I want to live through something. The only exciting thing about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome.
(Editorial note: As apparently A24 keeps their scripts on lockdown and this movie is still in theaters, my quotes from the film may not be exact).
Keep in mind: I’m certainly not a film major. I have a third of a theatre degree and an abusive history with Netflix. But like any millennial, I believe myself to be quite special, so I thought I’d share some scattered thoughts on a film. In the first section, “‘Member When?,” I identify a problem I encountered after viewing Lady Bird. The middle section, “Meditation on a Theme,” sets a course for a solution; the third, “The Meaning of Millennialism,” offers one. In the conclusion, “A Call to Arms,” I offer a brief comment about the potential point of all of this.
Apologies for the length: at least the sectioning helps break it up a bit.
It has already been decided that Lady Bird, the solo directorial debut of Greta Gerwig (who also wrote the screenplay), is a Very Good Movie. The New York Times, lauding it as a critics’ pick, calls it “big screen perfection” while The A.V. Club, grading it on par with one of best-friend Julie’s Algebra tests, identifies it as “something truly special.” The consensus is clear: the film just set a new Rotten tomatoes record with 187 (and counting) “fresh” reviews without a single rotten one, dethroning Toy Story 2 as the highest rated movie on Rotten Tomatoes, period. While virtually every aspect of the movie has been praised, from its soundtrack and usage of Sondheim to its socially honest treatment of poverty, the underlying effect it as had on audiences has been best summed up by A.O. Scott in the NYT review linked above:
You might think you’ve seen this all before. You probably have, but never quite like this.
And walking out of Lady Bird, you immediately notice this contradiction. On the one hand, a thought pops into your mind: “I’ve never seen a movie like that before.” Yet this thought surprises you. Not at first — not immediately afterwards when you’re attempting to be non-verbal, like after finishing all 21 hours and five minutes of the Grapes of Wrath on cassette and not wanting to hear anything else; when your thoughts are still emotions, beautiful ones, and you want to keep it that way — because at first, of course it’s a movie the likes of which you’ve never seen before. How can it not be? Saying otherwise completely invalidates the extremely strong and incredibly pronounced feelings that are currently bombarding you. You already know that you’re madly in love with this film but, being the good millennial that you are, you know your hesitation here is simply from being stuck in the honeymoon phase.
And so — whether it’s brave or brazen, you’re not yet sure — you attempt to apply a little critical thought to your current experience, and you can’t escape the realization that you just watched a (and you try not to gag) coming of age movie, the likes of which you’ve known about ever since you started hating on Holden Caulfield, and no matter where you stand on the work of Kenyon’s most famous religious studies major, you realize is part of a genre ripe with tropes and caricature. Furthermore, you start to worry that you’re Lady Bird after losing her virginity, distraught that your experience was an utter illusion. You worry that, really, you just witnessed exploitative nostalgia-porn: that you’re no better than Randy Marsh sucking on Member Berries. You worry this because, as much as you hate to admit it, you just watched a film that was essentially about your senior year of high school. It can’t be a movie unlike any you’ve seen before because it is a projection of the life you have lived before. Your high school flirting and audition techniques were the exact ones used by Danny (boyfriend #1); your eighteen year-old idealistic and rebellious political streak (which lead to a primary vote for Larry David’s twin brother) exemplified by Kyle (boyfriend #2) reading Howard Zinn. You hung out with people you didn’t really like for a taste of the “real upper class” only to realize those relationships were vapid and that that made you vapid. You and your best friend betrayed each other for other social groups, groups that could give you things each other could not, before eventually noticing best-friendship is more important that socio-political objectives. You ignore the fact that you’re an lower-upper class private turned DC Public High School boy and not a higher-lower class catholic school Sacramento girl until you realize that very fact proves that you’re simply forcing your own childhood onto an exterior narrative as an attempt to irrationally gain what is fundamentally lost (and how dare you exploit her narrative for your own selfish gain, you privileged piece of shit).
And you know it’s not just you. As said above, Lady Bird is a coming of age film, and it can seem to only contain those aforementioned tropes and caricatures. On the surface, the film is essentially a long form version of an episode of Gilmore Girls right down to the progression of the boyfriends (Danny=Dean, Kyle=Jess, and more tentatively due to his lack of screen time, David=Logan) who can be summed up by whether or not a date starts with the ringing of a doorbell or the honk of a horn. Lady Bird is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl with the Fat Best Friend who’s Hot for Teacher along with the Evil Matriarch Mom and Deadbeat Dad. At this point you’ve all but lost hope; you can’t believe that you so easily fell for such obvious emotional manipulation.
