Why Frances Ha Is a Cowardly Movie
Instead of attending an opening for a collective of internet/new media artists in Red Hook, probably cutting edge, funny, with free alcohol—perhaps some level of thought-provoking, also maybe I would’ve known some people there—I decided to go see Francis Ha. Something said it was like Baumbach meets Girls, and since Lena Dunham and the aforementioned filmmaker (whose notoriety is mainly based on a 2005 family drama and his friendship with the more marketable and visually stylistic Wes Anderson) both, in the shallow arc of their careers, mark an acme of New York indie-cum-commercial, I figured I’d get more pleasure and cultural experience out of going to the movies. I’ve always been attracted to the medium’s commercial roots: the amount of money it takes for a 90-minute feature to be made: the amount of money it costs to finance advertising: the amount it costs to see it once in theaters. Counteracted against the mutable possibilities for distribution and audience now made possible by the internet. It’s a weird time to consider one’s self an artist making movies, probably. Weirder than posting photos of a MacBook in a bathtub to a Tumblr.
Even weirder to film your movie in black and white. A bold choice, it actually succeeds, raw and captivating rather than kitschy and meaningless. Baumbach creates a Manhattan-like air to parts of the city heretofore unexplored in traditional analogue (i.e., Brooklyn). Its passé, but really more pastiche, approach to the cinematography feels enhanced by the literal quality of the film print. I don’t really know how that works, but certain moments feel faster, like World War II footage or old home movies. Frances (Greta Gerwig) runs down the crosswalks of lower Manhattan to “Modern Love” dancing and sort of fluttering. It’s not dramatic; it’s comic and natural and sort of frantic.
And that’s how the majority of the film is. People in their mid-20s banter and talk around ideas (and the dialogue is good, not parodic, not pandering or striving to capture some extant zenith of hipster inflection). Everyone wants to be an artist, but nobody really cares or knows how. Frances, an aspiring modern dancer and graduate of Vassar, traverses six shared, and unsuitable, residences, not including a 48-hour stint at a friend of an acquaintance’s apartment in Paris, over the course of maybe eighteen months. She fails at relationships, she sulks and hopes and talks like an intelligent person who doesn’t care about being intelligent. Someone at a dinner party says something like, “Sophie—she’s really smart,” to which Frances replies something like, “Well, yeah, we’re all smart.” She claims her friend doesn’t read enough, but we only see the protagonist flipping through the center of some thick book, ostensibly Proust, on one of her countless wasted days.
Frances is wildly unmotivated and expects a natural progression of success in the art world from minimal, obligatory efforts. She has basal talent, illusory goals and lots of beer. And she gets drunk a lot, fractiously speaking down paths of unrelatable and undetectable revelation amongst people either too mature for her company or just as immature and wanton, but rich. Frances isn’t rich. By economic and social terms, she is absolutely poor, but addressing the harrowing nature and implications of this situation becomes increasingly difficult, as she admits, when confronted by her vague love interest and roommate, that she cannot be poor, essentially because she is educated, art-minded and white. The story really does seem beautiful. It is more honest and intense than Girls, more willing to quietly face the complications of inheriting a broken economy, a feeling and system of entitlement, privilege and unwarranted desire. Nothing could really be more current, topical, desperately vital to address.
Oh god, I’m so sad. Frances Ha comes so close.
Frances Ha comes so close to being a movie I needed, my generation needed, this world needed. The time has never been riper than to cut down any encouragement among our youth to pursue a creative lifestyle. Almost everyone I know is failing, or will fail, at least in their eyes (!), due to the climate of cultural edification, pandering and self-serving inanity brought about by severely deluded and optimistic interpretations of parents’ kind-hearted, but clearly seeped in motivation-not-reality, ethics, confused teachers, then professors, reality television and YouTube and blog culture and new media and especially this plague upon plagues, deemed, by, like, maybe a couple hundred people, alt lit. Listen, I’m not above it. We’re all failing. Even you, reader, you’ve read this far, and only because you want to know more about why some thing doesn’t work. Baumbach’s movie doesn’t work because it is right there, right up against this reality of undoing, in which only the truly inspired and painstaking can achieve success and the rest of us flounder in our own soup of whatever. And just when Gerwig’s character seems to understand the urgency of the situation, everything falls apart. By this, I mean, she gets her shit together and prospers.
