2018 Film Essays

“Well, Childhood’s Over” – Claiming Adulthood with Some Help from Greta Gerwig

“‘I want to go where culture is, like New York. Or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire. Where writers live in the woods.’ — Lady Bird.” — Marshall Shaffer

No, that’s not an original saying. It’s in quotes because I gave it to myself. It’s given to me, by me.

This is my story in my words, although some words by other people play an important part. It’s not about the film Lady Bird or the titular character, although both have a significant role. It’s also not another entry into the tired genre of “boy moves to New York and has experiences” genre, which has already been well played out. Besides, the city already is already replete with eloquent prosaic spokespeople, all of which are far more literate and experienced than myself. (Have you read Zadie Smith’s “Under the Banner of New York” from last November? Do that, and then ask yourself if you’d ever want to follow such evocative prose.)

No, this is a story about the strange capability of film to inspire in a way the medium seldom achieves. Roger Ebert famously described cinema as a “machine generating empathy.” My recent experiences speak to a far more fearful, awesome power. It’s a story about how the manifold creations of one artist, Greta Gerwig, helped keep me away from New York City only to slowly entice me back — and then gave me the greatest lesson of all about the value of home. In my case, the cinema was a machine generating action.

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“Sometimes it’s good to do the things you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do them.” – Frances Ha

I grew up romanticizing New York all out of proportion, based on Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (I know), Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (ugh, fine, I’ll admit it) and Lena Dunham’s Girls. A vague notion always lingered in my head that it was some place I might like to call home one day — less a burning desire than a festering itch, though. It was the last unchecked box on my cities bucket list after spending time in Los Angeles, London and Washington, D.C. (I should note up front that it’s an enormous privilege to have this choice in the first place — certainly one not available to many today, and one practically unfathomable generations ago.)

As a movie lover, spending a summer living in Hollywood was a dream of a different variety. Though the city was built on cinema, it lacks a visual identity given how often it had to stand in for other locales. New York always played itself. And yet I found myself at a loss for how to reconcile the city of celluloid so vividly captured by Allen, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and countless others with the grittier reality of actually trying to grind out an existence and cobble together a living there. Other friends had done it, sure, but I was unsure if I was willing to make a similar set of sacrifices coming out of college. As I considered making the move after graduation, I knew it would mean compromising New York City as a kind of dream space. Would the streets still whistle “Rhapsody in Blue” if I was flooding them with my own sorrows?

Or, to put it more bluntly, I was scared. Maybe I wouldn’t have put it that way in the summer of 2015, and I certainly would not have copped to the underlying motive. But looking back, that’s what it was. As I began to talk myself into the idea that starting off post-grad life at home in Houston would not be the worst thing in the world, a different cinematic incarnation of the city began to dominate my imagination: Greta Gerwig’s Frances Halladay from Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. The title is a shortened version of the character’s name as she fails to fit the entirety of a label bearing her surname into her mailbox, which serves as a pretty accurate encapsulation of her life as a whole.

As a 20-year-old encountering Frances Ha for the first time, I cringed too much to be fully entertained. In my original review of the film from 2013, I wrote, “On her best days, Frances is a joyful opportunist. Meanwhile, on her worst days, she’s a sloth that borders on being completely unsympathetic.” (In my defense, I followed up with, “Perhaps why I had trouble embracing Frances is that she does hit rather close to home.”) As a perennial overachiever in my first two decades, Frances looked more like a cautionary tale than a sympathetic figure. She was “so frustratingly heedless that it becomes hard to root for her at all” in the eyes of a viewer who, at the time, found himself identifying with Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network and Nina Sayers of Black Swan more than I’d care to admit now. People who doggedly and single-mindedly pursued their goals were the ones who achieved the success they desired, according to the movies and all the conventional wisdom.

