Tag Archives: Sherwood Anderson

Autobiography Film

“Lady Bird”: Winesburg, Ohio Palimpsest

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Note: For some inexplicable reason that I cannot fully account for (other than end of the semester exhaustion), an earlier version of this post entitled itself as “Lady Day” instead “Lady Bird.” Perhaps it reflected an aversion to the name chosen by the lead character. I have to confess that the entire time I was watching the film I kept asking myself why a young woman would choose a name that evokes a presidency mired in one of the saddest chapters in U.S. history. Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson (1912-2007) stood by and watched her husband and his political cronies empower Pentagon bureaucrats to go forth and drop more tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than were dropped in Europe in World War II. Ironically, in terms of the film, when “Lady Bird” visits the grandmother of another character, she sees a poster of Ronald Reagan in the old woman’s home, and says, “You’re kidding?” I feel the same way about the protagonist’s name.

A.J. Urquidi, the fine young poet who wrote to point out my gaffe, responded to the above comment with the following observation: “I sensed a political dread underpinning quite a few scenes. Ultimately, the film’s protagonist wants to be called Lady Bird as she fetishizes objects and concepts that sound “cool” even though she doesn’t know their true meaning or history. Since she begins every interaction/moral lesson in a state of ignorance/complicity, maybe her abandonment of the “Lady Bird” moniker by the time she starts her new adult life symbolizes the fulfillment of emotional maturity needed to move beyond the connotations of First Lady Johnson’s bad name (much like the maturity reached by the protagonist of Winesburg).”

And now for the main event:

The Art Theater on Fourth Street in Long Beach is a throwback to the days before the television industry and its successors caused the average cinema outlet to shrink to the size of the average vintage clothing store. I’m not sure how the place manages to stay open, other than its owners enjoy having an expensive hobby. Quite frequently, there are less than a half-dozen people at a screening, which makes it slightly awkward when something is laugh out loud funny and you end up hearing your amusement going for a roller coaster ride in hundreds of unmuffled cubic feet.

Lady Bird certainly has its funny moments, and enough poignancy to make it appeal to those who vote for the culture industry’s annual awards. No one, though, on the critical side seems to have noticed one of the most obvious debts the story owes: Sherwood Anderson’s one-hit wonder, Winesburg, Ohio. I teach the book as frequently as I can at CSU Long Beach, especially since it is no longer required reading in high school. The switch from a male protagonist in Winesburg to a female protagonist in Lady Bird is matched by a parallel switch in the parental figures: in Winesburg, the father is strong and the mother is weak. In Lady Bird, the mother upbraids the daughter relentlessly; the father is the one who wants his offspring to escape.

The desire to leave a “small” town is an old device for a bildungsroman. In fact, one wants to hand the heroine of Lady Bird a copy of Lucian’s autobiographical sketch, “My Dream,” in which he portrays himself as a youngster who regards the pragmatic approach of parental guidance as dead-end futility. Attuned to such a classic impulse as the desire to want more than others believe you are capable of, the lead actress does a fine job of oscillating between her revulsion at other’s self-imposed limits and a slightly incredulous naivete in terms of romance. It’s a layered role, since it involves more than a touch of the picaresque. As one critic observed, the picaro all too often succumbs to the temptation to lie, and “Lady Bird” as a young woman learns its consequences. Finally, I would note that one slight problem with the film is that the actress seems too old for her role, although her adamant commitment to her part overcomes that disparity.

It is harder for the setting to make up for its supposed deficiency. Sacramento, in 2002, hardly seems like “the sticks.” Granted, it undoubtedly has its class divisions. “Lady Bird,” as the heroine calls herself (in the manner that a very young girl bestows the name of “Tandy” on herself in Winesburg), chafes under the humiliations of coming from “the wrong side of the tracks.” But is coming from the wrong side of the tracks in Sacramento really as much a disadvantage as coming from a similar standing in Bakersfield or Hanford, California? Or Imperial Beach, in 1965?

I can empathize with “Lady Bird,” though she seemed not to be aware of how lucky she was to have a counselor at school to talk to about going to college. Maybe the counselor was condescending, but at least someone thought she was capable of going to college. No one said a word to me about applying to a college when I was in high school. When I got my high school diploma, my name was not on the list of graduates who had received a scholarship to go to college. I had not applied for one. No one at my high school thought that I merited such assistance. If I had to describe myself as someone in Lady Birdy, I was much closer to “Lady Bird”‘s overweight sidekick, who of course is not invited to the prom.