I did not clock the movie minute by minute, but according to Wikipedia it’s only 85, and no more than ten could be those during which Frances is saved. Her awakening, in this way, is basically religious. Her transformation, founded without circumstance or care for the constraints of reality, is brutal. One minute she is back working as a 27-year-old resident advisor in Poughkeepsie, a halfway waitress on the side, the next she’s moved inexplicably to Washington Heights (How could she afford that?), where she buckles down, securing a desk job by day (Why is the job she snubbed months earlier still available?), clocking hours as an independent choreographer, who has, again, unaccountably procured a company of students interested in her meritless work (How has her attitude turned from aloof to ambitious so rapidly?). The roommate guy who claimed she was “undateable” for, I guess, society, and who was last seen dating a younger and prettier girl than Frances, shows up at the opening performance, single, and now calls himself “undateable”. Because isn’t that just how life is? Ha. Ha ha ha… All this supposed success from nothing but a sanguine attitude and a few years of naïve self-service rings true to the kind of fraudulence on which Generation X-ers, such as Baumbach, base their success. Forget the crushing debts that now come with private education and migrating to New York City, forget the unemployment and terror and ignorance to social and international politics, unmediated inflation and climate change and war costs and death counts—this filmmaker saw his first success in 1995, discussing the issues of college graduates living in the bleak, uncertain time of the Clinton administration.
The film, then, had an opportunity to present the masses with disappointment and failure. It, rather, chose to capitalize on anxiety-filled environment in which young people today find themselves by misleading them. Being thoughtful and creative is only made more difficult by the trials established before us. How many of us would love to mull over existence and think pretty thoughts and maybe work a few hours a week in an artistic field and then when we start to approach 30, get nervous, put in a little bit more effort and see critical success? That is not how things are anymore, if they really ever were. And the witty, austere, forthright nature of Frances, the exciting moments in the film that point to a certain air of recognition and condemnation with regard to the wallow of American life, becomes all the less sincere as we approach her story’s end. She seems completely unaware of her position in life, in the world or even questioning what it might mean to be a young artist today. She does not hustle. She idles. And so why would someone still not so far-removed from Frances, her co-author, Greta Gerwig, who has yet to see much unobscured success, be willing to sell this falsity to millions of disenfranchised, impressionable, self-determined and city-dwelling creative types, many of whom may have been at the art opening but chose on that rainy evening to weather the storm in the movie theater, with access to this film? Well, for that very reason: success.
Sure, it takes a measureable amount of cowardice to betray reality and the struggle of society, but spinelessness has its perks. Filmmaking is, as I firstly pointed out, a predominantly commercial endeavor, and by writing the bogus triumph of the educated juvenile artist, two of her own kind, enamored by and fused in Frances’ image, even as their creators, hope to experience the same. But grander still: why fear the disdain of audiences for serving them with melancholy when you can sell them smiles with blind optimism? Surely Baumbach and Gerwig have had their fair share of marginality, depression and futility (see The Squid and the Whale, Nights and Weekends, etc.), but even their last collaboration, 2010’s Greenberg, by its end, erred on the side buoyancy. So why not follow suit, claim the nice things that come with a nice attitude: money, fame, critical approval—because why else are we alive but to seek compensation for our shitheaded existence: we are all special, we all deserve more. A marketable tale manipulates a cultural problem in order to return investments and pad wallets.
It’s okay. I mean, I want success. I want money too. Money makes any life easier. Likely, you want it, regardless of your politics. But our will must not be to stare at things and hope for, or worse: assume, the best. For that perspective is not only lazy, but craven. The difference between us and Frances, and Baumbach Gerwig on a larger sense, is that we learn not to expect recompense. For anything, or nothing. Or if you don’t think that yet, start.