Obviously the above is unfair and hyperbolic (keep in mind the parenthetical in my title). But it’s harder to identify why that is the case than you would initially guess. Discussing the film with a friend after we saw it together, we both started listing the tropes and caricatures we found in it (and I’ll have to give her credit for the Gilmore Girls boyfriend parallel), but we knew that didn’t make the film cliché itself. Our explanations at the time were that it’s too “honest,” too “real;” too “believable,” too “well-heard.” But those are only vague descriptions of half-formed ideas; and without pinning them down, there’s a chance that they’re only vestiges of illusory emotional manipulation (perhaps on the highest level, but still). I haven’t mentioned the technical aspects of the film — that its dramatic structure is perfectly crafted while being distinctively cinematic, that its editing style is fresh and innovative, that its production design exudes immaculate attention to detail, that the performances have leaped over the uncanny valley into true realism — because technical aspects are auxiliary to the end(s) of a work as a whole: they are the rhetoric to its message. It is possible to create beautiful spectacle to gain profits and applause. And please don’t take that statement the wrong way: that’s not necessarily a bad thing per sé. Who doesn’t love Thor: Ragnarok? And please don’t take that reference the wrong way, either: the debate between high and low culture is usually ill-founded. Every dramatic narrative is, by definition, entertainment. Works follow structures — whether consciously followed by the creator or put upon by the audience — making them “only a representation.” As Neil Gaiman states in American Gods,
The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless.
But if Lady Bird is a Very Good Film, then we at least want it to be “more than that.” We want it to have Meaning, however vague and undefined of a term that may be. More specifically, we want its usage of cliché — all those tropes and caricatures — to be directed towards some “larger pursuit.” As much as we love Gilmore Girls, we want Lady Bird to be more than just the best written episode of it.
But what could such a “larger pursuit” possibly be? What could be its Meaning, if such a thing existed? Following those questions, the next we would have to ask is: “how could we develop a methodology for finding such a Meaning?” Certainly some tough questions: questions that if not treated with proper care could quickly devolve into absolute meaningless. But they’re also questions that, if not treated at all, leave our problem — how Lady Bird can be a unique film while being grounded in the completely common — unsolved. We continue on as a labor of love.
Meditation on a Theme
To try to grasp such a slippery concept as Meaning, we have to turn to something slightly more concrete: theme. To clarify what exactly I mean by theme, I’ll turn to Harold Pinter’s 1962 speech “Writing for the Theatre.” In it, he argues that Meaning is not found by supplying
an explicit moral tag to an evolving and compulsive dramatic image [as that] seems to be facile, impertinent and dishonest. Where this takes place it is not theatre but a crossword puzzle. The audience holds the paper. The play fills in the blanks. Everyone’s happy (source).
What does lead to Meaning is more unclear in this piece; in fact, for Pinter, it is unclear if Meaning can be found at all. He mentions a specific “active and willing participation” that should occur, but admits that
the professional theatre, whatever the virtues it undoubtedly possesses, is a world of false climaxes, calculated tensions, some hysteria, and a good deal of inefficiency.
In a way (if you let me extrapolate Pinter’s “professional theatre” to the dramatic form as a whole i.e. include the cinema as well), every movie is Thor: Ragnarok. Does that make any movie that attempts to be more dishonest? Certainly not. But not because of anything found in any specific movie itself — see the above on technical aspects — but because of our desire for more and our ability to recognize dishonesty. Pinter recognizes dishonesty as either giving the audience a prescribed message or asking them a question with a determined solution. Instead, I’ll venture that Good Drama leaves the audience with a question that is, in some way, difficult to solve — a meditation on a theme.
Gerwig offers a potential main theme in one of the film’s final Sacramento scenes. Lady Bird and Sister Sarah Joan, the nun whose car the former vandalized earlier (although they both laugh about it now), are discussing Lady Bird’s college essay on growing up in Sacramento (and was yours not, in some way, on growing up in your own hometown, quirky supplemental questions aside?). Throughout the film, Lady Bird has disparaged her hometown and wanted nothing else but to go to college as far away from it as she can in
a place with culture, like New York City, or at least Massachusetts or Connecticut where writers live in the woods.
Sister Sarah Joan praises Lady Bird’s essay, but then surprises the high school senior by stating that its clear how much she loves Sacramento due to the detail she was able to give it in her writing. Lady Bird denies this, saying she simply pays attention, to which Sister Sarah Joan replies:
Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love, and paying attention?
It’s a question that’s poetical enough to at least feel honest enough to be the theme of a Good Drama. And it’s from this theme that we can begin to understand how to answer our question. The film is at least semi-biographical — Gerwig went to a catholic high school in Sacramento and eventually made her way to Barnard — and due to the attention found in the film, she shows her love not only for her hometown but to her generation as a whole. Gerwig was born in 1983, and while no one has agreed yet exactly who a Millennial is, if your range doesn’t include Gerwig, then your range is incorrect. This film is distinctively millennial. Part of the profound effect this film had on myself (and everyone in my peer group that I’ve talked to so far) is, despite our different upbringings, the film has included, in the words one of my real-life film major friends, at least
one of the moments I’ve most identified with American cinema.
