There are people out there, you know them, who hate things that are popular. Like there’s literally nothing on KISS FM that doesn’t make them think that society is slowly consuming its own feces like it’s a circular, social human caterpillar. I’m one of those people. Perfect example: I went and saw Frances Ha (2013) today and had various opinions about it with a generally positive view and as I did a little poking around via IMDb, I had this immediate feeling in my metaphorical stomach of the revolted kind. I was hit by this giant pair of flying horned rim glasses without lenses in them, slapped by a pair of skinny jeans, and a vinyl album from Fleet Foxes broken over my head literally like a million times. But I recover, look at the single note I made during the movie, and breathe. It’s okay. It’s not available on vinyl.
Frances (Greta Gerwig) lives with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) in Brooklyn. They are super close. They’re about as close as you can get without being like total lesbos. Frances is a dancer of the modern kind and is an apprentice at a studio. Sophie works for Random House. When Sophie moves out and leaves Frances to her own devices, it becomes blazingly clear how not together she has her life. She moves from place to place, keeps her head firmly buried in the sand as all trajectories in her life are pointing down. She’s 27, unmarried, no regular job, and is trying to be a modern dancer. I guess it’s not like she’s trying to be a ballerina. She’s also friends with Lev (Adam Driver), a rich man’s son working as a sculptor, and Benji (Michael Zegen) a writer/comedian of dubioius ambition who clearly likes Frances a lot while playing as if he doesn’t.
I’m torn. Is this movie great because it’s just a few jump cuts unlike the reality of an upper-twenty-something in New York City without color or is it a cheating pile of mediocrity for precisely the same reason? The dialogue from director Noah Baumbach and Gerwig is almost entirely conversational. The exceptions are a couple jokes with set-up/knock-down beats that don’t often happen to normal people (but are normal in a comedy). The events that transpire are, likewise, completely normal. Quotidian. I would have just said quotidian, but that’s a $5 word and I don’t want to sound pretentious. Or does that make me patronizing?
Anyway, the look of the movie (Sam Levy) fits the writing because it is bare-bones, intermediately shot, black and white, edited like a non-whispering Terrence Malick movie. Example: Frances goes home for Christmas and the whole trip takes about a minute and yet contains a party, shopping, flying in and out, driving around, taking down Christmas lights, and other things I can’t remember. It was great, I loved it. According to IMDb, it was shot with a Canon 5D MKII, which is a commercial brand DSLR (aka normal) camera costing less than $3k (and less than $2k used). I did find it to be too dark fairly regularly. If they put it into Adobe Lightroom, they could have fixed that right up very easily, so I’m not sure why they didn’t. Presumably, they made a decision as to “look” which didn’t include light design. The strange thing is that it lives somewhere between stylized (because it’s black and white) and not stylized (because the digital black and white doesn’t have the dynamic range that film does). But the coolest thing, to me, is that when Frances gets on a plane, Baumbach could probably just pull out the 5D–which, again, looks like a normal still photo camera because it is–and shoot right there without anyone else around. No set required.
If I may risk reptition, though, this “no set required” thing cuts both ways. I was constantly visited by a feeling during and immediately after the movie. I think I’ve just identified it as the “I could do that” disease. A hick from the sticks walks into the MoMa one day, looks at The Starry Night, likes it, looks at The Channel at Gravelines, Evening, likes it, goes to a Pollack and says, “He just threw some paint around. Well, jeez, I could do that.” There’s great modesty and immodesty in that sentiment. The modesty to think your own work not worth the price of admission and immodesty to judge a piece thought good by people who ought to know better. If I had a 5D, a popular indy actress for a girlfriend, and the time and inclination to shoot and edit a narrative version of all my fears and self doubt into an 80 minute long movie and then shot and edited a narrative version of all my rationalizations and hopes for the future packed into 6 minutes, I would have had Jason Ra (2013) right there. But I guess that makes all the difference.
Like in my own life, I was thoroughly charmed and delighted throughout while occasionally remembering that (for Frances) rent needs to be paid, jobs need to be gotten, and relationships need tending to. When does Frances ever hit bottom? She plumbs the lower reaches of acceptable failure for about as long and consistently as a character in a Ricky Gervais Christmas special, but never truly touches the rocky shoals. She has reason to cry, but doesn’t. Does she lack the depth to understand her situation?
These are not necessities, but I mention it because the poster for the film made mention of Gerwig’s excellence in the main role. She is lovely and charming and consistent to the core of the character, but was there range, was there depth, were her skills tested in any way? Or, rather, did she play the blond version of Zooey Deschanel that people love to see and be around? Ultimately, I think not. That role and that kind of movie would never have allowed me to think that Frances was pathetically failing for a moment. So, like Bridesmaids (2011), I got a character that could have been glamorized for her aimlessness but wasn’t. However, unlike Bridesmaids, I was only given mild hints as to what Frances’s parachute looked like. Then, when the parachute was deployed, I thought “Where the hell did that come from? Oh yeah, when that one character said…” Thus, my expectations of a super-downer turned out the be ill-founded.