Friday, December 4, 2015

Mistress America x 3

Inspired by Jonathan Rosenbaum's "A Few Ways of Looking at Midnight Run," and a product of my time in a course on film criticism taught by Richard Porton, here are three complementary takes on Noah Baumbach's Mistress America (2015).


Review # 1

In which Noah Baumbach embraces genre and creates his best work yet. Call it screwball, call it neo-screwball, call it whatever, but his latest film has a level of stylization that infects and melds well with his metropolitan sensibility. He uses his acrid temperament in a comedic register, creating not only laughs, but discomfort as well. It’s the B-side and the better side of Frances Ha.

Tracy (Lola Kirke) is off to college. She arrives at Barnard and isn’t getting into the whole college experience. Save for a guy (Matthew Shear), whom she has a crush on in her English class, she has no friends. Her mom suggests reaching out to the daughter (Greta Gerwig) of the husband she’s going to marry. Reluctant at first, Tracy calls Brooke, and they hit it off. Brooke acts like a big sister, as well as a debonair, jack-of-all-trades. Tracy tags along with her as Brooke tries to get her hip Williamsburg restaurant off the ground.

“You make me feel really smart,” Brooke says about having Tracy around. Meanwhile, Tracy writes a lightly fictionalized version of Brooke in her short story, “Mistress America,” that she submits to her school’s literary journal. This is a film about the influence of friends, and how, taking advantage of such intimate relationships for art or for life, can potentially rupture them.

As with his prior work, Baumbach prioritizes language, character, and character development in his aesthetic. Phrases such as “get out of town sister, and “you got a honey,” point to the shrill, odd, synthetic quality of the script, as synthetic as Alan Vega crooning “Dream Baby Dream” on one snippet of the soundtrack. Characters speak like pop culture-literate teenagers, delivering dialogue with little to no pauses between sentences, which reaches an apotheosis with a surprise trip to Greenwich, Connecticut.

Review # 2

Mistress America is another film infected with the tics of American independent cinema of the Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski variety: a richness in performance and character development at the expense of formal experimentation with, among others, camera movement, mise en scène, editing, sound. Unlike, say Patrick Wang or Nathan Silver (indie filmmakers working with even smaller budgets), these directors render inconsequential many formal elements in order to prioritize their characters. There’s more to cinema than characters and plot! When it comes to aesthetics, indie cinema is conservative cinema.

In terms of conservative cinema, this one is pretty good, for Mistress America is a film that pushes the formal elements it values to abstraction. Characters deliver lines in staccato. Editing, at one point, mimics dialogue volleys with a rapid-fire shot-reverse-shot. Baumbach makes the language in the film punchy, odd, and a bit synthetic with lines like “get out of town sister” and “you got a honey?” which only makes the dialogue more noticeable. Critics are labeling this as a screwball, but to this reviewer, Nineties indie cinema is Mistress America’s reference point. It falls somewhere between Hal Hartley’s telegraphic and Whit Stillman’s acerbic lines.

While the narrative structure is conventional (segmented into three acts bookended with a prologue and epilogue), Mistress America has a whirlwind flow to it—no doubt due to its editing and use of language—a rhythm reminiscent of Frances Ha, but without that former films sense of stifling torpor tied to its subject matter.

Mistress America is another Baumbach film in which upper middle class privileged (mostly) white people make up the cast. They spew pop cultural references as a way of making themselves intelligent. It’s a “first world problems” film about friends taking advantage of friends by using their relationship for art fodder. Baumbach seems critical of this, satirizing it by having all his characters speak like perky posturing high school teenagers.

Review # 3

With Mistress America, once again, Noah Baumbach crafts a comfortably, secretly middlebrow film that’s palatable for general audiences. Once again, he’s created a wordy film, chock-full of “nuanced” characters. He’s made a film that’s catnip for critics. Mistress America graces the cover of Film Comment’s July/August 2015 issue, one in which you can find Alex Ross Perry—another wordy, critical darling—interviewing Baumbach. Richard Brody calls the film a “masterwork” three times during his gushing New Yorker review. And once again, Baumbach makes a film that ignores the cinematic in cinema.

In his review, Brody labels Mistress America “literary cinema,” and “a work of brilliant writing, one of the most exquisite of recent screenplays.” Fine. I’ll add that it’s the best Baumbach film that I’ve seen when it comes to language, toying with its plasticity and rhythm.

One critic’s literary cinema is another’s conservative cinema. The film follows an uninspired, conventional narrative structure: three acts along with a prologue and an epilogue. A fresh-faced student, Tracy, (Lola Kirke) is bored during her first days of college. She hooks up with her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke, (Greta Gerwig), a jack-of-all-trades and woman-about-town 30-year-old looking to start up a Williamsburg restaurant. Mutual inspiration ensues: the student writes the sister into her short story, and the sister gains confidence to pitch investors on her restaurant idea. The friendship strains, however, once it’s revealed that Tracy’s using Brooke for art fodder.

The story is fine and dandy, but where are the visuals? Like countless other American indie filmmakers (notable exceptions include Patrick Wang, Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan, and Nathan Silver), Baumbach suppresses experimentation with camera movement, mise en scène, sound, and editing in order to amplify narrative, character, character development, and performance. Baumbach is a modern day Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Mistress America is his All About Eve.

No comments:

Post a Comment