The aforementioned tropes and caricatures are used because Gerwig paid attention to those tropes and caricatures so well that she was able to perfectly replicate them on screen to serve a specific purpose. I recently saw esteemed playwright Martin McDonagh‘s Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri. After watching what I certainly consider to be a Very Good Film in its own right (although I would not call it a classic), I commented afterwards that “playwrights simply know how to write better than screenwriters.” While the comment was received at the time, my foot is now firmly in my mouth. Perhaps there is a difference — perhaps it is Gerwig’s eyes that are as receptive as Annie Baker‘s ears — but both groups of artists can pay as much attention to the world around them as the other can (as artists of any kind can, including those without sight or hearing) and assuming otherwise is utter ignorance.
But this does not yet solve our problem of clichés. Simply paying attention to clichés is not the same as doing something of note with them. Clichés can certainly be used successfully without making some “commentary on them.”
So the question of the Meaning of Gerwig’s work, the specific purpose she puts her tropes and caricatures in service of, has still gone unanswered. The name I will put to it is Millennialism: the pursuit of an identity behind a commonly talked about but to this point terribly defined generation.
The Meaning of Millennialism
Now, this is a tricky topic: no one film could ever cover the entirety of a generational experience, nor should it. A generation is as diverse as humanity as a whole. I, as a cis straight white male with a Christian lower-upper class upbringing filled with incredible support systems (and now the millennial in me is really coming out), must be especially careful to not try to ultimately define my peer group around me at a risk of ignoring and oppressing voices of those less privileged than mine. I must be conscious that Lady Bird is both a distinctively white and straight film. That’s not necessarily a fault: my friend’s moment above was part of the treatment of Danny’s homosexuality, and it does touch on race, however briefly. Greta Gerwig is (I believe) a straight white female writing an autobiographical film. But because she is so fantastic at paying attention (her eyes are so sharp), her characters that aren’t like her come across as realistic. My goal here is not to define Millennialism with Lady Bird but to say that Lady Bird is a part of Millennialism. If anything, it solves the only issue another one of my friends took with the film, namely that
I was not the one who wrote it, and now find no need for a coming of age movie to ever be written again.
And while I understand the concern — I certainly thought that, due to its sheer perfection, there was no need to write any more plays after seeing Baker’s The Flick — Millennialism needs as many films of this caliber written from as many viewpoints as possible. And perhaps my ignorance is really showing right now: Moonlight (2016), for example, is another film on par with Ladybird, and while I want to say that it’s just pre-Millennial (its director, Berry Jenkins, was born in 1979), maybe the fact is that it is millennial. It just wasn’t my experience growing up.
But there is an actual identifiable concept that differentiates Lady Bird from any other film I’ve seen before that goes beyond comparisons to Gilmore Girls or my own memories of cooking my brain on videos from Operation Iraqi Freedom. The name I will give it is reflexive self-identity. The theme of self-identity comes straight from the title. I mean reflexive — mostly — in the sense of self-referential or recursive. I see reflexivity as an umbrella of phenomena that distinctly relates to my generation:
- In the art we consume: while breaking the 4th wall certainly isn’t a new phenomenon, self-referential humor, the narrative device that made the A.V. grow concerned about the direction of Season 3 of Rick and Morty despite handing out eight unqualified A’s to the 10 episodes of that season, permeates through our media. But it goes beyond humor. We grew up on Kanye’s sampling; we found a social voice in Kendrick’s self-reflection. The question we ask at museums isn’t “what makes art beautiful?” but “what makes something art?” It’s the very writing style of the author who is the reason this blog exists (at least as analyzed by Zadie Smith).
- In the academics we’re taught: recursion, the canonical trope of postmodernism. Point it outward, and you’ll never stop dismantling a system, yet point it inward, and it ruins mathematics forever. If referentiality has been a Big Bad for generations in the past, then self-referentiality has been an even Bigger Bad, the son of everyone’s favorite Nietzsche quote which has resulted in unsettling events identified as, for example, The Problem of Postmodernism or The Crisis of Our Time. Yet the natural millennial response to this is not terror, but apathy. I’m sure you already know what batman quote is coming next.
- In the identities we create: from our tendency to “be ironic” to our belief that happiness if found by finding your authentic self. And while probably every generation ever has tried to differentiate themselves from their parents, we have to do it while commenting on what we’re doing, and so undermining our very purpose. This comes down to Lady Bird’s created identity of “Lady Bird:” a unique name, to be sure, but there’s a reason some people think this movie is going to be a biopic.
