May 25th, 2013 / 12:42 pm

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.

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  1. MikeLindgren

      Good piece! although another set of eyes might have helped with the odd error. Nonetheless there is something false at the heart of the movie, well analyzed here. Well done.

  2. lorian long

      really well-written piece. sweet job.

  3. Cassandra Troyan

      this is so spot on David! it seems to be increasingly difficult to face cynical boredom with something other than cool indifference. great job in pushing otherwise.

  4. alan rossi


  5. Don

      I haven’t seen Frances Ha yet, but I really liked Gerwig in Damsels in Distress.

      Thanks for writing this.

  6. jesse

      Weirder still to approach going out to the movies as a singular cultural experience, and then being crushed by a comedy not being about crushing failure.

      Let’s review the components of what you consider an unequivocal fantasy triumph for Frances:

      –She can afford an apartment in New York City.

      –She gets an office job that, if I remember correctly, she was told would be open soon (that is, it hasn’t been vacated for months when returns from Vassar. I don’t know if as much time elapses between her turning down the job and working there as you seem to think) (also, I work in an office. The fantasy that vacant positions are filled as quickly as they are needed is no less delusional than the idea that a job would stay available).

      –She has some kind of side gig, possibly unpaid, doing something she really enjoys, and has a recital attended by a small but appreciative crowd made up largely of her friends and acquaintances.

      –A guy she used to maybe like no longer has a girlfriend.

      Shelter, employment, and some degree of personal satisfaction. Those are the world-beating triumphs Frances achieves.

      It is a happy ending, yes. But I would not say this is a cowardly or dishonest ending. If it strikes you as such, I tend to think any ending short of miserable would.

      You’re asking why Baumbach didn’t make a different movie with a similar subject matter.

  7. Stephen Michael McDowell

      my reaction while reading this was one of vague, but overwhelming disdain, unattributable to anything but the concept of ‘money’

      i don’t want to express criticism re your decision to watch the film, or the sense you developed that it would affect you a specific way should it end [how it didn’t], but want to convey an opinion [or something] i developed re ‘the film industry’, sorry if it doesn’t really cohere

      i recently had an epiphanic feeling of ‘fully grasping’ that the implications of convincing someone to perform monetary transactions for [anything] seem, in my opinion, consistently deceptive at the added expense of the customer/consumer, via encouraging a potentially debilitating dependence on the product and an undeniable continued dependence on currency

      unless someone is giving you something they made ‘gratis’, it, in my opinion, is consistently a deception, always a consistent to valuing an imaginary thing

      the ideas of ‘the struggle for survival’, ‘malaise as a detriment to this struggle’, ‘pursuit of money as a solution’, and even the idea of ‘doing what you love’ all seem fucked and mythological to me

      if a film costs ‘a lot of money’ and is made for the benefit of a production company and career of a seasoned filmmaker, unless their ‘brand’ or ‘franchise’ or ‘worldview’ caters to explicitly conveying the fictional nature of the story (i.e. joss whedon, wes anderson, michel gondry), then the film is ultimately, i think, a baiting tactic used to ‘disarm’ the viewer for the purpose of

      i wanted (would still like) to work in film, but my motivation for pursuing that interest was initially based on how i was affected by blatantly legendary stories

      ‘braveheart’ which was the film and making-of documentary combo i saw that instigated my interest in cinema. if the film was conveyed to me as ‘based on a true story’ rather than ‘an extrapolation of a myth surrounding a person who historically ‘existed”, then i think i would have ultimately felt disappointed by it

      i think a viewer’s experience, paying to see a film, doesn’t benefit from any added expectation besides intellectual and/or visceral stimulation, and viewing a ‘post-mumblecore’ film as potentially inspiring or relatable due to the filmmaker’s ability to accurately convey hardship and lack of resolution seems like an extension of—or extrapolation on—the belief in the ‘disney fairytale wedding’ but reversed, expressing conveyance of how ‘life actually is’ as the desired ‘model’ if that term is applicable

      most examples of films that were rigorously constructed but ultimately became either publicly available or were blatant attempts at making money were, not surprisingly, made or inspired by contributors/commenters on this site

      adam humphreys’ ‘franz otto’ and ‘shitty youth’

      pirooz kalayeh’s ‘shoplifting from american apparel the movie’ and as-of-yet-unreleased ‘the human war’