Instead of a community college, though, I ended up at a small Catholic college in Moraga, California. How I ended up going to St. Mary’s College for a year and a half is one of those inexplicable somersaults in a life for which fate and free will alone cannot account. In retrospect, both “Lady Bird” and I had a prophet at work in a writer whose masterpiece deserves far more attention than it gets these days.

Books Film Ground Level Conditions


Thursday, August 6, 2014

After posting my proposition about giving those born on the cusp of the millennium the name of “search engine generation,” Linda and I went to a screening of Boyhood, the first two-thirds of which surprised me with its lack of interaction with search engines.  Finally, in the last third of Boyhood, the protagonist, Mason, has a moment of technological satori and starts to come to terms with the social programming that the proliferation of search engines has found itself imbricated in. This break-through realization happens when our up-til-now placid hero suddenly launches into a wise-beyond-his-years monologue while he’s driving a pick-up truck in the company of a young woman who eventually rejects him because of his pessimism. This scene, which reveals Mason’s intuitive comprehension of the full consequences of search engine technology, is meant to link up with his comments later on about the 100 percent success rate that colleges now score in using a 20 question form to sort applicants for dormitory assignments into compatible roommates. Think about it: Mason shoots apparently outstanding photographs, but he doesn’t share any of it on social media? Perhaps I am exaggerating this aporia, but I doubt it. I will concede that search engine technology is acknowledged in Boyhood, but imagine a film made with the same premise that covered the years between 1960 and 1972 that would dare to make an equivalently minimal use of television and radio. Such a film, screen in 1975, would have left its audience wondering if the people who had made the film had lived in the same time period. There are many missing qualities in Boyhood, but this one in particular stuck out as especially egregious.

More disappointing than the film’s blissful ignorance of actual ground level conditions (note that the one brief bullying scene is something that could have occurred in a film such as My Bodyguard decades ago! What happened to cyberbullying?), however, are the few negative reviews that the film has received. I myself join with the handful of critics (such as Kenneth Turan) who dare to shrug their shoulders, but I also find myself startled by the lack of insight into the real problems of the film as an alleged masterpiece. I’m happy to see the movie get a lukewarm reaction from at least a few other critics, but what astonishes me is how little the negative critics seem to be able to see the most obvious problems. Let’s start with the ending: Oh, really? If this were a genuine documentary film, which it gives off a faux aura of being, I would accept the triumph of the protagonist as a well-earned prize, but it’s not an adaptation of an actual life. This fictional film wants to deliver the fictional formula of a happy ending, and it’s going to make certain the audience gets what it wants. Correct me if I’m wrong, but what’s the difference between this film and Flashdance. The young person triumphs and wins the scholarship. I almost began laughing at the end of the film. Are critics really falling over each other in a rush to praise such a predictable trajectory?

The film gets worse than that, however. Not only does he win a scholarship, he shows up at college and before he even attends a single class, he meets a young women who is going to be the kind of companion he wasn’t able to find as a high school student. I’ll grant you that the film didn’t completely follow formula. After all, IFC popped up on the screen at the start, so we can assume that we’ll be spared the kiss at the end of the movie that signifies the fulfillment, but as you can see, I’m hardly in the mood to award points for that.

It might be nice if critics, both those who loved the film and those who found themselves bored by its lack of genuine dramatic tension, bothered to take the time to step back and place a bildungsroman-type film into a larger context, but that might mean that would have to revisit a genuine masterpiece of American literature, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Yes, that story has an “upbeat” ending, too, but it’s a bittersweet one, something much closer to another recent film, Begin Again, which is a minor classic of “small story” poignancy. If you have the time and money to choose between films, I’d recommend Begin Again in whatever theater still might happen to be playing it. Granted, it too used a formula, the old “let’s put on a show, kids” routine, but its refusal to go for the easy December-May romance gave it a twist that enabled its characters and the fine actors playing them to feed off its dramatic integrity. I also appreciated the relative accuracy with which the film depicted the world of music production. The scene at the beginning where the producer hears a different song than the audience was worth the price of admission alone.