Tuesday, October 27, 2015

She Is On Her Side

Yes, I watch TCM a lot and, yes, it’s probably on right now behind me but the recent Trailblazing Women series has been knocking it out of the park even more than usual for the channel. Hosted by the great Illeana Douglas with an impressive array of guests the series explores the path women have taken over the past hundred-plus years in the film industry, including success and some that have unfortunately fallen by the wayside and making it very clear that this path of history deserves notice. Just to mention a few titles, Ida Lupino’s OUTRAGE was extremely powerful, getting to revisit Elaine May’s THE HEARTBREAK KID was a revelation and my first ever viewing of Shirley Clarke’s astonishing PORTRAIT OF JASON…well, we’ll have to talk about that another time. One unexpected pleasure came on Independent Classics night and my first viewing of Claudia Weill’s GIRLFRIENDS, a film I had only vaguely heard about in passing and one I found myself surprisingly drawn to within minutes. Picked up by Warner Bros. and released in 1978, it’s a film that takes certain Woody Allen-Paul Mazursky preoccupations of the time and turns them into its own thing while clearly being an influence on some people who have emerged in the years since. Filmed on a low budget in 16mm it has a grimy look which goes perfectly with the grimy 70s New York feel of the time, almost as if we might bump into Jill Clayburgh from AN UNMARRIED WOMAN coming around a corner. But the empathy it shows for all of its characters and its casual way of telling the story makes it unique and affecting.
Aspiring photographer Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron) thinks she’s finally making some headway in her profession when her closest friend and roommate aspiring writer Anne (Anita Skinner) announces that she’s impulsively marrying her boyfriend Martin (Bob Balaban) leaving Susan in their new apartment all by herself. As Susan struggles with finding work and the pressure of being broke her friendship with Anne begins to be more distant as well.
It’s hard not to think of Noah Baumbach’s FRANCES HA in terms of the set up and maybe a little of Nicole Holofcener’s WALKING AND TALKING, incidentally also playing in the series, but GIRLFRIENDS (screenplay by Vicki Polon, story by Claudia Weill & Vicki Polon), grounded in the scuzzy 70s set in the dirty streets of New York is its own thing, always genuine and even during its lighter moments continually grounded in the struggles of its lead character along with her frustrations at feeling alone while just trying to get ahead somehow. It captures the mixed feelings that are sometimes inevitable when something exciting happens to a close friend—marriage, baby, whatever—and you know immediately that nothing is going to be the same again, how even when Anne insists she’s going to keep writing with a baby on the way Susan knows not to buy it. It makes a point of the tension that silently hangs in the air when you don’t have anything left to give a person and you don’t know how to tell them that.
With a gentle score by Michael Small which complements those feelings, the movie catches just the right feel of loneliness when everything is crumbling around you and you don’t want to be around people so you can feel ‘better’—you just want to be left alone (he wrote, alone in his apartment) no matter how hard it is to avoid feeling sorry for yourself. Some of the fashions and details are certainly dated--it occurs to me that we’ve lost a way to depict tension between friendships since we can’t have scenes where people are looking at vacation photos via slide projector anymore--but everything about it is still natural; the feelings ring true, the awkwardness is still genuine in how it presents the wars you fight with your friends and yourself as well. Whether autobiographical or merely full of details that have been closely observed, there’s a quiet sensitivity to it and yet a messiness to the lives that makes it clear these people are trying, like the character who seems set up as Susan’s rival who turns out not to be that at all, even if they’re screwing things up at the same time. It’s clearly a low-budget production so it sometimes looks raggedy and the framings are closed in to the point that the late 70s city life going on around it is always secondary but it really does feel like a peek at a way of living for artists in a certain kind of city that has long since gone away.
“What are you doing?” is the first line spoken after the opening credits to Susan, a character who barely knows what she’s doing, barely ever feels comfortable in her own skin. She’s in her twenties, when everything feels fucking awkward in trying to figure out the people around you (that awkwardness doesn’t go away but the 20s are still their own thing) and it’s definitely not a rose-colored look at being that age. As directed by Weill it continually offers a clear display of narrative economy while always keeping the characters at the forefront and it doesn’t need to be more--yes, it saves money to only see Anne’s wedding through the photos that Susan took but the visual of Susan painting her apartment right after it, painting over what she thought was going to be her life, says so much more. The New York of GIRLFRIENDS is a city where everyone is drifting, even the people who already seem to have it all settled are drifting, trying to fight their loneliness just as Susan is still becoming who she is and worried about who she never became with not much in her fridge other than a couple of Hershey bars.