      MDMAfilms’ ‘extreme mumblecore’ trilogy

      anything ellen frances puts on her vimeo account

      all of these filmmakers consistently convey what it seems you (david), wanted to get out of this film, but if there is anything approaching a ‘hollywood budget’ for a film, it’s going to undermine that expectation, i think, because ‘hollywood’ and people functioning within ‘hollywood’ seem disinterested (in my experience interacting with them) in producing things that ultimately convey a sense of realism and relatable content, but would rather ‘trap’ the viewer into a cycle of continuing to view films made by people within ‘hollywood’

      the ‘standard model’ for constructing this ‘trap’ seems to be either ‘deus ex machina’ or ‘cliffhanging’

      in this case, it seems like ‘privilege’ was baumbach’s ‘deus ex machina’, whereas baumbach and gerwig’s contemporaries and collaborators within ‘mumblecore’ frequently convey a ‘cliffhanger-as-resolution’ trope (or something)

      feel like paying for a movie is irrefutably, consistently ‘paying to see the equivalent of a magic act where, at the end, if the ‘prestige’ (c/o christopher nolan) is successful, life seems magically less bleak’

      whereas the filmmakers i sited seem more interested in, without a discernible ‘reason’ or ‘intent’ convey life as ‘ongoing’ and consistently confusing, but somewhat observable, if not inconclusively fucked-seeming

  8. jesse

      Are you Tao Lin or is the ‘quotation mark’ affectation of his now a signature for acolytes, too?




  10. Stephen Michael McDowell

      i’m not tao lin

      i think i first encountered and began using single quotes after reading ‘hipster runoff’ ~2008 when i was 20

      i feel more capable of understanding/communicating unknown, unknowable, or vague concepts that i’m familiar with when put into quotes

      i think, as a contextual device, single quotes express that i’m not asserting anything in addition to my vague understanding of the ‘shared concepts’ i’m addressing, rather than conveying belief in their existence in ‘concrete reality’

      i don’t consider myself an ‘acolyte’ of tao’s, i appropriated his ‘style’ of essay writing because it seems, to me, like a more accurate and ‘kind’ way of transcribing my thoughts, rather than using rhetoric, which i think conveys i have omniscience over the subject matter and, therefore, enough understanding to assert a ‘definitive position’, which i don’t have or want to convey

      i dislike ‘internalizing’ a presupposition that ‘no one knows what they’re talking about’ because that, i think, caters to an opposite extreme, the resulting affectation of which i have thus far universally disliked observing when used rhetorically by businesspeople or anyone considered ‘in a position of power’ to any degree

  11. aaronjmarks

      You’re right that her accomplishments, as you listed them, are not so great — it’s no big deal to get an office job that was offered you a few months ago, or to set up a small dance production or get an apartment in Washington Heights.

      But I think David is right in identifying something about those last 10 minutes as the [downfall….] of Frances Ha, whether or not you want to say that section implicates the movie as cowardly. Not that it’s insane that she would end up with an office job /apt / somewhat successful art at 27, but that she somehow falls into those modest successes out of what appeared to be ‘rock bottom’ – working as an RA at your old college & being essentially homeless.

      Up until the very end of the Poughkeepsie section, she seemed to be aimless, going nowhere and generally flailing around with her art and life. But then she comes back to New York and is all of a sudden doing pretty well? Anyone I know in New York who has had those kinds of modest success in [their art/social life/generally having their shit together] does not float around like she did for the first ~95% of the movie. They hustle and work hard and put in effort. The sudden windfall of general shit-togetherness she has at the end didn’t feel earned, but tagged on to the end of the movie in lieu of either a) showing how her her character could progress to that point or b) a bleaker ending where she doesn’t have a well-received dance production and nice washington heights apartment but is living in flushing and working as like, a secretary at a medical textbook publisher or something.

