December 18, 2017

MOVIES: "LADY BIRD"



The new coming-of-age film, "Lady Bird," is one of the funniest films of the year and possibly one of the best-edited films I've ever seen. The eponymous main character is a more-precocious-than-rebellious teen (Saoirse Ronan)  who places a high premium on originality (real name: Christine). Lady Bird lives in boring Sacramento ("the Midwest of California") and dreams of breaking away, but her options are limited due to her family's constrained finances. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is a hard-working lady who doesn't appreciate her daughter's non-traditional approach to life. For Mom, realism means thinking inside the box and putting a price tag on just about everything, at one point, even the cost of raising Lady Bird. Not only that, she is brutally honest and perpetually critical of her only child. Thank God for Lady Bird's dad who runs interference.

Lady Bird goes to an all-girls Catholic school against her will, but finds it to be a rather reasonable place, and she eagerly joins the drama club.

LEGIT SCREEN CATHOLICS

Despite the seriously fraught family dynamic, there does exist an underlying, undying love, it's just that mothers and daughters have what writer-director describes as "spiky" relationships. (Yes!) What of the Catholic trappings in "Lady Bird"? Gerwig, who is not Catholic, went to a Franciscan Catholic high school in Sacramento, and found it to be a very positive experience. "Making fun of Catholic school has been done. I didn't want to do that. When I went to Catholic school, I met great priests and nuns who were real people, and I wanted to show that." "Lady Bird" is a bit of an ode to Catholic education. Gerwig was also required to take four years of theology and it shows (except for Theology of the Body). She approaches Catholicism as an interesting and valid worldview and religion. (I got to attend a screening with Gerwig in Los Angeles, and during the Q & A afterward, she gave an elegant, spot-on definition of grace.)

Gerwig even went through the pains of getting a real priest to play the priest who offers the school Masses that punctuate the film. (Since the film is set around 2003, the priest authentically adjusted the words of the liturgy to what it would have been before the recently-renewed liturgy.) The school Masses--taking us through the liturgical year--are so genuine, with a touch of levity. Nuns are spouses of Jesus who care about their students. Priests are good at what they do. (One sacerdotal football coach side-splittingly fills in as the drama coach when the drama priest falls ill, and tries to transfer his bullish methods to the intricacies of acting.)

CAVALIER TEEN SEX

The only trite handling of teen life in "Lady Bird" pertains to teen sexuality. All the same old jokes and ribaldry are played out. It's almost as though the filmmaker is trying to protect something. "See? This is the way it is. All teens want to and will have sex when they're teens and this is exactly how it will happen with a few slight variations and always of course with irresponsible colluding adults on the side." (There is a touching portrayal of a young man discovering he's same-sex attracted, however.) Lady Bird's mother who is on her case for absolutely everything big and small is suddenly out-of-character and unconcerned about if/when her daughter is having sex: "College is the best time to have sex, but if you don't wait, be safe like we talked about." SERIOUSLY???

One of the biggest problems with cavalier teen sex in almost all media today is that it's so, so, so, so shallow with not even any higher, unfulfilled aspirations. Again, it's like the filmmakers are trying to drum their own mantra into us and re-establish over and over: "See? Sex has no meaning, no meaning at all. Pre-marital sex won't affect you one iota, beyond a few bruised romantic feelings." Where's the ANGST? How can this be? Sexuality is one of the biggest sources of angst for teens. And teens' experience of sexuality is not one-size-fits-all, thankyouverymuch.

True, "Lady Bird" is a comedy, but there were other poignant moments in the film. Oh, and as in other films, teen sex is always awkward, of course, so not only are we supposed to be pervy voyeurs of minors having sex, we're supposed to laugh at them, too. It's all just so mean on so many levels.

MY BEEF WITH GRETA

After watching a few of Greta's films (in which she acts), I became rather incensed with her and wrote her off. She always plays a bit of a ditz, and I suspected (rightly) that she wasn't in real life. (Greta presents as an incredibly insightful, disciplined, precise, gentle, genteel and articulate person. I could listen to her for hours.) Why would I be upset that GG plays a ditz? Because in one of her ditzy films, she (oopsy doopsy) gets pregnant and has a (oopsy doopsy) little abortion. Tee hee hee. I don't want to get all personal here, but Greta's mother is an OB/GYN (don't know if she's pro-life or not). Perhaps that has colored Greta's view of new life in the womb.