No one knows any better since miscommunication between people always seems to be happening already, no one can be the all-knowing mentor for her since they’re just as screwed up. Even Eli Wallach’s Rabbi who comes off as a voice of reason at first surprisingly has other things on his mind. The storytelling is casual in terms of how much time obviously passes but it makes sense that it always feels like a cold wintery February considering how unwelcoming so much of the outside world is. The dialogue is filled with sharp, offhand asides along with occasional unexplained details to make the characters that much more vivid; everyone is flawed but layered, including how Christopher Guest’s potential boyfriend is kind of a dick but he’s just charming enough. When he calls Susan out on a few points during an argument he’s not always wrong (one minor detail I like—the phone number he uses to call his mom has a 914 area code, meaning it’s in Westchester where he presumably grew up) and he even knows just the right type of gesture to make in the end. “Maybe I just like him a lot,” Anne says about the man she’s going to marry and as skeptical as Susan is maybe that’s as close as you can ever get.
Tension over one of her photos missing from a show is diffused almost immediately by gallery owner Viveca Lindfors who harshly tells Susan to grow up but she treats her fair—to some people, there’s a limit when it comes to drama, after all so you need to step back and remember what matters. In that way, GIRLFRIENDS feels honest. Not everything gets taken care of but maybe a few steps forward for yourself, knowing that certain people are going to be around for those moments, is a start. And hoping that certain friends will understand. Reportedly Stanley Kubrick was a fan and during an interview promoting THE SHINING called it “one of the very rare American films that I would compare with the serious, intelligent, sensitive writing and filmmaking that you find in the best directors in Europe…It seemed to make no compromise to the inner truth of the story, you know, the theme and everything else.” GIRLFRIENDS is short and slight on the surface but layers of the characters have stayed with me making it more resonant and the film is continually surprising even after several viewings down to the subtle ambiguity of the final shot. Things seem like they’re picking up for Susan at the end, partly because she’s managed to get there by doing it herself, but who knows. She’s still who she is. We’re still who we are.
Melanie Mayron is just fantastic in the lead, bringing the right amount of likable energy and gradual strength, remaining endearing through all of her flaws even while you can feel Susan’s depression poking through at just the wrong times. The cast filled with a few familiar faces and some unknowns who also stand out (Anita Skinner was also in the 1983 thriller SOLE SURVIVOR and apparently nothing else; Gina Rogak who plays the more worldly Julie has no other credits) and director Weill turns it into an engaging ensemble. Eli Wallach is quietly affecting, letting us see just enough loneliness in him without trying to defend his actions. Bob Balaban, presumably still with a CLOSE ENCOUNTERS beard, and Christopher Guest both lend strong support with likable quirks and just enough to let us see how their behavior could get on anyone’s nerves. Amy Wright is also particularly good as a drifter Susan impulsively allows to move in and Kenneth McMillan has an endearing bit as a cab driver.
According to a 1980 profile in People Magazine Claudia Weill grew up in Scarsdale (“solid Jewish upbringing” is the phrase used), just like I did. This fact has nothing to do with anything but I can’t help but think how going from that town to the cold outside world where you have to grow up whether you want to or not is a feeling I can remember and one which is very much felt in this film. After GIRLFRIENDS Weill helmed the 1980 Jill Clayburgh vehicle IT’S MY TURN (never released on DVD so I’ll have to do some hunting; the People article indicates that it was a problematic shoot) and then moved on to directing TV including several episodes of THIRTYSOMETHING, where she was presumably reunited with Mayron. She also directed an episode of GIRLS a few years back and Lena Dunham has spoken at length on her love for this film. After years of unavailability GIRLFRIENDS actually is on DVD and can be ordered from the Warner Archive. The inclusion of the film in the Trailblazing Women series on TCM is deserved, hopefully exposing it to people who also never caught up with it. It also bodes well for what else might be in store when the series will return over the next two Octobers, presumably again hosted by Illeana Douglas who will hopefully be seen even more on TCM in the future. Even her discussions with guests before and after the films have felt longer and more fleshed out then they usually do on the channel, a choice which has helped the series have that much more of an impact. As an example of the Trailblazing Women series GIRLFRIENDS serves as, among other things, a reminder of how there are always films out there that feature distinctive voices which deserve to be discovered again, moving beyond just the sanctioned ‘classics’ whatever those are supposed to be. On its own it shows how hard things can be, whether between friends or just yourself, but every now and then we can spot the small possibility of moving forward. Which would include, hopefully, seeing more films as well.


Mark West said...

Another great find/article, I'll look out for this - thanks!

Will Errickson said...

"...a grimy look which goes perfectly with the grimy 70s New York feel of the time, almost as if we might bump into Jill Clayburgh from AN UNMARRIED WOMAN coming around a corner."

Love it! I'd heard of this flick from EVERY 70s MOVIE blog but now I really wanna track it down.