  12. Stephen Tully Dierks

      enjoyed your review, david. i loved the movie, but i responded to its energy, its pace, Greta, its personality, the jokes, not to its potential for social commentary, though you make a very coherent explication of its potential thereof. there does however, nevertheless, seem to be an adult (read: typically difficult and a bit deflating or shitty) lesson in the reality of realizing that maybe what you really wanted to be, a dancer, might not be what you’re actually going to do or be appreciated as— it might be choreographer. the ending may have been rushed (but indeed the whole movie moves at a frenetic, snappily-edited pace—which i loved), but the lesson is there. yes it gives a happy ending where a sad one would give the movie a more restrained, severe, high-arty feel—but speaking of genres (wink wink), this was seen by its makers (who were at that time probably falling in love, another happy ending, at least for the time being) as a pop song of a movie, and pop songs often, though of course not always, have a rejuvenating optimism to them, something that can rise you up a bit, if only for 3 minutes, out of your daily morass (to be put on replay, and then forgotten, or revisited perpetually, like a sunny memory).

  13. jesse

      I think the pivot point for Frances is pretty clearly delineated. She turns down that office job at first in a fit of disappointment, essentially, because she was hoping that her meeting was going to amount to something bigger, following the work she’s put in at that company. When she turns down the office job, it seems to be out of a sense that because she’s worked hard there and cares about dance, she should be able to get something better, and make it in a bigger way rather than working in an office while maybe doing choreography on the side.

      At some point after she bottoms out, she realizes that hey, OK, she’s not going to take over the world and become a world-famous modern dancer with her best friend Sophie… but maybe she can use her hard work and connections she’s forged to carve out the beginnings of a satisfying life. And that’s what the movie gives us — perhaps a little quickly and easily, granted. But this isn’t a movie about the process of becoming a semi-successful independent choreographer; it’s about at least in part how flailing can be a conscious choice.

      Also, it’s kind of hilarious to me, the degree of NYC-status hair-splitting that’s necessary to call her working as a secretary at a dance company and living in Washington Heights a great windfall and the idea of her working as a secretary at a textbook publisher and living in Flushing a “bleaker ending.”

  14. alan rossi

      also, i have not seen this movie.

  15. jesse

      I appreciate the thought you’ve put into this, but placing single quotes around ‘everything’ is as idiotic as prefacing everything with “in my opinion…” It doesn’t sound “kind” to waffle on every other noun in a sentence. It’s weak writing — in a weird way, it makes the writing MORE about you, and less about your ideas, because you want everyone to know that when YOU say (for example) “style” or “position of power” or “definitive position,” you don’t mean it the same way other people do.

      Also if you consider (for example) “style” or “internalizing” or “acolyte” to be vague, unknowable terms, that’s on you. All of those terms are pretty clear and have actual definitions to which any confused parties can refer.

  16. JosephYoung

      aesthetics as moral outrage is fascinating to me. really, that’s not meant to be snarky. it matters *that* much.

  17. Stephen Michael McDowell

      ‘I appreciate the thought you’ve put into this, but placing single quotes around ‘everything’ is as idiotic as prefacing everything with “in my opinion…”‘

      i don’t discern either behavior in your opening sentence (i assume you’re enacting hyperbole with both uses of ‘everything’) as ‘idiotic’, there’s no stated frame of reference for the word’s use

      • could mean ‘agreed upon by a group of people as ineffective’
      • could mean ‘as a reader i feel aversion to […]’
      • could be a foil or ‘punchline’ for the initial expression of ‘appreciation’ as a type of aggravated humor

      ‘It doesn’t sound “kind” to waffle on every other noun in a sentence. It’s weak writing — in a weird way, it makes the writing MORE about you, and less about your ideas, because you want everyone to know that when YOU say (for example) “style” or “position of power” or “definitive position,” you don’t mean it the same way other people do.’

      i enjoy ‘reading’ writers that seem to actively attempt to lessen the reader’s disadvantages, in terms of clearly understanding what the writer is trying to convey, so in the context of this ‘style’/the comment referenced, i think ‘kind’ means ‘attempting to communicate as clearly as seems possible with discernible ‘intent’ to not confuse or stimulate the reader in a (what i have previously experienced as) ‘discomforting’/aggravated manner’

      i don’t feel capable of discerning what ‘waffle’ or ‘weak’ mean in the contexts you used them

      don’t feel capable of (despite awareness the concepts are ‘well-known’, dictionary-definable, and are available for use in argumentative vernacular) discerning ‘style’, ‘position of power’, or ‘definitive position’ as interpretable as things other people say and consistently, denotatively use

