August 2013

This issue's contents Current issue Index Search


Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: Many spoilers

Frances Ha (2013), directed by Noah Baumbach, is one of the most satisfying independent films I have seen in a long while. This was all the more pleasant because I have found Baumbach's prior movies to be rather entitled and whiny (I weep as I drive my Mercedes to the Long Island estate where my sister is to be married). This one, co-written with featured actress Greta Gerwig, concerns a deep, abiding, and exclusive love that is not sexual: that of Frances for her best female friend since college, who she thinks about every minute and who does not quite recirocate her loyalty and attention. Its a movie about women in which the men are friends and background and not really important, and about an original and strange woman who does not feel sorry for herself, makes her way and has her little laugh at the world (as the title suggests).

I have been reading ninteenth century nonfiction very widely, and as I mentioned last month, have been really impressed by the energy and clarity of much of the writing. A book which really stands out is John Morley's On Compromise, which is about allowing your mind to range free and consider everything and not locking it into a dull and de-invigorating compromise with received wisdom, religious or otherwise. Before there were stupid, platitudinous self help books, there were nineteenth century freethinkers wondering about values and the means of living free in a platitudinous society. He has a very modern combination of rational despair and mild optimism I find very sympathetic:

To me at any rate the history of mankind is a huge pis-aller, just as our present society is; a prodigious wasteful experiment, from which a certain number of precious results have been extracted, but which is not now, nor ever has been at any time, a final measure of all the possibilities of the time.

Bound for Glory (1976), directed by Hal Ashby, is a rather mild mannered bio-pic about Woody Guthrie that, like many movies faithful to historical events, fails to have much of a narrative arc: Guthrie wanders around, sings, cheats on his wife and doesn't change much. Part of the problem is likely David Carradine's cheerful but limited performance. It is mainly watchable for the music and as a portrait of the lives of migrant farm workers in the Depression.

I had thought Ida Lupino was the first female director, but Dorothy Arzner was a famous, strong director before Lupino was even known as an actress. Arzner's career ended overnight and mysteriously in the 1940's, after which she lived and taught film for another forty years or so. She worked with many of the best and most independent actresses of her time. Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), starring Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball as chorines, is a bit of a proto-feminist epic; O'Hara lectures a burlesque audience about what chumps men are, has an onstage fight with Ball, then goes before a night court judge and fearlessly stands up for herself and takes her medicine, insisting on jail rather than a fine. The reward is still the love of a good man, but at least he is a choreographer who will facilitate her career, who loves her for her fierceness and talent.