Lecture 4: Identity and Cinema

This week’s lecture discussed the idea of identity and cinema, and how identity is central to film. Lord Puttnam discussed how cinema can be seen as a powerful reflection and representation of identity – personal identity, gender(ed) identity, national identity, generational identity. We discussed the ways in which cinema can be a space in which one can recognize oneself, how we invest in heroes and archetypes, how stars can serve as symbols of our (personal and political) frustrations and aspirations. Characters act as conduits of our complex feelings, and provide us with reflections of ourselves, better selves, worse selves, through allegory or myth or fantasy, and through what we determine as authentic/‘realistic’ (an ideologically loaded term) media, media that is of the zeitgeist, that reflects and dissects and reinforces ‘our’ culture (or at least one culture).

In this entry, I will discuss generational identity and where it can be seen reflected in today’s cinema and television.

Most academic studies say that each generation is shaped by the socio-political climate around them, and thus exhibit certain unique qualities. Millennials are a generation that have suffered greatly under the strains of neo-liberalism, who have come of age in a world where technological devices were always at their disposal (Kaklamanidou and Tally 4). Millennials today are seen as being representative of a stage of life called emergent adulthood, which is characterized by some of the following: explorations surrounding identity, feelings of instability, and a focus on the self, and feeling in-between stages. This stage of life is finally resolved when the millennial in question reaches a point where they feel the possibilities of life, and possess a new sense of optimism (Kaklamanidou and Tally). Millennials are often either characterized as either belonging to Generation Me (individualistic and non-communal) or Generation We, but as Kaklamanidou and Tally argue, the truth of this is a great deal more complex – all members of a generation have different politics and beliefs, and different ways of looking at their own identity.

What do we imagine when we say a film epitomizes millennial cinema, or reflects the specific and particular concerns of millennials? Is it even possible to coherently and accurately assess an entire generation, when there is a multiplicity of ways people experience and engage with culture, and many different types of lives that are led? Cinema and television reflect us back to us; we are engaged in a constant negotiation – we are immersed in media and engage in a symbiotic relationship – we shape it, and are shaped by it. On a surface level, we can name visual signifiers/iconography of specific time periods – for 1950s’ America, we expect to see Dior New Look silhouettes and glass Coca-Cola bottles, and season one Mad Men aesthetics; a neat and reductive distillation of American boom-era fashion and home décor, a focus on suburbia and affluence and Whiteness, on the oppressive strictures of conformity, on the American ideal/dream as idyllic but hollow. We expect to see these recognizable and legible symbols in films that were produced in the 1950s, and in films and series that reflect upon it (though we perhaps arrogantly assume that we will have a more profound understanding of a previous generation than the members of that generation), and use the backdrop of 1950s’ neuroses to comment on contemporary mores and socio-political concerns. For millennial film and television, there is a particular visual iconography we can recognize as being distinctly millennial:  mobile phones and laptops, a particular mode of dress, the use of memes and internet neologisms. We can also see a particular attitude as being quintessentially millennial: a detached nihilism, a post-modern distance and removal from emotions, an ironic disposition with flashes of sincerity, an exacting and self-aware language that is overflowing with pop cultural knowledge/minutiae, open claims to progressiveness, and constant musings over identity.

When we dig deeper into texts, the culture they are formulated in becomes somewhat clear – we can explore feelings about selfhood and how people can and are allowed to express themselves, socio-political concerns and impediments, what is important to and what threatens people, who we consider heroes and who we consider villains. When we look at media produced about, by members of and during the millennial era, we see: a hyper-focus on issues of identity (a persistent question of renegotiating who we imagine ourselves to be, and organizing around identity politics), feelings of isolation in a hyper-kinetic and mediated world, the complicated terrain of ‘new’ types of romance and dating (the idea of a newly emergent and openly discussed/condoned hook-up culture, and the use of online dating and dating apps) and worries and questions about sexuality and sex-positive culture,  as well as the struggles of young professionals, college graduate and educational woes and an emphasis on insecure labour. Millennials are often chastised and castigated for being oversensitive, self-involved, too fixated on personal branding, fame and technology, a generation unprepared and unwilling to negotiate the harsh realities of the world. I will discuss the Noah Baumbach film Frances Ha, and how it illustrates several of the thematic concerns found in a particular subset of millennial films, and also briefly look at the emergence of the female anti-hero/’messy’ female characters in recent cinema and television.

