors, teaches a class at SoulCycle, and tutors junior high students. And because college life, being told to “make friends in classes” (who does that?) is boring, Tracy follows her along for the ride, and you can’t help but gleefully follow.
I’ll restrain myself from saying much more, because the film is such a series of delightful accidents that one must discover themselves. Because, despite it being brutally sad and honest, hitting many of my anxieties, speaking my mind about never following through on things, never finding a true place in the world, my god, is it funny. And quotable. And truthful. Particularly a 15 minute sequence that feels destined to be played out on a stage, it frequently feels like a one-act comedy, hitting its stride with such a breathless momentum that its compact 84 minutes fly by in an instant. It’s the magical alchemy that Baumbach and Gerwig hit with Frances Ha, hilarious, but also melancholic and doubtful about when the magic of life ends.
This is where it really hurts. Brooke, looking at her ability to have grand ideas but never move past that first stage, says “I’m just in love with everything, but can’t work out how to make myself work in the world.” While possessing the same approach as Frances Ha, Baumbach is more successfully treading the same territory as While We’re Young, the pursuit for originality and creativity as time ticks away. Baumbach and Gerwig accurately portray the feeling of when it hits its stride perfectly. When Tracy is with Brooke, finally feeling in-tune with someone, a part of something her writing flourishes. When creativity flows, it’s like being allowed on the inside of something, where you can just ‘get’ it perfectly. Tracy is a part of Brooke’s mad schemes, where everything is a happy accident, which inspires her with the same creativity and verve as Brooke. But when it doesn’t work, when the ideas don’t come to fruition for unnamed reasons, when it all falls apart, it feels like the end of a grand romance.
Tracy looks at the disaster around her, the work of writing, of fiction, of inspiration (or lack thereof), of feeling like a premature failure like Brooke. The magic has fallen away, leaving doubt in its wake. “You haven’t been dropped into your own body yet” she’s told. She replies “if I’m not in my body, where am I?”, can’t, won’t wait for such a thing to happen, for fear of it never coming.
After experiencing this, in stitches but then wanting to cry at the irreverent joy but also pain that when Baumbach gets, he gets, I can’t help but that own question and doubt about myself be exacerbated, but also puzzlingly quelled. I’m doubting myself, more than ever, feeling like this funk I’m in is never going to end. Where am I right now? Well, 1800 words later of rambling about Cheryl Strayed and my personal problems, I’ve admitted something about myself I’ve fought to deny for a while. With each paragraph I’ve written of this, I’ve fought against not continuing this non-review ramble, and just deleting it and writing a ‘real’ one that glosses over why Mistress America hit me so hard. That’s a development. But like at the end of Frances Ha, I’m wondering if it’s worth it. Promise feels so utterly overwhelming and exciting, but where does it go? Is the magic over forever? Should I just pack up while I can, before it gets worse? My initial feeling was this, sitting in that foyer thinking that I should just give up on my dreams, but now I’m feeling more optimistic, like Tracy and Brooke at the end of the film. I’m not ‘cured’ of my funk, my confidence in myself and my inspiration hasn’t returned. But, maybe thanks to the fantastic work on the part of Baumbach, Gerwig, and Kirke, that has allowed me to get all of this off my chest, it’s started returning.