I entered the screening of "Lady Bird" gritting my teeth, and lo and behold, the topic of abortion is dealt with again. This time a shiny, pleasant, pro-life speaker comes to the high school. A bizarre, supposedly-funny (there's nothing funny about abortion), deflecting, non-sequitur-ing, avoiding-the-real-issue dialogue transpires between the speaker and LB which results in LB getting expelled for being rude to a speaker. I'm going to reproduce the short conversation here and pull it apart, so you should move on to the next subtitle if you don't want a SPOILER.

LB: (from what I could gather, pictures of aborted babies were circulating in the student audience) "Just because something's ugly doesn't mean it's morally wrong."

Speaker: (deftly not getting caught up in equating ugliness with immorality) "You think dead babies aren't morally wrong?"

LB: (not answering the question, but continuing with her "ugly" theme) "Pictures of my vagina during my monthly period would be disturbing, but that's not immoral." Yes, Lady Bird, it would be, but so would pictures of boogers and a lot of other non-sexual things, so you can drop your false line of reasoning now.

Lady Bird being expelled for rudeness is a cop-out similar to the miscarriage in "Citizen Ruth." Whether she realized it or not, Gerwig's highlighting the Catholic Church's rock steady consistent position on abortion is almost like a compliment. Or a conundrum. What the heck does the Catholic Church know that the rest of the world doesn't seem to?

My beef with Greta is somehow personal: woman to woman. Every pro-abortion woman breaks the circle of life that strengthens our sisterhood. My hope and prayer is that GG is on a journey, not at the end of her quest for the truth about women's true liberation, the heart of which is women's epic, kick-ass mission of protecting the beginning of every human life.

IS "LADY BIRD" GRETA GERWIG?

Is "Lady Bird" autobiographical? Gerwig says no. She says she was a rule-keeper in school. But I wonder if LB is her alter-ego, her shadow side?

LADY BIRD IS A LIAR

There are many themes in "Lady Bird." One very intriguing theme is the fact that Lady Bird lies constantly, but doesn't like being lied to. And sadly, LB doesn't learn her lesson by the end of the film, but continues lying, even when she moves to a new locale. LB is not as original as she thinks she is because original people don't lie. The whole point of their originality is that they are true to themselves and their convictions, however embryonic or misconstrued they may be. Maybe LB lies because she doesn't really know who she is or what she believes. It seems she only knows what she doesn't want. One can only hope that she "grows out of it" as we see her progress in other ways.

RECOGNIZING GIFTS

A lovely aspect of Christine/Lady Bird's journey is the moment--far away from home--when she realizes where/what home is and even claims her heritage a bit. Gerwig speaks of it like this: "We receive so many gifts in life, and so often we don't recognize them at the moment, only later."

IN CONCLUSION

"Lady Bird" gets all the Catholic trappings and surface goodwill and niceness right, but utterly misses the core of Christianity: the Gospel of the body. And if you get that wrong? You got it all wrong.

"The language of Christianity is the body."

OTHER STUFF:

--This film is NOT for teens (thankfully, it's rated "R"). Unless you want (yay!) pre-marital sex and (yay!) abortion to be reinforced inside of a cool, funny, feel-good film. Is this not the most insidious and effective form of spreading evil as unquestioned "everyone's doing it" normalcy? You can't spoof a spoof.

--Greta Gerwig never went to film school and comes from an acting background. May I say that this has only helped her filmmaking and not harmed it in anyway? She writes/directs with the freedom and confidence of an insider who knows exactly what and how to make a scene pop. There is not one extra line or character or minute. Gerwig is the master of the "many little scenes and little beats" that should make up a film. Every scene is lean and trim, and not episodic, either. Gerwig's time in mumblecore is beneficial here. People speak at the same time, talk over and through each other like real human beings, always ensuring that hilarity ensues. She is also the "mistress" of one-liners that fit into the film as a whole and brevity being the soul of wit.* Some extraordinarily ticklish little sight-gags, too. "Lady Bird" is a true laugh-fest.

--GG says that mothers are usually portrayed as either monsters or angels and she wanted to nuance that. (Yes!)

--Only four women directors have ever been nominated for an Oscar. GG may be the fifth. And a win would be warranted. Certainly "Lady Bird" could garner "Best Original Screenplay." But also how tragic is would be that an Academy Award would be given to a film with a "D-" in Theology of the Body?