‘I’m so embarrassed. I’m not a real person yet.’

Frances Ha was discussed as being a quintessentially millennial film upon its release; it was the type of film that some critics say feels of the moment, and of a particular space. It finds its hero (or anti-hero, depending on your tolerance for whimsy and evaluation of Frances’ mistakes) facing a number of struggles that are often seen in so-called millennial cinema. Frances’ desires to work fulltime as a dancer at her ballet company are frustrated, and we see the negotiations and compromises she must make, the dreams she must abandon, as she also contends with the uncertainty of working in the arts, facing insecure wages, living paycheck to paycheck, and surviving in a costly 2010s New York. Frances is impulsive, evasive and given to flights of fantasy, attached to romantic visions and a carefree, comfortable life, which is conveyed through the film’s early scenes – convening with her best friend, leading a life of relative indulgence on a shoe-string budget, dancing through the street to the strains of Bowie.

The central conflict of the character stems from a crisis of growth and identity, as Frances attempts to reconcile her fantasy of a future identity/life – becoming a successful ballet dancer, living with her best friend in Paris, with no children, gaining honorary degrees, living an idyllic and incredibly specific dream – and the reality in which she finds herself almost obliviously positioned: alone in an apartment she can barely afford without a roommate, returning to work a job she worked in college and unable to connect with younger RAs, unable to ‘adult’ like her fellow guests at a dinner party, glaringly out of place at 27, which isn’t a real adult age. The film privileges a distinctly millennial feeling of liminality – characters seem to wander in a directionless manner through life, always in-between one space and another, changing aspirations abruptly (from SNL writer, to writing a spec for Ghostbusters 3), never quite doing what they are supposed to do, great promises of generational and personal success fizzling into half-triumphs and disappointment; time in the film jumps forward suddenly, to a new bout of listlessness.

The film also explores distinctly millennial concerns and faux-pases: tensions escalate over slights like a missed text message, and impressions of contentedness are assumed through carefully curated blog posts. Frances herself epitomizes a sort of standard young white, middle-class, straight female protagonist seen in other media, such as HBO’s Girls (though France is not as tortured) and New Girl; she hopes to achieve something beyond dancing in the Christmas show, but cannot anticipate  much more – growing as a person, a steadier income, anything beyond a slightly self-absorbed fantasy and the pain of being old enough to be an adult, but very much not being an adult. She also can be seen as part of a wave of female anti-heroes, or ‘messy’ female protagonists: women in their twenties and thirties who don’t have their lives together in some respect, who could be defined as being a woman-child, who work grueling, unfulfilling jobs, whose personal lives are painful and complicated, and whose romantic exploits are often fraught or not neatly categorized; characters who drift by on borrowed time, who agonize over insignificant matters,who abandon responsibility and traditional markers of adulthood. Some are ‘relatable’ (a relative term) and easy to sympathize with – well-meaning and lovable in all their failure; others are harsher, wracked by problems and angry, more morally grey, or antagonistic and vicious. Frances is, overall, an optimistic character, brimming over with the confidence of her generation, but also at points characterized as flighty, aggressive, resistant to change and incredibly obtuse and self-absorbed.

   This scene illustrates the theme of insecure labour and provides some insight into millenial dating.

Her love life is reflective of a restlessness, a carefreeness and a casualness portrayed in a lot of millennial film and television – notable examples include Broad City and Loving. The film begins with her noticeable disinterest in her boyfriend, and her resistance to commitment; her romantic entanglements and relationships with her male roommates are never hugely significant or disruptive to her life, and she is laughingly dubbed ‘undate-able’; the narrative of the film is not dictated by romance, or at least not conventional heterosexual romance; rather it focuses on the intense platonic love between her and her best female friend, and how it is strained by her best friend choosing a different, more ‘adult’ and conventional life, worlds away from dreams of jovial spinsterhood and travel. This emphasis on the importance of Frances’ best friend (the object of her great love speech), and the pain of their separation, is also reflective of a tendency in millennial media to portray makeshift/found families as integral to young urban life, and portray friendships being prioritized over romantic relationships. Both Frances and Sophie begin the film with a very particular identity: they are independent, sexually liberated, and knowing; they will be successful, and they are both not the type of girl to like someone who goes by Patch.