Frances’ existence frightened me. People like her — who moved to New York in pursuit of their passion only to end up rejoicing over tax rebates, shuffling across town to new apartments on the regular and getting lapped by contemporaries — seemed like a nightmare. She was unable to make any progress because she was trapped in a paralysis-inducing cycle of tough circumstances and bad timing. I didn’t understand how Frances could go through this life without panicking or taking any responsibility for herself.

But then something changed as I lost a sense of imperviousness having settled into a comfortable existence in Houston. By settling on something safe and not betting on myself, I began to feel a new sensation: falling behind. I intuited from talking with old friends that people expected me to do more with my life, not just resign myself to an existence as a homebody. And as I came to that realization, something kept drawing me back to Frances Ha — a force I am wordless to describe but was helpless to resist.

The more I watched the film, the less I interpreted Frances within the frameworks of the ideal or the miserable that dominated my thinking about New York. Instead, she just became a person. Her contentment was not the result of laziness. She was struggling, sure, but she was choosing that struggle. And for me, who had just come to passively accept my struggle, that started to look like a more appealing option. Moreover, Frances learned to find happiness where she was, not just at her destination — a kind of wisdom that I, in my immaturity, interpreted as naïveté rather than wisdom.

Suddenly, the role of Frances Ha in my life did a dramatic 180. The movie that had dissuaded me from moving to New York became a galvanizing force. I jammed to Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner” when I needed motivation. I closed my eyes and played David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” imagining myself bouncing through the streets of New York, treating every crosswalk as my stage. Perhaps listening to the soundtrack or watching a clip on YouTube one more time could urge me to the dramatic action necessary to have my life scored by a Georges Delerue soundtrack.

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“Just once I’d like to have the song ‘New York Groove’ play and feel like it really applies to my life.” – Lady Bird

In late August 2017, I made a trip across the pond to London, the explicit purpose of which was to visit a friend studying there before I lost my free place to stay. But unconsciously, it was a spiritual homage to Frances Ha and her impromptu visit to Paris. (I didn’t fully realize that until I started writing this piece.) There’s something to be said for traveling alone just to wander and get lost in your own thoughts — especially overseas without the distractions of a buzzing phone. After two years in Houston, I knew this was the time to make a move or risk getting mired in its quicksand forever.

My first move after unloading my bags was to go buy a journal. In case you haven’t already figured out, writing is a key mechanism for me to gain self-awareness, so I had a feeling that chronicling my errant musings and my passionate responses to the city would make the conclusion inescapable: I needed to move to New York.

“IT BEGINS,” my first entry started with dramatic all caps. After a few pithy observations to warm myself up, I finally arrive at the thing I need to say the most: “I’m moving. I never put it in those terms. Every time I’ve brought it up with friends or family, I hedge. I’m thinking, I’m planning, yada yada. As a cerebral person, it’s easy for me to fall back on the vocabulary of the mind for comfort. The language of the decisive, the authoritative can feel like a different language altogether, one spoken by people who are older, smarter, stronger and more confident than me. This dialect hardly fits my tongue like a glove.”

It was out. The words were there to hold me accountable. What had previously expressed itself in stray thoughts and impulses, a flame burning brightly and passionately only to be extinguished by my rational brain, had entered a physical dimension. I was all in — and energized to put all my energy into bringing this plan to fruition.

But as soon as I gave myself permission to cede control of my life to my dreams, reality came crashing in, as it always does. “Just in case our phones go out,” read a text from my mom, “We are putting all the silver in the closet in the attic in a black box. Trying to make notes so we know where things are.” Hurricane Harvey, just a blip on my radar when I flew out, was suddenly the only thing on the radar when you looked at Houston. I dismissed an initial report about the storm, assuming the city would be spared just as it had been from Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008. (In case you haven’t figured out, a running theme of my life is not being as smart as I think I am.)

