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Moving Picture: ‘Frances Ha’ and Me

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A boy nestled in the seat of a theater screening room, and in his bed, and on his best friend’s couch and in an empty classroom; by himself, and with his best friend and with someone for whom he has feelings – blanketed by the silvery shimmer of Greta Gerwig walking around Paris, dancing around Chinatown and bumbling about Vassar. Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012) is about someone’s life changing drastically and a need to recontextualize their identity, with the film almost segmented by location as a way to make sense of personal chaos. It is difficult to put into words why I love this film, why I’ve watched it so many times. But it is one that nevertheless plays an interesting, strangely important role in my life. I want to think that watching Frances struggle and eventually come out as someone who has reconciled with her weaknesses is something I can do too. I hope so, at least. I want to be a real person too.

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The impetus to dragging my friend to the movies to see this presumably quaint, quirky black and white indie movie about a young New Yorker floundering in adulthood is lost on me now, because I’ve spent a lot of time drinking coffee and/or sitting in bed watching 30 Rock, allowing my mind and body to waste away to a point where my go-to phrase is “I want to go to there” (in any and every context). All I knew was that it would be respite from home. But, so it was, that my friend Leah and I trekked 40 minutes away from my nowhere home to see Frances Ha. Now that I think of it, maybe it was Leah’s idea: I was only, at that point, peripherally familiar with Baumbach’s work. I had seen Kicking and Screaming in early high school, and I found Gerwig to be emblematic of most of the criticisms lodged against indie movies by people who don’t really watch them in the first place.

It should be noted that Hartford’s Criterion Bow Tie Cinema is capital A Adequate. Their projection is often mediocre to poor, their snacks thoughtlessly prepared and they once barred me from seeing Stoker, even though I had documentation proving I was of age, even if it wasn’t technically a state ID card. I’ve held a grudge ever since. That being said, this kind of dinky theater, with its You Be the Critic corkboard covered by audience members’ quickly scrawled reviews (and hallways smelling of salted popcorn and lowered expectations), is one of the few theaters near me, or in Connecticut in general, that will dare show films of the art house fare. I’m pretty sure they were the only theater in the state to exhibit Xavier Dolan’s Mommy and the Dardennes Brothers’ Two Days, One Night. And, like I said, they had Stoker. In a way, its very adequateness is a form of being exceptional: one isn’t distracted by the chairs one drowns in at AMC Lowes, the gaggle of basics crowding the makeshift Ben & Jerry’s at Buckland Hills or the depressing smallness of whatever hell hole is in Middletown. I may not be able to live in the city, but at least I have a theater that, on a bad day, kind of smells like it.

Like a well-practiced cowboy ready for a duel, except not as cool and clumsier, I asked Leah, “What did you think?” We shuffled our way out of the screening room, stepping on spilled popcorn and kernels of dreams crushed. Leah, sporting neck length straightened hair, was impressed. Her expectations were met, which is all one could ask for. I was charmed by Frances Ha, incredibly charmed. It would not even be the height of my adoration for the film, but I felt comforted by its seemingly feather weight approach, how Gerwig’s acting acrobatics made Frances Halladay a mix of endearing and obnoxious. I didn’t have the words, at that point, to express what exactly about it won me over. I still struggle with that. But I loved it.

Leah dropped me off at home, where I promptly ran up to my room and stayed there until I would have to face my mother again. It was just better to stay in my room as often as possible. Maybe that’s why I liked Frances Ha so much at the time: it felt safe and warm.

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To rely on cliché a little bit, I survived high school with most of my wits about me and a sardonic speech left in my peers’ minds. I’m proud of my speech. Not because I think it’s necessarily the greatest thing I’ve ever written, but because I was at least willing to eschew convention. I was disinclined to spew forth a pseudo-sentimentality about what a family my classmates were, how high school was amazing or use the phrases “we did it,” “it was hard” or “and in that moment, we were infinite.” As with most bad movies, to try and be reflective of everyone’s experiences by being broad and vague is a surefire way to be uninspired. Conversely, to be so specific that three quarters of your speech is call outs to classmates with inside jokes is a form of wasting people’s time. That’s not really a speech so much it is a text message that you send on graduation day, but spoken aloud. Mine had, like the film Weekend, specificity, and through that, universality. I know it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, but, really, listening to the same kind of speech times four really drains you. I wrote about how I was going to burn all my school papers, or how tangible artifacts are as important as the intangible memories associated with them. The greatest compliment I ever received in high school was when my former biology teacher came up to me and asked if I had heard of David Sedaris. Had I heard of David Sedaris? I owned all of his books and read the last one in a single day.

Despite the grandiosity of giving a speech, I still didn’t feel like I had graduated. It was a tumultuous four years, including, but not limited to, my father dying, me going through four therapists, an abusive relationship with my mother, falling in love with my best friend for no particular reason, watching When Harry Met Sally… on a loop for an entire summer, bringing my GPA up to a 3.5 and masturbating to gay porn but continually telling myself I was straight.