The film portrays the (not uniquely, but certainly incredibly common) millennial situation of returning home to live with one’s parents – these scenes at home act as a stop-gap: Frances cycles down a wide street, alone and having room to move, outside of the bluster of New York City, with the security of home and parental support; the time away from New York is the only time we see her truly happy, or at least unencumbered and not as noticeably performative. Frances Ha portrays the comfort and simultaneous discomfort that comes with feeling your life is regressing; as the film progresses, Frances’ aspirations become dimmed, and readjust greatly – culminating in a nostalgic return to working her college job, where she feels the sizable generational gap and is unable to connect to others. Fantasy, in the sense of imagining and inhabiting a specific world in which you are safe and protected from the harshness of real life and its attendant obligations, plays a significant role in the film, as it does in much other millennial media; these fantasy sequences, or deeply romantic/whimsical scenes, or abrupt meta-narrative or extra-diegetic musical/parodic interludes, are contrasted with and comment upon the inability of the characters to fully get their life together, or form a coherent and consistent identity, or live with the mundane circumstances of their day-to-day lives – this media turns ordinary tasks and parts of adult life into obviously exaggerated and nonsensical occurences. The trip to Paris in Frances Ha, in which everything that could possibly go wrong does, shows that the desire for a transformative experience can go unfulfilled, and acts narratively as a vivid counterpoint to earlier, more optimistic scenes of frivolity; grand, romantic notions of a life unencumbered with responsibility may not always be realized, and our expectations as an audience – that Frances will come to some sort of realization or happen upon a miraculous new life in Paris – are frustrated. Instead, we see the loneliness of liminality, emergent adulthood and impulsiveness – a grand bohemian dream ending with late showing of Puss In Boots, and Frances’ only contact is through the phone, to the other side of the world, as she is framed sitting alone and shut out from the city and human connection.

 

At the end of Frances Ha, the protagonist’s noticeable personal growth and newfound priorities (accepting an office job at her ballet company, moving into an affordable new apartment, very much getting her life together and falling into a routine of ‘normal’ adulthood) show that she is slowly beginning to contend with the vicissitudes of adult life, rather than retreating to a world of nostalgia, denial and fantasy. What should be a dispiriting ending, or more bitter than sweet, is rendered palatable by Baumbach showing the contentment that can come with firmly making a decision, and the security of identity that follows allowing yourself to compromise, or realizing that one can form new priorities and goals that are equally meaningful – the small but significant dance show she stages, for instance. Frances is in some ways always performing throughout the film – dancing on command for her roommate, playing the role of cook, attempting to live out a very specific and romanticized fantasy in Paris, doing things like reading Proust on a park bench because that is the type of thing you should do in Paris. At the film’s end, she places a piece of paper bearing her own name – folded over so it reads ‘Frances Ha’ – into a letterbox in her apartment building. This is perhaps symbolic of a sense of being rooted  – Frances is naming herself and attaching herself to a home, to an adult life, to non-liminality and to a more secure identity.

 

 

Works Cited

Baumbach, Noah, director. Frances Ha. IFC Films. 2012

Kaklamanidou, Betty, and Margaret Tally, editors. The Millennials on Film and Television: Essays on the Politics of Popular Culture. McFarland and Company Inc, 2014. Print.

 

Pols, Mary. ‘Frances Ha: A Millennial Annie Hall.’ Entertainment.time.com.  13 May 2013. Web.  27th August 2015
Galo, Sara. ‘Frances Ha Review: Noah Baumbach Movie Explores Female Friendships, 20Something Woes.’ Mic.com. 3 June 2013. Web. 26th July 2016.
Zakarin, Jordan. ‘Frances Ha: An Ode to the Young and Confused’. Buzzfeed.com. 17 May 2013. Web 24 July 2016.
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