--GG's advice to women filmmakers: "Do enter the industry. Pay attention to your gut as a filmmaker: if it's your project, it's all you've got." GG likes a film to be a "good dance partner." You can trust the film because it's telling you: "I've got you."

--One of the best, funniest "pre-inciting incidents" ever in Act One (resulting in an arm cast for Lady Bird).

--Some good God humor (which is different from religious humor).

--There's a constant kind of tender irreverence. Not toward religion, but towards humans.

--I suppose I'll never get used to parents and offspring regularly using F-bombs together. It just wasn't a thing in my family. I think it will always feel jarring and line-crossing to me.

--The perfunctory poking of fun at dear old Ronald Reagan pops up yet again, but this time in a film set in the early 2000's. Whateverfor? I think I've finally figured it out. RR, more than a conservative figure or even an authority figure, is a FATHER FIGURE. I will let you suss that out by your lonesome.

--Gerwig is a startlingly feminine filmmaker. ("Feminine" does not mean girlie and sweet and delicate and frou frou. It means whatever flows naturally from being a woman, body and soul, and it looks different on different women.) But I find that so many women filmmakers set out to be tough and macho and to prove themselves and make films that any man could make in a mannish way with "masculine" sensibilities. Not so, Greta. In fact, a male filmmaker friend of mine, present at the screening, noted her feminine filmmaking on display: completely assured, but never cocky. In command, but trusting in the actors' own instincts to bubble to the surface. Highly collaborative, but in a palpably womanly way.

--In a totally candid and unPC comment, Greta (I hate calling women by their last names) said: "Sometimes teen films are about that one boy. I don't think high school is really that." The female gaze!

--Some may say: "But overall, the film is pretty good! It's just a shame about that one [MOST IMPORTANT] little part...." But I, conspiracy theorist that I am, say: "Hmmmm, but isn't that the way it goes with most of these ohbuttheyjustgotthesexpartwrong films?" Sure they leave us jaunty, but it depends on what "little part" you get wrong. It can mar the whole thing, undermine the whole operation. Like a bomb planted in a pretty garden of petunias. And portraying cavalier teen sex is unforgivable (cinematically speaking). I stand for the teens.

--"Lady Bird"--at the time of our screening--had broken the Rotten Tomatoes record for the highest ratings: and this is a small film with religious overtones with a female protagonist and female writer-director, essentially exploring a mother-daughter relationship. Could it be that the world is ready for a woman's perspective (and excellence in comedic filmmaking)? Let's hope Gerwig has raised the bar permanently, a new standard. I think people are tired of big, sloppy, brainless, tiresome movie messes.

I just hope that the high ratings were not because it was a fun, religion-tinged film that let us keep our precious pre-marital sex and abortion intact. I'm wondering if and hoping that it isn't just the comedy that's resonating. Perhaps the truth that we can be ourselves (human originality and individuality are, after all, God's idea) and connect with God in our own, unique, one-of-a-kind way--is given flesh and bones by this red-headed lass.

____
* "Take my wife. Please." --Henny Youngman


1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:40 AM

    The part of the movie that has been gnawing at me has been the normalization of the accumulation of life long debt, especially for college, and that your parents should sacrifice their own financial well-being for their child's college dreams.

    Lady Bird would not go to UC-Davis, only private liberal arts colleges in the Northeast. She doesn't care that her dad is out of work and her brother and his wife live with their parent. There is never any recognition by anyone that there might not be any money for her to go to a private college.

    Instead the father refinances their only home so she can go to college in New York. And I'm sure she had to take out loans with her dad co-signing those as well.


    At no point does Lady Bird care that her family has sacrificed so much for her. The movie ends with Lady Bird thinking Sacramento isn't so bad. But there is no reckoning of the amount of debt she has laid on her family.

    I went to college at the same time she did, and there was many teens that had to learn that their parents could not afford $30,000 a year in tuition and room/board.

    Some of my friends have said but this is just what families do. And I could not agree more, many of my friends and their families did the same. And they're all in their 30s still under a mountain of student debt. Many wishing that they hadn't taken out loans to have the most idealized college experience.

    Not once did The movie question whether or not it's worth it to take on life long debt to have the best college experience. It's just what people do.

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