      [the words] seem ‘specialized’ and change depending on context, so it seems impossible for [anyone] to say them in a way that’s definitively, ‘the same way other people do’ except, loosely communicated as ‘concepts associated with hierarchical social structure meant to give an impression of ‘solidity’ as to defend against contrasting opinions’

      ‘Also if you consider (for example) “style” or “internalizing” or “acolyte” to be vague, unknowable terms, that’s on you. All of those terms are pretty clear and have actual definitions to which any confused parties can refer.’

      i don’t understand how ‘assuming responsibility’ for a perceptual declaration affects how i choose to communicate, with any specific result, given the context of this discussion, so i feel incapable of discerning what you were trying to convey by ending your statement with ‘that’s on you’

      i said ‘unknown, unknowable, or vague’, not ‘vague, unknowable’, which seem, especially in ‘tone’, distinctly different

      ‘style’ seems ‘versatile’; to have a range of connotations dependent on medium, social context, and whether it is referring to a living or non-living concept/object

      the word ‘style’ seems denotatively elusive, and due to an inability on my part to discern my ‘approach’ to essay writing as a ‘style’ (when juxtaposed against more concrete ideas like method, procedure, directions for assembly, or without attributing a philosophical context to the ‘approach’), seems vague, to me

      [this] essay-writing template/’approach’ seems less vague as a ‘style’, to me, than it seems ‘technical’, since it functions more discernibly as an aesthetic choice rather than functioning rhetorically, argumentatively, or as a performative task

      ‘internalizing’ doesn’t seem similar to the concepts of ‘stuffing a down mattress with feathers, or ‘injecting fluid into a bloodstream’, but seems to reference a noumenal choice to acclimate to a previously foreign idea or habitual thought process, which, if noumenal/memetic, is not an observable phenomenon and is therefore, unknowable, i think, from a procedural standpoint

      an ‘acolyte’ as defined by my computer’s dictionary/thesaurus widget is:

      ‘a person assisting the celebrant in a religious service or procession.
      • an assistant or follower.’

      i inferred that, in the context you used it, you were tacitly asserting that tao is a ‘religious figure’ or person ‘in a position of power’, which, as far as i am aware (and, to me), he isn’t

      the word has ~15 synonyms in the widget:

      ‘assistant, helper, attendant, aide, minion, underling, lackey, henchman; follower, disciple, supporter, votary; informal: sidekick, groupie, hanger-on.’

      since the denotative meaning and associated/interchangeable terms seem tonally disparate, to me, it seems vague/rhetorical to use it in reference to a person/group of people liking things another person does and appropriating discernible aspects of [those things] to do other things (i.e. respond to an essay and subsequent responses to that response)

  18. jesse

      All of this would obviously be more clear if I just made the aesthetic choice to put words in quotes. That would somehow make you far less literal-minded. Got it. Good to know.

  19. sarahana

      But it’s not “Baumbach meets Girls.” It’s “Greta Gerwig co-writes a movie w/ Baumbach about friendship between two twenty-something females with artistic aspirations who are unlike any character in Girls except in that (broad) regard.” Greta wrote 50% of all the scenes and all the characters. It might be worth saying that Frances Ha does for the idea of “success in art” what Girls does for the idea of sex. Her friend Sophie already has a fulfilling job at Random House and can afford to live in Tribeca but is unhappy in other ways. Frances ends up taking a job she first thought of as a sign of defeat, and she ends up living in Washington Heights, a neighborhood frowned upon by Benjie when she first mentions it, because in reality “success / happiness / finding a footing in NYC or any other big city” is a lot less glamorous than what it’s made out to be.

  20. Erik Stinson

      at least the movie isn’t about a dude

  21. Don

      I watched the movie. I don’t think the movie is cowardly… but if there is something cowardly about it, it’s the decision to do the movie in b&w.