Just like that, I turned on roaming and downloaded social media back to my phone. From an ocean away, I began to absorb the impact of this storm on my hometown by inundating myself with the tragic imagery coming out of the city. Friends’ homes underwater. People calling for rescue. Roads I traveled regularly rendered unrecognizable beneath feet of water. Before I could even enjoy the liberating sensation of deciding to make a long-gestating decision, guilt came rushing in. The feeling pales in comparison to the anguish felt by those forced to rebuild their entire lives in the wake of Harvey’s devastation, to be clear, yet it still stung all the same. How could I leave now? What kind of ungrateful person leaves their hometown in its moment of greatest need? I began to think about all that Houston had given me — a considerable amount — and considered myself a disloyal son.

But something had to change. So, I forged on, plowing ahead with equal parts intensity and dread, anticipation and self-loathing.

When I thought I had come close enough to making the move happen, I booked a flight in mid-October to lay the groundwork. In the two years prior, I made several trips like this, each time hoping it would be the one that made the difference. But this one would be different. I booked a pretty full weekend of apartment hunting and informational coffee appointments, although I still wanted to allow myself some time to enjoy the city. It just so happened to be the final weekend of the New York Film Festival, and they had scheduled an encore screening of Lady Bird, the film written and directed by none other than Greta Gerwig. I was expecting something excellent in the form of a coming-of-age film, a high school film and a mother-daughter film. And I got all that, plus something a little unexpected: a film about discovering about how much you love your home in the way you can only know by leaving it.

Like any high school student, Saoirse Ronan’s Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson undertakes the age-old task of constructing her own identity. In her mind, that involves doing everything in her capacity to distance herself from the one given to her by her parents, even shunning her birth name and insisting everyone call her Lady Bird. From the opening scene, she lays out her end goal: getting as far away as possible from her provincial Catholic high school by gaining acceptance to a college in New York. There, far from what she perceives as the sterility and vapidity of Sacramento, will she find herself. Lady Bird’s loving but headstrong mother Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf, resists untethering the spiritual umbilical cord and insists she stay in-state.

Similar to Lady Bird, my journey to join the New York masses played out in secret. Christine applies to colleges in the Empire State unbeknownst to her mother, while my apartment and job hunting took place in the hours after work, kept secret from some of my closest friends and colleagues. All the while, we tried to make the best of a situation and place we resented (with a fair share of seething and scorning behind closed doors). We interacted with plenty of people who saw no need to venture outside the lines of the well-proscribed path left behind by their parents. We hung around people whose interests and ambitions differed so vastly from our own that it filled us with emptiness. Yet we still hung on and eventually made our way to the Big Apple.

But neither of us quite got the fanfare we had counted on for so long. News of Lady Bird’s decision to apply to New York schools only reaches her mom by accident, a revelation Marion reacts to by giving her daughter the silent treatment. “Please, Mom, please I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you,” Lady Bird pleads to her mother, who’s intent on ignoring her. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, I’m ungrateful and I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry I wanted more.” If Houston could be personified, I imagine myself delivering such an impassioned apology to her upon finalizing my apartment lease. I’m so sorry I wanted more. In my case, my hometown delivered a World Series championship for the Astros — a bittersweet parting gift in my final week. It almost rubbed my face in the departure. “We’ll be just FINE without you,” Houston seemed to say.

In spite of these objections, Lady Bird went to New York — as did I, in part because I had seen Lady Bird and absorbed something vital from Greta Gerwig’s story. Just because you leave home does not mean that you don’t love it. In fact, sometimes you have to leave it to appreciate just how much your home gave you and formed you.

Lady Bird has to learn this lesson the hard way. After some internal debate, she introduces herself as Christine to a boy at a party only to sell out her hometown by telling him she’s from San Francisco when he can’t make out “Sacramento” over the roar of the music. Ashamed, she takes to drinking a little too heavily and lands in the hospital. She stumbles back to her dorm room, alone and adrift, but stops into a church along the way. Just the slightest connection to a familiar experience from home rejuvenates her, allowing her to reclaim a part of her identity she once actively despised. She steps outside to call her parents — “Hi Mom,” she begins, “it’s me. Christine.”

Fortunately, I just got to learn this by osmosis.