This tension between irony and authenticity leads to a self-identity that includes a wink and a nudge. We do want to “find ourselves,” but we make fun of “finding ourselves.” We roll our eyes at the pretenses of any headline that includes the world millennial in it — but don’t we at the same time embrace the title? Don’t we by very virtue of recognizing it, even if it’s for a laugh? The problem with stating who you are with your fingers crossed behind your back is that, even if it saves you facing the reality that maybe that is who you are, it pulls the rug out underneath the entire endeavor.
The problem seems to lie in the problem of conscious creation (now think of the other meaning of reflexive). It’s the entire concept behind Inception — people reject ideas that don’t come from within — but one step further. Even if those ideas were consciously created by an individual, then they still had to be coming from somewhere — maybe society, maybe your subconscious, maybe the divine, maybe somewhere else — and that very knowledge invalidates the authenticity of that idea. The more you explain a joke, the less funny it becomes. The more you repeat a word, the less meaning it contains.
Yet Lady Bird, back to Christine by the film’s end, knows all this. She knows “Lady Bird” is put upon — but still argues with Julie that the latter doesn’t deserve quotation marks for her nickname. A reason why the film is so structurally tight is because of Lady Bird’s clear desires and the identities she puts on herself to obtain them, such as becoming a Theatre Kid to pursue Danny to a Rich Kid to pursue Kyle. One could read this as her trying on fabricated identities until she finally gives them up to live as her true self, seen in her decision to take Julie to prom. Yet Gerwig doesn’t just overload us with information to fulfill our short attention spans — a classic misread of millennials by those aforementioned headlines — but rewards a viewer who can quickly ascertain what is bullshit and what they should pay attention to. Lady Bird’s final line (before going back to being called Christine is):
People won’t believe in God, but will call each other by the names their parents gave them.
She notices the tension between irony and authenticity. Her choice, then, to go by her god-given — or parentally given — name, follows a recognition that either:
- Identity is complete bullshit, so why even pretend otherwise, or
- Identity is, somehow, real, even if it relies on references outside of The Self.
Now, it’s not necessarily true that she didn’t at a point have both of these thoughts, and her coming out of a black-out Sunday morning in a hospital probably points to where her mind immediately jumped.
But her final action is to give thanks to her parents, specifically her mom, after she narrates a story on the joy she finds driving around Sacramento, hoping that her mother feels the same way (a beautiful match on action reveals that her hope is gratified). She needs not only an identity, but a confirmation from outside of herself that her identity is real. Figuring out her path in the final scenes of the movie is analogous to finding out how you can synthesize authenticity and irony — how you can cross your fingers, wink, nudge, yet not just laugh, but smile as well.
It is this same synthesis that turns Gerwig’s tropes and caricatures into something that isn’t “just” tropes and caricatures. Gerwig highlights throughout the film the difference between not caring out of apathy (Jenna’s termination of her friendship with Lady Bird) to not caring out of forgiveness (Lady Bird’s mother smiling while telling her daughter she missed her at Thanksgiving); between caring because one has been told to do so (Lady Bird and Julie listening to, well…, after witnessing a cheating Danny) and caring because one must (the final thank you). Gerwig uses these clichés is a conscious way — we know this from the self-referentiality of the film itself (see, for example, Lady Bird talking about “cut to’s,” the distinctive editing style of the film— so they are ironic, yet they also give Christine her authentic self. In the process, Gerwig invites the viewer to do the same. And although I did just create the movement on the spot, I hope this is not the last cinematic masterpiece of Millennialism. Lady Bird is just one approach to something fundamental.
Conclusion: A Call to Arms
Returning to Pinter, for just a moment. On the possibility of Meaning, a concept which, not necessarily the same as Truth, does rest on a lack of falsehood (see above), Pinter would probably laugh, as
the desire for verification on the part of all of us, with regard to our own experience and the experience of others, is understandable but cannot always be satisfied. I suggest there can be no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false.
That “desire for verification” is the human need that leads to “Randy Marshing,” an action which, whether or not it bothers you to be thinking thoughts that are not about what is but what is not, if you watch the South Park clip linked above, can at a minimum lead to disastrous socio-political consequences. And it is the desire that made me fall in love with this film. But even if said desire is implicit in the consumption of any dramatic work, and even if that desire is, at its heart, beguiling, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a way to use that desire for good.
And isn’t the self-identity of an entire generation a good? Doesn’t it have to be? Isn’t that how we get out of Pinter’s “no hard distinctions?”
The one thing I can say for sure is that I love Lady Bird. It’s certainly arguable that all of what is said above is as put upon as the wikipedia links throughout this piece. But I challenge you to find a nobler pursuit for art, a pursuit that has been followed since basic etchings on cave walls: a wail to the heavens, a scream into the void:
We are here.
We are here.
We are here.
What else is there to do other than just watch moving pictures on the wall?