And through this all, I got to spend time in New York City. An acquaintance of mine worked as a producer and invited me to be a behind the scenes photographer of an indie film. I jumped at the chance to be in New York, to work on a movie, to experience real freedom, maybe even get hit by a taxi cab. Most of all, it was a chance not to be at home. I was in a little apartment in Astoria, Queens, about six blocks away from the Museum of the Moving Image. After spending a solid week and a half figuring out how the subways worked, New York became my new home away from home. I had, or have, a romanticized vision of it, a bastion of wide acceptance and where cultural nuances are easily reached. Everyone looked so chic walking around. Even in the heat wave of July 2013, it was like being in a dream. At least when I was off set.

On one of those days when I wasn’t working (maybe volunteering is a more apt description of my position), I went to the IFC Center, where Frances Ha was still playing. I paid for my ticket, paid for expensive popcorn and took my seat. It was a slightly stranger experience this time around: I had been in New York for a least a couple of weeks at that point, but the city on screen, in shimmering (digital) black and white, felt familiar to me. I recognized the subway car and the station where Frances was running about in Chinatown. Although I wasn’t completely knowledgeable about the specifics of the geography, I felt like I did thanks to the tone and the feeling for the landscape. I fell asleep during the screening, actually, for maybe 20 or so minutes. It felt so comfortable to finally find a place that I loved to be at that wasn’t school. I was certainly more cognizant of the paradoxical effects of social anxiety (on the level that there was this beautiful and terrifying sense of anonymity), but that didn’t bother me. To this day, it’s something I shrug off, because, as Ralph Freed put it, I liked New York (in June).

I danced in the streets to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” On West 4th, I stopped, panting, outside of an Urban Outfitters. The convergence of my adoration for Frances Ha and for the city was overwhelming.

And yet, through this all, I was mostly appreciative of the atmospheric aspects of the film: how it conjured the same sense of wonder and joy as the French New Wave, how fresh it felt, how buoyant it was. I didn’t have much of a concept of the actual stakes in the film, both professionally and personally. And maybe, at that point, it didn’t really matter, nor should it have. I was going to be starting university later that fall, so why should I care?

I did a lousy job of being frugal in New York. That’s something that hasn’t changed.

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My social anxiety seemed to make its biggest impression on me in university. I was always shy, but it crept closer towards debilitating. Nonetheless, I found friends, I liked my faculty and I was still writing. I liked school, and the campus, though not far away enough from home, was at least near a Barnes & Noble.

I made my then boyfriend watch Frances Ha with me via Skype. For once, he didn’t feel so far away.

I strong armed friends into watching the film with me. I watched it with relative frequency in my dorm. In early 2015, I’d interview Noah Baumbach. I would tell him about dancing in the streets to “Modern Love.” He would laugh.

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Shortly after the relationship with my mother reached an apex in the summer of 2014, which is to say we hit each other and I was arrested, I spent some time living with my best friend. I’m forever thankful for how welcoming and tolerant and familiar Joe and his mother were. The key difference in the dynamic was that there was no animosity, so, points to the Bradys already!

I was still jobless, but I was still writing. I was also in the midst of discovering that credit cards, almost adults, a proclivity towards online shopping and being broke don’t mix. I was out as queer to pretty much everyone already, except for my mother. I decided that it wasn’t really worth telling her, especially because a) I didn’t want to prove her half right and b) she thought it was hilarious when I asked to go on antidepressants. Though, to be fair, I was as mean as she was. For us, quid pro quo was like answering each other’s verbal and physical abuse with more verbal and physical abuse. I didn’t really talk about it with anyone, and my mother had pushed me to ask about living with other people. I was too embarrassed to talk about my situation, or to even write about it. I chose to escape into the solace of watching movies and writing about them, avoiding responsibilities as all good children do.

Over a year after having initially seen Frances Ha, and half a year after purchasing it on Criterion, I finally sit down to articulate my adoration. And even then — a couple of thousand words later — it still feels like I’m scratching the surface of what this film is and what it means to me.

It’s funny that some of my closest bonds have been built upon this film, one that’s dually about those bonds and projection as well as trying to understand one’s own identity apart from these relationships. Joe, my high school best friend, and his mother have been essential pieces of my life and to my survival. And, to adhere to cliché, it was during the most emotionally strenuous moments, like this, that engendered a better appreciation for the role they played in my life. Joe will always be my Sophie.

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Not dissimilarly, the bond I made with someone who initially appeared to be just another tweet in the pan would become another crucial relationship in my life. But while Joe and I resembled Sophie and Frances, respectively (Sophie much more discernibly with her life together), Phuong and I both felt like Frances: vaguely creative people unsure of what to do next, our hyperawareness of ourselves ironically serving as one of our biggest obstacles.

Almost every time we have spent time together, Phuong and I have watched Frances Ha, and we have quoted it line for line. But there are silences. As our faces were illuminated by the classroom projector on campus one April evening, we watched as Frances turns to her side and looks into the mirror after her breakup with Sophie. We didn’t need to look at each other. There wasn’t the fear that that would happen to us, necessarily, and I can’t speak for her, but the anxiety of losing someone in your life whom you hold so dear hangs over my head constantly. Not only that they will think I am a failure, but trying to consider who I am, and what my identity means in that context, is nightmarish for me. I think Phuong understands that too. And that’s why I love her, amongst other reasons.