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“Hey Mom: did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento? I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened. All those bends I’ve known my whole life, and stores, and the whole thing. But I wanted to tell you. I love you. Thank you, I’m … thank you.” — Lady Bird

At the time that I finally let all these words pour out from a deep, hidden recess of my soul, I’ve been living in New York for about two months. I still feel like my life is suspended in that final beat of Lady Bird before Gerwig cuts to black. It’s an exhalation, an intent to move forward with no indication of just where.

I still feel weird calling myself a New Yorker. It doesn’t feel like my home yet, and who’s to say it ever will? My own mom referred to New York recently as “your city,” which made me recoil a bit. I don’t consider myself a part of the royal “we” in New York yet. I still have much more heartache, grumbling and joy left to experience before I can officially include myself in the great collective. I’m dwelling in a kind of purgatory where I hope, most likely in vain, that my grasp is large enough to maintain a claim on both the place where I live and the place I call home. At some point, I’ll likely have to merge the two.

I knew that I needed to clear this out of my system, but I did so without any clear sense of an ending. Many people say it’s a mistake to start writing something without knowing where you’re taking the reader — and most of the time, they’re right. But in some cases, I think it’s good to surprise yourself and let the story take you where it wants to go. I missed my first deadline on this piece (which I promise doesn’t happen often!), but, as I’ve discovered, sometimes you can’t make everything happen on the timetables you set for yourself.

I’ll set the scene: it was early January, and New York City was getting pummeled by a “bomb cyclone,” which sounds more like a direct-to-video sequel to Geostorm than an actual meteorological phenomenon. But it was a very real confluence of heavy snow and fierce wind, enough to keep people away from Manhattan who needed to travel into the island. That left many ticketholders for a TimesTalk featuring Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan out of luck and unable to attend. The beneficiaries were lucky opportunists like me, Manhattanites who trolled the comments section of the Facebook event looking for extra tickets. I managed to score a ticket and made the arduous trek across town in single-digit temperatures, a task this Texas boy did not take lightly. My luck continued as I happened to sit near the microphone for audience questions and get in line just before they cut people off.

Knees shaking, I approached the mic. I looked into the eyes of the artist who took me on the rollercoaster ride of a lifetime and started to talk. “So, I moved to New York about three weeks after I saw Lady Bird,” I began and watched as Gerwig’s face broke into a giant grin that stretched what felt like two feet vertically. I told her that I credited the film with giving me the encouraging push to make my decision by passing along the insight of a fellow New York transplant. Not wanting to be the dreaded Q&A participant who “doesn’t really have a question, more of just a comment” (you know who you are), I asked if she had her revelation about what home meant as quickly as Christine/Lady Bird.

I stood there, face quivering in pure rapture, basking in the aura of someone whose art had inspired me to overhaul my entire life, hearing but not entirely listening because I was so filled with gratitude. Thankfully, the New York Times was taping the talk, so I can actually relay some of her comments.

“The first night I was here,” Gerwig said, “I realized I didn’t know anybody at all. I thought to myself as I was going to sleep, ‘Well, childhood’s over.’ Like, whatever that was is gone now, and those are your memories. So I did have the impact of that, like, ‘Oh, it’s gone.’ And I remember wanting to run back but realizing there was nothing to run back to because you can’t run back into childhood. So, there was that edge of a feeling, but then I pushed it away and joined debate team.”

Like Christine sitting in church, I came to the realization that there was now a firm marker in my life establishing my adulthood. I possessed it as a noun, even if I couldn’t execute it as a verb. (Yes, I’m a millennial, I use “adulting” as a verb.) There were various points in my life I expected to feel that demarcation — leaving for college, graduation, starting my first full-time job — but there was something more meaningful about this moment. It wasn’t something set out on the path laid out for me to follow. It was something I had to choose for myself.

In the last scene of Greta Gerwig’s screenplay for Lady Bird, she wrote this about her protagonist: “It turns out that her life is just beginning.” Little did she know, she was also writing that about me.

Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).

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