There’s a mirroring effect with our relationship, both of us traipsing along our various professional lives relatively successfully, watching and supporting the other as their personal life goes up in flames. It often happens at the same time. And so, we tell each other that we are Undateable. “Boys can’t mess with us.” Too right they can’t. She’ll be the one I can look across the room at.

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The second summer of being quasi-liberated from home, as I like to think of it generously, meant that my life was compacted into a few bags. Returning to Provincetown after a six-year hiatus was interesting: I was out and kind of comfortable as a queer person, and I was actively interested in queer and gay male culture, but only ever in a distanced, intellectual, bookish way. I decided, mostly out of necessity, that this would be a good idea after watching a friend do the same.

There is too much to write about regarding Provincetown, but the thing that struck me was the myriad of ways I was able to grow and shrink in this environment. Surrounded by people I didn’t know who mostly subscribed to a culture that didn’t necessarily have a place for me, it forced me to reconcile with my identity and with my social anxiety. The degrees of success to which I did this are questionable. But, I performed stand up in front of a crowd, so there’s that. On the other hand, understanding what exactly I want from my life (and from other people) because more amorphous. Over brunch with my friend Alex in New York nearly six months later, I would try to verbalize these internal conflicts, but to little avail.

But my experience in Provincetown became the most important push for me to try to adult. It was like a weird, bumpy test drive, like when Frances runs through the streets to “Modern Love,” thinking that the world is at her beck and call, only to come home and find that no one is waiting for her. She has to do it herself.

So I watched Frances Ha again, maybe a couple months after I had arrived, and I felt something new about the film. It was so much sadder than I remembered. The glistening moments of ebullience were still there, but they were deeper, more complex, more detailed with ambivalence and doubt. The joy that exists in Frances Ha coexists with its melancholy. Being able to identify with both made me love it more.

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I kept having to tell myself, “I’m glad I have a bed.” Yes, I was lucky to have a bed, and I was lucky I got a little help for rent for a couple of months. I was lucky that I was able to plaster my bedroom walls with newspaper clippings, as I had my dorm room. I was lucky that I had a bed. And I tell myself this every day. My “life in three bags” had expanded to “several bags and boxes of books, oh my god, why do I like physical media.” I was back in Connecticut.

I’ve been trying to escape Connecticut for a long time. But the soul crushing loneliness I felt by watching my friends head back to school, get back into the swing of academic routine and eat questionable food from the university cafeteria was enough for me to head back home. I don’t generally consider myself sentimental, but others tell me I am exactly that. I missed my professors, I missed doing essays for class, I missed the deadening silence that followed when a professor asked a basic question to the class and no one was answering it. P-Town was all well and good, but it was not school. I like school.

But that I had to sign a lease and move in to a “new place” —  that was a step into adulthood I was admittedly unprepared for. It was something I did anyways, and the worry and anxiety of paying rent as a freelance writer hung over my head like the sword of Damocles every day. I was disappointed in myself for not knowing how to do this, how to do it right no less. So it was mostly trial and error and ignoring certain pieces of mail.

Living with four very heteromasculine performing guys was really something. They walked with logs attached to their legs and spoke at such volumes that one wondered if they feared the other was to go deaf. I never fully unpacked. My suitcase and bag full of clothes remained in my room for almost the entire duration of my stay. I was always hoping, subconsciously, that I’d have a reason to leave. Pack up all my stuff and get out.

Though during my first few months back, beginning in October, I would go to campus to work and write, my room still became that space for “working from home,” and essentially one of mild misery. I was briefly granted some respite from Connecticut during the holiday season, but I came back from New York almost totally broke and deeply depressed. Winter break was not great. But it lit something under me to start pitching more.

I watched Frances Ha after my brief vacation in New York. Frances’s desperation became more palpable. Neither of us were sure what to do. Next.

The new semester started up, though, and my professional career starting getting better. I got a real person job to supplement my fake person job. I started bussing tables at a local sushi restaurant, a job that I hated. But, it was the thing I needed to do. I have continued writing, continued working at school. I am a few days away from returning to Provincetown for another summer season. I’m considering running away to New York.

I showed Frances Ha to a crush recently. Tension of a certain kind notwithstanding, it was nice sharing it to someone. The film has meant so much to me over the last few years, and in a way, it’s become a part of me. Our knees knocked into one another briefly, and I glanced at him. The light from the computer screen silhouetted his face. Weirdly, it felt personal when he said (in his paradoxically softly jagged voice) that he liked it. Whatever the context, I’m glad we had that moment.

My things are almost completely packed. I’ve stopped constantly looking at myself in the mirror. I’m not sure what will happen next, but I guess I’m ready. I’m not as embarrassed that I’m not a real person yet; I’m working on it.

Kyle Turner (@tylekurner) is a freelance writer, editor and transcriber who has contributed to Esquire, MUBI, Playboy, Flavorwire, Brooklyn Magazine, The Film Stage, Film School Rejects, Under the Radar, and IndieWire’s /Bent. He is studying cinema at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.

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